Thursday, October 27, 2011

Maintaining a Sense of Place in Digitization Efforts

Earlier this week, I wrote a post about the Digital Public Library of America and the challenge to make collections accessible online. I began discussing why we should not let small collecting institutions miss the great digital push. While DPLA has grand plans for making information from cultural collections accessible remotely, there seems to be a gap in their scheme for accommodating small repositories that still lack any digital presence. Antiquated access and a local focus does not negate the value of their collections to a greater society.

I believe that the small archives such as the town historical society have a place in this world and I have argued for that throughout my career. The community story is best told locally and this story has the ability to lift up its citizens. Assuming that the online world is just part of our existence and that our true locale still deeply influences us, it makes sense to retain a sense of place. Our buildings and landmarks provide us with a sense of identity and belonging. And, therefore, our physical repositories offer something beyond a shell for housing information. Local collecting institutions, their physical existence, their staff or volunteers, and their collections come together to support a community hub for sharing local culture in a tangible way.

What I will call "small stories" helped build the culture of larger United States society and knowledge about them remains important. How did we get to be the country we are? Our understanding of a larger history hinges on smaller stories housed in local repositories. When such institutions do not have an online presence, their local presence might still be strong. Some of their communities have a very large appreciation for their small stories and may even have an important sense of their connection to a greater national culture. Such repositories may host speakers, attract many visitors, and continue to accept new collections into their holdings. Other similar repositories might have a weaker presence, struggling to keep their doors open. Yet, inside their walls are still housed cultural materials that are valuable toward a better understanding of American culture.

A number of things can happen to these small places during this transitional time. (In anticipation of some discussion or confusion about this, maybe I should emphasize that I am talking about small struggling repositories, not strong ones that have a solid program established to encourage their success.)

1. The doors to many local historical societies, town museums, and stand-alone libraries will close forever due to lack of funding and lack of interest. Their collections will be discarded in the worst case scenarios. Or, their collections will be transferred to larger institutions. Those collections that are transferred may or may not go to local repositories. In many cases, towns will lose the resources of their heritage to distant universities or other archival repositories that have the means to handle them. They may not realize at the time this happens what exactly they are losing. But, in my opinion, moving the materials of local history to a remote location is not a good thing for the morale of any town.

2. Many small archives will struggle along for awhile, continuing to run on a shoestring as they have been doing for decades. They will continue to have issues with funding. They will continually be searching for new volunteers to take the place of those who want to move on. The new problem with this scenario, I believe, is that the end of this kind of fumbling along is near. There are fewer people willing to volunteer in such organizations as younger generations prefer to put their energies elsewhere. The money that such institutions once scraped together to keep the doors open has dried up. Many such institutions never had a clear mission or vision, and without that focused view, their purpose will become even muddier as other's move to digitize.

3. Small institutions can be buoyed by larger institutions. DPLA seems to be looking for ways to make all of America's heritage available online and if they are really committed to this, they need to encourage large institutions to look for ways to help promote smaller ones, whether or not they have begun to digitize. Local universities, library networks, state cultural heritage associations and others who can make a connection to these small repositories need to do so soon. We need to find creative ways to budget for the digitization of their collections AND to help them keep their doors open. Training programs to teach communities basic archives management skills should be a priority. We must make sure that whenever possible, our small local repositories have a solid management foundation that can be followed up with digitization. Make them strong internally so they can then reach out.

I know that what I am proposing is more easily said than done, especially in this economy. But, it is vital to include the challenge in planning efforts so that we do not casually lose collections, knowledge, and historical awareness. Additionally, efforts to collaborate for access -- so that it doesn't matter where physical collections are stored -- should not lose sight of what importance local physical ownership may take on for a community's sense of identity.

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Other Digital Divide - "Bringing the Local Community Out"

The "digital divide" refers to the unbalanced state between those individuals and communities who have access to digital information and those who do not. The divide often refers to those who have access to the Internet (often the term refers to access to  broadband service) and those who do not. But a digital divide does not only exist for access, I think it is also important to recognize those who cannot upload information so that it can be shared by a wide-range of people around the world. I am specifically thinking about cultural heritage institutions that are unable to take advantage of computers to share their holdings. Lacking a digital initiative, many such institutions are in danger of getting left behind and thus making themselves antiquated. I believe that allowing such institutions to fall behind puts their communities at risk and has the potential to leave broad gaps in our knowledge about the past few centuries.

