Future of archives? “Passionate amateurs” doing “detailed curating”?

Today, via the miracle of the Intertubes, I am getting to observe what is happening at a meeting about “Smithsonian 2.0.” Here is the official meeting site, here’s what I believe is the project’s authorized blog, but most importantly, you can read what attendees are writing about the meeting on Twitter (#SI20).

Just a few minute ago, Dan Cohen, was describing the talk being given by Chris Anderson (of “Long Tail” fame), and, describing a thought of Anderson’s tweeted this:

SI could even do live crowdsourcing. Passionate amateurs would prob travel to look at archives and do detailed curating

I re-tweeted this, since I’ve got some archivists “following” me now, saying that I was skeptical and asking for others’ thoughts. Well, what do you think, blog readers? This has been talked about before, but as I said, I’m skeptical. For records that have genealogical value, you might be able to find people to do this, but I think that might be the extent of it. Am I too pessimistic?

Or, let’s break that question up. First, do you think there is a large enough pool of “passionate” people (forget the amateur part) who would be willing to travel to your archives and do detailed cataloging and then share that with the world? (Not even considering how you would be integrating that “curating” into your existing structure for description.) Second, what if the materials were online, and no travel were necessary? There are some precedents for this–users adding value to digitize materials–with Flickr and Ancestry.com. How realistic do think expectations like this are–particularly in regards to people actually coming in to the archives to do this kind of work?

P.S. This is a nice example of people using 2.0 tools like blogs and Twitter to expand the discussion taking place a meeting with limited attendance to a much wider audience. Again, think about the usefulness of such tools for Austin this summer.

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11 Responses to Future of archives? “Passionate amateurs” doing “detailed curating”?

  1. archivista says:

    I think the passion is there, but how willing are people to be inconvenienced? Here’s a different take on the question.

    From: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=99372779

    A Grand Archive

    A few years ago, Alden began to wonder what he was going to do with his collection of field recordings. He considered giving his collection to the Library of Congress, or to a university. However, Alden says he worried that they’d be hard for musicians like him to access, and that they’d gather dust lying on a metal shelf. Besides, what librarian in his or her right mind would let someone into the stacks with a banjo or a fiddle to learn a rare ballad or breakdown?

    “If the people who are really interested and want to play it or hear it, have difficulty assessing it, what good is that?” Alden asks.

  2. Karen Weaver says:

    “…Besides, what librarian in his or her right mind would let someone into the stacks with a banjo or a fiddle to learn a rare ballad or breakdown?”

    “If the people who are really interested and want to play it or hear it, have difficulty assessing it, what good is that?” Alden asks.”
    ———————————————————————————————————
    Folk musicians learn tunes from each other and most often do not read music as the article describes. While this is an interesting comparison and question, just some thoughts…

    This is very similar the case with Irish traditional music, since about the 1980s esp. people have often actually taken advantage of older traditional musicians in Ireland (moving into town for a while to learn the tunes, leave and make recordings and become famous) and those many older Irish living abroad in communities too–the older generations played for pure enjoyment, usually not for making cds and playing at large folk festivals. The revived interest in traditional and folk / world music took off in the past 20 yrs — Some people are genuinely trying to do such projects, however more and more I see them also doing such for profit more than preservation. I’m not saying this collection is such, however am saying not all are in the preservation of audio interest, but rather profit interests and selling collections.
    One must ask these types of ‘passionate’ amateurs, what will happen to those cultural items after they are gone?
    My uncle in Ireland, now in his late 70s is a traditional musician who was taught by his grandmother, and now my cousin his daughter plays, it’s a very common, family generational tradition passed along esp in North Clare. He came to the US for one tour in his whole lifetime with a group of other musicians, but that was late in his life. He also has recorded radio interviews in his later years on Irish national stations for heritage programs. Others however continue to play his original tunes, produce CDs, make profits, and play at large folk festival tours etc For many old timers, it was a pastime to play music during long winter nights and in between farming. This is true also of American folk music.

    What I have seen over the past years were people from Europe, from the U.S. esp. coming to “harvest” the wealth of undiscovered culture and make it “their own”, some for genuine interest, but more and more I have seen others do so purely for profit making businesses, exploited from old time musicians. This was 20 yrs before Riverdance became so popular ! Many projects have set out to preserve not only the music, but oral histories of these communities that are almost extinct today, around the world. However, one has to consider long term also, where will it continue on at a national level as part of the heritage?

