Thursday, April 29, 2010

Valuing the Non-professional Archivist

Professional astronomers value amateur astronomers...should archivists follow their example?

I was inspired by a show about the night sky at my local planetarium that briefly discussed how non-professional astronomers have propelled science through wide-ranging amateur exploration. The help of these amateurs has effectively given professionals extra sets of eyes, allowing them to see things that they otherwise may not have had time to locate. We similarly have the potential to expand our archives universe (so to speak) by seeking interested non-professionals who can help archivists identify and care for important archival sources in places we don't have time to reach or cannot access.

Online sites like the Astronomy Zoo encourage amateur exploration and invite the layman to help astronomers with their mission. The site opens and immediately encourages those interested in the science. It reads "Welcome to Galaxy Zoo, where you can help astronomers explore the Universe." It then discusses how individuals can help scientists, what has been achieved to date, thanks the viewer for his help, and ends by declaring "happy classifying!" (Who wouldn't feel wanted and eager to help at that point?)

Similarly, the ecology site Opal invites those interested in wildlife to "find, study, and record nature in your local area." Imperative statements such as "Download a free survey pack and get involved today; Learn more about the water survey; Enter your results online; Find out about other OPAL surveys" encourage those exploring the site online to actively participate, learn more, and become engaged with Opal's cause.

Similarly, a few years ago, I discovered the Great Sunflower Project to help the scientists count bees and gather information that would help ensure the survival of vital bee populations. It seems that the idea of the "Citizen Scientist" is alive and well across the Internet.

Like scientists, archivists need to recognize how partnerships with non-archivists can assist our goals. In fact, we can not be fully successful at our attempts to document our areas of interest without help from non-professionals. We also cannot sustain our work without raising awareness and encouraging an appreciation for our field and the resources for which we care. Active, hands-on, in the field work by non-professionals who have ready access to resources which archivists may not be able to locate on their own is key to the success of archives management. An archivists potential resources can be found in virtually every home, association, and business in the Western world and often remain undiscovered by "experts" and therefore lost to history. Archivists would be greatly empowered by seeking assistance from our local communities and encouraging non-professional (dare I say "Citizen?") archivists who can provide our field with its own extra eyes.

(Thank you to my Twitter friend and overseas colleague Anna McNally, History Project Archivist at the University of Westminster, for supplying telling me about the Astronomy Zoo and Opal sites. Yesterday, I mentioned on Twitter that I was inspired by a recent trip to the Christa McAuliffe Planetarium in New Hampshire and Anna immediately responded that she was attending a presentation about the subject on that very day. Science lecturer Alice Bell was the presenter at her session.)

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Archives, Archives Everywhere - NAPO

Last night, I had the honor of being the guest speaker at my local NAPO chapter. The National Organization of Professional Organizers is a diverse group that help people save time and money while aiming to reduce stress through organization. Organizers can help people arrange such things as their thoughts, their closets, their personal financial systems and their personal papers. They help people appraise their items by deciding what to keep and what to toss and how to successfully take charge of their lives. The work that archivists do go hand in hand with the organizers and we would do well to explore the possibilities of collaboration with them to secure our recorded history.

Organizers are in the trenches, so to speak. They get an inside look into personal materials that many archivists never see. While we may be aware that many people have valuable historical records, archivists often have a hard time reaching out to explain this to the public. While we are outsiders trying to abstractly explain why grandma's letters from the war are valuable to posterity, organizers are hands-on. They are sorting and advising the general public about what items they should keep and throw away. They may hold grandma's letters in their hands at a crucial disposal decision moment. We need to make organizers more aware of what archival repositories do so that they can refer clients to us when appropriate, so that we have better access to community documentation and will be better able to collect a full documentary record. At the very least, we can reach out to organizers and encourage their clients to talk to us, so we become aware of materials in homes and have greater knowledge of the extent of historical documentation that exists.

For our part, archivists have a lot to offer organizers in the way of appraisal, organization, and preservation. Last night, I spoke to the Manchester, NH chapter of NAPO and discussed how we place value on records. I talked about the fields of records and archives management and the value of thinking about the record lifecycle. I discussed informational, evidential, and intrinsic value. I talked about the value of original, one of a kind documents. I discussed how archivists place value on organizing collections by record creator. Then I presented basic information about preservation and introduced the storage suppliers archivists use to ensure the safety of our materials.

