Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Summarizing "The Issue of Small Archives"

I was very happy to see the thread "The Issue of Small Archives" on the Archmgmt and Archives listservs a couple of weeks ago. A student pursuing her Master's degree in History and Archival Studies made this observation and posed this question: 

"...The trend in the literature I have noticed regards the disparagement of the creation and existence of small archives - that is, archives that receive minimal or no financial or physical support from another larger outside public or private agency. These facilities are seen as almost not only unnecessary but potentially dangerous to the materials they hold...

Do you think small archives have a place in the archival field?  What are the problems you can potentially see engendered or faced within small archives that could hinder or compromise their mission?"    

The theme of small archives management has been central to my work since I entered the archives field twenty years ago. An examination of the practices of well-managed small archives is also a core thread in my book "Cultural Heritage Collaborators: A Manual for Community Documentation." Small archives do indeed have a vital place in the archival field. I think that there should be no question about this. Small archives often have more direct connections to the local population. They can be more visible and appear more approachable to citizens who will more readily bring their personal papers to the small repository's doorstep than to a larger institution. I want to also clarify that there are small archives that are run by professionals and also those that run on a shoestring. I think that the question is meant to focus on the latter. There are many problems that can hinder the work of these archives including most notably, very limited funding, high volunteer turnover, and lack of knowledge and training. However, these conditions are not a given. Many volunteer organizations are run in a very professional manner with committed "citizen archivists" who stay around for the long-term and have plans in place to solicit, accommodate, and train new "staff." Many also very effectively raise money for their repositories either through fundraising programs or by finding a steady source of funds through the local government, area businesses, or financial patrons. Many such archives run with expert support from larger institutions. Others find ways to manage by seeking out associations, consultants, or professional volunteers from nearby institutions who are willing to give up personal time to help out. In fact, thanks to dedication and collaboration, I have encountered some volunteer based small archives that run more effectively than supposed professionally run institutions.

Rather than re-hashing my own research and thoughts about the work of the volunteer archives in depth, the postings from two weeks ago provide great snippets for examination and reflection. I have posted below some of the thoughts of my colleagues that mirror my views on this subject. Thank you everyone for a provocative discussion. I have included job titles of individuals, but not individual names to respect privacy while also giving credit to those who shared their thoughts.

"In truth, the small archives are vital to many towns, counties etc, for not only collecting and preserving in whatever form that takes, but gathering these materials give these places and organizations an essential sense of community. After all, isn't that one of the functions of an Archives?...People feel a connection to these places as "their archives" and some are more willing to make the trip to someone they know than donate something that "would sit on a shelf" with thousands of other collections and never be used. So, as the our profession progresses, it is important to recognize not only what should be, but what is, and try to help small Archives cope with their issues. Small Archives are a vital part of our profession." - Head, Archives and Special Collections, Library of the Marine Corps

"In our case in particular, it is in large part thanks to well meaning volunteers of earlier generations that we have collections to save at all. It is also thanks to them that we have an endowment to pay a professional staff... Many towns do not have universities, and some may be far removed from a repository with climate control and reference hours, particularly one interested in preserving their records... Oh, and one more thing- the interdisciplinary approach that is trendy now among museum, library, and archives professionals has been in vogue within state and local historical societies for years." - Curator of Library and Archives, Litchfield Historical Society

"True, in terms of preservation and security many of these repositories are nightmares. ...But then, I know many “respectable” repositories that don’t have adequate climate controls, are susceptible to leaks or flooding (is it unethical to maintain a repository in a flood plain or tornado alley?), that make do with inadequate security systems, that don’t put catalog records or finding aids online, and/or who won’t permit researcher access to the 60% or so of their collection that’s unprocessed.  To a certain extent, the faults of community 
archives are a matter of degree not of kind." - Director, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming

"I completely agree
that we need to look for ways to assist the small community repositories.  This
is an area where our State Historical Records Advisory Boards should be
providing leadership.  A number of years ago the Montana SHRAB developed an
imminently successful “traveling archivist” program....See http://mhs.mt.gov/research/library/vol12_No1.pdf
(page 2) for a summary report on Montana’s 2010 traveling archivist." [this program is also a model highlighted in "Cultural Heritage Collaborators"]University Archivist/Interim Head of Special
Collections, Oregon State University Libraries

