Monday, November 29, 2010

More Finds at the Local Antique Shop - Albums

A complete album is a rare find in the antique shops I frequent. If an album is offered for sale, it has usually been emptied of its contents, images separated to sell individually so that the seller can make a larger profit. (If you are a regular reader of this column, you already know that I object to this treatment. Collections contain more informational value when they stay together. Furthermore, many albums, atlases, illuminated manuscripts and other artifacts that we can appreciate artistically are often destroyed for profit, greatly depleting their artistry. ) Albums stripped of their images in antique shops are usually beautiful, with fine leather or fabric covers that enclose hard pages of windows for mounted photos. However, a couple of weeks ago, I came across a set of albums offered intact. Their soft leather covers wrapped around slowly deteriorating soft black pages and their photo corners precariously cradling black and white images of unidentified faces.

With some difficulty, I chose to purchase only one of the three albums. I did this in deference to my finances and storage space. I was hesitant to split the collection, but there is nothing in any of the albums to identify from where they came and to whom they belonged. Each album was a mirror of the other with more unlabeled characters. I told myself that I was not taking away any historical information. It was already lost. Few repositories would want any more albums of nameless faces. (I say this without getting into a theoretical discussion about when a repository might actually want such an item because there are times when an unidentified album can still be an archival treasure.) Additionally, in my judgment, these albums do not have any intrinsic value as a set. Each individual album is a treasure as a window into a particular time and lifestyle, but since the family was unidentified the wholeness of the set was less relevant.

The album reveals a large Catholic family in the mid-twentieth century. Individuals, small groups and large groups pose for the camera, to be remembered for posterity. There are images of babies, couples, teens, adults, clergy, and even pets. Images are taken in apartments, on the street, in front of churches. Page one shows the image of a pretty young girl. I would like to assume that this is her album. We are given glimpses of major life events - weddings, confirmations, and the like. I think that I will spend hours poring over this puzzle, trying to piece together a story by identifying faces that appear over and over.

When I brought my object for purchase to the register, I asked the sales clerk if she knew from where the albums came. As she flipped the pages with interest she told me that the individual dealers in the shop generally get items at estate sales. I told her, "It's a shame that no one can identify these people and that the history of this item is lost." She responded, "Oh well. That's what the family decided." I wondered aloud if the family realized that their community beyond their relatives may have had an interest in these albums. She looked up from the album as I explained that I am an archivist and I know many places that would love materials such as this for their collections if people could provide information about the people and places pictured. "Really? I didn't know that. These are really interesting," she said as she looked back down and began flipping through. She was losing herself in thought and told me, "You know, I wanted to be a nun like the ones pictured here."

Albums give us a lot to think about. They provide a look at the lifestyle of an individual family and offer little slices of how that family networked with the outside world. One may even find herself comparing her own family story to that of another when confronted with a stranger's album, reliving our own dreams and experiences as translated from a camera lens. As with any book, the story it tells is one in which we can dig in with our imagination.

(Blogger is not letting me post more than one image today. If you would like to see more images from the album, please visit my Facebook. page

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Thanksgiving in the Archives

In celebration of my favorite holiday, this post presents you with some interesting Thanksgiving online finds representing holdings in archives across the United States. Happy holiday everyone!

Records in the National Archives include George Washington's proclamation of an official holiday of "humble thanks" and Lincoln's Proclamation of Thanksgiving as a national holiday.

The letter from persistent Sarah Hale to President Lincoln requesting the designation of Thanksgiving as a national holiday is located among Abraham Lincoln's papers at the Library of Congress.

A letter from Jacqueline Kennedy to the MFA director declined a to a visit to the Museum on Thanksgiving weekend. The letter is dated eight days before her husband's assassination.

The Macy's parade has been a holiday tradition since the early twentieth century and is one of my favorite holiday related events. Macy's provides some footage of past parades on their web site.

The Pro Football Hall of Fame provides us with a summary history of Thanksgiving Day football (American style) and some images from their archives.

