Key Findings

Throughout the two days of conversations with community-based archives practitioners, cultural heritage funders, and scholars, many topics surfaced that demonstrated the wide range of issues community-based archives face in terms of capacity-building and sustainability. This list of key findings is representative of some of the issues that were consistent throughout the symposium. They represent areas where community-based archives see the most need for measurable change moving forward. These areas include grant funding practices, academic partnerships, business planning, fundraising and revenue generation, and measuring impact. While it is not an exhaustive list of all the issues discussed, we believe that strategic thinking with a focus on developing intentional solutions around these areas could be transformative for growing the capacity and achieving more sustainable solutions to some of the issues facing community-based archives.  

Community-based archives practitioners would benefit from a peer network offering resources that could support activities related to knowledge and practice sharing, capacity building and sustainability.

One of the immediate outcomes of the Architecting Sustainable Futures symposium were the collaborations that developed among the practitioners and others in attendance immediately following the symposium. These collaborations are early evidence of the potential of a formalized network to support activities around knowledge and practice sharing, capacity building, and sustainability at community-based archives. A national network that is led by practitioners in community-based archives would be a transformational resource in which collaborative modes of support could be developed and offered to members. Such a network would focus on unique issues faced by community-based archives in terms of access to resources, share in a commitment and responsibility to local and often marginalized communities in ways that traditional archives don’t function, and provide ways to maintain the independence of community-based archives as a vital part of how they offer services.

During the symposium, community-based archives practitioners mentioned how important it was to be in community with each other and to see that they were not alone in doing community-based cultural memory work. The symposium was the first opportunity most of them had participated in where the significant issues and successes they experience were prioritized and collectively discussed in a caring environment. Because of this experience, several practitioners in attendance have since partnered with each other in both formal and informal ways to share information, develop projects, and offer support to each other. For example, one community-based archive in Texas that has developed substantial practices and curriculum around care and collecting archives of trauma offered a free training to the staff of another community-based archive in California. In another example, a digital community-based archive that has had success in securing grants and other modes of fund raising, has offered advice on their strategy on several occasions to another archive that is attempting to grow their capacity around fundraising and revenue generation. Additionally, collaboration and knowledge sharing happened between community-based archives and the scholars, professional archivists, and other information professionals in attendance. These collaborations have resulted in projects that are currently in development that address revenue generation, fundraising, and collections care, among others. 

A national network of support, intentionally designed to offer key capacity building and sustainability resources to community-based archives will go a long way in helping these archives to remain independent and viable. A national network of support for community-based archives was also one of the key recommendations of the Diversifying the Digital Historical Record national forums held in 2016 and 2017 that was funded by the Institute for Museum and Libraries Services (IMLS).1 Community-based archives practitioners have demonstrated the need for this type of network of support and some of how it could benefit the growth and sustainability of their archives and community-centered memory work.   


Community-based archives want to remain independent despite significant funding and resource hurdles.

Community-based archives have a strong desire to maintain their independence despite significant hurdles to generating revenue, acquiring and maintaining adequate staffing, and to providing care for collections. Participants articulated the value of not compromising their values, even when access to significant support is on the table. Because community-based archives are often embedded within the communities they serve, they prioritize the needs of the people as a service model. Maintaining independence is key to continuing to function in this way. Some threats to the independence of community-based archives include poorly designed and inequitable project partnerships, funding opportunities that don’t recognize their administrative and organizational challenges and the hyper-local ways in which community-based archive exist, and a constant lack of adequate resources to maintain operations and collections. 

Practitioners in attendance at the symposium shared several examples of how their ability to maintain their independence had been challenged by others since the founding of their archives. Not surprisingly, many of the situations that could potentially put community-based archives in jeopardy of losing their independence and their collections revolve around collaborations with academic libraries, professional archivists, scholars, and attempts to secure funding through grants and other sources. In all of these cases shared by community-based archives practitioners, the most prevalent and  threatening underlying assumption was the idea that the archive was not a legitimate or adequate site for housing historical materials compared to the ways that more traditional academic or well funded federal archives operated. These assumptions can lead to damaging effects for the existence of community-based archives that are founded on deeply rooted community values and grow out of marginalized people’s desire to see themselves represented in the historical record. Community-based archives continue to exist,2 and some thrive despite these challenges and only request support to continue to do their work. 

