Outreach and Collections. Encouraging Community Members to Play a Role in Saving History

Unidentified “orphaned” class photo from the author’s collection

By Melissa Mannon

History by its very nature is a collaborative field. Those working in the field aim to tell the stories of communities. We aim to shed light on diverse groups; to find similarities among us; to tell stories that shed light on the constant evolution of civilization. To properly accomplish the work of history, professionals need to actively reach out to members of our communities so that we develop relationships that invite understanding. Those of us who work to maintain the “stuff” of history – the documents, artifacts, and books – need to explain the value of family items to communities and to encourage unofficial family archivists to value history through a personal lens. We do this through effective “outreach.”

The word “outreach” is an umbrella term used to discuss the work library, archives and museum professionals do to encourage community engagement. Outreach can take the forms of programming and exhibits. Or, when people say “outreach” they may mean going outside of their institution to attend a community event in order to get the word out about their work. Outreach can also mean adopting a social media strategy that encourages the public to talk about collections and cultural heritage.

Outreach work involves a concerted effort on the part of an institution that seeks a receptive public. Additionally, it should seek to increase understanding about the value of cultural heritage work among those who may not immediately recognize it. In most cases, outreach does not happen naturally. Instead, active engagement must be initiated by the history professional with the goal of having the public – the non-history professional – value the goals for identifying, collecting, preserving, and sharing historical materials. When done well, the public should also feel that they are part of those goals and can help take responsibility for retaining the “memory” of society.

Lately, the subject of outreach has been swirling around cultural heritage professions. Museums, libraries and archives – our so-called “memory institutions” that work to preserve the documentation of history – are wondering how they can get people to more actively engage with their work. In my opinion, the best way is to make the community active partners in what we do. First, the professional must be open to this and recognize the role that the non-historian / non-professional can play. Second, they must actively and effectively show the public how they fit into a community puzzle.

Family correspondence, such as this letter about a day on a Midwestern United States farm, can reveal a lot about society in a certain time and place. From the author’s collection of “orphaned” letters

As an archives consultant I have recently had a small shift in my thinking. Where I once focused my consulting work on those employed in memory institutions, I have lately been giving more attention to the individuals who maintain “lost” pieces of history in their homes. People often do not realize that the documentation that they possess is important to a larger community outside of their families. History professionals need to tell the public this and by doing so, they are laying those foundations for open communication and an engagement that will help non-professionals better recognize the value of cultural heritage work.

A story I recently heard on NPR in the United States about a project by historian Noah Andre Trudeau that speaks to this point of view. Trudeau is seeking to tell the story of the last days of Abraham Lincoln from a different angle. He is seeking diary entries, letters, and other primary sources that shed light on these days. He is asking people in Virginia, where Lincoln spent time before his assassination, to look in their homes for these materials. In so doing, he is actively engaging the public in his work while also promoting his goals.

In my own experiences, one instance of engaging a member of the public stands out in my mind. I imagine this type of story will be a familiar one to colleagues, but perhaps not to non-professionals.  Working as a young archivist in the Special Collections of a public library, I found family materials mixed in with a collection that related to the writing of a book about the local community. The library had no formal documents giving it the right to keep the items. I wrote to members of families and asked each if we could create a written agreement giving the library these rights. One family member wrote back to say that he wanted to do that and that he had a few more materials that the library might want to own. He hesitated when he visited me with a box full of family materials. He said he was not sure that we would want these items. When I opened it, I found materials from his family members going back through the nineteenth century. These ancestors had participated in the Gold Rush, Civil War, Women’s Suffrage Movement and other major historical events in American history.

How could someone not realize these materials would be important to a cultural heritage institution or historian? In fact, now that I am focusing on this issue, I encounter this every day. When I give talks about family papers, audience members are excited about keeping THEIR family history. Then I introduce the idea of keeping this history for the community. There is some confusion until I talk about how the events in which past and present family members participate shed light on our society. I compare Civil War letters to the correspondence of soldiers in Iraq. I talk about how one family or even one person is just a microcosm of the community and times in which they live.

The author discussing the value and preservation of family materials at the Derry Public Library, Derry NH

Professionals need to get out and tell people this. In return, we can fill gaps in our collections, encourage partnerships in finding the “stuff” of history, and gain some loyal support for the work that we do. How we do it can fit a much larger blog post, but this mindset needs to be at the forefront of cultural heritage work. Recognizing that professionals and non-professionals can be — and I would argue that they need to be — partners in gathering and maintaining cultural heritage can drive all outreach efforts.

Melissa Mannon is an archivist and cultural heritage professional with almost twenty years experience focused on archives management, cultural heritage institutions, community building, cross-professional collaboration, and information literacy.  She can be found at archivesinfo.com

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