Sunday, June 30, 2013

Does It Matter if the Wright Brothers Were Not the First in Flight?

Recent news demonstrates how history is not cut-and-dry. History is a puzzle to be explored. Every "story" has at least three sides. Every historical moment should be subject to interpretation.

This week "Connecticut lawmakers write Wright Brothers out of history as ‘first in flight.’" And one may wonder, "Can they do that? How can such a "fact" be turned around and questioned and even knocked down by a political body?" 

I wonder how we established our fact in the first place. 

It seems in a time when America is strongly polarized that this issue of questioning a "fact" becomes even more important. What is a fact? What does it take for us to settle on a particular historical truth; to enter a narrative into a text book and to teach something as if that is how it absolutely happened? When do we know that the truth is absolute?

Also in the news this week, it was revealed that "Aerial Photos Offer Clues to Earhart Mystery". It seems that new archival evidence may hold some answers for us. The mystery of Earhart's disappearance has become so ensconced in romantic historical notions of Americans, it is hard to believe that we might have a solution to this historical mystery. 

As another case in point, earlier this year, the British discovered the bones of Richard III. DNA evidence confirmed that Richard was indeed found under a parking lot. (Not very romantic.) We learned that Richard III was not who the historical rumors purported him to be. It is interesting to consider how centuries of rumors get passed down and can only be broken by the hard evidence of archives and archaeological finds. But is it too late for the much maligned Richard's reputation to be straightened out? Do we now have too many years of legend behind us to bring "fact" front and center?

I learned in school that the Civil War was fought to combat slavery and to save the Union. I was taught that it was a good and just war. That may be, but nobody ever told me to question that. Some "facts" are actually opinion. In an article written earlier this month for The Atlantic, this week's 150th anniversary of the Civil War is more closely examined. 150 Years of Misunderstanding of the Civil War focuses on the horrors and deeper meaning behind war. Death and amputation that was recorded by diarists and correspondents were backed up by Matthew Brady's "historical" images -- many of which were posed, as I remember. We have two different truths. Both the patriotic legends and the highlighted horrific have been molded into romantic narratives. How do we know what is really true? Even archives are created from a particular point of view.

Does it matter if the Wright Brothers were not the first in flight? Yes. Yes, it does. It is time for us to recognize that stories we are spoon fed are not necessarily right. It is time we realized that history is not romantic. Instead, history can provide us a path for evaluating modern society - to see where we've been and where we should go. Looking back on false notions only perpetuates societal problems that we need to examine with clarity in order to fix them. We must teach children to seek primary sources, to look out for alternative views, and to evaluate information for themselves with an understanding that the information we easily come-by is not necessarily right.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Educating Archives

This week's post is a follow up to April's High School Archives as Independent Study post. As a newly minted high school information specialist, I am seeking better ways to teach students an overall  understanding of information in all its forms so that they may become adept at understanding and using this information. Working in a school has been eye opening. In my opinion, there is a strong need for a more wholistic approach to the use of information among young people.

As a case in point I will discuss one student contact that I see as a success. I had my final meeting with my archives directed study student yesterday and await her final project. The student's goal was to create a timeline of the history of schools in our district. We went on a field trip together to the local historical society. We saw the collection they had related to local schools. The Society gave the student a slim volume that discussed the one room schoolhouses in town. She was off and running.

Over the course of the semester, the tenth grade student used the book she was given to pull out information about local schools with the intent of creating label copy for her timeline that will be exhibited in the library. She worked and reworked her words. She created a timeline covering 100 years of the school district with eventual clear intention that she would not cover up to the present day on the timeline itself.   She plans to credit the book and historical society at the bottom of her timeline. She visited the historical society for a second time on her own and chose photos to include in the exhibit. She went out and took her own photos of the buildings that are still standing.

The students' project morphed along the way. She began by reviewing high school yearbooks to better understand how our high school has evolved and changed; how the interests and activities of students have changed over the fifty years since our high school was built. After our visit to the historical society, she went on the trajectory described above. I think that's okay. I think it set a base for understanding that student life has changed. I think that looking at yearbooks started her thinking about the past and put her in a better frame of mind for imagining life further back. This project made me more firmly believe in the idea of teaching history backwards. I'll be interested to see if the student hands in something related to her yearbook findings on her own or if that aspect gets dropped altogether. It is okay either way.

I visited the local history collection at our public library earlier this week. I made copies of materials that supplemented what the student had found in the historical society's slim volume. Yesterday, I showed the student annual reports that included school committee reports. I also showed her other local history books that mention area schools. One of the larger volumes about our town has been scanned by Google, so I explained and showed her this too. [I do wish that I had done this earlier in the project. However, it may have just confused a student at this age. I need to reflect on this some more.]

