What is a participatory archive? For real(?)

Submitted by Isto Huvila on Wed, 08/31/2011 - 19:33

Kate Theimer (ArchivesNext) held an excellent (ok, the slides, the summaries in the blogosphere and what she told me in a mail give a strong impression that the presentation was excellent, I was unfortunate enough to miss this year's SAA meeting) presentation on the concept of participatory archives. I do quite agree with her that there is no satisfactory definition of a participatory archive. I sketched an idea of a certain type of a rather radical next generation archive in my article on participatory archive, but Kate is quite correct that this idea might be somewhat too radical for archive institutions. At the same time, a very broad all-embracing ideas of participation as almost anything are not much better because they do not really differ that much from that what an 'ordinary' archive is. Similarly, it does not make sense to restrict the participation to user-to-user inteactions (as I remarked in this blog some time ago) as the notion of participatory museum of Nina Simon does. 


Kate proposes a definition that a participatory archive is "an organization, site or collection in which people other than archives professionals contribute knowledge or resources, resulting in increased understanding about archival materials, usually in an online environment". This is far less radical than my somewhat unclearly articulated intersection of three dimensions and thus, as Kate correctly argues, closer to the limits of acceptable and achievable in the contemporary archival institutions. I find the definition quite workable and could well see that such an archive could be described as participatory. In some sense, of course, every archive with a library or with an archivist who follows recent literature while describing the archival goods, writing search aids and guides is a participatory archive or a participatory archivist. Ok, in a mediated sense, but still, the knowledge does not come from archives professionals. Further, the earlier positivistic view of archivists and archival institutions as neutral, objective and non-intrusive custodians of archival goods would also automatically make all archives participatory in the sense of the proposed definition (if the references to online environments would be left aside).


If I compare Kate's definition to my own proposal, I have to confess that I didn't really expect that my version of a participatory archive would be accepted as is, or that it would be readily applicable to the most archival contexts at the present. At the same time, however, I do still believe in the benefits of looking slightly farther away from the contemporary reality and comtemplating with the idea doing things differently. My idea of decentralising curation, radical orientation towards users and contextualisation of records and the entire archival process does not mean that all that needs to be done necessarily at once or to an extreme degree. In a sense, "an organization, site or collection in which people other than archives professionals contribute knowledge or resources, resulting in increased understanding about archival materials, usually in an online environment" is implementing something of all the three principles. The point I was (at least) trying to make, was to look beyond the actual things that are being done in the present participatory archives and to at the processes and principles that might be about to change. 


But my point is not to be picky about Kate's excellent definition. The practical point is that different definitions of participatory archive could well co-exist and it would probably make sense to develop a model of different degrees of participation in archival contexts. With such an approach it would be possible to address different modes of participation from user-to-user, various models of user-to-archive and even archive-to-user participation, and even more importantly, to theorise about the consequences and implications of the different modes of participation in the archival context. Even very small and non-radical forms of participation have their consequences to that what an archive is and what it is supposed to be.