October, as the saying goes, is Archives Month, which gives “the archival profession an opportunity to tell – or remind – people that items that are important to them are being preserved, cataloged, cared for, and made accessible by archivists.” At Wisconsin, we celebrate Archives Month as a group – our Society of American Archivists Student Chapter runs a blog in honor of the Month, and typically plans a few open-to-the-public, archives-focused events, including things like: professional résumé workshops, brown bag lunches, repository tours, and more.
This year, as co-leader of our Advocacy Committee, I had a new idea: what if we, as a group, went out into the community, instead of asking people to come to us? What if we, in an attempt to show that archives matter, lent our skills and expertise to interested patrons?
Thus: Personal Archiving Day was born.
Personal archiving – and personal archiving days, workshops, and on – is not a new concept. (It even has its own Wikipedia page.) Essentially: personal archiving is centered around the concept that individuals – record creators – can (and should) understand how to preserve the objects they create. Personal archiving days have been held around the United States in recent years – in places like San Diego, Denver, and New York – and there’s even an entire conference dedicated to the idea. To our knowledge, though, there had never been a personal archiving day done in Madison, so we decided to host one.
It’s a first for me, too, as a student: it’s first time I’ve ever attempted to pull a moderately-sized, public event together. It’s been a mostly-smooth process, but there are some things – looking back – that I’d do differently the second time around.
Here’s what I’ve learned – so far:
1. Start early. This seems obvious, right? At Wisconsin, our fall semester began on September 8. We started planning for Personal Archiving Day on September 3, with the event happening on October 10. That’s thirty-seven days. By the time we’d settled on a location – the Madison Public Library – most available spaces were booked. It was important to us to have the event at a central location, and because Madison’s community stretches further than Wisconsin’s campus, we wanted the event to be somewhere easily accessible by all modes of transportation – bus, bike, car, and foot. We didn’t want the event to seem exclusive (as if it were intended only for students), either, so we elected to have it off campus. The space had to be big, too. These are all things to consider when thinking about location. And the most suitable locations fill up quick. Our event is, by luck and a cancelation, being held at the Madison Public Library. Next year, we’ll reserve the space earlier.
2. Pay attention to what’s going on around you. Badger football rules Saturdays in Wisconsin. We wanted our event to coincide with Archives Month, which left us five Saturdays in October to work with. Three October Saturdays were Badger home games, which then left us with two Saturdays. We had to consider other Madison events, too: the Farmer’s Market, fall festivals, and more. When planning a community event, make sure you think about the community. What will our event be competing with? How do we make sure community members can do everything they want to do, and still attend our event?
3. Advertise. Don’t stop at posters. Look to community calendars, local news outlets, public radio stations, listservs, and more. We decided to email departments en masse within the university, as well. Use social media, too, and use it frequently. Remind your followers that the event is approaching. Don’t post once and then walk away.
4. Give something away. If you can. Guests – at any event – like to leave things holding something tangible. Our budget for this event was teeny-tiny, so we asked a local restaurant if they’d consider providing coupons for a free scoop of ice cream for each attendee. They were more than willing to help. We’ve also had a team create information sheets that guests can take with them at the end of our event. That way, everything they learned goes with them on an easy-to-digest, easy-to-carry piece of paper.
5. Look to those who came before you. Your event has likely done before by another organization. In our case, the Library of Congress, and their Personal Archiving Day Kit, was a great starting place. We also turned to the Society of American Archivists, and their list of previously-done Archives Month events. Take and adapt the ideas that work for you. Learn from the mistakes – and successes – of others.
6. Ask for help. It’s impossible to plan an event on your own. I asked for help from all over – fellow students, teachers, and professionals – and got it. Be courteous to your volunteers, though: they are just as busy as you are, and require advanced notice. Respect that, and ask for volunteers early. (It’s okay if you don’t know what you need right away. I sent out an email that said, essentially, We are having a personal archiving event, and that’s all I know. If this sounds like something you’d be interested in, add your name to this list, and I will contact you later with more details!) And, most importantly, make it easy for them: tell them where to be, when to be there, and what to do when they get there. Don’t make them guess. (And bring them snacks and water. They’ll thank you.)
7. Keep documentation. Make a list of what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. Write down the names of organizations and individuals who offered to help you. Take notes. Keep them all in one place. Ideally, your event is something that’s both repeatable, and understandable, by someone else. Don’t make the next person who plans it start from scratch. Your notes will make their event more successful, their notes will make the next one more successful, and on, and on.
8. Follow through. Have the event, missteps, mistakes, cancelations, and all. Even if a volunteer doesn’t show up, even if attendance is lower than you expected, even if it rains, even if it snows, even if the equipment you need for the event doesn’t fit through the door, even if your computer dies. It all happens. Nothing goes according to plan. Have the event, and have it as it unfolds. Learn from the missteps, and make the event even better the next time around. Nothing breaks to the point that it can’t be fixed.
My disclaimer here, of course, is that I am giving advice before our event even happens. But, the planning process has been an eye-opening one, and I can’t wait to see what the day of turns out to be.
What about you? Have you planned an event on behalf of a student organization? What do you wish you had known before you started? Was the event successful? We’d love to hear your tips!