Friday, July 30, 2010

Publicizing your work through video [Animoto]

A friend turned me on to this software and I thought I'd share it. It seems like a great tool for making your web site more dynamic and for publicizing your work. Can your non-profit use this to promote your goals?

Create your own video slideshow at

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Cross Professional Collaboration

IndigoGardens brought this article to my attention through her Facebook page. The New York Times article, "Botanical Gardens Look for New Lures" addresses an issue that has become common in cultural institutions -- the idea that we need to redefine ourselves to stay relevant. I love this article because it promotes the benefits of collaboration. It allows us to embrace the possibility of considering beyond what we know and that with which we are comfortable. I have frequently professed the benefits of archivists, librarians and museum professionals working together because of our similar missions and our dealings with collections. But I love contemplating moving our cross-professional collaboration beyond the colleagues with whom we can most easily identify. I'm thinking of archivists working with gardeners, delving into the archives for the history of place and natural beauty. I picture librarians working with artists to design spaces that entice scholarly endeavors and cultural appreciation. I envision curators working with chefs to bring foods in still-lifes to the table.

There are infinite opportunities to work with others to enhance our value and extend the influence of the cultural heritage institution. Consider in what creative activities your institution embarks to make unlikely collaborators part of your team.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Encouraging the Preservation of Personal Papers

One of my favorite things about my work is explaining archives concepts to non-archivists. I regularly run a program on preserving personal papers. The workshop invites individuals to bring in personal archives that they want to discuss and learn how to preserve. I keep the group small, so that everyone has a chance to show the group what they've brought, offer a little background about the material, and ask questions about how to care for it.

I have identified a lot of great items and have learned about documentation processes and media that I have not come across working in diverse archives and possibly never would have come across in my own research. I hear great stories and gain a better understanding of the documents that are available within communities. I get ideas for new programs and get support for what I do.

Invariably, people tell me that they never realized the knowledge required to properly maintain their materials. They throw items in a box in the attic or basement, or shove them in a drawer and forget about them. When they go to look at the materials a few years later, the documents have developed a smell, are starting to turn colors, or are literally disintegrating. Many, many people tell me that they have always vowed that one day they would "take care" of their personal collection, but they did not know what to do and were daunted by the task until I came along.

The basic knowledge one needs to maintain straightforward items such as papers or black and white photographs is simple. It is really just a matter of giving people a few basic tips for the bulk of what they own. But most people do not think to ask archivists about how to care for their personal items. Most people do not know that archivists exist. Archivists need to find ways to better advertise who we are and we need to encourage "ordinary" people to ask questions about the items in their possession and seek out those who can answer those questions.

Workshops are one way to reach out to people to let them know that people like me exist. I encourage people to contact me if they have questions about their materials. As a traveling consultant, I also encourage people to locate and get in touch with their local archivists. I tell them that we are all very nice and want to help. We can offer some preservation or organization advice, tell them if their materials have any value to a community history beyond their family, we can even refer them to others if we can not help them directly with their archives related issues. (Please, oh please don't turn people flat away from your repository!)

The work of an archivist is about preserving memories. Whether we are preserving the memories of the famous, the not-so-famous, an institution, or a larger community, our work boils down to ensuring that documentation is identified, retained, preserved and made accessible. Reaching out to the public helps with all of these elements of what we do. When archivists take the time to reach out and help non-archivists, both parties have lots to gain. Working together, we can ensure valuable historical items are kept safe for posterity.
(In general, I get a quizzical stare when someone asks me what I do and I say "I'm an archivist." In fact, I am actually trying to devise a way to ease people into that word based on a suggestion by a friend / colleague. I am creating my three line introduction... "Well, you know how you have that old shoebox of photos and family papers in a cabinet? You know that museums and libraries treasure similar objects in their collections? I am the person who helps organize those materials and make sure they last a long time....I am an ARCHIVIST!")

The Albert Ryan Collection found a home at the Waltham Public Library when a local citizen with some remarkable ancestors talked to me (the library's archivist at the time) about his family papers.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Book Announcement: Cultural Heritage Collaborators

Join the party and become a Cultural Heritage Collaborator!

Twenty years as an archivist and ten years of providing consulting services to diverse cultural heritage institutions has brought me to this place. I am happy to announce the release of my latest book, which focuses on securing the historical documentation of communities. The publication is a practical manual to help localities work collaboratively, identify records with permanent value, and retain collections that fully reflect community memory.

