Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Cemeteries at the Heart of Communities

Turkey Hill Cemetery, Merrimack, NH
The study of gravestones and cemeteries is a field close to my heart. As an undergraduate, I was first introduced to the idea of studying the art of gravestones in an introductory American art history class. I chose that topic for an independent study project, received a stipend to write "Gravestones: A Reflection on American Lifestyles," and the paper was accepted for presentation at Caltech's Undergraduate Research Opportunities conference in 1991. That was a long time ago, but visiting graveyards has been a consistent part of my adult life and burial grounds remain enchanting places for me.

Why do I like graveyards?

Nature and man live together quite comfortably in our graveyards
  •  They help people be remembered how they want to be remembered. Whether we wish to reach out to a God, to be remembered for our good deeds, to mention our connection to family...the gravestone often becomes the place to display our legacy, literally in stone.
  • They are quiet peaceful places that invite contemplation of all sorts. In a graveyard, nature and humanity are often tied together. We can feel something bigger than ourselves and beyond ourselves. (I like to write in a cemetery whenever I can, for this reason.)
  • Like most things created by humans, gravestones reveal trends in tastes and design. We can track changes in history and views by examining gravestones.
  • Gravestone art is really, really amazing. We see carvers' talents on the stones. We can follow these artists and their journeys up and down the coasts or inland. We see how the fine art of the times influenced iconography. The symbols the artists placed on gravestones also reveal much about their times.
Gravestone iconography reflects trends and artists
  • Epitaphs are often poetic and/or funny. 
  • The old-fashioned names on stones are beautiful, interesting, or enlightening.
  • I feel connected in a graveyard, to both the past and the future.
Names on gravestones are fascinating
This morning I had the opportunity to visit Turkey Hill Cemetery in Merrimack, NH. I pass by this site frequently, but I didn't have a chance to visit until today. It was perfect. It's a drizzly day - perfect cemetery weather. 

With some research on the Internet at home, I was happy to see that my genealogist friends have been hard at work mapping this site. I would love to see some straight-on black and white photos that can best show the imagery. I also hope that the town can spend some money to clean the lichen off the stones. We are very lucky to have these precious artifacts right in our own backyards. I hope that everyone recognizes their historical value. (See my article on Copp's Hill burial ground for more reflection on this.)

The connection between archives and gravestones is always fascinating. As with other artifacts, archives help us better understand their history. Whereas the documentation for other artifacts is sometimes difficult to find, records about American graveyards is usually found in town records, family papers, and church archives. In Merrimack:

Information about Turkey Hill Cemetery is posted at the site
"The first burying ground mentioned in town records is that of the meetinghouse, located on Meetinghouse Road near where it joins Turkey Hill Road. It is now known as Turkey Hill Cemetery."

In a way that few other places can, a graveyard supplies a sense of community space. This is the last and most important reason why I love them. In early New England, a church was a requirement for the establishment of a town. Churches were usually placed in a centralized location that was at least somewhat convenient for most people. Located beside their churches, New Englanders established their first graveyards. This allowed families and loved ones, neighbors and leaders to remain close to those in the community even after death. Graveyards link us to "them" and link us to others who remember and bury their dead around the world.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Finding My Platinum Presence

Standing in front of a room of friendly faces, eager to hear what I have to say.

Sitting across a table of people. All eyes on me. Judging if I am the right person to join them.

Speaking on the phone to a client, explaining my thoughts with the authority they need to hear to give them the unequivocal assurance to move forward with their ideas.

We have all experienced moments like this. With twenty-years of a professional experience, I have experienced all of these things over and over again. Now I experience them with a confidence that I previously did not have.

I do not want to stereotype, but I believe that many of us who choose the library sciences as a profession would classify ourselves as "introverts." According to the book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, "Studies show that one third to one half of us are introverts." Being introverted has its advantages. Usually, feeling comfortable in the presence of others is not one of them.

