Participatory Digital Archiving and Community Engagement During COVID-19
by Suzanne S. LaPierre
While the pandemic hindered galleries, libraries, archives, and museums (GLAM) in many ways, it also spurred new growth in the form of innovative projects such as participatory digital archives developed while buildings were closed. The results of these initiatives—experimenting with new platforms, using old platforms in new ways, engaging community participation—are worth examining. Research demonstrates that working within constraints fosters innovation (Acar, Tarakci, and van Knippenberg 2019). What have we learned from pandemic-induced digital archive projects, and how might the results inform practice going forward?
|Often quickly launched in crisis mode, many of these initiatives have evolved into ongoing endeavors.
The GLAM acronym is apt here; the projects that were initiated during pandemic closures further demonstrate the convergence of these entities as they overlap in the digital realm (Marcum and Deanna 2014). GLAM entities share a common mission: developing and maintaining collections for the benefit of the community and facilitating access to those resources. The distinctions between whether collections are touchable or lendable, permanent or transient, were further minimized during pandemic constraints as cultural heritage organizations went virtual.
Pandemic projects developed in order to uphold traditional missions during unusual circumstances. Many GLAM professionals were motivated by their responsibility to collect primary source material during an historic time. Others wanted to ensure a connection with their public while facilities were closed. Often quickly launched in crisis mode, many of these initiatives have evolved into ongoing endeavors.
The organization I work for—a history and genealogy archive within a public library system— invited members of the community to submit digital material documenting their experiences during the pandemic. We started with a Google Form to collect submissions in April 2020, shortly after the building closed. Later, we used our library’s newly acquired BiblioBoard Creator platform to share samples of the hundreds of items received from the public. As pointed out in “Documenting in Times of Crisis: A Resource Kit” (Society of American Archivists 2019), such projects can be emotionally impactful for staffers and community members alike. I wanted to learn more from others who piloted similar initiatives.
Pandemic Projects: Survey Results and Analysis
I surveyed 21 GLAM professionals from around the U.S. who engaged in participatory digital projects specific to the COVID-19 pandemic. (An electronic survey was offered through an ALA listserv and several profession-based social media groups throughout August 2020.) Some of the reported projects included creating digital portals through which community members could contribute text, images, video, or audio; collecting oral histories via Zoom or by interviewing passersby outside the building; recording signs on buildings to document the impact on local businesses; and launching a “quaranzine” of artwork made in response to the pandemic.
Projects discussed through the survey reflect the work of eight public libraries (38%), eight archives /special collections (38%), six academic libraries (29%), four museums/galleries (19%), and one cultural heritage center (5%). (Survey participants could select multiple answers, since some projects were collaborations and more than one type of institution may have been involved.)
When asked to describe the nature of their project, only eight (38%) chose “digital archive.” However, write-in answers indicated other projects would also fit within the broad context of a digital archive. These included, for example, collections of textual stories or oral histories collected and preserved digitally. Therefore, I generally refer to these projects as digital archives, although they take a variety of forms, including born-digital and digitally preserved material. All share the goal of preserving historical material via digital technology for future use.
Diversity and Inclusivity: Findings and Implications
Survey participants were asked whether they felt their project helped their organization reach typically underrepresented segments of the community. In the form of write-in comments, about half answered in the affirmative. This response came from a museum: “Yes. Interviewing museum passersby has expanded our museum’s reach to under-represented communities. Many passersby who we interviewed were younger and more ethnically diverse than our usual museum visitor.” Here is a response from an academic librarian: “Our survey was completed by a wide range of students. I was impressed with the number of international students who completed the survey.” This response is from a public library: “We had a great response from local children and teens thanks to successful promotion by our local school. However, we did not receive responses from as many adults as we had hoped. We expected the results to be the other way around: more representation from adults and less from teens.” Others answered in the negative: “No. Response was overwhelmingly white and middle class.”
One respondent brought up access to technology as an inclusion issue: “Yes, we reached an audience that we would not have otherwise, but there is so much more to be done. Our results were less than 50 people and the outreach mostly targeted people with access to technology.” This touches on an important issue: While digital projects may engage some previously underrepresented portions of the community, the method can also exclude those with limited digital access, as noted in prior studies of participatory archives and community engagement (Becerra-Licha 2017).
The project in which staff members interviewed passersby outdoors provided an interesting way around this, precluding technological barriers to the interviewees. Partnering with schools, which several respondents mentioned, is another way to ensure the project reaches multiple age groups while potentially utilizing technology that’s more equitably distributed via public schools. Reaching a diversity of community members—from different neighborhoods, age groups, and circumstances—to contribute to a fuller record of events and experiences is critical as we grapple with more equitable representations of history and human experience going forward.
