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Valuing their history: What does community engagement look like for small or underrepresented archives?

Published onMar 20, 2022
Valuing their history: What does community engagement look like for small or underrepresented archives?

Valuing their history: What does community engagement look like for small or underrepresented archives?

No matter what the size of the communities is, the value of history is priceless.  Community engagement for these small and underrepresented archives has to accomplish much of the same task as any other larger archive because all people need to feel safe and comfortable. With most community work there is a need for trust.  Building trust, even within our own communities, can take different forms or activities. Questions that can be used such as, what is the community’s makeup that is being addressed? /trying to reach? What is essential to this group? What do they do for fun? Where are the meeting places for the community? Forums/seminars can be done at places of worship (if allowed), community fairs, restaurants, VFW, Legions, Women’s groups, senior centers, high schools, junior high schools, and history classes.

A small underrepresented community archive that I began volunteering at was  La Historia Historical Society. I first started in 2005 in the city of El Monte, California. The community archive/museum used many ways to outreach and share their heritage. The founding members of the museum I volunteer for would use the museum to create a sense of community. The museum they created became not only a place to share memories, but also a place to meet socially and connect with the community. Through events such as reunions, dances and breakfast fundraisers, tea parties, and open houses the museum members share their histories and request the community to also share.

 Including community members when creating or participating in social and cultural events is key to outreach.  One way is to include community/cultural leaders and contributors, meaning not only well known people but those who are well known in families or in their neighborhood for passing down traditions. It is vital to create a welcoming space to share stories.   

What technologies/techniques can be used?  Phone, social media, letters, and email.  At La Historia, we take all these approaches to send information to the community. Many older generations would prefer a phone call or regular mail, more importantly, in-person communication. Younger generations are connected through social media, whereas middle-aged generations communicate in both forms.

 Many times, we must be creative in producing programs/events or places to share histories.  We have open houses where we request people to share their family trees, and we have photos with Santa at the local shopping center; we bring family members and friends together when we record oral interviews.  As a small museum, we work on a small or no budget (volunteer power) to create a space for our community to come together and share histories. The shortage of funds at times encourages people to volunteer to help with some skills they may have. Some people gain an attachment to the museum when they put sweat into repairing or adding some talent to the continuing of the museum.  Those who volunteer are not only contributing a story or a photo, but they are also gaining an attachment to the building and what it represents.

Small community archives may have different traditions and are made up of different ethnicities, but there are many things they have in common: a need for trust, respect and value. The tools we create or the activities we produce must keep these in mind to continue working with our communities. Whether small or large community engagement can look and feel the same because the bringing of people together requires that one feels safe and trust and when sharing their stories their history would be respected and valued.

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