To say that Cheryl Dolan's "Platinum Presence" workshop has changed my professional journey is an understatement. Cheryl Dolan has changed my life. Truly. I have mentioned in this blog in the past that I consider myself an introvert. I am full of ideas. I love to share them, but I always have a niggling feeling when I am with groups. It's a feeling that tells me I'd rather be at home alone with a book or communicating through social media rather than face to face. When I was a young professional, I had a horrible time speaking to an audience. And even though now it is one of my favorite things to do, I replay every talk I give over and over in my brain for hours after the event. "Did they like me? What do I need to change? Did they like me?" In fact, when I interviewed for the first professional position that I eventually landed twenty years ago, I couldn't speak in my interview with the library director. Yes, I literally couldn't speak because I was so nervous. He was kind and patient and saw something in me that lead him to hire me.

My Platinum Presence class sits on their exercise balls.
That's me on the right.
Almost twenty years later, Cheryl gave me an opportunity to experience her two day class. She provides practical information about how to present oneself in many situations. She has us do a series of exercises that have us in front of a small group. We do some storytelling. We bounce on big exercise balls to ground ourselves and steady our voices. (It absolutely works! I now use the ball at home before I head out the door to speak to anyone!) We laugh. We learn. We get to know each other in a very relaxed and supportive atmosphere. I realized that everyone, even the people whom I would consider extroverts, had similar concerns about how they come across to others in different situations.

The group offers only positive feedback. I first thought that the positive feedback thing might not work. How could I possibly improve what was wrong if they only told me the positive? But really, I already knew what was wrong. I didn't fully know what was right. Now I can focus on my strengths and the bad stuff moves aside.

I want to thank my friend and new mentor, Cheryl Dolan for this terrific program that she has developed. It is a lifeline. It has given me a piece of myself that was missing. I have a new appreciation and understanding for how I come across to others. It has made me more attuned to my presence in a very positive way. It has given me the knowledge to show my Platinum Presence in any situation.

And finally, because my fellow Platinum Presence student Erica Holthausen of Honest Marketing Revolution shared her final class project, I am sharing mine.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

5 Mistakes New Archives Consultants (and Others) Make in Small Institutions

The biggest mistake I see new consultants make is jumping into a situation with theory at the forefront of their brains. It is not practical for every repository to reach the pinnacle of archival perfection. Theory should be kept in the back of the brain while one evaluates a site and determines how much theory can be realistically applied to a certain situation.

1. Aiming for the Ideal - Before you think about and present what is ideal, ask a lot of questions about how the institution functions now. How can you build off that? Shoot for improvement. Aim for what is practical. Determine where ideal and practical intersect.

Recently, I was working with another consultant who launched into the type of furniture a certain client needed to install in a new facility. This client had been working for years to raise the money necessary to convert an old building in town. The building would afford them much needed additional space. I took a step back. I saw the expression on the client's face as she considered information about "furniture off-gassing". I remembered that she had already shown me some storage pieces that were donated for the new facility. I asked, "Do you already have furniture or will you be buying new?" When she confirmed that she already had furniture even though no work had yet been done on the facility renovations themselves, I knew that we needed to talk about how to mitigate the off-gassing of existing furniture and not to talk about how to find perfect furniture.

Look for what situations must
be remedied. Set priorities.
2. Overestimating what is fiscally feasible - Don't forget that small facilities probably have very limited resources.  Cultural heritage institutions often function on shoestring budgets and grants. Think small. Think what must be done now versus what can be done down the road. Give clients a sense of what is important now and what is important for the future. Distinguish these things from a bucket list of to-dos that can make things easier, but that are not mandatory. Create a practical timeline for getting things done with goals and milestone activities for which they can aim. Provide options for getting things accomplished.

For example: Does the institution need a computer? Is price a consideration? Do you have contacts to help them get items at a discounted price? Are there people who might even be able to donate a computer? The job of a consultant for a small institution extends way beyond what is normal for the profession. Learn about related businesses. Network to find who can help you get your client what they need at affordable prices.
Consider: Where are the limited resources your client has best spent? Should they purchase preservation supplies or fix the leak over the collections? How can they raise money to do both? Clients will not always tell you the extent of their money issues. You need to ask and dig to learn what they can monetarily afford.

3. Overestimating Staffing - Many small institutions have small staffs. Many others operate with only volunteers. Be reasonable about their time. Things may move slower in a small institution. (On the other hand, sometimes there is less red tape, so things could move faster. Make yourself aware of the situation.) Sometimes there are no hands available to help. You may need to help rally troops to get things done. Information about finding and keeping volunteers may be useful.