I am anxious to learn more about the organizers and what they do. Each of the members of the Manchester chapter has a niche and is expert at managing different organizational problems. I'm sure I will glean a lot from their examples and I hope that my fellow archivists will reach out to their local chapters to do the same.

Thank you to all of the women in the NAPO - Greater Manchester chapter who were so welcoming last night! I am energized by your questions, discussions, and enthusiasm!

Monday, April 19, 2010

Displaying Archives in Exhibits

This past weekend, I attended the Jim Henson's Fantastic World exhibit at the Museum of Our National Heritage in Lexington, Massachusetts. First off, I must say that it was a fabulous exhibit and was fun for the whole family. It is traveling courtesy of the Smithsonian, Jim Henson Company, the Biography Channel and others. We went on the rainy Saturday of Patriot's Day weekend.

Those of you not from New England should probably be told that "Patriot's Day" is a Massachusetts aberration that celebrates the preliminary battles of the Revolutionary War. And, yes, there are people trying to get the Federal government to declare this a national holiday. For now, we just have to celebrate in Massachusetts with the Boston Marathon, a ballgame at Fenway (that combined with the marathon makes for nightmare traffic,) and numerous battlefield re-enactors wandering the streets carrying bayonets. The Museum even has a sign on the door that says something to the effect of "no bayonets allowed inside," which seems totally random and strange unless you are aware of the local culture during this weekend...oh yeah, and only odd if you didn't see the redcoat passing the patriot in the parking lot to get your initial shock out of the way...

The exhibit "features 100 original artworks, including drawings, cartoons and storyboards that illustrate Henson's talent as a storyteller and visionary. Among the variety of exhibition objects are puppets and television and movie props, photographs of Henson and his collaborators at work and original video productions, including excerpts from Henson's early career and experimental films."

(Bert, Ernie and rubber duckie were there!)

As we made our way around the circular exhibit -- about which my 6 year old daughter remarked at the end by saying, "Hey! We came out where we started!" And I explained to her the advantages of creating a design conducive to moving traffic in and out -- I was mesmerized by the exhibit's displayed archival materials. Doodles and notes were included among puppets and finished pieces of art. Yellow notepad paper was framed just as prominently as finished posters and puppets. There were papers with stains and water damage along the ends. Before the viewer, the curators placed crossed out writings and failed show pitches. This exhibit is truly about the genius of Henson and the archival material allows its audience to see how his thoughts unfolded. In one photograph was a craftsman working from a rough sketch that was placed nearby in the exhibit. It was fun to try to make connections between the notes and the finished pieces or images of works in progress.

I remember seeing an exhibit of Leonardo DaVinci's drawings many years ago and having a similar reaction. There is something special about seeing inside the mind of a brilliant being. It allows us to better understand the genius as a person and to see our connection to him, in addition to provoking us to be awed by his creativity. Indeed, to promote a better understanding of the humanness of another person is one of the prime purposes of archives. To so gracefully and seamlessly work the ideas of the sometimes messy process alongside the finished pieces shows curating at its best. Archives can and should support more exhibit stories in this way.

So kudos to those who worked on the Henson exhibit. I encourage readers to catch the show if you can. Reminisce about your childhood or that of your children. Admire the brilliance and reflect on the way archives are incorporated. Most of all, have fun and laugh.

And finally...forget the new Grateful Dead archivist. I want to be the Jim Henson Company archivist!

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Documenting the Under-Documented part II

This post continues Documenting the Underdocumented

Who the under-documented are is not always obvious. And, sometimes, the documents of the well-documented are not always preserved for posterity.

Very early in my professional career, I helped in the archives of a well-known inventor and businessman. The archives in which I worked was associated with an independent lab the inventor set up. He also was the founder of a large business that operated separately. The large business kept its archives up to professional standards, with a professional archivist who ensured the history of the company was retained. The independent lab was not run that way and hired a temp, fresh out of school, archivist to run a preservation project that cared for some of the inventor's prized art collection.

