Image credit: Hannah Busing from Unsplash
Rachael Cristine Woody is the owner of Rachael Cristine Consulting LLC, a firm that specializes in collections care and management for museums, archives, and cultural heritage organizations. Rachael is an expert in launching new collection programs, implementing digital collections management tools, and facilitating grant acquisition strategy.

Community collections are important in our cultural heritage work to preserve a holistic historical narrative.

If you're interested in beginning your own community archive, this article will help you get started.

Community archives can emerge from a variety of origins. By their nature, the archives are representative of a community of individuals who are connected to one another through a shared culture, geolocation, religion, interest, experiences, et. cetera. The artifacts that these communities generate document the lived experience and legacy of the community. Artifacts in the form of letters, photographs, flyers, meeting minutes, news clippings, crafts, artwork and more can be found within a community collection.


Global events led to a focus on community archives

Global events over the last few years have made the time we’re living in unquestionably historical. Social unrest and the resulting focus on social justice and racial equality have spurred historians, archivists, and granting agencies to prioritize supporting communities previously marginalized within the historical record. It’s important that these communities have access to the knowledge and tools needed to create their archives. This post will outline four steps toward building a foundation for your community’s archive.


Step 1: Identify stakeholders, leaders, and potential collection materials

The first step for any new archive is to identify the main players, both stakeholders and leaders; as well as where collection materials currently reside. Reach out to each person with a brief description of your goal, why you’re contacting them specifically, and ask if they’re open to meeting to discuss the idea of a community archives further. Create a spreadsheet or document to record the information you learn during these exploratory conversations.

Examples of stakeholders to include:

  • Organizations (leadership, staff, or membership) that are ran by the community for the community

  • Leadership (formal and informal) at the local level from business owners to civil servants, community elders to emerging community organizers


Step 2: Evaluate the results and determine a collecting mission

Once you’ve concluded your conversations with stakeholders and have documented your findings, assess and refine your results to craft a collecting mission. A collecting mission conveys what you wish to collect for the archive and includes subject matter as well as item types. Having a collecting mission will help ensure the materials collected are appropriate for inclusion.

Examples of items to collect and keep:

  • Text-based: letters, postcards, posters, flyers, programs, pamphlets, newspapers, magazines, reports, administrative records, etc.

  • Visual: photographs (including negatives and slides)

  • Multi-media: audio-recordings, audio-visual (film, VHS, DVD)

  • Born-digital: Media in all of the above formats created upon inception as a digital (fully electronic) medium


Examples of items NOT to keep:

  • Duplicates

  • Items that have mold, insects, and other contagious preservation issues

  • Items that are duplicated elsewhere

  • Items that have no meaningful connection to the community and doesn’t meet the collecting mission


Step 3: Determine where the collection items will be stored

It’s now time to determine where the collection items will reside. Many community archives have a physical and digital storage location while others can be digital-only. Given the nature of community archives, the items that are historically important are also deeply meaningful to the individual. With this in mind, a digital-only approach can be best. Those who are building the community archive can seek legal permission preserve (via digitization) and provide access to the digital surrogate files. This also serves the best interest of the community who still retain ownership (and subsequent rights) of the material. Regardless of the physical and/or digital nature of the collection, storage facilities will need to be determined ahead of time.


Step 4: Gather resources and funding

Now that you’ve considered the foundational logistics required to begin a community archive, it’s time to reflect on the resources it will take to build it. Work with your stakeholders to determine where financial and in-kind resources are available. Put together a plan of potential partnerships, opportunities for equipment and other resource sharing, grants, and donors. Make sure to check out the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation's grant for Community-Based Archives.

Depending on the size, content, and format of the materials you may need to include costs for storage space (physical and/or digital), storage supplies, digitization equipment and software, a Collections Management System (CMS) like Artwork Archive and/or a Digital Asset Management System (DAMS), and the personnel or a consultant to help you build and manage the community archive.

Beginning a community archive is an intensive process but a rewarding endeavor. By building a solid foundation for your community archive you’ll be well on your way to safeguarding community memory.


The Artwork Archive team wants to help get your community archive project off of the ground. You can connect with us here.