Steering Share: What Archivists Can Learn From Public Libraries

Steering Shares are an opportunity to find out more about the I&A Steering Committee. This post comes courtesy of committee member Samantha Brown, Assistant Archivist at the New-York Historical Society.


    The other day I was having lunch with some colleagues when the conversation inevitably turned to our experiences in graduate school. As per usual, we discussed the classes that were useful, the classes that were useless, and the changes needed to modernize MLIS programs. Most of my colleagues complained that the programs are out of date. The comment that struck me the most was the person who mentioned that their graduate program made them take a class on public libraries that they felt was unnecessary. To them, there was nothing they could possibly learn from that class that would apply to their career in archives. At the time, I wanted to stand against this person but everyone agreed with him and the topic quickly changed.

    I would love to say this was the first time that I’ve heard similar comments but it was not. Even on interviews, people have questioned me about why I would even consider working in archives or special collections when I’ve worked in public libraries for so long. Despite both being information agencies, people see archives and public libraries as disparate entities that can’t possibly have anything in common or benefit each other in any way. Having worked in public libraries for at least seven years before finding work as a professional archivist, I can clearly see how the two could  benefit and learn from each other.

    One of the biggest lessons that public libraries can teach archives is about outreach. In many of the archives I’ve worked in, both in graduate school and now professionally, they treat outreach as something passive. An archive might put out a blog, create an exhibit, or host a talk but most of the outreach depends on the public finding the information themselves. In public libraries, outreach is handled completely differently. A library may have blogs, exhibits, and talks but they don’t depend on people stumbling across these things themselves. The staff goes out into the community around them to try and bring people into their institution. For example, when I worked as a library assistant, a large part of my day consisted of reaching out to community groups and local schools to try and work with them to create library programs and to teach them about how the library can serve their needs. Although archives serve a different role, reaching out to the communities around them creates a beneficial resource to that community. By building relationships outside of your normal circles of interaction, a community outreach program brings in new users and helps people understand the value of the many collections archives house.

          While there may be a number issues facing the library world, division within the ranks shouldn’t be one of them. Archives and public libraries have different functions and serve communities differently, but we need to support each other and learn from  each other so that we can all gain the benefits of sharing information with others outside our normal circles of interaction. If we can see the value in the work others are doing then we can come together and fight against other more pressing issues in the world.

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