What is the “archives” brand?

I’ve been doing some reading about the “library” brand and branding in general. I found the 2005 OCLC report Perceptions of Libraries and Information Resources very interesting and suggest you take look at it – even if you just look at the conclusions. I think it’s time to do some thinking about our “brand” and whether we want to try to do something about it.

This post will be some speculation about how the general public might characterize the “archives” brand. In the OCLC survey:

We asked the open-ended question: “What is the first thing you think of when you think of a library?” 3,785 verbatim comments from 3,163 respondents were grouped by main theme. Roughly 70 percent of the respondents, across all geographic regions and U.S. age groups, associate library first and foremost with books. There was no runner up. [p.3-31]

If we had a survey asking that question, I think the response would be an overwhelming “old stuff” (or perhaps the real first thing they might think would actually be nothing—they might draw a total blank). What are the words we hear associated with archives (and archivists)? Musty, dusty, old, crumbling yellowed? In his post “What Should the Fictional Archivist Look Like?” Richard Cox wrote of the way archives (as places) are portrayed in fiction:

Archives, that is the place where the records are stored, are often similarly depicted. They are situated in basements or attics. They are associated with dust and old, useless stuff. They are seen as forgotten places, or as places to put stuff that should, or will, be forgotten.

Just as librarians have to fight their stereotype as a bunch of bun-wearing shushers, I think archivists have a reputation as being more actively engaged with the past than with the present. Here Cox summarizes the characteristics of fictional archivists:

They seem to be absent-mindedness, other-worldliness, clumsiness, dustiness, musty odors, awkwardness, and other features suggesting one who is far more comfortable with dead, rather than living, people.

I also think that if asked, most people probably wouldn’t think of most archives as places that collected “new,” in other words almost-current, stuff. For example, I don’t think most people would associate archives with electronic records. I think that possibly a lot of people would say that archives (as institutions) are a lot like the things they think we hold—antiquated and sequestered, unapproachable with our rules and white gloves. They are probably glad that we’re here—glad that someone is saving “that stuff.” But archives are places they probably have never been to and probably will never go to. You don’t take out of town guests to an archives, as you do to a museum. You don’t go there on a Saturday morning with the kids to check out picture books for them and The Da Vinci Code for you. We’re not a part of the fabric of people’s lives. (Except possibly for genealogists, and even that, I think has declined.)

Am I painting it too bleakly? It’s not all bleak—I think people are glad that we exist. And once you explain to someone at a cocktail party what it is you do (after you get the initial blank stare), they might say something like “that sounds cool.”

Another interesting aspect of the OCLC survey was that the words used by librarians to describe libraries and library services were not those used by the survey respondents. The librarians used “trust,” “privacy,” “authoritative information,” “quality information,” “education,” “learning,” community,” and “access.” In the survey:

We reviewed the over 3,500 verbatim responses from 3,163 respondents to the question “What is the first thing you think of when you think of a library?” to see how many times “trust,” “quality,” “authoritative,” “education,” and “privacy” and other often used library attributes were mentioned as the top-of-mind library image.

The words trust, authoritative, and privacy were never mentioned. Community was mentioned in one response. Quality was mentioned twice. Education was mentioned four times; learning was mentioned nine times. Free was mentioned 70 times. Books were mentioned 2,152 times. [3-33]

You can imagine the same kind of thing might happen in a survey of archivists—the public isn’t going to mention authenticity, provenance, arrangement, accountability, finding aids, description, or processing. I think we might have some overlap on “history” and “preservation.” What do you think our brand attributes are?

The last words of the conclusion of the OCLC report are: “It is time to rejuvenate the “Library” brand.” In future posts I’ll talk about rejuvenating the “Archives” brand.

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One Response to What is the “archives” brand?

  1. Jim says:

    I think it’s fair to say that archives and archivists will always be associated with old stuff, so one thing we need do is use that to our advantage. Make the old stuff relevant, besides being interesting, quirky, and quaint. I think the outreach activities of many of our colleagues already seek to do this, and this type of activity should continue perpetually.

    The electronic realm provides an opportunity for branding that should be exploited. We all know that “archiving” has become synonymous for many (particularly among the younger generations) with the saving of electronic information. While this clearly oversimplifies things and affects the perceptions and understanding of archiving in the electronic world, like “old stuff”, this is something on which we can build.

    I also think that a focus for branding should be service – not just what we have and care for, but how we provide access to it. Our image is based, in part, on those who actually have first-hand knowledge of archives because they are users. Are they going to portray us as helpful, open, service-oriented types, or as dour, rule-spouting people who create barriers to information?

    The listserv often has conversations about perceptions of the archivists based on TV, movies, books, etc., and we generally find these portrayals inaccurate and stereotypical. The challenge clearly lays before us. If we do nothing to change those stereotypes (fixed as they may seem), then we risk becoming increasingly irrelevant and marginalized.

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