Sunday, August 26, 2012

More Finds at the Local Antique Shop - Back to School

It's back to school week for millions of American children. "Back to school" is a right of passage that has been occurring for generations and generations. Here are a couple of images from my collection of antique shop finds that show students.

Do images of children attending class show more than changes in dress? Do they show changes in thinking about schooling? The first photo in this post shows a stern looking teacher. This is not the presence most teachers seek to portray today, but it was the accepted standard in the early twentieth century. [Buns are also out of fashion for most teachers these days, but those of us who do wear them now tend to wear them lower on the back of the head rather than on top like this woman!] I wonder what the children are doing in this photo. Most of the images burned in my brain of early 20th century classrooms include row after row of desks and unhappy children. Is my image here portraying a fun activity? Despite the frowns and blank stares, I like to think that maybe this was an interesting project. Perhaps getting away from one's desk to explore wasn't as unusual as I think it was.

In these images of school, I see our own kids linked to this past. I think that sharing such images with today's students can help them build an appreciation for history -- their own history -- and thus for their historical community. Education grows as we grow. Our ideas about teaching change. Images of education help me recognize something bigger than myself and I believe they can help students see themselves as part of something bigger too. Kids have been going to school and learning a broad range of subjects to help them function in society for hundreds of years. 

The images of school children in our archives should be cherished. To me, they symbolize the hopes and dreams of a young society, aiming to teach its children that knowledge can be a key to a happy, fulfilling life. 

My daughter heads to school this week without a big bow in her hair. I head to school next week. I'll be the new teacher librarian with the wild and wacky curls, perhaps held back neatly in a bun.

Curls on a humid day

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Things Every Professional Should Do

I was going to title this "Things Every Cultural Heritage Professional Should Do," then I realized that these really aren't exclusive to our fields. These are things that I have done in my career that have made my career (and life) richer for the doing...and even just for the trying.

1. Start your own business - on the side or full time

Having your own business gives you a sense of self and confidence that I believe cannot be found in an institutional environment where you are an "employee." Your own business is a full reflection of you. It gives you a chance to use your business sense, yes, but it also gives you a chance to reach down and use a creative side. Your own business is more than a "business." It is a chance to put together many diverse parts of you, to display them and share them with the world. Bringing your vision out and offering them up to other people is a very powerful thing.

2. Write a book or article 

Writing a book or article helps you bring up your vision. It helps you realize what is important to you and what your "niche" is in the world. When you write, your brain is thinking on a whole different level from when you speak or even when you sit and think. When you publish, it gives you great feedback about your work and insight into your goals. Working with a publishing company is a good first step. Work your idea out for an article or book, then submit a proposal. When you are rejected (which you probably will be the first time) fine tune your thoughts. Try again and again. When you hit on an idea that connects with the world and learn to articulate it properly, it will be accepted. Go through the process of working with a publisher to learn about the field. Then self-publish for a whole new experience.

3. Work with children (or adults)

Working with people from diverse ages gives you a broader
perspective and enriches your career.
I was just going to say "work with children," but then I realized that those of you who regularly work with children need a fresh perspective too. Kids and adults have very different perspectives on topics, issues, and theories. Kids often have different eye-opening perspective. For those who need to connect with kids, consider volunteering as a coach, offering a local library your expertise to share with kids, or mentoring a high school student. Connecting with children (who are not your own), or with members of the community whom you may not otherwise get to know, makes you think in a different way. It not only opens doors in your own mind, it it helps open doors for others. And that is a great thing.

4. Do public speaking -

Telling people "who I am" 
and "what is important to
me" is a freeing experience.
This one means a lot to me because I was not a good public speaker and I really wanted to be. I had myself pegged as too shy in my early twenties, but quite honestly I didn't let it stop me. I tripped over my words. My voice shook. I even sometimes forgot how to speak. Yet, when I was able to pay attention to the audience's reaction, I realized that some people were connecting with me. Before you speak, carefully plan what you want to say. Make your topic interesting. Give the audience a true piece of you. They want to make a connection to you. If you are uncomfortable, that's okay. Seek a venue that encourages public speaking. The public library is great for this.
Take a class. Practice, practice practice. Just remember, the audience wants you to be good - or why would they take the time out of their day to come see you?

5. Engage on social media

Social media allows you to meet people who you would not otherwise meet. It extends your community in a way that nothing else can. You can meet people in your own town whom you would not just bump into in the street. You can get to know them and their interests. You can meet people from around the world who share your values and ideas. You can build strong collaboratives through social media. There are many smart people with whom you can build a network, discover the world, and influence the world. Most of all, engaging in social media can be a tool to create your own "brand," not just for the world, but for yourself. Social media can help you better understand who you are. It can help you focus in on what's important to you. But don't just sit back and watch when you are on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest etc. You must take part!

