Participatory archiving: The next generation in archival methodology

Eddie Woodward

Archives and archivists have generally shied away from accepting all-digital donations. Possibly because of our general aversion to all-photocopy collections, archivists have traditionally turned down all-digital collections because they are not the genuine article. There are, of course, acceptations to the rule—for example, if the items or images were so rare or of high research value that a digital donation was the only way that they could be added to the collection. But, digital donations open up a can of worms that archivist would rather avoid.

That said, digital donations, and the issues surrounding them, are going to become more prevalent as community or participatory archiving becomes more common. Popularized by the Mass. (Massachusetts) Memories Road Show, community archives and archiving entrusts the members of a community, or those with a shared experience, to create and describe their particular collections. And in doing so, they are encouraged to offer up their photographs, scrapbooks, ephemera, and other memorabilia for digitization and inclusion in the repository as all-digital collections.

In this community archiving formula, participants are not asked to donate their materials, but only to donate their digital surrogates. This involvement can be random, but it appears that the projects get the best response when the participation is scheduled as routine programming that brings community members to the institution for a daylong event. In this type of participatory communal archiving, the citizens of the area are the ones charged with documenting and describing their own communities, the archivists serve as the facilitators, and the institution or repository serves as the archives or virtual archives for the digital collection.

Using this formula, Mass. Memories Road Show personnel, based at UMass Boston, scheduled events across the state, where they invited residents to come in to help document their communities or localities by permitting the staff to digitize their photographs and other materials for inclusion in the all-digital collection. The programming for these events might include a speaker or a panel discussion on the community or topic that is being covered.1 This form of engagement is gaining so much traction that last summer the National Endowment for the Humanities established the “Common Heritage” grant program to better document and create these types of virtual community repositories.2

Challenges and possible solutions

One of the reasons that archives and archivists have shied away from purely digital collections and donations is because of the various storage and preservation problems that they present. Mainly, with a digital collection, what exactly is being stored and preserved? And then there are all of the digital preservation issues associated with electronic records. Does the receiving repository have a digital preservation strategy in place? What happens when there is not actual physical backup, master, or security copy, and the only thing that you have is the digital substitution? One simple solution might be to print out a hard copy of the digital photograph.

Because of the fragility of technology, and the fact that technology can fail, Doug Nishimura, senior research scientist at the Image Permanence Institute recommends that photographs be printed out for security’s sake. In this scenario, a printed copy of the photograph serves as the master security “file,”and might replace or at least supplement the uncompressed TIF archival master (wherever or however you chose to store it).3

Other headaches for all-digital donations include deeds of gift and copyright issues. If ownership of the original negative or print photograph are not transferred to your institution, then what is? This could become particularly problematic when one repository receives a digital donation and another repository winds up with the actual items.

One solution is to have the copyright of the image itself, and not necessarily the physical photograph, transferred to the receiving repository. However, this is impractical for a number of reasons. A more acceptable agreement would permit the receiving repository to have perpetual, nonexclusive rights to use the image however it sees fit. And then, the actual physical items could be donated anywhere, without affecting the status of the original all-digital deed of gift. Use of the digital images for anything other than educational or personal purposes would need to be cleared by the copyright holder.

As challenging as all of this may appear, there is real value in building collections in this way. First and foremost, the receiving repository is coming into possession and making accessible items that it would probably not have if it did not agree to a digital donation. Plainly put, many people with materials of high research value are not willing to let them go. And if the only way they might be accessible to researchers is via donation, many potential donors might never even make you aware of their existence. However, once they are aware of the digital option, you might begin to see them coming out of the woodwork. Again, this type of communal archiving, centered around a community or shared experience, could build a comprehensive collection of materials, especially when participants understand that they are not giving up their prized possessions. The donors are the experts on their own collections and can provide the quality descriptive metadata needed (and desired) to make the materials accessible in an online environment. Additionally, generally speaking, people like to see their names in print and their stuff online, and this could provide added incentive to their participation in the community archiving project.4

Next to the high research value is the opportunity for the positive community outreach and engagement. History, heritage, and tradition sells and this type of scenario might give those who weren’t really interested in sharing their collection, an opportunity to become involved in an ongoing project at the repository. These types of projects might bring people into your library who might have never had a reason to come in otherwise. And once they become involved in telling their story, they often become invested, frequently taking on a sense of ownership in the project. Your repository’s development officers are always looking for ways to engage the passions of their patrons. This way, the patrons can become involved without having to sacrifice their stuff. In this scenario, everybody wins.

Obviously, we are still in the early days for community or participatory archiving, and no one can predict if it really could become the next phase in archival methodology. But, it does present an opportunity to build and deepen collections, especially local history collections, while offering positive outreach and engagement potential.

1. “Mass. Memories Road Show. ,” accessed March 25, 2016,
2. “Common Heritage. ,” National Endowment for the Humanities, accessed March 25, 2016,
3. Chuang, T. , “Mailbag: Best Way to Archive Old Photos? An Expert has a Surprising Suggestion. ,” The Denver Post, March.16. , 2015 , accessed March 25, 2016,

Obviously, a participating repository would need a digital asset management system (DAMS) to make the collections available online. If the institution does not have a online platform, and if it is an OCLC member, it would have access to CONTENTdm’s “quick start,” which is included in the library’s subscription at no additional charge. This trial version of the popular DAMS permits the repository to store and manage up to 100 digital records, all hosted by OCLC. Once the repository’s digital presence is established, it could then promote it to the community for its positive outreach benefits, and if successful, expand the subscription so as to up the storage capacity and item count in the database. As an added benefit, these digital or virtual collections requiring no physical storage space in the library.

For more on CONTENTdm “quick start,” visit their website, accessed March 26, 2016,

Copyright © 2016 Eddie Woodward

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