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Possibilities and Strategies in the Age of the Internet “The past is never dead. It‟s not even past.” 1 In the world of information, the archive is an interesting hybrid institution. It provides information in a way similar to libraries, but its mission to preserve our historical records and heritage is unique. In today‟s digital landscape, archives are searching for their place; the common perception of archives as historically oriented or backwards-looking leads many to believe that archives are outdated or irrelevant. The reality is quite the opposite: though archivists care for historical and cultural records, they stand on the principle that “past is prologue,” that is, as Faulkner states above, that the records of the past can help us to better understand our present and future. Archivists attempt to harness these lessons and knowledge to inform this future for the common good. In the age of digital, many information institutions (e.g. libraries) have embraced trends and followed their patrons to the world of servers and electronic interfaces. Indeed, the Web has become “a „wrapper‟ for every digital library project, and the contributions to it are expanding in media, quantity and location.”2 Archives, however, have been slow to respond. In order to
uphold this principle, archivists must realize that the environment surrounding archives has changed, and that the field must re-examine itself and adapt in order to survive the shift. Indeed, if they embrace the digital world, they have the potential not only to survive, but to thrive. Archives have long followed the same top-down institutionalized model of the early libraries. Records are housed and cared for along preservation and conservation lines; archivists
Faulkner, “Requiem for a Nun.” Lesk, “A World Tour of Digital Libraries,” p. 321.
Cass Warholm-Wohlenhaus LIS 450; December 14th, 2010 Mailbox # 102 have chiefly been stewards of the past. Those who wish to use the archives must venture into the physical space to interact with records under specific rules and guidelines. The interaction is heavily regulated by the institution itself—the archivist posits reasons why or a collection may or may not be accessible, the times it is accessible and, if a patron does not have the means to come to the archives him or herself, the how much it will cost to gain access to even less-than-ideal copies of the materials. Access has sometimes been wielded as a tool for the preservation of materials, but this model is inherently self-defeating. If archives exist to select and preserve the records of the people then, without access for the people, for whom is the preservation of the people‟s archives? Preserving unused collections is an exercise in failure; collecting documents that witness the past, in order to be truly effective, must have a public to witness to, a public who can access and make use of these documents. Within the utilitarian model of provision of information services for the largest number of patrons by the most effective means, digital repositories become a necessity. Libraries have realized this; however, archival institutions are beginning to more fully embrace the provision of digital access to their collections. Archivists must ask themselves on whom their focus must be: the archivist, who provides access, or the patron, whose concept of archives and their fulfillment of his/her needs and values define the relevance and survival of the archive itself. Archival institutions must not merely survive to keep their footing as information professionals. The president of the Society of American Archivists Richard Pearce-Moses asserted in a 2007 speech that, if they merely survive and do not thrive, archives will fulfill their own worstcase scenario. If they fail to establish their place in Web 2.0, they will quickly be forgotten. Users will look to other institutions when they look for records, and these institutions will provide less effective and egalitarian access than archives strive to do. Archivists will have
Cass Warholm-Wohlenhaus LIS 450; December 14th, 2010 Mailbox # 102 failed to preserve the cultural record and documentary heritage of our communities. To avoid this scenario, archives must thrive in this new information-soaked environment. They must occupy an ever more important and relevant place in the life of the people. “The Internet promises to increase the public‟s awareness and use of archives and historical records—a future I think we all want to encourage.”3 How can archives fully realize their relevance to an increasingly networked public while still acting as responsible stewards of the historical and cultural record? The answer is obvious: digital archives. Digital archives are necessary for two reasons. First, displaying collections openly on the internet allows archives to remain a vital landmark in the information environment. This is because the public increasingly assumes that, if it is not quickly and easily found on the internet, it must not exist. Second, all information which does exist is expected be digitized and indexed to facilitate easy online discovery. If archives are to be user-focused, they must accept the reality of these expectations and create realistic strategies. Focusing on digitization and Web 2.0 as promising tools rather than ominous challenges will allow archives to thrive in today‟s information environment. In his speech, Pearce-Moses outlines his best-case scenario, one in which archivists have thrived by utilizing Web 2.0. In this scenario, “[p]eople use archives frequently, in part because they find it so easy to get the information they need […] no one ever asks, “What is an archivist?” because we are an integral part of people‟s lives […] Archives are the focus of a dynamic community, connecting people to each other, to their past, and to their future.”4 In this vision, active work to embrace a digital environment is rewarded with archives‟ increased relevance and an increased public knowledge and understanding of the role of archives
Evans, “Archives of the People, by the People, for the People,” p. 388. Pearce-Moses, “Janus in Cyberspace,” p. 16.
