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.