Monday, September 30, 2013

Inspiring Engagement with Archives

Last week, three students walked up to me.
"Ms. Mannon. Your presentation last week was interesting. We decided to look for diaries at antique shops like you did and we found one from 1910."
Students hold copy of 1910 diary that
they found in an antique shop
I felt the smile spreading on my face. "You did?!"
They told me that the diary belonged to  George C. Silsby of Vermont and they had researched him on to find out more.
"What do you plan to do with the diary from here?" I asked. They told me that they wanted to research more about their Vermonter.
I made a copy of the diary and have begun reading it myself.
January 2, 1910 - "Went up to the barn and look at the cattle & horses. All looking well. Snowing."
The familiarity of the words excites me -- the weather, farming -- These three girls are starting on a journey that I've taken so many times now.
January 11, 1910 - "I am 52 years old to day [sic]. got a letter from home. been a cold day but fine & clear."
There may be no train crashes in this diary. Maybe this man is less well-known than the town pharmacist. Yet, my students are delving into a mystery. We already have a name, a birthdate and setting. I can't wait to see what they discover!
"Let me know if you need help with the research, girls."


Saturday, September 21, 2013

Teaching Archives: Reprising the Diary Project

Lesson Learned. Hopes confirmed. Teens are fascinated by archives.
How could they not be? We should have known this all along!

Last week in this space, I introduced a course I was preparing to teach at the high school where I serve as an information specialist. Over the course of the week, the twelve classes I taught on Introduction to Information began to morph. What started out as a very formally laid out series of ideas melted into a few very big ones. Information is everywhere. We need to pay attention to details. We need to pay attention to what we know versus what we think we know to distinguish truth from fiction - to build our knowledge and to properly educate ourselves.

All freshmen English students took a test on evaluating information during the first half of one of their English periods this week. My lesson on what information REALLY is took place during the second half of the period. My goal was to give them a broad understanding of information and to show them that information does not have to be as dry as a test. I had objects for show and tell that I wove into the presentation. I had a stereoscope, photographs, war ration coupons, a primer. One class, on the second or third day of teaching, had split up. About half the class was still testing while the other half sat patiently in the chair waiting for the lesson. I pulled out the stereoscope. This was not part of the original plan.

"Let's have a little show and tell before the rest of the class gets here. Has anyone ever seen one of these?" There was an immediate buzz and we began talking about the Viewmasters we had as children. I passed around the stereoscope for the students to get a closer look. The remaining test-takers started to trickle over.

"Has anyone ever gotten stickers from their teachers for doing good work in school?" Hands fly up in the air. "Well before there were stickers, students got 'Rewards of merit,' like these. Students valued them so much that they would stick them in scrapbooks. You can see the remnants of the scrapbook on the back of these cards." Pass them around. And so we went on...I had planned to start my presentation with a photo from Ransom Riggs' book, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, but the archival materials proved to be a better warm up.

At the end of this lesson, the 5th one this year, a teacher said something profound to me. It was my second class with this teacher this autumn. I had worked with her rather closely last year designing a research curriculum for ninth graders and I greatly value her teaching expertise. She said, "Melissa, that was your best information presentation yet. You don't need to teach them everything in this lesson. You just need to get them interested."

Parts where I had picked up steam earlier in the week -- evaluating photos, viewing letters and diaries -- those related to archives, stayed in my presentation. Parts where I found I had lost steam were removed. "What does the word 'information' mean? What's an information resource?"

Show and tell led to discussing photographs. I kept Ransom Riggs' images as fodder. Here's an example of one we discussed.
photo from "Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children"
Me: "What do you see here?"
A moment of quiet.
Students: "OHHHH! There's one girl and two reflections! Maybe that's her dead sister! Maybe its her alter ago..."
Me: "Wait. Back up. First tell me what you actually see. One girl. Two reflections. What else?"
Them: "Gravestones... Water... One tall gravestone one short...oh! creepy! the short one isn't reflecting!"
Me: "Ok. Use knowledge you already have. Information in your head...why is the short one not reflecting?"
Blank stares and then someone says, "It's too short."
Me: "How do you know that? AHA! We need to have some understanding of math to know that don't we?"

