Outreach Programs: Can They Really Help Archives?

by Moya K. Mason


Historically, archives have been considered places where old documents, important papers, photos, and genealogical records have been kept safe from destruction. Coupled with this reality, has been the assumption that archives are not places which people frequent in search of information or anything else for that matter. Of course, a small percentage of the population is aware that archives are open to the public, especially historians and those involved with genealogical associations. However, for the most part, archives are not the first thing that comes to mind when there is a need to find out something, and that is the inherent problem of operating such an institution.

If they can hope to increase the use of their facilities, archives must develop programs and services which inform the public about their holdings and reference procedures. Everything must be justified these days and it is no longer good enough to point out the value in preserving the past, when large portions of society consider last week a long time ago. As the world continues on its rapid pace of constant change, and as sense of place breaks down, our temporal synthesis is eroded, there is no longer anything distinctly local and particular about our experiences, and there emerges a global culture, that has a flavour of sameness. Distinctions between local and global are dying out across the planet. This makes it increasingly difficult for archivists to point to local collections of history as having value, when there is so much out there to access. This is especially true considering the ongoing problems archives are having with bibliographic control and how few archival documents are entered into library databases when compared with the numbers of books.

Studies have shown how easy it is for archival materials to get lost in a system which is being overwhelmed by a profusion of published information. Nor is it possible for most patrons to identify an archival record amongst the medley of others in a library database. Therefore, archivists need to find alternative ways to expose their collections to the public and find procedures which will work, while keeping in mind that "use cannot take precedence over conservation of the materials, [and] therein lies the public service dilemma of archives" (Wilson 1990-91,94). In an essay entitled Towards a Vision of Archival Services, Ian E.Wilson states "that in a democratic, information-based society, there exists a basic social right to equitable and free access to archival services, and archives must restructure their services to respond to this right" (Wilson 1990-91,92). This essay will investigate some of the possible ways in which an archive might seek to inform and educate researchers, students, donors, record creators, and the general public about its goals, programs, and holdings, and establish why outreach activities "teach people that archives are places to which they may come for information" (Ericson 1990-91,119).

The First Step: Internet Access

The future is with electronic documentation, and it will be utilized as much as possible. One way an archive can begin to garner the respect they need is to develop a web site explaining how their institution works, and what kinds of information sources may be found within the walls of such a place. Freenets are often a good place to start, since they are community-based, and attract a multitude of people from all walks of life. Statistically, it is difficult to say how much awareness you may create from developing an Internet site, but it still must be considered a requirement. In addition, many academics are heavily involved with web-based resources and the proliferation of electronic media, and therefore, this would be a good starting point for many archives.

The other approach would be to have a site which advertises your outreach program, not exclusively focusing on individual holdings. For example, the Maryland State Archives in Annapolis has a web page describing the courses that are taught in the archives, details of "an innovative computer-based teaching environment and methods that capitalize on Web-like technology, highlighting an inter-active computer equipped seminar room, an information system, and training facilities" (Maryland State Archives 1997). The other program that is used is an Internship, which pays for college and high school students to learn about archives, and become interested in historical methods and research. All is explained on the site, as well as a list of their exhibits, including Charting the Chesapeake, 1590-1990, and Providence Plantation. They even have the Governor of Maryland, Parris N. Glendening, teaching a first grade class on what it means to be a citizen of that state. Finally, they have an ongoing exhibit entitled Museum Without Walls on the world wide web. The Internet provides an opportunity for archives to get started in public relations without having to pay for an expensive advertising company or newspaper ads. The results can be parlayed over to other outreach programs which can ensure that the historical records will be used (Ericson 1990-91,114).

An Array of Solutions to Overcome the Isolation and Invisibility of Archives

In Paper Archives to People Archives: Public Programming in the Management of Archives, Gabrielle Blais and David Enns say that not until the 1980s did we begin to see any serious interest on the part of archivists to make their holdings more accessible to the public, and even now, it is seen as a luxurious expense which often is placed on the back burner (Blais 1990-91,101). At the same time, they point out that many of the exhibitions which have been put together by archivists are more suited for other professional archivists, and not the general public (Blais 1990-91,105). By anticipating and planning for the future, outreach programs can really help to build interest (Ericson 1990-91,119). Of course, if exhibits are put together with the public in mind, they do offer a relatively cheap avenue for exposure of archival materials (Wilson 1990-91,95). Exhibitions are really useful, especially if they are tied in with historical celebrations or holidays such as Thanksgiving. There are other things which can be undertaken, such as workshops and publications, and as Wilson points out, archival finding aids can be used as exhibits (Wilson 1990-91,94).

Ann ten Cate discusses something called Exposystem, which is a portable display unit that can act as a travelling road show -- great for those small communities that do not have much access to cultural materials (Cate 1990-91,30). As well as developing teaching kits, and public speaking engagements. With all the different resources that are currently available archivists must do their best to fight for a piece of the market share, by increasing their visibility factor any way they can. As Timothy L. Ericson points out in Preoccupied With Our Gardens: Outreach and Archivists, archives have a fundamental duty to undertake outreach projects on an ongoing basis, and the process should be clearly stated in archival mission statements, thereby, making the process one that has short and long term goals attached to it (Ericson 1990-91,115). He lists things like "public presentations, workshops, brochures, guides, media features, displays, audio-visuals, curricular exercises, [and] news releases," to name a few suggestions. Community television exposure is also an excellent forum with which to spark the public's interest, especially if some of the more interesting fonds are highlighted.

