by Tiina Mahlamäki, Assistant in comparative religion, University of Turku, Department of Cultural Studies
This article addresses some of the aspects of qualitative research methods at present being debated internationally. My perspective is a broad one of the social sciences and also takes in anthropology and especially cultural studies. I shall be looking at international issues as viewed by one archive, that of the Department of Cultural Studies at the University of Turku. So far the archive has collections on folkloristics, comparative religion and ethnology, but there are plans for incorporating the archaeology archive and collections as well.
There are main three topics I wish to deal with: 1) archiving culture, i.e. attitudes to the archiving and re-use of qualitative data in different disciplines, 2) the documentation of research data, i.e. the way researchers can be informed of existing materials, and finally 3) digitisation, i.e. the way and format in which materials should be stored and disseminated.
According to Louise Corti, there are a number of questions surrounding qualitative research data that call for global discussion. There should, on the one hand, be debate on the culture of sharing and the promotion of the secondary use of databases and research data in research policy, and on the other hand, the development of methods permitting the archiving and use of materials of a confidential nature. Greater documentation of contextual data providing raw material and background information on research data is, furthermore, needed in archiving. All in all there is a need to develop documentation standards and to promote the use of digital materials for research and teaching requirements. (Corti 2000: 17.)
Corti also claims that the climate of research is undergoing rapid warming in relation to qualitative materials, since interdisciplinary and mixed-method approaches are, at least in the social sciences, becoming increasingly common. Archives should take up the challenge without delay and supply researchers with information on the existence of qualitative data and its potential uses. (Corti 2000: 7.)
Attitudes to archiving in the social sciences, particularly, are often rather negative. Researchers are most concerned about confidentiality and any agreements that may have been made between the collector and the informant at the time of collection. They may also be uncertain about the quality of their data, and afraid that subsequent users will find fault with the data collection and/or analysis. Researchers who have personally worked in the field also feel it is impossible to share the experience of ‘being there’; secondary users cannot be aware of all the details and backgrounds to the collection of the material. Such concerns are pointless as far as the archives are concerned, since scientific research should, surely, be open and testable; the work and data of any researcher should accordingly be freely available for others to examine and criticise. Obviously, researchers working on the same issues should, furthermore, have an opportunity to study information already collected on the subject in order to avoid duplication and to permit comparison. Good documentation, such as the keeping of a field diary, is also a vital element of archiving and fieldwork, in order to enable others to use the material without themselves going out into the field. (Corti 2000: 9–10.)
The attitude to archives adopted by anthropologists may also be regarded as a slight problem. While they are happy to use archive materials as an aid to both teaching and research, they are not greatly in favour of archiving their own materials. Allowing researchers access to their materials even at a very remote date in the future does not seem to be acceptable to anthropologists. Since the collection of the bulk of the research material has, however, in some way or another been financed out of public funds, the collector should surely be under primary obligation to duly archive his or her own materials for others to use. The Economic Social Research Council (ESRC)1 at the UK Data Archive has taken the position that the institution funding research should also be allowed to have its say on the use of the materials produced, such as field diaries, photographs and sound recordings. It has therefore updated its Datasets Policy 2 to urge British researchers to look ahead to the archiving of their findings while still in the field. The policy covers such issues as allowing for the data protection of the informant from the early stages of the research, since this avoids having to delete field notes later in the name of data protection. Archiving generally speaking means thinking well ahead, to a time maybe decades or centuries in the future, by which time the names of individual informants will no longer be of any importance from a data protection point of view. This kind of policy has been self-evident for decades among the disciplines of folkloristics and comparative religion in Finland, because the collected data becomes reference material for scientific study only if it properly archived. (Zeitlyn 2000: 1–2; Mahlamäki 2000: 24, 44–46.)
