Thursday, October 28, 2010

Lost Letters

Most of us now correspond through e-mail, Twitter, Facebook, and texting. However, the sending of bits and bytes has only been our prime form of written communication for about ten years. People still retain old written letters from friends and family, personal notes and greetings, and formal correspondence in file boxes and cabinets. Written expression has been a major form of communication since the beginning of civilized society. We first exchanged ideas in writing on rocks and cave walls and later moved to papyrus and other more portable forms that allowed our writing to become more prolific. Digital resources have made it even easier to jot down our thoughts, continuing the evolutionary process of our writing. We must view all the various written ways we communicate as a whole, saving what is most important for ourselves and posterity.

It is interesting to note that in addition to the format change, the evolution of correspondence has changed what we say and how we say it. For one, correspondence tools allow us to give information to many people at once rather than sending one message at a time. We can do this to specific people with e-mail, but we can also spread a message to strangers via social networking sites. Things that were once private are now becoming public. Additionally, as we share more and more, we write fewer and fewer words in one shot to do it. Since social networks and e-mail are virtually free, and we can make use of them with tools that are available to us at any time. We are tending to write in short bursts and more often than in the past. It is now uncommon for one to sit and write an in-depth description of one’s week to mail off to a far off loved one. Many would rather just write something such as, “Baby took 1st steps this morn” on our Facebook wall and let a back-and-forth dialogue ensue.

As technology makes the communication itself easier, in many ways it makes the saving of collections of correspondence related to our lives more difficult. On the good side, E-mail has made it easier for us to save copies of our correspondence. In the past, one had to make a concerted effort to make carbon copies of our letters or to photocopy them before sending if we wanted to retain back and forth communiqu├ęs. Today, our computer systems keep both sides of correspondence within our software programs, so we can easily see what someone has written to us alongside our reply. But how do we separate the important e-mails from the doldrums and what about those text messages, blog posts, and tweets? The Library of Congress has announced a program to “archive” Tweets, but we do not yet know how your ancestors may be able to access them in the future.

A box of printed letters to you may be missing your replies, but at least your ancestors (and possibly historians) will have a complete view of the words others wrote to you. How many people think about how family might be able to treasure your e-mails and other digitized words? It is advantageous for those of us thinking about the value of our correspondence to use programs that back up Twitter and Facebook accounts. Keep your important and interesting e-mails organized in folders and think of these folders as you would the old fashioned kind. Label them so the files inside make sense and are easily accessible. Also, be aware that digital files can be lost in the blink of an eye. Make 2 copies of everything. Keep the copies in alternate formats and retain one off site. Be prepared to migrate the data as technology keeps changing. For small home collections, it is always acceptable to print what is most important to you and save it the old fashioned way, in preservation safe folders, just to be sure. (For more on preservation see Preserving Archives and Personal Papers and "Preservation" heading on Links to Helpful Archives and Cultural Heritage Web Sites within the ArchivesInfo web pages.)

We are in the midst of a great change in communication. For now, we must still keep an eye toward the old way of doing things while automation changes rapidly. The cross over to a digital world is only just beginning. The implications of lost correspondence is troubling for both the purpose of scholarship and family / community memory.

Here are a few interesting online sources highlighting the importance of maintaining correspondence and the battle to save letters:

Literary Letters: Lost in Cyberspace

PBS: The Perilous Fight: Archiving War Letters

Personal Archiving Conference

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Don't Know (or Care) Much about History

I've been hearing a lot of this lately, "My kids aren't interested in 'old stuff.'" I last heard it in an antique shop where someone proclaimed that they could not pass their collections on to their children because the children did not care. It turns out that the lady in the antiques shop had never explained to her children exactly what made her collections so wonderful. One can pull something off a shelf and expect the viewer to oooh and ahhh. Or, one can provide information that demonstrates what makes that thing so wonderful in the first place.

I grew up knowing that my penchant for history was unusual. It was the favorite subject of few of my peers. However, for one thing, I was lucky enough to have a father who shared his love for history programs on television with me. We'd sit together watching "World at War" and Dad would connect it to our ancestors who had left Europe to escape persecution and conflict. I was not interested in "World at War." Not really. In fact, I try to skip over the bits about military tactics and warfare in the history books that I now read . (Should I admit that?) But I was fascinated by the history that connected to my life and was energized by my dad's enthusiasm for the subject. I was able to find something that interested me in a broad context that my father shared. Today I am intensely interested in how people respond to conflict and relate it to how my family had to adapt to it in the 1930s and 40s.

