Report on: Cultural Heritage Archives: Networks, Innovation & Collaboration Symposium

Cultural Heritage Archives: Networks, Innovation & Collaboration Symposium

September 26-27, 2013 Washington D.C.


In this report on Cultural Heritage in the 21st Century, the author would like to first give credence to the origin of the thoughts that are compiled herein.  This report serves as an abstract of the Cultural Heritage Symposium held at the Library of Congress, Madison building.  A full digital recording of the conference was done and should be made available in the near future at the Library of Congress’ website.  Any quotes used in this report, were recorded as the author heard them and were not double checked against a transcript of the event or against the digital recording. Also of note, this report is not presented in a chronological order; instead, it is presented in a way that the author thought best conveyed the ideas presented in the conference, while also picking up and advancing certain themes. For clarification sake: The ideas expressed in this report are not necessarily those of the author.  He has done his best to provide sufficient use of quotations where appropriate, but the ideas that run through here are all paraphrased and wrapped up in a different format than those from their original contributors.


Two questions arise when one first examines Cultural Heritage. These two questions are what is it? and why is it important?  “Culture is a basic need.” says Danna Bell “… Understanding and accepting culture sustains its growth.”  She continued her introductory speech to the conference by saying “Culture is where we get our strength. It’s our backbone.”  Those are high standards to live up to for any organization, especially for one that seeks to become a repository for that knowledge as is the intent of an archive or other Cultural Heritage repositories. Regardless of deed or gift, that reflects transfer of ownership to the archive, there is still a cultural ownership that remains. There is a paradigm shift in our thinking of ownership. Cultural heritage is more like stewardship. That being that there is a need to respect the values of the community from which something comes.

How do we preserve Cultural Heritage?

We preserve Cultural Heritage through different means.  These include family, friends, written documents, stories, film, and sound recordings. Sita Reddy, fro the Smithsonian Institution said that “archivists have a very long history as storytellers.” The oral tradition has a long legacy of commemorating certain events or persons.  These legacies become legends and the stories can even grow into myths. These oral traditions are passed among friends, families, and acquaintances who retell the stories and pass them on to future generations.

Another medium for Cultural Heritage institutions to use is film. One of the great things about film is all of the different ways it encapsulates Cultural Heritage.  As Teague Schneiter and Joanne Lammers of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences/ Writer’s Guild Foundation pointed out,  “the documentary is a very valuable piece of equipment to record knowledge.” The moving visual image leaves a lasting impression on the viewers mind.

Noel Lobley from the Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford, UK presented a talk on Sound Archives, Communities, and Collaboration.  One of the highlights from his presentation was the Hugh Tracy Sound of Africa series. Tracy had tried to record all the sounds of music produced by different African tribes and communities.  One thing he did not do well was provide context to what it was he was recording.  That said, these songs that were recorded many decades ago are still being sung by tribes and communities all throughout Africa for different festivals, events, and celebrations.  The time is right to bring sound back into the discussion as a medium for archival usage. “Music changes perception of collection and culture.” One of the issues that Noel pointed out was that Tracy’s work did a poor job of recording the information behind the music he was recording. He would just take the first usage someone told him of a piece and record it as fact. The music that was being recorded was multifaceted and used for many different reasons. It is the archives goal to help provide that context for usage.

D.A. Sonneborn from the Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, at the Smithsonian Institution, used a quote during his talk on Sound Returns: Chellenged Stories from an Audio Archive that addresses the need for a good sound archive. The quote was from a chief of a village “we expect a hundred years from now our children and our children’s children to be able to hear the voice of their ancestors.”  As archivists, we must make sure collection is being used.  The more it is being used, the more it’s contents will be retained in human memory.

In their presentation Where Do Users Find Value?¸ Dreanna Belden and Kathleen Murray of the University of North Texas Libraries in Denton Texas, breached questions concerning archives and the digital environment. They discovered six places of impact for making archives more accessible digitally.  These areas of impact are: research, education, financial, cultural, social, and environmental.  Without going into too much detail I will give a brief outline of some of these areas. Research dealt with encoding components to make ease of access better. Education was meant to improve use in classrooms and frequency in citations. Social meant online conversations and sharing material located in the archives. Lastly, the environmental impact meant having resources available online reduced the cost of travel for persons needing access to archives. Belden and Murray made a point that many patrons who utilize the archives are genealogists. So the question arises, how do we better tell stories and provide the context in an online environment.

