Showing posts with label hidden communities. Show all posts
Showing posts with label hidden communities. Show all posts

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Celebrating Anniversaries. Commemorating Wars.

We have been commemorating the sesquicentennial of the American Civil War for years now. My twitter feed has been noting archival projects, social media blitzes, major reenactments, and museum exhibits throughout the events. Cultural Institutions began planning years in advance.  Internet outreach has enabled us to build up interest and create long running projects that aim to keep people engaged. I have very mixed feelings about these activities and while I tend toward the opinion that they are a good thing, a little piece of me thinks otherwise.

One way that cultural institutions aim to get the public involved is through Crowdsourcing. A good example of this is a project through the University of Iowa.

Saylor and her colleagues “crowdsourced” the Civil War by digitizing the letters and diaries and making them available to the public. They created a website where transcribers can choose a document, transcribe it in a niffy box, and email it to them for review.

Goals: To get the public involved, highlight a major event, and get much needed help for making archival materials more accessible.

The Civil War events are having a small lull. According to the civilwar150 site, not much of significance happened during the War in the spring and summer months of 1864. My Twitter feed on the events has been quiet. Perhaps, it's a good thing that the centennial of WWI is getting underway too so I have more commemorative articles to link to. (Am I being fascetious? I'm not sure. That's what I'm here to discuss.)

The United States World War One Centennial Commission has a wonderful web site to remind us about this oft forgotten catastophic event. 100-years after a War, it is easy to see it as ancient history. It is easy for us to forget how the events of the past have lead us to where we are today. The roots of Russian history and conflict go back this far, for one thing. As one example of the need for remembering our history - Understanding events in the Ukraine today can be related to World War One. And, yet, my mind still questions this "celebration" of anniversaries.

I fall victim to anniversary syndrome. For a Town's 250th I think, "let's do it up!" For my school's fiftieth I say, "let's plan retro events and highlight our community!" Anniversaries give cultural heritage professionals a chance to pull in the general public, to help them get as excited about history as we are. In some ways, these celebrations are artificial constructs. We can find an anniversary for anything and make it worth celebrating, but is that a bad thing? If the general public wants festivities to get excited about history, the fact that they are interested is a good thing, right? Anniversaries allow archivists to convince people to dig through their attics and basements to find materials that document our history. Society has used anniversaries to highlight our heritage for at least hundreds of years. We have highlighted war in this way for probably thousands of years -- from stitching battle history into tapestry to honoring our Veterans with special days each year.

2014 will mark the 100th anniversary of what we now sadly know as The First World War – it would never be The War to End All Wars.  As we look back over the century we should remember that these men did not die in vain – they fought a war that, like the one that followed only 25 years later, was necessary to contain the territorial ambition of a major European power.  About one hundred years before the outbreak of the First World War British and Allied troops had defeated France at the Belgium village of Waterloo - and contained a major European power.
Remember the courage and honour the sacrifice of the boys who became men 100 years ago and support the young men and women who have followed in their footsteps and are today's soldiers.  - (from Spirit of Remembrance  web site - "Battlefield tours for discerning travelers") 

I am a bit troubled by the hoopla. How do we pick and choose what anniversaries to mark? What anniversaries are we forgetting? Are there under-documented events/wars/communities that need more attention from the governments that sponsor them? Are we glorifying War -- molding it into something romantic through a "celebration?"  Are we all doing all of this for the right reasons?  

To be sure, much good work is being done. These anniversary events deserve remembrance. Cultural heritage institutions could use the boost, excitement, collections, and donations that come from these events. It is a fine line to walk. Anniversaries, especially those of war, deserve related activities that suit the occasion. We need to remember that these events involve people. We need to remember without a sense of adventure and without romanticism. We need to ensure that our communities are boosted by our commemorations. We run the risk of trivializing terror and giving an amusement park atmosphere to what should be solemn memorials.

Let's remember this as we go on to mark the third year in our commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam Conflict.

What do you think about using anniversaries to boost the work of cultural heritage institutions? Do these anniversaries help our communities? If these anniversary celebrations are a good thing, with whom should cultural institutions partner to make them worthwhile?

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Sharing Community Stories through the Human Library

As a cultural heritage professional (librarian, archivist -- whatever you want to call me), I am continually looking for ways to bring communities together. My work with ArchivesInfo and my work as a high school information specialist meld quite well together, allowing me to explore ways to share and document community stories. I am happy to report on my most recent experience to meet this end. It was a huge success and I think it is an endeavor that would be beneficial to many communities.

