Setting the Stage for Future Change: A Response to Jamie Haft's Blog Post
Archiving community cultural development and the story of the arts through arts policy is important to the Arts Extension Service.
We recently launched the National Arts Policy Archive and Library (NAPAAL) in partnership with the UMass Amherst Libraries' Department of Special Collections and University Archives (SCUA) as a free-standing collection within SCUA’s Social Change Collection. SCUA staff does the hard work of archiving, digitizing, and making it possible for anyone with internet access to explore these materials. They ensure that the primary documents will be stored and made available for visitors.
NAPAAL currently contains fifty years of research materials and publications from the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, Arts Extension Service archives, and an independent collection of publications. We have agreements to accept fifty years of archived materials from Americans for the Arts, the Association of American Cultures, and we are negotiating to accept additional collections.
In responding to Jamie Haft’s blog post, I begin with:
Misconception #1: There is no urgency.
In addition to our desire to bring together the NAPAAL collections in one place for research and cross-pollination opportunities, the sense of urgency is clearly upon us thanks to rapid technological changes. Before we can begin to assess, analyze, contextualize, debate, or review policy decisions, we must first unlock the mysteries within the materials we hold in our hands, but cannot access.
The goal for NAPAAL is to capture important collections, documents, research materials, and information stored in any media before these items are lost to time or technological change. Physical documents are always at risk; paper deteriorates, gets wet, and is at risk of accidental destruction. Our field is still young – barely 50 years of age – which perfectly parallels the Information Age. As the arts have changed so have the devices upon which materials were created or saved. For obsolete forms of media like floppy disks, Zip drives, or cassettes (among many others), it is imperative to capture the information while we still can and save it in a more stable and permanent form, or we risk losing valuable insights from the past for the future.
Misconception #2: The community cultural development field needs a central digital town square.
The sheer volume of materials may well demand a decentralized, but specialized series of overlapping homes for materials to be housed, shared, and utilized. There should be ongoing efforts, such as Virginia Tech’s, to capture work being done now, and I underscore that the materials captured must be stored in a manner easily accessible, organized and made available to all.
Just as visual and musical work can be appropriated and given a new context, I agree that new media, and I add, the imagination of the researcher/artist will indeed give archives a new life as well as expand the reach of individual artists. This dusting off of our history and breathing new life into it has the potential to be invaluable in using the arts as a means of understanding and connecting with one another.
Misconception #3: Community Cultural Development lacks broad appeal.
Misconception indeed! Just watching the overlay of landscape architecture, geography (think mapping), public policy, public art, art history, art for social justice or social change, Creative Economy, Creative Communities, gentrification, education, arts management, audience development, and more occupy the same space with the arts has been exciting. “The arts” are central to community development, growth of our children, and business creativity. The only lack is lack of understanding that the field itself is not only a broad tent, but is becoming larger and more inclusive.
Misconception #4: Archiving is for academics.
Documenting and collecting can and should be done collaboratively and nation-wide. But archiving requires specialized knowledge and a certain expertise including separating the wheat from the chaff, retaining the integrity of the materials, understanding the legal and ethical conditions governing access and use, digitizing and making works accessible. Most importantly, archiving requires a considerable investment and care in perpetually housing the works under archival conditions.
Given financial and server storage limitations where could the final resting place of original materials be if not at a University dedicated to service now and for the long haul? NAPAAL resides at a land grant institution dedicated to sharing the resources of the university with the community. Universities may be one of the best places for the works to reside since they have the necessary staff expertise; however it is up to each of us not only to access and make connections between collections, but to make them come alive by sharing the stories held within.
Misconception #5: Archiving isn’t related to current events.
Rob Cox, Director of SCUA put this best during NAPAAL’s launch and the symposium, Arts Policy on the Ground: The Impact of the National Endowment for the Arts. Rob stated that (paraphrased): The largest misconception about an archive is that it is about the past and about preserving and documenting what we have done. A properly constructed archive is about the future. It is about informing people, about setting the stage so that they can examine the past to determine the best course into the future.