Steering Shares are an opportunity to find out more about the I&A Steering Committee. This mid-year post is from I&A Steering Committee member Laurel Bowen, University Archivist at Georgia State University.
In the last few months, the Issues & Advocacy Section has been adding new content from the history and historic preservation professions to our Toolkit. In a separate venture, many members worked on research teams to find information about legislators that could help SAA advocate on our behalf.
Thinking about both projects, I wonder if we, as archivists, should (1) look to a broader range of professions for joint or coordinated advocacy; and (2) craft a value statement for archives that is as relevant and compelling as those done by the history and historic preservation professions.
We hear that “all politics are local”—that to get and remain elected, politicians must first focus on their home community and constituents. A legislator whose constituents are passionate about their region’s wide open spaces may more readily support funds for parks, while a lawmaker representing an urban area that has fallen on hard times may lean toward funding historic preservation as a means of revitalizing that city.
But these initiatives are not mutually exclusive. The National Park Service manages not only natural areas but historic sites, monuments, buildings, and collections related to them. The National Trust for Historic Preservation advocates for “saving places,” but how can either built structures or natural areas be restored to their former glory without documents, photographs, and objects that describe and illustrate what that past glory was? Archives, libraries, museums, parks, historic sites—all provide ways to understand communities, places, and their interrelationships over time. As a profession, we already work cooperatively with the library and history professions—why not with the historic preservation and park people as well?
Dennis Meissner tells us that compelling advocacy needs to be grounded on “data that speak to the archival value proposition: economic impact, audiences served, outcomes achieved.” The Preservation Leadership Forum (National Trust for Historic Preservation) has stepped firmly in that direction, linking their work to
- engaging diverse communities;
- “promoting building reuse in cities as essential to economic growth and vibrant communities”;
- being environmentally responsible and creating “economically vital, socially equitable, and strong resilient neighborhoods.”
In addition, they articulate their value to those who redevelop property, and speak about their “new relationships” with historic sites (that often include collections) and with federal agencies that manage our vast historic and cultural resources.
The history profession, through the History Relevance Campaign, is also identifying “the value of history in contemporary life.” History is essential because it:
- nurtures personal identity in an intercultural world;
- teaches critical 21st century skills and independent thinking;
- lays the groundwork for strong, resilient communities;
- is a catalyst for economic growth, drawing people to communities with a strong sense of historical identity and character;
- helps people craft better solutions;
- inspires local and global leaders.
And finally: “Through the preservation of authentic, meaningful places, documents, artifacts, images, and stories, we leave a foundation upon which future [generations] can build.” At the bottom of all this…lies archives! Surely we, as archivists, can craft as compelling, clear, and relevant a value statement as colleagues in allied professions.
As archivists, we know the inherent power of archives and how archives can be used in meaningful ways to change lives. In my university archives are documents that:
- provided proof of employment and its length so an employee could claim retirement benefits;
- enabled an alumnus to reconnect with a former classmate, pleasing both the older gentleman and his state legislator who made the request on his behalf;
- estimated the cost of a former student’s education so he could claim his fair share of the estate of his deceased relative (and former benefactor).
Similarly, records are important in local governance. In my community, I’ve used:
- court and county records to support our neighborhood’s position that a proposed commercial development abutting our homes wouldn’t enhance the livability of our community or the value of our homes (it was defeated);
- planning documents to reveal that drawings of a proposed development didn’t include generous greenspace (the lawyer colored the parking areas green);
- government engineering records to dissuade an eager decision-maker from quickly approving an expanding business that wanted to avoid connecting to a sewer line.
The archives we know, and that we use in powerful ways to change lives, are the underpinnings that support, strengthen, and insure the validity of the work of other professions. Some of the same themes that flow through both the history and historic preservation value statements could be adapted to an archives value statement.
Ultimately, it’s about how communities can live and grow together through the years in harmony with each other and with the places they occupy. We live in challenging times. Working with a wider variety of allies could help us compete more effectively for those dwindling resources. As one of our Founding Fathers remarked upon signing the Declaration of Independence, “We must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.”