“Now is what matters”: My first official appearance as an “agent provocateur” at the Canadian Archives Summit

I was very honored to have been invited to present as one a group of “Agents Provocateurs” at the Canadian Archives Summit last week. It was an exciting line-up of speakers, as you can see from the program. My remarks, along with those of the other presenters, will be made available by the conference organizers, but I wanted to post them here as well. And I wanted to give some context for them. (I believe “context” may be my word for 2014.)

When I was invited to speak, I was assigned my topic (“The Role of Archives in a Digital Society”) and give a strict time limit of seven minutes. In coming up with my remarks I tried to write something genuinely “provocative” around that theme that could be effectively delivered in seven minutes. My task as I saw it was to give people something that would get them thinking and talking. Here’s what I said:

When I was approached to speak on this topic the question I asked myself was: How could or should the role of the archives be different in a digital society?  In the time I have, I will focus on two answers to that question—two activities that I think archives should make primary considerations to best meet the needs of our digital society

First, building on the title of my talk, archives should be aggressively documenting “the now.”

We all know that digital is ephemeral by its very nature. That’s well understood, and I think the processes for capturing and preserving formally-created organizational electronic records is also well understood in our archives and records community.

But the digital equivalent of personal papers is another matter.  For these we have the fragility of the digital, but also the problem that creators/custodians don’t always think of their material as having lasting value—and here I’m thinking primarily about community or grassroots groups, individual people, and others carrying out largely unofficial activities.  And, of course, that’s nothing new. But in the past non-digital letters, diaries, etc. could be stored in attics, neglected & still survive. That is not necessarily true of things like blogs, Twitter and Facebook accounts, and materials shared on tools like Instagram, Vine, Flickr, and Tumblr—which are the tools most people use today to document their daily lives.

Some archives are collecting materials created on social media platforms like these, but I suspect that this often happens in response to a tragedy or a one-time event, such an anniversary or the Olympics. But it needs to happen systematically and broadly—with archives identifying and collecting materials that document how people live their lives now.

So we need to make collection of the digital a primary focus, but in addition to capturing such materials, archives need to educate people about how to preserve their own digital material—which I believe is a key aspect of the role of archives in a digital society—making people understand their own role in documenting that society. And for this we may be able to build on the clear interest people have in documenting themselves (as displayed in the widespread use of social media tools).

My second idea about the changed role of archives for a digital society involves re-framing our mission. Often when we talk about the mission or purpose of archives, it’s all about the materials—to acquire, to preserve, to provide access to materials. Instead, I think the way we frame our mission should focus on people.

And so my second recommendation is that archives need to aggressively help and engage with people now. And help people who don’t know they need help and engage people who don’t know they want to engage.

I want to highlight two aspects of the form this would take.

First, we need to think of our mission as being:

To add value to people’s lives by increasing their understanding and appreciation of the past

In this model, the archives is a kind platform for learning, in which the collections are secondary to the learning. This recommendation has much in common with the way libraries are seeking to re-shape their mission as not being focused on books, but on providing information and being centers for learning and community

This means emphasizing the value of archivists as subject area experts on both archival matters and the historical ones relevant to their collections. In many cases it would also mean shifting resources to more outward facing functions, to outreach, education, and the creation of interactive web products.

The second aspect of this re-imagined mission would be to educate and inform people about the importance of understanding the context of information—which is very important in a digital society. Archivists understand context. Most people don’t, especially when it comes to digital information. This is related to the larger need for digital literacy – people need to be able to better understand how to interpret and identify where what they’re looking at comes from in order to better understand it.

To recap, what should the role of archives be in a digital society?

First, we should be aggressively documenting “the now.”

Because there won’t be a second chance, in many cases, to capture this documentation.  Either we do it or it’s lost. Or the function is done by others, re-enforcing the idea that archives aren’t relevant to the present

And, we should be aggressively helping and engaging with people now, moving the focus of the mission of archives to helping people build understanding and appreciation of history, and of understanding context of information in the digital age.

What would make this truly provocative would be a corresponding radical realignment of resources to focus on The Now, cutting back on investment of resources spent on our own internal proceses and processing and focus on outreach and education.

Making these two shifts would make us relevant and useful now, utilizing and building on our skills and knowledge as well as our collections. It focuses on sharing archival knowledge and the value of what we know not just what we have.

Abraham Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs traditionally peaks in “self actualization,” but scholars have noted that in later writings he articulated a yet higher level of human need: the need for self-transcendence, or furthering a cause beyond the self. Archives can help people connect with something larger than themselves—the collections that document history and the history those documents reflect.

And this, I think, is the key to the role of archives in a digital society: educate and connect with people now.

Thank you.

And now I will use this blog as a platform and ask for your help: bringing in that less-frequently-referenced part of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (self-transcendence) in reference to people interacting with cultural heritage is not original to me. I know I saw it somewhere in an article or presentation but I can’t remember or find where it was. I would very much like to properly credit the person who originated it–or at least the person in whose work I saw it. If you have seen it elsewhere, please let me know where and I’ll try to track down the right person to credit.

I think I did an appropriately “provocative” job with this, and when the other remarks by my fellow agents are online I’ll link to them as well. I applaud the Canadian archival profession for organizing the summit. It was an informative event for me and inspiring that so many people (in the room and in remote viewing locations across the country) are dedicated to initiating and continuing a conversation about the future of archives in Canada.


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One thought on ““Now is what matters”: My first official appearance as an “agent provocateur” at the Canadian Archives Summit”

  1. Yes! We must broaden our perspective to stay alive out there. Thank you for this post; it really put things into perspective for me!

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