Sunday, April 20, 2014

Sharing Community Stories through the Human Library

As a cultural heritage professional (librarian, archivist -- whatever you want to call me), I am continually looking for ways to bring communities together. My work with ArchivesInfo and my work as a high school information specialist meld quite well together, allowing me to explore ways to share and document community stories. I am happy to report on my most recent experience to meet this end. It was a huge success and I think it is an endeavor that would be beneficial to many communities.

***

Around this time last year, I applied for my school to host a "Human Library." I pulled in two other librarians at different institutions so that we could partner on events centered around National Library Week. [You can read about the collaboration between institutions here.] 

According to the Human Library's Facebook page,

The Human Library concept is about offering people as books... To be lent out to curious readers who will ask them questions and challenge their perceptions on different groups in the community.
[Human] Books typically have titles that aim to represent a stigmatized or stereotyped group of people in the community. This could be a religious minority or sexual minority or other members of the community who are exposed to general misconceptions, stigma, stereotyping and or prejudice.

The purpose being to challenge what we think we know about other members of the community. To challenge our stereotypes and prejudices in a positive framework, where difficult questions are accepted, expected and appreciated. 


To integrate the Human Library objective with our school's mission, I focused our educational event on breaking down stereotypes about occupations and the people who practice them. My partners at the local public library and a local university ran more "traditional" human libraries than I. Their events brought in people with more varied lifestyles and labels that often evoke very strong feelings. The career focus at our school served a two-fold purpose, to show our students that they can be anything they want to be regardless of their background, ethnicity, sex and other factors beyond their control. It also encouraged students to recognize the diversity of people working in very varied careers and the wide-variety of career paths that we may take. Few of our human books had stayed in their original field of choice. Some switched careers many times. Some had little idea of what they wanted to do for work at the outset of their adult lives. They either fell into a position or had a mentor guide them to a good place. All of our books were willing to share their diverse experiences, including their successes, failures, prejudices they had to overcome, and more.

I chatted with one of our human books while others met
with students. photo by Carol Robidoux
I recognized that the professionals who came to visit us might be influenced by their career choices beyond their working environments, but I wanted to show my teens that knowing someone's job title does not tell their whole story. Twenty-four professionals shared stories we don't normally hear about what their work entails, how it impacts their life and the lives of others. For example, we had a male librarian who was formerly a lawyer. He does not spend a lot of time reading, but he likes the variety and environment that a career in the library sciences brings him. (What did students think of someone giving up law for librarianship? How did they react to find out that a librarian may not be a "bookworm?")

When we ask people about their careers, we do not often ask them about what they had to overcome to get where they are today. Yet, that's what kids need to hear. In fact, that's what we all need to hear. We all have things to overcome and by sharing those experiences we better understand each other and our own place in the world.

I had only positive feedback from student "readers," our human books, and our school faculty. I asked for negative feedback and only heard that 15 minute chats, as is a standard time allotted in human library checkouts, were too short. Even students who were at first reluctant to participate said after the fact that it was a positive experience for them. Teachers asked if they can be readers next year too. Books asked to come back.  In fact, I have never run an event that had such positive reviews all around!

I now need to figure out how to document these experiences in our school archives. I am hoping that the encouragement to talk one-on-one with adults, something that many kids don't often get to do these days -- to ask question and explore one's curiosity -- will help lead us gently into an oral history project that I am planning for a 50th anniversary celebration. I hope that we have broken the ice to encourage more community conversations.

Stay tuned!

***

See the Robidoux Ink Link "Don't Judge a Book by Its Cover"  for news coverage of the "Human Library" event.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Teaching with Archives

I posted this ArchivesInfo and Archives in Education video without sound last week. I ran it as a slideshow on my table at the local history fair in Nashua as a way to generate conversation. I've been a fair participant for many years, but this is the first time I've set up since beginning a new career as a high school information specialist.