"I have long been a proponent of state and regional archival associations reaching out to these smaller historical societies. Many of them are run by volunteers or a very small and/or semi-trained staff, but all that I have run across want to do the right thing with their records. Yes, they may be possessive but if we can deal with cranky patrons or high-maintenance donors then surely we can deal with them...Several years back archivists, including myself, would give Archives 101 courses taught through the Society of Ohio Archivists' education initiative, but that required people to come to us to ask for help, arrange for a class and so forth. I think this is an issue that we should be *proactive* on...we should visit the small historical societies near us, offer any support that we can and urge 
them to adopt professional standards. It may not always be a pleasant encounter but we still should try." - Archives Manager, Cincinnati Museum Center

"...I agree with much of what has been discussed, especially the fact that it is an issue of advocacy from all of us toward small archives, wherever and whenever we find them...There is a lot to do still and funding is an 
issue but sharing knowledge about free and low cost para-professional 
archival education is one of the many steps that we can offer to these 
small archives to be able to preserve their history... we need to be more proactive and offer free or low cost assistance to these small archives which don't have many resources or practically no resources except good intentions. - Subject/Liaison Librarian for Latin American & Caribbean Studies, Puerto Rican/Latino Studies, Spanish & Anthropology & Curator of the Latin American and Caribbean Collections. Thomas J. Dodd Research Center


Saturday, August 27, 2011

Memories of Hurricane Gloria While Awaiting the Arrival of Irene

This afternoon, while preparing for the arrival of Hurrican Irene, I remembered back to Gloria's visit. I was a high school student living on Long Island. I was already an avid diarist and was a budding photographer. I dove into the archives boxes in my office and quickly found my writings about the event. I share them below. It is interesting to me to see my use of language at the age of 15 and to read the impact the storm had on me. I remember little of this. My strongest memory of the event is painting my room with my father during the storm and of heading out to see the clouds over head as the eye passed over us. It is nice to have this documentation to revisit the moment while I await Hurricane Irene's arrival here in New Hampshire.

September 28, 1985

The sun was shining warmly on my back and a cool wind blew in my face.  opened my stride and flew off my toes as I prepared for my net X-Country race. It was the morning of the scheduled Suffolk Coaches Invitational, yet I nor anyone else raced. The park where the meet was to be held was closed. All that could be seen were orange cones lined up across the road, forbidding anyone to enter the park and see what damage lay beyond.

As I ran on my own, I followed the path of leaves Hurricane Gloria made in the middle of the road. The leaves were soft under my feet. They were wet from the previous days rain. The path of leaves showed the path of the Hurricane's trek. The damaged trees leaned pointing in the direction the storm had been heading.

The neighborhood people were busy cleaning up the mess. They were dressed in their worst clothes, baggy jeans, t-shirts and flannel button downs. The people raked the golden leaves of the fall. They used their chain saws to saw fallen trees into little pieces.

The children were out helping move fallen branches. Then they would take a rest and play on the fallen trees, straddling the branches and bounding up and down. The trees would lie still, but their leaves would rustle under the children's weight as if to remind you of their long lives and cruel torturous deaths.

Antennas lay on houses, balanced carefully on rooftops, ready to fall at the slightest touch. Lights lay across the roads. The autumn flowers leaned in toward the murderer. Tress that were left standing were stripped of many branches. Stop lights were not functioning and many electrical lines were down leaving victims in their homes without electricity.

Though the raging storm itself could not be seen, it left its mark in my neighborhood. I ran and ran thinking. I thought of all the great damage left. All the way up the East Coast the storm had raged, leaving many people in the same position. Then I realized in other areas people lost their homes and even their lives. They were not in the same position as my neighbors. We were lucky.


Be safe everyone

Friday, August 26, 2011

More Finds at the Local Antique Shop: Are Archivists Just Nosy?

Vandalia, Illinois
October 2, 1921

Mr Dear Aunt Mary and Uncle Wilbur,

You will no doubt be very much surprised to hear from me, especially after all of these years. And I hope that you will forgive and pardon the appearant [sic] neglect for it really was not exactly my fault. I often wished to write to you and the rest, but I always felt that Mother & Evelyn had always said and written unkind things of me, because in the letters which did come from home I was rarely if ever mentioned. It sometimes almost breaks my heart to think of the way our home has been broken up. I do not even know where Mother is, and that is one reason why I am writing to you, in hopes that you may know, and will send me her address. I believe that Evelyn knows where she is, but she will not tell me, and says that she does not know. the last that I saw or heard from Mamma was a year ago.....
Then I went to visit Evelyn where I was very much unwelcome, not by her husband who is rather nice but her owing to the fact that I had left most of my things in her care during my stay in Decatur, and she had used most of them and didn't really care to give them up. some of the things she locked away upon my arrival at her home, and claimed that Mother had taken them with her,such as silver ware & tabel [sic] linen and a few other things some of these I found and most of them I did not...

