You are on page 1of 15

Preserving Digital Cultural Heritage: A Call for Participatory Models




The influence and power of archival institutions on the historical record and cultural memory is

often overlooked, as the act of constructing history and memory can be difficult to identify. This

paper focuses on the digital preservation of collections related to indigenous and other

historically marginalized communities. With the exponential growth of digital materials comes

greater urgency and importance of digital preservation. For archivists to provide true long-term

access to materials, they must work in partnership with source communities. There are both

theoretical and practical grounds for adopting participatory models in digital preservation.

Archival institutions will gain enhanced contextual knowledge, and communities will benefit

from the institutional resources necessary for preservation.



Preserving Digital Cultural Heritage: A Call for Participatory Models


Archival institutions heavily influence the historical record and cultural memory, a power

that is not often perceived. With the exponential increase in digital materials comes the even

greater importance of digital preservation, especially in the case of digital cultural heritage. This

paper focuses on the digital preservation of both born-digital and digitized materials related to

indigenous and other historically marginalized communities, and discusses the need for a

participatory model to be adopted when performing the processes of digital preservation. The

author argues that archivists must work together with source communities in order to truly

provide long-term access and preservation.

The Power of Archivists

The very nature of archivists' work gives the profession power over cultural memory and

community representation. While traditionally archivists might view themselves as objective

guardians and custodians of historical records, they actually play a very active and central role as

mediators and interpreters (Cook and Schwartz, 2002, p. 183). During the stage of appraisal,

archivists select which materials are preserved in their institutions, thus “consciously or

unconsciously assert[ing] chosen narratives as truth while ignoring or reframing others” (Shilton

and Srinivasan, 2007, p. 88). This process of selection or rejection of new collections inherently

privileges certain materials and narratives over others. When arranging and describing

collections, archivists exercise another form of power:they create the knowledge and contextual

framework in which researchers study archival materials. Similar to historians and social

scientists, archivists have a responsibility “to accept their historicity, to recognize their own role

in the process of creating archives, and to reveal their own biases” (Cook and Schwartz, 2002, p.



182). Yet unlike historians and social scientists, archivists’ work is often invisible to researchers

in that little or no attention is paid to how archivists actively shape the historical record. This

oversight makes self-analysis imperative for archivists to evaluate and acknowledge their

backgrounds and biases. Every major responsibility of archivists, from appraisal to description

and reference, creates a framework in which researchers begin their study of the material.

When dealing with materials by or about indigenous and other marginalized

communities, archivists must be self-aware of the inherent power dynamic. It is critical to

examine the role that creating such collections plays in the process of creating community

identity, and archivists must consider the question of for whom preservation is truly intended

(Worcman, 2002, Digital Technology and Social Inclusion, para. 5). One main barrier is that

archival systems' standards and practices are built on Western values, including concepts of

ownership based on Western legal systems and inflexible, subjective metadata schemes

(Iacovino, 2010, p. 359; Christen, 2011, p. 208). By mechanically placing materials in a Western

paradigm, archivists strip materials of their original cultural context. For example, the Western

archival emphasis on a specific creator or author overlooks more complex understandings of

creation as a shared, communal process.

The profession's discourse over the past two decades has focused primarily on the

technical aspects of archival practice, such as creating and implementing standards and

templates, instead of the more substantive areas of what contextual knowledge is necessary to

complete that technical architecture (Cook and Schwartz, 2002, p. 175). Terry Cook and Joan

M. Schwartz (2002) explain, “Of course, these allegedly value-free tools—standards, templates,

and so on—also impose their own rational, systematic way of seeing on a world of record

keeping and records creators that is, in reality, inherently chaotic” (p. 176). Archivists must



understand that these systems and standards are not objective (p. 176). Professional discourse

should turn towards discussions of archival theory, with the basic understanding that “theory— a

mind-set for viewing


the complement to practice, not its opposite” (p. 181).

With the understanding that archivists strongly influence the historical record, the

profession should call for inclusion and participation to disperse this power. Digital technology

has made it possible to democratize the production of information, providing communities with

resources to become “producers and keepers of their own history” (Worcman, 2002, Digital

Technology and Social Inclusion, para. 6). Archivists should leverage these digital advances to

increase community participation in the archival process.

