Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Coming Full Circle: Intergenerational Oral History

This week I'm thinking about the living relationships we develop when we build archival collections. Earlier this month, in an effort to highlight our school building's fifty-year history, my students and I invited alumni to visit and tell us their stories. It was amazing to see the students' curiosity and to hear the bonds being formed between adults and teens.

In the twenty-first century, generation gaps seem larger than ever. In fact, it even seems like there are more "generations." The adolescents of five to ten years ago had an extremely different experience from those of today. Case in point: This afternoon a student was lamenting to my twenty-something male assistant that her teachers just "didn't get" her attachment to her phone. "YOU know what it's like," she said to him, thinking that the young man would understand because he was still young too. "Actually," he told her, "We didn't really use cell phones when I was in high school."

Times are changing fast, but we can temper feelings of disconnect through the celebration of a common history. In fact, in our oral history project and through the growth of our archives, exploring our community roots has enabled students to note shared interests and to recognize how things sometimes come full circle.


Oral history is a strong tool for building community and tying generations. And, oral history projects are something in which a child of any age can participate. All you need is a voice recorder -- your cell phone will do, or an MP3 players like we used. It was surprisingly easy for the kids to use and to make our visitors feel comfortable.

Goffstown High School c. 1987.
Goffstown High School Archives.
We prepared students for an event with five interviewees by giving a short tutorial a couple of weeks ahead of time. We focused on how to ask questions, what to ask, how to keep people talking, and how to keep silent while people told their stories. On event day, students were eager to listen and adults were eager to share. They learned a lot from each other. Then, we backed up our completed recordings to store in our archives and uploaded copies at The Voice Library for safekeeping and easy access.

Now, students are eager to talk to more people who once traveled through the halls they know so well. These walls have stories to tell and it is our intention to capture them. We want students to know that what they experience today is built upon the experiences of those who came before us. Coming full circle and to the realization that we are connected is a very powerful thing.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Providing Primary Resources to Strengthen Instruction

This week, I attended the New Hampshire State Library Media Association Conference. I was particularly interested in a conference session that discussed how to support teachers by pairing informational books with fiction. I have learned in the past three-years as an archivist in the world of school librarianship that there is often a place here for archivists' expertise. This conference was not an exception.

Beth Fuller from Perma-Bound was passionate and knowledgeable, and it was great fun to listen to her speak about books. She noted that pairing fictional and informational titles is something she loves to do, and she made recommendations for how we can do this better in our libraries. During Beth's talk, she mentioned that librarians may want to coax teachers to check out Google images for primary sources. This would provide more more inspiration and context for their students; Say, pair a lesson about the history of labor with books such as "Fresh and Blood So Cheap," "Ashes of Roses" and "Brave Girl." Lights went off in my brain.

Workers pose for photo
(personal collection of Melissa A. Mannon)

We can do better than Google images.

At the end of the presentation, I spoke up about and europeana. I mentioned how archives and libraries are working to pull information about their primary source materials together on these sites for easier access. Ears perked up and another audience member asked me to spell out the web sites.

I urge archivists to better promote our resources. Let's bring kids to the sources of information. Let's show that original materials reside in our institutions and not just on the Internet. Let's show how materials are clustered in collections and cared for by professionals and do not just appear online. Let's show students the connections between an event, the creation of material, the true stories surrounding materials, the people who made the original materials, and how our cultural heritage institutions support knowledge about all of these things. When good authors write they use archival materials. They visit our institutions. They correspond with archivists and librarians. Let's show this to young people as part of their early schooling. Let's reach out to local schools, attend librarian conferences, and explore how our professions support each other.

A lesson about the history of labor, for example, can bring in so much. We can learn about the people and times. We can learn about buildings and place. Beth discussed how we can transport kids back to an event by giving them a visual connection. Let's also strengthen the timeline in students' heads by showing the materials that were created as a result of human activity and by helping kids understand the provenance of items. Primary sources are history. Without them, we would not know about our past.

Earlier this month, I tweeted "Is history what we remember or what happened?" Let us ask our students how we "remember" history. Show teachers and librarians the depth of your collections by giving them the information they need to access it in forums where they are listening. 

