Sharing Your Collection
This section of the toolkit will guide you through the following:
Finding ways to share your collection online, allowing access to your collection on-site and ways to use your collection to engage your audiences.
This guide introduces the main things that community archives should think about when offering access to your collections.
- Designating a space for researchers
- Facilities and equipment
- Search room operations
- Access policy and plan
Designating a space for researchers (the search room)
Finding a designated space for researchers to access the archives collections can be difficult for community archives. Ideally, this should be a separate room from where you store your collections, usually called a search room. If that’s not possible, then try to organise what space you have into distinct areas, so that researchers don’t have easy access to your collections or to your computers and any confidential data that volunteers or any staff may be using.
- Position your furniture so that a researcher cannot easily reach your boxes of stored archives.
- Don’t allow researchers to help themselves to archives or browse through boxes with interesting labels.
- Make sure that any restricted archives are out of reach, such as archives containing personal data.
- Rope barriers can be a remarkably effective way of separating areas and protecting your collections.
Search room regulations should be printed out and prominently displayed. These should explain what you expect from researchers, such as no food or drink, clean hands, pencils only and not crossing barriers (see Search Room Operations below).
Facilities and equipment
Once you have found a space, you need to think about what facilities and equipment you should provide for researchers. These will be useful for volunteers as well.
- Tables with enough room for researchers to look at the archives without risk of damaging them.
- Tables that are big enough to support your largest documents, such as open, large bound volumes or unrolled maps.
- Good lighting. It’s helpful to have good ambient lighting as well as task lighting.
- Magnifying glasses will help researchers, particularly if the handwriting on archives is hard to read. A magnifying light is even more useful but expensive.
- Safe storage for their coats and personal belongings at a distance from where they are working with archives. Consider getting lockers and coat racks.
- Pencils for notetaking, so that they have no excuse to try to use a pen. (You could get branded pencils fairly cheaply and use them for promotional purposes).
- Support cushions for bound volumes and weights can help to protect your collections from damage while in use.
Search room operations
How you operate the search room is fundamental to providing a secure environment for the archives while also encouraging people to use them.
- You should have enough staff or volunteers present to maintain friendly supervision of researchers. You will probably need at least two people; one to supervise the researcher while the other goes to get any archives they request.
- Limit the number of archives that are on the tables at any one time. This helps to prevent archives getting mixed up and makes it easier to be sure that everything has been returned. There is no magic number for this because it depends on what the archives are: you can safely let researchers look at up to six bound volumes at one time, but probably only a couple of bundles of letters.
- Keep a record of what researchers, volunteers and staff have looked at. You can simply write this into a book with the date issued, the person’s name and the reference number of the item and the date/time it is returned to the correct box. A better system is to have two-part forms with these details, where one part sits in the box until the item is returned and the other is held by the search room supervisor. If things go back in the wrong box, you will be able to work out what is missing and look for it. You should keep this record for a minimum of five years in case you need to report any missing items to the police, as sadly, thefts do happen.
- Devise appropriate search room regulations. These should always include the following:
- Use a pencil for taking notes.
- Do not eat, drink or smoke (including sweets and chewing gum).
- Make sure your hands are clean by washing with warm soapy water. Hand sanitiser should be avoided where possible as it leaves a residue on documents.
- Do not write on or mark the items in any way.
Depending on your collections and what equipment you provide, you may also want to include the following:
- Handle photographs by the edge only.
- Do not touch the surface of transparencies.
- Avoid touching inks or pigments on the documents.
- Use the weights provided to hold rolled documents in place.
- Use the book bag provided to support the bindings of large bound volumes.
- Keep documents in the same order as you received them.
- If you see any issues in our catalogues or in our documents, please tell our staff/volunteers and do not try to fix these yourself.
- Remain behind the rope barriers and do not browse through any of the stored archives.
- Put your personal belongings in the locker provided.
Access Policy and Plan
Having an access policy and a plan will help you to agree on your priorities and support any applications for external funding. Policies are generally written for the public to read and are ways of telling potential researchers and visitors what to expect. Plans are written for your own use, to clarify what you want to do in the future and how you can achieve this.
Your access policy should state what services you provide to visitors and researchers. It should mention any restrictions on access and any conditions for looking at the archives, including your search room regulations. It can also include what you provide on your website, such as your catalogue. An outline access policy is available to download by clicking here.
