Book Reviews

Participatory Heritage. Henriette Roued-Cunliffe and Andrea Copeland, eds., for the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals. London, U.K.: Facet Publishing, 2017. 213p. Paper. $74.98 (ISBN 978-1-78330-132-2).

If you work in a college or university library and have ever tried to partner with a community group or heritage organization or are contemplating doing same, you will probably be well served by looking into this slim volume. Comprising nineteen short case studies, the book provides a wide variety of examples of the challenges and issues faced by institutions trying to collaborate with “participatory heritage” groups. Occasionally the partnership succeeds, but often projects pursued with the best of intentions end in frustration and disappointment. The very definition of participatory heritage offered in the introduction implicitly lays out the problems for formally organized, professionally constituted institutions: “Participatory heritage could be thought of as a space, a space in which individuals engage in cultural activities outside of formal institutions for the purpose of knowledge-sharing and co-creating with others. Those engaged with participatory heritage collaborations tend to place importance on content and less importance on medium, process, or professional expertise; thus they acknowledge a diversity of expertise and operate from a premise of shared authority. The collaborations are bottom-up in nature, as they emerge from connections among individuals rather than organizations.” (xv)

Book cover for Participatory Heritage

Participatory heritage groups are often DIY efforts, and they can be notoriously difficult for top-down, professionally driven organizations to work with. The asymmetries are too glaring: the power of funding, professional staff, expertise, infrastructure, processes, and standards versus volunteers, enthusiasm, loose organization, deep commitment to heritage or community, and possessiveness about content. The tendency of professionally staffed organizations to assert that “they know best” can be met with indifference if not resistance to “outside” claims on a group’s heritage or a community’s “stuff.” Heritage groups want their material (archives, websites, and the like) for their own ends, and those often fly in the face of stability, continuity, and preservation. Finding common ground is the big challenge that the articles in this volume grapple with—sometimes successfully, sometimes not.

The nineteen case studies in this volume cover a broad field of examples of the frustrations and rewards of partnering with heritage and community groups. They embrace church, community, and professional groups’ archives; a variety of local documentation projects; Wikipedia; groups dedicated to aspects of the Korean and Vietnam wars; and crowdsourcing. They are sited in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia. They raise all the right questions: who “owns” history? who are the real experts and what do they contribute? who sets the rules? what price must be paid for sustainability? whose benefit do the projects ultimately serve?

It may come as no surprise that the one area in which libraries and heritage groups can reconcile their asymmetries and in which libraries can really help make a difference is information technology and the web. The successes in this volume almost always occur in the virtual environment. The web, after all, has been the great destabilizer of authority and expertise, giving everyman the ability to do historical and genealogical research, diagnose illnesses, learn languages, and so on. The go-to source of information has become a DIY project called Wikipedia (is the Britannica even still available?). Access, ubiquity, and flexibility make the web a tool that libraries, archives, and other institutions use to mobilize, empower, and enrich heritage groups, helping them attain their own disparate aspirations. But, as one Danish case study cautions, the web works best for these groups when they control their sites. When that is not the case, when the larger entity hosts and manages the site, the results can be disappointing to the community. The web also provides a way of avoiding other sorts of ownership issues. A community that wants to make its collections and archives directly available to its members can finally do so without compromising the artifacts by scanning them and making them accessible on the web. Smartly deployed, the web can be a sustainable platform for heritage to share their content through scanned materials, dialogue and debate, and the dissemination of information useful to the community.

As might be expected, the contributions here vary widely in content and presentation, but several are quite excellent and each has something to teach.—Michael Ryan, New York Historical Society Museum and Library

Copyright Michael Ryan

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