Nearly every class had the same conversation with the same elements of the photo pointed out to me.

Me: "Now tell me based on your knowledge of the real world, what is happening here? Why are there two reflections?" We talked about double exposure and darkrooms and light sources.
"Now, let's do what Riggs' did and jump out of reality and make up a story. Now we can go back to our ideas about alter egos and dead sisters."

The exercise in which I had them close their eyes to picture a library memory (see last week's post) became close your eyes and picture a place that you love. "Picture an amusement park or a ball game. What sights and sounds and smells were there? Take in the information with all of your senses. Pay attention to details." It's the details that mattered and the information. Not the library setting. One can get a "sense of place" anywhere.

We went through many photos analyzing each. This included Riggs' photos and photos that I had collected at local antique shops. [Search "More Finds at the Local Antique Shop in this blog for samples of my collecting.] Then, I pulled out the diary.

I explained the research that I did with my daughter.
Me: "I found this diary in an antique shop in Massachusetts. I wanted to learn who wrote it."...
"On page 2 it talks about a train crash near Wells and Kennebunk. Where do you think this diary was written? [silence] What state?"
Students: "MAINE!"
Me: "I don't know why, but the author wrote first and last names of friends. I don't know about you, but when I write in my diary I write first names only. Maybe first and last names was common diary writing then. I could research that if I wanted to, but that's not the direction I wanted to head. How can I find out more about these people with their first and last names as information at my fingertips?"
Students: "GOOGLE IT!"
Me: "Yep, that's what I did and on, I found their names in a book called "Businessmen of Maine....Do you know about's all I found on the Internet. Where should I go now?"
Students: [some confusion and then usually a tentative...] "Go to Maine?"
Me: "YES! Where am I going in Maine?"
Students: "To the library!"
Me: "What library?...what am I looking up at the library?" and so I revealed the clues. Then I revealed a dead end. I knew all about the people and places surrounding my diarist, but I didn't know my diarist so I re-read the diary. A clue that I had originally ignored stuck out. I told the students that the diarist mentioned a marriage on a particular date, but I had ignored it because it was mentioned so matter-of-factly that I thought I misunderstood. This time through, I decided to pursue it as if the person was really married on that date. Sometimes we don't see what's right in front of us. Instead of throwing up our hands and saying "There's no information!" sometimes we need to slow down and re-evaluate.
Me:"Where do I go to find out about marriages?"
Student smirking: "The Internet!"
Me smirking back: "NO! Where do I go? (quiet) If your parents were married, what document says that they were married?"
Student tentatively: "A Marriage certificate."

Early in the presentation, I showed students places I had worked to shatter their ideas about what the "information sciences" entails. I have had such a varied and unusual career that when I was putting together my presentation this seemed like a worthwhile thing to highlight. However, my discussion of my own career became more important with this line of thought. I had shown students a picture of a town hall vault and explained that important town records were kept there.

Student: "You would go to town hall to find a marriage certificate..."

The pieces came together. They were getting the idea about following an information trail. I revealed who my diary writer was and showed pictures of him, his house, his business, his marriage record. I showed an advertisement for his business and the plot map for his grave.

After one class, a teacher told me that a student had leaned over to her to whisper that the fact that I had visited his grave was really cool.

At the end, we talked about different ways of learning and creating a makerspace in our library. We talked about behavioral expectations. We talked about books. They were paying attention. I felt like I was getting to know them as a class. (I am excited about the school year now!)

Moral: Wherever you are evaluating information, the rules of slowing down and thinking about what is going on applies. I think this is the most important thing my students learned from me this week. Information is everywhere and we need to pay attention to appreciate it. Oh yeah, and archives are cool!

