Preserving Digital Cultural Heritage: A Call for Participatory Models
The influence and power of archival institutions on the historical record and cultural memory is often overlooked, as the act of constructing history and memory can be difficult to identify. This paper focuses on the digital preservation of collections related to indigenous and other historically marginalized communities. With the exponential growth of digital materials comes greater urgency and importance of digital preservation. For archivists to provide true long-term access to materials, they must work in partnership with source communities. There are both theoretical and practical grounds for adopting participatory models in digital preservation. Archival institutions will gain enhanced contextual knowledge and communities will benefit from the institutional resources necessary for preservation.
Archival institutions heavily influence the historical record and cultural memory, a power that is not often perceived. With the exponential increase in digital materials comes the even greater importance of digital preservation, especially in the case of digital cultural heritage. This paper focuses on the digital preservation of both born-digital and digitized materials related to indigenous and other historically marginalized communities, and discusses the need for a participatory model to be adopted when performing the processes of digital preservation. The author argues that archivists must work together with source communities in order to truly provide long-term access and preservation.
The very nature of archivists' work gives the
profession power over cultural memory and community
representation. While traditionally archivists might
view themselves as objective guardians and custodians of
historical records, they actually play a very active and
central role as mediators and interpreters (Cook and Schwartz, 2002, p. 183).
During the stage of appraisal, archivists select which
materials are preserved in their institutions, thus
“consciously or unconsciously assert[ing] chosen
narratives as truth while ignoring or reframing others"
(Shilton and Srinivasan, 2007, p.
88). This process of selection or rejection of new
collections inherently privileges certain materials and
narratives over others. When arranging and describing
collections, archivists exercise another form of power:
they create the knowledge and contextual framework in
which researchers study archival materials. Similar to
historians and social scientists, archivists have a
responsibility “to accept their historicity, to
recognize their own role in the process of creating
archives, and to reveal their own biases" (Cook and Schwartz, 2002, p. 182).
Yet unlike historians and social scientists, archivists’
work is often invisible to researchers in that little or
no attention is paid to how archivists actively shape
the historical record. This oversight makes
self-analysis imperative for archivists to evaluate and
acknowledge their backgrounds and biases. Every major
responsibility of archivists, from appraisal to
description and reference, creates a framework in which
researchers begin their study of the material.
When dealing with materials by or about indigenous and
other marginalized communities, archivists must be
self-aware of the inherent power dynamic. It is critical
to examine the role that creating such collections plays
in the process of creating community identity, and
archivists must consider the question of for whom
preservation is truly intended (Worcman,
2002, Digital Technology and Social Inclusion, para. 5).
One main barrier is that archival systems' standards and
practices are built on Western values, such as concepts
of ownership based on Western legal systems and
inflexible, subjective metadata schemes (Iacovino, 2010, p. 359; Christen, 2011, p. 208). By
mechanically placing materials in a Western paradigm,
archivists strip materials of their original cultural
context. For example, the Western archival emphasis on a
specific creator or author overlooks more complex
understandings of creation as a shared, communal
The profession's discourse over the past two decades
has focused primarily on the technical aspects of
archival practice, such as creating and implementing
standards and templates, instead of the more substantive
areas of what contextual knowledge is necessary to
complete that technical architecture (Cook and Schwartz, 2002, p. 175).
Terry Cook and Joan M. Schwartz (2002) explain, “Of
course, these allegedly value-free tools — standards,
templates, and so on — also impose their own rational,
systematic way of seeing on a world of record keeping
and records creators that is, in reality, inherently
chaotic" (p. 176). Archivists
must understand that these systems and standards are not
objective (p. 176). Professional
discourse should turn towards discussions of archival
theory, with the basic understanding that “theory — a
mind-set for viewing... is the complement to practice,
not its opposite" (p. 181).
With the understanding that archivists strongly influence the historical record, the profession should call for inclusion and participation to disperse this power. Digital technology has made it possible to democratize the production of information, providing communities with resources to become “producers and keepers of their own history" (Worcman, 2002, Digital Technology and Social Inclusion, para. 6). Archivists should leverage these digital advances to increase community participation in the archival process.
