Web 2.0 and Archives

J. Gordon Daines III and Cory L. Nimer
May 18, 2009


Technology, particularly the Internet, is changing the ways that archivists interact with their patrons. As we have noted elsewhere, “the ability to access information digitally is changing the way that users access information about archival and other research collections.”1 It is also changing the way that our patrons approach archival research and how they view their archival interactions. Our patrons have come to expect that our content will be available in digital form, and that they will be able to interact with that content and obtain research help if necessary while they are engaged with our content—all of which they expect to occur virtually. These expectations have been further fueled by the advent of Web 2.0 technologies and their widespread adoption by commercial and other enterprises. Our patrons are used to being able to review books on Amazon.com, comment on the musings of a friend as posted on their blogs, or contribute what they know about slavery in the antebellum South to a Wikipedia entry. And they expect to be able to do similar activities when they encounter our Web-based content.

Archivists need to actively experiment with Web 2.0 technologies in order to discover which of these tools will best meet our needs and the needs of our patrons. In order to make rational decisions about which technologies to experiment with, we need to understand what Web 2.0 is and how it can potentially be used to augment our services.

About Web 2.0

The term “Web 2.0″ was first introduced by Tim O’Reilly in 2004 as a marketing catch-phrase and has since become shorthand for describing the changes that have taken place in how the Internet has been used since its creation in the early 1990s.2 Web 2.0 describes the shift from presenting Internet content to users as a collection of marked-up text to an interactive environment where users have the ability to create content as easily as they consume it. Web 2.0 is often referred to as the read/write Web or the living Web.3

O’Reilly has identified eight “core patterns” common to Web 2.0.4 They are:

  • Harnessing collective intelligence

Web 2.0 technologies are designed to enable and encourage participation, allowing users to add, modify, and improve content. By engaging and allowing diverse individuals to contribute to the conversation, Web 2.0 sites may be able to use the wisdom of crowds to optimize their content.5

  • Data is the next “Intel Inside”

The goal of Web 2.0-enabled sites is the creation of unique content. Unique data drives website traffic and the overall usefulness of the site.

  • Innovation in assembly

Many Web 2.0 sites are building interfaces not just for people; they are also building them for applications which allow programmers to access and remix data in new ways.

  • Rich user experiences

Web 2.0 interfaces often provide their users with desktop-like environments, imitating the type of functionality typically found in operating systems or stand-alone applications.

  • Software above the level of a single device

Designers of Web 2.0 sites are often thinking beyond the typical Web browser, making their content accessible through any Internet-enabled device (cell phones, MIDs, etc.)

  • Perpetual beta

Most Web 2.0 sites are constant works-in-progress, with developers continuing to add to the site after its initial launch. This iterative development process allows for continued refinement of websites and later implementation of additional features.

  • Leveraging the long tail

Web 2.0 allows for the diversification of content, while providing access to that content. Participatory websites provide a platform for low-cost content creation and distribution.

  • Lightweight models and cost-effective scalability

Successful Web 2.0 models make use of simple data interchange standards, with components and services that allow for easy reuse.

Taken together, Web 2.0 technologies have transformed the Internet into a participatory experience. At the same time, the Web has become a hub for social interaction—the social Web—a place where individuals can enter into conversations with content creators and contribute their own ideas and knowledge to the discussion.6

Web 2.0 Exemplars

Although Web 2.0 technologies and concepts have been integrated into a wide variety of websites, there are certain categories that exemplify their use. These include:

Although blogs are typically written by a limited set of individuals, many platforms include a commenting feature that allows readers to record their thoughts and viewpoints. Blogs typically use RSS syndication as an interchange format, as well as for pushing content to readers, aggregators, and mashups.

Websites designed for sharing photographs are also integrating Web 2.0 features such as tagging, commenting, and RSS. At the same time, the content being uploaded by their users is creating unique collections of digital images, raising their profiles and usefulness.

These sites provide common Web 2.0 services, including tagging, commenting/reviewing, and rating services. However, some are also now leveraging that data to provide ranking and social search functionality for their users.

These are websites which allow users to add, edit, and delete content in an effort to channel the collective wisdom of their users. Some have integrated RSS feeds for their content as well.

