Monday, October 6, 2014

More Finds at the Local Antique Shop: Reading Photographs

Photographs without descriptions require us to more carefully examine what is in front of us than we ordinarily might. While text and narrative can help us better understand an image, lack of text can help us figure it out for ourselves.

When you go to a museum, do you run up and read the label copy or do you first examine the object and see what you can figure out on your own? I am aware that the procedure of viewing that I choose may change my whole experience. Do I want the expert to tell me what to see? Or, do I want to take my time to decipher an item and then verify it with what the label copy tells me?  If I have a limited time at a museum, I'll read the label copy first. If I can afford the time, I prefer the puzzle. Both ways help me learn. Both allow me to connect information I am given to what I already know, but one way is much more passive than the other.

Why does this matter?

As an educator, it matters very much for my teaching,

Look at this image I found last week at an antique shop. What can YOU tell ME about it?


My students tend to tell me things such as: That woman lived a long time ago or that woman is wealthy. Fine. But we can do better. Let's reevaluate. Let's teach them to read an image. 

"Wait a minute! How do you know that?" They will look again and I will say, "Tell me something simpler about this image, such as it's black and white. Is that one clue that this woman lived a long time ago? How do you know she's wealthy?"

A young person might say, "She is wearing fancy clothes and jewelry. That tells us she has some money. And we don't wear clothes like that now. That is another way we know this picture is old."

"Okay, what else? Do you think a photographer took this? Why or why not? Do you think that everyone could have afforded a photographer back then? Let's look more closely."

The image is mounted in a cardboard folio. The photograph is covered with a thin tissue and there is a ghost image on the other side. Most young people would not think about this at all if I didn't point it out. The ink from the photograph is acidic and creating the shadow on the other side. When I point things like this out to students, they tend to start thinking about their family's own photo collections. The "life" of the photograph becomes as important as the subject. How can we take better care of our things? What does preservation mean?




When students learn to "read" a photograph, it opens new worlds of exploration. Notice the glasses on this lady below. Notice the oval frame. Notice her dress and tie. Notice that this image is not just black and white, but it's also browning. Notice this woman isn't smiling. "Ms. Mannon, they never smile in old pictures! They always look so angry!" Why?


I often hear that kids are not curious about the past and they are not interested in their family's heirlooms. Is this because we hand kids information that they cannot relate to their own lives and their own knowledge? Is this also because we don't encourage them to ask questions? Do we not teach them how to be curious and how to "read" a photograph or an item? I find that kids do not even know what questions a photograph can pose; what mysteries does it hold? Who cares about this black and white image?

Museums and archives can do the same thing that we do in a classroom by re-writing label copy to engage a younger generation. (Local historical societies, this is a good way for you especially to re-think your displays.)

Teach kids to ask:
What do you see? Is this something you would see today?

Teach kids to wonder:
Why does it look this way? Why are these people not smiling? Why is this image black and white? Why are these people dressed this way? Where are these people? Who are these people?

Teach kids to be curious:
Where and how can I find out more? Is it possible to figure out who these people are?




When we read a photograph, we may begin to see bits of ourselves in the faces that peer at us. We may see families like our own and people with hopes and dreams similar to ours. "Reading" images not only makes us smarter and more curious, it also makes us more empathetic. Images have the capacity for helping us to dig deeper into ourselves, to define who we are and how those who built history helped form who we are and what society is today. And I find that once we start encouraging them to "read", the curiosity won't stop. Keep providing more materials so those questions keep coming.




Saturday, September 20, 2014

From Obituaries to Objects: An Examination of the Human Narrative

Part of the role of cultural heritage professionals is to be safe-keepers of the stories of individuals. Where we once focused on the lives of the well-known, we have now know for a long time that it is the collections of the "common man" that reveal some of the most important aspects of our society. This idea was highlighted again for me this morning while listening to a podcast from NPR's On the Media, I learned that obituary writers re-create the lives of individuals by discovering small moments in a person's life and stringing together a narrative from them. If one believes in the importance of the human story for safekeeping our heritage, one must certainly see parallels in the work of the obituary writer and the work of the archivist.

Before listening to this audio, I did not understand that a good, classic, obituary writer researches people to create an intriguing narrative. Beginning at 34:50 in the podcast (to which I've linked above) is an interview with a reporter who discusses his craft. His goals when writing an obituary are intriguing: "...How can I tell the readers why this life was important? What did you learn from this life? What can I learn from this life?"