It is an annual tradition for Presidents to "pardon" turkeys on Thanksgiving each year. The Bush White House web site has a nice gallery of images showing the events. I assume these photos are from the National Archives.

Depression era Thanksgiving recipes from "The Homemaker's Half Hour" are available from Iowa State University's Special Collections department.

Pilgrim Hall is a museum in Plymouth, Massachusetts dedicated to "The Pilgrim Story." They have a remarkable collection of Pilgrim related artifacts. Two documents related to Pilgrim Thanksgiving are transcribed on their web site.

What Thanksgiving related primary sources are in your community? Does your local historical society keep materials related to the events? Does your repository have any collections you would like to share? Do you keep materials in your home related to your personal holiday traditions?

Enjoy your traditions and your communities. And, don't eat too much!

Friday, November 19, 2010

More Finds at the Local Antique Shop - Rewards of Merit

According to The Ephemera Society of America. "Rewards of Merit have been part of the American educational system for more than 300 years. Typically paper and either printed or in handwritten form, teachers bestowed Rewards on their deserving students to recognize their classroom achievements and to acknowledge exemplary attendance. Even though youngsters received them, many times parents later wound up with the Rewards as gifts from their children."

If you would like to read more from the Society on this subject see . Their web site is actually a fabulous reference tool and is terrificly interesting, so I encourage you to explore it.

I find these cards remarkable from a number of perspectives. When I first saw them, I immediately thought of calling cards, which were carried by people who left them in special dishes put out for the purpose in the parlors of friends and neighbors whom they visited. Both calling cards and certificates of merit are very small (and sometimes very ornate) items and evolved as a result of modern techniques for printing. Cards served as a token of friendship, appreciation, and community. When they no longer had to be created by hand, individuals could more readily incorporate them into everyday routines, even creating practices built around the ability to print. The cards are beautiful and I've read more than one description of them that labeled them "charming."

Some of my found merit cards have the name "Libbie Hinkley" handwritten on them by the teacher. The backs of the cards contain remnants from the album or scrapbook from which they were pulled. I find myself longing for the intact book to learn more about Miss Libbie. Did the book contain images of her? Was there any more information about her school work? I am glad to keep her small collection of merit cards, but am saddened that it is such a small collection with no context. While I understand that antique dealers can make more money on individual items than on a whole collection, I am trying to think of a way to encourage the profession to keep intact collections together for historical reasons.

The American Antiquarian Society retains a large collection of Rewards of Merit. More locally to me, Historic New England also has a nice collection. If your organization has Rewards of Merit that you would like to share with readers, please add it to the comment section below.

From an educational perspective, I can't imagine most children in modern society getting excited about receiving this (except maybe my daughter and those of her ilk who have an inbred collecting gene and a love for paper.) Today, my daughter comes home with items from the "prize box," which include things such as little plastic frogs and erasers made in China. In the nineteenth century, students appreciated the new printing process that allowed for the creation of these educational incentives. It makes me wonder if teachers can try out new technologies and personalized documentation today to give praise instead of handing out meaningless cheap toys.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Intangible Heritage

Caption: At Thanksgiving every year, my family goes around the table and each person says one reason for being thankful. A couple of years ago, I decided to create a "thankful tree" with my daughter to list our reasons throughout the month. People who come to visit us are asked to add to our tree. I intend to save the trees to give them to my daughter when she is grown.

I have done much thinking about "intangible heritage" lately. As we work to build collections and preserve community memory, intangible heritage is easy to overlook. The foods we prepare, the music we make, the dances we do, and the family stories we tell over and over again are all pieces of heritage that can easily be lost if someone doesn't make an effort to find a way to document them. Cultural heritage professionals benefit from collaborating with individuals who have their culture to lose if their family or larger communities neglect to transfer information from one generation to the next.

