Making Archives Accessible

As interesting as I found this week’s readings, the point that was really missing for me was one that I think public history continues to struggle with: how does one really make an archive “accessible”? It’s listed in Wilcox’s Collection Development Policy as part of the William Way LGBT Community Center’s goals: “to collect, describe, interpret, and provide access to publications…created by, dealing with, or of special interest to gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender individuals” (Wilcox 1, emphasis added). The Policy further mentions who uses the archives– the LGBT community, researchers, students, teachers, journalists, and more– but offers nothing in the way of numbers or explanation of how one might come across these archives in the first place.

Perhaps it seemed that this was beyond the scope of the pamphlet, but I don’t think it should be. If we take for granted (for the moment) the general message many of our readings in the last weeks have suggested to us– that history isn’t very “hip” or “cool” at the moment as an academic discipline, and that people like doing history best when it’s not actually called history— that implies that maybe archives are not at the top of people’s lists of places to visit (well, okay, except for maybe genealogists?). Part of the problem with our archives– with any archive, really– is that there’s so much stuff that you can’t really ever put it all on display at once, particularly when you’re dealing mostly with paper documents. On some level, then, you can’t make archives come to people–people have to come to them. Or do they?

Digitization, for example, is making it less and less necessary to visit physical archives. I personally would prefer to visit physical archives and work with the actual documents, though, and I think this is where the article about Smith comes in handy. Young’s analysis of Smith’s archives points out that people go to their archives (like they do ours) when they have class assignments (Young 63). That’s a start, at least– leading the horse to water, if you will– but I wonder how you might get past that and expose these pasts to an even larger audience. It seems that people would be interested in the contents of some of these archives– if only we had a way to bring them in and makes archives accessible enough that you might visit them without having an assignment in hand. I would have liked to see more suggestions about how that might be accomplished in these articles.