Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Storytelling

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.

Sincerely,
Melissa Mannon

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Libraries, Innovation, and Our 21st Century Role

Many years ago, I began serving as a judge at the New Hampshire State competition for the Young Inventors Program. It is a wonderful program that encourages inventiveness in young people in grades K-8. It is a perfect place for a curious librarian/archivist to spend some time.

Designed for the classroom and aimed at encouraging K-8 students to "think outside of the box," the Young Inventors Program is structured and developed to encourage all students to participate, including those who may not "fit the mold" for traditional sciences.

Finding a new calling: encouraging inventiveness

This year, I decided to sponsor an award. A Library and Information Services award seemed like a much needed focus area for encouraging invention.

  • First, as libraries across the country build and promote Makerspaces, and with a major project to retrofit my own library for such a space, I want young inventors to dream of going to the library to build,
  • Second, as a school librarian, I am also immersed in ideas for STEM initiatives. How can the library be part of the backbone for moving science, technology, engineering and math forward in our schools and across the country? I have been working hard with the science and math teachers at my school to make our library a center to support their needs. All libraries need to jump into the STEM discussions.
  • Furthermore, last summer, I was deemed an honorary science and math person by my colleagues at AP Academy. Teachers at this Advanced Placement camp were playing a game of Trivial Pursuit. Those in the Sciences were on one team and those in the Liberal Arts were on the other. I asked where I should go, "Well, as the librarian in the room, you are the one person who could legitimately play on either side!" - We need to cultivate that attitude in our profession. Librarians need to step into a room and say, "Yes, I am a science person too. I support the readers and writers, but I also support and understand the inventors." 
Putting aside the fact that I have come to realize that I would have made a good botanist, (I spend much of my free time in the garden when there is not snow on the ground and there is that obvious classification thing...) in my childhood, I was never on a path for science. My sister was on that path. She became a doctor. She spent her time catching butterflies, while I spent my time writing and drawing. This idea that I am a science-minded person too is new to me (despite my masters degree in library SCIENCE.) What if someone encouraged me to go out and draw the things I saw in nature or to write about the insects in the garden? I was a very good biology student and an excellent math student, but I never put two and two together. Don't get me wrong, I love my job, but there was another path to take that never crossed my mind. For someone who prides herself on taking the road less traveled most of the time, it is significant to realize that I missed this path entirely....Almost. I want to prevent other kids like my young self from missing the path too.

The Value of Libraries for Inventors

Here I am in my 40s, sitting in the audience at the Young Inventors conference waiting for my turn to present. The young inventors in the audience were told this about my award: "The ArchivesInfo Library and Information Services Award recognizes an invention that can support the day-to-day work of libraries." But, as I anticipated, they didn't realize the full impact of what this means, nor did their parents. They were not just creating an invention to support literacy. They were creating something to support themselves. Why libraries at an invention conference? What do libraries have to do with invention? I had a whole speech ready to go about how libraries have always provided books, but they are so much more. Yada, yada, yada...

For judging, students were invited to tag their projects so that specialty judges like myself would be sure to come view what they've created. Since this the first year this award was offered, I saw just three inventions that students said they designed specifically for libraries. Two of my library specific inventors designed bookmarks. They were nice but they did not scream library for the 21st century to me. Wandering among rooms, I stopped at the invention of Caitlin Connelly, a 4th grader from Sanbornton Central School. Caitlin's "Double Desk" was not designed specifically for library use. She dreamed of it for a classroom setting, but her incorporation of a white board and a tablet, which could be locked into the desk and released with a code so students could take it home with teacher (or librarian) permission, was perfect. I pictured a long desk in my library's own newly minted makerspace built on Caitlin's model. "I need this," I thought.  

The audience at the NH State Young Inventors Program
There were many specialty awards being given out. The award ceremeny went on for 45 minutes until I heard my name to give out my award. "I can't make these poor people sit here and listen to my speech about how great libraries are. They are tired. I am tired. They won't listen. They don't care. They just want to hear if their kids got award. How does this effect THEM?" So, I shuffled my papers and thought about the inventor who gave out an award and his story about inventing since he was very young. And, I thought about little Caitlin Connelly. I walked across the stage to give Caitlin a $75 gift certificate to Makershed and said something like this:

"I will make this short. This award goes to the invention that best helps libraries.  Libraries are hubs of innovation that supply space and materials for you to learn and to create. We want to create better spaces for you." I went on to explain how the invention that I picked would be perfect in my own school's makerspace; that Caitlin's table was perfect for helping people to be creative and inventive. I said that I hoped Caitlin would let me use her idea so that my students could have a great space for making their own discoveries.

Planting a seed

If anyone in the audience was not a library goer, they were probably now considering, "I can go to the library and find things like Caitlin's table to help me with my inventions?" Libraries are for the scientists too?

