Tuesday, March 29, 2011

What is an Archivist? AskArchivists day

June 9th is #AskArchivists day on Twitter. On this day, archivists around the world will be monitoring Twitter to answer questions people tweet directly to them by using #askarchivists at the end of their messages. I have signed up to be one of the archivists sitting at my desk waiting for questions. In preparation, I am tweeting about the event to generate interest. While thinking about this today, I wanted to tweet about what an archivist is. I'll talk more about this in a couple of paragraphs.

Last year, #AskaCurator was a huge success and has become a model for others in the cultural heritage fields to follow. #AskaCurator trended on Twitter, which means that so many people were talking about it that it became one of the most talked about topics of the day online. Because of its success, AskaCurator is currently nominated for a coveted Best of the Web Award.   I wrote about the event on the ArchivesInfo blog in a September post entitled "What We Can Learn from Ask a Curator on Twitter." I hope that my colleagues will review the page for some ideas. I think that this one paragraph is especially important:

"This brings up the question of how to educate about what we do on a more basic level. Someone referred to a page that explains what a curator is, though I don't think it gave a thorough enough view of the profession. I think if archivists attempt this that they should be prepared beforehand with a web page that describes archives and archivists in simple terms. People can be referred to it when necessary throughout an #askanarchivist day."

This morning, I searched for a good, thorough definition of "archivist" to refer people to. I cannot find one. The definitions of my profession that I found are either too simplistic or use jargon to describe what we do. The general public does not want to hear jargon and we are more interesting than a very short description can convey. Yet, the public will not want to read a long definition of our role either. If we wish to make "AskArchivists" successful, I think that we must start from square one and explain ourselves succinctly, but thoroughly. (How many of my colleagues get blank stares when they respond "I am an archivist" when someone at a party asks what they do for a living? How do you more thoroughly explain what you do without  watching those confused eyes looking at you glaze over?) So below is my quick attempt an explanation of us. Please feel free to add the important things that I leave out - no jargon please. Change my wording. Make it better. Make it more precise. Make it more interesting to better convey the excitement we feel about the collections in our care. Please, please be ready on June 9th with a fabulous explanation. Most people have a better idea of what a curator is than what an archivist is. This is our chance to help change that....

What is an Archivist? 

The Materials for Which We Care

Archivists are the people who care for original recorded information that tells about society. We work to retain materials that serve as evidence of human lives and actions. 
These materials are generally called "archives"and are used to write history, to review our past, to secure our rights, and to plan for our future.
The recorded information for which we care includes, but is not limited to such things as diaries,  photographs, business records, and birth certificates. These materials come in a wide variety of formats including written documents, audio /  visual recordings, and digital media.

How We Care for It

We care for archives using standards in our field that guide us in choosing, collecting, keeping, and organizing information with long term value. We care for materials in ways that help ensure that the materials themselves or copies of them last as long as possible. We work to make the information from the materials in our care available to those who need it by creating tools that provide easy access to their contents. We identify gaps in written knowledge and fill them by organizing or taking part in projects that record useful information that has not been documented and saved.

Where We Care for It

Archives are everywhere, documenting the day-to-day functioning of society.
Some archivists work in or for institutions that keep collections of records related to the organization's operations. Other archivists work in or for institutions that care for papers related to individual lives and communities. 
Some archivists work in small places such as local historical societies where they are expected to provide a broad range of care to materials.
Some archivists work with large collections in Universities or with government records where they focus on a particular task. 
Some archivists are employed in an institution where their collections are not the main focus. Such archivists keep the records of businesses, museums, medical institutions and others to support and document the work of that institution.

Add your comments below. I'd love to hear your thoughts. And / or take some of these ideas and add them to your own web pages in preparation for #AskArchivists day. 

Sunday, March 27, 2011

A genealogist and an archivist walk into a cemetery....

No...this isn't the start of a good joke. Instead, it may be the start of something more wonderful.

This past week, I had a lovely networking meeting (aka "tweetup") with a genealogist colleague I met through Twitter. We decided it was worth getting to know each other off-line because we keep bumping into each other online, our interests intersecting in many places. We were thinking of meeting for coffee. However, one of the main interests we have in common is visiting old cemeteries. I suggested we should meet at one. My companion later laughed while were examining gravestones and told me that she herself had almost suggested a graveyard tweetup, but decided not to because she thought that I might find it too strange. Indeed, on my drive down, I told one of my closest, non-history professional, friends that I was heading to a business meeting in a graveyard. She responded with silence on the other end of the phone. And since that particular friend is rarely silent, I know that she must have been thinking some strange things about me!