Staff Use of Technology: Findings and Implications
When asked whether they tried a new technology or platform for the purpose of this project, 60% (12) said no, and 40% (eight) said yes. Many used existing platforms (with multiple answers permitted), such as their organization’s website (nearly two-thirds) or social media accounts (a little less than one-third), while some used platforms specific to digital archiving, such as Omeka, BiblioBoard, CollectiveAccess, or OCLC’s CONTENTdm. Google Forms was often used (in about one-third of the cases) as a collection tool. While these results indicated a strong preference for existing platforms, it is not insignificant that 14% chose their platform as a “chance to try something new.”
Write-in comments indicated that many who used existing platforms did so in new ways. It was “an opportunity to explore it further,” one noted. Another wrote the following: “The library already had Omeka installed, as it had been used for previous projects, however the software was new to me and it gave me a chance to do something outside of my normal duties, lending itself well to remote work.” Another Omeka user indicated the opportunity to create an example: “I’ve also been trying to entice faculty to offer it to students for projects so I consider my two exhibits in it so far as showcases.”
Write-in comments by some who chose “ease of use or already in use” as their main reason for selecting a platform indicated a desire to minimize stress on employees; one pointed out that the “Project was low threshold for already taxed workers to manage.” Another participant indicated frustration with the learning curve on a new platform: “Building the exhibit was a lot of work. Omeka isn’t very user friendly!”
The urgency of crisis-induced projects can be a catalyst for trying new technology and experimenting with or expanding the use of existing platforms. The survey indicated that while some staffers found utilizing new technology frustrating during what was already a stressful time, others welcomed an opportunity to explore or demonstrate the possibilities of existing platforms. In either case, being prepared with tools or training in advance facilitates responsiveness.
When asked “How might this project inform or align with your future goals and strategy as an institution?” 18 respondents (90%) said that the project aligned with their plans to reach out to more segments of the community and boost inclusivity/diversity as an organization. Eighty-five percent (17) said the project aligned with their goal to engage the public more via participatory projects, and 40% (eight) said the project aligned with their goal to expand use of new technologies. (Multiple answers were possible.)
An analysis of write-in comments indicates that survey participants had an overall positive impression of the value and results of their work: “I am passionate about these projects,” said one of the participants, “and feel that it is important to acknowledge and recognize our experiences as we are going through them. There is an immediacy and rawness that will be forgotten if we do not document in real time. This is priceless information that will be appreciated years from now.”
However, 24% (five) reported less-than-hoped-for participation, and some comments were more critical: “We are an inner-city library,” one observed. “Bombarding people with yet another form, I believe, is/was not the way to go.” Another respondent, disappointed in a low response rate, surmised that the stress of the pandemic may have dampened participation: “We have been trying to get people to describe their experiences or even just send a picture. Our assistant library director thought we should try a more formal form. Neither worked. I believe people are just too busy trying to survive.”
Some comments indicated that timing is important: “Participation has waned since reopening,” noted a public library staff member who saw a strong early response. While some felt that the stress of the pandemic dampened participation, it’s also possible that some organizations citing low response may have launched projects later, after community members felt less urgency to express themselves. The impact of timing is an area for further study.
Although the survey was limited in size and scope, it illuminates some points worth considering. While many projects appear to have been successful in engaging previously underrepresented segments of the community, which underrepresented segments and by which means merit further study, as does the mitigation of digital access impediments. Results also indicate these projects encourage staff exploration of technology platforms, but that taxing already stressed staffers during crisis is a concern. Using familiar platforms alleviated this for many; most who tried new platforms appeared to have volunteered for the opportunity.
Many survey participants indicated that their projects are ongoing. A respondent from a university archive, which partnered with a regional history center and a public library, explained why their project continues: “There is not a deadline for the submission of materials … as it is understood that the situation will continue to develop and that comprehension and understanding of the pandemic’s impact may take years before they are fully realized.” As COVID-19 lingers, some patrons will elect not to enter buildings or attend gatherings even when all access is restored. Virtual outreach projects, such as those initiated during closures, may help keep some of those community members engaged.
Whether the initiatives are ongoing or not, what we have learned can inform future strategy on inclusivity efforts, use of digital archives and participatory platforms, and handling of crisis-induced projects. While challenges are inevitable—copyright, privacy, OA, and linked data issues among them (Open GLAM 2020)—these pandemic projects demonstrate how GLAM partnerships can expand access and increase public engagement.
As the resurgence of the racial justice movement following the advent of the pandemic demonstrated, the next seismic event is just around the corner. Learning from past projects and preparing in advance of the next major event is vital. GLAM organizations exist to inform and illuminate the human experience, and by continuing to evolve with current events and new technologies, they will keep playing a critical role in collecting, preserving, and even shaping those experiences going forward.