Building a case for semantic URLs (draft post)

(note: this is a work in progress!)

When you look at a finding aid generated through ArchivesUM, the page URL looks something like this:

Aside from its length and lack of aesthetic beauty, this provides the person viewing the page with a confusing array of numbers and letters that will be of absolutely no use to them in their research. The display and style commands reference EAD, which means little or nothing to the non-archivist viewer. And the XML file title inserted in the middle, which is drawn from our Fedora back end, is a unique identifier that will be of no use to any researcher or archivist, as it does not match any of the other identifiers used for the collection.

By way of contrast, the URL for this blog post probably looks something like this:

WordPress, like many other sites, creates semantic URLs for each of the pages it generates. It clearly identifies the source of the page, the date it was originally posted, and some human-readable form of the title, which can be altered by the author of the post.
Like the ArchivesUM URL, it is a unique, static identifier for the information contained therein. Unlike its ArchivesUM counterpart, it provides the viewer with several important pieces of information. This has an impact on its findability, both on its website and when it appears on a Google search results page. Users are quickly able to determine whether they find the source trustworthy, how new it is, and that it references the topic they are interested in. There is also some evidence that Google’s algorithms give preference to URLs with more human-readable information.

As a large part of my project has been comparing other finding aids, I took a look at what others were doing:



In both cases, the last part of the URL is inserted using the <eadid> tag. Princeton uses its collection number, while Duke uses a shortened version of the collection title. Both are clean and easy to read. It is arguable how useful these URLs are to the average user, but they would certainly be useful to the reference archivist. The same cannot be said for the ArchivesUM URL standard.

I am arguing for a new URL standard that looks something like this:<findingaiddate>/<unitid>/

-Quickly conveys information about the repository, date of finding aid creation, and collection name
-Provides level of trust to user (which is admittedly hard to quantify)
-Elements for URL are already present in EAD file, so easier to implement
-Easy for reference archivists and researchers to identify collection by URL
-Removes “sausage making” display calls currently in URL

-Can be confusing if collections have similar titles
-Has to be a permanent URL to work
-Would need to ensure that this works in ArchivesSpace
-Our legacy finding aid dates may not be accurate

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Seduction of the Innocent at SAA 2013!

Seduction of the Innocent Poster Title Box“Seduction of the Innocent: How UMBC’s Special Collections found a new audience by opening its little grey boxes” is a project that I presented at three different conferences in  2012 and 2013.  It was done as a presentation at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Archives Conference fall meeting in October 2012 as well as the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association Annual Conference in March of 2013. In August of 2013, I presented it as a poster at the Society of American Archivists Annual Meeting.

The project is based on my work as an undergraduate student assistant for the Special Collections department at the Albin O. Kuhn Library, University of Maryland, Baltimore County.  I was given the opportunity to work on a cataloging project that had languished for some time due to lack of resources- re-cataloging the more than 6,000 piece comic book collection. I started at one end, and a co-worker started at the other, and almost a year later we met in the middle.

Originally, the comic books had been cataloged as individual items, with each receiving its own MARC record. Since comic books do not exist in isolation, and are often continuing series, this just didn’t make sense. Our project re-organized the comics according to ANSI/NISO Z39.71-2006 (R2011) standards for serials.  This created a single record for each series, providing researchers with a better idea of the scope of the collection. This method sacrifices the ability to apply item-level metadata but made the collection more accessible overall within the constraints of our limited resources.

The poster I presented at the 2013 Society of American Archivists' Annual Meeting. (click for larger version)

The poster I presented at the 2013 Society of American Archivists’ Annual Meeting. (click for larger version)

The next challenge was increasing the visibility of the comics collection.  I proposed an exhibit that explored the history of comic book censorship through the 20th century.  Despite being seen as a childish art form, comic books were a key battleground for hegemonic values during the 20th century.  The ways in which artists and publishers complied with the rules (or skirted them) is a fascinating topic for study.  And that was our goal- to increase our foot traffic, but also to open up a new avenue of research for those interested in 20th century culture.

Using the full collection of comic books, magazines, graphic novels and original art, I was able to span the entire period from the 1940s to the present day.  The exhibit drew in students, faculty and staff who might have never set foot in special collections otherwise.  We held a closing reception where I gave a talk about the exhibit, and an adjunct from the English department spoke about comic book censorship in general.  The buzz that was created has lasted to this day, with the comic book collection being accessed more than ever before.  A partial finding aid that I wrote as part of the exhibit is now available online to provide researchers with a starting point.

None of this would have been possible without the encouragement and support of the special collections staff.  Combining their knowledge of cataloging methods and understanding of exhibit design with my interest in the subject and desire to spread the word resulted in a net gain for everyone.  A previously underused collection was given new light, and I gained invaluable practical experience.

Here are some great resources to learn more:

•Wertham, Fredric. Seduction of the Innocent. New York: Reinhart & Company, Inc, 1954.
•Hajdu, David. The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How it Changed America. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008.
•Nyberg, Amy Kiste. Seal of Approval: History of the Comics Code. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1998.
•Adair, B., Filene, B., & Koloski, L. Letting go?: Sharing historical authority in a user-generated world. Philadelphia, PA: Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, 2011.
•Comic Book Legal Defense Fund.
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New blog posts up

Working at the University of Maryland University Archives is a bit like a treasure hunt sometimes. Cool stuff lies around every corner. And I’ve been writing like mad about some of our finds. My favorite has to be the one about a rumor that Harry Truman was going to become president of the university in 1954.  There’s also an old ice cream recipe with a hilarious name, and really neat one about a test issue of Sports Illustrated that showed up in the President’s Office papers.

I get excited about archives exactly because of this stuff. And that’s why I love sharing it- I know I’m not the only one!

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Almost ready for New Orleans!

A sneak peek at my SAA 2013 poster- can't give it all away yet!

A sneak peek at my SAA 2013 poster- can’t give it all away yet!

It’s just a week to go until the 2013 Society of American Archivists Annual Meeting, and I can’t wait. Printing out my poster last week was the culmination of a solid week of graphic design, and a year of research and work. I’m so excited for you all to see it!

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