Saturday, February 23, 2013

Teaching Archives

Twenty young men and women sat giving me their full attention. There was no boredom in their faces. There were no food wrappers rustling. There were no whispers or tired empty stares. I decided to try it. It worked for adult audiences; why shouldn't it work on attentive teens? "Close your eyes...." I smiled, gently. "Go ahead. Everyone do it." And they did.

"Imagine a big circle in the center of your mind. Now see a line running through it. The circle is you. Everything to the left of the circle includes the people who came before you - your parents, your grandparents, your great-grandparents and the communities of societies that came before shift your attention to the right of the circle. Everything on the line to the right of you includes your kids, your grandkids, your nieces and nephews, your friends' kids and all the societies on whom you will have an influence. Everything that you do in your life helps build the future. You have the power to change societies. You are part of the line of history. History is not just about famous people. It is about you. Now open your eyes..." And they did.

...And this wasn't a history class. This was a marketing class. I was teaching social media strategy and using ArchivesInfo as a model. A powerpoint accompanied my talk about blogger, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and the other platforms that I use to promote the work I do. Wrapped up in a talk about marketing my business was the theme of cyber safety. The documentation that one puts on the Internet will be there forever. "Most of the words you put out to the public as a teen will still be visible when you are an adult. I still see things I posted to forums twenty years ago as a young archivist when I look in search engines. Information does not vanish. Be careful what information you put out about yourself."

Of course, the work I do as an archivist is unfamiliar to my students. They know me as Mrs. Mannon, the librarian. Getting into the classroom has given me quite the opportunity to open their eyes to the idea and value of primary sources for documenting history. It is also helping me explain just what information and library science is all about. Information professionals are the keepers of ideas. One must carefully consider the documents that one creates, especially in a digital format, to manage one's identity and reputation.

Opening doors so that students can gain a full understanding of information in all its forms - from print archives to digital media  - is how I perceive my prime role as a high school information specialist. I mentioned in last week's post how I use exhibits to educate with primary source materials. In fact, archives are wrapped into most of the things that I do. Establishing a pen pal program allows me to show students the value of letter writing. Running a slideshow of photos I take of the students happily at work in the library shows how our images can bond communities. I displaying books in a different genre each month and accompany them with information about the people who have influenced that genre. This demonstrates how books are more than just the literature itself, but are also about the people who write it and the communities who are influenced by it - all backed up with primary sources.

Even a short note you write today may remain 100 years from
now among the archives that reflect your life. [This letter is
from the Lawton Collection at the Shirley Historical Society,
Shirley Massachusetts.]
I often hear that kids don't care about the past. They are not interested in their family history. They are not interested in antiques and old things. This is incorrect. It is not that they are not interested. It's that this generation needs to be taught the lessons in a different way. They want glitz. They want you to tie the idea directly to their lives. One can't just say, "this is important so learn it." One must show why it is important and show it over and over again from different angles. Archives are important because they are all around us. They influence everything. They inform us about everything, from the books you love to the messages you send friends to the letters you write to new friends around the world.

I don't think I heard the word "archives" until I was in college. I even worked in an archival setting in high school and I don't think the word archives was used. We need to change that. Today, because of computers, people think of "archives" as old newspapers or other old information found online.  Archives are so much more than that. As a teacher, I use the word as often as I can when describing a whole world of information out there to explore and create. Teaching archives means teaching about that information and how it affects youth today.  Teaching archives means teaching about how ideas across the timeline of history are created and transferred from one generation to the next.


Sunday, February 17, 2013

Exhibiting More Finds at the Local Antique Shop

This month, I am exhibiting the diary of Eileen Langmayd at the high school where I work as an information specialist. This is my 3rd exhibit relating to archives since I started in this position in September. One of my main goals at the school is to weave archives into our conversation so that our students understand the diversity of information and how different sources serve their research and their lives.

I am lucky to have a couple of talented assistants, including one who has a natural skill at display. I design the topic of the exhibit, provide some resources and information, and she has become the one to put up the display in an attractive way. Our exhibit focuses on the idea of lost information. It discusses how I found the diary in an antique shop and how I am attempting to find out more about the diarist. I make a connection between the 1930s teen writer who lived in a neighboring town and my students. I talk about the girl's connection to her community; how her diary entries reflect what was happening in Manchester, NH at the time and what was happening nationally, as the world was struggling through a Depression. The exhibit includes the diary iteself, photos of some of its contents, images of Manchester from the time, labels describing events and connections, and books shedding light on the times.

The exhibit includes simple straightforward label copy that tries to introduce students to primary source materials in the context of the history they illustrate.

The exhibit caught the attention of a faculty member who hopped on to find out more about the diarist. He learned when she was born, when she was married, and other vital statistics. He learned that she had no children and this is a key clue to understanding how her materials ended up in an antique shop. He kindly e-mailed me his findings.

Census information and photo of Eileen Langmayd's school shared with me by a colleague.

I look forward to continuing to share my antique shop findings with my students and colleagues. I think archives are perfect for illustrating the value of "close reading." Illustrating the value of archives, More Finds at the Local Antique Shop continues to share interesting materials with a diverse audience. I have more to share about Miss Eileen as I continue transcribing her work, but I look forward to my next find! It's time to hit the shops once again. 

Saturday, February 9, 2013

What Should Archivists Stop Doing? [Response to question posed at ArchivesNext]

My colleague, Kate Theimer at ArchivesNext posed interesting questions earlier this week on her blog: "What should archives or archivists stop doing? What should we drop?" It's an interesting inquiry that takes a thoughtful response. It feeds into the heart of my own work as archivists and "information professionals." The following post includes most of the comment that I posted on the ArchivesNext blog and elaborates by using my work as an example.

