Monday, January 31, 2011

Community Documentation from a Family Perspective - Part One

I have written extensively on this blog and in my book Cultural Heritage Collaborators about community documentation. Community Documentation (or a "Community Documentation Project") is the act of gathering records and artifacts that provide diverse information about a community in an attempt to provide a “complete” perspective of that community. My original book on the subject shows how people in localities, associations, and other so-called "communities" can work together to ensure that diverse records exist to describe a larger culture. I think that I tip-toe around the subject of how to ensure that adequate documentation exists to preserve one's particular place in history. I wish to explore that more fully now. Recently, I have been turning my attention to families as distinct and unique communities with  stories to share. I would like to impress the role that personal papers and family memorabilia have on larger views of history.

photo courtesy Albert Ryan Collection
Waltham Room, Waltham Public Library
Many cultural institutions build their collections on personal papers. Historical societies, academic libraries and other specialized institutions seek the papers of individuals for social history. The stories of individuals parallel a larger cultural context. Events and ideas that we now see as significant in our civilization's development can only be told through the papers of diverse members of society. The women's movement, civil rights, industrial revolution, technological revolution and other changes in how humans function can only be completely understood by studying the papers of the "common" man (or woman.) So it makes sense for archivists to strengthen their ties with families, teach families how to properly care for their personal papers, and encourage family members to see the importance of properly preserving their history.

Most people save sporadically and haphazardly. For example, they throw photographs in shoeboxes or leave them unlabeled in a jumble on their computers. They box some old school materials and save some kids' drawings. They save decades of receipts and financial records, afraid to throw anything away. Few recognize the correlation between their old letters on paper and the items that sit in their e-mail box. People lose control over the records they keep, leaving them disorganized and subject to degradation. They do not know what they should keep to pass on to family members, never-mind what may be important in a larger social context.      

Personal papers are key to building strong collections in institutions. If our goal is to reflect society in all its diversity as best we can, cultural heritage professionals must do a better job of reaching out to families and individuals. Call this work "community documentation." Call it "outreach." Use "crowdsourcing" or "participatory" models, but just do it. Everyday we lose valuable information that gets thrown away because people do not know what to do with it. We lose our common heritage and families lose their cultural inheritance as it rots forgotten in an attic or gets damaged in a basement flood. The key to overcoming this is to make the public a prime part of what you do and certainly target them directly in your collecting efforts. Make families aware of the value of their personal papers.

I will discuss some ways to do this in my next post by encouraging professionals to share their expertise and to show individuals that their personal history matters.


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