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?


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


  • 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).