Explaining the role of an archivist is a key to the success of our profession.
First, for those who are unclear about the role of the archivist, take a look at my 2011 post on "What is an Archivist?" from #AskArchivists day in June that year. To further clarify our role, I maintain a Pinterest board called "What does an archivist do?" that links to photos and articles that explain the diversity of archives.

...The best thing that an archivist can do for the profession is to get “archives fans.” I think that we all do a lot as archivists. I think that what we do is important. I think that we need to do a lot more and need more support to do it. We need to get buy-in from our communities. We need to show young people that what we do is awesome. We need to get young professionals to want to help us, either by becoming archivists or using their skills to help archivists. In addition to processing, digitization, etc. etc. we need to brush up on our public relations skills. We need to do more outreach and teaching. We can use others who specialize in these areas (people with MBAs etc.) to help us. We need to reach out to other professions that are similar to ours that may do a better job at certain things than we do. Cultural heritage professionals should help each other. Librarians, museum professionals, and archivists should share notes and expertise. While valuing our own skills is important and certification is lovely, I think we need to spend more time learning about the world beyond archives and adapting our work to collaborate with others to make our profession truly 21st century ready. What should archivists stop doing? I agree with most of the posts here. People want information to be accessible, easy to use and understandable. We should work harder to give them that and look beyond our own institutions to achieve that. Rather than closing up the profession and demanding certain skills, we should broaden our profession and appreciate skills that other professionals can bring to our work.

As a consultant, I have spent the past ten years trying to bring together archives, libraries and museums to share expertise. More recently, I have worked with individuals to show how the materials they have in their homes are important; to help them care for these materials; and to show them how to reach out to cultural heritage institutions to share resources. This September, I began working as a high school librarian / information specialist. To many, this shift may seem odd, but it really speaks directly to this question. In this capacity, I have introduced a school archives, I regularly exhibit displays about primary sources. I teach high school students and teachers how archives and published materials can be used to not only write a good research paper, but to get a better understanding of the world. When it comes right down to it, isn't that the main reason we keep archives? To better understand societies?

So what should we stop doing? I would rather reverse this and ask, what should we be doing? We should be doing everything that we already do and more. We should be reaching beyond our institutions' walls and beyond our profession to approach broader communities that can enhance our work and broaden our own perspectives. Only by being more open, approachable and interesting to the general population can we help people to realize just how important the work of an archivist is to everyone, in all societies. This will keep us relevant and will keep our work moving ahead. Caring for the overabundance of information in this age is beyond the work of the archivist. Collaboration is key.


Sunday, February 3, 2013

Archives, Libraries and Learning Labs

Learning labs and Makerspaces. What do these terms call to mind for you? They are new "buzzwords" for a path and purpose that many libraries and museums are planning for their futures. I believe that these spaces would be valuable additions in Archives as well.

Encouraging non-professionals to interact with archives
in a participatory / learning lab environment benefits the
participant and the archives.
The function of makerspaces and learning labs is to engage our communities and invite them to be participants in an experience rather than just an audience for it. These specialized spaces are a natural outgrowth of the Participatory Museum promoted by museum professional Nina Simon. Nick Stanhope and Nick Poole, respectively from History Pin and Collections Trust in the U.K., dscribe the future of a the participatory experience:

"When digitisation (and by extension, collecting) has considered the user, it tends to think of them as an end-user, an ultimate beneficiary. But we live in an age of participatory culture...What we believe we are heading towards is an age in which the user isn't at the end of the process, but is intimately written into every part of it - from selection, to assessment, to prioritisation, to digital surrogacy, to interpretation, distribution and use. It's a model that is already apparent in programmes like Historypin, which are re-coding cultural practice from an inherently user-focussed and participatory perspective."

Locally, participation is one key to the healthy future of the small community archives especially.  Beyond updating exhibits and focusing collections, I believe that dedicating a space to a "learning lab" will draw in visitors, encourage engagement and even increase volunteerism.

Collaboration has a role to play here too. The local library can team up with the historical society to encourage overlapping engagement experiences. In my case, as a high school librarian, I am working to bring the schools into the mix. We have begun cooperating with the local historical society and will help them digitize their materials. We will have a dedicated area in our library where students can learn about about archives. Our students will be essential in collection development and making plans to create a school archives that reflects our fifty year history in our current school building.

At our school library, I aim to establish workstations for data entry. Perhaps our lab will include a program such as PastPerfect to familiarize participants with classification. Additionally, participants will help design exhibits using mindmapping software. They will help us design marketing materials -- brochures to teach our classes about collections -- using photoshop and other tools. In short, they will learn about primary sources, have a chance to interact with them, have an opportunity to think about them, and make a difference in the protection of history in a way they would never have without a learning lab environment.

Of course, creating an archival makerspace invites many questions related to the safety of materials. Creating a digital environment for visible participation will ensure the security of items. The core volunteers will continue to be those working with unique items. Casual participants will usually be exposed to what is in the collection without actually handling originals. My hope is that many participants will develop enough of an interest to "move up" and want training to handle originals. If they never move beyond primarily digital interaction, that's okay too.

I am on the ground floor with my thinking about creating this space. I plan it to be just one area among many that makes information accessible and understandable to participants in my library. Other spaces could include building materials for robotics, enhanced by a book collection on engineering or a writing lab with blogging stations. The possibilities are endless. The future of archives and libraries is exciting.