Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The History Books Forgot About Us

In the 1960s, the study of history began to change. My teachers in the decades that followed compared the "new social history" to the study of what they called "dead white men." The 1960s shift lead to the development of various branches of history including research based on gender, ethnicity, and more. We weren't just studying the famous or powerful in the late twentieth century. We began considering how various communities influenced society, molding and changing civilization.

The shift continues today with the Internet. Outside the scholarly world of history, individuals are finding their own voices. They are recording their memories for posterity -- perhaps not always consciously. They broadcast their ideas to the world. Archivists are paying attention. We are thinking about how we are going to save these individual voices for the future.

Our words are important to the study of history

The Voices

The Internet, and social media in particular, provides a unique platform for the history of the future. And the platform is quickly changing to emphasize those individual voices. Consider Facebook's shift to its "timeline," for example. The platform are giving us the tools to share our life stories as completely as possible. If we can save these voices and stories, historians will have a new unique tool to explore our heritage in a whole new way. The history of dead white men is truly dead. Millions of voices are replacing it.

History is About Us

I am curious to see how history books will not forget us in the future. How will historians sort out the voices to project them in a logical way to students? A few years ago, I came across a theory about teaching history backwards. The concept behind this is that if students see themselves as part of history, they can reach back to better understand the context of events. How did historical events get us to where we are today as a society? How has history helped create the life you live today? History is about us and if we start from that perspective, the context and importance of it all can neatly line up from there.

An Archivist's View

This is my own view and does not necessarily reflect the views of my fellow archivists. (I am interested to hear their comments.) Over the past ten years, I've promoted the idea that caring for your personal papers and caring for the papers of your community can lays a foundation for our archives work in small institutions. This approach fits quite well with the idea of studying history backwards. If we take care of what is most important to us -- our own personal papers and digital records -- and learn to recognize how they fit in with a larger society or collections of papers, than we have more of a vested interest in saving archives. Society has an opportunity to ensure that history books will no longer forget about the general populace. Saving our own memories in recorded form gives historians the tools they need to consider larger groups. Furthermore, a plethora of safely stored recorded information cannot be ignored.

The Internet gives us a unique new tool for the study of history. It is changing our ideas of what a "community" is. It is giving us more communities to consider. Still, our presence is recorded beyond the computer. The papers in our homes still provide a valuable perspective on our lives. Our individual histories exist online and offline. We have the opportunity to care for these recorded perspectives so that history remembers us. Our descendants will look to our lives to better understand their own if we give them the tools.

Thursday, April 19, 2012


My mother sent me a stack of magazines the other day. A friend of hers in Florida had given them to her to pass on to her archivist daughter. I am thoroughly fascinated and thought some of you might be  as well. The publication is called "Reminisce." Its web site describes it this way:


Reminisce, North America’s top-selling nostalgia magazine, “brings back the good times” of the 1930s, ’40s, ’50s, ‘60s and early ’70s. A variety of true, heart-felt stories are mainly written by the readers, not professional writers, which makes our magazine-and website-unique.
Each issue is packed with fascinating vintage black and white photographs and early color slides. Most photos are sent in by readers who’ve searched through family albums or attics to share the best from their past. Fun-to-read short and feature-length memories bring smiles, laughter and even poignant tears to readers of all ages. Memories span every subject…from the corner store and soda fountain, outhouses and old-time remedies, Model Ts to fifties Fords with fins, early radio and TV, surviving the Depression, World War II, fashion fads and prices from the past. The real thrill of reminiscing comes when someone reads a memory or sees a long-forgotten item and realizes: “Hey! I remember that!

My own with my Dad in the 1970s.
Great sideburns Dad!
First, I wonder, how many other "nostalgia" magazines are there? The magazine includes photos and stories from readers who want to share their past. I'm going to preface my praise with the caveat that this magazine doesn't seem to portray a well-rounded view of the past. For example, it's tagline reads, "The magazine that Brings Back the Good Times." And an article I read in it about an orphanage stood out as particularly stripped of the "bad." Still, here's why the publication is so fascinating:

  • From an archivist's perspective, the publication is making its own "artificial collections" that group and tell stories of American society. Brilliant!
  • The magazine is basically crowdsourcing history. What is important to you? What do you want to share? What should we reminisce about? What should we remember?
  • The idea behind this magazine is taking a large community (American citizens) and breaking them into smaller communities -- pointing out commonalities among people and giving them back connections that we sometimes see as broken in today's society. Again. Brilliant!
I am rolling this all through my mind and trying to figure out what to take away from it. Can cultural heritage professionals encourage crowdsourcing through publication like this and apply their expertise as curators, archivists, and librarians to help people make sense of their own stories?

