September 20, 2022

Building Community: CalArchNet as an Adaptive Model for Regional Collaboration

AASL Column

Building Community: CalArchNet as an Adaptive Model for Regional Collaboration

Lucy Campbell and Barbara Opar, column editors
Column by Jessica Holada, Director of Special Collections and Archives, Robert E. Kennedy Library, Cal Poly, and Aimee Lind, Reference Specialist for Architecture Collections, Getty Library

Archival architecture collections may be unique, but they share similar challenges related to processing space, storage requirements, legal aspects, discoverability, conservation, handling, and digitization.

With these commonalities in mind, and with abiding interest in California architecture, we wondered if a community committed to standard practices could be coaxed into being; one that would include architecture librarians, archivists, and museum professionals from across the state. A vision for an informal, solutions-oriented, non-hierarchical meeting format began to take shape where colleagues could engage in dialog across institutions, across roles, and across areas of specialization. Not only could issues of interest be explored in-person, but local collections, exhibitions, and built environments could be, too. Participants could bring greater visibility to their collections, programs, and activities; enjoy more affordable in-state professional development; gain hosting experience; and most of all, expand perspectives about collecting, caring for, using, and promoting archival architecture collections.

We shared our ideas with Jocelyn Gibbs, then curator of UC Santa Barbara’s Architecture and Design Collection. She shared our enthusiasm and graciously allowed us to hold the first meeting at UCSB. With that, the California Architecture Network or CalArchNet was born. In preparation, we contacted colleagues, gathered names of possible participants, and sent out a survey assessing interest and topics for potential discussion. Early on we settled on a meeting format that was designed to be in-person, balancing discussion time with tours.

In the fall of 2016, the inaugural meeting was attended by twenty people representing eight institutions. Morning refreshments were generously provided by UCSB’s Architecture and Design Collection. After introductions, we opened with a pie-in-the-sky icebreaker: “What technology would solve all your problems?” The group toured the exhibition “Irving Gill: Simplicity & Reform” led by Jocelyn Gibbs, followed by a casual lunch in the campus commons. Afternoon discussion sessions gathered around themes derived from the survey, including access, processing, funding, practices, policies, and intellectual property rights. A list of questions related to each topic was prepared in advance to serve as prompts if necessary. By day’s end, attendees–who largely carpooled and incurred minimal out-of-pocket expenses–overwhelmingly concluded a statewide architectural archives network would be beneficial and the CalArchNet experiment continued to grow.

Between 2016 and 2020, CalArchNet held eight meetings, convening roughly twice a year in spring and fall. Several foundational goals were maintained throughout. For instance, by sharing hosting duties amongst participating institutions, registration fees were avoided, which lowered a key barrier to participation. The geographical locations were also various by design, ensuring no one region was privileged in relation to travel time and costs. Likewise, Friday through Saturday and Sunday through Monday schedules were adopted to limit release time requests or allow partial attendance for those who could not take time off.

In advance of each meeting, round robin updates were solicited from attendees and a list of discussion topics and questions were created. The updates would be collated and distributed to the group at the meeting. These reports were an invaluable way to practice outreach communications and learn about new acquisitions, projects, tools, exhibitions, publications, as well as staffing plans and changes. Many CalArchNet members involved in special projects and initiatives provided progress reports. Of course, understanding how work with architecture records is structured, prioritized, resourced, and promoted at different institutions was enlightening, sometimes sparking new approaches and avenues for advocating change at home.

Aside from the updates and business meetings, venue hosts were free to design the rest of the meeting time, which varied from one day to three days. Here are some examples of content CalArchNet attendees were treated to:

  • Facilities Tours that included storage, processing areas, digital services labs, conservation labs, research spaces, and galleries.
  • Presentations by members or guests exploring various topics related to the field such as Historic Preservation, City Planning, and Historical and Class One Research in Palm Springs; Teaching with Architecture Records as Part of the Architecture Design Curriculum at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo; and Architecture Archive Processing in the Center for Primary Research and Training at UCLA.
  • Archives Tours featuring new acquisitions and notable collections from the papers of architects, landscape architects, builders, and photographers.
  • Exhibition Tours led by curators were the centerpieces of some meetings. In addition to the Irving Gill exhibit at UCSB, some examples included:
    • “Albert Frey and Lina Bo Bardi: A Search for Living Architecture” at the Palm Spring Art Museum
    • “Architects of a Golden Age” at the Huntington Library featuring work by Parkinson & Parkinson and Webster & Williams
  • Architecture Tours were a major highlight of meetings and might feature works by architects for which the host institution also had drawings, plans, and photographs. Examples included Julia Morgan at Cal Poly Special Collections; Greene & Greene at the Environmental Design Archives, UC Berkeley; and A. Quincy Jones at UCLA Special Collections.
  • Socializing was a key outcome of meetings, which always included some combination of convivial refreshments, group lunches, receptions, and happy hours.
Participants inside the Monday Club designed by Julia Morgan (Cal Poly Meeting)

