Put Your Association’s History on Display Online

Your association may have a lot of history at its fingertips—but is that historic value being maximized for public consumption? Here’s a case for digitizing your organization’s archives online.

As a guy with a bit of a history bug, I’ve always had massive respect for efforts to properly organize information historically.

The Internet Archive, in particular, has done an amazing job over the years in taking scraps of history, usually in technology-related fields, and making them available to anyone who wants them. Its approach has given us, among other things, The Wayback Machine, perhaps the most complete record we have of the internet’s first 20 years as a mainstream entity.

But there’s a problem—while the Internet Archive can do a whole lot to protect information it has access to, there’s a lot of information it doesn’t have access to. Innocuous information. Novel information that has historical value. Data points that could be the difference maker between a B- and a B+ on a high school student’s research paper.

However, this information is often hidden away in forms that carry limited currency in the internet era—specifically, as sheets of paper, old film recordings, or classic magazines, perhaps buried in vaults or forgotten about, are lost to history.

By sheer chance, this information may show up online somehow, say through Google Books, on YouTube, or even mentioned in older newspapers accessible through for-pay archives like, but it often isn’t given the full context it deserves. It’s not curated in any serious way.

But given a little TLC, that information suddenly has value to lots of people.

Bringing History to Life

What got me thinking about this issue is Neil Young. One of the most legendary rock musicians ever, Young decided recently to put his musical works—all of them, some dating back 50 years or longer—onto a dedicated website where people can listen to them at the highest quality.

This is a big deal for fans of Young, who have at times found themselves at the whims of the rock icon’s strong opinions on audio fidelity. For example, On the Beach, one of his best-regarded albums, was out of print for years and didn’t appear on CD until 2003, in part because he felt CDs just weren’t good enough fidelitywise.

Now, Young has a website, Neil Young Archives, where you can stream great albums like On the Beach, terrible albums like Everybody’s Rockin’, and really popular albums like Harvest. Even his demos are included.

Young is getting a whole lot of attention for doing this—it’s free to use for now—that he may not have received otherwise at this point in his career.

A lot of musicians have their entire catalogs on Spotify. Neil Young doesn’t. Instead, he figured out how to turn it into an event.

Why Archives Might Be a Good Idea

Associations are often well-suited to play up their own histories.

They go back decades and often include sources like trade periodicals, newsletters, and published (or recorded) accounts of events that happened years ago.

Some associations have proved particularly adept at building digital archives, such as the White House Historical Association, which has put much work into putting its many documents onto the cloud in recent years. But this by no means has to be limited to associations built around history.

And while this can be a lot of work—not everyone can afford an on-staff archivist, or even an archivist for hire—it does carry a lot of potential if done correctly. A few reasons why it might be worth considering pulling out a few flatbed scanners or partnering with a research library:

Archived information can have sudden relevance. Let’s say a politician speaks at your event, and that politician were to suddenly, say, run for president. If you didn’t have an archive of this information on hand, it would be a missed opportunity to inform your members (and, possibly, the world) about how the candidate feels about your industry. C-SPAN keeps its entire video archive at the public’s fingertips; could your organization do something similar?

A well-curated morgue is good for content marketing. If you have photos of iconic leaders that date back decades, as well as contemporary articles in an easy-to-find place, that means you can link off those works and use them to build better stories. Investing time in archival work internally could pay off years in the future.

It could come in handy for journalists and academic researchers. The work that researchers and journalists do often means they might have to draw attention to a vintage data point as part of a larger example, or it might require them to piece together history to get to a broader point. From the perspective of a communications shop, for example, these types of asks would be harder to manage if the information existed only in paper form. Digitizing this information once could save a lot of work later on.

It could prove a big search-engine perk. Your website may do a good job of promoting your association’s modern-day initiatives, but often the way people search makes it so that they will find your content through the back door—and putting your association’s history online in an easily accessible way opens up a lot of back doors. Of course, you need to be thoughtful of how this messes with your existing content strategy. If you put a lot of your content behind a paywall, for example, consider creating an expiration date for the paywall—if a piece of content is more than, say, 20 years old, open it up to the public, while warning the information is historic in nature and may be out of date. It maximizes the private benefits of the content while opening the broader benefits to the public.

Archival is going to become a more important part of digital culture as the years go on. Is your association thinking about it?

(simonmayer/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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