Archives 2.0 Conference report

Archives 2.0: Shifting Dialogues between Users and Archivists was the culmination of a programme of events held by the Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change, based at the University of Manchester. The Archives Hub were very happy to be co-organisers and I certainly got a good deal out of the four seminars that I attended and this two-day conference that drew together archivists, academics and other information professionals.

The first session was called ‘Whither Archives 2.0’ (named in honour of ye olde archivists I feel!). Well, I’m not entirely sure that we could answer the ambitious question of where archives 2.0 may be going, other than in the general sense that social networks and user engagement in a broad sense is only going to gather momentum.

I think that presentations on difficult subjects often have a tendency to provide a list of challenges and issues, without necessarily providing much else. There was a danger that we would all talk about the problems and challenges, which are of course important to think about, but in fact there was a good mixture of setting out the landscape, considering the broader philosophical implications and thinking about the issues as well as presenting practical projects that have really borne fruit.

In my talk (slides available on Slideshare) I referred to Kate Theimer’s Archives 2.0 manifesto that she published on her ArchivesNext Blog a while back. There were no radical dissenters from this idea of a more open, participatory and collaborative approach in principle, but I certainly felt that there were differing levels of acceptance. There were certainly assertions that professionalism and the rigour of standards are still appropriate and necessary, and so maybe the balance is difficult to achieve. There were also some references to control – the need for the professional to have a certain level of control over the archive and over the metadata – a fascinating area of debate. Interestingly, we didn’t spend much time defining what we meant by ‘Archives 2.0’ (I think that I was the only one who did this to any extent). In principle I think this is a good thing, because it’s too easy to get bogged down with definitions, but maybe there were differences between those who would define it in the broader sense of an open and collaborative mindset and those who were more focused on the current popular tools that are on offer – Flickr, Twitter, YouTube, etc.

Michael Kennedy, presenting on Documents on Irish Foreign Policy was particularly resolute that for diplomatic archives such as those he has responsible for, integrity is uppermost. He was cautious of adopting an Archives 2.0 approach that might allow users to interfere with the text. He seemed to feel that this meant that he was to some extent rejecting an Archives 2.0 approach, but we don’t want to end up taking a draconian approach to what Web 2.0/Archives 2.0 means for archives and archival finding aids – we don’t have to let users add to the text just in order to tick the right box.

One thing that struck me about some of the projects that were presented was that they seemed very self-contained and very much to operate within their own defined space. It reminds me of the ‘walled garden’ analogy that Ewan McIntosh talked about at the JISC Conference this week. We are still tending to build our own environment in our own space and asking people to come to it – to come to a destination that we prescribe for them. Ewan talked about VLEs and how students are forced to go to them for course materials, but usually dash in and out and then go back to more comfortable and happening environments. To me, Archives 2.0 is partly about thinking out of the box – maybe thinking beyond the confines of a project website and considering dissemination more broadly. Its hard though, because I think it brings us back to that thorny issue of control, or lack of it. It means considering dropping traditional practices and ways of doing things that we are comfortable and familiar with. It means venturing into other spaces and in these other spaces we aren’t necessarily in control. But this can bring great rewards. I think that this is amply demonstrated by ‘Revisiting Archive Collections’ – an MLA project that Jon Newman spoke about and that I have referred to in a previous Hub blog. I will come back to this in another blog post, because I thought it threw up some interesting notions of context which will make this post just too long!

Derek Law, from the University of Strathclyde, talked about re-framing the purpose of the library. He wasn’t necessarily stating anything we haven’t already heard, but he did effectively drum home the message that libraries (and archives??) are simply not meeting the current challenges that the online world is throwing up. It reminded me of a recent Horizon programme on the BBC about how people react to disasters. Whilst the threat to libraries may not be quite of that magnitude, Derek did paint a picture of librarians staying stubbornly rooted to the spot in the face of rapid changes going on around them that are going to change the very nature of librarianship and what a library is…if libraries exist at all in 10-20 years time. Whilst Derek was very convincing, I can’t help reflecting that there is another more optimistic side to this. In the UK we apparently publish more books than in any other country (sorry, can’t find the source for this, but I’m sure I heard it on good authority!). So, whilst the environment is changing and libraries do have to adapt, the ‘paper free’ world that has been predicted is not looking very likely to happen in our lifetimes.

Brian Kelly from UKOLN talked to us about the risks associated with implementing Web 2.0 type features (talk on Slideshare), and emphasised that there are risks in everything and sometimes it’s worth taking a certain level of risk in order to gain a certain level of benefit. We need those who are prepared to be early implementers and early adopters, but if we take a measured approach we can avoid the all to familiar trough of despair that often follows excessive levels of expectation. Brian referred to a framework that could be used to consider and manage risk. This does seem like a sensible approach, although I guess that we started the Archives Hub blog, created Netvibes and iGoogle widgets and started Twittering without really analysing the purpose, benefits, risks and costs in any great detail. Maybe we should’ve done this, but then I like to think that we have an admirable sense of adventure, a sense of the missed opportunities that too much naval-gazing can bring about and also a general appreciation that if something takes relatively little time to do or to set up then it might be worth taking the plunge and seeing how it goes. I echo Brian’s reference to the wonderful comic strip by Michael Edison – well worth watching.

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