Folksonomies and the Democratic Archive

Anyone who has visited an archive’s website knows how daunting it is to find something. Archivists offer laboriously constructed “Finding Aids”, but such a title often seems to be more of a taunt than an description. But to talk to an archivist, researchers have to have read all of the finding aids and demonstrated that all other independent options have been exhausted. In short, searching an archive can be an ordeal that daunts a Ph.D. candidate, much less the average curious person. It doesn’t have to be this way. Archives can use folsksonomies to make their collections more accessible, easier to protect, and easy to share with libraries and museums.

Naturally, archivists are very protective of the documents in their collections. Many of them are very old and can easily deteriorate, especially if they’re handled frequently. Theft of historical relics is also a real concern that goes beyond ridiculous movies starring Nicolas Cage. Some of this can be mitigated by scanning. Other documents may be too fragile even for that, but even the most medieval of manuscripts can be transcribed.

Making a collection available online is only a fraction of the challenge. Managing metadata– that is, data about data– is complex and time consuming. Mary W. Elings and Gunter Waibel point out that libraries, archives, and museums have developed parallel strategies for organizing content and, while each of them conform to similar basic standards, different methods have evolved from each entities’ specific needs. They also point out that, while libraries have developed a general cataloguing system that works across different libraries, archives have been generally slow do share data with other archives.

Folksonomies can solve this problem. Folksonomies are a user-driven system of classification. In short, they are the tags that make the internet searchable. Anyone can assign one to a specific object, which then makes them easier to cross reference and associate with different items. Archivists could start by creating their own tags, but anyone who accesses the archive’s website can add their own. The beauty of folksonomies is that they more or less regulate themselves. Alex Wichowksi points out that “tags conform to power laws, where a few tags are used by a large population of users, and the majority of tags only used by a few users.”

Scholars, like Wichowski, observe that folksonomies don’t function very well without the context of a specific community. Yet by allowing users to tag documents within a collection, archives can create that kind of community. What’s more, archivists tend to be fairly well-versed in their respective topics, and they can use their expertise to guide the context of document tagging. They can also help keep things manageable by using Dublin Core principles: One-to-one, which stipulates that the term describe only the object itself; Dumb-down, which means that data should be useable without a qualifier (in other words, “red car” should be primarily searchable as a car); and Appropriate Value, which stipulates that usefulness for discovery should be the guiding principle.

Imagine if the National Archives digitized all of its records for the U.S. Civil War, and someone in Indianapolis wants to read records about soldiers from Indiana who fought at the Battle of Gettysburg. NARA could have already added basic tags to make this searchable, such as “Indiana” and “Gettysburg.” The same person could add their own tags. For instance, the 19th Indiana regiment was part of the “Iron Brigade”, so they could add a tag that connotes this fact. Photographs could be tagged as well, and even linked to social media accounts like Flickr or Pinterest. Ultimately, such a collection could form an enormous, ever-growing database of historical records, which could be linked to other archives, libraries, and museums. This could be especially simple for libraries since plenty of these folksonomies could overlap with subject headings.

In the end, archival material would be simultaneously more accessible and safe from wear and tear. Archivists would no longer be just curators and protectors, they could also offer a crucial connection between primary sources and anyone who desired to research them. They could also be referees, using their historical knowledge to make user-applied folksonomies more effective and guiding amateur research. Could this be the archive of the future?  



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