Though this has been on my radar for a long time, I began thinking more about this last week when I was able to catch some of the proceedings of the Digital Public Library of America plenary meeting. There are large players on the steering committee of DPLA such the Library of Congress, CLIR, IMLS, NARA, government major universities, large city public libraries, and information management companies such as the Internet Public Library who have big ideas. DPLA even announced a collaboration with its European counterpart, Europeana, which has exciting and dynamic implications for the global sharing of cultural heritage resources.  I was left wondering how small institutions with few resources can take part.

Many small institutions continue to struggle to keep their doors open. They may have fabulous collections, but they have no staff to administer them. They certainly have no money to digitize them. There have been many recent discussions among the professional literature about whether these institutions should stay open. Will the present economy in effect "weed out" the struggling small museum and historical society and make our remaining institutions stronger in the end? I think that the DPLA is another obstacle to the small institutions' success that needs to be evaluated.

I searched the DPLA web site to see how small local organizations are being considered. I think the American Culture and History Online project most closely matches the kind of project that I was seeking. It examines local collections that are being digitized primarily through state run library projects. The vision of the project includes these illuminating words,

"In the prior, unconnected age, the public library was the intermediary for bringing the world in to the local community
In the current, connected age, the public library can be the intermediary for bringing the local community out to the world."

The project makes sense for states and regions that are supported by library systems that already have a networking culture, but states like my own (NH) that lacks much formal networking will find it difficult to work with DPLA in this way. It will be a challenge for DPLA to find ways to reach out to those who do not already have a collaborative culture.

It seems obvious to me that any community that does not get "brought out" is at a great disadvantage. They may be left as ghost towns along the "information superhighway" (for those old enough to remember that term.) Will lacking the ability to provide information about a town keep people away from the town? For example, I think about the tourism factor, I am more likely to visit a place with a fabulous web site that stresses their local identity -- history, restaurants, events and the like -- rather than visiting a place about which I can learn little before my visit. Beyond tourism, lacking an Internet presence will also dampen the interest of researchers, businesses and more, shutting communities out of opportunities.

In my next post, I will discuss more about why we should not let small collecting institutions miss the great digital push. Antiquated access and a local focus does not negate the value of their collections to a greater society.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Part 2: Calling All Archivists and Archives Users...What Do Archivists Do?

Yesterday, I put out a call asking community archivists what tasks they do.  Alison commented, "To me, Archives are mostly about Cultural Memory. Preserving & providing access to records that provide information about cultural memory. In my area, they also help teachers to teach about/ through primary documents, which is becoming a larger part of education...What do we do? More then I could list here."

Indeed! We do a lot! That's why I want to add to the two lines given to archives in the library article "What Do Librarians Do" that I mentioned yesterday. Let's make that long list!

This is off the top of my head. What have a left out?

- Arrange personal papers, photographs, media, and other primary source material
- Preserve materials using professional methods that maintain appropriate environmental controls and use appropriate supplies for the safety of collections, prioritizing the needs of items based on condition and budgets
- Manage budgets for preservation, conservation, local history books, exhibit supplies, office supplies, staff
- Determining which materials need outside conservation
- Purchase and manage appropriate secondary source materials to enhance the primary source collections
- Manage institutional records through retention schedules
- Promote local history and historical collections through programming and special events
- Assist genealogists, house historians, engineers, and others interested in local historical  records with research by helping them find appropriate materials and referring them to other appropriate institutions when necessary
- Assist researchers with using equipment
- Supplement the public school and homeschool curriculums by helping teachers teach through primary documents and helping students learn history with original resources
- Promote a sense of awe and provide inspiration by giving users a direct connection to history through original resources.
- Create finding aids that describe specific collections and promote the larger collections of the institution and town
- Develop collections and fill gaps in the documentary record
- Work collaboratively with other local institutions to ensure that history is documented, preserved, and promoted
- Assist local businesses and the town with highlighting the town's history to promote civic pride
- Digitize and microfilm materials to promote access and preservation
- Index digitized collections using metadata and professional standards
- Work with potential donors to appropriately place materials, promoting good relations with the public
- Solicit, train, and manage volunteers and interns to assist with processing collections, shelving local history books, and other non-professional tasks
- Create exhibits that highlight community history and collection strengths
- Work with regional and national organizations that promote archives to promote the value and needs of historical records
- Choose and maintain appropriate electronic equipment including computer equipment, microfilm machines, and the like to enhance preservation and access...

