Outreach and an Archive’s Purpose: Finding Users as Well as Donors

This is a guest post from Andrew Harman, Archivist at the Center for American War Letters Archives at Chapman University.

Archives have two main functions: to preserve and to make available materials of historical value.  This is the purpose of an archives and its archivist – the “why” of what we do.  Each are equally important foundations of the profession as well as functions of individual archivists’ daily work. Without preserving materials, there is nothing to make accessible. Without making materials accessible, what is the point?

Since the inception of our repository, the Center for American War Letters Archives, outreach has been primarily curatorial in nature, focused almost exclusively on donors and what materials we can add to the collection.  We reach out to potential donors, conduct speeches and meetings at historical societies, and publish articles in targeted newsletters and columns.  Our current campaign, titled simply the “Million Letters Campaign,” was established in the hopes that we can continue to build our holdings to such a level that we are the preeminent repository for American war letters in the United States.  We are hopeful and look forward to the work we continue to conduct in processing and preserving these collections in this endeavor.

The work of the existing program, however, covers only the first function of an archives.  Our repository already houses the largest collection of its kind in the western U.S.; however, there is a lack in exhibit visits, researchers, student use of the materials, and general awareness of our existence.  Our outreach efforts need to shift toward scholarship and making these materials available to a wider audience.

I have begun a push for more researcher-driven outreach, including getting our name and brochures out to other academic institutions and similar repositories.  My motivation behind this initiative is to give our archives “purpose.”  In communicating what that purpose is and why we should reach for it, I have encountered some obstacles from our library administration.  Some administrators, whom I will note are not archivists or historians, have raised some questions that not only did I have a hard time answering, but that I could not adequately justify answering.

Their questions consisted of overall purpose-related questions – “why reach out to researchers?” – as well as specific expectations-related questions – “what is it that we hope to achieve by increasing use of the collections?”  These are valid questions.  Outreach costs money as well as time.  The organization must present a professional face, and it is the administration’s job to understand an initiative’s purpose, its cost, and its yield.  But while I found myself having a hard time adequately explaining the importance of outreach to our administrators, I have since been able to elucidate it this way: an archive preserved but unavailable, in this case because of lack of awareness of the collection, is essentially a room full of blank pages.

Yet the questioning continued, with administrators asking what a reasonable expectation would be if such outreach was conducted.  Do we want two researchers a week?  Ten each month?  A new research interaction, or pulling materials for a scholar or student every day?  What was it that we were seeking in the end?  Once again, I found myself without words.  I could not picture coming up with a specific number, only maintaining what I know to be true about the two functions of archives and wanting “someone” to use them.

As I contemplated these questions, I came to a couple of conclusions.  First, the purpose should be self-explanatory.  As I laid out above, I should not have to answer the question of why we would want researchers to use our archives.  My question is, “why not?”  I understand that the administration of an academic institution looks not only at scholarship, but also expansion.  Sometimes simply having the collection is enough.  But as an archivist and historian, inversely, I feel saddened when invaluable primary sources go unused and uncited in the writing of scholarly works.

The second conclusion pertains to the question of specific expectations.  I have none, nor should I.  I cannot know how many people are going to come in to see these invaluable historical collections.  I cannot know to what degree twenty researchers in a month, as opposed to five, constitutes a significant or worthwhile count for foot traffic or online downloads.  The principle of making these materials accessible – to conduct outreach so that others may view and hear about them – is all that matters.  It should be imperative that we make every researcher in the U.S. aware of our holdings, within reason, and if it turns out only five want to see them, then I did my job.


Photo courtesy of Andrew Harman

Andrew Harman is a native of Orange, California and earned a BA in History and MA in War and Society at Chapman University, with archival training through the Society of American Archivists and Society of California Archivists. He currently works as an archivist for the Center for American War Letters Archives and Huell Howser Archives at Chapman, and has several published articles in history and on the archives profession.

