Sunday, January 10, 2010

"Come on, kids, let's put on a blog."

Kate Theimer. Web 2.0 Tools and Strategies for Archives and Local History Collections. New York: Neal-Schuman Publishers, 2010. ISBN: 978-1-55570-679-1, $79.95.

The practical wisdom of Kate Theimer’s introductory comment in which she notes “a successful Web 2.0 implementation needs to be part of an organization’s workflow” (p.xii) sets the tone for this useful overview of how these tools have been used to promote archival collections. Part cookbook, part “Come on, kids, let’s put on a show,” she discusses the parallel opportunities and obligations of blogs and microblogs (e.g. Twitter), podcasts, still image and video sharing sites for enhancing discovery of the dark archives in our cultural and commercial institutions. Although many of these tools are seductively simple to implement initially, the trick is to not to go public until you have considered what you’re actually trying to do - specifically what audience you wish to attract and what services you’re prepared to provide. Once you’ve identified that content, you must also be prepared to update it at regular intervals, measuring how it is received. Part of that preparation is cultivating institutional buy-in, investigating ownership and other legal issues, thinking ahead to policies that deal with changing interactions between archivists and users, publicizing and preserving the created content. It’s also well to be familiar with already existing projects, as your efforts will be measured against them, particularly in terms of production values.

Each chapter addresses the basic mechanics, hardware and software options and expertise required for deployment of the major Web 2.0 tools, supplemented with candid comments from the developers of the projects highlighted as examples. Standard interviews discuss selection of material for inclusion, challenges, positive and negative results and offer recommendations for those institutions wanting to do something similar. Chapters conclude with tips emphasizing the need to consistently identify your institution, since the intent is to drive traffic to your site. Additionally, since the major justification for using these tools is to increase the serendipitous discovery of material held in your collection by the pre- or non-academic users, it’s important to continually budget time and effort to provide descriptive and contextual information, to monitor use of the online collections, and to prepare to respond to that increased demand for reference service.

All common sense recommendations, perhaps, but the specific examples of various Web 2.0 tools are meant to inspire as well as inform. Theimer moves beyond the excitement of establishing a new resource to considering how its success can be evaluated, and the resources sustained, even after the project’s champion or creator moves on to other things. She also notes this is well to remain open to the possibility of unintended consequences, in which you may have “achieved outcomes like increasing your own knowledge about your collections and cultivating new stakeholders and potential advocates.” (p. 203) She argues that archives need be about the new as well as the old, claiming that, “in the current economic climate, institutions that don’t find a way to engage their audiences and stakeholders are going to get passed over for funding, and, with the added challenges brought by the Web, we need that funding more than ever before.” (p.224)

Thinking of expenses, the price of this helpful work is an unfortunate deterrent for a paperback that one would like to recommend for students, new archivists, or archival administrators concerned that they may be the last archives on the planet without a Facebook page.

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