“People give you just enough money to fail.”

— Director at a Community-Based Archive

Small donations and one-time funding are available to community-based archives, but substantial and long-term sustainable funding remains elusive.

One of the more significant challenges for community-based archives in terms of fundraising is their lack of access to funding that can contribute significantly to their operations, collections care and programming, and their ability to plan for long-term capacity building efforts and sustainability. While community support in the form of small monetary donations exists, as well as one-time and often restricted funding through grants, supporters, or government entities, community-based archives still do not benefit from unrestricted funding opportunities. Intentional, unrestricted opportunities could significantly boost their efforts to grow their capacity in key areas of their operations or to establish or support existing programs that can enhance their sustainability strategies around staffing, revenue generation, or administration. 

There are several reasons this type of funding remains challenging. First, without adequate staffing and operational support, community-based archives have a difficult time putting effort toward the kind of research and planning it would require to attract significant amounts of funding. While there is usually strong community support in terms of volunteers, community-based archives generally function with one or two paid staff members, and a significant number of those positions are at half time or less. This lack of staffing resources significantly restricts the amount of time an archive can take away from their daily operations to research, network, and apply for this type of funding. Second, many of the opportunities to secure large sums of funding that can significantly boost capacity-building and sustainability projects and programs in community-based archives, exist in the form of grants, but the application processes, grant administration, and reporting requirements for these kinds of grants are well beyond the current capacity of most community-based archives. 

Ironically, and as a result of these well-known barriers, funding bodies are awarding many of these potentially trajectory-changing grants to more traditional academic based, and already well-funded archives that do not have the same staffing and operational challenges as community-based archives. Third, knowledge about the existence and impact of community-based archives are understandably hyper-local, while these kinds of significant funding opportunities tend to reward more well-known or nationally recognized collections and archives. Additionally, many significant funding opportunities are highly favorable to and mostly designed to support what is seen by many as professional, cultural heritage activity conducted by professionally trained people. Because the work of those founding and working in community-based archives is not widely known, the opportunities to benefit from these funds remain elusive. 

Attendees at the symposium discussed these key issues affecting community-based archives access to significant capacity building and long-term sustainable funding, but there are undoubtedly more. Addressing some of these barriers can go a long way to securing the future of community-based archives.

Community-based archives can develop successful fundraising programs, but some need support to sustain and grow the capacity of those efforts.

Some community-based archives have successfully developed programs that generate revenue from earned income, donations, and grants, but those efforts cannot be consistently sustained in some cases because the existence of the archives themselves is precarious. The sustainability of these programs can be affected by several factors including fluctuations in available staff support and access to funding to continue the revenue-generating activity. Despite the significant hurdles, community-based archives continue to innovate around revenue generation. 

One practitioner in attendance at Architecting Sustainable Futures has led an underground railroad tour for the past twenty years where they travel with teachers and administrators from regional school districts to Civil Rights and Black history sites in the southern United States and Canada. The tours generate revenue by negotiating contracts with school districts that support their staff attending the tours. This endeavor has been a tremendous success because it has helped teachers and administrators gain a better understanding of the history and impact of slavery and that in turn has helped schools teach the subject more effectively. That same group is also expanding revenue generating activity to include designing exhibits and loaning them at cost and also loaning content from their vast collection. Another community-based archive successfully runs a fundraising campaign annually as a way to raise the unrestricted funds they need to support operations. In addition to the annual campaign, this archive also raises a significant part of their budget from members of the community whose collections they primarily collect and preserve. 