The ins and outs of finding out more will come throughout their high school careers.

If any students are reading this, thanks for a great week! I look forward to learning more with you. Thanks for teaching ME about what is important.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

What is Information? Getting High School Freshmen Prepared for Inquiry

Tomorrow I begin a week of presenting an introduction to information to high school freshmen. I will teach the same 45 minute introduction for almost every period of the school day for all of our freshmen English classes. This is exciting! When I did this Introduction to Information unit for the first time last year, I could see lightbulbs going off over heads all day long. I remember the boy who sat down with headphones. I asked him to take the headphones off and he scowled at me. Then he listened. Then his eyes lit up. Then he participated. He told me about the records he's seen that belonged to his grandfather. He stayed after to tell me more about his family. And, I remember the boy who was interested in my old class photo in which students held a "no hunting" sign before them. I explained that I didn't know why the sign said that. The boy told me. He then told me about conversations he had with his neighbor about World War II and hunting. These boys showed how interesting and personal sharing information can be.

In this blog today, I am sharing my outline for my class. I hope that an introduction to the wide-world of information is something that becomes a core part of every American high school curriculum. We will begin each class tomorrow with an assessment of students research skills using "Trails Nine" so that I may better tailor information lessons to suit the needs of students. The last half of class includes the following:

What is information?
Good morning. You are here today to learn about what information is. It seems like a pretty simple thing, right? 

I have worked as an information specialist for my whole career. I have been a public librarian, an archivist, a museum assistant, and cultural heritage consultant. I have worked professionally in museums, libraries, and archives. I have also brought my library skills to my work in town governments a science lab and a law firm.
[Show photos of places I’ve worked]

Did you hear anything besides “library” that got your interest? Did you know that “librarians” might work in places like the ones that I listed and showed?

Just to round out my background for you, I am also a published author and a professional public speaker. I speak about preserving family memories, historical records in communities, and using social media effectively for business.

All of these things that I do are considered part of the “library sciences.” Libraries are all about information – inside and outside of the library building. My job is to help you to find the information that you need, wherever it might be, and to evaluate it to see if it is good information or bad.

Picture your first visit to the library or an early memory of a library. What did you see, smell and hear? Hold onto that memory.
Share my story about the old library in 5th grade – Mrs. Hoffman.

Now think about your library memory. Does anyone want to share an early library memory? [If no response, prompt – What does a library sound like to you? What does a library look like to you? What do you do in a library? – pick a student to answer]

A library offers a sense of place. It should be a safe, neutral place to learn, discover, and work your mind.

What is Information? (i.e. Why is this room called an information Center?)
From Miriam Webster:

1: the communication or reception of knowledge or intelligence
2. a (1) : knowledge obtained from investigation, study, or instruction

My definition of an information resource (what we use here in this room)
Information Resource – A document or other man-made item that communicates knowledge about an event, place, living being or object, or that conveys ideas about any subject.

Can anyone think of a time when they got bad information? Did they know that it was bad right off the bat or did they need to think about it? Did bells go off in your heads “Warning, warning, this information may not be true!” That’s what I want your head to do whenever someone tells you something - whenever you read something.  Evaluate the source and seek the truth through common sense and research.

What information can you get from images? Using your imagination - fiction and nonfiction can mix. Example of "Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children"

Knowledge is power
Election quotes – which are true?
[show video clips of presidential candidates. How do you know what to believe?]

Knowledge comes from what others teach you and what you learn yourself.
Support the Learning Lab!

Elements of Information
Written information – primary versus secondary sources
[show source samples from my personal collection]
Unwritten information – spoken - oral history, shared knowledge versus gossip, propaganda
We can reach out to get that kind of help too by making calls to specialists or by employing social media strategies

Information is a foundation of community and culture
What information is important to you? What if someone twisted the truth. How would you feel? Why is factual information important? (the secret of why I became a high school librarian – to help you learn to decipher infor
What makes you part of certain communities beyond just being there? What makes you a Mannon? What do you give to your high school and take away from it that makes you part of this community?

