Thursday, May 26, 2011

Photo preservation, display and backup

This week I am preparing a new presentation for my local library, which runs a program called "Teachable Tuesdays." This program invites local experts in different fields and enthusiasts with expertise to share their knowledge with other community members. I was delighted to be asked by the local librarian to present an session on photographs. It think that the informal early afternoon setup of the program will invite lots of great discussion.

I plan to incorporate ideas I presented in these recent blog posts about organizing and culling photographs to get us started and to get people thinking:
Organizing Family Photos: Getting Over the Hump 
Culling Family Photographs
Response to Culling Photographs

I want to add some additional points:

Very Basic Preservation – To help ensure that your photographs last a long time, use appropriate supplies from companies such as Gaylord, Conservation Resources, Hollinger Metal Edge and University Products. Most fundamentally, avoid PVCs and seek items that pass the P.A.T. This rating tells us that items have been tested to determine their suitability for storing images and that they do not contain chemical additives or coatings that can harm photographs. I've said this before in earlier posts, but it is worth repeating. I recommend that people consider albums versus boxes. Both can be appropriate for long term storage and it becomes mostly an expense and time issue. Do not feel that you need to create beautiful albums or scrapbooks for all your materials. Boxes come in many different sizes, are cheaper than albums, and take less effort to fill. You can stand images upright in boxes or lie them down if they are oversized. I use appropriate plastic enclosures for collections that will be handled by children and adults. I use albums with slipcovers to keep off dust for images I prize most, want to highlight, and want to view with others regularly.

Displaying – I recommend creating duplicates of prints and storing originals away. Use the copies for display. If you must or have a strong desire to use originals, then use preservation safe mat board and framing techniques with UV filtering glass. Be aware that the type of ink and paper used to create the image, the climate of your home, the light that hits the image, and other environmental elements can be factors influencing the longevity of your prints in both storage and on display.

Backing up – Scanning old printed family photographs is an idea gaining popularity and is most useful for giving you better access to your images. Follow points I recommend in earlier articles for organizing your files. Make  duplicate digital files in a variety of places. For example, you may keep images on your computer, have some on a separate drive or server in your home or in someone else's home as a disaster planning measure, and keep others online for additional off-site safety. An online site has the added advantage of giving you, friends and family easy access and the ability to sort, print, and otherwise make use of favorite images.  Be aware of migrating issues. Keep up with changes in technology, changing your equipment and the formats of your digital files as necessary. Become familiar with accepted standard formats for photos (TIFF files, jpgs and others) and the value of each. Make prints of digital files as desirable for access and as another backup measure, but as I mentioned earlier be aware of the stability of the materials you use.

A thoughtful approach to keeping your photographs is very important to their longevity. I look forward to "Teachable Tuesday" and hope that we can get a good discussion going about caring for personal family photos. What are your thoughts?

Monday, May 23, 2011

Boston's Diarist: 18th Century Diary Breathes Life into History

Recently I visited the crypt at the old North Church in Boston. It is a fascinating, hallowed place where hundreds of Bostonians are interred. Resurrecting a Storied Past is a good short video showing the inside of the tomb and describing research that is being done to preserve the history of the space and the individuals who are buried there. One particular item caught my eye as I explored. Propped against the wall was this marker for the spire and church bells that reads, "...This peal of eight bells the first made for the British Empire in North America was proposed by Gidney Clark of Barbadoes cast by Abel Rudhall of Gloucester in England in 1744 and transported free by John Roe the Diarist..." I wondered about John Roe and why it was significant to mention that he was a "diarist."

In a paper read before the Massachusetts Historical Society and published in 1895, Edward L. Pierce discussed the value of the Rowe diary. He states,

The other printed diaries [among the MA Historical Society holdings] cover a briefer period than Rowe's; and their authors, or most of them, have a standpoint different from his. Several of them, like Rowe, have much to say of the weather; but that part of his record is omitted in this summary. Rowe himself, without being an acute observer of men and events, was an intelligent merchant ; and while we could wish he had reserved a part of the space which he gave to the ever-recurring names of persons whom lie met at dinners and clubs for a record of the opinions they expressed, still there remains much which illustrates the public and social life of Boston at this eventful period. 

