Monday, July 25, 2011

A Sense of Place AusLib conference Spring 2011

I was honored to be asked to speak about Cultural Heritage Collaboration: A Manual for Community Documentation in Sydney Australia at the 2011 spring Auslib conference, "A Sense of Place.". Unfortunately, I was unable to make the trip overseas. Today, I received the conference proceedings in the mail and by all measures it look like I missed an interesting and noteworthy event. There are too few cultural heritage professionals focusing on this topic. It is encouraging to see a program with two days dedicated to the value of local studies that emphasized methods to collectively promote and preserve local history resources. It also bodes well for the future that the conference was run by and for librarians. It is imperative that we recognize the role of local librarians in helping to preserve archives. I hope that my American colleagues will take note and think further about the possibilities of collaboration across professions.

"The full proceedings of A Sense of Place contain all 20 papers by UK, Australian and New Zealand speakers plus transcripts of two panel sessions plus the targeted conference recommendations. If initiating or improving local studies is your special interest you'll find the pages of these proceedings an informative and inspirational resource." Email or browse to to order a copy of the publication.

Thank you to my Australian colleagues. I hope to join you at a future conference. Keep up the great work!

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Online is More than Fine, but History is Still More Magical Hands-on

A recent article in the Guardian called "Online is Fine, but History is Best Hands On" seems to be generating a lot of controversy. Based on the article's comments, I think some of this is a reaction to the writer and not what was written. (I am unfamiliar with this gentleman, so I had no knee jerk reaction either way.) Or, perhaps he should have titled his article "Online is More Than Fine, but History is Still More Magical Hands-on"

The author acknowledges the value of the "ubiquity of history," but points out that there is nothing like the excitement of accessing original documents. I agree wholeheartedly with both views. Providing online access to the information contained in original sources builds bridges for Archives to larger audiences. This kind of access helps spread a wealth of knowledge to those who would not otherwise be able to see the resources containing this information. Yet, anyone who has had the good fortune to work with actual original resources can hardly disagree that the original does indeed offer us opportunities for a better understanding of the "mystery of history." I wouldn't shake with excitement when I saw a letter by Thomas Jefferson reproduced online (or in a book for that matter,) but I did shake with excitement when I held such a letter in my hand.

I think many of the people who have responded to the Guardian article have mistakenly assumed that this is an either or proposition. I don't think that is what the article author intended it to be. Maybe I am mistaken about that. There is a place for online research and there is a place for in-person research too when we can do it.

Here's a case in point: I am currently working on a project to find more information about a diary I found in a local antique shop. Yesterday, I intended to drive to Maine to do original research, but decided that I would check online first to make sure I wouldn't spend time accessing in person things that could be accessed satisfactorily online. I ended up spending the day at home because thanks to Google I had access to business directories and newspapers that had valuable information. In fact, the newspapers were very welcome because I had spent some time with them in a microfilm version in Maine a couple of weeks ago. The film was scratched and the machine was temperamental. The online version was much more comfortable on the eyes. Yet, not everything I need is online AND I am hoping to find some resources down the road that fall into the "mystery" category. My diary covers 6 months in a man's life. Maybe he wrote more diaries and I can find them somewhere. I would love to see that in person to compare handwriting, ink color and marginalia. I would just like to hold the other one so that I can feel more a part of this man's life.

And here's another case in point: A few weeks ago the love letters of Henry VIII to Anne Boleyn were made available online. I was terribly excited to see a copy of one of these digital letters because of a lifelong interest I've had in this particular royal. My very next thought was, "I hope that I can see the original one day."

I am lucky that I live close to Maine so I can explore the original sources for my diary project. Letters from London, especially those held by elite institutions, would be harder for me to access for my research if there were not some remote way to do it.

The wonder of the original is not easily explained. I think Archives in general should do a better job of making the original sources more readily available so people can experience this wonder for themselves. There is no good reason why local history original resources can't be made more accessible to their communities. These resources should not just be important to people who are undergoing projects like mine. They should be important to local citizens. Children should be brought to Archives as many are brought to museums to experience the past. Show a kid the diary of someone who lived a hundred years ago. Show him the type of pen he used to write it. Show him the desk at which this person sat....these artifacts make a difference in making the past seem more real and tangible. An experience with an original would then make a remote experience more valuable too. Once someone sees, touches, and examines an original, they have a better context for their understanding of digital versions of historical documents.

We are living in an age where we can have the best of both worlds - remote access and access to originals. Don't water down the importance of either.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

More Finds at the Local Antique Shop - More Romanticism of the Female Portrait Photograph

Last night I was watching the show American Pickers and was struck by a photo. The episode called "Danielle Goes Picking," which originally aired on the History Channel in December 2010, included the find of a portrait photo of a beautiful woman. Regular readers of this blog know the hold that these types of photos have over me. My photo find to the left is an example of a similar type of image to the one that appeared on the show. Like me, the pickers "oohed" and "aahed" over the image. I am on a mission to put into words why these images capture us and I hope that you have some input into the matter to add to the comment section.

In general, I prefer the caught in the moment action image. I like the informal glimpse into the life of the photographed as if they don't know that they are being caught on film. I like the idea of catching "A Life in Context" and I think that this is generally best done in snapshot type photos. However, there is something about the image of a woman dressed in her finery that I find alluring. It pulls my imagination back into another time and place faster than most other types of images. Posed in sumptuous dress with attention given to her setting, whether a Victorian, flapper, or 40s belle, the subject of a formal portrait like the one to the left is highly feminine and nationalistic.