With this in mind, I refer the reader to an engaging blogpost this week by titled "A Return to the Narrative," which discusses a renewed British emphasis on facts and figures at the expense "drawing out the thinking processes on which the discipline depends." Author Alix Green concludes that "thinking with history" is at least as important as knowing the details of our historical past and argues that the skills gained from such thinking allow us to be better policy and decision makers . I would like to add one more piece to this. Learning to use history to think critically makes history interesting, shows students (including life-long learners) that history is worth learning, and encourages us to value our past and find use for it in the present.

History helps build self- esteem by allowing one to better understand from where they came and why they are here. One can be carrying on a family's sense of survival. Or, one can be overcoming hardship and recognizing situational similarities in persons who are unrelated to them, giving them strength to better themselves. From history, one can also develop a broad sense of community, recognizing one's peers and like-minded members from many aspects of society. History allows us to understand our place in civilization, making sense of events that surround us, and helping us to build an appreciation for culture and cultural objects.

I have recently been wondering why we don't start teaching history in school when kids are much younger. Along with reading, math, and science, history should be taught in early elementary school as part of the regular curriculum. When I introduce young children to history through an American Girl book club that I run, or show archival resources to children in libraries, they are fascinated. I relate history to them and explain what it means to live at this particular moment. I try to help them develop an understanding of how people from the past got us to where we are today. Sometimes a few facts and figures are thrown in, but the key is really to create a foundation of knowledge that allows the little ones to see that people came before them and that they should care about that fact because it tells us a lot about who we are and where we may be going.

Instead of saying, "my kids aren't interested in 'old stuff'" think about the messages that adults are giving them about the past. Are we instilling an appreciation for history in the next generation or are we continually showing them that shiny and new is better? Remember, that "new stuff" wouldn't be here without the early ideas that lead to this point. So, next time your children run out to buy the latest computer game, use the opportunity to tell them about the ENIAC, the first computer (weighing in at 50 tons and filling a room.) And make sure that you care about what you are passing on. Find ways to connect yourself to the past. Research the history about the things that interest you the most to enrich your own life. There is much to know about in history, but first we have to care.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

My best preservation tips

I realized that it has been a long time since I blogged about some archives basics related to how we handle items. So, I thought that would be a good subject for today. I wanted to try something a little fun and provide some magical tips for problems - sort of a top ten "Household Tips and Tricks," but for archives instead of for households. Most of these should be familiar to my professional colleagues, but I expect they will be helpful to people in smaller institutions or handling personal papers in their homes.

10. Removing photos stuck to "magnetic" album pages
The sticky glue in those popular albums (that held all my own childhood photos from the 1970s) can be a real problem. It sometimes establishes a death grip to your treasured photos. My favorite tool in my archives preservation arsenal is a microspatula. If you gently run the spatula under your images they will likely come off the album pages so you can store them in a safer place like in an appropriate archives storage box. I have read of people using dental floss for the same purpose, but I have never tried it myself. If you are still having trouble removing items, CAREFULLY take a blow dryer set on low and blow the BACK of your image to melt the glue. Do not use the heat more than necessary. You could end up damaging your images if you are not careful.

9. Propping Photos on the cheap
Your items should stand straight up and down in your storage boxes and should not slump. Slumping can cause damage so archivist use spacers to help prop materials like book ends would do for books. If you want a cheaper way to prop materials and want to use something you probably already have on hand for re-boxing and safekeeping your items, gently bend an archival file folder and place it behind your materials to prop them.

8. Determining acidity of paper
A Ph testing pen is a great tool to keep on hand to make sure your store bought papers are not acidic and are safe for keeping your information. In general, due to established standards, regular computer paper should be safe for printing out information you want to save in this form. If you have concerns, use this pen to be sure. (The acidity of the printer ink is a whole other story...)

7. Smell test and Bunsen burner test to determine acidity of plastic
Most plastic enclosures that you buy in a box store will be unsafe. As with all archival supplies, you are best served by purchasing from a reputable dealer such as Gaylord, Light Impressions, Hollinger Metal Edge and University Products in the United States. If you want to test your plastic enclosures because you've invested a lot of money into them, try this to test for the presence of harmful PVC and to help determine the composition of material. Heat copper wire in a well-ventilated area and hold to your plastic. If it burns green, there is PVC present.
The Canadian Numismatics Associations provides a nice chart to help you determine exactly what kind of plastic you have in your hands.

