Monday, July 28, 2008

Learning about (re)inventing archives

Last Friday, I had a good opportunity to hear one of my colleagues, our archivist, practice a presentation that she is working on. Her topic is on "(Re)inventing special collections through outreach and reference." I think what she does, in essence, is to bring what seem to be diverse worlds together. Our archivist, in addition to running the archive, also works as a reference librarian as well as a subject liaison, so she wears various hats. As I have mentioned before, a common trait of smaller libraries is that librarians wear multiple hats. She opened by describing herself and her position. In her role, she is a "lone arranger," in other words, the only archivist in the area.

What I learned from her. . .what I gained was a different perspective on the role of outreach for an archive (as well as for a library). She argued for the need to (re)invent the archives because if we do not, then it is easy to become complacent and fall into casual patterns, into a routine. We need to think in inventive ways; materials and the users change over time. The materials change as new materials come into the archive, are processed, and made available to researchers and the community served by the archive. The users change over time as well as different people come to the archive with diverse needs. These are the elements that make necessary thinking in inventive ways.

So, where do outreach and reference come in? The archivist says that outreach can be seen as based on materials. We do outreach via our materials, and we lure users to the archives through the materials we have and promote. Reference then is based on the users and how we assist them to access and utilize the materials. Some of these activities are part of the routine of an archives; the challenge then is to be careful they don't become "just routine."

She then went on to discuss some of our recent exhibits here at UT Tyler. The exhibits make up the majority of the outreach efforts for the University Archives and Special Collections. The archivist and her dynamic assistants have created offsite exhibits (which serve to promote the archives outside of the basement), institutional exhibits (which educate the users by bringing them to the archives, for example our archives unit presented an excellent exhibit for Archives Week last fall), and publicity campaigns. By the way, you can read a little more about what happened for Archives Week in our Fall 2007 newsletter here (PDF file).

The goals of outreach from archives are to provide a good impression (we want people to see us and to see us as worthy of holding their papers, etc.) and to tell a good story. Personally, I thought that the idea of telling the story of the archives is where the core of the presentation is found. This is an important point, and it personally reminded me of some readings I have done regarding storytelling in the context of promoting the library, the idea of telling the library's story. Our archivist is telling her archives' story in order to show that outreach and reference services are the ways to reinvent archives. If I understand correctly, we are looking at a symbiotic relationship.

To end the presentation, our archivist took a bit of a look at the future. This included some ideas on how to use Web 2.0 tools like blogs and photo sharing. In part this was to acknowledge that there is a trend to move toward more digital initiatives (something we are still a bit far from) but also to ponder some of the possibilities.

By the way, the publicity campaign for the current exhibit on "The Power of Books" is a good example of outreach as it involved a postcard mailing and an exhibition catalog, among other things. The exhibit was created by one of her assistants, which shows also how an archivist shares responsibilities with her team members, who bring a variety of talents. I am hoping to see the write-up of the event so we can feature it in our upcoming newsletter. The epiphany moment, and for me as an educator I tend to believe in epiphanies, came when she said that, in creating an archives unit out of nothing (she was hired to set up the archives for the university), she learned various lessons and discovered new ways of seeing things. And here is the key: ways of seeing things that someone in a more mature archive could miss, often because those folks may take things for granted or simply have fallen into the routine. I think for her that is the selling point, that she can offer new visions of how to run and promote archives not only as places but as educational tools. There is a sense of wonder there, and as part of her practice audience tonight, I had a chance to see that sense of wonder. In her presentation, she proved her point about using the talents you have, about using the local resources. Overall, a very good form of in-house learning. And some food for thought.

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