Focusing on the Practical Needs of Community Archives

Archivists on the Issues is a forum for archivists to discuss the issues we are facing today. Below is a post from Kris Bronstad about her survey that will gather much needed information on community archives.  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

Community archives are important. I’m not talking about the representative family or organizational papers sewn into the patchwork of a large manuscript repository, although those collections are important, too. I’m referring to independent community archives existing outside the reach of professional associations and networks, and representing communities chronically under-represented in relatively well-funded state or academic repositories. I think we intrinsically know, not just as archivists but as members of multiple communities ourselves, that these community archives are important, and have always been.

Many of these necessary community archives remain outside the traditional archives’ gravitational pull by choice. Some groups may be searching for technical advice or assistance, but are wary of asking institutional repositories. How can we offer our expertise as archivists in a way that respects community archives’ independence?  Archivists have been tinkering with the nuts and bolts of acquiring, organizing and making things accessible for a while now. Couldn’t we offer to supplement community archives’ own expertise with the practical knowledge we’ve acquired and already happily share amongst ourselves?  Although it would be foolish to assume such action would be free of the power dynamics existing between the state/academy/organizations we are agents of and the groups community archives represent, we believe the benefits of sharing what we know outweigh any potential harm of this interaction.

These were the conversations, among Sonia Yaco, Rebecca Hankins and I, that inspired us to consider developing resources aimed at community archives.  Through Sonia and Rebecca’s work with various community archives, we know at the ground level there’s a need for more resource and information sharing. While the UK and elsewhere have a history of infrastructure support for community archives, there seemed to be few publicly available resources here in the United States. This is of course with the exception of important work done by groups such as LAGAR, Library Juice and IMLS’s National Digital Platform. Definitely there are others doing similar, vital work.


But what are the needs of community archives? We found there wasn’t much information describing what aspects of archival maintenance community archivists want to know more about. Are community archives (and archivists working with them) interested in the technical aspects of arrangement, description, and access? Are outreach and legal issues bigger concerns? To find out, we need to know more about different community archives: who are the people who work with them, what are their needs, and how we can help if asked. We decided the best way of starting to ask these questions was to utilize the existing networks of individuals involved in both the professional archival world and in working with community archives. We’ve launched an online survey[i] asking our archival colleagues who have worked with community archives to tell us more about the communities they have worked with.

Finding and Defining Archivists

There are obviously some blurry lines here. The archival profession is elastic and defies strict definition. To get around that we’re surveying people who self-identify as professional archivists. If you have earned or are on track to earn a master’s degree in information science degree with archival coursework, or you are members of national professional organization for archivists, and/or are certified as archivists, you may recognize yourself as a professional archivist.

Why are we limiting the survey to those professional archivists I just attempted to describe? Our theory is that targeting professional archivists first and foremost­—and not individuals involved solely with community archives—gives us some practical advantages. First, it makes it easier to contact respondents. From where we sit, community archivists lack the same kind of visible, funded, and widespread specialized networks established used by professional archivists. Secondly, querying professional archivists increases the chance that respondents will be comfortable with archives-specific terminology and analyzing archival needs.

Focusing solely on professional archivists also provides obvious disadvantages. We’re not tapping the expertise of community archivists themselves, who have the most important say on the matter of their own communities and practices, and who have information and experiences professional archivists could learn from. We’re also guilty of not directly tapping the expertise of archival educators, who have done an enormous amount of work with community archives. Archival educators are theoretically a target population of our survey, but we didn’t know how active and prolific their relationships with community archives actually can be. We we will need different questions to properly investigate their work.  Listening to these communities (community archives themselves and archival educators) are essential areas of inquiry, and those investigations will hopefully constitute our next steps. Surveying those practitioners who work directly with community archives and are also plugged into professional networks is our first step.

 What do we want to know?

While our main goal was to figure out what tools were needed, we wanted to take the opportunity to find out about community archives themselves: what kind of materials they collect, broadly what sort of community they serve (Is it a community of interest? Location? Identity?). We also want to know what tools the archives have in place. These are all important in deciding the focus of future resources.

Some of the other questions we ask respondents concern:

  •  What help is most commonly requested of archivists interacting with community archives
  •  What issues the respondent has had trouble helping community archives with, if any
  •  What the respondent would most like to see in new resources for community archives

We will also collect demographic information about our respondents, including type of employer, country of residence, age range, and education. This is part of our attempt to understand if there are discernable patterns in which professional archivists have relationships with community archives.

Are there questions we’re not asking that we should be? Resources we’re overlooking? You tell us (please). This is an ongoing exploration.

If you have worked with community archives, we invite you to take the survey. The survey will be available until 11:59pm on June 27. You can find it here. It will take 10-30 minutes of your time given how much information you want to give, and will be anonymous.

If you have already taken the survey, thank you.

Kris Bronstad is an Assistant Professor and Modern Political Archivist at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville Libraries.

[i] ARCHIVIST RELATIONSHIPS WITH AND ASSESSMENT OF COMMUNITY ARCHIVES SURVEY UTK IRB-16-02885-XM — TAMU IRB 2016-3010 — UIC IRB 2016-0350. If you have questions at any time about the study or the procedures, contact me the researcher, Kris Bronstad, at If you have questions about your rights as a participant, you may contact the University of Tennessee IRB Compliance Officer at or (865) 974-7697.