Last week I posted a small contest to give away some copies of the recently-published book I edited, A Different Kind of Web: New Connections Between Archives and Our Users. The challenge was to answer this question in a few sentences: “Why are effective use of social media and participatory technologies critical to the success of archives in the future?”
I said I would pick two winners, but there were so many great entries that I couldn’t resist picking three. And they are . . .
From Amanda Hill, currently residing in Canada:
Using the web effectively is just one strand in the outreach work of an archive. It’s a critical one because of its potential reach. Community initiatives (also highly important) reach a local audience but the online presence of an archive stretches beyond that to engage a much wider pool of potentially interested (and interesting) people. If that online presence encourages user participation in the work of the archives then the relevance of that work becomes more obvious and demonstrable to both the users and (crucially) the funders of the service. It breaks down the barriers between ‘expert’ and ‘user’ so that archivists are seen by their public as more ‘us’ than ‘them’. In a future of uncertain funding, an engaged and relevant archive service will be in a strong position when it comes to mobilizing support.
From Yvette Hoitink in The Netherlands:
Just like it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a crowd to understand an archive. Different people will value different aspects of documents. A genealogist may recognize a family member, a local historian a location and a journalist a good story. Similarly, all of them may have knowledge that can contribute to an understanding of the document. Tapping into that wealth of knowledge out there will make archives far more usable and relevant to the public. If we do it well, we can create a snowball effect by making the collections more accessible, thus attracting more people, a portion of whom will pitch in.
So that was the ideological answer, here’s the mundane one: because we have way too many records to ever be able to describe them on all on the level that answers our users’ questions. We simply lack the funding. We can only hope our visitors will help us, if we provide the tools.
At the Nationaal Archief, the National Archives of the Netherlands where I work, we’ve just put registration cards online of Japanese internment camps in the former Dutch East Indies during WWII. The feedback has been incredible, and some of the stories behind the ‘dry’ names on the cards just chilling. It shows the power of a simple new function like a reaction form on all our archival description pages.
And last, but not least, from Josh Zimmerman in our United States:
Social media and participatory technologies provide widely accessible spaces where the public can creatively and meaningfully engage with, use, translate, mashup, comment on, re-envision, manipulate, describe, and ultimately add context and value to our collections and repositories. They offer room for inviting the public into discussions of the overall societal importance of archives, which will strengthen the archival profession internally, while improving the public perception of our profession. It will allow archives and archivists to finally realize their role not as guardians or gatekeepers, but as facilitators of relevant and valuable information. They also offer opportunities to lay wide open our decision-making processes for all to see, thus educating users and promoting transparency, accountability, and democracy.
There were at least four people who gave these people a run for their money (or in this case free books), and I’ll be highlighting them as well next week. There were several interesting answers which also argued that, in fact, this was not critical, and I think we can have some interesting discussions about that. But, for now, from Chicago, congratulations to the winners and I hope their responses give you some inspiration. If you didn’t win and want a copy of the book, if you’re here at the SAA meeting I’m available to sign it for you Thursday night in the exhibit hall or any time you see me.