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Participatory Archives: Within and Beyond the Archival Institution

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In this lecture Alexandra Eveleigh discusses the role of the archivist in a participatory online culture.

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The digital transformation of our society has an enormous impact on the nature and form of information. Art, too, is increasingly taking on non-tangible forms. The preservation of art is a major challenge for art and heritage organizations today.

In a series of four webinars, spread over the fall of 2021 and the spring of 2022, four international new-lighters will talk about the archive of the future. After each lecture there will be plenty of time to ask questions and share experiences.

In her talk “Participatory Archives: Within and Beyond the Archival Institution” Alexandra Eveleigh discusses the role of the archivist in a participatory online culture:

“Social computing technologies in archives challenge the fundamental social contract under which archivists have operated for millennia.” (Yakel, 2011)

The interactive technologies of the ‘social web’ or Web 2.0 have given rise to a participatory online culture. Archival institutions have embraced these new technologies with enthusiasm, aiming to engage users and expand digital access to collections. This has resulted in initiatives ranging from crowdsourced transcription, tagging, annotation and commenting, through to social (media) collecting, shared appraisal, and fully reciprocal models of curation. Individuals and communities are often motivated to contribute their time and labour to archives, but in return they expect their experience and their contributions to be recognised and valued.

User expectations of digitisation and the need for online access to archives have only increased during the Covid-19 pandemic. Many archives responded by launching new participation opportunities. But digitisation is expensive and supporting the processes of participation can also be resource intensive. Online participation may help engage new supporters of the archive, but it does not address issues of longer-term sustainability for the (physical or digital) archives.

What, then, will be the role of an archival institution in the future? Have Yakel’s fears for the archival social contract come to pass? How should the archivist balance user demands for open access online with an ethics of care towards those communities who desire to be actively involved in the governance of their heritage? Will she still perform her traditional role as trusted custodian? Or will she become a post-custodial consultant, serving the needs of diverse community archives online?

Dr. Alexandra Eveleigh is Collections Information Manager at Wellcome Collection in London, where she leads a multidisciplinary team of archivists, librarians and museum professionals, and her role complements her research interests in user experiences and digital technologies in cultural heritage contexts. Her professional practice background spans university special collections, local government, the charity sector, and The [U.K.] National Archives (TNA). From 2014 to 2016 she held academic positions in information studies and digital humanities at University College London (UCL) and the University of Westminster respectively, following her PhD work on online participatory archives in collaboration with TNA. Alexandra is also a 2008 Winston Churchill Fellow in connection to her work on born-digital archives.

To imagine otherwise: future archives is an initiative of CEMPER, Letterenhuis, M HKA/CKV, VAi in collaboration with FARO and meemoo.

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Organizer meemoo, Vlaams instituut voor het archief

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In samenwerking met organisaties in cultuur, media en overheid zetten we onze schouders onder de zorg voor en het gebruik van hun (digitaal) archief. We brengen samen met onze partners het verleden tot leven en maken het klaar voor morgen. We stellen het digitaal veilig en maken het toegankelijk en bruikbaar.

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