Friday, July 27, 2012

How to Build a Small Archives at Your Institution

In my last post, I discussed the value of having an archive at your institution. The question now is: How does one actually start an archives in an institution that is not dedicated for that purpose? In this post, I will list a few practical considerations and ways for you to build an archive to reach your goals and document the work that you do.

The idea of building a small archives for my high school started during my interview process. It hung in the back of my brain until I saw The Storage Closet. [capitalization is purposeful here.] The Closet is used for housing circulating videos and miscellaneous odds and ends, including the existing "archives" - duplicate copies of school yearbooks going back decades. Videos were spread out taking up two bays of shelves. The "idea" moved to the front of my brain and very quickly became an actuality.

1. SPACE - So, to begin your small archives, it is important to find a space for them. A physical space makes it much easier to picture your future boxes of documents lined up neatly as a collection. I am a very visual person, so this conceptualization of a physical space is helpful in propelling my plans forward too. I don't have a reason to hold back. I have a place where I can immediately put things. I pushed together my videos and took my duplicates yearbooks off valuable shelf space and I now have a whole free bay in a space right near my circulation desk. The space can be locked. The space feels relatively stable and is part of the air conditioned library. I will later take measurements of temperature and humidity to see if any changes may need to be made in the future. Ideally, I would have climate control worked out beforehand, but I AM working in a public school not a professional repository. I do not expect perfection. Having an archives in a dedicated, relatively safe space is a valuable enough endeavor that I will proceed without perfection. Few of us achieve perfection, especially in small archives, anyway.

2. SURVEY - I know that I have yearbooks. I also have the older library records within my own office that do not need prime office space, but are valuable enough to save. I have found old planning documents - school technology plans, etc. Every institution has these kinds of things. This can form the base of your archives. During the course of the year, I will start asking teachers and administrators about other planning documents that they may have that will help build our archives. I expect resistance. There is always resistance, but that is no reason not to pursue this. Normally, I would perform a survey of the building and poke through drawers while sitting down with the people who created records to help them determine what they have that is valuable to keep for posterity. I think that is unrealistic in this case, considering my position at the school and school culture. Instead, I will begin by asking for volunteer input and I will help educate about what archives are and their purpose. After the teachers get to know me, I will write up a letter or ask to have a meeting with those interested to explain the types of records that best reflect our school and can help us project our core identity.

3. EDUCATION - Education is always a big part of collection development. This week on the archives listserv, someone posted a question about overcoming donor resistance to donor agreements. In a Special Collections, which as I explained in the previous post focuses on telling a larger story beyond your institution, collection caretakers ask donors to sign an agreement giving physical and intellectual property rights. Donors sometimes are offended when we request that they sign such things. A good way to overcome their resistance is to explain why we legally need to document the gift - to EDUCATE about archives. Archivists and others who care for archives must always educate about what they are doing and why. Our work is not intuitive to everyone. Though I will not need donor agreements in an institutional archives, at least in most cases, I will still have resistance to the building of an archives. I must continually seek new ways to explain what I am doing to get people on board.

4. DOCUMENTATION OPPORTUNITIES - Much of the work that institutions do is not documented. As you build an archives, consider what opportunities you may have to make documentation in the form of photos, videos, oral history projects, writing opportunities and more. In a school environment, I think our opportunities are limitless. There are lots of great projects I can collaborate on with teachers to get the students to create documentation about our school community. Within my own department, I also need to think about documenting my work. One of my first projects is to create an exhibit on mind-mapping. I will be sure to make sure I create an exhibit file so I can keep track of the exhibits that I do, including: my research; my designs; contact information about the people with whom I collaborate on exhibits (in the case of the mind-mapping I've got permission from outside sources to use their ideas and I think the public library will have a hand in this work.)

5. PLANNING - Everything that one does that is worthwhile involves some planning. As the ideas flow, I will write a document that discusses the building of our archives. It will include information about: types of materials we will collect (my collection development policy), use of the collections (will outsiders use it or just the school community? materials will not stray from the library.), space planning and growth needs, a preservation assessment, a materials budget, a procedure manual for creating finding aids and "processing."

All of this will take time. Archives is not my main responsibility in my new role. Archives are often not the main "business" in institutional archives. And though we may have a lot on our plates within our institutions, building an archives one small step at a time is worth the effort. (See my last post if you need more convincing or comment here to let me know your thoughts.)

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