Saturday, May 30, 2015

Running through History

Runners took to the streets of Manchester, New Hampshire today to do a little run through history. Runner's Alley, a popular store in my area for all things run related, organized the event around the hobby of one of its employees. When taking locals for training, he would begin to talk about this town in which he grew up. I overheard one runner this morning who said, "It's nice because he did all the talking on our group runs. We just ran and didn't have to say a thing." As a life-time runner myself. I was intrigued by the idea of running from place to place and stopping to hear a little history, combining two of my passions. I was not disappointed. My knowledge of the area was boosted with a little local color, personal stories, and reminiscences. I began to think about how this concept could be applied to teaching and to boosting interest in cultural heritage institutions.

We started on the steps of City Hall. Our large group of runners were engaged from the start and immediately started to ask questions.

We talked about the age of our city and settlers. Our famous Revolutionary General, was a central part of our running route. Stark's words, "Live free or die: Death is not the worst of evils," were the inspiration for our state motto. 

As a former archivist in the city of Waltham, Massachusetts, I was excited to learn a bit more about the mills of Manchester, built by those who had moved up the river away from the birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution...From the mill girls to the canals to trains to the mill owners to the work of making cloth, the stories are embedded in the re-purposed buildings and grounds we saw today. I think all mill towns should consider running tours to boost local pride and tourism. Their set up is perfect for such tours. (Hear me Waltham?)

I was brought to overlooks I had never seen, though I've lived here for 18 years. The Merrimack River, which so many take for granted, has a rich history and tucked away spots with hidden stories. It was nice to stop and consider with the group how the river helped mold our home. I learned that we were following a route of a heritage trail in Manchester. Despite my interest in history and my professional background, I had no idea that there was a heritage trail here. 

We stopped at a former rail station, called "Governor's station" that was built for a powerful man who wanted a station convenient for him. It is now a home tucked below the end of a dead end street, right along the railroad track, which is still here today. I never would have ventured here on my own, despite my curious nature that often takes me off the beaten track.

Our run took us to Stark Park. Where we again admired the foundation that this war hero laid for our state and country.

I liked the contrast of the running shoes on what remained of the Stark homestead.I enjoyed thinking about the very different shoes our forebearers must have worn when they stepped on this exact spot.

I ended my tour at the John Stark house that was purportedly saved by the DAR in the 1960s. My running tour group continued on to the library and Victory park where they were going to explore a more modern history. The part of the tour in which I participated covered 5 miles in about an hour-and-a-half, with frequent stopping to discuss the sites and a much desirable water break on this hot day. People of many different abilities and ages joined us. The youngest was in a stroller. The youngest runner was about ten-years-old and the oldest runners were in their 60s.

I am hoping to develop a similar run for the running club at my school in our own town. I think this is a great way to interest  teens in history outside of the classroom. A bicycle tour, scooter ride, or another fun means of getting place-to-place can help kids focus and participate in something that works their mind and body. I have been to history open houses that involve driving or bus tours throughout a town. Why not sponsor a person-powered tour? Museum, archives and libraries, team up with your local running store or running association. Offer runners water while they learn about your institution. Give runners a pouch for their run where they can tuck goodies such as a history passport book, keychains and pens. Better yet, offer running items such as water bottles with your organization's name, headbands, etc. Be creative. Have a library card sign up in front of your building so each runner, biker or person on a scooter can leave with a card if they don't already have one. Give free passes to the inside of your institution so when the group is showered, they can come back to explore your facility more deeply.

This is one more way for cultural heritage organizations to expand our audience.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Coming Full Circle: Intergenerational Oral History

This week I'm thinking about the living relationships we develop when we build archival collections. Earlier this month, in an effort to highlight our school building's fifty-year history, my students and I invited alumni to visit and tell us their stories. It was amazing to see the students' curiosity and to hear the bonds being formed between adults and teens.

In the twenty-first century, generation gaps seem larger than ever. In fact, it even seems like there are more "generations." The adolescents of five to ten years ago had an extremely different experience from those of today. Case in point: This afternoon a student was lamenting to my twenty-something male assistant that her teachers just "didn't get" her attachment to her phone. "YOU know what it's like," she said to him, thinking that the young man would understand because he was still young too. "Actually," he told her, "We didn't really use cell phones when I was in high school."

