Tuesday, May 22, 2012

5 Mistakes New Archives Consultants (and Others) Make in Small Institutions

The biggest mistake I see new consultants make is jumping into a situation with theory at the forefront of their brains. It is not practical for every repository to reach the pinnacle of archival perfection. Theory should be kept in the back of the brain while one evaluates a site and determines how much theory can be realistically applied to a certain situation.

1. Aiming for the Ideal - Before you think about and present what is ideal, ask a lot of questions about how the institution functions now. How can you build off that? Shoot for improvement. Aim for what is practical. Determine where ideal and practical intersect.

Recently, I was working with another consultant who launched into the type of furniture a certain client needed to install in a new facility. This client had been working for years to raise the money necessary to convert an old building in town. The building would afford them much needed additional space. I took a step back. I saw the expression on the client's face as she considered information about "furniture off-gassing". I remembered that she had already shown me some storage pieces that were donated for the new facility. I asked, "Do you already have furniture or will you be buying new?" When she confirmed that she already had furniture even though no work had yet been done on the facility renovations themselves, I knew that we needed to talk about how to mitigate the off-gassing of existing furniture and not to talk about how to find perfect furniture.

Look for what situations must
be remedied. Set priorities.
2. Overestimating what is fiscally feasible - Don't forget that small facilities probably have very limited resources.  Cultural heritage institutions often function on shoestring budgets and grants. Think small. Think what must be done now versus what can be done down the road. Give clients a sense of what is important now and what is important for the future. Distinguish these things from a bucket list of to-dos that can make things easier, but that are not mandatory. Create a practical timeline for getting things done with goals and milestone activities for which they can aim. Provide options for getting things accomplished.

For example: Does the institution need a computer? Is price a consideration? Do you have contacts to help them get items at a discounted price? Are there people who might even be able to donate a computer? The job of a consultant for a small institution extends way beyond what is normal for the profession. Learn about related businesses. Network to find who can help you get your client what they need at affordable prices.
Consider: Where are the limited resources your client has best spent? Should they purchase preservation supplies or fix the leak over the collections? How can they raise money to do both? Clients will not always tell you the extent of their money issues. You need to ask and dig to learn what they can monetarily afford.

3. Overestimating Staffing - Many small institutions have small staffs. Many others operate with only volunteers. Be reasonable about their time. Things may move slower in a small institution. (On the other hand, sometimes there is less red tape, so things could move faster. Make yourself aware of the situation.) Sometimes there are no hands available to help. You may need to help rally troops to get things done. Information about finding and keeping volunteers may be useful.

Consultants may also sometimes overestimate or even underestimate the expertise of volunteers. Be reasonable about what can be accomplished by non-professionals, but also be encouraging. Part of the consultant's job is to be a teacher. How much of what you do can be taught to volunteers who can in turn teach other volunteers? Prepare for the possibility of unexpected teaching moments.

4. Forgetting or Not Realizing Political Considerations- The board may want things in the institution to be aesthetically pleasing to satisfy the mayor. A donor may encourage you to take a collection that you don't want before they give you money to support a new facility... You may need to figure out how to make everyone happy and this may sometimes take precedence over perfection.

Try not to get caught in the politics of the place. Talk to as many people as possible to get all views about issues and functions. Use your background and knowledge to make recommendations based on what you know, but keep in mind those political considerations. You play an unusual role as a consultant. Your opinion doesn't always matter. You are most often viewed as an outsider. Yet, your words can give your client leverage to make good things happen. Use your power wisely, but be aware of your place.

Help organize community support.
Look for teachable moments.
6. Discounting Community - The most successful projects in which I have had a hand have incorporated community involvement. A consultant can serve as a sort of cheerleader, presenting possibilities that an institution may not otherwise see. Consider members of the community who may want to take part in improving a cultural heritage institution. The local historical society, library, and museum should be a source of local pride. If the community feels the institution's value and is given a stake in its success, projects move forward more successfully. When appropriate, encourage clients to use you as a source for workshops for the public. Provide ideas for other ways and resources for community outreach.

The best skills a consultant can have are the abilities to listen, learn and exchange information. Be open-minded when you go into a new situation. Use your background and knowledge, but try to check your ego at the door and be open to new possibilities.


  1. Heavens to MurgatroydMay 23, 2012 at 8:26 AM

    So true, but not just for consultants. It is true for trained archivists that work in these situations. You will need to compromise every day, but knowing where to compromise and how best to do it is just as useful a skill. The "right" way and the way forward are not always the same, but knowing both is essential.

  2. I completely agree. I am the first professional to be in charge of the archives at a small historical society. Every day is a balance between the ideal and what is realistically possible for my institution. These tips are great for staff as well as consultants.