Saturday, March 31, 2012

Video Blog - Presentation on Narrative and Preservation in Derry NH, edited clips

Over the past couple of months, I've done numerous presentations related to caring for personal papers as part of my "Unofficial Family Archivist" New England tour. Recently, the Derry Public Library in New Hampshire invited me to speak and had their local community access station film the event. Here, I share excerpts from my talk. I would like to thank Debbie Roy of Derry Community Television for allowing me to edit and use her recording to share some of my words with you.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

"Don't Open Until Halley's Comet": Time Capsules

From font to outfit - straight out of the 80s

1980s Time Capsule

On my current consulting project, I ran across a box in a Town Vault that is labeled "Don't open until Halley's Comet reappears in 2061." Vaguely remembering the last time Halley's Comet appeared, when I was in high school in 1986, I was fascinated by the idea of a comet time capsule. I can vividly imagine the 80s capsule. Besides our thoughts about the comet, perhaps this time capsule would include small items and documentation demonstrating early video games, the Commodore 64 and the earliest Mac, Nintendo, mismatched earrings, Walkmans, Miami Vice, Ray bans, Rubiks Cube, Trivial Pursuit, and Jane Fonda Aerobics videos...Though I've often encountered time capsules in the past, the idea of creating one to celebrate a comet seemed especially geeky and appealing. So I went online to explore how many other towns had the idea to celebrate Halley's Comet. I was surprised by how much information I found on the topic. It seems like Halley's Comet time capsules were the thing to do.

Time Capsules through History

Time Capsules: A Cultural History by William E. Jarvis describes time capsules as a "significant attempts to transfer cultural information across the millenia." According to Jarvis, the making of time capsules has roots back thousands of years, but it seems to me that our modern attempts can be linked back to the 13th century with the act of laying cornerstones.

I like that..."an Earth-based time capsule..."

It seems that time capsules really capture our imagination about the future -- where humans will be and what future generations will think of us. Time capsules are like archives repositories on steroids in that they encapsulate humanities achievements in a punctuated way that yells, "Hey, look at us! Hear our stories! Pay attention to what we have done and what we think at this moment!"

Time Capsules in a Digital World

Time capsules have come a long way. We realize that the future is a digital world and we have brought our thoughts about time capsules online by describing past projects and making digital spaces for recording future projects. Finding lost time capsules has been a significant problem in the past, when excited time capsule makers often forgot to leave good clues about where their capsules can be found. In fact, in the last public library where I worked, the director brought in metal detectors to try to determine where in the walls an old time capsule was located. Though online time capsules are gaining popularity, but we are still excited about the idea of leaving actual objects behind, like a present waiting to be opened. 

Two years ago, I served as an advisor to a high school student who made a time capsule for her senior project as a member of the first graduating class of the new local school. Today, if you look up "time capsule" online, the information about how to make one is plentiful. Believe it or not, it was difficult to find information about the topic a couple of years ago. Content on the Internet has exploded recently and the tools for finding worthwhile information have improved. At the time, I queried my colleagues through a listserv for information and was answered by an employee of the State of NJ Archives and Records Management division. He was nice enough to send me a packet on the ins and outs of time capsules. 

Best Practice and Links

If you are looking to create a time capsule of your own, here's a little summary of best practice:

  • Consider placing your time capsule in archives safe housing in a climate controlled repository (as my client's Halley's Comet time capsule is stored)  rather than burying it. 
  • If you feel you must bury it, use an aluminum or stainless steel container. Seek out appropriate containers from specialized suppliers.
  • Keep a record, in an easy to find location, of where your time capsule is and register it with the International Time Capsule Society.
  • Make a list of the items in your time capsule.
  • Make sure everything is clean when you put it in your capsule and wear cotton gloves when placing items for storage.
  • Use proper containers for diverse materials and do not store unstable items such as food.
  • Don't forget to record information about the time capsule event itself. 
Some Ideas for Outreach and Time Capsule Projects

Creating a time capsule can be a very rewarding and engaging project, highlighting the important moments in our lives. 