6. Encapsulation to support brittle documents
Another magical storage helper is encapsulation materials. Put your fragile or oversized documents between two special layers of special plastic and seal edges with heat. You can even crumble it into a ball with no affect (but I don't recommend trying that with your treasured items.) This solution is only appropriate for fixed images. Charcoals and other similar media will be harmed by the static charge caused by the plastic.
For more information see

5. Eliminating dirt
This soft pad was a major bonus when I handled a large collection of maps that had been stored in a dusty basement for years. Wring out a little of the "eraser" material inside and gentle rub your item. Be careful that the writing is permanent or you will take that off too. Do not use this pad on pencil, for example.

4. Dehumidification
If you have problems with dampness and mold growth, consider using a desiccant. Gel packs can be kept in storage areas, but should not touch your archives directly.

3. Humidification chamber for uncurling items

Place materials to be uncurled in a small garbage pail. Place the small garbage pail in a larger one that contains water (so water will be in a ring around the smaller pail and not touching your documents.) Place a lid on the large pail and not the smaller one. Let the humidity do its work and check periodically. Once flat, take material out and lie on table with blotting papers and a heavy weight on top. A heavy weight can be glass plates, heavy books, boards, etc. and let items dry. Change blotting papers periodically if necessary.
For more info:

2. Removing mold smell
I think this one is magical....Using the same garbage pail set up as #2, use kitty litter, charcoal or baking soda instead of water. These materials should absorb at least some of the odor. Please note that odors can not always be eliminated AND do not use this method for an extensive outbreak of mold. Mold can be dangerous and the environmental issues causing its occurrence must be resolved first. Any active mold on materials should be dried out and brushed off materials
For more info.

...and one final tip that I am happy to know, but hope I never need....

1. Removing blood from documents
Use cold water to gently dab blood stain with a Q-tip. Moisten it without saturating paper. Use a dry cute tip and gently roll it over stain to sop it up. (How could that tip not make the number one slot! I just had to put it there.) For more information see:

For additional preservation information see my Preservation listing on my Links to helpful Archives and Cultural Heritage sites web page.

Have more helpful tips to share? Please comment on this post. What is your favorite preservation tip?

"Reading" into a Document - More Thoughts on "History is Personal"

Last month I wrote "History is Personal" in this blog, discussing how humans can relate ideas of a larger history to their own lives and can examine the past through their own family lens. As I prepare for an upcoming workshop that I am conducting with colleague Sue West, I keep delving deeper into the idea that history is personal, that the past informs one's present, and that individual history is important to a larger community.

In our class, Sue and I discuss using objects and archives as a launching point for documenting our lives. One item that I had stuffed in a "one day I plan to complete this genealogy research" folder is the document on the left. This is a copy of my grandfather's discharge papers from the U.S. Army in 1948. It is a public document. I have been told that my grandfather was displaced from his country because of the persecution of Jews in Europe and subsequently helped with cleanup after World War II. This document shows the very general information related to one man. It shows when this man was born, his height, his weight, his serial number and his immigration status. The paper was a formality, pronouncing his service and letting him move on. There is a copy of this item in the National Archives. It is one of many such records of individuals, documenting their service with the United States government.

This is also a unique document, representing an individual's life and embodying the hopes and dreams of his family. For one, the document can help set me down a trail to tracking more about my family story. The certificate says that my grandfather intended to settle in Palestine. Instead, his final home became the country he briefly served after the War. I do not have specifics about the journey here. I do know that these discharge papers represent a vital moment in my own personal history. They symbolize freedom and pride in who I am and from where I came. This document represents the struggle for the possibility of my existence.

Someone who stumbles across this manuscript in the Archives may not read into the document what I read into it. We each bring a unique perspective to what we read and what we read becomes clearer when we have more information upon which to base conclusions. Archives are important because they are the first hand accounts of humanity. Everything we know about history is (or should be) based on accurately recorded information. The content of this document and the related context of my grandfather's story can be examined from many angles by someone studying immigration, the Holocaust, the U.S. Army, my family, my story, the story of someone else in my family, or any other myriad related communities and subjects. It demonstrates how our "private" history is inextricably linked to a broader public history. Understanding that history is only properly done through analysis of what our ancestors leave us to study, we need to help ensure that proper documentation exists to allow us to thoroughly "read" the events of the past. History is indeed personal. The more we do to save our personal documentation to reflect our personal stories, and the more we do to simultaneously support the building of an accurate public documentary record, the more obvious that becomes.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

More Finds at the Local Antique shop - Preserving the Charm and Identities of Victoria

Sometimes the back of a photo can be as thrilling as the front...
I don't know about you, but I would want to be photographed by this studio:
"Photographers to Her Majesty the Queen by Special Royal Warrant and Their Royal Highnesses the Prince and Princess of Wales. The Largest Photographers in the World." And it says that they are miniature portrait painters to boot!
According to a collectibles site, "Andrew Taylor and George Taylor created a chain of studios in about 70 towns and Cities throughout Britain." They were granted a Royal Warrant by Queen Victoria in 1886. (Once again, I've done very little research on this. I've got a long list of proper research to do one of these days...For just a little more information see here)
I was exuberant when I found this bit of English memorabilia in Northwood, New Hampshire. In this photo I see the Victoria's influence. Four little girls posing for eternity on lovely furniture in their lovely dress up best. The charm feeds my long held Anglophile sensibilities.

