Sunday, January 26, 2014

Words as a Barrier to Understanding. Is It Time to Evolve Beyond Library and Archives?

You say library. They say books...They say books are dead.

You say archives. They say paper...They say everything is digital these days.

I rolled words through my head when I suggested this week that a student should consider a job in the library field and it got back to me that her mother said this is a bad idea. "'Libraries' probably won't exist in a few years, " she apparently told her daughter. I thought back to when I started in this job.

"Do you want to be called the 'Librarian' or 'Information Specialist,' Melissa?" they asked when I began. They were getting ready to put my title on my office window.

"I don't care what you call me because I am confident in what I am and I can explain it to others," I said. I thought the term "Information Specialist" was hoity-toity. I told myself that I've always been a librarian and an archivist.

A few months later I remembered that I coined "cultural heritage consultant" for my work with ArchivesInfo because the words DID matter. No one knows what any of it means, but cultural heritage consultant showed that I did something outside of JUST archives and libraries, whatever the audience thought JUST archives and libraries were. Once I grab someone's attention, the door is then open for me to explain more about what I do.

When I said to my student, "you may want to work in a library," it served as a brick wall. People have preconceived notions of what a library is. Yet, the cultural heritage professions have anything but preconceived notions these days. Libraries, archives and museums are community centers, storage facilities, places for research, knowledge centers, places for networking, educational facilities, creative hubs...We are striving to open doors and our traditional words can be limiting. Indeed, we have also had concerns about our words being hijacked and re-purposed. For example, "archive" as a verb has been discussed at length. Maybe we do need to find new words and phrases that better explain who we are and what we do?

"Information Specialist" connotes knowledge of a wide-range of information beyond the book. I've come to like the holistic feel of it.  It can mean anything - an understanding of where to find any information at all is how I like to think of it. The term applied to me and to what I do also takes into account my archives background and the school archives I am beginning. It acknowledges the crafting we do in our library, the makerspace we are beginning, the music we introduce to our students, the exhibits we set up... So, I now go by Librarian / Information Specialist. I want the idea of books in my students' heads, but I want the idea of libraries and librarians as evolving beyond the book in there too.

So who are we and what do we want to be as professionals? Do we need to take a fresh look at our job titles to better explain what we do now and where our professions are going?

Monday, January 20, 2014

From Where Does Information Come?

My archivist colleague Kate Theimer at ArchivesNext made a fabulous speech for the American Historical Association that she shared in her blog.  A Distinction Worth Exploring: “Archives” and “Digital Historical Representations addresses the context and provenance of archives in their various forms. This post should be required reading for all archivists and historians. Furthermore, it can lead to to a larger discussion of the creation and context of information in general and how such information should be understood and evaluated by the general public. This is an idea I've been tossing around for some time and I felt that Kate's article helped open the door to my thinking a little bit.

Informational resources were once precious. Once upon a time, not that long ago, the encyclopedia salesman convinced us that owning a set of Brittanicas was a key to knowledge. It was an expensive purchase. If we were lucky enough to afford it, that relatively small set of books was treasured. It had its very own bookcase that was given a prominent space in the house. Kids would rely on it for homework and entertainment. (I remember plastic sheets between thin pages of the anatomy section that showed us cross-sections of the human body that somewhat satisfied curiosity.) Britannica was a name to be trusted. We believed that if it came from Brittanica, it had to be good information. We did not have to rush to the public library immediately when something needed clarification, yet we knew that the information in the Encyclopedia was finite and sometimes we needed to seek more. The encyclopedia was our very own clarification tool. And because it was a well-thought out tool, it would refer us to the places that had more information on our subject. We would even stumble across references to "archives" between the Encyclopedia's pages.

Today, the encyclopedia as a tool of information is relatively ignored. We can hop on the Internet to "find things out." Many believe that one of the top five Google hits must have what we need. If the title of the first web site brought up in Google's findings doesn't match what we think we need, we just move to the next resource on the list. Do we care who posts our answers there? Does the general public care if the information came from the primary source or from someone 100 times removed? Does it matter if it's a blog or a "digital historical representation"? Does it matter if a Wikipedia article was put together by a group of experts or seemingly educated hobbyists? Most of the information placed on the Internet is not well-conceived.