But, when you feel comfortable bouncing loony ideas like cemetery meetings off of someone, you know that you make a good match. For me, big and sometimes strange ideas have usually led to big and exciting developments. My brain is twisting and turning with ideas about how my new genealogist / house historian friend can mesh with my archivist / cultural heritage professional self. The idea of bringing together the people who care for historical resources and the people who use them in some kind of collaboration is exciting. We often sit on opposite sides of the fence, so to speak. Archivists, curators and librarians are seen standing guard over materials, providing access to researchers such as genealogists. But I think that the more we share ideas, the more we strengthen ourselves and the study of history. Whether caring for records or pouring through them looking for specific information, those who come in contact with the materials spot information and learn things  that can help others with related history promoting goals. That's a good thing. Our professions, in my opinion, should meld together to help us all elicit multi-faceted views, descriptions, and critical ideas about historical materials.

The stories we can discover in a graveyard, such as this of
family members that died within days of each other, are
backed by historical records and the research of those in
diverse history fields. We have more in common than
we realize on the surface. Our professions bring together
diverse community knowledge.
I live north of Boston. My colleague lives south. We met half way in the lovely town of Chelmsford, Massachusetts. She and I chatted about gravestones as one aspect of material culture. The landscape on which a graveyard sits and the houses surrounding it are one part of a community story. The records about the people in the houses and those buried at the cemetery are sitting up the street in the historical society and town clerk's office. The people who visit the graveyard, the stones themselves, their carvers, and the people who repair them provide more dimension to a community story. Though as history professionals we have each chosen to specialize in an aspect or two of that story, we are each adding to the same community tale. A graveyard was indeed a perfect place to focus on the similarities between a genealogist and an archivist. Combining our strengths will help us and others better understand the resources we collect, seek, and make available and will open up new avenues for developing the stories that one can build from those resources.

Right across the street from the cemetery was a coffee shop. After our jaunt among the stones, with chilled insides, Marian and I sat and chatted over a cup of coffee. It seemed to be a nice traditional way to warm cold March hands after a fun untraditional meeting.

So how can archivists and genealogists collaborate? This is how some of my colleagues are re-thinking the relationship between archivists and genealogists.

David Ferriero - National Archivist of the U.S. at the Federation of Genealogical Societies on the genealogist as a citizen archivist

Aprille C. MacCay - "Genealogists and Records: Preservation, Advocacy, and Politics" - genealogists as allies for archivists

Gail Redmann. Archivists and Genealogists: The Trend toward Peaceful Coexistence

Friday, March 25, 2011

Organizing family photos - getting over the hump

Family photos can be organized in
albums or boxes. Your perfect method
may differ from someone else's perfect
The subject of caring for personal photos has come up numerous times in the past couple of weeks, so I find myself posting about it once again. I spent part of this morning working with a client on a personal photo organization project. Sometimes the hardest part a consultant plays in such a project is convincing a person that the "collection" is not unmanageable. Most people store items in bureaus and shoe boxes. Many people spread them all over their homes. Most people feel overwhelmed. Remember that the organization of your personal papers and photos can be taken in steps and everything can be organized. You are not hopeless or helpless. Realize that a little help can go a long way.

It is hard when a family member is more inclined to be organized than another. It is not helpful when others remark about one's disorganization. Words of criticism tend to increase one's feeling of being overwhelmed. I walk into many homes where the person who has hired me feels that the personal papers they are about to show me are the worst mess that I have ever seen. They are embarrassed because they feel the material has gotten out of control or someone else has told them that it is out of control.

An example of a "mess" that I have found
I can unequivocally say that I have never seen a home collection in worse disarray than some of the town collections I have seen. The common home is smaller and the average person collects less paperwork, etc. than the average town. Archivists deal with "mess" everyday. There is little you can show us in the way of personal papers that will throw us out of step. I actually enjoy tackling piles. It is part of the reason I got into this line of work.

Do not be afraid to begin because of overwhelming feelings. Many people do not take on projects or stop projects because those "this is too much" feelings grow. Work out what needs to be done. Write a plan by yourself, or with a little help from a professional. Take your organization step by step. Start from where you are and dive in. Do not just hope to be more organized. Create a guide that plays to your personal lifestyle. Create a reasonable plan that outlines what you want to do and write out the steps. Think about your end goal. Do you want to display your favorite images? Do you want to create albums? Do you want to organize digital files? Be specific about what you really want.

