The Future of Archives is Participatory: Archives as Platform, or A New Mission for Archives

This is the talk I gave this morning—by phone rather than in person because of the Lufthansa pilots’ strike—at the Offene Archive 2.1 conference in Stuttgart. It’s also similar to the talk I gave in Oslo a few weeks ago at the #arkividag conference. While I also made a recording of it as a backup, since I have it all more or less written out I thought I would post it here too. (I’ve inserted a few images from my presentation but not all the transitional slides or ones that are just repeating things in the text or showing screenshots.) There are some interesting ideas in it, I think, and I’m sure some readers will have comments and additional food for thought. Please remember, it’s a talk, not a journal article. The intent is to give people some big ideas to think about. So I might as well do that here on the blog as well!

UPDATE: If you’d prefer to listen rather than read, the recording I made of me reading the talk over the slides is now available at http://archive20.hypotheses.org/1551. I was reading very slowly and carefully, so I think I sound a bit like a robot, but it’s available if you’d rather listen and see all the slides as they were presented.

 

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Thank you. It is an honor have been asked to be here, and of course I’m sorry not be able to actually be with you in person. Based on the program I hope my remarks will provide a useful context for the discussions of specific projects to follow, many of which I think will illustrate what I will be talking about this morning.

The context for my understanding of the archival enterprise is, naturally, a primarily American one—and specifically a U.S.-based one. My country has a young archival tradition, and we are perhaps experiencing growing pains that you have moved beyond long ago, but I think the changes brought about to all our work by technology put us on a similar footing when it comes to how we approach our audiences.

In these remarks, I will first discuss briefly a view on the changes to what I call the business model of archives. Then I will explore the implications of those changes and why they require a change in the archival mission—a change in thinking that can be assisted by the metaphor of  “archives as platform.” Then I will give examples of that new mission in specific participatory archives implementations.

To begin, let’s talk about the old business model of archives—and by “old” I mean what was more or less the mental model of most archivists in the U.S. in the 1950’s, 60’s, 70’s and into the 1980’s (and which may still linger in some people’s minds today).  I’m using the phrase “business model” very loosely here and as somewhat of an analogy—archives are not a “business” per se, but I’m using this construct to illustrate how our environment has changed.

In this model, we can think of archives as similar to an industry which mined a rare material out of the earth, refined it, and then sold it to a limited number of customers, who then used the material to produce finished products for consumers. The archives collected the raw materials—records and manuscripts—and “refined” them, as one would a natural resource, by processing them and producing descriptions of them. There was minimal advertising or promotion of the existence of these materials; we assumed that the people who needed to find them would find them. Because in this model the primary audience for our refined product was scholars—primarily historians. This rather small group of people knew how to find archival collections, and we knew how to get word of new collections out to them. It was a small world. It is true that there would also be other types of “customers” for our products—people with either a personal interest or a professional need for our information. But they were regarded as a small and secondary market—again, if they found us, it was fine, but they were not considered the most important market for the “archival” product. The way that most people got access to the contents of archives were via the finished products created by scholars—through books, articles, television shows, documentaries, etc.

 

Drawing of old business model of archives

[Note: Yes, this is a primitive drawing. I did it myself and clearly I have no artistic talent. The archivist has a halo and the scholar has a hat. But let’s not obsess about the details, I really just wanted to get across the idea.]

 

In this model, the resource archives made available was a scarce or rare one. We could count on people coming to visit us to use our holdings because they had no choice—that was the way the world worked. So in this business model, archives collected a scare resource, processed and refined it, and made it available to an elite group of customers with little to no marketing or outreach. That model worked back in the 20th century, but I think we all agree that it does not work today.

Let’s look at the specific factors that have changed that model. First, the perceived value and scarcity of the resource that archives collect. Are our collections less rare than they used to be? In reality, no, for the most part they are as rare as they ever were. What has changed is that now—because of the web—people have more information about the universe of resources that exist.  Most archival organizations have descriptions of their collections available online, and many also have digitized collections available on their websites as well, and many have added images to social media sites like Flickr or the Flickr Commons.