  • I think perhaps maybe I'll plan such a project for my own daughter's tenth birthday in a couple of years. I think this would certainly make a worthwhile family lesson!
  • My town is creating a Town Common area. In addition to selling bricks (another vogue type of project), perhaps a time capsule can be kept at the library up the street or buried under the newly installed gazebo? Time capsule are perfect opportunities for community projects.
  • Archives repositories should take advantage of time capsule events to explain how what we do relates to time capsules to capture human ingenuity and imagination. Professionals should use the opportunity to offer expertise and show our skills.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Blogging Our Posterity

A friend recently posted this question on her Facebook page:

"Do bloggers really want honest feedback or are they just looking for affirmation? Blogs used to be filled with interesting ideas and cutting edge information, but now in a time when everyone and their monkey has a blog, I am beginning to wonder what the purpose is..."

After a little back and forth banter, I responded:

"I've actually thought about this a bit from a professional point of view - as an archivist. People now have an opportunity to have their words and lives saved in a way they thought they never could before. Perhaps posting online is a way to validate yourself, make a statement, and know that the words will be there 'forever.' I often spend time convincing my audiences at programs that historical societies are interested in their family papers. While people seem to intuitively 'get' that the Internet is waiting for their words and that in a digital environment people care what they say, they don't translate it to papers at an institution, but it's the same thing. It's sort of as if the Internet has given them permission to have their ideas saved for posterity." 

In an age where we explore our identity online --  from "Lifestreaming" to personal timelines to "curating our world to show our own unique point of view to spitting out what is on our mind at any particular moment -- what is the purpose of the blog? And how does this all fit together from a documentation / community / life story perspective. Do people post with an expectation that others will read and converse? Are people just trying to make their own mark on the world?... or maybe a little bit of both? Is blogging a bit like graffiti tagging or is it more permanent like having your collection of personal papers in an archival repository? (And yes, I do want your honest feedback, as always. I don't need personal affirmation here.)

Monday, March 19, 2012

What Does "Community" Mean in the 21st Century? Why is it important?

Last week, I Asked on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+: "What is community? Where do you find it? Is the idea of community changing?" This post explores what community means in the 21st century and why it is still important.

As someone who specializes in helping local communities, I use that word - "community" - quite a bit. I realize that it is hard to define, a bit squirmy, and loosely tossed around. So after my friends at the "Library as Incubator Project" sent me their guest post article on Serving Artists in Your Community last week, I began to try to nail that word down again by getting input from others on its definition. I thought that perhaps the idea of community is changing and that it means different things to different people. While these thoughts were confirmed, I was also surprised by how some others interpret that word.

The ideal of "serving the community" is something I think that all cultural heritage institutions can ascribe to. I have long believed that the prime purpose of archives, libraries, and museums is to document and support communities. In order to claim such a lofty goal for all of our work, the term needs to better understood. Defining "community," would in part show how our audiences overlap and how we can better work together to serve a common purpose.

Preparing early in the week for the "Library as Incubator Project" post had me thinking about the idea of a general audience for museums, libraries and archives. The specific focus of the Project's work from the perspective of librarians got me thinking about whether or not archivists could create similar tools and outreach efforts to focus on a particular "community." Can archivists, curators and librarians share communities and offer different services that target the same audience, perhaps even in a collaborative way? Are we all serving the same "community"? Are we even all part of the same "community"? Is the idea of "community" changing in a way that can enhance our efforts to reach out to our public audience?

Definition of Community

Here's the definition of "community" that I offered in my blog post on the subject last year. It is in fact still the post for which I consistently get the most hits on my blog site:
"A community is a formal or informal group with a common history or culture. The community can be based around a geographic area, trait, or topic of interest. Communities come in the form of:
  • Families
  • ethnic groups
  • civic organizations
  • governments
  • informal and formal social groups
  • educational institutions
  • colleagues
  • causes
  • geographical locations / neighborhoods"

To me, "community" is a noun representing people. It matches this idea presented by a Twitter friend:

"[Community is] A supportive/interactive membership of individuals with a common interest - tho[ugh they] may possess a different outlook/set of goals."