After first posting this video on the ArchivesInfo blog, a couple of people wrote to me ask for me to narrate the slides so, I've done that. The slides themselves didn't generate much discussion at the local history event, but people who visited my table were intrigued by the idea of archives in schools. I've focused my overdubbed talk on that. This talk is off-the-cuff and without planning, but I've been promoting these concepts for so long now that I felt comfortable presenting that way on YouTube. Forgive my few stumbles and a couple of not totally accurate comments...I felt I got the point across well enough to generate some conversations with you. I may mess it up even more if I do it a second time!

Happy archiving! Remember that our archives have the potential to inspire.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

More Finds at the Local Historical Society

If an archivist stops to explore the details of every interesting collection in her care, she can get so sidetracked that she gets nothing done. Professionals who care for historical records can sometimes get distracted by our own resources. While our jobs give us access to remarkable and interesting things, our tasks to administer, organize, describe and preserve materials cannot be effectively accomplished if we slow down to take in all the details of all of our artifacts. (Generally, we must leave that to the historians.)  Yet, sometimes when caring for collections, an archivist stumbles across something so remarkable that she is compelled to put aside the "work" aspect of archival work, allowing herself to be pulled into stories of the past - just for fun.

And so I was pulled in when I stumbled across this album at the local historical society. I was recruited by the Society's volunteer curator to use my expertise to help them organize their collections. I work as an information specialist at the high school in the town where the Society resides. I am happy to offer my services to further assist this community. It has supported me in a new career and has allowed me to run with my out-of-the box ideas.  Being an archives volunteer is a new experience for me. As a volunteer at the Society, I get to learn more about this town in which I now spend the better part of my days. I also get to "play" with collections a little more than I ordinarily might as a professional archivist.

Always on the lookout for unique historical records, I was overjoyed to find a fabulous album from the turn of the twentieth century. It highlights the life of a strong local woman. Her photos include images of her school, her job, her native New Hampshire, her pets...Her personality rings through loud and clear. Bonus for me - the artifact was created by a librarian. I identify with her. The album's designer shares her curiosity, sense of world wonder, passion for her home state, a sense of adventure, a sense of fashion, and fortitude. She is a woman on the edge freedom - a young woman who seems to have a fighting spirit of independence and likely interest in women's rights considering the era, her job, and active lifestyle.

The album is a labor of love with beautiful handwritten descriptions. A local man, another person with expertise who serves as a Society volunteer, noted how the album is a specimen of folk art, as lovely for its artistry as it is for the information it contains.

At 5:30 one day this week, working with the local library director on an archival survey -- both of us covered in cob webs, dust and mold -- I called it quits for the day. I declared that my reward for wading through the work would be to clean myself up and look through the remarkable album that we stumbled across on an earlier visit.

Our new librarian friend stared out at us through the camera that captured her one-hundred years ago. She captions her portrait "my new bathing suit." The suit reminds me of my favorite vintage shop, which happens to be posting bathing suits this week in preparation for the warm weather. I imagine that this librarian buried in the sand is in Hampton, a small stretch of seaside between Massachusetts and Maine that we call "our beach." I take my daughter there each summer. I'll remember this lady's bathing suit when I put mine on for the first time this year.

I am hoping to research this new found historical friend. I wonder if much information exists about her in library records. There is a lot to wonder here.

I wonder if we would have gotten along.

I wonder how she would have felt about me looking at her album. (It seems like it was meant to be shared.)

I wonder if her relatives are still in town.

Maybe this isn't all "just for fun"...I wonder if I can help my students feel a connection to this former resident.

Despite all the questions, one thing is clear. This lady had a sense of humor. She ends her album by saying, "Is this the end" Now wouldn't that get your..." and beside the written words is a photo of a goat.


Whether she would have appreciated me or not, I am glad that she reached through time and I am a recipient of her wit and charm.

**

[I hope to share photos with you soon. One problem with this information age is that it is too easy to pull out your camera to take photos and post them on the Internet. But permission should be sought from institutions' collections and the best photos possible should be used. Also, policies should be in place for the handling and publication of materials before such publication is done. I will talk about all of this in my next blog post.] 







Sunday, March 30, 2014

Slideshow - Nashua Public Library Local History Fair

I am heading to the Nashua Public Library's annual local history fair. In the past, I've set up a table at the fair to discuss the service of ArchivesInfo. Today, I want to spend more time discussing how archives can be used to boost public education. I will have this slideshow running at my table and I hope it sparks some conversation.