The main benefits of doing these 5 things that every professional should do?
Learn more about yourself, share yourself with your community, stretch yourself beyond your imagination.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Speak Their Language

There is a story in my family about my husband's great-grandmother who lived well into her 90s. At the end of her life on the western border of Virginia, she often courted a house full of relatives. One day, while the family visited and chatted, Mamaw interrupted the conversation to yell, "SPEAK MY LANGUAGE!"

While this can easily be left as a funny story about a family matriarch trying to take back control of the conversation, I also think of it as a good example of what we all need to do as cultural heritage and information professionals. It is not enough to want to help out patrons. It is not enough to just reach out to them. It is important to reach out in a way with which they can related. Unlike Mamaw, our patrons will not always tell us what they think or want. They just will not return to our institutions.

Whether you are working in a museum, archives, or library, always consider your audience. Why do we do the work that we do? We need to make clear that our resources can be used, enjoyed, and learned from. I have been thinking about this a lot as I prepare my new library for an audience that differs from the one I have been addressing for the past ten years as a consultant.

Consider your audience:

  • How old are they? What is their ethnic background? What is the socio-economic background? What is their education? What is their "sense of place?" How does this affect their view of what you do and their understanding?
  • How can you direct your work to begin the conversation in a place that feels comfortable to everyone? For example, on what grade level should your label copy and brochures read? What might seem obvious to you that needs further explanation for non-professionals? What background and context do you need to provide to make sure all the people with whom you interact understand what you are trying to do? Consider how quickly you can move from the basics to a deeper conversation so that everyone can be engaged.
  • How can you open your ideas so that they reach multiple levels and help people expand from a core discussion? While you may have one idea of what your work is trying to achieve, you can leave room for individual exploration and for people to relate the conversation to their own experiences.
  • What visual, sound and textual clues can you give to offer an enriching experience in your facility?
Even the way you present yourself
can help your audience feel engaged,
or...not so much
   These techniques are probably most familiar for those employed    in museums, but what about other areas of cultural heritage and    information. For example, when you help a researcher, are you speaking on his level? Are your finding aids self- explanatory to everyone? Does your signage adequately explain your collections and services to those who may not be familiar with your type of institution? Does your furniture arrangement encourage people to stay or leave? Does your placement in the room encourage people to engage with you or to try to avoid you? Are your facilities inviting or "elitist?"

   Can all audiences relate to what you are trying to do? Or will audiences see you as a guardian of resources whom they must get through to get what they want? Be open and honest about what you are trying to do.  Whether you are asking people not to eat in your repository or your are sharing online resources for complicated searches, explain your reasoning and how your perspective may differ from theirs. Explain what it means to be an information or heritage professional and the role you serve for patrons. Give your audience some control and let them be part of the conversation about your work. Be an interpreter rather than creating language and context barriers.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Sense of Place - deCordova Sculpture and Museum Park

Have you ever walked into a place and felt its pulse? You know... when you walk in the door of your home and get that "Ahhhhh, I'm home" feeling? Or, have you ever returned to the neighborhood where you grew up and something tugged at your insides? How do you feel when you hit the beach as soon as you park your car, fling open the door and smell the sea air? Why do we love small New England towns that seem to hold onto their past? All of these examples represent the idea of strong "sense of place." It is this sense of place that tugs our heart strings, ties together the past and the future, brings on memories, and attracts us to a setting, making us want to return to it again and again.

When a cultural institution hits its stride, it exudes sense of place strongly. The deCordova  Sculpture and Museum Park in Lincoln, Massachusetts is an institution that captures sense of place as strongly as any museum that I know. I recently re-visited the park and took along a reluctant nine- year-old, who at first did not want to go and then did not want to leave.

First, I want to reiterate that sense of place is a favorite subject of mine. I often write about the concept because I think that it is part of the core of what librarians, museum professionals, and archivists do. If we can capture a sense of place with our collections and make our buildings inviting by giving them the right "feel" than we are on our way to encouraging patronage by making a special connection to our visitors. If you are interested in reading more on my take regarding this subject please see a list of my posts on "sense of place."

