Finding the Hook

This post was authored by guest contributor David Carmicheal, State Archivist, Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and former Chair, SAA Committee on Public Awareness (COPA)

Good advocacy is always targeted to a specific audience—specific people who need to hear a specific message to drive a specific outcome. In governments, for example, that audience is often legislators who need to hear the message of how the archives benefits citizens so that those legislators, in turn, will be more likely to support the archives with adequate authority, budgets, facilities, and such. Every archives needs support from governing authorities, users, the public, and others who may need to hear targeted messages. But before the target audience can hear the message the archives must grab their attention; we have to find a hook.

Normally archivists use the historical documents themselves as the hook. We tend to believe that the thrill we get from our collections is felt by everyone. After all, what could be more exciting than holding an actual George Washington letter in my hands? Our outreach is often built on the premise that target audiences will visit the archives if we give them the opportunity to experience the delight of hands-on history. And while that often works, it’s not a guaranteed strategy. It’s a good idea, then, to think about other experiences you might use to encourage key audiences to visit the archives.

When the Pennsylvania State Archives held its annual display of William Penn’s original 1681 Charter in 2015 we decided that the excitement of seeing the original document might not be attraction enough for many. So, in addition to advertising the event we sent personal invitations to state legislators offering them a private, fifteen minute viewing of the Charter with the state archivist and an opportunity to have their photo taken with the document, which they could publish in their constituent newsletter or display in their office. More than sixty legislators accepted our offer—a record for the archives—with the happy result that we extended our two day viewing schedule to three full days in order to accommodate the requests. Many legislators brought along key staff members for the photo op (an opportunity for us to meet the people who create policy briefs and provide data to the legislators). Some brought family members, including their children, to see the document and be part of the photograph. All of them took the opportunity to ask questions about the Charter and learn how the archives helps to protect the legal and financial interests of the commonwealth and its residents, beginning with Penn’s Charter.

Tweet from the office of Pennsylvania State Senator John Rafferty following his visit to see the 1681 Penn Charter while it was on view this year. Rafferty is pictured with State Archivist David Carmicheal. View the Storify of tweets from this year’s Charter Day event.

A very different attraction drew staff from a key agency to the archives: a trip to the roof of the archives tower. The panoramic view from the top encompasses the city, the surrounding valley, and a distinctive bird’s-eye view of the State Capitol building. The first stop on the tour, though, was the ground floor meeting room where the visitors saw a display of key documents from the archives’ collections and heard a brief explanation of the value of the archives to the commonwealth. The route to the roof passed through storage areas and provided opportunities to discuss the records as well as the aging facility itself. No doubt some of the staff visited the archives solely because of the lure of the rooftop tour, but all of them came away excited about the documents.


The State Museum of Pennsylvania and State Archives Complex in Harrisburg, PA Source:_

Even if you don’t have a tower archives you can probably devise unique experiences that will attract key people to your archives. Just remember, it pays to think beyond the documents when you’re looking for the hook.

If you have examples of innovative archives outreach that you would like to share on ArchivesAWARE, read more about the editorial process on our About page and contact the editors at!

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)

Asserting the Archivist in Archival Outreach: A Case Study and Appeal

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This post was authored by guest contributor Samantha Norling,
Archivist at the Indianapolis Museum of Art

The Case Study

In January of 2014 I began my current position as Archivist at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. At the time, the IMA Archives was nearly two years into a three-year-long NEH grant to digitize the Miller House and Garden Collection, which documents the design, construction, decoration, and maintenance of the iconic mid-century modern property in Columbus, Indiana. Outreach was built into the project from the beginning, with promotion throughout the life of the grant planned in the narrative. Not only would consistent promotion help to build an audience and keep interest high during the years-long digitization process, but social media outreach would also serve to bolster our fair use claim for sharing archival material created by dozens of third party copyright holders. According to the Association of Research Libraries’ Code of Best Practices and Fair Use:

“The Fair Use case will be stronger when the availability of the material is appropriately publicized to scholars in the field and other persons likely to be especially interested.”

The Documenting Modern Living: Digitizing the Miller House and Garden Collection Tumblr went live in September 2012 as digitization began. With a highly-visual format embraced by the design, architecture, and special collections communities, Tumblr was the natural choice of social media platforms for Documenting. It is also worth noting here that Tumblr staff fully embrace the GLAM community and promote special collections content and blogs regularly!

By the time that I came in as the IMA’s new Archivist (and Project Manager for the NEH grant), the Tumblr was well-established with a dedicated following that included design, architecture, mid-century modern, and archives/special collections professionals and enthusiasts. As Tumblr had been built into the digitization workflows, there were dozens of draft posts already created and ready to be posted at any time—each featuring at least one digitized item from the Miller House and Garden Collection.