Across the Atlantic, around the same time, two young children posed for the photographers Kettner and Mader of Schnectady, New York. Not photographers to the queen, the portraitists still posed their subjects in an elegant setting. The boy holds a stick, reminding me of an English riding crop. (Or perhaps it is a riding crop added to heighten the effect?) The pair look as if they are ready to partake in proper British society from their fancy collars down to their booted toes.

It is thanks to these photographers that one could perform more research from here if one chose to do so. Though the children are unidentified, I could hope that the photographers files exist in a repository somewhere and that perhaps from there I could determine who these children are. If the files no longer exist, at least I could research the photographers at the Schnectady library and the local historical society. I could do a similar search for the image from overseas. Such research could help me find clues.

On the other hand, I have these last two lovely Victorian images. There is absolutely nothing on the back. In fact, both appear to be ripped from an album with pieces of paper and signs of tape hanging off the backs. I could contact the antique dealer to ask where he got these to get a clue about the identity of these people. But my antique friends tell me that dealers may not even want to tell me information about provenance for fear that I may get access to their "sources" and snatch all the good stuff up for myself. Dressed to the nines with images recorded for posterity, the identity of these individuals has been lost.

There is a moral to this post. Label your images. Keep items from one source together. (i.e. value albums as a whole and do not pull out images.) I am learning that what one values in antiques often runs counter to what we value in archives. It can be easier to make a buck from a single image than to wait for the right person to come along to buy a whole album. I can't say that I blame the antique field. It's just a shame. Perhaps there is a way we can help others recognize how much more "valuable" things are when they are identified and kept intact. Is there a way to put a price on preserved memories?

Monday, October 11, 2010

More Finds at the Local Antique Shop - The Appeal of Photographs

Last week I set out to browse the shops on Route 4 in New Hampshire, known in these parts as "antique alley." Despite currently being enrolled in an antiques class that has me examining artifacts such as pottery and toys, I found myself once again fully engrossed with my beloved archives and ephemera. These items that I can pick up for two or three dollars on a good day reach out to me to tell me the stories of ordinary people in a way few other items can. Images that hold value to me are those that show something removed from my way of life.

On my Facebook page, a remark a number of months ago has had me thinking about what makes photographs so appealing to people. I replied to the comment, "I think photos make history come alive in a way that other types of archives (except moving images) cannot. We can better understand the past ...dress and environment. We can also directly look into someone's eyes and try to feel what they were feeling. Whereas with old documents we may have the thoughts of a person in writing, in a photo we can project our own thoughts and picture ourselves in a different time and place in their costume. The past is brought more to life in an image perhaps. We don't have to create the scene in our head. It is right before us." The images I draw from today have piqued my historical interest and imagination. Something otherwise plain and ordinary seems far removed from what I know, so I romanticize it or turn it into something of value. The value to me is twisted based on my lifetime experiences and professional knowledge, but also based on my own heritage in comparison.

I recently read an article written be an English woman interning at the Smithsonian. She described her love for American history being due to the foreignness of it, romanticizing the United States' short history and the unique pride we have in it. She compares the traditions and attitudes in this country against those with which she grew up. Our "otherness" has in her mind intensified the value of the history she studies and the work experience she is having.

This idea also brings me back to a conversation with a colleague last week. She is from this area of New England and I am originally from New York. She was raised in an old New England family with a Protestant background and I am from a Jewish immigrant family. We have been working on a program about telling life stories, so have come to learn a lot about one another's heritage. She basically told me that her family history is boring unlike mine, which involves my family escaping from the Holocaust during WWII. I told her that I find her history exciting and that is why I moved to New England. My history has a moment of adventure (for lack of a better word), but the true story of my ancestors is rooted in orthodoxy and a religious life that was practiced for generations without any other blips. The foreignness attracts me to New England (despite living here for 23 years now) and attracts my colleague to New York.

