Blog Entry 13: Your Collections Are Your Best Weapons

It may seem like simple common sense to many of us, but it’s a point that bears repeating.

When a repository is engaged in institutional outreach or other advocacy-related programs, the best resource you can bring to bear is the richness of your collections. I doubt very much that there is an institution anywhere without a record, a manuscript, or an object that would not immediately draw the eye, catch the breath, or fire the imagination of an audience.  (And if you work at one of those institutions it may be time to consider changing your collection policies!) These are the kinds of materials that you should be trying to bring to people’s attention - whether prominently displayed in exhibits, pictured in promotional literature, brought out for viewing in pre-arranged visits by potential or actual donors, or otherwise publicized.

Archivists have a built-in cultural advantage, which we should try as professionals to make more use of. Yes, on the one hand we are sometimes mistaken for librarians, and sometimes people think that our workplaces consist of nothing but piles upon piles of old paper. On the other hand, when I tell people I’m an archivist, one of the most common reactions is “Oh, wow! Do you work in a place like that scene at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark?” Well, no, I don’t, per se, but I do work in a place that has all sorts of interesting things, not necessarily in the public’s eye but which would inspire awe and fascination if they knew about them and could see them. *That* is our advantage: people often see us as keepers of hidden treasures.

Who isn’t inherently curious to see the rare, the old, and the valuable - the papers and objects that have been used and read and handled by our ancestors and thereby have emotional resonance? After all, that’s why so many visitors come to the National Archives in Washington, D.C. to see the original Declaration of Independence and Constitution. Who isn’t curious to see what’s hidden? After all, that’s why that scene in Raiders is so fascinating: what wonders is the U.S. government hiding in those hundreds and hundreds of boxes?

We can be very effective advocates for our institutions and our profession as a whole if we can exploit this particular view of archivists. And we can best do this if we smartly and strategically deploy our best weapons – our most interesting items – for the public’s attention.  Create exhibits that highlight these items and show them off to the best advantage and with the appropriate context. Be sure to call attention to these items during repository visits or during talks and lectures that you give. In general, appeal to innate human curiosity!

Even if you lack items or collections that have universal appeal in this way, it certainly should be possible to present materials from your holdings that have tie-ins in some way to current events or ongoing phenomena. In this way you not only are showing off items in your holdings but are publicly and proudly championing the relevance of your institution for today’s audiences.  This is another way of engaging with the public and providing a method for institutional advocacy.

Remember: an institution is the sum of the collections it houses. Your most effective way of widening your appeal (and thereby encouraging donations of materials and funds) is to bring those collections to the fore, particularly those collections with items of intrinsic human interest.