First of all, from this little paragraph I wonder, do you think Aunt Mary and Uncle Wilbur were happy to hear from this apparently long lost relative?

I found this letter among a batch I purchased online as a sort of potluck. Letters like this are sold online and advertised for use in heirloom craft projects. Purchasers are encouraged to cut up the letters and use them for collages. I prefer to purchase them, read them, and lament the fact that they have been separated from their families in this way.

My purchased lot of four letters are from the years 1921-22 and include some details of everyday family life. I know about the family baby. I learn from the letters about the domestic lives of the women in the household. They describe preparing beans and cakes. This is a farming family and the few letters in my possession discuss growing  crops and managing livestock. The letters include lots of names - individuals who are ill, suffering business losses, taking time off. I get just a small sense of this family's life, as if I am allowed to visit each family member for an hour and then asked to go. I will never know these people. They probably don't want me to know them this way. I have a decided picture in my mind of what these people were like, but I formed this opinion about them with very little information

I'm nosy. I want to know more. I want to be asked to stay for a longer visit and get to know these people. I want to learn more about farm life in Iowa in the 1920s. Is there a better way to learn it then through the original letters of farming families who were right in the thick of it all? The collection, that I suppose would give me a full and realistic sense of these people based on the detail of the letters before me, has been destroyed. We will never be able to reassemble the original collection of letters from which these were obviously plucked. The loss of personal papers such as these are a loss for our better understanding of our culture. Our memories of our ancestors also suffer from this loss. Finally, the nosy archivist is left disappointed that the resolution to this family soap opera, for which the letter I quote gives us a glimpse, has been lost to time. These are just clips from life, out of context.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Linking Personal Experience, Medicine, and History

Display about nurses at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center

I work with records of all types, but when it comes right down to it, I am a liberal arts girl at heart. On a personal level, I have always taken the most interest in archives related to women or records describing the building of community culture. Medicine was a realm reserved for my sister, who is a doctor. But, when I first walked into the Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, New Hampshire this summer to manage a major personal health issue, it was their appreciation for their history that first welcomed me. I began a journey that raised my consciousness about medicine and medical history more than I ever could have imagined.

The original Dartmouth Medical College
At Dartmouth, images of the original Mary Hitchcock Center are displayed prominently on their walls. It was with intense interest that I first walked in and examined a display of early medical equipment and nursing gear that was used in the hospital from its inception in 1893. Here I was entering an unknown and frightening world, but right off the bat was being offered something with which I could identify. Admittedly, all my life hospitals have been one of my least favorite places to be, but I felt like I was being welcomed by an old friend and my previous interactions with medical archives came to my mind. I felt comfortably linked to what was before me and it helped me face my fears on a more intellectual level. It helped me to let go of emotion to realize how my current situation fits into the history of this place, my family, and of other communities.

Lobyb of Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center, displaying
with pride their long and successful history. 
I have previously written briefly about my current health issues. The situation has had such a major impact on me that it will likely become a regular part of my presentations discussing personal archives, including “Life in Context” and “Preserving Memories”.  I went through what all women fear and am coming out the other end with some major intervention, but I am doing just fine. My body has had a lot of work done, but I no longer fear the kind of intervention I needed for my continued good health. And to link this with my work examining communities, I can say that I better see my interests inextricably linked with doctors and think there is a lot that liberal arts types such as myself can do with them to help others through experiences similar to mine. History is what binds us. Recognizing that others have gone through this before me, that technology has improved treatment, and that my own situation can help others who come after me seems like an important thread in medical treatment, in understanding our place in a historic timeline, and in cultivating a better sense of self awareness on an individual level.

Health concerns are and have always been central to our lives as humans. Our health issues are well documented in the letters we write, the diary entries we make, and the public records kept about our circumstances. I have encountered many such records in archives across New England. Hospital archives, government records, and personal papers all retain valuable information that can help us link ourselves to the medical community in a more personal way and to a larger history. Our emotional health benefits from evaluating these connections. This kind of thinking, I believe, has also made my physical recovery easier.

