Innovation and Outreach: Making Sense of Creativity and Opportunity


This post was authored by guest contributor Jill Severn,
Head of Access and Outreach at the University of Georgia’s Richard B. Russell Library


Innovation is a critical ingredient for providing outreach. An archives that follows the same approaches, rules, and standards even as its constituents raise new concerns and develop new needs and interests risks losing support by patrons and stakeholders, prevents connections to new users, and may demoralize or disconnect staff from the mission of the archives. Despite these consequences, this scenario certainly happens. The question is why?

Typically, there are two reasons that archives eschew innovation in the context of outreach. The first reason stems from a perceived lack of resources or expertise. Many archivists working in small repositories with few staff and small budgets find it challenging to think about engaging in active or new outreach programs. They cite insufficient time, staff, and financial resources to do more than provide basic services. They also see outreach as outside their essential activities. The second reason stems from a perceived level of success. Archives with this perspective often have popular collections that do not require significant outreach to attract patrons, or they have a captive audience that must use the archives collections for purposes related to work, legal issues, or other matters. Also, some archives do not receive a strong imperative from their respective stakeholders or parent bodies to refine and expand.

Some archives assume that what was good enough before will always be good enough. The problem is that the status quo almost never persists forever. New stakeholders replace old and have new expectations; patron interests shift; and resources wax and wane. When this happens, organizations that cling to the same old formula for success experience tremendous upheaval and face a daunting game of catch-up.

Archives with limited resources face stagnation or decline if they ignore the value and potential for growth that outreach provides. Operating within a profession swept up in a romance with technology, small archives with limited technical expertise may find it challenging to imagine, value, and pursue innovative outreach that is not driven by cutting edge technology. This perspective is shortsighted. Small archives can communicate their value and potential to new and existing audiences/supporters in innovative ways by employing simple, low technology strategies. Innovation is not necessarily synonymous with technology! At the same time, not all technology is expensive and often a modest investment can yield big results. Open source technology that is free to all who use it and open to further development is a boon for all archives small and large. Yet obtaining greater access to technological tools through open source or other means is not necessarily going to move every archives to the cutting edge. Innovation requires more than the technological ingredient.

Quite simply, innovation is the act of introducing something new—no more no less. In recent years, for many societies living in the developed world, this definition has become imbued with a strong connection to technological advances, particularly in the digital/Internet realm. Ask Americans what innovation means to them and most will say “new technology.” Of course, this is an important aspect of innovation in today’s context. New devices that entertain, educate, control, connect, and separate people play a crucial role in defining the lives and interactions of most Americans. Yet the definition of innovation does and should encompass much more than just new types of technology, and in the context of archival outreach it is worth widening our focus to embrace this broader view.

According to Egils Milbergs of Accelerating Innovation:

Technology plays a leading role in innovation, but it isn’t the only factor. What were once disruptive technologies now are commodities. Technology can be the establishing base for innovation, but people are the ones that drive it forward. Technology is really only the mechanics of the process. Real innovation is about great people generating and then implementing new ideas.¹

The most important aspects of innovation are not the tools that one employs to create it, but a posture or philosophy towards the entire process. The essential ingredients for innovation are: confidence, self-awareness, irreverence, creativity, and humility. Looking at innovation in this more expanded way, several key postures are worth adopting:

  • Be open
    • Learn what others have tried; seek new ideas and new ways of approaching challenges.
  • Embrace change
    • Accept that change is inevitable and learn to see change as a positive opportunity.
  • Use technology wisely and appropriately
    • What technical tools and resources are available? What is the cost and what will be the benefit? How have other archives used these tools? Are there tools available that are aimed at different user types that could be re-purposed for your needs?  Does the tool or resource offer a sandbox or demo option so you can experiment before adopting?
  • Know oneself and one’s Institution
    • Assess the organization’s goals, resources, needs, challenges, and opportunities through dialogue with staff, faculty, patrons, and colleagues.
    • Outreach should inform every phase of archival work so remember to brainstorm with the widest swath of your institution; this is where you will get great new ideas and fresh vision.
  • Multiply connections
    • Establish relationships with individuals and organizations that multiply connections–see patrons as donors, donors as patrons, patrons as cultural tourists, advisers as students, students as collaborators.
  • Embrace reciprocity
    • Look for relationships where each party can learn from one another, share with one another, support one another.
  • Be daring, but be humble
    • Seek or create working environments where risk and experimentation are valued. Do this by example and by supporting those who take risks and experiment. Build experimentation into planning and goal setting—“what are we going to test or try this year?” Take time to debrief and process after you try something new. The effort does not have to meet established goals to be successful; to be successful it is important to understand why it was successful or why it failed.
  • Be an opportunist
    • Always be mindful that a person one might meet or the experience that one may have may well lead to something exciting.
  • Husband the most important resource—archives staff and colleagues
    • Archivists cannot be innovative 24/7. It is vital to take time to recharge the batteries; take stock, savor success, examine problems, and rest.

¹Egils Milberg, “The Future of Innovation,” HR Funda:  Enabling Excellence by Fostering Collaboration, April 2006. (accessed September 16, 2008)

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