A wiki about archives, but not created by archivists

I’ve known about this project for a while, but was waiting for my friends at the AHA blog to announce it themselves before I wrote about it, but Dan Cohen has broken the ice, so I guess it’s fair game.

The American Historical Association has created a wiki intended to provide information about archival repositories in the US and around the world. The site has been pre-populated with basic information for 100 organizations from their Directory of Historical Organizations. AHA hopes that historians will supplement basic information about archives with more user-based tips, such as suggestions for how to approach the collection, where to stay inexpensively, etc. When I just checked, a few European archives had added information about themselves, bringing the total number of entries up to 105.

The site has potential, but I have a few reservations. The selection of the pre-populated organization seems a bit odd–there are some organizations like the National Endowment for the Humanities and the journal “Film & History” that I don’t think would really hold many records of interest to historians. I would have created a separate area for these kinds of organizations. The selection of archives for the pre-population can’t, by definition, be comprehensive, but it seems rather random and I could find no explanation of the population methodology (or citation of where the information originally came from). It’s not clear if AHA will continue to import data from their directory on a regular basis, or if population is all up to the users now.

The data seem to have been imported, but not necessarily cleaned up to fit the site’s formatting. A small thing, I know, but personally I’m a stickler for that kind of thing. The site could benefit from some information about what kinds of information are appropriate for which parts of the page. The concept of “categories” also needs some explanation for those adding information. The site started out with only one kind of category–location by U.S. state. In the first few entries they’ve received, users have entered other kinds of categories (such as “Census” and “19th century”). Are these acceptable as “categories”? Is someone from AHA going to be actively monitoring the categories? That’s not clear from the site.

I also have some reservations about the site’s goals. I am all for having a wiki that has information about different kinds of archives (although most of the basic information would probably have been pretty accessible through a Google search), but I wonder how eager historians will be to share really detailed information about their experiences with collections. (Cheap hotels, maybe, but not tips on how to get access to “the good stuff.”) I had the impression that most historians were rather close-mouthed about their sources. Or is my stereotype of the historian just as unfair as the stereotypes of archivist that I complain about regularly in this blog?

And, to play devil’s advocate, how much of this background information is really useful or necessary to be gathered in this format? Do historians really not know where to go for archival resources in their area, and if they don’t, would they really discover an archives by this kind of broad categorization? (As opposed to a more targeted Google search?) And, I think most researchers wanting information about hours, policies, and contacts would always rely more heavily on the archives’ own web site than on the information in this wiki (which might very well be out of date).

The value-added part of the wiki would clearly be the unique perspectives of the historians about the collections. How much of the other kinds of information about archives are useful? Would a simple link to the archives’ website and a few sentences be enough, and then leave the rest of the page blank for the historians to fill in with their inside dirt?

Please go and take a look and share your impressions. Do you think your users would find this kind of resource helpful? What kinds of information do they need most? What else does the site need? I think this is a great opportunity for us to engage with our historian colleagues and try to help build a resource that will be truly useful to our common communities.

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16 thoughts on “A wiki about archives, but not created by archivists”

  1. Hey there Kate!

    I think the AHA getting behind this, and the Center for History and New Media being at the vanguard of this, is a reflection of a surge in some quarters of the historical community towards a more collaborative research environment. I certainly think a resource like this, particularly one that brings together profiles for more obscure archival repositories would indeed be useful, particularly to graduate students, and to researchers who are doing work outside of their particular focus in order to do comparative studies. In those terms, this kind of online profiling and information-gathering hub could become an essential tool for historians looking towards the margins, and for those “hidden collections” which plague our own profession.

    The listing does seem scattershot, and I was surprised to see some of the biggest US archives not represented. But– like all wiki projects– a directory has to begin somewhere and I think perhaps the wide representation will encourage repositories to consider themselves invited to create their own profile. I’m excited the AHA got this off the ground, and has opened it up for outside content rather than vetting a beta site forever in a closed community. The real test will be how this resource develops (thrives or dies) in a real-time environment, and if it does corral participation from historians and students. I’m glad you’re reaching out to the archives community, because I think they make a natural third-party in this effort, though not identified in the launch.

    I’m super curious to see how this develops, myself, and whether a kind of organization will arise from the impressionistic resource that’s been launched. I’m hoping that like many wikis, the community of participating historians will come to some conclusions about how to manage categories, police entries, etc. Another grand experiment!

  2. The success of any wiki ultimately depends on how many contributors it can attract. While the opening listing is sort of scattershot, I agree with Kathleen when she says that all wikis have to start somewhere.

    The test for the success of this wiki will be in a year. If the wiki has managed to attract enough folks who are willing to input content regularly, it will succeed. If not, it’ll fail, as people visit and find incomplete or missing content. While I also admit to some prejudicial stereotyping of historians as people who aren’t collaborative, don’t want to share, and are generally tech-averse, I hope this wiki accomplishes its goals. It may be the perogative of the historian to be resistant to change in order to preserve the past, but let’s face it – historians have *got* to start sharing their resources online or risk being irrelevant.

