Kairos 17.3

The Role of Participants

From the outset of this archive project, even in its earliest conceptions, we wanted the spaces to be accessible and inviting across the many hierarchical boundaries that exist within the academy. Early on, we had a vision for the physical and digital archive to be a place where mutual constituencies could work side-by-side, and even together, on any number of projects. The meaning-making principle here was clear: that these constituents would learn from one another in mutually advantageous ways... that faculty would learn from how undergraduate and graduate students were working in these spaces and vice versa.

We did not want this archive to privilege some and disenfranchise others. Rather, we wanted all stakeholders to immerse themselves in this space and find it accessible. This has made a difference in a number of ways we've proceeded, including the language we use within the descriptions, who we have recruited to assist with the development of the archive, and the kinds of feedback we've solicited from different stakeholders. While we are more aware of faculty and graduate student interests that may be the exigence for research in the site, we want to develop feedback loops for undergraduate students and non-academy participants to articulate their interests as well. Regularly through the early parts of the process, we solicited input from the undergraduate researchers developing and using this site, which has lead us to think about which cards to purchase, how to make the site more user-friendly, and where to invest our time and resources. Far more undergraduate students are interested in working as archivists for internship credit, for example, than we might have initially anticipated, so we've developed resources for training.

About a year prior to our work on the postcard archive, the three of us were in a reading group with others in our program where we read and discussed Alexis E. Ramsey, Wendy B. Sharer, Barbara L'Eplattenier, and Lisa S. Mastrangelo's (2010) collection Working in the Archives: Practical Research Methods for Rhetoric and Composition. As part of this reading group, we visited several physical archives in our local community, including but not limited to the university archives. One of the more disheartening experiences was that graduate students—perhaps because of their status in the institution—couldn't easily access the archives on a number of occasions. Understanding that protecting valued artifacts is an important part of archivists' work, we acknowledge the tension between preservation and accessibility of archived objects.

Early in the conceptualization of this archive, we imagined undergraduate students—from first-year composition to writing majors—in addition to graduate students and faculty accessing the cards for a variety of research projects. If we were going to err on one side or the other, we wanted to grant constituents more access to the artifacts, acknowledging the risk of some potential loss or damage, though we have followed published protocols from the National Archives to preserve the cards with Mylar sleeves and acid-free storage boxes in a climate controlled space. Even so, the collection's value, in part, is material access to the cards, which might include taking the cards out of their sleeves, as in the case of the hold-to-light cards, in order to see the effect or to look more carefully at the ink or writing that might otherwise be obscured through the acrylic. We see our role as providing instruction for users to handle the cards appropriately, as a way to encourage hands-on research and avoid having to limit access in order to preserve the artifacts. Learning includes physically engaging with the materials.

When we first started assembling the archive, we were mindful of at least two faculty research projects that might want to draw in part on the archive: Kristie Fleckenstein's work on 19th century photography, especially on gender and family representations, and Kathleen Yancey's work on vernacular writing, including postcards of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. As faculty researchers in our local community, we consciously framed the site in ways to accommodate their interests and needs. At the same time, however, we were careful not to rely too heavily on a narrow range of known projects while conceptualizing the site. For instance, we didn't want faculty projects—with their high level of specificity and disciplinary knowledge—to drive the organization and/or framework for access. In other words, we acknowledge that if we framed the site wholly on their interests and language, the site may have become less accessible to other constituencies.

Therefore, some of the most important partners are undergraduate students within our undergraduate writing major, who for internship credit are entering cards into the site and researching areas of interest to them. Through their systematic and documented work in the archives, we are beginning to get a sense of the range of projects that could come out of this archive on multiple levels. Some researchers are coming to the site with interests in visual rhetoric, some with interests in social or political issue and others with communication or technology bents. Meaning can be made by researchers from multiple positions both in and out of the university in the site, and we want to make sure we're inviting the largest range of participation that we can.

We have also considered interface features in an attempt to make the site inviting and useable to multiple constituencies in the university and community. One of those is an invitation to participate in adding to the value of the site by tagging, or adding metadata to the postcard that can be seen and used by future researchers. They potentially benefit from visiting the site and finding a card or something on a card of value to them, and we invite them through the interface to leave something behind for others to consider, a kind of hybrid economy to use Lawrence Lessig's (2008) term. Any researcher using the site can add tags to the postcards that others can see and use in the future, and these tags can include anything from the most practical to the most esoteric. We see at least three primary benefits conceptually for the archive:

  1. we don't want to make assumptions about what kinds of projects people will study in relationship to the cards,
  2. we don't have all the expertise or time needed to fully annotate every aspect or every card, and
  3. we don't want to make assumptions about who will want to use the archive and what expertise and backgrounds they might have.
Meaning is made at the intersections of each person's interests in relationship to others who might visit the site.

Neal ・ Bridgman ・ McElroy