My Version of Trendswatch 2012: The Archives Edition

I just quickly looked over the inaugural issue of Trendswatch, a new annual report from the American Association of Museums’s Center for the Future of Museums.

The inaugural issue of TrendsWatch—TrendsWatch 2012: Museums and the Pulse of the Future—highlights seven trends that CFM’s staff and advisors believe are highly significant to museums and their communities, based on scanning and analysis over the past year:

  • Crowdsourcing
  • Threats to Nonprofit Status
  • Mobile, distributive experiences
  • New forms of funding
  • Creative Aging
  • Augmented reality
  • Shifts in Education

For each trend, the report provides a summary, examples of how the trend is playing out in the world, comments on the trend’s significance to society and to museums, dozens of links to relevant news and research and suggestions for ways that museums might respond.

Download a copy of the report here

Needless to say the report is worth reading. But naturally my mind jumped immediately to what kind of list an equivalent group would makes for archives. I think the results would be somewhat different, don’t you? Since I don’t have the resources to assemble such a panel of experts, I just came up with a list of my own:  

  • Participatory culture – We’re all aware of the opportunities social media present and the challenges of participating and providing content across an ever wider variety of platforms, and this is in itself a significant trend, but the true impact of participatory culture goes beyond social media. Increasingly people use technology to interact with cultural content outside official forums. They also create their own networks and virtual (or tangible) collections of historical materials. The challenge for archivists is how to benefit from this trend, and work with related stakeholder groups and individual enthusiasts to promote the value of archival collections. (For an example of how this can be done, see the New York Public Library’s Stereogranimator.)
  • Changes in how people document themselves – In the past, the papers, photographs, films, and ephemera of people, families, organizations, and groups would often accumulate and eventually find their way into archival repositories. Given the fragility of digital material, future generations of researchers may not have access to these kinds of important materials unless archivists actively engage in education and outreach about how to preserve personal, family and organizational digital collections.
  • Operationalizing workflows for born-digital records – Issues of appraisal, acquisition, copyright, preservation, and access for born-digital materials still challenge most archivists. However, as the profession moves beyond the “deer in the headlights” stage archivists are developing practices and tools that  allow the processing of such materials to become increasingly routine. Hopefully the impact of this trend will be the continued dissemination of best practices and increased availability of tools so that all archives can approach born-digital materials with confidence. The challenge of developing processes for new formats and obtaining adequate resources are also part of this trend.
  • Changes in scholarly practice – Scholarly researchers may approach archival collections with a different set of expectations than their predecessors did, but they are also increasingly likely to engage with them in a more active way.  Practitioners of the digital humanities and scholar/technologists may create their own digital “archives” containing either copies of unique born-digital material or copies of images of items from archival collections. They may use technology to present information from these “archives” or existing archival collections in innovative contexts.  The challenge for archivists is how to become participants in this new form of scholarship in order to both share the benefits of our own expert knowledge and professional perspective and learn from our digital humanities colleagues.
  • Blurring of organizational roles – People with many different titles now carry out work that has an archival component–the field of data curation is perhaps the best example, although many in the digital humanities also consider themselves creators and custodians of “archives” too. As has always been the case, people who don’t have archival training or the formal title “archivist” collect and care for archival collections, either in repositories or on a volunteer basis. The long-term preservation of institutional electronic records may be entrusted to staff in the IT department rather than the archives.  Again, the challenge for archivists it how to engage with these colleagues to share our profession’s established professional practice while learning from the nuances or expertise they bring to their work.
  • Expanding Digitization – The demand for new digitized material continues, but increasingly digitization is not enough. It’s hard for static online galleries of images to stand out in an app-dominated world. Digital information needs to be combined or layered with contextual information, supported by a participatory element (such as transcription, tagging, etc.), or used to “augment reality.” The opportunities and challenges for archives are clear–there are many great ideas and opportunities but resources and technology support are often lacking. Cooperation and collaboration will be key to taking advantage of this trend.
  • Popularization of history – There is some overlap between this trend and participatory culture, but I think the overall emergence of a new generation of “citizen historians” and the proliferation of historical content in the media and on the web deserves to be considered in its own right. The web has given people with an interest in history virtually unlimited sources of information and channels for communication. For archivists this means both an increase in interest and demand, but also, perhaps, more challenges to our authority about our collections and the “history” they represent.

(Note: Those descriptions are by necessity short and far from comprehensive. If I had the resources of the Center for the Future of Museums I’d be happy to write a formal report, but this is just a blog and I want to focus on getting the ideas out there, so I’m sure in my haste I haven’t done some of the trends justice.)

The following are issues that are not on my list for various reasons, but which others might want to nominate to move to the list of significant trends:

  • linked open data
  • decline in funding/reductions in resources
  • emphasis on metrics and statistics for evaluation
  • changes in tools people use to access information (smart phone, tablets, etc.)
  • emergence of new professional voices
  • MPLP/extensible processing
  • (there was an extensive Twitter conversation about whether less standards-driven archival description–aka “just throw something up there”–was a trend or not. I come down on the side of “not”.)

So, what do you think? I don’t have a board of experts advising me on my trends and as I said this list was put together rather quickly, so I’m sure there are relevant points of view that I’ve missed. For example, I am sure this list is more heavily weighted toward the word of academic archives, so I’m particularly interested in feedback from archivists outside academia. (And it’s U.S.-biased too, of course.) What did I miss? What did I get right? Which of these trends do you think will affect you the most?


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