I was surprised by some other people's responses though. Not everyone defined a "community" in people terms. Not everyone defined "community" as a noun. And some people even saw it as a negative thing rather than a positive one. Here are some alternate definitions that were shared:

Community as Action

On Twitter, someone responded: "Community is the act of sharing, kindness, collaboration, support & combining resources." I responded to the person who wrote that, that I had not thought of  community it as a verb. The writer wrote back to me: "... Community involves participation, therefore it is an action." Okay. Great. I think I like the general thought behind that idea.

Community as a Feeling

Facebook allows for more detailed responses. Some one wrote, "Community to me is a sense of belonging. The first communities for many of us were those within a family and grew to include our neighborhood, school, or community. As our physical boundaries grew, so did our sense of community -- such as identifying with a specific region, or state, or nation. But as we grow and age, I think it evolves into many differing layers which are by choice and not happenstance - those kindred spirits which become a community - those sharing common ideals or interests. Those first layers of community may stay, evolve, or dissipate." 

I like the idea of community as a feeling, more than just as people. It makes sense to me that collections can help foster that feeling and the differing "layers" the writer describes by shedding light on overlapping communities.

Community Eroding

Another person on Facebook poetically described the erosion of "community" and the idea that we were losing that sense of belonging and losing that idea of comfort and kindness. I wonder, can promoting libraries, archives and museums, as "community" hot-spots that serve to retain the ideal of collaboration and shared knowledge help re-boost the sense of security that people like the writer may find slipping away in a faster paced society?

Community as Place

One person didn't see "community" relating to people at all, but saw it as inherent in buildings. "community is buildings with memories. Community is where I grew up and where I remain active now…." I asked for clarification and received this response: "[Community is] buildings who have seen some years- where people say 'if these walls could talks.' [They] can be beautiful or ugly but have stories." I asked for more clarification. I asked if buildings embody communities that go back many generations and the writer responded: “often times yes. Not all buildings do though. A church or community hall, yes. But a 1970s roller rink can sometimes but not always. A church for sure, but a 1990s roller rink can have memories of a community too….i think bldngs can be the most concrete part of a memory. May not remember exactly what happened but people remember bldngs." 

I think that this point of view would certainly serve to show the importance of cultural heritage institutions serving as community building blocks, but rather than the collections serving the purpose alone, the edifice in which the collections are housed are just as important. I think the idea of the geographical locations or neighborhoods that I included in my bulleted list of communities fits in with this idea.

Community as a Romantic Construct

Another person responded "Community is hard to define, yet historians use it to understand the way people lived. It is mostly a romantic construct… Any negative memories are lost in the retelling over time."

I'd like to think that positive and negative build communities and it is not all romanticized. Yet, another person responded that the idea of "community" could be an old-fashioned one where people believed in safe spaces and perfect neighborhoods for all, even though they never really existed.

Community Representing Class Distinctions

Along these lines, my U.K. friends on Twitter pointed out that overseas " 'community' started out in 80s as euphemism for housing estate, working class, black..usage widened..but still mealy mouthed…" In response, I pointed out that the word "community" is centuries old and hasn't always meant that. The writer responded: "indeed, i was thiking of its more recent currency in culture and politics..slippy, slidey,elisions of meaning." 

This was a new idea to me and a way of using the term that I don't think we use in the United States. It brought home the point that community is a "squirmy" word and not necessarily a positive one to everybody.

Cultural Institutions Nurturing Community, Dialogue and Engagement

The definition that I think I like best is the last that I saw. It was not directed at my question, but I saw it on Twitter under #musesocial, which was considering the idea of serving community from its own angle last week: "Perhaps "community" is not group of people so much as safe space for nurturing dialogue/participation." 

Along these lines, I would like to emphasize that is what cultural heritage institutions do best, or what they have the potential to do best if they accept that niche, is nurture dialogue and civic participation. By recognizing a common audience and like-minded goals across instiuttions, perhaps we can together use the term "community" to foster our sense of purpose, to promote knowledge in many forms, and to provide that "secure" space for public engagement.
Do these ideas of community resonate with you? What else would you add? How do you see the idea of community serving cultural heritage, organized human knowledge, and society in general?

