Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Up and AtoM: The Borthwick Institute Goes To South Korea

In September I was fortunate enough to present a paper on the Borthwick’s new online catalogue at the International Council on Archives Congress 2016.  Held every four years, the ICA Congress is a unique opportunity for record keeping professionals from all over the world to meet and share ideas and achievements and discuss the challenges facing the profession.  It seems appropriate then that the theme of the 2016 Congress was Archives, Harmony and Friendship and the location chosen was Seoul in South Korea, a country with a history of codified archival practice that dates back to the advent of Joseon Dynasty in the fourteenth century.  

I arrived in South Korea on Monday afternoon, after some 11 hours of travel, and had the evening to get acquainted with the Gangnam-gu District in which I was staying.  Gangnam-gu is one of twenty-five districts in Seoul and home to half a million people (Seoul as a whole has a population of 10 million).  Fortunately it was only a short walk from my hotel to the venue of the Congress, the COEX Convention and Exhibition Centre, although I had plenty of opportunity to try the city’s extremely efficient subway system later in the week for some night time sightseeing.  


Out and about in Seoul.  From left to right: navigating the Yongsan shopping plaza; climbing the medieval city walls in Naksan Park; walking back through Gangnam-gu to my hotel.  
My experience of British conference centres had not prepared me for the scale of the COEX.  The 4 storey conference and exhibition centre sits on top of the COEX shopping mall, Korea’s largest underground mall boasting several hundred shops, two food courts, a multi screen cinema and an aquarium.  


The COEX Convention and Exhibition Centre in the Samseong-dong area of Gangnam-gu

The congress itself was spread across a single floor and included archival exhibitions by the National Archives of Korea and opportunities to try traditional Korean arts, crafts and costumes, as well as two exhibition halls showcasing the work of various recordkeeping organisations and vendors.  

A display by the National Archives of Korea in the COEX, showcasing some of their most important Royal documents.
An example of the Annals of the Joseon Dynasty.  The annals were kept from 1413 to 1865 and have been added to the UNESCO Memory of the World Register.
Each day opened with a keynote speech, followed by a variety of panels and workshops running alongside each other, sometimes up to eight at once.  Choosing which of the many presentations to attend was akin to going through the Christmas Radio Times with a highlighter, which is to say challenging!  Over the course of four days I attended presentations and workshops by colleagues from Australia, Fiji, Nepal, Brazil, Amsterdam, Switzerland, Norway, China, Japan, Saudi Arabia, the Philippines,  America, Canada, the UK and of course, South Korea.  

Staff from the National Archives of Japan lead a workshop demonstrating the
latest restoration techniques used for flood damaged records.
The subject matter varied enormously.  A keynote speech by John Hocking of the United Nations highlighted the crucial role played by archives on a global scale in testifying to atrocities and making it possible for victims to seek justice in the international courts.  Equally sobering however were the case studies presented by colleagues from Australia and British Columbia looking at the role played by archive projects in addressing historical discrimination against Aboriginal and First Nation communities and the need to work with indigenous peoples to develop more inclusive recordkeeping protocols for the future.

Shaun Rohrlach from the National Archives of Australia discusses the Forced Adoptions History Project.  You can read more about their work at their website.

Helen Walker reads a paper by Opeto Alefaio of the National Archives of Fiji highlighting the valuable work of the Pacific Island archives in setting up travelling Archives Roadshows to share records with local communities, often for the first time.  
Find out more at their Facebook page.
Other presentations focused on the opportunities offered by new and developing technology, whether in meeting the challenges posed by born-digital archives or using new technology to bring more traditional records to a global audience.  A keynote speech from Laurent Gaveau of the Google Cultural Institute demonstrated the ability of the Google cultural app to take users of virtual tours of museums and historic sites and to deliver high resolution images of art and documents.  Tim Harris showed us how such innovative technology enabled archivists to find new solutions to old problems, showcasing the collaborative work of the London Metropolitan Archives in using 3D photography to digitally ‘flatten’ the previously unreadable Great Parchment Book, a unique record from 17th century Ireland.  