I was particularly struck by the reporters use of objects to dig up his story. He explains this first by recounting an experience. He describes meeting a widow who told him that, when her husband first went away to boot camp, she took up knitting. The reporter asked to see some of the things she had knit. "She took out this baby blanket and she told me its story, which was the night before Jim left for Iraq he knew he wouldn't be back in time to see the baby born. So, he slept with that baby blanket because he said that when the child was born he wanted the child to know how his father smelled." The reporter used that for the opening line of  his story the next day - "The soft blue green baby blanket still smells like second lieutenant James J. Catthey..." I believe that those of us who work with objects every day can feel the power of that line and relate it to at least some of the collections we have handled.

In the next piece of the podcast, the reporter uses the example of a shoe shine man to further explain how he reconstructs a life through objects. He recounts the research behind a story about this person who left behind no family when he died. The man's objects were kept in a box in a public administrator's office. From these objects, additional research, and the writing they launched, the author recounts  he life of this well-liked man who made an impact on the people he met. His legacy was sealed by his obituary. Without it, with no grave marking his burial, he would have been forgotten. The loneliness and special nature of the small collection, upon which the small biography of the deceased was built, immediately impressed me and I envisioned a row of archival boxes in a repository with similar stories to tell.

I now understand why some find obituaries so intriguing. To be truthful, I subscribed to the widespread joke that older people read the obituaries "to make sure they are not among them." Of course, I also know of the indispensable role they play for the genealogist. But now, I appreciate that good obituary writers can publicize an individual's impact in this world so we learn and remember that everyone is part of a larger community and a bigger story. How well the profession of obituary writers and archivists fit.


Sunday, September 7, 2014

Diversity and the Value of Archival Collections

Diversity is a basic tenet of the work archivists do. It is written into our Code of Ethics:


Diversity is a basic tenet of archivist's work
Archivists collectively seek to document and preserve the record of the broadest possible range of individuals, socio-economic groups, governance, and corporate entities in society. Archivists embrace the importance of identifying, preserving, and working with communities to actively document those whose voices have been overlooked or marginalized. They seek to build connections to under-documented communities…Archivists accept and encourage a diversity of viewpoints on social, political, and intellectual issues, as represented both in archival records and among members of the profession. They actively work to achieve a diversified and representative membership in the profession.[http://www2.archivists.org/statements/saa-core-values-statement-and-code-of-ethics].

This fall, I am taking on online Education course in diversity and we began the class by setting out to define its meaning: Diversity is the inclusion of a broad range of individuals in a society noted by:
  • Their varied backgrounds - family history, ethnicity, socio-economics, residence, religion, and any other factors that are markers of cultural differences. (These categories of diversity bring to mind the word "multiculturalism.")
  • Physical differences, which include race, sex, disabilities, traits such as hair color, and natural talents, as having a role to play in diversity.  (Such characteristics are often used as excuses for the non-inclusion of individuals in some communities and therefore must be considered to form societies that are truly diverse.)
  •  That which makes our thinking unique among our communities. (This essentially includes the presence of individuals with differing interests and opinions.) 


My class was asked to respond whether of not diversity strengthens communities. This is something that I have always taken for granted, but I realized that it is not as obvious as it immediately seems. Diversity in itself does not necessarily strengthen us, unless we include communication in its definition. A diverse population that does not share and strive to appreciate diversity will not be bolstered solely by their knowledge of the existences of differences within. Programs designed to foster dialogue are necessary. This is why the work of an archivist is so important. Archivists keep materials that can serve as building blocks for cultural understanding and appreciation of diversity. Archives have the power to enhance communication about who we are as individuals within our respective communities.

I posted my thoughts about diversity and the archivist's Code of Ethics for my assignment. A classmate  responded that she never thought about archives management before and was pleased to know that there are institutions seeking to collect diverse materials for historical purposes. Our own advocacy for our work and the value of archival collections can happen in unexpected places!


Sunday, August 31, 2014

Archives and the Maker Movement

Last week, I discussed Information Culture and the Maker Movement, which examined "making" to enhance STEAM education, creativity, and independent learning within a school setting. As I develop a makerspace in our high school library, I have been thinking of how to include archives in my planning. I believe that educational institutions wait too long to expose people to the idea of archives. Students may learn a bit about primary sources in association with a history class, but that does not teach them the full value of these materials. Most students do not get to work hands-on with archives until college, or grad school, if they get to handle them at all. As an Information Specialist, I want my students to understand the broad concept of information, i.e. that there is recorded information about every discipline and that it takes many forms. It is our responsibility to save archival information that sheds light on our ideas to help advance society. It is an Information Specialist's responsibility to make archival materials available to young people so that they have a better understanding of how archival materials may impact their lives.

My school is developing a collection of archival materials in part to celebrate our school building's upcoming 50th anniversary. I have invited students to take part in the collecting of materials. These students are part of a committee that I call the "50th Anniversary Committee." It is my goal to have these students also perform interviews for oral histories. Beyond the direct role my committee takes in the development of our Archives, I want those not involved with our special event planning to be given an opportunity to "experience" the resources.

