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.

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