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Thursday, 29 October 2015

Collaborative approaches for social memory 

By Katherine Howard
Edwards, P. (2004) Collection development and maintenance across Libraries, Archives and Museums: A novel collaborative approach. Library Resources and Technical Services, 48(1), pp 26-33
Full text available to ALIA members via ProQuest database.

This article was first published in Incite (October 2015) 

With this month’s InCite theme being Collections, I wanted to select an article for LIS Investigations that incorporated the collections of our sister institutions: archives and museums. The Edwards (2004) article, based on his PhD research, takes an holistic approach to the collections of libraries, archives and museums*, suggesting amongst other things that a collaborative approach to collection processes “may enable collecting institutions to provide a high level of service to patrons” (p. 26). Despite being over ten years old, the article raises issues that are yet to be fully investigated.

Edwards’ argument centres on the “social value of objects within collections” (p. 28), and that it is fundamentally due to decisions of accessioning and de-accessioning that determine whether those objects are deemed to have continuing value (i.e. they enter and/or  remain within the collection), or are deemed ‘value-less’ (i.e. they are removed from the collection). Those documents that are designated as “archival” are seemingly “placed […] on the pedestal of national progress, sacred memory, civilisation, history, culture, democracy or social necessity […] and assigned a special status” (Nesmith, 2004 as cited in Edwards, 2004). Edwards (2004) refers to this as items being transfunctionalized: that the meaning of a document moves toward a socio- or ideofunction as opposed to a technofunction.  While the effect that selection/exclusion decisions have on the shaping of social memory and what is considered ‘valuable’ may not be a new revelation, what is new is Edwards’ proposed collaborative solution.

In order to preserve a more holistic view of our social memory, Edwards suggests that a collaborative approach to de-accessioning in particular between libraries, archives and museums is perhaps a better option, arguing that “[w]hen a collecting organization acts in isolation, there is always the potential that some valuable materials will be prematurely lost” (p. 30). Edwards asks if we, as a collective professional group, “could align some of our processes and practices in order to better serve the interests of society” (p. 30), given that society has become less interested in where material is housed, only that  it can be accessed. 

While noting that differences in collecting philosophies can lead to tensions between institutions, Edwards highlights that decisions made at a local, individual institutional level may not be the same as those made collectively. Hence, he advocates for a “shift in paradigm – from local to societal value judgements” (p. 31).

Although some of the technological aspects mentioned in the article are now in existence, the overarching tenet of the article is nevertheless still applicable: that the overall social welfare generated from a more collaborative system of collection development and maintenance could prove to be quite significant (p. 31).  Edwards closes the article by appealing to library, archival and museum professionals to rethink how our practices relate to one another, and suggests that viewing current practices through social theoretical constructs may assist us to re-shape future practices.

* Museums in the US are inclusive of what Australians refer to as a Gallery, hence there is no specific reference to galleries in this article.

**Image source 

Dr Katherine Howard is Lecturer at RMIT

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