The images I found at the antique shop last week are of ordinary people. I think it is safe to say that I would not want to really live in the shoes of any of these people. I don't want to wear their uncomfortable clothes. I have never wanted a big family. I don't want to run around in overalls with dirty feet. I like the amenities of 21st century America. However, each of these images is appealing, showing a romanticized version of time and place -- romanticized in part by the photographers of the images, but also by me and my own biases.

In the first image, the man of the household sits higher and central to his large family. His wife is by his side with a book open on her lap. I imagine that it is a bible. The children are well dressed and neat, sitting on the stoop of the family home. They cannot smile. Presumably if they do try smile, they will not be able to hold the pose long enough for the camera to capture the scene without a blur. If I look closely, they are quite stiff, in suits and corsets of the time. They are also stiff in pose, facing away from each other each lost in their own thoughts. It seems a strange way for a photographer to pose them to me. At first glance I saw the great American family. With a second glance I feel an underlying current of uneasiness. Is this a romantic scene of happiness, pride and comfort? Only the little girl looks directly at us. Even the father who faces us seems to be looking over my shoulder and the mother doesn't look directly at us, sitting with her arms folded across her belly as if she has a stomachache. This is certainly not the life I know, but I'm also not sure what these people are really feeling. I am projecting my own thoughts on this confusing scene.

The second picture reminds me of a Mark Twain tale. Boys just like Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer stand side by side with dirty feet and mussed overalls. This is the way Americans romanticize times past with a "boys will be boys" sensibility of children playing in mud puddles and catching frogs. We are lucky enough for the image to be labeled on the back. "Clyde was about 8 years old. Was taken on his grandma Hunters home at Mil Lion. The little boy with Clyde is Brownie Kelly." The boys even have great American names! But is this an image of a beautific childhood or of a hard farm life?

The third picture I found of Americans is of a presumably well to do couple. The photographer shoots up at them, emphasizing their fine dress and perhaps even their high station in life. They are the picture perfect people from the gentleman's top hat to his hand in his pocket to the woman's fine gloves and coif. Perhaps this couple is attending a wedding. If I were living during this time, I probably would want to be them. I envision nineteenth century yuppies with few responsibilities they can't handle. I don't think I want to see their correspondence, diaries, or financial papers that may ruin my ruminations about their lovely existence.

A photograph's appeal is in its capture of fleeting time. A moment is locked for eternity and an ethereal being lost to the pages of that time can be a tangible image on paper and in our mind's eye. Photographs alter our perception of reality, reminding us that our experiences are not the center of the universe and showing us that diversity can be mysterious, confusing and wonderful. I wonder how people will view my boring 1970s polaroids if they are ever separated from my family. Will my little boring suburban Long Island life be exciting to someone? What will they read into my skinny body and perpetually perturbed pre-teen stare?

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Gifts of Heritage

I sit with a cranberry candle burning and a warm cup of tea beside my computer as autumn rushes on. The mums burn in brilliant shades of purple and yellow, blending with the changing leaves around my New Hampshire home. The maple trees have already begun shedding and I was admiring the many hues of their leaves along my wet driveway this morning on my way back from delivering my daughter to the school bus. Land's End delivered my fleece shoes yesterday and I am preparing for the colder weather to come.

It is around this time each year that I try to start preparing for the holidays. That is, I really TRY. It is difficult to think about December when I am surrounded by pumpkins and apples. In fact, I brought my daughter to the craft store yesterday and tried to entice her into thinking about diving into some winter holiday creativity, but she was stuck on black cats and witches...
However, if one wants to make the family holiday season special, there is no better way than to include a celebration of heritage and traditions with your festivities. That means starting to prepare in October, thinking ahead to an icy driveway in New England instead of a wet one, and imagining lights in my windows instead of fake spiderwebs.

So, I've put together a list of some gift ideas that you can start preparing now. Treasure your personal archives and put them to use. Bring a sense of your family's history into the middle of your festivities. (Thank you to those who follow my Facebook page who have shown enthusiasm for this idea! I have included information about some places to get more information and where to find professionals to help you.)

