Note, that’s not “Should NARA support user contributions,” it’s “How should NARA support user contributions.” The time has come for our National Archives to start drawing on the collective wisdom and energy of the Web to enhance its online descriptions. The question is, how should that best take place?
In considering this question, I was reminded of a previous post about how the “space” in which interaction takes places affects the quality/quantity of interaction. Building on that discussion, I can see several possible ways to proceed (although I’m sure there are others).
First, allowing users to add tags, comments, and additional information to the catalog records in ARC or to other descriptive information on the NARA site. Questions immediately arise about the level of moderation this would entail, both to avoid information with no value and potentially offensive information. Does the question of moderation arise if only tags are permitted? I think it would, although it certainly might involve less time. I would be surprised if NARA would allow users to post information on their site (even if the information were clearly differentiated from NARA-provided data) if it did not go through a moderation process, wouldn’t you? This also requires that users add their information within the current descriptive structure (Record groups, series, file units, etc. and as well to the the records for people and organizations). So this option is essentially allowing users to annotate and supplement NARA’s information within NARA’s current descriptive products.
A second option would be creating a separate space, still controlled and moderated by NARA, dedicated to collecting user-provided information along the lines of The National Archives (UK)’s Your Archives wiki. The advantage of this option is that it clearly separates user-provided information from “official” information, and also allows the user community more freedom in how it structures the information it provides (at least in the wiki model, users can add pages, etc.). In such a model there might be a greater reliance on the kind of community policing one sees in Wikipedia, where inaccurate information is identified and deleted by the community of interest for the topic. Clearly this kind of site would also have to be monitored or moderated. And, of course, it wouldn’t have to take the form Your Archives does, of one large resource that is sub-divided. Smaller topical “spaces” could be established, perhaps around areas that have an active community of interest (or for which information is particularly needed).
Another option would be to directly solicit the participation of researchers in the description of materials. If a researcher is working with a given group of records, there’s a good chance he or she may know more about the materials than the description reveals. Why not provide them with a template for providing descriptive information (and guidance about what information to provide) and let them take a crack at adding more to the description provided? Yes, of course, all of it would have to reviewed and some of it might be worthless, but there are many highly skilled researchers who might be able to provide either relatively complete descriptions or at least valuable supplementary material. NARA may even have developed its own online tutorials for its staff about how to write descriptions, which could be easily reworked as a tool to train researcher volunteers.
I don’t know about the viability of this idea, but I’ll throw it out there anyway. As a way of possibly mitigating “frivolous” tags, comments, and notes in Option #1, provide a “space” that’s dedicated to adding personal or creative content to collection descriptions. A place where people can essentially have tools to remix or annotate NARA’s content any way they want. (Yes, again, within the terms NARA would have to establish to ensure people weren’t creating offensive products.) But think about the potential for that one–galleries, exhibits, videos, performances? If it actually took off it could even the kind of thing where notable examples were highlighted on a regular basis. And, while we’re at it, why not actually make this area a larger playing field and have it also draw from the collections of the Smithsonian and the Library of Congress? That’s an idea, isn’t it?
But I wandered away from the issue of description. Still, providing an area for “play” might help keep the “serious” area more serious. Just a thought. Similarly, providing designated “discussion spaces” (in either of the first two options) might provide a channel for debate or information exchange other than the comments on the descriptive information.
In the comments on the earlier post I referred to above people also discussed the need to consider collaborative sites that the archives doesn’t control, created by communities of interest–either scholarly or not. “Partnering with a community, in a neutral space, as power equals” as one wise commenter put it. I feel as though I’m once again wandering away from the topic of user contributions to descriptions, but not entirely. Communities might be more inclined to share their knowledge in a space where they are “power equals.”
So, I’ve provided you with a range of options, from small steps that have already been implemented elsewhere to possibilities that might not yet exist anywhere. Can you add any other possibilities for harnessing the wisdom of NARA’s users? Which of the ideas above do you think has the most promise?