Your access plan should identify what your aims are, what you are able to offer at present, what challenges you face and what you want to do about them. An outline access plan is available here.
- Putting your catalogue online
- Digitising your collections
- Using your website
- Using social media
Putting your catalogue online
Putting your catalogue online is the best way to let researchers know what you have in your collections and there are several ways you can do this. You can publish cataloguing information as a set of pdf lists or upload part of a cataloguing spreadsheet to your website or you can use an online catalogue software. You can also upload your catalogue to one of the services which brings archives data together, such as Your Scottish Archives. For more information on online catalogues, see the section below.
Digitising your collections
Digitising your collections is a great way to let people see some of your original documents. You will want to consider issues around costs, copyright (see Legal Matters for more on copyright), preservation of the originals and what quality of digitised copies you make available. See the section on digital records for more help with this.
Using your website
If you have a website, you can use this to tell the stories that explain why your collections are interesting and important. You can highlight items in your collections or focus on particular strengths or themes. You might want to build up a series of downloadable blogs where you can explore the history behind the collection, or include your research about items and the events that led to their existence and survival. Have a look at what other archives services have done, such as Stirling Council Archives or the Dunkeld Community Archive, or use the links on the CAHG community archives list to see other examples.
Using social media
Social media (Twitter, Threads, Facebook, Instagram and a host of other platforms) can help you to publicise your collections as well as inform your audience about meetings, events, awards and activities or generate interest in what you are doing. For guidance on how to use social media, see the section below.
To make use of the possibilities of social media, you will need to:
- Decide which and how many platforms you will be using
- Create an account on your chosen platform/s
- Decide what and when to post
- Make your content accessible
- Be consistent with your content
- Make sure your account/s are secure
Social Media Platforms
There is a wide range of social media platforms available. Depending on your audience, familiarity with certain platforms and the content you would like to post, you may want to choose one particular platform to focus on or operate on a number of platforms simultaneously. Operating multiple platforms can help reach a wider audience, and with some planning and scheduling tools, can be easily manageable.
To register for an account, you will normally need an email address. It is advisable that you don’t use a personal address to create any organisational accounts. It is simple to create an email account using free service providers, such as Yahoo, Google, Outlook or others, that is for organisational use only (be sure to keep track of who has access to such accounts, as anyone using an email account used to create social media profiles are able to change passwords). Bear in mind that we are not recommending any service over others and it is advisable that you carry out your own research when picking which email service provider to use for this purpose.
Some of the most popular social media networks are (click on the platform name to see information on creating an account):
- Facebook. Allows you to post a combination of text and images/videos.
- Instagram. Allows you to post a combination of text and images/videos. Feeds are mostly image focussed.
- X (formerly known as Twitter). Allows you to post a combination of text and images/videos. Text posts are limited to 280 characters.
- TikTok. Allows you to post short videos.
- Threads. Allows you to post a combination of text and images/videos. Text posts are limited to 500 characters.
- YouTube. Allows you to upload short or long videos.
- LinkedIn. Allows you to post a combinations of text and images/videos. Associated with a professional, work-focussed user base.
Other platforms are available and new ones appear regularly.
Most platforms are available to use both on your desktop and as an app, which can be downloaded onto your mobile phone.
What and When to Post
Key to all social media activity is consistency. If you post regularly, your organisation will be more visible and retain more followers. If you can, or with the aid of a volunteer, spend some time planning your social media activity. A simple way to do this is to create a Word document or Excel spreadsheet and plan the image you are using, the text (also called copy) to accompany it, and the alternative text for the image, as well as any other information you find useful. To download an example of a social media planning document, click here. Most social media platforms allow you to schedule your posts (see section below). Alternatively, you can then copy and paste your text directly onto the platform.
Examples of posts you can share:
- An interesting item from your collection, along with some details or history of the item.
- Event announcements with details on when and where it’s happening, and any associated links.
- Fundraising efforts, including information on how to donate and how to support your organisation.
- There are many national and international days/weeks/months that mark specific topics, for example National Black Cat Day (17 August) or World Refugee Day (20 June) – you can relate an item from your collection or an event you are organising to these occasions to boost visibility by using hashtags in your text (e.g. #NationalBlackCatDay).
- Similar to above, there are campaigns specifically designed to help promote your archive through themed posts, for example, Explore Your Archive, run by the Archives & Records Association, has monthly themes, as well as a Focus Week – simply post on the theme and tag their social media accounts so they can share it.
