Sunday, November 1, 2015

Who We Are in a Digital World

I am growing as a teacher and presenter, relying on my personal stories to deliver messages of history, heritage, hope, compassion, unity, and community.  There is no better way to connect with other human beings than to share stories. We build relationships this way. We build bridges of understanding by demonstrating common themes. I have learned that my stories impact the adults to whom I have always directed information about caring for archives, but similar stories make the same impact on children. How do we get students interested in a subject? Tell them stories about it. More than that, show them that you respect their own stories that they have already identified as important to their lives.
The Bow, NH Rotarians donated a
book to their local elementary school
to honor my visit.
This week, I had the pleasure of addressing Rotarians. A colleague asked me to deliver a short presentation about family history. She told me that her Rotary group has responded favorably to her own stories about her own family history. I decided to tie together some stories of my own for them.

My grandparents
My daughter's pancakes and mom's pizza
My students and encouraging thinking about the future 

In the classroom this week, I spoke about a totally different (but strangely related) subject. I was teaching about being an effective information consumer and distributor.  We discussed branding and the stories that companies are crafting about themselves to sculpt their reputations. I then asked students to turn inward and to examine what kind of personal brand they are creating online.

Like many of us, students are creating an online presence without thought to the digital trail they are leaving and the personal characterization they are sculpting for themselves. Today, our information often is saved before we even have a chance to consider its initial purpose, organization and long-term value.

Digital Life 101 asks young adults to consider their digital lives, the stories they are telling, and the information they are spreading. After viewing the short movie in the classroom, I split students into groups to discuss what they put online and what audiences they are reaching. Do they want all of the stories they share to reach all of these audiences? What personal brand are they projecting? How can they more carefully craft their personal story by using restraint and through the careful management of their social media and other online interactions?

It took me 20 years to craft my stories for diverse audiences. I had time. Our teens might not. By having them identify what is important to them now and by helping them focus in on personal branding, my purpose is twofold:
  • I hope to help young people gain a greater awareness of how their life fits in with their larger communities, to feel part of something bigger than themselves, and to gain an appreciation for their place in history.
  • But, I also hope to help them realize that the "stories" they tell now, those little bits of information they leave all over the Internet, are precious, potentially dangerous, and open to larger audiences they may not have considered. They may not be talking to Rotarians yet, but their words have potential and can make an impact on our culture.
Stories are powerful. If we don't craft them for ourselves, others will tell the story of who we are. Thoughtfully and deliberately consider your role in this world and the remnants you leave behind. Help the teens in your life do the same.

Friday, July 24, 2015

A Sturbridge Village Learning Experience

The girls enjoy some candy and fudge in front of a gift shop at Old Sturbridge Village
This week, I took my daughter and her friend to Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts. The Village is the largest living history museum in New England on over 200 acres of land. It recreates an 1830s New England community with over 40 structures that include a general store, mills, homes, barns,  workshops, a school,  and more. The girls accompanying me were twelve-years of age and are about to dive into American History this fall as seventh graders. Our little trip gave them a taste of some of what they will learn, but the main lesson for my daughter surprised me.

The girls were disappointed with the beds of straw, but were enamored with the cozy wallpapered bedrooms. The cramped quarters in the stagecoach made us appreciate my car even more. They liked some of the outfits, but were glad that they did not have to wear them on a hot date. They enjoyed the games, but were not happy that they would be spending so much time at the age of twelve doing chores instead of playing.

Early in the visit, my daughter asked if she could have been artist during this time. I explained that art was a profession for very, very few and those few would not be from a village like this. If you lived in a city you may be exposed to art as she knows it, but not really on a rural farm. You would not be able to afford art supplies. You would not have had the time to practice drawing. And so, my daughter's thoughts turned to, "What profession could I have had in the 1830s?"

