Last week I wrote about the Archives Wiki at the American Historical Association’s website. A reader of the other blog I write for left a comment informing me of a different sort of archive wiki–the Your Archives Wiki at the UK National Archives. This project, still in beta, allows members of the “online community of records users” to write about and update information on items in the collections of the National Archives. Like the Flickr Commons project I wrote about recently, the Your Archives project seeks to leverage the fund of knowledge that its records users have about individual items in the collection. In this way, a large institutional repository can begin to take advantage of the collective wisdom of the larger community to improve both its services and the information it holds and dispenses.
One of the things I particularly like about the Your Archives project is the ease with which users can send corrections or other informational updates to staff at the Archives. On the less positive side, this project also seems intended to help the Archives generate revenue through the sale of individual documents. As I poked around in the wiki I followed a link from a soldier’s diary to the original at the main Archives site. For the not trifling sum of 3.5 pounds, I could obtain a .pdf of the original document.
Now, if I were a researcher here in the U.S. who really needed that particular document, a few pounds is a small price to pay for instant access. But what if I needed 20 or 30 of these diaries? The cost would add up quickly. It would be very interesting to see what would happen if I were to purchase that particular diary, then post the entire contents back into the Your Archives wiki, thereby making the source open source rather than closed source. I don’t suspect we’ll see much of this subversion of the intent of the project, if only because doing something like what I just suggested is time consuming, not to mention expensive.
Despite what I just wrote, I am sympathetic to the National Archives’ apparent desire to recapture some revenue from the digitalization of these records. I don’t know the funding context in the UK, but our own National Archives here in the U.S. is perennially strapped for funds to do just this sort of thing and if they could recover some of that cost through ease of access projects like this one, I suspect they would.
At the same time, however, there is the thornier question of the purpose of a national archive. If these archives are indeed public trusts, then shouldn’t they make their information available to the public for free?