So most scholars now face a problem of abundance, not scarcity, when approaching their research.  As I’ve said, this is due to more information about the collections in archives being available, but it’s also a result of there being more organizations offering up these kinds of historical resources. In addition to archives we have the collections of museums, historical societies, and libraries being opened up on the web, and all of these kinds of organizations may have historical materials similar to archival collections. We have non-profit and for-profit organizations conducting large scale scanning projects which have made millions of pages of materials available to potential users. So, while in the old model archives had something like a monopoly on a scarce commodity, in the current environment we are just one source among many.

However, you may think, for the scholar who wants access to one specific set of papers, the model hasn’t changed. He or she will still need to come to the archives to use those papers—or the website of the archives (if they have been digitized by that organization and not licensed for other use). The unique collections of any one archives still grants it a kind of monopoly.

But I propose that for many scholars convenient access is a significant factor in determining what material they choose to work with. Sometimes we jokingly say that for many users “if it’s not online, it doesn’t exist,” but in this scenario it may be more fitting to say “if it’s not online I’m going to write about something else.” Scholars always had limited budgets for travel and research, but today those budgets are smaller than ever and the cost of travel is high. Given a choice between working with materials that are easily available—either online or in a nearby repository—or spending scarce funds to travel to work with one specific collection, I suspect that many scholars (not all) would choose convenience and adjust their research to fit those collections.

So again where the old model had a fairly loyal and stable customer base, largely dependent on one source of material, they now are presented with many choices—both physical collections and digital ones, available from archives and many other sources.

The new market also has many more potential customers or users of the archival resource. In the old business model, people with a personal or casual interest in a topic had to make a significant effort to access archival materials about it. Now, it couldn’t be easier.  For example, we have seen an explosion of interest in family history and genealogy fueled in part no doubt by how easy commercial sites like Ancestry make it to track down historical records. In the U.S. we’ve also seen adoption by scholars of a model inspired by many digital humanities projects—the creation of web-based virtual collections (or “archives” as they are often called) consisting of online collections of scanned materials. These virtual collections created by scholars represent yet another source of competition for the attention of potential users of archival materials. And, of course, regular people–individual history enthusiasts or “citizen scholars”–also scan and share their own collections of materials, or materials scanned in archives and libraries, creating yet another category of sources on the web. So people with an interest in a niche topic, or even history in general, can now search and browse scanned materials from many sources online.

And what are they looking for when they search and browse online? While among this audience—the general public—there are people who are looking for one specific item, I think the majority of people are looking for either something that just interests them or one example of something. Let me explain. My guess is that most people are interested in a category of information—such as “I’m looking for old stuff about the American Civil War” or “I want to see pictures of old trains.” And so, in their Google search, they will look at the top five search results and be happy. Or they will want an example of something, such as “I want a picture of Bill Clinton shaking someone’s hand” and they don’t care who the person is that he’s with. This means they don’t care about finding your stuff, specifically. They just want to find something that’s about the right topic. So the specific and unique nature of archival collections is not valued in these cases.

Again, in the old model, scholars, publishers, and the traditional media took the archival material made available by archives and crafted it into finished products for public consumption, but the public is now accustomed to—and enjoys—accessing the raw materials themselves. So in the new business model we have a larger pool of potential customers who want access to original historical materials—or digital copies of them on the web. So we have gone from this [previous picture] to this:

New_4

[Note: Yeah, don’t get caught up in where I should have arrows. The point is, things are much more complicated now. And yet the scholar is still wearing a hat ….]

And this new somewhat crazy-looking business model is the one I think most of us are familiar with. Archives are struggling to attract and hold the attention of all these new potential users while competing with these other resource providers in a crowded marketplace. In the old business model, the archives focused on acquiring, processing, describing materials and providing mostly hands-on, personal assistance to a small relatively uniform body of researchers. Now, in addition to acquiring, processing, and describing materials we must also provide assistance to a more diverse body of researchers as well as the traditional audience of scholars. To respond to the need to make collections available online, we must also digitize materials and create metadata for them, create attractive websites and online projects, participate in social media, get our collections included in Wikipedia entries, and contribute to national and international collaborative access projects such as the Digital Public Library of America in the U.S, and on and on. It seems that almost every day brings a new digital opportunity that needs to be assessed and perhaps responded to.

