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Planning a School or Community Archives

Jessica Stubbs from Libby High School shows Librarian of Congress James Billington her research into the occupational culture of logging.  Students in Libby have collected and organized over 3,000 photographs on the history of logging. The collection was donated to the local museum, and the collaboration between the school and museum led to a $175,000 national leadership grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

Why Create an Archives? | Getting Started | Staffing | Policies
Teaching a Sense of Time

Why do kids write on bathroom walls and spray paint messages on buildings? Part of the reason is that they want to leave their mark on the places they pass through. None of us wants to be anonymous and unimportant. 

We should harness students' desire to have an impact on their place by inviting them to contribute gifts of scholarship to local archives. The message, "You can do important work that will be preserved for as long as this school exists" can be a powerful motivator, if it is sincere.

When a school adopts as a central project the creation of an archives, containing the school's and the community's shared memory, with the understanding that materials entered into it will be there forever, the work students do takes on an importance and a dignity not often associated with school assignments.

The decision to create a school or community archives is a decision to make something that will continue growing forever. To understand its value, one has to believe that twenty, or fifty, or a hundred years from now, people will still be adding to it, still using it.

The best communities understand themselves as including those who are here now, those who were here yesterday but are now gone, and those who are not yet here but will be tomorrow. The most powerful way to forge bonds of understanding between the generations is to take up the long-term project of gathering, interpreting and presenting the community's history. Such a project combines symbolic power with a host of daily, weekly, and annual practices that develop a historical consciousness. 

A school archives will best function as the center of a community's living memory when using it and adding to it is incorporated across the curriculum, and when students in many classes collaborate with various people and agencies in the community to research and interpret local history, local science, and local folklife.

Science classes often do small projects, such as estimating the frog populations in a local creek. This can be of great value to students, helping them understand how scientists gather and interpret data. Imagine how much more useful such a project would be if the students had similar data on that creek, going back fifty years. Not only could they interpret their snapshot, but they could also "see" what was happening in a way that would not be possible without such data. It would trigger many other questions, which only they could answer.

Their work would be valuable not just as a classroom activity, but for the larger community. The most significant way that modern biology differs from classical biology is that biologists now know that nature cannot be understood without history. That is, they focus upon processes occurring in time rather than upon static categories. Every locality has many questions that could be answered by scientific research that is well within the scope of high school students.

As we teach students to gather such data, and to label it accurately and completely to preserve its value, and then to save it for future researchers, we are teaching not just the techniques of science but we are initiating them into its larger meaning: the ongoing collaboration involving millions of people across centuries working together on the great project of human knowledge.

Similarly, good history teachers understand that students are unlikely to understand how historical understanding is developed by historians if they don't do research in primary sources. Though students would have trouble doing original research on, say, the rise of Christianity in Fourth Century Rome, they find an abundance of sources and unanswered questions at the local level.

The frontiers of human knowledge in both history and science are close at hand on the local level. High school students are well positioned to ask and answer real questions for which answers cannot be found in textbooks or other published sources. In doing so, they can provide real service to their communities while tasting the adventure of the quest for knowledge. At the local level, students can become the world's leading authorities on all sorts of topics.

Questions to research are inexhaustible. Some of the work, especially at the beginning, may be purely organizational. Does a list of each superintendent and his or her tenure exist? Is there a list, election by election, of who has served on the school board? Are existing records organized and filed along with adequate finding aids? At the community level, are obituaries in the local newspapers indexed? Are cemetery records accessible?

Developing finding aids often triggers questions as research possibilities come to light. Examining census records may lead a student to wonder where immigrants to the community came from, which may lead them to wonder why they came. Who started various businesses and why did some succeed and some fail? What social clubs and organizations were formed and for what purposes? When did various churches begin and what are the key events in their histories?

As such questions are researched, the papers should be added to the archives. As the collection grows, so does its value. Just as with other bodies of knowledge, new students will begin a research project by examining the collection to see what has already been done, and to see where gaps still remain. In time, the archives may become the school's most valuable learning resource, as important to the community as a photo album is to a family.

As the work grows, classes will find new ways to contribute. Perhaps freshmen will contribute life histories of community members. Sophomores could frame questions about social changes, such as how the community adapted to the introduction of electricity or automobiles. Juniors could look into local responses to national events, such as the Great Depression or World War II. 

A senior civics class might focus on political processes, recognizing that one of the best ways to understand current issues is to study similar issues from the past. People disagreeing about whether or not to build a new school may suggest a research project into how things happened during a similar debate in the past. When the school gymnasium was built thirty years ago, what groups opposed it and what groups supported it? What were their reasons? How did the debate unfold? What happened?

Some basic responsibilities can be considered. Many towns have rest homes for community elders. Each year, new people move into them. Perhaps a junior English class could take responsibility for seeing to it that every elder in the rest home has a chance to tell his or her story for the record. 