Sunday, May 3, 2015

We Will Be Remembered through What We Post

In this social media driven decade, the way we will be remembered may be reflected in what we post. What we project to the world online today will likely be the information about us that is easiest to gather in the future. Therefore, we must be aware that who we are, at least as far as history is concerned, might be molded by the Internet. In my view, our public face is being melded with what should be a more private side and the reality of our lives is perverted by an online public image. It is up to individuals to consciously create their own personal brand, or suffer the consequences of allowing others to attempt to reconstruct our lives through our random posts and musings.

On the Internet, what we record becomes part of a permanent record of our lives. Today, most people leave behind a great documentation footprint through digital means. It wasn't that long ago when most people did not leave much documentation behind for the world to see. Even 20th century lives are reconstructed from sometimes hard to find sources. We are lucky to find records that tell us about someone's pre-21st century life - handwritten correspondence, diaries and the like formed the personal papers from an earlier period.

A note that a friend penned to me in high school. We would
have been horrified to post these thoughts for others to see.
Remember hiding your diary under your mattress so your younger sister wouldn't find it? Remember passing private notes to friends in class? Today, young people are less likely to draw that line between public and private. Do you have something to say to a friend? Tweet it to the world; put your inner most thoughts in a blog. It's a very different world from the one I grew up in and society has a different mindset from the society in which I was trained as an archivist in the 1990s.

In this second decade of the 21st century, individuals can have more power over how they are remembered. The proliferation of the public records people create by interacting with their government and public groups online are augmented by those writings and postings which strike my generation as more private in nature. Many call this the "age of oversharing." Perhaps after a decade of this, we as individuals need to step back, take a hard look at our sharing habits, and curb our communication. While those sharing information online (the content creators) are sharing more and more, archivists are working to understand more fully the rapid transition our society has made in personal documentation, and we are considering what aspects of it are important to our profession.

Regular readers of this blog know my deep fascination with diary writing in particular. A recent article in the  Huffington Post discussed how the act of diary writing itself is changing and how there are many people who now write diaries for public consumption in a way that hasn't been done in the past. "On some level, when we vent, we want to be heard -- if only by our future selves. Why else would we choose such a permanent format for sorting out our thoughts?" [Crum. These are My Confessions: What Diary Keeping Means in the Age of Oversharing. ] Yet, venting for our future self in a personal journal is very different from online venting. I think this point needs to be more deeply considered by information professionals on every level.
  • What online personal content should be worthy of "permanent" status?  And controversially:
  • What content should be created? Do information/cultural heritage professionals have a role to play beyond gathering content? Should we also be helping individuals manage their online documentation and help curb the creation of unending documented random thoughts?
A particularly poignant and perhaps egregious example of the way we broadcast without forethought is evident in a high profile 2013 Twitter scandal.  Certainly, Justine Sacco wanted to vent when she wrote the tweets that eventually led to her dismissal from her high powered job, but did she really want to be heard?

As a teacher / librarian / archivist, this issue has an important place in my life. Every day, I watch students create content that shouldn't be shared. I realize the permanence of the words they place online. They do not. I realize how their content is affecting society and can affect their lives. As a mentor, I have a responsibility to help them fully understand how information impacts them. As an archivist, I believe that it would be to the profession's benefit to spread this message to a greater populace. Is the information we are spewing worth the computer space we are using? Computer space is cheap, but the never ending bombardment of gossip and misinformation is not, in my opinion.

We once documented our thoughts for ourselves, to share with a friend in a letter, or in well-thought out speeches. Today, as content creators, a quick thought easily flies out our fingers onto a screen and into what we may perceive as a void. "[the sharing of] our once-discreet musings could be seen as narcissistic -- a strategic move in a quest for validation...But it’s something else, too. When such observations are compiled into a work of art, they become an honest reflection on how we absorb and produce information." [Crum]

Certainly, there is a benefit for informational professionals and historians to have so much now available to us. If archivists can successfully save what is being broadcast, and if we can successfully preserve and provide access to it, we will have an abundance of material to examine, consider and study. Perhaps we will have a rich view of early twenty-first century life and a rich view of how we use information. We will be able to study society through a combined public and private lens that past historians could only have dreamed.

However, I wonder if alternately, this bombardment of information provides an inaccurate understanding of how individuals really function. Does all this information accurately reflect our communities? What role can ideas of personal branding and full understanding of an online image play in protecting documentation that accurately projects our own lives and our times? Can, and should, information professionals craft a salient message to help protect the value of good information versus bad (if indeed there is such as thing as good versus bad information at all)?

