Collaborating to Preserve Our Cultural History


Melissa Mannon is an archivist and archival consultant. She runs ArchivesInfo.com and is the author of "Cultural Heritage Collaborators: A Manual for Community Documentation" (ArchivesInfo Press, 2010).

The history we know is based on the documents that society has retained.  Ensuring an accurate understanding of modern society relies on the decisions we make at this historic time.  There is a need for organizations and citizens to consider the knowledge that we are recording and the legacy that we are leaving to our children.  Collaboration can help ensure that civilization is saving documentation that best reflects our times, providing an accurate indication of how we work, play, and function day-to-day.  The better the collecting efforts of cultural heritage organizations, the more authentic testimony humanity saves.  This will help us evaluate our successes and failures, propelling civilization thoughtfully and purposely into the future.

The “historical record” is the surviving written or otherwise recorded information that provides evidence or information about a society and its activities in a certain time and place.  One can find bits of the historical (or “documentary”) record in every institution and every home throughout civilized society.  Cultural heritage institutions work to preserve this material in a formalized way to help educate, communicate, and evaluate cultural values and mores.  Today, museums, libraries and archives struggle to make ends meet while trying to live up to the new challenges technology and globalization have handed to us, not always recognizing the fundamental value of thoughtful collection development.

Cultural heritage professionals no longer have the luxury of embracing an internal focus with little regard for other area organizations or institutions collecting similar materials around the world.  Organizations must see themselves as part of a cultural network, understand their niche for collecting, and efficiently explain that role to citizens.  Institutions should embrace a collaborative model to ensure the safeguarding of our history and to promote themselves as vital entities in a contemporary world.

To identify appropriate documents for the historical record, professional collection caretakers (including archivists, curators, and museologists) must work with non-professionals who create and keep materials.  Firstly, professionals operating in seemingly disparate fields must embrace a natural partnership.  Our repositories’ resources once sat side-by-side with similar methods for care that were not dependent on the nature of the material.  It would be beneficial to re-evaluate our cross-purposes.  Secondly, professionals need to make concerted efforts to reach out to others who may possess items that are important for us to identify and maintain for documentation purposes.  Many important items remain buried in homes and offices, inaccessible and left out of humanity’s story.

Collaborative efforts should occur among individuals from institutions that share a purpose of preserving cultural heritage, and should propel the recognition that these institutions retain documentation that is vital to our understanding of civilization.  Partnerships help build a community history that one can define within a geographical boundary or by subject.  Geographical boundaries can be local, such as within a town, or spread regionally.  Subject relationships can spread across the globe or among smaller communities.  The key to effective collaboration is working with the right partners who are willing and able to devote resources to efforts regardless of boundaries and focused on shared documentation goals.

Efforts to collect logically and efficiently should be a priority amongst all the work cultural repositories do.  Collaboration will help ensure the achievement of collecting goals and the further success of all institutional efforts.  Strong collections provide a foundation for developing programs, outreach, fundraising, and exhibits.  What an organization collects defines who they are and focused collecting allows repositories to build other activities around a logical core.

A collecting policy is a prime guiding statement for an institution’s purpose and a proper policy will define collecting goals based on the mission.  The policy provides a vision for the future and exists so that an organization operates without looming questions about what it does and why.  To begin collaborative efforts, all institutions should have collecting policies in place so that they can gain a better understand of their own behaviors, the priorities of their partners, and come together with an understanding of their role within a collaborative.  Such policies encourage cultural institutions actively to pursue appropriate collections.

Once partners acknowledge the desire to form a collaborative and affirm their mutual aspiration for focused collecting based on a shared history, they will do well to take a closer look at what they have in common.  The use of a community documentation strategy is beneficial in identifying collecting strengths, weaknesses and goals.  Creating a timeline that highlights all relevant events, people, places and topics for incorporation in collecting plans helps groups identify what they must collect as a partnership to ensure a thorough documentary record.  Partners enlist the aid of outside experts and potential non-professional collaborators who can help identify broad-ranging aspects of society that make up the human story.  Then, a survey of resources held by each participating organization allows the group to see how effectively they showcase the history they want to reflect.  A survey allows one to identify overlaps and gaps in the documentary record in order to move collecting efforts in a logical direction. 

A community documentation strategy allows us to try in a systematic way to gather items that are most vital to tell the story about our civilization and to create as complete an historical record as we possibly can.  However, there are additional benefits of systematic collecting, including an increase in organizational resources, expertise, and outside support.  One of the greatest benefits of collaborative work is a new sense of identity and shared cultural purpose that radiates from partnering institutions into the community.  Appreciation for our collections and the culture they embody awakens local pride and propels citizens to engage with important civic issues that will define our future as a society.

