Reaching New Audiences by Adapting Archival Materials

Margot Note

Margot Note

January 10, 2022

The richness and creative potential of archival material is limitless. As the COVID-19 pandemic has transformed archival access, archivists can enhance online collections by adapting and repurposing content to release the untapped potential of records of enduring value.

This new online world requires more than just adopting a position of openness. The challenge is how to make users aware of organizations seeking to open collections for purposes beyond traditional research.

In supporting collections reuse, the archives acts as an enabler and a catalyst: a platform and resource providing the appropriate content and permissions to allow digital creative work to happen. For some projects, the role of the archives is one of collaborator. Audiences value collections and subject expertise, but they also appreciate the archivists’ input when developing ideas. As well as increasing online traffic and engagement, adaptation, reuse, and repurposing allows for understanding how to generate new audiences and inspire public dialogue.


There are various ways to use collections to tell stories to connect with people. How can archivists reach new audiences, reconnect with the communities within their collections, and reimagine their holdings? The first is a focus on the community. Archivists may use their collections to:

  • Connect public and private memories by asking users to “talk back” to archival materials. 
  • Build community with local groups by sharing materials that reflect their history. 
  • Reveal archival labor by highlighting the work needed to bring collections online. 
  • Present a show-and-tell of historical materials to share stories and discuss context. 
  • Document notable events in their community by soliciting personal accounts and items.


The second is to concentrate on connection. Forging deeper relationships between items, collections, and institutions creates long-term partnerships. Some examples include:

  • Make websites more browsable by cross-referencing similar items and collections. 
  • Host an online “crawl” with other institutions to share collections in a fun, informal way.
  • Solicit in-depth subject knowledge for records, their context, and uses via social media. 
  • Request comments on items to capture richer descriptions and links between records.
  • Partner with similar institutions to highlight holdings and relationships.


Creativity is another aspect to focus on within institutions and has the most potential to push the limits of access and present opportunities to capitalize on grant-making opportunities. Activities may include chances to:

  • Establish artist residencies to create visual, performance, and literary works. 
  • Decentralize archival curation by inviting users to build online exhibits with the holdings.
  • Encourage users to reuse recontextualize images by hue, lightness, and saturation. 
  • Employ crowdsourcing for tagging, rating, reviewing, transcribing, and text correcting.
  • Provide Creative Commons licenses on select items to make them accessible.


Lastly, communication techniques can adapt and repurpose archival data to tell stories in new ways. Consider these projects to:

  • Ask users to create illustrative timelines based on their interests and research. 
  • Invite researchers to create geospatial projects with Google Earth, StoryMaps, or ArcGIS. 
  • Employ text mining to find and interpret recurring words, phrases, subjects, and themes. 
  • Reach out to STEM and social sciences groups to repurpose open data sets. 
  • Partner with groups that use digital image analysis and visualization techniques.

What’s in It for Archivists

Archivists can adapt and repurpose content to release the untapped potential of records of enduring value. Using archival materials in new ways requires a spirit of experimentation. The rewards for the risk of trying something new can be enormous. Archivists who organize and provide access to collections and participate in newsworthy projects learn that these notable projects can bolster their career, especially if adaptation and repurposing projects present strategic, cultural, or technological challenges that will allow them to learn and advance professionally.

Archivists’ innovative interventions allow researchers novel ways of interpretation. By combining archival management with innovative digital collections, archivists can advocate for their collections, enriching their value in a period of uncertainty.

Margot Note

Margot Note

If you’re interested in this topic and eager to learn more, please join us for “Reach New Archival Audiences: Create a Community” the first in a new series to be presented by Margot Note. It’s on on Wednesday, January 26, 2022 at 11 a.m. Pacific, 2 p.m. Eastern. (Can’t make it? Register anyway and we’ll send you a link to the recording and slides afterwards). Register now or call 604-278-6717. And check out ArchivEra, our archival collections management software built for today’s challenges and tomorrow’s opportunities. 

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