The Need for Participatory Models

As institutions of cultural heritage, archives are often perceived by marginalized source

communities as cultural appropriators. Archival collections are traditionally “about rather than

of the communities,” and the practice of Western arrangement and description only further

removes cultural context from those records (Shilton and Srinivasan, 2007, pp. 89, 95).

Adopting participatory models can help to achieve reconciliation between communities and

cultural heritage institutions, especially since both parties have the same goal of preservation

(Shilton and Srinivasan, 2007, p. 92). A reciprocal relationship allows archives to gain more

contextual information about cultural materials and communities to benefit from the preservation

resources of a larger institution. Additionally, Worcman (2002) states, “Beyond allowing for a

more democratic perspective of history, the formation of this kind of

collection can serve as a

reference for development policies for, and interaction with, communities” (Social Impact, para.

3). As the archival process becomes more participatory, there will be more specific examples

and best practices to be shared across institutions.



While communities and archives may share the goal of preservation, they certainly have

different approaches to and ideas of what preservation means. Furthermore, both groups may

also have different reasons for wanting preservation. Archivists’ motivation stems from a

professional responsibility, while communities are driven by a stronger, personal incentive.

These differences in attitude can make both groups feel that they are entitled to more rights or

decision-making power than the other. Working together allows the opportunity for each

stakeholder group to communicate their perspective and gain a better understanding of the

other’s approach.

Another reason that archives can benefit from participatory models is that Western

appraisal, arrangement, and description practices are not always adequate for dealing with the

records of historically marginalized communities. As a consequence of archivists' traditional

undervaluing of multicultural narratives, there is a lack of recognition that there are different

perspectives of what actually constitutes a record (Shilton and Srinivasan, 2007, pp. 92-93).

Similarly, Western concepts of authorship often diverge from the community's understanding,

especially since subjects of records are not viewed as co-creators of records and thus afforded no

rights (Iacovino, 2010, pp. 354, 359). Western archives place heavy importance on authorship

and consider authors to be either individual or corporate, but participatory models have revealed

that many indigenous communities have a different understanding of authorship (Shilton and

Srinivasan, 2007, p. 96). For example, in Australian Yolngu communities, authorship is not a

primary point of community performance narratives – the function is more important (p. 97).

Furthermore, due to the history of Western imperialism, a tension exists “between using Western

words, ideas, and terms as the basis for tribal classification systems” (Christen, 2011, p. 200).

Only by working together with source communities can archivists gain a true understanding of



their needs.

While acknowledgment of the shortcomings of Western archival practices is a first step,

archivists need to take the next one. For successful appraisal, archivists must work alongside

communities to learn which particular records and narratives hold the most cultural value as the

community understands them (Shilton and Srinivasan, 2007, p. 93). Arrangement and

description should be expanded according to cultural knowledge structures, providing

meaningful representation to the communities (pp. 95–96). This can only happen through a

process in which archivists and community members together create arrangement and

description schemes that correspond with community understandings (pp. 96–97).

Participatory Models in Practice

Through the course of archival history, archives could have always adopted participatory

models, but today's digital tools and culture of online participation especially enhances the

possibilities for implementing a participatory process. While many indigenous communities are

materially poor, and the digital divide is an area of major concern, the reality is that “indigenous

peoples have been active users of the Internet for quite some time” (Burri, 2010, p. 39).

Furthermore, indigenous materials are increasingly being digitized by cultural heritage

institutions and posted online. Online access provides opportunities to widely circulate these

materials in a short amount of time, and this instantaneous sharing has become a ubiquitous

routine (Christen, 2011, p. 185; Kaur, 2007, p. 385). While there are many problems with open

access to cultural materials, “the digital space allows for unprecedented means for participation

of indigenous peoples in the processes of culture making, for communicating, reasserting, and

renegotiating their traditional values” (Burri, 2010, p. 49).

One example of a benefit to this technology is the recent practice of digital repatriation.



Digital repatriation is the practice of “low-cost surrogates of cultural heritage materials to be

returned to source communities” (Christen, 2011, p. 187). While these digital surrogates are not

replacements for their physical originals, the digital objects provide new alternative uses for

physical objects (p. 187). By giving communities back these cultural materials, digitally

repatriated materials “may stimulate linguistic or cultural revivals


new cultural forms or

popular products, incite new collaborations, and/or forge new types of performances or artistic

creations” (p. 187). Implementing digital repatriation practices strengthens archival institutions’

relationships with source communities and opens the opportunity for creating participatory

models. Demonstrating an effort and commitment to working with communities is an important

first step that archivists need to take.