For Display:
  • Frame or re-frame something that represents one of your ancestors - a diploma, sampler, marriage certificate. (Be sure to use preservation safe methods with originals or, for documents, frame copies and store the originals away. There are books available to help you with framing, but it is not an easy job. [It was not my favorite part of my professional photography work when I did that sort of thing.] A professional framer can help you with this, but make sure it is someone familiar with preservation safe methods.)
  • Create a shadowbox (with UV filtering glass) of your grandmother's wedding gloves and veil. (A good framer can help you with this too. If the items are not in ideal condition, see a conservator such as the good folks at NEDCC in Massachusetts.)
  • Scan and copy some treasured documents and ephemera and create a collage that includes things representing various loved ones
  • Turn a child's story or report into a published book using an online service such as Createspace. Have copies of it printed for your child and their grandparents (and you).
  • Find new cases for old family tin types by scouting out antique stores
  • Take the words from a wedding ceremony or another important family event and turn them into art. (I hired an artist to write a poem from my brother's ceremony in calligraphy. She included an abstract image on the top using the colors of the bridesmaids dresses.)
For personal reminiscences:
  • Create a booklet of college correspondence you exchanged with your mother (or father, or grandparent, or aunt...) Copy it and bind it through an online service or at a copy center.
  • Help your parents organize and preserve their photos and papers. (A professional archives consultant can help you with this.)
  • Think about things you share with family members (an alma mater, a hobby, etc.) and create side by side generational images. (My daughter is now a Brownie. Somewhere I have a photo from my "moving up" exercises when I transitioned from Brownies to Girl Scouts. I will find the picture and frame it next to an image of her in her uniform.)
  • Write a food diary
  • Digitize old videotapes of your children. (A professional videographer can assist with this.)
  • Gather documentation and mementos related to an important family event or tradition and create a memory box using preservation safe supplies from a company such as Gaylord. Use items you own or expand your documentation and ask other members of your family or community to contribute. (A professional archives consultant can help you coordinate this if you need assistance coordinating a complete collection of family documentation.)
For the whole family:
  • Begin a holiday scrapbook for each family member. Scan photos of past holidays with your family. Make new prints and include them in the first few pages. Give family members new pages you create with new photos each year.
  • Scan old photos and create a CD with treasured family images for each family member (A professional photo lab can help you with this [or sometimes a professional archives consultant.])
  • Scan and retouch treasured old photos and give copies to everyone (See the example I've included of my grandmother above.
  • Create an online memory site about something important to you. Encourage people to contribute reminiscences and scanned images of their memories. (I created one on Facebook for people in the neighborhood where I grew up. I tracked them down and invited them to join a private group. You can do something similar for your family.)
  • Go (or write) to the library in the neighborhood where your grandparents were raised. Track down stories and information related to their lives in the local newspaper. (Marriage announcements are a good place to start.) Ask the local librarian or archivist to help you find more information about them to share with your family. Make copies for everyone. (Be advised that some places may need to charge you fees to cover their time and expenses or that they may need to refer you to a professional researcher.)
  • Begin your family genealogy. Or, if you have done your genealogy, make it into art work. Design (or hire an artist to design) a tree with all of your branches. (There are genealogy professionals who can help you track down your family genealogy)
Be creative, but be conscious of your items preservation needs. Honor your personal history and make old treasures into new gifts of heritage.

Do you have more ideas for sharing your heritage as a gift? Please share them with us in the comments section.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Environmental Sustainability – How Does it Fit With the (8.9.10 Draft) of CORE VALUES OF ARCHIVISTS?