Cultural Heritage Collaborators: A Manual for Community Documentation is a practical guide. It has been described by Erin Andrews as "a must-have guide for any group working with any sort of historical documents" and Donna Reiner says it provides "much needed information" to protect archives and small collections. Ryan Lewis states, "...any professional working in the world of community-building through heritage and cultural resources could find something of value here." (See full early reviews here)

The book is split into three sections. The first discusses why it is important to identify, collect, organize, preserve and provide access to archival materials. The second discusses collaborative collecting from the collaborators and reaching out for partners, to those who can help fund collaborative projects, to strategies for working together. The third is more practical and detailed, explaining why and how we should gain a overview of a community's documentation using accepted techniques for collection development. Interspersed through the chapters are twelve model repositories, including museums, libraries, and archives. Also included within the book are worksheets for surveying and appraising collections and tips for writing mission statements and policies to assist documentation efforts.

Reviewer John Fleckner stated that he hopes this book will "inspire others" to invest in the future through collaboration and collection development. The book conveys my passion for the work. I hope to encourage you to join the party and spread the word about what we can and should do as a society to preserve our memories and cultural heritage.

I invite you to join the discussion on this blog. In what collection based collaborative projects is your institution participating? Or, share with us what kind of project your institution is considering for the future. Perhaps you'll gain a new way of thinking about your colleagues, your public, and the future of cultural heritage institutions after you read the book. Share your thoughts here in the blog or through my ArchivesInfo Facebook business page.

Need to learn more to inspire you to read the full text? The introduction to Cultural Heritage Collaborators: A Manual for Community Documentation is available online.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

A teaching reward

Cleaning out my office today, I came upon these thank you cards from the students in my daughter's 2009-2010 class. I visited her classroom back in May to tell the kids about what I do for a living. I was so excited to get these cards at the end of my year volunteering as a class mom, especially when I saw the impact my archivist presentation made. One month later and the first graders still remembered some of my stories and key points.

(The cards are now prominently tacked on my wall. I really should clean my office more! This find made my afternoon.)

Saturday, July 17, 2010

For the love of history

When I hear that history is the least liked subject among students, it saddens me. Some of the best memories of my life are from my younger years when I was first discovering a love for learning about the past. History is important and fun. Evaluating past events helps us move down a successful path and learning about others helps cultivate understanding. I wish that more school related experiences would give children the opportunities to get to know and love history as some of my favorite scholarly endeavors did.

My interest in bygone days was first recognized by my fifth grade teacher. She told me about an old mansion in her neighborhood that was for sale. My parents took me to see it. My strongest memory of the visit was of the family's library. It was a large room with bookshelves on every wall. Books were strewn all over the floor. I suppose now that they were in the process of being boxed. The home had most recently been owned by an elderly lady who had recently passed away. I imagined her standing in her library, browsing her collections, taking in that intoxicating smell of old papers and leather that was hitting my nose for the first time in my life. A few weeks after the visit, my parents learned that the house had been burned to the ground by vandals. The loss hit me hard. I imagined the old woman's documented memories and personal belonging up in smoke and couldn't understand why anyone would be so cold as to wipe out part of this stranger's legacy. The "sense of place" and of a person's lifetime that I discovered in this fine home was the first step in awakening a passion for the past in me. Standing in a spot where many stood before me made my brain sing while I contemplated how individuals use their unique surroundings to make a personal imprint on the world.

In sixth grade, Mr. Kelley stood at the blackboard and told us about King Tut. It was the first time a past culture so distinctly foreign from my own was laid before me. I learned how different cultures had different views and different struggles. I tried first to imagine what it would be like to be an archaeologist discovering the treasures of past civilizations. I was engrossed with stories of curses befalling those who tried to unravel the mysteries of the Egyptians in a truth is stranger than fiction sort of way. The unique glassy photos of artifacts were thrilling and realizing that others lived without the comforts and traditions that seemed vital to my survival and understanding of myself as a person was enlightening. Considering the cleverness, artistry, and unique ideas of humanity that we exhibit in the materials we create through time remains my primary scholarly interest to this day.

