Recently I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about the role archives can play in community based heritage initiatives. The bulk of my thoughts have centered on the idea that archives have the potential to become community heritage hubs and places of active history. Of course, just because archives have the potential to do this doesn’t mean they instantly become centers for community heritage. A tremendous amount of effort, planning, and outreach needs to occur for archives to become more than repositories and facilities for occasional researchers.
A colleague and I recently ran a professional development workshop on community based heritage projects. The workshop spent a great deal of time focusing on outreach and education programming our archive has undertaken in the past; while highlighting the resulting successes and failures of these efforts.
This presentation and audience questions pointed out the importance of archives knowing their audience and creating outreach geared to their audience. Similarly, most archives serve more than one type of patron and as such they require more than one type of outreach if they wish to appeal to a range of people. That being said, due to limited budgets and staff time a lot of archival outreach has a tendency to be broad ranging and not geared to a particular user group.
How can archives and other heritage organizations take an existing outreach initiative and efficiently make that initiative tailored to a range of users? Content development is probably the most important part of this process. It also tends to be the most labour intensive process. If you only have one handout for your archive or one set of research guidelines, consider spending some time creating additional content which can supplement existing handouts.
This might be as simple as creating different archive worksheets for genealogists, professional researchers, and students. Front-line staff most likely already know which resources are used most by each of these groups and what common questions are asked by each group – it is a matter of committing it to paper or online resources.
Picking the right medium for their message can be just as important as the content archives with to deliver. Paper resources are good for onsite visitors, digital content tends to appeal to students and distance researchers, interactive workshops may appeal more to community based researchers and genealogists than to academic researchers.
It might be tempting to do so for cost saving and efficiency’s sake but creating all your content in one medium simply doesn’t work. Different user groups want different types of information. It might be useful to conduct a user survey or to have front-line staff share user observations over a period of time prior to selecting a medium. There is no point in creating content in a format that people don’t find accessible.
Keep it simple. Outreach activities do not need to be these elaborately complex schemes that take years to bring to fruition. Start small and work towards larger outreach goals. This could mean starting by creating a facebook page, creating bookmarks with hours/archive info on them, or creating simple handouts that are given to new researchers when they arrive at the archive.
Outreach has the potential to be an enlightening and rewarding experience. Planning, thought, and time is required to create successful archival outreach programs. But, increased outreach can help archives learn more about how to better cater to their users, can help increase use of the archive, and can raise awareness about historical issues.