Can you think of more?

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Calling all Archivists and Archives Users...What Do Archivists Do?

Volunteers guided by a professional
archivist process papers at the
Winchester Archives in Massachusetts.
Calling all Archivists and Archives Users...

Many librarians and other information professionals are finding themselves in positions that require them to justify their jobs. In a weak economy, many see the library as a soft service and see librarians as service professionals who can easily be replaced by volunteers. The many tasks of a public librarian are often not visible to every patron and can easily be dismissed by those who don't even use a library. A blog post called "What Do Public Librarians and Library Staff Do," written in support of professional librarians, gives us a bullet list that describes the workload of a public librarian in order to shed light on the role of this information professional. Within the list is a section called "Archives and Special Collections." It lists two tasks related to the care of these materials:
- Digitisation and digital preservation, making sure information will be accessible in future;
- Storing and conserving media (including old/rare books);

I thought that we could greatly improve on this particular section of the document. I am requesting that all community archivists who work in public libraries, historical societies and the like add their thoughts. Also, those who use public libraries who are readers of this blog may have something to contribute. Genealogists and other researchers, how do public librarians and local archivists help you get the information you need? From one on one research assistance, to community documentation and collection development, to arrangement and description, to preservation, to running local history events, and more...what do local archivists around the world from day-to-day? 

Monday, October 17, 2011

Introduction to the Unofficial Family Archivist

The Role of This Book

Fourteen years ago, my husband and I bought and moved into our first house as a couple. I began unpacking personal papers and heirlooms that had been boxed in apartments for years. They would have taken up too much space in cramped quarters for me to permit their release from confinement, but our new home afforded us the room to settle in and unpack the things that represented our family memories. As I worked, I took time out to flip through long-neglected albums and began noticing problems with them. All of the causes for concern were common preservation issues I confront every day as an archivist: The images of my childhood in the 1970s were beginning to discolor. The glue on the “magnetic” pages on which the pictures were stuck, not intending to budge, was browning. I found that I needed my professional skills in my personal life. Up until that time, I primarily thought of applying my archives background to collections within institutions. After this experience, I began thinking of all archives (records with long-term value) and personal memorabilia within anyone’s possession as mini “collections,” requiring similar care to those materials housed in professional repositories.

Within every home is a treasure trove of information. Unfortunately, many irreplaceable documents that help tell individual stories, and the stories of our communities, are deteriorating among our personal belongings. Photographs are turning yellow and fading. Papers are growing brittle. Staples holding items together are rusting. Files are getting lost among growing digital trails. The documents and keepsakes we have gathered over the course of our lives are often not given the attention they need to maintain their physical condition. Few are given organizational structure or are labeled in a way that would be understandable to people who do not have a direct connection to the items. Many memories are getting lost in piles of personal “stuff.” In my work as an archivist and consultant for the last eighteen years, I have found that most people think that their family records are important, but they do not know how to properly maintain them.

This book focuses on the care of personal papers, photographs, and memorabilia. Personal papers are created by individuals and families and are one type of archives. Archives are the recorded information that we create in any form during the course of our daily activities. They document our lives and shed light on our personalities, actions, and values. They tell about how we function in society. They include information about our communities and the culture that surrounds us. Our photographs help illustrate these moments. In addition to creating this information during our lifetimes, we also collect “memorabilia” that is meaningful to us and helps describe our activities. Memorabilia makes it easier to celebrate the events and special occasions we cherish. Ribbons picked up at state fairs, postcards from trips, and buttons we wore in support of campaigns tell much about who we are and what we value.

Clients often tell me that they have been called or see themselves as “the family historian.” They develop an interest in family history that is sometimes sparked by finding old papers or photos in their home, or they are thrust into the role when they inherit a pile of old materials. Interested in the past and concerned about the neglect of the resources that shed light on it, the family historian attempts to care for these materials with little guidance. This book will give you or the person protecting personal papers the knowledge needed to begin caring for materials thoughtfully and in a competent manner. You will be capable of creating a valuable resource that you can access for family information and will learn how to safeguard your materials for the future.

