Thursday, 10 November 2011

Management Consultant and Historical Association?

Today I went on a visit with my Management and Preservation of Special Collections Class to the Onondaga Historical Association downtown.  I didn't quite know what to expect since I had had a quick look at their website and saw that they had a museum, gift shop and research centre (the website is not the nicest of things to navigate around and I will deal with this point later).  So, to be honest, I didn't have high hopes of my afternoon.  How wrong I was.

321 Montgomery Street
Karen Cooney, the support services administrator, gave us an overview of the Association and what it does, its principles, organisation etc.  Most of the users of the research centre are members of the public and if they are members then they pay an annual fee and have the use of the centre for free but there is a charge for non-members.  OHA is a non-profit organisation and is privately owned, which means that it is not funded in the same way as council associations.

An interesting point raised was whether the OHA intended to digitise their collection so that their paper documents were available online.  I had only ever considered the expense of doing such a project but Karen pointed out a major issue with this process.  Not only would a lot of money go into the digitising project but also the resulting online database would drain the OHA of a major source revenue.  The OHA depends on users and reference questions to provide them with an income and putting all of their collections online would mean a drastic decrease in paying customers and so paralyse the association.  Tom Hunter, the Assistant Director and Curator of Collections, backed this up by giving examples of occasions where the paper copies come in useful and online resources are not enough.  This all really gave me food for thought and the issue of freedom of information and intellectual property rights were raised.  The OHA are not withholding information from patrons since it is accessible if you physically come to 321 Montgomery Street, the matter is more one of convenience for the user.

One of the many photos in the collection

Tom Hunter discussed some of the '3D' stuff and one thing in particular caught my attention.  The CNY: The Good Life and CNY: Business Exchange both allocate their back pages to the OHA and provide them with an opportunity to showcase some of their items.  Photographs and around 250 words are used to showboat interesting points of local history to snare the readers.  This is not something I have seen before and struck me as a great opportunity to get the work out about a sometimes overlooked association.

BUT the most interesting point came with the Executive Director, Gregg Tripoli.  He has a business background and had a career in management consultancy before retiring and subsequent un-retiring to take up the post at the OHA.  Now, my brother is a management consultant and, if I am honest, I am not entirely sure what he does.  This talk, however, elucidated some of the functions of such a profession and what it can do for museums and archives and I was enthralled.

New shop front of OHA - previously these windows were bricked up
(didn't quite scream 'come in, we're exciting and modern'!!)
His business approach has included rejuvenating Montgomery Street to provide better parking facilities and a history themed restaurant as a response to surveys carried out of public opinion concerning the 'downtown experience'.  This history restaurant is decorated with artefacts from the museum collection and has place mats with trivia about Onondaga County.  The museum now has a shop (with fantastic gifts such as typewriter key jewellery, themed stationery, original Syracuse china pieces and much much more) and no longer has a sole permanent exhibit.  Now there are temporary exhibits that are changed frequently and the OHA also organises exhibits elsewhere in the community.

These other exhibits are sponsored by local corporate bodies and either feature these businesses or local history related to events in the area such as plays that are shown at Syracuse Stage.  The OHA organises exhibits for the public libraries and these travel round the branches in order to cover the maximum area.  For the price of sponsoring these exhibits, businesses reach a wider audience than if they advertised on a billboard on 81.  Quite a sobering thought.  OHA also organise exhibits for companies and organisations and can make use of their archives in tandem with the OHA collections and these portray the longevity and adjustability of the companies and the integral part they play in the community.

Gregg summed up the purpose of these exhibits as "to instil pride in who we are and what we have accomplished."  I do believe that this more than ticks the 'community' box that we librarians are so often banging on about, it ticks it and surrounds it in arrows and exciting luminous stickers.  It is only by engaging the community in their past that we can effectively invest people in their shared future and ensure the survival of such collections.

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