Thursday, July 15, 2010

Community of Collaborators

In this blog, I've discussed both communities and cultural heritage collaborators. I want to introduce the concept of a community of cultural heritage collaborators. A community is a group of people who share something - a common interest, a geographical locale, a faith, a relationship...The cultural heritage collaborative community is made up of people who have a common interest or responsibility in protecting cultural knowledge. This group includes professionals such as museologists, librarians, and curators. It also incorporates clerks, secretaries, records managers and others charged with retaining a specific history. Finally, the group should also rely on people the U.S. National Archivist David Ferriero has been calling "Citizen Archivists." (They can be called "Citizen Curators" or "Citizen Librarians" for my cross-professional colleagues.) These are people who may or may not know much about cultural resources. They may have some interest in collecting or preserving materials. Or, they may not be conscious of any personal interest in retaining cultural items, but may possess things that hold importance for historical memory. Materials such as family papers and heirlooms, records of community involvement, personal libraries and the like that have recognized historical value to cultural heritage professionals often remain hidden to us when this special subgroup is not included in our planning and collection development efforts. If we can identify our fellow cultural heritage collaborators, we have a greater ability to preserve our heritage by recruiting their help. Working together, we can identify and protect the resources that shed light on civilization.

1. Who are your potential professional partners? Think about fellow cultural heritage professionals in your geographic region. Think of those across your nation and around the world collecting similar resources. For example, the MacKaye family of Shirley Massachusetts left some family papers with the Shirley Historical Society. While working on this collection, I discovered that Dartmouth College a few hours north also retained a significant MacKaye collection. We exchanged finding aids and compared notes about holdings. We became cultural heritage collaborators.

2. Who are your quasi-professional partners? These are the people who use cultural materials in their day-to-day operations, but may not place emphasis on their historical import. City clerks, local businesses, association secretaries, artists and others can all be part of your collaborative. For example, as a member of Manchester Art Association I volunteered to be their historian, a volunteers Board position that had been left unfilled for many years. Records from decades of the groups operations were spread among members' homes. We organized and centralized them. I made them aware that a local historical society may have interest in their materials one day, which emphasized the group's value to the greater Manchester community and gave them incentive to better care for their materials.

3. Who are your non-professional partners? Consider the citizens in your town who have materials related to your community. Consider those outside of your geographic area who may have an interest in your community. It is most challenging to reach out to this group to convince them of the role they have to play in cultural heritage goals. Many have never considered the value of their personal materials beyond themselves or their families. Many think that they have no interest in history. This is an opportunity for outreach and a barrier that we can break by emphasizing the idea of community. The Waltham Rediscovered project in the early 1990s is a good example of enhancing citizen interest. A series of ethnic celebrations emphasized community pride and encouraged residents and former residents to share recollections in oral histories and to show others their family papers and memorabilia. The effort culminated in a book about the development of Waltham and the immigrant experience and a new collection of materials related to the project was eventually donated to the Waltham Public Library.

We all have an interest in advancing humanity and making our communities the best that they can be. Focusing on our common interests and recognizing that everyone has a role to play in preserving community memory will help cultural heritage institutions fill their missions to retain resources and sustain knowledge. A community of collaborators has a greater opportunity to raise awareness, increase enthusiasm, build support, boost goodwill, fully document a community or place, and encourage pride than any one of us working alone.

Read more about the collaborators in Cultural Heritage Collaborators: A Manual for Community Documentation and share your ideas about ways to cultivate a sense of community and collaboration.

The lovely prized family photo at the beginning of this post evokes a sense of place and can stand as a representation of local pride. A friend allowed me to make a copy when I found it hidden among her boxed photos.

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