Tweets from SAA’14

I could not attend this year’s meeting of the SAA, so I followed along on Twitter. Below are a selection of my favorite tweets from the conference:

Archives in Pop Culture: Doctor Who

Archival Materials

Archival Materials

In The Crimson Horror (Season 7 Episode 12 of Doctor Who), the Doctor’s companion, Clara, is outed as a time traveler by the children she babysits. Although it is not made explicit, she is, in fact, outed due to the children’s access to archival materials.

In the episode, the children confront Clara with three historical photographs that provide evidence of her recent travels in time and space. A portrait from the 1800s, a snapshot from 1974 (in a haunted house), and a snapshot from 1983 (in a Russian submarine) comprise the photographic evidence. The children claim to have found the photos “at school.”

Although  the Victorian-era portrait could have been digitized for its sheer cool factor, the photograph from 1974 was almost certainly from someone’s personal papers, while the 1983 photograph may have been part of a government records group. Were these children involved in an archives outreach and digitization program? I say yes.

Archives in Pop Culture: The Forger

Because of my interest in the role that archives played in the John Drewe/John Myatt art forgery case, I was naturally eager to see The Forger, a 2012 movie about (wait for it), an art forger. In this case, a teenage prodigy stumbles into the business of creating and auctioning rare paintings.


Because The Forger is a coming-of-age story, the details of art forgery did not play a large role. Although I was prepared to give the movie a long leash of artistic license, I was severely disappointed by one specific, archives-shaped plot-hole: during the auction at which a forged painting is to be sold, the villainous character claims that the the painting “was thought to have been lost or destroyed in World War I. But it was found, perfectly intact, and with a verifiable provenance. The characters go on to do a live infrared analysis of the canvas to “prove [the painting's] authenticity beyond a doubt.”

The process by which the villain produced this “verifiable provenance” is never shown, and the value of chain of custody documentation is unfortunately not addressed other than the brief mention above.

Networking is Outreach

Networking is outreach. And a good networker is going to excel at promoting their archives.

Networking experts agree that the scattershot approach (i.e. attending a conference and handing out your business cards to strangers) is worthless. Networking is effective only if you concentrate on connecting with specific people based on compatible goals and shared interests. Similarly, promoting your collections to the “general public” is a scattershot method (putting information and/or digitized material on your institution’s website doesn’t mean much if nobody knows about that website).

An effective outreach strategy targets specific communities and individuals.

A group of people in Bobba Fett costumes

Can you guess the interests of these conference-goers?

Conferences are a convenient way to access a large group of people with shared interests, so it is well worth your time to identify several conferences that draw the specific kinds of people that are likely to be interested in your archival collections. Being intimidated by attending a conference is no excuse; as archivists, it is part of our mission to “make available” our holdings-and we are all well aware of the barriers that finding aids (even the encoded ones available on the web) pose to potential users.

Either you to go to the audience and get their attention or your collections remain (or become) invisible.

However, attending a conference in person is not always feasible or the best use of your time; daily work demands, limited funds, and geographic limitations are barriers for many of us. But we all know that you don’t necessarily need to be at a conference in person to get a sense of what ideas are getting people excited-all you need is a Twitter account.

I love how Twitter facilitates community-building; through it, I’ve meet archivists and librarians from all over the country, interacted with people whom I admire greatly, and have even met a possible distant cousin. For archival outreach, following the conference on Twitter can be a great way to scope out people that are likely to benefit from your archival holdings and reach out to them.

Below are some resources for getting started. Like all things, how you proceed will depend on your archives’ holdings and mission, but I hope that we can all put our networking skills to work in the service of our collections.

Sample conferences:

Expanding the Circle: Creating an Inclusive Environment in Higher Education for LGBTQ Students and Studies (San Francisco, CA)

Good for: Archivists who have LGBTQ collections

National Association for Multicultural Education Annual Conference (rotating location) 

Good for: Archivists who have & want to promote collections related to a historically underrepresented groups and/or social justice movements

Bonus: This organization publishes a journal, Multicultural Perspectives. This can be a good opportunity to target an article on your collection(s) to this audience.