If each elder knows that his or her experiences are valued by the community enough to be collected and preserved forever, who knows what reflection this might promote among the elderly? Who knows what is being lost now? Young people feel the poignancy of assisting old people to provide a legacy no one else can provide.

Are there buildings that can have their histories researched for a nomination to the National Register of Historic Places? Can local artists or writers be interviewed? Have the histories of local organizations such as women's clubs, volunteer ambulances and fire departments, food pantries, and libraries been researched and written?

An art class might accept responsibility for contributing a photograph of a mountain or creek or the city park, taken from the same point on the same day, each year. The value of this record would increase each year that it was taken, and future researchers will be able to ask the collection questions that no one anticipates today. Scientists attempting to understand the carrying capacity of the land in Yellowstone Park pored over old photographs, ignoring the tourists in the foreground to study the vegetation in the background.

A journalism class might undertake any number of cultural journalism projects: documenting a day in the life of a dairy farmer or the practice of a traditional folkway, such as setting up a hunting camp. An industrial arts class might commit to photographing new buildings in town to add to the community's visual record of its built environment. A home economics class might collect traditional family or ethnic recipe along with oral interviews for a foodways collection.

Why Organize a School Archives?

A community's history is a tapestry of thousands of threads, including what happens both to its individuals and its institutions. Because schools involve a cross-section of community members and because they are governed in part by local politics, the record of their discussions and activities is important history. It is a resource for researchers in the development of educational or community history and practices.

Creating a formal archives program can provide a focus for school and community relations while increasing public awareness of the school's importance to the community. It can preserves the community's identity and while nourishing the school's associations with the community.

Getting Started - Decisions

A bit of planning at the beginning can save major headaches down the road. Several questions should be considered. For example, who will be responsible? Where will the materials be stored? How big should the archives be: a file drawer or a separate room? Should the materials be stored off-campus, at a historical society or museum? How will the community have access to the collection?

What will be collected? What organizational materials, minutes, publications, and photographs should be kept? 

Will an oral history program be instituted? Oral histories can be an important history-gathering activity and can give depth to the program. But such programs are labor intensive. In addition to making the recordings, researchers need to do background research, develop questions, create transcripts or indexes after the interviews, and make arrangements for preservation and public access to the collection.

Shall portions of the collection be digitized and uploaded to the internet?   When will this happen in the acquisition and and maintenance cycle? Who will be responsible for maintaining the digital collection?

When an archives is established, the intent should be to keep the collection forever. It becomes part of the formal infrastructure of the institution, and it should be regulated by careful policies. Issues as such privacy and copyright are governed by federal and state rules and should be addressed at the beginning of forming the archives.


An Archives Advisory Committee might be appointed by the school board. This committee's chief duty is to protect the collection by ensuring continuity of care by seeing that specific policies are being observed.

This committee should appoint an individual to work with the collection: an archivist, curator, director, librarian or other person who will be responsible for carrying out necessary activities. This person should have a basic understanding of archival principles. Depending on the scale of the program, this position could be filled by a teacher or librarian on a part-time basis. It could also be done by a community volunteer.

The best source of volunteers may be the school's retired teachers, administrators, and other staff. They are familiar with the institution and a part of its history.

Both volunteers and students can perform a multitude of tasks: cataloging, indexing publications, preparing exhibits, inputting data, and doing research.


Policies are a form of institutional memory, helping keep programs coherent and while assisting individuals to see the big picture. Policies should be written to govern what the archives will collect, how it will collect, who will use the information under what circumstances, and how materials will be removed from the collection.

One way to integrate an archives program into a school's management is for it to be part of the school's Record Management Plan. If this approach is used, the Records Management Plan should include policies for managing the archives.

If the archives is not a part of the Records Management Plan, there are several other policies that could be considered.

First, an Enabling Resolution passed by the school board to establish the archives through a public statement of record. This resolution gives the archives legitimacy and communicates its importance.

Second, a Mission Statement sets out the scope and rationale for the archives and its activities in identifying, preserving, administering, and using historical materials. Such a statement defines the archives' purpose and makes planning and development more orderly.

Third, the Collections Policy Statement provides more detailed procedures for each clause in the Mission Statement. This statement defines various responsibilities, establishes the limits of the collection as well as describing the methods of collecting, preserving, and removing materials.

Other policy statements may also be useful.

For example, a Collections Policy Manual can define the Collection Policy Statement by detailing the procedures for handling the collection. Written procedures provide a step-by-step plan for handling each acquisition to ensure continuity and standard practices in managing the collection.

A Strategic Plan can be based on the Mission Statement to give direction to the archives in one-, three-, or five-year increments. This plan can establish the current and future goals and direction of the archives.

An Access Policy determines how the collections will be used and by whom and under what circumstances.

An Accessions Register is a permanent record of all materials added to the collection. It lists the donor or department, the items entered into the collection, and it assigns a unique control number to the item.

Building an Online Photographic Archives



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