Last year, I copied and laminated a bunch of orphan photos. I have been waiting to decide what to do with them. I want the kids to be able to examine them, to play with them if you will, but I wasn't quite sure how.  I have set up a mini makerspace in the middle of our library. The space includes small bins of crafts, origami projects and more. I want the kids to see archives as something hands-on too. I want to include an archives project in this space. Few things make me as happy as processing an archival collection. I want the students who may feel the same contentment I do when touching these unique items to have an opportunity to do so.

This morning I was listening to the TED Radio Hour on NPR. Sugata Mitra discussed how his experiments "have shown that, in the absence of supervision or formal teaching, children can teach themselves and each other." Sugata Mitra has left computers for disadvantaged young people without teaching them how to use them. His studies have shown that kids will find a way to make them work and do useful things with them. Is it possible to do this with archives in a library setting? Can we entice teens to learn on their own within a school building during their off-time, especially when the learning is not tied to the classroom in any way?

What if, I started by putting out copies of unusual photos in a box on my maker table?. What would the students do with them? Would they ignore them? Would they organize them? Would they begin discussing them? Maybe someone might write something about them. Maybe an art student might be inspired to draw.
What if I put an original 19th century diary on a table. Would the students start wondering about it? Would they be interested enough to look at it and make connections to today? What if I shared an early 20th century nature journal for my science lovers, or old advertisements promoting medical devices? Then, what if I put some papers in an archival box with empty folders and other archival tools? Would they learn to process something?...Is there any chance that I might spark something in someone? I wonder - do I have to tell the teens that they are allowed to touch the materials to get them to explore them or would that kill any interest they may have? Maybe it's better to just leave them there. How do I make the items tempting? I don't know, but I'm going to give it a try and I'll play with the concept all year.

Perhaps I might find a student who develops enough interest in the work to join our anniversary committee. Perhaps someone will go home and ask their parents about the family papers they have stored in the basement. Or - dreaming big? - perhaps someone may even be inspired to one day pursue a career as archivist.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Information Culture and the Maker Movement

My visit to Dover, NH
Maker Faire
I began exploring the idea of creating a makerspace when I became a high school librarian two years ago. It seemed like one promising way to accomplish the mission of our Information Center: To foster a community of learning and literacy that leads to high academic achievement, independent reading and inquiry, and collaboration throughout the school. In fact, makerspaces are also a perfect way for cultural institutions and others with specialized expertise to do community outreach and reach the younger audiences they often have trouble attracting.


Makerspaces:

  1. enhance STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Math) in schools
  2. encourage collaboration for resolving 21st century problems 
  3. tie together concepts from various disciplines in a hands-on setting
  4. introduce students to ideas they may not otherwise get exposure to, perhaps prompting them to take a formal class they may not otherwise have taken

The broad concept of a makerspace is to encourage creativity that leads to discovery and independent learning. I love the idea of a makerspace for playing with high tech gadgetry. Many people think of robotics, 3D printers, and welding when they think of makerspaces, but cardboard boxes, paper and hot glue guns also have a place. In fact, I like to think of the makerspace as a "can do" space. You CAN DO anything in a maker space, such as:
Play with audio and learn about recording; Collect archival material and learn to organize it; Make a collage; Build with Legos; Weave; Design your own cosplay gear (Steampunk is my preference - bringing history together with the arts and literature!); Take apart appliances; Write poetry...

Makerspaces are popping up all over the country, as independent centers or within libraries and other institutional settings. Whatever your expertise, as an individual or in association with an institution, you have something to offer in a makerspace.

A 3D printer hard at work
Today I went to the Dover NH Maker Faire. This makers' fair was held at the Children's Museum of NH. The Children's Museum has many displays for hands-on learning, so their sponsorship was a natural fit. The Portsmouth Public Library was in attendance hosting a table. Librarians were helping children with crafting, weaving, and other activities. Portsmouth is on the cutting edge with their city's makerspace co-op and their frequent maker related events at the library. The historic Woodman Museum of Dover also had a table, showing off old fashioned tools - the objects of making.

Creative thinking is all that is required to participate in a makerspace. Some of the things museums, libraries and archives do every day fit into a makerspace model - From designing exhibits to drawing plans for new spaces to designing specialized book boxes for safe preservation, we use our hands and minds to MAKE.