I have talked to my daughter about how much life changed for women in the 20th century. I told her about how when I was a kid, I was told that I could not run a steeplechase race that I really wanted to compete in because I was not a boy. I told her how much it annoyed me that our physics teacher often made points about physics by throwing baseballs to the boys in the class and not the girls. I told her about how grandma was turned away from her school entrance because she wore pants on a snowy day, even though she had a skirt in her bag for changing in the bathroom. But these are stories. These were my stories. Sturbridge Village helped us turn these stories into part of my daughter's own narrative when she was better able to apply what I've told her to herself.

The female interpreters in Sturbridge were sewing, caring for animals, baking and caring for the gardens. My daughter, who is an avid writer, wanted to visit the print shop. The girls hung back and I asked a lot of questions (trying to be a good role model.) "How did they make paper?... What was the ink made out of?" As we left, my daughter asked me if women could do that work. "I don't know" (Yes, I did.) "Let's go back and ask."
Her face grew grim at the negative response we received from the interpreter. Women may have done a little typesetting to supplement the family income, but that would have been rare and it would not have truly been a job. Women worked in the home.

My daughter walked through the houses with new eyes. Early in our trip, she mentioned how she liked the parlors and that she would spend most of her time there drawing. Now, she looked at the kitchens. She had no interest in the rooms for sitting and sewing. "I could spend my time in the kitchen. This room is open. I think I could do my chores here [and be comfortable and happy.]

When the girls saw the school house, they decided to be teachers.  "We could have done this!" they yelled as they ran toward the door. "You can pretend your the teacher now. I'll be the student." "I'll teach you spanish!"

The schoolhouse was actually moved from a town near us in New Hampshire, so I mentioned that fact hoping it would help the girls even better place themselves in the past. They ran into the building and were greeted by an interpreter who was standing at the teacher's podium. We took seats on the benches. Asking questions, we learned that the kids of Sturbridge attended school in summer and winter. They learned on their own at their own pace, from their own books. The teacher tested them on their lessons, but did not "teach" as we know it today. Teachers were young people who probably had just finished their own schooling. Adults did not teach. Young ladies would have taught in the summertime, if they had the opportunity to do so. They may have taught one summer session and that would be it. Teaching was not a "career."

The thought that my daughter would not have had choices in the early nineteenth century was eye opening for her. At various times during the day she talked about running away to the city. She learned she would likely then work in a mill. (Not appealing.) She imagined hiding in the fields so she could have some alone time for a day. I told her that she would not have even considered this. She would have been raised differently from the start and this would just be the only way of life she knew. She similarly said that she would have been terrible at sewing. I told her that if I started her off sewing at the age of four that she would have been just fine at it.

Our visit to Sturbridge made the experience of nineteenth century American life come to life for the girls. My daughter in particular will never see her place in the world quite the same way again. Furthermore, this fall the kids will be able to look back on our trip to give them better context and understanding for all of their American History lessons. I think now they will be able to imagine themselves in the full narrative of our country's roots and with an understanding that as girls, their opportunities would have been greatly limited from the full scope of what they learn.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Copyright in Tangles: The Vivan Maier Collection

In last year's Top Ten Cultural Heritage Stories, I highlighted the woes we are suffering due to outdated law and perverted interpretation. (See list item 5.) The crisis rears its head again, coming to my attention this week with a story about a photographer. It begins as wonderful story about a hidden talent discovered after the death of the artist. I offer you highlights from what I've read thus far as a base to consider some of the issues that must be resolved with copyright law as it now stands. 

Imagine this : perhaps the most important street photographer of the twentieth century was a nanny who kept everything to herself. Nobody had ever seen her work and she was a complete unknown until the time of her death. For decades Vivian’s work hid in the shadows until decades later (in 2007), historical hobbyist John Maloof bought a box full of never developed negatives at a local auction for $380. [Upshout]

I was intrigued. So I did a quick Google search to learn more. I learned that Maloof's interest in the work and life of the nanny photographer grew and he began doing some research.

