Thursday, September 30, 2010


A collaboration is a formal understanding between partners that announces they will work together to create something that is different from what they had when working alone. Collaboration brings together individuals that have something in common, yet have differing expertise and viewpoints. “Collaboration anchors not in the process of relationship, but in the pursuit of a specific result. Collaboratives are established to solve problems, develop new understandings, design new products.”(Leo Denise. “Collaboration vs. C-Three (Cooperation, Coordination, and Communication),” Innovating.)

Related to collaboration are coordination and cooperation. Both are useful in establishing a collaborative, but they can be pursued separately from one. Coordination is the creation of a partnership to promote efficiency. In the cultural heritage fields, coordination can help organizations avoid collection overlap and competition for resources, but it does not assume that partners will work together beyond that. Cooperation does not even involve partnering, but instead encourages organizations to recognize that they are both part of a community and therefore should work together amicably... Cooperation and coordination can be beneficial in collaboration, but they are not comprehensive strategies for achieving long-term, focused results.

If we choose to pursue a long-term partnering strategy, we first must recognize that a successful collaborative is required, to some extent, to put the needs of the collaborative above those of individual institutions. This is not to say that you must abandon the goals of your own organization. In fact, a successful collaborative will meld with an individual institution’s own ideals. When entering a collaborative, you make a formal agreement to adhere to the principles established by the collective. Individuals must also recognize that they will need to dedicate some time toward collaborative work. This means that participants must be willing to take some time away from other projects to devote attention to group-related cooperative tasks.

The first step toward establishing a collaborative is to carefully reach out to prospective partners and plan for the development of a partnership based on mutual agreement. Those with the initiative to start a group must carefully consider what they want the group to achieve. “For a collaborative idea to succeed, it has to be embedded in an overarching vision all participants share, which makes it worth the effort to overcome the inevitable obstacles.” (Diane M. Zorich, Gunter Waibel, and Ricky Erway, Beyond the Silos of the LAMs: Among Library, Archives and Museums (Dublin, OH: OCLC, 2008), 21.)

Partners must recognize possible pitfalls before they occur. Whether you seek to establish a formal incorporated group or an informal group, there are basic procedures to encourage its success. Partnerships are often unsuccessful due to miscommunication, insufficient planning, or setting unachievable goals. “Collaboration, as a human enterprise, totally depends for its success upon the goodwill of its participants.” (James Burgett. Collaborative Collection Development: A Practical Guide for Your Library (Chicago: ALA, 2004), 23.)...

A collaborative group should begin with a focus on easily achievable goals that guide everyone in the same direction. Long-range planning can be initiated once the group is running efficiently. The committee must create milestones that, once reached, serve as a measure of the group’s success. A primary goal is to encourage a cooperative ethic that will lead to efficiency and increased access to expertise in a wide range of fields...

[From the book "Cultural Heritage Collaborators: A Manual for Community Documentation" by Melissa Mannon. 2010]

Monday, September 27, 2010

Archives and Community

The activities of communities are represented in our archives. Our written documents help us understand our own communities, how our communities intersect with others, the similarities among people and their differences. Examining communities helps us define ourselves and the world around us. It helps us recognize a path into the future. I have recently been delving further into the idea of archives built on communities, expanding on the idea of "Community Documentation" as an efficient means of archives collection development. I addressed this issue in an earlier blog post but would like to continue to explore the ideas I presented earlier.

A community is a formal or informal group with a common history or culture. The community can be based around a geographic area, trait, or topic of interest. Communities come in the form of:

  • Families
  • ethnic groups
  • civic organizations
  • governments
  • informal and formal social groups
  • educational institutions
  • colleagues
  • causes
  • geographical locations / neighborhoods
Every individual participates in communities either intentionally or unintentionally through ethnicity, living space, workplaces, beliefs, and behaviors. Our communities are reflected in the documents we create to run our formal groups. Our less formal communities are reflected in the things we addresses in our papers, providing clues about who we are and what we believe.

