ICHORA 2020, DAY 1: Jenny Bunn, “How Archivists Invented the Semantic Web”

Note: This presentation was part of a three-person panel entitled “Re-Imagining Materiality: Three Histories of Archival Technologies.” The panelist is also a member of Archival Discourses, an international research network for the International Intellectual History of Archival Studies.

Jenny Bunn (National Archives, United Kingdom) introduces the topic of “Differentiation in Description or How Archivists Invented the Semantic Web” by discussing how she finds herself treading an old groove, one which lies between library cataloging and archival description. The groove was first trod in the 1980s and 1990s. Another, more pertinent “groove” that Bunn also addresses is that which binds and separates the United Kingdom and the United States of America and the co-evolution of the relationship and differentiation of libraries and archives. The 1960s envisioned the Internet as providing access to finding aids online. In the mid-1980s, the United States developed MARC-AMC format, while in the United Kingdom, the same movement for machine-readable access to archival description led to MAD (Manual of Archival Description).

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Bunn states that her purpose is to suggest that we don’t always have to frame our history in terms of asserting and differentiating ourselves on principle. What happens if we look back at the developments that occurred after MARC-AMC and MAD not as a question of principle but of participation?

The main driving force behind MAD was Michael Cook from the University of Liverpool. In 1987, Cook stated, “It is important to understand clearly that the strict regulations of cataloguing method is made obligatory, not by the acceptance of the MARC format, but by the demands of participation in a shared database.” He and others made efforts to make a UKMARC-AMC format, but that project was initially rejected by the British Library. Although they were willing to look at future amendments, it eventually fizzled out over time.

The point that Bunn would like to emphasize is that “if you view this through the lens of participation rather than principle, what you see here is that the pertinent difference is not that between archival description and cataloging…but rather that between different ecosystems, which meant that the efforts and compromises required for participation were not balanced out by the same benefits in the United Kingdom. The equation was different, so the result was also different.”

Questions of participation across national and international boundaries are rarely simple – especially in the world of information and human languages – but they do often involve agreeing to abide by a common set of rules, especially when technology is involved. The practice of library cataloging has always tended to a rules-based approach to regulation. The practice of archival description takes a more principle-based approach.


Dainan Skeem

Curator (21st Century Mormon and Western Manuscripts) and Assistant Librarian, Brigham Young University

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