Sunday, April 21, 2013

Why All Librarians Should Take an Introduction to Archives Class

This post furthers a discussion about the need for librarians and archivists to study the others' field.  In my last post, I presented the idea "Why All Archivists Should Take a Library Reference Class."
Any recognized gap between the fields of library science and archives management is becoming smaller. Yes, archivists and librarians handle different sorts of objects. Yes, each field requires its own specialized training. Yes, we often work in diverse institutional settings. ..Yet our materials take up the broad category of "information." And with the Internet, the diversity of our information does not quite make itself as clear to our patrons as maybe it once did. While it is important to maintain a distinction between primary and secondary sources, it is more important than ever that librarians and archivists learn more about the other profession's expertise to best serve our patrons.
In this post I consider the need for a librarian to take an introductory archives class.

This week, the Digital Public Library of America launched.
The Digital Public Library of America brings together the riches of America’s libraries, archives, and museums, and makes them freely available to the world. It strives to contain the full breadth of human expression, from the written word, to works of art and culture, to records of America’s heritage, to the efforts and data of science. The DPLA aims to expand this crucial realm of openly available materials, and make those riches more easily discovered and more widely usable and used...
Understanding archives helps the
information professional better serve
their patrons.

This groundbreaking effort further unites the fields of archives management and librarianship. And while digitization of materials brings us closer together, it also makes it more important that we understand our differences. Information professionals should understand: a "record lifecycle," how we determine what materials are archives and what are not, means of providing access to archival resources, how archives reflect original ideas, and how archives reflect cultures and communities.

When I consult in public libraries and am pointed toward their "archives," I am often shown the local yearbooks and annual reports. These "collections" are archives by default. The local high school and town hall drop these items off and librarians add them to the collection. But a library's connection to archives should be much more than this.

Libraries, in my opinion, can and should be the information hub of any community. As such, they should be prepared to provide access to any and all information to help patrons. Some libraries may have archives on site. Some libraries may prefer to form stronger relationships with other institutions that care for archives more fully, such as historical societies. Either way, librarians should be well-informed about alternate materials that expand the narrow view offered in their collections. For while a book opens many doors to the world, there is still a need for other resources to fully understand the scope of ideas about that world. Providing access to true archives (beyond yearbooks and annual reports), objects, and digital information, as well as  connecting to patrons to experts should all be part of a library's overarching mission.

At the most basic level, archives can be used in libraries during story times to help illustrate narratives. Original materials provide real-life examples of what we read in books. Archives can be used to liven up book displays and to create posters and handouts that discuss information resources and out institutions. Archives or copies of documents and photographs can line our walls to provide a more local flare or community feel to our library spaces. This enhances pride in our institution, leading to better informed citizenry and support for our work.   [See the Value of Archives for more information on how archives can support your community work.] The use of archives enhances the work we do as librarians.

Going even deeper, librarians should better understand the research value of archives for patrons seeking information. Properly referring to archives as a reference tool begins with an understanding of their collection and use. One prime source of confusion that I must break through when I teach librarians about archives is that such materials are collected and described in groups. Archivists usually do not provide access to a single piece of paper at a time as librarians do with single books. Many of the librarians whom I help with their archives have trouble getting past this thought, but this is central to understanding the purpose of archives and their value as information. While publications are the culmination of an idea, archives are the pieces of a puzzle that form the foundation of ideas. Papers and recordings brought or kept together for examination help us to understand the workings of the mind of individuals and the functioning of institutions. Without a class or training in archives, this is unclear to most librarians and forms an unnecessary barrier toward collaboration with archivists and proper use of primary source material.  

In short, if you are a librarian, explore what archives have to offer. Build a connection with your local historical society or take a class in archives management. Linking primary and secondary sources rounds out the world of information, opens doors to collaboration between librarians and archivists and provides a means toward better understanding of the value of both archives and libraries by new potential patrons and supporters.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Museums as Refuge: Serving as Places for Reflection After Boston Marathon Bombings

The place I identify as my home city is hurting today after the bombings of yesterday's marathon. Yet, amongst all the pain, we are hearing stories of hope. These include stories of people helping and reaching out to others: A former Patriot player who carried a woman to safety in the midst of chaos; people who crossed the finish line of the marathon and then kept going to the hospital to donate blood for victims; people living in Boston who are opening their homes to strangers who have no place to go; a server in Austin, Texas who brought some free food to my friend when she found out he was visiting from Boston - just to show her support; The Yankees baseball team posting a message of solidarity despite their rivalry with the Red Sox; the list goes on and on...

As for the cultural heritage field, two museums stood out for helping in their own way:


Community. Reflection. Refuge. Respite. Part of what we do best as museums and libraries. I feel that the museums can serve a role as part of a bridge to understanding to help us all heal. As an ideal, these institutions house what is best about humanity - our creativity, our strong continuing voices, our unity on this earth. As we strive to make sense of senseless tragedy, my beloved museum community reminds us of the good and tries to draw us together in hope. Thank you MFA and ICA.

