My library experience so far has been a battle of two passions – I love archives, and I could see myself spending the rest of my life holed up in a quiet room, aiding researchers and helping to preserve all sorts of materials for future generations. On the other hand, I really enjoy working in a public library – not knowing what kind of weird question I’ll get next really keeps me on my toes. I also think public libraries do the absolutely critical work of providing information services to anyone, regardless of status or any other variable. What other kind of organization could say the same?
Unfortunately, this has lead to a lot of conflicting feelings throughout my (admittedly new) library career. I am, however, fortunate to have a great model and vision for how to merge these two seemingly disparate interests.
In May of 2014 as part of my final undergraduate semester, I got to travel to England with a group of fellow students. Our course was called Re-Placing Great Britain and we spent a semester studying Black British literature, following it up with a two-week travel portion where we visited museums and archives, took walking tours, and got a better idea of everything we had studied by actually being where it all took place. It was an incredible experience and one that I’m particularly grateful for, partially because without it, I would have never experienced Archives+ at the Manchester Central Library.
I had spent the year before I went traveling interning in my small liberal arts college’s special collections. It was a magical time where I could focus on some smaller projects and was able to get my hands dirty with some real archive work. However, I couldn’t help but be kind of troubled by how neglected the place sometimes seemed. When I first started working there, it was literally closed off from the rest of the library by a huge metal gate – you had to buzz to get in. Then they built a really gorgeous reading room as the entrance, but in some ways that was even more intimidating – it seemed like too nice of a place for college students to be allowed there. Generally, the stigma of the closed-off archives is so prevalent that it impedes lots of inquiry and exploration.
When I first walked into Archives+, however, I did not feel any of these things – I felt inspired to explore. A mix of a museum, archive, and community center, Archives+ is unlike any other archive I’ve ever experienced. There was a giant touch screen that allowed you to access digital materials as if they were physical. You could tap on film reels, archival boxes, and poster tubes and discover all sorts of great historical resources. This was my favorite part, because the uses for this kind of technology seem so promising – you can change out the content, kids can be all over it, it’s a huge eye-catcher, and the future possibilities are wide and exciting.
Archives+ also is home to a few other interactive exhibits about the history of Manchester that gets you up close and personal with real people. Too often, archival displays and exhibits are focused on the big movers and shakers and we lose the experiences of everyday people. Manchester is also a city that is fiercely proud of its people and their protests (they also have an excellent People’s History Museum), so one could make the argument that this is inherently Mancunian. I would argue in return that this focus on the people should be inherent in archives as well.
There are also big tables for regular handling sessions. Lots of people can gather around them, and they can hold plenty of materials for showing off. The “archive” part of Archives+ is still mostly behind the scenes – we got a tour of the storage space, and it looks more like a typical archive with its carefully labeled shelves and compact stacks. But that doesn’t keep them from getting the materials out to users where they are most valuable. With the touchscreen wall, the interactive exhibits, and ample, well-designed space for handling sessions, Archives+ is a great place for visitors and Manchester locals alike to connect with local history.
There are obviously lots of limits on having this sort of huge, technological space in all archives – the funding issue alone blew my mind. I did ask, and our guide told us that they had gotten a lot of national grant money before the economic downturn. However, these principles are something that can be put into use in much smaller ways, and I feel invested in making accessibility as much of an issue in archives as it is in public libraries.
What’s the most impressive archives space you’ve ever been in and what were your favorite aspects of it? What ways can we get materials into the hands of the largest possible group of users while still maintaining the integrity of the archive?
Editor’s note: this article was originally published on October 8, 2015.