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Around this time last year, I applied for my school to host a "Human Library." I pulled in two other librarians at different institutions so that we could partner on events centered around National Library Week. [You can read about the collaboration between institutions here.] 

According to the Human Library's Facebook page,

The Human Library concept is about offering people as books... To be lent out to curious readers who will ask them questions and challenge their perceptions on different groups in the community.
[Human] Books typically have titles that aim to represent a stigmatized or stereotyped group of people in the community. This could be a religious minority or sexual minority or other members of the community who are exposed to general misconceptions, stigma, stereotyping and or prejudice.

The purpose being to challenge what we think we know about other members of the community. To challenge our stereotypes and prejudices in a positive framework, where difficult questions are accepted, expected and appreciated. 


To integrate the Human Library objective with our school's mission, I focused our educational event on breaking down stereotypes about occupations and the people who practice them. My partners at the local public library and a local university ran more "traditional" human libraries than I. Their events brought in people with more varied lifestyles and labels that often evoke very strong feelings. The career focus at our school served a two-fold purpose, to show our students that they can be anything they want to be regardless of their background, ethnicity, sex and other factors beyond their control. It also encouraged students to recognize the diversity of people working in very varied careers and the wide-variety of career paths that we may take. Few of our human books had stayed in their original field of choice. Some switched careers many times. Some had little idea of what they wanted to do for work at the outset of their adult lives. They either fell into a position or had a mentor guide them to a good place. All of our books were willing to share their diverse experiences, including their successes, failures, prejudices they had to overcome, and more.

I chatted with one of our human books while others met
with students. photo by Carol Robidoux
I recognized that the professionals who came to visit us might be influenced by their career choices beyond their working environments, but I wanted to show my teens that knowing someone's job title does not tell their whole story. Twenty-four professionals shared stories we don't normally hear about what their work entails, how it impacts their life and the lives of others. For example, we had a male librarian who was formerly a lawyer. He does not spend a lot of time reading, but he likes the variety and environment that a career in the library sciences brings him. (What did students think of someone giving up law for librarianship? How did they react to find out that a librarian may not be a "bookworm?")

When we ask people about their careers, we do not often ask them about what they had to overcome to get where they are today. Yet, that's what kids need to hear. In fact, that's what we all need to hear. We all have things to overcome and by sharing those experiences we better understand each other and our own place in the world.

I had only positive feedback from student "readers," our human books, and our school faculty. I asked for negative feedback and only heard that 15 minute chats, as is a standard time allotted in human library checkouts, were too short. Even students who were at first reluctant to participate said after the fact that it was a positive experience for them. Teachers asked if they can be readers next year too. Books asked to come back.  In fact, I have never run an event that had such positive reviews all around!

I now need to figure out how to document these experiences in our school archives. I am hoping that the encouragement to talk one-on-one with adults, something that many kids don't often get to do these days -- to ask question and explore one's curiosity -- will help lead us gently into an oral history project that I am planning for a 50th anniversary celebration. I hope that we have broken the ice to encourage more community conversations.

Stay tuned!

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See the Robidoux Ink Link "Don't Judge a Book by Its Cover"  for news coverage of the "Human Library" event.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Herstory Project Podcast: Ida Annah Ryan

I was honored to be a participant in the Chick History Herstory project. Hear my podcast about Ida Annah Ryan, native of Waltham, Massachusetts, suffragette, and one of the first female architects in the United States.


52 women. One year of history. #HerStory is a project for 2012 in which each week, a contemporary woman shares the story of a historical woman who inspires her.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The History Books Forgot About Us

In the 1960s, the study of history began to change. My teachers in the decades that followed compared the "new social history" to the study of what they called "dead white men." The 1960s shift lead to the development of various branches of history including research based on gender, ethnicity, and more. We weren't just studying the famous or powerful in the late twentieth century. We began considering how various communities influenced society, molding and changing civilization.

The shift continues today with the Internet. Outside the scholarly world of history, individuals are finding their own voices. They are recording their memories for posterity -- perhaps not always consciously. They broadcast their ideas to the world. Archivists are paying attention. We are thinking about how we are going to save these individual voices for the future.

