Thursday, June 17, 2010

Archives as Crossroads: Establishing Deliberative Dialogue with the Past, Present, and the Future

As an outreach archivist, I spend a great deal of time working to encourage the communities my archives serves to keep their past and the pasts of others on their present day radar. Sometimes archives get a bad rap as places with lots of old dusty obscure materials and lots of rules and regulations about getting access to these materials. Digitization and the Web in general have helped archivists tremendously in changing this perception of forbidding irrelevance, but don’t expand the general notion of what archives are among most people. Civic engagement and specifically, National Issues Forums Institute's deliberative forums provide an avenue for strengthening connections between archives and those they serve/could serve by expanding the notion of what archives do.

At the Russell Library where I lead access and outreach work, we see archives as a crossroads where the widest range of people can connect with each other and the past, for present purposes and future possibilities. To support this vision, the Russell collaborates with community representatives to offer deliberative dialogues on a range of tough public issues on a regular basis. These forums offer Russell staff a chance to bring together donors, students, faculty, staff, community leaders, and the general public to thresh tough matters of policy that matter to them in a civil environment. For the Russell, an archives of modern Georgia politics and public policy, these forums yield grassroots perspectives on the issues and policy that the Library collects or will collect. The forums also give Russell staff a chance to highlight the connections between past policy and politics in its holdings with the issues that matter to forum participants today.

Recently, the Russell Library has begun to explore using the deliberative dialogue approach employed to great effect with the National Issues Forums to reconsider and re-explore historical issues represented in its collections. The New England Center for Civic Life based at Franklin Pierce College in New Hampshire has pioneered historical framing with its issue guide, “Slavery or Freedom Forever.” The guide takes up the challenging historical problem of American slavery. Looking specifically at the Kansas-Nebraska proposal that repealed the Missouri Compromise and gave local settlers the right to determine whether or not slavery would be permitted, this issue guide raises three approaches considered by people in 1854 for contending with the problem of slavery and its future in the United States. At the same time, the values underlying these historical approaches--morality, individualism, economic prosperity-- continue to frame discussions, debates, and deliberations on tough public issues that Americans face today. This historical forum then is both an opportunity to travel back in time to troubled times before the Civil War when people were grappling with slavery and a chance to consider how the values that animated 19th century Americans continue to do so today. The Russell Library plans to develop similar forums around critical historical moments represented in its collections such as Prohibition, the Great Depression, and the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education Decision, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Vietnam War, and the Equal Rights Amendment, among others. The Library has also begun incorporating deliberative dialogues into exhibits to engage visitors and this fall outreach staff collaborate with University teaching faculty to explore possibilities for introducing deliberative dialogue approaches to students in the classroom.

Ultimately, bringing deliberation and dialogue into the archives fits into a larger trend among cultural resource managers to forge new connections with the communities they serve. Museums have long pursued innovative strategies for connecting with visitors. The Japanese American National Museum’s National Center for the Preservation of Democracy is a great space where the museum helps kids to create video projects to talk about what democracy & citizenship mean to them. You can watch clips on their Web site. The civic engagement impulse is also strong among librarians. Recently, the American Library Association established the Center for Public Life to train librarians from different types of libraries to convene and moderate deliberative forums and frame issues of local and national concern, using National Issues Forum materials and processes. This year librarians will convene forums on privacy issues with communities around the country. Finally, the Russell Library is not the only archives bringing civic engagement tools into their outreach and collection development work. All of the Presidential Libraries have participated at one time or another in a joint initiative with the National Issues Forums Institute to host community forums on tough public issues such as energy resources, health care, and most recently, America’s role in the world. Similarly, several congressional archival centers are joining in the fun and may begin hosting forums in the near future. And of course, there are likely many projects out there I haven’t discovered yet.

If you are using deliberative dialogue in some aspect(s) of your archival work, please share your work here so we can begin to connect with one another.

If your curiosity is piqued and you are interested in learning more about deliberative dialogue and its potential in archives, check out these links for more information:

National Issues Forums

Center for Public Life, American Library Association

National Association for Dialogue and Deliberation

Texas Forums, an initiative of the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library & Museum

Russell Forum for Civic Life in Georgia, a civic engagement program at the Russell Library for Political Research and Studies at the University of Georgia

Key Contacts:

Jill Severn and Jan Levinson (manage and coordinate the work of the Russell Forum) and

Taylor Willingham (works with the Texas Forums associated with the LBJ Library and also works closely on the ALA initiative)

Nancy Kranich (leading the work on the ALA initiative on deliberative dialogue)

Patty Dineen (manages the National Issues Forums Institute Web site)

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