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.
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16 thoughts on “Building participatory archives”

  1. Hello Kate,

    This is a wonderful initiative, and I would love to contribute. Maybe the literature I used for my thesis ( could help in assembling a nice bibliography. Yakel and Huvila have indeed written very eloquently on the subject already.

    Regarding defining the term ‘participatory archive’ or ‘citizen archivist’ (among others), this will always be problematic. Listing what definitions are out there is already a great start, very nice to see the history of these terms, and have various takes on it collected in a clear overview.

    I’ll be following this, very interesting!



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  3. Hi Kate,

    I tackle this from the “community archives” perspective in my new book “Cultural Heritage Collaborators” with a focus on collaboration between professionals, non-professionals, & people whom I call “quasi” professionals (non-archivists charged with managing archives as part of the job description.) While I do not address web 2.0 and rather focus on collection development (in the “old-fashioned” sense, if you will) I am interested in seeing how the creation of strong collections invites greater participation and a working toward the betterment of all aspects of archives management.

    Terms in our profession always seem to invite controversy. I have been using the term “community documentation” to discuss how communities can pull together their history through records, but I had a back-and-forth e-mail conversation with Helen Samuels about the development of the term she coined and how it has strayed from her original definition and understanding of it. I think that “citizen” culture will similarly evolve, take on new meaning, and remain different things to different people.

    I agree with Lotte and will be following along.


  4. This reminds me tangentially of Antonio Gonzalez Quintana’s closing call in the “Archives on Trial” at SAA (Session 408) for archivists to be truly independent agents; independent of government/corporate/institutional influence and responsive to the needs of citizens. I think he realizes (as do I) that this is more of an aspirational goal than a realistic one, but in my opinion, it’s still worth thinking about in this context…

  5. The first thing that I think of immediately when you say “participatory archives” is:
    Katie Shilton & Ramesh Srinivasan “Participatory Appraisal and Arrangement for Multicultural Archival Collections” Archivaria 63 (Spring 2007)
    If you haven’t read it, it is definitely worthwhile [it is still in the Reserve Collection – lemme know if you want me to send you a copy]

  6. Thanks, Kate, good post. I agree about “the need for transparency and openness about, and in the work of, the archivist.” This can be difficult to achieve, especially within a governmental structure, because there are a number of forces that pull towards caution and result in a closed culture. Not necessarily in the outcomes of mission work – institutions such as the National Archives obviously strive to disclose as much as laws and best practices allow from historical records. But much of how that is done is opaque, which can lead to confusion and falsely premised assumptions on the part of some researchers. (Some of whom have blogged about their assumptions, with little or no engagement by the archival institutions.)

    Hillel’s point about “independent archivists” is interesting, too, and dovetails with Kate’s point about transparency. Only by sharing how things really work can archivists hope to get effective support from those who would or could advocate on their behalf. Yet there are few forums and means for discussing “the real world” of archival work. It certainly is difficult to do at institutional blogs. If NARA’s current blogs are anything to go by, there’s a pretty strong sense of “sticking with the theme of the day” and application of message discipline. It’s that way throughout the government. Listservs where people post under their own names have obvious limitations for the sharing to stories about how things are and how they could be improved, especially if archivists face difficult challenges or serious problems. If anyone has any ideas for how to improve transparency about the work environments that archivists deal with in the public and private sector, I certainly would be interested in hearing them. My thanks to Kate for a post which provides us all a lot of food for thought in many areas.

  7. Hi Kate,

    Exited to read this summary. It really brightens a stormy and windy evening here in Amsterdam.

    Working as head of Research at the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision (with Lotte, who already commented above) I’m specifically interested in how annotation workflows in these new emerging participatory archives will look like. As they will also impact the way users can search and reuse our content. There are some thoughts I would like to share.

    Central to my research is the impact of what I call the “quatriple synergy” [1] i.e. technology that combine user-based collaborative tagging, social network structures, multimedia content analysis and existing knowledge contributed by professional cataloguers/curators.

    These topic are all covered by the issues you list in your post, except maybe multimedia content analysis. A wide range of technologies can be used to validate input by end users in crowd sourcing initiatives. An obvious example would be to compare the output of a speech-to-text engine with tags from end-users.

