Library Student Journal: Preserving digital cultural heritage: a call for participatory models (2012)

Preserving Digital Cultural Heritage: A Call for Participatory Models

Rose L. Chou
San Jose State University
San Jose, California, United States

Library Student Journal,
September 2012


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 Power of Archivists

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 process.

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.

The Need for Participatory Models

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).

Participatory Models in Practice

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 community participation.

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.

Digital Preservation and Participatory Models

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.

A Participatory Digital Preservation Model

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.

The OAIS functional model is comprised of six main steps that must be taken both to preserve information and to make it accessible:

  • Ingestion
  • Archival Storage
  • Data Management
  • Administration
  • Preservation Planning
  • Access

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.


Burri, M. (2010). Digital technologies and traditional cultural expressions: A positive look at a difficult relationship. International Journal of Cultural Property 17, 33-63.

Caplan, P. (2008). The preservation of digital materials. Library Technology Reports, 44(2).

Christen, K. (2011). Opening archives: Respectful repatriation. The American Archivist 74, 185-210.

Cook, T., & Schwartz, J. M. (2002). Archives, records, and power: From (postmodern) theory to (archival) performance. Archival Science 2(3), 171-185.

de Lusenet, Y. (2007). Tending the garden or harvesting the fields: Digital preservation and the UNESCO Charter on the Preservation of Digital Heritage. Library Trends 56(1), 164-182.

Iacovino, L. (2010). Rethinking archival, ethical and legal frameworks for records of  Indigenous Australian communities: A participant relationship model of rights and responsibilities. Archival Science 10, 353-372.

Kaur, A. (2007). Preservation of digital heritage materials in the 21st century. Journal of Information Management 44(4), 385-394.

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

Natarajan, M. (2004). Digital preservation of cultural heritage information and its implications. Journal of Library and Information Science 29(1-2), 14-25.

Shilton, K. & Srinivasan, R. (2007). Participatory appraisal and arrangement for multicultural archival collections. Archivaria 63, 87-101.

Worcman, K. (2002). Digital division is cultural exclusion. But is digital inclusion cultural exclusion? D-Lib Magazine 8(3). Retrieved December 4, 2011, from 

Author's Bio

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.

Go to Top


  1. Abstract
  2. Introduction
  3. The Power of Archivists
  4. The Need for Participatory Models
  5. Participatory Models in Practice
  6. Digital Preservation and Participatory Models
  7. A Participatory Digital Preservation Model
  8. Conclusion
  9. References
  10. Author's Bio

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