Keeping ArchivesAWARE: News and Highlights

This is the latest entry in our series Keeping ArchivesAWARE: News and Highlights, a recurring roundup of some of the latest archives-related news stories, features, commentaries, announcements, and projects that have caught our eye, with links to the original sources.

On Al Jazeera, Patrick Gathara argues that the path to colonial reckoning in Africa lies in the return of colonial archives – the “thousands of official records and documents that trace the history of subjugation, oppression and looting of the continent by the European powers” – to the continent.

In late March, St. Louis firefighters’ rescued the majority of the Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum’s collection while subduing a major fire that damaged the museum building.

Cornell University’s Department of History and the Cornell Institute for Social and Economic Research recently launched Freedom on the Move, a crowdsourcing project compiling a database of “runaway ads” documenting fugitives from North American slavery.

The Council of State Archivists has issued its Statement on Texas Legislative Records to express concern on House Bill 1962,  which would change “existing statutes governing archival records of the Texas legislature” and place those records at risk.

The Verge reports on the Internet Archive’s efforts to preserve Google+ posts before the service is permanently shuttered this month, a move Google announced in October 2018 after a major security breach exposed user data.

Ernie Smith writes in Associations Now about how the Arms Control Association tapped into its institutional archives to mark the fortieth anniversary of an influential 1979 article co-written by its then-executive director, William Kincade, describing the effects of a potential nuclear attack on St. Petersburg, Florida.

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports on Housing Our Story: Towards Archival Justice for Black Baltimore, a project launched by scholars and students at Johns Hopkins University to correct “systemic archival neglect.”

William J. Maher, representing the Society of American Archivists, recently presented a statement to the World Intellectual Property Organization’s Standing Committee on Copyright and Related Rights at its meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, stating that WIPO “must step forward to establish broad standards for exceptions that recognize the non-commercial work of archives to preserve and make available the world’s cultural heritage.”

In March, it was reported that the social media site Myspace permanently lost all data that had been uploaded to the site prior to 2016, the result of an apparent faulty server migration.

The Library of Congress recently acquired a collection of artist Georgia O’Keeffe’s letters.  The collection had been discovered by a couple while cleaning out their new home in Santa Fe, New Mexico, which had previously belonged to the widow of O’Keeffe’s friend and documentary filmmaker Henwar Rodakiewicz.

The Catholic News Agency reports that the Vatican will be be opening the secret archives of Pope Pius XII in March 2020, making the records of the leader of the Catholic Church during World War II – totaling approximately 16 million documents – available for research.


Have some interesting archival news items or highlights you’d like us to share?  Email us at archivesaware@archivists.org and we may include it in our next Keeping ArchivesAWARE roundup!

There’s an Archivist for That! Interview with Lilly Carrel, Archivist, The Menil Collection

This is the latest post in our There’s an Archivist for That! series, which features examples of archivists working in places you might not expect.  In this post, COPA member Vince Lee brings you an interview with Lilly Carrel, Archivist at the Menil Archives, part of the Menil Collection in Houston, Texas.

Archivist Lilly Carrel outside of the Menil Archives. Courtesy of The Menil Collection, Houston. Photo: Anthony Flores.

VL: How did you get your gig?

LC: I joined the Menil Archives in July 2018. Previously I worked as a project archivist at the Bentley Historical Library at the University of Michigan. I earned my Master of Science in Information Studies from the University of Texas at Austin and since graduating my goal has always been to return to Texas. After two project positions, I applied to the archivist job opening at the Menil. I was particularly drawn to the position because of the diversity of job responsibilities including records management, digital preservation, and all aspects of the archival enterprise. I also felt a deep connection to the institutional mission to make art accessible and a commitment to social responsibility and justice. I have no background in art, but I love that as an archivist I am able to apply my expertise in records theory and practice to different content and promote this extraordinarily rich collection of art-related records.

VL: Tell us about your organization.

