Archives 2.0 — If We Build It, Will They Come?

Tomorrow, Jane Stevenson and I will be presenting at “Archives 2.0: Shifting Dialogues between Archivists and Users” (along with Hub alumnus, Amanda Hill). The title of my talk is ‘Archives 2.0: If We Build it, Will They Come?” Yes (sigh) it’s a reference to the film, Field of Dreams where Kevin Costner builds a baseball field as a pure act of faith that They Will Come (including his dead dad) once he’s done.

It’s one of those titles that you think was a good idea at the time when you submit a proposal, and then comes back to haunt you when it comes to pulling everything together. That said, there was method in my madness, and one the main issues I plan to talk about tomorrow is that of user participation. In other words, we might well be able to build the framework for Archives 2.0, but this does not mean that users will participate.

At this present and very early moment in the history of Archives 2.0, are we in danger of being technologically deterministic? In other words, are we so beguiled by what is possible in this heady time of 2.0, where the Machine is Us/Using Us, that we place more emphasis on the technology than on the precise contexts in which we deploy that technology? While we might believe in the ‘Wisdom of Crowds,’ that wisdom is not necessarily translating into archives (or even necessarily library) 2.0. Why?

Here’s an overview of what I plan to discuss:

  • Archives 2.0 as ‘Postmodernity meets ‘Traditional’ Archival Science
  • The problem of technological determinism (i.e. the story we tell ourselves where technology drives change)
  • The problem with the ‘Wisdom of Crowds’ approach to Archives 2.0
  • The promise of a ‘Community of Practice’ approach to Archives 2.0

I’ll have my own slides on slideshare before the end of the week, along with Jane’s. But for now, I invite your comment.

What Are Archives? (Or, Shameless Plug for Archives Hub Authors)

(And as I am not one of the authors in question, I can do the shameless plugging:)

I’m proud to announce that two of our colleagues here at the Hub, Jane Stevenson and Paddy Collis, have been included in this important anthology of essays What Are Archives? Cultural and Theoretical Perspectives: A Reader. The collection has been edited by Louise Craven of The National Archives (UK) and brings together a range of voices around this complex question. Underpinning the question, ‘What Are Archives?’ is a fundamental change in perspective where new answers to that question are beginning to emerge, as Craven notes. We are now, she says, beginning to adopt a wider perspective, “looking at archives from the outside, rather than from the inside” (Preface).

Jane Stevenson’s contribution, ‘The Online Archivist: A Positive Approach to the Digital Information Age,’ is an excellent overview of the practical issues that emerge in the realm of ‘online archives.’ She considers the evolving skillsets needed by information professionals in general and archivists in particular, especially around emerging technologies. “We need to know how to share and exchange data, how to structure finding aids to enable sophisticated searching, what the advantages and disadvantages are of using controlled vocabularies…”(90). Above all, she says, “If the archive profession does not address this need to change and adapt to meet the needs of the new information society, we run the risk of being sidelined in this most crucial area of work”(105).

Paddy (Gerard) Collis’s essay, ‘Permitted Use and Users: The Fallout Shelter’s Sealed Environment’ takes an altogether more exploratory and philosophical approach to the central question of the collection. Through a series of meditations on the ‘archives’ such as the caves at Lascaux, nuclear waste repositories, and avant-garde art exhibits, Paddy asks us to question our perhaps restricted notion of ‘the archive,’ and significantly the polarising concept of the ‘casual’ visitor versus the ‘serious’ researcher.

Well done to both Paddy and Jane for these valuable contributions. We’re very lucky to have you sitting in desks across from us!

Beyond Brochures — A Few Thoughts about Marketing

The Archives Hub is headed for a bit of a makeover this autumn, and lately my head has been spinning with buzzwords like ‘brand identity,’ ‘brand values, “strategic marketing” and ”USPs,” (Unique Selling Points — for those who don’t know…I didn’t). For someone like me who’s been in the HE sector for many a year, these terms lift me out of my comfort zone — from academia, where we like to be low-key about these matters (or at least act that way) to the business world, where we suddenly asked to think about our users and stakeholders as ‘customers.’

On the other hand, the process is an exciting one, and I am learning to rethink my view of ‘Marketing’ as something much more than advertising and spin. An excellent book I can recommend to anyone in our sector who is undertaking marketing or promotional activities is Developing Strategic Marketing Plans That Really Work: A Toolkit for Public Libraries by Terry Kendrick. (Incidentally, I learned from Kendrick that Marketing and Promotions are certainly not the same thing — more on that below). Obviously, we’re not a public library, but Kendrick’s points are very applicable to those who are running library or archival services that are funded by public money. Significant amounts of this money are devoted to services like ours, and maximising value from this expenditure requires that we communicate effectively with our users. We need to demonstrate value to “meet, and hopefully exceed, government standards and performance targets” (2).