The Unofficial Family Archivist: A Guide to Creating and Maintaining Family Papers, Photographs, and Memorabilia grew from a presentation focused on one aspect of safeguarding personal materials—the act of preserving them. I have addressed varied audiences on this topic in a workshop I offer titled Preserving Memories: Maintaining Family Photographs, Personal Papers, and Memorabilia. I find that attendees are often people with an immediate need. They bring in treasured personal papers and objects that they see are in danger. The materials are usually discolored, disintegrating, or moldy; items are brought in shoeboxes and manila envelopes. Simple changes in the way they are kept will promote their longevity, but there are other aspects to consider. This book addresses a wide variety of topics so that you gain a broad, encompassing perspective on your personal items and the history they represent.

Think of the papers in your home as a “collection.” This grouping of materials tells the story of your life. People who influence you, important events, and topics in which you take interest should all be represented. The papers you create are the raw information (or the “primary sources”) that one would use to write your biography or examine to better understand how you lived and worked among your peers. Think about how your personal papers represent you. What aspirations and activities are evident that explain the real you? How do you want your children to remember you? What personal papers among your archives show your humanity and highlight your role in society? When we save the records of our past and work to define the context for them, we strengthen our family traditions and values. We increase our knowledge of humanity and better our communities. Understanding a personal and larger history goes hand in hand with protecting its resources.

The Unofficial Family Archivist is organized into eight sections that discuss preservation and other methods you can use that will protect your family history. Topics relate to creating and identifying materials that represent you; how to properly organize, preserve, and describe these items; and how to prepare them to pass on to future generations. This book provides information to guide you so you may enjoy your materials, easily access them, feel comfortable that they will last for a long time, and be confident that you can pass them on to future generations.

Important Things to Keep in Mind as You Read

First, please realize that it is not necessary to be perfect. For example, my home has wide temperature fluctuations from one end to the next. Though changes in temperature increase the possibility of materials disintegrating, I do not have much choice. Most of my materials are stored in the room that is hottest in the summer. This is not ideal, but that is where they fit, so I make do. Rather than focusing on achieving all of the suggestions in this book, focus on those that you can most easily achieve first and work to improve things over time. Do not get frustrated if you cannot afford all of the supplies that I recommend, do not have perfect storage conditions, need to keep certain things separated throughout your house for space reasons, or cannot identify all of the people in your photos. Changing just a few things about the way you care for your personal papers can greatly increase their longevity and informational value.

Second, consider your personal papers as a whole. Take account of your old and new records. Think of all the materials that represent your life. The concern that you have for the letters your mom passed on to you should be given the same care as the emails you send to your daughter in college. “Personal papers” can take a variety of forms. The information that we collect and create is becoming more complex over time, but the basic strategy for viewing your materials as a whole “collection” representing you remains the same. The basic archival methods described here—preservation, arrangement, description—apply on a general level regardless of the medium of your personal papers.

The Unofficial Family Archivist: A Guide to Creating and Maintaining Family Papers, Photographs, and Memorabilia explains the basics of managing personal papers in a way that is understandable to nonarchivists, while retaining accuracy about archival methods. Some of the information is quite in-depth for those who wish to fully control their personal papers. The chapters on arrangement and description primarily are those that go into more detail than many users may want or require. Adapt and abridge the field standards for your individual needs and do not see them as a set prescriptive to which you must adhere.

This book highlights a selection of the personal collections for which I have cared that are held by small repositories in New England. These samples demonstrate how individuals and families living their “normal” lives can prove extraordinary to future generations. Some of these stories make up the most respected parts of the American psyche from major events such as the Gold Rush, the Civil War, and the suffrage movement. They include the struggle of immigrants and working professionals. They reveal common people with big dreams that often take them to great places. They should serve as models for caring for your own materials and demonstrate the value of each life story to a larger history. In the appendix, I outline these and other collections from repositories with which I have no professional affiliation that are also mentioned in the book.

The end of each chapter includes short exercises to help you with the care of your family records. A glossary at the end of the book may clarify unfamiliar words. Though I would like to avoid jargon, I think it is important for readers to get a handle on the most common words that archivists use when they think about collections and caring for cultural heritage resources. The words are intended to inform and to spur interest. I do not want them to be a source of frustration. The technical names for things do not matter—the concepts behind them do.

