October 16, 2006
By Robert Townsend
One of the more ambitious projects that we hope to unveil this winter is Archives-wiki—a web-based guide to archival collections by and for researchers on historical subjects. Even for someone well-practiced in archival research, going to work in an archives for the first time can be fraught with an array of unique problems and challenges, many of which have to be assessed and determined from afar. This can range from large questions about who to contact and where to stay, to more specific questions, such how many boxes you can access at a time and the institution’s photocopying policies.
We think the new technologies of the Internet can help to alleviate some of these issues. Using the open source technology known as “wiki”—which allows people to work collaboratively, by providing information and editing and correcting the work of others—we think we can harness the interests and knowledge of the thousands of researchers (historians, genealogists, and other research professionals) who are at work daily in archives the world over. As an open forum, we will also invite the assistance of the thousands of archivists and librarians, as well, who have an obvious interest in encouraging historians to use their collections and make an informed decision about how to use them.
Why Do It:
For the Association, this project will serve three important functions—assisting historians in their research, developing a new network of community within the discipline and with related research fields, while also allowing the Association to work with and promote a new type of technology.
First, and most obviously, Archives-wiki will fulfill an essential part of the Association’s mandate to serve as a vital resource for historians working in all subjects and fields of history. Particularly in a context where graduate programs seem to be abdicating their responsibilities to train their students to use archives properly, we can fill an important vacuum by providing historians in training with a better sense of the questions they will need to ask before delving into archival research.
Beyond that, it is something of a commonplace that history is a discipline divided into many micro-subjects. Archives-wiki will provide a tangible reminder of what we as historians have in common. At the same time, the AHA is uniquely positioned to develop and provide such a resource, as its membership database represents a tangible (if vestigial) community. We are certainly in the best position to promote the site and encourage participation in such a project within the historical profession.
Lastly, Archives-wiki will also allow the Association to continue its recent work to develop and promote the use of cutting edge technology in and for the discipline. By most accounts, the generation of students emerging from today’s colleges and universities are active and eager users of “collaborative software” like Wikipedia. The Archives-wiki will provide an opportunity to test whether history can play in this new information landscape. It will simply be impossible for the staff of the AHA to develop such a project on our own. The National Union Catalog of Manuscripts Collections lists more than 5,000 archival collections in the United States and Canada, and the AHA’s interests encompass the world—expanding the number of archives exponentially. Beyond that, the information a history researcher needs to know is more specific and particular, something that can really only be obtained at the ground level. A wiki seems to be the only way to make such a resource possible.
Tomorrow’s post: Archives-wiki Part II: How It Will Work