- Celebratory posts to share your achievements, whether that’s an anniversary, excellent volunteer work or a milestone you have been working towards.
Tip: Try typing in #Archive in the search bar on your chosen social media platform to see posts from other organisations and get some inspiration.
To make it easier to coordinate your social media activity, there are some scheduling tools you can use. Hootsuite is a platform where you can manage most of your social media accounts from one place, however it can be expensive for volunteer-led groups. There are some social media planning tools that offer free plans, such as Buffer or CoSchedule (be sure to read any T&Cs before signing up), which you may find useful.
If you are planning on only using 1-3 platforms and only one account per platform, you may be able to effectively manage your social media output without external tools. Most social media platforms allow you to schedule tweets in advance, e.g. clicking on ‘Post’ on X and then on the calendar icon will let you choose a date for the post to go out. For Instagram and Facebook, the Meta Business Suite allows you to schedule posts on both platforms simultaneously. Using a social media planning document and the scheduling capability of your chosen social media platforms will allow you to manage your content effectively.
Make Your Content Accessible
It is important that as many people as possible can access your social media content. These are just a few simple steps you can take to make your content more accessible:
- If you use hashtags, make sure to capitalise every word to aid comprehension (e.g. instead of #scottishcommunityarchives, use #ScottishCommunityArchives)
- Provide alternative text for your images. Alternative text, also called alt text, is used by screen readers to describe images to users with visual impairments. Alternative text is a description of what the image is. For more information on writing suitable alternative text, click here.
- Use the correct colour contrast ratio. To make images and text easier to read, make sure you are using contrasting colours. You can check if the ratio is good using this Colour Contrast Checker (you will need to know the hex codes of the colours you are using)
- Use plain text wherever possible. This can help people with dyslexia to engage with your content more easily.
- Don’t use emojis to replace words. Some screen readers will find it hard to translate emojis into words. Additionally, different people/communities may understand emojis in different ways.
For more actions you can take to make your content accessible, click here.
Using Social Media Safely
Although social media opens up a lot of possibilities, it is also important you consider the safety of yourself, your organisation and your collection when posting online. Some important tips:
- Never post personal information on an organisational account, such as your address, email or phone number.
- Make sure you are complying with copyright and GDPR regulations. For a basic guide to copyright, GDPR and data protection, see the section on Legal Matters.
- If needed, make use of the Report and Block features. Block spam accounts and don’t click on any links that come from an unrecognised source. If you find posts that appear dangerous, you can also report it.
- Choose a password that is hard to hack. Use a combination of letters, numbers and special characters (!, @, * etc.).
- Be professional! Posting creates a digital footprint and once content is out (even after it’s deleted) it may still be discoverable, so make sure your content will not be harmful to anyone (which includes not sharing anyone’s personal information without consent). This is also why it’s important to keep your login information safe – so that no one can use your accounts without your knowledge and approval.
- Journals and newsletters
- Educational workshops
Exhibitions can be used to highlight part of your collections by focusing on something important to your area. Perhaps you have a local anniversary, or an industry which dominated the area 100 years ago but no longer exists, or you want to mark some of the people who changed the area, for good or ill. On-line exhibitions, physical exhibitions in local venues and display panels in local shops can all bring your collections closer to your community. If you have never put together an exhibition before, you can get some help from the following websites and publications:
- British Association for Local History: Starting a Local History Society. Section D includes information on exhibition planning.
- Norfolk Record Office. Community Archives Toolkit: Interpretive Planning.
- Museums Worcestershire: Exhibition Planning Toolkit.
Journals and newsletters
Contributing to newsletters and journals of historical societies or starting your own newsletter or journal can be a good way to connect with people who want to learn about and use your collections.
Newsletters are usually used to keep members and supporters in touch with activities and events. Community archives could consider highlighting one document in each issue, or perhaps publishing a different page from a diary over several issues, or focusing on themes, like food or gardens, and choosing archives which reflect that theme. Have a look what other archives do on social media for ideas.
Some societies publish a journal with well-researched articles, reports and reviews, and with illustrations and photographs. Journals tend to stay on library bookshelves for many years after they are first published, so when you write articles for them, try to make sure that you have given your readers enough information to find the sources you have used for themselves. Put yourself in their shoes and think how frustrating it is to have to search through a big collection of archives for that one item that would really help you. If the publisher does not give you any guidance, then it’s best to include the following information:
- For archives, state the name of the archives service, the reference number, the title and the date of each item.
