Community Archives Approach

In much of the literature on community archives, the archives are established to represent underserved populations.  In the Disability Studies Program’s archive at the University of Toledo, a development of a “people’s history” was encouraged, in which previously unrepresented or unnoticed histories are explored and available for access (Britton et al, 2006).  This concept of “archival social justice and equality” (Cannon, 2009, pg. 7) prevails in the sense of a community archive, as many of the publics represented have been previously underserved.  Additionally, some of these populations have hesitated in the past to make their personal and community records available, expressing a distrust of archival institutions and their perceived elite practices (Whaley, 1994).  However, this presentation of a new collective memory can provide the community with a new perspective about its own evolution as a community while also providing a basis for further evolution (Carr, 2002).  Flinn (2007, pg. 153) refers to community archives as “the grassroots activities of documenting, recording and exploring community heritage in which community participation, control and ownership of the project is essential.”

For the purposes of this webpage, community archiving is considered as one small-scale approach for a community institution to archive their own collection.  Because community archiving is similar in scope and actual practice to personal archiving, the distinction between these two approaches is made in the level of access, i.e. who is intended to retrieve the documents.  A community archive in this sense would likely be open to the public, whereas a personal archive might be a dark archive, only available to a small population such as the library or archives staff.  This distinction should be parallel to the concept of community archives, as most community archives present materials, which are intended to be available to at least a selected public.

Collective memory is however not without complexities.  Selection and appraisal is certainly key to establishing how the collective memory will be represented, as societies “institutionalize their collective archives according to their own evidence and memory paradigms” (McKemmish et al, 2005, pg. 1). Community archives have this ability to alter public understanding of events and history by introducing “new and alternative narratives” (Moore and Pell, 2010, pg. 263) and therefore have a function of providing evidence of history.  Therefore, it is of particular importance that provenance be established for records being preserved in a community archive (Daniel, 2010) as collective memory can be incoherent or contradictory (Eales, 1998 and Flinn et al, 2009) and some authenticity must be established for the archive to function as an evidentiary authority.

Examples of implemented community archives (both digital and physical) in some literature define some of the results and expectations associated with such projects.  In Whaley (1994), a digital archives project documenting the challenges and successes is presented, an archive which was implemented at Virginia Union to represent the African American community. Within this project, finding donors in the beginning proved to be difficult, and partnerships with other universities and local community members were necessary to gain support.  In terms of technical implementation, OCR errors and flaws presented the largest bottleneck, which could have resulted in project failure (Whaley, 1994).

Cannon (2009) establishes steps for archiving for community organizations including the steps and procedures necessary to manage records accumulated both in document and digital format, discusses the importance of knowledge transfer in an organization and lists grant sources for archives as well as the procedures for donating collections to larger organizations or setting up your own in-house archive.

The community archives approach presents particular advantages for participation from the outside public or patron base, especially if the collections are made available online.  Davies (2007) uses Flickr as an example of a new kind of social learning, in which individuals work together to build a sense of shared identity, thereby developing shared means of communication.  Murray (2008) also references this idea of community bonding through Flickr and the creation of a folksonomy through Flickr’s tagging system.  Furthermore, Huvila (2008) establishes a list of requirements necessary in a “participatory archive,” referencing the need to focus on user needs much like the library and information science community, rather than the traditional archivist view that users know what they need and know how to find it.

Based on some of the consulted literature above, the following steps or considerations may be included if you choose to archive your community institutions’ digital objects with a community archives approach:

  • Selection and appraisal: Determine the items of the most value to your collection, especially items that you consider to have enduring value to the community as a whole.  Consulting multiple parties in this process will help to ensure that the collection is well represented.
  • Define a strategy for reducing risk: (1) If the collection is to be curated it your institution, using some of the strategies listed by Marshall (2008) in the section on personal archiving may be a first step in ensuring that digital objects remain accessible.  Recommended would be a combination of these strategies so that if one system fails, another will still have the content, e.g. migrating My Documents to new computers while also making CD or DVD copies of data on external media.  Also, refer to such websites as the Library of Congress’ section on Personal Archiving for suggestions for preserving your digital collections. (2) If the collection is to be curated elsewhere, it may be helpful to establish partners in the community who can assist with technical issues, or help the project by establishing joint ownership, possession or use, participation and sharing.  Vallier (2010) references the importance of community partnerships for a sound archiving project, and references the success of empowering multiple institutions by involving them in the development of the collection.  Furthermore, Whaley (1994) references Virginia Union’s partnerships with the Ford Foundation, IBM and VCU for technical support and in some cases community support to get the project up and running.
  • Create a catalog of your digital belongings, which is searchable and fulfills your access requirements for patrons: Because a community archive approach likely requires that the collection be accessible by the greater community, it may be necessary to use a cataloging system to make browsing easier for the end user, including generating metadata for access and discovery.