My client this morning told me that one of her top priorities is to create a photo album celebrating the first year of her daughter's life. Her daughter is now 6. She has such an album for her nine-year old son. I think that there are some guilty feelings attached with not having such an album for her daughter. So, step 1. will be to begin sorting images using guidelines I will provide for her. Step 2. is to create that album for her daughter. Once she gets that done, she should have a huge feeling of accomplishment that will help propel her through the rest of the steps we've decided together.

Begin somewhere. Make a dent. Set a specific goal for yourself that will feel like a milestone when you hit it to get over the hump. Focus on moving ahead and don't look back.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

New England Cultural Institutions Using Social Media

I just put up a preliminary list with links to New England Cultural Institutions Using Social Media. I intend this list to serve a few purposes:

1. To serve as models for other cultural institutions wishing to develop their use of social media to promote and provide better access to their institution and what they do.
2. To help institutions in the region better communicate with each other and work together to develop social media strategies.
3. To serve as a list for our audiences who wish to see the diversity of cultural heritage institutions in the region and who wish to have a more direct connection to the institutions they support and enjoy.

I would like to work to make this list comprehensive. So far it includes a few institutions that contacted me for inclusion when I put out a call on Twitter. It also includes institutions I located over the past few days through Internet searching. If you have not been included and would like to be on this list, please contact me through my blog, twitter (@ArchivesInfo), or ArchivesInfo Facebook page or email me at melissa @ mannon . org. Please also let me know if you find errors in the pages.

My original intention was to include museums, archives and historical societies in this list. The New England Archivists has a nice list of archives blogs, so I linked to that instead of to the archives themselves. (I'm in favor of helping to drive traffic to associations I support!) I have added an "intangible heritage" category as well, after the nice people at Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater asked if I were putting out a call to them too. On Twitter I regularly promote intangible heritage and the need to document it, So I thought this would be an appropriate additional category. I did not include public libraries because so many of them were early adapters of the Internet and social media that they are much easier to find in social media channels.

So, I hope that you find this list useful. It has been fun to do. I've learned about a few very unique institutions about which I was previously unaware. I hope that you will too!

Monday, March 21, 2011

Creating online resource for heritage institutions active on social media

 If your New England based heritage organization is active on Facebook, Twitter, or blogs, please send me information about what you are doing. I am working to create an online directory to help professionals in the region share information. This directory aims to be a comprehensive resource for locating historical societies, museums, and archives actively using social media to communicate with their audiences. We can learn a lot from each other. The willingness and eagerness our professions demonstrate to embrace social media will have a direct impact on our future missions and functions. It is my hope that institutions will be able to use this directory to explore more easily what others in the field are doing to take advantage of Twitter, Facebook and blog platforms. The directory aims to help us make stronger connections among communities and potential supporters. Innovative early adopters of social media in the cultural heritage professions will serve as models for others.

Please send me your organization's name and link to your site or your Twitter handle. I hope to have a first group of institutions online very soon.

(This may be another case of my curiosity getting the better of me...It happens often I'm afraid. It's not as if I really needed another project...Please help make this easy! Write to me so I don't have to perform extensive research to find you.)

Life in Context: Telling Your Story - A Beautiful Partnership

Conducting Life In Context workshop this fall
Your story helps define the 21st century for future generations. The narrative of your life should describe your personal journey and can be viewed as a piece of a larger puzzle reflecting values, traditions and trends in society. Colleague and certified professional organizer Sue West and I have developed the workshop Life in Context: Telling Your Story to help people think about their places in the world. Through an exploration of personal objects, individuals can define what aspects of their lives are most meaningful to them.  Sue and I encourage people to pursue a greater understanding of the context of their lives to help them focus on what is meaningful, and to collect and preserve stories that are essential to better understanding ourselves, our communities and our culture.

Sue's background in organization has helped us create a strong foundation for our explorations that begin with centering each individual. We begin by focusing on why and how one should tell one's story - to ground oneself, work out problems, and understand what "stuff" is important. My archives and cultural heritage background expands the conversation by relating personal stories to a larger context. We discuss how being an active participant, working to define your legacy now, cna help future generation. Sue and I encourage you to pay more attention to what you are keeping and how it relates to your life story and to a larger community and cultural story.

Sue's Space4U  web page defines a goal of helping you imagine your life "calm, organized and simplified." My mission through ArchivesInfo is to "promote the preservation of history and the building of community memories." Our unique partnership has given us greater insight into the value of what we do for different populaces. Sue has helped me better understand how an archivist can help individuals and I think Sue can better relate her work to larger communities.

