Cooperation Makes it Happen

At this year’s Association of Canadian Archivists conference in Toronto, Ontario, I presented in a lightning round session about the Lower Mainland Municipal Archivists Forum (LMMAF)—a group I formed in 2016.

My presentation explored some of the benefits of this type of cooperative group and how the model could be applied in other contexts. Given that not everyone can attend the national conference and that there were many concurrent sessions happening alongside mine, I thought it would be worth sharing the content of my presentation here.

“Cooperation…makes it happen”: Building an Effective Professional Network       (ACA Toronto, June 8, 2019)

One of the first things we learn as children is how to cooperate effectively with others. However, it seems that once we are all grown up and safely ensconced in our professional silos, we tend to forget this fundamental skill. We may have also forgotten how effective collaboration and cooperation can be. These skills are especially important given that a good proportion of archivists work in isolation or something closely resembling it.

Professional associations provide annual mass pilgrimages to digest the latest best practice or to be inspired by a novel project, but after the lights go out at the conference, archivists are left alone with the weight of the hundreds of quotidian decisions they are forced to make in isolation. We go back to our literal or figurative cubicles and we figure it out for ourselves. But going it out alone has limited benefits.

We need to remember what we learned from Sesame Street – “cooperation…makes it happen.”

In 2013, I moved from Ottawa to Vancouver and made the jump from Library and Archives Canada to municipal government in order to start the City of Coquitlam Archives. I was in a new province, in a new job, and I only knew two local archivists. I had come from an environment where hundreds of archivists were but a cubicle away. And now I was going it alone! For the first time in my career, I was a lone arranger. I felt overwhelmed and isolated—feelings I am sure are shared by many in our profession.

By its nature, the archival profession necessitates discussion, debate, and consensus building. Who hasn’t needed to bounce an appraisal idea off another archivist? Even if is only to confirm your own interpretation or gut feeling about a particular record. Archivists have to make decisions that have lasting ramifications and this can be a heavy burden. It is nice to have someone to validate your theories, suggest alternatives,  and help lighten the load just a little bit!

So I decided that if I had to work alone, it didn’t mean I had to be alone. I set out to create a professional network of municipal archivists in the region.  With the Sesame Street song in mind, I founded the Lower Mainland Municipal Archivists Forum (LMMAF) in 2016.

I decided to call the group the Lower Mainland Municipal Archivists Forum (cause, well, Forum sounded fancy). I created a logo to make it official. I drafted a Terms of Reference to be reviewed by the group at the first meeting, and I set about preparing a preliminary agenda for the first meeting that would take place in Coquitlam in May, 2016.

Now you might be thinking…my goodness LMMAF is the worst acronym ever! And you would be right. My husband refers to the group as the LMFAO. However, despite its awkward acronym, I am incredibly proud of what the group has become.

The LMMAF provides an opportunity to discuss a wide range of common archival issues, share best practices and resources, discuss challenges, and discover areas of potential collaboration or cooperation. The group meets bi-annually but the ten members are also in regular contact, taking advantage of the regional archival hive mind we have cultivated through the Forum.

Over the years the group has helped each other with information to support funding requests, staffing, and space planning. We have explored consortium pricing for web archiving subscriptions. We have shared forms and procedures with a view to simplifying the user experience across the Lower Mainland region. Members have provided advice on security, collections storage, climate control, reference services, donor relations, staffing, technology, and outreach.

Our meetings are jam-packed and two hours flies by. Between meetings, the hive mind of the group is but an email away and the members are incredibly supportive. When asking a question of the group, you will get a response from the majority within hours. We have a team of experts at the ready. No silly questions, no judgement—just a willingness to help.

The concept of the LMMAF is not novel, nor is it revolutionary, but I believe what we have created in the Lower Mainland could serve as a model for other regions and other professional groups – archival or otherwise. While our face to face contact is only twice a year, the value of having the network to lean on between meetings is immeasurable and I am endlessly thankful for the generosity of spirit of this great group of professionals.