Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Gardens and Forests? Two perspectives on archival outreach

Yet another MIS paper, the last for my 'Archives, Advocacy and Outreach' course, taught by Wendy Duff. For this paper we were asked to compare and contrast 'user-centred' and 'materials-centred' approaches to outreach.

The only constant in this world is change. However, from my limited knowledge of archives, change in that world seems at a pace slower than most. And probably for good reason. The core archival theories guiding acquisition, appraisal, description and preservation currently serve their purpose, and on the most part, serve it well. Yet there is a missing but equally important element: the ‘global south’ of archives that is outreach.
Outreach, also known as public programming, is one way that archives create awareness and promote use through things like public events, physical or online exhibitions, and educational or in-school workshops (to name but a few). Unfortunately, this aspect of archival work is either viewed as not important by some repositories, or they simply do not have the time or funds to spare. For many archives outreach is like a mid-winter tropical sojourn, a nice thought, but often unattainable.
 In spite of these difficulties, a change in perspective on archival outreach has come to the fore in the last 20-30 years. Writers such as Elsie Freeman, Randall Jimerson, Timothy Ericson, and others, have been pushing outreach to the forefront of archival theory. At the frontline of this push is the user, with an increased focus on their search techniques and their current (rather than future) needs. This user-centred approach not so much departs from the traditional archival viewpoint, but places emphasis on one of its key components: use.
However this change is far from accepted in the archival world. Writers such as Terry Cook—while supporting improvements in outreach—warns that taken to the extreme, a focus on the user instead of a focus on the records themselves could have dire consequences for the archival profession. For Cook, it is a matter of the message outreach conveys, and that message has to be the value of the record in its context.
Both the user-focus of Ericson, and the materials-focus of Cook, has important repercussions for archives and archival theory—not only in outreach, but the way records are used, and how they are appraised. It is these two facets of archival theory that concerns archivists such as Cook, and the focus of this text.

“The archival profession has fallen short of the mark in promoting archival materials…” writes Ericson in Archivaria 31, “…it is the inevitable afterthought” (Ericson, 1990/91, p.114, 116). Archivists have become “preoccupied with our own gardens, and too little aware of the larger historical and social landscape around us” (Ham, 1981, as cited in Ericson, p.115). As a result, the promotion and use of archives for current users (and non-users) is far from what it could be.
According to Ericson and a number of others writing about outreach, this neglect of the record’s use, and those who use them, is the result of outreach playing second fiddle to acquisition and description. “Availability and use are last…when, in fact, they should be first. This may seem like a minor point, but the consequences are insidious. Outreach and use come last… something to be undertaken when all the rest of the work has been done” (Ericson, p.116). Naturally, when time and funding is stretched, those at the bottom of the archival ladder (such as outreach) suffer.
If the purpose of preserving archival materials is so that they will be used (Eriscon, p.114), then outreach should be tied to an archive’s mission statement, and sit alongside (or even in front) of other archival principles:

the goal is use. We need continually to remind ourselves of this fact. Identification, acquisition, description and the rest are simply the means we use to achieve this goal. They are tools. We may employ all these tools skilfully; but if, after we brilliantly and meticulously appraise, arrange, describe and conserve our records, nobody comes to use them, then we have wasted out time (Ericson, p.117).