Thursday, April 30, 2015

What Inspired You to Do What You Do? #archivistinspiration

This morning, I read an article by archivist Sarah Ferencz of the Whitby Public Library in Ontario, Canada. In the article she states, " was the letters written to my grandmother from the French family tending to my great-uncle’s war grave and the photographs of my grandfather as an early emigrant from Hungary in the 1920s that inspired me to become an archivist."

This has me thinking...what inspires each of us to become an archivist, or to become a genealogist, or to become an historian? I've tweeted two things that directly inspired me  - my grandparents escape from Poland and an internship at the Vanderbilt Museum on Long Island. Tell me what inspired you. Use #archivistinspiration #genealogistinspiration #historianinspiration... What made you want to be part of this noble profession of cultural heritage? How can our own passion, borne of our own experiences, help excite others about history?


- MM

My grandmother Myra, the women after whom I am named, is one inspiration

Tuesday, April 21, 2015


This past weekend, my family accompanied a nice chicken dinner with stories about school in the 1940s.  I watched my daughter, the only child at the table, and wondered what kind of impression the tales her granddad told over the meal made on her.

I remember when I was a girl and stories were exchanged around my parents' table.I would hang on every word my elders shared about their own childhoods. I don't recall my siblings in the room or any other children. (Were they there and I just don't remember)? I do remember that I was enthralled and that at least sometimes I was the only person under thirty remaining at the table beyond dessert.  Looking back, I realize how these experiences prepared me for my future career. I enjoyed sitting at the table listening to the grownups talk about the past as much as I enjoyed playing with the other children. Sometimes I enjoyed it more.

I loved the stories that my Dad and Uncle Bob told of stickball, punchball, and baseball played on the streets of New York City.
I loved hearing how my paternal great Uncle Sid and Uncle Joe landed as American soldiers in Normandy during World War II.

I loved hearing about how my neighbor, "Uncle" Al, had climbed some of the highest skyscrapers in New York City to install windows on our now iconic buildings.

Looking back, it was primarily men's stories that were told over large meals that involved multiple families - weekend barbecues, holidays celebrations, birthdays, and neighborhood parties, A focus on the men seems unusual now, but it was a part of the times and perhaps the location. It was an era when most women in my Long Island neighborhood were housewives and their days were wrapped around their neighbors. When the men left the table, the women would sip teas and coffees and talk about our community and their children.

More personal stories from Mom and Aunt Rochelle and the other women in my life were saved for quiet moments when it was just one of them and me. Girl talk. They were usually life lessons passed down to the next generation, not tales of bravado. They were stories about family connections and I learned how where they came from played a vital part in who I was.

Listening to the storytellers in my life, I grew to appreciate the past, their experiences, their personalities and our community. Through their stories and personalized lessons. I better understood the world and my place in it.

Does my daughter get it? Does she listen and internalize the stories?

I realize that I share my own words of wisdom with my daughter when we are alone. (Is this quiet together time part of the nature of our gender or the reality of circumstance?) I tell my daughter about my childhood when we are driving together. I tell her about my family background when I get ready in the morning. I try hard to file away in my brain the stories that she tells me when we go for walks together - her favorite anime, teachers, friends -- in part so I can repeat it back to her and reminisce about her childhood when she is older. If she doesn't fully appreciate the grownup stories now, I know she will when she is older. I will help her connect generations in her mind by referring back to our times together.

And then there is a larger group of youngsters to consider...This past Monday, I introduced my students to the field of oral history and techniques of interviewing as we prepare to celebrate the 50th anniversary of our school community.  When I make archives presentations to an adult audience, I often am questioned about how to make kids interested in their own history. Do kids today value the stories we tell them or do we just seem old-fashioned? I know that my students are excited to have a formal event that encourages them to ask questions of their elders. Are they proud of their community and do they see this opportunity as a way to honor it? Are they interested in seeing connections between themselves and past generations? I'm not sure. I am not sure that they know themselves, but giving young adults an opportunity to try to make a deep connections to the past is important. Creating an event, series of events, or a platform (like a dinner table conversation) where they can explore their thoughts and feelings about their own history is important. Kids will not make the connections between history and themselves without the approachable stories as a foundation.

