Building a better institutional archive

| April 7, 2010

“How do you make an institutional archive more social?”

This question was put forth by EdLab in early 2006. It’s kind of a strange question – it makes more sense if you consider how “Web 2.0” had settled in as a useful framework in our collective imagination. We faced the task of creating a digital repository for the first time at Teachers College, and we wanted to do it with style.

We created PocketKnowledge (PK), and launched it later that fall to the College community. Phil the Pocket was born. In theory, PK did everything DSpace did, but better. The community could upload and tag items. A folksonomy could emerge. Uploaders could set different permission levels to control access to their content. And so on. From the project documentation:

[We] formed a multi-disciplinary team of students, designers, software developers and institutional representatives to implement a digital archiving solution for Teachers College, Columbia University. After an analysis of existing archiving tools, our interests pushed us in the direction of developing a custom tool to serve a set of functions that was not possible with existing archiving tools, but which we determined was possible with available technologies.

Existing digital archiving software – such as the widely implemented DSpace – did not offer a “social” solution for arching. DSpace employs “gatekeepers” who oversee the uploading of new material into the archive – often librarians who grant permission to upload materials, organize the materials into established categories, and tag the material with standard keywords.

PK was designed to overturn this librarian-centric model, and put power (and responsibility) in the hands of content creators. It is different from DSpace in many ways, and is successfully social to a discerning eye.

Was PK social enough? Probably not. And the definition of “social” has only steepened in the past four years. Here is a shortlist of ideas about how it could be more social that I’ve been able to collect:

  • Tag any document on the fly (currently only content owners and admins can do this)
  • Curate new collections of items (currently only content owners and admins can do this)
  • Create a personal “profile” page with favorite PK items
  • See “popular related” items for any item
  • Simple versioning control for items (to better facilitate group work)
  • Available email updates when users interact with items and collections

I wonder what ideas others might have now. And, should we continue down this path at all? Is it time to give up on the idea of a social archive? After all, we’re social in many ways… why should my archival materials extend my range of social interactions further? (And aren’t there already better methods for this?)

In spite of these worries and concerns, I think it is still a seductive opportunity. The best answer to the question may be a relatively simple one:

“Give me an extremely lightweight publishing opportunity that supports and is supported by (and is partially obscured by) an educational institution to which I have accepted as a platform and community for intellectual work.”