Saturday, August 15, 2009

SAA 2009: Taking Archives to the Streets: Creating Sustainable Archives (Session 509)

Shoreline of Lady Bird Lake, Austin, Texas, as seen from the Congress Street Avenue Bridge, 14 August 2009.

There’s been a lot of talk at this year’s meeting about the need to reach out to local- and community-based archives, and my own interest in the subject led me to attend this session, which focuses on the Basics of Archival Continuing Education (BACE) curriculum developed by the National Forum on Archival Continuing Education and the American Association of State and Local History (AASLH). Several of my colleagues were actively involved in the development of BACE, I was consistently impressed by what I saw of it, and I wanted to learn how other archivists are using it.

Sandra Clark of the Michigan Historical Center discussed the development of BACE, which was intended to provide basic archival training for individuals from grassroots organizations, diverse communities, and allied professions by incorporating non-traditional approaches to delivery, the findings of adult education specialists, and leveraging technology. The workgroup (comprised of people from New York State, Ohio, Michigan, and AASLH) learned it was really hard to create a one-day workshop, sacrificed archival theory for archival practice, and used common English. It also focused on enrollees’ wants and needs, not what the group thought they should want and need, and took into account the differing needs and skills of instructors and students and the differences between the in-person and online environments. The end result: a workshop curriculum distributed to and available from all 50 state archivists and an online workshop offered by AASLH.

Sarah Canby Jackson of the Harris County (Texas) Archives detailed her use of BACE as an outreach tool for the archival profession. After Hurricane Katrina, archivists were confronted with the pressing need to educate people about the importance of local records, and BACE can play an important role in teaching local records holders to care for their records.

Jackson devoted the remainder of the session to offering some practical guidance for BACE instructors, many of which will be useful to presenters of other archival workshops
  • If at all possible, share facilitation/teaching responsibilities with multiple archivists, which eliminates fatigue and promotes networking.
  • Modify the curriculum to meet the needs and interests of your students (BACE makes it easy to do so). Do not attempt to present BACE without carefully reviewing it first!
  • Plan in advance: determine your schedule, your enrollment cap (25-30 is ideal), whether you will charge a fee (and whether you will incorporate membership fees for an area archival organization into the workshop fee), whether you will provide lunch, and what will be included in the packets distributed to enrollees.
  • Bring in supplies so that you can demonstrate actions.
  • Interact with participants during breaks and lunch and cultivate relationships with them -- you want to encourage them to contact you if they encounter problems in the future.
  • Figure out how you will publicize your workshop. I’ve done publicity via e-mail and flyers, local genealogical newsletters, and have targeted offerings to various constituencies (e.g., church groups, historical societies).
Shelly Henley Kelly of the University of Houston-Clear Lake outlined the results of several surveys documenting BACE’s use and reception. According to a Council of State Archivists survey, BACE’s distribution varies widely: some states have sent curriculum CD’s to every local government and historical organization, while others rely on their own training programs or can’t stray from their narrow legal mandates. Another survey indicates that BACE attendees are drawn from a wide array of backgrounds: religious groups, community organizations, local historical associations, historians who hoped to figure out how to locate records, genealogists, librarians with archival duties, paraprofessional staff, volunteers, and student assistants, and local government personnel. Moreover, a survey of Houston-area enrollees indicated that all of them were confident about their ability to work with archival records, find records in a repository, and many had contacted their instructors after the course. All of them saw the course as worthwhile, and many of them wanted more in-depth information about processing.

During the brief discussion that followed, Elizabeth Dow offered an interesting observation: she and her colleagues in Louisiana piloted BACE by allowing people to work through the curriculum CD in a classroom and then drawing them into a discussion. They discovered that people really liked working through the CD at their own pace but needed to be in a room together; people attempting to review the materials by themselves tend to lose their enthusiasm. I hope that other archivists experimenting with new ways of delivering training make use of this insight.

I really liked the practical thrust of this session, which packed a lot of valuable information into a 60-minute timeslot, and I'm glad I dragged my sleep-deprived self out of bed for it.

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