Freeing archival collections from traditional structures creates a new mode of interaction between users and a repository’s collection. The perception of the archives as an institution changes from a controller of information to an open container.
Rather than seeing this perception as a ceding of authority, archivists should consider the possibilities inherent in granting greater autonomy to users.
Technological advancements, such as powerful collections management systems (CMS), have been both a disruptive force to the archival field as well as an opportunity for participatory approaches. These methods seek to shift archival authority to the communities represented in the materials. Doing so strives to fill gaps in the historical record. With online collections, especially, materials can reach audiences beyond physical repositories.
Regarding digital collections, archivists question assumptions about authorship, authority, context, and hierarchy. Harnessing the power of collections management systems and other technological tools expands the reach of participatory archiving and broadens the cultural record.
An archival repository, especially with improved collections management practices, always benefits from partnerships with other institutions. Many organizations lack the resources to create projects. Working with other institutions shares project development time and costs. Explore with other institutions how the new CMS will allow your collections to be more discoverable.
To reach wider audiences, use applications. Organizations may be able to use existing commercial services to display their collections. Although placing images on a photo-sharing site, for example, may raise copyright and branding concerns, the action provides an affordable, low-maintenance opportunity to introduce audiences to the collections. Archivists may wish to start with collections that have already been digitized, since digitization projects can be lengthy and expensive. If a project leverages existing digitized or born-digital assets, development time decreases.
Consider other ways in which you can use your CMS to promote participatory archives in a digital context. For example, you may wish to use crowdsourcing software. By doing so, the institution may enlist community members to describe images, transcribe handwritten script, translate from or into other languages, or tag items.
Archives on the Go
Investigate how to use mobile technology to access archival collections. Smartphone use differs from desktop web applications as the mobile user is frequently concerned with material related to their current geographic location. Among the many collections held by an institution, some are more useful when viewed via mobile technology for immediate access.
Investigate the best technology for collection needs. One organization may develop a walking tour that accesses materials from a local collection, whereas another institution may make digitized maps available for download. Staff members can build some projects, whereas others require the assistance of design companies. Involve your users in the design process. To ensure adoption of the final application, encourage feedback throughout the design process. An institution’s visitors can provide insight into an application’s interface and structure. By integrating users into the development process, an archives can also begin building an audience for the application at an early stage.
Responding to Current Events
Participatory archival initiatives respond to current events, seek ongoing contributions, and document issues important to their mission. Archival repositories can harness their collections management systems to take increasingly collaborative and interdisciplinary approaches to records creators. Doing so creates more representative and inclusionary enduring records of historical value.
Margot Note, archivist, consultant, and author is a guest blogger for Lucidea, provider of ArchivEra, archival collections management software for today’s challenges and tomorrow’s opportunities. Read more of Margot’s posts, and register here for her upcoming webinar, “Leveraging Collections Management Systems for Optimal Benefits ” on November 18th.
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