In high school, I volunteered to work at a Vanderbilt Mansion in a nearby town as an honor society project. I was asked to index Vanderbilt family scrapbooks. This was my first exposure to "archives," though I didn't know the meaning of that word at the time and it was not used by those introducing me to the discipline. The William K. Vanderbilt family scrapbooks were kept in an office within the mansion turned museum and was accessed by walking through ornate former family living spaces. I tried to imagine myself living in this space overlooking Long Island's Northport Harbor, enamored by the art that surrounded me and William's natural history collections. I began to wonder about the nameless people who took the time to cut out articles and paste them in the books that I browsed. History to me was about the big names (such as Vanderbilt), the major events, and relevant places... but it was slowly becoming about the lesser known details left for me to discover (such as the Vanderbilt servants). It is at this time that I realized with full force that history is about everything and all of the stories related back to me. What makes me different from a Vanderbilt? What nameless people help shape my own destiny and my legacy?

History takes a bit of imagination. We don't often explain this or encourage it in its study. History is about everyone and everything. It is about how those who came before us lived their lives -- the paths they chose and the alternative directions not followed. History is a wide breadth of stories that can be accompanied by as many questions. How did the people in the past live and what events, circumstances and settings influenced their situation? Most importantly, history should ask, "how can I learn from the examples of those who came before me?" Students can come to realize that history is all about each individual and imagine themselves in alternative situations. History is about who we can be, who we choose not to be, and how we can change ourselves. Every individual story helps tell a larger story of humanity. Getting to know history by seeing oneself at the center of it and understanding that one is part of this larger story can make all the difference for a student.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Community of Collaborators

In this blog, I've discussed both communities and cultural heritage collaborators. I want to introduce the concept of a community of cultural heritage collaborators. A community is a group of people who share something - a common interest, a geographical locale, a faith, a relationship...The cultural heritage collaborative community is made up of people who have a common interest or responsibility in protecting cultural knowledge. This group includes professionals such as museologists, librarians, and curators. It also incorporates clerks, secretaries, records managers and others charged with retaining a specific history. Finally, the group should also rely on people the U.S. National Archivist David Ferriero has been calling "Citizen Archivists." (They can be called "Citizen Curators" or "Citizen Librarians" for my cross-professional colleagues.) These are people who may or may not know much about cultural resources. They may have some interest in collecting or preserving materials. Or, they may not be conscious of any personal interest in retaining cultural items, but may possess things that hold importance for historical memory. Materials such as family papers and heirlooms, records of community involvement, personal libraries and the like that have recognized historical value to cultural heritage professionals often remain hidden to us when this special subgroup is not included in our planning and collection development efforts. If we can identify our fellow cultural heritage collaborators, we have a greater ability to preserve our heritage by recruiting their help. Working together, we can identify and protect the resources that shed light on civilization.

1. Who are your potential professional partners? Think about fellow cultural heritage professionals in your geographic region. Think of those across your nation and around the world collecting similar resources. For example, the MacKaye family of Shirley Massachusetts left some family papers with the Shirley Historical Society. While working on this collection, I discovered that Dartmouth College a few hours north also retained a significant MacKaye collection. We exchanged finding aids and compared notes about holdings. We became cultural heritage collaborators.

2. Who are your quasi-professional partners? These are the people who use cultural materials in their day-to-day operations, but may not place emphasis on their historical import. City clerks, local businesses, association secretaries, artists and others can all be part of your collaborative. For example, as a member of Manchester Art Association I volunteered to be their historian, a volunteers Board position that had been left unfilled for many years. Records from decades of the groups operations were spread among members' homes. We organized and centralized them. I made them aware that a local historical society may have interest in their materials one day, which emphasized the group's value to the greater Manchester community and gave them incentive to better care for their materials.

3. Who are your non-professional partners? Consider the citizens in your town who have materials related to your community. Consider those outside of your geographic area who may have an interest in your community. It is most challenging to reach out to this group to convince them of the role they have to play in cultural heritage goals. Many have never considered the value of their personal materials beyond themselves or their families. Many think that they have no interest in history. This is an opportunity for outreach and a barrier that we can break by emphasizing the idea of community. The Waltham Rediscovered project in the early 1990s is a good example of enhancing citizen interest. A series of ethnic celebrations emphasized community pride and encouraged residents and former residents to share recollections in oral histories and to show others their family papers and memorabilia. The effort culminated in a book about the development of Waltham and the immigrant experience and a new collection of materials related to the project was eventually donated to the Waltham Public Library.

We all have an interest in advancing humanity and making our communities the best that they can be. Focusing on our common interests and recognizing that everyone has a role to play in preserving community memory will help cultural heritage institutions fill their missions to retain resources and sustain knowledge. A community of collaborators has a greater opportunity to raise awareness, increase enthusiasm, build support, boost goodwill, fully document a community or place, and encourage pride than any one of us working alone.