I keep coming back to the idea of a wedding. My brother was married this past summer and looking around the event I realized what a microcosm of humanity I had before me. The wedding ceremony itself -- its wording and the traditions we included -- tell a lot about my brother, his wife, and their communities. The wedding party's style of dress, the table centerpieces, and the food all provide clues about the communities of the people we were celebrating. Wedding attendees were all members of at least one community of the bride and groom. They were family members, or they went to school with them, or they sat and drank beers with them on Friday nights. Some at the wedding were colleagues or neighbors. Some were involved in formal social groups in which the couple took part. Some lived far away. Others could scooter to the ceremony. We had people with different political beliefs and different religions. Most were attached by a number of community connections. Interestingly, this wedding was very different than any that could have taken place a century ago for a number of social (community based) reasons.

I believe that one of the primary roles of cultural heritage institutions is to reflect the human connections and changes similar to those that were so apparent during my brother's nuptials. Personal papers reveal a lot about an individual, the time and place in which one lives. They also reveal a lot about human nature, what we have in common, and how we change our perspectives (and thus our communities) over time. As society evolves, theoretically it should change for the better and become more equipped to meet our needs and desires.

I've begun thinking about historical communities. I am a member of an historical community of women, Americans, and archivists among other groups. Each of my communities has changed over time. I would be a very different person if I lived at a different time because the expectations my communities had of me would differ. We can see in our archives how ideas have altered. We see signs of discontent and then moves to change situations. Movements against serfdom or for women's rights are part of the same historical alterations - communities rallying for a better future.

Our archives must successfully document these movements through time. As we work to document our communities, we must keep in mind how they are changing and growing. A particular collection is a slice of life at a particular time, but it is also a piece of a puzzle or a link in a chain. It is the archivist's challenge to make sure all the links are in place so that we understand where we've been and where life might lead us into the future. Thinking about communities allows us to consider individual humans as members of diverse groups that reflect aspects of our being. The concept of communities also helps us make sense of our historical environment and societal expectations.
The idea of communities is thus vital to an archivist's understanding of her role in society and vital toward a better understanding of history.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Deconstructing a Life

I am currently working on a program with my friend and colleague, professional organizer Sue West of Space4U. "Life in Context: Telling Your Story" helps one reflect on why what we save matters to us and to the people around us. The things we save give shape to our lives and reflect who we are - our interests, our values, our activities, our relationships - to our families, our communities, and to future generations. Your personal papers, memorabilia, and artifacts are part of a unique individual history. We plan for the workshop to help individuals think about their items in a broader context and help them relate and preserve your story. This past weekend, I had an experience that brought the point of our workshop into sharper focus for me.

On Saturday, I attended an estate sale with my young daughter. We arrived by mid-morning on the second day of the event. The sale had been advertised by a local high-end second hand store that I like to frequent. Cars lined the block with tape and cones helping to guide us to proper places to park. My daughter and I exited the car and held hands, walking with other curious people toward the event while weaving our way through others returning to their cars. The chandeliers, tools and glassware that were advertised on the first day were gone by the time we arrived. Some costume jewelry twinkled in glass cases in the sun. While my daughter quickly locked on to a knick-knack owl on a table in the garage, I located a box of documents in the corner of the basement. I poked through it to find religious certificates and memorabilia and while I usually take pleasure in poking through archives, I felt strangely uncomfortable with this box.

My daughter articulated what I was feeling as we climbed the basement steps. She said something to the effect of, "Mommy, what happened here?"

Trying to explain estate sales to a seven-year-old is no easy task. I told her that the people who lived in this house no longer wanted these things. I told her that perhaps they were moving to a smaller home or maybe there was just no one who needed these things anymore...

