By Siham Alaoui
As guest editors of the special issue of Archivaria on person-centred archival theory and praxis, we, Jennifer Douglas, Jessica Lapp and Mya Balin, are pleased to share a series of blog posts that reflect on the nature and enactment of person-centred approaches to archival materials and work. These blog posts complement the articles in the special issue, presenting a variety of perspectives on how centring the person in archival processes happens and why it matters. We're grateful to the authors for sharing their research and experiences!
Current technological developments have changed the way heritage institutions are conducting their activities. Those institutions are undertaking new strategies to involve citizens in the description and enrichment of cultural heritage. This is particularly the case in archival institutions, where citizens are invited to donate their archival materials such as personal diaries, manuscripts, photographs, and videos, to document the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on social, economic, and cultural levels. This contribution sheds light on the various manifestations of the collective documentation of the COVID-19 pandemic and describes how the archivist’s role is to be reinvented for a better citizen archives management. We also identify and describe the key challenges relating to this person-centred archival praxis, and how archivists can play simultaneous roles as stewards, mediators, and participants in this context.
Collective documentation of the COVID-19 pandemic: an enrichment of common documentary heritage
The collective documentation of the pandemic is viewed as a response to the statements published in April 2020 by UNESCO and the International Council on Archives (ICA), inviting policy makers, health authorities, managers, research institutions, and citizens to transform the COVID-19 threat into an opportunity to enrich the documentary heritage of nations (ICA, 2020; UNESCO, 2020). Since then, many citizens have been involved in those collective initiatives, that is, by sharing their personal archives with heritage institutions in the aim of describing how they are living their quarantine and illustrating their experiences and emotions. Examples of those institutions are several, chief of which are the Civilisation Museum in Quebec (Musée de la civilisation) and the Association of Belgium French-speaking archivists (Association des archivistes francophones de la Belgique), which have established collaborative approaches to collect, manage, and disseminate COVID-19 pandemic citizens’ personal archives. The virtual exhibitions on their respective websites show the diversity of content generated by citizens, including letters, diaries, and photographs. All those archives reflect citizens’ thoughts, emotions, and even memories, describing how the pandemic affected their everyday life. To take part in those initiatives, citizens were invited to log on to the platform and upload their personal archives. The latter should be described using various metadata such as the document type, its topic, and release date. Furthermore, archival material should be accompanied with a relevant description reflecting how the donated objects can help document the social, cultural, and economic impacts of the pandemic on citizens.
Figure 2 The Civilisation Museum: collective documentation of the COVID-19 pandemic
The donated archival material contributes to the enrichment of the documentary heritage these institutions are responsible for. To do so, citizens are to be involved in the description of their personal archives, as they are the actors able to enhance their intelligibility and highlight their archival value. In that sense, as creators, citizens are in the best position to describe their own archives and determine their value, whether it is emotional, informational, or evidential. Thus, considering the central role played by citizens in archives description, the collective documentation of the pandemic is viewed as a person-centred archival practice that can also be positioned between participatory archives and community archives. While the first one aims to solicit citizens to describe archives via an online platform (Huvilla, 2008; Theimer, 2011), the second illustrates the autonomous archival practices of sociocultural groups sharing common interests, ideologies, or identity traits (Iacovino, 2015). In both cases, citizens have more autonomy in describing archival materials, as they upload the latter according to their personal perceptions, generating heterogenous archival outcomes. Moreover, these actors have various sociodemographic backgrounds, which may influence their interests, needs, and power relations over personal archives. Henceforth, this collective practice might generate a series of challenges that are to be tackled by archivists to establish a balance between cultural institutions’ strategic objectives and citizens’ needs.
The collective documentation of the COVID-19 pandemic: what roles for the archivist?
The collective documentation of the COVID-19 pandemic raises a series of issues at the ethical, archival, social, and cultural levels. To tackle them, archivists must play several roles qualifying these actors as nomads: they can be viewed as stewards, participants, or mediators. Each role helps address specific challenges and, thus, requires different archival, social, managerial, and digital abilities.
