Stopping amnesia

Volunteer-run organizations like the Editors’ Association of Canada, the Society for Technical Communication, and the Indexing Society of Canada provide tremendous opportunities to connect with fellow professionals, find work, and develop professionally. But one particular affliction seems to plague these kinds of groups: a lack of memory.

Given that these organizations exist largely because of donated time and energy, it really is amazing that they, for the most part, function so well. But with an executive that changes every year and demanding committee work that sees volunteers drift in and out according to their fluctuating time constraints, it’s no wonder that there can sometimes be a lack in continuity in their programs. Add in complexities like nation- or continent-wide chapters and, without a robust, well-thought-out system to transmit information to a central archive, legacies can be easily lost.

I recently volunteered for a task force to research and develop a specific document; at one of the early conference calls, it became clear that a similar task force had been struck only three years earlier, with exactly the same objective. Who were these people? What did they discuss? Why did they disband? Nobody knew. In another case, one group working on a procedural document knew that a related policy document had been created at some point in the past, but nobody had access to it. This kind of inefficiency does little to serve the organization’s members, not to mention the volunteers offering their time. What’s more damaging in the long term than having a new group reinvent the wheel is that members could feel less inclined to volunteer in the future, no matter how well-intentioned the organization’s mandate. What’s the point, when hard work just gets funnelled into some sink hole?

The saviour is none other than the superhero from last week’s post: the information scientist. I think that all volunteer-run nonprofits with high volunteer and staff turnover—not only those in editing and communication professions—would benefit from soliciting the services of a trained information specialist to

  • digitize all archives in a way that allows them all to be searchable
  • develop a method of indexing the archived material for efficient retrieval (because often it’s not that the information doesn’t exist—it just can’t be found)
  • identify circumstances under which new documents should be created and/or regularly revised (e.g., procedural documents for regularly occurring activities)
  • implement a system for archiving and indexing newly created material

With the ready availability of open-source content management systems today, the excuses not to make these changes just don’t hold water.

If an accredited consultant is too much for the nonprofit to afford, maybe it could consider contacting one of the many schools offering a Master of Library and Information Science program. My understanding is that all students in that program have to complete several units of experiential learning, and partnering with a student who is familiar with the theory of information organization and retrieval could be beneficial to both parties.

A few years ago, I had the privilege of working on the fifiteth-anniversary edition of the Varsity Outdoor Club‘s annual journal, which documents, in text and photos, members’ activities of the past year. Because it was a landmark issue, we devoted half of the almost six-hundred pages to submissions from alumni, as well as notable images and articles from the club’s archives. Discovering the truly fascinating, often hilarious, stories from past members was one of the highlights of the project and gave me a new perspective on the club as a whole—it had depth, history, purpose. (Part of why we were able to find so many high-quality pieces was that the organization recognized early on the importance of keeping records—”archivist” is one of the club’s executive positions—and recent archivists were forward-thinking in their initiatives to index all past issues of the journal.) So for organizations like the EAC, STC, and ISC, it’s not just that a solid archival system and comprehensive records will help volunteers accomplish more and better serve the membership—it’s also that the organization’s very history can be brought forth for current and future members to understand and appreciate.

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