While I spend most of my time trying to put together the stories of communities and lives, I felt like the stories were being shattered in this home. What did the objects mean to the people who owned them? Were all of the items appropriate for this sales event? How would these people be remembered? How did these people or those who cared for them decide what to keep and what to give away?

I remember when my grandmother passed away when I was a teenager. My father flew down to her house and took care of her estate, quickly going through her artifacts, deciding what to keep and what to discard. For all I knew, he based decisions on personal sentiment at a very emotional time. That is not how any child should have to deal with family memories - the accumulations and documentation of a long life quickly considered rather than contentedly pondered and secured.

Few people think about what parts of their life should be recorded for posterity. Few consider their life in the context of their community or a larger culture that needs the stories of individuals to tell a fuller tale of humanity. "Other people's useless stuff" makes me wonder what "other people"? Who makes decisions about what is important to a life? While people may take old objects and treasure them anew, an object can embody many life stories. What are the best ways for us to share the history of an object with our loved ones? Perhaps we might even want to share some histories with communities or other people who value our material after we no longer want or need it?

This morning I received an e-mail from the second hand shop that calmed my mind a bit. The message asked if anyone had seen a box of home movies and children's dvds that had been put aside. They were not intended for the sale and were apparently taken by mistake. A small box of missing materials that was carefully culled for safekeeping allowed me to see that someone is trying to retain a story and missed a piece of it when it was gone. I'm confident that it will be returned so that family's memories will live on. I hope that the removal of clutter has allowed them to focus more clearly on what is important to them, treasuring the key elements of their life in context, and letting the rest go.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

More Finds at the Local Antique Shop

A few weeks ago, I saw this car and dog sitting alongside my car at my local antique shop...
What can be more fun than a dog in sunglasses?
I found out last night when I returned to From Out of the Woods Antiques for my first antiques lesson in their eight part course. I had so much fun that I was surprised when the two hour class was over. (I tend to look at my watch a lot when I sit through presentations. My husband tries to guess how much I liked a movie at the theater based on how often he sees me glance at my wrist. He'll say, "I think that was a five watch didn't like it very much." I think my antique class was a no watch presentation which would be the equivalent to a five star rating.)

As an archivist, I focus on the historical value of the records for which I care. I am concerned about how well the records help tell a story about a specific time, place or person. I judge materials by their primary value, which focuses on the reason for which they were created. Or, more often, I judge the secondary value of materials that concerns itself with the long term historical use of the items. Can a researcher use them? Do they hold information that is worthwhile past the records' active lifespan? Do the records provide evidence of human activity? Sometimes I'll even deeply consider the sentimental or intrinsic value of materials, which takes note of how an item awakens human passions and / or nostalgia.

Those interested in antiques focus on this latter bit. Does an item speak to them? Will it be valued by anyone else in the future, thus making it a worthwhile investment? It is intriguing for me to examine historical items on this level for this is what got me interested in studying history in the first place, yet archivists often have to push aside the gut instinct.

Antique shop owner and our workshop leader for the evening, Donna pulled out a mortar and pestle late in the program. I began thinking about the people who may have used the item and as I always do, I began envisioning another time and place. Our teacher pointed out the original paint, the colors that change over time, and said what she was showing us was a good piece. It was not a reproduction. It was the real deal. I could see the pleasure in her eyes as she spoke about a genuine artifact. I felt our common bond.

I like to collect glass, just for fun. I've collected other things in the past and have small "collections" of various things. I've read a lot recently about what makes a collection (in the non-archival sense). Is it three pieces? Ten pieces? Or is it just a good solid set of pieces that you pick out with care and the number doesn't matter? I'm gravitating toward blue glass. I've started with depression glass. For one, depression glass can be an inexpensive way into this kind of collecting, but it was really the rainbow hues that first caught my eye. My little girl got excited by the colors too, so recognizing a potential mother daughter bonding moment, this seemed like a good "collection" for us all around.

