Architecting Sustainable Futures

Recommendations for the Field


These recommendations respond to some of the issues, ideas, and potential solutions we heard from attendees at Architecting Sustainable Futures. They are intended to guide work affecting community-based archives in the future. We hope the community will let them guide their work, but the hope is that people will also add new recommendations, ideas, and innovations to these, as we all engage in the collective work of supporting community-based archives. The recommendations are specifically targeted toward community-based archives, funders, academic partners, and scholars. 

Community-based archives like the Shorefront Legacy Center in Evanston, Illinois, the Southern California Library in Los Angeles, or the South Asian American Digital Archive, provide essential services to the communities they represent. They uplift the lives of traditionally marginalized and oppressed people, while also strengthening the fabric of wider society by making sure people are not erased by harmful cultural and historical narratives. Community-based archives have a right to exist. And they should exist in the ways that the people who create them see fit. In this spirit, partnerships with community-based archives should not jeopardize their independent existence, the security of their collections, or the values they uphold as part of their responsibility to the specific communities they serve. Academic organizations and professionals, especially university libraries and scholars, can be tremendous partners with and supporters of community-based archives by leveraging the vast resources available to them in more intentionally caring ways. Funders can also incorporate more caring and informed practices into their grantmaking activities that consider the unique issues facing community-based archives, many of them having similar struggles of small nonprofits, independent businesses, or unincorporated organizations. Community-based archives have continued to exist despite tremendous hurdles but also with significant and diverse support from the communities they serve. More intentional long term business and organizational planning, and the development of more sound fundraising programs and practices can go a long way to assuring their continued existence and growth. 

For Community-Based Archives


Develop Earned Income Strategies

Grant-funding is not a sustainable business model. All of the successful long-standing community-based archives that participated in the symposium shared stories about how they have found various streams of income to keep their doors open. These significantly varied and all evolved. For most organizations, the archive started with volunteer labor in the early years, but then progressed either in a partnership or through entrepreneurship to become sustainable entities through earned-income strategies that may have included grants, but were not entirely dependent on them. Many organizations were gifted or have acquired real estate that makes it possible for them to stay in locations which are often vulnerable to gentrification. That has given some organizations the ability to leverage their location and develop other sustaining, mission-driven business that provides income. Others have found that publishing and retail sales have been key to ongoing income as well as visibility. Yet others have been able to sustain through membership and other community-supported means. Developing earned income strategies can be critical to the future strategies of community-based archives if that fundraising model fits their work and value system. 

Do Not Compromise Values for Partnerships or Funding

When opportunities for partnership arise, be sure to stick to your values and insist on equal terms and transparency in any joint grants or partnerships. We heard many stories at Architecting Sustainable Futures about community-based archives that made compromises in partnerships because they felt that they did not have the leverage to request equal roles and compensation in funded projects. One example of how an organization can ensure themselves of being fairly compensated for time and intellectual labor is to insist on reviewing the final budgets in collaborative projects. 

Demonstrate Impact and Value to the Community

On the one hand, community-based archives exist because of their critical contributions to the longevity of a place or people. Many organizations that were present at Architecting Sustainable Futures shared amazing stories about the work they do in service to their communities, and the many ways they have documented these activities. They shared how important it was to demonstrate their value to the local community publicly and shared different tools they’ve used, from anniversary celebrations with city leaders to annual reports, data collection, and publications about visits and use. All of these tools can help to demonstrate the impact of the archive to the community as a way to grow support or raise funding. Community-based archives practitioners should also create a culture assessment in their field that can help to demonstrate impact and value as the field continues to grow. 

For Funders


Support Capacity Building and Capital Investment 

As noted above, community-based archives are typically small and/or informal organizations, so capacity building initiatives will go a long way in helping them become sustainable. These initiatives could include grant-writing assistance, management workshops, legal assistance, fiscal sponsorship, or many other possibilities that could be facilitated by local or interest area organizations. Secondly, one common theme with community-based archives that have sustained themselves is the fact that they own their buildings. These buildings might have been gifted or purchased but it often means that the inhabitants can stay even while a local area may be changing around them, and thus, they keep the history of a place and people alive despite displacement or gentrification. Therefore, capital investment could be a critical tool for the true longevity and self-sufficiency of community-based archives.

