The Future of Archives is Participatory: Archives as Platform, or A New Mission for Archives

This is the talk I gave this morning—by phone rather than in person because of the Lufthansa pilots’ strike—at the Offene Archive 2.1 conference in Stuttgart. It’s also similar to the talk I gave in Oslo a few weeks ago at the #arkividag conference. While I also made a recording of it as a backup, since I have it all more or less written out I thought I would post it here too. (I’ve inserted a few images from my presentation but not all the transitional slides or ones that are just repeating things in the text or showing screenshots.) There are some interesting ideas in it, I think, and I’m sure some readers will have comments and additional food for thought. Please remember, it’s a talk, not a journal article. The intent is to give people some big ideas to think about. So I might as well do that here on the blog as well!

UPDATE: If you’d prefer to listen rather than read, the recording I made of me reading the talk over the slides is now available at I was reading very slowly and carefully, so I think I sound a bit like a robot, but it’s available if you’d rather listen and see all the slides as they were presented.


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Continue reading “The Future of Archives is Participatory: Archives as Platform, or A New Mission for Archives”

Dramatic change to NARA’s mission in new strategic plan?

The National Archives and Records Administration has issued a draft of its Strategic Plan for FY 2014-2019 for public comment (comments due June 28, which is not a lot of time).

I’m just reading through it now for the first time and am struck by the change in the description of NARA’s mission from the existing plan to this one:

From the 2009 Strategic Plan:

The National Archives and Records Administration serves American democracy by safeguarding and preserving the records of our Government, ensuring that the people can discover, use, and learn from this documentary heritage.We ensure continuing access to the essential documentation of the rights of American citizens and the actions of their government. We support democracy, promote civic education, and facilitate historical understanding of our national experience

From the current draft:

NARA drives openness, cultivates public participation, and strengthens our nation’s democracy through public access to high-value government records

That’s quite a shift in emphasis, wouldn’t you say? Nothing there about preservation, although perhaps the authors think that’s implied. And “high-value” records? I suppose that’s thought to be an improvement over lengthier descriptions of the qualities of records makes them worthy of preservation, but that seems like a very clumsy way to describe it.

This certainly reflects a shift to try to make the archives appear more action-oriented, rather than a passive custodian, but I think something may have been lost along the way. What about you, any thoughts on the “as-is” and proposed “to-be”?



The new book is now available: A Different Kind of Web

It’s been a long time in the works, but my new book is now available for purchase from the SAA Bookstore (SAA Member price $49.95; everyone else $69.95). I say “my book” because I conceived the idea and lined up many many smart people to contribute. Don’t believe me? Here’s the table of contents:

Continue reading “The new book is now available: A Different Kind of Web”

NARA Crowdsourcing Classification Reform

These days our friends at the National Archives don’t need any help from me in promoting their many social media efforts, but I think what’s happening at the new Transforming Classification blog is truly innovative and noteworthy, and I’d like to highlight it here and encourage all of you to participate and spread the word among other archivists and records professionals, as well as among people in the user community who have in classification issues.

Sponsored by the Public Interest Declassification Board, the blog is intended to provide a forum for discussion of key elements of the Board’s proposed “transformation” of the U.S. security classification system. The format? “Every other Wednesday over the next eight weeks, we will post either two or three ‘white paper’ synopses to the blog describing an element of our proposed transformation.” The public is encouraged to comment and participate in discussion on the proposed reforms through comments on the blog post for each topic. The conversation and postings will continue through May 4, and the responses received will be used by the Board as it finalizes its proposals for the President.

The first two “white papers” have been posted, and they truly are synopses, no longer than a typical blog post. The topics are Using Technology to Improve Classification and Declassification and Reconsidering Information Management in the Electronic Environment. So far commenting has been sparse, to say the least, and I know there are many, many people in the archives and records community who could add value to this discussion. This is exactly the kind of openness and participatory activity many have wanted NARA to adopt, so I hope to soon see some intelligent and probing questions and responses appear in the comments.


She did it! A new blog to watch, Maarja’s NixoNARA

Past and present readers of the Archives and Archivists listserv are familiar with Maarja Krusten’s long and thoughtful messages about matters relating to the National Archives and Presidential records, particularly matters relating to former President Nixon. (She has also posted thoughtful, and occasionally long, comments on this blog too.) Well, as many have been urging her for a while now, she has created her own space for considering the issues of interest to her, NixoNARA. Congratulations, Maarja, on taking this big step! I think your blog will be a wonderful addition to the archival and records blogosphere and I hope you are successful in sparking informed dialogue about these important issues. In a message to the listserv, Maarja said she welcomes “comments from everyone at A&A as well as from historians and other members of the public.” I encourage anyone with an interest in Presidential records and how they relate to history to subscribe to this blog and participate in discussions there. Good luck, Maarja!