Health records I have encountered in my journeys include a diary from Maine that I found this past spring in a local antique shop. The diary clearly emphasizes the importance of health to its writer. In it, the author regularly records the diseases of his friends and acquaintances and the deaths of neighbors. One entry reads, “January 13, 1882 Uncle Joe Cousens is very sick with Brights disease of kidneys and cannot live long.” The diary lists many diseases with strange names, but with a little research, it is clear that though the names are unusual, the diseases themselves are still well-known today under pseudonyms more familiar to the non-medical community. (Brights Disease is kidney disease, for example. Here’s an online dictionary of 19th century medical terms that makes an interesting read in case you want to look more into this.) When we consider modern society, we can realize that these diseases are still part of daily life and still part of our conversation.

Another set of medical records that stand out in my mind were encountered in my first professional job as an archivist. The Waltham Public Llibrary kept some early twentieth century health records from the area. As I remember them, they included quarantine information and I read with interest the journey of the flu pandemic of 1918 through this community located just outside of Boston. The entries tracked one by one the individuals who were afflicted by the outbreak. These record books are a valuable piece of information about an important worldwide event, linking the local population to a larger global event. History helps us appreciate the magnitude of “the flu” and our fight against it through time. It is a fight that we still face almost 100 years later.

As part of my personal journey, I have been recording what is happening to me in my diary and in an art journal. Someday, this may serve to help other family members better understand what I have gone through so they can be better prepared for their own personal journey. Creating documentation has also been valuable to me to look back on what has happened to me this summer to see how I moved from fear to resolve. I am proud of the decisions I have made that relied on the input of my healthcare professionals and a learned understanding of my family health heritage. I am now more aware of the health documentation I see around me. I am attuned to the medical messages of modern culture while I contemplate how this field of medicine has come so far. Like Dartmouth, I hope that other such institutions take time to reflect on their past to help patients realize that they are part of a miraculous evolving history.

In conclusion, I wish to give a great big thank you to the Doctors of Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center. You are my heroes. Thank you for caring about my emotional health as well as my physical health. From you I have not only benefited physically, but I have learned so much. I will be forever grateful.

Knowing your own family health history is important. Here are some resources to help you understand its value. They will also help you consider and gather the information you need to know your medical risks and to understand the role this history plays in your life.

American Ancestors – New England Historic Genealogical Society - Family Health and Genealogy: Compiling a Family Health History 

Mayo Clinic - Medical history: Compiling your medical family tree

Surgeon General’s Family Health History Initiative

Treasure Maps Genealogy Blog Why You Should Research Your Family History AND Your Family HEALTH History


Thursday, August 4, 2011

Contemplating Personal Illness and History

I have always contended that history is about each of us. History helps us understand how we got here and what role we play in the world. History helps us understand that we are influenced by others, that we are part of communities, and that our actions will impact those who follow us. These ideas have gained renewed significance for me this summer as I am confronted with an illness. At a turning point in my life, it becomes remarkably powerful and important that I can embrace the words and stories of others to guide me. Those who have documented their own journeys along a similar path have given me comfort and hope. I am not alone. When everything is stripped away, we all are made the same and the history of humanity runs as a thread that binds our most basic existence.

I recognize that the path I am taking has been taken by thousands of others -- that those who came before me have helped to make my own path easier. Each generation benefits as our knowledge grows and technology evolves. To record our experiences is to leave a map for our descendants that helps them feel part of something bigger. I need only look back two generations in my own family to realize that my grandparent who struggled as I do had a much more difficult time of it. In my heart, I thank her for for the sacrifices she made so that my own path is easier. She and I are bound by genetics, but also by historical events that reach beyond family and into larger communities.

During recovery from surgery, I will blog as often as I can. I hope that my personal experiences can help others embrace the community support they seek and look to history for additional wisdom. It took me a long time to decide to write this because at first I wasn't sure that sharing what I am going through now was relevant to my readers. However, during the past year I have worked on "A Life in Context" with my colleague Sue West and the point of our project and workshops is to invite people to share their stories. We have encouraged people to share the good and the bad. It seemed hypocritical to not share at least part of my current journey with you.

I am documenting my experiences in my diary and am also keeping a new art journal to record the things I can't put into words. The art journal has helped me get negative thoughts out and has helped me better articulate ideas that were bringing me down a hurtful path. Documentation has been a way to release sadness and frustration. I now find that I am on a good path to guide me into surgery and beyond. And I suspect that a record of what I am going through will help me look back to value how far I have come and to help others who may later experience the same emotions.

No matter where I am in my life, history and documentation are there as useful and comforting companions. Thank you for reading the ArchivesInfo blog. I hope to be back blogging very soon!