Doing Digital Archives in Public Manifesto

The following manifesto was created for the Society of American Archivists Archives Records 2016 conference session 307 “Doing Digital Archives in Public” by Wendy Hagenmaier, Jaime Mears, Jessica Meyerson and Eric Milenkiewicz.


Do you have thoughts or comments about doing digital archives in public? Tweet about it with the hashtag #archivesinpublic !

DOWNLOAD THE PDF HERE—->      archivesinpublic.manifesto

4 thoughts on “Doing Digital Archives in Public Manifesto

  1. I’m curious: wouldn’t this manifesto work equally well, if not better, if the word “digital” were not present anywhere within it? Apart from the technical, appraisal, and descriptive challenges they present, what makes born digital material any different from analog material in terms of opening up to the public the processes and challenges of working with archives? Living as we are in the digital incunabula, I understand that the language is stressing the digital as it is still a fairly new field of concentration, but that won’t always be so (in fact, every day it becomes more ingrained into standard archival practice). And the general public still barely has a clue as to what we do and why we do it with analog material.

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  2. We agree that the public would benefit from understanding the processes and challenges of working with all archives! In fact, the authors had multiple conversations about the issue you have raised. We eventually agreed that there are certain challenges that arise when you work with digital archives that we wanted to call attention to w/ this manifesto.

    I’m speaking for myself here (Jaime), but one of the best examples I have to illustrate this point is a presentation my fellow NDSR resident Valerie Collins gave about her work earlier this year at our NDSR symposium. She implemented a repository system for the American Institute of Architects, something that many MANY archivists now find themselves doing (to your ingrained point)- and Val did a hell of a job, too. But one of the themes of her presentation was how hard it was to show what she had accomplished. This is a part of her talk-

    “And so although by the end of my residency, we had created a repository organization that met the needs of the archives that was intuitive to staff members – This is sort of a quick screen shot of the staff interface, which is not the same as the archives interface, and this is not the home page but a different part of the rousing mechanism, and so this is sort of like a – I did something [laughter]. And so also one of the hardest lessons to learn was that sometimes extreme effort that goes into these building systems kind of translates into this apparent simplicity, which is great because you want it to be simple for your users. So, I was able to at the end build a box to put all the things into, and that whether they’re born digital or made digital, these items now have a home at the AIA; and I guess that means now it’s time to preserve them.”

    Building systems that benefit from their seeming simplicity, scale that’s difficult to imagine or relate to (what’s a petabyte? Can I hold it in my arms?) – these are just some the uniquely digital characteristics that come to mind when I hear Val and others share that frustrating “BUT I DID SOMETHING!” exclamation. It’s so pervasive and such an issue- archivists have trouble showing their work even to their own colleagues (thank you GitHub!).

    And yes, digital won’t always be new. I look forward to the day when we have all the answers and we can take some of the things we find to be so challenging right now for granted. But before that all solidifies, I think the hope with this manifesto is to influence how we get there.

    Jessica, Wendy, or Eric- do you have anything you’d like to add in response to Matthew’s question?


  3. It’s an interesting question about, about whether the “archives” you’re discussing in the are an unmarked, undifferentiated category. I like your response, Jaime, and I love the ideas you’ve expressed in the manifesto and the panel! However, I don’t agree that the manifesto would apply equally to all archives. (Unless by “doing archives in public” you would mean “outreach/service to your community,” which do not seem to be the same things.) It seems to me that as a statement of values and position, you *are* directing this toward the digital space, which allows for certain types of broader involvement than does other formats of archival work. It raises issues about understanding materiality and format that are different, as you note. The position you’re expressing in the manifesto also applies well to community and personal archiving efforts. It may not, for example, apply as well to corporate archives, or to government recordkeeping. Many archives serve specific disciplinary or organizational purposes, and therefore follow processes which do not necessarily apply to a generalized public. As you suggest in the manifesto, the “who is your public?” question is key, and it points to the idea of designated community, which is an important archival concept.

    There is also the important distinction of archival *processes* from archival materials/contents. It seems clear that this informed your shaping of the manifesto, but the ethical dimension doesn’t come through strongly. i.e., there are processes and concepts of digital collections (software development, hardware obsolescence, proprietary formats, codecs) that should be more widely known and understood, but there are also frequent reasons that the content may not be public (privacy, tribal ethics, security).


    • Thank you Jesse, these are great points you’ve raised. You’re right that our team developed this manifesto to advocate for the exposure of archival processes (the “work” in the manifesto) rather than content. The “Who is your public?” was a key factor for us as we considered the ethical implications of this call to action, and recently I’ve been thinking a lot about the weight we give our publics when we design for or with them (As DocNow and other projects show, we tend to be biased to our researchers over our content creators in our processes and outreach).

      I think the exposure of the work, the choices we make, the structures we impose, is even more important when the content is not public. You cited tribal ethics as one example and it makes me think of Mukurtu, which is representative of our manifesto’s philosophy in many ways- working with community members to design a system that represents their archives in ways they wish, having tribal members contribute to object descriptions, documenting the project openly, designing TK labels that others can adopt…

      Could you (and any other readers) suggest some ways we could improve the manifesto’s language to make the ethical dimension stronger?

      Liked by 1 person

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