Horrors! The archives have been hacked! Wait–that’s a good thing.

This post is written in response to the call for submissions to a new kind of publication, Hacking the Academy, “a book crowdsourced in one week, May 21-28, 2010.”

In keeping with the spirit of hacking, the book will itself be an exercise in reimagining the edited volume. Any blog post, video response, or other media created for the volume and tweeted (or tagged) with the hashtag #hackacad will be aggregated at hackingtheacademy.org [. . . ] . The best pieces will go into the published volume. The volume will also include responses such as blog comments and tweets to individual pieces. If you’ve already written something that you would like included, that’s fine too, just be sure to tweet or tag it (or email us the link to where it’s posted).


Yes, the old-fashioned, traditional academic archives/special collections is fading into obsolescence. Any one who works with archives knows they’ve fundamentally changed in the last decade or so but how do these changes affect the relationship of the archives with “the academy”? In the spirit of the publication, here are some quickly-written footnote-free thoughts, presented for your consideration and discussion.

Getting access

In the “old days,” how did access work in academic archives/special collections? Scholarly researchers worked hand-in-hand with experienced archivists to locate materials of interest and spent time sitting in our reading rooms, reviewing page after page of materials. Of course, this wasn’t the way it worked at every archives all the time for every user, but really, how much thought was given to expanding usage beyond the community of historians and scholars? Were genealogists, family historians, and casual researchers encouraged? I don’t think so.

Now? As much as possible, archives and special collections are digitizing materials and putting them online, via their own websites and commercial sites. Which means anyone and everyone has access to those materials. No mediation or guidance by the archivist, no travel expenses. Access has been democratized. Which is great, right? More access is better, isn’t it?

Yes. Of course. But what comes along with that? Some collections are being digitized in their entirety, which means no selection, editing, or footnotes–good for scholars perhaps, but not for all kinds of users. Do we still need edited collections of documents anymore? Other collections are being digitized selectively, and selection is not always good for scholars. And what about the hordes of collections and materials that aren’t being digitized? Good for scholars because these “hidden collections” provide potential new material for publication, but is it bad for scholarship because many students (and perhaps some scholars) will tend to reference only the materials they find online?

And this democratization is connected with a shift in how most archives and special collections are measured and assessed by their institutions. Greater importance is being placed on measuring results and outcomes, rather than solely on the amount of material collected and processed, or the number of publications that reference the collection. This is good for most users, but it surely displaces providing a high level of service to scholars as the primary focus of the academic archives/special collections.

In short, archivists and special collections librarians are no longer the “handmaidens of historians.” We serve more users, of different kinds, and our success is measured by how broadly our materials are used.

Sharing findings

Just as access has been democratized, so has publication. A research discovery doesn’t have to wait to be announced in a peer-reviewed publication. If policies permit, users of archives can create their own digital copies of materials and post them on their own sites. Clever researchers can re-use and re-purpose digital images they find on the web. More and more archives are creating their own forums for sharing information about their collections.

Anyone with an interest can publish their thoughts about what they find in the archives. Good for the archives, good for most users . . . good for “the academy”? I’ll leave the question about whether expanded publication options are good for the academy to the experts. My interest is archives, and the relevance of this shift for our discussion is that the archives doesn’t need scholarly publications any more. Well, that’s a bit extreme. Let’s say we used to have an almost exclusive relationship, and now the archives is free to date around and see other people. The academic archives and special collections are not reliant on traditional academic publishing to get word out about our collections or raise our profile. We can do that ourselves. We love it when your publications use our materials (and we love it even more when you send us a copy), but they’re not the only, or even the primary, means of gaining recognition for our collections.

So, yes, the relationship between archives and scholarship has changed, and I think that’s a good thing for the archives. What do scholars think of this change? In a way, it doesn’t matter because the clock isn’t going to turn back. But still, I’d be interested in hearing your responses to this argument. I’ve never worked in a special collections or college/university archives, and so I’m open to being corrected about my assumptions. What about the implications for scholarship? And remember, just as this post is a candidate for publication, so are your comments and tweets in response to it, so be smart and share your opinions.

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3 thoughts on “Horrors! The archives have been hacked! Wait–that’s a good thing.”

  1. Yes, and no. 🙂 The new methods of using our archives and rare materials are selectively out there, but we are still serving scholars in traditional ways at the same time.

    One of the inherent difficulties is that we are doing ever more with flat or dwindling support in terms of staff, technology, and resources. Which means that most archives/special collections are being forced to choose what they will focus on doing, because we can’t do everything.

  2. “Yes, the old-fashioned, traditional academic archives/special collections is fading into obsolescence.”

    Errr, not exactly and I think that’s where we’re running into problems with the conversation.

    The “concept” of the “old-fashioned, etc.,” archives/special collections is certainly losing prominence, but I hesitate to say it’s going into obsolescence. And the conflation of the two institutions (archives vs. special collections) is also a part of the problem.

    @Lynne Thomas rightly points out that we still serve the same population of users, but we are facing an increase of a new population of non-traditional users of both institutions (yes, I am boringly repeating the distinction between the two entities because they are NOT the same things).

    While I applaud Hacking the Academy (the timing was bad for me or I would have tried to participate more actively), I’m not sure that it is the game changer…it’s certainly a harbinger of what things may look like in another ten years, tho’ (or am I being overly-optimistic?).

    I think that if “Hacking” represents a trend in HOW we do scholarship, then it also represents a change HOW we use research institutions (thus including all the entities, archives, special collections, data repositories, what have you). Will there be incremental changes IN the institutions? Yes, just as there have been all along. Part of our jobs as the custodians of cultural heritage is to collect, document, appraise, and arrange for access those expressions of humanity, even as they change the formats of their expression. After all, how many of us still work with clay tablets (one of the original archival records, after all!)?

    Thanks for starting this thread; hope there will be more discussion!

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