    Take a look at some of these collections:

    http://www.nyu.edu/nyutoday/article/810
    NYU Acquires Collection of Irish Musician/Folklorist Mick Moloney
    By Barbara Jester
    The Moloney Collection is a deep resource for scholars investigating the musical and historical heritage of the Irish in America.
    The collection is in two parts. The music collection contains music recorded on commercial labels as well as field recordings of performances and interviews with musicians. NYU recently received a $40,000 grant from The Grammy Foundation to help preserve the oldest recordings and make them accessible, and NYU Libraries’ Department of Preservation and Conservation will oversee that project
    “I am delighted to have this collection housed in New York University’s Bobst Library,” says Moloney. “The library combines a commitment to the highest standards of archival preservation with a wonderfully evolved policy of public access and outreach. It is also a natural home for the collection because much of the material is historically connected with the New York City area.”

    —————————–
    Irish Eyes Are Smiling: NYU’s Division of Libraries Acquires Irish Musician/Folklorist Mick Moloney Collection
    Oct. 15, 2007 http://www.nyu.edu/public.affairs/releases/detail/1793
    The Avery Fisher Collection at NYU is one of the world’s largest academic media centers, with 70,000 recordings in such genres as avant-garde and classical music, musical theatre, non-Western traditions, jazz and popular music, and 23,000 video titles, including cinema and television history, operas, plays, and other works.
    The Archives of Irish America in the Tamiment Library is a repository of primary research materials on the Irish immigration experience and the distillation of American Irish ethnicity over the past century.
    ————-

    http://www.folklife.si.edu/center/about_us.html Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage

    The Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage is a research and educational unit of the Smithsonian Institution promoting the understanding and continuity of diverse, contemporary grassroots cultures in the United States and around the world. The Center produces the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, Smithsonian Global Sound, exhibitions, documentary films and videos, symposia, publications, and educational materials.
    ————————————————————————————————————

    Smithsonian Folkways

    http://www.folkways.si.edu/learn_discover/folkways_collection.aspx Folkways Podcast series available

    Example: users can sample ex: Pete Seeger albums purchase tracks, listen to clips, and purchase digital downloads, purchase cd or cassettes

    “Explore and download the world of musical traditions. Thousands of rare recordings. Free radio streams, videos, and lesson plans. ”

    http://www.folklife.si.edu/center/Archives/archives_SOS.html Save Our Sounds project – Smithsonian Archives
    http://www.folkways.si.edu/

    Boston College also has a large Irish traditional music collection
    ———————————————
    http://www.loc.gov/shop/index.php?action=cCatalog.showItem&cid=13&scid=70&iid=864
    A Treasury of Library of Congress Field Recordings

    Since 1928, Library of Congress fieldworkers have gathered thousands of American folksongs in farmhouses, prison barracks, and schoolrooms across the nation. Researchers traveled the back roads of the Delta, the Appalachians, and the Great Plains using battery-powered disc-cutting machines as they ventured beyond the grid of rural electricity.

    http://www.loc.gov/folklife/

    The Center includes the Archive of Folk Culture, which was established in the Library of Congress in 1928, and is now one of the largest collections of ethnographic material from the United States and around the world.

    On this Web site you will find not only an introduction to the activities of the American Folklife Center and its Archive of Folk Culture but also news about programs and activities, online presentations of multiformat collections, and other resources to facilitate folklife projects and study. The American Folklife Center aims to be the national center for folklife documentation and research, and this Web site offers a virtual destination for those who cannot visit the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

    ——————————————————————————————————————————
    http://www.loc.gov/folklife/Seegersymposium/ American legend Pete Seeger -at the Lincoln Memorial Inaugural Concert last week and now living in the Hudson Valley NY

    The Library of Congress paid tribute to one of America’s most enduring musical legacies in a two-day celebration entitled How Can I Keep From Singing? A Seeger Family Tribute, from March 15-16, 2007. Events included a special screening of archival films, a symposium and a two hour concert, over the course of the two days.

    I know the Chicago Public Library also has some excellent music/audio depts, and a few years ago when I visited, there was a Mariachi band playing on the top floor for a wedding going on, so libraries and archives have really come a long ways. :-)

    People really need to know what archives & libraries can and do offer. Also preservation long term, as well as promoting access — should be a main concern when making decisions for cultural heritage.
    K.

  3. Heather says:

    For the most part, I’m skeptical, too. While I think that the LC/Flickr Commons model (and similar) is interesting, my feeling is that for every person that contributed usable information there must have been a much larger number of people that just clicked through. If the click-through people had information pertaining to the images, they decided not to share that information– in a medium that is fairly conducive to sharing.
    I wonder what the click-through vs. participant level is with the Polar Bear Expedition project at Michigan– because the project is at the center of an engaged community of users, I would expect that they have a reasonably high participation rate. My sense is that the “community” aspect might help with the participation, though that may not be true.
    I think that in general, I wouldn’t expect “passionate” users (amateurs or otherwise) to contribute much if it required them to travel or otherwise inconvenience themselves. Geneaologists notwithstanding, my guess is that digitized collections have at least more of a fair shake at user input, but only if the platform makes it easy to engage with the collection in a way that invites comments. I have my doubts that users would spend much time adding information if some sort of community was not already formed around the collection.