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Serving Artists in Your Community by the team at the Library as Incubator Project

Today I am pleased to feature a guest post from the ladies of the Library as Incubator Project. These ladies caught my eye with their out of the box thinking about how librarians can focus on and serve a select aspect of their community. Today's blog post follows my earlier one this week on Strengthening Community Ties with an audience focus. The Library as Incubator project demonstrates how librarians can serve artists in their communities, but also serves as a model for cultural heritage professionals seeking to engage any audience.  Pick a group in your community with a common interest and focus on their needs. Show how your library, archives or museum can be an information hub for any group you choose. Check out the Library as Incubator Project on the platforms they list at the end of the article for more inspiration. Thanks so much to the Library as Incubator Project team for sharing your unique point of view with ArchivesInfo!


Image from   

The Library as Incubator Project was founded in 2011 by Erinn Batykefer, Laura Damon-Moore, and Christina Endres, while we were students in the UW-Madison School of Library and Information Studies. The goal of the Project is to highlight artists whose work has been “incubated” in some way by libraries, and to give artists and librarians a place to connect. Here we present some ideas for library/archives staff on how to reach out to and support the artists in your community.

1. Help artists get to know the libraries in your community.

Don’t assume that every user group in your community knows about the library and - more specifically - what it can offer them as professionals or hobbyists. A lot of fine and creative artists know and appreciate their public, school, or college library but might not know that the services it offers that can really help them develop as artists, writers, and performers. There are a number of ways that you can reach out to artists to create a mutually beneficial library/user relationship.
     Invite local arts organization members to a special library open house geared toward artists. Showcase the collections and services the library provides that would be especially useful to that user group. Or, offer to attend an arts council or arts organization meeting to talk about the library and how it can be of particular use to artists.
     Prepare a set of materials that talks specifically about these collections and services for artists to pick up at the information or reference desk. A generic list of library services can be overwhelming for some people, but putting a special spin on the services (like explaining that the business reference materials can be particularly useful for creative artists starting their own small business) can help focus the guides and make them clearer for users.
     Does your library have gallery space? Make it clear where people can find information about showing their work in the library, online and in the library itself. Brochures located near the gallery space means that users can have their questions answered quickly. Include an FAQ section that outlines artist submission guidelines, timeline/scheduling information, and a specific staff member to contact with follow up questions.

2. Gear (some of) your resources toward artists.

Even if your library doesn’t have the budget for a full-blown makerspace, studio, or performance space doesn’t mean you can’t support artists with library resources. Bibliographies, finding aids, and book lists are always helpful - why not try creating one specially geared toward a type of artist (like reference books for writers, or great books for fiber artists)? Of course, inspiration for creative projects comes from everywhere, not just books written by peers. So you won’t be able to address everything - nor need you! Just put a note at the bottom of a book list to remind users that if they have questions, they can always ask for assistance.

The nice thing about “the arts” is that there are plenty of people who do them professionally or as a hobby - at the next staff meeting, ask if there is a great knitter among you who would be interested in putting together a book display of his/her favorite knitting books. This is a fun way to involve staff from multiple departments.

Artists may also be looking for ways to turn their work into a business.  Promote materials that may be of use to artists and writers trying to monetize their work, perhaps through a “Business of Art” book display.  Include books with details about money and finances, but also about other practical skills like framing and building a website.  Include a list of online databases and resources that may also be of use.

3. Promote workshops to the artists in your community.

If your library holds arts-related workshops, chances are the artists in your community will be interested.  Find out about your local artist groups, crafting communities, and arts organizations and promote your workshops through their newsletters, listservs, or even Facebook pages.   Even if you think a workshop may be too basic for more seasoned artists, you might capture the interest of a collage artist who has been meaning to learn to paint, or a poet who is interested in photography.  Workshops are also a great venue to introduce artist patrons to other resources and materials that may be helpful to them at the library. 

Keep in mind that artists may also be looking to learn skills that are not necessarily directly related to the arts.  Make sure that the artists and writers in your community know about computer software trainings, small business workshops, and social media how-to’s.  Try marketing to the creative community on social media sites where extra plugs to a specific user group come at no extra cost. 

