Wednesday, August 3, 2011

How Grassroots Community Archivists Can Succeed in Ten Easy Steps!

Inspired by Ben Stein’s book, How to Ruin Your Life, Guelph-based columnist Joseph Jolley published his own step-by-step guide for community activists on how they, too, can be total failures. The guide serves as a benchmark for activists to measure their attitudes and behaviors against worst practices that ensure that any activist community becomes an isolated irrelevancy. It should be required reading for any grassroots organization working for social justice or political change. In turn, Jolley’s work has inspired archival scholar Rebecka Sheffield to put together a step-by-step guide for community archivists with activist roots.

From Rebecka's blog:

…You say community activist; I say community archivist….

For those of you who know me or read my work regularly, you will know that I am very interested in the work of community archives with activist roots. These often grassroots archival initiatives include LGBT archives, aboriginal and ethnic community archives, labour archives, and other collections that document the experiences of people and communities that are not always accurately or adequately represented within public heritage institutions. The act of constituting a community archives creates intellectual space for community activists to document the work that they do and opportunities to communicate their knowledge to others. Community-based collections provide researchers with the touchstones to write histories that challenge dominant narratives and present new interpretations of historical events that form part of our shared cultural memory. Community archives with activist roots are not afterthoughts, but part of the social and political movements upon which they are established.

Community archives are championed by and cared for by community archivists, many of whom pursue the task of archiving without professional training or awareness of the well established communities of practice that already exist. They simply see the value in the work that they do and once the archival bug bites, it’s a difficult fever to break. Sadly, many of these community archives fail, as community archivists struggle to sustain long-term investment in the preservation and management of their records. In some cases, collections are handed over to other heritage bodies; in other situations, they end up in basements or dispersed to the custody of individual community members. In either scenario, the constituent community can lose their sense of ownership over their own documentary heritage.

So, how might community archivists work more effectively to establish sustainable archives? Here are a few suggestions:

How Grassroots Community Archivists Can Succeed in Ten Easy Steps

1. Make the archives as cozy, welcoming, and easy to access as possible. Never greet visitors with apprehension and or confront them with a lengthy research agreement prior to providing any reference services. Answer questions in a non-judgmental manner that makes visitors feel reassured, engaged, and excited to learn more.

2. Keep a record of your acquisition policies, appraisal decisions and descriptive standards. And yes, please, you need some standards… If there is a mandate, make sure that it is clearly posted on your website and made available to everyone who walks through the door. And on that note…

3. Create a strategic plan to attract and retain volunteers. When volunteers provide service, provide them with clear guidelines about expectations and acceptable behavior. Always ensure that they know how much their work is appreciated and how grateful you are to have them contribute their time and effort to sustaining your archives.

4. Plan outreach and community engagement activities that engage both your own community and the general public. Make sure that your message conveys the importance of your collections and the services that you provide to researchers.

5. If you work with a tangible repository, make sure to establish an online presence. In this day and age, it is not only a good idea to have a website, but expected. Keep your webpage up-to-date with important information such as public hours, the archives’ mandate, contact information, and any policies and procedures you have established for operations. The mandate of the archives should be easy to find and written with a clear purpose in accessible language.

6. If you work with a virtual repository, make sure that your website is accessible, clearly readable, and easy to navigate. I would recommend using accessible design that makes it easier for people with cognitive and visual impairments to find and use the collections that you keep. If possible, do not pay for web hosting out of your own pocket, but ask visitors to support the site through donation.

7. Apply for grants, ask researchers for donations, and don’t be too embarrassed or inflexible to ask private donors for operational funds. Archives, whether virtual or tangible, are expensive. One community archivist many not be able to support the archival initiative for very long, but a carefully considered financial plan can help extend the life of the archives.

8. Draft a succession plan that outlines how you want the collections to be managed after you are no longer able to work with them. Don’t force future community archivists to guess why you made the decisions you did when you were in charge. Help them understand the context for these decisions, what challenges you have faced, and successful strategies that you have developed over time and with experience.

9. When engaging with media or the public, avoid esoteric language and political rhetoric. If you appear smug or inflexible in your methods, the general public can easily dismiss the important work that you do as utterly pointless. Whatever social and political struggles you have justifiably taken on, it is not a good idea to show contempt or little regard mainstream society. Your perspective will never be heard if it is shouted, forced or kept to yourself.

10. And most importantly, remember to give yourself the freedom to define and redefine your own success. Political and social movements change over time as goals are met and new challenges emerge. Aspirations also wax and wane; take time off if you need to refocus or re-energize. When you have the archival fever, work like hell to collect, preserve and make accessible your precious collections!

We need strong community archivists now more than ever before. Such organizations help democratize heritage, challenge us to look at our own histories in different ways, and work with researchers to help bring to light stories that would otherwise be silenced. We need grassroots community archives and the community archivists who work with them to help us understand the collective memories of our communities, whether we are part of them or not.

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