Weaving project sponsored by
the Portmouth Public Library
The best part of the maker movement is the enthusiasm behind collaboration. I met many engineers today who said they would love to come teach my students how to play with their toys. I met cosplayers, fly fishers, and artists all willing to share their expertise. In fact, I have been working hard all summer to make connections with such people in cultural institutions and without, inviting them to come see our high school library and share with our students. Part of the fun of making is sharing. Perhaps above all, makers want to share information. They appreciate everyone who makes - Whether you are an artist or a chemist, if you are making, they respect what you do and the knowledge you have to create and develop new ideas. (Put his liberal arts ideas with her mathematics wizardry and the sky is the limit!) A maker event harnesses the creativity vibe and creates an energy that encourages everyone to put their best brain powers to work.

Over the coming months, I will share the development of our high school makerspace from the administrative aspects such as grant writing to the out-of-the-box ideas we think up within our space as it grows. I'll talk about collaboration, cross-pollinating our expertise, combining the old with new ideas and much more.

***
Are you involved in the maker movement? I'd love to hear from you!



Sunday, August 17, 2014

Top Most Endangered Artifacts

This week, I stumbled across "Salem Museum nominates recently discovered documents as on of 'Virginia's Top 10 ,most Endangered Artifacts." The article describes a unique collection that is part of a campaign by the Virginia Association of Museums "to create awareness of the importance of preserving artifacts in care at museums, libraries and archives throughout the Commonwealth and in the District of Columbia."

People may choose their favorite nominated artifact on Vote for Virginia's Top Ten Endangered Artifacts 2014 or go to YouTube to see videos by museums promoting their collections up for nomination. A simple Google search of new on Virginia's Top Ten reveals a long list of institutions promoting their collections and their needs. This is a fabulous and simple idea that we can all model in our towns and states to help our materials and raise awareness about archives and other artifacts. Virginia provides a wonderful slideshow to explain the Top Ten program.


What endangered artifacts are in your collection?

Here are some good reasons to consider this type of event in your community:
  • It raises awareness about cultural heritage institutions and their work
  • It encourages donations for individual collections and institutions
  • The program provides a way for museums to learn about each other
  •  It provides a platform where institutions can work together for promotion (working together we are stronger)
  • It establishes the Virginia Museum Association as a true leader in their Commonwealth, which assists with all the work they do
  • It is a fun campaign that brings the work of museums to people without potential patrons needing to leave their homes [Outreach!]
  • It is a fun campaign that has the potential to energize museum staff and raise pride in their institution
  • It has the capacity to encourage future visitation to institutions
  • It keeps museums in the public's mind as the event that takes place annually
  • The program in Virginia is done statewide, but this event could also be done on a local level
What are some other advantages of this program that you can see? Can we make this an annual event beyond the Commonwealth of Virginia? Are there any other states doing similar projects?




Saturday, August 9, 2014

Audio Recordings and the Boston Public Library Family History Record Series

I am happy to announce the audio release of the my presentation given as part of the BPL's Family History Lecture Series, Documenting and Keeping the Memories.  I love that BPL is making audios of their presenters available for their patrons. It is a valuable service that assists the history field as well as individuals. The audio series was put up by Boston Public with the assistance of The Voice Library. I am additionally pleased that I will be working with The Voice Library this fall to document memories of the community in which I work.

With the BPL audio lecture series in mind, I want to point out in this blog post how audio is an often overlooked form of documentation. This is true despite the fact that audio is now easy to capture. Furthermore listening to audio recordings allows us to consider what is being communicated in a way that other formats do not. We can analyze what is being said without the interruption of visual images that might take our attention to different aspects of what is being communicated. Listening to audio may force us to focus on cadence, pauses, tone, and other subtle clues about a person that we do not necessarily pull out in other media.  

As an educator, I now try to balance the formats of the collections that I put together. When sharing groupings of materials with others, a collection in multiple formats helps round out a story. It should be a goal when creating collections of information to gather rich layers of media that tell overlapping stories.

For one, in a library setting, a collection in multiple formats can help learners who may be able to better decipher information in one format over another. Library collections in a wide variety of formats can support patrons and students by providing them with the tools with which they are comfortable for learning AND by giving them similar tools in forms they find less desirable. For example, a student who is uncomfortable reading on her own may gain confidence when they read a book while an audio of the text is playing along.

An archival collection in multiple formats gives people a number of ways to identify with a subject. A collection of photographs, local documents, and audio / visual recordings from a community give us a well-rounded view of that community. We can see the thoughtfully recorded words of a people, hear their voices, see their mannerisms. We get a better understanding of our ancestors and peers when we create and keep different formats of documentation.

Even in your own personal life and professional life, multiple formats can assist you with your personal brand. When creating an online identity, an online portfolio of your work in several formats helps the person on the receiving end of the information get a better rounded perspective of you. [See my online "portfolio" as an example.]

...
Now, go out and record!