(And this not even going into the problems presented to archives by the needs of born-digital information, which I’m not going to talk about today but which adds additional demands to all of our resources.)

So given that we have seen a radical restructuring of our business model, I think we need to examine the mission of archives and change it to better meet the needs of the way we work today.

And to do that I’m going to borrow an idea from the American librarian, David Lankes, who began talking about this, I think, back in August of 2012. In a number of talks he has used the metaphor of “library as platform.” [Link to one of his presentations on this topic: http://quartz.syr.edu/rdlankes/Presentations/2012/SCLRC.pdf] Platform is a tricky word in English. It can mean a lot of different things, but in this context Lankes defined it as meaning: “Technology and content assets organized in an architecture to achieve some goal.”  So, not worrying about the details of that definition, in general it means what you have is organized in a meaningful way to achieve some goal. So the important question is—what’s your goal? If everything is organized to achieve something, what is that?

I think most archivists, at least in the U.S., would agree that the traditional goal of archives has been to: Collect, preserve and provide access to materials of lasting value.  This is how we thought of our role, and perhaps how some people still do. We bring things in, keep them safe, and then we do what is necessary to make them usable for people. The key phrase—and idea—here is that archives “provide access” which is a passive concept. If you come to us, we will provide access.

What is not included in this kind of mission is anything related to outreach—to attracting new users or to actively informing people about the materials in the archives. And in the U.S. this was the case into the 1980’s. The idea that conducting public programs, marketing and promoting the collections in the archives, and conducting outreach to the public—the idea that those kinds of activities were central to the mission was often dismissed.

I think most of us would agree that for archives having a goal of just passively providing access is a thing of the past. So if we think of an archives as an organization that deploys its resources in a coherent way—as a platform—what should its goal be?

Here is how Lankes defined the mission of “library as platform”: “The mission of librarians is to improve society through facilitating knowledge creation in their communities.” A pretty high and lofty goal! No mention on books there.

So bringing this mode of thinking to the goal for archives, I think we need to look beyond things like documenting society or collecting evidence, which are certainly good goals in themselves. But again, I think those are more passive goals. Why do we document society or collect evidence?

The new mission I propose for archives is that:

Archives add value to people’s lives by increasing their understanding and appreciation of the past.

This mission is active, not passive, and most importantly, puts people, not materials, at the center. I think this is a critical shift in the mindset of the archival profession, and it’s certainly a change that’s already underway for many of us—and probably many of you in this room—but I think it’s something that we need to really incorporate into the foundation of our thinking as a profession.

While the collecting, preserving, and processing of materials will always be central to the work of any archives, it seems that today merely saying that an organization preserves valuable records is not enough to necessarily justify its continued funding level, or almost its very existence, as we’ve seen in the U.S. Proving the relevance of archives today—not for a distant future—is needed. Because really, for all but the biggest collections, at any given moment, relatively few people actually need access to what you have. Rather, we must make people want access to what we have, and to do that we must figure out what uses they want to make of the collections. We must put people at the center of our mission. Because people tend to think that they are important, and that what they are interested in is valid.  To illustrate this, I am stealing a slide from a presentation given by my friend, Mike Edson, of the Smithsonian,

Image of Sierra tweet

as Kathy Sierra says, “I’m your user. I’m supposed to be the protagonist. I’m on a hero’s journey.” Or as noted technology guru Tim O’Reilly says, in social media marketing, “It’s not about you.” [Link to the article: https://www.linkedin.com/today/post/article/20121002122119-16553-it-s-not-about-you-the-truth-about-social-media-marketing] That is, talking about how wonderful the collections in the archives are isn’t as important as showing how people can use them to help on their own “hero’s journey.”