With the talk about the mortar and pestle last night, an audience member raised a question about the next generation. Do younger people appreciate this "old stuff" less? Did previous generations have a lesser appreciation for the things of their ancestors? I don't think this is the case. I think if younger people are properly introduced to old things they grow to appreciate it. There are lots and lots of antiquities related to every subject imaginable. History and material culture (the things humans make) can feed into a love of a subject or an appreciation for beauty and creativity. Antiquing can satisfy a desire to touch or own something with value or meaning beyond ourselves. Whether we are antique dealers, archivists, or curators, we need to find new ways to express this to our potential audiences.

I'm not sure if this class will be useful beyond feeding my new found passion. It may even help me find another temporary passion for artifacts I've yet to discover. But I do know that Donna and I have a common appreciation and knowledge about history that could dovetail nicely. Archivists, curators and other cultural heritage professionals need to better explore avenues of collaboration with like-minded individuals to further all of our professions and to ensure the stability of our cultural heritage. I look forward to learning new things and exploring history in a new way.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Why Value Archives?

Add to the list, help change the list, add your comments and suggestions. Tell us why archives are important to you and to the world.

Why Value Archives?:
  • To better understand a society, its people, and their activities
  • To provide primary information about society's activities to help citizenry and scholars recognize and evaluate these events for themselves, so that they may discern truth and reality from fiction and biases
  • To support an accurate and diverse documentary record of human existence and human action
  • To foster a sense of community and to strengthen civic pride based on a shared and documented history
  • To provide support for understanding the community and how communities form the building blocks of state, national, and global societies
  • To evaluate the role a community played in historical events on a state, national, or international scale
  • To ensure administrative continuity as organizations and businesses function and evolve
  • To ensure a smooth-running society governed with order and efficiency
  • To hold public officials accountable with organized public records that can be viewed by citizenry
  • To help ensure freedom
  • To hold liable those who stifle mores, repress societies, and otherwise degrade human rights
  • To secure property rights and provide evidence of ownership
  • To provide evidence against those who break laws
  • To make materials available for review for assistance with planning, allowing us to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past and to focus on the successful ideas of others that have been committed to record
  • To promote efficiency in records management programs by distinguishing materials with long-term evidential, informational, and historical value
  • To promote the study of a town or organization to researchers
  • To market a community and promote tourism using a deep knowledge about the community's history and strengths
  • To recognize and support the links among all institutions and individuals that create and collect documents in society
  • To evaluate society and distinguish trends from more permanent traits of diversified culture
  • To support the provenance and documentation of collections of objects
  • To support the management of secondary-source collections such as those found in a library
  • To support and supplement public education and lifelong learning
  • To serve as illustrative works for educational, cultural, and other diversified programming
  • To preserve cherished memories of family, friends, and community
  • To define one's own identity and have some reassurance of one's continued memory through personal documentation
  • To preserve symbolic value through a document's embodiment of a particular idea (for example, the Declaration of Independence symbolizing the USA and freedom to Americans)
See the original list in Cultural Heritage Collaborators and on the ArchivesInfo website

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

History is Personal

I first became interested in studying the past when my mom told me about our family history. She described some of the most significant changes and poignant events of the 20th century through her eyes and those of my grandparents. I think about things such as the Holocaust, immigration, changes in food consumption and preparation, labor, religion, healthcare, women's rights, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the Beatles. Events such as these, both recent and historical, can be related through my family lens.

To me, history is not about strange faces and places. It is about my grandmother's heart disease and the "cure" that seems to have led to the leukemia that caused her death. Her generation seemed like it was moving far from a dark age when disease was an expected norm, but yet a simple cure for her was elusive. We have come far for the health care we have today. In a system that is far from perfect, we often see mistakes, but we forge ahead building on discoveries and experiments of the past.