Cass Warholm-Wohlenhaus LIS 450; December 14th, 2010 Mailbox # 102 in their lives. While the job of an archivist may look different, it still is able to fulfill the basic tenets of archival work: selecting and keeping records of enduring value; organizing collections to shed light on their context; providing patron access; protecting records from degradation; reaffirming the concept that history informs the future; maintaining collections that are authentic and trustworthy; and preserving records with a view to holding individuals and organizations accountable.5 These principles define the goals of archives and, as technophobic archivists should note, none of these tenets are mutually exclusive with the provision of online collections. Tight resources make the burden of meeting the increased workload of digitization a challenge. Unprocessed collections often languish for years in processing backlogs. Digitization must be integrated and relatively easy to minimize the drain on already strained archivists and collections. Coping with unprecedented demand in the face of lack of funding and resources means institutions must embrace a dynamic model for digital archives. This model allows archivists to begin the work of digitizing in conjunction with their normal processing duties, and also has the perk of lightening the processing load. It calls for the creation of basic kinds of collection descriptions, which become all the more powerful because of their basic nature. In this model, archivists should process and describe at the collection level rather than the item level, using a low level of basic metadata to provide a catalog record and a basic finding aid. These should be marked up in EAD and housed in an online, searchable repository. This model has numerous direct, favorable outcomes. Firstly, by processing collections with minimal metadata, archivists save time in initial processing and are able to work toward the elimination of backlogs. Traditionally, by making an
Pearce-Moses, “Janus in Cyberspace,” p. 7-8.
Cass Warholm-Wohlenhaus LIS 450; December 14th, 2010 Mailbox # 102 administrative decision to describe some collections more fully, time is taken away from the basic description of a larger corpus of collection. If archivists accept the reality that not all collections can be described at a detailed level, they are freer to describe collections at a basic level. Thus more collections can be processed, allowing for inclusion and standardization of a greater number of records in the catalog. Second, by putting even minimally-described collections online, archivists are promoting collection use. These days, a collection that is not online is not visible, and an invisible collection will become an unused collection. If a collection is at least minimally described online, however, archivists create the possibility that researchers will find and use the collections. Further, institutions should create digital repositories that allow researchers the option of requesting a collection be digitized, instead of the normal request of photocopying and sending materials by mail. This would provide more complete online access for the researcher and allow digitization to be integrated into normal archival workflows which will, in turn, provide greater access to future patrons. Thus, digitization-on-demand allows for less handling and physical use of delicate materials in the future, with the added benefit of creating a digital copy for preservation purposes. Third, online access allows administrators to easily track usage; this data can be integrated into the collection‟s management and used to make more meaningful administrative decisions. Tracking site hits and usage statistics can inform institutional activities, policies and provide a basis for advocacy. In addition, archives can become a more democratic, marketdriven establishment. Online collections give patrons more power to request the digitization of archives and to utilize more fully those collections they find useful. By being able to track these
Cass Warholm-Wohlenhaus LIS 450; December 14th, 2010 Mailbox # 102 statistics, archivists can provide greater descriptions and access to those collections which are more heavily used. Finally, by providing online access, archivists can harness the power of Web 2.0 to make their jobs easier. By providing basic description and online access, archives would be showing patrons where there is need and how they can help; the internet has proven to be ripe with potential volunteers and a rich ground for collaborative projects (e.g. USGenWeb, Linux, Wikipedia, etc.). To fully utilize the knowledge and abilities of volunteers, Web 2.0 tools such as social tagging, blogs and discussion forums are invaluable. Social tagging is a powerful tool which archivists could easily employ, one which has been proven effective on websites such as Flikr and del.icio.us. “Archives do not have the resources to do item-level description and indexing. But archivists can become organizing agents for others to do such work, either independently or as part of social tagging projects.”6 Thus, by creating a repository that has the ability to incorporate folksonomies (either guided by a controlled-vocabulary suggestion tool or based on natural-language description) into its indexing system, basic archival metadata becomes extensible metadata and item description becomes userdirected and -oriented. Additionally, creating discussion forums or blogs for public commenting provides another layer of metadata. Forums also foster a community commons environment; for researchers, an archival commons can provide interaction with other researchers and archivists in ways that might never occur in the physical space of the archives. This community-building aspect proves useful for creating a sense of ownership, and in turn makes patrons more responsible for the quality and content of the collections.
Evans, “Archives of the People, by the People, for the People,” p. 397.
Cass Warholm-Wohlenhaus LIS 450; December 14th, 2010 Mailbox # 102 A digital platform is the next step for archival institutions. The move to the digital world will help archives to remain relevant in a world where online access is the norm. If archival institutions choose to be fully engaged in this world, they will not only survive, but thrive. “[A] networked information system levitates the value of ideas and forms of expression [and] causes further heightening of demand for the same expression […] creating an upward spiral.”7 To do this they must harness the power of commons-based, peer-produced collaboration; they must fully embrace that archival materials are not only of the people, but also by the people and for the people.8
Venturelli, “From the Information Economy to the Creative Economy,” p. 8-9. (cited in “Archives of the People, by the People, for the People.”) 8 Evans, “Archives of the People, by the People, for the People.”
Cass Warholm-Wohlenhaus LIS 450; December 14th, 2010 Mailbox # 102
Evans, Max J. “Archives of the People, by the People, for the People.” The American Archivist Vol. 70 (Fall/Winter 2007): pp. 397-400. Lesk, Michael. “A World Tour of Digital Libraries.” Understanding Digital Libraries. (Boston: Morgan Kaufmann, 2005): pp. 321-360. Pearce-Moses, Richard. “Janus in Cyberspace: Archives on the Threshold of the Digital Era.” The American Archivist Vol. 70 (Spring/Summer 2007): pp. 13-22. Samoulian, Mary. “Embracing Web 2.0: Archives and the Newest Generation of Web Applications.” The American Archivist Vol. 72 (Spring/Summer 2009): pp. 42-71.
Weinberger, David. Everything is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder. (New York: Times Books, Henry Holt and Co., 2007).
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