UNESCO is currently "inscribing" its 2010 list of cultural practices and expressions of intangible heritage, which outlines cultural elements in represented countries that need immediate attention. The list demonstrates the diversity of intangible heritage and raises awareness about the need for its care and active continuance. According to the organization:
"The term ‘cultural heritage’ has changed content considerably in recent decades, partially owing to the instruments developed by UNESCO. Cultural heritage does not end at monuments and collections of objects. It also includes traditions or living expressions inherited from our ancestors and passed on to our descendants, such as oral traditions,performing arts, social practices, rituals, festive events, knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe or the knowledge and skills to produce traditional crafts."

We all can point to examples of intangible heritage that we value. This time of year, especially, it is very easy to think of some: caroling, fruit cake and potato pancake making, parades, present exchanges, tree decorating, and menorah lightings. Even though we value these things, we can quickly lose track of activities that we did not think to document -- things that we may drop from our repertoire for one reason or another.

A couple of years ago, I found a used book of jump rope rhymes for sale and purchased it for my daughter. Regularly, we take the jump rope out to our driveway, open the book, jump and recite the poetry. She loves the silliness of it and the patterns of the recitations. I enjoy remembering the rhymes that I sang as a child and trying to recall the differences between how I said them and how the book recorded them. I know that there are many rhymes in there that I would not have remembered without the book. And while my daughter brings some home from school that she learns from classmates, I know many would have been lost to me if this ingenious author did not write this book and I had not stumbled upon it.

What stories have we lost to time? What practices do we recall from childhood that are no longer done? (For example, carolers generally don't frequent our modern holiday houses though it was once common for them to do so. Today we will pop in the latest Christmas CD or ask Pandora to create a Christmas station for us instead.) What traditions in our family should be written down, photographed, recorded in a video format, or digitized to ensure their survival? How many other people have similar practices locally? Do our personal intangible cultural practices have a relationship to our community? How can cultural heritage professionals help make the family to community connection? How can they help preserve these traditions so they are represented in our collections and passed on? Are there clever cooperative projects that we can initiate to help the process of saving intangible cultural heritage?

Intangible heritage is a fascinating aspect of culture to explore. See my blog post Intangible Memories Preserved for more on this subject. As we enter the holiday season in New England next week, I hope that you contemplate the traditions worth saving and consider the best ways to ensure their longevity.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Relevance of Local History

Once upon a time, local history was the purview of the non-professional or hobbyist historian. Those with strong roots in a community would start an historical society to encourage community participation. An active interest in a town's past was encouraged to preserve the local flavor. Today our struggle to understand our geographical communities and sense of place is less straightforward. Professionals who once focused on larger themes must re-examine goals to reflect smaller societies, seek new ways to engage non-professionals, and relate the value of tying local history to the study of societies and culture on a larger scale.

This morning as I prepared for my day, I heard an NPR piece entitled "Listeners Urged to Submit Cherished Mail."

"As part of a series on the U.S. Postal Service airing later this month, NPR is collecting images of the best thing that ever arrived in your mailbox. Did you receive something in the mail that you keep close to your heart — a love letter, a postcard from abroad, a note from a dear relative, a reply to fan mail, a care package, via USPS?" .

This way of thinking about mail is significant. It allows us to relate something very personal to something much larger than ourselves - mail and mail service. It allows us to think about our local mail delivery and relate it to the whole postal system. I have images of the pony express, my kind mailman Amos who was always full of smiles when I was growing up, my Uncle who would mail interesting gifts to me from remote and cold parts of the world such as Iceland and the Yukon... One piece of mail can provide insight into our own treasured memories, to other people connected to us by a unique service, to the service itself, and to the places the mail traveled. The large story of the mail is a series of local stories connected by a common thread.

Sometimes my day just points to a theme very poignantly. After catching up on my radio news, I sat down to catch up on my blog reading. Museum professional Linda Norris had posted "How Do You Put People into the Picture of Local History: 2 Smart Ideas." She addressed the problem of local museums quickly becoming dinosaurs. In a transient society, there are fewer "old timers" who care enough to set up historical societies and write published local histories. Or, those who do care are watching newer generations emerge with little interest because of a lack of local roots. Alternately, many in younger generations who still dwell in the town in which they grew up have an inability to see value in studying the past because no one ever effectively showed them the benefit of such research and reflection. Linda provides a couple of great examples of how more general themes can invite distanced audiences in.

