Bridging the Gap: Mechanisms for Legitimate Peripheral Participation

Cal Lee
University of Michigan
School of Information

[Appears in MAC Newsletter, January 2003, 23-25.]

Most of us have heard the mantra enough times that we can (some of use probably do) recite it in our sleep: in order to address the opportunities and challenges associated with electronic records, archivists must reach out to other professionals. As much as we may all agree with this statement, applying it can seem completely overwhelming. Professions have their own terminology, practices, cultural expectations and social structures, each of which can serve as barriers to entry.As archivists, how can we possibly break through the boundaries of other professions, while still remaining fully committed to our own?

The answer, I believe, is to engage in what Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger call "legitimate peripheral participation." Lave and Wenger explain that learning new professional practices is rarely a matter of simply internalizing facts and formal principles. It tends to involve a social process of becoming a member of a "community of practice." Outsiders can gradually learn how to be members, by interacting with, emulating and contributing to the activities of the community's "oldtimers." Eventually, they can even start challenging and adjusting the assumptions and practices of the group, though they are much more successful at doing so if they have already established themselves as legitimate participants.

In this column, I will briefly discuss two powerful types of mechanisms for cultivating legitimate peripheral participants in allied professions, in order to further our work on electronic records. The first is professional gatherings, and the second is electronic mailing lists.

Professional Gatherings

An extremely effective way to jump into a community of practice is to attend one of its professional gatherings. Some of these combine professional association business meetings with paper/presentation sessions covering topics of general interest to members, e.g. the semi-annual meetings of the Midwest Archives Conference (MAC) and the annual meetings of the Society of American Archivists (SAA). Some professional organizations are so large and deal with such a diverse range of issue that they break many activities into sections, special interest groups or working groups. These smaller units may meet during the gathering of their parent organizations, or they may organize entirely separate gatherings. Some professional gatherings forgo organizational business entirely, focusing on a particular professional issue, providing sessions with panels of experts, peer-reviewed research papers,and various receptions to facilitate less formal discussion. Still others, often called "working meetings," involve a series of conversations that are structured in a way that will yield some collaborative document at the end.

While nothing can replace the value of attending professional gatherings in person, we can still get a lot out of those we are not able to attend. The documentation related to gatherings, usually available through the Web, can greatly facilitate legitimate peripheral participation.Many gatherings yield formal reports, white papers or proceedings. Some are available for free, while those that are published commercially are often available through major research libraries. If you do not have ready access to such facilities, all is not lost. It is often possible to extract vital information from the documentation that is available for free through the Web. Titles of sessions and papers can indicate what issues the community finds timely and important. Lists of participants tend to reveal many of the key players. By searching on the names of these people through major search services such as Google or specialized sites like CiteSeer, you can often identify their contact information, background and publications or professional activities. Many authors, particularly those working on problems related to information technology, post earlier drafts or even the final versions of their conference papers on their own web sites. Another useful exercise is mining the documentation for names of projects in which the participants are currently or were recently involved. The web sites associated with projects often include additional free information. Even abstracts and electronic slides tend to indicate the major themes.

The number of professional gatherings relevant to electronic records is huge and has continued to grow dramatically in recent years. In addition to the usual suspects, such as SAA and MAC, there are also conferences such as Association of Records Managers and Administrators (ARMA), American Society for Information Science and Technology (ASIST), Association for Information and Image Management (AIIM), Cohasset Associates' Managing Electronic Records (MER), DLM Forum, European Conference on Digital Libraries (ECDL) and Preservation and Access for Electronic College and University Records (ECURE). Two important organizations are the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and Association for Computing Machinery (ACM). Both sponsor numerous conferences every year that touch on issues of relevance to creating, managing, preserving and providing access to electronic records. Together, they sponsor the annual Joint Conference on Digital Libraries (JCDL).

