Asserting the Archivist in Archival Outreach: A Case Study and Appeal

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This post was authored by guest contributor Samantha Norling,
Archivist at the Indianapolis Museum of Art

The Case Study

In January of 2014 I began my current position as Archivist at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. At the time, the IMA Archives was nearly two years into a three-year-long NEH grant to digitize the Miller House and Garden Collection, which documents the design, construction, decoration, and maintenance of the iconic mid-century modern property in Columbus, Indiana. Outreach was built into the project from the beginning, with promotion throughout the life of the grant planned in the narrative. Not only would consistent promotion help to build an audience and keep interest high during the years-long digitization process, but social media outreach would also serve to bolster our fair use claim for sharing archival material created by dozens of third party copyright holders. According to the Association of Research Libraries’ Code of Best Practices and Fair Use:

“The Fair Use case will be stronger when the availability of the material is appropriately publicized to scholars in the field and other persons likely to be especially interested.”

The Documenting Modern Living: Digitizing the Miller House and Garden Collection Tumblr went live in September 2012 as digitization began. With a highly-visual format embraced by the design, architecture, and special collections communities, Tumblr was the natural choice of social media platforms for Documenting. It is also worth noting here that Tumblr staff fully embrace the GLAM community and promote special collections content and blogs regularly!

By the time that I came in as the IMA’s new Archivist (and Project Manager for the NEH grant), the Tumblr was well-established with a dedicated following that included design, architecture, mid-century modern, and archives/special collections professionals and enthusiasts. As Tumblr had been built into the digitization workflows, there were dozens of draft posts already created and ready to be posted at any time—each featuring at least one digitized item from the Miller House and Garden Collection.

DML Archives Screenshot 1

Screenshot of the Documenting Modern Living Tumblr archive, before “asserting the archivist”

While browsing through the hundreds of draft and published posts to familiarize myself with the Tumblr’s content and established editorial style, I saw rich textile samples, detailed architectural drawings, photographs of the property spanning decades, and correspondence between all parties who worked on and lived in the house and gardens. Though this content had proven to be popular with our audiences for more than a year’s worth of posts, it struck me that there was something conspicuously missing from this project-based Tumblr: archivists and professional archives work.

With many followers from the GLAM community, sharing our set-ups and workflows could make our project an example for the field and help other archivists avoid reinventing the wheel. But more important than this, we were missing an opportunity to introduce our non-GLAM followers to archivists as individuals and as the professionals who preserve and make available the unique collections and items that have captured their attention. It was clear to me that it was time to assert the role of the archivist in our collection-centered outreach.

My pitch at our next departmental meeting emphasized my intent to expand the scope of Documenting Modern Living—to stay true to the main purpose of the blog as a place to share items as digitization progressed, maintaining its editorial style, while adding additional content that would complement THE STUFF.  The first step would be to bring the archivists out of hiding, introducing project staff as people and as professionals in a “Meet the Team” series. The IMA had no security or privacy concerns about featuring staff and their work on social media, so there was no reason to continue obscuring/ignoring the role of the archivists. After all, the collection wasn’t digitizing and creating digital object records for itself.

The initial plan for the expanded scope included posts that shared project workflows and equipment, our professional presentations about the project, and the occasional post exploring archival concepts such as original order and preservation. Within this basic framework, there was room for fluidity and spontaneity, allowing us to take advantage of scheduled happenings (such as Preservation Week and Ask An Archivist Day) and share daily life in the IMA Archives (like the time that a new Miller House-related accession came in or when a curator used the archives to create a Lego Miller House)—all content which brought the archivists and/or professional archives work to the forefront.

DML Archives Screenshot 2

Screenshot of the Documenting Modern Living Tumblr archive, after “asserting the archivist”

The Documenting Modern Living: Digitizing the Miller House and Garden grant was completed in May of 2015, bringing a close to the active life of the project Tumblr. The Documenting Tumblr archive is still available online, and we occasionally post new links and re-blog relevant posts from the general IMA Library & Archives Tumblr. Out of 176 posts created between February 2014 (when we expanded the scope) and May 2015, 23 posts explicitly mentioned or featured archivists and/or archival work (approximately 13% of the Tumblr’s content). While none of these posts went “viral” (used as a relative term here based on our normal level of notes), these posts were much more consistently liked and reblogged by our audience than the item-centric posts, of which multiple received few-to-no notes. Even if our followers came for THE STUFF, it became clear that they were responding positively and interacting consistently when we shared more about ourselves and our work.

The Appeal

What we did by expanding the scope of Documenting Modern Living was not revolutionary (and at 13% of our total content, the new scope was not disruptive of existing Tumblr workflows or editorial style). Many repositories have featured archivists and archival work in their social media outreach, and many more are doing so today than there were a year ago, some on a regular basis. That being said, there is much more room for improvement in how purposeful we are about asserting the role of the archivists and professional archives work into future and existing outreach in all its forms.

It is all too easy to get caught up in featuring the items unique to our repositories in our outreach, especially when our audiences tend to react so enthusiastically to THE STUFF. It is those positive reactions that give us the perfect opportunity to introduce our audiences to archivists and the professional-level work that goes into preserving those collections and making them available. The very existence or creation of an archival outreach program, platform, page, etc. opens up the possibility of raising awareness of our profession, not just of our collections. It is exciting to imagine the collective reach and potential impact if all archivists recognize this possibility and become more purposeful about incorporating archivists and archival work into their repository’s outreach efforts. Dedicating 13% of the Documenting Modern Living Tumblr content to the archival profession may not have had much of an impact outside of the IMA Archives, but a dedicated 13% of outreach from all types of archives, representing every imaginable research interest (and therefore target audiences) has the potential to raise public awareness of archives and archivists in very significant ways.

Stay tuned for future posts on this blog which will feature successful examples of “asserting the archivist” in archival outreach. If you have a favorite example, or want to share your case study of incorporating the profession into your outreach, the editors would love to hear from you—share in the comments below or contact archivesaware@archivists.org to be a guest contributor to ArchivesAWARE!

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