Collaborating with Archives and Cultural Heritage Institutions on Community Memory Projects

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If you have deep knowledge or historical materials related to a particular town, community, historical event, or movement, you may be looking for ways to more widely share and preserve this information. You might consider partnering with an archive or other institution with similar goals to create a exhibit, digital archive, interactive online map, or an event related to your community’s history.

Here are some tips on how to find and create a sustainable and equitable partnership to help your history thrive.

1. Organize and Assess

Create some introductory text related to your project. This should cover the mission and goals of the project, the scope and range of materials related to it, and examples of materials or stories associated with the work.

2. Come Up With A Plan

How do you want to meaningfully preserve and share these materials? Do your materials lend themselves well to a podcast? A digital exhibit? A film series or panel discussion?

3. Community-Build

  • While you’re able to do some aspects of a project, you might need help with technology, archival standards, or organizing a big event.
  • Start with your community. There may be people you already know who are excited and motivated to develop an exhibit, event, or even a non-profit archive or community museum with you.

4. When To Partner

  • Choosing whether to maintain an independent project or to collaborate with a library or archive is a big decision. By exploring options, you can decide what feels right for you and your community.
  • Working with an institutional archive or more established community-based archive might extend your reach or add an extra layer of preservation.
  • Some organizations may be open to housing digital versions of your records, while you keep the originals.

5. Consider Local Options

Review options such as public libraries, non-profit archives, university archives, local history centers, museums, or public radio or television stations.

6. Look Nationally or Internationally

  • Use a search engine or consult with your local librarian to brainstorm organizations that might be able to help support you and your project. Some lists to get you started:
    • Lists by country and state:
    • If you are interested in working with a collection or institution that centers the experiences and history of a specific group or identity, there may be resources (such as the GLBT-focused Rainbow Heritage Network) which can help you brainstorm.
  • Make sure you’re entrusting your project or collection to a collaborator who has the time, resources, and mindset to be able to be an outstanding partner.
  • When meeting with archivists and curators, bring examples of the type of project you want to develop, along with your needs, your personal limitations, and your time limits.

7. Ask Questions

  • Example questions to ask a potential partner:
    • Are you (the institution) open to collaborating on a project related to my collection or community history that might be “outside the box” of simply donating my materials?
    • If I wanted to keep my collection, would you be open to only maintaining digital versions?
    • What can I expect in terms of digitization support? Transcription?
    • Describe a project that you’ve worked on that sounds like mine.
    • What opportunities do you see for events, workshops, exhibits, etc. that may help to bring this project to the community it documents?
    • How would I (and my collaborators) contribute to the description and interpretation of materials?
    • If you weren’t sure about what my community might think about something you were doing (such as how you described a cultural tradition, or how you made materials accessible), how would you approach it?
  • You might hear some “nos” along the way due to collection scope or limited capacity of institutions. Always ask for referrals for other institutions.
  • Don’t settle for something that doesn’t feel right.While any partnership has compromises, you want to make sure that your relationship with a partner library or museum is positive, equitable, and organic.

8. Partner and Build

  • Start with a small partnership to see how the relationship develops. This may be a lecture or film screening, a book club, a “pop-up” exhibit, or digitization project.
  • Think about whether you will apply alone or in collaboration with an institution for funding, and about how this kind of infrastructure may affect your autonomy as a community. See the article “Let the People Lead: Supporting Sustainability vs Dependency Models for Funding Community-Based Archives by Bergis Jules for more about this.
  • Establish roles and outcomes. Make sure all parties know what’s expected: who will contribute what work, what challenges might come up, and how you can meet a goal all parties are happy with