In 1903. the letters and diary of Rowe were published by his great-great niece. She stated that she wanted the published for reasons of preservation. So that her ancestor's words would "be put beyond the possibility of loss." The high value placed on these materials is notable to me. We recognized the rarity of the item in its age, its unusual point of view, and its value in displaying "public and social life" during an eventful period. The introduction to the diary provides wonderful context for this wealthy merchant's life. His writing, as well as our long-term study and appreciation of it, is a fabulous example of the value of personal archives.

Friday, May 20, 2011

History on a Bus

A local bus has a picture of our city's old mills with the statement "Moving Manchester through Past, Present and Future." I see it as I sit and write in a local coffee shop every week. It attracts my attention because of its clever use of a historical theme, but at the moment it seems incongruous with this New Hampshire city that I have said is missing a true sense of local identity. Manchester seems to usually look forward without looking back. It does not seem to value how its history can help propel it and make it a more desirable destination.

I love visiting cities that use their history to promote themselves. A palpable appreciate for history seems to give life to many New Hampshire towns. Nearby Nashua, for example, uses its history to good advantage. Its renovated downtown has a small town feel with neatly kept old fashioned brick sidewalks. There are local art shows, an annual library history fair, and organizations actively trying to save historic buildings (with an emphasis on preserving history rather than solely on re-use.) Signs dot the Nashua landscape in strategic places. They promote sites such as the old ballpark. Even the Nashua town web site prominently "advertises" their history through a tab labeled "Living Here" that leads one to a detailed timeline and history of the City. Unfortunately, to me, Manchester has a different feeling. In the 15 years I've lived near this city, I've been waiting to see something like the Manchester bus that keeps passing by my Bridge Street Cafe window.

So I decided to do a little quick Internet research. The Manchester Transit Authority received a grant to run this free hybrid shuttle bus. It's a welcome sight. Our beautiful old brick mill buildings, our small local museums, the beautiful Manchester City Library, our slowly growing selection of good restaurants along Elm Street, our local colleges, a fine world class art museum,  and all of the other wonderful things that Manchester has to offer can truly benefit from this bus that cleverly links area hot spots. So much more than a vehicle that takes people from one location to another, this bus has the capacity to raise local pride with its reference to Manchester's sense of place. Manchester has an interesting history about which it should be proud and which it should more visibly celebrate. I have noticed in the past that the local government hangs images of the area in City Hall. I hope the bus is a tentative step that further moves the City toward trying to incorporate its cultural heritage with its public face.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Learning African American History through Context Boston

Prince Hall sought and received an English
charter for a black free masons group when
he was denied entry to the local white free
masons. Interestingly from an archives
perspective, the original charter for the
group he founded is currently housed
in a State Street bank vault.
I was lucky to once again have the opportunity to take a Context Boston Tour. This past winter I walked and blogged about the company's North End Tour. Last week's traipse through history began at the North End, but then took us on the Freedom Trail for a remarkable look at Boston's African American heritage. We were once again led by the knowledgeable Alex Goldfeld, who first introduced us to bits of this story on our last visit. (Here's a little plug for Alex who seems to have the low-down on all Boston history and as a North End resident, as well as President and historian of the North End Historical Society, he certainly knows the ins and outs of this area in particular. Check out his book The North End: A Brief History of Boston's Oldest Neighborhood.]

Alex began our walk through time with a version of this story:

"When Paul Revere wrote in his account of his midnight ride, 'After I had passed Charlestown Neck, and got nearly opposite where Mark was hung in chains,' he was referring to a well-known local landmark along his route through Charlestown (present-day Somerville). On this site twenty years earlier a slave named Mark Codman had been hanged and his body gibbeted (suspended in chains) for murder and petit treason for killing his master, John Codman."