Thinking about the mission of archives as being “to add value to people’s lives by increasing their understanding and appreciation of the past” doesn’t mean giving up on traditional activities or values, but it does mean that functions like outreach, including reaching out to new users on the web and in person, should be considered primary functions, not secondary ones.  And I will be honest that although I truly believe for philosophical reasons that archives should be user-focused, I am also motivated by concerns about money. That is, I think an organization focused on helping people, with great stories of their successes to share, has a better chance of surviving in today’s economic environment.

In the United States we’ve seen public libraries successfully reinvent themselves, moving from being perceived as just a storehouse of books to being vibrant centers of their communities.  A few weeks ago the Pew Research Center issued a report about how Americans interact with their local libraries. [Link to report: http://www.pewinternet.org/2014/03/13/library-engagement-typology/] And the results were surprising for the media. According to the survey, Americans still value their local library and see it as an essential part of their community. And how have they achieved that? As the author of this article [Link: http://recode.net/2014/03/13/pew-the-library-holds-its-own-in-the-information-age] says:

Libraries are probably keeping pace, at least in part, because the definition of a library itself has changed. Much as newspapers, magazines and book publishers have come to realize — though not nearly quickly enough — thinking of yourself foremost as a purveyor of printed material is a strategic if not fatal mistake in the 21st century. We’re all in the information business. It’s the consumer who gets to decide on the medium.

Libraries have done this by thinking about how they can add value to the lives of people in their communities (as Lankes’ observed). Just as many libraries have moved from being thought of as being book-focused, I think archives need to change their image as well.

So, with that review of the business model archives are faced with today and this new people-centered mission in mind, I’d like to present one more high level idea. We need to change the way people  think about the archives themselves. If you ask most people on the street what they think an archives is, the chances are many would describe them as storehouses, warehouses, places in which old stuff is kept [Note: I used an image from the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark here. The huge warehouse.] —usually forbidding places, not welcoming to visitors.

Image of big scary closed doors at US National Archives in DC

[Note: These are the doors of the U.S. National Archives in Washington, D.C.]

And that stereotype is reinforced by the media, or at least it is in the U.S. In almost all news stories about archives, that seems to be assumed that they are boring, forbidden, dusty (I emphasize that word because journalists seem to repeat it in every news story about archives) dusty places. The archivist is often assumed to be old, introverted, obsessed with the collections, and somewhat boring.

Image of an old archivist blowing off dust from a file

[Note: This image comes from this news story, “Raiders of the Lost Archives” http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/420366.article]

Often the point of a news story is how surprised the journalist was to find a friendly archivist who is engaged in an activity that’s relevant to the world today. [Note: I made a side observation here about how recent news stories about archives starting hip hop collections always seems to start with the author being shocked that archivists even know hip hop exists.] We need to continue to work to change that narrative—so that people don’t associate archives with being closed, irrelevant, and trapped in the past.

So, we have seen that libraries used to have the reputation as places that only had books and in which you had to be quiet, governed by old-fashioned librarians who told you to “ssshhhh.” But most have now successfully changed their image to be one of liveliness and activity–as places were things happen. How many archives are seen as places were things happen? More than there used to be, I think, but more work needs to be done.

And this is perhaps another way in which the metaphor of “archives as platform” can be useful, although using a somewhat different sense of the word “platform.” An important way to add value to people’s lives is to give them the tools and opportunity to create things. Archives have done this in the past and continue to do it today by providing access to our collections, which then allows people to do whatever creative or scholarly things they want with them. (As we see in this recent example from the New York Public Library’s map collection.) [Link: http://www.engadget.com/2014/03/31/new-york-public-library-free-maps/] But many archives are also finding ways to have users interact with and create meaning using tools and technology provided by the archives. In other words, the archives itself is serving as a platform for added value, and so attracting users who don’t have the time or skills to take the content away and work with it on their own. Just as sites like Ancestry.com are successful in large part because they don’t just give people access to scanned documents, but also to a whole network of tools, data, and like-minded people, archives need to become more active as locations that people go to do things. Just as libraries in the U.S. have succeeded in becoming “community problem solvers,” as this article states [link: http://www.theguardian.com/local-government-network/2014/mar/26/libraries-us-digital-community-problem-solvers], archives must become a natural place people go when the want to interact with history, create something, or even have some fun.