This shift towards outreach and the user is what Malbin describes as being user-centred: “the increasingly widespread, mostly American school, which favours a user-centred approach,” including user-friendly finding aids and indexes arranged by subject (1997, p.70). According to this school, archivists should concentrate on ‘translating’ archival theory (such as provenance) into a form more understandable to the typical user’s needs (Malbin, p.70).
Lowrence Dowler echoes this trend: “use, rather than the form of material, is the basis on which archival practice and theory ought to be constructed” (1988, as cited in Cook, p.125). The value of records and the information they contain is not in the record’s context, but in “the relationship between the use of information and the ways in which it is or can be provided” (1988, as cited in Cook, p.125). It is this relationship that should define archival practice.
But for archivists such as Terry Cook, this shift in archival theory could undermine both it “and the very richness of that documentary heritage” which outreach would make available (Cook, 1990/91, p.123). Cook’s fears are not in making archives more accessible (something he supports), but in extending a user-centred approach to the two main archival functions of appraisal and description—in other words, what we keep, and how it will be found by the user. According to Cook, rather than making records instantly available, outreach needs to ensure the right message is being delivered. That message is the unique value of the record when viewed through the lens of archival theory.
This view represents a materials-centred approach, and arguably the dominant discourse of archival theory. For Cook, “archives are not just collections of individual documents but, rather, a blend of what is in all of them” (Malbin, p.71). Knowledge is gained through the record’s richness, the contextual significance of the record, and the collections in which they are found. Rather than “focusing on that isolated tree,” archivists, through educating users on the power of provenance, should lead their users “through the grand archival forest, with all its fascinating paths and interesting byways” (Cook, p.128).
 Cook argues that the key principles of archival theory—provenance, original order, context and the like—imply “a sense of understanding, of ‘knowledge,’ rather than the merely efficient retrieval of names, dates, subjects, or whatever, all devoid of context, that is ‘information’” (Cook, 1984/85, as cited in Cook, p.128). Records do not simply provide facts and figures, but offer a unique insight into the creator of the record and the larger society to which they belong. Treating a record as containing mere data or information negates its archival value.
Cook is concerned that if outreach is promoted at the expense of archival theory, then the current and future use of records is threatened. A user-centred approach to appraisal, while increasing service for today’s users, could be to the detriment of future use. And while outreach should not “be the tail unthinkingly following the appraisal and description dog, it is no healthier that [outreach] should wag the entire archival dog” (Cook, p.127).

There is no question that outreach should be prime and centre in the role of an archive. As well as ensuring that our cultural heritage is accessed by a wide variety of people in order to create new knowledge, outreach is needed for the very existence of archives itself—even more so a neo-liberal world overly concerned with outcomes and profit margins. As Tapscott and Williams, when discussing Web 2.0 and outreach, put it: we must “harness the new collaboration or perish” (2006, as cited in Daines & Nimer, 2009).
Outreach and public programming creates an awareness of the archive and what it does. It can aid current users and act as the catalyst for new ones. Online exhibitions, educational programs in schools, workshops and events, and innovative digital tools that bring archives to the streets (such as being able to text a number and find out information about that street or place), all aid in the use of archival documents. Outreach activities “teach people that archives are places to which they may come for information” (Ericson, p.119).
But does this use come at expense of archival principles? And if so, what knowledge is being gained? For Cook, if outreach is taken to its limit at the expense of the archival message, archives would be turned into “the McDonald’s of Information, where everything is carefully measured to meet every customer profile and every market demographic” (Cook, p.127). This is because ‘information’ and ‘knowledge’ is not the same thing.
In the same issue of Archivaria as Ericson, Cook quotes Theodore Roszak to describe the differences of information and knowledge: “information is not knowledge. You can mass-produce raw data and incredible quantities of facts and figures. You cannot mass-produce knowledge, which is created by individual minds, drawing on individual experience, separating the significant from the irrelevant, making value judgements” (as cited in Cook, p.128). The knowledge gained from records through their original order, their provenance, and an understanding of the societal context in which they were created, is threatened when a record is pulled from its collection and instantly served to the user “on a silver platter” (Cook, p.125). It may service their need, but at a price. That price is archival value.
Instead, archivists need to get back to the records themselves, and to the unique power of provenance. Although difficult for the Google generation to grapple, archival theory on record creation and description is important because of the uniqueness of archives: “archives are not like libraries, nor should they be” (Malbin, p.71). The power of provenance ensures the user is not limited to “a diet of fast food, of quick hits of facts, names and dates without context and without much meaning” (Cook, p.131), but a rich experience of knowledge making.
Cook argues: “every user from the genealogist looking for a single fact or a copy of a single documents through the most sophisticated researcher using ‘discourse’ methodology would benefit from this materials-centred approach to archives” (Cook, p.130). This is because the retrieval of information is not a logical, analytical and linear process, but a holistic, intuitive and creative one (Ketelaar, 1988, as cited in Cook, p.129). Therefore finding aids structured to the users current needs, or description that caters to subjects only, would hinder the holistic search process, fragment the organic relationships of archives, and endanger a record’s coherence. “In the rush to produce more sophisticated and more comprehensive finding aids better to assist the researcher, turning him or her into a one-minute expert, grave risks presents themselves to archivists and researchers alike” (Cook, p.126). For Cook, these grave risks also include how records would be appraised.