Consultants may also sometimes overestimate or even underestimate the expertise of volunteers. Be reasonable about what can be accomplished by non-professionals, but also be encouraging. Part of the consultant's job is to be a teacher. How much of what you do can be taught to volunteers who can in turn teach other volunteers? Prepare for the possibility of unexpected teaching moments.

4. Forgetting or Not Realizing Political Considerations- The board may want things in the institution to be aesthetically pleasing to satisfy the mayor. A donor may encourage you to take a collection that you don't want before they give you money to support a new facility... You may need to figure out how to make everyone happy and this may sometimes take precedence over perfection.

Try not to get caught in the politics of the place. Talk to as many people as possible to get all views about issues and functions. Use your background and knowledge to make recommendations based on what you know, but keep in mind those political considerations. You play an unusual role as a consultant. Your opinion doesn't always matter. You are most often viewed as an outsider. Yet, your words can give your client leverage to make good things happen. Use your power wisely, but be aware of your place.

Help organize community support.
Look for teachable moments.
6. Discounting Community - The most successful projects in which I have had a hand have incorporated community involvement. A consultant can serve as a sort of cheerleader, presenting possibilities that an institution may not otherwise see. Consider members of the community who may want to take part in improving a cultural heritage institution. The local historical society, library, and museum should be a source of local pride. If the community feels the institution's value and is given a stake in its success, projects move forward more successfully. When appropriate, encourage clients to use you as a source for workshops for the public. Provide ideas for other ways and resources for community outreach.

The best skills a consultant can have are the abilities to listen, learn and exchange information. Be open-minded when you go into a new situation. Use your background and knowledge, but try to check your ego at the door and be open to new possibilities.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

The Importance of "Our" History

Recently, I stood in front of a room and told one of my most personal stories. It is MY story and I have known for a long time that some parts of it would interest others.

I wasn't quite prepared for the reaction that I got.

My audience told me that it was powerful. They told me that it made them realize the importance of their own history.

I once thought everyone realized the importance of their own history. As a seasoned archivist and public speaker, I now know that is not true.

As I have said before in this space, history is directly connected to each individual. History is important now because it is about now. We are the center of history. People existed before us. Events happened before we got here. People will live and events will happen after we are gone. Therefore, we are the center of history. History is memory of the now -- whenever that "now" is. Those memories will only become part of permanent history if we document the now properly. This is why archives are important. We are the spoke that keeps the memories of the history wheel turning. Without archives to keep memory safe, we lose that memory.

The story I told my audience was the story of my family escaping from the Holocaust. I realize that many people feel that my story is more "dramatic" than what they think they have to share. My grandparents' story is one of struggle, horror, and hope. I have learned a lot from my family history, but I have learned a lot from others' stories too.

My family did not come to the United States on the Mayflower. One of the reasons that I moved to New England was because I loved hearing those "other" stories of early settlers that were not related to my own family history. They seemed a bit romantic to a young girl. As I settled into my adult years, I realized that the Mayflower stories really weren't so "other." They were stories of a different struggle to survive. Though I could never be approved for membership in the DAR, I could certainly tie my history to those of DAR ancestors. There are stories of struggle and hope in everyone's past.

When I stood in front of an audience with my story a couple of weeks ago, I asked those listening to close their eyes and picture a circle with a timeline through it. I explained that they were the circle. The line to the left was all the people who came before them. The line to the right was all the people who will come after. The people who came before influenced their lives. Their lives in turn will influence the lives of those who come after them. This center of history timeline provides a good visual of why our actions matter; why our history matters. why our stories matter.

You are the center of history

Those of us in cultural heritage fields can use our own personal stories and the stories connected to the objects we keep to explain the importance of history. We can't assume that everyone knows the value of what we do. We need to find ways to connect people of all ages to the idea that history matters. In order to do this, we need to connect individual history to "other" stories and to larger cultures. Now, more than ever, we have opportunities to do this through social media and quickly changing ideas about society. Now, more than ever, we MUST do this BECAUSE of these quickly changing ideas. The records of history are mutating. We must raise awareness about their importance to efficiently collect the information they embody, provide appropriate access to this information, and make sure that personal digital documents migrate to formats in which they can be read in the future.

For a long time, I have connected MY story to the lives of the people I encounter when I work on collections. I hope that I connect the stories of my contemporaries to these collected memories too.

