2021 SAA Annual Meeting Travel Grant Experience

This year Eileen L. Fay was awarded SAA Annual Meeting Travel Grant funds to attend SAA’s virtual annual meeting. She was kind enough to spend time live-tweeting for DVAG about the session she attended and write up a post detailing her experience and what she learned from it.


On Monday, July 26, 2021, I attended “Outreach and Online Access Innovations from Smaller Institutions,” a virtual session of the Society of American Archivists Annual Meeting. The speakers were Whitney Hamm, University Archivist and Special Collections Librarian at Missouri Southern State University; Heidi Morse, Library Technician at the Ann Arbor District Library Archives; Rachel Onuf, Director of the Vermont Historical Records Program at the Vermont State Archives & Records Administration; Kathy Schey, City Archivist of Huntington Beach, CA; and Molly Tighe, Archivist & Public Services Librarian at Chatham University in Pittsburgh, PA.

My most recent archives position was in a small research center in the Brandywine River Museum of Art, which consisted of just myself and the Research Center manager, though at one point there was also another librarian who managed the reference and book collections for in-house use. The archival collections were minimally processed, some with inventories, but no finding aids. The Museum’s recent Strategic Plan, however, specifies raising the visibility of the Research Center, processing and indexing its collections, and providing online access to finding aids as ongoing institutional goals.  While progress is slow due to lack of staff and resources, the Museum’s website now offers a general overview of the Research Center’s archival collections accompanied with a modest number  of images.  I was consequently very interested in ideas and suggestions to publicize and enable access to our materials. 

Whitney Hamm began with a similar situation: most of the MSSU institutional archives finding aids were originally internal documents only. With little budget and no support for archival management software, Hamm found she was able to adapt LibGuides, a service her library already used, to host finding aids, special collections guides, and other tools to facilitate access and outreach for the MSSU community and beyond. This service was made possible with the CMS upgrade, which includes a single interface from which users can access archival materials, subject guides, customizable groups for collections and exhibits, and more. Hamm also likes the widget options. MSSU Archives & Special Collections further hosts digitized collections on Internet Archive and plans to use Vital, a digital object repository from ProQuest’s Innovative, to host more scattered/individual documents.

Two other presentations I found especially useful focused on walking tours as an example of the archives as a facilitator of community-led initiatives. Heidi Morse discussed The Living Oral History Project Walking Tour: Black Neighborhoods in Ann Arbor, which came about after the African-American Cultural and Historical Museum reached out to the Ann Arbor District Library Archives for assistance in promoting their oral history collections. Rachel Onuf praised the pandemic outreach efforts of the Norwich Historical Society & Community Center, which included three podcast driving tours on topics found to be of most interest to the community. These tours helped get people out of the house in a safe manner. The concept was recently expanded into the first-ever Feast from the Farms self-guided driving/bicycle tour of local working farms, which included a history podcast, pop-up exhibits, and the ability to purchase fresh ingredients for recommended recipes.

Both Morse and Onuf emphasized seeking comments and suggestions from the target audience at every step of the development process. Morse summarized her best practices as the six “Rules of Thumb for Community Engagement”: 1) identify a need, 2) assess your audience and determine what modes work best (e.g. printable maps, mobile apps), 3) build relationships with collaborators (stakeholders with the most knowledge and connections), 4) seek feedback, 5) provide access by ensuring your tools and resources are easy to find and use, and 6) promote as much as possible, not only on social media but also other outlets you know your users frequent, such as a particular publication.

Although none of the institutions represented in the session were art museums, a prominent theme they all had in common and which I found particularly beneficial was the opportunities afforded by digitization, especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. A good example of this was Molly Tighe’s description of how her repository made historic photographs available as Zoom backgrounds. She also wrote a popular blog post about the 1918 flu pandemic using sources from her own collections and developed a Fun & Games in the Archives site with such activities as digital puzzles and historic trivia quizzes. At the moment, we at the Annenberg Research Center and the Brandywine River Museum of Art are preparing an online exhibit of materials from the new Paul Preston Davis Howard Pyle Research Collection, which includes several blogposts I am writing to offer a more in-depth look at some of the unique items Davis acquired (you can read one here).

What I learned from the “Outreach and Online Access Innovations from Smaller Institutions” session indicates that the Brandywine River Museum of Art is on the right track, but there is yet more work to be done. Chadds Ford is part of a region with a rich past, and there are many prospects for history/art partnerships. I have always been very fond of Internet Archive for all the scans of hard-to-find public domain books they make freely available (including many things not on Project Gutenberg) but was not aware of the other options they have for hosting archival materials. Unfortunately, my position at the Brandywine was only temporary and is coming to a close, but that is one of several digitization outreach efforts I would have loved to implement.

By Eileen L. Fay

Twitter: @EileenLFay1

Email: elfay123 @ gmail.com

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