Sunday, June 2, 2013

Raising Awareness About Archives and Libraries

Today I am revisiting the need for archivists (and other cultural heritage professionals) to educate the public about what we do. This past week I attended a librarian conference where school librarians lamented the "downsizing" of the profession and the lack of support from many school administrators.  Let's face it, relatively few people have an MLS (or MSLS). We are a relatively small group of varied professionals and few people have a clue about the true value of our fields. We must continue to work to change that.

Has Our Profession Been Hijacked?

"Archives" is a foreign word to many. In fact, when I tell people that I am an "archivist", they often ask in what kind of art I specialize. When I tell them that I am a librarian I hear, "It must be nice to read all day!" When I tell them that I am both and archivist and librarian...well, I just think they are very confused.

In the last decade, the word "archive" has permeated society with meanings that are somewhat tenuously tied to what archivists do. People "archive" their email, web sites, and digital data in a cloud. They check "archives" of newspaper sites to see old stories.  They create "archival" copies as backups of their computer documents.  Also in the last decade, the work of the librarian seems to have been downgraded and denigrated to many outside the fields. I hear things such as, "Librarians organize and circulate books. We don't need that anymore.  I use my Kindle." Are archivists and librarians doomed to be misunderstood until the end of time or until this misunderstanding kills off the professions?

Two years ago, Kate Theimer of ArchivesNext wrote "The increasingly common use of 'archive' as a verb." What has changed in two years? Is our work more understood or less? Are we more valued or less, or the same? The release of the DPLA had/has potential as an outreach source for archivists and librarians to better explain what we do. Are any small archives hanging their outreach efforts on this large scale launch to better promote themselves? I have not seen it. DPLA seems lost in the sea of information.  How can participants in DPLA efforts make themselves better heard? I told my administration about it. There was a quick flurry of interest that just as quickly died. Efforts like DPLA need to appeal to those who sit down and immediately use Google to find information and not just to the die-hard,  hard-core researcher who knows better than to trust Google with all of their knowledge gathering needs.

Capturing Google's Audience

How do we reach this Google audience? We need a bit of flash, pop culture, and relating what we have to what is important to "them."

Want to get the attention of someone growing up in the 21st century? Want people to pay attention to you? Try some of the following:
  • Don't hang a sign in your institution. Flash photos with information on a computer to get across your information. Better yet, ask another institution to flash things about you to get outsiders in. Airport and mall exhibits were once one way museums and archives encouraged visitation. Forget about it. Create a quick moving video for these venues that tell about your institution instead of creating a traditional exhibit.
  • Try to include images of your audience in interactive ads. I take photos of kids and teachers in our library and intersperse these with the information I want to get across. Slide One 1. photos of teachers working with kids. Slide 2. "Join the School Archives Committee and help us prepare to celebrate our 50th anniversary" Slide 3. Photo of students dressed up for school spirit week and visiting the library Slide 4. "Curiosity and Creativity are cousins. It happens in your library!" Students sit and watch the slides go by. Something is clicking. Think about people standing online waiting to catch a train. Is there potential there? Will your community support your efforts and give you space to advertise?
  • Add games to your web site. The kids want games. If you can make them relate to your work, great! Hire a programmer if you need to. The kids aren't going to come by to look for photos unless they relate to a class project. Give them a game and they will come running.
  • Give the grown ups some social media. Ask them about what you do. Shadow spaces where potential users might congregate. Does your community have a Facebook page? Make sure you are on it and talking to people. Give them links to your own social media sites and give them a reason to stop by.
  • Archives and libraries must be part of the regular conversation and regularly visit on the Internet and not special places people come. Walk around your neighborhood and talk to people. Say to the woman sitting on park bench, "Hi, I'm the local librarian. Did you get that book out of our library? Do you like the library? Why? Why not?" (In my case, I walked around the halls and asked kids why they were studying on the floor instead of in the library. The answers I got were eye-opening, helped me make changes, and allowed me to encourage students to come try their library again.) Crazy stalker librarian? No way! Friendly face making conversation. Some people will get it. Others will think you are weird. That's okay. It takes practice.
  • I talk about archives and information management all the time - maybe too much. I say this because my nine-year-old told me about a discussion she had with her friend about copyright. "You can't just copy that!" She told me that she told the girl. "You can't just copy that because of copyright!" Is this really too much or is it good that she knows about copyright issues and now her friend will too. AND, now the kid better understands what my kid's mom does for a living.
We Are Special and Yet, We Should Not Be

For too long, libraries have been special. Yes, we are special for so many reasons related to freedom, diversity, collaboration. We are a special place of learning, of neutrality, of leveling a playing field for all... BUT we should be more commonplace, shouldn't we? If libraries and archives were part of everyone's everyday conversation, they would come to better understand us and understand what we offer. Our work should be an essential part of our society and not a nicety; certainly not an afterthought or interchangeable with something else that uses similar words; certainly not disposable.


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