Creating and Growing Community-Based Memory Projects

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Community-based archives and memory projects are based upon the collective effort of a group of people organizing to preserve and share their history. Community-based archives can grow out of a remarkable collection of historical materials, a crescendo of voices that need to be recorded and shared, or out of the need to more intentionally document a movement or group’s activities.

If you’re thinking about how to embark on a community memory project, you may want to operate independently, or you you may want to incorporate local cultural heritage organizations to help in collecting and storing material. Your independence and ability to tell your story and that of your community is likely very important to you, and you may even be considering starting an independent museum, history center, or archive.

As a community archivist, here are some steps you might take to expand and formalize your project:

1. Organize and assess

  • Review and describe the collections of materials (documents, photographs, film, video, audio, or digital) you have already been collecting.
  • Consider what stories, documents, or pieces of the history are missing, and how you’d like to solicit the community to fill in these gaps. Some examples might be a history harvest event where people bring their documents to be scanned or collected, or developing some oral history interviews with members of your community.

2. Build community

  • Assess who has been a member of your project already and consider how to organize more officially as a task force, club, or organization.
  • Look outward and identify members of your community who have knowledge about the topics of interest.
  • Begin to build your network via word-of-mouth, an email list, a Facebook group, or bulletin boards to explain your mission and who you want to connect with.
  • In doing this, you’ll likely find people who have materials such as photographs, diaries, or documents that might fit in your archive. Keeping a spreadsheet, or list of these individuals and their potential collections will help you get a feel for how many items might eventually be donated or shared with you, along with how much space you will need to store them (either physically or digitally).
  • Be sure to talk with a cross-section of people; you want to be inclusive, not just collect from those who you know personally!

3. Safeguard and Share

  • Are you ready to share your collection of historical materials and stories, or set up an exhibit?
  • Consider ways to safeguard your collection in storage spaces or while shown to others.
  • Provide a viewing area for the materials; perhaps a room within your public library or historical society. Make sure the area is monitored by someone responsible while people are using the materials to prevent/discourage theft.
  • When handling photographs, it is best to have cotton gloves on hand to prevent the damaging transfer of hand oils to the collection.
  • Have set hours the collections will be viewable. Communicate if viewing is by appointment only.
  • Create a system such as a spreadsheet or log to track items being used.
  • Restrict access to fragile materials and items that may be damaged with handling (this is where photographing or scanning comes in handy; allows access to the materials, even if not physically).
  • Reach out to your local library to see what resources they have to draw attention to your collection or provide support. They may have a scanner you can use to digitize materials for easier sharing!
  • Photographed or scanned material can be uploaded to a community Facebook page or website to share with your community. This can bring attention to your collection and highlight what you have. Invite them to come visit!
  • Ask for help from the community in identifying places or people in photographs or interpret documents.

4. Formalize

  • If you choose to create a non-profit, the Council of Non-Profits is a great place to start.
  • Look for funding for community archives; historical societies, local libraries, and the like might have suggestions of where to look for these types of funds and could potentially help you apply for some
  • As your formalize as an organization, consider whether a physical space, a digital archive, or some combination of both will best help you document and share your history.