Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Blog versus Diary: Just New Technology or a Whole New Way of Thinking?

Since college in the late eighties, I have been torn between two worlds. I have been "old fashioned" since I was a little girl. I love old books, old buildings, old documents, and old ways. I was the girl who wanted to be an archaeologist in six grade so I could learn more about King Tut and see what it was "really like" to walk like an Egyptian. I was the high school student who volunteered to organize old scrapbooks at the local Vanderbilt mansion so I could learn what it was like to live in a different time, under different circumstances, in big poofy dresses with early plumbing and electrical systems. Then I met my husband, who had been taking apart computers since the age of 11. He dragged me kicking and screaming from a typewriter to a computer so I could write my college papers in the newfangled way and move from the "dark ages." Next up, there came graduate school where I was thrust into technology and absorbed as much as I could. Finally, in my first job, I was hired as an archivist / reference librarian in a public library where my position quickly expanded to include "Internet Coordinator" and my transformation was complete...

"You are the youngest and fresh out of grad school so you know more about computers than the rest of us and we need a library web page." Marvelous!

I love computers. I love them because they help me make the connections between old and new that I so love to evaluate. I love using my computer for organizing, researching, photo editing, etc. I love to write things on my computer that I plan to share with others. BUT that's exactly what my computer is to me -- a tool for sharing. It is not for the things I plan to keep all to myself or for my family legacy.

For the private, I use my diary. It is a small book that I keep by my bedside and I write in it with a pen -- and I'm not ashamed to admit that I prefer the fancy old-fashioned kind of pen too. The kind that you may get once in a lifetime. I love the tactile feel of it all and of the cozying up under the covers, while reaching into my brain to figure out what is going on in there. A cup of tea beside me or a glass of wine helps too. The artifacts and environment are certainly part of the experience, but as usual I digress and will save that observation for a later day.

In some ways, this is a game of semantics as the words I use in my profession and to identify myself are slowly hijacked by those more ensconced in computer than I (I guess). My Twitter friend Dennis Moser said it well in his blog "Non-Flat Culture" in an article titled "Curate" Archives"...What's Next" . (Go take a look at his rant so that I don't have to repeat it.) I just wonder, should we use new words for new online things? Why do we have to forget about things like the value of being with ourselves to just hand over the words to new technology?

Now, let's take the word "blog." According to Wikipedia "A blog (a contraction of the term "web log")is a type of website, usually maintained by an individual with regular entries of commentary, descriptions of events, or other material such as graphics or video." And there are many different types of blogs. The one that most interests me for this posting is the "personal blog" which crashes into my little world of off-line diary writing. According to Wikipedia, "The personal blog, an ongoing diary or commentary by an individual, is the traditional, most common blog. Personal bloggers usually take pride in their blog posts, even if their blog is never read. Blogs often become more than a way to just communicate; they become a way to reflect on life, or works of art. Blogging can have a sentimental quality. Few personal blogs rise to fame and the mainstream, but some personal blogs quickly garner an extensive following."

Obviously, I blog so I can appreciate this. I write this ArchivesInfo blog. I also maintain a Garden blog. I love using this media to communicate with the world. And that's the crux of it all. A blog is a tool of communication. I am not sitting down to work out my most private thoughts with myself. I am very much aware that you are reading what I am saying. So, is this just a new way to write my personal thoughts or is it a whole new way of thinking about personal thoughts? Should I be sharing my diary with you online as well? Is the private become less private and is that okay for us as a human race?

I once mentioned to my college advisor, who is also an enthusiastic diary keeper, that sometimes when I write in my diary I think about people who might one day read the diary. She was horrified and quickly said, "I NEVER think about that." To her, a woman about twenty years my senior, the diary is very personal. To me, a practical archivist living on the cusp of a huge change in society, I tentatively let go of some privacy, but yearn to keep some of it at the same time.