Sue and I have been editing a workbook to accompany the workshop. This morning I finished my second pass through and have passed the manuscript back to Sue for further work. The section that is currently the last in the book got my brain churning this morning and I want to share it with you. I have posed three questions to help you think about what is valuable to you. These questions have enabled me to think about cultural heritage collaboration in a more focused way, encouraging a more thorough examination of how an individual can actively create personal documentation that is useful to society. Here are the questions for you to ponder along with me:

1. What do people in the future need to know about you?
It is not necessary or desirable to keep everything. Consider why objects (heirlooms, personal papers, photographs, etc.) were created; how they were used; what evidence they provide; the information they embody; their history, symbolism, and sentimentalism. Focus on what is important to you AND what reflects larger communities and societal functions.

2.What values, traditions, and ideals are not currently represented in your objects or papers and how can you remedy this through storytelling (writing, scrapbooking, crafting, etc.)?

3. How is your community documenting itself or not? Consider intangible culture and lost stories. Many of the stories that we've lost would have been desirable to keep. Properly label your materials and make sure that future generations have the tales documented and well-kept.

A beautiful partnership is one that allows your ideas to grow. Very often, professionals get stuck in their field networking with like-minded individuals and not reaching out to alternate communities. In cultural heritage fields, it is especially important to extend oneself beyond our traditional circles. New perspectives on why people collect and what they collect can help us improve and strengthen our missions. Thank you Sue for helping me strengthen my understanding of building community memories through individual's personal papers. I look forward to a long collaboration.
"Life in Context: Telling Your Story" can help you think about your life in a whole new way. Join the conversation and share your life stories at Life in Context on Facebook. To learn more about the workshop see the Life in Context web page

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Response to Culling Photographs

A photo I return to again and again...
my grandmother with an unidentified little girl.
I found an interesting conversation generated over at The Turning of Generations blog in response to my Culling Photographs post about a week ago. Blog author Michelle Goodrum provides thoughtful guidelines for working out how to decide if you should toss out an old photo. The comments related to her post were also wonderful and raise many concerns one might have with appraising images and discarding.

This topic actually gets very personal for me. My mother has a shoebox of nameless people from the early-twentieth century. These are presumably relatives who were scattered around the world or killed during the Holocaust. This makes the shoebox worth keeping...for now. We have a general idea about the subjects of the image. We know they were passed to my mother from her parents. We have a small bit of context, which is sometimes not the case with a shoebox of orphan photos.

There is talk in my family of using face recognition software to try to identify the people in the images. It would be exciting to find some answers. If we can't, perhaps a repository related to Poland or to the Holocaust would be interested in these images. Usually, realistically, Archives do not want orphan images. The millions and millions they can collect are virtually useless without information. Perhaps because I have some context, someone will want these images...but I am not sure if all of these photos are of people lost in the War. I'm not sure if they are relatives or acquaintances. How much information do these unlabeled images really give and how much context do they really hold?

Right now I have no information, but I have hope. Our family will keep this shoebox until we've exhausted the possibilities for identification. By the end of my lifetime, if we have not found family connections or the technology to help us identify people, surely I have given the search enough time. The next generation does not need a shoebox full of permanently lost information. The important thing is for me to label the images we know and to convey to my daughter what happened to her ancestors and why. I want to tell her the stories of her great grandparents who escaped from terror and spend my time recording the memories we have of them rather than holding out false hope that what cannot be found will turn up someday.

One thing struck me when reading comments from genealogists about keeping family photos. It often comes up as I move between the worlds of individuals with personal papers and families with personal papers. The professional archives can more easily turn away papers and orphan photos than families interested in history can release them. The repositories do not have a sentimental attachment. That distinction may seem obvious, but as a consultant, I must keep in mind that it makes it harder for clients to overcome hesitancies about getting rid of anything. In fact, genealogists are so well-versed with the search for information and the finding of unexpected threads that I can sincerely understand negative responses to the idea of "culling." However, there are images that one just will never be able to identify no matter how long one searches.

I want to tell you that there does come a time when you should let go. Eyes staring back at us from a printed sheet pull us in. Photographs have a unique ability to let us feel the humanity of their subject. It can be hard to break the attachment we feel with our heart. Let yourself accept that moment of letting go when it comes. Not everything can or should be saved. Do not let what is important get lost among the clutter.

Monday, March 14, 2011

More Finds at the Local Antique Shop

Carte-de-visite from Manchester, NH
How lucky I was to find this posted thesis about carte-de-visite when I set out ot do a bit of research on today's photograph: CARTE-DE-VISITE CULTURE IN MANCHESTER NH: A CASE STUDY by Carolyn Jambard-Sweet, 2006.