DML Archives Screenshot 1

Screenshot of the Documenting Modern Living Tumblr archive, before “asserting the archivist”

While browsing through the hundreds of draft and published posts to familiarize myself with the Tumblr’s content and established editorial style, I saw rich textile samples, detailed architectural drawings, photographs of the property spanning decades, and correspondence between all parties who worked on and lived in the house and gardens. Though this content had proven to be popular with our audiences for more than a year’s worth of posts, it struck me that there was something conspicuously missing from this project-based Tumblr: archivists and professional archives work.

With many followers from the GLAM community, sharing our set-ups and workflows could make our project an example for the field and help other archivists avoid reinventing the wheel. But more important than this, we were missing an opportunity to introduce our non-GLAM followers to archivists as individuals and as the professionals who preserve and make available the unique collections and items that have captured their attention. It was clear to me that it was time to assert the role of the archivist in our collection-centered outreach.

My pitch at our next departmental meeting emphasized my intent to expand the scope of Documenting Modern Living—to stay true to the main purpose of the blog as a place to share items as digitization progressed, maintaining its editorial style, while adding additional content that would complement THE STUFF.  The first step would be to bring the archivists out of hiding, introducing project staff as people and as professionals in a “Meet the Team” series. The IMA had no security or privacy concerns about featuring staff and their work on social media, so there was no reason to continue obscuring/ignoring the role of the archivists. After all, the collection wasn’t digitizing and creating digital object records for itself.

The initial plan for the expanded scope included posts that shared project workflows and equipment, our professional presentations about the project, and the occasional post exploring archival concepts such as original order and preservation. Within this basic framework, there was room for fluidity and spontaneity, allowing us to take advantage of scheduled happenings (such as Preservation Week and Ask An Archivist Day) and share daily life in the IMA Archives (like the time that a new Miller House-related accession came in or when a curator used the archives to create a Lego Miller House)—all content which brought the archivists and/or professional archives work to the forefront.

DML Archives Screenshot 2

Screenshot of the Documenting Modern Living Tumblr archive, after “asserting the archivist”

The Documenting Modern Living: Digitizing the Miller House and Garden grant was completed in May of 2015, bringing a close to the active life of the project Tumblr. The Documenting Tumblr archive is still available online, and we occasionally post new links and re-blog relevant posts from the general IMA Library & Archives Tumblr. Out of 176 posts created between February 2014 (when we expanded the scope) and May 2015, 23 posts explicitly mentioned or featured archivists and/or archival work (approximately 13% of the Tumblr’s content). While none of these posts went “viral” (used as a relative term here based on our normal level of notes), these posts were much more consistently liked and reblogged by our audience than the item-centric posts, of which multiple received few-to-no notes. Even if our followers came for THE STUFF, it became clear that they were responding positively and interacting consistently when we shared more about ourselves and our work.

The Appeal

What we did by expanding the scope of Documenting Modern Living was not revolutionary (and at 13% of our total content, the new scope was not disruptive of existing Tumblr workflows or editorial style). Many repositories have featured archivists and archival work in their social media outreach, and many more are doing so today than there were a year ago, some on a regular basis. That being said, there is much more room for improvement in how purposeful we are about asserting the role of the archivists and professional archives work into future and existing outreach in all its forms.

It is all too easy to get caught up in featuring the items unique to our repositories in our outreach, especially when our audiences tend to react so enthusiastically to THE STUFF. It is those positive reactions that give us the perfect opportunity to introduce our audiences to archivists and the professional-level work that goes into preserving those collections and making them available. The very existence or creation of an archival outreach program, platform, page, etc. opens up the possibility of raising awareness of our profession, not just of our collections. It is exciting to imagine the collective reach and potential impact if all archivists recognize this possibility and become more purposeful about incorporating archivists and archival work into their repository’s outreach efforts. Dedicating 13% of the Documenting Modern Living Tumblr content to the archival profession may not have had much of an impact outside of the IMA Archives, but a dedicated 13% of outreach from all types of archives, representing every imaginable research interest (and therefore target audiences) has the potential to raise public awareness of archives and archivists in very significant ways.

Stay tuned for future posts on this blog which will feature successful examples of “asserting the archivist” in archival outreach. If you have a favorite example, or want to share your case study of incorporating the profession into your outreach, the editors would love to hear from you—share in the comments below or contact to be a guest contributor to ArchivesAWARE!