Thursday, 7 November 2013

Mozilla Festival and Archives Without Walls




Head of Society Programme Antti Halonen blogs about the recent web making festival in Ravensbourne.

The Finnish Institute was privileged to take part in the annual web making feast of Mozilla Festival in late October. 

According to Mark Surman, the chief executive of Mozilla, the event is “where many of Mozilla’s best and most innovative ideas spring to life. It’s where passionate thinkers and inventors come together to learn from one another and engage in a conversation about how the web can do more, and do better”. Exactly the right place for us.

We were fortunate to be named as one of several scrum leaders. Essentially this means being a facilitator of a make, that is a particular task that was hoped to be achieved during the two-day festival. 

Our make was to gather ideas and examples of how to enforce a participatory and digital historical culture. Provisionally, we have set our minds on creating a network of partners to start working on a project called Archives Without Walls (AWA). 

In short, the purpose of AWA is to provide a reliable and visually exciting way of building open online archives that provides solutions on how to capture physical contents and human interaction as well as digital audio, video and text - all in the same digital repository. Archiving method would have to enable open reuse and remixing of all contents. 

The overarching purpose of the project parallels the recent challenges that have been laid upon the discipline of History itself. 

Archivists and ITC experts respectively have expressed their concerns on the so called Digital Dark Age: a phenomenon where significant amount of important cultural heritage is lost due to rapid digitisation of information and lack of reliable long-term preservation methods. For instance, various organisations changed their internal correspondence into email format during the 1990’s before records management had come up with proper methods for preserving email correspondence. Similarly, what is left of the early days of the web for future historians’ use? While historians have so far relied on a rich source of paper-based documentation, future historians may face a prospect of empty archives. 

Social scientists, on other hand, have raised into discussion the topic of the knowledge gap. While the information environment has evolved unprecedentedly in a way which enables much more varied source for information consumption, simultaneously those who are least interested in current affairs can bypass it altogether if they so wish. We need to develop our thinking in terms of how to provide larger portion of the population an access to relevant historical knowledge.

Moreover, historians have pointed out the need to embrace new ways of creating and preserving everyday history. Participatory historical culture aims at both improving historical consciousness and offering citizens a possibility of “tackling their own present concerns and thinking over how to make a better future for themselves”, as Finnish historian Jorma Kalela puts it.
This was the setup but what about the results? 

Discussion arose around the concept of memory. How could different memories be integrated into the digital environment in a remixable and reusable fashion? The number of people who still have vivid memories of the second world war, for instance, is rapidly diminishing, yet amidst the rise of nationalistic right the understanding of the very reasons behind the horrible times of war is as important as ever. How should we find new ways of interpolating this historical knowledge into public discussion?

Another strand of thought focused on the question of preserving events like Mozilla Festival itself. What kind of material will a future historian use when doing research on this year's event? Arguably, historians today have mostly relied on paper-based documents: letters, diaries, essays etc. However, the essence of Mozilla Festival is not to be found in printed documents, but in demonstrations, ideas and discussions. What kind of challenges does this pose to archivists who will have to make the increasingly difficult appraisal decisions?

Our new programme strand seeks to find some answers to these questions and we are continuously looking for interesting initiatives that promote the fair dispersion of knowledge in the society and try to find novel solutions to preserving our digital cultural heritage. One interesting case of the latter was MozBug, an online tool for archiving events by analysing Twitter behaviour. Something to consider for next year’s OPPI - Helsinki Learning Festival, too?

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