The archives in the social sciences have mainly concentrated on the collection, description and dissemination of quantitative survey data. Only in recent years have they become aware of the existence and the importance of the archiving and secondary use of qualitative materials. One indication of this sudden awareness is, for instance, the fact that for the first time ever the conference of the International Association of Social Science Information Service and Technology (IASSIST) 3 held in Amsterdam on 14–18 May 2001 ran a session dedicated exclusively to qualitative data. The theme of the conference was Collaborative Working in the Social Science Cyber Space, and the numerous working groups widely discussed topical issues connected with the archiving and re-use of social science data and international collaboration. (Kleemola, Borg and Kuula 2001.)
A similar trend was evident at the seminar held by the UK Data Archive4 at the University of Essex, during which a whole-day workshop concentrating on the archiving and description of qualitative data was held on 3 September 2001. The workshop attracted a wide international attendance.
Attitudes in Finland to the secondary use of research data, especially in the social sciences, have been and still are very grudging. The situation was eased by the establishment of the Finnish Social Science Data Archive5 under the auspices of the University of Tampere in 1999. In addition to promoting the use of research data in the social sciences, the Data Archive also accepts qualitative data for description. (See e.g. Kuula 2000.) It also collaborates with such folklore archives as those of the Finnish Literature Society and the Department of Cultural Studies at the University of Turku.
Culture researchers, especially the disciplines of folklore and comparative religion have always been far more well-disposed towards archiving their findings, being aware that scientific and postgraduate research are impossible without data either personally collected for a specific purpose or deposited in archives. New or re-analysed data alone creates the potential for new scientific discoveries. Students are therefore taught on the one hand to carry out the fieldwork in which one essential element is the process of archiving research data, and on the other hand to become familiar with the existing archive materials and their use. So the situation in social science in general and in folklore and comparative religion is quite the opposite. (Mahlamäki 2001; Honko et al. 2000.)
The purpose of a research archive is to collect, store and promote the re-use of scientific data. The metadata – the documentation related to the data – is a major factor with a view to the secondary use of the material. Metadata may be defined as data about data giving the information necessary for the effective, accurate use of the data. Regardless of the data format, proper documentation is crucial because the data may be used many years after its collection and very likely for purposes that are different from the original. Metadata is necessary for the re-user of the data, to indicate the intellectual content, geographical and temporal coverage, and the methods employed in its collection. Only well-documented data can be re-used. (Kleemola 1999; Kuula 2000: 3.)
Agreement was first reached on an international standard for describing social science data in the 1970s, but because archives needed different kinds of descriptions, used different data processing software and methods, the standard developed very many local ‘dialects’. In practice the data description did not therefore observe any standard. A move was made to rectify the situation in 1995 when the Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research (ICPSR) set up a committee to construct a standard for the description and coding of social science data. This standard was named the DDI (Data Documentation Initiative). (Kleemola 1999.)
The DDI model consists of five sections: 1) document description, describing the metadata of document itself and the sources used in creating it, 2) study description, containing information about the entire study, i.e. the content, the methods and the process of the data collection, the sources and access conditions, 3) file description, describing the files of data collection, 4) variable description, describing each single variable in the data file and 5) other study-related materials, including references to reports and publications or other machine readable documentation that is relevant to the users of the study.6 The description can also contain links to other materials, such as collection instructions, lists of interview themes, invitations to contribute material for competitions, observation lists, etc. Each main section is divided into sub-sections and elements. The original DDI, designed for quantitative data, has about 300 elements to be filled in. Some 50 of these are or could be made suitable for qualitative data. (Kuula 2000: 4–5.)
Although the DDI was originally designed for the description of quantitative data, it has in practice proved very handy for qualitative data, too. It has been tested in Finland at the Finnish Social Science Data Archive,7 and the archives of the Finnish Literature Society and the Department of Cultural Studies at the University of Turku. It uses Extensible Markup Language (XML), which permits direct transfer to the Internet and is neither software- nor hardware-dependent. It provides an extremely high degree of data protection, because no confidential data about informants is given. The DDI can be used to describe even large archive entities and to disseminate existing data via the Internet. (See Kuula 2000; Mahlamäki 2000.)