Thanks to one of the families that Vivian nannied for in Chicago for seventeen years, John was able to acquire items in her two (packed) storage lockers of personal belongings that were going to be thrown in the garbage. Most of what was stuffed in these two units was a giant collection of various found objects such as crushed paint cans, railroad spikes and other tchotchkes, but sandwiched between the clutter, were hundreds of rolls of color film and fresh clues that would take the research into new directions. [Maier web site]

As an archivist, I was impressed by how a collection of Maier's work grew, with Maloof finding personal papers mixed in with the clutter. These papers led him to people who knew Maier from whom he pieced together a fuller picture of her life and her photography work. This work awakens the streets of mid-twentieth Chicago for the 21st century viewer.

[Maloof] spent years tending and promoting [Maier's] work through commercial galleries, museum exhibitions, books and a recent documentary, “Finding Vivian Maier,” that he helped direct. Mr. Maloof hired genealogists to find heirs to Maier in France and eventually paid an undisclosed amount for the rights to her work to a man named Sylvain Jaussaud, whom experts identified as her closest relative, a first cousin once removed.

This work seemed to be a labor of love, but I'm sure it was also lucrative with books written, exhibits held, and attention gathered. This is where the story takes a turn from something that seemed culturally worthwhile to something people began to question:

According to the New York Times an attorney named David Deal claimed that the "situation bothered him so he decided to do some research.  "[He] hired his own genealogists and last year traveled to Gap, an alpine town in southeastern France, home of Francis Baille, a retired civil servant whom he believes to be another first cousin once removed.

Mr. Baille, who had no idea he was related to Maier, agreed with Mr. Deal to seek to be recognized as her heir under American law. Reached on Friday by phone in France, Mr. Baille said, 'For now, I just do not want to talk about this.' But his French lawyer, Denis Compigne, said: 'It’s an extraordinary situation. You can imagine what it’s like to get a telephone call about someone who died that he never knew, with this precious legacy. He is very, very surprised.'

The legal case to determine whether Mr. Baille is Maier’s closest relative has now set in motion a process that Chicago officials say could take years and could result in Maier’s works’ being pulled from gallery inventories and museum shows until a determination is made.

 Many people have risen up to add their objections, to cite their own interests, to use Maier's photos in their own work, and to try to untangle the story of Vivian Maier and her archives. 

Some considerations:
- What is the true purpose of copyright?
- How can this law protect the right of creators while encouraging creativity and progress in future generations?
- How are we inspired by others' work and when do we cross the line into infringing on others' legitimate interests?   
- Is there one "right" answer?
- Is there a way to resolve copyright disputes more swiftly for the public interest, to keep up any momentum of innovation when it is needed?
"Copyright is such a convoluted arena, I don't think anyone really understands it." [The Heart of the Vivian Maier Project.]

To read more about Maier's life and work, and the controversy surrounding her photos see:
- Man Buys 10.000 Negatives At Local Auction. Discovers One of Most Important Street Photographers of Mid 20th Century. Upshout.
- Vivian Maier Web Site
- Vivian Maier: A Photographer Found and More. New York Times.
- The Heir's Not Apparent: A Legal Battle Over Vivan Maier's Work. New York Times
- Finding Vivian Maier
- The Heart of the Vivian Maier Project
- Vivian Maier's Fracture Archives

Sunday, June 28, 2015

If You Build It, They Will Come?

We built a giant chess set for the last week of school. It seems like a perfect symbol for the first leg of my teacher librarian journey. It is also a fine example of how collaboration and community can come together and lead to great things.

In May, I eliminated the center tables in our library because the chattiest/ most extroverted kids seemed to sit there and their noise seemed to spread throughout the room. I felt that eliminating those tables would  encourage more pleasant chatter. (I was right.) But, then I had the "problem" of what to do with all this space. My principal passed through the library one day and, according to one of my assistants in earshot, apparently said something to the effect of, "What's she doing now? Making a dance floor?!" He was kidding (I think), but you can see that it was important for me to come up with something clever and worthwhile!