“A deep and dangerous theoretical iceberg,” is how Cook responded to the extension of a user-centred approach to appraisal. For writers such as Freeman, however, it is more a case of bringing records above the surface in order to be used today, rather than a preoccupation with the explorers of tomorrow. Archivists need to “consider less the uses of the future and turn more to identifying the users and uses of today” (Gracy, 1986, as cited in Cook, p.125). Because of this eye on the future, the ‘products’ archives hold “do not supply what users want or, far more important, what they will actually use,” writes Freeman; “a look at how and why users approach records will give us new criteria for appraising records” (1984, as cited in Cook, p.126).
Knowing what the user wants or needs and acquiring records for that purpose, ensures the records are relevant, and above all, used. Archivists should “respond to the needs of users, rather than the expectations of archivists” (Blais & Enn, 1990, as cited in Cook, p.124). Although this would require a “radical rethinking” of archival theory, the advocates of such an approach content that the user, and archives, would benefit—through increased use and increased funding. In all probability, this would lead to an awareness and use of the archives not yet seen in its history.
However for Cook, such an approach is a disaster in the making. “Archivists do not (and should not!) want to acquire labour records this week, women’s diaries next week, or scientific lab reports after that” Cook, p.131). Appraising and collection records should never be based on “trendy consumerism” or the “transient whims of users” (Cook, p.130), because such an approach would destroy the unique value of archives—that is, the accurate reflection of the “functions, ideas and activities or records creators and those with whom they interact” (Cook, p.130).
Having a window on how a society functioned and the values that prevailed through the archival record, is the key to appraisal (and the very function of archives). Acquisition based on current use would provide a fragmented, rather than a holistic view on the period in question. Instead, it is better to develop criteria “to ensure that the records acquired reflect the values, patterns and functions of society today, or for older records, of the society contemporary with the records’ creators” (Cook, p.130). In this way “all kinds of research will be supported” (Cook, p.130).
Cook makes it clear that he is not supporting “cultural elitism” (Cook, p. 131), but ensuring that the uniqueness of records and the insights they provide are not negated by appraisal dictated by transient whims or quick-strike answers. Rather, Cook urges “archivists to step back from being superficial McDonald’s of Information or flashy Disney-Worlds of Heritage Entertainment, and step forward to providing all researchers with relevance, meaning, understanding and knowledge” (Cook, p.131). Because in the end, providing records in context in order to make knowledge is what an archive does best (even if it happens at a snail’s pace).

The seeds of change are taking root in modern archives. A user-centred approach is coming to the fore, lead by American archivists and writers such as Freeman and Ericson. This emphasis on the user and use of records has the potential to change the world of archives—from its public perception to the archival profession itself.
However, whether that change is for the better is open to question. For if change comes at the expense of key archival theory, then is the change worth it? If the goal of archives is facilitating use that makes sense of a particular period in question, and to create knowledge through an understanding of a record’s wider context (rather than accessing mere information), then the jettisoning of key archival theories is problematic, to say the least. Instead, archivists such as Cook reaffirm the power of provenance and a materials-centred approach in the quest for meaning and knowledge.
Perhaps the question archivists should be asking is: “how can we combine outreach with key archival principles, at the expense of neither?” For it is the combination of these components, rather than the privileging of one over another, that could steer change in the most beneficial direction. Instead of disregarding archival principles of provenance, original order, context and the like for more palatable translations for the public, archives—through education and outreach—should promote why such techniques are used, and the unique value they bring to research.
The last word on these two views of outreach goes to Terry Cook (sorry Ericson): “the user should also be led to information about the contextual significance of that document… that is informed public service; that is exciting public programming; that is making archival users knowledgeable rather than loaded down, however efficiently, with facts and copies of detached documents floating around devoid of context” (Cook, p.131).


Cook, T. (1990/91). Viewing the world upside down: Reflections on the theoretical underpinning of archival public programming. Archivaria, 31 (Winter), 123-134.

Daines, J.G., & Nimer, C.L. (18 May, 2009). Web 2.0 and archives. Accessed 12 May 2011 from http://interactivearchivist.archivists.org/

Ericson, T. L. (1990/91). Preoccupied with our own gardens: Outreach and archivists. Archivaria, 31 (Winter), 114-122.

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