There is much to be gained by placing the consideration of public need and audience engagement at or near the center of a new public digital archival project. Developing relationships and dialogues with individuals and organizations likely to make use of the archive should, at the very least, help clarify the project’s focus, scope, goals, and ultimate viability. Doing so will also increase the likelihood that the archive is utilized in a meaningful and consistent way. Increasing the number of stakeholders involved in a project can help strengthen relationships between cultural and educational organizations and the communities they serve and open additional doors to mutually-beneficial collaboration. Success in these areas can also provide a pathway toward ensuring the project’s long-term sustainability via support for grant applications and fundraising initiatives.
Achieving these goals, for most organizations I think, requires that the archivists, historians, and administrators developing public digital projects move beyond the broad debates about how we define “the public” and engage in more specific conversations about which audiences are most likely to benefit from, engage with, and contribute to the prospective archive. Doing so should not entail taking a less rigorous or comprehensive approach and does require an inclusive and robust analysis of potential users and their needs, which may include: local community groups and citizens, K-12 educators and students, scholars and researchers, graduate and undergraduate students, journalists, and donors, among others.
Engaging audiences early in the development process about how the proposed archive can best meet their particular needs will likely result in alternate and sometimes competing visions for how the end product will look and function and how success will be measured. Finding common ground and keeping invested parties committed and steadily moving toward the common goal is one of the more difficult aspects of engaging in democratic collaborative work. It’s been my experience that the level of difficulty on a project, more often than not, corresponds directly to its size and scope and the number of stakeholders involved.
Ultimately, the criteria for success for any project should be determined by its stakeholders and informed by the needs and desires of its primary audiences. Though, I do think that any new public digital project should meet a few benchmarks. New digital projects need to be responsive and accessible to all users on multiple platforms and devices, since many people only access the internet via mobile devices and data networks. Project websites should be easy to locate, easy to navigate, and reflective of current best practices. Digital archival projects in particular should build in programs and initiatives that facilitate public contributions to the archive via the submission of documents, images, and other materials or through an oral history program whenever possible. They should also encourage public participation in the construction of the archive, possibly through internships or volunteer programs whereby participants can assist in the processing and digitization of materials and/or metadata input. All projects should include a tool for measuring website analytics and a process through which participants and users can evaluate the archive and submit personal feedback. Organizations may opt to form an advisory board consisting of project stakeholders to review feedback, measure analytics, and make recommendations that can help ensure the project meets its criteria for success and/or determine when that criteria needs to be adjusted.
Developing a new public digital archival project that situates public need and participation near its core is achievable and practical. However, those priorities should not supersede the traditional long-range archival approach that has prioritized securing and preserving historical records. Rather, immediate public needs should be balanced with the long-term public interest. Audiences change. Audience needs change, sometimes rapidly. In shifting to a newer paradigm for digital archival projects that place much greater emphasis on public need and participation in the here and now, I wonder if we are adequately considering potential risks associated with privileging the short term over the long? If too much weight is placed on acquiring and making available collections that are of demonstrable value in a presentist context, do we not risk ignoring or perhaps even losing historically significant collections that do not fit this mold?
The political papers of the members of the U.S. Congress are but one example of archival collections that possess immense historical value but which may not be suitable for public input regarding their availability and use. Congressional collections document the evolution of America’s legislative branch; they provide insight into how historically significant legislation was developed and passed; and they document the relationships between constituents and those serving in “the people’s branch.” However, unlike U.S. presidents and their staff members, U.S. senators and representatives are not legally required to preserve, donate, or make available their personal papers. The size, scope, and complexity of congressional collections is also vast, often times spanning multiple decades, consisting of both analog and born-digital materials, and including documents rife with sensitive information from colleagues, staffers, and constituents. It is with these factors in mind that many congressmen either do not donate their papers to a repository or require that their papers remain closed to the public for extended periods of time. Repositories then often must bear the upfront costs associated with acquiring, processing, and storing these important parts of our documentary heritage for several years before making use of them in any meaningful way. I expect that other types of collections, including those ranging from local civic organizations and grass roots activists to prominent scientists and influential business leaders, carry with them similar issues relating to their public use.
It is essential that public historians and archivists continue to push and find new ways to connect with our various audiences and give them a more pronounced stake in our initiatives. However, we must balance these efforts with those made toward preserving historically-relevant materials that do not offer immediate ways to involve those audiences as well.