According to the thesis' author, a multi-lens camera allowed a photographer to create 8 carte-de-visite negatives in a sitting. "The photographs were then affixed to a paper card which was traded with friends and family by hand or delivered by mail, often ending up as part of a miniature portrait collection in an elegant album designed specifically for cartes-de-visite."

The woman in my picture sits with such an album on the desk in front of her. Her image is a typical portrait made for sharing with friends, but it also makes a clever statement about its own purpose. The sitter intended this image to end up in friends' photo collections similar to the one she includes here. (I wonder if the use of the album as a prop was her idea or the photographer's idea.)

Calling cards were once left in the drawing
room by house guests.
"Those albums are fast taking the place and doing the work of the long cherished card basket.  That institution has had a long swing of it.  It was a good thing to leave on the table that your morning-caller while waiting in the drawing room till you were presentable, might see what distinguished company you kept, and what very unexceptionable people were in the habit of coming to call on you.  But the card-basket was not comparable to the album as an advertisement of your
claims to gentility...." (Dan  Younger, 16.  As quoted from “The Carte de Visite,” The Photographic News, May 1862)

Information about the photographer of the portrait is supplied by the cards accompanying envelope. The thesis author found our photographer, Mr. S. Piper, in the local city directory, which stated that he was practicing at the corner of Elm and Amherst streets. He worked at his craft from the 1860s through the 1880s with his business outliving those of many of his contemporaries. His obituary described him as one of the best known photographers in Manchester, NH. It is believed that he photographed most of the residents of the city.

Though this card is far from unique, it has an interesting story to tell us about the time period in which it was made and the person who made it...I only wish that it were labeled so we could know more about its subject than her typical late nineteenth century hairstyle and dress.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Archives of Tragedy

As I read the headlines about the tragic earthquake in Japan, I have the feeling today that I've been through this before.

Japan earthquake: Eyewitness accounts capture Japan's tsunami after earthquake

That moment of panic and concern that makes my head numb is familiar, but somehow my brain is losing track of the tragedies.

I remember one of the first of these events that I experienced, but I don't remember which one. It could have been when Reagan was shot, or when the hostages were kidnapped in Iran, or when Mt. St. Helen's erupted...my mother told me that she wanted to shield me from disaster. She wanted the world to be a perfect place for me.

The world is not a perfect place, but I have a role in it that helps me deal with feelings of doom and destruction.

Describing the Archives related to the Pan Am bombing in Lockerbie, Syracuse University Director of Archives and Records Management stated, "You have to first divorce yourself from the mind-numbing tragedy of the event and look at it objectively to recognize that it needs to be documented—paperwork was generated right from the beginning."

So today, with sadness, I carefully check my feelings, write my own personal experiences, review the reports, and watch my fellow archivists around the globe gather the information that will help us evaluate this event in the future. Last year, the dramatic environmental tragedy in Haiti was documented by archivists wanting to retain contemporary information while others rushed to Haiti to save their past heritage. 2010 also brought flooding in Australia, mudslides in California, a massive earthquake in Chile, a volcano eruption in Iceland that lead to ash clouds over Europe, floods in Pakistan and more volcanic activity in Indonesia.

Archivists do what we do so that the memories survive and so that we can learn from past experience. How easy it is to forget the past, even the recent past, among waves of bad news. Yet, each event changes us and has the potential to make us better and stronger. People learn to build stronger buildings by examining those that have withstood tremors. We write disaster plans. Society evaluates its response. It evaluates eyewitness accounts and searches for documentation that confirms what we must do next time to alleviate devastation.

Our mothers could not provide us with a perfect world, but the roles that we choose can help us make a better one.

My thoughts go out to the victims of the Japan Tsunami. May the world community come together to honor and remember during this tragic time.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Cultural Heritage Interpretation - What it means for museums, archives, and our audience

Last week, the subject of "interpretation" came up in conversations with two separate colleagues. When something like that comes up more than once in a week, I take it as a sign to write about it. The first conversation was with a professional grounded in the museum field who asked me about interpretation and archivists. The second was a fundraising / non-profit professional who was accompanying me to a local art museum.

According to the American Association of Museums:
Interpretation is "The media and activities through which a museum carries out its mission and educational role.  Interpretation is a dynamic process of communication between the museum and the audience. It is the means by which the museum delivers its content.  Interpretation includes but is not limited to exhibits, tours, classes, school programs, publications, and Web sites."