The story resonated with those taking the tour and immediately brought the past to life, reminding us that issues of race have run as a thread through the fabric of American society since its inception. We discussed how black men struggled in a fight for freedom, noting their servitude as incompatible with the ideals of our founding fathers, and later seeking equality in society that had more common interactions among people of different races at an earlier time than I realized.

The racial thread wound with us through the streets of Boston. We paused at the site of the Boston Massacre, in front of the old state house building. For the first time, I learned about Crispus Attucks, who is widely known as the first man killed in the American Revolution. The most memorable cultural item created as a result of the Massacre is Paul Revere's engraving of it. I recalled from my early American art history classes that there were no dark faces in the image. I surmised with my guide that perhaps in an attempt to gain widespread general support for the movement toward Independence this was a conscious bit of self censorship.  

August St. Gaudens used live models for realistic
depictions of black men serving in the Civil War in this
monument located across the street from the Massachusetts
State House. The fine details of his work remind us of their individualism.
The oldest home on Beacon Hill, the residence
of George Middleton represents a
neighborhood for free African
Americans in the 18th century.
I think more than anything else, this tour gave names and faces to those who we knew existed. The stories of men and women who fought slavery, helped others find freedom, promoted education, and valued the general ideals purported by a newly established government were revealed across the street from the Statehouse and up Beacon Hill, which had always represented Brahmin culture to me. The tour also gave us stories of specific events that demonstrated the struggle for freedom, such as the story of Elizabeth Freeman who sued for her rights. She recounted her experiences for posterity and her court records shed light on the African American experience at the time. I kept picking up on those archives connections that are so valuable for me. There was also the story of Lewis and Harriet Hayden who were leading abolitionists with a home on the underground railroad. Lewis' story is heartbreaking and still full of hope. (Go on the tour and let Alex tell it to you for full impact.)

Part of the Museum of African American history,
this building itself has a long history of use, re-use and preservation

One of our final stops was outside the Museum of African American History. To get there, we wound through back alleys that were built as shortcuts for getting around the grid layout of a very hilly area. These alleys also served as places to run along the underground railroad. We silently walked through and, to me, this was the most poignant part of the tour. There was something about winding through narrow passages that made the historical echoes of chasing freedom vibrant to me. On the other side of the passage we viewed the remodeling of the Museum, forming the culmination of our journey. It drove home the idea that saving stories is so vital to saving our heritage and made me think about my appreciation for how far we've come and how society's evolution is preserved in our cultural heritage sites.

I very much enjoyed the tour. I also enjoyed our small group of three friends who took it together. I felt that I had plenty of opportunity to ask questions and to use walking time to discuss my observations with my guide. There was a lot of walking in this tour, which may not be desirable for everyone, but I found it wonderful to explore parts of the city I had never seen before, even though I lived in Boston for four years. It was a pleasure to see another often under-recognized group highlighted in a tour dedicated to their story. Together, these multi-dimensional community stories that the Context Tours have provided me form the fabric of our heritage. While I work to ensure our documentation about this heritage is cared for, it is nice to see historians and even the travel industry taking the raw materials of history to create educational and entertaining programs.

Please also see the blog post by Evolving Critic, who accompanied me on the tour. He focuses on the architectural landmarks along our route.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The National Jukebox

I see my blog as a venue for my writing, whereas I usually reserve the ArchivesInfo Facebook site and Twitter account for posting links to fabulous archives related news and web sites.  However, the Library of Congress today unveiled the "National Jukebox." This is archives work at its best and I want to share it with you. I think that the site speaks for itself.


Sunday, May 8, 2011

Local Archivists Moving into a Digital Realm

My Friday blog post on Social Media and Community Documentation focused on capturing information provided on social media sites that reflect a sense of community. The idea of "community" can apply to people with similar interests, online friends, and other connections. These connections are often reflected in "traditional" archives collections when we focus on collecting the papers of individuals that subscribe to theories of provenance -- keeping papers created by a particular person or body together. Such collections naturally show connections between record creators. I noted in my recent blog post that, " Archivists need to take notice of the social networks individuals are forming and how they will change the collections we create." These networks reflect a new kind of provenance that will naturally reflect connections similar to our intensely paper based special collections and archives.

