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Working with Community Groups to Preserve Local Materials, Part 2

Historical and genealogical groups need to preserve and market their collections and works better than they do now. Specific suggestions and ideas are given to help accomplish this, in this second of a two-part article by Larry Naukum, long-time GenWeekly contributor and head of Local History and Genealogy for the Central Library of Rochester and Monroe County, New York.

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Type: Article
Resource: GenWeekly
Prepared by: Larry Naukam
Word Count: 2030 (approx.)
Labels: Library 
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This is the second of a two-part article providing informal, nuts and bolts advice on how to work with community groups to preserve local materials and related issues. Part 1 discusses ways community groups can work together, with examples of successful collaborative projects. Part 2 continues the discussion, exploring other preservation activities and partnering opportunities, in addition to privacy and security issues.

What to save

Almost anything is fair game. An art gallery is going to collect works of art. Libraries collect books and manuscripts, as do archives that also have art works. Libraries and historical societies are interested in collecting books, diaries, picture, portraits, photographs, theater programs, train schedules, subway passes, restaurant menus, etc. Avoid saving fifteen or twenty copies of something. Will a couple do, especially if it is reformatted? Perhaps the items in question belong elsewhere, and can be given to an appropriate agency.

Ways to preserve local material for current and future generations

I have already mentioned reformatting items into digital or microfilmed formats. One can argue for a long time about whether or not those are ideal. However, consider that digitization done properly includes not only superior images, but also high accuracy optical character recognition, comprehensive metadata, and complete book integrity. Why is this mentioned? Because the original books themselves are very old and brittle, and having a digital version will help them continue to survive.

How you might manage your photography collections

You can investigate finding grant money to rehouse and describe photographic materials. You should create a classification scheme having descriptive labels on each picture and appropriate sleeving in non acidic archival boxes on archival metal shelves in dim light. You should also create a climate controlled area, accessible only by staff, and require users to wear supplied gloves when using the pictures. You should not permit photocopying. However, do consider offering a way to get a scanned image of them. Once pictures are scanned they can be replicated digitally forever. (OK, OK, not forever, but much more easily than in earlier times). You should strongly encourage the use of the digital database, as any handling, no matter how gentle, can work to destroy the original item. It is not practical in most cases to make new negatives or otherwise do "old school" preservation. The most practical way is to do current best practices on the collections, make a digital copy, and then require the use of that digital copy.

How you can create and collect student written and oral interviews

Until recently, such interviews were recorded onto actual tapes, which over the years may have disintegrated. You should plan now to transfer them (keeping the originals!), to a digital format such as an MP3. That may not be the most perfect way of doing a recording, but costs are always an issue. There is free software such as Audacity (which runs on Windows, Mac OS X, and GNU/Linux), and it can be used to "record live audio, convert tapes and records into digital recordings or CD's, edit Ogg Vorbis, MP3, WAV or AIFF sound files, cut, copy, splice or mix sounds together or change the speed or pitch of a recording." (From the web page at: http://audacity.sourceforge.net/). There are also commercial products to do the same things. The important thing is to get the tapes converted or make new interviews that are born digital, and make transcriptions onto paper right away. That way, if the sounds get lost somehow, a paper copy (preferably copies) still exists in more than one location. And have a prepared list of questions to keep family or historical information on point rather than having random ramblings. There is also software that can index digital interviews: http://www.randforce.com/.

What other kind of preservation activities one can do

Usually staff has been reduced and money has become much tighter, so preservation activities have diminished. But you can still budget some funds to get appropriate archival boxes for pamphlets and photos. What is important is to do something rather than nothing. Use acid free storage containers, proper clear sleeves for photographs, and non-acidic preservation quality materials for maps. Attend courses given locally for such purposes. Inventory various items in the collection and decide what to work on first based on experience and the funds available.

Overcoming liability and invasion of privacy issues

We have discovered that much can be done without worrying too much about liability or privacy issues. Usually, good taste and common sense prevails, such as the holding of some medical studies that have pretty graphic images. These can be made available in person to researchers but are unlikely ever to appear online on the library web site, nor be easily accessible to the general public. You should make sure that items that are made available in any other form than the actual item itself, belong to you and are not copyrighted. Invasion of privacy is another bugaboo that we have dealt with by using common sense. We will not put up pictures of current people without their permission. Pictures taken in the real world outside buildings seem to fall into a public-news category.