It is an important part of an archivist's job to make sure that our little corner of the digital world is "well-thought out" and promoted. Digital projects like DPLA and the ones mentioned in Kate's article must be brought more boldly to the general public's attention.

While it is very important for the archivist to help the historian understand the different aggregates of archives, it is equally important for the archivist to help the general public understand these distinctions. Kate Theimer asks, "how much do historians know about archives and what more would be helpful or necessary to assist in their work." She also asks what can historians tell the archival profession about how digitization has changed their work so that we can better assist them? I ask, how much does the general public understand about primary sources? What can THEY tell US about how they gather information in an online environment so that we can better help them get the reliable answers to assist  their learning.

Anecdotally, I know that people will "Google" a question or keywords rather than stopping to think what place might most logically have information. For example, based on personal observation, I believe that if the average person visits the Museum of Fine Arts, sees a work by John Singer Sargent and wants to learn more, that person will more likely Google "John Singer Sargent" than look for more information about him within the museum walls. The Internet has become The Encyclopedia Brittanica without the idea that the encyclopedia is finite and there is more information elsewhere. The larger problem is that we can carry the encyclopedia in our pockets now. We turn off our brains sometimes and just reach for what is easy and known.

Archivists have always had to explain what they do, but now it is even farther removed for a new generation. Many think that if it is not on the Internet it doesn't exist. I will argue that it is very important for archivists to bring educators into a dialogue. What do teachers, on all levels, know about archives and archivists? How can we help explain to a new generation of students that understanding from where our information comes is very important.? As Kate says, " Digital technology has increased the user base for archival resources, meaning that the connection between our historian users and archivists is more diluted than it was in the past." I would like to add that the connection between archivists and the general public is more diluted too. Very soon, our younger generation may have no perception of any archives at all. We are not just explaining the term "archives" anymore, we are also explaining the idea of the record creator in a way that we never thought we would have to explain. We need to explain that computers are not all knowing. There are people behind their processes and the information that they give us. 

Individuals need a deeper understanding of from where information comes to become good citizens. Very soon, it will be very difficult to help citizens untangle the world of archives so that they can also be good historians. I worry about not only where that will leave archives, but also where that will leave society. 

Sunday, January 12, 2014

The Importance of Archives and Artifacts: A Dystopian View

"There are people who call themselves Archivists," Ky says. "Back when the Hundred Committee made their selections, the Archivists knew the works that didn't get selected would become a commodity. So they saved some of them. The Archivists have illegal ports, ones they've built themselves, for storing things. They saved the Thomas poem I bought you." - Matched by Allie Condie

Matched is a Dystopian young adult novel. The false Utopia it examines compares to the worlds we find in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and Lois Lowry's The Giver. To me, what makes this novel special is the attention that it gives to artifacts and archivists, recognizing the value of items of cultural heritage. How attached are we to our personal items? What does it mean to have them?
(Please be aware that this post contains some spoilers, but I don't think what I give away is not predictable.)

"The Society" -- the higher-ups in the fictional world of Oria -- have saved 100 bits of approved information. "They created commissions to choose the hundred best of everything- Hundred Songs, Hundred Paintings, Hundred Stories, Hundred Poems." The Society controls what people eat, where they live, who they marry (i.e. the title Matched), what they do, what they remember, when they die and what happens to their bodies after they die. But the growing dissatisfaction of the main character hinges heavily on the objects and information that she is allowed and disallowed to possess.

Cassia, our heroine, first realized that not all is right with the world on the day her grandfather is scheduled for death. He asks her to bring him one of the two artifacts that she owns. It is a compact that belonged to her grandmother. He shows her a poem that is hidden within the back. It is a small piece of paper of a type that Cassia has never seen. The author spends a lot of time discussing the details of the artifacts. People in this society are exposed to very little, so anything out of the ordinary makes a big impact. The small piece of paper has the poem by Dylan Thomas with the line, "Do not go gentle into that good night." This unapproved poem smuggled by her elders soon becomes Cassia's motto as her view of society, not unexpectedly, begins to unravel.

