Four “places” for archives to interact with users

So, building on the post from a few days ago with Clay Shirky’s observations about how to create a situation that will lead to fruitful collaboration with online users, I’m going to talk about four different “places” where archives invite user participation, and the kinds of implicit and explicit social contracts created by them. This is the first time I’m presenting these ideas, which need a lot more work and thinking through, but in the spirit of collaboration, I’m sharing them here in their raw form.

Moving from the most “open” to the most “closed”:

1) Sharing selected collections on an open, commercial site

This means sharing material on sites like Flickr and YouTube. These sites are wide open to a public that is not necessarily looking for archival content. Users may tag, comment, and otherwise interact with what you are sharing without much control on your part.

2) Sharing selected content on a fee-based commercial site
This describes sharing excerpts from your collections on sites like and These sites are all or partially open only to those who pay a fee to access them. They exist only to share historic documents and information, and so attract users who are interested in this kind of material.

3) Soliciting interaction in an an area on your own site (or controlled by your archives)
This includes wikis hosted or sponsored by your archives (YourArchives, etc.) and institutional blogs. I suspect these should really be split, because the kinds of interactions users have on wikis vs. blogs are quite different, but for now let’s leave them together. (I think the Bentley’s Polar Bear Expedition site belongs here too.) The common denominator is that user contributions are welcomed but in a space explicitly created and controlled by the archives.

4) Soliciting interaction within the online catalog or finding aid
This includes allowing things like tagging and commenting on the “official” description of the materials. (Not sure where catablogs fit into this–they may a hybrid of 3 & 4.) I’m not aware of many archives who have opened up their online catalog or finding aids, so I’d welcome comments if you have any examples.

So, going back to Clary Shirky’s comments, how would the different implicit and explicit social contracts established in these different venues affect how users will contribute? First, what are the factors that make up that social contract? I think they would include things such as:

  • explict, written rules and policies for the site
  • implicit codes of behavior of users on the site, including whether or not they “self-police”
  • guidance provided by the archives about what kind of contributions they want
  • expectations of users about what they should be contributing
  • whether or not login or registration is required to add content
  • whether or not you must pay a fee to access information and/or make a contribution
  • the tone or formality of the site

So, to recap, I think we can take Shirky’s ideas about social contracts affecting how users participate in social media and apply them to these different types of spaces in which archives interact with our users. (Actually, I think that perhaps #3 and #2 might need to be flipped if we’re moving from the most open to most closed.) I’d like to hear people’s thoughts on the division of our spaces into the these four tentative categories, and also on that list of factors affecting our social contracts. I also suspect that the nature of the materials being shared also plays a part. Is it surprising that an editorial about the Iraq war attracted a different type of participation than open government data sets?

As usual, this post is a reaction to several things I’ve seen lately–both the Shirky video and Tom Scheinfeldt’s recent post, “Privatizing Holocaust History” on the FoundHistory blog, specifically the last paragraph in which he expresses concerns about the use of social media with materials related to the Holocaust. I strongly suspect that the social environment created in around those documents is not one that will encourage the kind of user abuse that Scheinfeldt feared. One of Footnote’s co-founders, Chris Willis, wrote in a comment, “To date we’ve seen member participation skyrocket and abuse diminish.” Would that also be true if the materials were posted on Flickr, for example?

Another aspect of this discussion is how comfortable our users (or some of our users) are with having participation in these spaces. But that’s a topic for another day.

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8 thoughts on “Four “places” for archives to interact with users”

  1. I’d generally agree with the four divisions you’ve got here, and also say that the most ‘open’ model (flkr, youtube) is going to be where the most interesting things happen, and also by default the place where ‘we’ have less control.

    For me what might be missing is the context of interaction and what users wish to achieve by interacting with archival material (and each other). Is this the space where ‘knowledge work’ occurs? Iterative research, collaborative learning? I’d say there might be a missing space where knowledge communities build online digital collections and interact around them, these are largely highly bespoke and fragmented collections. In addition, there are online learning spaces (Blackboard and so on?) So yes, the content selected is highly relevant, as this dictates the context of the community and what they want to achieve.

    Another factor contributing to the social contract — clear sense of shared purpose for contribution? Perhaps not in the Shirky model. Not sure.

    A bit of an impartial response, but just some thoughts.

  2. This is great, Kate! There might be a fifth area, too. It’s like 3 but hosted in a neutral site. Control in this context equals power. The more control we have the more power we have in relation to the users. There are some instances where interaction with users should be pretty balanced powerwise. But not in an open, crazy way like flickr. More in a collaborative, eexpertise-driven way. This relates to Joy’s ideas of knowledge work communities. There could very well be places where we have the stuff, but very little expertise about it. Partnering with a community, in a neutral space, as power equals would be a useful model too.

  3. Ok, so are these three comments all getting at the need for a new category:

    Sharing content on collaborative scholarly [?] site
    This means sharing selected content on a collaborative site that hosts contributions from many sources on a single topic to create a virtual collection. Such sites also foster collaboration among visitors and actively encourages contributions.

    Is that getting at it? Anyone know of any other examples–in addition to the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank?

  4. Kate, regarding #4, what about a program like CONTENTdm which allows users to “favorite” items within a catalog or digital collections website? They can then view this subset or (in CONTENTdm at least) export the set to another file format such as Powerpoint, including the metadata. I guess this isn’t adding to the record or finding aid, but using that material in an individualized way.

    Is #4 placed there because it is currently unavailable? Or because the interaction is only with the descriptive information? It seems to me that the #2 system is the most restrictive – in access, expectation of users, expectation of use.

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