Sunday, November 9, 2014

Community Thanks

We are once again approaching my favorite holiday. To me it is a holiday grounded in the idea of community. I give thanks for all I have and topping this list are the people in my life.

I have always purported that archives are all about community. Individual stories sit together in special collections, while the handiwork of individuals makes up the institutional archives. We are surrounded by people who are walking stories. The archivist attempts to capture the essence of each individual and their communities to save and share with posterity.

This month, I have been listing something for which I am thankful, each day. I think about my friends. Their diversity rounds out my life, while their uniqueness touches my soul. I think about all of my communities - my family, my coworkers, and my students. Of course - always my students. They allow me to show them every day what community means to my, why it's important and how it can enhance their lives. Together we are working to build a library and archives that shows the best of who we are; that lets us reflect on our knowledge of ourselves, boost it  with information about others, and aspire to greater things.

I have talked on this blog in the past about a tradition I uphold with my daughter each year. We make a tree of thanks and add as many leaves as we can to tell for what we are thankful. I took this tradition to my school library when I began there two years ago. I have discussed the library tree of thanks in this blog too. Now is the time to get it going again. Our tree of thanks will be made of all of our hand prints, this year. Each student will trace and cut out their hand to tape to the library wall with a message about for what they are thankful. This is one of the best traditions I have started and I hope that you may find room in your own lives, even in your own institutions, to reflect on how your community influences you; how being thankful for what you have helps strengthen bonds.

Finally, I would like to say that this marks a turning point on the ArchivesInfo blog. when I began this school journey two years ago, I wasn't sure I was making the right choice. I wasn't sure if a school environment was right for me, if the teens would welcome me, if my unusual ideas would be accepted. I have found a second home in the arms of educators and now consider myself one of them. I have been taking some education classes and have plans to pursue a degree in advanced graduate studies. It is my hope that I can continue to show the role of community in the school and that my own education will enhance my writing. I am an archivist at my core, but I am more than that. I am a librarian, information specialist and most of all, I am an a teacher. I hope that you stick with me on this journey. I am thankful for you all.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Storytelling and the Power of the Object in Education

Torah Dedication
When Mom told me about her Synagogue's Torah dedication, I knew immediately that it was something I wanted to share. As a student of heritage and material culture, I am always on the lookout for objects that best exemplify the stories of humanity. This object is exemplary for its significance to the Jewish people and its importance to this culture cannot be overestimated.

I remember back to my childhood. Mom would tell me stories about my family history using the items in her jewelry box as launching points. We would light the menorah, play dreidel, and watch a new husband break a glass under his foot at a wedding.  The objects that told the stories of my heritage and of Judaism made a strong impression. 

But it is the Torah -- the book of Jewish laws --  that was revered. It symbolized the vitality of our community. I remember sitting in Synagogue at a young age and watching the removal of the Torah from the ark. There was a sense of tradition, celebration, solemnity, and togetherness in the room.  This object was held dear by everyone present. It embodied the reason for our connection. Every single person in the room felt that link implicitly when the door to the ark was opened and the blue cloth covered scroll was revealed.

Each Torah is created by hand for a community that commissions it. "Every letter in a Torah Scroll is vital, for if one letter is missing, the scroll is invalid." To be able to afford this special item, that is carefully constructed with faith and love, the community bands together to raise funds. When the object is completed, a celebration is held. (It is celebrations such as this that help bond communities and these objects that help legacies and traditions live on.) 

I was given the opportunity in a history class this month to talk about the history of Judaism as part of an introduction to religions of the world. I spoke about the people who molded the Jewish faith and carried on its traditions throughout history and how this faith fit alongside others. I talked about the Jewish culture in terms of its dances, foods, beliefs, and songs. I showed pictures of the Horah and breaking Challah bread. I talked about my childhood memories of "stealing" the afikomen and other rituals that bonded the young people in the household. I reflected on my neighborhood and how my Catholic neighbors shared their traditions with the Jews and vice-versa. I got to put up a Christmas tree with my Italian neighbors and partake in traditional Easter foods with my Russian Orthodox friends.

In class, I passed around the dedication pamphlet that I asked Mom to send me. The brilliant blue cloth pinned to the paper is soft. Students could touch it and conjure in their minds how it must have been for a young Ms. Mannon to watch her Dad kiss his Tallit (prayer shawl) and touch it to the object as it was carried around the room for the congregation. Within that little blue square is the spark to a story, a key to understanding, and the roots of our humanity. I saw its power to make my stories come to life in the eyes of my students and in their inquisitive questions.

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.[].

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.


  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!