The “Supporting and Building Emergent Archival Programs in the Northwest” grant is wrapping up as the project comes to a close this June. On March 21-22, project participants met in Portland, OR, to review the project and assess areas in which is has been more or less successful in helping them effectively advocate for archives programs on their campuses. They were joined by colleagues known throughout the region for their effective work on advocacy: Terry Baxter of the Multnomah County Archives, Michael Paulus of Seattle Pacific University, Jeremy Skinner of Lewis & Clark College, and Janet Hauck of Whitworth University.

Clearly, a project that focuses a group of institutions on working on advocacy together is an effective method for jumpstarting these efforts. The chance to share ideas, support one another, and to engage in some friendly competition has assisted participants.

It’s also apparent that advocacy must be part of normal operations, not an extra. As Larry Hackman suggests in Many Happy Returns: Advocacy and the Development of Archives, not advocating is no longer an option. It probably never was, but economic conditions now mean that a program that does not advocate is vulnerable not to suffer at budget time, but to be eliminated.

During a half-day of presentations and discussions, participants and guest speakers reflected on their experiences and shared the following:

  • Know what topics your collections can support. Have a ready “menu” of offerings for courses and other venues, so that when opportunities appear, they can more easily be ready for them.
  • Connect to the overall goals in the curriculum. Michael Paulus focused on how original source research can support critical thinking, reading, writing and other skills essential to a liberal-arts education. He’s used this framework to promote special collections at a liberal-arts college to very good effect. Show how the archives program provides rich experiential learning opportunities; they are a valued component of the liberal-arts education.
  • Connect with assignments so that students have a reason to be interested in archives and special collections. Students really have no reason to be interested in archival materials unless they have an assignment to complete. If your instruction sessions are currently show-and-tell, evolve them into active learning opportunities.
  • Understand that not all projects have to be elaborate and that there are lots of no- to low-investment, creative approaches. Jeremy Skinner focused on low-cost book collecting to support an exhibit program to show that not all projects require big financial investments.
  • Internal advocacy in the library is an important place to start. Ensuring that all members of the reference staff are aware of the archives as an accessible resource is an essential step. Otherwise, they are unlikely to think of the materials, search for them, or refer end users to you.
  • Apply for teaching and learning grants with faculty so that you have outside support for collaboration. These grants may be available from your institution. Janet Hauck has made significant use of this tactic.
  • Involving students in collecting materials for the archives is one possible activity that can build collections and student engagement. At Linfield College, students got involved in documenting the Oregon wine industry through oral history and digitizing selected materials for the institutional repository. These projects, among other things, have led to establishment of the Oregon Wine Archive at Linfield and the hiring of the College’s first archivist.
  • Tap into college- or university-wide initiatives like diversity, civic engagement, and development and show how your archives program can support them. Civic engagement projects can be particularly compelling in smaller towns.
  • Terry Baxter advised that it’s important to be more people-connected than stuff-focused. We often focus too much on the stuff—but it’s really all about people. Jeremy Skinner echoed that, saying that it’s more important to focus on what people are interested in then on what you think are your most important and interesting collections.
  • Become indispensible! At Whitworth University, Janet Hauck vowed that she would make herself indispensible to the campus. The result? In ten years, she has gone from a part-time temporary position to a full-time tenure track position and the use of the archival collections has grown by leaps and bounds.
  • Say “yes” a lot. In the Hackman book, a case study of the Butte-Silver Bow Public Archives in Butte, Montana, shows the value of saying yes more than you say no. The result? The Butte archives has become a truly essential resource for that community, and the community recently supported a bond measure for a much-needed $7.5 Million facility renovation in a town that has few resources.
  • Create a successful research experience for students. At Whitworth, Janet Hauck spends quite a bit of time selecting materials for classes to use that clearly fulfill the assignment their professor has given. As a result, the students gain familiarity with archival materials and with primary-source use without first getting frustrated by search challenges. The time and effort she spends pays off with increased use and essential connections with the curriculum.
  • Connections and personalities play a big role in program support and development. Develop and nurture those connections.
  • We can engage in many things deliberately, but have to admit that serendipity plays a significant role in creating major advances. Linfield can point to initiatives that have played roles in its success, but also admits that the alignment of stars plays a role as well.
  • The most effective events that can draw in new audiences start with fun: music, food and beverages, and a topic that interests a number of diverse individuals. Terry Baxter spoke about the Portland Archives Crawl, a wildly successful event in its third year. Thanks to popular television shows like the History Detectives and Who Do You Think You Are?, archives are no longer obscure and have many chances to attract the attention and support of diverse audiences.

Along with all the successes and good outcomes that participants and speakers reported on and discussed, there were also some challenges and barriers discussed.

  • Both participating institutions and the guest speakers admitted that connecting with faculty is difficult. Faculty at small colleges face significant time pressures and more demands on their time than ever before; archivists likewise juggle countless tasks and priorities. But it’s essential to gain the interest and attention of faculty and to beyond the history department. Finding good materials to support curriculum can be challenging but it well worth the investment. The archivist is best off preparing plug-and-play assignments, making use of the collections rather easy for faculty, taking materials out to faculty rather than asking them to come in.
  • Time management is difficult in either part-time positions–those where the individual has other duties for a portion of FTE–or where the management of the archives is a team responsibility rather than that of an individual. However, these part-time positions are the norm rather than the exception, and may have significant other benefits, as documented in Mary Manning and Judy Silva’s recent article on archivist/librarians.[1] A key solution here is to carefully prioritize and to explore what functions can be addressed on other ways. Seattle Pacific University, for example, stores the vast majority of its materials in an off-site facility. Materials are delivered to campus as needed, freeing up library staff for other tasks. Michael Paulus also spoke eloquently about the value of consortium for taking on tasks that don’t have to be done locally.
  • Sometimes we invest energy in the wrong people on campus—people who lack power and resources to help us advance the program. Choose allies carefully, and make sure that you have more than one so that a change in personnel doesn’t leave you scrambling.
  • If an archives program has been mothballed for some time or so understaffed that it was unable to support either curriculum or collecting on campus, re-establishing trust in the repository is the first and often long-playing challenge that the archives has to confront.

[1] Manning, Mary, and Judy Silva. “Dual Archivists/Librarians: Balancing the Benefits and Challenges of Diverse Responsibilities.” College & Research Libraries xx (March 2012): 164-175.