Sita Reddy reminds us to “mind the gap between Heritage & Information and Heritage & History.” She also encouraged that we take the long view of history; we must look forward to where it is going. History is about socialization. It is moving and adapting from one generation to the next.

How can we improve our practice?

“We need to be able to talk to the people…we can’t use words like provenance. … We need to discover plain English.”~Danna Bell

The first step towards improving the Cultural Heritage institution as a whole is education.  Repositories must make sure scholars and potential users know about our collection. Archivists can help educators develop special components for course assignments and extracurricular events. Higher education has often overlooked undergraduates so it is important to bring them back into the discussion on how to incorporate the archives into curriculum development and education. We should write programs with teachers in mind, and with curriculum that incorporates art and oral history. This should be used to enhance not replace teaching.

But, how can we incorporate the archive into education? Collaborations help highlight the importance of archives, and collections can bridge connections. One of the questions raised by Amma Y. Ghartey-Tagoe Kootin and Deborah Hollis in their presentation called Performing the Archives: Connecting Undergraduates to Archival Collections was “How do historians put emotion back into the text?” They argued that “performance can be a way of knowing the documents. … A performance to study the past.”  They suggested that Archivists should find ways to incorporate the collection into live events. “Semantic knowledge can incorporate into new knowledge.”  Performing the archives became palpable when choosing which parts to put on stage. The users had to wrestle with the parts of the archives that were not recorded. It was suggested during a question and answer component to the session that the archives be incorporated in museum installations and that the public loves historical stories. A performance can serve to bring out the human face behind the record and provide that long needed voice for telling the story.

Anna Briggs of the Université Paris Diderot, France presented a session entitled The ‘Record’ Project: The Sound of the Sea and the Silence of Film.  During her presentation, she highlighted a unique collaborative project that she participated in which involved the use of film from the archives and students efforts to bring them to new life.  A small group of students researched a particular component of a culture.  Then they overlaid vintage silent film from the archive with modern folk renditions from that era. All of this was compiled into a larger documentary that can thus be accessed by the public.

Caroline Muglia of North Carolina State University in her talk Sourcing Participatory Archives: The Lebanese in North Carolina Project listed different ways in which collaborators can participate in the goals of the archives and the projects they are working on.  She included source community, historians, users, social media, reference team, accountability, connectors, crowd sourcers, writers, designers, artists, translators, people who track down photos, and copyright professionals as ways in which people can help.  For her project the amount of success they had was based on the number of volunteers and can be summarized in the phrase, “the key to collaboration is relationships.”

A Cultural Heritage institution must build bridges with users, supporters, and other Cultural Heritage institutions. “Team up with local people and experts first; create formalized relationships with partners” said Anna Fariello of Hunter Library, Digital Initiatives, West Carolina University.  Focus on what the community gets out of it. As long as the community partner feels like they gained, then the partnership will be good. Sometimes what they are offering is their life’s work, and they want to know it will be retained in good capable hands. Cultural Heritage repositories can find partnerships around different professions to help add value and context to their work. Archivists can work with people who understand a particular craft. It is important that we take advantage of readily available resources such as scholars at a local university and convince them to help in small archives.

Archivists must be able to tell our story, so it is important that we never stop talking about the collection. An archive also needs others to tell the story and continue the discussion. An archive needs someone who can say “Hey, this is good. And here is why.”  Elaine Bradtke of Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, English Folk Dance and Song Society, London, UK noted that “reaching out to the press has helped change public perception” at her institution. It brought them into the archive and they began to see it’s benefit and advocate for it in the public sphere.

