In Defense of Outreach

About 15 months ago, I transitioned from being a full-time archivist to a full-time outreach coordinator.  I still work for an archives. I still consider myself an archivist.  I quickly learned that this ‘thing called outreach’ is a different beast all together and there is a pretty steep learning curve.

I went from a role that involved processes, standards (the horror), and procedures.  All of that made sense to me. I found myself in the murky waters of outreach and trying to figure out where to begin. I was extremely fortunate to find ‘my people.’ The other outreach professionals working at cultural institutions and for the state no less!  With them, I felt I could do it. I could be an outreach professional.

I would like to say I came up with this idea on my own but I didn’t. A colleague of mine suggested writing up a plan.  What do I want outreach to look like in the Archives and Information Services Division of the Texas State Library and Archives Commission? A largely piecemeal endeavor at this point.

That’s when I set to work on drafting an Outreach Master Plan. Sounds pretty epic, right?

The plan outlined the mission of the Outreach program as well as identify programming areas.  I developed the programming areas based upon what I was hired to do, successful programming currently in operation, and audiences I would like to see interact more with TSLAC collections.

In the process, I’ve discovered some benefits for why you (yes, you) should consider drafting an Outreach plan for your institution.

Establishes benchmarks for success

What does a successful Outreach program look like to you? This is the question every outreach professional should ask themselves. If you aren’t, let’s pump those brakes and consider:

  • Are there certain audiences you want to reach?
  • Are there current audiences that you could be reaching better?
  • Do you want to see more foot traffic through your doors?
  • What would you like to do more of that you aren’t currently doing?
  • What are you doing that hasn’t exactly panned out like you hoped?

All of these questions come into play and inform your Outreach plan.  It requires you to reach for the stars but also to cut loose those programs that are dead in the water. As outreach professionals, we do great in the short-term.  Any where from a few weeks to a year. The nature of our job requires us to think ahead but, unfortunately, not too far ahead or you’ll forget about the programs going on today.

But what is the plan one, three, or five years down the road?

That’s what an Outreach plan forces us to do. To think long term. Where do you, as an outreach professional, want to see your institution in five years? For example, let’s say you want to see increased collection usage among students.  Outline a plan to achieve that goal. Now figure out the steps to make that happen. Take those ideas and commit them to paper.

From there, you can begin to ask those questions that tend to be afterthoughts. How do you measure your success? In my Outreach plan, I’ve built in evaluation processes from event surveys to collecting stats on lobby visitors, tour visits, etc. From that information, I can gain a sense of who I’m reaching, how many, what are our busiest times of the year, how to tweak a program to make it stronger. Basically, measure and attempt to answer how successful is my Outreach program.

Leaves a road map for others to follow

I don’t think there is any outreach professional who doesn’t feel overwhelmed the first few days, weeks, and months into their position. Where do I start? What’s even going on? It took me a full year to feel competent at my job. A. full. year. I felt like I was slowly drowning in the amount of things being thrown at me. Each idea wasn’t something I enjoyed hearing but rather one more thing to add to my ever expanding to do list.  My position was newly created. No one had held it before.  It was balancing what was expected of me (my boss)  vs. others’ expectations of me (my coworkers) vs. what I expected.

The Outreach plan served as a kind of lifesaver. It focused my thoughts because I’m a goal oriented person. And, it made me think about what happens next. You never know what the future will bring. I didn’t want to be that person that left a mess for the next person.  I’m not a fan of institutional knowledge held in the heads of archivists. I’m sorry. Write that -ish down!

In my December 2015 post, I mentioned that sustainability is important to me. How something works. How it continues after me is my raison d’etre. I could walk out and get hit by a bus (knock on wood) and what would happen to outreach in my division. Without a plan in place, it would fall apart. It would. An outreach plan, at least, gives me some assurance that what I created will continue…in some form or another. Not only that, it would help the next person to get their bearings. They would spend a little less time feeling overwhelmed. That’s more time to take what I’ve started and hit the ground running. In turn, they can make it their own. That’s far more satisfying to me than anything. What can I say? I’m weird. 😉

Legitimizes Outreach as a valid archival function

Okay, time for some real talk. Despite the increased focus on outreach in archives and libraries, there is still the prevailing attitude that outreach is extra. I graduated in 2011. At the time, my passion to pursue archival outreach was considered an anomaly. I even had someone question whether I should be an archivist because outreach wasn’t something archivist normally do.  In the 5 years of my career (I can’t believe its been that long), I still confront that negativity, that mild hostility toward outreach. The reluctant assistance. And guess what guys? It comes in different forms from supervisors to coworkers, to staff members with 10+ years experience to others will less than three.

In archives, we have processing plans. Something that outlines what it is we do as archivists. Why don’t we have outreach plans? I remember the first time I posed that question to other outreach professionals at a workshop. Their minds were blown. That’s when it occurred to me. Outreach has, by and large, for most institutions been reactionary. Reacting to new changes, new developments, new audiences.  It’s time to stop being reactive and start getting proactive.

It’s easier for people to grasp and conceptualize a plan than a nebulous idea. Also depending on how detailed you get with you plan, you can break down hours spent on various projects.  These are estimates of course. I’ve found, however, that a plan gives that reassurance that outreach isn’t some haphazard process but  part of a plan. It can be strategic and practical in approach and execution without sacrificing the creativity inherent in it.

To my outreach professionals, I will tell you the same thing I said to a group of archives grad students at the iSchool at UT @ Austin, if you want outreach to be taken seriously [by others], you have to treat it seriously.

Remember, an Outreach plan is a living breathing document.

The world is growing, evolving, and so are people.  People’s information needs can (and will) change in the next 5, 10, 15 years.  The Outreach plan shouldn’t become the thing you cling to for dear life but hold loosely.  It will require you to use those evaluative processes to determine what is working and what isn’t. Be willing to trim the fat that is unsuccessful programming and ineffective engagement tools.




About Ashley S

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

2 Responses to In Defense of Outreach

  1. Pingback: controlaccess: Relevant Subjects in Archives and Related Fields for 2016-06-12 | SNAP roundtable

  2. Pingback: Listen, plan, be flexible | NixoNARA

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