More about Outreach: Innovative Practices for Archives and Special Collections

You can order Outreach: Innovative Practices for Archives and Special Collections from the Rowman & Littlefield site (and save 20% by using the promotional code 7S14ARCH). The Table of Contents is available there, and you can also read the pre-publication reviews from Larry Hackman and Terry Baxter. 

To help give you a better idea of what’s in the book, here’s an excerpt from the Introduction: 

The term outreach can describe a broad range of activities. For me, it means carrying out activities designed to inform potential users about a repository’s collections and attract their interest in learning more about those collections. Over the past three decades, carrying out these kinds of activities, which include creating exhibits, conducting public programs, and publishing, has been an accepted part of the archivist’s professional responsibilities. However, the importance of this function seems to have been consistently increasing in recent years. This rising interest has doubtless been triggered in part by the many new ways the Web allows us to communicate with almost unlimited and unpredictable groups of people. But there are other probable causes, including greater competition for more limited funding and resources. Greater public awareness of archives results in greater potential public support for their work. A more positive source of inspiration for new outreach efforts is certainly also the desire among many in the profession to “open up” our repositories to new kinds of users who may not feel that they are welcome in an archives or special collections library.

Outreach, then, is an area in which one would expect to find many innovative practices, demonstrating creativity to interest new users in collections. With such a broad scope and no standards or rules constraining how or who to attract, archivists are limited only by their resources and imagination, although at times their organizations’ tolerance for risk may come into play as well.

Outreach: Innovative Practices for Archives and Special Collections explores how archives of different sizes and types are reaching out to new potential users and increasing awareness of programs and collections. Some of the practices described in the case studies rely primarily on technology and the Web to interact with the public, while others are centered on face-to-face activities. All of the case studies were selected because they demonstrate ideas that can be transferred into many other settings. This volume is useful to those working in archives and special collections as well as other cultural heritage organizations and provides ideas ranging from those that require long-term planning and coordination to those that could be immediately implemented. It also provides students and educators in archives, library, and public history graduate programs a resource for understanding the variety of ways people conduct outreach in the field today and the kinds of strategies archivists are using to attract new users to collections.

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Assessing innovation in outreach is a tricky issue, I think. Modern technologies aside, I suspect there is very little that is truly “new under the sun.” But just because the concept of sponsoring things like contests, self-guided tours, volunteer opportunities, and open houses is not inherently original does not mean that specific implementations cannot find ways to innovate within the familiar. Therefore the case studies in this book provide both new ideas and twists on time-tested ones, some of them aided by new kinds of tools and technology.

Another consideration was how to define the book’s scope. In response to the open call for case study proposals, I received a great many responses from archivists interested in writing about their instruction efforts aimed specifically at students. It quickly became clear that I could fill another whole book with case studies about instruction, and indeed that is what I decided to do. This series will continue to expand in the future, and a collection of case studies on instruction will be one of those future volumes.

One way of considering how to approach outreach, and so also the range of activities in this collection, is to ask:

  • Who does the organization want to reach?
  • How does the organization want to reach them?
  • What is it that the organization wants to achieve?

While there are many ways of thinking about who an outreach activity reaches, for the case studies in this book, a useful method is to consider whether an activity is designed to reach a somewhat defined group of people, such as those who share a common interest or experience, or to connect with a wider—or undefined—range of people. Projects like the Oregon Archives Crawl, the Navigating Nightingale iPhone app, and the DIY History site are designed to appeal to people who want to make the effort to seek out opportunities to learn more about history. But they are also projects that weren’t limited to people who had registered for a specific event or people who shared some kind of common background, as the continuing legal education classes at the University of Mississippi and the College of William &Mary’s alumni projects were. A challenge for the National Archives at New York’s Learning Center was to create a space for both kinds of outreach activities—both people who had signed up for a specific program and people who just wandered in to learn about history.

However, some of the most creative outreach efforts, and the ones with the most unpredictable results, weren’t designed to appeal to any specific group of people—just those with an interest in something that might appear a bit unusual. The results reported here on the University of Manitoba’s Hamilton séance video and the American Heritage Center’s “Name the Tribble” contest illustrate the potential in this kind of audience under the right conditions. Similarly, the success of the Archives of American Art’s collaboration with Wikipedia and the Library of Congress’s resources on personal digital archiving is grounded on sharing specialized information with people who are actively looking for it. In all of these cases, the approach of the outreach activity was to put something out on the web and encourage people to interact with it to enhance their own lives.

In considering how an outreach activity reaches audiences, the most obvious consideration may be whether it takes place primarily or exclusively on the web or in person. In fact, one of the primary criteria in selecting case studies was to make sure there was a balance between those that described online-only activities and ones that were based on in-person interactions. While often it may seem that the web- or social media–based projects get the lion’s share of the attention, there is no substitute for old-fashioned face-to-face activities, and this collection has representatives of both.

