This post was authored by guest contributor Erin Lawrimore, University Archivist, University of North Carolina Greensboro
If someone asks “why is your archives important?,” how would you answer? Is your archives important because it preserves and provides access to important historical materials? Does its importance stem from its ability to foster a sense of community and “place?” Perhaps your response would focus more on its ability to provide accountability or serve as evidence of past actions. All are wonderful responses. But, when you are talking with a resource allocator – particularly one who has no past experience with archives – lofty ideals and notions of identity-building or remembrances of past events often aren’t going to cut it when they want to know why they should give you a sliver of the big (but shrinking) money pot. You need concrete evidence of the impact that your repository has in order to ensure that administrators’ support continues.
There are many ways to assess an archives’ value. From circulation numbers to gate counts to collection growth, each number gathered can provide useful clues as to how your archives is changing (or should be changing) over time. But, numbers alone do not make an effective argument for the archives. In order to advocate for your repository to administrators and others who hold the purse strings, you must frame these numbers in a way that fits their overarching missions and goals.
You must place the archives within the greater picture of your parent organization. To do this, of course, your parent organization must have clearly identified goals and objectives (hopefully it does, but, if not, that’s a whole different post!), and your archives must define its mission and purpose within those broader goals. How does your work contribute to the mission of your parent organization? For instance, a university archives is often housed within an academic library at a university. You should be able to clearly articulate how your archives directly impacts the library’s main objectives. If your library’s stated objective is to support undergraduate education, how does your archives contribute to this goal? How does your work help support undergraduate education at your institution?
Often you will need to advocate for your repository with administrators at an even higher organizational level. Returning to the example of the university archives, you may need to also consider how your archives contributes to the goals of the university (of course, ideally, your library’s goals will be in line with those of the university). Remember that you will often be advocating for your repository with non-archivists who, in all likelihood, are heavily focused on the present bottom line. Can you articulate the value of the archives in terms that non-archivists use and understand?
Once you understand and can articulate your value within the larger framework of your parent organization, you can then turn to the various metrics you have collected. How does each measurement demonstrate that you are contributing to the mission of your organization? For instance, return to the example of the library that is particularly focused on supporting undergraduate learning. A gate count of the number of undergraduates attending teaching sessions in the archives is one way of demonstrating your value to the library’s mission. But, that number might get lost in the world of general information literacy courses which most (if not all) undergraduates are required to attend at some point in their academic career. Perhaps adding information on the number of research hours accrued by undergraduate students coming into the archives for class assignments (as opposed to more basic instructional sessions) would enhance your advocacy and your ability to tie the unique contributions of the archives to the mission of the library.
Archives, libraries, and other cultural heritage institutions will always have the challenge of having numerous indirect and collective benefits that may not always be easy to directly measure and quantify. Yes, your archives holds unique information that can’t be found anywhere else and ensures that it is accessible now and in the future. But proving why that is important and why funding must be maintained (or increased) to support that role is critical to ensuring you get the money and support you need to do all of the work that goes into meeting that broad mandate.