Archivists apparently do not like this word "interpretation." We do not want to influence the users interaction with the primary documents that are devoted to truth. We are pledged to retain their purity. To some, perhaps, to suggest that we "interpret" archives as professionals goes against this pledge. To me "interpretation" is vital to all cultural heritage professionals. I don't want to write much about this because I don't want to steal my colleague's thunder. He is going somewhere with his ideas on interpretation. Let me just say that I think archivists are very much involved with "interpretation," but it primarily lies in our "description" when we create finding aids to provide access to materials and place them in context. Archivists also need to be more involved with outreach and exhibits to make what we do more approachable to outsiders and this is a topic that needs to be accepted and further explored by my colleagues.

I am going to digress a bit so you understand from where my thinking comes...As an undergraduate, I was on a curator path. I was an art history major who took all the museums studies coursework they would allow me. I was the first undergraduate to curate an exhibit at the University of New Hampshire Art Gallery. My mentor found that I kept gravitating toward the research rather than toward the art work. My show about the German Weimar photographers Gerta Peterich, Lotte Jacobi, and Ursula Wolff Schneider was heavy in label copy about the context of their work and the environment in which they practiced their craft. Watching me spend much time in the archives, my mentor suggested that I pursue a degree in the discipline. I agreed, thinking that it would strengthen my background in research (i.e. interpretation.) I could then go on to be a curator. I liked archives so much that I stayed and made a career out of it.

Last Friday, I went with my second aforementioned colleague to visit a local art museum. "Description" was very much on my mind. I was impressed with brochures that were made readily available by this museum. They placed various sections of their displayed collections in context. I was impressed with the activities they left around to engage children with imagery. I was less than impressed with much of their label copy. I began wondering about the concept of "interpretation" - its purpose and our jobs as cultural heritage professionals in applying it.

I am going to use one example of label copy at the local art museum that concerned me. It gave the usual name of the painter, dates, etc., but no other information. I noticed that on the painting itself was the artist's name and it said that the work was a copy of a work by another artist. However, according to the label the image was of the artist who copied the picture. This could lead one to think that it was a straight-up self-portrait. In the image, the sitter held a palette and paintbrushes. From my background in art history, I deduced that the subject was the student of the original painter. The master painted her portrait and she copied it. Her paintbrushes were a dead give away to me as a symbol of her own status as a painter. Would a regular museum-goer pick all of that up? To me, that scenario is interesting enough to point out to the viewer. Thinking about the face upon which I gazed, I could picture myself in the studio with her and her mentor. To me, the people depicted in the painting came more to life when I deduced the circumstances of its creation.

Cultural heritage professionals have tools for interpretation that others do not have. We use our knowledge and expertise to figure out things that are not apparent to everyone. It is part of our job to point out connections between pieces of information. We might guide our audiences to come to their own conclusions, but without our interpretation tools, most would not be able to make educated conclusions about the resources in our care. Call it "interpretation." Call it "description." Call "it" whatever you want.  It is part of what makes us professionals. Interpretation is vital for making cultural heritage institutions vital to general society. Without it, our patrons sometimes do not know what to make of the objects in our care or even what to make of our institutions themselves. Curators and archivists should challenge themselves to interpret and to do it well. It is key to making a direct connection with potential audiences that include researchers, visitors, and supporters. It is vital for opening doors to help that audience understanding of the resources we automatically cherish.  Share what you know, welcome curiosity, and engage your public.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Exploring the History of Women - More on Documenting the Underdocumented

Women's history is often elusive. Records of women's activities were limited up until the twentieth century. The documents that showed women's role in society were hard to come by or non-existent. Fewer women than men were well-educated or knew how to write. Fewer women participated in activities outside of the home that led to the creation of documentation for us to examine. Many women's traditional activities were not considered worthy of record.  March 2011 is the anniversary of Women's History Month in the U.S., providing us with the perfect opportunity to consider the documentation of my often under-documented sex. March 8th also marks the 100th anniversary of International Women's Day, which grew out of early twentieth century labor movements that sought comparable treatment for both sexes in the workplace. We now celebrate women's history to recognize the achievements (big and small) of all women around the globe. From cleaning the house to running major corporations, from raising children to winning competitions, the activities of women should be documented and appreciated as vital to our understanding of our communities and of a greater humanity.

According to American Libraries, "The roots of National Women’s History Month go back to “Women’s History Week,” first celebrated in Sonoma County, California, in 1978...The United Nations began celebrating International Women’s Day on March 8, 1975, during the U.N. International Women’s Year and encouraged member states to establish a similar day on a date appropriate to their traditions. Celebration of International Women’s Day has extended to over 60 nations..."