When I finished re-boxing and foldering prints, I inquired about the inventor's personal papers. Surely they would want those preserved too? I was brought up to a secretary's closet where many piles of duplicate magazines were kept. The inventor had kept multiple copies of his published articles. I explained that I was concerned about the inventor's personal papers -- maybe he had notebooks that he kept by the side of the bed so he could jot down ideas that came to him in the middle of the night? Maybe he had originals of those published papers somewhere? Maybe he had correspondence to friends and family members? The secretary informed me that when the inventor died, they were ordered to trash those materials. The inventor didn't want private papers to be public. "But," I muttered, "Did anyone consider the value of his thoughts as a person? How his life could provide inspiration to others." All I got were blank stares.

I understand that I was more of an idealist twenty years ago, but what if I had talked to the inventor before he passed away? Can an archivist convince a person of the value of their personal documentation toward a larger good? Should it be a vital part of our job to do just that?

In library school, we were told the story of the Boston University Special Collections. Seeking a collecting niche, the school decided to collect the papers of famous 20th century people. It seemed an ideal collection to support BUs strong College of Communication and College of Arts and Sciences and now seems like an obvious fit. However, in 1963 when the Howard Gottlieb Research Center was founded, many found this idea strange. It was thought that Special Collections archivists should be focusing on old history, not current events and current celebrities. Now, the Center is a premiere repository for 20th century history that would have been lost without forward thinking archivists. They realized that they needed to build a strong focused collection of less obscure documents so that these materials wouldn't be lost in the future. Archivists worked to convince people that they should give BU their personal papers for posterity.

To document the under-documented, archivists need to plan the development of their collections. We need to create a focus. We need to ensure that multiple perspectives are represented within that focus. We need to broaden our perspectives to consider what our neighbors and colleagues are collecting so that we leave no gaps in our work, assuming that someone else is collecting in an area and not considering the reality of full documentation work. Without a plan and partnerships, we are opening ourselves up to losing bits of our history forever. Documenting the Under-documented requires us to see a broad picture and to retain at least a semblance of idealism. An archivist's idealism, and maybe our moral charge, (though I know many reject the idea of us having a principled obligation) tells us that we can collect broadly and thoughtfully, and reminds us that we need to reach out directly to a public that needs to hear our documentation message.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Documenting the Underdocumented

I sit down to breakfast every morning with my computer in front of me to catch up on the archives news. (That is, I do that when I am not in the middle of a good book, which I am at the moment -- two in fact -- so it was a struggle to tear myself away. I was behind on my news reading though, so it had to be done...) This morning, three news stories in a row focused on women, so it seemed like the universe was telling me something. After chewing that for a couple of minutes, I began to think about my college advisor (about whom I recently wrote when I blogged about diaries) and her focus on women's studies. I was very influenced by her ideas. The realization of a separate women's history was profound after never having considered in my late teens that women could be addressed separately and differently and then having it weaved throughout my curriculum of studies. These considerations have thus influenced my whole career. I always keep the idea in the back of my head that people can be written out of history just because of their "station" in life. I hope that I can put this same idea into every archivist's brain, so that we are always striving to give a well-balanced view of history that goes beyond the cliched "rich, dead, white men."

My three women's news stories today were about Helen Keller, Jane Austen and Riot Grrrl. Helen Keller was famous in her lifetime for her remarkable achievements and though (as I remember it from a recent biography) she died nearly penniless, people valued her memory enough that her personal papers were likely to be valued. Jane Austen on the other hand, according to the article about an exhibition featuring her archives, died unappreciated and unknown. Finally, the late twentieth century feminist rock movement Rebel Grrrl possesses a cult following that is well-known is many circles, but remains unknown to many more.

The fact that so many different types of women are now represented in archives is gratifying, yet I wonder about the many who are not. This morning on BBC radio, I heard a report about Pakistani women subject to acid attacks. (I did tell you that the universe was pointing me in this direction this morning, didn't I?) Are their experiences preserved in a proper archival repository? How many nameless everyday people with stories that are vital to the understanding of humanity are left out of our archives?

Though my post focuses on women, my sex is only representative of many who have been under-represented in the past -- the poor, the homeless, minorities, working-people (such as the miners in West Virginia we've heard so much about this week.) As archivists, we have a professional responsibility to strive to make sure we collect multiple stories from multiple angles. Since the mid-twentieth century, the idea of social history has encouraged researchers to study the "common man." How well are archival repositories keeping up with the need to include diversity among our holdings? How do we make it a priority? How do we make sure its importance is emphasized and runs as a common thread through all the work we do? Whether you are working with paper archives or in a digital environment, your records need to reflect a whole human populace, from those who are very visible to those whose records are a little harder to find to those who have not created written records at all. And though all professional archivists encounter this idea in our training, I am not sure that we all cling to it in our practice. Please prove me wrong.