And a big part of working to change that idea in the public’s minds, and of carrying out the kind of new mission for archives that I described, are the efforts now underway around the world to make archives more participatory. The phrase participatory archives can mean different things, but the definition I use is:

An organization, site or collection in which people other than the archives professionals contribute knowledge or resources resulting in increased understanding about archival materials, usually in an online environment.

That’s a broad definition because I think there are many ways in which an archives can be participatory, and there’s no reason to rule any of them out.

And I should add that just as many scholars now face a problem of abundance not scarcity, so do I now in selecting examples of participator activity in archives. It seems more unusual today to find an archives that isn’t doing anything to allow users to interact with them rather than finding examples to highlight. And in this conference and the ones held in previous years you have seen many terrific examples of participatory archives in action. So for now I’ll just give some selected examples as ways of thinking about how that participation is taking place.

There are many ways in which you can characterize how archives can be participatory, but I think it’s useful to start with the most basic level: engagement. This kind of activity is based on appealing to a wide range of people who aren’t necessarily interested in exploring archival content on a deeper level.  These kinds of activities can engage with people through things like storytelling, contests, conversations, sharing and rating. They can attract people with humor, or inspire wonder or creativity. Here’s a sample of these kinds of activities on different platforms:

[Note: For all the examples in this part of the talk I ad-libbed about them. I’m not going to try to re-create that but I’ll note anything that was particularly significant.]

The extent to which these kinds of activities are participatory varies. At a minimum, people must make the effort to “follow” an account for most of them.  But as noted, people can voice their appreciation for the content in some way, or pass it on and share it. Those who want to dig in a little deeper can do so, by clicking links, but most probably engage on a pretty superficial level.  However efforts like these do a great deal toward breaking down any stereotypes about archives as being remote and out-of-touch with today’s technology. Integrating the content of archives into people normal online routines—their Pinterest boards, Twitter feeds, and the apps they check every day on their phones—is an easy and fun way to add value to people’s lives by connecting them with archival content.

And there was a recent example, too, of how a comparatively low engagement activity can have larger results, and that’s the recent excitement over Rocket Cat. The University of Pennsylvania had digitized, as part of a larger project, a 16th century manuscript with an interesting image of cat being used as weapon, but it looks to modern eyes as if the cat is wearing a jet pack. Special collections curator Mitch Fraas wrote about it on the library’s blog last February [link: http://uniqueatpenn.wordpress.com/2013/02/05/a-rocket-cat-early-modern-explosives-treatises-at-penn/], and at that time it got picked up by The Atlantic online [link: http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/02/update-cat-bombs-more-prevalent-than-previously-thought/272877/] , but very little more came of it. Then, this year, a reporter came upon the image and picked it up for the site Atlas Obscura, [link: http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/objects-of-intrigue-rocket-cats] and then, because the Internet loves cats, an AP reporter picked it up and wrote about it [link: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/mar/06/fur-flies-rocket-cats-warfare-manual], and then the hastag #rocketcat  became a bit of thing on Twitter. [link: https://twitter.com/ShammaBoyarin/status/441767393920970752]  And so Mitch’s original blog post saw an increase in traffic , after the rocket cat caught fire (so to speak) . But less than 5 percent of visitors to the blog clicked through to the university’s digital-manuscript repository. However that was over 300 new visitors who would probably never have known about the site otherwise.  So one blog post generated four media stories and a burst of energy on Twitter, and more than 300 new visitors to the actual archival content, however casual they may have been.

