Thursday, January 20, 2011

Participatory Community Documentation

The archives community documentation model described in Cultural Heritage Collaborators is quite naturally a participatory one. Diverse members of communities work together to ensure that there is sufficient documentation to describe all aspects of their society for future generations. This type of collection development work involves archivists, museologists, librarians, the professional community members with whom they interact from day-to-day, and their patrons. However, the community documentation work I described in my book is from an archivist's perspective, relying most basically on our standard methods of collection development that include listing what information we seek and who might potentially have knowledge of it. My museum colleague, Nina K. Simon, helped add a new dimension to my thinking when I saw her new video"Visitors as Participants" yesterday. (Though I've read her book The Participatory Museum, there was something about her presentation that helped ignite a spark in my brain and I highly recommend that you watch it too.)

Though archivists create marvelous exhibits and have opportunities to create interactive and educational programming for an audience, this is not at the heart of what we do. I think it is fair to describe us as gatekeepers of information -- gathering, holding, and providing access to recorded forms of human knowledge for those who wish to delve into it. The resources we hold have the potential to educate, challenge, and open communication about human activities as much as a museum artifact. If archivists recognize this potential, we can find new and perhaps better ways of accomplishing tasks we've performed in the past.

Archives collection development relies on the attention of our communities. We need to explain to the average person why their personal papers may be of interest to us. Over and over again we hear stories about valuable manuscripts are found in someone's attic. Or, we hear about newly found documents that shed light on a particular issue, changing our thinking about history. Creating an understanding that the old papers may have value is not an easy task. The participatory museum model offers us a valuable method for public outreach and attention.

I am reiterating the need for archivists, librarians and museum professionals to work together. Here is an opportunity for archivists to collaborate neatly with their museum counterparts who are generally more expert at this type of work than we are. Through the creation of activities that invite audience participation, Nina describes institutions gathering new documentation that offers diverse perspectives on culture. The Minnesota 150  project conducted by the Minnesota History Center is one model Nina offers us. The Center sought nominations for "the people, places and things that shape our state," then created an exhibit and book based on their work. Information such as that gathered here could be a boon to archivists seeking to document humanity.

With this in mind, I will leave you with these two questions:
1. Have you explored what aspects of your community need documentation? How can you invite outsiders, who may have more knowledge about certain community activities than you, to give you their ideas about what should be documented?
2. Presuming you have a strong mission and collection development policy, and know what needs more thorough documentation in your community, how can you invite community members to give you information? How can using the museum world's participatory model help you reach out more effectively to a potential audience? Are there museum people in your community who can help you do this? How would both groups benefit?

If you are not already doing so, invite the cultural heritage professionals in your community to sit down together for discussion regularly. Explore ways you can help each other reach out to new audiences. Take advantage of your diverse expertise to make your work better and to make your community a better, more self-aware, and more culturally enriched place.

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