The problem with ‘The public’

In outreach, I find the concept of ‘the public’ problematic.  What does it mean? Who are these people that we identify as people that we serve?

I don’t think ‘the public’ exists. What we’re really talking about is diverse groups of people with very specific (and different) needs and expectations for cultural institutions. Case in point, any time we talk about who we’re serving, the phrase ‘the public’ is immediately thrown out there.  But, when you get to the details of it, ‘the public’ breaks down into groups.

Genealogists. Researchers. Historians. Legislative staff. Educators. Young Professionals. Families. The list goes on and on. So why do we keep saying the public? Is it because we want to appear like we are serving a broad range of people?

Why not switch ‘the public’ for ‘diverse audiences?’

Sure, it may be cumbersome to say but its a more accurate descriptive of who we are actually serving. Because, let’s face facts. We’re not serving who we think we are. By giving these audiences recognition instead of lumping them with this amorphous term ‘the public,’ we rob ourselves of getting to know what these particular groups actually want from us as cultural institutions. It stops us from going the next step of asking them what they want from us.

I put this idea out on Twitter and the response was overwhelmingly in favor of ditching ‘the public.’ Because like me, others were questioning: what does that even mean?

In particular Lauren G. (@laurenbgood) raised a good point. It’s easier to identify gaps. In my line of work, the audience I see the most as being ill-understood is educators, particularly K12 educators. The educational landscape of this country has changed. And educators are increasingly faced with challenges and constraints on how students are taught and what they are taught.  The days of teachers creating lesson plans that really explore a topic are gone. Instead, they face the challenge of teaching their kids 75 years worth of U.S. history in a week.

That’s not a marathon. That’s a sprint. But, as cultural institutions, have we recognized their plight. Have we developed plans and activities that take these things into consideration? Have we even bothered to ask them what they want?

I think the answer across the board is no. Now, I understand there are archival institutions that do it better than others but I’m looking at our profession as a whole. And I still think the answer is no.

So let’s ditch ‘the public’ and move toward terminology that’s more realistic.

Diverse audiences, anyone?



About Ashley S

I'm an archivist!
This entry was posted in Outreach, Professional. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The problem with ‘The public’

  1. Pingback: Outreach & Marketing: The Not So Strange Bedfellows | Ashley D. Stevens

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