Sunday, March 23, 2014

It's Still Cooperation After All of These Years

My work this week and an article that popped on my screen this morning -- Historical Societies Heed Message of Cooperation -- are pointing me to write this morning's post.

Image of unidentified school girls. [from personal collection
 of M. Mannon]
In 2001, I presented the mission of ArchivesInfo in my first business newsletter. The emphasis was on collaboration. It was what was to become the main thrust of ArchivesInfo for over ten years, the subject of the book Cultural Heritage Collaborators, and one of my life goals.

Operating in a vacuum (i.e. no collaboration) was not uncommon when I entered this profession. Many archives paid attention only to themselves and not to their place in a larger network of archivy. And while it is still a challenge for many small archives to look beyond themselves and to recognize the need for collaboration, it is becoming much more commonplace to try to step beyond one's own institutional walls. We need each other to accomplish the mission of adequately documenting the whole of history, but we also need each other to survive and thrive. Cooperation allows us to reach and effect a larger audience. We need to continually re-position ourselves to see a bigger picture for the benefit of all collecting institutions and society.

The 2001 post I mentioned above described why institutions should collaborate and how. I am going to focus in on this idea and base it on some work I've been undertaking this year. As regular readers know, I am now working as a Library and Information Specialist in a high school. This job has allowed me to take the work that  I have done as an archives consultant in communities and tailor it for a specific institution over which I have direct control. It is one thing to consult (effectively to make a suggestion) at a particular point in a project. It is quite another to be charged with the project from beginning to end.

The school position has given me the opportunity to start an Archives from scratch. This past week, interest in our archives has grown to the point where we are starting to take in unsolicited donations. In 2013, I formed a committee to celebrate the 50th anniversary of our school building. I solicited members of the school council to join our committee. As the movers and shakers in the school, their ideas help get the student body fired up. I got art students to join to help us brand ourselves with imagery and creative ideas. I got teachers from various departments to help with journaling projects, events, and promotion. I then reached out to the public library and a local community group who sent members to sit in on our weekly 50th anniversary, to advise us, and to bring word to their public about our endeavors. I am very lucky to be in a community where collaboration among many of our institutions has been somewhat ingrained. I just needed to plug our school and project into that collaboration and to show that I am a team player - I can help them as much as they can help me.

I am a volunteer at the local historical society in the town where I work. As an expert in what they do my input is valued. I have volunteered to run a writing group at the local library. I have stepped out of my school to meet local business leaders. I have been invited to present to them about high school projects. I am a regular at the local coffee shops and other small businesses in town...I make my face known and then they let my voice be heard. I have tried to make myself a part of the community and "they" have come to accept me..

A student autograph book. We would love some materials
like this for our school archives. [from personal collection
of M. Mannon]
Our school archives project began slowly. I started by forming an "archives committee" in 2012. We had one volunteer who quickly lost interest. But, as I've contended throughout my career, anniversaries are perfect occasions to get people excited about events.  When I arrived at school, I quickly dug into the history to see if their was an event opportunity that we could highlight. Archives are not just about historical records, they are about a sense of self and pride. People immediately recognize the importance of anniversaries.  It was our anniversary committee that got the ball rolling. As word got around, as students and those cooperating began talking about the upcoming milestone, as we began planning events, people I never met began getting excited. We are setting up a table at a local business expo next month and selling rootbeer there. We will have a table at Old Home Days in June. We are planning a movie night on the school football field -- a sort of drive-in without the cars -- with the hope that we can have a double feature of a modern movie and a retro 60s movie when the weather warms up. (Our school opened in 1965.) We are hosting teacher reunions, conducting oral histories, planning "museum" displays throughout the building, hoping for a 50th anniversary mural on the library front wall and more.

Student Council advisors saw the usefulness of keeping their resources safe and donated them to the archives. A gentleman from the original graduating class who is related to someone on our committee came to talk to us. He donated a pennant from his school years. A student heard about what we are doing came to tell me about a scrapbook she found at an antique shop that relates to our school history. I went and bought it. I can't wait to tell her on Monday what I learned about the students whose pictures are inside the book! Someone brought in a dance card from a 1930s prom. I have no idea how this person heard about what we are doing...word of mouth and cooperation are doing the job.

