by Flavia Giuffra
Members of the European Ego-Documents Archive and Collections Network (EDAC) convened for a virtual meeting on 25 September 2021. The Expatriate Archive Centre (EAC) is the Secretariat of the EDAC. Kristine Racina, the director of the EAC, moderated the meeting. Indexing of archival material was theme of the discussion of this year’s meeting.
Representatives of the Deutsches Tagebucharchiv (DTA) from Germany, Interfaculty Documentation and Research Centre on Religion, Culture and Society (KADOC) from Belgium, the Association pour l’autobiographie et le Patrimoine Autobiographique (APA) from France, and The Great Diary Project from the UK explained how indexing is done at their own organisation, and described some of the challenges that arise during the process. The discussion revealed that there are a number of common practices and shared struggles among the EDAC members.
In the majority of cases, volunteers are the ones indexing the archival material. Often, they don’t possess necessary knowledge of indexing process. Therefore, volunteers need to be trained and guided so that they better understand how to choose appropriate subject terms and fill in the indexing form properly. It is helpful to explain why precision is very important and what the goal of the indexing is. Unfortunately, small mistakes in indexing can lead to certain collections being overlooked by researchers.
That readers carry out meticulous work is also important for another reason: reading is done individually. In some organisations only one person fills in the indexing form for each document. As a result, there are no ways of checking or correcting their indexing, and, ultimately, the quality of an indexing form will only be as good as the individual indexer. All members agreed that having additional readers would undoubtedly mean that more indexing mistakes could be avoided; unfortunately, often organisations lack the manpower this would require. Exactly how organisations should prepare volunteer readers to step up to proper indexing standards remains an open-ended question.
Another theme that emerged during the discussion is the difficulty and complexity of indexing and cataloguing ego-documents, in particular. A variety of reasons were put forward for why this is the case. KADOC pointed to the fact that, because ego-documents are often not designed for public access, important sources can be written in a language that is hard to understand and may be incomprehensible for foreign researchers. Even once they are catalogued, such documents may remain inaccessible, not truly visible. Proper indexing is a potential way of making such ego-documents more accessible.
Additionally, the APA noted that indexing can be a challenge because ego-documents deal with almost all subject matters, meaning indexing is aimed at a vast scope of readers and researchers. This broadness calls for quite complex indexing, more so than that done within a very specialised research field. Finally, EDAC members agreed that frequently the topics that ego-documents deal with may seem to be mundane, or ordinary, which leads them to be overlooked by readers filling in the indexing forms. However, it is important for indexers to be aware that topics that appear uninteresting today will be very interesting for researchers in the future, and therefore, they must be appropriately catalogued.
Also prominent in the discussion was the topic of ethical cataloguing and, in particular, the use of inclusive language in indexing. Documents from the past feature language that may be considered to be offensive by current standards. Institutions must find a way to catalogue such language and content in a respectful manner, while taking care not to lose any important information that the document contains. There are a number of ways to go about this. For example, the APA–AML puts any inflammatory language in inverted commas. Several members share the view that while offensive terms should not be kept out of the list of key words, they should go under subject terms with neutral connotations. The DTA expressed that it is still tackling more basic indexing issues, but they are aware they will deal with this matter in the near future. KADOC is already having internal discussions regarding how language and terminology should be used in its online inventory to avoid using potentially problematic terms while still providing accurate descriptions through culturally sensitive language. In their reflection of how to tackle this issue, they are considering whether digital material containing inflammatory language should be available for public access at all, whether it should be accompanied by some sensitivity warning, and how to clarify what words are being quoted from documents, rather than language being used by the organisation itself.
As pointed out by the DTA, inclusive indexing can be harder in certain languages and dialects in which everything is engendered, while not so much in others. The use of words like ‘paternalising’ or ‘manpower’ also do not constitute inclusive indexing because they exclude women. Such words are quickly becoming outdated, and they should not appear in indexing forms in the long term. Yet institutions often do not have a readily available alternative term. Ultimately, the goal of inclusive indexing is to create a system of record keeping that does not exclude anybody, and to see that all genders and ethnic groups are included.
EDAC members agreed that these issues present not only challenges, but opportunities, and they signal that indexing language and practices should be constantly evolving. The complexities that come with ego-documents encourage archivists to reflect and perhaps re-evaluate their methods. The Great Diary Project called for flexibility and continued conversations about subject terms usage: in their view, these should not be static but should change with time and place. The DTA, for another example, has recently incorporated a new indexing form, modelled on the EAC practise and adjusted to their own needs, and it is proving to be very useful. Members are hopeful that EDAC collaboration will help towards a better system of indexing, as members build on the work of other institutions on best practices for cataloguing.
The EAC presented the new EDAC website to the members. It was designed by the EAC PR manager and an EAC intern. EDAC members were asked to review the website and send an email to the Secretariat if they have any comments/additions.
Finally, the discussion turned to the planning of next year’s meeting. Hopefully, this time it will take place in person, depending on the COVID-19 situation. The DTA kindly offered to host the conference on 8-9 April 2021 in the city of Emmendingen, Germany. The agenda for this coming meeting has already been established. Importantly, the members who are present on this occasion will discuss who is to take on the role as the EDAC Secretariat after the EAC.
The Cataloging Lab is an initiative that encourages education and collaboration amongst library professionals regarding indexing and subject terms. Learn more about the project and how to get involved on their website.