Archives used to be quiet places whose reading rooms hosted few visitors beyond the occasional scholar and media researcher, and archivists themselves had very little contact with the public. If and when members of the public encountered archival materials at all, it was indirectly — historical clips in television programs, photographs published in books and documents loaned to museums. But all of this has changed. The advent of the internet, coupled with mass interest in local and community history, has moved archives from the cultural periphery to the centre.
A vast army of citizen historians and history buffs now performs their own research, publishing books and webpages. Empowered by online availability of historical images, sounds and documents, emergent generations and communities are interpreting history on their own terms for themselves and for society at large. Archives have gone retail – their ‘customers’, if you will, are now the general public.
I find this a tremendously exciting time to be an archivist and public historian. History is moving out of its old silos into the public sphere. And so our challenge becomes: how can we, as archivists, be better at what we have been doing for many years? How can we dissolve distinctions between past and present and help our constituencies think historically? What might we do to infuse the present with a sense of history, so that we can move toward a better future? And, toward these ends, how can we encourage, enable and support mass public authorship?
Cultural memory powerfully underlies community, generational, regional and national identity. But remembrance and historical awareness can also enable sensitivity and understanding between generations and communities. Archives and cultural memory institutions can be active forces in this process, rather than simply on-demand providers of historical content.
Personal documents such as home movies and videos, diaries, scrapbooks and even textiles are permeated with historical significance. Often they speak more eloquently than documents emanating from institutions and government departments. But no single type of document tells a complete story. One emerging opportunity for archives is to combine personal and institutional records – to look to citizens as well as organisations for records worthy of permanent preservation.
How can the cultural sector deal with constraints? While of course I support generous funding for cultural memory institutions, we will never be able to fund everything we want to. So how can we boldly make the most use of the assets we have? We can enlist the public in documenting and interpreting our collections. We can develop models of participatory archiving that enlist interested members of the public. We can make the walls of the archives more permeable so that we aren’t restricted simply by what we are able to do in-house.
In terms of access to materials, copyright and use restrictions remain vexing issues in many countries, but progress is being made that opens up new uses for collections that may remain under copyright. We need serious stakeholder discussions regarding copyright law.
Can we make use of cultural and historical materials as part of the curriculum? And can we encourage students to use the tools of the future to interpret and work with content of the past?
Powerful digital tools and networks are now at our disposal. Our challenge is to use them thoughtfully and towards useful ends.