Archives 2.0?

There has been an abundance of discussion by our librarian colleagues about what the phrase “Library 2.0” means or what it should mean. It’s been debated so much that I think the topic might be rather passé over in Libraryland, but I want to introduce it here because I think we haven’t had enough discussion in our profession about if we need (or already have) “Archives 2.0.”

I won’t attempt to summarize the discussion about what “Library 2.0” is about. There are probably thousands of things you could read about it, and they would possibly offer you just as many definitions. Personally, I liked the post Meredith Farkas wrote (The essence of Library 2.0?) back in January in response to Jonathan Blyberg’s post, Library 2.0 Debased?. You should read the posts yourself, but I think the takeaway for the purposes of my argument is that “Library 2.0” doesn’t equate to the adoption of Web 2.0 applications in libraries; it is a set of values, perhaps new, perhaps not. Those values include being open to new ideas, flexible, user-centered, technology-friendly, and willing to take risks. To me it appears that the heart of Library 2.0 is a simple acknowledgment that we live in a time of change on many levels, and that the right response is to try to understand our environment and adapt as best we can while continuing to carry out our missions. It means not hiding your head in the sand and handing out old tired excuses (‘We can’t afford to do that!,” “This is the way we’ve always done it,” “We tried that once and it didn’t work,” “We’re a library not a [fill in the blank],” etc.).

I’m not aware of any parallel discussion of “Archives 2.0” in our profession. Yes, the phrase has been used—I’ve used it myself. But from what I can tell, it has always been used to refer to the implementation of Web 2.0 technologies in archives, not to the kind of change in perspective that Meredith describes.

So, how about it? What do we think about having a profession and repositories that are open to new ideas, flexible, user-centered, technology-friendly, and willing to take risks? Are we ready for Archives 2.0?

One thing I’ve been struck with in the discussions surrounding the implementation of MPLP is how often I hear people say that this is nothing new. I hear people say that this approach is what they’ve always done. For many archives, perhaps that’s true. But it can’t be true for all archives, given the hubbub that the publication of the article created. I think people may react in the same way to a concept such as Archives 2.0. You may think that you and your archives have always been open, flexible, user-centered, etc. But do you think that our profession as a whole is? Do most archives and archivists demonstrate these qualities?

Some people may be looking for a more concrete definition of what I mean by Archives 2.0–I’ll have to work on that some more and submit it to the American Archivist! But I think for me the two key components would be: user-centered and open. Perhaps it’s the approaching election that’s doing it, but I think we need a mantra along the lines of “It’s the users, stupid!” (I thought I’d better add the Wikipedia link to that phrase—some blog readers out there might not be old enough to remember the original!)

In my previous post (“Archives are a luxury”), I made the argument that for archives to compete for users’ attention and for increasingly tight funding they must become fundamentally and transparently user-centered. My concept of Archives 2.0 has this argument as a foundation but also acknowledges that our users’ expectations have changed and that the way that we interact with them must change accordingly. Concepts such as what constitutes authority and community and audience must be reconsidered and revised.

I identified my second characteristic of Archives 2.0 as “openness.” And what do I mean by “open”? Open to new ideas, new partners, new technologies, new ways of doing things, to diverse kinds of people, to new kinds of records, to new outreach opportunities, to working with people with different educational backgrounds, to embracing change . . . All that sounds very good. It’s Mom and apple pie, isn’t it? I kind of feel like I should insert a graphic of a rainbow and a pony here. So, let’s bring in another idea, which is somewhat contradictory: Rigor.

Meredith closed her post by reminding people of the importance of assessment. I agree, but I’d like to broaden the concept a bit by talking about this need for more fact-gathering that I’m lumping under the term “rigor.” Do you have quantifiable data about your users? Have their patterns of usage changed over time? Do you know which parts of your collection are accessed most and least? In person? Online? How much do we know about users of archives nationwide? Do we know who our potential users might be? What do we know about changes in national usage trends? What do we know about costs? Can we quantify benefits? What are the archival business models? If we want to compete effectively and be taken seriously we have to roll up our sleeves and gather this kind of data. Appeals to funders can tug at the heartstrings, but they’re even stronger if they’re backed up with hard data.

I said in the opening paragraph that I don’t think we’ve had enough discussion in our profession about if we need (or already have) “Archives 2.0.” Now that I’ve given you a broad definition of what I’m talking about, I’ll start things off.

Do we need Archives 2.0? Clearly, yes, I think we do. It isn’t just that the world is not the same place it was twenty years ago, ten years ago, five years ago, or last week, it’s that the pace of change has itself changed. Old patterns, systems, and ways of reacting to change (such as ignoring it until you retire), are no longer valid. Users’ expectations keep pace with the latest technologies. But you don’t need me to go through a litany of reasons why archives need to change to keep pace with our users, our collections, and our parent institutions. You probably know all about that.

Do we already have Archives 2.0? Well, I think a lot of archivists and archives are already on the road, don’t you?

And I know at least one reader who will roll his eyes at yet another use of “2.0” label–but what about the rest of you? Are the changes that our profession is undergoing profound enough to warrant a new version number?

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