There is one final item I came across recently that I'd like to share and relate to this subject. Last week, a guest post on the blog by a geography PhD student discussed "Archival Activism" and how archives can help social causes. In the piece, she discussed her own arrival in a new place. " I have been wondering how and when I will find the time to get to know this town, and the vibrant current of community movements and grassroots initiatives that course through it." She described her new locale as a "house of amnesia" where people have lost track of the social struggles that made the society what it is today. "I have come to acknowledge that as I arrive in an unfamiliar place to create a new home, I must also work hard to familiarize myself with an unknown history." It struck me that local cultural heritage institutions can fill the void this student has identified. While the writer understands the desirability of identifying a "sense of place," most people do not. One of the duties of cultural heritage professionals is to relay the importance of the local history and to bring outsiders into our community by demonstrating how they fit among our local culture.

To make cultural heritage institutions and local history relevant, we must reach outward to find those seeking answers about their place in the world. Internally we must mold our resources and programs to tell community stories with which potential users can identify. "Memory" institutions must think beyond the memories they've always kept. They must identify new prospective tales to collect and seek new ways to share these stories with modern audiences.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Shared Cultural Heritage: My Unlabeled History

Yesterday, a commenter on my blog generated a conversation about when to keep unlabeled photos. (Thanks Anna!) I wanted to share a story about my most important unlabeled photo. It is an image that I've placed on my business card to make a point about family heritage and to drive home an equally important point about labeling your images.

I sometimes write about my family background and it is something that I regularly talk about in presentations. I am the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors. My grandparents escaped from Poland before the Nazis rounded up other family members to march to concentration camps. It is the most poignant piece of my family history and is something that helped shape who I am and what I believe, and it strongly influenced the occupation that I chose.

The image to the left shows my grandmother. I was named after her. I never met her because she passed away when my mother was a teen. Based on her age and dress in this image, we believe that it was taken in the 1930s. We do not know for certain who the little girl in the image is, but we have an educated guess. My grandparents had a child during the War. They lived in Russia at the time because of their displacement. They had difficulty feeding the girl. I will not go into all the details. I do not know them for certain anyway. I do know that the girl who was my aunt did not survive to meet her siblings who were born after the troubles, in a new homeland across the Atlantic. The girl in this photo is the appropriate age at the time this was taken to have been my mother's older sister. The way that my grandmother holds and looks at her is the way a mother looks at her beloved child. This image is unlabeled and there is no one we know left to verify our conclusions about the girl's identity.

I share my most personal stories because I know that they may help someone else who has a similar story or some other traumatic event in their family's past with which they have to come to terms. I also share my stories because it is valuable for all of us to cherish our personal histories, share our pasts, and recognize that all of our tales are interconnected. As an archivist, it is my job to promote the value of understanding history through our documents. Such understanding allows us to improve ourselves, work to improve the world around us, and forge ahead into a more promising future that builds positively upon our collective experiences.

The items you possess that reveal your family story are important beyond your immediate relations. Care for your cultural heritage and recognize your role in preserving community knowledge. Label your photos so that history can be remembered and past down to those who can learn from it.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

More Finds at the Local Antique Shop - Puzzlers

I have been puzzling over this image since last week. It was included among my purchases of community images -- the others I placed in my last blog post -- but this one has me really stumped. Why are these men sitting on a mountain in the snow? How did they get here? Who is the man who has decided to stand and why is he not sitting with the others? I am assuming that this image was taken in New Hampshire, since this is where I purchased it and we are blessed with such vistas. I will continue with that assumption until it is disproved.

