A few months ago, God actually ages ago by now, I gave a talk to the International Association of Music Libraries (UK and Ireland branch) in Manchester.
I was asked to participate in their conference as the Royal Northern College of Music’s archivist, a fabulously fun job. The conference organisers fancied someone who could talk about outreach and engagement with collections, one of my priorities for the College’s collection. I said yes please and that was that. I was booked.
But what to say?
I mulled over the idea of what to say for a while. What could I tell a room of professionals that they didn’t already know?
“Design a project and go to HLF!” Whilst useful in general, this kind of thing falls short of the mark here.
“Design courses and workshops and events!” Well, yes, but with what money, exactly? And besides, it is never guaranteed that just because you organise something that people will actually turn up.
So, what to say? I started going over the outreach and engagement projects and experiments that I was working on with the College. It occurred to me that all my outreach and engagement were designed as partnerships. Partnerships with groups who were not the standard music history chaps. It certainly seemed to be working so I decided to talk about that.
The partnerships weren’t chosen because they had interest in music. In fact most of them didn’t. They were chosen because their audiences wanted something different, not mine. To be fair, I had no audiences at the time so their win was my win as far as I was concerned.
Supply and demand
The economic transaction is simple (which I was pleased with because I am appalling at maths) – a useful way to approach outreach and engagement is through supply and demand.
I have a demand for audiences but have no resources to effectively go out and engage new groups (remember, just doing something in your own organisation and expecting people to turn up pretty much never works). There are organisations and initiatives out there with groups I do not have contact with, which have a demand for new experiences and material, including archives.
All I need to do is match up with them. We each have a reciprocal supply and demand relationship.
I chose the three most prominent ones that I had been experimenting with at the College. One was a digital women’s heritage initiative called Digital Women’s Archive North, another was the Manchester School of Art and the final one was the crowd-sourced volunteer online archive, Manchester District Music Archive.
I met each one through events and networking shindigs that were happening in the city. This in itself was interesting as none of these partnerships were carried on from my previous work in other archives. They were all new. New archive, new opportunity to experiment with it.
What we did
DWAN wanted some archives of women for the 2015 Being Human Festival in November for a pop-up exhibition at the College. One of many such pop-ups they were delivering for the festival. We did one on a Saturday when the College’s Junior School was in (many parents just waiting and hoping to kill some time). We did it for free, just put loads of things on tables and invited people to have a look and touch.
Manchester School of Art wanted access to some folk art archives to inspire their students to create new works based on historical collections. Our Thomas Pitfield collection was perfect for that. I invited them into the College for an afternoon with the material, again just on tables in one of the studios. They spent a couple of hours with the items and after settling in, really got involved with the material.
MDMA wanted to represent a part of Manchester’s music history that was not enshrined by Punk and Indie Rock genres and decades. Since the College’s archives go back to the late 19th century, and much of the College’s own archives are College-owned copyright, I could easily supply them with images.
Audience and effort
So, whilst I try and figure out how to earn the students’ interest (a herculean effort I have been assured), I was opening up the archives to three new audiences through easy partnerships:
- Women, feminist activists and people interested in women’s history,
- Artists, folk historians and other people’s students,
- Local alternative music fans.
I know that anyone coming through the door of the College could be any and all of these things but to have a targeted and dedicated route to them was something I would never have achieved on my own.
The simple exercises of supply and demand opened all of this up.
And it was simple. It cost absolutely zero cash (which was great because I had none to spend). Each initiative was organised in basically a single afternoon. The only thing I had to put forward was time to plan and execute which all in all, was a day for each group. Super simple. Super effective.
If you work with collections and want to try something new, why not try someone new instead? Keep an eye our for these supply and demand opportunities and give one a go. If it doesn’t work out, who cares?! Just try something different. If it does work, amazing!
IAML article in Brio
IAML peeps liked my talk so much that they asked me to contribute to their journal, Brio.
Since I can no longer call myself an academic writer, it has basically ended up being 6,000 words in blog format, giving in depth analysis of each case study and some extras. If you subscribe to the journal, keep an eye out for my rambling submission and let me know what you think.