4. Encourage artists to share their work with the community.

One incredibly useful role of libraries in the lives of artists, writers and performers is as a venue for displaying or presenting their creative work. Consider ways that your library can fulfill the role of “venue” for the artists in your community. Serving as a gallery or as a reading/performance space may be an obvious answer, but think about ways to extend that involvement - or to still be supportive of creative work even if you can’t actually showcase it in the library. Artists can curate book displays, prepare recommended reading lists, and facilitate workshops. Offer the option for artists to facilitate a workshop based on their work and incorporate it into your programming schedule (relatively simple if you plan it when you book their gallery show/event). Be sure to discuss what the library will offer in terms of support (whether it’s just paying for supplies, or whether the artist will be compensated).

5. Show artists you’re there for them, 24/7.

One of the most popular responses we get from artists on our survey about how they use libraries is that they wish the library was open 24/7 for those days when the most productive hours are between 11 pm and 3 am.   Of course, the library has to close at night, but the web is always open.  Make sure that artists in your community know about the great online resources your library offers at all times of day and night.

It helps to talk to a few artists and writers. Ask them what kinds of resources they would find helpful when the creativity strikes at midnight. Make these resources easy to access and locate.  Create a page on your website, or even a category for artists within your existing resources page, with links to rich visual resources like the Smithsonian Galaxy of Images, NYPL Digital Gallery, or images from your local/state archives.  If you subscribe to databases that include art, poetry or other creative resources, highlight these as well.  Post bibliographies and booklists online, so users can place hold on those items at any time of day. 

There is a lot that can be done to serve artists at the library, and sometimes you have to start small.  Take one or two of these steps, reach out to the artists and writers in your community, and build from there.  The artists we’ve talked with appreciate all the small things librarians do to make their lives easier, and there’s much for the library to benefit from these relationships as well.

We want your ideas and tips on how to connect your library/archives with artists too! Feel free to get in touch with us at libraryasincubatorproject @, or connect with us through Twitter (@IArtLibraries) or Facebook (Library as Incubator Project). We are always looking to start conversations with new colleagues!

Monday, March 12, 2012

Who is your audience? Strengthening Community Ties with an Audience Focus

Sometimes cultural institutions get caught up in the things they do and forget about for whom they are doing them. Today's post discusses the value of keeping audience in mind when performing work in a cultural heritage institution. Later this week, I will introduce a guest post from the ladies of the "Library as Incubator Project." They will share their ideas for targeting artists as an audience from a library perspective. I thought before I put up their piece, it might be nice to take a step back and consider a wider audience for museums, libraries and archives.

Each institution must consider it's potential audiences based on the institution's function, but also on the unique profile of the community it serves. (A description of this community should be part of the organization's mission statement.) Each institution should make plans to reach the groups that will be best served by their materials and activities. Strengthening ties to community in this way makes cultural heritage institutions a more visible and viable part of these communities.

Each person who attends a library, archives, or museum has different informational and entertainment needs that may be based on their interests, circumstances, ages and backgrounds. They will be receptive to what we offer them based on these factors. Quite basically, a child in a library will not be served in the same way as a senior. Yet, while it is easy to consider age -- which is a set factor that contains clearly recognizable groups of children, teens, young adults, adults and senior -- other categories are more difficult to define. Our work is often successful to the extent that we can tailor our work to attract diverse interests.

  • Examine your resources and determine what potential groups can be served by your diverse holdings.
  • Examine the large community you serve and determine what smaller communities exist within it. 
By identifying your resources and your communities, you can then target your outreach to reach the audiences who will have interest in them. You will likely have the potential to aim your outreach efforts at more audiences than you have time to focus on each. Using your mission and collection policy can be an ideal way to start the ball rolling by determining where your strengths and weaknesses lie. For example, do you have a very strong collection of materials related to the Civil War? Do you have a local reenactment group? It would make sense to show them how your materials suit their interests. Alternately, if you know you have a strong reenactment group and your collection related to their interests is weak, you can ask them how you can better serve their needs and call on their support for your efforts.

Think about your "audience" as active participants in the work that you do.

