Outreach is a core archival function. Period.
I know, I know … I’m not leaving much room for debate there, am I? I’m sorry if I sounded forceful; normally I try to maintain an open mind about all viewpoints when I blog, but I really feel strongly about this particular subject, so excuse my slightly aggressive tone! Honestly, I think most archivists today would also agree that outreach is a crucial part of archival work; however, there was a time when outreach was considered a side effort or a task that was less important than “real” archival functions like appraisal and processing. According to Timothy Ericson, this outdated mindset harkens from a past era when archivists considered themselves as passive custodians whose only goal was to serve and protect the records that came to them. F. Gerald Ham says archivists were “preoccupied with [their] own gardens, and too little aware of the larger historical and social landscape that sounded [them].” Although it is crucial to acknowledge and understand our past professional practices so we can know from whence we came, sometimes, you just have to say, “so much for the past.” Advances in technology and changes in user expectations/needs now require us to focus more on outreach. As archivists in the “post-custodial era,” our purpose is no longer to serve the records themselves; it is to serve the patrons (both direct and indirect) who can benefit from using our collections. (Part of me wonders if this was always the main purpose yet archivists were simply missing the mark, but that is a different discussion for a different day).
So what is archival outreach anyway? The Glossary of Archival Records and Terminology defines outreach as “the process of identifying and providing services to constituencies with needs relevant to the repository’s mission, especially underserved groups, and tailoring services to meet those needs.” If that definition intimidates you, sometimes I like to simplify it by reversing the word itself. Outreach essentially means, “reach out.” Reach out to those who can benefit from the archives, and make archival services meaningful to them. Plus, the cool thing about outreach is that it can happen in so many different ways. Some archivists may create activities for K-12 or undergraduate students using items from their collections. That’s outreach. Other archivists may create exhibits showcasing archival materials pertaining to Black History Month, President’s Day, July Fourth, or whichever holiday may be happening at the moment. That’s outreach. Archivists may hold special workshops for genealogists or other constituents who have a deep interest in the collections. That’s outreach. Archivists may choose to host receptions, charity events, or community meetings at the archives. That’s outreach. Or, outreach can be as simple as “good, courteous service to any and all reference patrons.”
I’ve included some links below that provide examples of outreach at various institutions.
Kennesaw State University Traveling exhibitions: http://historymuseum.kennesaw.edu/educators/traveling.php
Georgia Archives “Lunch and Learn” workshops: http://historymuseum.kennesaw.edu/educators/traveling.php
Princeton University Department of Rare Books and Special Collections exhibitions: https://rbsc.princeton.edu/exhibitions
“More Podcast, Less Process,” podcast series: http://keepingcollections.org/more-podcast-less-process/
I’d love to hear some examples of archival outreach that you’ve encountered! All comments are welcome!
Here are some pictures from an outreach activity we did at the Flat Rock Archives in October 2015. We hosted our annual Heritage Day and Jazz Festival which included an archival exhibit, music, food, and lots of family/friend fellowship. It was great!
 F. Gerald Ham, “Archival Strategies for the Post-Custodial Era,” American Archivist 44, no. 3 (1981): 207.
 Glossary of Archival Records and Terminology, Richard Pearce-Moses (Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 2005), s.v. “outreach,” http://www2.archivists.org/glossary/terms/o/outreach.
 William Landis et al. “Reference, Access, and Outreach: An Evolved Landscape, 1936 – 2011,” American Archivist 74, no. 1 (2011): 33, http://americanarchivist.org/doi/pdf/10.17723/aarc.74.suppl-1.l4625w7459q3g2lu.