Looking Back (and Forward) to Archives Month

Every October is American Archives Month and North Carolina Archives Month, and here at the Davidson College Archives & Special Collections we’ve been celebrating the occasion in some way or another for the past seven years. However, for Archives Month 2015 we decided to really commit to Archives Month and experiment with some new methods of outreach and new collaborations. We’re a small shop (3 FTE), so I figured sharing our planning process and evaluating our activities at this halfway point between October 2015 and October 2016 might be useful for other archivists considering participating in Archives Month next year.

The 2015 North Carolina Archives Month theme was “Celebrating Archives: North Carolina Arts, Crafts, and Music Traditions,” so our first step was to sit down and consider what materials we have related to arts, crafts, and music in North Carolina. That led to planning one of our earliest events in the month, Mandolin Madness on October 5th.

Flyer advertising Mandolin Madness. "Mandolin Madness staring Professor Karen Hales & Mike Orlando '01"

Flyer advertising Mandolin Madness.

Mandolin Madness featured biology professor Dr. Karen Hales and Davidson alumnus Mike Orlando (Class of 2001) playing a mix of traditional bluegrass and more modern Southern songs in the Rare Book Room. The concert was preceded by a brief talk by College Archivist Jan Blodgett on the history of music at Davidson, and a small display of music and music-related materials from the archives. About 30 people attended, and we have been told by many that we need to repeat this event in the future.

We don’t have very rich art collections in our archives, but we do have art galleries on campus, so I began conversations with the director of those galleries, Lia Newman, over the summer. Lia was completely on board to collaborate, and suggested that we have a month-long show on North Carolina artists in the college’s collections, curated by current students. That resulted in the Archives Month Art Show, curated by Kate Hall and Lee Summerell (both Class of 2016), which hung in the lobby of Chambers Building in October. Kate and Lee selected six works, focusing on (according to the panel text they wrote) “primarily on artists who lived, worked, or studied in North Carolina. North Carolina has a rich history of artistic excellence. In the 1930s through the 1950s, the Black Mountain College hosted many prominent figures in the development of Modern Art. Josef Albers served on the college’s faculty where he taught Robert Rauschenberg and helped shape his later artistic theory.” In addition to pieces by Albers and Rauschenberg, the show included works by long-time Davidson College art faculty member Herb Jackson (Class of 1967), William Ferris (Class of 1964), and two Charlotte-area artists, Ce Scott and Juan Logan.

A panoramic shot of the lobby of Chambers during the Archives Month Art Show.

A panoramic shot of the lobby of Chambers during the Archives Month Art Show.

Lia Newman also suggested that we host a panel on art and archives, which would tie-in well with the exhibition running in the art galleries from September 10th through October 25th – Regina José Galindo: Bearing Witness. I put together and moderated a panel entitled “Art, Archives & Documentation” that featured Lia Newman (Director and Curator of the Art Gallery), Dr. Alison Bory (Assistant Professor and Chair of the Dance Department), and Dr. Jan Blodgett (College Archivist). That panel, held in the art galleries on October 21st, preceded performances by three Charlotte-based performance artists (John W. Love, April Marten, and Jon Pritchard). Although attendance was only a handful of people, the conversation was rich and feedback from the small audience was very positive.

Flyer for Art, Archives & Documentation on October 21st.

Flyer for Art, Archives & Documentation on October 21st.

In addition to planning new outreach initiatives based on the theme for North Carolina Archives Month, we also experimented with two new ideas outside of the theme that met with varied degrees of success. When I was training international student orientation leaders for a nighttime glow-in-the-dark campus history tour in August 2015, I kept on being told that the students wanted to hear more stories about Davidson College’s past. “Why haven’t we been told about this before?” one student demanded, when I explained the 1854 student rebellion. Their eagerness to learn more sparked an idea, and our department decided to plan a monthly archival storytime – Stories from the Archives kicked off on October 1st. We aimed to hold the event the first Thursday of every month, with stories provided from Archives & Special Collections staff and students, faculty, and community members who had done research on Davidson’s past. The storytime atmosphere was enhanced by a donation of carpet squares for listeners to sit on, given by Drew Kromer (Class of 2019).

Flyer for the second Stories from the Archives.

Flyer for the second Stories from the Archives.

While I still believe that Stories from the Archives was a good idea, we discontinued the series after three months due to low attendance. I’d love to relaunch it in the future, but we need to re-tool how we advertise and plan the event, and potentially hold it once or twice a year instead of monthly.

We also chose to launch a departmental Instagram account during Archives Month, which has been much more successful. We now have received a number of reference questions based on Instagram posts, and are able to reach current students and alumni in a new way. This semester, the Instagram account garnered a new kind of student attention – after a class visit to the Archives & Special Collections, students in Dr. Amy Kohout’s ENV 340: Animal, Vegetable, Mineral asked to take over our account for a week, in order to promote their class pop-up exhibit. ENV 340’s posts are currently populating the Davidson Archives Instagram until May 3rd!

While planning new events and new forms of outreach, we also stuck with some tried and true methods – we held Ghosts in the Library for the 7th year in a row, participated in #AskAnArchivist Day on October 1st,  and I wrote a blog about a seminal figure in the Music department’s history, James Christian Phofl. The blog also served as a collaboration of sorts – I ran my early drafts by music professor Dr. Neil Lerner, who had done research on Pfohl before and provided helpful tips. Ghosts in the Library, an annual night of telling of ghost stories in the Rare Book Room, had its usual excellent attendance – roughly 30 people showed up to hear ghoulish tales.

As we look forward to Archives Month 2016, our department learned a few lessons from last year:

  1. Throw things at the wall and see what works: Several of our initiatives were new ones, and turned out quite well – Mandolin Madness, the Archives Month Art Show, and the Instagram account all had excellent returns on our investment of time.
  2. Don’t be afraid of failure: Stories from the Archives and Art, Archives & Documentation both suffered from low turnouts. While both events were enjoyed by those who attended, we need to evaluate if the problem with these events was that the concepts didn’t appeal to the Davidson audience, or whether they could be advertised better.
  3. Plan well in advance: Some of our attendance pitfalls may have been mitigated if we had planned better – perhaps flyering in the dorms, or making announcements to classes who visited the Archives & Special Collections in the weeks prior. We also potentially could have sought funding for food, which can be a draw – none of our events or initiatives had any cost other than staff time.
  4. Reach out to new people or groups for collaborations. One of my favorite parts of Archives Month 2015 was working with the art galleries – we hadn’t previously done much collaboration with them, but the theme for North Carolina Archives Month gave me a good reason to seek out a partnership with the director. Archives Month can be a great foot in the door for folks you want to work with but haven’t had a chance to yet.
  5. You don’t have to do everything during Archives Month: In some ways, we bit off more than we could chew during Archives Month 2015 – planning four events, coordinating one art show, writing one Archives Month-themed blog, participating in #AskAnArchivist Day, and launching a new social media account was a lot to take on while we all continued our regular duties. Some of our most successful outreach events this academic year actually took place outside of Archives Month (such as this month’s Race At Davidson panel, a collaboration between the Archives and the Tau Omicron chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha), and sometimes it will make more sense to plan an outreach initiative to align with an institutional anniversary or the availability of collaborators. October is Archives Month, but any and every month can be archives outreach month.


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