Times are changing fast, but we can temper feelings of disconnect through the celebration of a common history. In fact, in our oral history project and through the growth of our archives, exploring our community roots has enabled students to note shared interests and to recognize how things sometimes come full circle.

Oral history is a strong tool for building community and tying generations. And, oral history projects are something in which a child of any age can participate. All you need is a voice recorder -- your cell phone will do, or an MP3 players like we used. It was surprisingly easy for the kids to use and to make our visitors feel comfortable.

Goffstown High School c. 1987.
Goffstown High School Archives.
We prepared students for an event with five interviewees by giving a short tutorial a couple of weeks ahead of time. We focused on how to ask questions, what to ask, how to keep people talking, and how to keep silent while people told their stories. On event day, students were eager to listen and adults were eager to share. They learned a lot from each other. Then, we backed up our completed recordings to store in our archives and uploaded copies at The Voice Library for safekeeping and easy access.

Now, students are eager to talk to more people who once traveled through the halls they know so well. These walls have stories to tell and it is our intention to capture them. We want students to know that what they experience today is built upon the experiences of those who came before us. Coming full circle and to the realization that we are connected is a very powerful thing.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Providing Primary Resources to Strengthen Instruction

This week, I attended the New Hampshire State Library Media Association Conference. I was particularly interested in a conference session that discussed how to support teachers by pairing informational books with fiction. I have learned in the past three-years as an archivist in the world of school librarianship that there is often a place here for archivists' expertise. This conference was not an exception.

Beth Fuller from Perma-Bound was passionate and knowledgeable, and it was great fun to listen to her speak about books. She noted that pairing fictional and informational titles is something she loves to do, and she made recommendations for how we can do this better in our libraries. During Beth's talk, she mentioned that librarians may want to coax teachers to check out Google images for primary sources. This would provide more more inspiration and context for their students; Say, pair a lesson about the history of labor with books such as "Fresh and Blood So Cheap," "Ashes of Roses" and "Brave Girl." Lights went off in my brain.

Workers pose for photo
(personal collection of Melissa A. Mannon)

We can do better than Google images.

At the end of the presentation, I spoke up about and europeana. I mentioned how archives and libraries are working to pull information about their primary source materials together on these sites for easier access. Ears perked up and another audience member asked me to spell out the web sites.

I urge archivists to better promote our resources. Let's bring kids to the sources of information. Let's show that original materials reside in our institutions and not just on the Internet. Let's show how materials are clustered in collections and cared for by professionals and do not just appear online. Let's show students the connections between an event, the creation of material, the true stories surrounding materials, the people who made the original materials, and how our cultural heritage institutions support knowledge about all of these things. When good authors write they use archival materials. They visit our institutions. They correspond with archivists and librarians. Let's show this to young people as part of their early schooling. Let's reach out to local schools, attend librarian conferences, and explore how our professions support each other.

A lesson about the history of labor, for example, can bring in so much. We can learn about the people and times. We can learn about buildings and place. Beth discussed how we can transport kids back to an event by giving them a visual connection. Let's also strengthen the timeline in students' heads by showing the materials that were created as a result of human activity and by helping kids understand the provenance of items. Primary sources are history. Without them, we would not know about our past.

Earlier this month, I tweeted "Is history what we remember or what happened?" Let us ask our students how we "remember" history. Show teachers and librarians the depth of your collections by giving them the information they need to access it in forums where they are listening. 

Sunday, May 3, 2015

We Will Be Remembered through What We Post

In this social media driven decade, the way we will be remembered may be reflected in what we post. What we project to the world online today will likely be the information about us that is easiest to gather in the future. Therefore, we must be aware that who we are, at least as far as history is concerned, might be molded by the Internet. In my view, our public face is being melded with what should be a more private side and the reality of our lives is perverted by an online public image. It is up to individuals to consciously create their own personal brand, or suffer the consequences of allowing others to attempt to reconstruct our lives through our random posts and musings.