The Great Parchment Book before conservation and digitisation work began.
Read more about the project here.
From developing new computer programmes and websites in conjunction with colleagues in computer science and the digital humanities to using the power of the world wide web to collaborate with colleagues across continents, the congress was an inspiring reminder that none of us are alone in our work and that the help and expertise of colleagues within and without the profession can enhance what we do and allow us to reach a wider audience than ever before.

I was certainly aware of this when presenting my own paper on Project Genesis at the Borthwick Institute as part of the Congress’ ‘New Professionals’ panel.  


The nerve-wracking wait for my panel to begin!

The creation of our first online catalogue has drawn on the knowledge of colleagues in computer science and in the digital library, on the experience and insight of fellow archivists - both new professionals and more established colleagues - and the many users of AtoM around the world who have contributed to the development of AtoM and offered advice through the user forum online.  I was pleased to be able to acknowledge this in my paper and to show how the launch of our catalogue, Borthcat, is already making a difference to how we share information about our holdings with our global userbase.  

My paper was an opportunity to share our new online catalogue, Borthcat, with colleagues from around the world.
My paper was well received and led to a number of very useful conversations with current (and potential) AtoM users that I have been able to follow up on over the past few weeks.

The end of the Congress was marked with a day of professional visits.  I chose to visit the Seoul Repository of the National Archives of Korea, followed by a traditional lunch and then a trip to the Korean Folk Village at Yongin.  

Sharing a very plentiful Korean lunch on my last day in the country.
The National Archives is one of three in the country, a reflection of the three archives that housed the records of the Joseon Dynasty for hundreds of years.  The Seoul Repository was completed in 2007 and is built in the shape of a traditional jewel case and surrounded by forest.  We were given a full tour by the very friendly staff, and I think more than a few of us were rather envious of the repository's impressive facilities!  

The strongroom containing the most rare and valuable records at the National Archives of Korea, Seoul Repository.
Visiting the Conservation Laboratory at the Seoul Repository.
We were even given a live demonstration of repository’s ‘water wall fire prevention system’ in case of forest fires.  When ambient temperature reaches 80 degrees, a series of nozzles around the roof of the building pumps out 1,105 tonnes of water over the course of 75 minutes, creating a wall of water (and, as we discovered, an awful lot of spray) as shown in the video below.

video


After a very plentiful Korean lunch, we spent an enjoyable afternoon at the Folk Village, exploring recreations of houses and workshops from different eras in Korea’s history and buying some souvenirs to bring home.  

Exploring traditional Korean houses at the Folk Village in Gyeonggi province outside Seoul.
I marked my last evening in Seoul with one final plate of Korean speciality Bibimbap and a trip to the COEX underground aquarium to try the promised ‘fantastic water journey’ which involved sharks, penguins, seals, and guinea pigs (but not all at once).

A familiar red phonebox and a posing penguin at the COEX Aquarium.
The Ocean Tunnel, COEX Aquarium.

Although I’d been nervous about travelling so far by myself and attending a conference where I knew no-one, I soon found I needn’t have worried.  Archivists and record keepers are a friendly and welcoming bunch and the Seoul subway is hands down the most user-friendly transport system I’ve ever been on.  I came back to York with lots of new ideas, a lot of photos, and a deep appreciation for the work archivists do and the important reasons we do it.  


The Thursday evening buffet dinner was an opportunity to chat about the week, try Korean food and enjoy some traditional song and dance performances.

To borrow from one of my favourite case studies of the Congress, looking at the excellent work of the Pacific Island archives, for those of us who work with archives every day it can sometimes be easy to forget what a source of wonder they can be.  My week in Seoul was the perfect reminder.


Heunginjimun, commonly known as Dongdaemun Gate.  One of the 8 gates in the medieval wall of Seoul (and one that took me quite a hike to get to!).


A 4 minute highlight reel of the Congress is available on youtube.


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