Saturday, September 17, 2011

Collaborating to Document a Community - a review

Cultural Heritage Collaborations: A Manual for Community Documentation by Melissa Mannon. New Hampshire: ArchivesInfo Press, 2010.

The first response I had to reading this book is "I need to hang out with archivists more."

Because one can only be so connected, or perhaps because I chose not to overextend my social network connections, archivists and archives are not a huge part of my interweb/social experience. I have some archives connections but I have to admit my extra-library attention has been more in the direction of museums. Reading this book will help push me a little deeper into the archives world.

Two things which shape some of my interests and caused me to be drawn to this title include: my time of working with newspapers and understanding the role they play in documenting a local community; and my interest in more proactively responding to the question of what should we be preserving – understanding the more creative aspect of preservation, not just collecting what exists, but also creating that which you want to preserve.

(I am aware that lots of people/professions creative document their community, but I was/am interested in coming at it from the perspective of a collecting/preserving institution.)

The title Cultural Heritage Collaborators grabbed my attention. Collaboration across cultural heritage institutions is a great thing, who doesn't like collaboration, although the presence of that word also causes me to raise my guards just a little. Collaboration is a current organizational buzz-word. Putting the word "collaborator" in every other line of your IMLS grant will double the chance of it getting funded. (Fact not verified by any actual data.) I was also taken in by the Community Documentation part of the title because documentation does have a creative ring to it.

Part of what the “cultural heritage collaborators” and “community documentation” also triggered in me is the idea of distributed authority. Collaborators and community imply that the authority to collect, preserve, and interpret the cultural heritage is not the property of the single official voice, but is distributed among a community of collaborators. (Perhaps I’m reading too much into the title.)

I ordered the book on Aug. 12, it was printed on the 14th.
The one other thing I'll say about the book before actually cracking the cover (train a book so the cover doesn’t crack) is that it is self-published. I mention this because for me, knowing this shaped my expectations of the book. I've seen a lot of self-published books and most of the times I can tell why their self-published - no commercial entity trying to make a buck would publish them. My experience of these self-published books has been: highly idiosyncratic, poorly written, and I get the distinct impression the author is quite pleased with him/herself. (This is the exact same response I get from reading my blog.) With that baggage, I must say I was gently surprised by the book. It does have its quirks, like erratic capitalization of the word archives, some missing text (p. 17), no hyphenation which results in a ragged right edge, and I thought it could have just used a little tightening up (but I think that of pretty much anything longer than a haiku.) That said, I've read many books published by large publishers that suffered worse editorial problems so I'd say this is one of the better examples of self-published work I've seen.

I've been putting off commenting on the substance of the book not because I didn't like the substance, but because the book is, as the title tells us, a manual. It tells the reader how to do things. Books of lofty (and not so lofty) ideas and theories are much easier for me to ponder and discuss. With a manual, it takes much more creative work to tease out any underlying concepts and theories. And, this book is a manual for archives - a discipline about which I know only enough to make myself look a fool. The first half of the book is about collaborative community documentation, while the second half is very much an introduction/manual for archives. I'll leave the second half alone and concentrate the rest of my energy on the first.

Mannon writes of the purpose of this collaboration for community documentation "By connecting cultural organizations to the heart of a community's pulse and character, we can attain a stronger awareness of our vitality and how we can benefit diverse members of society." (p. 2) She repeatedly expresses the need to document multiple historical perspectives.

"This book encourages institutions to incorporate a community documentation strategy. Such a strategy allows local repositories to find a collecting niche in their community, in a non-competitive fashion, to actively seek records related to their mission, and to work with other repositories to create a collecting network that seeks to be all-inclusive, focused, and accessible." (p. 8)

Mannon writes largely out of the experience of the local historical society which brings with it the blessing/challenge of the interested non-professional. She recognizes that professional, quasi-professional, nonprofessional cultural heritage collaborators must forge honest partnerships to attain success.

In the book Mannon equates documents with "physical culture" with no mention of the place of digital documentation. Admittedly, small repositories have a hard enough time maintaining physical collections that to introduce digital collections may be too overwhelming, but the digital culture exists, and is ignored at our peril.

One impression, correct or not, I have of the archival profession is that some of their concepts are, well, the word I like to use is quaint. Thing like the doctrine of preserving original order to preserve the "original intent" of the creator seems so 19th century. And so I find the traditional archivist stance of very detached collector who dares not impose their own subjective order on someone else's papers seems to conflict with the idea of archivists as active documenter of communities. Mannon recognizes this challenge between the active and passive roles - as reflected through her quote of Mark A Green "Archivists have to understand, accept, and work within the reality that we -- through our selection -- through our marketing -- do as much to create the documentation of the past as the individuals and organizations that generated the records in the first place." (p.28)

"To develop valuable collections that do not leave gaps in the documentary record, an archivist must be an active participant in collecting resources that are interpretive of society rather than just a possive collector of any documents that come his [or her] way." (p.41)

And to belabor my archivist stereotype a little more, one of the author’s point under "Why value archives?" "To provide primary information about societies activities to help citizenry and scholars recognize and evaluate these events for themselves, so that they may discern truth and reality from fiction and biases." (p. 32)I guess I'm just too jadedly post-modern or relativistic but I have a hard time with the language of "so they may discern truth and reality" as an academically honest endeavor. Language that would feel more comfortable to me is "so they may draft new narratives." I'd even accept (maybe) "so they may draft more authentic narratives." (I realize I am once again getting pretty far from the alleged topic of this blog.)

To get back to practical matters and the actual subject of the book, I noticed on the pages frequent reference to "determined" and "perseverance" as a necessity to make these kinds of collaborations successful. I think this is an important recognition of how collaborations often work. While a collaboration may involve many parties it is usually the determination and perseverance of a few individuals that keep the whole thing moving forward.

I’m glad I read this book and I think it is a worthwhile read for anyone interested in preserving the cultural heritage of a community. (While Mannon seemed to primarily used community as referring to a geographical place, it is easily extended to all other forms of community.) For the non-archivist, it is a good introduction to seeing the world through an archivist’s eyes. It is filled with good practical advice built on the author’s experience doing the very things she is writing about.  Now I think I’ll go online and find a few more archivist tweeters to follow. (I already follow the author!)  


  1. Hi Kevin,

    Thanks for your review. I have written you a lengthy response that I have tried to post here, but the blog seems to not like it. So, I have posted my response on my own blog here: . All the best! Melissa

  2. Hey Melissa,

    Sorry my blog wouldn't let you post your longer response. It wasn't intentional;-) I'll do any subsequent commenting on your blog.