[Note: Rocket cat was also covered on the popular NPR show “wait wait . . . don’t tell me!” on March 15, but I didn’t mention that in the talk. It will probably mean more to a US-based audience. Link: http://www.npr.org/2014/03/15/290251299/bluff-the-listener]

A more advanced level of participatory activity invites the public to make their own contributions to historical work. The sites that first come to mind in this regard for many of us are sites that invite the public to transcribe documents from the collection, as they do in these examples:

  • New York Public Library, What’s on the Menu? [Note: I added that this site can be addictive and one must be careful. I spoke from experience. Also, just as the Internet loves cats, people love food.]
  • University of Iowa, DIY History Site [Note: This started with Civil War letters and diaries and expanded. It now also contains collections on many topics, include one related to food. And there will be a case study about it in this book, coming out later this year.]
  • National Archives of Australia, The Hive [Note: Here the public is correcting OCR on scanned consignment lists–the lists agencies send along with their records when they are transferred to the archives. There will be a case study about this too, in this book coming out later this year.
  • National Archives UK and the Imperial War Museum, Operation War Diary [Note: I didn’t have time to get into how awesome this one is.]

 

In these examples people don’t have to have any particular knowledge—just time and energy. They learn about history as they transcribe, and the archives benefits as well by having increased information about its holdings.

Other participatory examples draw on people’s personal knowledge and experience. The most common sites of this kind are connected with identifying photographs.

I include that last one as a way of reminding us that there’s nothing essentially new about participatory archives. Like many things associated with the Internet, what has changed is the scale and the potential audience. All of the archives I’m familiar with have always relied on people other than archivists (aka volunteers) to help identify and describe materials, and they have always had people engaging and using collections. The essential ideas that we talk about with participatory archives are not new ones, but the chance to interact with people from around the world takes it to a different level and brings new opportunities. But I think it’s important to remember that this is grounded in something that has a long tradition in the archival world.

Some other interesting projects are the ones that involve more direct personal contact, in which people are asked to contribute their knowledge to not just identifying collections, but building more complex knowledge resources or contributing to the organization as a whole.

Another possible class of work in this area would be archives that are allowing users to add comments, tags and other information to the actual finding aids or descriptions of records. I have not included an example of this because while many archives are providing this functionality, I have yet to find a case in which the public is in fact actively participating by adding information. [Note: If anyone knows of any archival collection in which this is taking off, please let me know.] Which I think raises some interesting issues about the motivation people have for participating with archives, but that topic will have to wait for another time!

There a few examples too, but not many, of archives consulting with the public about the work of the archive—so far I’ve seen examples of asking the public what should be prioritized for digitization [Note: National Archives of Australia http://www.naa.gov.au/collection/explore/cabinet/have-your-say.aspx]   and how to improve declassification, for example [U.S. National Archives, http://blogs.archives.gov/transformingclassification/]. But this level of participation—seeking assistance at a management level—is rare.

At the present time, archives are looking at participation as a way to create new and stronger bonds with their audiences. The kinds of activities I’ve talked about are also a chance to break down those old stereotypes of archives, and create positive attitudes. The U.S. National Archives, which has been doing a lot of interesting work recently, has already started to work on the next generation of archives users by hosting a sleepover for children (and the parents, of course). [Note: I used a bunch of images related to this event: http://blogs.archives.gov/prologue/?p=13101. And noted that it was a great opportunity to capture and share images that promote the image of archives as a place where people are are welcome and, as I said, “things happen.” Examples: https://www.flickr.com/photos/archivesnews/sets/72157640236222545 Also–love the colorful sleeping bags. Great contrast with the staid marble setting.]

The extent to which some of these examples achieve the larger goal of adding value to people’s lives by increasing their understanding and appreciation of the past is certainly open to question. But I think all of them, even the lightest and most casual ones, are part of a process of introducing archives into people’s lives, and making them open to learning more. They create an opportunity the archives can build on.