I am heartened by those who take on blogging as a means of expression, while at the same time I am disheartened that these people may totally give up the idea of diary writing. I am glad that computers (when people can get access to them) help level the playing field a bit, giving everyone a voice. But I don't want the old to be totally lost among the new. When we turn totally towards computing, we lose a bit of something special. Somehow, handing down my ThinkPad to my daughter is not the same as giving her a box of my diaries. This generation needs to think about whether blogging and other computer tools are just a new technology to make the old better or if we are beginning to think about culture in a whole new way. I believe that it is quite possible to we are losing a valuable piece of culture and self-expression by plunging ahead without appreciating what is behind.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Traveling Archivists

Many towns can't afford the cost of hiring a permanent staff member to care for archives. This topic is a thread in recent Twitter postings as SHRABS (State Historical Records Advisory Boards) are regaining funds for projects, some of which include versions of the "traveling archivist." Join discussions about the potential of Traveling Archivists on the "Cross Professional Collaboration in Museums, Libraries, & Archives" Facebook page See my newsletter discussing the topic

Friday, March 26, 2010

Diary of a Mad Horse Driver [Why I Journal and How I Got Here]

Yesterday I ended my blog post: "Archives show us how we got where we are today and that things are always morphing even though our "humanness" remains the same as it has always been." Today I want to relate that thought to the individual and to discuss the role of journaling in a person's life and amongst personal papers.

Journaling is a dying art. Yet, keeping a diary can help us see where we have been and work out ideas that guide the rest of our journey. Some diarists write every day. Some of us write only to work out stressful situations or to document memorable events. Some of us write long passages, while others record just blurbs that jar deeper memories. Diaries can embody our deepest selves as they are generally intended as private recorded thoughts that are not to be shared until the memories they embody have started to fade.

When I was 11, I received my first diary:

June 26, 1982

Dear Diary,

I drove Bear and my sister was waving her arms in front of him and I drove into
Annie's oats...We came in third and Ray raced Excellento. We were in the best
class. Beaten by a horse from the big M and another good horse...

In those words I am transported back to the dreams of my youth. My desire to race horses stemmed from my Dad's passion for the sport and my love for the animals. Looking back at my words, I remember my uncertainty about where I was headed in life, lacking self esteem and trying to live up to the person I thought I should be while also lacking the experiences to see beyond my little bubble. My core being was clearly established, for I see in my old journals the bones of myself, which include many of the characteristics I still believe I have today. My handwriting from almost thirty years ago is even familiar (though I must admit it was neater in 1982 than it is now.) Yet, I see how much I have grown. For example, my writing is peppered with profanity that my Dad must have used. I also had a tendency to see things in black and white, not yet realizing that there are plenty of shades of gray.

Diaries can be written for ourselves or with the intention to pass them on to family, so that they remember us when we are gone. I have saved almost every diary I have written. I refer back to them every 5-10 years with the same wonder I approach history. I almost feel as if I am learning about someone else, perhaps some historical figure with whom I have felt a special bond. I feel as if I know this person, but there are many more new things to learn about her past and her future.

Diary writing (and reading) gives us a unique way to evaluate the world and our communities. My diary shows and reminds me how I got where I am today. My path has not always been straight, but I have absorbed experiences and built myself upon them. I am the result of a "collection" of experiences that is reflected in my diaries and am part of a greater community made up of diverse viewpoints, backgrounds, and opportunities. Diaries offer the most personal connection to a person I know and through them we can gain a much greater understanding of ourselves and those around us. I hope we can help a new generation see the potential of recording thoughts beyond the blogs that we knowingly offer up to mass readers.

(I'll save my view on blogs for a future blog post. Blogs are not diaries! :)

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Evaluating Community and Archives

According to sociologist Phil Bartle in What is Community? A Sociological Perspective [], "We can not see a whole community, we can not touch it, and we can not directly experience it. .. a community may come in one of many shapes, sizes, colours and locations, no two of which are alike... a community is not just the people who are in it. A community usually was already existing when all of its current residents were not yet born, and it will likely continue to exist when all of the people in it have left..."