Over and over again I hear people who tell me that their kids and grandkids don't appreciate their history. But truly, this magazine shows that there is something for everyone to appreciate and it could serve as a model for us.  When we encourage people to think of themselves as part of history we make ourselves stronger. When we all reminisce or stop for a moment to think about how the events in our lives play a role in society, we are appreciating the work of cultural heritage. 

Reminisce includes such topics as tales of "early aviation." The smile of a female aviator shines from the cover of the April/May 2010 magazine, which caught my pilot husband's eye from the top of the pile on the coffee table. (I'd like to think that it's because of the plane and not the woman.) It also includes pieces such as "Memories of Real Romances" from 2011 that might appeal to a totally different group. "Reminisce" let's us peek at others' histories and neatly connects them to our own. I love it! 

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Sharing Diaries - Nature Journal 1920s

Cover of 1925 diary loaned to me by a friend.
It seems to be a handmade cover with printed
fabric glued on board.
A friend heard about my 1882 diary project and was reminded of a diary she found in an antique shop many years ago. She brought it to me to share and has allowed me in turn to share it with you. (I get goosebumps when I examine these things!)

My friend wondered if the diary was a real period piece and if it is really a "diary". I think, in fact, it's creation may have been a school journaling assignment. The manuscript covers the month of April, 1925. The writer talks about her teacher.  Some of the sentences are short and a bit out of context, as if the text tumbled out of the writer's head with a little preview of her life. So, I don't think it is fantasy or a creative fiction writing assignment. I am left wanting to know more about this personal story, but I feel that she has established a sense of place for the narrative that describes her surroundings.

I am assuming that this booklet is written by a girl based on the cover, the subject matter (which includes fairies), the writing, and the tone that she uses to reveal reverence for  nature and for her teacher. The girl talks of studying  in Manchester. I believe this must be Manchester, New Hampshire because she mentions traveling to Keene, which is located one hour west of this city. (Coincidently, I live right outside of this city, while the friend who owns this diary lives in Massachusetts.) The cover of the book reminds me of one made by my elementary-aged daughter for a recent school writing assignment. Eighty-five years later, we recognize that some crafts are still worth teaching.

Bluebird feathers are pressed into the diary,
which talks in-depth about nature.

Our diary writer was very observant of nature and I think this must be in part because she was told to be so. As an enthusiastic gardener, I find it a perfect assignment to write about nature as the birds and plants wake up in April! In the diary, there is talk of the sky, sunset and outdoor surroundings.There are photographs from an early spring snowfall and the journalist also discusses all kinds of weather changes - warmth, wind, snow, rain - that are typical of New England. (In fact, there is a saying around here that if you don't like the weather here you should just wait twenty minutes.) She even includes transcribed nature poems to accompany her own observations.

The writer shared found objects, including flowers that have since lost their blossoms and retain only their stems. She talks of her found objects keeping her diary company. The most beautiful among these saved treasures are blue feathers that she claims are "bluebird" feathers. They have retained their color even after three-quarters of a century pressed into a book.

A flower once graced these pages.
All that remains now is a stem.
Objects pressed into the booklet, including the
bluebird feathers, leave behind their imprints on the opposite pages, as acids from organic materials migrate from one page to the next.
The writer cut images out of publications
to illustrate some of her words.
One thing struck me as unusual and lends itself to the idea that this is more of a creative writing assignment than journal... The author cut images out of printed materials and pasted them here. They serve as illustrations to her words. I wonder: did she find things to illustrate her words or did her words illustrate things she found? I wonder where she found these pictures and wish she discussed more about what prompted her to incorporate each into her writing.

The aging of the paper seems about right for 80 years, with found objects and clippings leaving their browning impressions on opposite pages. The book is in very nice condition. Pages had been tied together with green thread that retains its color and still holds some of the papers in place. Though the string is not fully looped and dangles at the book's center. Despite some browning, the pages are not brittle. I think I will add some interleaving sheets between for my friend before I return the book to her. That way, pages can be a little better protected in the future.

