Thursday, May 6, 2010

Participatory Archives and Face-to Face Communication

Andrew Flinn's 'An attack on professionalism and scholarship'?: Democratizing Archives and the Production of Knowledge discusses the value of community archives and the desirability of encouraging a participatory archives model. Flinn passionately argues for the need to shift the professional archivist's thinking to include the role of the non-professional, interested citizen, to advance the work that archivists do. Embracing democratization (or democratisation with respect to my English colleague) in the archives means giving users and potential collaborators a sense of ownership in the work that we do. Flinn notes that "...archives held in the community could be as important as those held in public archives." He advocates for persuading communities to share their knowledge and that specialists in diverse fields often have a better understanding of the materials held in cultural repositories than those who are charged with caring for those materials.

Flinn seems to present a challenge in the second half of his article, if you subscribe to the idea that the next step for archives is to be more inclusive and participatory, the next step to consider is how to encourage those outside of the archives to buy-in. In my opinion we must convince potential collaborators that: 1. We value what they say. 2. We are actively listening to their input 3. Their input is being put to good use.

Flinn discusses some of evidence of success in online collaborative initiatives such as The National Archives' (UK) "Your Archives" project, while earlier in the article he notes that " themselves, new technologies do not guarantee such a transformation [to democratic impulses]."
Once again, I find myself struggling with ideas of old and new. Technology is not the only input into the community we need to consider. While it has great benefits for archives in terms of access and reaching users we may not otherwise have reached, we cannot abandon successful methods that do not relate to computers and digitization.

In tandem with Flinn's article, I am reading Nina Simon's "The Participatory Museum." Her book emphasizes how different users may need different entry points into a museum. While one may feel comfortable walking through an exhibit with a brochure in hand, another may want an audio guide. Another person may want an activity that invites them to interactive with the exhibit to keep them engaged. With this in mind, we need to consider alternative means to invite individuals to participate.

Many of the people with whom I work are not Internet savvy. In fact, many need to be cajoled into going near a computer and just trying it. It is not effective to try to convince them of the value of using a computer while at the same time convincing them of the value of archives. Perhaps in a generation or two this will change and everyone will be comfortable with a computer. When that happens, and as technology advances and the becomes more personalized, the multiple access points we use for participatory archives will need to be revisited. For now, as my blog title today suggests, we must not abandon face-to-face communication. And for those of us who have never tried getting out of the archives and into the community, now would be a good time to do it as we explore the ideas of "participatory" and "crowdsourcing."

Encouraging users to bring their archives and their ideas to professionals through thoughtful programs is one way to make outsiders feel welcome. Public speaking, networking, attending community events and just making ourselves visible is still the best way to increase trust and participation. Telling individuals face-to-face that they are important, that the histories of their families are important, and that the records they hold in their possession are important, is vital to successful collaboration and democratization of our work. If we can reach out in-person, we can show that we are listening and valuing the individuals in our community, and we will receive the support and collaboration we seek.

Our challenge then becomes putting the buy-in to good use. What kinds of collections, programs, additional access points, exhibits, etc. can we create with our new non-professional partners to show them what they say matters? Rather than creating the programs FOR an audience first and hoping they will come, this shift in thinking will allow us to create programs WITH our audience, truly democratizing what we do, while highlighting our community and civic roles, and ultimately strengthening us and our purpose.

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