Today I would like to focus on a particular community - that of a geographic locale. The papers of local historical societies and other similar local institutions focus on capturing a local identity. This blog post poses more questions related to online communities than answers to prompt local archivists to think about these issues. In my observation, with increased use of the Internet by residents, local identity does not break down as outside influences more easily flow into places that were seemingly less influenced by the world beyond small geographic boundaries. Online environments can, and many do, reflect a local geographic community and sense of place. How can we capture this digital identity and does it differ significantly from the "real" world? What changes does a local archivist see in her community's sense of place when studying the digital documentation of a region? First, using the locale as a starting point for capturing digital data how do we collect what is online to reflect our local community? Should we even try to do this?

Last week, Inside Higher Ed posted an article titled, "Archiving the Web for Scholars." The article discussed a number of interesting projects related to developing collections of online resources for documenting society. Especially noteworthy for this discussion is the American University in Cairo project to document the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, "which contains blogs, Twitter feeds, photos, videos, and online news coverage of the political tumult that engulfed the Egyptian capital this spring." The site does a remarkable job of capturing an event, reflecting a people, and showing how an online medium and outsiders influenced a truly community specific event (albeit a large community with international attention.) 

I provided the following after thoughts in my blog post last week: "Can documentation be captured and formed around a social media platform such as Facebook as a starting point or is that too large to accurately reflect society? Should we focus on smaller groups that use Facebook? Should archives that focus on particular areas focus on the Facebook groups that cover these topics? For example, should a university special collections that specializes in women's history find groups related to that topic in an online world? Will our traditional institutions be able or willing to change what they do in this way? Will we form new kinds of 'archives' to accommodate this or will all the traditional approaches just go right out the window? Are we starting from scratch? Will traditional archives separate from digital." I think the Cairo example and others in the Inside Higher Ed article show the remarkable transition that archives are now undergoing and reflects the challenges we face.

After reflection, I think that Facebook is a good starting point for considering online communities that reflect particular locales. Within my own online community, I follow NH sites on Facebook. I follow sites specific to my town including school Facebook pages. I follow "what to do in my community" type pages and I follow area associations in which I take an interest. But I also follow similar folks on Twitter. I get emails from a local Yahoo mom's group. I follow our school district superintendent's blog. Town institutions such as the local library, historical society, chamber of commerce, etc could easily reach out to our local community through the Internet. If I were running my local historical society, I would try to capture this information coming from diverse online sites to accurately reflect my particular locale. I would create a policy to explore a wide range of social media and Internet sites that may contain information about my local community. 

While the media has changed and the means to "collect" information has changed, the planning involved in creating good collections has not. A good collection development policy must be in place. We must still create some kind of strategy that considers what documentation should exist and how to capture it. In fact, it is more important to consider this than ever. We must contemplate who is creating online information in our given locale and develop our understanding of online networks to secure records (web sites, data flowing through social media, etc.) to adequately document our communities in the 21st century. Knowledge of our times cannot be separated from this ever growing and ever changing environment. A local archivist (whether a professional or volunteer "citizen archivist") must be savvy enough a computer to consider these facets of documentation.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Social Media and Community Documentation

Social media has extended each person's "community" beyond what we accepted it to be just ten years ago. This has created some interesting possibilities for the idea of community documentation beyond what archivists considered the appropriate institutional environment for this kind of work. In Cultural Heritage Collaborators: A Manual for Community Documentation I argued for the value of community documentation work within settings outside of an individual institution. I described the rings of communities one would consider for this kind of work. I did not explore our new online worlds, but I think this is a topic that will gain more notoriety over the next few years. Archivists need to take notice of the social networks individuals are forming and how they will change the collections we create..

These paragraphs posted on a friends' Facebook walls caught my eye this morning:

"In honor of Mother's Day I'm trying to see how many of you are willing to change your profile picture to a picture of your mother and keep it there till May 9th. I did and so have several others. If you will and like this idea, please re post this as your status so everyone gets the word and see how many beautiful mothers we can get on FB."


