Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Archives and the Knowledge Commons

The recent efforts to consider knowledge as a commons, something shared by a group of people and challenged by social dilemmas, is a topic archivists need to examine. The volume edited by Charlotte Hess and Elinor Ostrom, Understanding Knowledge as a Commons: From Theory to Practice (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007), is a good place to start. The essays in this volume are grouped by studying the knowledge commons, protecting the knowledge commons, and building the knowledge commons. And the volume brings together a group of leading researchers and proponents of this concept – including Hess and Ostrom, David Bollier, James Boyle, and Donald Waters – commenting on new standards and initiatives such as the Open Archive Initiative, MIT Dspace, digital libraries, and so forth.

My purpose here is to provide some examples from this volume that ought to encourage individuals to reconsider archives as a potential part of the knowledge commons. For example, Nancy Kranich writes, “Digital age information-sharing initiatives, or knowledge commons, allow scholars to reclaim their intellectual assets and fulfill critical roles – the advancement of knowledge, innovation, and creativity through democratic participation in the free and open creation and exchange of ideas. Understanding knowledge as a commons offers a way not only of countering the challenges of access posed by enclosure, but of building a fundamental institution for twenty-first century democracy” (p. 93). It should be obvious that archives could be comfortably placed in this knowledge commons, although they are not (when archives are mentioned they are usually associated with the printed journals and books, not other kinds of archival sources).

Don Waters, a name that will be familiar to many archivists, provides another view about preserving the knowledge commons, indicating, “when scholars use systems of reference to link one work to another, they establish and exercise underlying fabrics of trust. These fabrics serve to tie researchers to other researchers, teachers to students, and creators to users over time and place into durable and productive scholarly communities. The linked works represent the common pools of knowledge – the knowledge commons – over which members of the communities labor to produce new knowledge. The links work, the trust endures, and the commons nourishes the intellectual life only when the reader is able to check the reference at the other end, and that checking depends on a reliable, ongoing system of preserving the knowledge commons” (p. 146). There is certainly no problem in connecting archives into this, especially given how often archival sources are cited; yet, it is surprising that generally such commentaries are considering the print literature and not the documentary heritage in the form of manuscripts, photographs, printed ephemera, and other documentary forms located in archives.

One of the more interesting commentaries comes from Peter Levine in discussing the knowledge commons and community projects. Levine writes, “Academics are strongly influenced by policies regarding funding, hiring, promotion, and tenure. Often universities that compete internationally for academic prominence do not reward applied research – let alone service – despite rhetoric to the contrary” (p. 261). Levine adds, “Fortunately, universities do reward scholars who break new ground in their disciplines by working with communities. Thus is a strategy of using community engagement to achieve genuine scholarly insight is better suited to the existing academic marketplace than a strategy based on ‘service’” (p. 263). For professors of archival studies and university archivists seeking to break ground into their communities, such sentiments must seem encouraging. Indeed, Levine provides some insights into the value of connecting with the local community that mirrors what some archivists on the local level have done: “While there is value to the very low-cost products that we see on the Internet (personal web pages, e-mail lists, and blogs), we also need fairly expansive and elaborate products, such as moderated deliberations, maps linked to databases, streaming videos, online newspapers with original reporting, historical archives, and photo essays – to name just a few. Young people can contribute such products, thus exercising their creativity in the public interest. This is especially important since many young people are otherwise alienated from public and civic life” (p 268).

So, my question is, are any archivists playing with the idea of the knowledge commons? Certainly, archivists understand the need for them to consider how information (elevated into evidence and knowledge) builds community. However, is anyone within this professional group using this broader concept to present their role within society and scholarly communities?