Cool.

As librarians struggling within our own walls, within our own budgets, we often have difficulty looking out. As we move forward and re-mold and re-define our roles in contemporary society, we need to be better promoters of our own worth. We need to be on the cutting edge and to toot our own horns. Often. My role at the Invention Convention is one example of how to get on board with what our patrons need today and how I was able to advertise that message. 

How are you advertising the message that libraries are for everyone? How are you changing with the times? How are you planting the message in the minds of your community? Right now, think of three things that you can do to change the conversation about your role in the community so that it fits a new audience.

***

Thank you Academy of Applied Science. I had a great time and am honored to be part of your team.

***

I want to add that this week past, for the second year in a row, the House Budget Committee has proposed cutting all funding to IMLS. It is very important for librarians to speak up now; to show off our value and tie our images to the future and not the past. Write your Congressman today!














Sunday, March 8, 2015

The Age of Contested Knowledge

This week, I had the pleasure of listening to presentations from two local academic librarians. The librarians were visiting my high school to teach our seniors about college level research. They explored databases and discussed peer reviewed research with the students. They explained why "Google it" is not an acceptable academic search strategy. The information that the librarians provided was not unique, but it is something that students do not easily accept. Why? "Google it" seems easy. "Google it" helps us re-confirm what we already believe. "Google it" shows us what information is most readily available, not necessarily what is correct. Also this week, I listened to an National Public Radio podcast entitled "Why We Doubt Scientific Findings." A phrase stood out for me -- "the age of contested knowledge" -- and tied directly to what I see happening in the classroom. With a nod to Diane Rehm, this post discusses and questions the role of librarians and archivists in this new information age.

Rehm's program discussed how the world of information has changed. How people get their information has changed. There has been a disintegration of the old "gatekeepers" of knowledge. In my opinion, as librarians we have a responsibility to spread our own knowledge of information. People once saw libraries as the way to enter the gates and access information. Today information is at everyone's fingertips and most do not recognize the true value of a librarian's training.  "Gatekeeper" is too restrictive a word for what we do now. We need to re-brand ourselves as information "guides.

Information in Today's World

Rehm's program included science reporters and scientists discussing the way people gather and process scientific studies. The beginning of the show was most interesting to me from a professional standpoint, as it discussed general practices of information gathering:  The following parts of the discussion stood out to me:

  • Information that we accept today often reflects our world view. "[People] often find exactly what they already believe." 
  • People have a daily confrontation of their belief system with/against science. Science (information) was once much less readily available
  • There is a norm of false balance. Some things are presented as two sided, when they aren't controversies at all. 
  • Information is evolving. People sometimes point to new understandings to show why all information can't be trusted, rather than exploring how the new information evolved.
  • A lot more risk analysis is demanded of us than in the past.
The Role of the Librarian

The information puzzle
People have many more outlets to get information. Do they know what the "good" sources are and why they are good? How can we better explain this? This is one reason why good school libraries and librarians are so important. We need to help our young people understand sources so that when they are adults, they can better navigate channels of information. A knee-jerk reaction to information that seems to challenge our world view should be replaced with a healthy skepticism and thoughtful evaluation of sources. Information is a giant puzzle whose pieces sometimes fit neatly together. Other times, there are gaps between pieces as we wait for bridges in knowledge to connect diverse ideas that are all grounded in truth.

As information evolves, people need to learn to step into the conversation. The college librarians talked about becoming part of the conversation; the need to gain a basic understanding of the subject and its issues before jumping in and making conclusions. It is up to individuals to educate ourselves on the basics of issues. How can librarians help with this? I'm thinking of displays in my school library that introduce a topic with which students may be unfamiliar. Additionally, maybe archivists can more prominently display and explain original sources from which secondary arguments are based. Can all of us work to make sure that when people "google it" primary sources float to the top? Can we even develop partnerships with companies such as Google to make this happen? My students are amazed when I show them scholar.google.com. Their eyes seem to say, "Wow! Google even distinguishes between different types of information sources. Maybe Ms. Mannon isn't lying to me after all!" How can we make the separation between information channels more visible and understandable?

On Rehm's program, journalists discussed how responsible professionals can help people see caveats in studies. How is the latest study different from the last one? How have things changed? Librarians can help people be part of that conversation. What tools can we create to help people see the changes? "Most people don't keep delving [to gain a greater understanding of an issue.] They will take the headline...they will take the first paragraph..." How can we help them delve?

Finally, "a lot more risk analysis is demanded of us." Despite this, from my experience as a librarian, I see that we are less likely to analyze information. Everyday, we need to ask if the information that is handed to us is good information.  It is harder and harder for us to evaluate knowledge due to the abundance of information. One of the main reasons that I decided to accept a job as a high school librarian was what I was seeing happening with information and its effects on people. He who yells the loudest should not be believed simply because he is yelling. How can librarians better help people evaluate information? How can we help them believe that they even want to be better evaluators?

