Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Summarizing "The Issue of Small Archives"

I was very happy to see the thread "The Issue of Small Archives" on the Archmgmt and Archives listservs a couple of weeks ago. A student pursuing her Master's degree in History and Archival Studies made this observation and posed this question: 

"...The trend in the literature I have noticed regards the disparagement of the creation and existence of small archives - that is, archives that receive minimal or no financial or physical support from another larger outside public or private agency. These facilities are seen as almost not only unnecessary but potentially dangerous to the materials they hold...

Do you think small archives have a place in the archival field?  What are the problems you can potentially see engendered or faced within small archives that could hinder or compromise their mission?"    

The theme of small archives management has been central to my work since I entered the archives field twenty years ago. An examination of the practices of well-managed small archives is also a core thread in my book "Cultural Heritage Collaborators: A Manual for Community Documentation." Small archives do indeed have a vital place in the archival field. I think that there should be no question about this. Small archives often have more direct connections to the local population. They can be more visible and appear more approachable to citizens who will more readily bring their personal papers to the small repository's doorstep than to a larger institution. I want to also clarify that there are small archives that are run by professionals and also those that run on a shoestring. I think that the question is meant to focus on the latter. There are many problems that can hinder the work of these archives including most notably, very limited funding, high volunteer turnover, and lack of knowledge and training. However, these conditions are not a given. Many volunteer organizations are run in a very professional manner with committed "citizen archivists" who stay around for the long-term and have plans in place to solicit, accommodate, and train new "staff." Many also very effectively raise money for their repositories either through fundraising programs or by finding a steady source of funds through the local government, area businesses, or financial patrons. Many such archives run with expert support from larger institutions. Others find ways to manage by seeking out associations, consultants, or professional volunteers from nearby institutions who are willing to give up personal time to help out. In fact, thanks to dedication and collaboration, I have encountered some volunteer based small archives that run more effectively than supposed professionally run institutions.

Rather than re-hashing my own research and thoughts about the work of the volunteer archives in depth, the postings from two weeks ago provide great snippets for examination and reflection. I have posted below some of the thoughts of my colleagues that mirror my views on this subject. Thank you everyone for a provocative discussion. I have included job titles of individuals, but not individual names to respect privacy while also giving credit to those who shared their thoughts.

"In truth, the small archives are vital to many towns, counties etc, for not only collecting and preserving in whatever form that takes, but gathering these materials give these places and organizations an essential sense of community. After all, isn't that one of the functions of an Archives?...People feel a connection to these places as "their archives" and some are more willing to make the trip to someone they know than donate something that "would sit on a shelf" with thousands of other collections and never be used. So, as the our profession progresses, it is important to recognize not only what should be, but what is, and try to help small Archives cope with their issues. Small Archives are a vital part of our profession." - Head, Archives and Special Collections, Library of the Marine Corps

"In our case in particular, it is in large part thanks to well meaning volunteers of earlier generations that we have collections to save at all. It is also thanks to them that we have an endowment to pay a professional staff... Many towns do not have universities, and some may be far removed from a repository with climate control and reference hours, particularly one interested in preserving their records... Oh, and one more thing- the interdisciplinary approach that is trendy now among museum, library, and archives professionals has been in vogue within state and local historical societies for years." - Curator of Library and Archives, Litchfield Historical Society

"True, in terms of preservation and security many of these repositories are nightmares. ...But then, I know many “respectable” repositories that don’t have adequate climate controls, are susceptible to leaks or flooding (is it unethical to maintain a repository in a flood plain or tornado alley?), that make do with inadequate security systems, that don’t put catalog records or finding aids online, and/or who won’t permit researcher access to the 60% or so of their collection that’s unprocessed.  To a certain extent, the faults of community 
archives are a matter of degree not of kind." - Director, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming

"I completely agree
that we need to look for ways to assist the small community repositories.  This
is an area where our State Historical Records Advisory Boards should be
providing leadership.  A number of years ago the Montana SHRAB developed an
imminently successful “traveling archivist” program....See http://mhs.mt.gov/research/library/vol12_No1.pdf
(page 2) for a summary report on Montana’s 2010 traveling archivist." [this program is also a model highlighted in "Cultural Heritage Collaborators"]University Archivist/Interim Head of Special
Collections, Oregon State University Libraries

"I have long been a proponent of state and regional archival associations reaching out to these smaller historical societies. Many of them are run by volunteers or a very small and/or semi-trained staff, but all that I have run across want to do the right thing with their records. Yes, they may be possessive but if we can deal with cranky patrons or high-maintenance donors then surely we can deal with them...Several years back archivists, including myself, would give Archives 101 courses taught through the Society of Ohio Archivists' education initiative, but that required people to come to us to ask for help, arrange for a class and so forth. I think this is an issue that we should be *proactive* on...we should visit the small historical societies near us, offer any support that we can and urge 
them to adopt professional standards. It may not always be a pleasant encounter but we still should try." - Archives Manager, Cincinnati Museum Center

"...I agree with much of what has been discussed, especially the fact that it is an issue of advocacy from all of us toward small archives, wherever and whenever we find them...There is a lot to do still and funding is an 
issue but sharing knowledge about free and low cost para-professional 
archival education is one of the many steps that we can offer to these 
small archives to be able to preserve their history... we need to be more proactive and offer free or low cost assistance to these small archives which don't have many resources or practically no resources except good intentions. - Subject/Liaison Librarian for Latin American & Caribbean Studies, Puerto Rican/Latino Studies, Spanish & Anthropology & Curator of the Latin American and Caribbean Collections. Thomas J. Dodd Research Center


No comments:

Post a Comment