The Chapters

Family heritage keepers need to consider whether they are passing on a well-rounded collection of experiences through their written pieces of lifetime evidence or whether they are just passing on bits that leave more questions than answers. The first chapters of this book explore how to ensure that you are keeping the important things. I teach you how to eliminate clutter to highlight important resources. Removing unimportant papers from your files tightens your remaining items into a core collection of valuable informational resources for your family. Chapter One helps you begin thinking about the important elements and stories of your life. Chapter Two assists you in identifying which records best reflect your narrative to help you form a strong informational source.

Then, whether preparing your records for your own personal use or for future generations of relatives or community, this book assists you in making your family information accessible. After reading this book, you will be able to put in place an organizational system for family papers that highlights your life and values. Chapters Three and Four introduce established arrangement systems and accepted, easy techniques for preparing collection indices or lists of documentation. They explain how recording the subject matter found among your materials and creating an inventory of file names provides additional assurance that your organized collections are also comprehensible. For those interested in more thorough tools for “indexing” collections and ways to make information more accessible, I introduce a few professional concepts for describing collections. Among these are describing the scope of the collection, including essential biographical information related to the creator(s) of the materials, and other elements that provide a more complete overview of one’s personal papers.

These chapters are particularly important because many people have told me that they are concerned that family materials are not valued, and that once they no longer personally care for them, the items may be discarded. This book will eliminate anxiety concerning the future security of your family’s history. The value one can inject into a family collection through proper boxing and description methods makes the need to properly maintain the materials obvious to anyone who takes over archiving responsibilities after you. Your preparations will secure materials as a noteworthy family asset.

In Chapter Five, we explore preservation problems and techniques that keep items safe to ensure their longevity. This section explains the basic elements that cause deterioration so that you can avoid common problems. I provide information about storage supplies and what to look for in a safe storage space. I make you aware of issues for which you should seek expert help and where to get that help, while providing tricks for smaller pesky problems, such as eliminating a musty smell from materials. My goal is to show you that a few simple measures can make a tremendous difference. I offer advice about disaster preparedness to ensure that you are ready in the face of a threat such as a flood.

Chapter Six encourages you to also think about what aspects of your life are not recorded. We explore projects for recording previously undocumented information. Oral history, journaling, crafting, and more are considered and examined for appropriateness in documenting personal history. Readers are encouraged to try to capture a sense of place in their written records. I explain how different formats are valuable for conveying different information and also to suit different personality types.

Chapter Seven discusses digital information. Thinking about electronic documents as a standard part of modern personal archives, I describe their unique preservation and management needs and explore how to deal with common personal digital files. I note places where we leave our digital footprint, how to organize our electronic personal information, the role this information plays in telling a life story, and the challenges ahead for maintaining information in a quickly changing digital environment.

The final chapter of this book encourages individuals to consider donating materials to local repositories to add pieces to a puzzle of a community history. The addition of personal papers to established collections helps ensure the protection of a larger cultural heritage. This chapter discusses how to approach local professionals to donate papers, how to provide information about your family’s historical role in the community, and what to consider when offering your papers to an institution.

Cultural Heritage Collaborators

This book relates to the concepts presented in my previous book, Cultural Heritage Collaborators: A Manual for Community Documentation, which aimed to encourage partnerships among cultural heritage repositories and communities. The Unofficial Family Archivist further explains the role of families to ensure the complete documentation of historic events in our times. These two books may be used together to encourage communities to take better care of their historical resources.

I promote the idea that, beyond their family connection, our personal papers tell what it is, or what it was, like to live in a particular place at a particular time. Within cultural heritage institutions around the world are the personal papers—diaries, correspondence, photographs, and other documentation—of common citizens like you and me. Our stories are important for understanding what it means to be of a certain race, sex, or ethnicity. All of our historical documents, whether kept in professional repositories or in private homes, have value to the human story. We must all work together to make sure our heritage is secure and that the documentation that tells this story is inclusive and comprehensive.

This book unlocks the world of professional archivists so that you are aware of how your personal materials relate to those held by cultural heritage repositories. It introduces you to archivists’ methods and how to get in touch with an archivist when you need additional assistance. It provides information about fields related to archives management, such as museum studies and library science. Our personal papers are a valuable resource that forms the backbone of history, but materials hidden in homes and unknown to cultural heritage experts often hold as much historical value as materials found in professional repositories. I encourage you to seek partnerships with professionals who can help you better understand your personal and community history. I encourage you to play a part in working with professionals to create a plan for effectively documenting your community and your contributions to your community.