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Young Inventors Program - Library and Information Services Award

For the past five or so years, I have been a judge for the New Hampshire Young Inventors Program. Each spring, K-8 students who win local school competitions move on to this competition that supports innovative young people throughout our state. This year, I am honored to be sponsoring my first specialty award, the Library & Information Services Award. Sponsored by ArchivesInfo, this award recognizes an invention that can support the day to day work of libraries. Inventions in this category could include items such as a new type of bookshelf, a computer database, or a stand for holding your e-reader while you ride a stationary bike. My intention in sponsoring the award is to support this valuable program and the kids who take part. I also wish to raise awareness about what libraries can do for people's lives and to encourage young people to think about ways to make libraries stronger and more impactful.
As libraries expand services, re-invent themselves, or just renovate their marketing to attract a 21st century audience, they must make their innovation prominent. Libraries serve as places supporting discovery, learning, curiosity, and invention. Conversations about our role in building makerspaces, encouraging cutting edge technology, teaching sound information seeking practices and more need to filter out of our inner circles and move beyond the field of library and information science. Librarians must show how our institutions support multiple disciplines and are capable of engaging in conversations ranging from the arts to mathematics, science and history. 
Inviting students to think about how they themselves can make libraries more helpful places can play an important role in continuing and promoting the relevance of our profession. I am hopeful that by offering an award for library related inventions, I can encourage young students to consider new possibilities. I look forward to seeing children's creations for progressive libraries and better information services. 


Sunday, February 8, 2015

More Finds at the Local Antique Shop: Silhouettes

I have been on the lookout for paper cut silhouettes to decorate my house for many years. Attracted to the simplicity - the detail-less form that represents individualism while at the same time obscuring it; I am lightened by the delicate designs.

An article in the magazine entitled "Folk Art" provides a brief history of this pretty little form of art:


Initially, silhouettes were created to capture the likeness of a person in his or her basic form -- the "shadow" or "shade." to use the common language of the eighteenth century. Then, as now, the desire for a picture of a friend or loved one was important. With the invention of photography nearly three-quarters of a century away, silhouettes were the quickest, most economically feasible way of obtaining credible images. 
[DiCicco, Vincent. "Silhouette—Portraiture In America: A Fully Developed Form Of Folk Expression." Folk Art 26.3 (2001): 40-46. Art Full Text (H.W. Wilson). Web. 8 Feb. 2015.]

Professionals and amateurs created silhouettes at the form's historical inception. By the nineteenth century, according to the Victoria and Albert Museum, silhouettes were one of the popular forms of small portraiture employed by the professional artist, marking a resurgence in the previous century's unique art form as artists realized this was a quick way to make some money.:

The cutting of silhouettes, or 'profiles' as they were called in Britain, was a popular pastime in the 18th century. From the 1770s professional artists began to produce profiles as a cheap, quick form of small portraiture. Sittings took no more than five minutes and endless exact copies could easily be made from the original.
But clients wanted novelty and artists needed to stand out from competitors. This soon led to elaborate variations on the simple cut profile. By the 1790s, many profiles were painted - on paper, ivory, plaster or even glass. Inevitably prices increased as the materials became more expensive.

To the left are the silhouettes I recently found at a local antique shop for a very reasonable price. Dated 1856 in pencil, the images are also marked as having been cut in the 1970s. They represent a "collaboration" or sorts on the final art form. According to the Norman Rockwell Museum, silhouettes became an illustrative form in the mid-nineteenth century and were an "important technique to the illustrator's artistic expression," accompanying stories in periodicals and the like. My silhouettes are likely among those used to enliven a story, later cut out of an antique magazine such as Ladies Home Journal, by a crafty housewife. In fact, when I was a child in the 70s, we completed our own silhouettes in class as a regular activity. My silhouettes and my classroom memory informally indicate to me that the 70s were indeed another resurgent time for this art form.

Both amateurs and professionals still create silhouettes today. A few artists local to me whose work I enjoy are:

Jean and Marcella Comerford
Joy Ann MacConnell 
Thanks to the Internet, we seem to be in the midst of another re-emergence of this style. DIYers offer instructions for creating your own silhouettes. In a decidedly modern twist, many suggest using profile selfies as a place to begin, recommending that DIY artists trace the images for their patterns.

Silhouettes are fun to do and fun to find. They offer us a look at who we are and what we value. These featureless figures show us our community traits - proud men, loving mothers, poised children - all done in beautiful lines expressing form over face. (Personally, I find myself especially attracted to the Victorian shapes here, giving me ideas for my next Steampunk festival costume and allowing me to see myself in their shoes.)