"As we approach mother's day- I am very mindful of the children who have lost their mothers and the mothers who have lost their children because it is a day that can be so painful for them. Some are very dear friends of mine, and I hold them in my heart and thoughts for this coming weekend. borrowed from..."

Along with many of my friends, I have
featured my mother on my Facebook site
I would say that within my circle of friends, at least one-quarter of them have changed their profile picture to feature their mothers. Some have posted this paragraph, others have not. I began wondering how I could capture this early 21st century phenomenon of honoring a holiday and / or a person by changing profile pictures. I would love to see a "collection" (or at least a small series) of Facebook statuses over the Mother's Day weekend that included  updated Mother's Day profile pictures. The second posting has been less popular thus far. I have only seen one person post this, but it is clearly intended to honor Mother's Day and to honor a person. Would I make this part of the same collection if I were to somehow form an archival collection that featured Mother's Day 2011?

I realize that this way of thinking about collections may not be exactly accurate for this environment and in some ways is an over simplification of much larger ideas. But I think this is a good way to illustrate my point, which is that for my own work and particular area of interests, how can archivists  hang on to a very useful idea of "community" and apply it to a digital world? The proliferation of information online makes us think in larger terms - i.e. "archiving" Facebook or capturing tweets. How do we accurately capture smaller connections that help us better understand context? 

It was once easier to focus on an individual life, a community, or even a movement involving diverse individuals. Our subjects (for lack of a better word at the tip of my brain at this moment) had simpler means of communication,. We could follow a paper trail. They wrote less and the groups with which they communicated were smaller. Today we correspond with people all around the world in the blink of an eye and our relationships with them might by tenuous or short-lived. I may feel no need to directly correspond with someone on the Internet, but I might be influenced by that person's words and bring them into my community in a very lackadaisical way.

So I will leave with just some questions:
How can archivists ensure that information about our online communities is documented for posterity? 
How can we emphasize connections that make captured information more useful to researchers?
What level of capture and description can we expect to accomplish in this online world? For example, is it reasonable to expect that we may be able to create "collections" that can help researchers better understand modern trends and attitudes related to Mother's Day?  
How can we capture static information (i.e. the Facebook Wall archives) and changing information (the profile picture that matched the Wall posting at the time it was posted) to enhance this data about people?

None of this thinking takes into account ideas about privacy or the challenge of actually capturing and keeping any information in the first place. But I think as we work to keep up with new technologies, we need to consider the ways we've used information in the past. We want to keep the good practices and mold the role of the archivist to continue to do what we do best. We must continue to understand the communities we choose to document, seek their documentation, and attach the context of individual documentation to a larger world.

Monday, May 2, 2011

More Finds at the Local Antique Shop - THE Diary

[This is my catharsis. While personal and international events of the present tug me in negative directions, I look to the past for grounding.]

A few weeks ago I found a diary in an antique shop on Route 13 in northern Massachusetts. The location isn't important, except that the shop was an unexpected stop on the way home from a history conference. I am learning to stop at small antique stores that may not look like much from the outside. I almost went right by this very non-descriptive little dilapidated building, but the treasure I found within is something I've been seeking for a year - since I began searching antique shops with purpose. I collect interesting images and other items to illustrate courses I teach, books I write and postings on this blog. I had hoped to find a diary.

I have been keeping my own diary since I was 11 years old. Soon thereafter I read my first published diary. "The Diary of Anne Frank" pulled me into an alternate world, helped me understand my family better, and showed me that little girls are basically the same on the inside, whatever their circumstances. In college I took a women's history course that taught me more about diary writing. I read "A MidWife's Tale" with interest. I sometimes come across them in repositories when I do survey work. Diaries are always on my mind as a form of personal expression and as a strong link to the past. I get excited whenever I come across one.

