Community Digital Archiving

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Ownership, responsibility, activity

  • May 13, 2020 1:10 pm

A word about the way things may turn out with community activity,

It is sometimes useful to talk about community archiving activity as an initiative, rather than the more common term, project. The word “initiative” suggests a continuing process rather than one that needs action for a period of time, after which it ends.

While some community archive activities are indeed projects, it is worth while to think deeper about this aspect, to inform many of the decisions that are necessary in developing and running a community digital archive.

This issue has come to light again recently, and it reminded me of a few examples which show how these two words demonstrate a difference in the way a community archive might work.

The one example that sprang to mind was a community which managed to get some funding for a digital archiving project. For whatever reasons, they chose to place the entire project in the hands of a developer who was from outwith the area. The result, there is no doubt, is a digital community archive. It runs on a computer, and displays various images, documents and even video originating in that community. It was demonstrated to me about a year after the project funding came to an end. In spite of it being just that short space of time, it was easy to note several issues. One was that it was hard for the person demonstrating the system actually to make it work. Once that hurdle had been overcome, the general feel of the system was almost like a marketing website, rather than a deep well containing insights into the soul of the community. That outcome may have been by design, but I make the comment here for obvious reasons regarding this post. And the third aspect was that the archive was now a mere snapshot in time. It was not possible to add more information, at least by volunteers in the community, and so the activity can best be described as a project which was defined, was carried out, and delivered. I would argue, though, that other than during the project itself, it has little long term benefit for the community. Again, the responsible community group may well have had these ends in mind, knowing that they could move on to other things at the end of the project.

By contrast, one community of which I am aware, did indeed, approach matters as a continuing initiative. This led to them making decisions that would benefit the long term access and further storage of digital objects in the community, such as ensuring that the data could be exported or recovered from the system in a widely understood manner, should something untoward occur. In this case, though, the issue was not with the systems or processes, but with group responsible for the archive. Their focus changed, but they still had responsibility for a system that was very much live. The issues, unlike the example above, were neither operational, procedural or technical, but rather, if you like, political. The responsible group then had to make a clear decision regarding the future of the archive, rather than a default position of simply abandoning the work.

It may be argued that there is little difference between the two examples outlined. That may be true, but it does promote different ways of approaching the work. For want of a better description, and to draw on the terminology of the corporate world, one approach merely draws to an end while the other requires an explicit exit strategy.

There is a third approach, which may not fit easily into the points made in this post, but is worth a mention. It may be that a community understands the desirability of a continuing project, but because of abilities, interests or even personalities, the archiving activity becomes one person’s sole charge. A variation of this theme is where one person is perceived to be in sole charge. This is where the lines of responsibility and activity can get blurred, an issue that needs careful addressing. Perhaps ideally, constant communication may be maintained with that individual, to let them know that, even if they are doing the majority of the work, the burden of responsibility is not theirs alone, and the bigger picture is being shared.