Responding to Mike’s comments, and should I put this on a t-shirt?

In response to my post “The Future of Archives is Participatory: Archives as Platform, or A New Mission for Archives,” Internet Celebrity and King of People Who Tweet About Museums, Mike Edson, left this comment:

Hi Kate – – thank you for writing this out!

re: the mission – – “Archives add value to people’s lives by increasing their understanding and appreciation of the past.”

How? Tell me some stories about times when peoples lives became more valuable because they had an increased understanding and appreciation of the past. I’m sure it’s true – – I want it to be true – – but as presented it feels more like a slogan or a statement of intent than a conclusion one would reach by observing archival usage (and users) in the wild. I think the stories you choose will speak volumes about the possible dimensions and impact of this mission. I want to grasp onto some incredible story about how the world I’m living in has been changed by by the best of what can happen in/because of an archive!

Not being an archives guy myself, all the examples I can think of are of two varieties: 1) A historian uses an archive to write a book that changes everyone’s ideas about something that happened in the past, and 2) Somebody walks into an archive and understands something new about their past/family/community and a happy/sad/meaningful/warm-fuzzy feeling ensues. Both of those feel a little…soft…to me. Not enough to drive an entire profession to change its doctrinal practices. (“Doctrinal” – – is that a word?)

I’m kinda craving a story that has a truly life changing, course-of-humanity changing dimension to it. Even better if the example is made possible by the kind of outward looking, open, inclusive, results oriented, civic minded attitude you (we, if I may) want memory institutions to have.

Also, while I’m already moving the furniture around, I want the mission statement to be more forward looking. We humans are not exactly dazzling the universe with our ability to think hard thoughts and do smart things re: the future right now. It’s kind of a problem.

How about: “Archives change history.”

I think that’s a keeper.

Thanks for your comment, Mike, and I disagree.

(FYI, Mike and I go way back. We’re friends. He’s brilliant. Which is why I feel comfortable expressing my disagreement with him in a rather passionate way.)

Continue reading “Responding to Mike’s comments, and should I put this on a t-shirt?”

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”

Participatory Archives: Something Old, Something New

Or, “I finally write up a presentation I gave last spring, now with a shiny new definition.” File this one under “better late than never.” I have finally taken the slides for the keynote presentation I gave at the Midwest Archives Conference (MAC) meeting last spring and written up explanatory text for them. The text and slides are now posted as a PDF on Slideshare:

Note that this presentation contains more discussion about how I think we should scope “participatory archives,” including a refined definition (bold indicates the additions):

An organization, site or collection in which people other than the archives professionals contribute knowledge or resources resulting in increased appreciation and understanding of archival materials and archives, usually in an online environment. 

I hope this will be a useful addition to the discussion of this concept and why it matters for archives.

Next on my list: writing up a presentation I gave last fall!


Call for case studies for edited volume on participatory archives

I’m working on developing a proposal for my next book, which will be on participatory archives. This will probably be similar in format to A Different Kind of Web , with a combination of essays and case studies. I have some ideas, of course, about which projects I’d like to include, but I know there are great things happening out there that I might not be aware of.

Here is my working definition of participatory archives:

An organization, site or collection in which people other than the archives professionals contribute knowledge or resources resulting in increased understanding about archival materials, usually in an online environment.

If you are working on a project that you think meets this definition and you’d like to consider  submitting a case study for the book, please email me at and tell me more about what you are doing. Please note in particular that my definition says “usually in an online environment,” which means in-person participation is just as valid as it has always been.

Links from MAC talk on participatory archives

If you were among the lucky (?) people in the audience today, here, as promised, are the links to the sites I mentioned in my talk. If you are one of the millions of people who were not there, these are the sites I mentioned as examples of participatory archives. I know there are a great many others, so I apologize if  I left out one of your favorites. I’m happy that there is an overabundance of riches when it comes to choosing examples on this topic. (At least examples that meet the criteria I use.) I’ll probably be posting my slides to SlideShare soon, or I may post them here on the blog so I can add the explanatory text that would help make some of them comprehensible. (Here’s a post about the talk I gave on this topic at the 2011 SAA Annual Meeting.)

Here are the links: Continue reading “Links from MAC talk on participatory archives”

Exploring the Participatory Archives

I’m happy to back from this year’s annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists in Chicago. I was part of a great session, “What Happens After ‘Here Comes Everybody’: An Examination of Participatory Archives,” along with Elizabeth Yakel and Alexandra Eveleigh, moderated by Robert Townsend. We were lucky to be selected by the online publication CMSWire as a session worth highlighting, and so you can read a full summary of our remarks in their article. Below is my presentation (via SlideShare).

The purpose of my presentation was to introduce the concept of participatory archives and propose a definition. That definition is:

An organization, site or collection in which people other than archives professionals contribute knowledge or resources, resulting in increased understanding about archival materials, usually in an online environment.

As you can see from the slides, I think it’s important to make a distinction between engagement and participation. This distinction is not intended to create a hierarchical system in which participation is “better.” Rather I think it will assist us, as a profession whose experience with both types on online activity is relatively new, to think more clearly and have more focused discussions about what makes each type of activity successful.

You’ll see more from me about this in the future, but for now I’d be interested in feedback on this first iteration of the definition, which I know doesn’t necessarily conform to the way others have used those terms.

