April 11-14, 2007
San Francisco, California

Towards Community Contribution: Empowering Community Voices On-Line

Angèle Alain, Library and Archives Canada, Canada; Michelle Foggett, The National Archives of England and Wales, UK



This case study discusses the processes and best practices for enabling community contributions to Web products. We compare community involvement in the National Archives of England and Wales (TNA) migration Web site Moving Here: 200 Years of Migration to England to Library and Archives Canada's immigration Web site Moving Here, Staying Here: The Canadian Immigrant Experience. TNA worked directly with different communities, whereas Library and Archives Canada worked indirectly with them, via genealogy centers, historical societies and subject experts, to develop similar Web sites on common subjects. What was involved, what could we have done differently? These are but a few of the questions we aim to answer.

Keywords: exclusion, wiki, engagement, tools, memory, re-collection, digitisation, community, immigration


With the interest surrounding Web 2.0 and community involvement in museum, library and archives Web products, we hope, with this presentation, to bring some attention back to the essential requirements of this new trend. Community involvement on the Web is unmistakably on the cutting edge, as you will see with the example of the Moving Here project. But it may not be suited to every historical Web site. When deciding how to utilize community involvement, influencing factors should include the purpose of the product, availability of people and Web resources, and managing the expectations of users and contributors. This presentation will demonstrate how two Web sites with comparable subjects (and similar titles!) chose to incorporate community contributions.

The Background of Moving Here, Staying Here and Moving Here Web Sites

Moving Here, Staying Here: the Canadian Immigrant Experience

In 2006, Library and Archives Canada (LAC) launched a flagship Web exhibition and mass digitization project entitled Moving Here, Staying Here: the Canadian Immigrant Experience. Funded by the Department of Canadian Heritage through its Canadian Culture On-line initiative, the project tells the exciting story of immigration to Canada from the early 19th century to the outbreak of the Second World War through documents held at LAC. Visitors to the site not only learn the trials of immigration through first-hand narratives, original manuscripts, publications and visual material, but also are encouraged to discover their own families' histories through the databases of digitized documents such as passenger lists and land patents.

Figure 1

Fig 1: The introduction page from Moving Here, Staying Here (http://www.collectionscanada.ca/immigrants/index-e.html)

Moving Here: 200 Years of Migration to England

Using archives and objects, Moving Here (http://www.movinghere.org.uk) is a site that explores, records and illustrates the story of migration to England. It provides free access to on-line material such as photos and passenger lists. The site is led by The National Archives of England and Wales (TNA), and has partnerships with over 35 archives, museums and libraries and 45 community groups providing content for the site. The partnership has created a single point of access to digitized content about migration history to the UK. The content is being used to empower minority ethnic groups and communities to record their own history and enrich archives, museums and libraries around England.

Figure 2

Fig 2: Landing page from Moving Here (http://www.movinghere.org.uk)

Moving Here was conceived by The Public Records Office (now TNA) in 2001, and launched on-line in 2003. It was funded by The Big Lottery, a state-run funding scheme for heritage, culture and capital projects. The site had a limited focus on four migrant community groups: Jewish, Caribbean, South Asian, and Irish. When the site launched, it consisted of several sections, mainly of interest to the family history user. These included:

Objectives and Goals

In 2004, the National Archives of Canada and the National Library of Canada originally defined four separate projects about immigration to Canada: two projects highlighting the journey to Canada, a project telling the story of early life in Canada, and a project interpreting immigrants' accounts. With the merging of the two federal institutions and the creation of the new Library and Archives Canada, these projects were transformed into one ambitious project entitled Moving Here, Staying Here: the Canadian Immigrant Experience. This Web site was developed with three key goals in mind. The first was to facilitate improved access for genealogists and other researchers to some of LAC's frequently used immigration and genealogy documents. The second was to provide Canadians with a unique history of Canadian immigration for the years 1800-1939. The third was to give immigrants a voice by digitizing and making available diaries and memoirs of early immigrants who settled in Canada.

As ambitious as the scope of this project was, it quickly became obvious that the subject was too vast and the interpretive possibilities too numerous. The project team recognized early on that the site could not cover all topics, eras or collections of interest to those attracted to immigration history. Also, given the large number of very good sites on the history of Canadian immigration, what unique strategy would LAC employ to complement existing resources?

After thorough investigation, the team decided on the following objectives. First, in response to client needs, it decided to focus on digitizing one of LAC's most frequently used collections, the Passenger Lists, and to make it available on-line.. The Passenger Lists would be complemented by an on-line selection of immigrant diaries and photographs, and would provide the foundation for a wide-ranging, researcher-oriented section entitled Find an Immigrant, which incorporated an expanded Western Land Grants database, new databases of Lower Canada Land Petitions, and The Port of New Westminster Registers of Chinese Immigration, with explanatory texts on how to use these records.