- For books, state the author, title, place of publication, publisher and date of publication.
- For articles in journals, state the author, title, name of the journal, publisher, volume, date of publication and page numbers.
Often you can include an illustration with your article. For help on copyright concerns, see our Legal Matters section.
If you are thinking of starting your own journal for the first time, the best people to talk to are other community archives or local history societies who can tell you what is involved, for example the Scottish Local History Forum.
Many societies and groups have a speaker at every meeting and may look for speakers from community archives to help to make up their annual programme. You might also choose to run a series of talks yourselves, whether in-person or on-line. This can be an effective way of introducing people to the range of collections you hold as well as your heritage. You can share the results of research using your collections and invite speakers who have used your collections. You can also consider asking speakers who can help develop the community archives, such as a conservator who could give advice and training on handling records or an archivist who could help you develop your cataloguing or collections management skills.
Talks are often supported with images and you can get help on copyright concerns here [link to basic copyright guide]. Remember that on-line talks can usually be accessed long after they were first delivered. You may prefer to pre-record talks when they are going on-line so that you can check them before releasing them. If you include links in your talk then mention the date that you checked these links were working.
If you have not run talks before, ask other community archives and local history societies for help or look at the advice given by the British Association for Local History.
Archives can be used to support the curriculum. You may be able to work with local teachers to offer relevant workshops with fascinating, unique local archives. Have a look at our pages on Education and Learning where you will find a 7-Step Guide to developing resources for schools, guides to Active Learning, Enquiry Learning and Creating Classroom Resources, and a range of projects undertaken with schools across Scotland.
Pdf lists can easily be downloaded and you can control which cataloguing elements you put into your lists. You can also control how your information is presented and make it easier for researchers to see the connections between archive items and collections. At a minimum, you should show the reference number, the date, the title and description of each item in your lists. You should add the title of the collection at the start of each list and you can opt to add a short introduction with the administrative history or biographical note about the collection’s provenance and creator, and a brief summary of the overall contents of the collection.
The main drawback to this method of putting your catalogue online is that each time you get new acquisitions or other changes, you will have to take the relevant list down to make the changes. Old lists can often re-surface when researchers have downloaded them and then refer to them later. You might find it helpful, therefore, to add a date to each list or a version number.
You also have to limit how much information you can put into a list. There may not be enough space to include the extent or the level of description or other details that would be helpful to a researcher.
If you use a spreadsheet as your cataloguing system or a database that can export to a spreadsheet, you may find it easier to upload part of the spreadsheet to your website. Be careful to omit any columns with confidential information, such as contact details of donors and depositors, or details of where items are stored. You should at a minimum include the columns which show the reference number, title, date, description, level of description and extent, and the collection that each item belongs to.
The drawback to a spreadsheet is that you are limited in how it is presented and, as a more dynamic tool than lists, you may find it harder to keep track of which version a researcher is referring to.
Archives cataloguing software
There are now many proprietary and open-source cataloguing software systems which you may want to explore. The advantage of these systems is that they include fields for every element of archival cataloguing that the international standards recommend, and they provide methods of putting your catalogue on-line. However, to use this software well, you also need to have a good understanding of archival cataloguing concepts and terminology. Try to get a demonstration with archives services that already use cataloguing software so that you can see whether this is a good choice for your community archives. Think about your volunteers and whether they will enjoy working with a system: if they want workarounds then the system probably isn’t right for you.
We don’t endorse any software but you may find it helpful to explore the following options (click on the software name for more information).
This is a free, open source, web-based software, developed initially with support from the International Council on Archives.
This is a proprietary web-based system which was developed for museums and is currently developing hierarchical linking to catalogue archival records. Prices range from free (for 50 records) up to around £1000 per year (for 100,000 records).
This is a proprietary on-site system, aimed at archival collections. There are also linked modules for museum and library collections. It enables exports in XML formats including EAD, for online access to selected information. Prices on application.
- Axiel Collections (earlier versions were known as AdLib)
This is a proprietary web-based system, which offers all the elements for archival collections and can also accommodate library and museum collections. Prices on application.
Matassa, Freda, Organising Exhibitions: a handbook for museums, libraries and archives (London: Facet Publishing, 2014)
British Association for Local History: Starting a Local History Society. Section D includes information on exhibition planning.