Britton, D. F., Floyd, B., & Murphy, P. A. (2006). Overcoming Another Obstacle: Archiving a Community’s Disabled History. Radical History Review (94), 211-227.

Cannon, Braden.  (2009).  Preserving communities: a guide to archiving for community organizations.  Halifax, N.S. : B. Cannon.

Carr, D. (2002). A Community Mind. Public Libraries 41(5), 284-8.

Daniel, Dominique.  (2010).  Documenting the immigrant and ethnic experience in American archives.  The American Archivist 73: 82-104.

Davies, Julia. (2007, December).  Display, identity and the everyday: Self-presentation through online image sharing.  Discourse: studies in the cultural politics of education 28(4): 549-564.

Eales, Kathy.  (1998).  Community archives: introduction.  S.A. Archives Journal 40.  Retrieved on July 11, 2011, from

Flinn, Andrew.  (2007).  Community histories, community archives:  Some opportunities and challenges.  Journal of the Society of Archivists 28(2): 151-176.

Flinn, Andrew, Stevens, Mary and Shepherd, Elizabeth.  (2009).  Whose memories, whose archives? Independent community archives, autonomy and the mainstream.  Arch Sci 9:71-86.

Huvila, Isto.  (2008).  Participatory archive: towards decentralised curation, radical user orientation, and broader contextualisation of records management.  Arch Sci 8: 15-36.

Marshall, C. C. (2008). Rethinking Personal Digital Archiving, Part 1. D-Lib Magazine 14(3/4), 1. doi:10.1045/march2008-marshall-pt1

Marshall, C. C. (2008). Rethinking Personal Digital Archiving Part 2. D-Lib Magazine 14(3/4), 1. doi:10.1045/march2008-marshall-pt2
Reuben (2003).

McKemmish, Sue, Gilliland-Swetland, Anne and Ketelaar, Eric.  (2005).  “Communities of Memory”: Pluralising Archival Research and Education Agendas.  Archives and Manuscripts 33: 146-174

Moore, Shaunna and Pell, Susan.  (2010).  Autonomous archives.  International Journal of Heritage Studies 15(4): 255-268.

Murray, Susan. (2008).  Digital images, photo-sharing, and our shifting notions of everyday aesthetics, Journal of Visual Culture 7(2): 147-163.

Vallier, J. (2010). Sound Archiving Close to Home: Why Community Partnerships Matter. Notes, 67(1): 39-49.

Whaley, John H. Jr.  (1994).  Digitizing History.  The American Archivist 57(4): 660-672.

Further Reading:

Chan, L. and Kirsop, B. (2002, January 30).  Open archiving opportunities for developing countries: towards equitable distribution of global knowledge.  Ariadne 30.

Cocciolo, A. (2010). Can Web 2.0 Enhance Community Participation in an Institutional Repository? The Case of PocketKnowledge at Teachers College, Columbia University. The Journal of Academic Librarianship 36(4), 304-12. doi: 10.1016/j.acalib.2010.05.004

Library of Congress.  (2010).  Personal Archiving: Preserving Your Digital Memories. Retrieved on May 30, 2011, from

McDonald, Amy S. (2008).  “Out of the Hollinger Box and Into the Streets: Activists, Archives and Under-Documented Populations.”  Master’s paper. UNC.

Parris, B. (2005). Creating, Reconstructing, and Protecting Historical Narratives: Archives and the LBGT Community. Current Studies in Librarianship 29(1/2), 5-25.

Williams, S. (2010). Community History: A Look at Preservation and Archives of Several Special Collections. Louisiana Libraries 73(1), 17-20.

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