  4. Karen Weaver says:

    …”Or, let’s break that question up. First, do you think there is a large enough pool of “passionate” people (forget the amateur part) who would be willing to travel to your archives and do detailed cataloging and then share that with the world? (Not even considering how you would be integrating that “curating” into your existing structure for description.) Second, what if the materials were online, and no travel were necessary? There are some precedents for this–users adding value to digitize materials–with Flickr and Ancestry.com. How realistic do think expectations like this are–particularly in regards to people actually coming in to the archives to do this kind of work? ” ….

    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

    Genealogists have plenty of options online which are highly successful already, and for a fee sure to access many if not most collections for research besides government census records and such. Information for fee , whether in print or ‘digitized’ / online somehow, is not a new discussion either. Most libraries and archives utilize volunteers and students to do a large bulk of work already, and have depended on them for decades, no?

    An important starting point should also be what is the policy for access to “passionate amateurs” into the archives and libraries holding special collections today?
    and also why does the policy need to be in place? Whats the difference between social media purposes / sharing of favorites/ etc and preserving national heritage? What types of collections i.e. someone’s family photos or the Declaration of Independence? Access is only one part of the picture. :-)

    We are all used to faster access to certain types of resources, however, more must be in place to protect unique collections. Has anyone looked at what archives and libraries have in place already, i.e. what their websites and collection management policies are? I know many archives and libraries that do not allow volunteers or “passionate amateurs” on site simply for insurance purposes. just some further thoughts…

  5. Karen Weaver says:

    …”There are some precedents for this–users adding value to digitize materials–with Flickr and Ancestry.com. How realistic do think expectations like this are–particularly in regards to people actually coming in to the archives to do this kind of work? ”

    “P.S. This is a nice example of people using 2.0 tools like blogs and Twitter to expand the discussion taking place a meeting with limited attendance to a much wider audience. Again, think about the usefulness of such tools for Austin this summer. ”
    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
    just a final thought: and perhaps I am misunderstanding parts of the question as well, as many likewise too out there very often, however, libraries and archives have been and continue to use these types of tools day to day, what they are effective for is a different question still as most are still exploring them. Pushing content out and information out is what its going to be aimed at and should continue to do this–to reach out as you state to new users. Other types of information resources also use these tools-ejournals, databases etc and users find some more useful than others for different reasons.

    I know that there are some creative new professionals out there willing to explore new ways of doing old business, and I encourage all of you to bring that with you today –but *also* be willing to understand and collaborate with what must also be a part of the process in other ways too. They need to see the results and the value, which is something that can be done, and many professionals as someone else mentioned are interested but may be hesitant at first to get involved. This was true for many years with online learning too, and that has quickly changed for most too. Web 2.0 for many is still unexplored territory, and many people are still learning how to turn the volume down on their cell phones.

    Here are two YouTube videos as just an example maybe of some of the potential ways archives and libraries can continue to reach out to new users and extend their valuable collections. Many already have been using these, but I think there is much more creative ways it can be used. YouTube is increasingly one of the most popular delivery tools out there, and libraries of all types have been using this in recent years as well to share with MySpace Facebook Digg and post on their MySpace Facebook Digg orkut Live Spaces Bebo hi5 Mixx etc.

    What I find interesting esp. on this recent Obama campaign video YouTube from Will i Am “A New Day” are the statistics counts this video for example has over 3,000 textual comments posted – as many here have been talking ab out the volume of outreach possible to new users. I know many museums have already been some using these tools, and I hope more will continue to explore these for new ways of pushing the content out and opening the discussion beyond what we know ourselves.

    (example 1)
    with 3000+ text comments posted

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RHWByjoQrR8

    Song Credits:
    “It’s A New Day”
    Produced by will.i.am
    Written by: William Adams
    Publisher: will.i.am music Inc admin. by Cherry River Music Inc. (BMI)

    (example 2)
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SsV2O4fCgjk

    The Emmy Winning video “Yes We Can” is a collage style music video inspired by a speech delivered by Barack Obama following the 2008 New Hampshire primary, derived from similar union catch cries. The song was released on February 2, 2008 by the Black Eyed Peas member will.i.am on Dipdive.com and also on YouTube.