I had talked about building a life sized version of my students' favorite game many months ago. There was buzz around it among some of our more enthusiastic students. It seemed like a perfect fit for this perfect square. The board was created by a social studies teacher who offered his assistance when I  blathered about our plan to anyone who would listen. He had been in the carpeting business and had bits of carpeting lying around.

If there is one thing that working in this community setting has taught to me, it's that communication is the key to pretty much getting anything done. Word of mouth generates interest. Taking interest in the health and happiness of the group as a whole builds our sense of community, encourages positive spontaneous interaction, and builds trust in the library's work. My direct contact with people every single day is the key to encouraging participation. 
  • Grab a good idea and don't let anyone look at you askance. Run with it!
  • Tell everyone about your idea. (Do not do this if you are not actually going to follow through. Demand follow through from yourself no matter what!)
  • While talking about your idea, keep you ears open for partners. If someone seems interested, make them fit into your scheme somehow.
  • Be flexible! Your original idea may not be what works best in the end. Be open to others' thoughts.
  • Be prepared to change things up mid-stream. If something isn't working, try it another way.
  • Be patient
  • Share your idea and don't treat it like your sole property. Let others do what they want with it.
The chess board I  conceived many moons ago was to be made of floor tiles and stryofoam pieces, but the teacher's idea of carpeting was perfect. The colors he chose even  matched our room decor. (I don't know if this was serendipitous or his choice because he sees the careful attention we've been giving to making our space comfortable and coordinated.) The building of the board was slower than I had hoped, but when the tiles were finally brought in, it turned out that the timing was perfect. It was the last full week of school, the students were ready for summer and something a little different. The board was a perfect way to hold their attention for just a bit longer.

When we put the tiles out, we had photocopied flat pieces. Students turned these down for their play and decided to use little regular sized board pieces instead. And though they had a great time, I wanted bigger pieces. Our flat pieces became three dimensional with some velcro and cardboard developed by one of my assistant. We then put string on them with the hope that some students might be interested in using them around their necks and becoming human pieces. I told everyone in earshot that would be so amazing to see. (We also made checker pieces on the request of some students and they added yellow dots to one side to denote kings. Not part of the original plan, but a lovely addition to the concept.)

On day four, a bunch of kids (mostly my extroverts) were sitting on the floor around the library. "Guys, I know we are getting near the end of the school year, but we are still functioning as we normally do. Would you please find a seat in a chair somewhere?"

"Ms. Mannon, we are waiting for our turn at the board. Is that okay?" I was pleased as punch.

"Of course. Sure thing," I replied.

When two students finished their game with the pieces on the floor board, a flock of kids got up and began hanging queens and kings and rooks around their necks. Someone had helped us spread the word that the game was there and new users were joining in library activities. My assistants and I immediately got to work recruiting more board pieces to help out. One reticent girls got very excited. "I've been waiting all week for this! I don't know how to play chess, but I want to be a piece!" She was welcomed into the fold. (Maybe the experience will even encourage her to learn how to play.) The kids worked it all out themselves - picked team captains, decided who would be what piece, and let everyone play from all different grades and all different cliques.

When I first fell into this position as library media specialist, the library was a place to hang out with your friends. During my third year, it has become a place for interaction and communication for our larger school community.

Getting  to know your audience as a cultural heritage / information professional is key to what you do. I do not play chess. I know how to play, but I would not call myself a chess player. Watching my students enthusiasm grow for this game over the past few years has been exciting. At times, every table in our library has a chess board on it with students playing. I always tell my students that their time in the library is productive time, not time for gossip. When they play chess, I know that they are working their brains and growing appreciation for something that could play a relaxing and joyful long-term role in their lives.

