Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Communication, Communication, Communication

The last week has seen me attend four conference/meetings, all of which were very different.  I started off with the ARLIS afternoon at Whitechapel Gallery.  I had never visited this space before and the tour of the reading room, archive exhibition area and the art installation in the main gallery was very enlightening.  The use of archive material in exhibitions was particularly interesting since the archive is one of exhibitions and so when they exhibit they tend to resurrect an old exhibition with modern twists, which effect the original interpretation.

Next up was the ARA Section for Records Management, who were holding a mini-conference before their AGM.  I had been asked to speak on my ‘unusual’ approach to the archive and records management sector.  I hadn’t considered my approach to be that unusual but as I prepared my presentation, I realised that my experience has been quite unique.  This was the first professional presentation I have done and, as it was all about myself, my journey and my thoughts on the applicability of my experience to the records management sector, I decided to go for it without notes.  I wrote my Prezi, a software I much prefer to PowerPoint since it is far more flexible, accessible on the net and keeps the audience’s attention much better.  I actually enjoyed doing the presentation (a feeling I never had doing talks at school) and I hope that those listening found it helpful.  The rest of the day promised to be very full of discussions concerning the changing definition and role of the profession but I had to leave for my next meeting unfortunately...

I then attended the APAC (Association of Performing Arts Collections) afternoon, which was hosted by the Globe.  After a tour of the Globe and the new Sam Wanamaker Theatre (a beautiful theatre lit by candlelight as in the Jacobean period), we had the general meeting.  This was by far the largest APAC meeting I have attended with around 30 people.  The focus of the day was on authority files and how various arts institutions tackle the issue of name, performance and venue authorities.  This is all with a view to a study day focused on the topic and was to gain an overview of what each institution is doing about authorities so that we can pull our resources to lessen our workload and refrain from reinventing the wheel.  It was a really useful networking day and I am getting to know those in the relatively small world of performing arts information services.

The Globe

Today, I have been in sunny Southampton at the ARA South West training day on Audience Engagement, hosted at the Hartley Library, University of Southampton.  This day was focused on all aspects of audience engagement, from exhibitions to social media to fund raising.  As Laura Cotton from the Centre for Buckinghamshire Studies said, every project we undertake has an aspect of outreach, be it a cataloguing project or exhibition or digitisation project.  If there is no outreach element then what is the point of us doing it?  A recurring theme today was: sell what we do.  There is little point in working away in an archive behind closed doors if you do not tell people about what you are doing and spread the knowledge - the phrase ‘knowledge facilitator’ comes back to me from my Masters at Syracuse where Dave Lankes defined librarianship as ‘knowledge facilitation’ in his book ‘The Atlas of New Librarianship’.

The Hartley Library

Another particularly helpful message from today was that exhibitions are as much about audience as they are about the material exhibited.  I have recently found out that I will be curating digital exhibits for the National on a frequent basis as the main site refurbishment draws to a close and it was helpful for me to think about audiences and at whom we are aiming our materials.  Do people really want to stop and read correspondence or do they want to feel more like they are looking and doing?

Rachel Kasbohm of the British Postal Museum and Archives spoke on their use of social media, from Facebook to Twitter to Flickr to their blog and it was useful to get her views on audience evaluation.  The project manager of the Black Plays Archive, created by the NT, uses Google Analytics to monitor response to the site and I am beginning to do so with our online catalogue and it is very helpful (if a tad addictive) to know where your visitors are coming from, what they are looking at and for how long.  I would like to up the social media presence of the archive (which is currently pretty much non existent) and it was encouraging to know that we needn’t target all new media but to focus on the few that attract the audiences we are keen to reach.

For some visual distraction - I went to Godstone Point to Point at the weekend

The Head of Public Affairs from ARA, Marie Owens, presented on the Explore your Archive campaign, which the NT did not participate in due to the stresses of the 50th but I’ll definitely look into it for next year.  Interestingly, she pointed out that outreach has many synonyms: public engagement, advocacy, friend-raising (I like this one) etc. but it is all the same thing: communication.  She told archivists not to be scared of approaching famous people who use our archives (those on ‘Who do you think you are?’ being the most obvious) and asking them if they would mind their story being used for advocacy.  It is a sad fact that celebrity sells but there is a more general message here of archivists getting out of their comfort zone.  It is all too typical that a lot of the tweets sent about Explore your Archive were sent to ourselves i.e. within the profession.  I have mentioned the ‘echo chamber’ before and I first came across it in Cambridge and we need to be careful not to evaluate a project as successful when the positive feedback figures are really coming from other information professionals!

For me, the most pertinent presentation of the day belonged to Tamara Thornhill of the Transport for London Archive.  She seems to be dealing with a similar issue to me in terms of institutional identity.  She has worked really hard to improve the visibility of the archive and its staff and has vastly improved her visitors and users.  Her key has been communication: her team has asked to attend other team meetings to explain the archive service and they erect exhibitions which always include a panel on the archive, where it is and what it holds.  This has raised their profile within the organisation and resulted in more accessible webpages for external visitors.

Our horse lost its rider...
So, really, communication is key and this was the basis of my presentation to the Section for Records Management.  Although I do not have formal training in records management, communication with each department at the National will keep the right records flowing into the archive and build upon the interest in the archive coming from the 50th.  Seeing how others have tackled identity within their institution has encouraged me to be more bold with my advocacy and more defensive of our service.