Archives can provide support to people on how to preserve and care for their own collections. As Anna Fariello pointed out “proper metadata is very important.” For archivists particularly it is important to always have multiple backup storage of digital content.  One possibility is burning digital content onto Gold Compact Discs because of gold’s non corrosive nature. Archivers need to think long term and on what the institution can manage. Doug Boyd, from the Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History at the University of Kentucky Libraries, mentioned that “Cultural Heritage archivists are often asked to give training.”  A lot of the training can be best how to use all that is in the archives. Train users on how to use collection, or have readily available handouts if you are a small staff.  We need to emphasize the role of public scholarship. Cultural Heritage institutions can serve as another place where persons can talk and find solutions to problems or issues that they face because of the unique holdings that they house. We can bring groups together to work towards common good by providing a collaborative environment.

One of the focuses for Cultural Heritage institutions should be on advocacy. It is important to provide tools to help at a local level, one aspect of which can be training on how to deal with e-records.  Archives can provide digital alternatives, at a cost, so that people can have access to the material without the major expense of having to go to a conference or institution. We need to know the issues to provide support; we must collaborate.

Karen Jefferson, of Robert W. Woodruff Library, Atlanta University Center, in  her speech HBCU Library Alliance: Historically Black Colleges and Universities Strengthening Archives through Collaboration spoke on a project that she was working on. The project, HBCU Photographic Preservation Project, was impressive in scope in that they wanted to work with students and bring students into the realm of the archivists.  One positive outcome of this was that the project led to some of the students thinking about archiving as a career, something that they previously didn’t know was an option.

Major Issues facing Cultural Heritage preservation

One of the major issues which Cultural Heritage institutions face is that of trust. People in the community where the institution is housed have an expectation that the Cultural Heritage institution will faithfully serve and truthfully represent that community. For instance, if the material needs to be sold for funding, will the material be sold for profit without notifying the community? When working closely with a local community, make sure that you partner with someone who has a vested interest in the community and will return the wealth and benefits to the community.

Copyright is an issue which has high impact, and trying to explain copyright can often times be difficult due to it’s complexity. There was one story of an archive that removed the watermark symbol from one of their copyrighted pictures for use in a newspaper.  That picture was then made into cups and T-shirts without the copyright holder’s permission. This was an unintended consequence of releasing the picture that the archives, who had lent out the picture for one time use, had not considered.

Who speaks for a community and decides who can access, when they can access, and how they can access? This is an important question to think about with respect to how easily should  material be made available.  It is also important in respects with the freedom of information and concerns over preservation.

How will the Cultural Heritage story be told? People want their real lives out there, not a falsified impression or a propaganda piece. Kate Pourshariati from the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology presented a poster session on the film Native Life in the Philippines (1913). The issue of her poster was that the film depicted the persons of the Philippines as uncivilized and used this falsified narrative to show reason that the persons of the Philippines needed the continuance of colonial rule.

One way in which the Cultural Heritage story can be told was promulgated by Peter Kraufman from Intelligent Television. He spoke during a session on Creativity and Moving Image Archives. He suggested that there should be co productions among educators, filmmakers, and the public.  “People need the sights and sounds of their culture.” Kraufman instructed that using media in class should not be primitive.  Information professors are a great source of knowledge on a campus and can help archives find more meaning in their material. He also discussed the Intelligent Channel on youtube which provides a means for the output of archival/educational collaboration.

Will the material be able to be accessed or will it be hidden away? What good is it if it is hidden away? This topic is a tough one for archivists. In theory, we want all of the information we have in our collection to be made available at all times. In practice though, this can get tricky.  It is hard to make all of the information available when there are funding problems and limited staffing.  So, sometimes items get lost in the shuffle. Another concern that was brought up at the conference was what if the person you are recording does not want their story for a period of time, say 25 years.  You have to respect their wishes, but at the same time recognize that the Archives are a living institution.

One thing that an archive should never become involved in is revisionist history. Preserving the culture means that we preserve, and keep a record of, the good as well as the bad.  To exclude one is to exclude the other because both lead to a false narrative.

