Archiving Your Association's History

By: Christine Umbrell

Every association has a history, but many couldn't tell you what it is. An archiving effort can preserve and showcase members' shared past, renewing loyalty and commitment to the mission. (Titled "Institutional Memory" in the print edition.)

Lauren Hefner, director of membership, marketing, and communications at the Laboratory Products Association, stared down a room full of old boxes as she and her boss were settling into the association's new office space. The relocation had turned up a trove of forgotten records documenting the association's history—but what to do with them?

"My boss and I realized that there were no digital archives of any member materials, and that my predecessor was literally keeping photocopies of every member correspondence (even title changes), printed and in a folder," says Hefner, recalling the discovery. "We had paper copies of emails going back to 1994 and carbon copies of bulk letters from the '50s. However, we had no digital copies of anything important except things from the past couple of years."

To sift through the old documents and save the important papers without breaking the small association's budget, Hefner hired a temp and gave the order to start scanning. Today, the digital records are housed on the organization's hard drive and on a backup server, providing secure and searchable access to important records. What's more, Hefner used some of the more interesting findings as a foundation for a special newsletter and website to draw attention to the association and its history, resulting in increased member satisfaction and retention, she says.

With associations still facing tight budgets, expenses associated with archiving can be hard to justify. But creating collections of documents and artifacts that have meaning to organizations and their members is important, and many associations are recognizing the value in finding a way to capture and share their histories.

"For members, archiving gives them a sense of pride in where they came from, what they've done, and where they're going," says Wendi Ruschmann, manager of historic archives at the CFA Institute. "For the association, it's important to celebrate our achievements."

Packaging meaningful historical elements into a display or electronic format to share with members can be a valuable exercise that reinforces the value of membership.

"If you go to almost any association, you have the room full of tchotchkes and leftover materials from old meetings," says Christopher Pearson, CEO of Vanguard Archives, a firm that helps organizations design and implement more effective records-management policies and procedures. "It's not just unorganized; it's an uncontrolled environment." Digitizing documents is part of the solution, as is ensuring that the most important pieces are kept and deciding whether and how to showcase the more interesting artifacts.

Also vital is finding the right people to fill the archiving role, and associations have come up with innovative approaches to this task. From hiring dedicated employees to bringing back retired staff to partnering with local libraries, organizations of all budgets and sizes are finding ways to honor their past.

Showcasing History

NRECA montage

A three-dimensional montage in a reception area at National Rural Electric Cooperative Association headquarters showcases milestones in the organization's history. (Click photo to enlarge.)

Doing justice to the artifacts and documents from an association's early years is a job some say is best left to those who truly understand the organization—making former staff members a perfect choice for a short-term, project-based archive manager.

At the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA), staff members wanted to showcase the organization's rich history as part of its celebration of its 70th anniversary this year. NRECA hired two former employees to direct the development of what is now called "the Collection," says John Conner, applications and data advisor at NRECA. Mattie Olson and Susan McGuire have extensive communications and marketing experience, and Olson was a former vice president of education and training at the association.

NRECA vestibule
The vestibule outside the CEO's office at the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association features stanzas from a poem by Robert Feragen, a former head of the Rural Electrification Administration, about the significance of bringing electricity to rural America. (Click photo to enlarge.)

Olson and McGuire set about going through old photographs, documents, paintings, and other artifacts. They determined what items were worthy of inclusion in a permanent display and decided how best to showcase those objects. They also led the creation of new writing, design, and film projects to explain the history of the organization and its members as part of the Collection.

"The Collection's objective is to bring into full view the highlights of NRECA's history, the work of its members, and the vital contributions that electric cooperatives make to the nation," says Conner. The Collection features pictures, tangible and representative objects, documents and records, film clips, photographs, and artwork.

Hiring former long-time employees was instrumental to the project's success. "We really tapped into their institutional memory," Conner says, which resulted in a more complete picture of the organization. In addition to relying on their own recollections of past events, Olson and McGuire consulted with members at the organization's cooperatives to verify facts and gather additional materials.

The Collection debuted in 2010 and is housed in both NRECA's Arlington, Virginia, and Lincoln, Nebraska, offices. The buildings' lobbies and conference rooms serve as display areas for archival pieces, and a reproduction of a New Deal-era mural originally painted by artist David Stone in 1940 hangs from a wall outside a conference room.

Feedback from members has been positive, both from those who have visited the offices and those who have read about the Collection in the association's magazine. The project has also given a morale boost to NRECA's 700 employees.

NRECA Willie
This statue of Willie Wiredhand, the official mascot of electric co-ops since 1950, is on display in a break room at the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. (Click photo to enlarge.)