Last week in my "Life in Context" workshop, an audience member asked what to do with these puzzlers that get passed down through families. When we have done all we can to find out about the people in the image -- when we've asked every family member we can think of, have asked old friends, and perhaps even posted images online for identification -- what do we do with them? A cultural heritage repository, for the most part, will not want an image of an unidentified person or place. There comes a point when we can feel free to let images go. As part of the appraisal process, they are regarded as virtually worthless. Their story is lost and the subject cannot be teased from it, having no relationship to anything. When there is no context, there is generally no value. The image remains a single item that provides no evidence, no research value, and no historical connection. When you do not even have a personal sentimental connection to the piece, it can be discarded without guilt.

As always, there is a caveat...sometimes an image stands out as so unusual that it is conveying something that you do not want to lose to time. This image is one of those for me. I am taking the first step by asking you for your insight. The antique dealer and I had a small discussion about it to no end. I want to know if NH men had conferences at the top of mountains in the early twentieth century. (The man standing reminds me of Woodrow Wilson, so that early twentieth century date seems correct to me. Please let me know otherwise.) Could they have been planning a construction project? Could they have been investors in a ski lodge? I do not have enough knowledge of this aspect of history to make an informed judgement about the historical value of this image. Maybe some one else out there does. I feel as if there are more places I can look to pursue my questions and maybe find an answer. I will keep digging until I can give this image a bit of context or possibilities for context. If the situation is unusual, if I find no information at all, I will keep the image to tickle my own funny bone. (Perhaps I should call it "Silly Men in the Snow." My seven-seven-year-old would get a kick out of that title anyway.) If it is a common image or scene, I just hope there is a good story behind it that beats anything that I can possibly dream up.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

More Finds at the Local Antique Shop - Photographing Our Communities

I've had communities on my mind lately as I've been preparing for my "A Life in Context: Telling Your Story" workshop. So, it was delightful for me to walk into 101A Antique and Collectible Center yesterday to find a plethora of group photos.

My first photo today is a group of young women sitting on a lawn in similar attire. They likely are classmates. The element of this photo that made it so appealing to me is the affection shown by the girl in the
upper right. The two wanted to show their friendship for the world as they look directly at the camera for their frozen moment in time. Friends. Classmates. Young women. Are they part of a sorority of some sort? I wonder about the other communities these girls form. When they leave this scene, they return to families, groups with diverse interests, various clubs and other groups of friends. Each one has a separate story to tell, but together in this image they demonstrate their mutual connection.

The second image shows two women in a yard with youngsters. I thought it was a little unusual for women to pose for a picture dressed in their work clothes. I imagine that perhaps they were hanging clothes, or picking herbs, or performing some other outdoor chore while the children ran around the yard. I wonder who took this image. Was it a husband who came home to find a happy family or another woman in the neighborhood? This peek into family and neighborhood life is charming and we are lucky enough to have the names of individuals recorded. "Mother and Betty Firber, Edith, Dorothy Fiske, me, Mary (?)" The young "me" obviously labeled the photo at a later date so she could remember this community and its members.

The last image is my favorite. I think that is because it reminds me of stories my father used to tell about his childhood filled with stickball on the streets of New York. This image is likely from at least two generations earlier than my Dad's. The boy in the front center wears a baseball glove while the one beside him is wearing a tie. Was this taken on a weekend and one boy changed faster after church than the other? Or, was this taken after school? Are the kids getting ready to play or were they in the middle of playing? What did the photographers see in this community group that made him decide to stop and record them? Were the kids close friends who were always together or were they neighbors which just made them convenient playmates?

Images of my own document similar communities in my life. Our human connections form our sense of self, while helping us better understand and relate our individual history through a developed vision of our surroundings. When you bring together the tales of individuals and their communities, you have a larger community history and eventually a regional, national and global tale of humanity. Individual and community stories matter. Photographs are a great way to check in on them.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Meaning of Culture

In my September 27th blog post, Archives and Community, I discussed what a community is and how cultural heritage institutions reflect communities. In that post, I mention the word "culture" without explanation. Here I wish to more fully explore the concept of culture and how it relates to individuals and memory institutions.

Anthropologist Raymond Henry Williams called culture “one of the 2 or 3 most complicated words in the English language." It involves overlapping disciplines and concepts related to both material items and shared traditions. As such, it is a reflection of societies, focusing on the designs of humankind, and the ways we order and relate to our world.

