Sunday, May 8, 2011

Local Archivists Moving into a Digital Realm

My Friday blog post on Social Media and Community Documentation focused on capturing information provided on social media sites that reflect a sense of community. The idea of "community" can apply to people with similar interests, online friends, and other connections. These connections are often reflected in "traditional" archives collections when we focus on collecting the papers of individuals that subscribe to theories of provenance -- keeping papers created by a particular person or body together. Such collections naturally show connections between record creators. I noted in my recent blog post that, " Archivists need to take notice of the social networks individuals are forming and how they will change the collections we create." These networks reflect a new kind of provenance that will naturally reflect connections similar to our intensely paper based special collections and archives.

Today I would like to focus on a particular community - that of a geographic locale. The papers of local historical societies and other similar local institutions focus on capturing a local identity. This blog post poses more questions related to online communities than answers to prompt local archivists to think about these issues. In my observation, with increased use of the Internet by residents, local identity does not break down as outside influences more easily flow into places that were seemingly less influenced by the world beyond small geographic boundaries. Online environments can, and many do, reflect a local geographic community and sense of place. How can we capture this digital identity and does it differ significantly from the "real" world? What changes does a local archivist see in her community's sense of place when studying the digital documentation of a region? First, using the locale as a starting point for capturing digital data how do we collect what is online to reflect our local community? Should we even try to do this?

Last week, Inside Higher Ed posted an article titled, "Archiving the Web for Scholars." The article discussed a number of interesting projects related to developing collections of online resources for documenting society. Especially noteworthy for this discussion is the American University in Cairo project to document the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, "which contains blogs, Twitter feeds, photos, videos, and online news coverage of the political tumult that engulfed the Egyptian capital this spring." The site does a remarkable job of capturing an event, reflecting a people, and showing how an online medium and outsiders influenced a truly community specific event (albeit a large community with international attention.) 

I provided the following after thoughts in my blog post last week: "Can documentation be captured and formed around a social media platform such as Facebook as a starting point or is that too large to accurately reflect society? Should we focus on smaller groups that use Facebook? Should archives that focus on particular areas focus on the Facebook groups that cover these topics? For example, should a university special collections that specializes in women's history find groups related to that topic in an online world? Will our traditional institutions be able or willing to change what they do in this way? Will we form new kinds of 'archives' to accommodate this or will all the traditional approaches just go right out the window? Are we starting from scratch? Will traditional archives separate from digital." I think the Cairo example and others in the Inside Higher Ed article show the remarkable transition that archives are now undergoing and reflects the challenges we face.

After reflection, I think that Facebook is a good starting point for considering online communities that reflect particular locales. Within my own online community, I follow NH sites on Facebook. I follow sites specific to my town including school Facebook pages. I follow "what to do in my community" type pages and I follow area associations in which I take an interest. But I also follow similar folks on Twitter. I get emails from a local Yahoo mom's group. I follow our school district superintendent's blog. Town institutions such as the local library, historical society, chamber of commerce, etc could easily reach out to our local community through the Internet. If I were running my local historical society, I would try to capture this information coming from diverse online sites to accurately reflect my particular locale. I would create a policy to explore a wide range of social media and Internet sites that may contain information about my local community. 

While the media has changed and the means to "collect" information has changed, the planning involved in creating good collections has not. A good collection development policy must be in place. We must still create some kind of strategy that considers what documentation should exist and how to capture it. In fact, it is more important to consider this than ever. We must contemplate who is creating online information in our given locale and develop our understanding of online networks to secure records (web sites, data flowing through social media, etc.) to adequately document our communities in the 21st century. Knowledge of our times cannot be separated from this ever growing and ever changing environment. A local archivist (whether a professional or volunteer "citizen archivist") must be savvy enough a computer to consider these facets of documentation.


  1. This is an interesting paper - "From Provenance to Practice: archival theory & 'return to community'”
    This adds another dimension to "collecting" records online, though the paper doesn't specifically address this issue. What is the online "provenance" of items? I wonder, for example, does a Facebook page originate with Facebook or the person (or group) who put up a Facebook site? Reilly's paper considers, "that we need to search for and recognize all participants in the creation of an archive as authors and sources of provenance." I think this especially important and challenging in a digital world.

  2. You pose very interesting questions! I am very excited about the move into the digital realm, and I find it very enriching towards our collections. But it is true: It depends on the originator and participator in the digital realm and how they are able to transpose it to their fellow colleagues as well as their collections.
    It is very difficult, and I would like to hear how to proceed?

  3. Hi Karen. Thanks for commenting. I think we are all grappling with these issues in the field right now. I do not consider myself a specialist in digital archives, but I think there needs to be more dialog between those focused on documenting communities and those working with electronic records. I see smaller institutions such as historical societies that pride themselves on keeping and promoting local culture getting left behind in this area. I think how to proceed requires more collaboration across the archives profession and beyond into museums and libraries. My book "Cultural Heritage Collaborators: A Manual for Community Documentation" discusses the principles for community documentation. I wrote it mainly with paper based records in mind, but the ideas I explore can be applied to collecting on the Internet too. Create a plan for collecting by considering who is creating what records. Work with diverse institutions across your community to discuss their documentation (in all forms). Apply appraisal theory to determine what needs to be kept and maintained for posterity. I look forward to hearing other thoughts on these issues and continuing discussions.