And they may also add value to people’s lives in an intangible but important way. Abraham Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs traditionally peaks in “self actualization,” but scholars have noted that in later writings he articulated a yet higher level of human need: the need for self-transcendence, or furthering a cause beyond the self. [Link: http://academic.udayton.edu/jackbauer/Readings%20595/Koltko-Rivera%2006%20trans%20self-act%20copy.pdf] Archives can help people connect with something larger than themselves—the collections that document history and the history those documents reflect. Being able to help people make that connection—to add that kind of value to people’s lives—is something archives can do perhaps better than any other kind of organization.

How your own archives adds value to people lives is up to you to decide. I’ve talked about history and the past here because I think those are useful broad term for all archives, but depending on your collections, you may want to finish that mission statement differently. Whatever your focus, our opportunity to connect people to something bigger than themselves through enabling participation is clear. And it is that, I think, that we should be striving to achieve in everything we do.

 

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11 Responses to The Future of Archives is Participatory: Archives as Platform, or A New Mission for Archives

  1. Christie Peterson says:

    I’ve heard the “collect, preserve and provide access to materials of lasting value” explanation of archives’ purpose so many times, and it seemed so self-evident, that I’ve never really questioned it. But since my mind is deep in RM-land right now, seeing it in writing in your piece, I immediately recognized that those aren’t actually archives’ purpose. To use the terminology of ISO 15489 and DIRKS, they’re functions, which support achieving an organization’s purpose, but aren’t themselves, the purpose.

    In other words, archives have been defining themselves not by their purpose (their goals and strategies, again using the terminology of 15489) but by their functions. We’ve been defining ourselves by what we do, but not why we do it. In your mission statement, you’ve succinctly and, I believe, correctly, identified a purpose or goal for us to set over those functions.

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  3. Amanda Hill says:

    Archives add value to people’s lives by increasing their understanding and appreciation of the past.

    I love this as a mission statement for archives. Someone needs to make this into a poster right away.

    I’m not sure I agree with you that ‘providing access’ is a passive activity, though: I’ve always thought that all types of outreach (including online initiatives) fall under the ‘providing access’ umbrella. I don’t think our functions have changed all that much, we’ve just got some fabulous new ways of providing access.

    This is a really interesting talk, Kate – and what a shame that you didn’t get to give it in person!

  4. Kate Theimer says:

    Thanks, Christie! I had never thought of it that way, but of course once you point it out it makes so much sense.

    Records management–helpful in so many ways . . .

    Kate

  5. Kate Theimer says:

    Amanda,

    Thanks. Just as along as I get a cut of the t-shirt and movie rights! Oh, and mugs. I think we need mugs too.

    As I said, I wouldn’t lump outreach into the “provide access” part of the old mission. And this may be based on the history of outreach in U.S. archives (as I understand it). In this model “provide access” would be more or less analogous to providing reference services and making descriptions available though the usual channels. But it would not include activities designed to attract new users or increase the public profile of the collections or the archives. But that’s just how I would slice and dice it. I’m sure everyone has a somewhat different idea of how they would draw those lines.

    My understanding is that into the 1980’s in the U.S. outreach was not considered one of the core functions of the archives. Now I think it probably is most archives, although I’m somewhat skeptical how “core” it is when stacked up against something like processing. I probably should have incorporated more of the content of the talk you saw me give in Canada into this one, now that I think about it. I could have tied some of those “now is what matters” ideas into this one too. (For those not lucky enough to have seen me talk at the Canadian Archives Summit, I posted that talk here: http://www.archivesnext.com/?p=3668).

    Glad you liked the talk and hope it gets people thinking. It is very disappointing not to have been able to give it in person, but at least having the invitation (and also speaking at the conference in Oslo too) made me pull my ideas together into a somewhat coherent form.

    Kate

  6. Lindsay Z. says:

    This is so great, thanks for posting. I’ve always enjoyed doing outreach and reference because it’s so gratifying when you can help someone find a connection to something in the archive, whether they were looking for it or not. And the last few paragraphs are a great (and very articulate) analysis of what’s actually going on when that connection happens! If studying history taught me anything, it’s that being able to look beyond oneself is so helpful when attempting to maintain perspective, and this is equally true whether you’re an individual, company, school or government. So I definitely agree that it is indeed the thing that archives can do best.

