Raising Awareness of Archives in Canada

Testing a megaphone at RCA Victor plant, July 1944

I think it’s safe to say that the archives profession has a branding problem. It is a rare occasion when my answer to the question, “What do you do for a living?” doesn’t elicit blank stares and polite head nods. When I do find a person who knows what an archivist does or has even heard of an archives, I am always quite surprised. I shouldn’t be surprised at their awareness. This should not be rare.

The recording of human knowledge in some capacity is literally as old as human knowledge itself. Peter Van Garderen’s keynote address at the ACA Annual Conference took us on a whirlwind tour through the history of recorded information that began with documentary artifacts. Peter explained that these artifacts are “the products of human actions that are intended to record information, communicate a message, and act as aids to memory.” He argued that, “the urge to communicate with symbolic representations is a fundamental human attribute.” We, as humans, should fundamentally understand the importance of archives.

Tom Nesmith would argue that we do, even if we might not recognize it. Thousands of years after the first messages were inscribed on rock faces, Nesmith asserts that we are now moving towards what he calls “the archival stage in the history of knowledge.” (Archivaria 80, Fall 2015 – An encouraging call to action that won the 2016 Hugh A. Taylor Prize)

He argues that, “archivists do not have sufficient authority and resources for their work because citizens are not fully aware of the actual uses and community benefits of archives…Yet these uses have become so numerous and extraordinary that it may be possible to say that human knowledge and society are beginning to be shaped by and depend on archival materials as never before.”

We need to be thinking bigger!

If we follow Nesmith’s logic, society is completely dependent on archival materials – but it is the connection between the materials and the influence and importance of the institutions and professionals that is missing in the consciousness of the public.

As a profession, we know that we need to market ourselves better. The formulation of an effective elevator speech is a common topic of conversation among archivists. We know that we need to raise awareness of our institutions and the important work that we do to preserve recorded memory.  Individually, we engage in wonderful outreach programs that target the small communities around our institutions. This is important work. Work that I love doing. I am happy if I have the ear of even one person who will leave knowing a little bit more about what an archives can offer. But as a community, we need to be thinking bigger! We need to find a way of connecting the dots between the essential archival material that people use in their daily lives, and the institutions and professionals that preserve it.

We should be asking people to “Explore Your Archive”

We can look across the pond for an effective example of a coordinated national campaign to raise the profile of archives. The UK and Ireland’s Explore Your Archive campaign is a great example of cooperation between the National Archives and the Archives and Records Association.

Explore Your Archive campaign homepage
Explore Your Archive – Campaign Homepage
The 'About Us' page of the Explore Your Archive campaign.
Explore Your Archive – About Page

The campaign toolkit includes branding guidelines, positioning and key messages, suggestions for how to get your archives involved, and information about how to get internal buy in and partner support. The main site provides a venue for archives across the UK and Ireland to post events and news items and it provides some wonderful video content featuring archivists talking about their favourite records. The campaign has a strong social media presence that posts actively during campaign time and provides templates and social media tips for participating institutions.

I think the strength of this program is that it is centrally coordinated, which enables consistent branding and deployment across the UK and Ireland. This ensures that even the smallest institution can participate in the national campaigns, without much effort or expense. It is designed to showcase archives as exciting places to experience that are vital parts of the social fabric.

Archives Awareness in Canada

In Canada, some of the provincial/territorial associations have successful Archives Weeks that run at various times during the year. The Saskatchewan Council for Archives and Archivists has a prominent campaign every February that features television interviews, celebrity reading events, film screenings, and related events throughout the province. The Archives Society of Alberta runs its Archives Week in October and offers film nights, lectures, and exhibits.

These separate efforts are to be applauded, but I can’t help but think that a centrally coordinated campaign with consistent timing and branding would be more successful overall. I would love to see a nationally coordinated effort to celebrate archives and to raise the profile of the profession and the hundreds of institutions across the country.

“Canada’s Archives: A New Blueprint”

There is good news on the horizon! I am encouraged by the Blueprint that emerged from the 2014 Canadian Archives Summit coordinated by representatives from the Association of Canadian Archivists (ACA), l’Association des Archivistes du Quebec (AAQ), the Canadian Council of Archives (CCA), and former Librarian and Archivist of Canada Ian Wilson. I was so pleased to see that the document devotes an entire section to “The Profile.”

The Blueprint declares that “Archives must be made visible—this includes records, organizations, professionals and other workers in archives. To promote a coherent profile for archives, an increasingly coordinated approach to internal communications, advocacy, marketing and outreach must be developed and implemented.” I am encouraged by the wording. The use of the word “must” makes me feel like something will be done to improve our image. I don’t think many would say that we have a bad image, just that we have very little image to speak of. I think that we are comfortable with the idea of outreach and advocacy to some degree, but marketing and brand awareness is where I think we fall short. We need to learn to be shameless self-promoters for the benefit of our existing and potential users.

Shout from the rooftops – the Awareness Strategy Task ForceMan shouting into a tin can

This summer, several task forces are being struck to examine the issues identified in the Blueprint. One of the task forces will be focused entirely on how our profession can do a better job of promoting itself through advocacy and outreach. The Awareness Strategy Task Force will focus on ensuring that decision-makers and the public understand the value and importance of archives. I am greatly encouraged by the plans for that group, which include looking at options for the creation of a national strategy and the development of tools that will benefit archives across Canada. This is great news! A call for task force members will be posted on ARCAN-L later this summer.

Archives are the underfunded, oft-forgotten sibling of libraries and museums and that needs to change. We need to work together to raise awareness of our collections, our institutions, and our profession. It’s time we moved out of the “dusty basements,” challenged stereotypes, and made some noise!


Cover Image:

 Lieutenant Schubert Fraser and Mr. John Degrott testing a megaphone used by the Navy at the RCA Victor plant. July 1944  (Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN 3627723)