The 75th Annual Meeting of the Society of American Archivists (SAA) kicked off its three-day conference in the organization’s “Sweet Home”-town of Chicago.

The chairperson and panelists on the first day of the event included:

Chairperson Robert B. Townsend, American Historical Association
Panelist Kate Theimer, ArchivesNext
Panelist Elizabeth Yakel, University of Michigan
Panelist Alexandra Eveleigh, University College London

Robert B. Townsend, American Historical Association

Chairperson Mr. Robert B. Townsend prefaced the session, “What Happens After ‘Here Comes Everybody’: An Examination of Participatory Archives” with the panel’s three intentions:

  • to define the concept of participatory archives

  • to define participatory archives best practices

  • to introduce some practical scholarship

Panelist Kate Theimer, ArchivesNext

Theimer began her segment with the questions, “Why, what, who, where and then why again?” regarding participatory archives. First, she highlighted some example sites.

She acknowledged that “participatory archives” may be the buzzword of the moment, but no peer-reviewed definition exists yet for the archival world, although increasingly the archival world courts public participation online.

Theimer pointed out that, if the audience could consider the definition of “participatory cultures” first (people creating their own culture instead of consuming what others create for them), this definition would be a nice preface to creating a definition of participatory archives that would satisfy the majority. One of the explanations that inspired her was: “An archive implementing decentralized curation, radical user orientation and contextualization of both records and the entire archival process” (IstoHuvila, Archival Science 2008).

She proposed a new definition:

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

She broke the definition down:

What or why are people contributing?

  • Knowledge or resources, not opinions or feelings; not to have fun or derive personal satisfaction or increase awareness of archives. Participation is different from engagement (for a good example, see Johnny Walker’s Facebook page).

What are some of the ways to create engagement?

  • Through story; winning something; conversation; sharing and rating; humor; and/or inspiring wonder or creativity. But participation requires a higher bar -- and participation equals contribution of knowledge or resources (usually in an online environment).

What’s new?

  • This is an online environment that allows for distributed, remote, occasional participation, harnessing “cognitive surplus” from an almost unlimited pool of people instead of a pre-determined base of users.

Who is creating participatory archives?

Where?

  • They’re both platform-independent and in-person -- and not.

Why?

  • Theimer loves the distinction from engagement, and recommended archivists design their projects differently. “What do you want to achieve from this? How do you want to interact with people? Have a differentiation from what you achieve and the reaction you elicit versus something more targeted. We’re getting more sophisticated in the use of these tools,” she concluded.

Elizabeth Yakel, University of Michigan

Next, Elizabeth Yakel addressed “Credibility in Participatory Archives.”

Yakel said archivists need to think hard about representation, authority and control. She offered several points to consider:

These opinions converge into one message from Yakel: Archives can be all of these at one time (author emphasis).

Trust has two aspects in Web 2.0 and members must learn to trust the archives. Trust can be achieved through transparency. For example, endorsement statements like “This organization does not vouch for the accuracy…” clearly mark the line of responsibility between the community and the repository. Heuristics such as the reputation of organization, consistency of message and persuasive intent is important; when a website doesn’t conform to what its mission is purported to be, the result can only be tension.

Alexandra Eveleigh, University College London

Eveleigh encouraged her audience to reflect on professional identity: Who are we, anyway, to intervene into the community, and what should we do to integrate it into our archives collection?

Eveleigh shared her research on participation behavior, an excellent example of the impact of technology on description and process. Despite how well-crafted the site is, when Eveleigh interviewed National Archives staff members, they revealed the site had minimal users. The staff was concerned because one of the first rules of participatory archives is, “success is down to the participants.” Ironic: “YourArchives” is built on community, which lacks a definition. Eveleigh was determined to understand if it can be targeted and consciously constructed. Would this imply organic growth? How must a participatory archive be built to create long social ties? Archivists need a better understanding than “If we build it, they will come.”

Consider the site, Living the Poor Life. Historical societies and historians in Great Britain can contribute. From the website:

We are doing this [staff meet in real-time social groups, determine definitions ahead of time, and then post them] with over 200 local and family historians who will be acting as volunteer editors and who are working in their localities from digitized images of records local to their area. The work will involve reading through those letters, reports and memos and creating detailed descriptions of each one -- who they are from, who they are to, who and what they are about.”

From the beginning, participation online spilled over into real life because participation is a significant personal effort that mimics the antiquarian tradition. This prompted Eveleigh to ask further, why were social benefits missing? Was there a false hypothesis that said records beliefs and personal beliefs were intrinsic? Yes -- it’s research interests that align them.

Solicitation is difficult. The flipside of strongly bonded community is gatekeeping. Gatekeeping denies those who challenge traditional sense of authority because such behaviors are risky for established leaders too nervous and reticent to encourage dissenting opinions. Family histories and political organizations have established support networks. But Eveleigh’s research revealed that feedback in open-source development creates a loop that benefits everyone.

Eveleigh referred back to Old Weather. In her opinion, crowds are communities viewed upside down, designed to appeal to the largest possible populations, which are rewarded differently -- a case of quality versus quantity. The distinguishing characteristics are different: Community is tacit knowledge and sharing memories; the crowd accepts controls of their actions and explicit knowledge transfer.

In reality, the community model only represents a part of the picture. In the Venn diagram of researchers / participants / archivists, the crowd represents the participants circle. Note: The crowd is not better than the community in the participatory archives, but they are at the opposite ends of the spectrum. Besides, repositories are traditionally thought of as a serious place of study. New participants don’t meet older definitions of users.

As Everleigh ended, the audience realized this session was really about the tension of control, the reluctance to give up control, and maintaining credibility as a profession. Is the answer to exploit the self-interest of the user communities?

Editor's Note: You may also be interested in reading these other articles by Mimi Dionne: