On what "archives blogs" are and what ArchivesBlogs is not
I had fully earmarked addressing Thomas G. Lannon's "Archive Blogs" post on Documenting Sources, his blog, for over a week now after discovering it in my requisite vanity search of Technorati. Other things (even reading) have kept me busy, though, hence the unintentional neglect. I've had plenty of time to reflect upon it at this point, so I might as well respond to some of his points.
He first asks the following:
What is an Archive Blog? This should be a crucial question as the growing field of "blogs about archives" offers up posts stretching from the recent SAA conference to South Carolina Gamecocks. Perhaps it would it be helpful to make a distinction between official blogs relating to news and services from archival repositories and personal blogs written by people who happen to work in archives?
It is an important question indeed. When I came up with the idea for ArchivesBlogs (and when I was still calling it "Planet Archives" and using Planet), I found a couple links to lists of "blogs about archives." I noticed that that there were primarily two categories in these lists: blogs by individual archivists, students in archives programs, etc., and blogs by organizations. This distinction will be apparent when I add an OPML blog directory with categories, which I hope to have done by next week. Searching for blogs that dealt with archival issues was difficult in itself because of the omnipresence of the word "archive(s)" in blogging parlance as a reference to the collection of past posts. Searching Google using the words "archival" and "blog" didn't particularly help either, since Google uses stemming to "improve" search results.
So, after some head scratching and thoughtful consideration, I realized I should hammer together a vague "collection policy." This has been on my mind lately anyhow since I finished reading Frank Boles' Selecting and Appraising Archives and Manuscripts last week. It just made sense to focus on blogs by archivists and repositories since they haven't been used professionally to their fullest extent. But how do I categorize the blogs which have blurry edges? Mr. Lannon's example of a personal blog is The Anecdotal Archivist, the blog of Mark Harvey, the State Archivist of Michigan. Harvey's blog discusses professional duties in detail as well as items from his personal life. Lannon continues:
However, archives are used by a wide range of people such as academics of all types ... who search for answers and uncover stories in collections of materials described and organized by archivists. I understand this is a very simplistic interpretation of the function of archives but still I wonder if it is in the best interest of archives to consider "˜Archive Blogs' [sic] to be blogs written by archivists only?
It's not in the best interest of archives, nor even ArchivesBlogs, to exclude these blogs. Honestly, I don't know how to seek them out. Still, I have an overwhelming concern for relevance. For example, if you have a blog by A. N. Historian -- a well respected academic tenured at Wottsamata University, author of both academic and popular works -- that only talks about archival material or research 5% of the time and the rest is personal content, historical interpretation, shilling for his books, etc., should I include it? I would say no, regardless of the historian's standing in the field.
Conversely, consider the blog of Ima Researcher, a retired, technologically savvy woman interested in genealogical research. Her blog deals extensively with her experience as a patron in archives, but little reference to archival material. She doesn't pull any punches, yet she remains in good spirits about it. Should I include her blog? Of course I should, since we should consider our patrons as well. An indirect analogue in the library world would be, say, Ed Vielmetti's blog, Superpatron (I say indirect since he doesn't always write about the experience of the patron).
In any case, I must say that the number of suggestions I've had about blogs to include has remained incredibly slim in the month that the site has been active. I've gotten four submissions, two each from repositories and individuals. I don't know if this is worth mentioning, but the two individuals who asked me to add their blogs both hail from outside of the Anglophone world.
Lannon then considers the possibility of incorporating Web/Library 2.0 ideas more extensively into archival practice:
Using blogs to create additional information to finding aids seems to me to be a legitimate purpose of an 'archives blog,' but apart from the Polar Bear Expedition Club I haven't seen too much experimentation with blog-like technology and collection description. Perhaps I need to keep searching for an someone crazy enough to be making Finding Aids 2.0.