The beginning of real change at NARA?

Last week, the Archivist of the United States, David Ferriero, released to the public (via his blog) the final report of the Archivist’s Task Force On Agency Transformation. Their report recommends significant changes in organizational structure and culture, characterized by “The Six Transformational Outcomes and Organizational Change.” Anyone with more than a passing interest in NARA should read the whole report.

In closing his blog post, Ferriero asks his readers (staff, researchers, and “citizen archivists”) “are you in?” I’m sure he’s gratified that so far 65 people have responded that they are. Many of those 65 are people I know and respect (including the illustrious Richard Cox), and I am sure their responses are sincere. So, am I “in”? Longtime readers of this blog (were you reading back in January 2008?) and people who knew me when I worked at NARA will know the answer to that question is yes (or perhaps more appropriately, “duh!”). So, yeah, I’m supportive, but I think the topic deserves a little more attention than a simple comment on his blog. Continue reading “The beginning of real change at NARA?”

Brief round up of latest responses to LOC Twitter acquisition

Tracking all the responses to the LOC’s acquisition of everyone’s (public) tweets would take more time than I have, so here are just some of the highlights:

  • First and foremost, the two new blogs at the National Archives have enabled them to respond quickly and effectively to several aspects of the Twitter story. On his AOTUS blog, David Ferreiro addresses the confusion many have about the difference between the Library of Congress and the National Archives and defends the potential research value of the Twitter collection. On the Records Express blog, Paul Wester explains why this kind of acquisition is not appropriate for the National Archives (reviewing again how they are different from the LOC) as well as stating clearly what kinds of tweets may end up in the National Archives–those that are considered Federal records. These posts are an excellent example of the kind of agility an institutional blog can give archives in getting out responses to issues that attract public attention and educating the public about the purpose of the archives.
  • Robert X. Cringely argues “Twitter Archiving Is for the Birds” in PCWorld.
  • Fred Stutzman, doctoral student at UNC-Chapel Hill SLIS has had several interesting posts, including “Twitter and the Library of Congress” and “Is it time to cancel your Twitter account?” That second post includes a good round-up of the latest responses, so I won’t repeat his list here.
  • Except to note, as he does, that Michael Zimmer has raised on number of posts on his blog–too many to list individually.
  • And here’s an interview with Martha Anderson from LOC in The American Prospect, which answers some questions (but by no means all).
  • OVERSIGHT: Missed a good one–Resource Shelf’s “The Twitter Archives from the Library of Congress & Google: The Facts as We Know Them.” Sorry about that.

    If you come across anything else that might be of interest, please share a link in the comments.

    Good things from around the planet, and Twitter makes history

    Yesterday’s big story was clearly the Library of Congress’ announcement that they will be preserving “Every public tweet, ever, since Twitter’s inception in March 2006 . . . That’s a LOT of tweets, by the way: Twitter processes more than 50 million tweets every day, with the total numbering in the billions.” The reaction from the archivists on Twitter was mixed, but I think it’s a great move on LOC’s part. You may not agree with their appraisal decision, but they believe it fits within their available resources and mission and certainly the collection has tremendous research potential. Providing access will present challenges but I’m confident those challenges will be met by highly-qualified people who believe in sharing their results and process with the rest of the archival community.

    In other news:

