Building participatory archives

Friends, followers, taggers, fans, writers, editors, commenters, volunteers, collectors, scanners, sharers, transcribers, researchers, historians, students, users, collaborators, partners, re-users, re-mixers, masher-uppers, citizen archivists, enthusiasts, passionate amateurs, crowdsourcers, nerdsourcers–all are welcome in the participatory archives.

What I’m working on now is exploring ideas about what it means to build “participatory archives.” The concept draws upon the work our colleagues have done in defining concepts for the participatory library and the participatory museum, as well as on the general concept of participatory culture. I am excited about using this as a framework for examining many of the issues I am interested in, including (but not limited to):

  • the evolution of the “citizen” culture–a la citizen journalism and citizen science –as they relate to the concept of “citizen archivists.” In an email communication, Rick Prelinger noted that he may have been the first to coin the term in 2006 in a talk at the University of Pittsburgh School of Information Science. He graciously sent me his notes for the talk, and the way I read them, his spin on the term had more of a tinge of activism in it than the kind of “volunteer on steroids” usage I think we’ve seen lately. Note that Richard Cox also included the concept in his recent book, Personal Archives and a New Archival Calling: Readings, Reflections and Ruminations, and I believe he uses the term in yet another sense. This seems to be the essential problem with the term–that it evokes so many different kinds of interpretations. Still, for me all of these interpretations and meanings reveal aspects of how people can or should become more engaged with archives, and so are essential to an understanding of a participatory archives.
  • the issues raised by Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus and other discussions of how to effectively harness user/partner contributions to the archives. This is a natural outgrowth of the work I’ve done on archives using Web 2.0 tools, but that is only a slice of what’s possible. One lovely example is the recent announcement from The National Archives (UK) about the “Living the Poor Life” project, which drew on “more than 200 volunteers across the country, including local and family historians, researching and cataloguing 19th century records from the huge Ministry of Health archive.” Whatever you call them, there are people out there who are eager to contribute their time and knowledge to helping bring the information in archival records to light, and for me this is a big part of our profession’s future.
  • the concept of “community archives” as seen in the UK. As noted in the Community Archives and Heritage Group site, “the definition of ‘community archive’ is the cause of some debate,” perhaps much like that of “citizen archivist.” However, the concept of a group of people wanting to document their community (in any sense of the word) and taking steps to collect materials that preserve their history surely has a place in the definition of participatory archives. And certainly I think the relationships between such community archives and “traditional” archives need to be explored. Archivists are only one participant in the preservation of history or memory or community, and how the archives participates with others is an interesting area for study.
  • the need for transparency and openness about, and in the work of, the archivist. Part of the value of the participatory archives concept would be, I think, that it would help define the work of the archivist as a participant. There are many arguments for making the actions of archivists more visible to the public, and also for making the processes of the archives more open to participation from interested users (as demonstrated by the recent efforts of the U.S. National Archives on the federal Open Government Idea Forum).
  • how “opening up” the archives affects the role of the archivist and how issues of authority are negotiated in a participatory archives. There are no answers to these kinds of questions, but I am inspired by the essay that Elizabeth Yakel is contributing to the book I’m currently editing for SAA, A Different Kind of Web: New Connections between Archives and Our Users (available in 2011).
  • I should say that really all the essays I’ve collected in the new book are an inspiration. What has always interested me about using Web 2.0 tools is not the technology, but how they enable, well, new connections between archives and our users. I feel as if I may be biting off more than I can chew, but part of the reason I’m posting this here is to force myself to really get to work on this. And, of course, because all of you may have great suggestions for what else to include in my research and thinking. I don’t know if the final product for this will be an article or another book or a website (or both, as in, but I think this topic is broad enough and exciting enough that it can keep me occupied for quite a while to come.

    NOTE: I should also mention an article by Isto Huvila, “Participatory archive: towards decentralised curation, radical user orientation, and broader contextualisation of records management” published in Archival Science in 2008 as something that I will consider in framing my own understanding of the term.

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