History, to me, is also about my mom who was forced to return home after walking to school in pants during a snow storm. Girls at Theodore Roosevelt High were required to wear skirts, no matter the weather, with little concern about their physical and mental well-being. I am thankful that my daughter can wear the dresses she loves in elementary school, but will be able to permanently put on pants if she wants to when her girly-girl phase is over. I think of the Queen Elizabeths, the Rosie the Riveters, and the women burning bras who helped us reach our 21st century enlightenment on this issue.

In my mind, history is my grandparents' escape from hatred, to a new place where they could lay out a life that would lead to me. It is wrenching that this particular aspect of history repeats itself over and over again. If we know the past, we understand this truth. Recognizing perpetual intolerance can help us break it. History can help us recognize that humanity has struggled with fear and bigotry throughout time, make us better understand the role it plays in our own lives, and hopefully help us carefully think out and monitor our own views and actions.

As this Labor Day week continues, I think of the further struggles of my grandfather, who pressed clothes in New York City to feed his family. I laugh at how I hate to iron and the comforts I now have that make it unnecessary for me to do so if I don't really want to. I think about my grandmother picking out a live chicken at the urban butcher and waving it over her head until the neck snapped so she could prepare a meal. I am conscious of how far removed I am from my food, trying to plot out next year's vegetable garden so that I can taste something fresh and retain a bit of past pleasures. I think about my sister and me tossing cherry tomatoes from mom's garden into the air so that we could catch them in our mouths, a summer treat that can continue for generations if we make a little effort.

History to me is my parent's taste in music, which means something different to me than it once did because I now have a daughter of my own. I sit and listen to Taylor Swift with my child and then I turn on the Beatles. I've told her the stories of grandma sneaking into the Rock Stars' hotel to meet them. I know that my little girl's young excitement for a female singer will possibly one day turn into the same kind of frenzy for a young male musician that her grandma had for Paul McCartney. And while I love baroque music, I also love Nirvana -- I teach my daughter that it is okay and even preferable to have tastes spanning the ages and generations. It is okay for her to be a Beatles fan too.

I wonder about how I can play up the good in life and cut down on the bad for the future. I remember my mom's words about the killing of John F. Kennedy. I think about how she related that she will never forget where she was or exactly how the event played out. I relate it to my memory of when Ronald Reagan was shot. I think about other tragedies from my life. I remember my brother calling me to relate the news when the first plane hit the World Trade Center. I remember calling my mother-in-law and watching with her as the second plane hit. I remember feeling the need to run out and buy flags to hang from my windows...

When my mind needs to go farther back than my own lifetime or beyond the stories from recent generations that have been passed down through the family, I imagine myself in a specific time and place while thinking about how my role in life would differ under different circumstances. It doesn't matter when one is born, the fundamentals of being human don't change. Our emotional attachments and physical needs will always exist, though the ways we choose to deal with them may alter. As I approach a milestone birthday this month, I remember that I am not the only one to ever have been in this place where a change from a younger adult to an older (wiser?) one seems really marked and poignant. I wonder what pieces of my story and the life that surrounds me will be a focus for my ancestors. What aspects of history that occur over and over again or show measurable societal growth and change demonstrate themselves in my story. History is personal. It is about me. It is about my loved ones. It is about the shared humanity of us all.
Here are positive thoughts for myself during this milestone month:

Never forget, but let there be healing.
Don't be afraid to grow up, but stay young at heart.
Treasure your heritage and treat it appropriately.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

List of Ask-A-Curator Blogposts

The following is a list of blog posts evaluating the Ask-A-Curator Twitter event that took place on September 1, 2010. Please add your related blog post to the comments section if you do not see it here.

