2014-11-28

Authors

Sandra Brauer
has worked several years as a community engagement specialist in the UK museums and heritage sector. After an undergraduate degree in European Cultural History and an MA in Museum Studies, she engaged hard-to-reach audiences in arts and outreach projects for a local authority in the North East and then led the English engagement strand for English Heritages Britain from Above project. Sandra works as a freelancer in museum education and community engagement.
Conference report Discovering Collections, Discovering Communities 2014

Forging Collaboration between Archives, Museums and Academia

The stunning new home of The Library of Birmingham proved to be a fitting backdrop for The National Archives (TNA) and Research Libraries UKs (RLUK) second collaborative conference "Discovering Collections, Discovering Communities" on October 29th - 30th 2014. This years widened its scope to welcome representatives from the heritage and cultural sectors. More than 270 delegates from over 160 organisations across the UK and overseas discussed the benefits and challenges of cross-sector collaborations and the opportunities of digitality for the sake of broadening collections access for academia and the wider public alike.
Academia, as Matt Greenhall, a conference organiser and Head of Strategies and Programmes at TNA, underlined in his opening speech, still sits within the shadow of the Research Excellence Framework () and its need for demonstrable impact within wider society, something that can be achieved through working in partnership with heritage and cultural organisations. The throughout positive response demonstrates the timeliness of #DCDC14 conference in aiming to bring the sectors together that went separate ways since the abolishment of the Museums, Archives and Libraries Council (MLA) in 2012.
Matt Greenhall at DCDC14

Ongoing funding cuts for public organisations across all sectors present another strong driver for an increased interest in partnership working. Successful nationwide cross-sector initiatives, so Greenhall, such as this years commemoration of the First World War, have further demonstrated the huge potential and benefits of uniting the stuff with the stories.

Digital and analogue engagement as a form of collaboration

Unsurprisingly, digitality represented an omnipresent key theme at DCDC14 as the sectors biggest opportunity for change but also as its biggest challenge. TNAs Chief Executive and Keeper, Jeff James, raised the questions picked up again in discussions and many of the papers given by over 50 speakers: What does the digital future look like? How do perceptions change of what organisations with collections can and should be doing? Where are the skills to be found to meet these demands despite financial strains?

As part of the conferences engagement theme, my paper focused on my work on the Britain from Above project for English Heritage and our experiences of developing a programme of both online and offline user engagement around a collection of historic aerial photographs. Besides digital engagement, my responsibility included the development and delivery of events and community engagement projects in England and the programming for all exhibitions related activities across the UK.

The talk focused on our ambitiously broad approach of engaging a variety of audiences in a very targeted way, using a mix of traditional face-to-face outreach work and digital participation methods. I wanted to showcase a few simple but common sense good practice principles to build a high level of engagement on any digital platform while drawing attention to the prevailing risk of digital exclusion. Secondly, the paper summarised some crucial lessons learnt valid for similar projects on any scale, including aspects of volunteer management and partnership working.

Collaboration and social power

After a packed first day, Isabel Wilson, Senior Manager with ACE, summarised her favourable impressions which day two confirmed: There is a power shift happening inside the institutions. Traditionally, curators and archivists as the decision makers guarded their collections to which access was limited to those with the knowledge and skills to do so. The new power is the public: Organisations are moving to open up towards their users, using new ways of sharing their holdings through digital services and collaborative working. The inspiring case studies at DCDC14 demonstrated how these approaches can benefit all vital functions of archives, libraries or museums. Institutions thus increasingly find themselves having to rethink internal structures and processes with communications and community engagement as encompassing tasks.

Especially in terms of volunteering, archives and libraries of every size develop programmes to engage volunteers with a variety of tasks. In the UK, dedicated volunteers increasingly act as important links between the heritage organisations they support as advocates and the communities they represent. The National Railway Museums volunteers very successfully support the museums blog with up to three entries per week. This particular solution for the well known issue of finding the additional staff time needed to maintain a social media presence additionally provides motivation and retention for knowledgeable volunteers and helps build the museums reputation as an accessible institution that accepts multiple interpretations alongside the curators voice. Explore York Libraries and Archives enthusiastically showcased their model of upskilling and empowering community groups by supporting them to build their own archive; a very recommendable focus on sustainable relationship building.

The adventure of digitality

Case studies of explorations and uses of digitality came predominantly from the areas of disseminating and sharing archive and library holdings in order to improve searchability and discoverability of collections.

Social medias role in raising awareness of holdings to new audiences seems unstoppable. A study by TNA so recent it is not even available online yet on online audiences and digital services shows that almost half of local authority archives used social media in 2014. They draw the attention of both academics and e.g. hobby historians and thus cost-effectively widen the potential of finding new and often unexpected collaborations. Allison Cullingford, Special Collections Librarian from the University of Bradford and keen blogger herself, successfully demonstrated how the creative use of copyrighted material can overcome perceived limitations of using collections on social media without risking the organisations reputation of a well-referenced academic institution.

Peter Findlay, Digital Portfolio Manager from Jisc, spoke about the advantages of using major external platforms such as Wikipedia often seen as the infiltrating enemy when thinking about providing online content. Instead of creating dedicated websites, e.g. as part of an externally funded digitisation project, he underlined the platforms appeal to a mass audience and the benefits of its advanced infrastructure especially for organisations on small budgets.

The challenges of collaborative working were particularly well represented by the international staff of The European Library. Lancing an appeal for consistent collection level descriptions across all partners from 47 Council of Europe states, it almost involuntarily proved a prime example of the challenges and benefits of partnerships: The need for clearly communicated aims in order to enhance the accessibility of European library holdings to a level that was impossible before the digital age.

Certainly for archives, the conference provided a valuable milestone on the way towards answering the questions raised by TNAs Jeff James. The road ahead leads to digitality and this is equally valid for libraries, museums and academia although this was not made clear at times.

Archives for their part are right on track but some catching-up remains to do: Innovative use of digitality requires staff with the right mind set and skills and more often than not funding to get started. Community engagement both offline and online can learn from the achievements by UK museums and galleries. The aptly named workshop Where now? indicated that collaborations not only between academia and cultural institutions are wanted but often (too?) time intense to realise. #DCDC15 will be eagerly anticipated.

Conference outputs, including video footage of all panel sessions, will be made available as part of the RLUK web presence in mid-December.