Read more about the collaborators in Cultural Heritage Collaborators: A Manual for Community Documentation and share your ideas about ways to cultivate a sense of community and collaboration.

The lovely prized family photo at the beginning of this post evokes a sense of place and can stand as a representation of local pride. A friend allowed me to make a copy when I found it hidden among her boxed photos.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Mission Statements for Cultural Heritage Institutions

I collect mission statements like some people collect quotes. In an effort to convince cultural heritage professionals of the importance of having a mission statement, I discuss the topic in my new book. I state, "A mission statement is a declaration of purpose that explains the role of an organization and whom it serves. It is an important tool that formalizes and establishes a tone for the functioning of a repository." Those who operate their institutions without a mission statement or with a weak one leave the health of the organization in peril with a cloudy vision. A strong mission tells your audience the principles on which you base your existence, justifies your work to governing bodies, and invites users in to see what you do.

The core elements of the mission include the organization's purpose in terms of what it collects and the activities it conducts, the role the organization plays in the community and collecting world based on its defined purpose, and a definition of the audience the organization serves. I am sharing here some missions that have caught my eye over the years, but didn't make my publishing cut. Each can serve as a model for creating a mission that drives the archives.

1. University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign University Archives mission: To select, preserve, and make accessible an authentic record of the programs, people, and operations of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the central administration of the University of Illinois, and to provide archival management for records of external organizations and documents of individuals in support of the administrative, teaching, research, and service interests of the University of Illinois.

This is clear, straight-forward, and representative of many University archives and special collections. It clearly acknowledges its separate purposes for collecting the institutional archives of the University and those records of institutions that support the University's broader education goals. The mission also ties itself to that of its larger institutional body, the university itself. Smaller organizations with archives often forgo a separate mission for collecting, feeling that the institution's larger mission gives the archives purpose. This kind of thinking is dangerous. When archivists assume that everyone knows they are working to support their governing body, they are often the first one's cut when money becomes a concern. A separate archives mission, such as the one above, makes our raison d'etre clear to everyone.

2. Huguenot Historical Society Archives: The mission of the Archives is to support the Huguenot Historical Society through collecting, preserving and making accessible, materials in all formats documenting the history of New Paltz, NY, particularly when such materials concern the Walloon origins of the early settlers, their migration patterns, and the development of their church. Most important, the Archives seeks to make available any and all information bearing on the historical and architectural interpretations of the stone house museums maintained by the Society. The Archives also serves as the Huguenot Historical Society's corporate archives, maintaining the Society's business records, publications and memorabilia. Lastly, the Archives seeks to promote the education of all aspects of Huguenot and Walloon history and to a lesser extent, local history.

I like how this mission defines its geographic region and then hones in on particular areas of interest. Like many historical society missions, this one is broad, allowing for the collection of virtually anything related to New Paltz. Such a mission, balancing a wide-ranging view with specificity, will allow the organization to create a collection development plan that zeroes in on the materials that suit their niche. The organization can also create an outreach planning and other materials that tie themselves to the elements outlined here. This kind of mission is a bit wordy, but I like the way that they make sure they cover everything without being excessively wordy. The thoughts they present here can be bulleted (that's how I reorganize a paragraph like this in my head when I read a mission statement) to make each statement more poignant.

3. Burlington Massachusetts Town Archives: The purpose of the archives and records management program is to preserve and protect the town's history and to enable the town to fulfill its legal records management responsibilities. The archives organizes, preserves and provides easy access to records in a variety of media; administers information resources; transfers inactive and permanent records to the Archives; and disposes of obsolete records that do not have long-term value (General bylaw 7.1)

Serving a specific legal role to care for town records, this mission is short and sweet. It defines the archives roles to organize, preserve, provide access, administer information, transfer inactive records and dispose of obsolete ones (records management). I think the disposal portion of the statement is unique to archives in general (though maybe not to municipalities) and probably helps stave off controversy about discarding materials. The statement's authority is given more weight by the notation that it is a general bylaw of the town and not "just" an archival mission statement. More towns need archives missions such as this that show the significance of maintaining administrative records with long term value and a town's cultural heritage.

My book, Cultural Heritage Collaborators: A Manual for Community Documentation is now available in limited release. For more information see I will be posting excerpts and more information about it in this blog over the coming month for those who are interested. The book should be widely available in regular publication channels by August.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Citizen Archivist

New article in the Bedford Bulletin, July 3, 2010
The Citizen Archivist
What invaluable historical documents are in your home"?