Have any other museums participated in opening their doors for free today? Did anyone take Boston Museums up on their offer to reflect in the shelter of their collections inside their doors? Please let us know and contribute their perspective to the positive stories I am hearing across the media today.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Why All Archivists Should Take a Library Reference Class

Any recognized gap between the fields of library science and archives management is becoming smaller. Yes, archivists and librarians handle different sorts of objects. Yes, each field requires its own specialized training. Yes, we often work in diverse institutional settings. ..Yet our materials take up the broad category of "information." And with the Internet, the diversity of our information does not quite make itself as clear to our patrons as maybe it once did. While it is important to maintain a distinction between primary and secondary sources, it is more important than ever that librarians and archivists learn more about the other profession's expertise to best serve our patrons.

Archivists should better understand what researchers are seeking when they write term papers or approach a library (or the Internet) to find information that serves a need in daily life. The archives has much to offer the general populace. As archivists, we should no longer view the academician as our most important patron. We must better serve a diverse populace to survive and thrive. Once upon a time, preservation was a good reason to discourage wide-ranging use of our materials. We could not keep everything safe if hundreds or thousands of people clamored to use our resources, but with digitization this is no longer the case. We must strive to see how archives can best serve most of the population's information needs.

An understanding of general library reference service has served me well in my archives career. I can easily recognize moments when my archives collections can serve as publicity tools or can be neatly related to published sources to enhance users' understanding of a subject. In my public librarian / public archivist role, there were many opportunities for me to tie primary resources to new books and popular ideas. In a school environment, I toss kids back and forth between archives, books and the Internet, explaining the difference between the media while highlighting how they mesh together.

For example, while looking through the Statistical Abstract for a math project with my daughter the other day, we noted the percentages of students who receive various levels of education. First, I knew enough to seek out that particular resource when she needed to find an example of a place that provides information in percentages. Second, It was interesting to connect the statistics I was viewing to the many school archives I have seen that list student achievement and performance markers. Understanding the creation and use of primary sources certainly made it easier to comprehend what the publishers must have been looking at or surveying to gain the mathematical information they provided us.

For another recent example I can cite working with a foreign exchange student on an exhibit about her country. The project brought to my attention that we had little published information in our library book collection about her homeland. So, I asked her to supply original photos that she had taken and to write something telling about her experiences. This will be added to our school archives. Though we lacked much published information on her country, I knew that a general cultural encyclopedia must have some basic background text, which we found and used to give some context to our display.  We supplemented the primary and printed sources with maps from the Internet. I was able to show the student books that I would order from a vendor's database that I found with an easy two minute search. My knowledge of the types of resources that should be available fleshed out our exhibit, but also demonstrated to the student the wealth of information that she too could learn to navigate.

Archives and secondary sources can work together to round out a subject for our audiences. Most people do not have experience with archives, but professionals can lead them into a subject and across platforms of information by beginning with published sources. The creation of exhibits, brochures, programming, finding aids, and other archivists' activities can benefit from the inclusion of secondary sources. An archivist should know search strategies and primary reference tools to provide context to their materials in a way that is understandable to the average person. Linking primary and secondary sources rounds out the world of information, opens doors to collaboration with librarians and provides a means toward better understanding of the value of archives by new potential patrons and supporters.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

The Information is in the Details

Have we lost our curiosity?

I remember the red. We sat on the floor -- 20 five and six year olds -- staring up at the pull down screen. The film projector whirred and clicked behind us, the light from the image catching the dust in the air. It was my first time. REVOLUTION. AMERICA. RED COATS. Funny outfits. Fascinating outfits. They were a long way way in time from my saddle shoes and yellow yarn hair ribbons. They were a long way in space too. My Long Island home seemed very far from this New England.

The second time...that I remember at fifth grade teacher suggested that I go visit a mansion for sale in her neighborhood. "It's old. I think you'll like it. Ask your parents to take you." Not surprisingly, it was the details of the library in that old house that I remember. Books lined every wall. Columns punctuated corners. There was light streaming in from the windows at a perfect angle for any reader lucky enough to sit in the lemon yellow reading chair in the corner. The smell of mold permeated. "That is the smell of old," I thought. "People lived here and now they are gone. Who got to read in that chair?"

Slowly throughout my childhood I took in the details. The dust catching the light of the movie projector was the same dust that got caught up in the sunlight of the old house. It was the same dust I saw when I hung upside down on my parents bed to look at the ceiling. Books were everywhere. (It helped that mom brought me to the public library every week to help develop my healthy appreciation of books.) Reading was everywhere. I read signs and cereal boxes. Signs of life and ideas were everywhere. Someone had written a symbol in the wet cement of my childhood driveway when it was first poured. It was there before my family. "Why did someone put it there?"
The details of the pines at Lake Massabesic in Manchester, NH
are inspiring. It's the details that awaken our curiosity.

My curiosity drove me to look for the information in the details. Curiosity lead to more curiosity and eventually discovery. But now, I am beginning to wonder, is our first stab at life in the 21st century killing our curiosity? Do we notice the details any more? Have our kids ever noticed the details? I watch people walk by informative signs every day. I watch readers power through or struggle with passages without picking up another resource that helps explain the parts that are not understood. I watch spring flowers pop and hear the birds chirping. I stop to listen and look for more. The information is in the details. The learning is in the details. Do other people stop to look and listen?