PS The Helen Keller book mentioned in this article is a wonderful read! It also uses many of Keller's personal papers to illustrate her life, making it more gratifying to a professional archivist

PPS The photo in this post is courtesy of the Albert Ryan II collection, Waltham Public Library, Waltham Massachusetts. A sign pictured in the photo states "Women vote in 29 states. Why not Mass?" Ida Annah Ryan, one of the master minds behind the sign, was active in the suffrage movement and was the first woman to receive a master's in her field from MIT. She went on to become a well-known architect.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Do we need to find a term to replace “citizen archivist” and what is a "citizen archivist" anyway?

On Friday, archivist Kate Theimer posted on her ArchivesNext blog a post that she titled "Why we need to find a term to replace “citizen archivist.” The discussion relates to my earlier posting this week that discussed the need to think about our terminology and its evolution. [Blog Versus Diary: Just New Technology or a Whole New Way of Thinking?] Please see Kate's original post. I've pasted the response that I made on her site below:

I don’t find the use of the term “archivist” by non-professionals objectionable, but I think there is a need to raise awareness about exactly what a professional archivist does. I don’t think “citizen archivist” helps raise that awareness and I agree with Kate that the term muddies the waters. In my upcoming book “Cultural Heritage Collaborators: A Manual for Community Documentation” I discuss Cultural Heritage Collaborators as those working to preserve cultural heritage and the documentary record. This group includes professionals in the LAM and quasi-professionals who are required to care for records, but who may not be as concerned about the cultural nature of items. This group includes people such as some records managers and municipal clerks. I identify a final group that I call the Non-professionals. These are people who have some interest in records or history, but who may not have the training or background to properly care for archival materials. This includes volunteers, civic association secretaries, business administrators and the like. I would like to see the development of “sexier” terms to describe each collaborator, but I also want to see the emphasis on partnership heightened. (I’m lack of a better term than sexy on a Sunday afternoon, so please forgive me.) If we can come up with terms that balance the idea of needing professional expertise to care for records for posterity with the idea that records are important to everyone, I think it would be a great service to our profession and would make great strides toward more effective outreach. “Unmudding” our terminology, as I discussed on my ArchivesInfo blog earlier this week, can only help us and lead to better care of archives in general.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

It Usually Comes Down to a Collection Development Policy...

My Twitter friend @garylandeck, director of the American Alpine Club Library in Colorado, recently brought an interesting blog post to our attention through the Twitter-sphere.

"Marked" discusses how a "Collection Appraisal Project" at New Zealand's Victoria University Wellington library "proposed in 2004 to dispose of up to 130,000 titles - approximately one-fifth of its overall holdings - so that some of its space could be freed up for other functions than the storage and display of books." The post states that librarians made decisions about weeding books based on book circulation. The librarians were set to eliminate books that hadn't circulated in the library's holdings in the past ten years. Books were marked with dramatic red stickers when identified for removal. They remain on the shelves with their red stickers today.

According to the blogger, "What made the exercise at Victoria objectionable then wasn’t the decision to get rid of some books, or the involvement of staff and students in the selection, but the ulterior aim, which was an actual reduction of the overall holdings so that other functions - primarily IT - could be expanded. By rights this move ought to have followed a discussion on what it means to have more computers and fewer books..."

As a strong proponent of collection development policies to manage cultural heritage collections of all types, I am intrigued by this case study. It is a trend in library services to move attention toward technology. We are all trying to strike a balance with computers and "traditional" collections. I have spoken out in my own blog against a trend toward abandonment of printed resources, but I wondered about the accuracy of this post by a non-librarian. I wondered how the librarians at Victoria University really managed the "Collection Appraisal Project." Would librarians in a research setting really set circulation as a criteria for collection inclusion without regard to University culture, community interests (i.e. researchers' needs) and without considering a collections policy?

A search in Google of "victoria 'collection appraisal project'" reveals Yahoo groups set up by students concerned about the library's actions in 2004. More searching started to dig up little pieces of information including this statement (my pay dirt?) in the University's 2004 Annual Report "The Library embarked upon a collection appraisal process to identify lesser-used material from its collections. Following the appointment of a new University Librarian, a collection management policy for the Library is being developed, and it will offer a framework in which academic needs can best be reflected in the Library's collections."