Archiving cultural property may cause problems with ownership. During her keynote speech, Sita Reddy brought to light historical aspects of archiving another culture’s heritage and how that ties into modernity. At issue in her speech was the illustrious text Hortus Malabaricus. The Hortus Malabaricus “is a powerful microcosm of the people and the land” in the Malabar region of Kerala, India, but the text, and illustrations therein, were brought about by the work of Hendrik van Rheede. At issue here is the fact that the intellectual property of the plants and their uses had long been a component of the people of that land, their culture, and their traditions. Hendrik van Rheede representing the Dutch India Company, in compiling the information for use outside of the area where the knowledge was originally obtained is a “cultural pirate” in that he stole the information from the local community for his own selfish profit elsewhere. van Rheede relied almost entirely upon local persons for the knowledge that was compiled in the twelve volume series. “The Heritage Industry is trying to reverse the effects of globalization,” Reddy claimed in response to a question on how the Hortus Malabaricus has been exploited by biopirates. She added that “redistributive mechanisms should go to the community.” In another question Reddy noted that Achudon’s, the young Indian man who assisted van Rheede in the collection of information found in the Hortus Malabaricus, home is now a cultural spot, and that he, Achudon, is central to the whole concept of this debate on cultural heritage. Cultural archives, like museums, can lead to discussions. This can lead to “radically different truth telling regimes” says Sita Reddy.

“It is our right to organize over our own biodiversity, our own medical knowledge… with the biopiracy that has occurred over the centuries, we don’t need to repeat the mistakes of history. What he (Itty Achudan) offered the Dutch colonials was knowledge that had been in our community for centuries.” (from letter by Ezhava Social Reform Movement to Kerala university.  Context for this letter can be found in an article by Sita Reddy entitled Making Heritage Legible: Who Owns Traditional Medical Knowledge? published in the International Journal of Cultural Property V.13 I.2.)

Collections exist in a wide variety of institutions. Depositories must use shared designs and structures, hence there is a need for a union catalog to make items more accessible. There is talk of updating the DACS system to perform as a union style catalog, much like OCLC as I am able to understand it.

One of the most important and ever present issues facing Cultural Heritage institutions is the potential for loss of funding.  Small organizations lack resources to go about process alone, while large institutions have problems with dreams and reality. There is a need for horizontal relationships among archives and a need for vertical relationships among users and archives.  Institutions and users must find creative ways for funding through donations for these institutions to remain open. Funding is directly tied to, and helps with, preservation.

 In the digital context, there are not enough safeguards we can put on the information to protect it from all mishaps, but the more safeguards that are placed on the digital collection, the better it will be preserved for future use.

As I have touched on before, a Cultural Heritage institutions needs people to operate them. That operation extends to every aspect of the system: from processing to creating metadata, to presentation and display, from working with teachers to people who will organize fundraisers.  If all of those roles are burdened upon one or even two people, then accomplishing them can be a daunting task. This is why many of the presenters talked about the importance, for their institutions, of working with volunteers and building relationships with partners in the area who are capable of handling those different aspects.

Plans towards Future

The chair of Session IV, Timothy Lloyd of the American Folklore Society, invoked a famous passage in suggestion of how to accomplish these goals in regards to Archives and Cultural Heritage Institutions when he paraphrased Karl Marx’s famous axiom “From each according to their ability, to each according to their need.”

The suggestions that were discussed towards developing a better working Cultural Heritage environment consisted of these: Design customizable content standards based on DACS; Create online database so that we can have collective access; Provide financial support (Unspecific where that will be coming from or how it will be sustained); Need for Organizational Infrastructure to sustain for the long term.

Anna Fariello issued some suggestions to provide context for how to reorient our approach towards Archiving.  These consisted of: Recognize partner’s perspective; Respect unique histories; Respect disputed histories; Recognize your limited role; Be willing to share the knowledge that you have; and most importantly, Give voice to the community.


During the last session, one of the ladies in the group provided some good advice that her father had given her when she was young to provide context for how we are to serve as a Cultural Heritage body.  Her father said, “When people invite you into their homes and share their life stories, it’s important to leave something on the table.” So what do Cultural Heritage institutions have to offer? We have the means for people to have their story told, preserved, and shared with future generations.


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