Introduction and Aim
The aim of my outreach project for the Letters of 1916 project (Maynooth University) was
to broaden the geographical reach of the project by increasing participation in the Letters of 1916 project in the Mayo region. Coming from a background in cultural heritage education and community outreach, I knew that within the timeframe of the autumn college semester my aim had to be broad but at the same time that I would need to be very focussed on specific outcomes that I could shape but could not fully predict or guarantee.
Outreach can take many forms and as a practitioner I see it both as reaching out beyond
the boundaries of an institution, a geographical space or a traditional cohort, to traverse existing barriers that impede access but also as a respectful partnership of exchange where learning and benefit can be two-way. As a contributor to the CNCI policy framework for Education, Community, Outreach (Education), I share the idea that community outreach should be as participatory as possible and that those we ‘reach out’ to are partners in each stage.
Key and Potential Outcomes
Prior to finalising my outreach proposal I made contact with a number of people and organisations to solicit their interest. Based on these conversations and feedback from the Digital Humanities Department I developed a number of potential outcomes that I considered to be achievable with the central aim of engagement rather than quantitative outcomes. I also set out a workflow so that I could easily see if I could complete the project.
Scoping the Project and Assessing Feasibility
The first step in my workflow was to assess the feasibility on the part of one (or more) Mayo based cultural repository to contribute letters from their collection. This was central to the proposal, without which I could not carry out the project. Even though I had spoken to a number of individuals who were generally interested, it can often be the case that it is difficult to get commitment, to move from ‘maybe’ to ‘yes’. It turned out that the most interested person / organisation was least able to commit and the organisation with the biggest barrier to getting involved managed to change institutional policy on putting collection documents online.
Of the organisations I contacted, even though Mayo County Library, Knock Museum and Kiltimagh Museum were not able to contribute at this time, each is now aware of ‘Letters of 1916’ and regard it as an interesting project that they may contribute to in the future. It was a key aim to get one collecting institution as a contributor and I think that this initial engagement by a familiar organisation in the region will build on the initial interest of the potential contributors already identified and also be a ‘hook’ for future interest of others in the region.
My initial telephone contact was followed up by email and phone contact from early November (Power). In my own experience, I’ve found that it is necessary to make several approaches and find a good balance between pursuing the contact, presenting the opportunity for involvement in a clear, direct way and at the same time leaving time and space for the other party to digest the information and come on board, or not.
Before any repository made a commitment but because of the timeframe for the project, I also made initial contact with the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology (GMIT) to see if Heritage Studies students might be interested in participating. I was able to do this very informally because of an existing relationship with the lecturers. The response was favourable and there is potential to follow this up when terms begins in the new year.
Workshop at the Jackie Clarke Collection
While the manager of the Jackie Clarke Collection in Ballina (JCC) had initially informed me that their policy was to promote visits to the site in preference to putting anything online, she also saw that there was an opportunity to explore online potential through ‘Letters of 1916’ with a relatively small amount of effort / time by the organisation. This was the key attraction for this organisation and this first step may lead to other online activity by the JCC.
I had already sent a link to the ‘Letters of 1916’ website and once the contribution was confirmed I arranged a workshop type visit on the 6th December where I talked the manager through the process, including photography, photo-editing, how to upload a letter and how to create the catalogue entry. Having copies of materials such as the ‘cheat sheet’ used in the DSE class as well as the online guidance ‘how to upload a letter’ made the task easier. I was prepared to be very hands-on with this but my objective was that the JCC staff would try to do this themselves. As a digital native, the JCC manager was comfortable with the technology and after uploading one image and going through the cataloguing process for one letter, she was happy to take this on. In all six letters from the collection were uploaded to the site.
The Jackie Clarke Collection was added to the list of contributing organisations and four of the letters were made public by the 14th December.
Reflection on this Outreach
Although I contacted four Mayo-based cultural repositories, I was content to progress this project with one organisation and do not regard other contacts as wasted effort, but as planting a seed that may well develop at a later time. Engaging with these other groups is a form of outreach in itself.
I was able to go through and deliver on most step outlined in the workflow I had developed (photography, uploading and cataloguing) but due to time constraints, scheduling and Christmas holidays, was unable to achieve the final part in the process (transcribing). The letters are now available to the public for transcribing and there is an opportunity to undertake this with GMIT Heritage Studies students.
Feedback both from the organisations that didn’t participate at this time and from the JCC was very positive. The JCC manager saw the benefit in using the project as a learning opportunity for her organisation and I believe that a perceived mutual benefit is a key indicator of a successful outreach project.
A blog post featuring the JCC letters has been proposed for early in the new year and I have committed to liaising with the JCC so that both organisations can promote the JCC contribution to ‘Letters of 1916’.
I am confident that now that there is one Mayo based cultural repository involved in the project, there are further opportunities for encouraging Mayo based traffic to the website and future potential primary source contributors to the 1916 Letters website.
Maynooth University. “Letters of 1916.” Web.
Power, Deirdre. Outreach Project. Series from 4 Nov. 2016. E-mails.
Education, Community, Outreach Working Group of the Council for National Cultural Institutions. A Policy Framework for Education, Community, Outreach (ECO). Dublin: Council for National Cultural Institutions, 2004.