Kendrick points out that marketing as a concept is often misunderstood — it is not synonymous with advertising and promotions, which is just one facet of marketing. Instead,

“Marketing is a dialogue over time. In other words, it is a two-way process which is not simply the sending out of messages from the library to users or non-users. In our everyday lives all of us are bombarded with advertising messages and slogans, many of which completely wash over us… For libraries this suggests that the most effective marketing is based upon an ongoing conversation with users and non-users and not simply upon slogan-based marketing campaigns.”

This approach to marketing appeals because this is something that many of us in this profession strive for — understanding and responding to user’s needs. I realise that a great deal of the planning and engagement we undertake at the Hub could fall under the umbrella of ‘marketing activity.’ This doesn’t mean that all we are is ‘marketers,’ but it does highlight that user-engagement is central to what we do, and that engagement comes in many forms (whether via a usability test or the Hub’s interface, or a meeting with our colleagues at The National Archives and other archival networks to discuss where we are headed as a collective). What we need to be clearer about is our mission, our values, and where we want to be headed.

Thankfully, our central mission is coming into sharper focus, and this autumn, in addition to a surface makeover, we’re looking forward to creating a marketing strategy that achieves a more effective dialogue with our users.

Personalisation and Resource Discovery (Or, Can the Archives Hub Learn a Few Lessons From Amazon?)

As the team thinks carefully about the future of the Hub, we are pressed to examine current trends and developments surrounding the UK (and broader) Information Environment, and to make sure our long-term strategic aims are in line with those trends. In other words, we need to predict which technologies and user-expectations are going to take a hold, and make sure the Hub is in step with that future. Understanding those trends and these possible futures is no simple matter, and the trend of ‘Personalisation’ is a perfect example of a seriously complex area that we must examine with real scrutiny.

JISC (our funders) are investing a lot of time and revenue into personalisation — funding several studies in the area, including this one — Developing Personalisation for the Information Environment and encouraging its services to consider ways in which users might have personalised experiences when accessing and using content. The first of these studies has specifically looked at the relation of JISC services to social-networking and collaborative environments, surveying all ‘web 2.0’ implementations currently in effect within JISC services. The second study, still underway, continues this scoping work, but aims to look specifically at ‘opportunities to personalise sites adaptively in a way that is transparent to the user’ (see page 1 of their interim report).

What is ‘adaptive personalisation’ and what might it mean for services like the Hub? Many JISC services offer some sort of personalisation where users can customise their experiences — for instance Zetoc’s RSS alerts, Copac’s search RSS, or Intute’s bookmarking tools — but adaptive personalisation is different in that the system uses information it knows about a user to ‘push’ content. This technique is already used to great effect by commercial organisations, the most obvious being Amazon and eBay, who collect usage data (what you searched, what you clicked on, what you bought) to suggest or ‘recommend’ items to you.

This is a rather clever marketing technique, but of course from a resource discovery standpoint, there is a great deal of potential — notwithstanding the fact that you need a vast amount of usage data to make this form of personalisation meaningful. In my days slogging through the Ph.D., I often found Amazon a useful research tool for discovering books that my library searches had not uncovered — I would search for a book that I already had, and scavenged the ‘people who bought this, also bought this’ lists. (I suppose this might be cheating, but I prefer to call it ‘enterprising’!) In the interdisciplinary field I was researching (history of technology) this was a highly productive method of surfacing relevant records, as the library metadata might not necessarily reflect the subject matter.

More interestingly, however, is the fact that not only was I finding content, I was also — if on a very peripheral level — engaging with a community of peers. People ‘like me’ who were also interested in the same research questions (or, in more mercenary terms, I knew what the competition was up to).

So what will the Archives Hub of the future look like? More to the point, what will be the experience of Archives Hub users? These are questions that form the focus of a think-tank meeting we are holding next week here in Manchester. Our Steering Committee, along with some other stakeholders, will be joining us to think collaboratively about our future, and we’re very much looking forward to it. Will personalisation (in its many forms) or social networking have a role here? And if so, in what ways? Will the Hub users of the future find records ‘recommended’ to them? Will they be able to share, comment, or annotate records (will they want to?) All of these questions, of course, get at the very heart of what it is we do as a profession (archivists, information professionals, researchers) and in some ways begin to undermine some of our traditional practices or assumptions about cataloguing and standards — what it actually means to describe something. Who gets to describe (and who doesn’t)? For what purposes?

It’s tricky territory, for sure, but exciting and challenging nonetheless. We’d be curious to hear your thoughts about these issues, and especially in terms of the Hub’s future. In turn, we’ll look forward to sharing with you what we learn from our day.