Three archivists walk into a bar and.. well, you know the rest.
I’ve been working with archivists for ten years now and still I feel I know next to nothing about their social lives. Sure, I know the jokes and memes; cardigans and coach trips, cats and Time Team, heavy metal on medieval recorders and an encyclopaedic knowledge of The Archers (remember Susan going to prison? Seems like yesterday..), but really, I’m still playing catch-up. Even on the job I get a little lost when you start on about retention schedules (sounds vaguely medical) and digital preservation (still medical), so you’ll understand the thought of writing a blog post for archivists to read in their spare time is pretty stressful for me. Nevertheless we are where we are, and ignorance is no bar to social media posting. It’s all outreach after all, and that’s where I do know something.
As Education Development Officer for the SCA I’m tasked with helping to develop education and outreach work in Scottish archives. To that end I’ve been dressing up in vintage clothes, writing reports, teaching animation, handing out leaflets and postcards, arguing with teachers, creating scripts, making audio recordings of school kids, running courses and workshops, giving self-important speeches, and generally telling archivists what to do for ten years (and still he doesn’t understand retention schedules? …give us a break…). In that time I’ve seen some tremendous education and outreach work with schools and community groups all over Scotland. While shamelessly claiming credit for a small amount of this work, most of it comes from a growing confidence in the sector to share its treasures in new and interesting ways with local communities and schools, and a determination to be heard amid the noisy clamour for scarce funds in the new arms-length “leisure trusts” of heritage, arts and (for some reason) sports organisations.
Footfall is currency these days. Your archive may be protected behind double-locked air-compressed steel doors through an impenetrable maze of identical institutional corridors in the scary basement of a nondescript building (and enjoy the added security of a basilisk stare and cardigan arms folded implacably across the chest if anyone asks to see inside the storeroom) but funds only flow when words like “access” are deployed. Access gives you wings, or at least funds, and access means outreach and education activities. Access means taking those school log books and council minutes and public health reports and boxes of business correspondence and showing people why they’re interesting and revealing and exciting and essential for an understanding of who we are and how we got here. It means digging through the dross (oh come on, some of it’s dross) to find the bars of gold like the Tiree court deposition describing a mermaid’s body found on a beach, or the Manor Valley church council minute authorising payment to Turkish pirates to ransom one of their parishioners.
Your skill as an archivist is knowing where that stuff is (does it involve retention schedules?) and knowing where it fits with other stuff and why it’s amazing. My skill is in working out what to do with it to make it amazing to school children and pensioners and teenagers and local music clubs and people who have never heard of archives, let alone been inside the building. And my job is to show you how to do that, or at least to add to your understanding and inspire your confidence to try new ways to share your archive collections with the public. I don’t need to know everything about archives to do that (my background’s in education, after all, and the essence of education is being just one page ahead of your students) and you don’t have to be a teacher or a community worker to do great outreach work.
Now, reading on, you might conclude that this whole blog post is just an extended advert for our upcoming training workshop (it is) but I assure you it isn’t. We have lots of resources available (including an upcoming training workshop) to help you build your education and outreach work, such as online resources, our Education Coaching programme (more about this in next month’s blog post) as well as our training courses for archives and heritage staff. Our upcoming training workshop (did I mention this?) is called Treasure from the Vaults. It’s on 26 September at New Register House in Edinburgh. There are more details here and a few places are still available. It’s a one-day professional development workshop on creating interesting and engaging education materials from archive records. You also get to spend the whole day with me and, more importantly, a fine bundle of other archivists. Is that the right collective noun? Perhaps a cardigan of archivists, or a series, or a provenance? Yes, yes, you’ve heard it all before, I know. Far be it from me to tell you the punchline.