Community Engagement in Archiving and Academia

In The Future of Archives is Participatory , archivist Kate Theimer expresses her vision of archives as proactive spaces of learning, rather than passive storehouses of cobweb filled boxes. I could not possibly agree more, and I believe a sort of self-satisfied isolation is far too common in academia.

I don’t want to be too sweeping with that statement. Many academics DO consider themselves educators, and our countries many museums, historical parks, and roadside markers attest to that. But I don’t think anyone will argue that there is a degree of insularity in academia: the stereotypes of a shushing librarian or the “absent-minded, egghead professor” will attest to that. At best, it creates a bubble, at worst it allows bad understandings of history/science/literature/anything to flourish.

For example, I often see considerable badmouthing of historical documentaries and “pop history.” This isn’t entirely undeserved (aside from “pop history” being poorly defined), historical works aimed at mass audiences are generally more concerned with selling copies. And don’t even get me started on the History Channel with its “Ancient Aliens” and conspiracy themed programming. But what does it say when academics are more concerned with writing books aimed within their small niche? By not communicating their ideas to a mass audience, they are creating a vacuum that can be filled by hucksters peddling political agendas, conspiracies, or cynical cash-grabs.

This applies to archiving in its perception as a dusty old room containing dusty old boxes. Which it is, don’t get me wrong, I start coughing within an hour. But they should be seen as more than that, as they contain documents that may benefit the entire community. I’ve seen genealogical records, stunning photographs, and histories of well known landmarks that thousands of people pass on their commutes. All of this should appeal to more than just an academic doing research. I’d imagine that you could almost create a pseudo-museum, space and money permitting (at least in whatever alternate universe these sorts of institutions are well-funded in).

And things seem to be changing. Gene and Colin have no difficulty engaging the public. Gene even told me about a group of elderly dementia patients who come in, and try and locate things from their past in Asheville. I guess it helps with memory recall. This is community engagement, and a good example of an archive providing a service, and I hope I more and more archives do this sort of thing.

As I said, I don’t want to sweep academia with too broad a brush. I’ve met park historians very dedicated to their jobs of engaging the public, and have been to fantastic museums and parks. Many historians are more than happy to talk about their favorite historical subject matter to anyone and at anytime (you may even have trouble prying yourself away once they get started), and even when this isn’t the case, there isn’t anything inherently wrong with works aimed mostly at academics. I don’t want to push the “death of professionalism” angle, because that’s how we end up with things like “alternative facts.” But I have seen academic elitism first hand, and it was disappointing to find out that it wasn’t just a boogeyman used to scare the over-credulous.

I would like to end this post with a few photographs from my trip to Gettysburg.

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I would strongly recommend it to anyone interested in America’s history. Much of the park is kept in the same condition that it was in during the 1860s, with a natural beauty that almost belies the ferocity of the battle that occurred there that sweltering summer day (as opposed to the crisp fall day when I went). The employees at Gettysburg were passionate and knowledgeable, always a good combination, and the battlefield has an almost naturally solemn quality to it. Whether it’s because I was just aware of what had happened there, or whether it’s an inborn of the natural landscape, I don’t know.

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