Earlier in February I visited the Bentley Historical Library at the University of Michigan and had the opportunity to discuss a topic vital to the profession. SAA’s strategic plan calls out “advocating for archives and archivists” as a key priority. My predecessor Kathleen Roe spent her presidential year pressing this stratagem forward with energy, resolve, and a very personal passion. SAA achieved some real successes as a result:
- We established a Committee on Public Policy (CAPP) that shapes and drives forward the advocacy work that focuses on the public policies and resources necessary to ensure that archival records are preserved and made accessible. It is intended to engage with governments. To date CAPP has published a number of issue briefs that can guide thinking and action by SAA members on a number of important topics.
- We established a Committee on Public Awareness (COPA). Whereas CAPP focuses on public policy, COPA is concerned with influencing opinions about the value of archivists and archives among the general public and among stakeholder groups other than legislators and regulators.
- We continue to compile “elevator speeches” and personal stories that speak compellingly to the value of archives. This work is, and must remain, a continuous endeavor.
- We have a created the first of what we intend to be a long line of advocacy video clips, each of which will be intended for a particular audience. The first one, “Archives Change Lives,” was unveiled at SAA’s 2015 conference and speaks directly to archivists, rather than to external audiences.
All these efforts amount to a good start, but only a start. We know that many other efforts must be launched to begin gaining traction in archival advocacy. Among them would be:
- A robust lobbying presence in our nation’s capital.
- Ongoing advocacy training for archivists.
- Media kits that can be rolled out to support a variety of initiatives.
- A rich array of advocacy tools and resource materials on SAA’s website that archivists can utilize for their own initiatives.
These resources will not come quickly or cheaply, but they are all important to build the sort of powerful and integrated advocacy effort that other professions have been able to create.
And I think one other advocacy endeavor is equally important. The advocacy pieces delineated above will only be truly convincing if they are supported by an infrastructure of convincing data. Our great advocacy stories, which reflect singular experiences, need to be grounded in statistical data that suggest their cumulative value. When we can marry the stories to the underlying data, only then will we have created a compelling value proposition. Then, our advocacy messages will achieve impact and real sufficiency. There are models for us to follow in identifying and compiling such data, especially the work of the Center for the Future of Museums.
I’ll be talking more about this direction in days to come. In the meantime, I hope that you will comment with ideas about how we can begin to create a data-informed value proposition for archives.
In a recent OTR post Kathleen Roe emphasized the need to start gathering baseline data about ourselves, our repositories, and our collections. Not for their own sake, but to buttress our advocacy arguments. I am especially interested in collecting such information, and I would like to devote some serious energy towards compiling and evaluating the data we need to define, value, and promote our work.
It’s been over more than ten years since the A*CENSUS snapshot and we are in serious need of a refresh of those data. But at the same time I’m starting to wonder whether a repeat of that effort is the right way to proceed. If we simply gather a compendium of data about ourselves, who’s going to care? I’m concerned that a data set like that simply extends a self-referential conversation that has always gone on among ourselves and our closest allies.
But what if we were to turn the lens in another direction? What if, instead, we were to start asking questions about our users and their needs; how they use archives and for what purposes; and what changes in our public service model would help them achieve success? If we could make a data-informed case for public investment in archives based on expanding user success, then perhaps we will see people – funders, legislators, researchers, and employers — start to care. Funders, legislators, researchers, and employers.
I’m thinking we need to marry the the information that’s purely about us, with a very large helping of information that which is about use and users. It is those data that will ultimately define our public value and, therefore, substantiate our advocacy arguments.
So how do we start to gather this other data set? Who do we ask? What do we ask? How do we ask it? What existing data can we chew on? I believe we need to head in this direction, but I’m unsure how we turn the ship. I would greatly appreciate hearing your ideas.
Dennis Meissner, Vice-President/President Elect
At various points through the year the issue arises of what we do and don’t know about the archives profession in terms of hard numbers. How many archives are there in the United States? What is the average size of an archival collection? What is the average size of collection by type–government, university, historical society, library, etc? What is the budget to support those collections? How many archivists are out there? Where do they work? What do they get paid? What degrees do they hold?
SAA collected a lot of data in the IMLS-sponsored Archival Census and Education Needs Survey in the United States (A*CENSUS) in 2004 and our colleagues in the Council of State Archivists and the National Association of Government Archives and Records Administrators have collected other data. There have been surveys and data gathered by Heritage Preservation, archives program students, and task forces, roundtables and sections, regional archival organizations, and others. But we don’t seem to have a list (let alone a comprehensive list) of what those data-gathering efforts have been, or where those data may now “reside.”
So here is a different challenge to all of you: If you’re aware of previous efforts to gather data- about archives or archivists, whether national or regional, current or past, would you please share that information with us? We’d like to get some idea of just what data may be out there and what it looks like.
You can respond to this blogpost, or if you have more than would fit in such a response, send the information by email to the amazing Amy Lazarus, my recent partner in the SAA Mentoring Program, who I learned over the course of the past year loves statistics, is super-smart, organized, and has agreed to help out with compiling this. Here’s her email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Let us know what data you know about—and thanks for your help and ideas with yet another type of archival challenge!