UPDATE: You can read Alexandra’s own posts about her SAA experiences on her blog, Around the World in 80 Gigabytes, and about our session in particular here. Her slides are up on Slideshare too.

Archives and history on Kickstarter

I’ve been wanting to do this for a long time. This is the first in (I hope) a regular series of posts highlighting projects on Kickstarter that relate to archives and history. Here’s a short list of what’s available for you to help fund today:

And if you’re skeptical that Kickstarter really works for organizations like archives, read about the successful proposal by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum to raise funds to preserve “key artifact from a defining moment in popular music . . . a historic sign from Max Yasgur’s farm, the site of the groundbreaking Woodstock festival.” The Museum raised over $12,000 on Kickstarter

If you know of any other relevant projects on Kickstarter, please let me know and I hope I’ll be able to make this a regular feature of the blog.

And although this post was inspired by looking for projects to take screen caps of for a presentation next week at SAA, it’s possible I was also given a bit of a nudge by Trevor Owens’ excellent post, The Digital Humanities Are Already on Kickstarter.

Links that deserve their own posts, but not getting them

Right, so, all of these deserve their own long, thoughtful posts, but that’s not going to happen any time soon, so instead, here are some great stories to look at:

Building participatory archives

Friends, followers, taggers, fans, writers, editors, commenters, volunteers, collectors, scanners, sharers, transcribers, researchers, historians, students, users, collaborators, partners, re-users, re-mixers, masher-uppers, citizen archivists, enthusiasts, passionate amateurs, crowdsourcers, nerdsourcers–all are welcome in the participatory archives.

What I’m working on now is exploring ideas about what it means to build “participatory archives.”

The concept draws upon the work our colleagues have done in defining concepts for the participatory library and the participatory museum, as well as on the general concept of participatory culture. I am excited about using this as a framework for examining many of the issues I am interested in, including (but not limited to):

  • the evolution of the “citizen” culture–a la citizen journalism and citizen science –as they relate to the concept of “citizen archivists.” In an email communication, Rick Prelinger noted that he may have been the first to coin the term in 2006 in a talk at the University of Pittsburgh School of Information Science. He graciously sent me his notes for the talk, and the way I read them, his spin on the term had more of a tinge of activism in it than the kind of “volunteer on steroids” usage I think we’ve seen lately. Note that Richard Cox also included the concept in his recent book, Personal Archives and a New Archival Calling: Readings, Reflections and Ruminations, and I believe he uses the term in yet another sense. This seems to be the essential problem with the term–that it evokes so many different kinds of interpretations. Still, for me all of these interpretations and meanings reveal aspects of how people can or should become more engaged with archives, and so are essential to an understanding of a participatory archives.
  • the issues raised by Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus and other discussions of how to effectively harness user/partner contributions to the archives. This is a natural outgrowth of the work I’ve done on archives using Web 2.0 tools, but that is only a slice of what’s possible. One lovely example is the recent announcement from The National Archives (UK) about the “Living the Poor Life” project, which drew on “more than 200 volunteers across the country, including local and family historians, researching and cataloguing 19th century records from the huge Ministry of Health archive.” Whatever you call them, there are people out there who are eager to contribute their time and knowledge to helping bring the information in archival records to light, and for me this is a big part of our profession’s future.
  • the concept of “community archives” as seen in the UK. As noted in the Community Archives and Heritage Group site, “the definition of ‘community archive’ is the cause of some debate,” perhaps much like that of “citizen archivist.” However, the concept of a group of people wanting to document their community (in any sense of the word) and taking steps to collect materials that preserve their history surely has a place in the definition of participatory archives. And certainly I think the relationships between such community archives and “traditional” archives need to be explored. Archivists are only one participant in the preservation of history or memory or community, and how the archives participates with others is an interesting area for study.
  • the need for transparency and openness about, and in the work of, the archivist. Part of the value of the participatory archives concept would be, I think, that it would help define the work of the archivist as a participant. There are many arguments for making the actions of archivists more visible to the public, and also for making the processes of the archives more open to participation from interested users (as demonstrated by the recent efforts of the U.S. National Archives on the federal Open Government Idea Forum).
  • how “opening up” the archives affects the role of the archivist and how issues of authority are negotiated in a participatory archives. There are no answers to these kinds of questions, but I am inspired by the essay that Elizabeth Yakel is contributing to the book I’m currently editing for SAA, A Different Kind of Web: New Connections between Archives and Our Users (available in 2011).
  • I should say that really all the essays I’ve collected in the new book are an inspiration. What has always interested me about using Web 2.0 tools is not the technology, but how they enable, well, new connections between archives and our users. I feel as if I may be biting off more than I can chew, but part of the reason I’m posting this here is to force myself to really get to work on this. And, of course, because all of you may have great suggestions for what else to include in my research and thinking. I don’t know if the final product for this will be an article or another book or a website (or both, as in, but I think this topic is broad enough and exciting enough that it can keep me occupied for quite a while to come.NOTE: I should also mention an article by Isto Huvila, “Participatory archive: towards decentralised curation, radical user orientation, and broader contextualisation of records management” published in Archival Science in 2008 as something that I will consider in framing my own understanding of the term.