This Week in Futurism: Finding the Historian in the Next Archive, Museum, and Library

Trends Watch 2012AHA president William Cronon’s recent article in the March 2012 issue of Perspectives on History explained how to avoid professional boredom by widening the audience for history and widening the tent under which professional historians gather. With this article and argument in mind, we look to some important discussions online now around the American Association of Museum’s TrendsWatch 2012 (PDF) and the SXSWi (South by Southwest Interactive) conference. Historians should consider how museum professionals and archivists are projecting themselves into the future.

TrendsWatch2012 covers some familiar but still interesting ground. It explains that we can expect to see more augmented reality and crowdsourcing (here’s AHA Today’s take on that), and a spilling over into the community (get ready for the food-truck museum). Also, prepare for schools and museums to become closer partners, according to the AAM, and at the other end of the demographic spectrum, expect to see more outreach to and participation by seniors.

Reporting from SXSWi, Butch Lazorchak, writing for The Signal, a Library of Congress blog, expects to see “librarians, archivists and museum professionals (LAMs) rule the world”—and soon. They’ve already honed the skills, technologies, and concepts, he claims, that are at the forefront of innovation—across disciplines and economic sectors. Any historians interested in getting in on this quest for global domination might want to read AHA Executive Director James Grossman’s thoughts on “Big Data,” published in this month’s Perspectives on History.

Kate Theimer at ArchivesNext notes, in a couple of posts (here and here), that something more fundamental is going on—a “blurring of organizational roles.” She’s thinking primarily of the blurring between librarians, archivists, and museum professionals (which, noted earlier, Lazorchak calls LAMs), but there’s no reason we shouldn’t throw historians into this mix.

One prosaic example: Now that digital photography is commonly practiced by researchers, and now that entire books can grabbed from Google or HathiTrust, how many historians have found themselves with a large and growing (if idiosyncratic) archive? Managing this collection has become a part of historians’ workflows, sometimes a boon to productivity, sometimes a millstone. A very well managed collection might even lead to new insights and unexpected projects. Every professional historian must consider becoming an amateur archivist.

If these lines continue to blur, what does the future of the historical profession, under Cronon’s big tent, look like? What does the historian as information worker have to offer?

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