Part of the role of cultural heritage professionals is to be safe-keepers of the stories of individuals. Where we once focused on the lives of the well-known, we have now know for a long time that it is the collections of the "common man" that reveal some of the most important aspects of our society. This idea was highlighted again for me this morning while listening to a podcast from NPR's On the Media, I learned that obituary writers re-create the lives of individuals by discovering small moments in a person's life and stringing together a narrative from them. If one believes in the importance of the human story for safekeeping our heritage, one must certainly see parallels in the work of the obituary writer and the work of the archivist.
Before listening to this audio, I did not understand that a good, classic, obituary writer researches people to create an intriguing narrative. Beginning at 34:50 in the podcast (to which I've linked above) is an interview with a reporter who discusses his craft. His goals when writing an obituary are intriguing: "...How can I tell the readers why this life was important? What did you learn from this life? What can I learn from this life?"
I was particularly struck by the reporters use of objects to dig up his story. He explains this first by recounting an experience. He describes meeting a widow who told him that, when her husband first went away to boot camp, she took up knitting. The reporter asked to see some of the things she had knit. "She took out this baby blanket and she told me its story, which was the night before Jim left for Iraq he knew he wouldn't be back in time to see the baby born. So, he slept with that baby blanket because he said that when the child was born he wanted the child to know how his father smelled." The reporter used that for the opening line of his story the next day - "The soft blue green baby blanket still smells like second lieutenant James J. Catthey..." I believe that those of us who work with objects every day can feel the power of that line and relate it to at least some of the collections we have handled.
In the next piece of the podcast, the reporter uses the example of a shoe shine man to further explain how he reconstructs a life through objects. He recounts the research behind a story about this person who left behind no family when he died. The man's objects were kept in a box in a public administrator's office. From these objects, additional research, and the writing they launched, the author recounts he life of this well-liked man who made an impact on the people he met. His legacy was sealed by his obituary. Without it, with no grave marking his burial, he would have been forgotten. The loneliness and special nature of the small collection, upon which the small biography of the deceased was built, immediately impressed me and I envisioned a row of archival boxes in a repository with similar stories to tell.
I now understand why some find obituaries so intriguing. To be truthful, I subscribed to the widespread joke that older people read the obituaries "to make sure they are not among them." Of course, I also know of the indispensable role they play for the genealogist. But now, I appreciate that good obituary writers can publicize an individual's impact in this world so we learn and remember that everyone is part of a larger community and a bigger story. How well the profession of obituary writers and archivists fit.
Saturday, September 20, 2014
Sunday, September 7, 2014
Diversity is a basic tenet of the work archivists do. It is written into our Code of Ethics:
|Diversity is a basic tenet of archivist's work|
Archivists collectively seek to document and preserve the record of the broadest possible range of individuals, socio-economic groups, governance, and corporate entities in society. Archivists embrace the importance of identifying, preserving, and working with communities to actively document those whose voices have been overlooked or marginalized. They seek to build connections to under-documented communities…Archivists accept and encourage a diversity of viewpoints on social, political, and intellectual issues, as represented both in archival records and among members of the profession. They actively work to achieve a diversified and representative membership in the profession.[http://www2.archivists.org/statements/saa-core-values-statement-and-code-of-ethics].
This fall, I am taking on online Education course in diversity and we began the class by setting out to define its meaning: Diversity is the inclusion of a broad range of individuals in a society noted by:
- Their varied backgrounds - family history, ethnicity, socio-economics, residence, religion, and any other factors that are markers of cultural differences. (These categories of diversity bring to mind the word "multiculturalism.")
- Physical differences, which include race, sex, disabilities, traits such as hair color, and natural talents, as having a role to play in diversity. (Such characteristics are often used as excuses for the non-inclusion of individuals in some communities and therefore must be considered to form societies that are truly diverse.)
- That which makes our thinking unique among our communities. (This essentially includes the presence of individuals with differing interests and opinions.)
My class was asked to respond whether of not diversity strengthens communities. This is something that I have always taken for granted, but I realized that it is not as obvious as it immediately seems. Diversity in itself does not necessarily strengthen us, unless we include communication in its definition. A diverse population that does not share and strive to appreciate diversity will not be bolstered solely by their knowledge of the existences of differences within. Programs designed to foster dialogue are necessary. This is why the work of an archivist is so important. Archivists keep materials that can serve as building blocks for cultural understanding and appreciation of diversity. Archives have the power to enhance communication about who we are as individuals within our respective communities.
I posted my thoughts about diversity and the archivist's Code of Ethics for my assignment. A classmate responded that she never thought about archives management before and was pleased to know that there are institutions seeking to collect diverse materials for historical purposes. Our own advocacy for our work and the value of archival collections can happen in unexpected places!