Kairos 17.3

Reconceptualizing a Community of Participants

Early in the conception of the digital archive, we saw the potential for forging connections between the university and surrounding communities. In our experience postcards are visual and written artifacts with which nearly everyone has at least some connection, even if it's peripheral to family members or friends. Since postcards might be considered popular or even low culture, they have more mass appeal than something that might be largely seen as academic, such as literary masterpieces or important political documents. The commonality of postcards has become a productive inroad into conversations with those in and out of the academy. Many people have a story to tell about a favorite postcard or know someone who collects them. From there the conversation can expand to our interests in postcards as examples of vernacular writing and visual rhetoric.

Even though connecting with the community was part of our early vision for the archive, the relationships continue to evolve, which in turn compel us to reconceptualize a community of participants, users, and stakeholders. Our original connection outside of the university was to purchase cards from a local collector, but the audience we initially imagined for the site was that of university faculty and students locally and abroad. Now that we've developed the site and have had early opportunities to share our work with others, we've come to realize that people outside of the academy have needs and interests as well that can be met through the site. A challenge we've faced throughout the development of the site is reminding ourselves of the multiple purposes people in and out of the academy might have for an archive and to develop systems that meet the needs of multiple constituencies. While the most immediate audiences continue to be students and faculty, we're excited about opportunities to invite people outside of the academy to participate in the construction of meaning within the site as well.

Our initial connection to the local community was to our first supplier of the cards. We'll call him Mr. Smith, a ninety-two-year-old veteran of World War II and a long-time collector of postcards, a hobby he took up with one of his sons well after the war. His own personal collection in the thousands, Mr. Smith advertised World War II era cards online, which is how we first came to meet him. He told us that he was initially interested in cards from places he and his brother went during the war. While he was stationed primarily in England, his brother was in France. After a time collecting, his interests grew to include a much larger range of places and topics. Mr. Smith is one of many collectors outside the academy who collect cards and other artifacts for personal reasons as well as to sell to and trade with other interested parties.

After explaining our academic interest in the cards, we forged a relationship where he would put together packets of cards in which he thought we might be interested and allowed us to go through them and purchase them at a bulk rate. The benefit for him was that, during a tough economic climate, he had a steady purchaser of cards willing to buy most of the collections he put together for us. The benefit for us was that we had a seller with a fascinating history who was willing to give us great prices on the cards and stories to go along with many as well. We would tell him our interests—ranging from representations of gender, race, and class, to major events and developments in the late 19th and early 20th centuries—and he would put together packets of cards to peruse and potentially purchase.

Postcards, as a type of everyday writing (writing that happens outside of sanctioned or regulated spaces like school, work, or governments), are of interest to academics and non-academics alike. They are among the three most collected items in the world, behind only stamps and coins. They have a long history of use dating back to the late 19th century and continuing strong in the 20th century. While their purposes and popularity have evolved over a hundred years, postcards are still produced and purchased today. Their purposes during this span of time range from souvenirs to family portraits, from ad cards to political commentary. Early in the 20th century before widespread use of phones, postcards were extremely popular, with mail being delivered twice a day in many towns. People used postcards to dash off a quick message, perhaps hoping for a reply even later that same day, making them early precursors of contemporary forms of speedy communication such as email, instant messaging, texts, and tweets.

Millions of postcards still circulate around the world for purposes of communication and collection. Collectors are attracted to cards for a number of reasons: nostalgia, importance of place, political and social events, souvenirs of places visited, and so on. Some of the most valued cards tend to include social issues such as depictions of racism or sexism. Since so many collectors around the world have so many cards, our goal has never been to be comprehensive or put together a particularly large collection ourselves. Rather, our conception for the collection was to create a physical and digital archive that would be conducive to different types of rhetorical and writing research we envisioned for the audience. We wanted to create a site that was easily searchable and where researchers could cross reference different components of the cards (e.g., the front picture with the hand written text on the card or the postmarked date and place). As we have observed people using the space, our conception of it continues to evolve as we reimagine purposes people have for this work.

The Physical and Digital Archive Sites

Having two sites of the archive—the physical site on our campus stored in Mylar sleeves inside acid-free boxes and the digital archive online—gives different audiences in and out of the academy access to the postcards. We know the physical cards are most easily accessible to those in Tallahassee and at FSU, though we would welcome those from the immediate community and beyond to visit. The online archive is accessible widely, though in order to participate fully in the site (e.g., making an exhibit or leaving notes), researchers must get password access to the Omeka site, which causes significant limitations. Our initial conception included spaces where any visitor could leave messages and notes on the cards, which is not yet possible in our understanding of the system. We also realize that the sustainability of this project in part rests on our ability to acquire postcards of interest to multiple constituents.

In its cyclical nature we fully expect to forge new relationships between the site, the local community, other academic institutions, and ourselves. What those might look like, we don't know yet, but imagining the range of expertise within the community, the possibilities could include information about

  • historical and cultural events represented on the cards;
  • publishers, printers, and distributors of the cards;
  • histories of cards, series, or collections;
  • printing and other technological processes associated with the cards; or
  • people, companies, or organizations associated with any of the cards.

In turn our goal is to continue looking for ways to connect and reconnect with local communities, not overlooking their roles in the use and building of the postcard archive.

Neal ・ Bridgman ・ McElroy