As institutions of cultural heritage, archives are
often perceived by marginalized source communities as
cultural appropriators. Archival collections are
traditionally “about rather than of the communities,"
and the practice of Western arrangement and description
only further removes cultural context from those records
(Shilton and Srinivasan, 2007,
pp. 89, 95). Adopting participatory models can
help to achieve reconciliation between communities and
cultural heritage institutions, especially since both
parties have the same goal of preservation (Shilton and Srinivasan, 2007, p.
92). A reciprocal relationship allows both
archives to gain more contextual information about
cultural materials and communities to benefit from the
preservation resources of a larger institution.
Additionally, Worcman (2002)
states, “Beyond allowing for a more democratic
perspective of history, the formation of this kind of...
collection can serve as a reference for development
policies for, and interaction with, communities" (Social Impact, para. 3). As
the archival profession becomes more participatory, more
examples and best practices will be generated to be
shared across institutions.
While communities and archives may share the goal of
preservation, they certainly have different approaches
to and ideas of what preservation means. Furthermore,
both groups may also have different reasons for wanting
to preserve materials. Archivists’ motivation stems from
a professional responsibility, while communities are
driven by a stronger, personal incentive. These
differences in attitude can make both groups feel that
they are entitled to more rights or decision-making
power than the other. Working together allows the
opportunity for each stakeholder group to communicate
their perspective and to gain a better understanding of
the other’s approach.
Another reason that archives can benefit from
participatory models is that Western appraisal,
arrangement, and description practices are not always
adequate for dealing with the records of historically
marginalized communities. As a consequence of
archivists' traditional undervaluing of multicultural
narratives, there is a lack of recognition that there
are different perspectives of what actually constitutes
a record (Shilton and Srinivasan,
2007, pp. 92-93). Similarly, Western concepts of
authorship often diverge from the community's
understanding, especially since subjects of records are
not viewed as co-creators of records and thus afforded
no rights (Iacovino, 2010, pp.
354, 359). Western archives place heavy importance
on authorship and consider authors to be either
individual or corporate, but participatory models have
revealed that many indigenous communities have a
different understanding of authorship (Shilton and Srinivasan, 2007, p.
96). For example, in Australian Yolngu
communities, authorship is not the primary point of
community performance narratives; rather, the function
takes precedence (p. 97).
Furthermore, due to the history of Western imperialism,
a tension exists “between using Western words, ideas,
and terms as the basis for tribal classification
systems" (Christen, 2011, p. 200).
Only by working together with source communities can
archivists gain a true understanding of their needs.
While acknowledgment of the shortcomings of Western archival practices is a first step, archivists must take further steps to put participatory models into practice. For successful appraisal, archivists must work alongside communities to learn which particular records and narratives hold the most cultural value as the community understands them (Shilton and Srinivasan, 2007, p. 93). Arrangement and description should be expanded according to cultural knowledge structures, providing meaningful representation to the communities (pp. 95–96). This can only happen through a process in which archivists and community members together create arrangement and description schemes that correspond with community understandings (pp. 96–97).
Through the course of archival history, archives could
have always adopted participatory models, but today's
digital tools and culture of online participation
especially enhances the possibilities for implementing a
participatory process. While many indigenous communities
are materially poor and the digital divide is an area of
major concern, the reality is that “indigenous peoples
have been active users of the Internet for quite some
time" (Burri, 2010, p. 39).
Furthermore, indigenous materials are increasingly being
digitized by cultural heritage institutions and posted
online. Online access provides opportunities to widely
circulate these materials in a short amount of time, and
this instantaneous sharing has become a ubiquitous
routine (Christen, 2011, p. 185;
Kaur, 2007, p. 385). While there
are many problems with open access to cultural
materials, “the digital space allows for unprecedented
means for participation of indigenous peoples in the
processes of culture making, for communicating,
reasserting, and renegotiating their traditional values"
(Burri, 2010, p. 49).
One example of a benefit to this technology is the
recent practice of digital repatriation. Digital
repatriation is the practice of "low-cost surrogates of
cultural heritage materials [being] returned to source
communities" (Christen, 2011, p.