For example, in this volume Laura Stevens describes the success of the 21 Revolutions project at the Glasgow Women’s Library in using its collections as inspirations for new works of art and literature and attracting audiences to gallery settings to connect with both the artworks and the inspirational sources. Those attending the continuing legal education sessions at the Modern Political Archives at the University of Mississippi, as described by Leigh McWhite, had more pragmatic aims in mind. But they, too, were exposed by their attendance to the perhaps unexpected value of archival collections—in this case the papers of Mississippi legal figures.

While in those projects the archival content was combined with activities that weren’t focused on the archives, at the Oregon Archives Crawl, the archives were the main attraction. The crawl, aimed to get potential researchers inside the doors of not one but four archives as well as a brewpub. Amy Schindler’s case study describes a similarly social atmosphere created around inviting alumni to visit the library to donate their time for a hands-on archival activity. Similarly, the experienced DC-area Wikipedians who joined Sara Snyder and her colleagues for a day of “behind the scenes” activity and information exchange at the Archives of American Art received a firsthand orientation to what archivists do and why. It was this behind-the-scenes atmosphere that Dorothy Dougherty and her team at the National Archives at New York City sought to recreate in designing the space for walk-in visitors to explore in the archives’ new learning center.

Real-time interaction with archivists and other participants was critical to the experience created by all these outreach activities. In contrast, online or virtual outreach projects are designed to let people interact on their own time as their own interests dictate. The case studies contributed by Shelley Sweeney on the Hamilton Family Séance video, the University of Tennessee staff on sharing their images on social media sites, and Sara Snyder on expanding the Archives of American Art’s inclusion in Wikipedia all describe manipulating information about collections and placing it in on web sites that people already love to visit: YouTube, Historypin, Pinterest, and Wikipedia. In this way they take advantage of being able to meet new potential users where they are. In the same vein, the Navigating Nightingale iPhone app created by King’s College London  is designed to literally meet users where they are by making archival materials the basis for a location-based walking tour app.

Other online outreach efforts capitalize on users’ interests rather than where they are—either virtually or physically. Rachael Dreyer’s creative “Name the Tribble” contest attracted Star Trek fans from around the country and the world. The success at the University of Iowa in attracting people interested in the Civil War to their site to transcribe handwritten documents led to the development of the larger and more sophisticated DIY History site. While at Iowa the archives wanted its users to help them, the goal of the Library of Congress’s personal digital archiving web presence is to help people manage their own digitally created collections.

In addition to thinking about with whom and how outreach activities are designed to work, another way to analyze them is to consider what they are designed to achieve. In most cases the goal of outreach activities is multifaceted. Archivists and special collections librarians want to encourage use of collections, increase visitation (either online or in person), raise general awareness of the collections, and encourage donations. They may also want to achieve goals related to advocacy, such as defining or reinforcing the role the archives plays in the community and encouraging support for funding.

While all outreach efforts share these general goals, some efforts are designed with a specific result in mind. Although the “Name the Tribble” contest didn’t have a predetermined audience in mind, it did have a specific endpoint: the selection of a winning name for the tribble. The 21 Revolutions project also had a concrete purpose: the creation of twenty-one new works of art and twenty-one new works of literature. The purpose of the DIY History site and its predecessor, as described by Jen Wolfe and Nicole Saylor, was to generate transcriptions of historical materials (as well as to engage people with the documents themselves). The various alumni volunteer projects related to the archival materials of the choral program at the College of William & Mary were very concrete and pragmatic. The alumni who attended these events felt a sense of accomplishment in doing something to contribute to the preservation and access of archival collections. Outreach that features educational programs, such as those described in the case studies from the University of Mississippi and the National Archives at New York, are also results oriented. All attendees should leave those programs having achieved preidentified learning outcomes. Events are planned, executed, and evaluated. While they may be part of ongoing programs, they have distinct beginning and end points.

In contrast, outreach projects like the Hamilton YouTube video, the University of Tennessee’s use of Historypin and Pinterest, the AAA on Wikipedia, the Navigating Nightingale app, and the Library of Congress’s personal digital archiving resources are more open ended. The products they generated continue to be discovered and used after the “event” of posting them is completed. In a larger sense, however, that is true of all successful outreach activities. Their impact continues to be felt even after the event or activity has concluded.

While each case study in this collection describes a specific approach to reaching new audiences, I think each also reflects a philosophy of experimentation that is perhaps the most crucial ingredient for any organization interested in developing its own “innovative” practices. In this regard I hope this book and the others in the series encourage all readers to consider how their own work could benefit from the exploration of new ideas and tools. The books in this series can, by definition, include only a small sample of the kinds of approaches being developed by archives and special collections around the world to meet the challenges of staying relevant and adaptable in today’s complex environment. These case studies give readers many useful ideas to consider, as well as the inspiration to come up with tomorrow’s innovations.

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