"This project is a reminder for everyone who works in the buildings of the importance of what we do, and the progress we have made," says Conner.

Dedicated Staff

Other organizations are piecing together their histories by hiring full-time permanent archive managers. When the CFA Institute began preparing for its 70th anniversary a few years ago, Ruschmann, who had ended her 14-year career at the organization in 2001 to stay at home with her young children, was hired back as a consultant to put together an exhibit at the annual meeting. Following the exhibit, she was hired part-time as CFA Institute's manager of historic archives.

"I'm not an archivist by trade, but I have institutional knowledge. During the past three years, I have been helping write a 300-page book on how [the curriculum for the Chartered Financial Analyst designation] originated, which has required going through old newsletters, annual reports, and minutes," she says. "We are also investing in digitizing and preserving some of our old photos, newsletters, and reports."

Ruschmann also is spearheading a historical exhibit planned for the 50th anniversary of the CFA program, scheduled for later this year. She is working on an oral history of interviews with past presidents and overseeing "50 Stories of 50 Charter Holders," a project featuring video, audio, photographs, and handwritten letters. In addition, there will be an onsite display at the annual meeting, which will allow attendees to watch some of the video previously recorded, as well as record their own stories.

In addition to overseeing anniversary projects, Ruschmann serves as a helpdesk for other staff, frequently conducting research and assisting the communications or education departments. Ultimately, she hopes to organize all of the association's archival information into one easy-to-access database. "The goal is that in the future, instead of using me as a resource, other staff members will be able to use the database," she says.

Members like the idea of having a custodian safeguarding the institute's past. They "find my position important because they know somebody is paying attention to where we've been—and they know their legacy won't be lost," Ruschmann says.

Power of Partnerships

When an association doesn't have the budget to hire archiving staff, partnerships may provide an answer.

The National Lieutenant Governors Association (NLGA) found itself in that position three years ago. As Executive Director Julia Hurst began planning for the association's 50th-anniversary celebration this year, she took stock of all of the historical material produced over the years and realized the significance of some of those documents.

"We are the only association to serve this membership," says Hurst. NLGA has 55 members each year—the lieutenant governors from all 50 states and the five territories. "We are the only true repository for historical listings, newspaper articles, opinion papers, and legal documents relating to the office of lieutenant governor. And we realized some of our documents could have collective, historical value."

But a problem arose in determining how to archive these important papers: The undertaking was just too large for the three-person staff to handle in-house, yet too expensive to contract out. Then Hurst had a chance meeting with the director of the Kenton County Library System, who is also a historian and an archivist.

The Kenton County Library, ranked the number-one public library in Kentucky for the past three years, had purchased state-of-the-art equipment and initiated archiving projects for local newspapers. Hurst realized the library might be able to archive NLGA's materials.

Hurst and the library director discussed how an archiving partnership could benefit both organizations: NLGA's records would be available to the public at no cost and working with the library would lend some visibility to the project, and the library would benefit from compiling a unique collection that is national in scope.

Both parties agreed to proceed, and the library commenced archiving. "The goal is to make all of our records publicly available, copyright cleared," says Hurst. "This project meets our mission of making information on the office of the lieutenant governor more readily available."

The collaboration has taken on special significance since both parties began reviewing the oldest documents and recognized their value.

"No U.S. elected official—at the local, state, or federal level—becomes governor at a greater rate than occupants of the office of lieutenant governor," says Hurst. The final collection will be "a valuable asset in assisting academics studying the office, candidates and officeholders seeking to further explore the office from a national scope, and media in covering the office of lieutenant governor."

The project began three years ago and continues today. Library volunteers scan and archive documents as time permits. The most valuable documents were processed first, including annual volumes that list lieutenant governors by state or region, along with their photos and biographical data.

Hurst hopes the first part of the collection will be unveiled as part of the association's anniversary celebration in July. The event will also feature a gala, complemented by displays of old photos and other visual remembrances.

Meanwhile, back at LPA, the boxes are cleared, and Hefner plans to ensure that photos and documents are archived properly in the future.

During the scanning process, "we noticed that there aren't many photos of our organization from its heyday, which was disappointing," says Hefner. "We've taken steps to increase the quantity, quality, and use of photos and also to keep them digitally so that our association can use them in the future, and we can continue to foster pride in the organization."

LPA has begun videotaping portions of its annual meetings and posting photos to a Flickr account. Hefner hopes the newer photos and the older documents located on the tribute website will come in handy when the organization celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2018.

Christine Umbrell is a freelance writer in Herndon, Virginia. Email: [email protected]

Photographs courtesy NRECA.

Christine Umbrell

Christine Umbrell is a freelance writer based in Herndon, Virginia.