Our words are important to the study of history


The Voices

The Internet, and social media in particular, provides a unique platform for the history of the future. And the platform is quickly changing to emphasize those individual voices. Consider Facebook's shift to its "timeline," for example. The platform are giving us the tools to share our life stories as completely as possible. If we can save these voices and stories, historians will have a new unique tool to explore our heritage in a whole new way. The history of dead white men is truly dead. Millions of voices are replacing it.

History is About Us


I am curious to see how history books will not forget us in the future. How will historians sort out the voices to project them in a logical way to students? A few years ago, I came across a theory about teaching history backwards. The concept behind this is that if students see themselves as part of history, they can reach back to better understand the context of events. How did historical events get us to where we are today as a society? How has history helped create the life you live today? History is about us and if we start from that perspective, the context and importance of it all can neatly line up from there.

An Archivist's View

This is my own view and does not necessarily reflect the views of my fellow archivists. (I am interested to hear their comments.) Over the past ten years, I've promoted the idea that caring for your personal papers and caring for the papers of your community can lays a foundation for our archives work in small institutions. This approach fits quite well with the idea of studying history backwards. If we take care of what is most important to us -- our own personal papers and digital records -- and learn to recognize how they fit in with a larger society or collections of papers, than we have more of a vested interest in saving archives. Society has an opportunity to ensure that history books will no longer forget about the general populace. Saving our own memories in recorded form gives historians the tools they need to consider larger groups. Furthermore, a plethora of safely stored recorded information cannot be ignored.

The Internet gives us a unique new tool for the study of history. It is changing our ideas of what a "community" is. It is giving us more communities to consider. Still, our presence is recorded beyond the computer. The papers in our homes still provide a valuable perspective on our lives. Our individual histories exist online and offline. We have the opportunity to care for these recorded perspectives so that history remembers us. Our descendants will look to our lives to better understand their own if we give them the tools.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Hidden Communities

I've previously discussed on this blog the value of considering communities for archives. I have also discussed documenting the underdocumented. And I discussed documenting the underdocumented, again. Communities are the informal and formal groups to which we belong. Some communities are obvious to us such as our family community, our geographic community, our religious community, and our ethnic community. Some communities we are less likely to acknowledge, consider, or know about. It is a challenge to those who are attempting to collect the evidence and stories of humanity to identify these hidden communities. It is worthwhile to consider them for the purposes of collecting (as in formal repositories) and for purposes of telling our own personal stories (when preserving family memories or working as citizen archivists or cultural heritage collaborators.)

I am going to use an example of a hidden community of my own. About a decade ago, I found out that I have Celiac Disease. I exhibited signs for about twenty years, but did not know that it was wheat, barley and rye that made my head cloudy and my emotions intense. My Celiac community was hidden to me. Had I known about it earlier, I would have had access to more information that could have made my life much easier. Celiacs had been sharing what they were discovering about the disorder. Doctors were working with patients to help them. No one from this community to which I belonged was helping me. They did not know that I existed. I didn't know that they existed, until one day a colleague mentioned that her daughter had Celiac and told me about how she dealt with that from day-to-day. A few years later when I set off on a pursuit to "cure" myself, bells about the conversation I had with my librarian friend years earlier rang in my head. Her sharing of her unique personal experience helped me discover that I too had Celiac. Her information dissemination raised my awareness of something previously foreign to me. Within that information I found something hidden about myself. I continually explore my personal relationship with the disorder. I write about it. I talk about it with people I meet in person. It is something that I live with every day.

However, most people do not know that I have Celiac. You can't tell by looking at me that I need to stick to a special diet. My membership in the Celiac community is hidden to most people. Yet, I have lots of information to share. I can tell people that Celiac effects one out of every one hundred people. I can tell you that its symptoms are diverse and not necessarily what you might expect. I may even help others discover that they too have Celiac. My information can help them better prepare to live a new lifestyle. I can help put them on a path toward better health. Indeed, I have helped a number of people this way.

So, what does this have to do with archives? Information sharing is the name of the game. Your hidden stories have a lot to offer to others. The stories of others can also affect you. Aiming to document hidden communities can advance our civilization, save someone's life, make someone happier, make us more understanding and smarter. This is the role of archives. This is a challenge for our society. What knowledge do we need to record that is currently not being recorded? What communities should we identify and what knowledge do they hold that should be preserved and disseminated? Consider what aspects of you and your communities are not so obvious. Make sure they are not neglected in documentation efforts.