American Historical Association (rotating location)

Good for: Archivists that are looking to connect with historians in niche fields; this is more of a “safe” conference to attend – guests are more likely to know what an archivist does. This is a good conference to keep an eye on the program; depending on the year’s sessions, an archivist might find a really good targeted outreach opportunity.

Historical Novel Society Conference (London, UK)

Good for: Archivists that are familiar with historical novels. I know that the authors of these novels love to do research and to, as much as possible, get the history right. This could be a good opportunity to connect with some authors who tend to write in areas that coincide with your collections; archival research may be the thing that leads to their next novel idea!

Ready to start targeting your audience? Start here, with the Teaching Conferences Directory.

The author photographed with a Dalek

Me, at the non-archival conference that I regularly attend.

Lessons Learned From Conducting Outreach via Facebook

“If the goal is to make a collection maximally cool, then we need to build up the context in such a way that it appeals to a wider variety of people — we’ll call them ‘the public.’  This may mean pulling in resources from many different places, even if it means that the end product contains a very small proportion of our own collection material.  This is what we try to accomplish by making an exhibit, whether online or in a gallery.”

-Matt Herbison

Matt Herbison’s blog post, Useless and Boring: The four types of archives collections, gets to the heart of archival outreach, and outreach done via social media is all about being “maximally cool.” Facebook, in particular, acts very much like an online exhibit that allows your audience to easily interact with and share your posts (i.e. reach a wider audience). And people tend to share the cool stuff.

With this in mind, I began posting content to the North End Historical Society (NEHS) Facebook page in January of 2014. At that time, the page had 414 fans.

My Goal

To organically build our Facebook audience and to increase the audience’s engagement with the Facebook page.

Where to Start?

While discussing Facebook at the March NEA meeting, Erik Bauer recommended posting photos, postcards, quotes, and trivia; these items are the most engaging to his institution’s Facebook audience. But while Bauer (and other well-established institutions) has collections from which to draw content, NEHS is only a few years old and does not yet have extensive collections. Instead, I rely on freely available content on the web.

My posts include photos, news articles, and videos that highlight some aspect of the North End. I pull content from the Boston Public Library’s Flickr sets, the Library of Congress, Google’s digitized historical newspapers, YouTube, and contemporary news sites. I have frequently found good content while conducting unrelated research, and often find excellent leads on Wikipedia.

What Works Best?

Although the North End’s history includes the colonial stories of Paul Revere, the Old North Church, and the Mathers, the most engaging posts on Facebook have been about the neighborhood’s recent history – between 20 and 60 years ago. This is not surprising – the majority of our audience consists of adults who spent their childhoods in the North End, and the popular posts allow the audience to reminisce about that time.

One unexpected hit was a post about the Molasses Flood. Although the event had been noted on the NEHS Facebook page in prior years (always on the anniversary of the event), the 2014 post went viral – it reached 2,763 Facebook users! For a page with under 500 fans, this is an extraordinary reach. It shows that there is sometimes serendipity at work, and that it’s worth marking the anniversaries of notable events every year.

The Result

As of this writing, the NEHS Facebook page has 491 fans (an increase of 18%) and a consistent level of engagement via “Likes” and “Shares.” 

Archives are to She’s All That as Libraries are to Drive Me Crazy

Drive_me_crazy_poster Shes_All_That

In broad strokes, these two movies (and institutions) are the same. Prom is coming, and the cool kid needs a date, fast! The perfect prom date is hiding in plain sight, disguised as (*gasp*) an asocial dork. The ensuing makeover makes everyone truly notice and appreciate the prom date for who he or she truly is. High school love ensues. The end.

