Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Thoughts on the AHA Archives Wiki, or, "There's no such thing as bad publicity"

Kate Theimer over at ArchivesNext has alerted me and much of the rest of the archival community to the American Historical Association's Archives Wiki, which according to the site is "intended to be a clearinghouse of information about archival resources throughout the world". I admit that I am a bit ashamed to not have heard about this through my history contacts, but then I am an archivist first, a records manager second, and a historian bringing up the rear, so I'm not TOO ashamed. I had meant to respond to her post immediately but for one reason or another did not do so. Happily, David Mattison's post on the subject on the Ten Thousand Year Blog reminded me that I did want to talk about it. So let's to it:

Do I think it's a useful resource at the moment? Not particularly.
Do I think it can BECOME a useful resource? Absolutely.

Kate's first impression of the site is that "The site has potential, but I have a few reservations." I think some of her reservations are spot on: the initial population of the site is a bit random, the formatting on some of the pages is irregular and a little disquieting, it's unclear how much administrative control the AHA is going to wield, etc. But these, ultimately, are problems that are going to be solved in time if enough archivists and historians learn about the existence of the site. Wikipedia, to use the most immediately accessible example, is not a foolproof, 100% accurate site by any means, but it works at least as a quick ready reference source or a link to more authoritative sources because it has a large community of editors and contributors who are willing to examine the articles and edit them for accuracy, clean them up, etc. If people use this wiki, the same thing will happen here. In fact, because in theory you have academics and professionals using this, there's the potential for a lot more information-rich pages! So, yes, legitimate concerns, but I think ones that are solvable by the nature of Web 2.0.

I'm a little more disturbed by the philosophical reservations Kate voices on her blog:

I am all for having a wiki that has information about different kinds of archives (although most of the basic information would probably have been pretty accessible through a Google search), but I wonder how eager historians will be to share really detailed information about their experiences with collections. (Cheap hotels, maybe, but not tips on how to get access to “the good stuff.”) I had the impression that most historians were rather close-mouthed about their sources. Or is my stereotype of the historian just as unfair as the stereotypes of archivist that I complain about regularly in this blog?

And, to play devil’s advocate, how much of this background information is really useful or necessary to be gathered in this format? Do historians really not know where to go for archival resources in their area, and if they don’t, would they really discover an archives by this kind of broad categorization? (As opposed to a more targeted Google search?) And, I think most researchers wanting information about hours, policies, and contacts would always rely more heavily on the archives’ own web site than on the information in this wiki (which might very well be out of date).

Sorry, Kate, but I think your stereotype is unfair. It's true that there's some degree of hoarding the 'good stuff' in the profession, particularly in newly-opened, important collections, but I think there is much more collaboration in the profession than the above would seem to imply. For one thing, as soon as you publish your article or monograph or whatever, people are going to know where you found your stuff anyway (at least if you're being intellectually honest about it); for another, giving access tips to the material you used, or related material, helps people build on your argument and expands the discourse of that particular subject. Even if they disagree with you, they are still bringing your argument into the forefront of that particular journal or collection-- and in that case, that's free publicity and prestige for you in the profession. There ARE people who hide the path to their sources-- but I haven't come across them in my historical research, or even in talking to other people in my history program.

As far as the necessity of this resource, I would have KILLED for something like this in undergrad, or even (to a lesser extent) in grad school. I think EVENTUALLY historians know where to go for archival resources in their area, but what about those who are just starting out? What about historians who are, for whatever reason or another, compelled to seek out archives in a different region? In one of my undergrad history seminars, I wrote a paper about small-town brass bands, but it was not nearly as comprehensive as it could have been because I did not know about which towns had archives, and even then I did not know which had collections relevant to my paper. A resource like this would have at least helped me to determine where some of these collections MIGHT be, and depending on how effectively the wiki is used, even may have helped me find some relevant collections outright.

Now, the immediate counterargument to THIS argument is that these kinds of directories already exist in various forms, either as entries in NUCMC or as listed in Terry Abraham's Repository of Primary Sources. Honestly? Before David's post, I never knew the latter existed. Which is, I think, the point of the AHA Wiki-- the more places that list your repository, the more exposure your repository gets, the more likely a researcher who only uses one repository list will find your particular archives, and-- thanks to the algorithm used by Google-- the more likely that a Google search will turn up your archives. And what if your archives doesn't HAVE a website? Well, shame on you, because it's really easy to set up a website. But meanwhile, if your repository is listed here with even rudimentary information about hours, etc., that's better than not having any listing at all.

This is definitely a project which, much as I tell my Records Management clients, won't happen without user buy-in and effort. But if the wiki DOES get the buy-in which it needs-- and I think it will-- I think it will be a great resource for historians, particularly those historians who are new to the profession and haven't created the scholarly network to get the word-of-mouth information that this wiki is meant to imitate/supplement. In fact, I think I'm going to put UWM's info up there right now.

ETA: Jeanne Kramer-Smythe has some interesting musings about structured data and the AHA Archives Wiki at Spellbound Blog. As someone who's trying to configure an ERMS for an entire university I sympathize with her views, but I think having structured data for this kind of project is less critical than having it for the purposes of records retention and disposition. I am happy, however, to be convinced otherwise.