The DDI standard can easily be used together with the cataloguing system of an independent archive. The Collcard8 (Collection card) filing system in the Department of Cultural Studies at the University of Turku that was edited in 1988 by Professor Lauri Honko and the researchers of the Department can be examined as a functional cataloguing system for research material. The Collcard filing system is first of all a medium for storing archive material on computer, and its content and structure are based on researchers’ actual fieldwork experiences. With Collcard it is possible to start the archiving process immediately during fieldwork and it also makes it possible to catalogue all kinds of material according to the same system. It contains the most important basic data that must be known about a folklore item of scientific value. Collcard was first a paper version that was used in the field and later converted to a WordPerfect macro that was used when cataloguing the material in the database created in 1989. Now the Collcard form can be found and filled in on the Internet and can then be sent to the Archive by e-mail. (Honko et al. 1990; Huttunen 1992; Rajamäki 1989: 35; Mahlamäki 2000: 26–27.)
The DDI does not conflict or overlap with archives’ own cataloguing systems because the data is at different levels. The cataloguing card, such as the Collcard, describes an individual archive item such as a photograph or a tape for archiving and secondary purposes and the databases based on it cannot be put on the Internet without violating confidentiality of the informants. Meanwhile DDI description gives information about existing sets of data in such a form that it does not conflict with protection of the informant, so that anyone interested in a particular corpus can approach the archive for further details.9
Digitising is the process by which material in an archive (tapes, photographs, transliterations, etc.) is converted to a computer-readable form. The reasons for doing this are varied and numerous. The most concrete reason is that such materials are slowly but surely being destroyed, due partly to the effect of time and partly to defective archiving premises and facilities. Materials are not, however, digitised merely to rescue them, since digitising also has great advantages for archivists and users alike. Once it has been done, the material is easy to handle, edit and store in, say, a different format, or backup copies can be made. Copies are quick and easy to run off for researchers, students and others, organisations or communities. Secondly, once a whole corpus has been digitised, it can be browsed on the net, and the user no longer needs a physical or the original copy. This both accelerates and updates work with archive materials and spares the original material the strain of handling and copying. (Muhonen 2001; Mahlamäki and Muhonen 2001.)
In autumn 1999 the Department of Cultural Studies at the University of Turku had two reasons for concern: one was the poor state of its archive materials and the other the dwindling resources for carrying out the fieldwork vital to its disciplines. It was particularly worried about its sound and visual materials and manuscripts, which had been damaged by the far from perfect archiving premises and facilities. (Hankesuunnitelma 2000.)
The problem was most pressing for the sound tapes. According to investigations and surveys carried out by the Department of Folk Tradition at the University of Tampere, the contents of the reel tapes made in the 1950s are in immediate danger of destruction only a few years from now. The biggest danger is the degeneration of the glue binding the oxide surface of the tape to the spool. The archivist’s nightmare is coming true: the information on the tapes disappears into outer space as the tape is wound. The photographs faced immediate destruction; the rubber glues of the 1960s had eaten into the photos, making it impossible to use them again. Manuscripts had also suffered from exposure to light and from variations in humidity and heat, and were gradually becoming illegible. (Kurkela 1999; Hankesuunnitelma 2000.)
Having contacted and made comparisons with other tradition archives, the working group investigating the Department’s archives decided to recommend that the material should be rescued by converting it to digital format. Digitising is, of course, not the only way of saving endangered tapes. Copying onto quality analogical tapes would achieve the same purpose. The photos could likewise have been redeveloped from the original negatives and the manuscripts photocopied, but this would merely have postponed their demise, not prevented it. Photocopying would even have accelerated the disintegration process. Digitalisation has many other advantages. It is much cheaper than studio tape copying or processing, and it permits speedy, simple searching and copying of the materials digitalised. (Kurkela 1999.)