Some community-based archives have also had success with securing funds in the form of grants or one-time funding from local governments like city councils or county governments. Most archives in attendance had secured one or more grants of varying sizes from foundations and federal grant-makers. Some archives also design curriculum based on the content they hold and develop training based on expertise held by their staff or communities and offer those to interested parties at a cost. But while there is no shortage of innovation and hard work put into growing funds to run the archives, much of this work is done by a few individuals who, in addition to raising these funds, spend most of their time running the archive. Several expressed fear that their efforts would not be able to be sustained, or worried about what would happen to the archive after they were gone, especially since there was very little time and capacity for succession planning activities. Growing the capacity of community-based archives to support further revenue generating activity is a vital next step in the life-cycle management of these cultural heritage spaces. 

Labor required to apply for and to manage grants acts as a barrier to access those funds.

Community-based archives practitioners at Architecting Sustainable Futures shared their frustrations about the labor involved in the grant application process, whether applying for very small or large amounts of funding. In some cases, it may take up to 100 hours of labor for research, networking, and applying for a single grant, and usually with no guarantee that a proposal will be successful. And while grant writing is typically part of the general responsibilities of professional archivists and scholars as part of the work they already collect a salary and benefits for, grant writing in a community-based archive is additional labor on top of already time, and cash strapped organizations. These are vital hours that can be used to benefit other parts of the archives operations. Instead, community-based archives feel pressure to participate in grant writing activity, as a part of a funding model that may not be designed with their unique issues in mind, as one way to address their significant funding needs.

Additionally, grant management and reporting requirements put extra strain on the already stressed staff. As a result, some community-based archives have decided to no longer seek grant funding because the cost of labor to apply for and manage the grants versus the success rate of securing funding, and the lack of a long term benefit of the funds does not make sense. Addressing issues around the labor required for grant applications and management could help community-based archives participate in the grant process more equitably. 

Collaborative work with academic partners exists and is desired by community-based archives, but equity and recognition of the legitimacy of the archive should be foundational to the relationship.

Community-based archives already partner with large academic institutions on a diverse number of projects to varying degrees of success. While community-based archives see value in these relationships, there is an inherent power imbalance that favors the large institutions, and can often put the community-based archive at a disadvantage. In the past, this imbalance has led to several negative experiences between academic institutions and community-based archives, which has caused mistrust of these kinds of relationships. Some of these negative experiences have included patronizing behavior from professional archivists--for example, questioning the skills and expertise of community-based archives practitioners and the ability of the archive to preserve collections. There has also been attempted co-opting of collections and ignoring the central role that the local community plays in the mission and existence of the archive. Despite these issues, community-based archives practitioners see some value in partnering with large academic institutions on collaborative projects and programs around collections care, digital projects, and funding, etc. but those collaborations must first be based on principles that uphold equitable practices, encourage transparency, and the recognition that community-based archives are legitimate sites for preserving their historical content. 

“Is there money you won’t take because of ethics?”

— Question from a Community-Based 

Archive Practitioner

Community-based archives do not want to compromise their values for funding or partnerships.

One consistent theme echoed by practitioners throughout the Architecting Sustainable Futures symposium was that community-based archives were unwilling to compromise their values to secure funding or other types of support. Practitioners recounted numerous examples in the past where partnering with a university to gain access to resources or applying for certain kinds of funding would have put them in situations that betrayed their commitment to their community. While rejecting these opportunities could affect how the archive operates, the decision to not enter into partnerships and collaborations void of ethics or that have questionable values helps ensure the archive’s credibility remains intact. Not compromising on values also forces community-based archives, funders, and potential partners to work on more equitable terms. It also encourages community-based archives to engage in more radical self-help practices as part of their work to sustaining their collections and programs. 

A survey of community-based archives would help to identify their needs better and articulate their collective impact

During the symposium, several practitioners mentioned the potential benefits of establishing a stronger culture of non-exploitative data collection and analysis of community-based archives. To fully realize the broader potential impact of community-based archives, it is vital to get a better understanding of how they exist, where they are, what they hold, and what they need. New collective knowledge about community-based archives will help to better articulate needs. Data collection can be a strategy for more effectively supporting community-based archives in developing programs that can grow capacity. A more comprehensive understanding of the landscape of community-based archives will also provide a broader view of how these archives impact the communities they represent and broader society.