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Participatory Archives: Moving Beyond Description

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The following is a guest post by Emily Reynolds, 2012 Junior Fellow.

Last week, the Library of Congress Archives Forum hosted a talk by Kate Theimer of the popular blog ArchivesNext. Theimer is a prominent voice in the archival community, frequently writing and speaking about archival advocacy issues as well as the challenges and opportunities that technology and the Internet offer for cultural heritage institutions.

Theimer spoke on the subject of participatory archives, highlighting the ways that archives can use crowdsourcing projects to increase user engagement and understanding, while also enhancing the information and resources that they provide. The majority of well-known participatory archive projects allow users to add metadata to digital objects (in the form of tagging or transcription), and many successful examples of these projects have been undertaken by a wide range of institutions in recent years.

Crowd scene, by Harris & Ewing. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Collection, LC-H261- 30620.]
Crowd scene, by Harris & Ewing. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Collection, LC-H261- 30620.

However, as Trevor Owens pointed out in a recent blog post, the tangible products gained from crowdsourcing transcription or tagging should not be considered the ultimate end goal. The true goal of participatory archives projects should instead be to improve user engagement with, and understanding of, the institution and its collections.

So, what other kinds of projects can encourage user engagement and participation in library and archive collections online? How else can institutions involve their communities in the work that they do? Theimer suggested that other functions of an archive can become participatory as well. For example, community members can be involved in collection development by submitting their personal digital content to online exhibits. Diversifying opportunities for participation will allow new groups of users to become involved with digital resources.

Some examples of archives in which users are invited to actively participate in the collecting process are the Denver Public Library’s Creating Your Community archive, the Library of Virginia’s Civil War 150 Legacy Project and the National Archives of Australia’s Mapping Our Anzacs initiative. While each collects and presents user content in a different way, they all invite content submissions from the public with the goal of building participatory, user-generated digital collections.

Allowing users to contribute content could create problems from a digital preservation standpoint, as the digital objects submitted (and the descriptions accompanying them) will vary more widely than they would if the objects were created or obtained by the institution itself. Some projects circumvent these issues by standardizing the content more carefully prior to it entering the collection.

For example, the Civil War 150 Legacy Project contains materials scanned on a mobile scanning device by the library itself. While the materials are still contributed by community members, the acquisition workflow is more closely controlled by the institution itself.

Denver Public Library at left, from user nicholasngkw on Flickr
Denver Public Library at left, from user nicholasngkw on Flickr

Creating Your Community describes itself as a “social archive” and is maintained separately from the Denver Public Library’s general digital collections, although materials from Creating Your Community may be incorporated into the general collections at the library’s discretion. Creating this level of separation between the “official” digital collections and the materials collected in the project means that existing digital preservation workflows will not be disrupted by the diversity of content submitted to the Creating Your Community site.

While most of the items contributed by users will not become part of the library’s general collection, involving users in the collecting process is just one way that institutions can encourage greater engagement and investment in their collections. By including items in digital collections that have such deep personal connections to users, the Denver Public Library is not only expanding its own collections but creating strong links to its community. As participants’ links to the library’s digital preservation practices become stronger and clearer in this way, the project could result in an increased understanding of their importance.

If you’re interested in exploring more of these sites, a full list of the participatory archive projects that Theimer highlighted is available on ArchivesNext. The topic of crowdsourcing has been discussed on The Signal before; for more information, you can read our interviews with Anne Van Camp and Nicole Saylor, both of whom are involved in participatory archives projects.

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