a visit to Simmons / participatory archives?

After attending the Simmons GSLIS info session last Thursday, I’m feeling confident about getting masters in library science  with a concentration in archives.  But like any other prospective student, I’m concerned about the job market I’d be entering with my new degree.  A friend told her librarian mother about my plans and she responded “everyone wants to be an archivist right now”.   Am I leaping onto an already packed bandwagon?  In a post on ArchivesNext titled Honest tips for wannabe archivists detailing twitter conversation about what it takes to be an archivist, Kate Theimer mentions that “More than one person joked ‘don’t,’ referring to the lack of jobs out there.” Not encouraging.

As you might expect, the news at the Simmons info session was more positive.   GSLIS Dean Eileen Abel described a host of new job positions out there for librarians and archivists, including data scientist, senior research editor, metadata librarian, and emerging technology librarian.   What I found most inspiring was an informal chat with Jeanette Bastian,  director of the Archives Management Concentration.  It was mentioned earlier in the session that  employment of archivists is projected to grow 12% by 2020 (as opposed to 7% for librarians); when asked why she thought the profession was growing, Bastian offered her own private theory: the concerns archivists have always had are now the concerns everyone has.  Because we are now all creators, at some fundamental level we find ourselves saying ‘I want to save this somehow’.

As research manager on digital education projects at MIT’s Comparative Media Studies,  I worked with Henry Jenkins, the scholar who coined and popularized the phrase “participatory culture”.   It was all about moving beyond a passive stance; people were engaging with and producing cultural material in new contexts.  Our official definition, from our group’s white paper Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture:  Media Education in the 21st Century:

A participatory culture is a culture with relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement, strong support for creating and sharing creations, and some type of informal mentorship whereby experienced participants pass along knowledge to novices. In a participatory culture, members also believe their contributions matter and feel some degree of social connection with one another (at the least, members care about others’ opinions of what they have created). 

We applied these ideas to K-12 education research – the “old” media literacy lacked a sense of youth as active participants; we sought to develop a new set of skills necessary for kids who use technology for creative expression and social connection.   Later we explored how the same concepts applied to civic engagement, mapping out the characteristics of a participatory democracy.

Dean Bastian believes a growing interest in archives is due, essentially, to participatory culture.  Listening to her talk, I began to wonder what the phrase “participatory archives” might mean to information professionals.  In her 2011  presentation Participatory Archives:  Something Old, Something New Kate Theimer offers this definition:

An organization, site or collection in which people other than the archives professionals contribute knowledge or resources resulting in increased understanding about archival materials, usually in an online environment.

I was surprised at the looseness of this definition after having recently read Theimer’s Journal of Humanities article Archives in Context and as Context, in which she almost painstakingly teases out the differences between how the term “archive” is used by digital humanists and information professionals.  But when defining participatory archives in particular, Theimer is more concerned with the practice than the structure – function over form, as it were.   In her presentation notes she admits the definition is “broad”, saying “what’s critical here is that archival materials are the focus of the activities, not the kind of organization or structure that’s hosting or sponsoring the work”.

I see various other definitions, descriptions, and examples of participatory archives online, and will continue to note them in my diigo library; this could be a rich area for me to study.


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