The Role of Archives

Archival repositories aim to document and preserve the combined experiences and shared stories that lead to the development of cultural heritage. This endeavor can be quite complicated. For one, culture develops over time based on gained group knowledge, beliefs and customs that communities develop together, and the creativity they let loose in the things they make. Archivists must try to track these changes in society to ensure they are creating a complete and accurate historical record that is reflective of community development. Additionally, culture is both tangible and intangible. An archivist must ensure that culture, in all its forms, is properly recorded for posterity. Furthermore, culture is a complicated web of communities and ideas. An archivist must work to understand connections and interactions to best reflect reality in their collections.

Definitions of Culture

Texas A&M provides some great definitions of "culture" that can help one shape their understanding of this broad-reaching term:

  • Culture refers to the cumulative deposit of knowledge, experience, beliefs, values, attitudes, meanings, hierarchies, religion, notions of time, roles, spatial relations, concepts of the universe, and material objects and possessions acquired by a group of people in the course of generations through individual and group striving.
  • Culture is the systems of knowledge shared by a relatively large group of people.
  • Culture is the totality of a person's learned, accumulated experience which is socially transmittedbehavior through social learning.
  • A culture is a way of life of a group of people--the behaviors, beliefs, values, and symbols that they accept, generally without thinking about them, and that are passed along by communication and imitation from one generation to the next.
  • Culture is the sum of total of the learned behavior of a group of people that are generally considered to be the tradition of that people and are transmitted from generation to generation.
  • Culture is a collective programming of the mind that distinguishes the members of one group or category of people from another.

You and Your Cultures

One identifies with particular cultures associated with the various communities in which one takes part. Sometimes you can choose to adopt a culture, finding elements created by a community that suits your particular outlook on life. You can move to a particular place, associate with particular people, celebrate certain traditions, create or buy certain items to secure your connection to a specific culture. Other times a specific culture is just part of you because of your existence and relates to where you were born, to whom you were born, and during what era.

We can reject certain communities, but take the cultural identity of that community with us. For example, I was born in New York, but I have not lived in that state for twenty-two years. I still identify with the culture of my childhood that sometimes expresses itself through my speech (the words that I use and the way that I say them,) my actions, my memories and my sense of self. Sometimes it is easier to reject a community than to reject the culture of that community for when we form a cultural identity, parts of it stick with us for long periods of time or for a lifetime.

Communities, Connections, and Culture

A culture can be made up of individual communities or individual communities that overlap. Sometimes the culture of these smaller communities enhance our personal values. Sometimes they do not, but they still have some affect on us. For example, consider my rural / suburban chosen hometown in New Hampshire. My family and I participate in the school system, as local volunteers in various groups, in girl scouts, and we associate with our neighbors. My daughter and I have library cards. We frequent local shops and make use of town parks... All of these small communities in which we participate together make a larger community. I primarily value a few parts of my local culture. One element I particularly value is the "culture of education" my town usually tries to embrace. In fact, that is one of the main reasons my husband and I moved here -- to adopt that culture that will help us build values we already possessed and transfer them to our child. That does not mean that the educational system is what all members of my various local communities value. My neighbor may value sports culture over education for example, but their kids go to school with my kids so certain things are expected of all them. We are all influenced by each other and our local "culture" and various community cultures are influenced by the connections.

The Importance of "Culture" to Cultural Heritage Professionals

As cultural heritage professionals, it is useful to define the various communities we wish to document and our various audiences. I think it is also particularly valuable to try to understand the diversity of various community cultures and the ways they interrelate. We should consciously think about the meaning of culture when collecting objects (material culture) or creating documentation methods for things that are not as easily passed down such as dance, music and language (intangible culture.) This will enable us to provide better access to the information we've accumulated by allowing us to point out connections across collections to the public. Using the idea of preserving "culture" in all its forms will enhance what we do and how we portray ourselves to the world.