Building an Archival Community: like pulling teeth without strings

As someone who currently works in the archives/public history field, may I just say that all the revelations about archives from this week’s readings are painfully true, and there is not enough wine in the world to wash down the seeming futility of my career choice.


However, if there was anything that stuck with me about this week’s readings, it’s all the innovative (and not-necessarily-that-innovative) practices arts organizations are using to enhance their audience and how painfully behind the archival field is. It’s not that the archival field is intentionally trying to be behind. As the DeMateo article notes, archives face barriers in getting ahead, such as lack of funding among other things. But even still, there are ways that archives could make up for these deficits, especially in the ways that the arts institutions in the Building Arts Audiences report illustrates. My aim with this post is to compare and contrast the methodologies of art institutions and the available resources of archives to see if, just maybe, we can close that gap a bit.

The report spent a lot of time focusing on audience—illustrating institutions spelling out the weak point in their current audience and creating strategies to overcome that. While many institutions, including Rutgers, have public service archivists whose job centers around serving researchers, this is not a universal trend. This is both due to lack of funding/staffing and a community-wide focus on preserving the artifacts first and showing them to the people later.  Since preservation is the number one priority, that focus can often over-take the value of the user. The only time I have seen an archive work to recruit certain groups is when archivists reach out to school groups, and even when they walk in the door, the approach to helping users is the same across all demographics.

The report also mentioned community partnerships as a way to increase recruitment, and while I have seen small museums work together in collectives or on a project, I can’t think of a single time an archive has done this. Except for the occasional work with shared collections, or to collaborate on a conference presentation, archivists tend to keep their work to themselves. They’ll work to engage with the public, but that’s where I see the similarities ending.

But I think the biggest barrier to engagement in archives, though, is that archivists and museum curators can tend to have a near-religious reverence to the materials. I saw this first hand while attended a talk that Frank Vagnone gave at the Small Museum Association conference last year. He recommended having a visitor sit in chairs and handle materials as a way to get them more engaged with the topics of the museum. More than half the room vehemently disagreed with this, citing fears of vandalism or any damage coming to the artifacts. Even those with an educational collection felt this put their collection too much at risk.

Archives have the potential to be as experiential as any dance company, art gallery, or opera house, we just need to let our hair down and allow visitors in. We can create exhibits, engage users on Wikipedia, and host workshops to preserve family records—some archives are already doing this, but so few are keeping up with the tide that the general public probably doesn’t even know that they have an archive in their town (and we know they do). Archivists need to work to be their own best advocates, and speak up about all the good work they’re doing. Then maybe I can stop introducing myself as “halfway between a librarian and a museum curator,” and start talking about the collection I’m working with. In the meantime, I think I’ll have another glass of vino.


On a related note: for those who don’t have good sense of how easy it is to lose something in an archive, this Cracked article pretty well summarizes all the flaws in our underfunded system:

About sheridanleighsayles

I love the past cause I hate suspense.
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2 Responses to Building an Archival Community: like pulling teeth without strings

  1. Drew says:

    Thanks Sheridan. I always enjoy your posts because I feel like I’m getting an insider’s view into this stuff. Also, your post gets an A+ for creative writing, especially your opening and penultimate paragraphs. (And extra credit for the splendid Kristen Wiig gifs, of course.)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. ykristyn says:

    Great post Sheridan! I hadn’t really thought about how archivists could be engaging the public in these ways. And I can understand the reverence, but there must be a way to let people interact with artifacts more without much problems. I think the fear of vandalism is overblown. If you go to an archive, in my experience, you sign in and they know when you were there and what you looked at and what institution your with. So I think that’s a deterrent, but I also think most people who are interested enough to go to an archive aren’t going to be that rude. I think it would be so great if, like you said, archivists were more visible and made their roles more dynamic. Instead of embodying the old dusty/crusty introvert cliches.


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