Collective effort: we’re all collectors

At some point I’m going to have to stop referencing the talk I gave at NDF last year (hence no link this time round), but it canvassed a lot of the issues we’re facing at work as publishers of an online encyclopedia.

One of those was about archiving and the need to maintain a historical record of what the government published at a particular moment in time. Anyone involved in history knows that how we think about the past changes, and keeping a record of how our thinking changes is an important part of reviewing our past. (It becomes a bit circular, but how we thought about history 10 or 20 years ago tells us a lot about our society at those times.)

In my talk I suggested Te Ara as a place where legacy cultural or heritage content could be deposited to ensure it was available in future. That way, it could remain alive in a living and active website. The alternative of course is to deposit material in a traditional collecting institution – an archive, a library or a museum – and in fact Te Ara itself could be deposited too. But that puts a lot of expectation and strain on those institutions to provide for the long-term management of material/assets/archives that are created outside of their control.

At a system level, government can’t keep creating new material and expect collecting institutions to manage it long-term without at least bringing them into the conversation when we start creating it. To address that we either need to ensure collecting institutions are funded and resourced to handle the material or look at ways that we can collectively manage it.

I was reminded of this during a meeting with staff from the National Library last week in relation to audio-visual interviews we’re creating as part Te Tai Treaty Settlement Stories. We’re creating terabytes of AV data, some of which we’ll publish, but all of which is valuable to future historians and researchers. (For example, lengthy interviews with people like Hirini Mead, Tipene O’Regan, Doug Graham, Jim Bolger  and many more on the treaty settlement process and specific iwi settlements.) Where should all those terabytes, and the terabytes lots of other organisations are creating, live in the long-term to ensure they’re available for future users?

A lot of what we’re creating is related to iwi – their stories and their speakers – and this is where National Library have had some interesting discussions with iwi about options for ownership and management of iwi-related content. I don’t know the details and it’s probably very early days, but it opens up some interesting options for considering how we might collectively manage documentary heritage.

That might include a distributed network of collections that are held and managed by the organisations that either create content (eg, government departments) or that claim intellectual ownership or kaitiaki over collection items (eg, iwi or community groups). Conversely, part of the system could include storage being handled by a central collecting institution but with shared or devolved intellectual ownership of  collection items.

At its core could be a central registry of what exists where, who can access it, and what they can do with it, regardless of where the collection item/asset is physically/digitally stored. Together – traditional collecting organisations and others – could maintain a shared approach to maintaining the system across multiple organisations: agreed standards, collaborative governance, shared resources for system upgrades, more interoperability, and less reinvention of systems.

We already have parts of the infrastructure to develop this idea. DigitalNZ has the technology to provide the basis of a central registry. NDF provides a forum to bring people from across the GLAM sector to work together. And we have central institutions with people and systems to handle the content and help others build new repositories. As Andy Neale once said at an NDF conference, we’re a small country and we have the ability to get the right people in a room and shake things up. Maybe by shaking things up, we might settle on a system a little bit like this.