blog: Sustainable Futures of Digital Archives

The Images for the Future project was a large-scale European initiative for digitization of audiovisual heritage that has recently come to its close. The third Economy of the Commons conference was dedicated to analyzing and evaluating the results of this project.

William Uricchio, professor in comparative media studies at MIT University and comparative media history at Utrecht University, posed the question how the institutions participating in Images for the Future should continue the process they have started during the project. His presentation bore the appropriate title We’ve digitized the archive… now what? With this title, Uricchio pointed out the gap between the act of digitizing audiovisual material and making it accessible to an audience. Digitization does not equal availability for everyone; many steps need to be taken before digitized material can be delivered to the user. Simply uploading a clip from the archive to the Internet does not guarantee that an audience will come and look for it; public demand needs to be created for cultural heritage. Demand, here, is not to be understood in the capitalist sense of the word, but rather as a motivation in the audience to take interest in the cultural past.

Uricchio argued in favor of such a development, because he believes in a future where public knowledge can be contributed to and shared online by anyone who is connected to the Internet. In order for such a system to work, knowledge sources, such as archival material, must be available to a broad audience and, more importantly, this audience must be willing to actively contribute information. The first of these conditions has for a great part been achieved by the Images for the Future project. The importance of the second one, however, has been underestimated for a long time.

According to Uricchio, we are not only in transition from an analogue to a digital culture, but we are also moving from the capitalist notion of ownership towards a more communal value of open access for everyone. As the media studies professor puts it, it’s time for digital collaborative media culture!

Ways of achieving this are already brought into practice by means of crowd sourcing projects. Kickstarter, for example, is a website where you can “fund and follow creativity”, from young geniuses offering new inventions to bands wanting to record an album. The public, then, is asked to financially support projects of her choice. The drive for these massive amounts of people to join in is simply a sense of belonging; the thought that they helped realize this handy new tool or that amazing new music record.

Uricchio calls for the return of hands-on engagement, play and interactivity. An online audience of knowledge institutions is no longer to consist of passive recipients but of active contributing producers. A task for archives and other cultural heritage institutions is to aid this development by convincing new generations that the past is interesting, valuable and worthwhile, because without demand for heritage material, access to it is useless.

by Carola van Dijk

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