I would like to thank my friend and colleague Sarah Brophy for contributing this thought provoking blog post for ArchivesInfo. Thinking and acting green is often just on the periphery of what cultural heritage professionals do. Sarah gives us great tips for tying environmental responsibility to the professional actions of archivists. There is something for everyone here. (In consideration of my own specific professional interests, I especially appreciate Sarah's discussion at the end of this piece regarding collaboration and collecting wisely. These are good rules of thumb for everything we do!) - MM
Green is a team sport. It will take all of us – archivists, curators, administrators, educators and every other cultural heritage professional to make the field green. So, how can archivists be greener?
Well, green is so local, and changes so rapidly, that no one can know it all, and no one can tell others for sure how best to green their practice. So I find that the best way to manage the many options and changing parameters of green, is to articulate professional guiding principles and green guiding principles, and use the two to help triangulate a position on green practice. The Core Values of Archivists statement was created for that purpose: This statement may provide some guidance by identifying, both for archivists and for others concerned about archives, the core values that guide archivists in making such decisions and choices. Core values provide part of the context in which to examine ethical concerns.
So, how can archivists use their guiding principles, their Core Values, currently in draft version and available for comment until 10/15/2010) to help them make green choices? Note: For the philosophical, ethical issues, start at the top of this list. If you want less talking and more ‘doing’, scroll down to professionalism. In either case, if you wish to comment the Society of American Archivists regarding the draft Principles, please follow this link:
There are basic green principles to recognize:
1) Less is Best: when you must use something, make it and the processes associated with it as clean as possible;
2) Think Like An Ecosystem: everything is connected so any changes you make will create their own changes- good and perhaps not good.
3) The Doctrine of “Do More Than One Thing”: take advantage of the synergy of those connections to accomplish multiple goals at once but using a single set of resources; but watch out for bad unintended consequences and capitalize on the good ones;
4) Close the Loop: think through the whole process or the life cycle of the entire product to limit or eliminate your ‘footprints’.
Let’s have a look where the two connect. I have excerpted Core Value of Archivists here simply for space reasons.
Archivists engage in the essential functions of selecting, preserving, and making available the primary sources that document the activities of institutions, communities and individuals, either for legal and administrative evidence or as part of the cultural heritage of society.… The values shared and espoused by archivists enable them to meet these obligations and to provide vital services on behalf of all groups and individuals in society.
Access and Use: Archivists acknowledge that the principal purpose of documentary preservation is its use by anyone who can thereby benefit from the archival record. … Even individuals who do not directly use archival materials benefit indirectly from research, public programs, and other forms of archival use, including the symbolic value of knowing that such records exist and can be accessed when needed.
As keepers of the public record, archivists will be providing some fascinating reading and research material for future audiences interested in how we handled sustainability challenges. Just think! Anyone in the future – next year to next millennium – will be able to look at our responses to this situation, our research and our results, and make a more informed decision.
Accountability: By documenting institutional functions, activities, and decision-making, archivists provide an important means of ensuring accountability….Public leaders must be held accountable both to the judgment of history and future generations as well as to citizens in the ongoing governance of society. Access to the records of public officials and agencies provides a vital part of accountability. In the private sector accountability through archival documentation also protects the rights and interests of consumers, shareholders, and citizens. Archivists … maintain evidence of the actions of individuals, groups, and organizations, which may be required to provide accountability before the judgment of contemporary and future interests.
A big part of Green is measuring results. Archivists’ records will provide the accountability needed to manage and improve sustainability practices more rapidly in areas where measurements are poorly done, or are evidence of lack of effort.
Advocacy: Archivists promote the use and understanding of the historical record….Archivists may engage in discussions of the formation of public policy related to archival and recordkeeping concerns and help to ensure that their expertise can be used in the public interest.
Archivists can help us all understand how best to document sustainability successes, failures, progress and gaps, and how best to make that information accessible to all.
Diversity: ….Archivists embrace the importance of deliberately acting to identify (even create) materials documenting those whose voices have been overlooked or marginalized. They seek to build connections to under-documented communities…
I realize that this statement is directed to people, not to inanimates, but I’d say our environment has no voice, and that archivists’ work preserving documentation of Green practice, experience, information and debate can help provide that voice.
History and Memory: …. Archivists preserve such primary sources in order to enable us to better comprehend the past, understand the present, and prepare for the future. Understanding history requires knowledge and appreciation of context, which is thus a central principle (provenance) in archival theory and practice relating to organizing and interpreting primary sources.
Clearly archival activities have already have provided the historical information necessary for demonstrating climate change. From photographs of polar expeditions to farmer’s almanacs, the record is what’s demonstrating climate change. As a one-time Massachusetts girl fond of swimming at Walden Pond, it really strikes home to compare the flower bloom dates Henry David Thoreau recorded in his Journal with flower bloom dates in recent years and see, in my backyard, a clear example of climate change.
Preservation: …. Within prescribed law and best practice standards, archivists may determine that the original documents themselves must be preserved, while at other times the information they contain or their symbolic value may be sufficient. Archivists thus preserve materials for the benefit of the future more than for the concerns of the past.