Participants inside the Monday Club designed by Julia Morgan (Cal Poly Meeting)

Reflecting on the benefits of CalArchNet, the number of early career librarians and archivists, library and archival assistants, and MLIS students who joined the meetings was a pleasant surprise. Many indicated it was one of the few professional events they could afford to attend. The informal nature of the group provided networking opportunities for attendees at all stages of their careers, as well as providing an important foundation in understanding how other libraries and archives operate, organizationally, financially, and physically. Some of the projects that emerged from meetings provided real world experience that led to bullet points on resumes for entry-level staff. These included a bibliography of resources related to managing architectural archives for the CalArchNet website and work on a Los Angeles architectural photography metadata project.

To keep conversations active between meetings and to attract new participants or members, we created a web presence using free resources: Google Sites for the website, Google Groups for the listserv, and Google Drive for record keeping. All members have access to Google Drive files where documentation is kept, including meeting agendas, round robin reports, photos, resource lists, project plans, policy examples, and whatever else was useful to members. We found the CalArchNet Google Group became an active source for valuable advice among trusted colleagues. Within this digital infrastructure, members have safely shared information about policies, procedures, and sensitive decision making. Collections deemed not appropriate for one institution have been shared among the group to find good homes. Members asked for advice about vendors, digitization standards, and anything benefitting from a second opinion. Whether conversations started in person or online, we gained perspective on the complexity of holdings at our different institutions, as well as accompanying struggles related to budget, human resources, space, donors, service delivery, and other challenges both distinctive and common.

Finally, the quality of the speakers, tours, and presentations was remarkable considering the complete lack of dues. Members pulled out all the stops to showcase their collections, contacts, and regional architectural resources, delighting attendees. In its first five years, the group grew to nearly 60 members from roughly 20 California institutions, representing extensive experience and wisdom. Overall, CalArchNet has been an entirely worthwhile and effective experiment in creating a community of colleagues who continue to reach out and help one another, offer collections, socialize, and seek advice.

Some of the significant challenges of coordinating an informal group, however, have included finding willing meetings hosts, sustaining momentum, and keeping conversation topics fresh yet informative. While the group routinely generated ideas for projects that might benefit researchers of California’s built environment and even the field, we learned this level of engagement was unworkable without buy-in and project management to keep things on track. Like so many ideas born out of professional conferences, competing priorities often hinder expansive collective work. Attendance could be variable based on whether voluntary professional development was approved and rewarded at home institutions. We also observed those in leadership and curatorial positions were the most infrequent participants, so the balanced representation across roles and responsibilities we hoped to achieve at meetings could be elusive. But like educators, researchers, and historic preservationists, inviting these individuals expressly to present and stay for discussion might be a way to generate the cooperative opportunities we had imagined.

Of course, the ultimate challenge has been COVID-19. When the pandemic put a stop to in-person meetings, we adapted to the online environment, holding a virtual Beaux-Arts Ball happy hour, using Google Group to keep each other informed of closures, delays, COVID precautions, and reopening policies and procedures. The hiatus has affected our momentum, but we hope to resume in-person meetings when it is safe to do so. We are committed to continuing our original model of meeting in person coupled with tours and presentations, but we recognize this model is dependent upon individual interest as well as institutional approval and support. Rotating sites is a time-worn model of professional associations, but it is inherently inequitable and difficult to sustain. Together, CalArchNet will need to creatively consider ways to convene in the future, focusing on sustainability, equity, and inclusivity.

We hope CalArchNet may inspire you to create something similar in your region. We are grateful to have this community as a source of collegiality and support, and we hope it continues as the value of documenting and researching the built environment continues to expand. Please visit our website to learn more and contact us if we can provide more information or offer advice.