Use this book to start thinking about your collection and your place in history. Treasure your personal papers and recognize that they are a valuable cultural asset. You can choose to highlight your place in civilization through the records’ care or inhibit your legacy with their neglect. Recognize that the role you play as an individual can assist cultural heritage institutions formed with the purpose of preserving wide-ranging heritage. Your role as an “unofficial archivist” is vital for capturing personal experiences that illuminate larger trends. By maintaining your papers and supporting the care and safekeeping of diverse historical resources, you help guarantee the long-term memory of civilization. Know from where we came so that we can better plan where we are going. 

Friday, October 14, 2011

What Does American Archives Month Mean to Non-Archivists?

Happy American Archives Month! This month provides archivists with an opportunity to raise awareness about archives and archivists.

According to the Society of American Archivists web site, "For 2010-2013, SAA is focusing its public awareness efforts on the campaign—I Found It In The Archives!—which reaches out to archives users nationwide to share their stories about what they found in the archives that has made a difference in their lives."

I have written extensively in the past about the value of archives. I have advocated for visiting repositories and for archivists in posts such as Making Personal Connections to History. This year, in celebration of Archives Month, and in celebration of the release of my new book on the subject, I would like to advocate for archives in the home.

Many people do not realize that they have "archives." The paper records, digital files, photographs, and other recorded information that we want to keep permanently are archives. These materials have long-term value for family use and often possess additional value for communities beyond the family. 

SAA (The Society of American Archivists) invites individuals to tell them about items they have found in repositories that have impacted their lives. "I Found It In The Archives! is a collective effort to reach out to individuals who have found their records, families, heritage, and treasures through our collections." I would like to challenge you to also tell us about the unique materials that you own in your own personal archives collections. What materials mean the most to you? Has your family passed on materials from generation to generation? Is there one item or a few that represent(s) your life in a special way? Do you have a special collection of documents that are meaningful to you?

So, I thought I'd tell you about one such item in my own collection. This excerpt is taken from my book "The Unofficial Family Archivist:  A Guide to Creating and Maintaining Family Papers, Photographs and Memorabilia."

"My mother recently reminded me of how personal some seemingly impersonal official records are when we talked about how her dad had served in the American military as a displaced Polish citizen after World War II. My grandfather assisted with post-war cleanup efforts and, despite not yet being an American citizen, he was officially discharged from the United States Army when his work was done. This is likely the first official tie of any sort that my mother’s family had to the country to which she would move to when she was just a little girl. This piece of paper was created by the government for administrative purposes, but it also represents all that my grandparents went through to escape the Holocaust in the 1930s and all of their future dreams of a new place that would accept them and where they could raise a family. Mom’s collection of family documents includes records related to Grandpa’s military service. " [p. 19]

One of my favorite things about my job is hearing about your personal archives experiences. Everyone has a story to tell. What archives help you tell yours?

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Response to Review of "Cultural Heritage Collaborators"

It pays to "Google" yourself sometimes.

Last night, I found this review of my book "Cultural Heritage Collaborators."

I have written a lengthy response to its author, which I would like to share here:

Thank you Kevin for your thoughtful response to my book. I am especially glad to hear that your first response to it was that you need to hang out with archivists more. J

I would like to address some of your points if you will let me. You raise interesting ones.

First off, you are not reading too much into the title. Heritage belongs to everyone and the book intends to help people recognize this.  The responsibility of maintaining cultural heritage belongs to the community, not to one single voice (as you so nicely put it.) If people get nothing else out of my writing, I hope that they understand that.

I have addressed the reason why I self-published in this blog post that may (or may not) interest you. . To address your specific points: The word archives was capitalized when I was referring to an institution or place as in the Archives. It was not capitalized when I was discussing documents. It should be that way throughout the book. My editor read it with an eye toward that after I explained it to her and I think I explained it somewhere in the book, but it has come up since publication. I may have to find a way to change it if I ever write a second edition. It was my intention to do that to help avoid confusion, but it seems I have created confusion instead.  I noticed the missing text on page 17 too late and that too will be fixed if enough people buy the book so I can go back and revise it. Tightening up…I have nothing to say about that. Everything any one writes can be tightened over and over and over again. There comes a time when one has to stop. As for the margins, I think I have moved closer toward a better solution in my latest book (released last week,) but I’m still not there. I have used my small budget on a professional editor and am working out design issues myself. In the latest book, I have already spotted errors in fonts and a few missing things in the Table of Contents. (Maybe I can start a game: Find Melissa’s errors and win a prize. I think I’m just kidding about that…but maybe it’s not a bad idea?)