These are websites designed for community interaction, either with a specific focus or for general use. Users typically maintain profiles or pages for displaying personal information, which can then be commented on or added to by other users.

How Web 2.0 Changes Internet Use

The Internet is becoming an increasingly integrated part of our lives. As of 2008, 74 percent of American adults were using the Internet.7 The majority of Americans report having access to the Internet at home (65 percent), with 55 percent of these having a broadband connection.8 According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, these high-speed, “always-on” connections contribute directly to participation on the Internet, including Web 2.0 applications.9 With social networking sites, for example, 35 percent of all adults now report having a social network profile, while in the eighteen to twenty-five age group this reaches 75 percent.10 Of all social network participants, 37 percent of those surveyed reported logging into the site on a daily basis.11

This change in behavior among Internet users necessitates changes in the way businesses and organizations use the Web to reach out to others. Effective Web presences are no longer based on the static presentation of information, but are “about being more transparent, earning trust, building credibility…nurturing relationships and dialogue among customers, prospects, your company, and whoever else is active in the community.”12

Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams have described the effect of Web 2.0 technologies on business as revolutionary, creating a new paradigm of “wikinomics” based on mass collaboration. Though the focus of their work is on traditional businesses such as software development and publishing, what they say has relevance to archives. They write that,

Once a bastion of “professionalism,” credentialed knowledge producers share the state with “amateur” creators who are disrupting every activity they touch….These changes, among others, are ushering us toward a world where knowledge, power, and productive capability will be more dispersed than at any time in our history—a world where value creation will be fast, fluid, and persistently disruptive. A world where only the connected will survive. A power shift is underway, and a tough new business rule is emerging: Harness the new collaboration or perish.13

Wikinomics is based on four main principles: openness, peering, sharing, and acting globally. These ideas are forcing businesses to radically rethink their current practices and engage in open dialogue with their customer base. Web 2.0 technologies are enabling and forcing these conversations.

The Web 2.0 Challenge to Archives

Like it or not, archivists are going to have to engage with the Web 2.0 world. As Tapscott and Williams put it, we must “harness the new collaboration or perish.”14 A careful examination of how the key concepts of wikinomics (openness, peering, sharing, and acting globally) could be applied to archives reveals the potential that Web 2.0 has to radically re-contextualize our work. An open archives would make all of its information available to researchers—including information previously relegated to the case file. Michelle Light and Tom Hyry have advocated for providing additional transparency in our finding aids about our work and our role in shaping collections.15 Opening our data to our patrons and our peers has the potential to increase our collaborative activities. Web 2.0 technologies, including commenting features and wiki platforms, would allow us to leverage the knowledge of our patrons and our peers in providing information about our collections. Sharing our data with others would also have positive results for archives, by allowing that data to be remixed by users for building bibliographies, digital exhibits, and virtual collection guides.

However exciting all of this is, the final concept of wikinomics, thinking globally, has the greatest potential for changing archival practice. While the library community has been moving towards ever-greater collaboration and standardization, archives have often exhibited an anachronistic parochialism when it comes to our data. In a networked and social environment, proposals for local (or even regional) repositories for archival descriptions or authority files ignore larger Web trends, and prevent the profession as a whole from taking advantage of the power of Web 2.0 and its networking effects.16

Implementing Web 2.0

Planning is the key to successful use of Web 2.0 tools. Potential implementors of these technologies need to consider their audience and objectives before launching any Web 2.0 initiatives.17 For archives, this may mean the expansion of user studies to determine the extent to which their patrons are using the Internet.

Archives and other content creators and custodians should also be aware of the potential pitfalls of Web 2.0. As critic Andrew Keen has put it, professional content creators should be respected for their expertise and rewarded for their creative work. While there is a role for Web 2.0-style commenting and tagging, he suggests that this user-generated content should be clearly delineated from professional work.18

Web 2.0 Implementations that Archivists Might Imitate

Web 2.0 offers archivists a unique opportunity to connect with our users in meaningful ways. As has been mentioned previously, the key to successful implementation of Web 2.0 technologies is planning. Archivists need to determine what the best Web 2.0 technology is for their unique situation and then experiment with them. They need to examine what their colleagues in the library and museum worlds are doing, as well as what their archival peers are doing. The following are examples of how our allied professional peers are utilizing Web 2.0 to better serve the needs of their patrons.