And that is where the archivist comes in. One of our prime roles (and I would argue that it is our primary prime role) is to keep track of communities. Human beings are bound by their "humanness" and archivists retain evidence of that truth. We preserve, maintain, and provide access to man-made creations that show where the human race has been, which helps guide it to where it is going. With this evidence, users gain a greater understanding of themselves, others, and the communities in which they exist. They create new things and build upon past ideas. Our archives help sustain us and give us the knowledge we need to continue and grow civilization.

In addition to the human community, individuals exist in numerous other, smaller, communities. We have a certain nationality, we live in a certain territory, in a specific town. We are part of a certain profession. We share hobbies, ideas, and religions with others in intersecting communities. When we examine ourselves and consider our various communities, we evaluate ourselves. We have a purpose on this earth. We build communities to project and grow our identities. We seek "commonness" with others to secure our purpose and create written documentation to cement relationships and explain ourselves.

The archivist's role is to capture the multi-dimensional aspects of community. Repositories must seek to balance collections, to include documentation created by people from all different backgrounds -- from all different communities. Our collections should fairly show the diversity of individuals and their communities to present a comprehensive view of humans. Through the archivists' work, future generations can see what it meant to be human in a particular time and place -- how we functioned, how we thought, how we communicated, and how we changed. Archives show us how we got where we are today and that things are always morphing even though our "humanness" remains the same as it has always been.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

More antique shop finds - Pondering Portrait photos

Excuse the crooked posted images. I don't have my photo editing program up and running on my new computer yet...

I found these two lovely young ladies on last week's antique shopping sojourn. Professional portraits are an art form unto themselves. The lovely outfits, careful poses, and chosen props are much as one would find in a painted portrait.

I was especially intrigued by the girl on the right in her big hat that frames her into the scene from the top, while the grate and platform upon which she stands frame her from the right and the bottom. Her straight arm braces the scene on the remaining side, forming a perfect circular movement around which my eye is retained in the photo for a clever composition.

The photo on the right is of a girl who looks very much like my daughter and first attracted me for that reason. Her curly hair decorated with flowers gives her an angel like appearance. I wonder the occasion for such fancy dress.

Photos such as these mark memorable events or milestones in one's life. the expense of professional portraiture (then and now -- and I'm not talking the portraits you have done at Sears) are usually reserved for moments that you wish to capture forever. While the art historian in me evaluates composition and context, the archivist in me digs a little deeper to wonder even more about the lives of these individuals. Not only do I wonder the reason why these images were made, I wonder how they got separated from their families. Where did these people live? Were the images once part of an album? How would the families feel if they knew I found these in a little shop outside of Concord? It is remarkable to consider how the papers and tokens of our lives outlive us and make others ponder.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Using Theory to Ground Practice

I recently had a fellow archivist tell me that experience is more important than theory when caring for collections. I agree with her about the importance of an archivist (or curator) learning about her community and becoming familiar with collections. The archivist also must have a very visible presence within that community, learn to deeply understand its unique culture, and develop a relationship with community members to develop mutual respect and understanding. However, I think it is just as important to be grounded in theoretical roots to properly care for historical materials.

I recall the use of the term “book smarts” being used in a derogatory way by people throughout my life. i.e. that person has book smarts, but couldn’t run a business, make something valuable, or just plain cut it in the real world. If we devalue a theoretical foundation for our work, upon what should our work be based? When do we know that we are doing a good job? How do we know if we can do things better?

Archival theories gives us a place to start. We work to establish our repositories using tools handed to us by the people who came before us. It is important to apply knowledge learned by activity to these theories, to bend them so that they suit the unique cultures of our institutions and communities. Our experience may show us that a theory fits our particular situation or that we need to back away from certain ideas to adjust to our given circumstances. It is beneficial to return to theory once in awhile to determine if our applications and modifications are working or if we need to re-evaluate what we are doing.