Earlier this year, on a whim, I made these CafePress products to broadcast this idea: http://www.cafepress.com/archivesinfo#

Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Diary Project Continues: Making Connections

Catch up on former Diary Project entries here: http://archivesinfo.blogspot.com/2012/04/mystery-solved-1882-diary-writer.html
The cemetery where my diary writer is buried. I now have a
stronger interest in the man who served as a town minister.
Did he officiate over any burials here?
I never made it to Maine over spring break to do diary research. The weather was iffy and time flew by with other things. Despite putting aside the diary for awhile, I do have some news. Recently I was contacted by a gentleman in New Jersey who has been researching the life of the minister who officiated at my diarist's wedding. The researcher came across my last blog post on how I found my diary writer. Based on what I said, he realized that the minister to whom I was referring was probably the one he was researching.

The Internet has opened up so many opportunities for researching and sharing information. Just a  few years ago, this researcher and I probably would have done our work totally separately without any opportunity to share information; without the opportunity to know that the other person existed. Here are some thoughts about this:

  • Blogging is great for tracking your life, sharing your views, sharing information and making connections. I've met so many people around the world through participating in social media. These people have influenced my thinking, my career, and my personal life.
  • Through the Internet, I have found information about my diarist and connected more easily with archives that have information to assist me.
  • I have been able to plan my trips to Maine to do research by using the Internet. I knew virtually nothing about Maine before this project. The Internet has allowed me to set a strategy for my work in a more organized way than I could do without it.
I think we all know the advantages of the Internet...but the value of visiting archives themselves and really making human connections to find information is illustrated by this project. During my last visit to Maine, I visited a repository and queried the assistant there to get information for my research. The repository lacked a finding aid and I needed to rely on the knowledge of the person who was helping me. I asked for church records thinking that marriages would be recorded there and was told that there were none. I needed to backtrack and rethink and re-frame the question. I made a list of other possible materials the archives might have. I asked for records or publications related to marriages in the town. Bingo! None of this information is on the Internet. As much as we would like to think that the Internet is the end all for all our information needs, it is not. In fact, few small repositories have the resources to connect their resources to the digital world. This repository still did not even have their materials "indexed" on paper.

The gentleman I spoke with on the phone has also done some digging for records in Maine. He told me that his minister lived in NJ, Maine, and California. That he always had health issues and seemed to keep moving in part because of these health issues. In addition to being a clergyman he also studied medicine. I suggested that my new friend query the Town Hall for records. In Massachusetts and New Hampshire, old church records fall under the jurisdiction of the Town Clerk when a church goes defunct or can no longer care for its archives. Perhaps he would find some mention of his man in the Town Hall vaults.

In case you're interested - Mass. General Laws Chapter 66 "Section 16. If a church, parish, religious society, monthly meeting of the people called Friends or Quakers, or any similar body of persons who have associated themselves together for holding religious meetings, shall cease for the term of two years to hold such meetings, the persons having the care of any records or registries of such body, or of any officers thereof, shall deliver all such records, except records essential to the control of any property or trust funds belonging to such body, to the custodian of a depository provided by the state organization of the particular denomination or to the clerk of the city or town where such body is situated and such clerk may certify copies thereof upon the payment of the fee as provided by clause (25) of section thirty-four of chapter two hundred and sixty-two. If any such body, the records or registries of which, or of any officers of which, have been so delivered, shall resume meetings under its former name or shall be legally incorporated, either alone or with a similar body, the clerk of such city or town or the custodian of said depository shall, upon written demand by a person duly authorized, deliver such records or registries to him if he shall in writing certify that to the best of his knowledge and belief said meetings are to be continued or such incorporation has been legally completed. The superior court shall have jurisdiction in equity to enforce this section." It is certainly worthwhile for any researchers to understand what records are held in public trust. There are often many records that reflect local citizens lives held by Towns. http://www.malegislature.gov/Laws/GeneralLaws/PartI/TitleX/Chapter66

So here's my thinking today... because my diarist was pharmacist and I now know that his minister was a doctor, I wonder if there connection goes beyond "business." They were both upstanding citizens of the community, considered in the higher echelons of Town life. I wonder if beyond the pulpit, perhaps the "hung out" together? Did they sip tea together? Professionally, did the doctor write any prescriptions that were filled by my pharmacist? I may never know the answers to these questions, but at least now I have another thread to pull.