Beyond digital repatriation, archivists can adopt participatory models to provide more

than just access to cultural heritage materials. The Plateau Peoples' Web Portal was

collaboratively designed as a digital archive to include institutional content from the Washington

State University collections, tribal content directly from the communities, and an integrated

metadata scheme that allows for “Native knowledge to be viewed side-by-side with the academic

voice” (Christen, 2011, pp. 199-201). The Portal provides tribal nations the tools to actively

participate in the description of their materials (p. 194).

Shilton and Srinivasan (2007) propose a three-step Participatory Archiving Model that

facilitates community participation through appraisal, arrangement, and description (p. 98).

During appraisal, the community should discuss value, specifically asking what their

understanding of a record is and which narratives should be preserved (p. 98). The second step

of arrangement requires creating an organizational model for the collections, asking how records

are interrelated and how record relationships can be described (p. 98). Lastly, the description



process asks of the community’s understanding of authorship and the context of record creation

becomes the primary goal (p. 98). An outsider archivist would not be able to determine this

information without community participation.

Implementing participatory models does have drawbacks. Shilton and Srinivasan (2007)

acknowledge that it requires patience, more time, and a commitment by both the archives staff

and community representatives (p. 100). Major decisions can take a long time to reach, as there

can be disagreement within a community as well as within the archives staff. For the Plateau

Peoples’ Web Portal, it took several months to decide on the main categories used for

classification (Christen, 2011, p. 200). The process of naming and defining categories that were

broad enough to be meaningful and transferable to any new tribes joining the project could not

be done hastily. Many archives face a backlog of collections to process, so it can be easy for

participatory models to be disregarded in the interest of time and labor. While archival

participatory models are likely to be time-consuming and require patience, the greater benefits of

gaining community context, knowledge, and trust are worth the effort.

Digital Preservation and Participatory Models

Participatory models can and should be applied to the practice of digital preservation.

According to Priscilla Caplan (2008), digital preservation can be defined as “a set of activities

aimed towards ensuring access to digital materials over time” (p. 7). Digital materials can be

born-digital materials or analog materials that have been digitized. Digital preservation activities

include “preserving the digital medium that holds the digital information by storing it in the

correct environment and following agreed storage and handling procedures; copying the digital

information into newer, fresher media before the old media deteriorates” (Natarajan, 2004, p.

15). Many different approaches of digital preservation exist, as the approach often depends on



the type of digital media.

Digital preservation is necessary because of the inherent weaknesses of digital materials.

Digital information can be easily deleted, edited, and corrupted (Burri, 2010, p. 47). Digital

information is also entirely dependent on hardware and software that evolves quickly, resulting

in obsolete technologies (Burri, 2010, p. 47; Kaur, 2007, p. 387). Furthermore, digital storage

media, magnetic and optical, is subject to decay and other physical preservation concerns (Kaur,

2007, p. 386). Archivists cannot afford to wait years before preserving digital materials but must

start taking proactive steps in the present day. Preservation of digital cultural materials can open

the discussion of how archives can work together with communities.

A Participatory Digital Preservation Model

Conducting digital preservation is not easy or simple. As a complex process, there are

many areas for source communities to participate in the practice of digital preservation. When

examining the Open Archival Information System (OAIS) Reference Model, a common

preservation framework used by institutions, we can see specifically how community

participation can play a role in the preservation of their cultural materials.

Both producers of information and managers of information must work together, as

digital preservation should occur throughout the entire life cycle of a record, starting from the

moment of creation (de Lusenet, 2007, p. 170; Natarajan, 2004, pp. 14–15). In the OAIS

Reference Model, the cooperation of key stakeholders is necessary (Lavoie, 2004, p. 5). These

stakeholder groups are management, producers, and consumers. Responsibilities of management

include strategic planning and other high-level policy decisions, not the archives' daily

operations (p. 5). Producers are the individuals, organizations, or systems that transfer

information to the archive for preservation, and consumers are those expected to use the



information that is preserved (p. 6). As both producers and consumers of cultural materials,

communities can play a significant role in any OAIS-archive's digital preservation activities.