    The internet is an information access tool. The two sides of archives work have always been preservation and access. If you’re not providing access to what you preserve, what’s the point in funding your organization? Good on the AHA for recognizing that a collaborative online directory is a needed step in providing more access and exposure to historical collections.

  3. As a historian, I’m used to hearing these historian stereotypes from sociologists and cultural studies folks, but not from our friends the archivists. Kathleen is right that there’s a real historian movement toward collaboration, particularly through the web.

    I think one thing this wiki might enable is greater publicity for and access to the more obscure archives, particularly local history repositories. Local historical societies are often volunteer staffed and have very limited technical knowledge, despite holding all sorts of fabulous archival materials, so collaborative structures are useful for them. I’m certainly going to publicize it to my local history colleagues.

    As to how historians find out about archives, in more interdisciplinary or obscure history subfields, word of mouth is sometimes as important as websearching, and this kind of (hopefully) gossipy wiki could extend that for grad students and those not particularly well-connected.

  4. So “we” didn’t create it – “they” did. Do we care?

    There are certainly those in our profession who would prefer we didn’t ever provide reference. I would imagine those repositories would not receive a favorable rating int he wiki.

    Here’s my problem with wikis. Where’s the quality control? Sure you can have an administrator watching for hacking and corruption of entries, but the “written” word can be very powerful. Plus there is a whole section of the population that firmly believes either, “I read it on Wikipedia – so it must be true” or “It’s on the Web – so it’s true.”

    We all know the Web is a dangerous black hole that one can fall into and never find one’s way out. How do we determine who is the authoritative source? How is that site better than another? Just because they are historians should give them more credence than say, geneaologists?

    Well, I seem to have lost my train of thought, but I have some issues.

  5. I think a wiki like this can be a really useful resource and it is important that it remains independent from the archives themselves.

    Some time ago I created and continue to manage a wiki dedicated to East Asian libraries and archives at Frog in a Well which can be found here:


    Though it is only growing at a slow rate – some kind of tool of this nature needs further support and development.

  6. As a graduate student, I’m excited about this resource. My advisor and other faculty in my department have never used – and sometimes never heard of – some of the archives I’ll be using for research (last I checked, at least one facility was NOT yet on the Wiki, and I hope to add it soon). I look forward to learning tips on places to stay, how to get around the archives facilities, and so on.

  7. I think this is an interesting concept with some merit, but I think it may be trying to do some things unnecessarily. The directory information, it seems to me, is merely reproducing information that is already found on each institution’s own websites. Is it necessary to reproduce it here? Might it not be simpler to leave the directory information off of the wiki but include a hyperlink to the institution’s own website (where you can be assured of the most complete, up to date, and accurate information), and then focus instead with this AHA wiki on what one CAN’T find on the institution’s website. The part about users commenting on their research experiences at a particular repository, or finding out about local options for room, board, parking, etc., are all EXCELLENT ideas – a true value-added. But to reproduce all the directory information (essentially creating an online version of AASLH’s Directory of Historical Organizations) seems unnecessary to me, and not in tune with the way people would use this wiki and the kind of information they would seek from this wiki.

    If others disagree with me and they would prefer to have that information, then why not a partnership between AHA and AASLH? The latter could provide the data which could be dumped into the wiki with a mere keystroke once the appropriate technology person mapped a program to perform the data dump. (I assume AASLH has their information in some electronic database format as I can’t imagine they have 1350 triple-column pages of information as a giant unformatted text document.) If a wiki directory is what we want, there are easier ways to do it than have 5000 people enter their organization’s own information individually (and likely rather inconsistently). Too many cooks can often spoil the soup, and I fear that will be the case with the model currently set up for this project.

  8. Just because they are historians should give them more credence than say, geneaologists?

    Yes. Precisely. We are historians, real ones, trained ones, with actual degrees and everything – not buffs, gym coaches with an interest or archivists with 18 hours of classwork.

    While everyman may or may not be his own historian, historians are quite able to present archival records all by themselves, without librarians or archivists tagging along to make sure it’s done according to Cataloguing Rules and Principles. Throwing together a wiki to provide archives information is well within our capabilities. Granted, of all the humanities and social sciences, history is the least likely to foster collaboration, it’s rather nice that every once in awhile we are able to give it a shot.

    And for goodness sakes, why treat this as some extra-ordinary activity, something which needed to be approached cautiously and with careful evaluations and probably a three year preparatory grant? Haven’t you heard yet that memory is cheap? This kind of records presentation isn’t rocket science any more – it really has been proven, it really is quite acceptable and it is really quite verifiable. Above all else, it makes this kind of information accessible casually, and in one place – both of which are good things to have on the Web. If some of it turns out to be not entirely correct – it’s not so bad. It can be edited and even deleted. Trust us – we’ll be fine.

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