Category Archives: Big Picture

Community Archives and Larger Community of Archivists

A few  notes from the most recent issue (Vol. 13, Nos. 2-3) of Archival Science. (These are just the first two articles to catch my eye. If you get a chance, I suggest you read them, and all the other articles, for yourself. They’re quite good.)

I Thought I was Doing It For The Love, But It Turns Out I’m Just a Child of My Time.

Terry Cook, in his article “Memory, Identity and Community: Four Shifting Archival Paradigms” (pp. 95-102) writes “over the past 150 years have gone through four phases: from juridical legacy to cultural memory to society engagement to community archiving.”

A new paradigm, a new mindset, for archivists is currently emerging. This new paradigm urges archivists to “transform themselves from elite experts behind institutional walls to becoming mentors, facilitators, coaches, who work in the community to encourage archiving as a participatory process shared with many in society, rather than necessarily acquiring all the archival products in our established archives” (114, his emphasis).

Cook readily admits paradigms are hard things to pin down, and most of his observations stem from emerging trends in archival writing and published calls for actions. Still, his observations seem correct to me. When I first set out to detail the trials and tribulations of starting and maintaining community archives, I didn’t realize how many similar projects existed. So many, in fact, that much of the time devoted to this blog is spent finding folks to interview.

There must be something in the air. Or maybe people who become archivists these days are more comfortable with the idea that our skills can be merged with communities with whom we want to work (and promote). Whatever it is, it’s nice to know there are plenty of people to learn from.

Archivists Who are Activists Tend To … That’s Right, Actively Archive

Way in the back of the issue, S. Yaco and B.B. Hardy (pp. 253-272) examine “how activism by historians and archivists relate to and affects their work and how their work affects their activism”.

While it is important to have articles discussing what we mean when we say things like “community archives” and “collective memory”, it’s also rather tedious. That’s why it’s often refreshing to find an article that simply asks people working in the field what they do and why they do it.

Reporting on a survey of historians and archivists who consider themselves activists (“someone who takes part in activities that are intended to achieve social or political change, especially someone who is a member of an organization”), Yaco and Hardy relay that the “among the 76 archivists who responded to this question, the most common form of activity is to encourage activists and activists organization to preserve and retain their records (80%), followed by encouraging the deposit of records in an archival repository (66%a)” (p. 259).

It’s a heart warming thought: small armies of activist archivists running around saving records for the future. It’s also nice to be reminded that those of us doing this are not alone. There are many like-minded archivists out there. Some of whom we may meet in the process of our work, some of whom we’ll never know about. But the future is better off for our work, whoever the hell we are.

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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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Moving to PADIYL!

We’re Moving!

We’re just about one year old here at Start an Archives! blog, and I’m happy to announce we’ve found a new home.

In light of our mission to explore the trials, tribulations, adventures and joys of community archives, all future SaA! posts will be over at the Philadelphia Alliance of DIY Libraries site. Check us out to stay up to date:

See you over there!

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Philadelphia Alliance of DIY Libraries

It has been mentioned a few times here already, but it bears repeating, I think: there’s a new group in the early stages of formation — the Philadelphia Alliance of DIY Libraries (PADIYL) — that aims to help small, independent libraries and archives join forces and share resources and know-how.

The website can be found here:

If you’re in the Philadelphia are and you’re interested in getting involved, there is a meeting coming up later this month.

This holds great promise for the city and for community collections everywhere.

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Keep calm and hold on to your shit

When one starts an archives, one might find that the summer months can be a slow time. It can be a hard time of year to maintain enthusiasm in volunteers and community members, and a hard time to meet all of the repository’s goals.  It’s also a good time to think about which goals we really care to meet.

It’s tempting to judge success of a new community repository in terms of Facebook stats, retweets and blog posts. However, it’s important to remember that the majority of the hard work is often done behind the scenes: the cataloging, arranging, relationship-building.

When it comes to making decisions about what takes priority, keeping material safe and accessible ranks above starting new projects and social media. We don’t need to grow to survive. We’re not a business. Hold on to the material you’ve collected, maintain the accessibility of the collection, and be ready to start new projects when everyone settles down to work in the Fall.

In short: Keep calm and hold on to your shit.

