Digital archives future?

I pitched an article about digital archive(s) to the Conversation recently, and was rejected – sort of, the idea was good, but apparently my writing had a bit too much jargon. Maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t.* I find it a real challenge to be able to accomplish academic writing for journals and developing conference presentations. Plus tweet and blog, and update the various academic websites.  The Conversation is part of strategy to develop a public intellectual profile, but I am just not sure how to write for this medium – I am not a journalist after all. So, whining over, I thought I would share the piece I wrote here and perhaps it might generate its own conversation and readers can give me feedback via the comments. It would be appreciated.

Memory, evidence and people

Technology is everywhere in our lives. It is equally disruptive, transformative and indispensable. We use screens to view, share and transform the past, present and future all at the same time. We explore new ways of seeing, capturing and remembering with apps, games and augmented reality. We are so much at one with our digital technologies they are like extensions of our memory and sense-making functions. Our technology is us – it is part of our evolving social and cultural identity. Researchers have already suggested that we already are cyborgs. What does all this radical change mean for archives and memory-making? If the internet is our collective memory, then whose remembering is it?

In my recent research on how people used YouTube as a memory-making space revealed how connected people are with the various technologies to create, upload and share video, but also used these same technologies to remember for themselves, for their community and for the wider groups of people who interact with online video. How they used the technology influenced what they wanted from it and how they evolved their online identity to support their narratives. This research outcome has two important implications for collective memory and the future of archives.

Firstly, people co-create with technologies, and that interaction is now part of culture – it is part of the narrative of society.  Technology is clearly evidence of us, but without being used, it is only technology. Related to this implication is an understanding that it is the interactions plus the outcomes that tells the story of an evolving society engaged with technologies. Yet, when we think of cultural heritage, archives and collective memory we think of things – artefacts. Objects are collected, described and displayed as evidence of culture, but there are some significant problems with this concept of proof, heritage and value, especially when it comes to co-created interactions and outcomes with technologies. How is the transformative use of technologies going to be remembered – what is evidence of culture?

My research into YouTube identified that archives and other memory institutions create their own evidence of culture by making decisions about what they think are significant as heritage. This practice is based on a history where institutions document events by collecting everything about them (often referred to as special collections), but it has some serious failings that are amplified in a technological era. In the YouTube research I found out that co-creation is not just about making video and uploading it, but is also about making sense of and participating in community decisions and values over time. Consider how people use Twitter and re-tweeting to inspire revolution, as well as socially execute. Gamers whose interest in the game extends beyond playing it modify code to share and play a game of their own devising. There now exists social media that allows people to document and share memories, such as HistoryPin and Collectish, but these has an equally as important role as YouTube and Instagram in capturing and organizing memory.

Essena O’Neill’s recent Instagram revelations and subsequent changes to her account highlights how social media is a space for multiple and changing memories, a documented identity and an evolving narrative. In recent years, there has been a significant research movement in the archival discipline to explore the hidden, marginalized, and absent voices from official records. This work is linked to an already evolving conversation about records, people and power, and how archives have been used to subjugate and make invisible communities of people over the ages. In part, this movement explores the idea that evidence is not within the object, but rather in the stories shared by people and their evolving contexts. Archives and archivists, have a role to play in helping people make sense of these contexts, but traditional role of being selector and custodian of heritage is no longer feasible, nor ethical. Archives and archivists need to be able to facilitate the connections between different ways of experiencing and constructing evidence. This means connecting what is already out there (in archives as well as already online, plus what is on our computers) to help make sense of it over time.

The new kind of digital archive my research hints at enables the creation and management of evidence by providing the technologies and the intellectual framework to allow people, including archivists, to add, manage and link metadata. Metadata is the lifeblood of the archive – it is the description of what happened, who did it, how it was done and why. The archivist is therefore not a selector, nor custodian of cultural heritage, but rather preserves the systems that support wide, diverse and multi-layered understandings of value and evidence. In this distributed, non-custodial archive, anyone can decide to remove something they are responsible for, but the archivist manages the evidence of its contribution to the network of memories – the metadata and the links. The story continues to be told.

The ideas presented in this article are specific to what are referred to as special collections, often managed by libraries but called archives. Archives, in the true sense of the word (as understood by archivists), particularly organizational and government archives do include mechanisms to document and manage context over time, but the lessons of this research and the concept of co-creation is equally applicable. In Australia, we have an entity called the National Archives of Australia, but it only manages federal government records, which is only part of what it means to be the nation of Australia. Archival legislation across Australia does not recognize the notion of co-created records and what it might mean in relation to rights in the records – not just in access, but in how they are created, captured and managed over time.

Archivists should be facilitators of remembering and embrace the complexity of evidence by enabling people to tell their own stories so that the multiple truths that exist in our world can be heard. There has been talk of losing memory because archives are not digitizing materials fast enough, but this is not the most critical problem for archivists. What is critical is moving beyond the models of the archive imbued with power, prestige and control. Digitizing the world’s information is a fabulous idea, but how will it be managed brings a heavy responsibility. Being digital means more accessible, and the ability to crunch data and mash content. Is this for everyone? Who makes decisions about descriptions? How will people be able to make sense of evolving contexts? How can all peoples have a right or a say in collective memory? Who controls the archive controls the future.  In our technological world the archive is evolving, diverse and beyond the confines the institution. The role of the archive and the archivist needs to change to face these new challenges.

* My SEO program tells me: The copy scores 41.0 in the Flesch Reading Ease test, which is considered difficult to read. Try to make shorter sentences, using less difficult words to improve readability. Yikes! It must be true!

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