The digital era is here The present issue carries two articles on the blessings and curses of digital archiving, where the dream is clearer than the reality. For decades scholars in numerous disciplines have visioned a future where primary materials from fieldwork and archives as well as books and articles relevant to a particular study can be selected via a computer and, today, via the Internet, and downloaded to form a virtual research archive, the only one of its kind in the world but indispensable for the scholar writing on a particular subject. Broad data coverage could be achieved without the scholar leaving his desk. Ideally, the analysis need not see paper at all, and the electronic manuscript could be e-mailed to colleagues, editors and finally printers. The work could be published on the Internet and the cost of the first print-out could be left to the customer.
A reality check on this electronic dream is merciless. The number of paper drafts and print-outs is much larger than it was before the digital era. The scholar incessantly takes safety copies of his text, also on paper. Referees and editors are unwilling to read on screen and the printer wants a paper copy for reference. The coverage of data available via the Internet is uneven at best. A particular keyword used in the search for information may bring in a deluge of data ranging from meagre to redundant. Bibliographic databanks may be slightly better than archival sources. The accessibility of the latter is curtailed by limitations on use and lack of digitised materials. It takes real expertise to identify the gaps and remedy the shortcomings of electronic data retrieval.
Yet the dream is pursued from various angles. Here such disciplines as the social sciences (anthropology sometimes included) and humanistic cultural studies (tradition sciences, such as folkloristics, comparative religion, and ethnology) start at opposite ends. As Tiina Mahlamäki shows, the tendency in social-scientific computer-based analysis is to proceed from quantitative to qualitative data, even if the process is modest and its realisation lies in the future. The social scientists seem to be aspiring towards the position already reached by their colleagues in the tradition sciences. The social-scientific research strategy pinpoints the systematic archiving of qualitative data and their re-use as a novel course of life. But preaching this innovation to tradition researchers would be meaningless, because they have been pursuing it all their lives.
Despite their different research traditions and attitudes to materials, technical cooperation between the social sciences and humanistic tradition research may not be out of place. The thing that easily gets lost in the process is history. Easier access to primary materials and the broader availability of archival sources and fieldwork results has been the goal of most folkloristic and ethnological institutions, archives and museums for more than a hundred years. The harmonisation of cataloguing and indexing methods in order to promote the exchange of information between scholars and institutions holding primary collections has occupied the minds of researchers and archivists for even longer and has constituted the basis for intensive cooperation between teaching and archiving institutions in the tradition sciences.
In the Nordic context, the late Nordic Institute of Folklore (1959–96) made considerable contributions by creating tools for harmonisation and by organising quadrennial “archive and documentation conferences” for archivists and university teachers dealing with primary research materials. One of the tools was A Guide to Nordic Tradition Archives (ed. by Gun Herranen and Lassi Saressalo, NIF Publications 7, 1978), a survey of 92 institutions in Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden, their holdings and principles of archiving. The book reflects the broad variety of institutions in question: a “tradition archive” may be an archive, library or museum, dominated by ethnological, folkloristic, historical, medical, musicological, linguistic or religious interests and focusing on ancient manuscripts, interview materials, iconographic sources, audiovisual, radio or TV documents.
Bringing together such diversity was an achievement in itself but the word “harmonisation” was not to be taken too literally: most institutions had very individual backgrounds and strategic profiles and any attempt to unify their codes of action was doomed to fail. This became clear at the NIF archiving and documentation conferences which focused on new problems such as the copyright issue and the development of indexing and, as early as 1984, computerised archiving (Glemmer lidt men lærer langsomt. EDB i de folkloristiske arkiver, ed. by Carsten Bregenhøj and Gun Herranen, NIF Publications 14, 1984). Many of the problems debated by social scientists today were being discussed by Nordic folklorists twenty years ago.
Consequently, it is no wonder that in the eyes of folklorists the social scientists dealing with the archiving of qualitative data occasionally seem to be inventing the wheel. For example, the Collcard developed in Turku in 1988 is analytically more advanced than the DDI model of data description. Unfortunately, the developers of the latter had no knowledge of Collcard or other similar tools. Modern digitisation and data retrieval are full of unsolved problems for anyone willing to solve them. Jukka Saarinen describes the level of accuracy needed for textual data description. The world is full of different languages for folkloristic datalogy whereas the DDI model speaks only English. Yet, the concerted effort of all branches of social and cultural research, as Tiina Mahlamäki recommends, and the creation of a common language of documentation and data exchange, is an objective which deserves the crossdisciplinary support of all active scholars.
(FFN 22, November 2001: 1, 13)