DIY Collections – a case against that term

By way of introduction:
I spend a lot of time here at Start an Archives! thinking about small, independent collections. I’ve tried out several names for them – community collections, independent collections, etc. For a while I tried out ‘DIY collections’.

The following thoughts on the use of ‘DIY’ to refer to community-created and community-held collections have been in the works for several weeks. They’re not fully formed (and probably wont be for a long time), but I thought it relevant to mention it now, as talk of DIY-ness has recently been floating around. Specifically, this and this and this (near the end).

On to the point:
Whenever records are important for a group of people, they will be collected. They might be kept in basements, attics, on bookshelves or hung on walls. What is important is that the records serve a need, and that need is answered by the group.

To think of these collections as ‘DIY’ is problematic.

When I’ve used DIY in the past (especially in relation to the short-lived Philadelphia Alliance of DIY Libraries), I’ve always meant it to contrast “established institutions,” staffed with professionals, with access to best-practice-enabled facilities. And often I’ve used to explain to other professionals what the projects are about.

Collecting pre-dates the professionalization of librarians and archivists, though. To speak of organically grown collections – collections that form to fill a need for a group of people, usually those who created them – in relation to later developments is to read the history of collecting backward. It is to prioritize a late development and re-read the history of collecting from an arbitrary point.

To take examples from other areas of life: it is akin to the rise of modern pesticide-treated food which now takes for itself the term ‘conventional’, and contemporary medicine that calls all older forms of health concerns ‘alternative’. In post-modern-speak, it’s the other-ing of that which is primary.

The professionalization of collection-care is important. I wouldn’t do what I do if I didn’t think that my training as a librarian and archivist didn’t make collections in my care better off. Believing this, however, should not blind me to the organic nature in which community use records.

It feels like it took me a lot longer than it should have to come to this, and there is much more to say on the topic.  Just thought I would share this quick thought, in case it’s a helpful observation to anyone else when they want to work with community collections (or start an archives of their own).

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