2.2.  Standard public and possible publics: real attempts   

In order to point some cases of an effective and proficient attempt of engaging of people into archives world it would be useful to enlist some good practices carried out throughout the world. Also to show what kind of public could be actually interested about archival activity.

The Angus Library and Archive is a big collection of Baptist history and heritage. It contains more than 70,000 items relating to the life and history of Baptists in England and in all the world. This institution has the support of Heritage Lottery Fund and The Baptist Union Newington Court Fund.

 The Angus Library and Archive is running a programme of outreach activities and events to help engage more people with the collection.

‘Archive taster sessions’ offer students challenging and intriguing activities framed around historical individuals with a story to tell. The focus was on giving students the opportunity to handle ‘real’ historical items, such as original correspondence, diaries and photographs, and to use these in developing their enquiry skills and thinking about the value and reliability of different sources."[1]

It could be noticed that in this case the feeling of being part of a community (a religious one) can be decisive for the result of audience development activity. But it's worth to reflect about the close bond between community's features and potential activity that can be deployed by archives. But some points developed within this framework could be confirmed as "key stone" of an engaging plan.

The Angus Library and Archives organizes "taster" sessions of archive. During this sessions the staff try to solve some issue and win some challenges directly tied to the relationship between non-public and archives. Design a plan to solve these issues is a vital turning point to elaborate an audience development plan specifically related to the archives.


  • The practice of selecting relevant original source materials which were able to withstand being handled by those unfamiliar with working in an archive. The staff have to foreseen a right time and a safe way to put in contact public and archival material. In Angus case students and visiting staff were given a 15 minute ‘object handling’ lesson prior to using the archive. Volunteers and staff monitored the use of the original source materials.
  • The Angus staff act in a way in which publics were encouraged to ask questions and were supported by volunteers throughout the taster session. Students and visitors were asked to work in pairs to discuss their ideas and feedback to the group.
  • The Angus case, and all the archival institutions engaged in and audience development strategy are, on the basis, engaged in demonstrating the strength of the archive. At the end of the Archive Taster Session, students were given time to ask more questions about The Angus. In that case archival professionals produced oldest item, the Nuremberg Chronicle (1493), as an exciting item to finish the day with, like a travel through the time. Visitors were allowed to carefully turn a page of this old document, and were told about older binding methods and the use of illustrations. Is a very important point because the promise to "touch the heart" of archives is an important lever to hatch the interest of the people and bring them into an archive.  
  • At the end of activity each institution has to gathering feedback from a large group with limited time. Visitors were asked to write one sentence about their experience at the Angus Library and Archives.

Beyond the Atlantic Ocean it's possible to point a large list of experiments and activities, big and small, carried out by local archives that are very interesting in order to reflect about archives possible public and activity aimed to reach it.

Two public libraries in Mississippi have implemented flourishing outreach and engaging programs that connect the archives to both local youth and their communities. The programs— Tales from the Crypt in Columbus and Headstone Stories in Indianola[2] —can serve as models for establishing a similar program in a community.

The pattern of this activity is focus about heritage, ancestors and introduction to research activity for young students.

In 1991, history a teacher, Carl Butler, started the Tales from the Crypt program at the Mississippi School for Math and Science (MSMS) in Columbus. Fifty to sixty high school juniors participate in this activity; each participant must research an individual buried in the local graveyard.

Armed with their assigned individuals, students investigate via local court case documents, newspapers, family histories, and manuscript collections available at the Local History Department (LHD) in the Columbus-Lowndes Public Library (CLPL). After five months of conducting research, the students write 10- to 20-page papers on the lives of their residents from long ago. During this process, they learn how to cite sources, decipher between primary and secondary sources, and much more. Following completion of their papers, 12 students are chosen to create vignettes on their researched individuals or someone associated with those people. In order to overcome the issues about staff and document's access the activity foreseen some tools.

The staff give students several tools to help them work as independently as possible. At the beginning of the fall semester, students receive two important items: a pathfinder and a library card. The pathfinder includes a list of the major resources in archives and libraries involved, such as marriage records, microfilm, and manuscript collections.

This introduction to archival tools, like an inventory, a pathfinder, a guide, is a crucial passage in order to introduce the value of an archive into a young mind. Due to this introduction, well tied to a school activity, the presence of archival institutions among the heritage place landscape could finally emerge. The tools involved in this interesting Mississipi Archives activity give a description of each resource, its location, and a guide to citing the resource. Students also receive a library card, giving them remote access to the online database HeritageQuest. This allows them to continue their research from their dorm rooms beyond library operating hours, another way to bypass a characteristic limitation of archival activity.

Every year, the local newspapers— The Commercial Dispatch and The Packet— write articles about the "research" and this small media support aids the spreading of the activity and its audience development value.

So it's possible to state that community with a specific feature bonded to a specific archive could be more easily involved into that archive's activity. This feature could be related to a place or to an event (a public park, a memory monument, a specific neighbor, a minority, a shared struggle for rights), but is important that the audience development strategy is well focused about this specific topic, in order to escape the shadowy framework of activity generally related to the "history" and to an undistinguished "past". Also it's possible to obtain precious information about the role of the school system and the alluring prospective to lead the students in a practical activity actually related to their own past.


[2] Archival Outlook, May/June, 2012, p. 27.