187). While these digital surrogates are not
replacements for their physical originals, the digital
objects provide new alternative uses for physical
objects (p. 187). By
returning these cultural materials to the communities,
the digitally repatriated materials "may stimulate
linguistic or cultural revivals...prompt new cultural
forms or popular products, incite new collaborations,
and/or forge new types of performances or artistic
creations" (p. 187).
Implementing digital repatriation practices strengthens
archival institutions’ relationships with source
communities and and facilitates the creation of
participatory models. Demonstrating an effort and
commitment to working with communities is an important
first step that archivists need to take.
Beyond digital repatriation, archivists can adopt
participatory models to provide more than just access to
cultural heritage materials. The Plateau Peoples' Web
Portal was collaboratively designed as a digital archive
to include institutional content from the Washington
State University collections, tribal content directly
from the communities, and an integrated metadata scheme
that allows for “Native knowledge to be viewed
side-by-side with the academic voice" (Christen, 2011, pp. 199-201).
The Portal provides tribal nations with the tools needed
to actively participate in the description of their
materials (p. 194).
Shilton and Srinivasan (2007)
propose a three-step Participatory Archiving Model that
facilitates community participation through appraisal,
arrangement, and description (p.
98). During appraisal, the community should
discuss value, specifically focusing on what their
understanding of a record is and on which narratives
should be preserved (p. 98).
The second step of arrangement requires creating an
organizational model for the collections, asking how the
records are interrelated and how the record
relationships can be described (p.
98). Lastly, the description process asks that the
community’s understanding of authorship and the context
of record creation becomes the primary goal (p. 98). An outsider archivist
would not be able to determine this information without
The implementation of participatory models does have its drawbacks. Shilton and Srinivasan (2007) acknowledge that it requires patience, additional time, and commitment from both the archives staff and community representatives (p. 100). It can take a long time to reach major decisions, as there can be disagreement within a community as well as within the archives staff. For the Plateau Peoples’ Web Portal, it took several months to decide on the main categories used for classification (Christen, 2011, p. 200). The process of naming and defining categories that were broad enough to be meaningful while remaining transferable to any new tribes joining the project could not be done hastily. Many archives face a backlog of collections to process, so it can be easy for participatory models to be disregarded in the interest of saving time and labor. While archival participatory models are likely to be time-consuming and to require patience, the greater benefits of gaining community context, knowledge, and trust are worth the effort.
Participatory models can and should be applied to the
practice of digital preservation. According to Priscilla
Caplan (2008), digital
preservation can be defined as “a set of activities
aimed towards ensuring access to digital materials over
time" (p. 7). Digital
materials can be born-digital materials or analog
materials that have been digitized. Digital preservation
activities include “preserving the digital medium that
holds the digital information by storing it in the
correct environment and following agreed storage and
handling procedures [and] copying the digital
information into newer, fresher media before the old
media deteriorates" (Natarajan,
2004, p. 15). Many different approaches of digital
preservation exist, as the approach often depends on the
type of digital media.
Digital preservation is necessary because of the inherent weaknesses of digital materials. Digital information can be easily deleted, edited, or corrupted (Burri, 2010, p. 47). Digital information is also entirely dependent on hardware and software that evolves quickly, resulting in obsolete technologies (Burri, 2010, p. 47; Kaur, 2007, p. 387). Furthermore, digital storage media, magnetic and optical, is subject to decay and other physical preservation concerns (Kaur, 2007, p. 386). Archivists cannot afford to wait years before preserving digital materials, but must start taking proactive steps in the present day. Preservation of digital cultural materials can open up the discussion of how archives can work together with communities.
Conducting digital preservation is not easy or simple.
As it is a complex process, there are many areas for
source communities to participate in the practice of
digital preservation. When examining the Open Archival
Information System (OAIS) Reference Model, a common
preservation framework used by institutions, we can see
specifically how community participation can play a role
in the preservation of their cultural materials.
Both producers of information and managers of
information must work together, as digital preservation
should occur throughout the entire life cycle of a
record, starting from its moment of creation (de Lusenet, 2007, p. 170; Natarajan, 2004, pp. 14–15).
