At this year’s Economies of the Commons, Kate Theimer was the keynote speaker in the panel called “Re-imagining the Archive.” It is very evident that the archive is something very different now from what it was a generation ago, as are the changing expectations of the public. Proceeding along this theme, Kate gave a talk titled “Archives as Platform: Reimagining Our Mission.”
Kate believes that the archive should not simply collect, preserve, and make available, but rather the goal should be to improve society. She is confident that by increasing the public’s comprehension of the past, all will benefit. There is no doubt in this. However, it is a tall order for archives and a significant challenge. Kate explained, that archives will have to shift their priorities towards society and away from the objects and information collected. (Kate termed these objects and information “stuff,” which should not be seen as a designation to discredit or trivialize archival holdings.)
Kate arranges the transitions as three distinct categories: prioritizing the public over the collection, empowering the public, and becoming relevant in their communities.
Because of Web 2.0 advances, society’s experience of “stuff” is different from what it was a generation ago. People now have greater access to knowledge and materials online; information is no longer scarce. Archives need to assist their public and gear their services towards them, because often people are searching not for one thing, but for something. Kate continues by stating that not many people need access to what an archive has. And if someone is not searching for one specific piece of information or material, then they will need assistance in finding something that they can use.
Kate puts forth the idea that because everyone sees themselves as the hero in their own story, the archive needs to treat them like the hero, empowering them by offering participation in the archive and engaging with their communities. She makes suggestions for activities like holding talks and lectures that are open to the public. She also gave examples like the Library of Congress’ initiative to encourage laypeople to archive their personal digital collections for posterity in a proper way by heeding easy to follow tips.
Kate asked rhetorically if it “makes sense [for an archive] to have a collections-focused goal?” I can imagine that this question ruffled some feathers. Some may answer “yes,” as archives were often constructed around a specific collection in order to preserve its “stuff” and keep it secure. Kate insists that archives need to develop with the “evolving information ecosystem” and move towards being competitive by offering the public the individual attention that they expect. A key axiom here is “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” Kate meant that archives might have to serve those who are appropriating the term “archive” to describe any manner of digital collection. But if the benefits include a better understanding of history and an enriched life, then these challenges must be met.
by Raquel Stern