Tools in the Library for Finding Information
Flip chart – ask students to list the tools that they know
Then, library tour (to stretch our legs!)
Books – fiction versus non fiction versus reference. Not everything from books is available online.
PAC – Public Access Computer
Computer area – for access to Internet and specialized databases
explain difference. Explain search engines.
Express machines, color printer
Games table
Copiers, etc.
Give information handout

You are an important part of this space. During your four years here:
·      You will help mold the info center to be what we want and what we need. What information grounds us and makes us feel like part of a community? – our exhibits and the room itself will reflect that “sense of place”
·      Bring in and emphasize the information that will help us be a strong community
·      Come here to discover, learn, research
·      Come here to share information and ideas – with me, with teachers, with other students

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Pinterest and Symbaloo for Organizing Your Information

When Google closed down Google Reader this summer, many of us searched for an alternative. I came upon Symbaloo, which I have been loving for three months.

Symbaloo works similarly to Pinterest, in that it allows us to easily arrange our Internet favorites in a visual board. Symbaloo allows us to "bookmark" sites for personal use or to share with others. Yet, unlike Pinterest, it also lets us follow newsfeeds. Furthermore, while Pinterest relies on tagging pictures located on a page, making it challenging to "pin" the page when it has no images, Symbaloo lets one create personally designed buttons easily. It is not reliant on a page having imagery. Symbaloo's bookmarks are created through the Symbaloo site, while Pinterests "pins" are created through a toolbar button. While viewing the heavily picture based Pinterest is attention grabbing, Symbaloo's differences and some advatanges as an information tool are worth a look.

I have created a page that grabs the rss feeds of my favorite blogs. This solves my Google Reader problem and hence supports my original reason for trying Symbaloo. RSS feeds are easy to grab, organize, and view.

I have also just begun thinking about and experimenting with Symbaloo to create pathfinders, or links to sources that can help my patrons and clients. I am considering duplicating my Pinterest boards here for comparison. There have been many times when I have worked to create a visual using Photoshop to "pin" to a board when the page I was pinning didn't have one. Other times, I have been unable to find an image and, being in a hurry, have decided to not pin the page to my Pinterest board. Symbaloo solves this problem.

Symbaloo also has a new mobile app (within the past 16 months) that neatly lets you pull all your bookmarks together for your own use. It is easy on the eyes and easy to use.

picture from

Oprah's Symbaloo webmix is a good example of how Symbaloo can be creatively used to make a visual impact and advertise your brand.

Some are using Symbaloo to specifically draw attention to cultural heritage. Here are a few interesting sites along these lines:
  • Amsterdam - since the site originated in the Netherlands in 2007, many sites were created in that country. This webmix is an interesting example of how one can publicize one's city or institution through Symbaloo, or, draw together links about a place for education purposes

[Search for public webmixes to explore more Symbaloo sites created by others.]

The problem with all of this work to create "subject catalogs" of information is that, of course, these platforms may go away. Exporting our information from Pinterest and Symbaloo is not easy. I would love to have a platform that works from my own web site to perform the same tasks as those in the cloud. At work, I purchase software databases that allow me to create links, but for those of us keeping links at home, or those of us in smaller institutions that can't afford such software, the ever-changing resources can be frustrating. Yet, Symbaloo has been around since 2007. So, it's had a good run and its star doesn't seem to be fading (yet). If you are looking for a new, interesting, or better way to organize your information, it's worth a look.

For more about Symbaloo see: 
TNW Pick of the Day: Symbaloo launches mobile apps to sync bookmarks across all your devices    

[What will you did when IGoogle is gone too?] Great Personalized Start Pages: 6 Alternatives to IGoogle  

Lifehacker - Symbaloo Makes Creating a Modular Start Page Easier