Our author ends by saying goodbye to her booklet. Based on the author's goodbye page below, I wonder if it was getting passed on to the teacher to be returned the following autumn. Will the writer have the same instructor come fall? Manchester was a thriving mill town at this time. I first imagined a one room school house scenario where many kids of different ages had the same teacher year after year. On second thought, I doubt this was the case here. I may need to try to find some time to examine Manchester school records to see if I can find our Miss Hodgdon!

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Mystery Solved! 1882 Diary Writer Discovered

I like to frequent antique shops regularly because they're fun and because I am always on a mission to find sample materials for teaching about archives and cultural heritage. Last year I made my best antique shop find ever when I stumbled across a diary from 1882 that covers six months in someone's life. You can read about my early 1882 diary explorations here:

The Diary Project Begins
The Diary Project - First Stop. Biddeford, Maine
The Diary Project Continues - Kennebunk and Kennebunkport, Maine

I quickly realized that my diary was from Kennebunkport. I have taken my time and do research when I get an opportunity to do it. I've puttered on the Internet looking for information about the town and its 1882 inhabitants. Last week I made my third trip to Maine to do some research in local libraries and archives there. While on my previous two trips, I keyed in on names mentioned in the diary, so I knew with whom my diary writer was friendly. I was lucky in that my diary writer included first and last names of the individuals with whom he had contact. This time, I aimed to focus in on particular events that seemed pertinent to figuring out exactly who this person is.

I first intended to start my research with a minister who appears a few times in the diary. The diary even said that he married my diarist, but the recording of a marriage was so casual, that I thought I misunderstood "This afternoon I was married..." (If this indeed was a marriage in the sense I was thinking of it, I realized that this book was most assuredly written by a man because it was addressed so cavalierly. Surely a nineteenth century woman would have more to say about this occasion?  I had other clues indicating this was written by a man, including the purchase of an overcoat and the mention of running a shop, but I still was not positive of the gender.)

This is the only mention of a marriage in my 1882 diary: "This afternoon I was
married by Mr. Lyman Chase at the parsonage at half past two in the afternoon."

Unfortunately, the research center in Kennebunkport had no finding aids. I had to rely on the knowledge of the assistant helping me. With tables turned -- archivist as researcher -- this was exceptionally hard to do. I can appreciate researchers who want to explore our vaults despite our rules to the contrary. I was in a similar boat, but the lack of any sort of collection index was particularly frustrating.

As I asked questions about the minister, I quickly realized that this was perhaps the wrong tact. I shifted gears and asked if the Center had any marriage records. They did and the booklet recording nineteenth century marriages was arranged alphabetically, not by date. Preparing for a long morning of browsing names, I was pleasantly surprised to find what I was seeking within a matter of minutes. A record of a gentleman married to a woman named Nell was written with the date my diary casually mentions its writer being married. Nell is mentioned over and over again in my diary. I thought Nell was just a friend. Turns out she's my diarist's wife. (See? A man!)

Kennebunkport. My new research home away from home.
I am not quite ready to reveal who my diarist is, but I will say that he was well-known in Kennebunkport. The information about his life neatly unfolded before me. I found out where he was buried and visited his grave. I found out where he lived and visited his home, which is still standing. I found out where he worked and think that the building may still be standing, but I need to do more research on that. What remains for me is in the details. I know who this man was. I know that there is a lot of information out there about him. Some of the things I found in my diary I suspect will shed a little light on how things worked in town, or at the very least, will tie together some long lost stories.

Mystery remains about the exact location of the diary
writer's business
The diary includes mostly just a few sentences each day from January to June 1882, but they are sentences packed with relationships, activities, and news. My elementary school-aged daughter will continue to assist me on this project. I found this latest information without her by my side, but she will accompany me on a trip back to Maine over her spring vacation. I will show her the burial site, the house, and downtown where our diary friend worked. My daughter plans to draw photos of these sites. I am also helping her to pick one aspect of the diary or this gentleman that she can focus on for her own research. Perhaps she can learn about his children. Perhaps because this is a sea side town, she might want to explore something about the beach...I will leave it to her, but will help her make a list of possibilities.

Today I welcome a new member of my historical community. I never knew him and he would never have suspected that someone like me would take any interest in him one day. But here I am. Our legacies will be woven together in a historical timeline that often takes human stories to very unexpected places.