To complement these digital holdings, the team decided to organize a virtual exhibition that reflected the strengths and uniqueness of LAC's collection and LAC's role as the official national government repository. Focusing on government legislation that affected immigration to Canada also gave the team a starting period – the nineteenth century, when the first Passenger Acts were introduced in Britain. Although the decision to conclude in the 1930s was defined by modern copyright laws, the team recognized that, to do justice to the topic, a relatively narrow timeframe was required.

Like LAC's Moving Here, Staying Here, TNA's Moving Here was originally conceived as a digitization project. Thirty project partners digitized 200,000 items of interest to those with an interest in migration history. After its launch, TNA and its partners worked to identify the best way forward to develop the site and engage new users with the museums, libraries and archives sector. Evaluation of the site, involving both users and non-users, indicated that the Stories section and the Search function features were the most valuable and significant innovations that the Web site offered. Feedback from evaluation told us that users and non-users wanted to see more migrant communities represented on the site and to see the site used in schools.

TNA coordinated the development of a project with old and new museum, library and archive partners to meet these objectives. In 2004, a successful bid to The Heritage Lottery Fund launched a new partnership with 10 museum and archive partners to develop a new project focused on outreach and education. Our aims for this phase of the project were:

The project consortium identified that working with different minority ethnic groups around England was crucial to ensure that voices of diverse migrants were heard. Our goal was to empower users to share their migration story. Moving Here, as a Web site, did not have the necessary contacts with individuals and community groups to do this alone. Initially the museum, library and archive sector was approached. They crucially had the contacts, established relationships, capacity and experience. Five main museums worked with us to develop the Schools site. Five main museums worked with us to develop the community outreach programming and Stories site development. In this paper, I will be focusing on the Stories site development.

When the project was developed, museums had established relationships with community groups. Libraries came on board as service providers. Many have specially dedicated computer suites where participants can access the Web site. This People's Network was established by the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council in the UK. Archives are playing a crucial role. Most material produced by participants will be accessioned by local archives and kept for permanent preservation in the community.

Different Approaches

Both Moving Here and Moving Here, Staying Here strive to document and tell the story of migration to England and Canada respectively. Both aim to give a voice to individuals and provide an opportunity for immigration history to be explored on-line. Using different approaches, this has been achieved through community engagement.

Approach 1: Using Collections On-Line: Moving Here, Staying Here

When the project's managers, content experts and client services specialists (representing the genealogy community) began to create a detailed scenario for this site, they were forced to develop strategies that answered a number of difficult questions:

With the timeline set, a content strategy could be developed. In the end, the team decided not to shy away from Canada's controversial past with respect to immigration policies, and a critical curatorial approach was adopted. Due to the historical nature of the project and its focus on records, direct community contribution as used in Moving Here, or interactive strategies such as a wiki or message board, were not pursued. Instead, experts from LAC and from various universities and historical societies across the country were challenged to write on pre-selected themes that reflected key events, periods or legislative decisions in the nation's immigration history. They were also asked to illustrate each contribution with a selection of key documents from LAC's collection.

Going one step further, the team also asked the experts to complement every theme with sections that reflected the impact these directives had on people, including the debates they fueled among the Canadian public and how immigrants' experiences were affected by them. Newspaper articles, House of Commons debates, photographs, diary pages and letters were all used to illustrate this personal perspective. This strategy helped ensure the development of a more complete, compelling and human history, while providing users with much needed context to a more diverse sampling of LAC's rich collection. This content appears in the section entitled Traces of the Past.

Figure 3

Fig 3: The introduction page of the Traces of the Past section from Moving Here, Staying Here (http://www.collectionscanada.ca/immigrants/021017-2000-e.html)

Finally, the experts suggested continuing to focus on LAC documents by offering, in a section called The Documentary Trail, additional information on the variety of documents used during the Canadian immigration process. From advertisements that encouraged immigrants to make a new life in a new land, to the land grants that were offered to them upon their arrival, these records created a trail that followed immigrants throughout their tumultuous voyage.

Approach 2: Giving A Voice, Sharing Knowledge: Moving Here

Moving Here collections have been used as stimuli to engage new, non-users to interact with our site and share their stories, their own unique experiences of migration. As a partnership, hundreds of targeted events and training opportunities were organised around England, engaging with both recent and long-term migrants.

Figure 4

Fig 4: Memories from the Islands – Sugar Cane (http://www.movinghere.org.uk/stories/story72/story72.htm)

This story from the Moving Here stories site shows how a participant has responded to a photo in our collection about Sugar Cane in Jamaica, breathing life into the archive by adding memories about using and enjoying sugar cane.