The OAIS functional model is comprised of six main steps that must be taken to both

preserve information and make it accessible:

1. Ingest

2. Archival Storage

3. Data Management

4. Administration

5. Preservation Planning

6. Access

Archival institutions can easily create opportunities in each of the six OAIS functions for

participatory involvement by community members.

The first function, Ingest. is the stage in which information is submitted by producers (p.

8). At this point, the producer also submits an information package that includes metadata

created by the producer and a negotiated agreement between the OAIS and producer (p. 11).

OAIS archives must first define what a record is and who a producer is according to the

community's understandings, as the information package submitted during this period asks for

metadata. Is a producer only the individual that created the record, or can a producer be a

community entity or the subject of a record? Another OAIS function is Data Management,

which maintains the metadata that identifies and describes archived material (p. 9). Data

Management is responsible for updating databases as new information comes in and maintaining

database search and retrieval (p. 9). Communities can contribute descriptive metadata for

materials that have already gone through the Ingest stage, or for materials for which they are not



considered producers

Access is the primary point where consumers interact with the OAIS-archive because it is

the part of the OAIS functional model that manages the processes and services customers use to

locate, request, and receive archival materials. This function is where communities can play a

central role in OAIS-archives (p. 9). As consumers, community members can provide helpful

information regarding access points necessary in the search and retrieval process that can be

relayed to Data Management. Additionally, since consumers are active users of the materials,

they can also discuss how different levels of access should be applied, depending on cultural

sensitivities and protocols within communities.

Another OAIS function with high potential for community participation is

Administration. Administration manages the daily operations of the OAIS-archive and

coordinates the actions of the other five functions (p. 10). Administration also interacts with all

three stakeholders. Administration negotiates agreements with Producers, provides customer

service support to consumers, and supervises management's implementation of policies (p. 10).

As the central location for external and internal communication and daily operations

management, a true participatory model must include community members in administration.

Any OAIS archive would have to implement each function described in order to build a

complete archival system (p. 10). The resulting framework provides many areas for close

collaboration with source communities.


Looking back at archival theory, there are both theoretical and practical grounds for

adopting participatory models in digital preservation. For archivists to provide true long-term

access to materials, they must work with source communities to accurately appraise, arrange, and



describe their cultural materials. Archival institutions will gain enhanced contextual knowledge,

and communities will benefit from the institutional resources necessary for preservation. Areas

for further research include archives and their relationships, or lack thereof, with source

communities. This topic could also be examined in relation to how archives interact with

different stakeholders, comparing the archival interactions of indigenous communities and

traditional scholarly communities.




Burri, M. (2010). Digital technologies and traditional cultural expressions: A positive look at a

difficult relationship. International Journal of Cultural Property 17, 33–63.

Caplan, P. (2008). The preservation of digital materials. Library Technology Reports, 44(2).

Christen, K. (2011). Opening archives: Respectful repatriation. The American Archivist 74, 185-


Cook, T., & Schwartz, J. M. (2002). Archives, records, and power: From (postmodern) theory to

(archival) performance. Archival Science 2(3), 171–185.

de Lusenet, Y. (2007). Tending the garden or harvesting the fields: Digital preservation and the

UNESCO Charter on the Preservation of Digital Heritage. Library Trends 56(1), 164–


Iacovino, L. (2010). Rethinking archival, ethical and legal frameworks for records of

Indigenous Australian communities: A participant relationship model of rights and

responsibilities. Archival Science 10, 353–372.

Kaur, A. (2007). Preservation of digital heritage materials in the 21 st century. Journal of

Information Management 44(4), 385–394.

Lavoie, B. F. (2004). The Open Archival Information System Reference Model: Introductory

Guide. Dublin, Ohio: OCLC Online Computer Library Center, Inc. and Digital

Preservation Coalition. Retrieved December 4, 2011, from,

Natarajan, M. (2004). Digital preservation of cultural heritage information and its implications.

Journal of Library and Information Science 29(1–2), 14–25.

Shilton, K. & Srinivasan, R. (2007). Participatory appraisal and arrangement for multicultural



archival collections. Archivaria 63, 87–101.

Worcman, K. (2002). Digital division is cultural exclusion. But is digital inclusion cultural

exclusion? D-Lib Magazine 8(3). Retrieved December 4, 2011, from,