On the Internet, what we record becomes part of a permanent record of our lives. Today, most people leave behind a great documentation footprint through digital means. It wasn't that long ago when most people did not leave much documentation behind for the world to see. Even 20th century lives are reconstructed from sometimes hard to find sources. We are lucky to find records that tell us about someone's pre-21st century life - handwritten correspondence, diaries and the like formed the personal papers from an earlier period.

A note that a friend penned to me in high school. We would
have been horrified to post these thoughts for others to see.
Remember hiding your diary under your mattress so your younger sister wouldn't find it? Remember passing private notes to friends in class? Today, young people are less likely to draw that line between public and private. Do you have something to say to a friend? Tweet it to the world; put your inner most thoughts in a blog. It's a very different world from the one I grew up in and society has a different mindset from the society in which I was trained as an archivist in the 1990s.

In this second decade of the 21st century, individuals can have more power over how they are remembered. The proliferation of the public records people create by interacting with their government and public groups online are augmented by those writings and postings which strike my generation as more private in nature. Many call this the "age of oversharing." Perhaps after a decade of this, we as individuals need to step back, take a hard look at our sharing habits, and curb our communication. While those sharing information online (the content creators) are sharing more and more, archivists are working to understand more fully the rapid transition our society has made in personal documentation, and we are considering what aspects of it are important to our profession.

Regular readers of this blog know my deep fascination with diary writing in particular. A recent article in the  Huffington Post discussed how the act of diary writing itself is changing and how there are many people who now write diaries for public consumption in a way that hasn't been done in the past. "On some level, when we vent, we want to be heard -- if only by our future selves. Why else would we choose such a permanent format for sorting out our thoughts?" [Crum. These are My Confessions: What Diary Keeping Means in the Age of Oversharing. ] Yet, venting for our future self in a personal journal is very different from online venting. I think this point needs to be more deeply considered by information professionals on every level.
  • What online personal content should be worthy of "permanent" status?  And controversially:
  • What content should be created? Do information/cultural heritage professionals have a role to play beyond gathering content? Should we also be helping individuals manage their online documentation and help curb the creation of unending documented random thoughts?
A particularly poignant and perhaps egregious example of the way we broadcast without forethought is evident in a high profile 2013 Twitter scandal.  Certainly, Justine Sacco wanted to vent when she wrote the tweets that eventually led to her dismissal from her high powered job, but did she really want to be heard?

As a teacher / librarian / archivist, this issue has an important place in my life. Every day, I watch students create content that shouldn't be shared. I realize the permanence of the words they place online. They do not. I realize how their content is affecting society and can affect their lives. As a mentor, I have a responsibility to help them fully understand how information impacts them. As an archivist, I believe that it would be to the profession's benefit to spread this message to a greater populace. Is the information we are spewing worth the computer space we are using? Computer space is cheap, but the never ending bombardment of gossip and misinformation is not, in my opinion.

We once documented our thoughts for ourselves, to share with a friend in a letter, or in well-thought out speeches. Today, as content creators, a quick thought easily flies out our fingers onto a screen and into what we may perceive as a void. "[the sharing of] our once-discreet musings could be seen as narcissistic -- a strategic move in a quest for validation...But it’s something else, too. When such observations are compiled into a work of art, they become an honest reflection on how we absorb and produce information." [Crum]

Certainly, there is a benefit for informational professionals and historians to have so much now available to us. If archivists can successfully save what is being broadcast, and if we can successfully preserve and provide access to it, we will have an abundance of material to examine, consider and study. Perhaps we will have a rich view of early twenty-first century life and a rich view of how we use information. We will be able to study society through a combined public and private lens that past historians could only have dreamed.

However, I wonder if alternately, this bombardment of information provides an inaccurate understanding of how individuals really function. Does all this information accurately reflect our communities? What role can ideas of personal branding and full understanding of an online image play in protecting documentation that accurately projects our own lives and our times? Can, and should, information professionals craft a salient message to help protect the value of good information versus bad (if indeed there is such as thing as good versus bad information at all)?