In the OAIS Reference Model, the
cooperation of key stakeholders is necessary (Lavoie, 2004, p. 5). These
stakeholder groups are management, producers, and
consumers. Responsibilities of management include
strategic planning and other high-level policy
decisions, rather than the archives' daily operations (p. 5). Producers are the
individuals, organizations, or systems that transfer
information to the archive for preservation, while
consumers are those expected to use the information that
is preserved (p. 6). As both
producers and consumers of cultural materials,
communities can play a significant role in any OAIS-archive's
digital preservation activities.
functional model is comprised of six main steps that
must be taken both to preserve information and to make
Archival institutions can easily create opportunities
in each of the six OAIS functions for
participatory involvement by community members.
The first function, Ingestion, is the stage in which
information is submitted by producers (p. 8). At this point, the
producer also submits an information package that
includes metadata created by the producer and a
negotiated agreement between the OAIS and
producer (p. 11). OAIS
archives must first define what a record is and who a
producer is according to the community's understandings,
as the information package submitted during this period
asks for metadata. Is a producer only the individual
that created the record, or can a producer be a
community entity or the subject of a record? Another OAIS
function is Data Management, which maintains the
metadata that identifies and describes archived material
(p. 9). Data Management is
responsible for updating databases as new information
comes in and for maintaining database search and
retrieval (p. 9). Communities
can contribute descriptive metadata for materials that
have already gone through the Ingestion stage, or for
materials for which they are not considered producers.
Access is the primary point where consumers interact
with the OAIS-archive; it is the part of the
OAIS functional model that manages the processes and
services customers use to locate, request, and receive
archival materials. This function is where communities
can play a central role in OAIS-archives (p. 9). As consumers, community
members can provide helpful information regarding access
points necessary in the search and retrieval process
that can be relayed to Data Management. Additionally,
since consumers are active users of the materials, they
can also discuss how different levels of access should
be applied, depending on cultural sensitivities and
protocols within communities.
Another OAIS function with high potential
for community participation is Administration.
Administration manages the daily operations of the OAIS-archive
and coordinates the actions of the other five functions
(p. 10). Administration also
interacts with all three stakeholders. Administration
negotiates agreements with producers, provides customer
service support to consumers, and supervises
management's implementation of policies (p. 10). As the administration
serves as the hub for internal and external
communication and daily operations management, a true
participatory model must include community members
within this stage of the process.
Any OAIS archive would have to implement each function described in order to build a complete archival system (p. 10). The resulting framework provides many areas for close collaboration with source communities.
Looking back at archival theory, there are both theoretical and practical grounds for adopting participatory models in digital preservation. For archivists to provide true long-term access to materials, they must work with source communities to accurately appraise, arrange, and describe their cultural materials. With the implementation of a participatory model, archival institutions will gain enhanced contextual knowledge, and communities will benefit from the institutional resources necessary for preservation. Areas for further research include archives and their relationships, or lack thereof, with source communities. This topic could also be examined in relation to how archives interact with different stakeholders, comparing the archival interactions of indigenous communities and traditional scholarly communities.
Iacovino, L. (2010).
Rethinking archival, ethical and legal frameworks for
records of Indigenous Australian communities: A
participant relationship model of rights and
Science 10, 353–372.
Lavoie, B. F. (2004). The Open Archival
Information System Reference Model: Introductory Guide.
Dublin, Ohio: OCLC Online Computer Library Center, Inc.
and Digital Preservation Coalition. Retrieved December
4, 2011, from http://www.dpconline.org/docs/lavoie_OAIS.pdf
Worcman, K. (2002). Digital division is cultural exclusion. But is digital inclusion cultural exclusion? D-Lib Magazine 8(3). Retrieved December 4, 2011, from http://www.dlib.org/dlib/march02/worcman/03worcman.html
Rose L. Chou is an MLIS candidate specializing in archival studies at San Jose State University. She is Reference Archivist at the Smithsonian Institution's National Anthropological Archives and Managing Editor of the blog Hack Library School.
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