Yesterday, when I asked the student what she has learned, she told me that she was surprised by the number of schools we have had in our district over the past 150 years. This is what I told her that I thought she learned:

  • How to create tight descriptive summaries and get rid of useless words
  • How to take someone else's words, study them carefully and extract their true meaning. To question what someone else writes. To understand that even something published is not an absolute authoritative information source.
  • To back up what a writer says by viewing other sources.
  • To seek archives (in this case the school reports) to back up conclusions.
  • The need to write papers (or exhibits) with a clear beginning and end - to not leave the reader "hanging" when writing something that is supposed to be informative. 
  • To state her intention and carry a project to the end, with room for self-discovery and creativity.
  • To reach out to experts (in this case the historical society) on her own for help.
More than the final product, the process of the work done to create an understanding of local history was successful here. What I hope the student gained, more than anything, is a passion for exploring her own interests and for learning. Only time will tell us that.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

The Big Picture for Archivists, Librarians, Museum People, and Educators

My assistants laughed at me. My colleagues looked perplexed. "How can a librarian / archivist not be 'detail-oriented?'" they asked in response when I admitted my dirty little secret.

"Don't rely on my memory to put the period in the right place for MLA format... Don't take for granted that I will schedule you at the right time for use of the library... I apologize if I can't get the bell schedule straight. I'm trying!"

I am a big picture person.

I let my assistants know that I appreciate them all the more for being detail-oriented so we have some balance in our Information Center.

I have always gravitated toward the big picture. For me, the most difficult part of studying art history in college was not synthesizing the information, it was the memorization of dates and titles and artists. I could look at an image and say, "That represents this style and this style was part of this movement and it reflects this aspect of history and that sheds light on how society grew." I could also easily say, "Oh. And it was done by that guy with the beard who lived at the same time as that woman with the funny hat..." I knew who they were, but the specific details -- the names and exact dates -- were fuzzy without a lot of studying. Today I remember the concepts and not necessarily the details. Isn't that what I really should know?

Cataloging in grad school...and even today? Tedious.

[Secret: I don't always remember the names of characters in a book - even when I'm in the middle of reading that book.]

[Secret: I usually can get a patron a book on the shelf because I remember the color and general location not because I remember the title and call number.]

Libraries, Archives, and museums have a big role to play in
educating our youth, such as these young people participating
in a summer reading event at the Waleigh Memorial Library in
Milford, NH.
[The date is 2005 and I know this because I labeled the photo!]
So when I sat in a meeting for teachers who were mapping out specific lesson plans to teach information skills, I learned quite a bit. I also learned that we are not exactly always on the same page. Is it important for students to put periods in the right place for MLA format? I can see reasons that they need to learn it, but I have an editor who handles that for me when I write something important. It is not my forte...everyone has different skills and different ways of learning and doing. We need teachers to cover different topics, in different ways, for different types of learners. It's why museums design exhibits that include visuals and labels and catalogs and interactives. Everyone can engage differently.

To me, having "information skills" and being educated means:

  1. knowing that information is all around us. 
  2. knowing that you can't believe everything you hear, see, read.     
  3. understanding how to find more information 
  4. understanding different formats for information
  5. understanding how to compare information to seek answers
  6. understanding that you can't just use information that was created by others in any way that you choose
  7. being able to communicate what you know versus what you think in an articulate way that the recipient of the information can understand
  8. appreciating the use of information and being eager to find more information that relates to your interests and life
After my meeting and an AHA! moment at the teachers' meeting, I ran to someone at school whom I consider a mentor. [See my interview with Darla White for Profiles in Archival Careers, Mentoring and Leadership on page 16 in the October 2012 NEA newsletter.] I told her about my big picture tendency and the detail issues I'm coming up against. She returned to me a few days later with a stack of books. Excitedly, I share some wisdom with you from my favorite in the stack called The Big Picture: Education is Everyone's Business by Dennis Littky. I recommend that you read it. Libraries, archives and museums have a big role to play in schools and this little book explains why. It is okay to be a big picture person. 

Whether you fully buy into Littky's teaching ideas or not, there is much that non-educators can use here to support education. (I think that I do buy into this idea, but I need to go back to my mentor to help me fill gaps that I may not yet have been exposed to. I am a new teacher, after all.) The more archivists, librarians and museum people realize that their resources can be used to teach, the better off all of our institutions are. Cultural heritage institutions as a brand should be invested in all age groups and lifelong learners. Working with schools, these institutions can supply resources that make book learning and lectures more hands-on, immediate and real.

Please read the following quotes from The Big Picture and think about the role that cultural institution play in learning and the roles that they CAN play:
  • "...the only really substantial thing education can do is help us to become continuous lifelong learners." p. 3
  • "Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire." - W.B. Yeats. p. 3
  • "Regardless of who you are, if you can get up and be passionate about something and tell others about what you know, then you are showing that you are educated about that topic." p. 7
  • "They say knowledge is power. We say the use of knowledge is power." p. 8
  • "Learning is personal. It happens one on one, it happens in small groups, it happens alone." p. 8
  • "Learning is about learning how to think." p. 9
  • "...a school culture can thrive and grow on its own stories- stories of what has been and what could be." p. 60
  • "The curriculum has got to include experiences that lift kids' heads way up and take them out of their textbooks, their classrooms, their towns and even their countries..." p.82
  • "Why not take the time to find people in the community who have the same interests as our kids and get the kids working with them?" p.129
  • "Engaging families in education engages each student and activates a built-in support system that works to help both students and teachers do a better job." p. 144

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Raising Awareness About Archives and Libraries

Today I am revisiting the need for archivists (and other cultural heritage professionals) to educate the public about what we do. This past week I attended a librarian conference where school librarians lamented the "downsizing" of the profession and the lack of support from many school administrators.  Let's face it, relatively few people have an MLS (or MSLS). We are a relatively small group of varied professionals and few people have a clue about the true value of our fields. We must continue to work to change that.

