Thinking outside the box in the digital age...

As recently-elected president of the Society of Tennessee Archivists, I have given a lot of thought on the state of archives in Tennessee -- more specifically how archivists should approach our work in the 21st century. While there are many individual archivists in our state who are doing outstanding work in productively applying digital technologies and social media in the workplace, I believe that our profession can and should do more to use these tools to effectively engage with the public.

We must embrace digital technologies and social media.

I really do not like to speak in generalities, but I will in this case to make a point. Archivists, in general, tend to be a very introverted group. We love our collections and we take great pride in being gatekeepers to the past, but we cannot bury ourselves in our records. We must be advocates for the important work that we do, and we must be public servants if we want our work to have any value to those outside of our profession. This is where social media can play an extremely important role in elevating our profession and exposing our collections to a wider audience.

Social media is as ubiquitous as the telephone, and archivists need to recognize that more people expect to access our collections remotely. Yet, too many archivists are slow to embrace the digital communication tools of the information age. While we should continue to provide quality service and attention to visitors in our physical buildings, archivists must be willing to go where the users are, both online and in physical spaces. This means we cannot be afraid to step outside of the stacks and utilize social media and blogging to share our collections with the public.

In his book, Personal Archives and a New Archival Calling: Readings, Reflections and Ruminations, Professor Richard J. Cox argues that "archivists need to develop a new partnership with the public, and the public needs to learn from the archivists the essentials of preserving documentary materials." According to Cox, "We are on the cusp of seeing a new kind of archival future, and whether this is good or bad depends on how well archivists equip citizen archivists."

The term "citizen archivist" has become a popular catchphrase in archival circles, particularly at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), where under the leadership of David Ferriero NARA has embraced this social media strategy on a number of fronts. To put this term into practice in an effective and meaningful way requires a commitment and a vision for the future, and building a relationship with the public. Archivists need to be actively engaged with the public -- both in person and online -- whether they are a researcher, genealogist, historian, student, or simply someone with a curiosity about the past.

We must develop partnerships and encourage collaboration.

In these times of constricting budgets, we must also develop partnerships with the corporate world to get our collections out in front of the public while also being mindful of the fact that we are caretakers of the public record. We need to look for ways in which we can work together with the business community while not selling out our own stake in protecting and preserving the past for future generations.

The Tennessee State Library and Archives is doing exactly this kind of work in its effort to preserve the records of the State Supreme Court. It is an important project that recently gained some long-overdue recognition by the media, and is just one example here in my home state of Tennessee where private and public enterprise can work together for the common good. Archivists need to build on successful partnerships like the one that TSLA has built with, and work wherever possible to build relationships with other entities to make more of our material easily accessible to the public.

Partnerships must also extend beyond the corporate world. For our profession to remain relevant, archivists must also claim their place along side academic historians as an important partner in interpreting the past. All of us participate in making history and everyone interprets and narrates the past in some way, but when archivists do not effectively participate in the scholarly process, myths and falsehoods go unchallenged and occasionally become part of the historical narrative. Dr. Mark Cheathem recently wrote an excellent essay on the value of librarians and archivists to the scholarly community. His thoughts are spot-on and should be echoed in quarters well beyond the world of academia.

"The only thing we have to fear is fear itself."

Archivists need to look and listen for new ways of doing our work in the 21st century. Leaders in the archival profession must encourage ideas and participation from every level, reward those who take initiative, and share ideas on how we can better serve the public.

As archivists, we must not be afraid to take risks and experiment with new ways of working and thinking. Needs and expectations are radically changing in the digital climate in which we live. Archivists need to respond to those changes or our profession risks becoming a footnote in our own history books.

Gordon Belt is an information professional, archives advocate, public historian, and author of The History Press book, John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero, which examines the life of Tennessee's first governor, John Sevier, through the lens of history and memory. On The Posterity Project, Gordon offers reflections on archives, public history, and memory from his home state of Tennessee.