Participating in participatory archives

This past week has been dedicated to reading about the changing character of archives. Namely, archives that are designed to consider the public: a kind of open forum (to some extent) rather than a closed door policy. Participatory or community archives as they are called, are becoming more popular in an age of consumer and prosumer culture and crowd sourcing. As you may imagine, this is exciting for me!

Let’s start from the beginning…

french revolution

Once upon a time, government officials played the role of archivist. They ordered government records, played the role of custodian of those records and, usually, destroyed the records of the previous government when its successor took office. It took a bloody and violent revolution in France from 1789-1799 to begin the transformation of the world as we know it and (equally important to me) change the nature of record-keeping. If you missed this portion of European history class, don’t worry, there’s bound to be a movie version somewhere.  It’s essentially the same thing!

The modern archives movement, as it is referred to today, was born from the French Revolution. I know, it’s difficult to associate the term “modern” with  with a transformation that occurred over 300 years ago. There are 3 main tenets of that defined the movement:

  • Nation-wide public archival system that centralized documents
  • State responsibility for all ƒ”…Š‹˜‡•ƒ•archives as “documentary heritage of the past”
  • Accessibility of archives to the public

But history is never that easy…

Under Napoleon’s brief rule, decentralization of records was privileged.  Not until the mid-19th century did gradual changes occur. Government officials stepped away from record keeping and started doing their own job. The profession of an archivist was carved out more fully and records lasted longer than a single political term. Archivists in the archives, imagine that!


For all you archival historians out there, you know that in 1898 the “3 Dutchmen” Muller, Feith and Fruin articulated the importance of the role of archivists and on arrangement and description. Then Sir Hilary Jenkinson came along. And after him, to disprove many of Jenkinson’s theories and practices, Theodore Schellenberg arrived on the scene. That brings us to about the 1950s at which point, there was a proliferation of paper (you can read more about that in this post.) Since then, the archival profession has made some serious headway with, you know, becoming a well-respected and established profession, and contributing to scholarship that is relevant to concepts of memory, material culture, identity and history.

But what has changed…

To this day, with a few notable and trail-blazing exceptions, archives usually operate in one direction. From archivist to researcher. We are the custodians of the record and the researchers consume that knowledge. There’s a lot of literature about the departure from the role of custodian to something more dynamic. And I fully believe that single archivists are powerful beings. But, as an institution, archives haven’t come that far.

I can hear hisses and boos from the audience.


The wave of participatory archives is changing all of that. For the most part, archives and other cultural institutions do a great job acquiring materials, assembling it in a sensible manner, offering some promotion to alert the public that the collection exists, and providing  guidance about the contents of the collection. Beyond that, researchers pour over documents, arrangements and materials that are then interpreted for a different goal–say writing a book or producing a movie.

It is a rare occurrence for the public to make its mark on collections, or in some cases, define the collection. And it is at this point, this power-shifting, mind-boggling, paradigm-exploding intersection that participatory archives come to bear. As Kate Theimer posits of a participatory archive:

An organization, site or collection in which people other than the archives professionals contribute knowledge or resources resulting in increased appreciation and understanding of archival materials and archives, usually in an online environment (emphasis my own).

Theimer’s definition is the best one I’ve found so far because it encompasses the public as active participants in the production of history-making and in understanding, decoding, contextualizing or organizing material archival history. In the end, why not allow crowds to source the material? And why not give credit to them for their hard work? If you’d like to read more from her, check here. The Library has even gotten in on the game. Check out a post from The Signal here.

Of course, we are taking a page from the book of participatory culture, a term and trend that has existed far longer than it was re positioned and applied to the work in the archive. There’s a  lot of literature on this topic, some of which I’ve read, and of that it implores us not to think about participatory culture as beginning and ending with social media. While technology has increased instances of the culture, participatory culture has existed for a long time with numerous examples. Read up! There’s a lot to learn on this topic!


Why do archives include participatory elements…

So, I know of a few examples of fully integrated participatory archives where a community of some kind of almost entirely involved in the maintenance of archival materials. Most of the examples, especially coming from big institutions  can be seen in the form of incorporating participatory elements or projects into existing collections. Usually, it’s in the form of crowd-sourcing for information, facts, transcription, and decryption (which is really just trying to understand patently illegible handwriting). As Theimer explains: It’s about crowd sourcing, getting personal knowledge, adding to an archival collection or creating a new collection outside of the archive.  And, well, she’s right.

I’d add that there are several reasons that archives decide to embark on the provocative journey of inviting in the unwashed miscreants from the outside world to get their grubby fingers on the pristine work of an archivist:

It can save time.

It can save money.

It can serve as promotion for a new collection.

Some examples of participatory archives…

The now famous “What’s on the Menu?” site from New York Public Library allows visitors to transcribe old restaurant menus.

Old Weather allows visitors to transcribe ship manifests to understand weather patterns since the mid-19th century.part archv

Remember Me is a site in conjunction with the US Holocaust Museum that seeks to identify children of the Holocaust. Visitors can write in with information or scour the records of relief agencies and send information to the museum or upload it onto the site.

One of my favorite examples is the Denver Public Library’s Creating Communities site that allows self-defined communities in the area to create collections that represent their community. It’s entirely community-created and librarian-facilitated.

Vintage Toronto is a Facebook group that solicits photos of “old” Toronto to create an independent archive of materials. Old Staten Island is the same kind of group.

Thanks to Kate Theimer’s fabulous presentation for the examples. You can check it out here. It’s an excellent resource for those looking for a deeper understanding of this topic.

How this impacts ACLS…

Truthfully, at this stage in the arrangement and description of the project, participatory archives don’t apply directly to the work I’m doing with the ACLS collection. However, this collection adheres to the archival method of minimal processing, which necessarily places the onus of responsibility on the researcher more so than an item-level processed collection might. You can read more in my post here. Because I don’t sift through every sheet of paper, then it is the researcher doing item by item work that will see all the material I didn’t. In some minimally processed collections, the archive will ask the researcher for their notes about the  materials in a certain part of the collection as a way to understand it on a granular level. This all comes from a backlog of materials in archival repositories and a desire for researchers to use collections the moment they enter the archive.

While the ACLS collection will likely not have that kind of researcher intervention, it is an intriguing thought. Archivist and researcher working together to identify elements of the collection for the greater use of other researchers and scholars. Such a noble task!

2 thoughts on “Participating in participatory archives

  1. What a coincidence that you should post this today, just a few days after I posted a new presentation I did on the topic (although the presentation was given last spring)!

    I’ve actually revised my definition somewhat to explicitly include elements of audience engagement. I’m now using:

    An organization, site or collection in which people other than the archives professionals contribute knowledge or resources resulting in increased appreciation and understanding of archival materials and archives, usually in an online environment.

    This presentation, which coincidentally uses many of the same examples you cited, is available with explanatory text added, here:

    I’m glad you found my thoughts on the topic useful and I’m glad to see these ideas being discussed more widely.

    Best regards,


    • Kate,

      I checked out the SlideShare and thought I added a citation tag–I just amended my post to include a link to your presentation, which is so wonderful. I just presented on a panel at the National Council on Public History conference about the work I am doing in creating a participatory archive. Your writing reminded me that…participatory archives do exist and that people are doing such great work to engage the public in dynamic ways.

      Thanks also for the revised definition!


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