Has Our Profession Been Hijacked?

"Archives" is a foreign word to many. In fact, when I tell people that I am an "archivist", they often ask in what kind of art I specialize. When I tell them that I am a librarian I hear, "It must be nice to read all day!" When I tell them that I am both and archivist and librarian...well, I just think they are very confused.

In the last decade, the word "archive" has permeated society with meanings that are somewhat tenuously tied to what archivists do. People "archive" their email, web sites, and digital data in a cloud. They check "archives" of newspaper sites to see old stories.  They create "archival" copies as backups of their computer documents.  Also in the last decade, the work of the librarian seems to have been downgraded and denigrated to many outside the fields. I hear things such as, "Librarians organize and circulate books. We don't need that anymore.  I use my Kindle." Are archivists and librarians doomed to be misunderstood until the end of time or until this misunderstanding kills off the professions?

Two years ago, Kate Theimer of ArchivesNext wrote "The increasingly common use of 'archive' as a verb." What has changed in two years? Is our work more understood or less? Are we more valued or less, or the same? The release of the DPLA had/has potential as an outreach source for archivists and librarians to better explain what we do. Are any small archives hanging their outreach efforts on this large scale launch to better promote themselves? I have not seen it. DPLA seems lost in the sea of information.  How can participants in DPLA efforts make themselves better heard? I told my administration about it. There was a quick flurry of interest that just as quickly died. Efforts like DPLA need to appeal to those who sit down and immediately use Google to find information and not just to the die-hard,  hard-core researcher who knows better than to trust Google with all of their knowledge gathering needs.

Capturing Google's Audience

How do we reach this Google audience? We need a bit of flash, pop culture, and relating what we have to what is important to "them."

Want to get the attention of someone growing up in the 21st century? Want people to pay attention to you? Try some of the following:
  • Don't hang a sign in your institution. Flash photos with information on a computer to get across your information. Better yet, ask another institution to flash things about you to get outsiders in. Airport and mall exhibits were once one way museums and archives encouraged visitation. Forget about it. Create a quick moving video for these venues that tell about your institution instead of creating a traditional exhibit.
  • Try to include images of your audience in interactive ads. I take photos of kids and teachers in our library and intersperse these with the information I want to get across. Slide One 1. photos of teachers working with kids. Slide 2. "Join the School Archives Committee and help us prepare to celebrate our 50th anniversary" Slide 3. Photo of students dressed up for school spirit week and visiting the library Slide 4. "Curiosity and Creativity are cousins. It happens in your library!" Students sit and watch the slides go by. Something is clicking. Think about people standing online waiting to catch a train. Is there potential there? Will your community support your efforts and give you space to advertise?
  • Add games to your web site. The kids want games. If you can make them relate to your work, great! Hire a programmer if you need to. The kids aren't going to come by to look for photos unless they relate to a class project. Give them a game and they will come running.
  • Give the grown ups some social media. Ask them about what you do. Shadow spaces where potential users might congregate. Does your community have a Facebook page? Make sure you are on it and talking to people. Give them links to your own social media sites and give them a reason to stop by.
  • Archives and libraries must be part of the regular conversation and regularly visit on the Internet and not special places people come. Walk around your neighborhood and talk to people. Say to the woman sitting on park bench, "Hi, I'm the local librarian. Did you get that book out of our library? Do you like the library? Why? Why not?" (In my case, I walked around the halls and asked kids why they were studying on the floor instead of in the library. The answers I got were eye-opening, helped me make changes, and allowed me to encourage students to come try their library again.) Crazy stalker librarian? No way! Friendly face making conversation. Some people will get it. Others will think you are weird. That's okay. It takes practice.
  • I talk about archives and information management all the time - maybe too much. I say this because my nine-year-old told me about a discussion she had with her friend about copyright. "You can't just copy that!" She told me that she told the girl. "You can't just copy that because of copyright!" Is this really too much or is it good that she knows about copyright issues and now her friend will too. AND, now the kid better understands what my kid's mom does for a living.
We Are Special and Yet, We Should Not Be

For too long, libraries have been special. Yes, we are special for so many reasons related to freedom, diversity, collaboration. We are a special place of learning, of neutrality, of leveling a playing field for all... BUT we should be more commonplace, shouldn't we? If libraries and archives were part of everyone's everyday conversation, they would come to better understand us and understand what we offer. Our work should be an essential part of our society and not a nicety; certainly not an afterthought or interchangeable with something else that uses similar words; certainly not disposable.