Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Community Documentation from a Family Perspective - Part Two

The stories of these two likely brothers parallel a larger  community and social history. From my background in immigrant archives and the familiarity I have with similar images, I believe that these individuals came to work in a factory in the United States. Men like this often saved money to have their photo taken professionally to send home to girlfriends, wives and mothers left in Europe. The image demonstrated that they were doing well overseas and that they hoped to have their families join them in the new country soon.
Photographs, letters, financial ledgers, diaries, school papers, and personalized greeting cards are commonly found in households. Materials are stuffed in kitchen "junk" drawers and thrown in shoe boxes. People may value these personal items for sentimental reasons, but few see them as informational sources that reveal much about the society in which they live. It is a responsibility of archivists and cultural heritage professionals to demonstrate the value of personal archives for a larger culture outside the family. My last blog post discussed the need to do this, today I will discuss how we can do it.

We need to reach out to the communities we serve to show them that the materials we hold in our repositories relate to their lives. Sample collections from our holdings can show how individual stories relate to a larger history. My favorite sample collection is from the Waltham Public Library, where I served as archivist in the mid-1990s. As archivist, I accessioned the collection of Albert Ryan II whose family had strong roots in the community. Ryan family members led "normal" lives for their times. For example, one served in the military. He happened to serve in the Civil War and to write letters home to his mother, which survive over a century later. Another was a suffragette. She and her brother documented her experiences with women's rights that were passed on to her nephews and then on to the library...documentation retained by people like this seem remarkable to our patrons, but we must show them these materials are not unlike letters sent home by family serving in Afghanistan or people rallying for rights of different groups today.

Exhibits in our repositories and at other local institutions can help highlight these materials and make known that our collections are about everyday people. Some institutions arrange to have special exhibit cases put in the town hall, the local mall or the local airport or train station to highlight the history of their community and the stories of individuals within it. Encourage local restaurants and small businesses to use materials from your archives. Offer them the opportunity to use appropriate images that relate to the stories of their institutions and customers. Allow them to make copies for framing or enlarging into large murals to decorate their walls. Images and stories of individuals tied to communities enhances local pride and makes families feel as if they have a strong connection to the place where they live.

Archivists must also offer their expertise in organization, preservation, and general information management beyond the archives. Offer preservation workshops and archives road shows through your institution and in collaboration with other institutions in your area. Offer classes in oral history or begin community oral history projects. Encourage institutions to document their own histories and to record the role that their workers had in their growth. Encourage small scale community documentation projects through local businesses that invite citizens to discuss their place in the community and how the community has supported their family.

Regard reaching out as an opportunity to learn what historical materials are available from your community. Recognize the role you can play in helping individuals preserve a history that may be linked to your mission as a memory institution. This does not mean preserving everyone's family papers in your institution, but it might one day lead to accessioning some of them. Invite people to ask you questions and share information about the documentation they keep. Make yourself approachable and available. As people bring you information, ask if you can keep a record that describes their personal papers to maintain with your administrative files. This will help you better understand and preserve data about existing documentation related to a particular subject.

Show how your institution can play a part in helping a family preserve their heritage. If people learn that their records are valuable to a larger history they better appreciate your role and will offer you more support. One day, your efforts may help families realize that they wish to donate their records to you or to another appropriate related repository. If not, your role as an informational professional who helps to keep information safe within a home is vital. Encourage people to get materials out of shoeboxes and cupboard drawers. Encourage individuals to value family heritage. Demonstrate how communities value individual  stories and each unique person's place in history.

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