I'm going to say something possibly controversial in response to this, although it may not be to Mr. Lannon or any other regular reader of my blog (however few there are). I think many archivists either don't know or don't care to know enough about technology to think about putting it into practice. It's a little disturbing to me that there are no other archivists that I know that have even considered going to Library Camp East -- I can hear the cries of "But we're not librarians!" already. Of course, there are other reasons to leverage excitement and implementation of "2.0" technologies: limited resources (time, money, personnel), concerns if the user community will like them enough, and so on. I think this is an equal concern for other issues in archives as well, which was one reason why I have been venturing forth with my SAA 2007 session proposal. Nonetheless, there are new initiatives like the Michigan Polar Bear Club that are implementing these technologies successfully.
The issue remains, though, that we should find ways that new initiatives will benefit our individual repositories. Obviously we should be cautious, but it doesn't mean we can't be excited and use our off-work hours and lunch breaks to talk about these issues. Lannon then asks if we should be blogging at all:
I have witnessed how blogging tends to suck the life out of people as they turn from multidimensional humans into single-minded RSS feeds. Blogging deserves a large amount of criticism even from those who do partake in it, as a technology it rests on flimsy foundations of emerging, changing tools and only a slim representation of people find time to write them ... I fear that it's almost absurd to consider 'blogs about archives' in anyway capable of truly reflecting the nature and significance of the documents contained in archives and that it would be somewhat of a blunder on the part of anyone truly committed to the collection and preservation of historical materials in any serious way to closely link themselves with fleeting phenomena such as Blogger, Moveable Type, Technorati or WordPress.
Mr. Lannon brings up two separate issues: whether blogging is professional, and whether we should be relying on blogs because of (in his mind) ephemeral technology. He and Jeanne Kramer-Smyth discuss this in the comments of his post, so I will not deal with this in detail. I'll merely say that I read blogs and write my own because I like the idea of sharing ideas. It's hard to point this activity concretly and convince everyone in our profession that blogging can be "professional development" and always promotes collaboration. I disagree with his comment that "blogging is void of criticism," but I don't disagree with him that networks form that end up supporting themselves. This has happened, of course, since time immemorial, and I've seen evidence of myself through my current reading of Janet Malcolm's In The Freud Archives. It seems clear to me that criticism should be easier with the advent of blogs, but maybe that's untrue.
The second issue, regarding the stability of technology, is also important. I don't believe blog technology is a "fleeting phenomenon," given that Blogger has been around for seven years. If we're talking from an electronic records standpoint, that's a bit more of a complicated issue: should we be emulating the software or just preserving the content? Blogs are also ephemeral in themselves because people stop blogging for whatever reason: boredom, professional concerns, or a simple lack of time. Then they sit either idle or are deleted, only potentially available through the Internet Archive.
I guess I should mention now that ArchivesBlogs in itself is not archival in itself, nor was it ever meant to be so. There is simply no way that I as an individual would ever have the resources to "archive" blogs forever (as long as I cared to, as long as I live, etc.), even if I only captured the RSS feeds. However, archivists are thinking and doing something about this, at least on a institutional level. mBlog is a collaborative project between University of Michigan Information Technology Central Services, the University Library, and the Bentley Historical Library University Archives and Records Program. Users of mBlog can elect to have their blog as a potential candidate for archival storage at the Bentley once the blog is inactive for 24 months. Of course, Bentley archivists will use appraisal methods to choose which blogs are appropriate for preservation. More on the archival aspect of mBlog project can be found at Archiving mBlog Content. Curiously, this page seems to have no links from any other page on the Bentley's website.
In conclusion, ArchivesBlogs is a labor of love for me. I'm willing to take any criticism regarding it, particularly if it's constructive, as was the case with Mr. Lannon's analysis. I always am eager to get suggestions for any aspect of the site, particularly for blogs that should be aggregated. If there are blogs that discuss archival material in more detail but are not written by archivists, I'd love to know about them, because I've found them difficult to locate.