My role as an information specialist gave me a platform for a. introducing something they might like, b. helping them grow their interest, c. building something big and memorable that they latched onto because of a and b. The moral? If you build it, they will come IF you have laid a foundation of trust, collaboration, and community.

*For those of you who have followed my journey in this career shift, I am pleased to report that I am now an official teacher, awaiting my approved and paid for teaching license in the mail! I have also enrolled to pursue a post-graduate teaching degree (CAGS.)

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Running through History

Runners took to the streets of Manchester, New Hampshire today to do a little run through history. Runner's Alley, a popular store in my area for all things run related, organized the event around the hobby of one of its employees. When taking locals for training, he would begin to talk about this town in which he grew up. I overheard one runner this morning who said, "It's nice because he did all the talking on our group runs. We just ran and didn't have to say a thing." As a life-time runner myself. I was intrigued by the idea of running from place to place and stopping to hear a little history, combining two of my passions. I was not disappointed. My knowledge of the area was boosted with a little local color, personal stories, and reminiscences. I began to think about how this concept could be applied to teaching and to boosting interest in cultural heritage institutions.

We started on the steps of City Hall. Our large group of runners were engaged from the start and immediately started to ask questions.

We talked about the age of our city and settlers. Our famous Revolutionary General, was a central part of our running route. Stark's words, "Live free or die: Death is not the worst of evils," were the inspiration for our state motto. 

As a former archivist in the city of Waltham, Massachusetts, I was excited to learn a bit more about the mills of Manchester, built by those who had moved up the river away from the birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution...From the mill girls to the canals to trains to the mill owners to the work of making cloth, the stories are embedded in the re-purposed buildings and grounds we saw today. I think all mill towns should consider running tours to boost local pride and tourism. Their set up is perfect for such tours. (Hear me Waltham?)

I was brought to overlooks I had never seen, though I've lived here for 18 years. The Merrimack River, which so many take for granted, has a rich history and tucked away spots with hidden stories. It was nice to stop and consider with the group how the river helped mold our home. I learned that we were following a route of a heritage trail in Manchester. Despite my interest in history and my professional background, I had no idea that there was a heritage trail here. 

We stopped at a former rail station, called "Governor's station" that was built for a powerful man who wanted a station convenient for him. It is now a home tucked below the end of a dead end street, right along the railroad track, which is still here today. I never would have ventured here on my own, despite my curious nature that often takes me off the beaten track.

Our run took us to Stark Park. Where we again admired the foundation that this war hero laid for our state and country.

I liked the contrast of the running shoes on what remained of the Stark homestead.I enjoyed thinking about the very different shoes our forebearers must have worn when they stepped on this exact spot.

I ended my tour at the John Stark house that was purportedly saved by the DAR in the 1960s. My running tour group continued on to the library and Victory park where they were going to explore a more modern history. The part of the tour in which I participated covered 5 miles in about an hour-and-a-half, with frequent stopping to discuss the sites and a much desirable water break on this hot day. People of many different abilities and ages joined us. The youngest was in a stroller. The youngest runner was about ten-years-old and the oldest runners were in their 60s.

I am hoping to develop a similar run for the running club at my school in our own town. I think this is a great way to interest  teens in history outside of the classroom. A bicycle tour, scooter ride, or another fun means of getting place-to-place can help kids focus and participate in something that works their mind and body. I have been to history open houses that involve driving or bus tours throughout a town. Why not sponsor a person-powered tour? Museum, archives and libraries, team up with your local running store or running association. Offer runners water while they learn about your institution. Give runners a pouch for their run where they can tuck goodies such as a history passport book, keychains and pens. Better yet, offer running items such as water bottles with your organization's name, headbands, etc. Be creative. Have a library card sign up in front of your building so each runner, biker or person on a scooter can leave with a card if they don't already have one. Give free passes to the inside of your institution so when the group is showered, they can come back to explore your facility more deeply.

This is one more way for cultural heritage organizations to expand our audience.

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.