    YES WE CAN was bestowed an Emmy for Outstanding New Approaches – Entertainment at the 35th Annual Daytime Creative Arts and Entertainment Emmy Awards Ceremony on June 13th 2008 at the Frederick P. Rose Hall at Lincoln Center in New York City.

    Good luck ! Karen

  6. Stephen says:

    I don’t think it’s unreasonable to think that a few “passionate amateurs” will be willing to add value through “live crowdsourcing” (didn’t we used to call this volunteering?), but I do think it is unreasonable to expect much of this. The time and expense certainly are an inconvenience for most, and today’s technologies are more and more making it possible for people to interact with materials from a distance (and making them EXPECT to be able to do so). And, as Archivista points out, some people will be do-it-yourselfers; twice in the last week I’ve had requests (one from a theater and one from a cemetery) to provide advice and students (volunteers, interns, etc.) to help organize, digitize, and preserve collections. My first advice, of course, is that the materials should be deposited in an appropriate repository where they can be professionally cared for. I don’t think that advice will be heeded in either case.

    That being said, I routinely accept the help of volunteers and unpaid interns, and I look forward to experimenting with online crowdsourcing as well. There have been great successes, like one “passionate amateur” who transcribed, over a period of five years, more than 20 closely-written diaries that covered decades of a missionary’s work in the Philippines, and another who had paid for dozens of letters to be photocopied and who then sent back to us full transcriptions in electronic form. Skeptical as I am that there will ever be much work done by the “crowd” that will add significant value to our collections, I do not want to turn my back on that small percentage of passionate amateurs that truly can help.

  7. Richard says:

    Don’t “passionate amateurs” do this already? Just not necessarily with cultural heritage collections that are locked up within institutions. They build their own websites, digitize resources they find have passionate discussions on listservs, etc. Not only genealogists, but railfans, aero-buffs, Civil War reenactors.

    Sociologist Robert Stebbins coined the term “serious leisure” to understand why people like amateur musicians, comics and other hobbyists pursued their passions. (see http://www.soci.ucalgary.ca/seriousleisure/ for more information and related research). I’ve found Stebbin’s work extremely useful in thinking about communities who can and will use improved access to cultural heritage materials.

    Too often there seems to be a split between thinking about “scholars” and the “general public” when we’re discussing our “audiences”. I think Stebbins’ characterization of different levels of leisure from casual to the serious can help us think differently about the audiences we work with – and perhaps build services or opportunities to contribute at the level that you’re most comfortable with. In addition, this work might also help us understand better the kinds of communal infrastructures that make crowd sourced work happen.

  8. Elizabeth says:

    I will just add to the discussion the example of a “passionate amateur” who first came to our attention as a prolific and extremely detailed commenter on the “View to Hugh” blog (http://www.lib.unc.edu/blogs/morton/). His photo identifications are personal, well-researched and very reliable — he usually even includes his sources. We have converted him into an on-site volunteer, and he eagerly makes the 1.5-hour round-trip drive once a week to hunch over a light box all day and identify negatives that would otherwise have remained anonymous.

    So I would second the notion that it doesn’t take a “crowd” to make a highly significant contribution.

  9. Jodi says:

    I don’t think there’s any doubt that passionate amateurs or serious amateurs have the capacity and willingness to do this. As Richard already pointed out, they do this already, just not in partnership (for the most part) with repositories. Clearly, there are thousands of people with interests, resources, and time who absolutely love to contribute their expertise. The real question is whether we are willing to open up the opportunities to make this happen.

    The Polar Bear Expedition site at the Bentley and the Flickr work that the Library of Congress has done show us a couple of things. In the case of the Polar Bears, we see that when you work with a pre-existing community of interest (in this case the families of the men who went on the expedition), you can get a great deal of information. We also see that LC had more mixed results: some tagging and commenting that added much-needed information, but also a preponderance of comments like “Cool photo!” “Beautiful!” that added almost nothing. In a recent study with researchers, they rated commenting features on sites like Flickr very low because they saw little of use there.

    We may argue that only records of genealogical value will attract these serious amateurs. I disagree. Take a look sometime at the magazine section at a large bookstore: there is a serious amateur community of some type around EVERY interest and geographical location!

    Whether serious amateurs would travel places to do metadata work, as Cohen suggests, depends a lot on them. If it’s one of those retired baby boomers who likes to spend their money on this sort of thing, sure. But I think that digitized surrogates would attract much wider attention and would ultimately create better conditions for success.

    Again, the question is whether we are willing to share our materials and work with them to that extent. It’s a totally different way of doing things and gives up some areas of territory that many archivists find quite precious. It’s also one of our best prospects for survival.

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