Ann ten Cate's suggestions are more directed at small archives, while pointing out that much of the turmoil concerning reaching out to the public to bring them into the collected materials, has been rooted in the traditional distinction between viewing archivists as 'record-keepers' and 'records-givers' (Cate 1989,28). This has resulted in a sort of veil being lowered between those who care for archival materials and those who may need to utilize them. And is exacerbated by the fact that some archives cater to scholarly types, who can bring some accolades for them when a book is published. They have different rules of openness for genealogists, children, and other members of the public (Cate 1989,28-29). This may be a good time to ask the question which has been raised by some of the writers interested in outreach programs for archives, and that is, should archivists continue to preach to the converted?

Should we, as Timothy Ericson asks, "persist in scanning the horizons of our reading rooms waiting for the elusive academic historians?" (Ericson 1990-91,118). Wilson indicates that this is also reflected in the hours of operation for most archives. By focusing on academics, historical societies, and genealogists, archives have also set their hours to accommodate these sectors of society, at the expense of others (Wilson 1990-91,97). No evening or weekend hours are commonplace, and that fundamentally establishes who can and cannot come to see the holdings. For instance, it means that children cannot come unless they are with a class of thirty others and that is not always beneficial for anyone. Nor will those who work for a living be able to explore the mass of recorded knowledge that is waiting to be uncovered. For as Ericson writes:

The goal is use. We need continually to remind ourselves of this fact. Identification, acquisition, description and all the rest are simply the means we use to achieve this goal. They are tools. We may employ all these tools skillfully; but if, after we brilliantly and meticulously appraise, arrange, describe and converse our records, nobody comes to use them, then we have wasted our time (Ericson 1990-91,117).

Any measure that will bring more people into a publicly funded archives will usually help to justify funding at existing or hopefully enhanced levels. Resources are allocated on the basis of perceived needs, and it is next to impossible to convince public agencies to support some abstract cultural imperative, such as the preservation of our archival heritage. The archivist needs to create an identity for his or her agency within the community and work constantly to increase local awareness of the value of archival services. Central to the planning of an outreach program is the identification of the user community and client base. Management issues that have to be addressed as part of an outreach program include such things as increasing staff workloads, increasing demand on archival holdings that cannot be sustained over the long haul and avoiding barriers because you are stepping on someone's toes.


As with many other professions and society in general, the archivists' world has been turned upside down by the introduction of electronic sources and the inherent problems of making sure they are created properly or in a format that will prove beneficial for information retrieval practices. As Blais and Enns indicate in their paper, in some ways, electronic documents are as fragile as old paper-based materials, and have made it apparent just how much the world of records management is changing. Archivists must change to keep up with society in general (Blais 1990-91,102). What the introduction of electronic sources has also done is to take up time and resources from other areas of archival management, including outreach programs, of which there are some great possibilities.

The problem with all of these terrific ideas for outreach programs is we must always keep in mind how little money most archives have historically received, with budgets continuing to be cut every year. Is it not enough to expect archivists to inventory and develop finding aids for fonds arriving on an ongoing basis, as well as work with the creators of electronic records, and help the patrons? Should we also expect the few staff members to create, find money for, and initiate outreach programs, while they provide workshops for school children, cater to genealogists, and court academics? One must remember that these people are not superhuman. With enough money and clout, any archives could be as well-known as Coca-Cola, couldn't they?

However that is not being realistic, and so, archivists must at least try to do some of the things mentioned in this essay to expose the materials under their care to all strata of society. Since unused archival records provide little in the way of keeping the past illuminated and alive, and "that use provides the ultimate justification for archives," it is important to work towards programs that facilitate outreach (Blais 1990-91,107). Of course, outreach programs can garner support for and increase the use of archives, if handled properly, but there is no magic potion. Just make sure to do something every day to shed some light on the important knowledge that archivists are the caretakers for. Keep in mind that ideologies of what constitutes knowledge, what is important to hold sacred, and how to relay that to our patrons, must be a major part of the job description for archivists. All these components add up to more donors being aware of the services offered by archives, and therefore, keeps important avenues open for collection development. Or as Barbara Craig has written:

Exploring the archival home is a voyage of constant discovery . . . The pleasure of discovery which we have often seen in one researcher should stimulate us to make the joy of discovery in records a part of the experience of every user . . . the challenge before us would seem to be how to expand the archivally literate public; how to communicate our excitement to the researchers; how to infect them with this same excitement; and in the end, how to create public programmes which do precisely that (Craig 1990-91,141).

Related Papers

Bibliographic Control for Archival Materials
Archival Descriptive Process: Our Quest for Standardization
Archival Arrangement: Ensuring Access to Materials
Glynn A. Leyshon Fonds Finding Aid


Blais, Gabrielle, and David Enns. From Paper to People Archives: Public Programming in the Management of Archives. Archivaria, no. 31 (Winter 1990-91), Supplement: Public Programming in Archives, pp. 101-113.

Cate Ann ten. Outreach in a Small Archives: A Case History. Archivaria, no. 28 (Summer 1989), pp. 28-37.

Craig, Barbara L. What are the Clients? Who are the Products? The Future of Archival Public Services in Perspective. Archivaria, no. 31 (Winter 1990-91), Supplement: Public Programming in Archives, pp. 135-141.

Ericson, Timothy L. "Preoccupied With Our Own Gardens": Outreach and Archivists. Archivaria, no. 31 (Winter 1990-91), Supplement: Public Programming in Archives, pp. 114-122.

Maryland State Archives. Education and Outreach. Available at http://www.mdarchives.state.md.us/msa/homepage/html/educ.html

Wilson, Ian E. Towards a Vision of Archival Services. Archivaria, no. 31 (Winter 1990-91), Supplement: Public Programming in Archives, pp. 91-100.

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