Archives-wiki, Part II: How It Will Work

A continuation of the Oct. 16th post Archives-wiki, Part I: A Proposal

How it will work:
Over the past few years, Internet programmers have developed a new open source program called “wiki,” which creates an online environment in which users can add content and the larger community can edit and update. This collaborative process will allow the Archives-wiki to harness the local knowledge of tens of thousands of researchers and archivists, allowing them to provide the kind of inside information that researchers need. This is most famously in operation on Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia described in a recent article in the Journal of American History. As Roy Rosenzweig noted in his recent survey of the information available on Wikipedia, at a simple factual level the site seems to be equal to other available sources. The site is prone to some distortions, as particular communities of specialized interest tend to make some entries much more substantive than others. For this purpose, however, that actually seems to be a benefit, as we will want to harness precisely that sense of specialized interest and enthusiasm.

Before we start this project, we need to think carefully about whether and how to institute or encourage particular structural elements that will help make the site functional and searchable. At least provisionally, we will probably want to implement a structural hierarchy based on geography—Country>State>City>Institution>Archive>Collection. This would allow us to aggregate certain amounts of information that would be common to a particular place (for instance, one would not need to repeat the photocopying policy for the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress for every collection of papers, presumably). That would help to make this more generally useful for a potential researcher, who can draw on some information about a particular place even if the site lacked information about the specific archives or collection.

Most wikis come with a search engine built in, however to make the site as effective as possible, we may want to supplement this with a fairly specific set of keywords to help narrow searches down to a specific topic or subject. Assuming the site becomes a resource for locating materials, as well as aiding in their use, this delimited tagging will be vitally important to focus subject searches and provide trails to similar material as the site grows over time. Initially, we can just use the AHA taxonomy, though it is difficult to impose that kind of standardization in such an open environment.

Beyond these organizational issues, we will want to offer some fairly specific suggestions for information, just to assure the important questions are answered. I am less certain about whether it would be helpful to shape preliminary submissions into a specific questionnaire. Just as a starting point, I can think of 15 questions that might be useful as a starting point:

  1. Location (Country, State, Locality/City)
  2. Contact Information (e.g., Phone number, email)
  3. Web site
  4. Hours
  5. Collection Summary
    a. Example: The archive includes audio/visual material relevant to the history, folklore, and folklife of Maine’s St. John Valley.
  6. Finding Aid (Perhaps a link to the online source)
  7. Archivists (principal contacts for advice on the collection)
  8. Restrictions
  9. Where to stay/How to get by on your research stipend
  10. Photocopy/Reproduction policies: How much does it cost. Do they allow you to do your own photocopying? Do you need to bring your own camera? Can you use a scanner or digital camera?
  11. Organization of materials. What kind of boxes do they use? How deep is the processing of the files.
  12. Author of materials. Particularly in files for larger organizations, it can certainly help to know who was receiving the material collected in the files.
  13. Oddities within or about the materials
  14. Suggestions for approaching the material
  15. Special Features. This can be a variety of things. Special collections, events, features of the building, etc.

Beyond the issue of archives that are located in a particular physical location, we also have to think through certain challenges related to the growing amount of archival material that is now available online. This is quickly emerging as a vital and important archival resource in its own right. One of the issues we will have to face is the challenge of determining how much publicity to give the archives of for-profit publishers who gate their materials. It is hard to ignore the trove of historical information in the various databases of historical newspapers, for instance, but it raises some concerns about the commercialization of such a project.

Unfortunately, we will also need to think through a set of policies about registration, privacy, and behavior. Presumably, we will need to have some kind of registration system, to assure we can hold someone accountable for misbehavior, such as the posting of false, misleading, or malicious information. We are particularly concerned that this does not become a forum to re-hash a particularly bad experience at an archive or an opportunity to single out a particular archivist for criticism. We need to start from the assumption that archivists are working in good faith, but need to be cautious stewards of the materials in their care and often have to work within the rules and regulations of a larger institution. To maintain such standards and procedures for upholding them, we will need to establish some rules and guidelines on what is expected.

Steps toward Implementation
Since the necessary software is open source and freely available, and by most accounts relatively easy to set up, that seems like the simplest part of the plan. The more difficult issues seem to relate to the less tangible issues noted above about the structure, shape, and policies for the project. At least initially, we will develop a draft set of policies and structures based on those employed at other wikis.

So the technical and policy issues seem well within reach. My one lingering doubt about the project is whether this will really work. As a profession, historians as researchers tend to be fairly solitary creatures, and perhaps even a bit selfish. Over the years, I have heard quite a few historians complain that another historian was “looking at the same papers,” and even a few proprietary arguments claiming a particular topic for themselves. This seems like a reason for a certain amount of pessimism about how much sharing of information we can expect from the profession. But this seems like a fairly simple and inexpensive way to test those assumptions, and ideally, prove them wrong. We also have to take into account the fact that this site should be of interest to many outside the small academic community, particularly archivists and genealogists (albeit for very different reasons).

In this formative stage, we will welcome any and all suggestions for how we might frame and develop this project, and who we should consult in the formulation of such efforts. Please feel free to comment on the posting, or write directly to Robert B. Townsend, the Association’s Assistant Director for Research and Publications. And as we move forward, we hope you will think about the archives you work at and will free to write up small descriptions along the lines above and send them in. One hopes that with enough content available from the start, we can get the project up and running fairly quickly.

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