I have been deeply entrenched in the study of developing collections for the past year as I have had an article accepted for “History News” (due out summer 2010) on the subject and a book due out later this year. My mind is stuck on a theory that seems to carry much value, but has not been adequately tested with the types of organizations I assist. I have written extensively about community documentation with the hope that archivists, volunteers, and others working with cultural materials will more closely examine it to see if it benefits the work we do or if it can be altered to work better. The term “Community Documentation” is grounded in earlier theories of appraisal. As we consider the best ways to create a documentary record of our community, we must consider appraisal theory that helps us decide what to keep, what to discard and why.

Here are some points to consider about theory in general:

1. When we set out with a goal to build collections, organize or provide access to them, what theories do we rely on for assistance. How do theories help us getting started, develop and change as we go?

2. How can we apply theories that have been used in the past to our own unique situation? Which theories best match our circumstances? Are there new ways for us to apply them?

3. Have we gained a big picture perspective of our collections and their place in a larger world of archives? How can theory help us better give our work a wider meaning beyond our own institution?

4. How do we know if our collection development, outreach, strive for accessibility, etc. is successful? Are there alternate theories that can be applied that we haven't considered to this point that may help us see our successes and our failures and so that we can lean on our strengths and improve our weakness?

My point is that we should not discount or devalue theory. Remember to re-read your theory books once in awhile and keep up with professional evolutions of ideas. Theory is not static and the sharing of our experiences will help further research and thoughts about what we do. And, after all, isn’t evaluating and basing decisions on past experiences what the history professions are all about?

Friday, March 19, 2010

Antiquing from an Archivist's Point of View

The antique dealer said to me, "So you must be from Dover," as I fingered the dull medal and tried to decide if it would suit my purpose.

"Um, no I'm not," I replied.

He stood beside me waiting for me to tell him why I was interested in the little New Hampshire Old Home Day souvenir, his curiosity now piqued, I guess. I considered whether I wanted to explain it all again, as I had done so many times before to so many different types of people.

"I'm an historian," I said, "I'm interested in things." Did I really want to teach what an archivist is when I was supposed to be enjoying a morning away from the office?

The dealer was satisfied and just told me to let him know if I needed his help. I wandered the aisles of the little antique shop on Route 4 in New Hampshire, known in this state as "Antique Alley." I peered in little glass display windows seeking mementos that would help illustrate my book about documenting communities and items that could possibly used in my classes to teach students about the importance of archives and preserving personal papers.

My closest friend was accompanying me on this trip. She has no background in what I do, but is trying to understand. "How about this cute postcard for the book?" She asked. I looked over her shoulder to see the Norman Rockwell Christmas card she held.

"I can't use it because of copyright issues," I said.

"Oh." We wandered some more. "Ooh! Here are the letters you need!" She exclaimed. I had told her that old handwritten letters would be perfect. So I again sidled up to her and this time saw the old town records she was examining. I hope that I stifled my sigh.

"These shouldn't even be here, although you'll find municipal records in shops like this all over the place and on E-bay." I explained, "These are the legal property of the town that created them and should be returned." I also explained this to the proprietor to whom I then had to explain what I really do.

"I'm an archivist and we manage records such as these. They really should be returned to the town. They are an important piece of documentary heritage." The shop owner thanked me kindly and said he'd notify the seller. He was nice about it at least...didn't harumph at me or anything.

I left the shop with my Dover medal, two lovely black and white images, and a small tin type. I always wanted a tin type. This one does not have its full case, but the frame and the little woman staring back at me are beautiful. It's always nice to have my own special bit of history to share. As an archives consultant, I don't always have archives and manuscripts at my disposal to use as samples for explaining. So I build my own "collection" and try to find items that are meaningful to me in some way and it makes the process of "collecting" more worthwhile - fun, memorable and educational.

My day on Route 4 was great. We found another little shop with more town public records and this time my friend jumped all over it. "Look! You had better tell them about these too." We then left for a great lunch in Concord at Siam Orchid Thai on Main Street. ( I highly recommend this restaurant by the way - super yummy.)