As an aside, about ten years ago I had a conversation with my former college advisor. I often reflect upon our discussion. She too is a diary keeper. I mentioned to her that I write in my journal with a thought in the back of my head that someone may read my words one day. I do not think that I censor myself because of this thought, but it sometimes helps me to see a bigger picture. I can get out of my own head to be a little more object about some things I might be inclined to just spit out. My advisor had an immediate negative reaction. She said that she never thinks about those who may read her words in the future. Her diary is for her alone and she felt that she couldn't be open if she thought about an audience. I found that interesting coming from an historian. I have often wondered where other diary writers stand on this and I read diaries wondering if the author has thought about an audience.

In my opinion, among the most delightful treasures of an archival repository is THE diary. This primary source form gives us a look at history in a way that no other source does. It is personal and I suspect that most diary writers do not think about their legacy while they write. (Or, at least they didn't. This is changing thanks to the Internet.) An old diary transports us to another time, place and another mind.

So, sitting on a crowded counter, a little book caught my eye. I picked it up and peeled apart the pages. Inside I found almost seven months worth of entries dating from January 1882 to July of the same year. The brown ink was exciting. The messy handwriting made the writer instantly come to life for me. (I can identify with messy handwriting.) I brought my little treasure home and began transcribing it. I expected weather reports and little else. I got a whole lot more.

Here are a few excerpts that I've shared on the Facebook Life in Context page:

      • Melissa Lowenthal Mannon ‎"January 10, 1882 - At about half past nine this morning the alarm of fire was given, which proved to be (?) Boothby’s(?) house. We were early on hand with the engine and saved the farm and would have saved the house had the water held out. As it was only partly burned. We pumped dry two ponds [a few illegible words here...]. Don’t know how it caught, probably through by friction."
        April 17 at 8:54pm · 
      • Melissa Lowenthal Mannon Another gem... "January 24, 1882 - This has been the coldest morning for many years. 24 below zero. No fears of an Ice famine now. Nell went home this afternoon to stay all night. her mother is very low. They think she cannot live but a day or two. Olman Perkins is very sick, they think he cannot live. Eddie Perkins they think is in a consumption."
        April 18 at 3:27pm · 
      • Melissa Lowenthal Mannon 
        The diary contains reference to Norfolk Jubilee Singers. Based on a small bit of Internet research I learned that they were a band of former slaves. I've narrowed the diary to Maine. There are lots of reference to Maine cities and talk of o...See More
        April 19 at 2:13pm · 
      • Melissa Lowenthal Mannon My diary writer is sarcastic with strong opinions, keeping me smiling - "March 6, 1882 [re: town meeting] E___ Gordon was there and showed himself to be a consummate fool. He is certainly a great addition to the town. He and his ___ are a set of worthless fellows."
        April 19 at 5:57pm · 
      • Melissa Lowenthal Mannon 
        This diary is making me so thankful that I didn't live in the 19th century. many, many deaths due to diseases about which I've heard - (consumption, pneumonia), but also some that are new to me such as Eyresipelas and Brights Disease. This ...See More
        April 21 at 5:35pm · 
      • Melissa Lowenthal Mannon 
        Here's another bit from the diary. It seems appropriate to post today while we are getting snow in New Hampshire. "May 24, 1882 -This has been quite a nice day, but tonight it is growing colder. Last week in Portland on Munquy(?) Hill 5 lar...See More
        April 23 at 10:59am · 

The diary contains many names and I've been able to narrow the location to Maine, somewhere between Biddeford, Saco and Portland. My fun summer project is to head up the Maine coast to do a little research with my daughter. We will begin searching through city directories to try to get more information.  I'll search through the local papers for events. A couple of incidents stand out for me, but I am going to begin with a focus on an alleged abortion that took place. The doctor who was involved was being "investigated." I also plan to search health records to learn more about all of the illnesses and deaths that occurred that winter. In the end,  I hope to identify a town and maybe even the diary's writer.

It is perhaps an unusual project for an archivist, but I'm excited to have a bit of my own historical research to do. My latest book will be wrapping up (hopefully), I'll be between consulting projects, and this will be a fun and productive diversion. We'll see where this journey takes me. For now, I am honored to be the one who gets to connect in this way with a person from the past and to share this compassionate experience with my child. May I always remember that I am here because of those who came before me.