I set out with the intention of writing this post to talk about the need for collection development policies to guide decisions based on my initial impression of the "Marked" blog post. Rather than devising seemingly arbitrary solutions to problems of balancing "traditional" collections with impending issues of what a library is and what it should be, libraries need to think long and hard about their actions before controversy such as that at Victoria University erupts. It seems like Victoria University realized they needed a collection development policy after the controversy, but perhaps before it was too late.

Strategic planning must include consideration of collections AND must incorporate strong WRITTEN collection development policies to move the LAM - libraries, archives and museums - into the future. Collection development policies help clarify our purpose and guide our actions.

I would love to hear more about the Victoria University case from anyone directly involved and your opinions on the matter.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Family Oral History – What’s In It for Me?

I welcome this guest post from overseas blogger / oral historian Greg Lawrence. Greg and I "met" through Twitter and have done a cultural blog exchange, of sorts. A couple of months ago, he was kind enough to ask me to guest blog for his site, resulting in the post "My Stuff, My Life: Archives – What should I keep?" on Greg's Lifetime Memories and Stories site. My basic primer on archives is complimented by his on oral history - two topics and professions that go hand-in-hand.

Family Oral History – What’s In It for Me?
by Greg Lawrence

Oral history is the recording of people’s memories of their life or their life experiences.

The only way you can find out about a person’s life, what they have experienced or their thoughts on events is to ask them or, if they have already written about them, read what they have already written.

An oral history either creates a record of an event or experience or supplements a record that has already been made through documents and written histories. Oral histories offer layers of information and detail that often is just that much richer than what any written history can offer.

Why should I bother or why should I be interested I hear you ask? Well, let me put it in a more personal way that will allow you just a small glimpse of how an oral history can make a difference to you and your family.

Imagine that you are visiting a favourite aunt or uncle or perhaps your parents over a holiday time and you are sharing time doing something together. Maybe you are fishing on the river.

As you cast your line in your uncle says “I remember when there were so many catfish on this river that just your sinker hitting the water would get you a catch.” “Oh go on Uncle Joe, you’re kidding me right?” you say. “No” he says, “It was just after the big flood in ’49 that took out the Jamestown Bridge for 6mths, I had to punt across to go to work all that time.”

In this small exchange you are learning several interesting snippets of your family history. Uncle Joe has:
• Fished for a long time
• The catfish used to be really plentiful in the river
• There was a big flood in 1949
• The Jamestown Bridge was destroyed in the flood
• Uncle Joe worked across the other side of the river at the time
• The flood had an impact on Uncle Joe who used a punt to cross the river while the bridge was out

People have these sorts of exchanges all the time in their interaction with family. Now imagine what more you could learn if you actually took the time to sit down with your imaginary “Uncle Joe” to conduct a more formal oral history interview with him about his life. Imagine how many stories about his life and the times and events he witnessed you would learn. What a richness of information and pleasure you will get from listening to his stories and he will get from sharing them with you!

However, an oral history has even more to offer you and your family. As you listen to the stories, hopefully making an oral history sound recording of them for all time, you will hear the different emotions expressed richly through your speaker’s voice. The excitement, sadness, joy, hopes and fears come alive with all the words that they normally use in their life and you, the person recording this, has the opportunity to not only preserve important elements of your family history but also to capture nuances of the emotions as your story teller shares their story with you. In turn, through the recording, you will be able to share this experience with your children and great grandchildren and they in turn can share it with theirs. So with a little effort you can create a living record which can be a valuable family legacy to pass on for your future generations.
Just imagine how fantastic it would be that in ten, twenty, fifty or even a hundred years or more to have your family stories available for your descendents to be able to listen to and through which gain a greater understanding of your forbears. Now that is what’s in it for you! To preserve your family stories to share for all time.

Greg Lawrence is principal Oral Historian with Lifetime Memories and Stories, a professional life story company based on the Central Coast of New South Wales, Australia, just north of Sydney. Through Lifetime Memories and Stories Greg helps families preserve their stories for future generations through oral histories and life story books.

For more information and tips on preserving family stories visit:

Monday, April 5, 2010

How to Organize Your Photos

new article in Bedford Bulletin, April 3, 2010 - How to Organize Your Photos