Information resources can be like the whipped cream on top of the sundae. It adds a little extra something sweet. OR, information resources can be the chunks of chocolate deep within the ice cream of that sundae. When you dig, you find something extra special.

I think that we may be forgetting this. I think that many of us are not teaching our kids this. My kid is creating creative videos and doing a lot of writing on a tablet these days. Despite how awesome it is that she is creating, we require her to come up for air to go for nature walks, play ball, visit a museum or just play outside. I may be one of the biggest fans of digital information tools and social media that I know, I am still concerned about losing "real life" and a real sense of history to it. I am worried that my kid does not get enough of it.

I think that we are forgetting that it is worth digging beyond the surface sweetness to find the true nuggets that make our lives meaningful and connect us to our communities of the past, present, and future. In my field, "who lived here before me?" is only adequately pondered when striving to take in the details. I don't care who built this house if I just live here. That is, many of us don't care who lived here unless the basement floods. Then we wonder, "what crazy person built the home on a flood plain?" Instead, I'd rather ponder the question every day. "Who looked out these windows before me? Did they hear the birds singing too? Were they the same kinds of birds?"

To understand information and its value as a whole, one needs to be curious about the details. We gain that curiosity by paying attention. We are taught to pay attention by our encounters in life. If our children bury their noses in iPads all day, they don't get a chance to encounter life. What information are we then losing? What sense of purpose are we losing?

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

High School Archives as Independent Study

This is my second semester as a school librarian. With the third quarter coming to a close, I am happy to share one of this year's newest experiences, which has involved offering "directed study" to a few individual students. I outlined a plan for my school to have me teach students about library and information science in the areas of collection development, Internet resources, exhibits and programming or archives. To take my directed study, students must write a plan that focuses on one of these areas. This post, because of the nature of this blog, focuses on the archives option.

One student is working with me to explore the history of our school and is working on a project to jump start our school archives. In anticipation of the 50th anniversary of our school building, the student began working to compare students from the 60s with students today. Examining yearbooks, she listed areas of interest to teens, including such activities as sports, clubs, and studied subjects, noting differences between students "then" and students "now."

The project has grown and fleshed out in the past two months. We recently took a short field trip to the local historical society to check out the resources they have related to school history in our town. The student is now planning on a time line that she hopes to turn into a mural, showing milestones in our community story. The student has also begun helping me search for information about a school time capsule that is rumored to have been installed when the building was erected.

In the meantime, a teacher has donated copies of his photographs of school events to our archives. Slowly, word of our efforts is getting out. The library staff has done a couple of displays that have included archival material. I've begun taking my own photos of events in the library that we display on a continual slideshow on the library's television. These images will be added to our archives. The school information center will continue to work with the local historical society to build stronger local archives related to our history. I have offered to digitize their images related to school history so that we may keep copies on school premises for learning purposes. We are in discussions with the high school class of 1968 to complete some oral histories with them.  

I am offering copies of diary pages and other interesting personal papers I have collected over the years from outside sources to assist teachers with their lessons. Most recently, a teacher mentioned beginning a unit on the Industrial Revolution and I told her of my Waltham experience and how I can provide interesting stories and materials related to my work in the city where the American Industrial Revolution began. I hope that exposure to archives in the classroom will help make history come alive. I also know that introducing these materials will give our students a greater understanding of different types of information and the differences between primary and secondary sources. Perhaps tying archives directly to the curriculum will encourage even more students to pursue independent study in the archives field.

In my own life, I have found that my independent studies have been a good anchor for my interests and general education. They have allowed me to explore core topics, giving them a twist that best suits my personality. Independent studies in the a few different areas challenged me intellectually and creatively. Independent study has allowed me to flesh out the context of the subjects I studied. It allowed me to better define the purpose and value of my education through a personalized lens. [The most memorable independent study I did was as an undergraduate. I spent 1 1/2 years studying gravestone iconography, which gave  me a better understanding of history, art, cultural identity, religion, business, and more. The work culminated in a trip from New England to California to speak in an undergraduate research conference at CalTech University - my first public speaking engagement. In high school, I was lucky enough to have an independent study in the arts, that helped set me up for my future degree in art history.]

Exposure to archives should begin earlier than we have traditionally provided it in the United States. It is imperative as we move more into a digital world that students have a solid understanding of materials that are produced close to events as opposed to less solid and reliable sources. Students tend to believe what they see on the Internet. A solid understanding of provenance is very important to overcome this naivete. Before the line between primary and secondary sources fully blurs, we need to set up methods to make distinctions so that people better understand and examine the materials that provide them information. Directed study in archives has provided one way to capture a student's interest and to prepare her to better evaluate the world around her.

Give a student a thread and let them work to unravel the sweater. Let a student find one thing of interest that leads them to another jewel of information, and then another. Let the librarian be the guide to a path of learning that puts a student at the center. Let her understand that information swirls all around us and it is up to us to take it in, organize it, seek context, and connect thoughts that lead us to bigger and better ideas.