We all have different reasons for studying the past. Does it matter why we seek more information about those who came before us? Do we need to understand why we want to know to fully appreciate what we learn? Perhaps listening to the storytellers may not make an immediate impression. Perhaps we do not immediately have a full grasp of the stories' meanings in our lives. But we must keep the storytellers telling to get the listeners questioning.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Cultural Understanding, Serendipity and the Human Library

The international Human Library Project aims to break down prejudices and stereotypes through one-on-one interactions with diverse people. Project coordinators offer a setting, time, and materials -- so-called "human books" with whom "human readers" can interact.  This past month, we ran our 2nd annual Human Library at my high school to offer students a chance meet professionals and learn about the diversity of people in varied careers. Students learn about varied paths to success, stereotyping encountered along the way that had to be overcome, a wide-breadth of lifestyles, and backgrounds of professionals. We want to show students they can be whatever they want to be regardless of their own circumstances. The program builds community and cultural understanding, with room for serendipitous discovery built in. The human library can be a particularly valuable tool/program to help museums and libraries fulfill their missions. 

Human books spoke with my students about their careers and challenges.
Our human books included people in fields such as engineering, finance, videography, military, aviation, journalism, fitness, entomology, construction, health and wellness, law enforcement, psychiatry, animal sciences, museums, space science, and chiropractic. More importantly, books shared information about how they overcame stereotyping because of their sex; how they overcame disabilities; how they moved beyond what was expected of them to create the lives they wanted.

Students speak with a human book. Some teens felt more comfortable talking to the adults
with a  friend rather than sticking to the one-to-one format.

A particularly wonderful thing about working in a place that has a mission to preserve human stories, educate, or exhibit ideas, is that we never know what doors we may open for people. Our opportunities for changing lives is broader than the mission we might see right in front of us.

Students had the opportunity to speak with their books for 15 minutes, sometimes more. In between sessions, I talked to them about the experience. One conversation in particular stood out for me and I want to share it with you. It is an example of the unexpected opportunities that cultural heritage institutions can provide when we arrange creative programs. ..

A student entered the room. He had participated in our Human Library last year and enjoyed the experience. However, this year he is an eleventh grader and his ideas about what he wants to do with his life are a little clearer than his sophomore year.

Me: "May I help you find someone to talk to today?"
Student: "I want to be a history teacher, but you don't have anyone in that field."
Me: "Hmmm....well, I have two museum people here today. One of them worked in a history museum before moving to a science museum. She might be a good fit for you."

He was willing to give it a go and came back to me after his session.

Student: "She was awesome! I thought we were going to talk about history, but she told me about her life. She told me about how she got into college and her struggle. I never thought about all of that!" Looking around the room he said, "Who else can I talk to, Ms. Mannon?" 

The Human Library has made a great impression on many young people in my town. They learn the value of communication, listening to new ideas, and being open to diversity. I look forward to running it again next year.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Open Letter to the U.S. House of Representatives in Support of IMLS

I am outraged by House Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan's proposal to eliminate IMLS and I urge you to stand against it. As our nation's strongest funder for museum and library initiatives, IMLS has an important role to play in supporting our nation's freedom, innovation, and success.

Libraries work to digitize our nation's resources through programs such as the DPLA that are providing a bridge to the future by upgrading information to new formats.  They support 21st century invention and learning through new makerspaces and by helping to facilitate the exchange of ideas. Libraries support the freedom of information for all, which is vital to any democracy. They support strong communities and help our children's understanding of good digital citizenship. They provide a safe and supportive place for those less fortunate, and help them better their futures with access to technology and informational materials they cannot afford. Libraries serve as a neutral gathering space for diverse ideas, providing forums that support critical thinking and expression for all regardless of background or personal belief.

As the librarian at Goffstown High School in New Hampshire, I see the results of what good community libraries do every day. I work with my colleagues at the Goffstown Public Library to positively impact the lives of our teens. We collaborate to run programs that bring mentors in to support our children's dreams. We work together to bring in materials to ignite passion in innovation, developing makerspaces with high-tech equipment for our students to use for experimentation and learning; materials they could not afford on their own. We support informational and cultural literacy through our collections and services.

Our profession cannot effectively accomplish all we do without IMLS support. According to the Industrialist Andrew Carnegie, the builder of many of our nation’s libraries, “A library outranks any other one thing a community can do to benefit its people. It is a never failing spring in the desert.” Libraries have supported our communities since founding father Ben Franklin established our country’s first library in Philadelphia. Please help ensure that American libraries may continue to boost their communities and support the American citizens within them.

Melissa Mannon