The web sites of organizations such as IEEE and ACM are excellent sources of information about the various conferences they sponsor. Publications such as D-Lib Magazine, the Research Libraries Group (RLG) DigiNews and Ariadne also list conference and workshop information in each issue. You can consult general sources targeted at an archival audience, such as Diane Vogt-O'Connor's "Archival Training Calendar Continuing Education Opportunities," Leon Miller's "Archivist's Daybook," and the Council of State Historical Records Coordinators (COSHRC) "Calendars of Events of Interest to Archivists and Other Historical Records Keepers." Last but not least are many of the electronic mailing lists I describe below, which often provide not only announcements and calls for papers but also summaries and reviews of professional gatherings.

Electronic Mailing Lists

Mailing lists can serve as terrific mechanisms for entering new professional conversations. Many include web-based repositories of postings, called "archives" (sorry, this use of the word is too ubiquitous to ignore), which provide the opportunity to catch up on past discussions.You can also often subscribe in "digest" form, meaning that postings to the list periodically enter your inbox in large batches, rather than one at a time. This can support subscription and monitoring oflists whose traffic would otherwise be too overwhelming.Rather than being distracted by a rapid succession of individual messages throughout the day, you receive one long message that you can consult when it is convenient or delete on days when you are too busy.

Some lists are one-way by design, with a single source broadcasting messages to subscribers on a regular basis, while some support free-wheeling discussions among anyone who cares to take part. Still others fall somewhere in between, introducing some degree of moderation or filtering, in order to keep the conversation on track. Regardless of how the lists are administered, "lurking" (reading messages but not submitting any) is generally accepted. In fact, members are often encouraged to get a feel for the topics and conventions of the list before jumping in with a new message.

The following are just a few electronic mailing lists that touch on issues related to electronic records:

Most of the professional associations I listed in the previous section also have their own mailing lists, as do many of their respective subunits.


Engaging in professional gatherings, either by attending or observing remotely, and joining electronic mailing lists can both contributed to three essential activities in becoming a participant in a community of practice: learning its language, understanding its social conventions and getting to know its members. With the increasing adoption of online communication and collaboration technologies, the line between gatherings and electronic mailing lists has begun to blur a bit. A web forum such as Slashdot or oss4lib (Open Source Systems for Libraries) has many of the same elements as a threaded email discussion list, but it also takes on many of the characteristics of a social gathering. Research in the field of Computer-Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW) would seem to demonstrate that, while remote communication and collaboration technologies will not replace face-to-face interaction, they can help us to initiate, support and enhance social connections.

In order for archivists to work effectively with other professionals, legitimate peripheral participation should occur in both directions. While it is important for us to reach out toward others, it is also important that they reach in toward us. As we work to expand our professional networks, we inevitably discover that some communities' conversations are easier to join than others. What are the reasons for this? By attempting to answer this question, we can learn a great deal about other professions as well as our own. What might be preventing "outsiders" from becoming legitimate peripheral participants in the archives profession as part of their efforts to address electronic records issues? What can we do to help them do so? The easiest way to bridge a gap is to start building from both sides.


American Society for Information Science and Technology,

Archival Training Calendar Continuing Education Opportunities, National Archives and Records Administration,

Archivists Daybook, Society of Southwest Archivists,


Association for Computing Machinery,

Association for Information and Image Management,

Calendars of Events of Interest to Archivists and Other Historical Records Keepers, Council of State Historical Records Coordinators,

CiteSeer - Scientific Literature Digital Library,

D-Lib Magazine,

DLM Forum,

European Conference on Digital Libraries,

Electronic Recordkeeping Resources - Computer Supported Cooperative Work,

Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers,

Joint Conference on Digital Libraries,

Lave, Jean, and Etienne Wenger. Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation, Learning in Doing. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Open Source Systems for Libraries,

Preservation and Access for Electronic College and University Records (ECURE),

RLG DigiNews,

Slashdot - News for Nerds, Stuff that Matters,

Upcoming Professional Education Offerings, Society of American Archivists,