Moving Here identified a number of barriers to participants sharing their stories. These included lack of computer skills, English language skills and recording skills. Using Moving Here as a stimulus, our partners created programmes to address these barriers. Crucially, a large collection of on-line material was digitised before we began to ask for community contributions. After that foundation was built, the content began to engage users in an interactive experience. An example of this outreach is the computer training sessions that were conducted in Boston Library in Lincolnshire. In the last five years, some rural communities in Lincolnshire, England, have seen a large influx of migrants from Portugal. Moving Here has been working with Lincolnshire museums and libraries to engage with these new migrants. In the town of Boston, it is estimated that up to 5,000 of the 55,000 residents are from Portugal. The arrival of many migrant workers from Portugal has been a recent phenomenon, occurring in the last few years. In consultation with the community, the museum and library developed a programme of computer literacy training that used the Moving Here Web site. Participants were made of aware of the training at local factories. Training was scheduled around factory working hours and delivered at Boston Library. Participants learned basic computer skills using the Moving Here Web site. The end aim was for participants to tell their stories of migration on the Moving Here Web site. Many did. These stories are now live on the Web site and will be permanently preserved by Lincolnshire Archives. The result of using this model and conducting skills training was that participants were then able to create their own records.

Figure 5

Fig 5: Computer literacy training, Boston Library, Lincolnshire

The sessions were oversubscribed, and participants have requested that more be run. Participants were happy to use Moving Here because they found material on the site that was personally relevant to them. Further, they were empowered by being able to add their own stories of migration for preservation in their local archive.

Moving Here encourages users to share their stories in a format that they feel comfortable with. Participants in our current outreach projects have contributed original works of poetry, art and stories. They have submitted photos, digitised photos of objects, original films and audio recordings.

Half of the contributions on our site come from Internet surfers. Half are generated by specific, targeted outreach projects, such as the ICT training sessions I have just described. At this time, audio and video cannot be uploaded instantly, but photos and words can be submitted and appear on the site within 10 days.

Example of stories that you can find at http://www.movinghere.org.uk/storiesinclude items such as this poem, England's Cold, composed for the Moving Here site by Denniston Stewart, a member of the Writers without Borders group in Birmingham:

England's cold
Oh boy, England is cold!
It is so cold!
Frost in the morning, snow at midday and black fog at
night time. England is so cold!
I left hot Jamaica to die of cold here?
Frostbite is killing my fingers and when I walk I slip
and tumble in the snow many many times,
inside the house it is worse,
I have to wrap up with hot water bottles, hat, socks,
dressing gown, two sheets and twist and turn all night
long. In the morning when I lift my head from under
the sheets the amount of smoke that come out my mouth
you would think that I was on fire.
In the kitchen four people have one ring each on the
stove to cook on. I have to put money in the meter to
get a bath and the Indian man who I rent from is
watching me closely. I thank God that they deliver
milk to your door, I don't know how I'm going to cope
because England is cold cold cold.

Many participants wish to describe their journeys from their native country to England. Wolverhampton Museum and people with a history of migration in an area of Wolverhampton called Whitmore Reans came together to record migration stories for the Moving Here Web site. In this excerpt a recent immigrant from Iraq tells about his journey to England.

The traffickers placed me in a lorry, hidden between large boxes and crates. I was not allowed to carry any food or water, so that the lorries did not have to make any stops. There were strict instructions that we could not talk. After a few days of travelling, the lorry stopped. The driver simply told us to get out of the lorry. It was cold and raining, I only had clothes appropriate for Mediterranean climate, a thin shirt and polyester slacks. It was raining and it was freezing. There were not many people around and the ones I tried to talk to, they could not understand what we were saying. Eventually we were arrested and taken to a police station. I arrived in Wolverhampton on 12th October 1999.

Next time around: Community Engagement In The Future

Like most on-line initiatives, both projects encountered a number of challenges. For Moving Here, Staying Here, the most important challenge was finding diverse immigrant voices. Historical context and focus on original narratives expressed in the documentary heritage collections at LAC ensured that the voices and experiences of Canada's immigrant communities defined the content and character of this project. However, most diaries and letters preserved in LAC's collection are written by immigrants from the British Isles or France. These are decisive points of origin for many Canadians, but they are not entirely representative of Canada's population. In addition, a large number of photographs of immigrants in LAC's collection were taken by photographers working for the Department of the Interior who neglected to identify the subjects of their photos. If the project team were to build this immigration Web site again, these factors alone would be compelling reasons to develop a community contribution component.

A community contribution component could compensate for gaps in documentation in LAC's collection. Not only would the presence of a message board or similar feature encourage new acquisitions and potential donations of historical sources, but it would also provide a space where descendants of immigrants could share their family's stories and experiences of immigration to Canada.

Two recent LAC Web projects provide models for incorporating community involvement.

