Archive Relational Model

The Archive Relational Model is a new approach for recording and presenting images and information about people, places, events, organizations, and objects in the real world. It provides archivists with a structured, but easy to use method for presenting their collections online in a way that engages users and makes it fun and easy to learn about local history.

Key concepts

The basis of the Archive Relational Model is that each item in the Digital Archive serves as a digital representation for something in the real world such as a man or a boat. The key to understanding the model is to think of an item that is about a man as a representation of the man himself, and to think of an item that is about a boat as a representation of the boat itself. Similarly, if you have a photograph in the Digital Archive that shows the man on his boat, this is a representation of the original photograph.

In the real world, the man owned the boat, and the photograph depicts the man and the boat. The words owned and depicts are relationships. The Archive Relational Model lets us record these very same real world relationships as digital relationships.

The phrasing of a relationship depends on your perspective. The man owned the boat, but from the perspective of the boat, it was owned by the man. The owned by relationship is simply the inverse of the owned relationship. The model and the software allow archivists to establish relationships between two items from the perspective of whichever item they happen to be working with.

Most relationships are established between what are called Reference Items in the model. An explanation of this key concept is deferred until later, following further discussion of relationships.

Story telling

Relationships are what make the world go round. A photograph of a man on his boat might not be very interesting by itself, until you know the story behind it. When you learn that the man who owned the boat tended a lighthouse located on an island where he lived with his wife and their eight children, one of whom was lost at sea while fishing from that boat. Now that's interesting.

An online collection that does not tell stories by revealing the relationships among its items serves only as a repository for information. Users must search to locate items of interest with no easy way to tell if or how one item is related to another. In contrast, the Digital Archive supports and encourages a discovery process that is fun, but more importantly, is essential if an organization wants the public to fully appreciate the content of their collection.

Establishing Relationships

To enable this powerful story telling feature, archivists establish relationships among items in the collection. Once they understand the model and learn the mechanics of relating one item to another, it's quick and easy to do and can be performed little by little over time as resources allow. Users benefit immediately each time a new relationship is added.

The Archive Relational Model both encourages and enforces good practices for entering item metadata and establishing a relationship between two items. The user interface for adding relationships is not only quick and easy to use, it also prevents an archivist from inadvertently setting inappropriate or non-nonsensical relationships such as a man married to a boat. The software enforces the use of appropriate relationships based on relationship types and
relationship rules that each organization defines for their collection.

When an organization first adopts the Archive Relational Model, it defines the kinds of relationships that make sense for items in the collection. The organization also specifies rules that must be followed when an archivist adds a specific relationship between two items. An example of a rule is that a person can only be married to another person. Another rule is that a photograph can only depict an item that is a representation of a person, place or thing. For example, a photograph cannot be married to a person, because as discussed earlier, the digital photograph is not the person, but only a representation of a chemically treated piece of paper showing an image of a person at one moment in time.

Reference Items

In the Digital Archive, a Reference Item is used to relate other items to each other. The concept of a reference item is central to the Archive Relational Model and is the key to establishing relationships among the items in your collection. To complete your understanding of the Archive Relational Model, learn about Reference Items.

Mind Bender

It takes a while to get your mind wrapped around the concepts discussed on this page. Once you get a feel for how it actually works, and after you see how your collection begins to come alive after you have added some relationships, it will make a lot more sense and not seem so complicated. If you are anxious to just get started with relationships, learn how to add relationships to an item.