I have a short collection development policy in hand. I will not collect what does not fit. My work with the historical society will make sure that we do not step on one another's toes. I am now going back to forming my archives committee at school so that we can work together to do a little community documentation planning so that we can actively seek to fill the gaps in our history. I am hoping that the anniversary committee success will now help beget archives committee membership drive success.

Not everyone is as excited about archives as I am, but they can find something to be excited about in what we do to benefit and promote our archives and history. Our school has a stake in the community and the community has a stake in us. A School archives can form a strong core that helps us identify how we all influence one another. Cooperation -- both my cooperation with the projects in my community and their cooperation with the anniversary and archives projects -- will benefit us all. Word spreads when something good is happening. Go make it happen!

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Women's History Month

Women's History Month prompts us to celebrate the women in our archives. In the past, documentation about women was elusive. Today, archivists are aware of the need to fill gaps in the story of women and we are working to remedy the loss of information about women in history as much as we are able. We are continually finding more materials in our communities. Our goal, as with all archives collection development, is to flesh out and create as accurate an account of women's role in society as possible.

We have not been the only underrepresented group in American archives: people of different ethnic backgrounds, the poor and middle classes, people of different religions all fall into this category. Archivists are aware of this. Yet, as a woman, I have felt particularly attached to the "women's issue." Why did parents hope for male children? Why was I not allowed to compete in a sport that was labeled as just for the boys? Why was reading a historical book about someone named Molly or Clara unusual during my childhood, while names like George,  John, Benjamin and Martin were pervasive? I have thought about these things for as long as I can remember.

A few years ago, I began collecting orphan photos in antique shops. At first I was attached to the costume, faces, and settings. I wondered about the stories. I wondered about the occasion upon which the photos were taken. I wondered about the personalities of the people. Pretty soon, most of my collecting started leaning toward images of women. I wondered about the relationships between wives and husbands, mothers and sons, mothers and daughters, sisters, classmates...Collecting images of women reminded me of the own strong women in my life and helped shed a light on my own relationships.

Archives have a role to play in boosting personal pride. My photos of women are one way I am reminded of my connection to the past - to something bigger than myself. The things I think and do today are grounded by the people who helped build civilization before me. What I do today will help grow the roots and ground my daughter and her daughters (and sons) to something bigger. We keep moving forward, but we are never alone.

Earlier this week, an English teacher in my school brought in an album of images that he collects. Most of the images were of men with beards. My colleague does not have a beard, but it was interesting that he chose these hairy gentleman for his focus...I'll have to ask him if his father had a beard. I found the beards interesting. In fact, images of bearded men remind me of a painting in my living room growing up. The painting was of a rabbi that my mom said reminded her of her grandfather. But the attachment that I have to those visuals is more of curiosity. It does not feel as immediate or intimate to me. Theirs is a related story, but (for better or for worse) it is not entwined so deeply with my own.

Each of us can find something inspiring in history that helps inform our own lives. This post contains some of the photos in my collection to which I am most attached: Women who remind me of my neighbors and my mother; Women who could have been my ancestors; Girls with curls; teenagers with obvious angst (yes, these remind me of me too);  young women who remind me of myself during happy and calm times. The struggles, happiness, and education of women found in these images fills me with pride and understanding.

And yet, within each image is also a story of those not shown. We women form a very large community. The community of men stands beside us and overlaps us. So while women's history is noteworthy, it does not forget the rest of humanity.

Men and Women: A Shared History. Women's History Month





Happy women's history month. May you too find inspiration and connection to our shared history.














Sunday, March 9, 2014

Introvert / Extrovert: Your Personality Type Should Not choose Your Career

Me. Back in the day. Archivist at the
Waltham Public Library
My head has been caught up in the "right" jobs for the "right" people recently. I'll explain more about that later in this post. But because I've got jobs on the brain, while catching up on archives news and preparing to feed my twitter feed this week, an article caught my eye and kept my attention:
What are the best jobs for introverts?
And low and behold, right between "animal care and service worker" and "astonomer" was "archivist". hmmm...