Cultural collections are the evidence of where our civilization has been and how far we have come.  Cultural heritage repositories that maintain these materials for posterity must view themselves as vital entities, bridging ideas across changing times.  Only through collaboration can we all effectively document the historical record, identify our niche and recognize an implicit cultural promise to protect society’s memory.  By collaborating on the historical record/cultural heritage, collaborators can help build a history that is diverse, balanced, and truly reflective of modern culture.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Melissa Mannon - 8/11/2010

Hi Maarja,
Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I think frankly that it just doesn't occur to some community institutions to do collaborative work. Many struggle to get the staffing and funding they need to achieve goals that they have set for themselves, not realizing that reaching out can help them do that. Local historical societies, museums, and libraries often collect by serendipity rather than actively forming strong collecting policies. They wind up competing for materials without realizing it - ex. half the records from a family end up at the local historical society and the other are later on given to a college with neither institution knowing what the other one has. OR, they do know that they are competing and work to get the "best" documents to strengthen their own institution without regard to whether the records logically belong in their collections or not.

I think we are also challenged because records that belong in Special Collections at the end of their "lifecycle" don't necessarily go anywhere as they do in an Institutional Archives. Families, local associations, etc. hang on to papers because they are old and interesting without realizing that they have value beyond the family or organization. So many important bits of information remain stored in attics and basements. Professionals need to realize that they need to reach out and explain the importance of these materials toward maintaining historical memory. Cultural heritage professionals often don't make this a priority because they are caught up with other activities, or they have not given enough thought to its value, or they think it is an expensive proposition even though it doesn't have to be one.

One of the programs that I offer through my consulting business is called "Preserving Memories." I have conducted these at libraries, historical societies, senior citizen centers and any place I can get a good community mix. I encourage people to bring in treasured family items to discuss and to get advice about how to preserve them. My goals with this program are to 1. help people preserve their memories 2. so I can learn about what people have among their personal papers 3. explain how these items may have value to a greater history. 4. show non-professionals that they are partners with local institutions in preserving this community memory.

So to summarize after that long winded explanation...I think that there are many "causes" of non-collaboration - Professionals lacking time or inclination and not realizing the true value of this approach AND non-professionals not being included in conversations and not even knowing that there is or could be a conversation about the items in their possession.

And by the way, I love that NARA is pushing the idea of the "Citizen Archivist."

Please do read the book and contact me when you're done so we can continue the discussion!

Melissa Mannon - 8/11/2010

I understand and appreciate your response. I think you are absolutely right to raise that point. It is one that we don't often consider and I don't address directly, but we need to be conscious of how we seek to manage cultural heritage resources. Even with the best intentions, when organizations seeking to build collections act to "save" materials they often stir up other issues. True collaboration encourages all those with an interest in materials to speak up about them and decide the best way to keep them. This includes professionals and non-professionals alike and my book addresses that point in greater detail. One organization or group of professionals should not "expropriate" thinking that they know best and can make best use of the resources for their people. And to add to that idea, I think it should always be a goal to keep materials local, to the extent that is possible. I am specifically thinking of Afghanistan's collections that were removed from the country for their safety with the goal of returning them when it is feasible.

Maarja Krusten - 8/10/2010

Hello, Ms. Mannon, so nice to see your article here. As you probably know, I once worked for the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) and still follow archival issues closely. The NARA intake/ingestion process results from records management under the Federal Records Act. Historians and archives and records management specialists have expressed concern in recent years about the chilling effect, the shortening of the agency records hold time under the federal scheduling process, resulting in earlier accessioning of material into the archives from the creating agencies, as well as migration and technological issues. It's very tough to juggle everything and get it right, as there are some competing goals.

NARA's archival side always has had to be mindful of its records side, which deals with the beginning of the records life cycle. Where NARA is focusing more on collaboration is with its researchers and what the Archivist of the U.S. calls "citizen archivists."

Just as NARA is going through its Open Government inititiatives now, I'm glad to hear that other cultural institutions are focusing more on collaboration and on communities, as well. To what extent was insularity or an overly inward looking approach an issue in the past in the other institutions? What do think were the primary causes? My experiences all have been federal so I'm not familiar with the challenges private sector institutions have faced in those areas. I'm interested in learning more. Hey, I'll have to read your book!

Peter N. Kirstein - 8/10/2010

I am the author right above you and enjoyed your piece. I just remember when I was in the British Museum there was considerable controversy over relics that were "expropriated" from other cultures that were quite controversial. The issue of cultural preservation, as you note, is certainly significant. I guess I was trying to explore a different dimension in which cultural preservation can be expropriation and theft. I recognise you are not advocating such action and have expertise in the archiving and preservation of materials.

Melissa Mannon - 8/10/2010

It is my intention to encourage people to make sure that items are preserved for posterity. This does not mean removing items from their communities. Cultural heritage institutions can play a significant role in helping communities preserve their own materials within their own localities. We can help raise awareness about the importance of safeguarding documentation. The expertise of professionals can help communities survey their resources, identify vital historical items, create appropriate climate controlled environments, learn about proper storage materials, and create appropriate access tools for information. Working together, larger and wealthier cultural institutions can provide support for smaller communities following some of the examples outlined in the book such as traveling archivists and collaborative inventory projects.

Peter N. Kirstein - 8/9/2010

I am wondering if the author is equally concerned about the preservation of "their" culture. I refer to white invaders from Classical civilisation to the present who have removed indigenous artifacts and placed them in either private collections or white cultural zoos(museums)and then charged outlandish admission fees for their patrons. Much of what is preserved of "our culture" is simply stolen and rarely returned unless public outcry is sustained over a period of time.