Perhaps the next big mystery is: How did this little diary end up in a small shop on Route 13 in northern Massachusetts? I've got a few ideas for figuring out its provenance, so stay tuned!

Monday, April 9, 2012

Avoiding Obsolescence in Contemporary Society: The Small Historical Society Part II

Good exhibits grow from strong administrative tools and
strong collections like this at the George Peabody House Museum
Last week, I began discussing some of the challenges small historical societies face when considering their future. The post focused on some basic ways to revitalize a typical historical society's exhibits. Today's post will address ways to ensure the historical society has a solid foundation, including proper documentation and administrative tools, to prepare for more dynamic display and description. Not every organization will need to address all of these issues and some may need to consider alternate stumbling areas. These bullets provide some idea of things that an organization may want to address. I presented these points as part of an initial proposal of things a professional can do for and with a local historical society in an attempt to help them plan for the future.
  • Create a collection development policy to strengthen collections, engage the community and pursue grants. Review administrative materials for collections. Perform a survey of records and artifacts collections. Note gaps in records. Note areas where collections can be stronger.

  • Using the information garnered in an initial collection review, create a plan for appropriate rotating exhibit themes. For example, if there are many materials related to World War Two and the soldiers, this might be considered for an exhibit. Design exhibit ideas with an eye toward your town's cultural heritage.

  • Record information about the Historical Society’s exhibits. Take photographs, record society members’ memories about exhibits, and use any appropriate administrative information that tells more about collections to ensure that the Historical Society’s past exhibition history is remembered.

  • Redesign exhibit spaces keeping in mind themes by subjects or dates and based on the exhibit theme plan. Create a space plan that incorporates existing display cases and recommends new furniture if necessary. Discuss how to make the exhibits more interactive and engaging.  Create or help create appropriate labels for new displays that places items in context. 

  • Create a space plan for storage of materials when they are not on display. Recommend appropriate furniture etcetera. Discuss the different needs of archives versus objects.

  • Review the Society’s current procedures and create a formal procedure manual. Include information about creating finding aids and other indexing tools. Add a section for creating appropriate exhibits. Review and update procedures for labeling items. Add information and resources for creating programs launched from exhibits.

  • Make recommendations for the preservation and conservation of collection items in need of repair and better maintenance. Add information about the preservation needs of the collection to the Society’s procedure manual. Discuss how exhibits can lend themselves to collection wear and how this can be addressed.

  • Create a volunteer manual that provides information about finding and managing volunteers. Discuss the appropriate diverse roles for volunteers in the institution and how to generate volunteer enthusiasm.

  • Look to the future and consider all of the above to create a long range plan. Once the institution puts its on-site procedures in order, it should consider reaching out, which involves creating an outreach plan and establishing some social media policies.
Before an institution one can take good advantage of new technologies and new ways to reach out to diverse communities, the institution's core and vision of purpose needs to be strong. That is where I find many institutions fail. It is exciting to immediately jump into exhibits and programs, but without a strong mission, vision and collection policy, without a procedure manual and planning documents, local organizations flounder without the money and support needed to perform all the activities they would like to do. Take the time to build strong tools to guide you and let them become the foundation that keeps you going and your community behind you.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Avoiding Obsolescence in Contemporary Society: The Small Historical Society

Many small historical societies are struggling with their identities.  Run by local volunteers and aiming to re-define their roles in a global society, many such organizations are afraid to spend time and money to change the way their activities "have always been done." Feeling grounded in a solid / beloved local history and retaining a strong sense of identity is beneficial. Yet, being unwilling to rethink strategies for attracting new visitors and neglecting to look for ways to make sure you remain relevant in the lives of long-time visitors can cause the downfall of a local institution. Small institutions can easily become marginalized and irrelevant in a quickly changing society.

With this in mind, I recently presented the following ideas to a local historical society in an effort to help them re-energize their exhibits. At the outset of our meeting, the Society president defined her goals. She aimed:

1. To make exhibits more interesting and interactive for a 21st century audience
2. To encourage increased visitation
3. To provide appropriate labeling in order to offer a context for historical subjects to which visitors can relate, connecting the past and the present
3. To ensure that artifacts are properly cared for and preserved

After an initial review of the institution, I suggested the following:

A. Focusing and rotating exhibits periodically will allow the Society to create more interesting displays and programs. It will also encourage visitors to return to see things they have never seen in the past.

