One Year, Nine Months, and Fourteen Days Raising Archival Awareness, and Counting

Archivists on the Issues is a forum for archivists to discuss the issues we are facing today. Below is a post from Sami Norling who is the incoming chair of SAA’s Committee on Public Awareness. If you have an issue you would like to write about for this blog series or a previous post that you would like to respond to, please email archivesissues@gmail.com.

It has been one year, nine months, and fourteen days since the Society of American Archivists’ Committee on Public Awareness (COPA) met for the first time and began to tackle our duties and responsibilities as set by SAA Council. The full description of COPA can be found here but, in short, we are tasked with identifying key audiences that SAA should target its advocacy efforts toward, and to help the SAA Council shape the form, content, and messages presented in those efforts. While there is some overlap between COPA and the more established Committee on Advocacy and Public Policy (CAPP) and the Issues and Advocacy Roundtable they both tend to focus more on opportunities for SAA to shape public policy (legislation) that affects archivists and our profession, institutions, and stakeholders. COPA’s brand of “advocacy” focuses on how we, as individuals and through our professional society, can promote awareness of archivists, archival work, and archives to various audiences.

The Committee on Public Awareness is a direct product of SAA’s Strategic Plan for 2014-2018, which places advocacy and raising public awareness as priority No. 1.

ArchiveAWARE image

The Strategic Plan outlines four ways in which SAA will work to reach this goal–three of which relate directly to the work that COPA has been asked to complete:

1.1. Provide leadership in promoting the value of archives and archivists to institutions, communities, and society.

1.2. Educate and influence decision makers about the importance of archives and archivists.

 1.4. Strengthen the ability of those who manage and use archival material to articulate the value of archives.

I entered into this committee appointment (my first within SAA)  fully expecting that the process of developing awareness resources, messages, and/or campaigns would be lengthier than I could imagine, with some very difficult and even unpleasant parts, but I have to admit that I wasn’t expecting the intense groundwork that would have to be laid at that first meeting before we could proceed with any actual planning–groundwork that required us to face head-on some difficult questions about the work that we do and the issues that we all encounter as members of a profession with a surprisingly low level of public visibility. By the end of that first meeting, we had come to terms with the fact that while we do a (relatively) good job at communicating with other archivists about the work that we do, the roles we play professionally, and even a bit about the value of archives and archivists, as a profession we have been unsuccessful at effectively communicating this to non-archivists. The good news is that we DO belong to an inherently interesting and important profession (and that’s not just something we tell ourselves as we work through grad school or the tedious parts of daily archives work, all while facing poor employment prospects and practices).

During that first committee meeting, we came to the conclusion that the audience that we would focus our efforts on would be professional archivists. At first, it may seem like an odd choice of target audience considering that our ultimate goal is to raise overall public understanding and awareness of the value of archivists and archives (after all, professional archivists likely already have a pretty good understanding of archival work and its value). However, we came to the realization that even though archivists have this understanding, many archivists may not have the ability or resources to effectively convey this message to their stakeholders, users, or communities, let alone the general public. By focusing on professional archivists in our efforts—providing resources, sharing ideas and examples, and creating a community of practice for successful, innovative outreach—we would build the capacity of thousands of archivists around the country to convey the value of archivists and archives to a potentially infinite number of audiences—something that we could never hope to do as a ten-person committee.

In the one year, nine months, and fourteen days since the first COPA meeting came to an end, work has been completed in fits and starts, with some notable highlights:

  • Promoting Kathleen Roe’s “Year of Living Dangerously for Archives” calls to action
  • The first #AskAnArchivist Day was held on October 29, 2014
    • 2,000+ participants and 6,000+ tweets (after only six weeks from idea to event!)
  • Launch of the “Archives Change Lives” campaign at the 2015 annual meeting, complete with promotional video (with archivists as target audience)
  • Second annual #AskAnArchivist Day held on October 1, 2014
    • 2,800+ participants and 7,500+ tweets (and a much more concerted promotion effort)
  • Launch of ArchivesAWARE! blog in February 2016
  • Launch of SAA’s new website on March 30, 2016, with a new emphasis on advocacy and awareness with some content aggregated by COPA members

These last two developments are particularly notable in that they reflect COPA’s growing capacity for sustained activity and productivity—something that many new committees struggle with in their early stages. At this time, the ArchivesAWARE! blog is the primary focus of COPA’s work. First conceived as a venue for taking static lists of advocacy/awareness resources and tools—like those listed on the new SAA advocacy pages—and breathing life into them by providing context and showing practical applications, the blog has become much more than that. With explorations into archival outreach theory, interviews with and articles from archivists who are actively creating and implementing innovative outreach projects/programs, an original comic answering the ubiquitous question: “What is an archivist?,” and so much more, ArchivesAWARE! is starting to become a vital community of practice for archival outreach.

As the blog continues to evolve, there is much to look forward to, with many opportunities for archivists to share the work that they are doing to raise awareness, not only of their collections, but of the valuable work that archivists do and the impact this has on their communities. The editors are always eager to hear from archivists with projects, programs, and thoughts to share. To read more about the submission process and editorial guidelines, visit the About page, or e-mail your ideas to archivesaware@archivists.org!

Sami Norling is the Archivist at the Indianapolis Museum of Art and incoming Chair of the Committee on Public Awareness.