"Established in 1950, deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum is the largest park of its kind in New England encompassing 35 acres, 20 miles northwest of Boston. In 2009, deCordova changed its name from deCordova Museum and Sculpture Park to deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum to emphasize its renewed focus on sculpture and to support the institution’s goal of becoming a premier Sculpture Park by 2020. Providing a constantly changing landscape of large-scale, outdoor, modern and contemporary sculpture and site-specific installations, the Sculpture Park hosts more than 60 works, the majority of which are on loan to the Museum. Inside, the Museum features a robust slate of rotating exhibitions and innovative interpretive programming."

The deCordova uses its landscape to highlight its collections and vice-versa. Walking through the space, one feels very centered with a complete understanding of the site's purpose. The setting touches my core every time I visit. (I lived within miles of the place twenty years ago as a young archivist in Waltham.)

I'll keep this short and suggest that you visit the museum if you've never done so. If you have visited, I'd love to hear your reactions. How do you feel the sense of space at deCordova? If you have never been, think about a place that exudes place for you and about what makes it so special. What places exude "sense of place" for you and why?

[The indoor museum also captures this feeling, but I was not allowed to take photos inside. I think museums need to work on resolving the "issue" of having the public photograph borrowed pieces.]

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Understanding My World through Curiosity

Curiosity is part of human nature. We can feed our curiosity
and build our understanding of the world by pursuing
information in a wide variety of formats and fields.

While listening to NPR this morning, I was intrigued by a story about the Mars rover that is set to touchdown on Monday morning EST, next week. Aptly named, "Curiosity," the rover will expand our understanding of the universe, life and the context of our lives in that universe.
Adam Steltzner, the entry, descent and landing team leader for the rover mission, was highlighted in the radio program "Morning Edition." Below, I've pasted some copy from the Crazy Smart:When a Rocker Designs a Mars Lander story transcript. Steltzer discusses his teen years when he was a less than stellar student and was told by his Dad that he wouldn't "amount to anything but a ditch digger...." 
Finding Purpose In The Stars
But then something happened. As Steltzner tells it, he was on his way home from playing music at a club one night when he became fascinated with the stars, especially the constellation of Orion.
"The fact that it was in a different place in the sky at night when I returned home from playing a gig, than it had been when I'd driven out to the gig," he said. "And I had only some vague recollection from my high school time that something was moving with respect to something else, but that was it."
As crazy as it sounds, that experience was enough to motivate him to take a physics course at the local community college. That did it. He was hooked.
The fog of sex, drugs, and rock and roll lifted. He had to know all about the laws that govern the universe. The rocker wound up with a doctoral degree in engineering physics.
"I was totally turned on by this idea of understanding my world," Steltzner said. "Engineering gave me an opportunity to be gainfully employed [and] really understanding my world with these laws and equations that governed it."
Finding Purpose in Life through Information
Earlier this week, on my new office door in the school library, I posted two signs. One says, "Libraries are in the curiosity business." The other says, "Curiosity and creativity are cousins." As I looked for ways to describe my library vision to my students, the word "curiosity" has come up again and again. I realize that, no matter what lights a spark for a person, it is that person's curiosity about the subject that will propel them to learn more about it. 
I asked a teen who was helping me shelve books this week what his areas of interest are. He told me that he likes working with motors. I told him about my husband who recently took apart bits of his motorcycle and rebuilt it. I told him about the plane that he is building. He began asking questions. He was curious. I was working to make the connections between bits of information that he might be able to use to better understand and appreciate his world. I am prepared to help him find books on the subject during the school year should the opportunity arise.
The idea of finding a subject that would "motivate" a rocker to become an engineer and that would "hook" him, has inspired me. How do I get across the idea that information is fun? How do I motivate teens and help them realize that research can be a key to finding purpose in life? Maybe as an information specialist I am not motivated to take apart an engine, but I am excited by someone else's excitement about it. I am excited about finding the information that will help someone succeed. I am excited about connecting a person to the information that helps one better understand himself and his world in any productive way that is possible. 
With expertise in archives, my understanding of my world is usually guided in some way by my interest in primary sources. How do people leave their marks on society? How do we share our thoughts and ideas? How do others use our thoughts and ideas? What do we learn from one another? How do we pass on our knowledge and the culture that we develop from it? How does material culture reflect our attempts to understand who why are and why we are here? How have others helped mold my world? What have earlier communities set up for me so that I can make my own mark on society?
I am fascinated about how we each "understand" our place differently. Yet, sense of place, sense of purpose, and sense of self can be found in any study of culture, science, arts, or mathematics... Despite the diversity of information, it is all is connected. "Understanding my world" involves finding a pursuit that leads one down a path guided by curiosity.