    • Someone on Twitter (@samaramc, actually) recently posted a link to an old post on Tim Sherratt’s blog about what people are doing with the data released by the National Archives of Australia. The post is worth revisiting, especially in light of the recent interest in tapping the creativity of online collaborators here in the U.S. Also note that I’ll be announcing the Best Archives on the Web awards soon and expect to have a new category to recognized efforts like this, so if you’re doing some hacking I’ll hope you’ll nominate yourself.
    • Speaking of which there is an excellent post by Harriet Deacon over on The Archival Platform blog: Involving archive users in digitising archival collections (note that link seems a little wonky–may have to try it more than once). It’s lengthy and detailed, and concludes, “What are we waiting for?” I was happy to see she referenced a post I’d written on this topic as part of my response to NARA’s call for ideas about how they could become more interactive and collaborative. If you have other sources that discuss projects that use the public to digitize archival records, please post them in the comments. I think this is a prime area for the utilization of volunteers in all kind of archives, large and small.
    • Our colleagues at Archives New Zealand are calling for participation (via a wiki) in reviewing their Digital Continuity Glossary (Feedback wanted on Digital Continuity Glossary. As they observe: “Discussion of digital continuity issues is hampered by the use of inconsistent language and terminology. Digital ‘stuff’ is variously referred to in different contexts as records, information, documents, content, data, assets, etc. At the same time, an effective collective response to digital continuity needs to draw on expertise and experience from all sectors and disciplines.” So, they’re crowdsourcing their glossary. Please take a look and add your thoughts (we all know RPM will do so!).
    • An interesting post from the Collections Australia Network (CAN) about Repatriation and collections online.
    • NARA has released their Open Government Plan, highlighting four specific areas as part of their “flagship initiative.” Among those areas is a (long-overdue) re-design of the website. You can contribute to this effort by participating in an online ” card sort”–see their blog for details. (Just noticed the last day for this is April 16, so you’ll need to hurry.) I was also delighted to see that among the other elements of the flagship initiative are developing a social media strategy (my Christmas wish is answered!) and “[approaching] digitization strategically as well as transparently with the ultimate goal of providing greater access to our holdings online.”
    • The Library of Congress has supplied another great resource for everyone to use, “Why Digital Preservation is Important for Everyone,” shown here on the L’Archivista blog. As she observes: “It’s an accessible non-technical introduction for people who aren’t familiar with the challenges of preserving digital materials, and a great resource and model for those of us who must cultivate support for digital preservation. A full transcript is available.”
    • I just saw this on Twitter a minute ago and haven’t had time to check it out, but it seems to follow some of our recent themes. It’s a post from the East London Theater Archive’s blog, sharing a presentation they just gave at JISC. Part of their description of their project:

      To meet this concern we are about to launch a new version of ELTA which will incorporate a forum where the community can collaborate to help others learn more. Our new website will allow people to log in and make comments, make notes on items, and help us enhance our metadata by providing more detail to our material (in a similar way to GalaxyZoo). They will also be able to help each other with questions and so on. Most importantly they will have the opportunity to curate collections and cluster material together, so we will be able to see how our users/ collaborators use and organise archival material.

      That certainly looks like a project worth keeping an eye on!

    A seeming consensus about a definition for “citizen archivist” and the continued need for a different term (also, a brief discussion of one of the next big challenges facing archives)

    The previous post about the use of the term “citizen archivist” generated a lively discussion, and I think achieved some consensus–although we shall see if the comments on this post bear out that conclusion!

    I think everyone more or less agreed that a valuable component of the archival community consists of what can accurately be called “citizen archivists”–that is:

    people who take responsibility for carrying out archival functions for records or papers that are either their own personal property or which are currently not under the custodianship of an archives or archivist. [my phrasing]

    people working _outside_ established institutions who are doing archival-quality work (not simply collecting), typically in an area that is neglected or inadequately addressed by established collections. Citizen archivists collect and add value to records of significance, many of which ultimately find their ways into institutions. [Rick Prelinger’s phrasing]

    People may vary in their love for the term as used in that sense, but it seems to me that was the usage that most commenters agreed with. Certainly I think everyone agreed that the work these kinds of people do is a critical part of the archival community (writ large) and most of us would welcome their company under “the big tent.” (See previous discussions here and elsewhere about the professional identify of archivists and how big a tent we should have.)

    I also believe that most of the participants in the discussion agreed that it was not appropriate to use “citizen archivists” to refer to what in the pre-digital world we would have called volunteers. While recognizing the value of people who work on transcribing records, photocopying or scanning materials, helping to identify or date photographs, writing supplementary materials for finding aids, or initiating and carrying out special project to make materials more accessible, we agree that it is not appropriate to refer to these people as “archivists” in any sense. Again, the work of these people is critical to success of the archival community, and to say that they are not archivists is not meant to devalue their contributions, it’s just a statement of fact. Some of this discussion referred to the continuing need to improve public understanding of the work of professional archivists, and indeed, the need to raise awareness of the need for professional archivists to exist. While stated or not, I think this conversation is linked to the heated discussions that have taken place in many venues about the need to increase the salaries being offered to archivists, and the associated issues of education, credentials, and professionalism.

