Archival Wikis: In Search of a Digital Community for Archive Users
by Jessi Gilchrist
Where should I look for information as I begin the daunting process of planning a research trip to an archive? First of all, how do I figure out if this is even the right archive for me and my project? How do I learn about a particular archive’s unique idiosyncrasies when it comes to document ordering, research help, and hours of operation? How do I learn more about the collections it holds? Most importantly, how can I find enough information prior to my visit to ensure I can make the most of my time during my research trip?
How researchers prepare themselves for archival trips
These are the types of questions that my internship project at the Herder Institute aimed to answer. In July 2022, I began my two-month internship under the Research Data Management Working Group with the goal of learning more about how researchers prepare themselves for archival trips, the role that digital resources play within this process, and the types of software solutions that may prove useful for archive users in streamlining their preparations. In 2022, many historical archives — big and small — have a website with basic information about their operations. Yet many researchers gain the most useful information about archives through either their academic network of supervisors, advisors, and colleagues or their research trips themselves by interacting with archival staff or other researchers at the archive. This type of informal and personal interaction can be very fruitful, but it can also leave a substantial information gap. Students and researchers-in-training may be in the early phases of developing this type of informal network as they embark on their first research trips. Others may confront considerable barriers in forging these types of relationships for a variety of reasons including language ability and geography. My internship project has ultimately aimed to determine how we might replicate this type of exchange in a digital space and what types of such options might already exist.
Learn about whether researchers used wikis
We began the project by reaching out to researchers themselves to see what we could learn about the types of training that they received about using archives, the resources they consult when planning a research trip, learning curves and challenges that they experience when using a new archive, and whether they have used online wikis as an information resource in preparing for research trips. We were particularly interested to learn about whether researchers used wikis because this option seemed to offer a potential effective solution for the information gap that we had identified. When choosing a software solution for a given task, it was important to take into consideration several aspects: how well it performs for the given usage scenario, ease of use for the intended users, maintainability, long-term accessibility, and, last but not least, pricing. Rooted in open-source technology, a wiki would allow users to work collaboratively in providing and updating information about various archives. This type of user-directed approach would have the capacity to produce a resource that features the expertise of archival users and staff themselves.
Open-source software solution for setting up a wiki
While a wiki seemed to offer a promising solution, we needed to determine which type of wiki would prove most useful for our intended usage. The most popular open-source software solution for setting up a wiki is MediaWiki, which Wikipedia notably runs on, along with thousands of other sites. The perk of using MediaWiki is that potential users of the archive wiki are most likely to have been exposed to an instance of MediaWiki, if they have prior knowledge of any such software at all. Another popular open-source solution for the task is DokuWiki, which has a stable community of contributors and is easy to maintain, while the user interface is rather restrained. In order to create a welcoming first impression to people who were not technically inclined, we ultimately chose Fandom.com as a hosting service which is based on MediaWiki and has a broad user base. While it is mainly used for collection information on pop culture, it is not limited in its thematic scope or the number of pages per wiki, which makes the archival wiki scaleable.
Another component of this project was to conduct a survey of similar existing projects. Our findings revealed two similar archival wikis projects. The first was called ‘ArchivesWiki’ and was moderated by the American Historical Association. Launched in 2008, the ArchivesWiki aimed to provide researchers with information rarely found in published guides to archives or on archives websites. The ArchivesWiki, however, has since went ‘on hiatus’ as the AHA takes some time to reflect on a more useful format. A wiki named Archiverdict was the second similar project that our research revealed. This wiki aims to offer a reference guide to the holdings of research archives and libraries and democratize access to knowledge about archival research by inviting users to update and edit information. It holds a wide range of information about archives around the world with more than 2000 articles in total.
Archiverdict is a very promising resource with a great potential which will only grow as more users share their experiences with archival research. But to date, the wiki’s moderator has been the only major user inputting information. This suggests that the wiki may not be easily found online. In fact, we only came across it after discovering that the name “archive.fandom.com” was already taken when we were considering the possibility of developing our own wiki from scratch. It is our hope that this blog post will help to share this valuable resource with archival researchers.
This internship project has revealed that while many students, early researchers, and scholars may yearn for more information about archives with which they are unfamiliar, such resources do exist online. The greatest challenge then, is connecting resources like Archiverdict with its intended user audience. Narrowing this gap offers to provide archive users with a digital community of researchers offering first-hand experience and insights about various archives and allow users to find out as much as possible about the archives relevant to their work to enable them to make the most of their research experience.