Ignore me - filler


Ignore me - filler
Australian Science Archives Project

Text and Context: recovering the astonishing discourse

Gavan McCarthy

Notes to a talk presented at The University of Melbourne, History and Philosophy of Science Departmental Seminar, 13 September 1994.


'The Pied Piper of Hamlyn' - of seminar length - lots of singing and dancing - no one sleeping in the audience - as performed as a musical by Glenferrie Primary School - a moral tale (of course) covering modern themes.

The story went something like this:

  • Town has problem with rats;
  • Town officials try standard techniques of rat removal - nothing works;
  • Enter foreigner (the Pied Piper) offering a 'paradigm shift', a completely fresh approach that works;
  • Town officials to stingy to pay the price;
  • Foreigner pipes off with the kids;
  • Town is distraught and will pay anything to get back their children.
  • Enter the Scientist (male in a white coat and a goatee beard) with a marvellous piece of technology (a box with dials and flashing lights) - for ten times the original price asked by the Pied Piper the time can be reversed and the children returned - however the technology fails and they not only get the kids back but also the rats.
As I saw it, the themes covered:
  • problem identification;
  • employment contract negotiations;
  • performance assessment;
  • honesty/dishonesty; and
  • revenge.

with :

  • science as the 'Mr' Fixit (at ten times the price); and
  • technology (works for awhile but then breaks down leaving you back where you started) .

It struck me while watching the performance last night, that the tale bore many similarities with a number of the situations faced by the Australian Science Archives Project (ASAP) in its work in the 1990s.

Not only is ASAP going into scientific and technological environments that are not dissimilar to that I just described (for example, CSL Bioplasma at Broadmeadows, Hazelwood Power Station in the LaTrobe Valley near Morwell) but through the introduction of computers and information processing technology into our own work practices, we face the same sorts of problems.

However, what I want to talk about today does not directly involve an analysis of either of those two environments in terms of the model outlined for the Pied Piper. I would like to take you on a little journey into the archival world and look at some the fundamental concepts that underpin the work we do at ASAP and look at how they have translated into information products that have enabled us to begin to come to terms with the 'astonishing discourse' that we have found both at CSL and at Hazelwood.

This is a discourse that continues on from where we left the good people of Hamlyn ... What did they do with their expensive technology that almost worked? How did they deal with the rats the second time around? Did they learn from the their past mistakes? Learn the moral of their tale? Did the politicians and science policy bureaucrats change their spots or was it power broking as usual?

However, I digress again, what I want to talk about is ARCHIVES and how we make sense of the records created by science and technology at work.


In summary and at the most fundamental level:

Activity - occurs within an environment - records are created.

For archival purposes the records become the TEXT.

Now of course records can be all sorts of things - not just words, sentences, paragraphs, reports, letters, etc, but also objects, photographs - in fact anything that derives from an ACTIVITY.

The CONTEXT, again for archival purposes, is all that information that 'surrounds' the TEXT and gives specific meaning to the TEXT.

Therefore, if the role of the archivist or an archival program is to capture the discourse of an activity, then the archivist must do two things:

  1. 1. Capture and control the TEXT
  2. 2. Preserve as much of the CONTEXT as is realistically possible given time and budgets. However, real life is never simple.

    Recursive structures in TEXT and CONTEXT

    Disclaimer: What I am presenting here is my understanding of what archivist should be doing and how they should understand their work and does not necessarily reflect a uniform professional view.

    As you can imagine archivists a widely diverse bunch, coming from many different backgrounds and despite the role of archivist being documented right back to ancient Egypt where there were twin gods (Thoth and Seshat) whose job it was to Inventory the divine wealth - it is still regarded as being a young and emerging profession.

    What do archivists try to do with TEXT?

    They try to describe it - summarise it in some way - make an inventory - make a list - why? - so that people can get close to finding what they want in the text without having to go through all the records directly.

    BUT, what is it that they describe - the problem with variables - why is it different from library cataloguing - why is it different from Museum cataloguing?

    WHAT archivists, particularly ASAP, have been working on is developing a recursive set of data elements that can be used to describe records (TEXT) at any level. And in fact this turns out to be rather simple - if you think differently about what you are trying to do.

    What is ASAP trying to do with CONTEXT?

    This is where it gets tricky! Basically we try to document CONTEXT, that is we can be little more creative - this is where the archivist plays a most important role in capturing the discourse.

    Some assumptions/basic conditions:

    Much of the CONTEXT is actually embedded in records, some in the form of words on paper (a sign-off on a letter or even an address) but much is also contained in the way records related to one another, and this is often captured by their propinquity.

    However, much of the CONTEXT lies in the physical, functional, organisational and bureaucratic structures that surround the creation and use of the records.

    From hard experience, much of this second level of information is held in peoples' heads as they perform their daily tasks and is transitory and seldom consitiously recorded.

    We are still experimenting with ways of documenting CONTEXT (a task that gains in importance when we come to deal with electronic records) but we are working on the assumption that the data elements needed to do this are recursive [explain] and can be used to document a variety of perspectives that could be used to understand CONTEXT in any particular environment.

    [DRAW up the Hazelwood example - mention that the CSL Bioplasma example is to complicated to even begin showing it on the board.]

    Traditionally, archivists have taken a bureaucentric view of CONTEXT (what is usually called Provenance) but this is not necessarily the best or the only way to understand the records.

    Many of these notions that I have begun to explore exist as concepts and pictures in my mind but do not translate easily into words - however, we have been able to develop computer database tools that begin to allow us to work in this variable environment - (and the answer of course is that we simplify the data structures rather than make them unduly complicated or comprehensive).

    Some astonishing discourses

    From experience people find it much easier to relate to and understand concepts when they are translated into real examples, so I am going to spend a little time talking about what we found and what we have done at our two biggest projects to date.

    Hazelwood Power Station (c. 1960-2010?)

    • Why did they, after all this time, suddenly decide they needed an archive?
    • What had they done in the past?
    • What did we find?
    • How did we describe the TEXT?
    • How are we going about documenting the CONTEXT?
    • How much can we achieve?

    CSL Bioplasma (c. 1987-2020?)

    • Why did they need to get started on their archives so early?
    • A state-of-the-art facility that pushed the technological and engineering boundaries.
    • Describe in summary the structure of the PROJECT work environment.
    • How did we go about describing the TEXT? Series identification - top-down approach etc.
    • How are we going about documenting the CONTEXT? - Staff resistance to contributing to the process in a few cases - engineers with a very poor understanding of how they fit into the larger picture - engineers hiding their inability to perform the job to expectations - failure of management to understand the work environment they created (part of being at the cutting edge).


    So whither the Pied Piper?

    I will take very archivo-centric view and propose that the archivist has the tools to deal with the RATS and that the computer professionals have the super gee-whiz, bells and whistles technology that can almost turn back the clock (at about ten times the price) but do not have the conceptual grasp of what they are dealing with when it comes to archival information management.

    [Scanning - video-disk, techno-fix - SECV (Generation Victoria - Production Technology - example)]

    The Pied Piper - a recursive story.

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Published by the Australian Science Archives Project on ASAPWeb, 18 September 1997
Prepared by: Elissa Tenkate
Updated by: Elissa Tenkate
Date modified: 25 February 1998