But anything that might require a release should not be used online. As far as yearbooks go, we believe after exhaustive talks with various legal professionals that up until 1940 is allowable for high school yearbooks. These were meant to be public documents, and with the proliferation of currently online sites featuring all kinds of photos, a standard class picture from 70 years ago is unlikely to cause legal problems. An athletic event, a positive reward ceremony or the like is not going to cause an actionable legal problem, while a criminal activity, exploitative photographs of minors or graphic violence may well do so. Such things as outdoor student protests are part of history. Copyright in of itself is pretty convoluted. Various helps are available, such as those pages put together by Peter Hirtle at Cornell University (NY) at: http://copyright.cornell.edu/resources/publicdomain.cfm. Another source to investigate for advice are the courses offered by http://hurstassociates.blogspot.com/. This is where Google and other search engines are very useful. By using proper terms one can be guided to experts in your physical area, or nearby, who have done such projects.

Partner with teachers on grants

Still another way of preserving local materials is to get involved with teachers groups in various kinds of grants related activities. Our library has partnered with the local city school district and suburban districts in digitizing various documents, maps, and books for use in the classroom. Teachers love having actual documents in a digital format that allows their use by any grade level without the possibility of damaging the originals.

Historians, librarians, archivists and others working in family and local history have to get out from behind their desks and market the collections. What use is it in having a collection if no one knows about it and uses it?

Education provides yet another funding source to pay for the reformatting of historical and genealogical materials. This is not limited to primary or secondary students. A recent issue of the Rochester History pamphlet published by the city historian was written by a college student who used local materials as part of her class a few years ago

Another thing that an organization such as a library or archives can consider is making their collections more available to the world at large. It's been stated, "If we give it away no one will want to come see us". This is patently not true, as having a reputation as a location for interesting materials is almost guaranteed to make a collection more heavily used and more appreciated. I recently did an annual report that showed that our local history collection has increased the question count from 2000 questions per year to 18,000. I also mentioned the number of web visits that has gone from zero at the start to 200,000 hits on just the guide pages of our collection.

Prepare and distribute information about what you are doing to as many markets as possible

Organizations used to think that putting together a nice typed note on a board was sufficient, or perhaps a mention in the local newspapers. Now there are many other ways of getting the word out to as many people as possible. It is a good idea to have many places where your message appear. Each will contribute a bit to the overall total of readers. The Long Tail was popularized by Chris Anderson in an October 2004 Wired magazine article, in which he mentioned Amazon.com and Netflix as examples of businesses applying this strategy. Anderson elaborated the concept in his book The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Long_Tail). Make things available cheaply everywhere.

As an example, we make signs for the library wall but also manage to get articles on our library web page, into local newspapers, and into local historical and genealogical society newsletters in paper or online. You can also read appropriate history and genealogy blogs and pass along information to them. Design and produce eye catching brochures to distribute. Things that will fit into a man's suit pockets or shirt pocket or a lady's purse do well. The brochure itself should have current and accurate information. At my place of work a new one which is very eye catching and colorful was recently created. Where 100 might have lasted us for several years on the older brochures, in just over two years we have gotten 3000 of the newest ones out in to the community. People mention it when they arrive. And they do arrive.

What any group can do is make copies of their lists of the newest digital items, have them available for download on your web site (which transfers the costs of pointing and distribution to the user), and by email subscription to an RSS feed or the like. If you have a web site, create a blog that people can follow, and keep it up to date, at least bi weekly if not weekly, Nothing is more of a turn off that going to a web site and seeing that the last update was weeks or months ago.

Whether a one-person staff that depends primarily on volunteers, or a larger library or historical society, it all boils down to the same things. If you are known, people will seek out your expertise on what they can do with their own collections. I recently met a person who was the only paid staffer for a very small group of museums in her hometown. (http://www.historicpalmyrany.com/). But that group, all volunteers except her, has brought thousands of visitors to a scenic but out of the way location. And those visitors pay admission, delight in the collections, and spend money for accommodations, gasoline, and food. The halo effect benefits the merchants of the town and thus their tax collections. Without that museum that county would be the poorer for it's' non-existence, both culturally and monetarily.

Experience has shown that there are not a lot of leaders in this. It seems like the same faces appear at conferences describing what they have done lately.

Be very approachable when people want to donate things. Staff who are disinterested, lazy, bored or gruff drive away customers – just think of your own experience in stores – and you cannot afford to irritate the customers. This does not means that staff does the users work for them but rather that they appear and present themselves as knowledgeable about the subject matters and collections and try to get as much information for the users as in possible. Solicit donations to restore one item at a time and offer to name it after the donor.

What matters the most to you, is that you are known, and considered an expert in your field. In these days of smaller staff and tighter budgets, is important to have the necessary tools of evaluation, organization, and marketing. An important thing to keep in mind is that people have to know that you are there before they can work with you. Towards that end, it is important to have an internal road map from where you are now, to where you want to get to, and how you can get there.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2011.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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