  7. Thomas Wolf says:

    The old fashioned telephone interview – because of the Lufthasa strike- will mean that we will be thinking more about the participatory archive in Germany. Your new archival business modell would be very helpful for the development of a holistic, digital archive strategy. Since 2012 we´re thinking about it: http://archiv.twoday.net/stories/219025714/ , even better http://crocksberlin.wordpress.com/2012/11/26/auf-dem-weg-in-das-archiv-2-0-oder-warum-die-niederlande-keinen-fussball-brauchen/ .
    Here You will find some pictures from Stuttgart: https://www.flickr.com/photos/102122941@N02/sets/72157643451751494/

  8. Andy Turner says:

    Thank you very much for this post and for all the great comments. This all resonates with the Pararchive research project that I am involved with (http://pararchive.com) which is addressing issues involved in opening up the archives and about which I will be presenting with my colleague Fiona at the CAIS conference in Dundee, Scotland later this month (http://www.dundee.ac.uk/cais/Conference2014/). I will endeavour to make a similar blog post in due course. Thanks again.

  9. Ross Nepean says:

    Kate, thank you for sharing your talk in this format, very helpful in extending the reach of your thoughts beyond their immediate audience. And LOVE the artwork!

    You make a fantastic point that “we must make people want access to what we have, and to do that we must figure out what uses they want to make of the collections. We must put people at the center of our mission. Because people tend to think that they are important, and that what they are interested in is valid. ”

    The key to this is metadata – what are the attributes of the asset we are describing (photo, book, painting, etc.); what is the timeframe of its origin; what locations are associated with it (e.g., where did it originate, where is it housed now); what keywords are searchers likely to associate with it; what names (Abraham Lincoln, Edward Smith, etc.) are associated with it; and so on.

    Also, congratulations to Archives Next being named a top digital records & archiving blog – nice!

  10. dotpeople says:

    “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” –George Santayana

    “Not knowing what happened before you were born is to be stuck in childhood forever. What does a person’s life amount to without the historical consciousness that weaves one’s life into the life of earlier generations?” –Cicero, http://t.co/yvfzZF9puM

    Archives add value to people’s lives by increasing their understanding and appreciation of the past.

    Could this statement be extended to include the future, e.g.

    Archives add value to people’s lives by increasing their understanding and appreciation of the past in creating their futures.

    On the topic of metadata, US LoC has open-sourced games to crowdsource metadata, http://1.usa.gov/1iqEU3r

  11. Hi Kate – – thank you for writing this out!

    re: the mission – – “Archives add value to people’s lives by increasing their understanding and appreciation of the past.”

    How? Tell me some stories about times when peoples lives became more valuable because they had an increased understanding and appreciation of the past. I’m sure it’s true – – I want it to be true – – but as presented it feels more like a slogan or a statement of intent than a conclusion one would reach by observing archival usage (and users) in the wild. I think the stories you choose will speak volumes about the possible dimensions and impact of this mission. I want to grasp onto some incredible story about how the world I’m living in has been changed by by the best of what can happen in/because of an archive!

    Not being an archives guy myself, all the examples I can think of are of two varieties: 1) A historian uses an archive to write a book that changes everyone’s ideas about something that happened in the past, and 2) Somebody walks into an archive and understands something new about their past/family/community and a happy/sad/meaningful/warm-fuzzy feeling ensues. Both of those feel a little…soft…to me. Not enough to drive an entire profession to change its doctrinal practices. (“Doctrinal” – – is that a word?)

    I’m kinda craving a story that has a truly life changing, course-of-humanity changing dimension to it. Even better if the example is made possible by the kind of outward looking, open, inclusive, results oriented, civic minded attitude you (we, if I may) want memory institutions to have.

    Also, while I’m already moving the furniture around, I want the mission statement to be more forward looking. We humans are not exactly dazzling the universe with our ability to think hard thoughts and do smart things re: the future right now. It’s kind of a problem.

    How about: “Archives change history.”

    I think that’s a keeper.
    ;)

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