This morning I scanned my treasures to share some with you. And now I have also done my personal "educational" part. I love New Hampshire Old Home Days. I grew up in New York and there we had fireman parades and fairs where our town's heroes could show off their equipment. I suppose the point was to encourage us to keep supporting their purchases. They then held a big carnival to entertain the local kids. Old Home Days in New Hampshire has a similar atmosphere. According to a little research, (very little research to be exact - not up to my usual, but I'll save that for another day should my interest in this topic grow further) Old Home Days were started at the turn of the century, supposedly to encourage children who were leaving home in increasing numbers to come back to visit their families. Towns all over New Hampshire began having big celebrations to show off their towns and welcome back children for reunion (sort of like school homecomings, I guess.) Old home days can stimulate the economy, raise local awareness by encouraging groups within a locale to participate, and raise civic pride. Old Home Days can be a central part of a movement to stimulate cultural awareness and thus my little Dover medal has special meaning for me, someone who works primarily to promote cultural heritage. My antiquing is never straightforward.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Why Value Archives?

It seems appropriate to address the topic of why we should value archives on Freedom of Information Day 2010. Freedom of Information Day celebrates open access to government information in a democratic culture. According to the American Library Association, the date is marked on the birthday of James Madison "who is widely regarded as the Father of the Constitution and as the foremost advocate for openness in government."

This week also marks "Sunshine Week" celebrating our right to access information in a free and open society. This initiative was begun in 2002 by newspaper editors in response to efforts of the Florida state government to make numerous exemptions to public records laws and thus to information's accessibility. The week is now celebrated nationwide in the United States and seeks to bring light to issues blocking freedom of information.

So, in celebration of these marked occasions, we must remember how archives help facilitate our freedoms by making government actions and decisions visible to the public. Archives secure our rights, keep our government systems running efficiently and openly. They hold liable those who may oppress us and devalue human rights, and ensure continuity in our government and social systems. Archives give us primary information about events so that we can better evaluate truth for ourselves, rather than solely through the lens of another interpreter.

However, the information archives offer us and archives' benefits extend beyond government records. Archives support research, inquiry, and lifelong learning. They encourage us to study ourselves, and to find value in what we do and who we are. They help us form a national and global identity and can help us secure a personal identity. They offer insight into how our ancestors live and how diverse cultures live so that we can evaluate our own role in society. Archives build a shared sense of purpose, forming valuable communities that strengthen pride and serve as society's building blocks for mutual appreciation, understanding, and peace. They encourage education and inquiry, while facilitating cultural entertainment and tourism. Archives preserve cherished memories and allow us to build on past successes while evaluating past failures to move society forward.

I am the granddaughter of holocaust survivors. As such, I always remember that the first thing oppressors do is try to peel away the identities of the oppressed so victims lose their sense of self and are devalued by society. While we may hold ideas about ourselves closely in our hearts, tangible documentation helps secure our identity, values and connections to a community. (Randall Jimerson addresses this in his book "Archives Power: Memory, Accountability and Social Justice" and brings the point home most clearly in discussions of George Orwell's writings.)

For all these reasons and more, I work to preserve cultural heritage and I recognize that through my work I have a public responsibility. Through my actions as an archivist, and in my writings about archives, I explore how we can best maintain an accurate documentary record and how we can promote the value of archives to the general populace. I hope that others will grow a greater appreciation for archives. We often take open access to information for granted. Above all, we must never forget how archival documents ensure our freedom. If we allow others to take away public control of information, we lose not only our ability to seek truth, but are in danger of losing our own sense of identity -- the greatest freedom of all.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Retaining Archives and Clearing the Clutter

My column in the March edition of Bedford Bulletin discusses what documents to dispose and what to keep. Start your office spring cleaning today!

Retaining Archives and Clearing the Clutter

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Save America's Treasures!

An easy form to support "Save America's Treasures" can be found here through the National Trust for Historic Preservation. This is one of the prime funds available to cultural heritage non-profits who preserve our nation's most valued cultural resources. Without cultural resources, a country loses its identity. Our cultural heritage is vital to our democracy. Places like Afghanistan, Myanmar and Somalia have lost treasured cultural artifacts and documents to ravages of war and totalitarianism. This shouldn't happen in the United States due to neglect! Please take three minutes to visit the web site