Conference report: ‘shifting dialogues between users and archivists’

Andrew and I have spent two days last week in Manchester, at a conference organised by CRESC, the Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change. The conference was the last in a series exploring ‘Archiving and Reusing Qualitative Data: Theory, Methods and Ethics across Disciplines.’ This final event largely moved discussions on from the exploration of archive content and the implications of the archive for research in the social sciences to explore ‘shifting dialogues between users and archivists’ in the context of web 2.0 technologies and the phenomenon that has been described as ‘Archives 2.0’.

The focus on changing user-archivist interactions was the primary interest for us; Andrew’s paper on community archives and democratization set out the ‘potential of collaborative technologies for enhancing archival practice and incorporating a wider range of voices into the management of the archive’. Showcasing the way online community archives such as My Brighton and Hove are encouraging the development of user-generated content, Andrew explored the potential of the Web to reconcile the desire of communities to retain control of their material whilst making it as widely accessible as possible, at least in digital form. His paper provoked a lot of discussion, particularly around the issue of the extent to which user-generated content removes appraisal and selection from the process of preservation: if everything is posted on the web and if the only criteria for preservation are determined by the creators (rather than negotiated between creators and archivists) isn’t there a risk that material will in the long-run become less useful to researchers? One response to this challenge is to suggest that this reflects a re-balancing of archival power relations away from the dominance of a small elite minority and that where creators assign value is arguably of more interest to researchers than the extent to which material held within communities conforms to traditional archival categories. It is however easy to lose sight of the ‘what’s the point?’ question, both within community heritage initiatives and research projects, and it is a challenge that we will need constantly to bear in mind as we move towards the final stages of the project.

But just what is ‘Archives 2.0’? Most of the speakers understood it as a new kind of relationship between users and archivists, as the conference title suggested, allowing more user input into the collection, description and dissemination of records. Others drew on how web 2.0 technologies in general were being used to enhance the (re)use of existing archive material; Laurence Brown for example described a University of Manchester initiative to use GIS technology and Google Maps to create visualizations of the patterns of settlement described in oral history narratives about migration to Manchester in Jewish and Caribbean communities. He has also been involved in a project with Manchester Grammar School to use Google Maps to document the history of the Chinese community in Manchester. These technologies can also be used to aid reminiscence, much as photos and other visual images have been for many years. Paul Bevan of that National Library Wales took a broader view of the question, exploring how web 2.0 technology was being harnessed to enhance the visitor experience and capture (and retain) new audiences. But some of the projects labeled ‘archives 2.0’ for the purposes of this conference did not seem very 2.0 to me at all, being restricted to somewhat conventional portals without opportunities for user interaction, of which some of the presenters were positively wary (particularly those from the ‘Documents on Irish Foreign Policy’ series, who, whilst there are no doubt good grounds for their nervousness about opening up a public debate on Irish foreign policy particularly in the current tense climate seemed to confuse allowing users to comment on texts with offering them the possibility to rewrite them.) Yet as a number of speakers noted if organisations don’t embrace web 2.0 it will happen to them anyway, with people cutting and pasting material to comment on it on their own sites or twitter about it. And surely it’s better to engage actively with this trend and to seek to embrace the enthusiasm for discussion than to seek to restrict it in the hope it will go away?

An interesting additional strand was the discussion about the changing nature of what constitutes data for social science research (or how to construct the archive of the social world). I copied down a quotation from Jennifer Mason, used in Sheila Henderson and Rachel Thomson’s fascinating paper on the ‘Inventing Adulthoods’ project:

[In the context of] a cultural shift towards a popularized research culture and to the public display and sharing of personal data and information it is particularly important that qualitative social researchers are leaders rather than laggards in helping to think through what are the methodological possibilities.

In other words, it is no good relying on interview and observation data in an age where people’s lives are increasing being played out through their various digital personae and in a context where the boundary between public and private is becoming blurred. What this might mean for issues such as consent and ‘anonymity’ is particularly up for grabs. One area in which it would be interesting to take the community archives research in future is into the virtual arena, with a closer focus on the impact of online archives of born-digital material. One of the reasons why this hasn’t happened in the current project was because we balked at developing an appropriate methodology. As an occasional reader of the medianthro listserve, I remain unconvinced that anyone really has the answers yet, but it is a challenge that will have to be addressed.

There were also dire warnings also about the failure of library and archive services fully to engage with new content, especially born digital content. University libraries, Derek Law warned, had not even managed to develop strategies to manage the digital content being developed from within their own institutions, let alone outside. Predictions from the early 1990s that we would enter a ‘dark age of literacy’, with few material traces of either the activity of government or the intellectual debates that have shaped our age seem worrying close to reality. The history of computing, for example, could only be recovered by reconstructing an original Atlas machine since there were no written records of how it had been done. Apply this to the whole digital ‘revolution’ and the picture is frightening indeed.

Mary

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