This is primarily for those who work with archives and manuscript collections. It is an opinion piece that I wrote awhile back and is solely my opinion. I do wish to hear comments from folk, so feel free.
I will add that this was originally written as part of a piece that discussed the importance of folk, in this case religious folk, making sure that our history is preserved and also conveyed to others in a language that they can understand. Because the methods of communicating and recording activity is changing, as is the “language” (including format and technology) used to access those pieces of history we record, we must actively seek to be aware and adapt. It is not a stretch to say that we are in days that might have as much impact as the printing press and vernacular Bible.
And now for our feature presentation.
(or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Web 2.0)
Twitter. Flicker. Youtube. Digg. Second Life. Avatars. Social bookmarking. Tagging. Picassa. Open-source. Boxes.com. Wikipedia. Wikis. Scype. del.icio.us. stumbleuopn. Ning. Facebook. Facebook.
A few years ago the term Web 2.0 came into being. Shortly thereafter I saw a proliferation of similar terms: Library 2.0, Archives 2.0, Oral History 2.0, Records Management 2.0. The numerical part of these frames suggests an upgrade from a previous version, but in many of the articles I read and seminars I intended the term was just loosely applied to mean that whatever group was hosting the event was acknowledging (usually grudgingly) the existence and (sometimes) importance of digital technology. I have trouble with accepting that the struggle with dealing with archiving e-mail, or digitizing photos. however important these issues it may be, is Web 2.0 when these issues have been discussed since the advent of Web 1.0. The Web 1.0 ( as we will refer to the earlier methods of using the Net with which many of us have become familiar over the past few decades and some of us are just beginning to know) issues, dealing with the increased use of the Internet and digital technology in records and communication, are still with us, but I hope we as archivists will also consider the importance of Web 2.0 to our profession. I am not a Web expert, though I have spent the last several years studying information use and users and have personally embraced many of the “2.0” applications and ideas, and there is not enough room in this post to discuss all the aspects of this phenomenon, but I would like to put out a few thoughts I have on the subject for your consideration.
Web 2.0 is essentially a change in mindset, (I am trying to avoid the term “paradigm shift,”) a new way of approaching things using the Internet as the platform for activity. It is interactive and social in nature and both shapes and is shaped by the users of the Internet. Users of the Internet are no longer satisfied with passive roles as receivers of whatever is placed on the Web by some entity, but instead participate in the process in ways they previously had not. In Web 1.0 on-line newspapers published stories, now they are accompanied by blogs, comments, tagging, and digging. Virtually anyone can place their own video on Youtube or similar sites, self publish their own music, design their own surveys, and add their own research to collective Wikis. People tweet with Twitter and it is now being used in addition to or in place of committee meetings or other activities that support basic functions of organizations. There is what looks like to an outsider to be an entirely new language in text messaging. Avatars (virtual representations of real life individuals) can now do research in Second Life (a virtual world existing in cyberspace) at a virtual library, as well as do business with virtual representations of “First Life” businesses.
If any of these concepts seem unfamiliar, consider that they are things with which an old fogey like me is already familiar. Just imagine how much more there is out there. Perhaps it is time we take a look at the phenomenon of Web 2.0 and discuss among ourselves and with others how it may affect archival theory and practice. Like it or not, we will soon find (if we have not already) that our users’ expectations are shaped by this world. We will have to deal with it.
I suggest three areas for you consideration. First, there are big challenges in issues of appraisal and preservation. The Web 2.0 world offers many choices and methods for communication and interaction. There is a challenge here for archivists. The methods of communication now include not only e-mail and electronic documents, but text messaging, video conferencing, and communication through computer generated surrogates. Many documents found online were specifically designed for or generated by software through, Web sites, and it might be argued that they would have to be viewed in such a format to retain the context of the record. The creator of content is no longer just the organization that hosts the records but might include a variety of different entities that the archivist knows nothing about. All of this will affect how we collect, arrange, describe, and preserve documents from the Internet or that are in some way related to the Internet.
Second, there are challenges in reference services. The Web 2.0 user expects ready access and quick answers. More than ever we will find it difficult to explain the way archives are used. There are almost unlimited sources of information, much of it of dubious quality, far more easily available to researchers than that in many of our collections. If we wish to be a relevant source for researchers, we will need to study them and find where we have the ability to meet their needs in their way, or what means we can use to persuade them to come over to our turf. For that matter, we should honestly re-evaluate “our turf.” Are our ways of doing things, historically derived from a study of records and how they were created and used, still valid in a world where the sources of our theories and practices derived have changed so radically? A tough question, I think.
Third, there are many opportunities for archivists with Web 2.0, perhaps particularly for smaller operations with smaller budgets. Because Web 2.0 encourages active participation by all, there is a strong emphasis on open access software and community Web sites. One of my archives jobs is with a repository with virtually no budget. I have taken advantage of free, on-line seminars. We have used open-source software to edit audio and photographic images. We have plans to add training and informational videos to Youtube and samples of some of our material to other sites where they may be easily found by search engines. We blog, participate in social networks, are planning podcasts, and intend to conduct a survey of users and potential users to see how we can best meet their needs. I have already received reference requests from individuals who found out about our collections through a social network for people researching of similar subjects. I conducted a cross-country reference session through the use of Skype. Perhaps I will place some images at a photo site and invite people to help identify people and places in the images. In my own research I followed directions from other researchers’ tags and was able to find three sets of records that were once part of a single collection but have since been divided. I have “virtually” restored some of the context that was lost. Web 2.0 provides tools that can be used by archivists practicing their craft in more or less traditional ways as well as helping us interact with users who are rapidly moving away from some of the traditional means of doing research.
I have been told that “serious” researchers will still come to archives because they have to. I think that is also a good topic for discussion. As a researcher myself I have often weighed the value of visiting an archives against other alternatives; and many more such alternatives exist today than not so long ago. There is also the question as to whether our obligation is only to the “serious” researcher or does it include the person wanting a quick answer or even to just browse collections?
Perhaps all this is rooted in what we see as our mission as archivists. If our value is in any way connected with our knowledge of the records in our care and the functions of organizations that created them, we must seriously study Web 2.0 and related technology. I suspect we will also have to take part in all of this to some degree in order to understand it. For example, I was in a room full of archivists and historians the other day when someone brought up Twitter and asked if someone else “tweeted.” At least half the faces were totally blank or openly confused, in spite of the amount that has been in the news regarding Twitter recently. From many of the others, I heard mutterings of things like “I don’t do Twitter!” When working on my thesis (on studying use and users in archives, mind you) I was told by one professor that I shouldn’t talk about all these things so much because they were not things we needed to deal with right then. I had brought up the fact that a teenager had wanted to know why she couldn’t access our collections through Second Life. (The young lady did, by the way say come back to tell me that she had found an answer to her question on the Internet.) If we know nothing of the technology, we can not help others use it. As important, perhaps, if we know nothing of the technology that creates the records, we cannot preserve, arrange, describe, or provide access to them.
There are commercials for PCs out there that use children from ages 4 to 10 doing all manner of things that are beyond the skills of most people my age. These children will be in business, designing technology and producing records before I am able to retire. Depending on what years you use to define it, the Internet generation may be larger than that of the Baby Boomers. If they only affect the world a fraction as much as that last mentioned group, I think the Net.Generation will make the life of the archivist interesting, to say the least.
Like Web 2.0, Archives 2.0 isn’t just about technology and how we deal with it but is a mindset, an approach towards who we are and what we do as a profession. These are ideas that deserve discussion. I would welcome the opinions of others.