Require Equitable Partnerships in Funded Collaborative Projects

When developing grant program guidelines or reviewing proposals where community-based archives are included as partners, funders should ensure that the archive is treated equitably in terms of labor and compensation. For example, funders can require that the community-based archive be responsible for a certain percentage of the work of the project and that the archive also be allocated a representative amount of the funding for that work. Just as funders require diversity statements from grantees, they can also require a statement of equity that describes specifically how labor and funding will be equitably allocated on the project. It should raise red flags for funders when reviewing grant proposals where the majority of the funding in a collaborative project goes to the academic library partner and the intellectual, emotional, and physical labor is being carried out by the community-based archive. Funders can also flag collaborative projects where the work to be undertaken seems extractive of the collections, intellectual assets, or networks of the community-based archive. These checks can help to ensure that funders do not continue to support projects that can be harmful to community-based archives.

Promote Community Compensation

Community-based archives often hold some of the only links to the past for specific people, places, or groups. There is a value inherent to these holdings and the human networks that have created them. Partnering organizations often profess to provide help to community-based archives in gathering stories or collections, but seldom put a financial value to those stories and collections. Often a researcher or scholar will be paid to “help” gather the stories for a collection, but the contributor will not receive compensation. Unpaid labor is an issue that must be addressed on a wide scale–and we need to begin by acknowledging that community input in cultural projects is often unpaid work.1 New models for community financial compensation need to be explored and supported at all levels, from partnership design to funding.

Adopt Inclusive Funding Practices

Funders should adopt guidelines and develop new practices for their grantmaking that do not act as barriers to community-based archives and other small cultural organizations participating in the process. Several community-based archives at Architecting Sustainable Futures mentioned how the current funding practices, specifically those around eligibility requirements, the application process, grants management, and reporting, are often barriers for them. Small organizations that primarily function on the labor of volunteers view current practices as unrealistic for the communities they represent. Grant guidelines should reflect that the funder is aware that the cultural heritage field is broad and diverse and that grants are one way that resources can be more evenly distributed across organizations. Because of staffing and financial issues, some community-based archives simply cannot contribute the large number of hours it would take to apply for and administer a grant on their own based current funder practices. 

One way to ensure grant guidelines are more inclusive of a diverse range of organizations is for funders to invite community-based archives practitioners to help develop grant program guidelines and to sit on grant review panels. Traditionally, those roles go to professionals working in large government and academic cultural heritage organizations, and that practice has led to the grant programs being designed to mostly benefit those types of cultural heritage spaces. Another way funders can practice inclusivity in their grantmaking practices is to acknowledge that the field is broader than the traditional organizations they typically work with and to actively engage with smaller organizations like community-based archives. Architecting Sustainable Futures was a great example of how that engagement can take place. 


For University Library Partners


Don’t be Extractive

Community-based archives, and particularly those serving marginalized communities, impact the lives of the people they represent in several ways, including recognizing their right to exist, highlighting their contributions to society, and empowering them to imagine futures where they are included. For these reasons, academic library partners should not engage in activities that seek to remove physical or intellectual assets from community-based archives and the communities where they exist. Academic libraries operate as part of universities, and they wield significant privilege and power in all relationships they are a part. When partnering with under-resourced organizations such as community-based archives, academic libraries should leverage that power and privilege in support of promoting the values and furthering the mission and goals of the archive. There are several ways academic libraries can engage in non-extractive ways with community-based archives. For example, if there are community-based archives in the same community with academic libraries, then instead of the academic libraries hiring a professional archivist to work on community archives for the university, the library can choose instead to share the financial resources slated for that position with the local community-based archives to help grow their capacity. Some of the practices required to engage in non-extractive behavior are no doubt non-traditional and will require real effort to adopt but they will lead to a more healthy and inclusive cultural heritage practice, and a more representative shared historical record. 

