Since graduating from library school, I’ve fielded occasional questions about archiving “as a professional in the field.” Then comes the second question, “So, what kind of archive do you work in?” But I don’t. Although I was trained as an archivist and care deeply about archives, I’ve been an editor or a content strategist on most of my recent projects. And though I sympathize with archivists’ anxiety about their continuing relevance, I’m also excited for them, as I am for anyone who has content worth sharing.

I started library school intending to use the degree to help people navigate all kinds of topics, be they about literature, science, or online tax filing. Archives appealed as I learned how digital collections were gaining a foothold, bringing collections to the internet, and figuring out their processes on the fly. My priorities eventually took me in a different direction, though still with a common aim of making the messy understandable. Along the way, I began to get a sense of where those two things—archival practice and online content—intersect.

On archival intent

Archivists learn, above all, to ask questions. One professor of mine joked that her answer to nearly every best-practices question we were likely to pose was going to be, “It depends.” There is no One Way to Archive. In every instance, a good archivist takes a hard look at the context of a collection, asks a lot of questions, and makes decisions based on that information.

This questioning nature shows up in the principle of provenance. Respecting the provenance of an artifact means that you maintain a record of as much of its original context as possible. When a collection is donated to an archive, the first thing you do is inventory its contents, one box at a time, carefully putting it all back in the exact same order in which it was packed—artifacts are often grouped for a reason that only becomes clear at the end of the inventory. Over time, a story emerges about the collection: Maybe this group of maps is a story about travel or federal highway grants or the birth of a city. Often this context isn’t provided up front; instead, we hear something like, “My uncle sure liked maps.”

So we ask questions about provenance not out of mere curiosity, but because we need to know the story of those artifacts so we can explain it for archive visitors. The broad overview of that story might sound something like, “This is a collection of survey maps from southeastern Michigan dating from 1930 to 1960. They depict all major highways and show the rezoning plans that went into place when I-94, the region’s first interstate highway, was built in 1:60 detail.” (Did you know your uncle was a highway engineer?)

Inside the archive

Good archivists know that, like Chekhovian firearms, each item in an archive must be there for a reason. It can take years of practice to distinguish signal from noise.

This work is especially challenging for digital archives, because good metadata for an artifact is never assured on arrival. Physical archives at least have to decide where to physically put their “uncategorized” collections (which are called “backlogs,” and considered rude to ask about, as they imply poor planning, like a laundry basket stuffed with dirty clothes). Digital collections have only metadata to rely on in their categorization schemas. And despite the work of several impressive groups of very smart thinkers, discrepancies exist in how digital collections are processed and organized—particularly since spurts of technological development occasionally inspire archivists to completely rethink their workflow. (“Built on sand” is a commonly-uttered phrase in this field.)

Asking questions about a digital collection’s provenance is just as important. Digitization doesn’t equal relevancy, after all; a digital collection still needs a story to support outside interest, something stronger than “full-text searchable.” Without curation, what’s the difference between a digital archive and the rest of the internet? This careful consideration could also be extended to the metadata maintained at the item level. When virtual storage seems infinitely scalable, it’s easy to get carried away with digital acquisitions. Should we accept all the content we can, and log all the metadata values we can think of? Or does this enthusiasm for acquiring new content trump the practice of good curation? And what might the hidden costs of this decision be? These are questions another practice—that of content strategy—can help us explore. 

Enter content strategy

Concurrent with my misadventures in metadata entry, I started exploring content strategy—and the more I read about it, the more it resonated with me. It was the part of information science I’d always gravitated toward, the part where you look around and say, “I know we’ve been talking about metadata standards for years now, but are people actually finding what they need once they get past the landing page?” Serving people seemed to me like the point of having such standards to begin with; and when I explored the details of its methodology, content strategy didn’t seem so different from the way I’d been trained to think about content as an archivist.

