The Adaptable Cycle of Engagement in Archives

Guest author: S. Kaye
Recent MLIS graduate from the University of South Florida

Let’s be honest. We’re probably all a little guilty.

It’s 8:00 am, we’ve got 5,000 documents in a cue ready to be digitally scanned, and we close our office door, sealed away from most of the world, ready to get to work. It could be hours before we see another person. In fact, other than going home and then coming back to the office again, it could really be days before we see another person. And that’s OK. We’ve got a job to do, and for the most part, we’re going to be married to our documents (and the Crowley, or the Epson) until the job gets done.

But even in a world where there might be less “people interaction” than in other professions, it’s important that we don’t lose sight of our ultimate users. Whether our archives are utilized today, or in ten years, at some point, people will be part of the equation. And there are several good reasons we should keep this in mind.

On the surface, it clearly helps us to know who will ultimately use our archives so that we prepare them in a way that is easily and quickly accessible, and understood, by our users. For example, if we’re creating archives in formats that are difficult to access, all our good efforts might be for naught. While the act of “saving” our materials is critical, it’s just as important that appropriate users can find the information at a later date.

But on another level, and one that we may not always think about, it’s essential for us to have a way to communicate with these users, not only to understand their needs, but also to have their support. In an economy where money is tight (especially for non-profits), budgets are often cut from year to year, and archivists need to connect with the public and establish the important role we play in preserving not only documents, or photos, but also history itself.

From the Georgia State Archives in Morrow, to the US National Archives in DC, the economic downturn of the past few years wreaked havoc on staffing, hours, and supplies. This was, in part, due to less tax dollars available for all service entities. But archives’ budgets are also cut because the public is not fully versed in what we do and how important archives are to the nation as a whole. We can have a dramatic role in changing that, in connecting with the public, and making certain that if, and when budgets are slashed again, ours will remain intact.

So how do we do that, especially if we are often sequestered in quiet offices, away from the public? One excellent option is for us to literally open the door, and interact with our users. And today, we are very fortunate in that we can do this through community engagement, especially using social media, to inform the public about who we are, what we do, and in turn, find out what’s important to them.

I recently spent a year analyzing social media, and other engagement tools and activities, through the lens of the library. Based on my findings, I created a new paradigm called the “Adaptable Cycle of Engagement: A Win/Win Model for the Library”, which was then published in the most recent issue of the Journal of Library Innovation (see article here).

But archives are not necessarily the same as libraries, so is the model applicable, and are the rewards similar? In a nutshell, yes and yes! When building the paradigm, I specifically drew not only on the experiences of libraries, but also on observations of businesses and other non-profits. In this way, I was able to build a process that, with very minor verbiage tweaks, can work for all. Hence the term “adaptable”. And because it’s a cycle, the process not only ends with very tangible benefits, but then leads back into furthering the entire engagement progression.

How can it work for archives? Here’s the Reader’s Digest version: There are many ways in which archivists can engage with the public. There are social media tools (Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, and more), exhibits we can create, and even offering the public volunteer opportunities, all of which “open” that first door to our hallowed halls. In using these opportunities, we initiate the conversation with the public, which in turn helps them to understand what we do, how we do it, and why we do it. Once the public truly understands our function and purpose, they become more invested in archives, and with that comes an affinity for our institution–an actual emotional attachment if you will. That may sound odd, but it is true, and when people care about an institution they are far less likely to accept anything that might negatively impact it. This means when budget cuts are proposed, we’ve got allies, and whether those be voters or archive users, these advocates will not only speak up against allotting us less dollars, but in some instances, they actually create their own fundraising events to benefit the slashed department.

By preventing a loss of dollars, the public enables us to continue our critical work, and to grow our efforts, and expand our staffs and facilities. And with that comes additional projects, which means we now have more to inform our public about, and that brings us back to the beginning of this cycle.

None of this is to suggest that community engagement solves every archivist’s problem, and to undertake a successful program takes not only dedication, but also personnel, and that means people-hours, which costs money. That said, however, in the past these efforts would have required far greater investments, as traditional means of advertising who we are and what we do would have cost thousands of dollars with virtually no measureable return on investment. Community engagement requires much less expenditure, with far greater benefits, not only in a financial sense, but also in becoming far better educated about our patrons.

And in the end, when we close the door to get down to the nitty gritty of what we do, isn’t it best if we truly understand our archive users and their needs, and have them advocate on our behalf?


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