Tag Archives: professionalism

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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Getting Supplies

When one wants to start an archives, one will often do so with no budget. Below are a couple things that have worked for me and some of the archives I’ve volunteered with.


Turning Repositories into Donors; aka: Ask Colleagues

Established repositories of all sorts periodically re-house collections. Many of these rehousing projects are based on the observation that boxes and folders take on acidity though the years and should be renewed. Ask for the old boxes and folders. Many of them are still in perfectly usable shape. While it helpful if you know someone in the repository, you can always send out calls for used materials to local archives groups.

Collecting something you fear a potential donor-repository might not care for? (Dear Catholic institution, can I have used folders for my Gay and Lesbian Collection?) Be vague. Most archivists will appreciate that small, volunteer organizations need supplies. Hopefully they’ll be relieved to find something useful to do with all the old boxes and folders and won’t ask too many collection-specific questions.

Turning Future Patrons into Financial Donors; aka: Ask a Friend

A lot of basic supplies can be purchased for a reasonable price, assuming no one person needs to pay for everything. Split your supplies list into specific items with listed prices and appeal to like-minded people to choose one or two items to purchase. Having an event? Now is a great time to remind people who support your archives that disaster planning requires a tarp, paper towels and a hair-dryer. Have a donation jar with a description of needed item and the price and ask that people supply money to specific causes. Or have a jar for unforeseen needs.

Short, pithy donation signs tend to work the best:

Like your local community archives? Help us buy a box for only seven dollars!

or

Help us survive our first disaster — Donate to our emergency relief fund. After all, it’s only a matter of time…


When one wants to start an archives, one will quickly realize that this is a joint effort, which requires more than just the people actively working with the collections. Cultivate relationships with future patrons — the people who constitute the community your collecting for — and with colleagues at established repositories. Everyone has a lot to learn from each other. And when it comes to finding basic supplies, these connections can be invaluable.

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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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