I think that before summer arrives, I will write to my friends at the Maine State Archives to see if they have any information for me. I will then plan to make a visit this summer. My mentor, who originally worked as the archivist at the Portsmouth Public Library when I was a college student, is now at the Maine Archives. She and I have stayed connected, but we haven't seen each other in over a decade. It's time to catch up. Nancy, here I come!

Saturday, May 12, 2012

5 New Ways to Think About Your Personal History

Today I am going to bring together some ideas from my talks, my recent book, and my experiences to help you think about the value of your own personal history. In fact, these ideas are not "new," but I do hope that presenting them this way will help you better understand your place in society and the role your personal papers play. I want you to get a broad view of your personal documentation; to consider how you can approach it and care for it to add to the historical record. [The historical record is the documentation we keep that allows us to look back and better understand our history.]

From the Albert Ryan Collection at Waltham Public Library.
I'll be talking about the influence of one man's collection on
a city at a talk in Waltham this summer.
So, without further ado (I've always wanted to say that), here is the ArchivesInfo 5 for personal history:

1. Others are interested in your story

You say, "But my story is MY story. It's personal. Why would anyone care about MY story?" I've heard this many times. In fact, humanity goes around on personal stories. I used to stand in front of a room and give out information about how to care for your things. I slowly started adding personal stories to my talks. People kept telling me that I'm a good storyteller and that I should add more personal stories. So, I did. I peppered them in with information about preservation and organization and archives management. Then yesterday, I stood in front of a room and did a talk that was pretty much solely based on a personal story. The response that I got was overwhelming to me. The audience loved my story. They could relate. It made them think about their own personal stories.

People want to hear about other people. It's in our makeup. We want to know that we share experiences; that we're not alone. You should tell your personal story because it is a community story. It may seem personal, but it is human and real.

2. Your history is not linear

I was born. I went to school. I got a job. I got married....history and our personal timelines seem very linear, but they are not. They are becoming less linear, in fact. At least in our heads... One of my favorite recent archives project is the project to care for the Salmon Rushdie Papers at Emory University. Rushdie did not only donate his paper files arranged all nice and neatly in folder to the University Special Collections, he also donated his computers. How does an archivist care for one's personal information on a computer so that other can use it and learn from it? That's the question for archivists today and that is something for you to think about too. On a computer our thoughts take many twists. We jump from Twitter to sitting and writing a blog post to doing our bills online. I jump to thinking about my sister on Facebook, to thinking about you in this blog post, to reading emails sent home from my daughter's teachers. Our lives are more than a straight progression. There are many aspects to our lives that tell our story. We should be thinking about it all. What makes us? Who influences us? We shouldn't just think about our milestones. (And my genealogist friends, this goes for your ancestors' history too. Think "What made them tick?" Not just when they were born and when they died.)

3. Your digital files and paper files make up one collection

And Salmon Rushdie leads me to another point...our personal "papers" are not just papers anymore. The sub-headline here is misleading. Your personal papers are your paper files, your audio tapes, your video, and your digital files. (That just seemed a little too long to put in a sub-heading title.) So when you think about the documentation that tells your story, you need to consider it all. Think about it as a collection. This "documentation" spread all over your house can even be brought into one room so you can better see it as a collection. All of these pieces tell the story of you and all are equally important for telling that story. Format doesn't matter. It's the information that matters.

4. You have the power to build a legacy

So with this knowledge comes great power. You have the power to help build your legacy. How do you want to be remembered? Have you recorded all the pieces of your life that you consider worth remembering? What doesn't get recorded will likely be lost somewhere down the line. How do you want your great-great-grandchildren to know you? What do you want them to think about you? What would you tell them if you could meet them in person? What would you tell your future community members generations down the line? What impact have you had on society?