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PADILY is born!

Per the promise to keep the updates coming, I am happy to announce that the Philadelphia Area DIY Library Consortium (PADIYL) is officially created as of today.

The Consortium’s mission is to pool the resources of Philadelphia’s small, independent libraries and archives and serve as a resource for the creation of new collection.

Current members include the Radical Archives of Philadelphia, Soapbox Zine Library, the William Way LGBT Archives and the Radical Library of Philadelphia.

Over the coming weeks we’ll be putting together the usual: Website, Facebook page, etc., as well as polishing our mission statement and by laws. If you’re interested in learning more and/or want to help out, let us know.

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Managing Expectations; or, Professionalism and the Pariah of the Imperfect

When you want to start an archives you are likely to hear a lot about professional standards. The archives profession has done a surprisingly good job of getting the word out about the need for environmental controls for the preservation of physical materials.

I often hear it said that without climate control any material that we gather will rot.

This is true.

It is also true that doing nothing is a worse solution.

And climate control is only one factor. Those of us who went through an MLS program often want to see collecting policies, deeds of gift, patron registration forms. These are what we think of when we think of running an archives. But this belies the fact that no repository ever sprung fully formed and funded.

All of these factors are important, but none are a prerequisite to starting a collection.

Instead of fearing an imperfect environment, our time is better served collecting, arranging, describing and promoting the material that that would be worse off without our intervention.

If we all waited for the perfect solution before we started a project, we’d never begin anything. When one starts an archives, one will make mistakes, corrections and amendments to policies, practices and workflows. This is done within every repository large and small. This is what it means to do one’s best and learn from one’s mistakes.

When you want to start an archives, you shouldn’t let your knowledge of the ideal undermine your willingness to do the best you can. You shouldn’t let professionalism make a pariah of the imperfect.

Or, following Voltair, Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Or, more succinctly: haters gonna hate.

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Digital Capture and the Abundance of the Present

When you want to document a particular event, you must avoid  what might be called “the danger of present abundance.” It is often the case that an event will receive a large amount of attention from news outlets and other sources when it is new(s). After some time, when excitement has calmed the news cycle is likely to move on, leaving documentation gaps.

We are currently in this situation at the Radical Archives. When we first started  to document the Occupy Philadelphia (OP) movement, material on the movement was ubiquitous. Every local news outlets ran stories on the movement, often several times a day. OP created several sites, including, and

This abundance caused some to question our attempt to download web pages. Why bother collecting this stuff when it’s everywhere? Luckily, we had a ready example to help us explain our motivation. The RNC Protest Material, held by the Radical Archives, has a large collection of photocopied news reports related to the protests surrounding the 2000 Republican National Convention  in Philadelphia.

In the days, weeks and months after the protests, news reports about the protest and subsequent arrests were everywhere. As time moved on, these accounts became increasingly difficult to find. And today, almost twelve years after these protests, compiling a comparable collection would be impossible.

OP is still in the news. They are still producing websites ( was just announced to the GA last night), and are even making increased attempts to centralize documentation on these sites. However, even though it’s only been three months since OP started, many of the news accounts that we have saved are gone. Broken links, deleted content and the deluge caused by months of new news-cycles, make many of the news reports from the earliest days difficult to find.

All of this is to say that when one wants to start an archives, keep an eye on the future and the impermanence of the present —  even when one is drowning in abundance.

A new year, a new excuse to start an archives!

Though the new year is a few weeks old already, I’m just now getting around to thinking of it. Though I’m not much for New Year’s parties (kind of a wet blanket), I have noticed a common thread among New Year celebrations: A moving on from the old and embracing the new.

Most likely, this “now what’s next” mentality is symptomatic of all sorts of things I’m not smart enough to know about. Luckily, however, it does touch upon something I do know something about: the preservation of present for the benefit of the future.

The New Year’s embrace of all-things-new belies the deep need in many of us to hold on to the past. The nostalgia for yesteryear is prominent theme in any New Year’s party worth attending. Often the nostalgia is for a life lived unconscious of the changes taking place around it; a yesterday that didn’t leave anything behind for today.

It is with this in mind that I launch this brand new blog. I hope someone somewhere finds it helpful when that person starts an archives.