In the course of digitisation the archive material of the Department of Cultural Studies is being transferred to the TripHighway-based database maintained by the University of Turku and Åbo Akademi University. It will then be possible to access the data online from a central database. The cataloguing of the material will thus be standardised and will permit searches for data on a specific topic from a single integrated database. The material will also be available online to researchers at other universities as specified in the archive bylaws. The database itself will be in a closed network and accessible only with passwords. Indexes and content descriptions according to the DDI standard can, however, be placed on the Internet to serve researchers, the media, the culture sector and others in their search for data and sources. Material in digital form will also be more readily available for research and teaching purposes, and it will be of special assistance in the development of virtual teaching. (Hankesuunnitelma 2000; Mahlamäki and Enges 2001.)
A number of problems have arisen in the planning and launching of the digitisation project. The rapid advances in digitising techniques and saving formats call for careful thought before committing the system to specific hardware, software and formats. The research ethics perspective must also be allowed for in documentation and the online and secondary use of data. Detailed planning is very important in the digitisation process, because the decisions made will be felt for a long time and they must be serviceable in contexts that may not necessarily be predictable at the time of planning. Data protection is of primary importance. The archive databases are subject to the Personal Data Act10 in force since December 1999 and the Act on the openness of government activities11 because they contain confidential information on informants, such as their names, linked with details of religious or ideological convictions or other private affairs. Such data must never be allowed to fall into the wrong hands or to be used for commercial purposes. Nor may any information indicating the true identity of the informant be revealed in academic theses or papers without the consent of the informant. (Mahlamäki and Enges 2001.)
Finnish scholars – especially in cultural studies – can well be satisfied with the situation at present. This does not mean it can now sit back and relax, but the trend is in a very positive direction. Archiving and the secondary use of research material have, at least in folklore and comparative religion, been an inseparable part of the research culture for several decades. Students receive instruction in fieldwork, archiving and the use of archived material from the beginning of their academic careers and the archives are ensuring the storage, cataloguing and dissemination of their materials. The physical premises could, however, be better. The archives have also prepared for the future, are aware of the dangers facing their materials and are taking steps to prevent them by digitising and cataloguing their materials in databases and making them accessible online to researchers.
Many of the questions facing the social science archives have already been solved in cultural studies, at least in Finland. The cultural studies archive at the University of Turku has had a functional Collcard filing system and a database for over a decade now. The digitisation project launched in 1999 makes it possible to search and use both the cataloguing cards and the original material (interviews, photographs and manuscripts) online according to the archive bylaws. The DDI descriptions of the datasets can be put on the Internet for anyone to access and the descriptions can be linked to the original data for registered users.
All archives have their own methods of cataloguing their material. These methods may have been in use for decades already, and there is no need to abandon them. But in addition to them there are grounds for adopting the international DDI standard for describing research datasets, since this permits the description of data on the Internet without infringing the copyright and data protection regulations, and spreads the information about existing collections to a larger research community.
Digitalisation is the solution to many of the problems surrounding qualitative data. It can both rescue endangered materials and spare them the strain of use and copying. Data in digital format is easily accessed either over the net or on CD-ROM. Digital data can be widely processed to suit the needs of research, teaching and communications.
Digitisation is, however, a slow process, and many solutions and decisions have to be made on techniques, formats, copyright and data protection. Collaboration between archives is of decisive importance here. A network of cultural studies researchers in Finland has already been established for the technical side of the issue, and another is being set up to look into questions of ethics and copyright.
Finland, and cultural studies in particular, is thus playing an active part in the international move to archive, document and re-use qualitative research data. The biggest problem facing both Finland and the international community is the shortage of funds, despite the support granted in principle for the safeguarding of the cultural heritage by both the European Union and the Finnish Government.
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9 See e.g. http://www.kultut-arkistot.utu.fi/ddi/dditalvadas.html
10 HetiL 523/1999
11 JulkL 621/1999
(FFN 22, November 2001: 2-5, 13)