5. You are the center of history

You ARE the center of history. Yes. You. You are the center of history because you matter most to you. Of course you do. And again, history is not linear. We can always swing it back to whatever point we want when we think about it. So, I am the center of history. (Yes, I know that I just told you that you are, but bear with me for a moment and pretend that I am.) I am the daughter of two people who were raised in New York City in the mid twentieth century. They bring with them views born of the Second World War and watching the introduction of the television and the Beatles. They in turn are kids of parents with early twentieth century ideas. Most dramatically, on one side of my family are grandparents who escaped from the Holocaust. (That's the personal story I told you about sharing at the very beginning of this post.) I could go back further to tell you about other family members and the society around them, but you get the idea. Instead, I'm going to spring forward to me, born in the seventies, watching the introduction of the computer, raised on Madonna and Michael Jackson. I will tell you how the generations that follow me will be influenced by what I am living through and my perspective on it. In short, in your case, I want you to recognize a timeline of history with you at the center. People came before you. People will come after you. We are all influenced by our families AND the society around us. We all are reflections of that. Our stories and our documents are reflections of that. Our stories are important to tell because indeed we are the center of history - this non-linear history with twist and turns and webs of events and people who all influence each other.

Consider your papers and mold your legacy. Think of the power of your story to reflect others. Reflect on how your story sits in the middle of developing civilization and how that story is a piece of a much larger understanding of US.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Revisiting Our Historical Communities: Melissa the Riveter

 In March, I blogged about creating a context for our personal images . In that post, I included a photo of me doing something a bit unusual for most people and said, "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." A reader asked me to explain the story behind it. So here it goes....(Sorry to take so long Jacqi)
In this picture with the safety goggles and goofy grin, I was sitting in our former home where my husband had a remarkable basement workshop. In this workshop, my husband began building his airplane. Yes. It is a real airplane - a two seater that he will pilot in the air and not from the ground. When I tell people that he is building and airplane, they usually think I mean the model airplane kind. Nope. It's the real deal.

The plane now sits in parts in our newer home and at the airport. The completed wings are in the hangar at the airport and I requested (insisted?) that the body of the plane remain on his side of the garage so that I can keep my car on "my" side. We were a little disappointed that we didn't manage to obtain a three car garage for our new home so that my car, his truck, AND his plane could sit comfortably under shelter.

So this picture is of me in the great workshop. The kicker is that I was pregnant at the time it was taken. (pun intended.)  I had been helping my husband build his plane, but about half way through my pregnancy nine years ago I stopped. The baby didn't like the sound of riveting. (Go figure!) Zip, Zoop, bam. (That is the sound of riveting and then a baby giving me a good solid kick in the gut.) "Cut it out Mom!"

A few months down the road as I slept off labor. My husband followed the nurse down the hall of the hospital and peeked in the window where they tested babies' hearing. He held his breath. He was sure that we had damaged her with a few "zip, zoops." Baby is actually perfectly fine, but this image remains to remind me of it all.

I chose to re-address this image today because yesterday I had the opportunity to talk again about our historical communities. I've mentioned in this blog in the past how we should all think about those who helped create a path for us to live in contemporary society. Perhaps most especially, thinking about historical communities is a great way to get kids to appreciate history and to understand what archives are. When I talk to kids, I explain about people in the past who did things that people still love today. A little league player can relate to old photos of Babe Ruth. Dancers (like my babe) can related to motion pictures of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. We all can reach back and find historical figures that shed light on our own activities and interests.

I am proud to call Rosie the Riveter part of my historical community - as a woman, an American, and a riveter!

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Rebranding the Community Library: "Shhh is a Four Letter Word"

A marketing friend sent me a link to the Imaginibbles video about Anythink Library. "Shhh is a Four Letter Word" piqued my interest right off the bat because of its clever title. However, as someone who values the quiet that I can find in library spaces, I also had some concerns.

Anythink Library is the name adopted by the Rangeview Library District in Colorado in an attempt to re-brand their institution. The library and its employees have gotten much recognition and praise for their work. Library Journal devoted an article to them and described their remarkable turn-around and forward thinking perspective. When learning about them, I was impressed about their "rethinking" of all they do. As a self-proclaimed anti-Dewey decimal person, I was equally happy to hear that they dropped the numbered system in favor of a subject based system. (That works well for my archivist sensibilities, at least.) I love their proclamation in the video that they aim for "connecting with books and experiences." There is certainly a lot to love here in searching for a new 21st century vision for community libraries.

There are some things that I didn't love.

What do YOU think about this statement by the narrator of the Imaginibbles video?

