Archives are committed to enriching human experience through their unique primary sources and heritage collections. A greater awareness of remarkable archival collections is required.
In addition, there is a need for increased public engagement, outreach, and experimental programming with archives. Archivists should consider the need to balance archival activities and collection-based curation with a commitment to reference services, outreach, and programming. Archives are not just for the past; they document human, artistic, and intellectual endeavors and make these accessible via interpersonal and digital channels.
The Purpose of Archives
Communicating the value of archives is advocacy. As archivists, we certainly understand the significance and importance of our work. However, the archival profession and its professional organizations have done a poor job at articulating to non-archivists the purpose of archives. Of all user and stakeholder groups, decision-makers and resource allocators are the most important to educate as they make choices that impact archival significance and labor.
Communicating archival value also involves archivists cultivating researcher groups, encouraging them to play the advocate role when appropriate, and providing them with needed information on budgetary and program development needs.
Using Reference as a Communication Tool
One powerful advocacy method is supporting more substantial reference services. Too often, reference services in archives have been narrowly defined and isolated from the rest of the archival program. Many archives lack a position, let alone a team, to coordinate the efforts relating to the promotion and use of records.
A reference role could be strengthened to serve the larger community as a public service. A range of responsibilities at the repository would include assisting in-person users, answering reference inquiries online, reaching out to research groups that could benefit from using an institutions’ holdings, advocating research use, and reporting new accessions to sources that potential users are likely to see, such as listservs, journals, forums, and select research organizations.
External reference and service promotion are equally important. For example, reference archivists could write articles for non-archival professional journals, newsletters, blogs on the nature, content, and research potential of holdings (particularly underutilized holdings). They could also propose and present sessions at professional meetings on archival resources and the research potential of holdings, and create content via presentations, workshops, and publications on how to research archival records.
Another issue is tracking the research that emerges from archives. Someone in this role could also track the use of records, measure the impact and significance of the research, and report internally and externally on the significance and implications of the research. This information could then be used for planning and management decisions that would affect the archives, such as hiring new staff, digitization efforts, and processing priorities. Compiling metrics related to archival holdings puts quantitative muscle behind the findings. When archivists can make the connection between repository holdings and research beyond the stacks explicit, decision-makers are more easily persuaded to support the archival program. By demonstrating the far-reaching influence of primary sources, archivists can communicate archival value in a language that non-archivists can understand.
One recurring issue is the lack of support for reference and advocacy efforts. This especially hits smaller repositories and lone arrangers, who must try to institute these innovative ideas while still maintaining the regular workload of a typical archives. However, raising the institution’s profile through targeted reference efforts might help by providing stakeholders with concrete examples of how the archives or special collections help support the parent institution’s core mission. More stakeholders equal more support, not just in monetary terms, but by those who recognize the institution’s value. Communicating the value of records of enduring value will benefit archival programs, the profession, users, and society.
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