Reference librarians at Oregon State University utilize a wiki to improve their ability to answer reference questions. The wiki functions as a knowledge base.19 Reference archivists could take a similar approach in utilizing wikis to create a knowledge base of frequently asked questions. They could also include information on unexpected finds in collections.

Kim Armstrong describes how one library is using RSS feeds to push information about their electronic resources to their users.20 Archivists could use RSS feeds to push information about exhibits, lectures, and other activities related to their collections.

The steve.museum project is examining how social tagging can make their online collections more accessible to the average user. They are also exploring how best to enable social tagging. They have found that social tagging allows a dialogue between the piece of art being described and the user. A similar dialogue could, and should, be encouraged between users and archival materials.

Health librarians are being encouraged to utilize mashups to provide more, and better, information to their patrons in Canada.21 Archivists could use mashups to help researchers better understand where events in collections occurred and how geography impacts the lived experience.

The most exciting thing about Web 2.0 is the conversations that it can facilitate: conversations that will allow us to harness the power of the “new collaboration” described by Tapscott and Williams.

Archival Conversations

At its heart, the archival enterprise is a collaborative one. This collaboration has typically taken place as a one-to-one interaction whether it is the reference specialist aiding a patron to discover which collections will be the most useful, an archivist negotiating the acquisition of new materials, or a curator managing the processing of a new collection by a volunteer or student. Web 2.0 has the potential to change this limited dynamic by increasing the number of collaborative opportunities available to archivists and opening the door to unlimited collaborators.

Archivists need to seize the opportunities made available by interactive Web 2.0 technologies and engage in ongoing conversations with their patrons and with each other. These conversations can be facilitated by the use of blogs, wikis, RSS feeds, social networking software, and other related tools. These conversations can be about our collections and how they better enable us to understand a given topic. They can be about lectures and other events hosted by our institutions. They can be about how best to use our materials and why those materials need to be handled with care. They can be about matters of professional importance or about local issues. It doesn’t really matter what the conversation is about, so long as it engages the archivist and the user.

An important aspect of these new conversations is the way that they change the relationship between the archivist and the user. Archivists can no longer remain the authoritative voice of knowledge; rather, they must engage as co-equals with the user and search for solutions together. As archives begin to implement Web 2.0 technologies these issues of power and authority will need to be worked out. While Keen suggests that the position of experts must be preserved, it is important that archivists remain approachable and flexible. Early experiments by archivists, such as the Polar Bear Digital Collections from the University of Michigan, suggest that the role of the archivist is diluted in a Web 2.0 environment. Elizabeth Yakel has described this as sharing authority with your researchers, stating that having an archivist retain a privileged, authoritative position in an online community actually reduces both the archivist’s and the community’s effectiveness.22 This shared authority is a new experience for archivists, and will require us to rethink our role in the delivery of information about our collections.

Becoming an Interactive Archivist

Web 2.0 is changing not just the way that archivists interact technologically with their users, it is also changing the mindset and the skill set necessary to successfully thrive as a twenty-first-century archivist. These new interactive archivists exhibit many of the following traits. They are user-focused and plan with the user in mind. They embrace Web 2.0 technologies as tools to engage in conversations with their users. They are capable of making quick decisions about which technologies to use and which to disengage from. They don’t use technology just for the sake of technology—they carefully consider how selected technologies can enhance their ability to engage in conversations with their users. They constantly look for new ways to push the content held in their collections out to their users. They are lifelong learners and are continually looking for new challenges and opportunities. The interactive archivist adapts to change, while holding true to the core values of the archival community.

Above all, interactive archivists are interested in collaborating with their users and with other archivists. Interactive archivists embrace the opportunity to engage in collaborative conversations and leverage what they learn from these conversations to improve the services that they offer. This volume presents a number of case studies showing how Web 2.0 technologies are being used to successfully open new conversations with our patrons and ourselves, and how those conversations are leading to better services. They can form the foundation from which archivists can plan their implementations of Web 2.0 technologies.


1. Cory Nimer and J. Gordon Daines III, “What Do You Mean It Doesn’t Make Sense? Redesigning Finding Aids from the User’s Perspective,” Journal of Archival Organization 6, no 4 (2008): 217.