Practice Equity

Despite difficulties, community-based archives continue to exist because supporters and practitioners have extensive skills, expertise, and knowledge to apply to the work of the archive. When university libraries seek to partner with community-based archives, they should recognize the extensive expertise already available in these spaces and ensure sure they are considered in the planning of the project, the sharing of the work, and the allocation of financial and human resources. Practicing equity in collaborative work with community-based archives recognizes the significant contributions individuals and the archives have made to their communities. Practicing equity also builds trust in ways that can help university libraries become more effective community partners. 

Be Transparent

In the interest of building trust and developing projects that can be equitably beneficial to community-based archives and their university partners, it is important to practice transparency throughout the whole process, outcomes, successes, and failures of projects. Community-based archives practitioners at Architecting Sustainable Futures referenced instances where university partners intentionally kept them out of the process of planning collaborative work while expecting them to remain available to contribute to the work. A lack of transparency does not only hinder current and future partnerships, but it can potentially put community-based archives at a disadvantage in negotiating their participation in the project and also sets them up to blindly participate in projects that could cause harm to their collections or community. Some ways university partners could practice transparency include citing the work of community-archives partners, honoring the financial value of community-based archives partners by paying for staff time and contributions, and by checking the ratio of funding for any individual project that goes to the university versus community-based archive. In some cases, community-based archives partners are merely asked to partner on projects, but they are not included in the grant writing, budget development, grant management, or project execution. These actions erode trust between community-based archives and academic partners, and they deny community-based archives staff of opportunities to gain new skills or to sharpen knowledge in these areas. So while a university library may take on the administrative responsibilities for a collaborative project, they should also make sure community partners are part of all elements of the process. This approach could contribute to growing and strengthening capacity in the archive. 

Honor the Wisdom of the Community

People who suffer marginalization in society create community-based archives because they feel a need to preserve their history as a way to assert their humanity, to strengthen their local communities, and to ensure their stories are represented in the larger historical record. These archives are mostly maintained by the passion, labor, and wisdom of the people that create them, and those people are usually part of a long-standing local community of support where there is a deep understanding of issues and how to solve them. When academic library partners ignore these crucial aspects of how these archives exist, and their value and impact to their local communities, they miss a vital opportunity to learn and to meaningfully contribute. Academic library partners should honor the wisdom of the local community where these community-based archives exist by listening to the people who are currently doing the work and who have historically been doing the work.  

For Scholars


Don’t be Extractive 

In all academic projects that include community-based archives, scholars should always ask themselves what they are bringing to the archive and the community and weigh that against what they are taking away. These considerations should include intellectual resources, compensation, hard resources, and time, etc. Community-based archives are already operating at a disadvantage in terms of resources so your project should actively promote capacity-building and sustainability activities at the archives without placing unnecessary burdens on staff or the community. Scholars should also consider that they enter into partnerships with community-based archives carrying immense privilege. This privilege should be leveraged in support of advancing the mission and goals of the archive. 

Practice Equity

Scholars conducting research or working in partnership with community-based archives should ensure they are engaging in equitable ways. The areas where equity fails the most in these relationships are usually around fair compensation to individuals and equitable financial support to the archive on grant projects; acknowledging the intellectual contributions of the archive in researcher success, publications, exhibits, etc.; and labor allocation in collaborative work. Equitable relationships and practices bring benefits to community-based archives that promote capacity growth and that increase the prospects that the archive can achieve sustainability in several areas of their work. 

Be Transparent

Trust should be a foundational value upholding collaborative work between community-based archives and scholars. A lack of transparency erodes trust for future relationships between community-based archives and the academic community, including scholars and students. Scholars can practice transparency in several ways including asking critical questions of one’s work that can reveal gaps in transparency. For example, does the community understand what I am doing, the broader context of my work, and the potential negative impacts? Or, did the community-based archive help to develop grant budget, are they included equitably, and did they approve the final version? Transparency also protects the community-based archive from entering into harmful partnerships that can jeopardize spaces that are already facing precarity because they are short staffed and under-resourced.