My MA thesis – Barbarians versus Gatekeepers?

So, I’ve finally gotten around to posting my thesis “Barbarians versus gatekeepers? Tagging as a way of defining the emergent Living Archive paradigm”. The focus of  my thesis lies on archives that have audiovisual collections, since it was written at the final requirement needed to complete the Master Preservation and Presentation of the Moving Image at the University of Amsterdam. However, I do think that the findings presented in the thesis also touch on the theory and practice of many other cultural heritage institutions. I’ve posted the summary below, and here you can find the link to a PDF version of the whole thesis. Many others know much more about the subjects covered, and have written more eloquently about tagging, and about the shifts in archive theory due to the rise of the Web 2.0 / online social media environment, but hey, I’m still pretty proud of it :).


An increasing number of cultural heritage institutions (such as museums, libraries and archives) that have digitised (parts) of their collections now provide the general public with unprecedented access to their cultural heritage. But not only does the public have access – some institutions also allow the public to tag objects in these online, digitised collections. However, consistent and widespread discussions about the repercussions of access and influence of the public on metadata have not lead to a coherent view of this on archive theory. The practice of tagging, and especially incorporating tags in catalogues and other domains that were previously exclusively in the hands of professionals has seen intense debates in the last years. Some herald tagging as a revolutionary way of increasing access and findability, and claim that just by sheer numbers, the general public can add far more relevant metadata than professionals. Others see practices like tagging as the debasing of the status of documentalists, and fear that the authority of archives and other heritage institutions is being compromised by allowing non-experts to contribute to metadata. Some heritage institutions have already incorporated tags in their collection websites and (online) catalogue. This represents a major paradigm shift in archival theory. Archival theorist Eric Ketelaar and others have often referred to the shifts in archive theory and the emergent paradigm as the Living Archive paradigm. Traditionally, archival theory has two main pillars – appraisal and arrangement / description. I propose that a third pillar exists in the Living Archive paradigm, namely access / influence.

Since it is impossible to cover all discussions and aspects of the broad shifts in archival theory, I focused on tagging in my research question:

“What shifts in the existing theoretical archival paradigm can be perceived through the practice of tagging, and the responses to tagging by the archival community?”

I answered the research question through a framework that was set by Professor Emeritus of Archivistics Eric Ketelaar. He has written extensively on the impact of the digital age on the archival perspective, and has outlined and re-investigated five key archival principles – authenticity, the life cycle of records vs. the records continuum, the organic nature of records, hierarchy in records and their descriptions and respect des fonds, provenance and original order. However, Ketelaar’s focus lies on investigating how the digital age has changed these principles regarding the internal workflow of archives, whereas the focus of this thesis lies on how these principles are influenced by external forces – in this case user-generated tags.

The results of various tagging projects and the responses to them by the archival community illustrate how these five principles are changing. The Library of Congress has collected tags for images via Flickr, the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney allows people to both tag pictures on Flickr and in their online catalogue, and in the steve.museum project, people can tag images from the collections of a variety of museums. There have been significantly less tagging projects with moving images, even though metadata is missing from a great number of digitised av-collections and there is a great need for specific, time-related metadata. It is very labour intensive to describe segments of video material at length, let also provide time-related metadata. Therefore the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision developed the video labeling game Waisda? (which translates to What’s That?) through which time-related metadata is collected.

On the one hand, the responses to these projects by professionals were sceptical, and concerns were raised about the validity of the tags and the possible devaluation of the status of archives if the tags submitted by ‘amateurs’ were implemented in the professional metadata. Then again, the professionals that evaluated the steve tags found them to be very usable. The av-documentalist who evaluated the Waisda? tags also found them usable, albeit often non-specific. However, the Sound and Vision cataloguers are very interested in ways in which the tags can be implemented. All of the tagging projects mentioned above have been presented at various conferences, and have attracted a lot of attention from the archival community, which indicates that influence by the public on archival metadata is not dismissed outright. Also, some of the archives that have held tagging projects have already implemented the tags in their (online) catalogue.

  • Thus, I propose that the influence by the public on archives, and their interaction with archival objects represents a major shift in archival theory and practice. This does not mean that concepts in the Living Archive paradigm have changed completely, but rather that old concepts such as authenticity and provenance acquire an extra layer of meaning.
  • Archivists need to rethink their role of gatekeepers, and need to accept that opportunities like tagging can benefit archives and that it does not necessarily mean that the barbarians are knocking down the walls they have protected for so long. However, no matter how fruitful social tagging and crowdsourcing in general proves to be for providing metadata, the experience and training of information professionals will remain invaluable in retaining metadata quality and in providing authentic, factual information.
  • Secondly, the records continuum is not only non-linear and cyclical, it is also dispersed, since metadata flows freely within various realms (for instance from Flickr to the catalogue, and vice versa). In the digital age, the organic nature of records is challenged because there is often more than person responsible for creating and / or maintaining a record. However, with tagging this is complicated further, since there are many people outside of the archive who can potentially contribute to it.
  • It is necessary to very carefully document where user-generated objects and metadata come from in these cases in order to not only map the organic nature of the records, but to ensure the authenticity of these objects and metadata as well.
  • The hierarchy of descriptions in archives is based on structured taxonomies. Folksonomies resulting from tagging are in practically all cases ‘flat’ descriptions, and relations between the tags are not defined. Although there are great benefits to implementing tags, for archives it will be necessary to develop methods that can create a hierarchy within a folksonomy, for instance with semantic mapping between the tags.
  • Finally, the concepts respect des fonds, original order and provenance acquire an extra layer of meaning in the Living Archive paradigm. By incorporating user-generated metadata like tags comes another type of provenance, which is not related to the original creator(s) of a record, but to the provenance of metadata. Also, tags are generated in their own context, for instance on Flickr or a game like Waisda?; therefore it is important for archives to reference this original tag source when implementing them.

There is still a lot of cultural heritage in archives that is waiting to be discovered and described by the general public. The ongoing definition of the third pillar of archival theory within the Living Archive paradigm will ensure that this can take place in an authentic, controlled and at the same time open and welcoming environment, in which archivists will keep looking for ways in which public contributions to information can be incorporated further.


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