Project Naming

The goal of Project Naming is the identification of Inuit portrayed in some of the photographic collections of Library and Archives Canada. It is an ongoing initiative, which enables Nunavut youth to connect with Elders and to better understand their past. It also helps to bridge the cultural differences and geographical distances between Nunavut and the more southern parts of Canada. As participants identify subjects in the LAC photos, the identities are recorded in the Web site on a "Naming Continues" form which visitors email to LAC. This information is made into captions and then added to the records in the database.

Figure 6

Fig 6: The comment form from Project Naming.

Faces of War

This virtual exhibition features photographs of men and women who served in the Canadian Forces during the Second World War. The photographs, taken from the Department of National Defence (DND) collection at LAC, depict every aspect of military life during the Second World War. Visitors to the site can search a database of almost 2,500 images from the DND collection, or they can browse small galleries of images representing each branch of the Canadian Forces. An interactive component allows visitors to add comments to a particular photograph from a link present in the description. The intent is to encourage visitors to share their memories of the Second World War and to add any further information they might have about the photograph.

Figure 7

Fig 7: A caption page with link to Add a Comment box from Faces of War

Similar interactive options would have given the Find an Immigrant section of Moving Here, Staying Here a whole new meaning by enabling users to share their knowledge and actively contribute to item level descriptions. That said, the site does include a comments link, where visitors can ask questions or provide us with any information they may have on archival material.

Even in the absence of a fully-developed community contribution component, the site's curatorial and interpretive approach has attracted positive feedback. Moving Here, Staying Here helped fill a void of interpretive and contextual information about government policy, legislation and administrative documentation relating to immigration. One of the users said:

This tool provides an extremely well-organized and informative overview of the complex history of Canadian immigration policy and practice. As such, it provides our users with the context that they need in order to understand the records they find in the LAC collection.

Moving Here was successful in its aims to breakdown barriers to the direct involvement of minority ethnic groups in recording their own stories. Getting participant 'buy-in' was important from the start, and this was achieved through providing activities, training and opportunities that suited the needs and interests of the targets non-users. The project team set out to collect 400 new stories – that number has been surpassed. Our aim was to engage people in training and encourage participants to become new museum and on-line users. Over 500 people took up the opportunity and attended sessions. Over 1000 new people were introduced to museums, libraries and archives and the Moving Here Web site. Many have indicated that they will use the service, or the Moving Here Web site, in the future.

Moving Here faced a number of challenges. The site exists as a 'niche' site – it is not directly linked to archive or museum catalogues. This means that the knowledge that users have contributed needs to be directly sought out by users. The project was very resource intensive. Significant people and financial resources were spent on community consultation with over 20 community groups, programme development and delivery with 20 museums, libraries and archives, and Web site development with two Web development companies.

Participants were sometimes disappointed that the material they produced for the site would not be visible for up to 6 months, as parts of the Web site were being built at the same time as active programming and outreach to collect stories in the communities. Also, when the project was conceived, it was the vision to launch all the material at once, rather than as the public contributed it. Recommendations for the future include the instant sharing of stories.

The National Archives has developed a new Web site called Your Archives (http://yourarchives.nationalarchives.gov.uk), where participants can contribute their knowledge about our collections instantly.

Figure 8

Fig 8. Your Archives Homepage: using wiki technology to enable user
contribution to knowledge about archive collections

Your Archives is based on wiki technology which allows users to edit and create pages directly from their browser. We hope in the future to use Your Archives as an opportunity to link the knowledge people have shared about Moving Here's collection to this new social networking site. Your Archives provides for the first time a two-way conversation between users and TNA to develop more comprehensive knowledge about collections. It is an exciting project that may provide a key to revealing how users can work side by side with curators and archivists in the development of our knowledge about collections, history, and its interpretation.


We have compared how these two Web sites, dedicated to immigration history, have given a voice to previously silent communities. Both Web sites have provided on-line access to material that has not been available on-line before, allowing those with a history of migration to explore their heritage. Moving Here, Staying Here and Moving Here have shown that in order to enable community involvement, content and curatorial expertise in building a solid foundation of digitised archives is crucial. Both projects have spent significant time building sustainable relationships with community members in order to ensure that their contributions are recognized and relationships are preserved. Moving Here has shown that in order to break down barriers to the direct involvement of minority ethnic groups in sharing their history on-line, specialized and appropriate training must be provided. Both projects wish to embrace social networking in future to give users a higher profile voice to enable their knowledge to be passed down to the next generation.

Cite as:

Alain, A. and M. Foggett, "Towards Community Contribution: Empowering community voices on-line ", in J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds.). Museums and the Web 2007: Proceedings, Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics, published March 1, 2007 Consulted http://www.archimuse.com/mw2007/papers/alain/alain.html

Editorial Note