LC: The Menil Collection is an art museum located in Houston, Texas in a 30-acre neighborhood of art, and houses the art collection of founders John and Dominique de Menil. The Menil Collection includes the main building, designed by architect Renzo Piano and opened in 1987, the Cy Twombly Gallery, the Dan Flavin Installation at Richmond Hall, the Byzantine Fresco Chapel, and the Menil Drawing Institute, designed by Los Angeles-based architects Sharon Johnston and Mark Lee (Johnston Marklee) and opened in November 2018.

The Menil Collection and its diverse neighborhood of art is governed by the Menil Foundation, established in 1954 by the de Menils. Prior to the opening of the Menil Collection, the de Menils had active partnerships with the University of St. Thomas and Rice University and organized many important and influential art exhibitions. The Menil Archives is the institutional repository for the Foundation and is responsible for acquisition, organization, preservation, and access to museum records and special collections.

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VL: Describe your collections.

LC: The Menil Archives was founded in 2000 and its primary function is to identify, collect, organize, preserve, and make accessible records of informational and evidential value to the institution. The Archives primarily document the functions and activities of the Foundation including records of the board of trustees, exhibition history files, building projects, and museum departments such as Curatorial, Collection Development, and the Business Office. The Menil Archives also holds a number of special collections including the papers of art critic and collector Rosalind Constable, curator Jermayne MacAgy, and artists Jim Love and Roy Fridge; family papers of John and Dominique de Menil; and research papers from Menil-funded publications including the René Magritte and Jasper Johns catalogue raisonnés.

The Archives total approximately 2,500 linear feet and includes records in all formats—textual, audiovisual, born-digital, photographs, film, architectural drawings, ephemera, and some objects. The Menil Archives has a limited number of inventories available on its website and in 2019 will begin contributing finding aids to Texas Archival Resources Online (TARO), a state-wide consortium of archives, libraries, and museums.

VL: What are some challenges unique to your collections?

LC: Museum archives are an interesting type of archives. Often departments need to maintain physical and intellectual ownership of their records because, in a sense, they are always active. Example include conservation records which may document treatments of artworks, or artwork object files frequently referenced by curators and registrars. This can lead to confusion as to what records “belong in the archives,” but also offers opportunities to collaborate and facilitate a post-custodial approach to recordkeeping. Since joining the Menil, I’ve been exploring ways to improve records management practices with a particular focus on electronic records and digital preservation. I think digital preservation offers creative ways to enhance the post-custodial approach and ensure important records are preserved.

VL: What is your favorite part of your job?

LC: The Menil Archives is an exciting place to work! Every day is different and I love the dynamic nature of working in a two-person shop. I am fortunate to collaborate with excellent colleagues including Lisa Barkley, Archival Associate, who has been with the Menil since 2008. Every day presents new opportunities, projects, reference inquiries, and I am always learning. I also feel fortunate to work for an institution with a keen sense of its own history, that values and seeks out the rich archival resources available to staff and the public.


Original captions for the photographs included in the slideshow had to be shortened in order to fit into the slideshow window.  The full original captions are provided below:

  • The Menil Collection. Photo: Kevin Keim.

  • Dominique de Menil and artist Jim Love, Rice University, 1972. Courtesy of Menil Archives, The Menil Collection, Houston. Photo: Hickey-Robertson, Houston.

  • The De Lux Theater, Houston, 1971. Courtesy of Menil Archives, The Menil Collection, Houston. Photo: Hickey-Robertson, Houston.

  • Peter Bradley (center) and others installing art for “The De Lux Show” De Lux Theater, Houston, 1971. Bradley, an artist, curated the exhibition. Courtesy of Menil Archives, The Menil Collection, Houston. Photo: Hickey-Robertson, Houston.

  • Installation photography of “The De Lux Show” De Lux Theater, Houston, 1971. Courtesy of Menil Archives, The Menil Collection, Houston. Photo: Hickey-Robertson, Houston.

  • Exhibition history records, Menil Archives. Courtesy of The Menil Collection, Houston. Photo: Anthony Flores.

  • Creating an inventory for a recent accession. Courtesy of The Menil Collection, Houston. Photo: Anthony Flores.