The following is a list of just a few of the wonderful online resources I've explored for archival material and documentation projects related to Women's history: 

Civil War Women: Primary Sources on the Internet by Duke University

Do History - Martha Ballard's Diary online

Georgia Women's Movement Oral History Project - (with a link to related oral histories throughout the United States)

Quilts as Women's Documents: The Louisiana Quilt Documentation Project

UNESCO Libraries Portal - sources for women's history

"The Library of Congress, National Archives and Records Administration, National Endowment for the Humanities, National Gallery of Art, National Park Service, Smithsonian Institution and United States Holocaust Memorial Museum join in paying tribute to the generations of women whose commitment to nature and the planet have proved invaluable to society."

Women Working 1800-1930 - Diaries, Memoirs and Journals. Harvard University, Schlesinger Library Radcliffe Institute


Over at the Life in Context Facebook page, we encourage you to post images and stories about the strong women in your life. Please browse on over and take part! Document the memories of the women who have influenced you.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Culling Family Photographs

A Twitter friend recently tweeted a link to The rise and rise of family photographs . It is an interesting article that discusses the ubiquitous nature of photographs today. It provides a brief synopsis of photography's rise to make the capture of a human's visage and form an ordinary event and not an extraordinary one as it was a little over half a century ago.  The author uses his personal family photos and some stories associated with them to relate how photographs convey heritage and "the knowledge of what made us who we are." He explains how the stories are important to give context to an image and that photos without a back-story pique our curiosity, encouraging us to seek more information. Alternately, when information cannot be found, unlabeled images can be useless. The author also discusses how despite the profusion of images today, families often find that scenes they would like documented through photographs are missing from their personal collections, with the potential to leave holes in family memory. This article excels in drawing attention to family photography collections and raises awareness of the desirability of maintaining such a collection to preserve family legacy. The author even discusses the need to continually transfer digital images as technology evolves. The one shortcoming I saw in the article was in this statement:

"No doubt whoever threw away that picture of [my ancestor] thought it to be merely rubbish. The only answer, therefore, is to hang on to all of it and let our descendants do the sifting."

I referenced the article for the Twitter-sphere this way: "RT @: The rise & rise of family   [I like this, but only answer is NOT 2 keep everything!]"

I heard back from the person who brought the article to my attention. She wrote "@archivesinfo Good advice, but so very difficult! How do you decide what to discard?"

How fortunate that I just wrote about keeping photographs in my upcoming book "Preserving Memories," which is due out later this year. (Shameless pre-publication plug?) In this posting, I will explain how family record keepers should approach appraisal (deciding what to keep and what to get rid of) for personal photo collections. We really do not need to keep everything. We do not need to be afraid to determine what is unnecessary. We do not need to leave the "dirty work" for our descendants. If we do, eventually someone is likely to get frustrated and just throw the whole kit-and-kaboodle into the trash. Handing down a well-managed collection of personal papers and photographs to loved ones encourages them to treasure the items, keep up their maintenance, AND to value the family history that they embody.

-  Think of your printed photos and digital files as one "collection." Your images visually tell your family story. What events, people and places do you want to remember?

- Start simply. The simplest way to reduce the burden you may feel with your collection is to remove duplicates. You only need one copy of each image. Then consider images that are similar. Do you really need a close-up of your birthday cake and then ten images showing mom brining the cake into the room, putting it on the table, you blowing out candles, etc.? Which of the images in the series best represent the occasion? You may find that three out of ten cover all aspects of the story, from the people who were there to what you wore. You may find that just one does the trick.

- Are all of the images in good condition? Sometimes the condition of an image can help narrow the field. However, also weigh if the image fills a gap in your story. If the image is in poor condition, but is the only one of its kind. Keep it.

- Do you know anything about the image? Is the person someone you don't know? Can someone else in your family identify the person in the image? If an old image sits around for years and nobody can be found who knows anything about it, do you really need to keep it? (No)

- Sometimes we just get snap-happy. I really enjoyed taking photographs of the mountains out of my car window up in North Conway, NH on a recent vacation there, but really most of the images look the same. The mountains may have been different and exciting in person, but in an image they don't convey much. I'll get rid of most of them.

- Remember that a printed photograph is not more valuable than one on your computer. We sometimes tend to more easily press the delete key than throw away an image. An image on paper does not embody a certain specialness that makes it more precious than any other kind of document. Make decisions about its future the same way you would make decisions about anything else.

