What is our core identity, or, can we all fit under one big tent?

I have a couple of threads of ideas that I think are related, and in the post I’ll try to weave them together into something that makes sense. I hope at the end you’ll think they’re related too.

 As I said in an earlier post, I’m very interested in the subject of “branding” for archives. I think this discussion gives an opportunity to examine how we perceive ourselves and how we want the public to perceive us. I also think that technology gives us an opportunity to expand or widen the focus of our brand or to think about starting a new brand, as the library profession is currently discussing. To learn more about this subject, I just finished reading Scott Bedbury’s A New Brand World. Bedbury discusses eight principles of establishing and building a brand. The first of these is the need to clearly identify and define what you (your company, your product, your group) is about–what is its essence, its “DNA” (as Bedbury calls it), its “mojo” (as someone he quotes in the book calls it)? These are the examples he gives in the book for several prominent companies:

  • Nike–Authentic Athletic Performance
  • Disney — Fun Family Entertainment
  • Starbucks — Rewarding Everyday Moments

You can see there is nothing about shoes, movies or coffee; it’s about a philosophy or, as Bedury said, an essence. When I think about what form this might take for libraries, I think about words like “free,” “open,” and “information” (not just books!). What comes to mind for archives?

I wrote in the previous post that I think most people associate archives with “old stuff,” but what do we see as our essence (or mission)? Are words like “free” and “open” important enough to make into our mission? I’m not sure most archivists feel that way. I’ve got a t-shirt that says an archivist is “authentic, reliable, and trustworthy,” but I don’t think those are the three words that define our mission.

Let’s switch gears now and compare two recent writings in the archivoblogosphere. The first is a comment posted here by “Thomas” about archives and web 2.0, he wrote (in part):

Perhaps the blog is more suited for the teen center of one’s local branch? Perhaps 2.0 technology, the brain child of internet investors seeking to re-bubble their portfolios, has emerged (outside of the commercial sphere) in the archive/library because of young people’s desire to have themselves be heard even if it means being duped. Of course scanning has some use, especially for preservation purposes. Digital images, however, are quickly rendered into just “interesting” or “neat” and completely lose their historical meaning as they pass from one set of blurry eyes to the next in megabyte form. You can tell every person in the world that there are lost letters from Rousseau in an archive in Montreal, a great newspaper story, but the only person who needs to find these letters is the person who is equipped with the knowledge to know how to understand them. And this person will find them. I think archivists/librarians should focus more on developing frameworks which ensure people know how to understand history, rather than to just trust historians, and to avoid advertising historical resources as some kind of cure-all for the Google sickness.

The second is a post (really the whole series of posts about the Nylink annual meeting) by Jill Hurst-Wahl on Digitization 101, but let’s just take this section from her summary of David Lankes presentation on participatory networks:

Dave hits his first key point very early — knowledge is created through conversations. What we have in our libraries, museums and archives are materials that help fuel those conversations. Our spaces hosts conversations. And we often facilitate the conversations.

We tend to present things to our uses — a web page, a digitized collection, a book — and think that we’re done, but we’re not. If we want to help them learn and build knowledge, we need to help them interact with and talk about the materials, whether that be online or face-to-face conversations.

Two other thoughts from his presentation:

  • People need to be active constructors of their knowledge.
  • They (the users) want tools that allow and facilitate conversation and participation.

There is much to think about from his study, but the biggest question is — when we create digital collections, how do we then facilitate conversations that will allow people to learn and build knowledge? And — in this context — what does the word conversation mean?

Although coming from very different places, I think there’s some common ground between these two points of view. Archivists need to do more than just present their materials (or a description of them) to users. We must “develop frameworks” or “facilitate conversations” these may not be the same thing, but they are both something that I’m not sure we are currently doing.

If we did a survey of archivists (and I’m thinking I will probably do that), I suspect the word that would come up most frequently as part of our mission would be “preserve.” I think we would also all agree that part of our mission is to “make accessible” the things we preserve. So we could probably all support something like “Collecting, Preserving, and Making Accessible _________ (I’ll leave the “what” blank for now because that’s a separate argument.) (And I’m just using that phrase as an example–I think we can do a lot better than that!)

It’s how we interpret that “make accessible” part that gets interesting. Do the “frameworks” Thomas proposes fit under that? I think so. Does “facilitating conversations” also fit? Probably. Does posting a traditional EAD finding aid on the web count? Does allowing users to add their own tags to digital images count? Thomas, above, isn’t interested in large-scale digitization as a means of increasing access. Lots of other repositories see digitization as crucial to enabling more users to gain access to their materials.

Is it possible to find one brand identity–one mission statement–that will truly apply to all archives, whether they make their materials accessible more passively, through traditional means, or more proactively, using the possibilities of technology to their fullest? Can people like our commenter “Thomas” and Ms. Hurst-Wahl really both fit under one big tent? Do we need to clearly define our existing brand, where we preserve our materials and make our descriptions available, and trust that the “only person who needs to find” our materials will find them? Then do we need a new sub-brand for the additional activities of archives who want to go out and more aggressively market their materials and interact with users? Do we need multiple sub-brands depending on how we interact?

The definition of a brand is a search for core values. How we want to interact with our users is a core value that I am not sure all archivists can agree on.

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4 thoughts on “What is our core identity, or, can we all fit under one big tent?”

  1. Interesting post. Here’s a stab at branding: “Making Evidence Accessible.” If you can think of something more pithy, I’m all ears. (Maybe “Managing Evidence”? Sounds boring [and, of course, sometimes it is!].) “Delivering Evidence”?

    It’s been argued elsewhere that “preservation” involves the preservation of records for the express purpose of making them accessible. Similarly, we collect/select records because we think people should/might access them. So I think “access” is a buzzword that implies all the other actions an archivist undertakes.

    I borrowed the term “evidence” from the SAA mission statement because it makes what we do sound important. 🙂 Furthermore, I like “evidence” more than “information” because the former implies that the archival unit should be maintained in posterity, whereas information can be fleeting. So think of “evidence” as a more specific description of the “information” archivists manage.

  2. Glad you liked it–couldn’t manage to stay away from the “what” part, could you? As I said, that’s a whole different discussion–records, documents, evidence, information, history, ‘archives” (as a noun)–I could see a lot of virtual ink being spilled on that one.

    I don’t know–I kind of think we have to have the idea of “preserve” in there somewhere. But I think it would be interesting to see what the survey results would show about what people really think their mission is. But it has be pithy–and broad enough to cover everything we want to do.

  3. A thought-provoking post. I certainly agree that archives needs some form of branding, but I wonder if we should also focus our energies on making archives known to the public, just in a very fundamental way.

    In my experience in a university, I found that 1) People did not know what we did or did not understand what we did and 2) People did not know where we were located on campus.

    The second item sounds trivial, but it holds some weight. Many, many people on campus did not know where the archives was located. They knew where the central library was located, even if they did not step past its front entrance turnstiles. Why? There was promotional materials, visible signage indicating the directions to the library.

    To combat this, I once printed out a graphic, using Word, with “ARCHIVES – downstairs ROOM 60” with a bold arrow. It was later removed and replaced by a classy university-approved sign, to my surprise. I think it helped making us more known on campus.

    Sometimes it is those little things that count for so much.

    But back to the post at hand: Branding.

    1) Past. Present. Future. Under one roof. Archives.
    2) Preserving the Past, Ensuring the Future
    3) Evidence Managed

    It should be immediate (Drink Coke), appeal to the person reading it (Just do it!), and reference the work or essence of the work being done (Always Low Prices).

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