It seems that our profession is often cited among "best jobs for introverts."  Someone tweeted this in response to my tweet to prove it. Why does this site place archives on this list. "The interaction an archivist has in a workday is typically one-sided in that he or she manages and reviews historical documents for appraisal and safekeeping. Those with a knack for organization and an enjoyment of history should be right at home in the archives."

So, are we really introverts?

Once upon a time I was an introvert with extroverted tendencies fighting to get out. I found a home in archives. I loved the processing and backroom work, but I also loved the reference and administration that brought me in front of people. I loved the collaboration to make strong collections. I loved the interaction, on my terms. And soon, the job prepared me to interact even more. There were opportunities for public speaking engagements and conferences. I took up the extroverted mantle  as much as I could handle and over twenty years, my comfort with it has grown. When the day is over, I like to go home and go for a run on my own or read a good book, rather than out to a bar or to a party. That's what makes me an introvert. When (IF) I go to a conference, I like to speak and leave. Or, speak and then talk to people one-on-one over coffee. Or, sit in the back and listen to someone else present. You probably won't find me mingling in the lobby. I'm too much of an introvert to do that for very long. BUT, I want to be clear about this, it IS NOT the job that helps define me as an introvert.

I know extroverts in this profession. They are the lobby minglers. And, like in almost any profession, there are enough niches that extroverts and introverts can find a place. "Archivist" covers a broad range. You might focus your day in a back room digitizing documents, or you might be the Archivist of the United States who must go around promoting the profession every day, or you might be in a small institution where you need to do the back room work and the face-time.

In my first job, after making a presentation, a well-known person
in town told me, "don't quit your day job." I took that as a challenge.
Speaking in front of people is something that I love to do today.
What bothers me about articles like the ones above that make sweeping generalizations is that they close doors to many young people who may otherwise have considered a career in a particular field. You may like history and historical documents, but you are an extrovert so you don't want to sit in a quiet room all day so you cross archives off your list? NONSENSE!

The age of pigeon-holing who belongs doing what is over. There are so many different kinds of positions and so many different paths we can take. A little over year ago, I spoke with Darla White for the New England Archivists Association newsletter about job opportunities in the field. A few months earlier I had moderated a panel discussion on diverse careers in the field. I am now taking that message to a younger crowd.

This year, in my current position as a high school information specialist, I am helping to break down career stereotyping by running a human library. The human library model was created by Dany Abergel, Asma Mouna and Christoffer Erichsen, while working at the Danish Youth Association "Stop The Violence" in Denmark. "The Human Library is an innovative method designed to promote dialogue, reduce prejudices and encourage understanding"  The human library at my high school is focused on career misunderstanding. Students will have the opportunity to talk to women in the trades, a male librarian, people in the military, engineers who have gone on to do things outside of where they started, and more. The "human books" that are joining us have almost universally had winding career paths. Many have moved totally beyond their original profession. Some have morphed (like me) with their profession and allowed the profession itself to help take them to new and non-stereotypical places. They all have very diverse personalities and lifestyles.

We need to stop making recommendations and seeking jobs based on perceived personality types. How many of us at middle-age are actually the same as we were in our twenties? Mentors need to start bringing interest to the forefront of career decisions. You want to work with horses? Let's explore your career options. How can you make a living doing that? Let's encourage those with a passion for a subject to find a route to employment in that area - to at least see if there is a feasible way to make a living doing that one thing for which a particular person is excited. Instead of saying, "oh no, you do not not want to go into the fashion industry because it's so competitive and you are so quiet!" Say, "let's see what part of the fashion industry might work best for you now. Let's seek people who work in different aspects of the field and see what might work for you now. I have complete faith in you that you will learn about this work and grow and you might even take a different path in the field later in life!" 

Once upon a time, we did the same job for fifty years. Today, we might change jobs within careers or even change whole careers ten times in a lifetime. Let's stop with the silly articles about careers. Let's stop scaring children and ourselves about our potential. Let's promote our capabilities and seek new paths to success.