Figure 3 The archivist as a nomad
On the ethical level, some citizens may not agree to get their photographs used by a third party in a different context and may want to claim their exclusive use by archival institutions. It is therefore important to be aware of the ethical aspects related to personal archives use. In this context, archivists play an institutional role as stewards, since they are concerned with regulatory requirements surrounding the dissemination of archives on digital platforms, particularly with respect to existing copyright laws. They ought to increase awareness about the legal considerations regarding personal archives use.
Moreover, from an archival perspective, donated personal archives should be described by citizens, as they are in the best position to express their thoughts and emotions in the most accurate way. Yet, while citizens are given more autonomy to describe their personal archives, it is also important to assess archival outputs’ compliance with recognized best practices. In this context, archivists are viewed as participants, since they are involved in the participatory description of citizens’ personal archives, with the aim of respecting the accurate description of the emotional, affective, historical, and artifactual values those objects may have. Thus, archivists are to engage in a continuous dialogue with citizens to ensure a better archival description of the donated material.
Furthermore, archivists can also play a role of mediators. This is particularly the case when it comes to helping citizens improve their digital and archival skills, as they might not have the same required abilities to use digital platforms to donate their own archives. Archivists should help users identify and describe their personal archives through the establishment of some guidelines regarding, for instance, recommended metadata, file formats and sizes, as well as the required details to be added to archives to enhance their discoverability and intelligibility.
Last but not least, considering the limited financial resources heritage institutions have, archivists are to play a mediation role while selecting archives to publish online. It is vital to establish a balance between both the strategic objectives of those institutions and social expectations regarding the pandemic collective documentation. Archivists should develop opportunities for a better understanding of citizens’ needs regarding the dissemination of pandemic personal archives. They may conduct periodical surveys with users to assess the quality of the donated material made online and adjust, if necessary, the prioritization process after getting the approval of their institution’s top management.
In light of what has been said above, the collective documentation of the COVID-19 pandemic is viewed as a person-centred archival praxis that makes archivists revisit their roles in the digital universe. From stewards to mediators, archivists are to develop multiple collaborative opportunities with citizens, who are nowadays more involved in the enrichment of common documentary heritage, thanks to web 2.0 features. It is legitimate to wonder to what extent archivists will have to control the heterogenous archival outputs generated by citizens, as those actors are getting more involved in heritage institutions’ collaborative projects.
Association des archivistes francophones de Belgique (2020). Archives de quarantaine: l’exposition virtuelle. Retrieved from: https://archivesquarantainearchief.be/expoaqa/s/expovirtuelle/page/expovirtuelle
Eveleigh, A. (2017). Participatory archives. In H. McNeil and T. Eastwood (eds.), Currents of archival thinking, (2nded.). Santa Barbara, CA Libraries Unlimited, 299-325.
Huvila, I. (2008). Participatory archive: Towards decentralised curation, radical user orientation and broader contextualisation of records management. Archival Science, 8(1), 15-36. Retrieved from: link.springer.com/content/pdf/10.1007/s10502-008-9071-0.pdf
Iacovino, L. (2015). Shaping and reshaping cultural identity and memory: maximising human rights through a participatory archives. Archives and Manuscripts, 43(1), 29-41, DOI: 10.1080/01576895.2014.961491
International Council on Archives (2020). COVID-19: the duty to document does not cease in a crisis, it becomes more essential. Retrieved from: https://www.ica.org/en/covid-19-the-duty-to-document-does-not-cease-in-a-crisis-it-becomes-more-essential
Musée de la civilisation (2020). Documentez la pandémie. Retrieved from: https://uneheureaumusee.ca/documentez-la-pandemie/appel-a-objets/
Theimer, K. (2011). A different kind of Web: new connections between archives and our users. Chicago, IL: Society of American Archivists.
United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) (2020). Turning the threat of COVID-19 into an opportunity for greater support to documentary heritage. Retrieved from: https://www.ica.org/sites/default/files/dhe-covid-19-unesco_statement_en2.pdf
Siham Alaoui, MLIS, is a PhD candidate in archival science and public communication and a sessional lecturer at Université Laval, Québec, Canada. She is interested in digital documentary mediation and citizen participation in heritage institutions’ projects.
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