Sunday, March 23, 2014

It's Still Cooperation After All of These Years

My work this week and an article that popped on my screen this morning -- Historical Societies Heed Message of Cooperation -- are pointing me to write this morning's post.

Image of unidentified school girls. [from personal collection
 of M. Mannon]
In 2001, I presented the mission of ArchivesInfo in my first business newsletter. The emphasis was on collaboration. It was what was to become the main thrust of ArchivesInfo for over ten years, the subject of the book Cultural Heritage Collaborators, and one of my life goals.

Operating in a vacuum (i.e. no collaboration) was not uncommon when I entered this profession. Many archives paid attention only to themselves and not to their place in a larger network of archivy. And while it is still a challenge for many small archives to look beyond themselves and to recognize the need for collaboration, it is becoming much more commonplace to try to step beyond one's own institutional walls. We need each other to accomplish the mission of adequately documenting the whole of history, but we also need each other to survive and thrive. Cooperation allows us to reach and effect a larger audience. We need to continually re-position ourselves to see a bigger picture for the benefit of all collecting institutions and society.

The 2001 post I mentioned above described why institutions should collaborate and how. I am going to focus in on this idea and base it on some work I've been undertaking this year. As regular readers know, I am now working as a Library and Information Specialist in a high school. This job has allowed me to take the work that  I have done as an archives consultant in communities and tailor it for a specific institution over which I have direct control. It is one thing to consult (effectively to make a suggestion) at a particular point in a project. It is quite another to be charged with the project from beginning to end.

The school position has given me the opportunity to start an Archives from scratch. This past week, interest in our archives has grown to the point where we are starting to take in unsolicited donations. In 2013, I formed a committee to celebrate the 50th anniversary of our school building. I solicited members of the school council to join our committee. As the movers and shakers in the school, their ideas help get the student body fired up. I got art students to join to help us brand ourselves with imagery and creative ideas. I got teachers from various departments to help with journaling projects, events, and promotion. I then reached out to the public library and a local community group who sent members to sit in on our weekly 50th anniversary, to advise us, and to bring word to their public about our endeavors. I am very lucky to be in a community where collaboration among many of our institutions has been somewhat ingrained. I just needed to plug our school and project into that collaboration and to show that I am a team player - I can help them as much as they can help me.

I am a volunteer at the local historical society in the town where I work. As an expert in what they do my input is valued. I have volunteered to run a writing group at the local library. I have stepped out of my school to meet local business leaders. I have been invited to present to them about high school projects. I am a regular at the local coffee shops and other small businesses in town...I make my face known and then they let my voice be heard. I have tried to make myself a part of the community and "they" have come to accept me..

A student autograph book. We would love some materials
like this for our school archives. [from personal collection
of M. Mannon]
Our school archives project began slowly. I started by forming an "archives committee" in 2012. We had one volunteer who quickly lost interest. But, as I've contended throughout my career, anniversaries are perfect occasions to get people excited about events.  When I arrived at school, I quickly dug into the history to see if their was an event opportunity that we could highlight. Archives are not just about historical records, they are about a sense of self and pride. People immediately recognize the importance of anniversaries.  It was our anniversary committee that got the ball rolling. As word got around, as students and those cooperating began talking about the upcoming milestone, as we began planning events, people I never met began getting excited. We are setting up a table at a local business expo next month and selling rootbeer there. We will have a table at Old Home Days in June. We are planning a movie night on the school football field -- a sort of drive-in without the cars -- with the hope that we can have a double feature of a modern movie and a retro 60s movie when the weather warms up. (Our school opened in 1965.) We are hosting teacher reunions, conducting oral histories, planning "museum" displays throughout the building, hoping for a 50th anniversary mural on the library front wall and more.

Student Council advisors saw the usefulness of keeping their resources safe and donated them to the archives. A gentleman from the original graduating class who is related to someone on our committee came to talk to us. He donated a pennant from his school years. A student heard about what we are doing came to tell me about a scrapbook she found at an antique shop that relates to our school history. I went and bought it. I can't wait to tell her on Monday what I learned about the students whose pictures are inside the book! Someone brought in a dance card from a 1930s prom. I have no idea how this person heard about what we are doing...word of mouth and cooperation are doing the job.

I have a short collection development policy in hand. I will not collect what does not fit. My work with the historical society will make sure that we do not step on one another's toes. I am now going back to forming my archives committee at school so that we can work together to do a little community documentation planning so that we can actively seek to fill the gaps in our history. I am hoping that the anniversary committee success will now help beget archives committee membership drive success.

Not everyone is as excited about archives as I am, but they can find something to be excited about in what we do to benefit and promote our archives and history. Our school has a stake in the community and the community has a stake in us. A School archives can form a strong core that helps us identify how we all influence one another. Cooperation -- both my cooperation with the projects in my community and their cooperation with the anniversary and archives projects -- will benefit us all. Word spreads when something good is happening. Go make it happen!

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