"I want a library that's not outdated and irrelevant. A place where I can explore my curiosity instead of being shushed out the door. A place where discovery reigns. I want to be encouraged to get loud and get involved. I want a library where anythink is possible."

I don't know about you, but this strikes me as slightly disconcerting. As a kid, my library was the place where I could "explore my curiosity" and "discovery reigns" in my mind every time I open the door of a local library. What's with all this loud stuff?

I am not a shushing librarian, but there is something to be said for quiet spaces. Here is where I come from on this... I am currently reading the book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking. This book talks about the advantages of quiet for communities and for thinking. I am basically a quiet person. I like my quiet library. Quiet talks about why society values extroversion over introversion. Are the extroverts taking over our libraries too?

I have nothing against group activities in a library space, but I hope that Anythink isn't throwing the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak. One of the advantages of libraries is they give us a place to be by ourselves, to think on our own. In the video, one woman tries to show another woman something that she is reading. The woman she shows "shushes" her. The shusher is approached by the library police who tell her that "Shhh is a four letter word." Really?! I hope that the library isn't going whole hog on this idea. I hope that they offer quiet spaces and loud spaces. Why the complete reversal?

There was one other thing that struck me negatively in the video. Librarians are called "guides." I am a proud librarian. Yes, I have guided library patrons to find resources they need for life long learning, but I do that as a librarian - not as a "guide." I understand that they want to make the librarians more approachable at Anythink and that they value the skills of the non-librarian in creating a great learning space for people, but why devalue our expertise in the process? To me, it feels like that is what they are doing. Rather than getting rid of the word "librarian," perhaps the word itself can be rebranded along with the library?

My post is not trying to put down the work of Anythink. In fact, I love more than I dislike here. Everything I've seen and read about this library indicates that they are trying to make things better. They are not afraid to change and probably not afraid to change back when things aren't working. I love the obvious community feel they have established. I love that they see themselves encouraging not just reading, but also music, video, science and more. However, while they are showing that "magic can come from chaos" I hope that they also show that magic can come from solitude and lone contemplation and that there is nothing wrong with that. There is nothing wrong with being a "librarian" either. In fact, I think it's pretty great.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

One Versus Many and Other Semantics

When I walk into a consulting situation, I often find that my first task is to set up expectations about words. This is especially valuable to recognize in small institutions that handle diverse resources such as historical societies. (I was reminded of this recently and thought I'd quickly address it here until I move onto my consulting reports for the day.)

We all use a lot of jargon in the cultural heritage fields.

  • Sometimes we use different words to mean the same things 
    • ex. collection development policy versus collection management policy 
  • Sometimes we use the same words to mean different things
    • ex. label - most commonly used in archives for identifiers used for digital information or for applying descriptive words to materials such as photos. More commonly used in the museum field for descriptive information in exhibits
  • Sometimes, what one group does automatically does not make sense to the other group until it is explained 
    • ex. natural versus artificial collections in the archives field describe materials that come from the same creator versus materials, usually with a similar subject, that are brought together for perceived ease of use and are the arrangement is not based on provenance

I have found that often the biggest hurdle non archivists and archivists must overcome to communicate is the idea of one versus many, which is tied to the natural versus artificial collection jargon. Archivists try to add groups of materials to collections, rather than individual documents. (Though there are times when we will take in important individual records.) We care for many items arranged in smaller series and larger fonds (which are basically groups of series). We place groupings of papers in folders with inclusive names that we hope have been ascribed by the creator of the records. We try to adhere to any original order given to materials.

The curators with whom I have worked have tended to design their own groupings based around a subject rather than an original order. Incoming collections are sometimes broken up so that items can be placed in appropriate "artificial collections" based around subjects of interest to the local community. Individual materials within the group each get special attention. Individual documents might each have their own plastic enclosures, for example.

I highly recommend to clients that they try to stick with "natural collections" that reflect the thoughts of the people who created and originally organized their items. Working with groups affords materials the protection they need while also making our work faster, easier and cheaper. (No need for an enclosure around every item.) Practically speaking though, sometimes the subject arrangement works for ease of use and to accommodate small donations of items in a small museum / historical society setting.

When archivists and curators work together, we must understand and respect our differences. Cut through the jargon and explain the principles behind your thinking. I think it benefits everyone when all cultural heritage professionals can speak each other's languages and understand each others' methods.