Well, sustainability is all about concern for the future, but there’s another important concept here: we can’t save it all; we can’t sustain perpetual care for increasing collections. At some point energy costs for climate control, competing needs for space, costs of supplies, and lack of capacity for Information Technology (IT) access will drive hard choices about what to keep. That’s where Green practices and archival practices feel a bit like a rip current. Each institution will make its own decisions by triangulating archival principles and green principles. The questions and answers will be different each time, so no one can tell you which to choose; your principles must be your guide.
Professionalism: As members of an important profession, archivists adhere to a common mission, accept an evolving theoretical base of knowledge, develop and follow professional standards, strive for excellence in their daily practice, and recognize the importance of professional education, including lifelong learning. They encourage professional development among their co-workers, foster the aspirations of those entering the archival profession, and actively share their knowledge and expertise. Archivists seek to expand opportunities to cooperate with other information professionals and with users and potential users of the archival record.
This is where traditional Green practice and archival practice meet: maintaining professional archival standards while adopting increasingly environmentally-sustainable practices and products. Reduce, reuse and recycle is a familiar mantra. Remember, ‘reduce’ comes first in the sequence because our ultimate goal is to reduce what we produce and consume and throw away, and to also reduce the impact of the things we do produce, consume and throw away.
What do archivists use the most? First, energy: energy to provide proper climate conditions. Where do archives fall in the Plus/Minus Dilemma debate about changes to rigorous climate control standards? I don’t know. All I can say is that it’s worth following the discussion. We can’t fit in that discussion here, but if you’re interested, follow this link to an overview
So what else do archivists use the most? Supplies. How much of those supplies have recycled content? Not much. The archival supply companies still worry that consumer archivists think recycled materials are lower quality than new ones. Just think, the one area where museums (archives?) are willing to spend money, to buy high quality, is in collections; but even in a place where we might spend more if it costs more (and we tend to think recycled will), we still won’t buy recycled-content archival storage supplies because we think it’s lower quality! Irony aside, lower quality is not the issue; the perception of lower quality is. Yes, the fibers in recycled material are shorter than those in virgin pulp. And yes this may cause recycled-content paper folders or boxes to wear out sooner. So, with all other archival needs being equal, recycled-content paper folders or boxes are perfect for those icollections items you access least often, that way the folders and boxes won’t be subject to as much wear and tear. with the least demand. This last sentence is confusing to me. When are you saying we should use recycled storage supplies? What do you mean by “items with the least demand”?
Shipping those supplies is important too. Whenever possible choose a local supplier, and please use the buying power of local museums to encourage that provider to green the inventory. If the supplier is unsure how, have a cup of coffee together and see what alternatives and opportunities you can identify together.
How about non-HVAC energy uses? The microfiche and microfilm machines stashed in the corner should be unplugged when not in use – the same goes for all the other appliances and equipment. What you use regularly should be put on a powerstrip for easy on/off nightly. If you’re a real greenie, you’ll unplug that strip each night, too. Give up the water cooler and the electric stapler and pencil sharpener. Keep your gizmo chargers in the drawer, not plugged into the wall. Pray for someone to give you a more energy-efficient flat screen monitor or laptop computer, and change to CFLs wherever possible. (Why are we praying for a flat screen monitor or laptop? Are they more efficient?)
Responsible Custody: …Archivists are judicious stewards who manage records by following best practices in developing facilities service standards, collection development policies, and other performance records and metrics. They are willing to collaborate with external partners when needed to preserve and make records available.…
This means being open to sharing facilities or creating collecting agreements that coordinate collecting and stewardship efforts that preserve appropriate materials without creating unsustainable collections.
Selection: Archivists make choices about which materials to select for preservation based on the needs of a wide range of potential users. The vast quantities of documents and records created in modern society, in both analog and digital forms, are far too costly to preserve in their entirety and much too unwieldy to search successfully for specific information or knowledge. This quantity makes it necessary to select which deserve and require long-term preservation and which may not….
Collecting wisely is a recurring theme of the Core Principles and Green Practice.
Service: … Within the mandate and mission of their institution, archivists provide effective and efficient connections to (and mediation for) primary sources so that users, whoever they may be, can discover and benefit from the archival record of society, its institutions, and individuals. Archivists seek to meet the needs of users as quickly, effectively, and efficiently as possible.
‘Quickly, effectively and efficiently’ in today’s terms often means electronically. Greening Information IT is an important frontier. Archivists should feel responsible for following the rapid developments in greening IT and adapting new best practices to help control and reduce energy consumption.
Social Responsibility: Underlying all of the responsibilities of archivists is their responsibility to a variety of groups in society and to the public good.... Archivists strive to meet these broader social responsibilities in their policies and procedures for selection, preservation, access, and use of the archival record. In doing so, archivists provide essential services to society.
Environmental sustainability is all about the public good. Environmentally-sustainable practices keep our institution in sync with our communities’ needs and concerns even as we fulfill our professional practice. As charitable institutions, as educational institutions, it is our responsibility to support and enrich our communities – locally and globally.
Oh, and here’s guiding principal number five:
5) Green is a Team Sport: you have the skills and knowledge to define Green practice for archivists. The field needs archivists to work as together – to create an Archival Green Team – that can move the field’s Green practice to where it needs to be.
Sarah Brophy is principal of bMuse: Sustainable Museums. She consults on green practice in museums and is the co-author of The Green Museum, and author of Is Your Museum Grant-Ready?. She is also co-Chair of AAM’s PIC Green, and an adjunct professor for the graduate Museum Studies Programs at University of Delaware and The George Washington University teaching The Green Museum. You can reach her at or