Blog Entry 7: Prioritization: How to Pick Your Battles

There are a lot of opportunities for archival advocacy out in the world. Institutions are always facing budget or resource cuts. Archival materials and collections are always under threat from neglect or destruction. Archivists are always searching for new audiences for their collections, and reacquainting old audiences with the fascinating and important items in their care.  In short, it’s almost too easy for a thoughtful archivist to find ways of making her voice heard on behalf of her collections, her institution, or her profession as a whole.

In these more economically stringent times, archivists don’t have the time, energy, or resources to advocate actively for every worthwhile endeavor.  (If they did, I suppose there might be less need for advocacy at all!) Archivists who care about an issue need to think strategically. Where can your best efforts and the most effective use of your available resources be put?  What issues have the most priority for you?

There are several factors to consider when deciding how to prioritize your advocacy efforts.

1.     Your time.

Different advocacy activities require different amounts of time. Writing a letter of support can be accomplished relatively quickly, whereas, say, coordinating a larger-scale campaign to raise awareness about a particular issue will, of course, require much more of you. Make sure the issue in question is worth the time it’ll take to make advocacy successful.

2.     Your available resources.

Sometimes advocacy campaigns require the commitment of money, supplies or other institutional resources. Will this be an effort that could become expensive, and if so, are the potential benefits greater than the potential costs?

3.     The potential impact on your institution.

As we noted above, advocacy opportunities run the gamut from local and immediate to your institution, to those that may affect archives in your city or state, to those that may impact the profession as a whole.  With limited time and money at your disposal, something you might consider would be advocacy efforts that most directly benefit your own collections and/or institution. It’s a case of thinking locally rather than globally, which is not always a bad thing at all. These kinds of advocacy activities have the advantage of you being immediately present to coordinate them; of having a direct impact on your own work; and of you already having an understanding of the administrative situation and of audiences that may benefit from your efforts.

4.     The potential impact elsewhere.

You might want to explore the range of advocacy opportunities available to you, and consider carefully which ones will have the biggest influence overall. Perhaps the National Archives and other federal-level cultural institutions face massive budget cuts that will have a drastic impact on repositories nationwide. Perhaps a noted museum or historical society is changing its mission and has announced plans to deaccession and auction off its holdings to private collectors. Perhaps Congress is preparing to pass a law that will severely reduce public access to government records. These are all large-scale events with an immense potential impact on archives, on researchers, or on the freedom of information. All of them might benefit from your own advocacy efforts, and may be worth the extra time and energy to pursue.

5.     Your personal beliefs.

After all, you’re a concerned, thinking citizen as well as an archival professional. You should feel free to put your actions towards where your beliefs reside. [Now this may, of course, be more difficult for public archivists whose advocacy activities may be limited by statute or government regulation, but you should be able to advocate as a private citizen.] With all the efforts out there that require strong archival advocates, you shouldn’t feel pressured to give your valuable energies towards a cause you don’t support, or do so only tepidly.  Find one that touches your heart and your concern, and act accordingly.


Whatever the case, it’s important to keep in mind that you shouldn’t feel overwhelmed by the sheer mass of advocacy opportunities that get your attention, or that you’re a poor professional if you’re not equally concerned about them all. It’s a big world out there for interested advocates, with many chances to become involved as an advocate should you feel the right cause come along.


Jeremy Brett