In Drive Me Crazy, the cool kid knows the perfect prom date – he’s her next door neighbor. In fact, everyone at school knows him, but they mostly ignore him. His few friends are loyal, but they too are ignored by the rest of the student body. He’s a great guy, just not cool. There are barriers to getting to know this guy, but those barriers are not insurmountable. Really, a haircut and a slight attitude change does the trick.

Similarly, everyone knows about the library. It’s in your neighborhood, with a big sign on the building. There are a core group of enthusiastic library patrons, but there are also a great many people who ignore the library. The library does not compel you to visit it (physically or virtually). And even if you do walk into a branch, there are barriers to access – but those barriers are not insurmountable. Really, a “Kindness Audit” would go a long way towards increasing access.

In She’s All That, the cool kid knows that he wants the perfect prom date, but he has no idea that she exists. He casts out randomly, and finds the perfect date by chance only. Even then, he doesn’t know that his search was successful. The movie details a painful and complex getting-to-know-you process where the characters nearly quit several times. The only reason this movie has a happy ending is because the characters are unusually persistent.

It’s the same with almost any archives. Researchers often cast out with Google, and find a repository or collection by chance. Archival repositories aren’t easy to find (either physically or virtually), and even if you did find one on the street, you can’t just walk in. Those doors are locked and the materials are secure. A haircut and a new outfit aren’t going to dispel these barriers, but at least the makeover could get the archives noticed. And that’s an important beginning.

The Popular Perception of Archivists

Below is the text of an email I sent to the New York Times today.

Date: Sat, 1 Feb 2014 13:59:06 -0500
Subject: Re: “New York Court Archivist Isn’t Letting Retirement Stop Him”
From: Meridith Halsey <>

Is it with concern and disappointment that I write to you about the article by Corey Kilgannon entitled, “New York Court Archivist Isn’t Letting Retirement Stop Him.”

The article almost touches on a pressing issue facing the archival profession today: the decision of many institutions to let their archives programs lapse. This seems as though it might be the case at the court archives in New York, but the point is left vague. A important question to answer is, are the records under Mr. Abrams’ care still accessible to the public? How will New York’s lawyers conduct research on state cases from the pre-internet era? How will journalists be able to do the same? It seemed clear that Mr. Abrams himself was happy to resign from responding to the public’s inquiries.

(Other questions that are of particular interest to archivists, but which are perhaps beyond the scope of a character study article, include: Why is there no successor to Mr. Abrams? Has funding for the archives been permanently cut? If so, why? And what is the city’s plan for maintaining the records in the event that Mr. Abrams ends his tenure as a volunteer?)

I was also disappointed by the author’s insinuation that dedicated archivists tend to be uneasy in social situations; the profession is people-focused; without people who are interested in using the archives, there would be no point in maintaining said archives. I would urge Mr. Kilgannon to visit more archivists, or visit their webpages, to get a broader view of what kind of people make up the bulk of the profession. Some suggestions on where to begin are:

– Search #ArchivesShelfie on Twitter

Finally, I was saddened to see that Mr. Abrams’ particular distaste for interacting with the public seemed to be normalized in this article. The article concludes with:

“In other words, now that he is no longer working here, he can finally get some work done here. ‘Now I can focus on important stuff,’ he said.”

On the contrary, making the holdings of the archives accessible to the public IS important stuff. I would like to bring your attention to the SAA Core Values Statement, which includes the following language:

“Archivists select, preserve, and make available primary sources that document the activities of institutions, communities and individuals.” -SAA
Core Values of Archivists

As you see, making one’s holdings available is one of the three primary duties of an archivist. Allowing Mr. Abrams’ statement to stand in a vacuum allows the reader to assume that his sentiment is shared by many or all archivists, which is a perception that archivists are actively trying to dispel. In fact, as a profession, archivists welcome and encourage the public’s interest in archives and are we are constantly trying to attract more people through outreach (e.g. the National Archives on Facebook, the Massachusetts Historical Society on Twitter, and the Archives of American Art on Pinterest).