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A. Copeland Case Statement

NHC 2016 Working Group
Challenging the Exclusive Past: Relevancy, Inclusion, and Diversity
A. Copeland Case Statement

Participatory Heritage

Participatory heritage is a space in which individuals participate in heritage outside of formal institutions for the purpose of knowledge sharing and co-creating with others. Participatory heritage places most importance on active engagement with cultural heritage content and less importance on any particular medium, process, or professional expertise.

Participatory heritage can but does not necessarily interact with cultural heritage institutions, which are governed by policies and procedures and a limited budget from which to operate. These institutions employ information experts that guide practices and innovation in information organization, access, and use. They typically do not employ community experts and increasingly so employing less content/subject experts.i Participatory heritage draws individuals together around content and expertise in and knowledge of content, rather than the processes which organize and make that content accessible. These individuals have a strong desire to engage with heritage content to gain, share, and create new knowledge. While this sounds like the sort of activity heritage institutions are designed to support, this contrast of focus creates a mission mismatch between participatory heritage groups and heritage organizations.

As someone who believes in the importance of heritage intuitions, I am concerned heritage institutions will lose their connections with those very persons they are trying to serve if they do not engage in the participatory heritage space.

The Do-It-Yourself movement, strong in many professional domains, is alive and well in archives and other heritage activities. The power of digital connectivity and the ease of content creation fuels participation. Artists, musicians, and genealogists are participating in collection building and memory making outside of formal heritage institutions. The participatory heritage space will continue to expand and in doing so create a more inclusive shared heritage. However, without links to formal heritage institutions I worry about scalability, capacity building, and long-term and equitable access. I hope the participatory heritage space evolves to include methods for community/content based heritage projects/groups to partner with heritage institutions to the benefit of both.

How does this linkage from participatory heritage groups which value shared expertise, dynamism, and bottom-up approaches to institutions which value formal credentials, guiding policies, and top-down approaches happen?

Let’s consider examples of participatory heritage facilitated by social media, user-generated content and crowdsourcing.

  • Wikipedia, an encyclopedia whose content is generated through crowdsourcing, began in 2001 and today has 31.7 million registered users. As Wikipedia grew in size so did the number of policies regarding how entries were to be created. The larger it grew the greater need for formal systems for organization and for funding to ensure sustainability.
  • There are numerous local community based heritage groups on Facebook, like the Tidewater Virginia Hippies group, which as 2,223 members. This group formed to document and to share information regarding people, places, and events that represent the heritage of a certain time and place. The only policies appear to be to avoid talking about religion and politics and no advertising.
  • Sydney Opera House Flickr group has 1,883 members. This group has a few more rules that the Facebook group above. The most important rule is reflected in the name – the Sydney Opera House must be the focus of the photographs submitted for inclusion in this collection. There is a committee that reviews photos for inclusion.
  • Ravelry, a social networking site for knitters has 1.4 million users worldwide. This site has a global membership who shares in the cultural experience that is knitting. The site uses its own technical infrastructure in order to better focus solely on knitting and the allied arts. Membership is required but free as advertising pays the bills.
  • has 2 million paying subscribers, with fees ranging between $20 to $50 a month. The service supports genealogical research through the aggregation of historical records, e.g. census data and newspapers, and user generated content, e.g. family trees, photos, scanned documents, and DNA results.

Heritage institutions have had no part in creating these resources and services. If it were not for the guiding policies (including professional ethics and tax-based funding constraints) and the limited resources of heritage institutions, I would argue that any number of heritage institutions could have taken the lead on developing tools like and The design of heritage organizations does not allow for the nimbleness required to respond to the market driven technology trends that emerge in a dynamic and democratic information environment. Revenue from taxes could never be used to invest in a potentially risky and/or potentially profitable business venture like And not-for-profit governmental agencies, which most heritage agencies are, could never charge the fees necessary to maintain and grow the service. Which is unfortunate, because most heritage institutions I know could use the $680 million in annual revenue. is a powerful research tool for scholars, genealogists, and family historians in the United States (today, the scope of the service is currently expanding to other countries). Wonderful for those who can afford it. This wealth of information that documents a shared heritage likely provides the most culturally inclusive model of an archive and it is unfortunately, behind a paywall. And while it is highly unlikely that is going to cease to exist given it’s proven profitability, it could, as this company that owns is not beholden to the public good, in the way the heritage institutions are.

The model challenges two deeply held values of heritage institutions –open to all and for as long as humanly possible.

How do we engage in this profitable and exciting space? What do we have to offer? Very little to but to other less profitable ventures – I would hope quite a bit.

Bringing heritage institutions and participatory heritage groups together would be beneficial to overcoming limitations in both spaces. In forming relationships, heritage institutions could build more inclusive and culturally relevant collections. Through such partnership, cultural institutions would not only be exposed to an increasingly broader scope of heritage topics but also be better positioned to help the communities that are not as capable of telling their own stories. The need for participatory heritage groups to form relationships with other agencies often emerges when financial and sustainability issues arise. Over time, relying on volunteers and limited or sporadic financial resources threatens the long-term existence of any of the resources created by these groups. The mission mismatch could match up rather well with the right connections in place.

How to make these connections? In my own exploration of community-based community heritage projects that have created successful partnerships with heritage institutions, there always seems to be a third party that connects the two. Usually, it’s an academic connecting the two in support of or as a result of her own research. This led me to believe that the development of a third party organization to facilitate these connections could provide a more systematic means of making these connections and therefore a more systematic means of building inclusive cultural heritage collections.

My thinking has evolved to consider a third space or place for these entities to meet and connect. A place that is designed with respect to shared authority and shared ownership. Rather than coming to a third party, everyone comes to a third place. What form does this place take? It could be an online open source “journal” for participatory heritage. I use the word journal rather than portal because a journal is system of communication that supports the evolution of thinking and practices within particular community. Instead of articles and columns being authored only by academics or practicing professionals, they are authored by anyone working in the participatory heritage space. This would include community members and those affiliated with commercial entities as well. Bring all the players together in one intellectual space to build connections that would exploit the strengths of each to the benefit of all.