Collecting Stories

Which stories are you collecting?

Participatory archiving events shift the power dynamic of traditional archival activities by allowing communities, in concert with professional historians and archivists, to decide which stories to include in the historic record. By working together, libraries and communities can identify gaps to close in existing collections, define a framework for community stories they want to collect, and ultimately create a collection that reflects a unique aspect of the community's life and memory.

Roles & Responsibilities

For an overview of all RoPA Roles and Responsibilities, please review the Building a Team module.

Community Representatives

Members of the community are essential for deciding which stories to collect at your event. These representatives should be fully engaged in the decision making process and help the library understand which stories are important to them for documentation.

Community Coordinator

The Community Coordinator is responsible for convening a Collecting Stories meeting where the team will choose a theme and name the event.

Community Working Group (optional)

Depending on the size of your Project Team, you may want to designate 1 to 3 people from the Community Working Group to assist the Community Coordinator to run and/or participate in the Collecting Stories meeting.

Collecting Organization’s Archivist, Librarian, or Local Historian

A representative from the Collecting Organization should be involved in the process of determining which stories to collect. They intimately know what types of materials are already available in their holdings; they may have suggestions for areas to collect or hopes for the gaps in the collection they’d like to close. It is important for this role to understand that while they have expertise to share, in a participatory archiving event, they are not making the final decision on which stories to include or discard. Depending on the makeup of your Project Team and the cultural institutions in your community, you may have more than one Archivist, Librarian, or Local Historian on the team.

Collection Coordinator

The Collection Coordinator is responsible for organizing activities related to processing, preserving, and sharing the event’s collection. It is helpful for the person in this role to be included in the Collecting Stories planning meetings so they can prepare the Collection Working Group.

Collection Working Group (optional)

Depending on the size of your Project Team, you may want to designate 1 to 3 people from the Collection Working Group to participate in the Collecting Stories meeting.

Steps to Success

Download a Quick Checklist of the Collecting Stories steps here.

Best Practice Examples

Do you know of a project or program that could be featured here? Please contact us.

Man and woman toast the birth of their son.
Thomas and Winnie Wong celebrate in Manhattan after the baptism of their son, Edwin Wong, 1972.
An Open-Ended Theme
Queens Memory Project

In 2016, the Queens Memory Project and the Forest Hills Asian Association (FHAA) teamed up twice to host participatory archiving events. Queens Memory Project seeks to add new materials to its collections at the Digital Archives at Queens Library to represent the diverse experiences and perspectives of all Queens residents. At the events with the FHAA, the Queens Memory Project hoped to document the Asian-American community in Queens. From the outset, promotional material made clear “who” was welcome to contribute at the events: the Asian-American community of Queens, members of the FHAA, and local residents of Forest Hills, Queens, New York.

Although the events coincided with the Lunar New Year and Memorial Day holidays, the Queens Memory Project and FHAA wanted to collect stories about the Asian-American experience in Queens in general. The two partners used these holidays as a means of celebration to bring the community together. Publicity materials described the event’s purpose to document and share the history of the Asian American community in Queens through the preservation of a variety of personal narratives. Open-ended contributions related broadly to this theme were welcomed; holiday-related submissions were included but not required.

Young college students gathered together holding a poster for their participatory archiving event.
“Photo of most of the 2016 History Harvest team,” from UIS History Harvest.
A Focused Theme
University of Illinois Springfield History Harvest

Students from Dr. Devin Hunter’s undergraduate public history class and Dr. Ken Owen’s graduate history and digital media class at the University of Illinois Springfield (UIS) hosted a History Harvest event in 2016. The UIS History Department was curious how everyday citizens in central Illinois experience elections and engage with the political process. With an upcoming presidential election, the professors saw an opportunity to hold an event focused on political memorabilia. The community responded with enthusiasm. As Dr. Hunter and Dr. Owen shared with the WCIS News Team, "We've seen local items, state, county and municipal elections from the recent past and distant past. It really shows the level of interest Springfield has in political history.” 

The political memorabilia theme allowed students to make a clear ask of what they wanted community members to bring: campaign literature, fliers, letters, photographs, buttons and bumper stickers all related to the democratic process. Event posters and postcards gave examples of the types of items to bring to the event that would be included in an online exhibit and catalog. On the day of the event, Central Illinoisians brought over 200 items to be added to the collection. The “Land of Lincoln” represented their namesake well with axe pins, tokens, and banners from President Abraham Lincoln’s campaigns in addition to more contemporary memorabilia from the campaigns of President Barack Obama.


Peel Art Gallery Museum + Archives: What do archivists keep (or not)? 

This blog post from the Peel Art Gallery Museum + Archives is an excellent overview of how materials arrive at an archive and how archivists decide which materials to accession into a collection.



An organization dedicated to preserving documentary heritage (e.g., letters, reports, accounts, minute books, draft and final manuscripts, and photographs) for future generations because these materials were deemed to have continuing value to creating agency and to understanding history. (Adapted from the Society of American Archivists.)

Community Tables

For RoPA, a designated area at your event where community organizations are invited to host displays and distribute information to participants about the event theme. The goals of community tables are to enhance the exchange of information at the event, to connect Contributors to organizations invested in their community’s history, and to share resources available for further research and education.

Cultural Heritage

The culture, values, and traditions belonging to a community’s past, present, and future. Cultural heritage includes tangible evidence of human creativity and expression (e.g., photographs, documents, books, paintings) as well as intangible elements (e.g., rituals, skills, traditions, oral histories). (Adapted from Khan Academy’s What Is Cultural Heritage?.)

Local History

The study of history in terms of a specific locational context below the national level, often concentrating on events that affected a local community, in order to understand how the way people lived connects to the community’s present and future. (Adapted from the Ohio Local History Alliance and the Campbell Museum.)