    As archives begin building new online communities around our collections and encourage the participation of volunteers in all kinds of activities–such as transcribing, tagging, adding descriptive or contextual information, creating mashups, and building new interfaces and tools for working with our information–we will encounter many challenges. I am certain that coming up with a suitable term to call our new kinds of volunteers will not be the most difficult! But it is representative of one of the central challenges, and that is the question of authority. I see this issue as being a particularly challenging one for many archivists–what is our role, as professionals and as custodians of the materials, in these new online communities? How can we encourage participation and appropriately value and respect the contributions of the public without devaluing our own knowledge and institutions? This is not an insolvable problem and it is not unique to archives; it faces many kinds of cultural and knowledge-based institutions as they engage in more sophisticated interactions with their user communities.

    How to answer this question will be the subject of many future scholarly articles (and, as I said, a chapter in the book I’m editing for SAA) and the answer will not be the same for all archives. It is certainly too large to take on in a blog post.

    However, the issue of what to call our valued online volunteers is not. If we accept that David Ferriero, perhaps along with other archival managers, needs to find a new, more appealing term to use instead of “volunteers,” what should that be?

    – Archival collaborators?
    – Citizen historians? (will that raise the hackles of historians, I wonder?)
    – Citizen scholars? (the Smithsonian has used that one)
    – Subject experts?

    My creativity is flagging. Any suggestions? You may rightly ask why we need to have an umbrella term at all. My response is that Mr. Ferriero has a new blog post up, calling for “Cultivating Citizen Archivists.” I don’t want to drag this discussion over onto his post, since his purpose is to generate discussion about what kinds of projects people might want to pursue as . . . archival collaborators/citizen historians/subject experts and I don’t want to detract from that. I appreciate what he’s trying to do, and the kind of conversation he’s trying to generate with the public. Let’s help him out a bit by giving him a better way of making his pitch.

    Why we need to find a term to replace “citizen archivist”

    In a comment on his first blog post, Archivist of the United States (AOTUS), David Ferriero asked:

    As I read your comments, I’m reminded that we’ve just taken the first step. I’m glad to see enthusiasm for the kinds of institutional changes that will harness the power of the internet. In order to become an agency fit for the 21st century, we need to think how we can leverage the power, enthusiasm, and dedication of ‘citizen archivists.’ What does that term mean to you?

    I’m not sure if there is a specific inspiration for Ferriero’s choice of the term “citizen archivist,” but I suspect it has been applied to Carl Malamud (also sometimes referred to as a “rogue archivist”), and if you’re a regular reader of this blog you can see why this may have leapt to Ferrriero’s mind. I’ve written before about how great I think Malamud’s volunteer scanning project is, but I don’t think “citizen archivist” is the right term to use to describe people who carry out such efforts.

    First, let me point out what I think Ferriero is getting at. He says he wants to harness the public participation, support, and knowledge of what in the pre-digital days we probably would have called volunteers (or advocates, depending on the role). And, if I imagine myself in Ferriero’s place, I can see why he wants to find a term to use other than volunteer. First, the level of expertise and creativity that he wants to harness (such as that shown by Malamud and others) goes far beyond what we normally think of when we hear “volunteer.” He is looking for a more attractive term, one that implies more initiative and responsibility. In some ways, he’s really probably talking about a marketing term. I don’t mean that in a derogatory way–what’s needed is a catchy phrase that will apply to a new kind of . . . volunteer, and can be used to describe people with a wide range of skill sets and levels of participation.

    That said, I strongly object to using “citizen archivist” to describe these new kinds of volunteers. While meant as a term of respect for the volunteers, I think the term is actually disrespectful to archivists. Would you call someone who volunteers in a hospital a “citizen doctor” or a “citizen nurse”? An archivist is a trained professional, with education, expertise, and responsibility. I think the world of Carl Malamud, but he is not an archivist–rogue, citizen, or otherwise. What he does is great, but it is not the work of an archivist. The kinds of public participation that I think Ferriero is looking for will produce wonderful results and I applaud it, but I doubt much of it will be a substitute for the work for NARA’s professional archivists.*

    My creativity is failing me, and I cannot think of a term to suggest as a substitute. I’m sure if I go back and look through the literature there are terms used to describe people who are engaging with an online archives community, but I don’t recall any of them having much panache. If the point is to make the people involved feel empowered (sorry for the cliche), then an academic term may not do. So, like any good citizen of the 2.0 world, I’m appealing to the crowd–can you suggest a better term?

    * Note: That said, there does seem to be a place for using “citizen archivist” to refer to someone who takes responsibility for carrying out archival functions for records or papers that are either their own personal property or which are currently not under the custodianship of an archives or archivist. See for example Richard J. Cox (2009) “Digital Curation and the Citizen Archivist.” Digital Curation: Practice, Promises & Prospects . pp. 102-109. See also the Citizen Archivist Project (a new one for me).