Citizens must register artifacts passed down through family and they apparently can only have one, but this is not totally clear. Artifacts of this type in the book include a watch and a compass. There are also society approved artifacts including Silver and gold boxes that hold small, pre-determined and approved mementos accumulated during lives. Gold boxes are for girls and silver for boys. A main inanimate "character" in the story is a swatch of fabric set in glass. This item is given to female citizens by the society after "Match Day. The girls borrow dresses for the day they meet their match and then receive the artifact to remember the event. (Presumably there are conservators who spend their days setting these items into the glass.)

After a scene when she talks to her mother about her own dress artifact and love, Cassia describes a pivot point when she willingly breaks with society's expectations. Society has told them to treasure these mementos, that if the glass on the object breaks the fabric would disintegrate and "everything would be ruined."

Alone in Cassia's room she focuses on her artifact. "...My framed piece of dress in its bit of glass. I wrap my hand in one of my socks and then press down, hard. A faint snap. I lift my hand.

"It would be easy if no one watched, if no one could hear me. If these walls weren't so thin and my life weren't so transparent. I could throw the glass against the wall, smash it with a rock, destroy with abandon and noise. I think the glass would make a glittery sound when it broke; I would like to see it burst into a million pieces and shine all the way down. But instead, I have to be careful.

"Another long silvery crack runs across the surface of the glass. Underneath, the smooth ice-green cloth is undisturbed. Carefully, I pull the pieces of glass apart, lift the largest one up, and pull out the fabric."

Author Allie Condie makes us examine our objects and look at them a bit differently. She reminds us to appreciate our stories and information. She shows us who remembers the value of information -- the Archivists -- and how their institutions stand for posterity. She makes us twist the world we know and think about what it would be like if information, memories, and artifacts were forbidden; if what we could tangibly and intangibly keep were controlled. This is a fiction book that pronounces what we value as cultural heritage professionals and emphasizes the importance of what we do. I recommend it to those who enjoy dystopian young adult literature as a well-paced, entertaining, if not somewhat predictable story. It is also worth a read with an eye toward the message about our cultural heritage for those who are not as familiar with the genre.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

More Finds at the Local Antique Shop: For the Love of Reading

You are a reader. I assume that you are a reader because you read this blog that focuses on a love of information and culture. You read for research. You read online. You may even read books for pleasure. I hope that it is safe for me to say that you even call yourself "a reader" and that you value the idea of reading.

I have some questions for you that I've been struggling with for over a year now. This image that I just purchased on Etsy is helping me turn these questions into a blog post. In fact, there are many images similar to this particular orphan image for sale. It shows the value of reading - A value that some people don't have.

Perhaps their families never had this value to pass on. Perhaps they've lost it. Perhaps society no longer conveys the importance of reading...

I have so many questions, but first...

I remember the day that this was taken. I am the little girl in red. The professional photographer, who came to our home once a year (before my Mom found Sears Portrait Studio) asked me if I had a book. I ran to our library pile. The man had set up the coffee table with a blanket for us to sit on and his background screen behind it. He sat me with my sister and posed us. Each of us had a hand on the book. Kids reading - Isn't that cute? Isn't that a traditional American value that every family must capture?

This is the 1970s. The photo I just bought is the 1940s. We have decades of valuing reading.

Than there is my third photo from 2014. I have a young friend whom I meet with my daughter at Barnes and Noble on a fairly regular basis. She is fresh out of college and she thinks that a bookstore is a spectacular place to spend her time. She made me this gift for the holidays. She knows that this is perfect for me, but this is also a sentiment that she takes to heart. And, let me re-emphasize that she MADE this. There is something about hand-made items and appreciation of the book that go hand-in-hand in my mind.

So here are my questions...I hope that you have some ideas for me:

  • Do people read as much as they once did?
  • Do we still value reading?
  • How do we keep a society that values reading or how do we re-capture it if we've lost it? (Have we lost it?)
  • Does online activity keep us from "reading" or do we consider what we do online "reading"? 
  • Should we consider browsing the Internet "reading"?
  • Does it matter if we read a linear book versus non-linear Internet pages. And on that note, does it matter if we read a Kindle versus a paper book.
I am not the first to ask any of these questions. Yet, seeing posed images of people reading provides a slightly different angle. We value(d) reading enough to very consciously pose with books. Will these types of images soon be gone?