B. Rotating exhibits will enable the Historical Society to better preserve materials. Displayed items (especially archival materials) are negatively impacted by light and other environmental factors. They are better protected in proper boxes and can be rotated out of secure storage for periodic viewing. Stored materials can be monitored and volunteers can work on preservation techniques while items are not on view.

C. Development of new exhibits will encourage more active community participation by highlighting areas for collection development and drawing out areas of interest. (I am a strong proponent of collection development policies with mission, vision and goals. These bring the purpose, value, and shared community interests of your Historical Society directly to your audience and can help encourage an active interest in the success of your institution.)

D. Updated exhibits will enable volunteers to more easily address issues of context through an emphasis on focused ideas (built around eras or themes) and more appropriate label copy. Focused brochures, interactive exhibit design, and updated programs can also be part of emphasizing context. Context is especially important in this modern era. It is valuable to connect our past to our present and future -- to show why history is valuable to each individual.

In order to accomplish these goals and activities I made some recommendations that would help the Society achieve success in steps while re-examining some basic administrative tasks. I will address these in a post next week.


Many articles in recent years have talked about re-conceptualizing the role of the historical organizations and the need for change. Here are a couple of creative ways to think about the "new" historical society that I have found very interesting:

Monday, April 2, 2012

My Top Five Archives Supplies for Home Collections

This is a simple post for readers caring for family papers. These are supplies that I keep on hand to care for my own family materials. Keeping some basic supplies handy makes the task of caring for your archives easier and you can tackle the process of organizing and preserving your materials whenever you have a few moments. Purchase these materials from a reputable online archival supplier. Do not trust materials in a box store that say "Preservation safe" or "archival." These are not standard terms and will not necessarily provide security for your materials.

1. Letter sized manuscript boxes - Boxes come in every shape and size you can imagine, but "standard" manuscript boxes are most useful for the majority of items. I store documents, ephemera, and photos in these boxes. If you can do nothing else with your prized family papers, place them in a box to keep out dust and light and to afford some protection to your items. Consider purchasing special sized boxes for oversized materials, smaller photos, and other irregular items. (Albums are an expensive alternative to boxes for photos, but are a nice edition for images you prize and frequently view.)

2. Folders - If you can only afford two items to care for your personal materials, second up on your supply list right after boxes should be folders. Folders help you give order to your materials and provide some support for items. Placing similar materials in a folder allows you to easily find things. Label folders to assist with your organization. You can even use folders creatively to support other folders.

3. "Interleaving" paper - Sometimes items in your collection need to be separated from others because of a little problem you notice. For example, the booklet to the left includes images with unstable red ink that bleeds from one page to the other. I have placed thin buffered paper sheets between pages so that when that ink migrates, if it continues to migrate, it will affect the interleaving sheet rather than the opposite page. I use interleaving sheets in folders too to separate different kinds of paper. I also fold these plain white sheets in half to make envelopes for small items or to use in place of paper clips and staples to keep items together within a folder.

4. Microspatula - I love my microspatula! I joke in presentations about my handy husband's tools. I am not a terribly mechanical kind of girl (at least in my own mind I'm not when I compare myself to my husband.) I have my garden tools (the non-motorized kind); I have camera equipment; and I have a microspatula. This tool is a small metal spatula that can be used to remove staples and to help you peel photos off sticky "magnetic" album. It is very useful and can save a lot of time and frustration.

3. Pencil / safe pen - Every photo in your collection should be labeled, either directly on the back of the image, on a label on the back of the image, or on the supplies in which you store your materials. Some people do not like to directly mark their photos. A basic tenet of archives management is "never do anything that is irreversible." So instead of writing on a photo, some people prefer to write on the album or a plastic sleeve that contains the photo. I've seen too many images separated from their storage supplies, so I belong to the camp that says go ahead and write on the back of the photo CAREFULLY. Be sure to use a pencil, if the surface is not too slick or purchase a special pen that will not harm your photo collection. (Some inks will "eat" your images and bleed through because of their acidity.) Be sure to not press too hard when you write on the back of your images. Include the names of the people pictured in the image, where and when it was taken and even how you know the people. The more information you can include in your labeling, the better for future family historians.

Happy "archiving"!

Images in this post were taken from a filmed presentation of my "Unofficial Family Archivist" talk by Derry Community Television. I'd like to give them special thanks for their work. See excerpts from my presentation on YouTube.