Thinking outside the strongroom: exploring new directions in community engagement

At Explore York Libraries and Archives, as part of our HLF funded York: Gateway to History project, we’re exploring new directions in community engagement. We’re learning to become more flexible, dynamic and responsive in order to establish long lasting, mutually beneficial community relationships.

Working on the York: Gateway to History project as Community Collections & Outreach Archivist, I have relied on the strength of our community links and harnessed their enthusiasm. The result is a series of workshops and projects that are community designed, and a network of over 40 individuals championing our services.

Throughout 2015 we’ll be delivering a series of training workshops to community groups interested in identifying, managing and using their archives. We asked over 100 individuals who represent community groups across York what guidance they needed to manage their archives. Their responses have formed the structure of the training.

Developing community champions and training workshops were always part of our funded project but we’ve been surprised by how many community groups want to partner with us to develop their own projects. By listening and responding quickly we have: set up an collaborative archive cataloguing programme with the York Normandy Veteran’s Association, ran a research project feeding into the 2014-15 curriculum of a local primary school and helped turn a shed into a parish repository.

Through collaboration with a local history society we discovered that local libraries are powerful community spaces and can be used effectively to share archives with people who may have never considered visiting an archive before. Throughout all our projects we’ve needed to be transparent and willing to compromise as all community groups have different objectives and resources available, so there is no one-size fits all approach. By not setting rigid rules and restrictions on how and where we work, our community relationships are stronger and the outcomes more meaningful.

Our programme of projects, workshops and community contact building have taught us a lot about the role of the archivist in the community and as a result is forming part of PhD research at the University of York. Our experiences are also leading the way in how we take forward the community led culture of Explore Libraries & Archives Mutual, a social enterprise that now delivers the archives service in York.

The archive sector has always worked on principles of best practice and relied on case studies, but when it comes to community engagement we should be challenging the way things have always been done and exploring new ways of developing long lasting community partnerships.

I was recently asked, ‘do you have a background in archives?’ The answer is yes, but the approach I’m taking may lead a lot a people to think otherwise. I’ve left my archive training and business background in the strongroom and am listening to our communities; discovering what archives mean to them and how they want to work with us.

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