    You will also be interested to learn about ongoing discussions within the community regarding “issues of authority”. A policy statement on this topic will be published this fall.

    Finally, licensing of data is an issue of growing importance. Archives should use the Open Database License to license their content and make it part of the LoD cloud [1]. From the users’ side, CC is doing some interesting work on Public Domain Norms [3]

    Looking forward to your next contributions!

    Best wishes,

    [1] This is inspired by the triply synergy proposed by the Petamedia project I’ve added the institutional knowledge.

  8. Wow Kate, At last I feel as though I am reading something which I can instantly connect with. It has taken me 3 years to get my website off the ground a month ago and it is hard going. I love the idea of a community archivist which is essentially what I am doing within one parish. The internet is a great place for sharing data but in the UK there are hoards of jealously guarded archives which make life difficult. You have cheered me up, today! Many thanks.

  9. Thought provoking post, Kate. Some of the responses characterize archives as though they’re monolithic, which seems a bit misguided to me. There isn’t one way for “archives” to be in the world. There’s a real need for some archives to be connected to institutions and to work on record-keeping and retention of significant information for the long term. I think the issue of transparency is a key one, and the “issue of the day” comment someone made regarding NARA is really interesting. I think David Ferriero’s work thus far at NARA is a breath of fresh air, but all the carefully politically buffed blog posts in the world won’t make NARA’s inner workings more transparent, which would be the real revolution therein. Cathy Baily gave a fascinating, self-reflective talk in session #407 at SAA about appraisal documentation at LAC. Transparency, especially in terms of how decisions about collecting, processing, and access get made, is an issue that I think needs to be considered in the discussion about rush towards “citizen archivists” needs to be tempered by. Citizens and communities are as totalitarian, abusive, and exclusionary as any archival repository (ask any LGBTQ person who has grown up in one). It seems to me that it is less the open embrace of “citizenness” and more the push toward transparency (with some kind of meaningful professional standards beyond things like a “what I’m reading” link on the national archivist’s blog) that should be a key focus of discussion.

  10. Sorry to be only contributing to this very interesting post & subsequent discussion a little late. But it is very stimulating and exciting to see this discussion emerging in so many different places at once. Certainly the ideas for participatory archives and democratised archives are being discussed in the UK as well as elsewhere, including by students and lecturers at my own instituion, Universty College London. Indeed these ideas were part of a session at the recent UK SofA / ARA conference held in Manchester, with reference to encouraging user participation in appraisal and description.

    I certainly agree that the articles by Katie Shilton & Ramesh Srinivasan and by Isto Huvila are very good starting points on puting this into practice, but there are a range of other useful work outside the archive world which I have used extensively in my work on independent & community archives, including Elizabeth Crooke on community museums and a recent special issue (soon to be published as a book) of International Journal of Heritage Studies on communiy engagement accross the heritage world. People from outside the UK might also might like to look at the Revisiting Collections (museums) and Revisiting Archive Collections methodologies which explore similar territory (

    A few thoughts and comments. There are many different terms in use here – participatory archives, independent archives, community archives, the democratised archives, citizen archives/ists, etc, etc. I think, whilst not getting too hung up on terminology and definition, we do need to think about what distinguishes these terms and what are the similarities / commonalities.

    We should also recognise that independent, community archivies and participatory methods are not necesary new but perhaps are being increasingly acknowledged and recognised as being important. What we need to think about now is what relationship archival professionals should / can / want to have with these initiatives and endeavours. Whilst not perhaps the route for all archives, I do think the future for many archives and arcivists is in opening up their work and their processes to greater oversight and participation by a range of different user (& non-user) groups. Jeannette Bastian’s constuction of ‘communities of the record’ might be useful here. Although difficult and involving experimentation, ultimately I believe involving more people and different views in archival processes will result in a richer, more acountable and more democratic archival heritage. The participatory archive seems to exemplfiy exactly what Kate originaly defined Archives 2.0 as, ie not a technology but a cultural shift to greater openness and collaboration in archival practice.

    I wonder whether there isn’t scope for an international discussion / conference / something or other to discuss an agenda for moving towards a democratised or participatory archive.

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