Engagement Outside the Searchroom – ARA South East

Last month saw the ARA South East Committee hold their first ever webinar-based event. Lockdown has made us all consider and experiment with new ways of working, with the committee braving the world of Zoom to host an enjoyable afternoon based on conversations around engagement. Having canvassed ARA SE members and the wider sector on what topics they’d like to see covered in online training webinars, engagement was a clear winner. We wanted to focus on looking at the ways archive’s had innovated and switched course from the more traditional engagement we perform with our audiences within the physical space of the archive to reaching and engaging with audiences in their homes.

Photo by Avel Chuklanov on Unsplash

Our Training Officer pulled together an impressive slate of speakers and we kicked off the webinar hearing from Elise Ramsay from the University of Edinburgh Centre for Research Collections on a project they developed during lockdown for International Archives Week (#IAW2020) called Making Socials Social: #archivechats. This was a fascinating initiative where they connected with their stakeholders and users via video chat to discuss the importance of archives. Not being bound by geographical limitations, they managed to get as far afield as Mumbai in one of their chats.

Meg Venter from the Postal Museum shared details of a project developed in recent months ‘Making a Connection with Collections’. This included a wide range of content produced for their audience including ‘short read’ blog posts contributed by staff on collections, content from their museum colleagues and an outreach initiative COVID-19 and the Post, a contemporary collecting project where they asked members of the public to submit items for donation to the museum they had collected during lockdown, including letters and envelopes, greetings cards and post cards and parcels and packaging. With lockdown separating families for unusually long periods of time and people in lockdown alone, the post became even more of a life line to many during this time and it’s a project such as this really has the potential to engage and strengthen the archive in the community.

We heard a fascinating talk from Rosie Everitt and Imogen Burrell of Berkshire Record Office speak about how they had just 2 weeks to turn a physical exhibition into a digital one. Their VE Day celebration exhibition ‘Through Their Eyes: A local perspective on the Second World War’ was due to open at the archive on 29th April but instead they launched the online exhibition on 1st May. Given the remarkably tight turnaround time, they were able to research options for how to present and host the exhibition, load the content into their chosen platform (WordPress) and successfully launch it all whilst working remotely. Their talk included lots of good advice from lessons learnt during the process and what they would do differently for a future online exhibition. They saw the benefits of online engagement with high rates of visitors to the website with very little promotion. They had 970 visitors and 4,990 views from over 20 countries showing the power of online engagement in reaching new audiences.

Adam Lines, Reading Room Supervisor and Collections Academic Liaison Officer at the University of Reading wrapped up the webinar with an insight into how they looked at offering teaching with collections in a virtual setting. A lot of research was undertaken during early lockdown to understand digital collections pedagogy and how other archives are already doing this and also what platforms are best for this type of teaching. It was an interesting insight into how to move physical teaching into the virtual space and how we’re all learning new things in lockdown. I learnt of a very interesting app called EpochCam that turns your smartphone into a remote camera! The University looked at pre-recording digital content including filming short videos with collection material which can be embedded into the students’ online course. With uncertainty over what the next academic

year will turn out like, it was really encouraging to see the progress that had been made in such a short space of time in moving this engagement online.

We heard throughout the afternoon of experiences of experimenting with new technologies and platforms and some lessons learned from those early and sometimes rushed days of lockdown. This was incredibly useful as it can be a minefield navigating through the options we have for tech solutions. At the beginning of lockdown The National Archives published a useful blog post detailing tools for making collections more accessible during lockdown and Rosie and Imogen commented how they had been able to use this for some decisions they had made.

All of the talks brought a different angle to engagement – highlighting the breadth of audiences and stakeholders archive services have and the different ways we have to approach engagement and tailor it for different audiences. The presenter’s slides from the day can be found on our regional webpage on the ARA website if you’d like a deeper look at any of the presentations.

Caroline Catchpole, Communications Officer, ARA South East

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