I think of “citizen archivists” as the first responders of history, arriving early on the scene to gather, capture, describe and preserve ephemeral artifacts of interest and helping to ensure that they survive over time to share with the future.
Thoughts on citizen archivists and their importance to institutions like ours were running through my head last night as we hosted Ian MacKaye of the independent label Dischord Records in a presentation here at the Library.
MacKaye founded Dischord as a teenager with partner Jeff Nelson in 1980, and he and Nelson went on to form Minor Threat, a group that, along with Bad Brains, has been credited with introducing the DC hardcore ethic to an audience beyond Washington.
As a performer, producer and enthusiastic supporter, MacKaye has documented music coming out of the Washington, D.C. underground for the past 30 years. Much of the music and art he’s compiled is not being comprehensively addressed by major collecting institutions, but that’s not unusual.
There’s often a gap between an activity and the entrance of its artifacts into the halls of culture, even while the material may have long demonstrated cultural and economic merit. There are complexities to how popular cultural and folk arts ultimately get embraced by cultural heritage organizations, but that gap in time is a key concern to the digital stewardship community. The concern is that valuable materials will be lost through the ravages of time without intervention, supporting the idea that we need to creatively engage with citizen archivists to help identify important materials early in their lifecycle and to assist in their long-term care.
Richard Cox touches on these issues in an interesting 2009 paper, Digital Curation and the Citizen Archivist. In it he provides a conceptual argument for how the current interest in digital curation might guide professional archivists as they embrace partnerships with private collectors to capture materials while concurrently developing training programs to assist private citizens in how to preserve, manage and use digital personal and family archives.
The evolving nature of personal digital archiving is described succinctly in this passage:
In the past, while there has always been tension between private and public (institutional) collectors, it has been the institutional collectors –archives, libraries, museums, and historic sites – that have won out. In the future, there may be less certainty about this, especially as so many personal papers are digitally born and pose challenges to the public archives. The good news is, however, many private citizens care as passionately about the documents as do the institutional repositories.
As Cox notes, “personal collecting can seem quirky or frivolous, but it always reveals some deeper inner meaning to life’s purpose.” The “citizen archivist” takes collecting to another level by engaging with materials in a deeper, more systematic way.
We’ve tried to address the need for guidance with our personal digital archiving materials and the National Archives has a program for engaging with citizen archivists, but more work needs to be done, along the lines of what Cox is exploring, on how to help train the people who, as private citizens, will be caring for some portion of our future digital collections, whether they recognize that they’re “citizen archivists” or not.
MacKaye doesn’t really consider himself a citizen archivist, but the work that he’s been doing over the past thirty years goes beyond the level of mere collecting and provides models for creative ways to gather and provide access to archival materials.
After his time in Minor Threat he helped form the band Fugazi, who released seven albums and played more than 1,000 concerts in 50 states and several foreign countries between 1986 and 2003. The band’s sound engineers recorded more than 800 of these shows.
“I’d say it was for posterity, but to what end, we had no idea,” Mr. MacKaye said in a New York Times article in 2011. “As with a lot of collections, once we had a couple hundred tapes, we just continued to amass them. Why stop? We’d already gotten this far.”
Almost any collection becomes interesting once you get enough stuff in one place, but there was obvious cultural and historic value to a collection of Fugazi live concerts. The label started the Fugazi Live Series in 2004 and moved it to the web in 2011 to eventually make available a complete archive of the Fugazi concert experience.
One of the many interesting things about the Fugazi live series is how the label designed the web site to bring the audience into the equation, supporting user submissions of photographs, fliers and other ephemera related to each event, deepening the engagement while offering an opportunity for the audience to share their personal experiences and stories.
Citizen archivist’s proximity to events also allows them to be more proactive about making materials available. As MacKaye said last night, “somewhere down the road, some kid very much like me will be interested in what was happening during this time. Because, most of the time, what was happening in the past has always been curated by the mainstream media industry. They’re the ones that decided about the history of rock.”
Whether we recognize it or not, we’re surrounded by citizen archivists. The challenge for us in the information professions is to find creative ways to support and channel the wonderful energy going on in the wider world to ensure that diverse materials of incredible value survive over time.
P.S. There are more photographs of the event on our Facebook page and we welcome your submissions. The event was recorded and will be made available for webcast shortly. Follow our Twitter feed for the latest information.