From the News column of the February 2008 issue of Perspectives on History
AHA Launches Archives Wiki
Robert B. Townsend and Vernon Horn, February 2008
Say you are contemplating a trip to an archive in Juneau, Alaska, or Vienna, Austria. You begin to wonder how you would go about it. Will you need to write beforehand? Are there collection aids? What are the hidden strengths of the collection? How many records can you access at a time? Can you use a digital camera? Where can you stay? Is there a good restaurant near the archives? Are the staff helpful? The answers to these questions are rarely found in published guides to archives or web sites. Researchers usually discover the answers only through painful (and sometimes expensive) personal experience.
To help fill the gap, the AHA will be launching an Archives Wiki this month at http://archiveswiki.historians.org. Ideally, this free service will make it easier for researchers to find out as much as possible about archives in the United States and abroad before venturing out on a trip. With your help, the wiki will offer a web-based guide to archival collections by and for researchers on historical subjects.
The AHA Archives Wiki web page at http://archiveswiki.historians.org.
How the Archives Wiki Works
By using the open source technology of the "wiki"—which allows people to work collaboratively, providing information and editing and correcting the work of others—we hope to harness the interests and knowledge of the thousands of researchers (historians, genealogists, and other research professionals) who are at work daily in archives the world over. Because the wiki is designed to be an open forum, we will also rely on the interest and assistance of the thousands of archivists and librarians, who have an interest in encouraging historians to use their collections and make an informed decision about how to use them, will also actively be solicited and drawn upon. This collaborative process will allow the Archives Wiki to harness the knowledge of tens of thousands of researchers and archivists, allowing them to provide the kind of inside information that researchers need.
It would be impossible for the staff of the AHA to develop such a project on their own. The National Union Catalog of Manuscripts Collections lists more than 5,000 archival collections in the United States and Canada, and the AHA's interests encompass the world—expanding the number of archives exponentially. Beyond that, the information a history researcher needs to know is more specific and particular, something that can really only be obtained at the ground level. So a wiki seems to be the only way to make such a resource possible.
But it will rely on the good faith and efforts of researchers and archivists to meet its potential. The best-known wiki in operation is Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia. As the late Roy Rosenzweig noted in a survey of the historical information available on Wikipedia in a recent article in the Journal of American History, at a simple factual level the site seems to be equal to other available sources. The site is prone to some distortions, as particular communities of specialized interests tend to make some entries much more substantive than others. For the Archives Wiki, however, we hope that specialized level of interest might actually be a benefit, as we want to harness precisely that sense of specialized interest and enthusiasm.
To make the site functional and easily searchable, we have implemented a structural hierarchy based on geography—Country>State>City>Institution>Archive>Collection. This will allow us to aggregate certain amounts of information that is common to a particular institution (for instance, one would not need to repeat the photocopying policy for the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress for every collection of papers, presumably). That would help to make this more generally useful for a potential researcher, who can draw on some information about a particular place even if the site lacked information about the specific archives or collection.
Wikis are seemingly anarchic; so the Archives Wiki will try to suggest some parameters for submission of information, to ensure that the important questions are answered.
- Location (Country, State, Locality/City)
- Contact Information (e.g., Phone number, email)
- Web site
- Collection Summary (for example, "The archive includes audio/visual material relevant to the history, folklore, and folklife of Maine's St. John Valley.")
- Finding Aids (perhaps a link to the online source)
- Archivists (principal contacts for advice on the collection)
- Where to stay/How to get by on your research stipend
- Photocopy/Reproduction policies: How much does it cost. Do they allow you to do your own photocopying? Do you need to bring your own camera? Can you use a scanner or digital camera?
- Organization of materials. What kind of boxes do they use? How deep is the processing of the files?
- Author of materials. Particularly in files for larger organizations, it can certainly help to know who had generated the material collected in the files.
- Oddities within or about the materials; Suggestions for approaching the material; Special Features. This can be a variety of things. Special collections, events, features of the building, etc.
Given the problems with vandalism that frequently plague wikis and the very small staff at the Association, we have implemented a modest registration system. No one can post material without having a verified email address. We are particularly concerned that this does not become a forum to rehash a particularly bad experience at an archive or an opportunity to single out a particular archivist for criticism. We need to start from the assumption that archivists are working in good faith, and need to be cautious stewards of the materials in their care within the rules and regulations of a larger institution. To maintain such standards and procedures for upholding them, AHA staff and volunteers will work to establish guidelines on appropriate use. Initially AHA staff will aggressively monitor and edit wiki entries in an attempt to ensure the highest quality of information. In time, however, we hope to turn the bulk of the monitoring and editorial responsibilities over to volunteer users.
Finally, if the site grows significantly, we will have to monitor its usability and may need to add additional resources and tools. Most wikis come with a search engine built in. However, to make the site as useful as possible, over time we may need to supplement the information with a fairly specific set of keywords to help narrow searches down to a specific topic or subject. Assuming the site becomes a resource for locating materials, as well as aiding in their use, this delimited tagging will be vitally important to focus subject searches and provide trails to locations of similar material as the site grows over time. Initially, we can just use the AHA taxonomy, though it is difficult to impose that kind of standardization in such an open environment.
In this formative stage, we welcome any and all suggestions for how we might develop this project. Users are welcome to post suggestions in the wiki's "Discussion" section. Suggestions may also be sent to Robert B. Townsend, the Association's assistant director for research and publications.
Apart from providing useful information about archival resources for historians, we hope this project will also help to develop a new network of community and collaboration within the discipline and with related research fields. It is something of a commonplace that history is a discipline divided into many microsubjects, and we hope the AHA's Archives Wiki will provide a reminder of what we as historians have in common. The wiki may also fill an important but often unstated need by providing historians-in-training with a better sense of the questions they will need to ask before delving into archival research (an aspect of professional preparation that, according to the AHA's Committee on Graduate Education, was sadly neglected in many history PhD programs).
Lastly, the Archives Wiki will also allow the Association to continue its recent work to develop and promote the use of cutting-edge technology in and for the discipline. By most accounts, the generation of students emerging from today's colleges and universities are active and eager users of "collaborative software" like Wikipedia. So the Archives Wiki will provide a new opportunity to test whether and how history can play a role in this fast-changing information landscape.
These goals may appear too ambitious for a single project like this. But given the collaborative nature of the wiki, the goals can be reached. We hope researchers and archivists will take up the challenge, and help make the Archives Wiki a valuable resource for future generations of the historians.
—Robert Townsend is the AHA’s assistant director for research and publications.
—Vernon Horn is the AHA’s internet projects cooordinator. Background information on the development of the Archives Wiki idea is available at http://blog.historians.org/resources/31/archives-wiki-part-i-a-proposal, and subsequent posts.