Dress, hairstyle, pose, and environment are staged by the photographer to make these women look their best. Soft focus and carefully crafted lighting also helps to create a mood based in a bygone era. The women of these portraits are an American (or Western) ideal that is perhaps best expressed through the art of photography. These portraits show a "feminine" quality that promotes an envisaged view of the perfect woman. The women of these portraits display a dreamy quality. They can be said to reflect what many women want to be and the qualities that many men want their partners to have. They display a comfortable lifestyle and contentedness that we wish for ourselves and our fellow citizens. The prevalence of these images reflects the role of the female experience in shaping society and in developing our sense of history. They provide both insight into a woman's sense of personal identity, while also showing the context and collective molding of a national identity. This picture is what it means to be a successful American to many, many people.

Yes, I realize this is a narrow and somewhat flawed view of our society, leaving big gaping holes for stereotypes, chauvinism and other negatives to leak through. I realize that there are many potential arguments against idealizing this kind of display of wealth and this sort of objectification of women. The allure of the idea that we might all be able to get closer to this world of "perfection" by identifying with a portrait is at least in part fantasy, but I think it hits a sentimental button much like the Disney princess phenomenon. There are good points and bad points to the stereotype, yet there is still an attraction to it.

Nonetheless, I love these images for their beauty and sentimentalism despite any negative connotations that can be conjured from them. In the context of American life, these images tell a lot about our values and our history as a community. They tie themselves to an American dream that is evident in other forms of visual arts from the late nineteenth, early twentieth century period and in our literature from those times. As "orphan" photographs, these posed images ground the unidentified woman in a culture that forms a large piece of the American narrative. As items from the world of archives, they document the lives our foremothers led and reflect an image toward which we have been taught to strive.


Looking for more about women in portraiture? please see

More Finds at the Local Antique Shop: The Profile Image in Context

Interested in more images of women? Here are a few great resources from archival repositories:

Harvard University Library Open Collections Program Women Working 
Library of Congress Women's History Picture Pathfinder
Women's History Photos on Flickr from the Smithsonian
Brooklyn Public Library Women's History Photo Gallery

Saturday, July 2, 2011

The Value of Cultural Knowledge

On this blog in the past I have written about the value of archives to society, but to treasure archives we must first recognize the importance historical knowledge in general. We must also understand how accurate historical knowledge is upheld by cultural heritage repositories. Why are our cultural heritage repositories continually under attack for funding? What can we do about it? Part of the problem is a lack of appreciation for our heritage, which can cause a casual, but often highly charged, denial of the fundamental value of understanding our past.

A few weeks ago I read an editorial in a local paper. I wish that I saved it so that I can quote it, but I have seen the sentiment in other places so I think I can paraphrase. There is a particular view that cultural repositories are "fluff." (I was going to write that "museums, libraries, and archives are fluff," but I think that many of these writers do not know what "archives" are. How can they possibly value them?) During difficult economic times, those who hold this point of view think that museums and libraries (and possibly archives) are the first that should be denied funding. These things are nice to have, but we don't need them to function as a society. However, this view is sadly misinformed. These institutions ARE necessary for us to properly function as a society, because they hold the truths that make us a "society" in the first place.

I am currently reading "Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know" by E.D. Hirsch Jr. This book, originally published in the 1980s, argues that kids "are not mentally prepared to continue the society because they basically do not understand the society well enough to value it." We have reached a critical point where these children of the 1980s are the adults making decisions today and they are misunderstanding the value of cultural institutions and heritage resources because they do not understand history. According to "Cultural Literacy, "Only by accumulating shared symbols, and the shared information that the symbols represent, can we learn to communicate effectively with one another in our national community." In other words, American citizens are not all on the same page. Some of us know our history. Some of us do not. Some know some of our history and others know other  parts of our history.  Many cannot identify the historical knowledge they do have as valuable because they do not understand the full context of that history in terms of how it influences our behaviors and decisions today. They do not recognize that repositories support our understanding of history and without them, truth and fiction are muddled.

I am reading another book with my young daughter. It is a children's book called "The Raucous Royals" and discusses historical rumors, exploring how rumors get started and if particular rumors that have pervaded historical knowledge have any basis in fact. The book begins, "Dear Reader, Once rumor is born, it never truly dies." I have used our reading together as a way to develop my daughter's critical thinking skills. One of the group of rumors examined relates to Richard III of England., It discusses how he is suspected of killing his nephews to get to the thrown. It also discusses how over time, Richard was portrayed as a hunchback with a withered arm. My daughter learned that Shakespeare wrote about Richard and based his writing on a biography by Thomas More, which was written after Richard's death. I asked my daughter if these writings were accurately portraying Richard. I asked if they were even trying to accurately portray Richard. Later in the book we learned about Henry VIII's eating habits. We learned that the king would often eat 4,500-5,000 calories for dinner. A menu of the foods he would serve for the meal was included for illustration. I asked my daughter if this was more accurate than the Richard III info. She said yes and I asked why. What is that menu? Where would they get that information? A small smile lit her face and she said, ARCHIVES!"

Today, it often seems to me that rumor is taken as fact without examining its context. Much of the information we believe and the growing amount of misinformation we see spread by media and politicians is not given an historical context. "I heard it so it must be true" is not good enough. Our cultural institutions, including the knowledge they hold and have the capacity to share, can level the playing field and give all of our citizens a common foundation of knowledge, cementing a national identity based in reality. Whether or not we agree on all issues is less vituperative when we know that we all have a common understanding of fact and hence of common cultural values. Cultural institutions hold the shared symbols to which E.D. Hirsch refers.They are part of the foundation that helps our citizens understand our society well enough to value it. Without the institutions, our sense of self is perverted and the glue that holds us together as a nation with a common identity falls apart.