Bryan Whitledge is Archivist / Manager for University Digital Records for the Clarke Historical Library at Central Michigan University. He currently serves as vice-chair of the Society of American Archivist’s Committee on Public Policy (SAA-COPP).
Have you ever considered how archives are funded? – we are talking about a true assessment of where the dollars are coming from to support archives and enable all of the work to collect, preserve, and make historical documents accessible? Chances are, it is a twisted knot of all sorts of tangled threads. And chances are, one of those threads, if we chase it to the end, involves some sort of federally backed public funding. Maybe it was a one-off grant for a small preservation project in the past couple years. Or maybe, years ago, there was major building renovation helped by a federal matching grant. Or maybe an archives is home to an ongoing multi-year project employing several people. Federal spending surely does not make up the bulk of archives expenditures at institutions across the country, but it does account for millions of dollars each year. And these dollars are often the difference between a particular project seeing the light of day or sitting on the shelf for another time.
So how does this money make it into the federal budget to be doled out to archives? Well, it doesn’t magically fall out of the sky. Nor does Uncle Sam have a particular soft spot for archives, history, and the humanities. The robustness of the programs that support the work of archivists and our researchers is because of the advocacy efforts of people across the country—people who, for generations, have worked to inform legislators about the importance of supporting archives, history, and humanities-related projects.
National Humanities Advocacy Day
For several years, professionals and students from across the country have traveled to Washington, DC, each March for a major humanities advocacy effort. In 2021, everything went virtual, but the goal is still the same: advocate at the federal level, with a core focus on increased funding for the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). As those who work in humanities-related fields know, the NEH isn’t the only federal program that supports humanities learning, teaching, and research. For this reason, the organizers and advocates also include an archives-specific prong to their advocacy agenda: increased funding for the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC), and the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). This is National Humanities Advocacy Day.
The name, “National Humanities Advocacy Day,” is a little misleading – it is not just a single day, but rather a major event put on by the staff of the National Humanities Alliance (NHA) and affiliated organizations. In the lead up to the event, NHA staff do much of the legwork of coordinating the advocates, scheduling meetings with legislative staff members (and, on occasion, legislators), gathering research on each legislator, and producing the concise information handouts for advocates to pass along to congressional offices.
In the days leading up the day of advocacy, advocates from each state are introduced to each other and they attend sessions to learn about legislative advocacy and the major messages NHA is asking advocates to hammer home. The NHA staff also provide advocates with research tools to find information that can be helpful when talking to a legislative staffer. For example, if a group of advocates is trying to speak to the local impact of NEH funding, there is no better source than the lists of grants awarded to a particular representative’s district. When an advocate can tell a Congressional office that the NEH has distributed $5 million of grant funding to seven different organizations in the district over the past 10 years, that gives a legislator something to think about in terms of the impact on their constituents.
In addition to information gathering and message honing, the days before Advocacy Day are used to fire up the participants with an inspiring keynote address. In 2020, the keynote, which included a special shout out to the archivists in the room (three of us), was delivered by Dr. Carla Hayden, the Librarian of Congress.
After a good night’s sleep, it is time for the big day – a day that could have upwards of ten meetings with different congressional offices. Advocates head to their meetings armed with their messages, their packets of information to leave with staffers, and their “I’m an Archives Advocate” pin (or another humanities-related slogan). Each meeting centers on the same kernel of information: funding for archives, humanities, and history is of critical importance.
But each meeting is a little different. For the legislator whose Facebook profile photo shows their family aboard a historic tall ship that sails the Great Lakes, maritime history is the ticket. For the staff member who mentions finding a copy of their ancestors’ naturalization certificates in the National Archives, family history is the angle. For the office displaying flags from all of the branches of the military, this is the occasion to talk about the NEH-funded programs to collect veterans’ stories as well as the services offered by NARA to support veterans.
So, what is the goal of walking miles back and forth between congressional office buildings for a bunch of 30-minute meetings with staff members who have hours of meetings each day (or clicking links for back-to-back-to-back Zoom or GoToMeeting video chats)? In some cases, the goal is action—asking a legislator to sign on to a letter of support. In other cases, the goal is getting on the legislative staff members’ radars during the budget drafting process so that they keep an eye out for archives, history, and the humanities in the proposed budgets. In yet other cases, it is about forging a relationship with a congressional staffer, someone who you can call on when there is a matter of urgency—and someone we can help when they need an archives and humanities expert.
SAA and Public Policy Advocacy
National Humanities Advocacy Day also allows archivists to connect and build strong relationships with our humanities advocacy partners. This past year, as the COVID-19 public health emergency took hold, SAA asked members to complete a series of NHA surveys about the needs of archivists and the impact of the humanities in our everyday lives. Last year, as Congress went to work crafting emergency funding bills in response to the pandemic, NHA staff used the information gleaned from these surveys to ensure that the $75 million for the NEH in the CARES Act would specifically include archive. While over 80% of NEH CARES grant applicants were denied because of the overwhelming need for emergency support for cultural organizations across the country, dozens of archives jobs were preserved by the funding and the Council of State Archivists received a grant that helped CoSA weather the crisis.
This year, two members of SAA’s Committee on Public Policy—Jess Farrell and me—were among the contingent of archivists who joined in the National Humanities Advocacy Day efforts. We show up to support our state advocacy groups and to offer an archivist’s point of view to the conversations. There is no shortage of work to be done and many members of SAA will continue to team up with our partners to advocate for archives and the humanities at the federal level.
But this will not be enough. Advocacy for archives at all levels of government will be imperative for archives to survive the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond. For those who want to be more involved in telling policymakers of the importance of archives, SAA has many members who are happy to provide archivists with more information and guidance. You can start by checking out the public policy advocacy resources on the SAA site or contacting a member of SAA-COPP.