I purposely left out digitization. I mentioned this in the self publishing blog post and after re-reading it, I realize that I did so rather cavalierly. Digitization is an important topic and is one which many of my colleagues are writing about very thoughtfully and thoroughly. I did not feel I could add anything profound. Furthermore, digitization naturally invites collaboration and I want to see this play itself out more. Then, I may have something more profound to say. And lastly, in my own defense, the principles of “collecting” digitized materials remain basically the same. One should collect with an eye toward focus.  For example, one would not collect the digitized records of a famous person if that figure had no ties to your institution or community.

However, this is a topic that has been growing in my brain. We are most assuredly moving toward a digital world and there are things I left out that need to be addressed. This is what I’m thinking about: 1. Should we be collecting and keeping everything in a digital world? Do the same appraisal techniques always apply? How would we fine tune them? 2. For the most part, the collaboration I’ve seen for digital has involved collaborative access and not collection development.  How should one think about collaborative community documentation of digital files? I don’t think we are yet at the cross-roads in terms of technology where we can know the answer to this. Going back to the idea of ownership of cultural heritage or your wording about a single voice…I wonder for how long an institution will be a place to hold archives in a digital form or will it all one day be held in a place like “the cloud?”

I hope that you are pleased to know that I have a whole chapter dedicated to digital in my recently published book, “The Unofficial Family Archivist.” (Shameless plug, but relevant.) I do think we can and must begin thinking about this form of documentation, even if we can’t quite think of it in a collaborative collection development framework yet. On a repository level, I am particularly fascinated by the Salmon Rushdie archives at Emory University. Rushdie donated his computers to the University and they have done a remarkable job of figuring out what to do with it. My book talks about this and other examples of “personal papers” in digital form. The thrust of the publication though is on what an individual (non-professional) should do with his/her own personal documentation.

Finally, “To discern truth from reality” was admittedly written during a time when I was feeling frustrated with some things that were being said on a national political level. Admittedly, “discern truth and reality” is a bit corny. I agree with you.

Thank you again. I’m glad that you found the book worthwhile. Thank you also for sharing your thoughts and for allowing me to share mine. Now I’m going to track you down and follow you on Twitter!


Friday, October 7, 2011

Book Release

Today, I am pleased to announce the publication of my second archives book. It is aimed at individuals who wish to care for the personal papers in their homes. The Unofficial Family Archivist is a guide to help the non-archivist create, maintain and preserve personal papers, photographs and memorabilia. It will help people with an interest in caring for their family history and heirloom items to manage their documentation and historical resources in a thoughtful way.

My first archives management book, Cultural Heritage Collaborators, focused on how my colleagues could create a foundation for successful collaboration. I am pleased that John Fleckner at the Smithsonian and Ryan Lewis of the Illinois Humanities Council among others found value in it. I am especially honored that it was commended by the Auslib Sense of Place conference this past spring and that I was asked to attend the conference to speak about it. 

The two books can be used by communities in tandem to help individuals and cultural heritage professionals work together to promote and secure local history. The two books are particularly valuable for institutions such as historical societies that seek to make stronger community connections.

For more information, please see the recent ArchivesInfo Press press release. The new book is currently available through Createspace, but soon will be available through wider distribution channels.

From the author's collection
[One of my favorite things about the book, which I haven't had the opportunity to share in press releases, is the beautiful images it incorporates. I've included a few in this post]
Courtesy of the Waltham Public Library

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Is It Important to Recall Memories Accurately?

I had an interesting conversation with my mother the other day. (Sorry mom, all conversations are writing / presentation fodder unless they obviously aren't or you instruct me otherwise!) I often use family stories to illustrate points about saving and preserving archives. Mom mentioned that I get her stories all mixed up sometimes when I write about them. Then she said to me, "Oh well. It doesn't matter. They will never know." We laughed about my deranged memories while I wondered, "Which do I get mixed up?" but I didn't actually articulate that thought. (I've got a feeling that we might have long conversation about this in the next few days.)

