Saturday, September 20, 2014

From Obituaries to Objects: An Examination of the Human Narrative

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

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

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

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

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


Sunday, September 7, 2014

Diversity and the Value of Archival Collections

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


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

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


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

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


Sunday, August 31, 2014

Archives and the Maker Movement

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Information Culture and the Maker Movement

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


Makerspaces:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Sunday, August 17, 2014

Top Most Endangered Artifacts

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

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


What endangered artifacts are in your collection?

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




Saturday, August 9, 2014

Audio Recordings and the Boston Public Library Family History Record Series

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

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

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

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

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

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

...
Now, go out and record!





Sunday, July 20, 2014

Archives and Reading Comprehension

WHAT I KNOW,
WHAT I WONDER,
WHAT I IMAGINE                                                                                  ©Melissa Mannon




Where did she live?

When did they pose for this picture?


Who were they?

_____________________________________________

Archivists hold powerful tools to assist teachers with building literacy and helping students enjoy reading. This post discusses how our collections that peak curiosity, invite discovery, introduce unique cultures, and solidify our own sense of identity can engage students and further their work toward strong reading comprehension skills. I have been reading. I Read It, But I Don't Get It: Comprehension Strategies for Adolescent Readers by Cris Tovani, which discusses reading comprehension strategies. I have been working with and writing about orphan photographs as a way to engage students. I want to explore the idea that visual images can serve as a gateway for reading comprehension.

Steps Toward Building Readers

I am not a reading teacher, but as a new high school information specialist I interact with reading students everyday. One of my challenges is engaging non-readers. My first steps in this direction had me introducing lower-level reading books. Soon, after getting to know my community, I realized that our collection was lacking in some of the subjects about which my kids are passionate. So, my next steps involved purchasing high-interest books. I am now on my self-assigned step three: learning about teaching strategies to encourage reading. 

Bringing in the Archivist's Mindset

Tovani's book has introduced a number of things to me that get me thinking with an archivist's mindset:

1. Show what good readers do - The Diary Project on which I embarked a few years ago was great for demonstrating how a good reader can use clues to make meaning of materials

2. Set a purpose for reading - In the archives, we always have a purpose for "reading." Whether it is seeking something interesting, solving a problem, or learning about new culture, reading archives such as diaries, letters and photographs impel us to discover cultural information.

3. Taking notes - It is very rare for me to see a researcher in the Archives without a pencil and paper to take notes. The archival medium implores us to find what we need and note it. Taking notes about a single diary entry or piece of correspondence would be a great way to introduce this skill to students.

4. Listen to the voices in your head - Tovani discusses an inner dialogue that we have with the text. She introduces strategies for students to pay attention to their thought processes, to notice when they are confused and to get themselves asking questions about what they read. As a prolific reader, I can identify with the idea of the inner dialogue. As an archivist, I know that archives can bring questions about text (or images) right up front. When reading a book, the voices may be soft. When looking at archives, "What is that?!" pounds in my brain and can even pop right out of my mouth. I provided an example of this in a Teaching Archives blog post.

Knowing, Wondering, Imagining

Part one: With orphan images, it is easy to encourage people to identify facts. My experience Teaching Archives in a classroom setting has demonstrated this. Students will jump to making assumptions, but I can reel them back to get them to focus on what they really know.

"This girl is wearing glasses" is fact. "This girl is bored" is supposition.
Part two: Teachers, librarians, and archivists can use their own curiosity to devise easy questions for students such as: Where did they live? Why did they pose for this picture? Who are they? to encourage students to look for clues and to wonder about the material they are examining. One can encourage students to look at the image itself, for dates and stamps on the image, for signs of aging and other contextual clues. The image does not stand alone. It came from somewhere, it is an image of someone and the printed image itself may have belonged to a different someone. Getting kids to think about the context of an orphan photo is easier than getting them to think about it in a secondary source. In my opinion, students can bring in their own background knowledge and relate an image to their own lives more easily than a written piece.  I can see that the girl in the picture above is probably from another time. Yet, I can identify with her expression and posture.

Part three: Students can use what they have observed to draw meaning from an imageI rarely can identify the person in an “orphan” image, but I usually learn enough about their appearance and setting that I can imagine what the person’s life was like and take guesses about the context of the image. One may encourage students to use their creativity to build context and generate interest in a subject.

What I Know, What I Wonder, What I Imagine can be a useful tool for getting students to examine their comprehension. In three easy steps, readers of an image examine it for clues to gain understanding. Next step? Seg-way them to reading archival documents in the same manner. We often thinking of reading primary sources as a more difficult task than read secondary material. We teach kids to read archives when they are teens. Why not start with orphan photos and other materials in primary grades to help build that inner reading voice? Archival understanding is not more difficult. It is just different. 

I think a visit to your local historical society is in order! Archivists, get ready!


I began working on  What I Know, What I Wonder, What I Imagine a couple of years ago as a workshop. I have since developed it into lesson plans that can be used in schools or in library/archives settings as an outreach program. Upon completion,  it will be included in my next book. Please email me directly if you would like more information.