- Always think about the story of the image. As our wise article writer points out, a photograph helps convey a family history. Does an image tell you something about the person pictured? Does it give a sense of place? Does it give a sense of time? Does it adequately tell you about an event? Is it just mundane with no informational value? If it doesn't have informational value, get rid of it.

- Does the image pique your curiosity? I have a few images of nameless people in nameless places that ring  bells. The pictures can be used to describe a legend in my family. If I can guess about a person's identity even though I can't confirm it, I often find an image worth keeping.

- Step back once in awhile and take a look at your photographs as a whole. Do they work together to convey a good sense of who you are and the people in your life? What is missing from the story? What images do not add to the story? Aim to create a tight grouping of materials that show the stages of your life and the lives of your loved ones. Keep images showing people changing through time. Keep the obvious highlights. Keep the images that convey personalities. Keep the ones that provide a sense of place. Get rid of those that don't add to the story.

- Organize your images to increase their value to future generations. Use an album or photo box to sort by subject or date. I keep my most prized images in chronological order. The images that I don't want to see regularly, but I still consider worthwhile for keeping are arranged by subject in more economical and less time consuming photo boxes. 

- Think of the organization of your digital images the same way you consider your printed files. Organize them in chronological folders as they are pulled from your camera. Use a software package that allows you to tag them with keywords for easy access.

- Label, label, label. If a photo is worth keeping, you should provide its back-story. Use a photo safe pen or pencil to record the name of the person, place, and/or event depicted. If there is a "story" to the image, supply as much as you can of that too.

- Do not try to do everything at once. Do not get overwhelmed. Review your family photograph collection a little at a time. If you are unsure about something you think you might want to throw away, wait to review it on another day. When in doubt, create a checklist of pros for keeping and pros for letting go. Appraisal is a bit of an art and not a science. Use your best, careful judgement.

@ddaruth this one's for you ;)

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Museums Advocacy Day

Museums Advocacy Day sponsored by the American Association of Museums encourages professionals and supporters to speak up for museums and to promote policy issues affecting the field. Focused around events taking place today at the U.S. Capitol, Museums Advocacy gives colleagues a chance to network and meet with Congressional offices to discuss the impact museums have on our society. 
On Twitter, supporters are linking museums to the mainstay reasons we always cite for the purpose of garnering support; Museums are vital for education, community development, culture, economics and more. But one tweet jumped out at me. It made the mission to save museum funding more personal:  "Has a museum improved your life? Tweet about it today with @' hashtag:” This question shot my mind back in time. I thought about how museums first improved MY life. I remembered one of the local museums near where I grew up. I remembered experiencing the wonderment for the very first time that I now feel whenever I go to a museum.  

The Vanderbilt Museum in Centerport, NY seemed far removed from my world. When I first visited the museum with my mother, the opulence of the residence in its beautiful setting was bewildering to a young person's eyes. I enjoyed the place as an historic structure with an "otherness" that seemed untouchable yet intriguing. It was the stories of the people inside that made the museum shine for me. It was my opportunity to volunteer at the Estate through a national honor society program that introduced me to new ideas about deciphering stories through collections. This hooked me into the value of museum going and untangling history through historical resources. 

I was welcomed to the Vanderbilt by the Director who gave me a tour of the facility and let me see William K. Vanderbilt through her eyes.  While the director helped me develop a burgeoning interest in history and art, the place she opened to me could have had a similar impact on someone interested in the sciences due to the museum's diverse collections.The scrapbooks she entrusted to me covered many family stories ranging from the collecting of objects related to natural history, to the building of a Long Island highway so that the Vanderbilts could explore their passion for automobiles by racing them, to the family scandals. The many hours I put into the scrapbooks were many hours getting to know the family. The museum was a shell for their stories. It became a place of many ghosts. It became to me a monument to those who helped build my community. It became my own place of exploration. 

A museum's value is in connecting its visitors with the untouchable, making it seem approachable. A museum's value is also in offering a new perspective on the things we thought we knew, making the mundane seem special. Museums help us explore our place in the world and can help us understand that we have various paths that we can take based on our own personal choices.  The value of a museum is in the capacity of its collections for verity and to offer alternate perspectives on reality. The value of a museum is also in the capacity of its staff to unlock those stories to encourage its visitors to engage with diverse ideas.  Museums need support to reach their potential audiences. Everyone should have an opportunity to engage directly with a museum as I did when I was a teenager. Museums Advocacy invites you to share your stories to support museums as they support you. Please share: How has a museum improved your life?