How important is it really to get the stories accurate? Are family stories just a matter of remembering our loved ones and having a general idea of what they went through? Or, are the details important? And to whom should those details be important?

Memories are like a game of telephone, especially with family stories. One generation relates tales of upbringing to the next. A mother tells a daughter what her mother told her. The story gets changed a bit in the telling. This happened with my own daughter the other day. I explained to her that like her, I was very good at math and I loved it, especially geometry. Then when I was in high school, I had a teacher for trigonometry with whom I didn't click. My interest moved away from rigorous study of math in part because of the teacher, in part for other reasons. Whereas, Daddy is a definite math type. He studies calculus for fun. I told my elementary school aged daughter that one day Daddy will be the one to help her with her calculus. Somehow, this got mixed up in her head and came out a few days later as, "Mommy you are not good at math like Daddy and me."

Never mind that I don't want to be remembered for not being very good at math, especially since I use it all the time for things like space planning and for adding the grocery bill in my head. How important is it that the detail that mommy was an excellent math student gets passed down one day to my descendants?

Information about our activities may never end up in a repository. The details of one's life may never be studied so that a researcher better understands society and culture. But, then again they might. Even if they are not examined by a wider community, I believe that the truth about our lives has a place in family memory. I almost titled this post "How important is it to record memories accurately?" And I think that is the point here. Record what you know. Keep the important details safe by having evidence of them. Allow the accurate memory to stand up for evaluation so that others can learn from you and have a better understanding of their own place in the family history. Do not settle for heresay.

Memory is a very funny thing. Of course even our own memories of events can be distorted by point of view and time. Two people who participated in the same event could have very different memories of it. I also love to think about how memory gets translated into documentation. How we choose to record our memories can impact how they get passed on and what bits are savored later on by us and by others.

...I'm just hoping that mom has saved those straight A math report cards as evidence.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Reaction to Burning the Diaries

I had planned to write about something else today, but I think this article is poignant and thought provoking. I hope that you will take the time to leave a comment to let me know your own response to it.

Read: "Burning Diaries" New York Times September 30, 2011

My reaction:

I have not saved all of my own diaries. I threw one away, but it took me years to decide to do it. It was weeded carefully.

I once returned to my alma mater and had a conversation with my advisor about this very subject. She is a well-respected art historian who specializes in women's studies. I knew that she was an avid journaler. It was early in my archives career and I was telling her about the work I do. Somehow, we got to talking about diaries and I brought the conversation to a personal level. I asked her if she ever considered who might read her diary. She told me that she didn't want anyone to read her diary. She thought it was too personal.

That conversation puzzled me and has stuck with me for a long time...

I assume that one day, someone is going to read my diaries. I have read too many stories about little sisters finding hidden diaries under the mattress. (I think that I even saw an episode about this on the "Brady Bunch.") As a young teen, I read passages professing my feelings toward a young member of the opposite sex. I was too shy to just tell him that I thought he was the coolest, so I read it to him.

As an archivist, I very much value diaries. Some of the best information about life is found in a diary. I like to think that my diaries tell a lot about me and about life during my times. I have written about wars. I have recorded my feelings about people, which sometimes very markedly changes over time. I have written about my battles with depression, infertility and cancer. I have also written about the birth of my child, falling in love with my husband and buying my first home. Like anyone's life, mine is filled with ups and downs. I want my descendants to see me as human, to understand what made me happy and sad, to be a part of the most momentous moments of my life. I hope that maybe someone will learn something from my mistakes. I hope that they will understand that my diaries do not always reveal the best parts of me.

I want my daughter to have the writings that I have been keeping since I was eleven years old. I want her to see her mother as a woman. I want her to be able to evaluate my life in context -- even in a different context from what she is accustomed to.

I am not leaving everything. The part I removed is reserved just for me. After careful thought, I came to the conclusion that it is not a vital piece of the whole story and I did not wish to share. Much like any collection, mine has been carefully considered and appraised. I couldn't conceive of consciously burning a lifetime of memories the way that the author of the New York Times article did. I feel sorry that people might think that others cannot appreciate the greater parts of an individual story without judging all of the particulars. I couldn't imagine the archives of the world without these gems of humanity.