Further, I liked the idea of having a stake in the content that appears on the web. Publishing online is easy, of course—maybe too easy, because the internet is full of inaccurate and outdated information. Back in library school, we spent entire classes fretting over how to help patrons navigate web resources, and there’s still no clear method besides teaching them to look for cited sources. But this is really a challenge to content creators, i.e., the people posting all this crap in the first place.

Archivists understand this in a very personal way, because this is what curation is all about. Curation properly begins with a mission statement, whether you’re a content creator or a researcher assembling resources: What is it you are trying to say? What does your collection represent?

When you’re a content creator, focus becomes even more crucial. A good content strategist wouldn’t let you set up even a Twitter feed without a full understanding of how you’re going to use it and what it’s going to do for you. Are you a design firm looking for new clients? Sure then, use Twitter to talk about design in a public space. Are you an addiction rehab center? Then think long and hard about who you’d reach out to publicly, and how.

Like an archivist, a content strategist starts by asking questions about an organization and its goals, and assuming nothing. We do content inventories (or “audits”), methodically going through entire websites and cataloguing the content and its characteristics. Audits help uncover things like duplicated material, broken links, and sections entirely orphaned from the rest of the site. But besides being economical, (now that we’ve uncovered two FAQ pages, we don’t have to draft a new one entirely from scratch) it’s also a nod toward respecting the provenance of the original content.

There is no One Best Content Strategy; it’s all about context. What do you need to say about who you are and what you do, and to whom? What do your users expect to find there? If a website has a clear content strategy, visitors will get more out of it with less frustration. Exactly what they get depends on the goals of each site, since a successful interaction could be quantified in any number of ways: tickets sold, pages viewed, orders placed, tweets twittered.

A failed interaction is when a user doesn’t catch the underlying story or its relevance to their needs. “Wow, they have a lot of maps here, but I don’t have time to look at them all,” they think, and move on without realizing that all the maps tell a fairly specific story about southeastern Michigan in the mid-20th century.

Strategizing archives

Where content strategy helps create streamlined, valuable content on the web, a similar approach could shape how archives defend and expand their roles as modern resources. Archives are accustomed to a passive role, asking reflectively what their patrons want to find. As they work to help researchers tell their stories, it’s easy for archives to forget to keep shaping their own.

Likewise, many archives have done a tremendous job shaping collections for users/researchers, but could improve their internal workflows, particularly as digital archives race to keep up with technological advances. The content strategist who questions why an organization needs a Twitter account, or a new website section, will follow up with a second question: “And who will keep it fresh and relevant?” Archives should ask similar questions, especially as they expand into managing digital collections on a web-based presence.

For a direct example, let’s return to the enormous role metadata plays in organizing and managing digital collections. Metadata entry itself is still shockingly manual, and thus expensive. Many digital archives don’t account for this when they consider how quickly they could expand their collections with cloud-based storage, but it’s crucial to examine the amount of metadata used to categorize collections, and ensure its weight won’t overload the ingestion process with drawn-out manual data entry. It’s not only users who benefit from this thinking: It’s the only way a digital archive can sustain itself while maintaining high quality. And it puts the content—historically a point of strength for digital and “traditional” archives alike—first, ahead of ever-changing search methodologies.

Finally, archives could benefit from content strategy’s models for user testing and measuring success. Physical archives, like libraries, still rely heavily on foot traffic statistics to measure use. Digital archives have a difficult time moving past this model, and tend to rely on similar statistics such as page views and Facebook “Likes.” More in-depth user research methods, ranging from keyword analytics to focus groups, can inform how people perceive a collection. Generally grouped under the umbrella of user experience research, these methodologies apply to far more than just web design.

A new kind of archivist

Archives are still romanticized in the way that libraries are: stunning monuments to intelligence and learning, doomed by budget cuts and the fact that it’s frankly a lot easier to just Google for answers these days. Sometimes it seems like fledgling librarians and archivists should just cut their losses, but what they actually need to do is broaden their job descriptions. Applying archival principles to content strategy makes for solid content—I can demonstrate this, and I exercise it in my work. Applying content strategy to archives, however, just might keep those archives alive.