2. Tim O’Reilly, “What is Web 2.0,” O’Reilly Media, http://www.oreillynet.com/pub/a/oreilly/tim/news/2005/09/30/what-is-web-20.html (accessed Mar. 14, 2009).

3. Dan Gillmor, We the Media: Grassroots Journalism by the People, for the People (Sebastapol, CA: O’Reilly, 2004), 23; Christian Crumlish, The Power of Many: How the Living Web is Transforming Politics, Business, and Everyday Life (San Francisco, CA: Sybex, 2004), xiii.

4. John Musser, Web 2.0 Principles and Best Practices (Sebastapol, CA: O’Reilly, 2007).

5. James Surowiecki, The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations (New York: Doubleday, 2004). Surowiecki describes the four qualities needed to tap into collective wisdom as: 1) Diversity of opinion, 2) Independence of thought, 3) Decentralization, and 4) Aggregation. Websites that do not use all of these qualities cannot guarantee a “wise” response.

6. Larry Weber, Marketing to the Social Web (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2007), 4.

7. Sydney Jones, “Generations Online in 2009,” Pew Internet and American Life Project, http://www.pewinternet.org/~/media//Files/Reports/2009/PIP_Generations_2009.pdf (accessed Mar. 23, 2009), 5.

8. John B. Horrigan, “Home Broadband Adoption 2008,” Pew Internet & American Life Project, http://www.pewinternet.org/~/media//Files/Reports/2008/PIP_Broadband_2008.pdf (accessed Mar. 23, 2009), 3.

9. Ibid., 16.; Lee Rainie, “28% of Online Americans Have Used the Internet to Tag Content,” Pew Internet & American Life Project, http://www.pewinternet.org/~/media//Files/Reports/2007/PIP_Tagging.pdf.pdf (accessed Mar. 23, 2009), 3; Lee Rainie, “Video Sharing Websites,” Pew Internet & American Life Project, http://www.pewinternet.org/~/media//Files/Reports/2008/Pew_Videosharing_memo_Jan08.pdf.pdf (accessed Mar. 23, 2009).

10. Amanda Lenhart, “Adults and Social Network Websites,” Pew Internet & American Life Project, http://www.pewinternet.org/~/media//Files/Reports/2009/PIP_Adult_social_networking_data_memo_FINAL.pdf.pdf (accessed Mar. 23, 2009), 5.

11. Ibid., 7.

12. Weber, 32.

13. Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams, Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything (New York: Portfolio, 2006), 11-12.

14. Ibid., 12.

15. Michelle Light and Tom Hyry, “Colophons and Annotations: New Directions for the Finding Aid,” American Archivist 65, no. 2 (2002): 216-230.

16. Amy Shuen, Web 2.0: A Strategy Guide (Beijing: O’Reilly, 2008), 41.

17. Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff, Groundswell: Winning in a World Transformed by Social Technologies (Boston: Harvard Business Press, 2008), 67-68. Forrester Research associates Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff use the acronym POST (People, Objectives, Strategy, and Technology) as a means to remember the correct sequence of events in Web 2.0 implementations. Forrester provides tools for developing Web 2.0 strategies at their website (http://groundswell.forrester.com/).

18. Andrew Keen, The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture (New York: Doubleday, 2007), 190.

19. Jeremy Frumkin, “The Wiki and the Digital Library,” OCLC Systems & Services: International Digital Library Perspectives 21, no. 1 (2005): 18-22.

20. Kim Armstrong, “Using RSS Feeds to Alert Users to Electronic Resources,” Serials Librarian 53, no. 3 (2007): 183-195.

21. Allan Cho, “An introduction to mashups for health librarians,” Journal of the Canadian Health Libraries Association 28 (2007): 19-22.

22. Magia Ghetu Krause and Elizabeth Yakel, “Interaction in Virtual Archives: The Polar Bear Expedition Digital Collections Next Generation Finding Aid,” American Archivist 70, no. 2 (Winter 2007): 310-311; Elizabeth Yakel, “Fomenting the R/Evolution: Connecting Collections and Communities in Cyberspace,” (paper presented at the Society of American Archivists annual conference, San Francisco, CA, August 30, 2008).