Beyond Clicks, Likes, and Downloads: Identifying Meaningful Impacts for Digitized Ethnographic Archives

  • Ricardo L. Punzalan
  • Diana E. Marsh
  • Kyla Cools


In recent years, libraries, archives, and museums have made great strides in digitizing and providing online access to ethnographic archives. While these efforts have enabled new possibilities for collections management, content delivery, and user interaction, access to ethnographic heritage collections presents unique assessment challenges because of the sensitive nature of their content, the contexts of their creation, and their sometimes small but vital communities of use. Ethnographic archives often retain links to Indigenous source communities, yet stewards of collections lack specialized impact evaluation and assessment frameworks to account for the complex political and cultural issues that access to such items entails. Current models for impact assessment inadequately track the value of access to digitized ethnographic holdings. As users increasingly access digitized ethnographic materials, more systematic methods to assess the outcomes and impacts of digital access to these collections need to be in place to help institutions and repository managers prioritize what holdings to digitize and how to do so ethically. In response, this article draws on a year-long study with large non-Indigenous institutions and their staff to identify and discuss six areas of meaningful impacts – knowledge, professional discourse, attitudes, institutional capacity, policy, and relationships – that can be used to frame and examine the outcomes of digitizing ethnographic archives. We begin by presenting an overview of ethnographic archives and their users and uses. We then identify relevant frameworks, methods, and published studies on impact assessment of digital resources and show how they are inadequate for ethnographic collections. This is followed by a discussion of the methods for our study and each of the six areas of impact, as well as potential indicators for each area. Finally, we present the implications and challenges of these areas of impact for demonstrating the value of digitized archives beyond quantitative metrics of clicks, likes, and downloads.

Au courant des dernières années, les bibliothèques, les archives et les musées ont fait de grands progrès pour numériser et rendre accessibles en ligne les archives ethnographiques. Alors que ces efforts ont permis de nouvelles possibilités en ce qui concerne la gestion des collections, la livraison du contenu et l’interaction des usagers, l’accès aux collections du patrimoine ethnographique présente des défis d’évaluation uniques étant donné la nature sensible de leur contenu, leurs contextes de création, et leurs parfois petites, mais essentielles, communautés d’utilisation. Les archives ethnographiques entretiennent souvent des liens avec leurs communautés autochtones d’origine, mais les intendants des collections manquent de cadres spécialisés pour mesurer et évaluer l’impact qui permettraient de déterminer les enjeux politiques et culturels complexes qui découlent de l’accès à de tels items. Les modèles existants pour permettre une évaluation de l’impact estiment de façon inadéquate la valeur de l’accès aux collections ethnographiques numérisées. À mesure que les utilisateurs accèdent de plus en plus au matériel ethnographique numérisé, des méthodes plus systématiques pour évaluer les résultats et les impacts de l’accès numérique à ces collections doivent être mises en place afin d’aider les gestionnaires des institutions et des dépôts à prioriser les collections à être numérisées et à déterminer comment le faire de façon éthique. En réponse, cet article se sert d’une étude d’une durée d’un an avec de grandes institutions non-autochtones et leur personnel afin d’identifier et de discuter de six champs d’impact significatifs – le savoir, le discours professionnel, les attitudes, la capacité institutionnelle, les politiques et les rapports humains – qui peuvent servir à contextualiser et à examiner les résultats de la numérisation des archives ethnographiques. Nous débutons en présentant un aperçu des archives ethnographiques, de leurs utilisateurs et de leurs utilisations. Nous identifions ensuite les cadres, méthodes et études publiées pertinents portant sur l’évaluation de l’impact des ressources numériques et nous montrons comment ils sont inadéquats pour les collections ethnographiques. Nous menons alors une discussion sur les méthodes pour notre étude et pour chacun des six champs d’impact, ainsi que des indicateurs potentiels pour chaque champ. Enfin, nous présentons les implications et les défis de ces champs d’impact pour démontrer la valeur des archives numérisées au-delà des mesures quantitatives des clics, des mentions j’aime et des téléchargements.

Author Biographies

Ricardo L. Punzalan

Ricardo L. Punzalan is Assistant Professor of Archives and Digital Curation at the College of Information Studies, University of Maryland, College Park. He also co-directs Maryland’s graduate certificate program in Museum Scholarship and Material Culture and serves as an affiliate faculty member in the Department of Anthropology. He is the current chair of the Native American Archives Section of the Society of American Archivists. In 2016, Punzalan received an early career grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services to study and develop strategies to assess the impact of access to digitized ethnographic archives on academic and Indigenous community users. He also examines “virtual reunification” as a strategy to provide integrated access to dispersed ethnographic archival images online. Punzalan leads a team of postdoctoral scholars and master’s fellows to enhance agricultural data curation efforts at the US National Agricultural Library. He holds a PhD in Information, as well as graduate certificates in Science, Technology, and Society and in Museum Studies, from the University of Michigan. He was previously on the faculty of the University of the Philippines School of Library and Information Studies. His articles have been published in leading LIS and archives journals, including the Library Quarterly, American Archivist, Archivaria, and Archival Science. In 2012, Ricardo Punzalan received the Hugh A. Taylor Prize from the Association of Canadian Archivists for his co-authored article on users and uses of digitized photographic archives, which appeared in Archivaria.

Diana E. Marsh

Diana E. Marsh is a Postdoctoral Fellow in Anthropological Archives at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Anthropological Archives. Her work focuses on how heritage institutions share knowledge with communities and the public. Marsh’s current research examines the uses of digitized ethnographic collections in Native community contexts. From 2015 to 2017, she was an Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Curatorial Fellow at the American Philosophical Society, where she curated exhibitions, primarily drawing on archival collections (Curious Revolutionaries: The Peales of Philadelphia, April–December 2017, and Gathering Voices: Thomas Jefferson and Native America, April–December 2016). In 2014–15, she was a Postdoctoral Research and Teaching Fellow in Museum Anthropology at the University of British Columbia (UBC). She completed her PhD in Anthropology at UBC in 2014, where she conducted an ethnography of exhibition planning and the renovation of the National Museum of Natural History’s fossil hall. She completed an MPhil in Social Anthropology, with a museums and heritage focus, at Cambridge University in 2010, and a BFA in Visual Arts and Photography at the Mason Gross School of the Arts of Rutgers University in 2009. Her work has been published in the Journal of Material Culture, Museum Anthropology, Practicing Anthropology, and Archival Science, and her book project, From Extinct Monsters to Deep Time: An Ethnography of the Smithsonian’s Dinosaur Exhibitions, is contracted for publication in the Berghahn Books’ Museum and Collections series.

Kyla Cools

Kyla Cools is an anthropology doctoral student at the University of Maryland, College Park. She is also pursuing graduate certificates in Museum Scholarship and Material Culture and in Historic Preservation. She has researched the North American Indian and Native Hawaiian ethnographic quilt collection at the Michigan State University Museum, which led to her involvement in the American Alliance of Museums as a Curators Committee fellow in 2015. Her current research projects include a virtual ethnography of American expatriates living in Buenos Aires and the applications of digitized collections in historical archaeology. She holds a BA in Anthropology, as well as a certificate in Museum Studies, from Michigan State University.

How to Cite
Punzalan, Ricardo L., Diana E. Marsh, and Kyla Cools. 2017. “Beyond Clicks, Likes, and Downloads: Identifying Meaningful Impacts for Digitized Ethnographic Archives”. Archivaria 84 (December), 61-102.