Monday, January 20, 2014

From Where Does Information Come?

My archivist colleague Kate Theimer at ArchivesNext made a fabulous speech for the American Historical Association that she shared in her blog.  A Distinction Worth Exploring: “Archives” and “Digital Historical Representations addresses the context and provenance of archives in their various forms. This post should be required reading for all archivists and historians. Furthermore, it can lead to to a larger discussion of the creation and context of information in general and how such information should be understood and evaluated by the general public. This is an idea I've been tossing around for some time and I felt that Kate's article helped open the door to my thinking a little bit.

Informational resources were once precious. Once upon a time, not that long ago, the encyclopedia salesman convinced us that owning a set of Brittanicas was a key to knowledge. It was an expensive purchase. If we were lucky enough to afford it, that relatively small set of books was treasured. It had its very own bookcase that was given a prominent space in the house. Kids would rely on it for homework and entertainment. (I remember plastic sheets between thin pages of the anatomy section that showed us cross-sections of the human body that somewhat satisfied curiosity.) Britannica was a name to be trusted. We believed that if it came from Brittanica, it had to be good information. We did not have to rush to the public library immediately when something needed clarification, yet we knew that the information in the Encyclopedia was finite and sometimes we needed to seek more. The encyclopedia was our very own clarification tool. And because it was a well-thought out tool, it would refer us to the places that had more information on our subject. We would even stumble across references to "archives" between the Encyclopedia's pages.

Today, the encyclopedia as a tool of information is relatively ignored. We can hop on the Internet to "find things out." Many believe that one of the top five Google hits must have what we need. If the title of the first web site brought up in Google's findings doesn't match what we think we need, we just move to the next resource on the list. Do we care who posts our answers there? Does the general public care if the information came from the primary source or from someone 100 times removed? Does it matter if it's a blog or a "digital historical representation"? Does it matter if a Wikipedia article was put together by a group of experts or seemingly educated hobbyists? Most of the information placed on the Internet is not well-conceived.

It is an important part of an archivist's job to make sure that our little corner of the digital world is "well-thought out" and promoted. Digital projects like DPLA and the ones mentioned in Kate's article must be brought more boldly to the general public's attention.

While it is very important for the archivist to help the historian understand the different aggregates of archives, it is equally important for the archivist to help the general public understand these distinctions. Kate Theimer asks, "how much do historians know about archives and what more would be helpful or necessary to assist in their work." She also asks what can historians tell the archival profession about how digitization has changed their work so that we can better assist them? I ask, how much does the general public understand about primary sources? What can THEY tell US about how they gather information in an online environment so that we can better help them get the reliable answers to assist  their learning.

Anecdotally, I know that people will "Google" a question or keywords rather than stopping to think what place might most logically have information. For example, based on personal observation, I believe that if the average person visits the Museum of Fine Arts, sees a work by John Singer Sargent and wants to learn more, that person will more likely Google "John Singer Sargent" than look for more information about him within the museum walls. The Internet has become The Encyclopedia Brittanica without the idea that the encyclopedia is finite and there is more information elsewhere. The larger problem is that we can carry the encyclopedia in our pockets now. We turn off our brains sometimes and just reach for what is easy and known.

Archivists have always had to explain what they do, but now it is even farther removed for a new generation. Many think that if it is not on the Internet it doesn't exist. I will argue that it is very important for archivists to bring educators into a dialogue. What do teachers, on all levels, know about archives and archivists? How can we help explain to a new generation of students that understanding from where our information comes is very important.? As Kate says, " Digital technology has increased the user base for archival resources, meaning that the connection between our historian users and archivists is more diluted than it was in the past." I would like to add that the connection between archivists and the general public is more diluted too. Very soon, our younger generation may have no perception of any archives at all. We are not just explaining the term "archives" anymore, we are also explaining the idea of the record creator in a way that we never thought we would have to explain. We need to explain that computers are not all knowing. There are people behind their processes and the information that they give us. 

Individuals need a deeper understanding of from where information comes to become good citizens. Very soon, it will be very difficult to help citizens untangle the world of archives so that they can also be good historians. I worry about not only where that will leave archives, but also where that will leave society. 

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