Archimuse - Notes for Evaluating a Good Idea
ArchivesInfo - What We Can Learn from Ask A Curator - Ask a Curator Fazit und Auswertung zum Twitter Event (german)
Artlog - Ask a Museum about Art, Exhibitions & Viagra
DASM - (Actu) Ask a Curator (en francais)
Gallerina - Twitter Asked, Curators Answered
MuseuPicasso - Notes for Evaluating a Good Idea
MuseoThyssen - Ask a Curator en Twitter (spanish)
Uncataloged Museum - Random Thoughts on Ask a Curator Day

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

What We Can Learn from Ask a Curator on Twitter

I am mesmerized by #askacurator on Twitter, which reached number one trending status today. I think cultural heritage professionals and archivists especially can take a lot away from this experience. I wish to use this space to comment on that, but first I want to give a quick account of Twitter to my blog readers who are not Twitter users.

Like blogs, Facebook and other social media sites, Twitter is a valuable tool for human beings to communicate and learn from one another. Tweeting means that people are using the Twitter site on the Internet to make a short statement about something in 140 characters or less. To highlight the subject of a tweet, participants use a hashtag (#) followed by a word or phrase that they are referring to, so that others interested in the topic can easily find the information and add their own thoughts about it by making their own statement with an equivalent hashtag. When an issue "trends," it means that people are making mention of it over and over again by "tweeting" about it.

#askacurator is a day (September 1) set aside by museums from around the world (300 plus of them) that encourages people to ask curators questions about anything. And there have been many, many questions. There is clearly a desire for people to learn more about museums and cultural heritage and this appears to be a great forum for it. The milestone accomplishment of the curator experience on Twitter today has been marked by Wired Magazine and bloggers across the Internet, enhancing the #askacurator presence by spreading it to other online forums.

The following is a list of some comments and observations I've picked out of the many I've read thus far today. Since there is such an enormous volume of tweets, I expect that others will be analyzing this day for quite a long time...

Some of my favorite questions?
Someone asked the Air and Space Museum in US how they dust all the airplanes
"what do curators think of expansion of term 'curate'?"
How will you archive my tweets when I'm a famous author?"

Archives have come up quite a bit, showing how closely archivists and curators are associated in the public mind. Museum archivists have had a chance to participate and I hope that they will help us organize an #askanarchivist day by sharing their experiences. For my own professional interests, this is especially noteworthy because it does show the close bond between cultural heritage professionals despite our differing methodologies. Cross-professional collaboration can be enhanced through Twitter.

This brings up the question of how to educate about what we do on a more basic level. Someone referred to a page that explains what a curator is, though I don't think it gave a thorough enough view of the profession. I think if archivists attempt this that they should be prepared beforehand with a web page that describes archives and archivists in simple terms. People can be referred to it when necessary throughout an #askanarchivist day.

The event had its own web site with a lot of useful information to get people ready for the event, including participating museums. This site could be expanded with more information (such as what a curator is, different types of museums, etc.) Many museums not listed on the #askacurator web site jumped in as the day went on, answering questions that weren't directed to specific institutions.

When I started viewing early in the day, someone asked if perhaps Tweeters could put "Q" when asking questions and "A" when a curator answered. I think this would be a good idea to help organized the information, but I'm not sure it's practical.

Someone tweeted an interesting trend map early this afternoon

At least one museum found the 140 character format too confining, so created a web page to answer questions in more detail. I thought this was a great use across social media.

#askacurator became so popular in the US in the afternoon that it got filled with spam. I'm not sure what to say about that. I'd be inclined to say "it's a shame," but I guess it also shows that the trend was so popular that people wanted to break it. That's heartening at least, I suppose. It's also worth mentioning because there might be a way to prepare for this eventuality in the future.

One person suggested that curators create an #askavisitor day. I think this could be a great idea. It creates a stronger participatory experience (a la Nina Simon's "Participatory Museums" and AOTUS' "Citizen Archivists" among others.) Cultural Heritage professionals want to hear what our patrons want. Turning this event on its head offers another way to do it, giving audiences another forum to reach us.

One person wrote, "I'm such a little girl, just squealed because @TheWarholMuseum answered my question!" I hope that we continue this great project, growing it, and making more patrons this excited.