"Our audiences are not passive spectators. They increasingly expect museums to offer them participatory experiences and that should be reflected by the way in which the modern museum approaches them.
Don’t think of the people who walk through your doors or interact with you online as audiences, think about what you can do for your participants." - The Audience is Dead. Let's Talk Participants Instead

In a way, archives and libraries have always had this point of view. They have more direct interaction with their "audience" or their "patrons" through reference services and more opportunity for a give-and-take relationship. But these encounters are not always used effectively by librarians and archivists to strengthen ties with their communities. We often serve up information without retrieving feedback about whether patrons found what they want or need. We often make plans for collection growth and programs without outside input, even when we have an audience willing to give us beneficial feedback - IF we just ask.

Encourage general comments by putting out a suggestions box or placing an online feedback button on your web or Facebook page, but also target specific groups and ask them very pointedly if your institution is serving their needs.

Targeting specific audiences for your institution and requesting feedback can change the dynamic of your work. Strengthen community ties by evaluating what you do internally, seek feedback externally, and tailor your work to match the desires and needs of specific groups you can serve.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

More Finds at the Local Antique Shop - Creating Context

Last week, I wrote that archivists focus mainly on the materials that they keep and not necessarily the people who make those materials. Now that I've cleared up a little confusion I found among some of my contemporaries about an archivist's role, perhaps this will befuddle matters once again...  It's time for another round of "More Finds at the Local Antique Shop." This time I have an agenda beyond my interesting finds. Of course archivists don't keep things just to keep "stuff." There is certainly more to it than that. So take a look at these two photos. Form your impressions about them and then read on...

These photos reflect diverse subjects and portray different sensibilities. The first feels like a snap shot. The second is most definitely a posed studio photo. The first gives us a sense of place. The second does not. The image with the building impels us to focus on the setting much more than on the people pictured, whereas the image of the woman makes us focus on the details of her dress, pose and expression -- essentially on her. Most obviously, the first image is one that can stand as representative of poverty and the second as one of wealth.

Unfortunately, these are "orphan" photos from an antique shop. I do not know who these people are. I do not know anything about their lives other than what I see here. Without doing some research, I do not know if my impressions about them are true or false constructs. I wonder if other materials that reflect the lives of these people exist somewhere -- either in a family collection or in a repository. I wonder if there is a collection that tells their full stories. If such collections exist, and if I were to somehow find them, would the other materials in that collection confirm my impressions of these people or would they negate them, A third scenario is that they may balance them, providing other dimensions to my first impressions to make me better understand the purpose of these images in the lives of the people depicted. Perhaps they would show the people in different circumstances, in different clothing, or in a different setting.

An archivist focuses on the materials for which we care, but equally importantly, we focus on the context of that material. Without context, all materials can easily be considered "orphaned." The collections archivists build aim to tell about their subjects by retaining a connection to those subjects or creators of the materials. We track from where materials came (provenance) to tell the history of the material itself and so that we can attest to its authenticity. We aim to keep order given to materials by their creators to further retain context. Though we keep groups of records with different provenances separated, we aim to put materials with related contexts together in larger "collections" with resources from multiple people and places reflecting a larger story. So while the safekeeping of materials is the archivist's main goal, it is a goal with a purpose of forming connections among similar materials to help shed light on the individuals, their communities, and the human condition.

Exercise: A Personal Item Out of Context

Pull a random item from your own collection. What does that item tell you about the person it reflects? If this is a subject you know well, is what you think of that item influenced by what you already know about the subject? Let's pretend you know nothing about the person or people pictured. Would you draw different conclusions about the image than you do with some background knowledge?

To make my point, here is an unusual photo of me from my family collection: 

What conclusions might one draw about me based on this image? What do you think I'm doing here and why? Do you think this is an important part of my story or just a simple snapshot? (This is in fact a highly significant moment in my life and an activity that has an ongoing presence in my household almost ten years after this photo was taken. I'll tell the story about it one day...maybe in a new presentation somewhere or when I'm hurting for blogging ideas...)

While going through your own images and documents, consider their context. What context do your materials retain? What is missing? How difficult is it to retain the context of materials? How easily can context be lost?