The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
It Takes a Village
Sometimes a single picture or new piece of information can open a window to a whole new perspective. In my case, it was a couple of sentences—spoken at a recent presentation at the Best Practices Exchange 2010 conference in Phoenix, Arizona—that turned out to be revelatory.
The conference was a gathering of archivists, librarians, record managers, and digital curators whose passion is preserving digital history and dealing with the issues that goal raises, from preservation techniques to organizational policies. The community has been hard at work tackling the myriad challenges that digital records present and is coming up with a host of effective and innovative approaches. With thousands of different file formats to deal with and the skyrocketing growth rates for digital collections, the need for innovation is not news among my fellow colleagues. But what stood out to me, what really stood out, was one speaker’s comment to the effect that: “The only way archives are going to keep up with the expanding technical demands of digital preservation and sheer volume of historical digital records will be to pool their resources with other archives by sharing techniques, tools, expertise, even systems and infrastructures. No single organization is going to be able to do it all by themselves.”
The way to make real and significant headway against the deluge of data will, fundamentally, depend upon collaborations between like-minded organizations. While that’s easy to say, it is extremely hard to put into practice.
And yet, despite all the difficulties involved, the archival community has already begun to do just that. At the forefront are those who are generously sharing their lessons learned, techniques, and the tools and systems they create, often as open source software. Still, it’s hard not to wonder: will we find the wherewithal in ourselves to forge the kind of cooperation and collaboration that’s needed to keep our digital historical record intact? Can we shake off our apprehension about trusting our institutional collections to IT environments that we have to share with others? The concept itself is not new. The emergence of community-based “time banks” to barter labor and services enabled some people, for example, to bridge financial gaps triggered by the financial crisis in 2008. Years earlier, Hillary Clinton referred to an old African proverb “it takes a village to raise a child” when she sought to motivate people to work together to improve the plight of children in the U.S. through federal programming. There was little debate about the wisdom of the old adage even though there was hot debate about how Clinton wanted to use the federal government to make those improvements.
What encouraged me, at the conference, was to hear leading archivists, records managers, and digital preservation specialists speaking so candidly about truly promising strategy that could address the shortcomings of many current approaches. We’ve all got to acknowledge that we’re going to have work together, forge new alliances, and work together to build the array of tools needed if we’re going to hang on to and save our digital history. It can be done. But, we’re going to have to collaborate in ways we’re just beginning to understand if we plan to get the job done.