Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Commodifying Archives

The July/August issue of Muse contains an article by Toni Lin on "The Role of Commodification in Archival Institutions."  Lin does an excellent job of outlining the perceived pros and cons of commidification and the impact it can have on public access, archival funding, and preservation.

The article concludes that some level of commodification may be necessary for many institutions and can serve as a way to bolster shrinking revenues. Research services, reproduction of archival materials and legal sale of deaccessioned materials can be viable funding supplementation options.

Lin notes that there must be an balance been the need to provide free open access to archives and charging for research or reproduction fees.  She suggests that archival institutions should benefit financially from doing research instead of the money going private researchers.  This isn't a bad idea -- but for many archives adding in-depth research services simply isn't possible.  Staffing constraints, particularly in smaller institutions, often make offering full research services impossible. 

Digital reproduction and user fees are another way in which archives can recoup or raise funding.  Many institutions have opted to allow users to obtain personal use or research copies of materials free of charge.  This is then balanced by charging for high resolution images, commercial uses, and publication quality prints. At times navigating copyright and privacy legislation can make this reproduction and user fee service more challenging.  And these fees often don't make a huge amount of money but they do help offset costs.

Overall, Lin's piece highlights the changing financial landscape facing archives and other heritage organizations.  It is becoming increasingly necessary for organizations to look to new funding sources and ideas.  Commodification and using collections to raise funds isn't a new idea, but it is one that might gain more prominence as budgets continue to shrink. 

Friday, July 4, 2014

Teaching in the Archives

Teacharchives.org a website dedicated to promoting teaching with primary sources and archives in new and innovative ways.  The site was developed through a grant that enabled the Brooklyn Historical Society (BHS) to partner with 18 faculty at three colleges near the archive.  This initiative, Students and Faculty in the Archives (SAFA), saw over 1100 students visiting BHS from 2011-2013 to engage with archival sources.

The site documents the three year project and provides an excellent resource for both archivists and instructors looking to engage students with primary source material.  After many student visits and the experience of inviting so many new visitors to the BHS the project came up with some basic guidelines for instructors wishing to integrate archives into their classroom:
  1. Define specific learning objects for each visit to an archives.  Each visit should be centered around an objective and relate to overall course goals.  
  2. The fewer documents the better.  Archive activities for students newly exposed to archives should focus on item-level document analysis.  Spend lots of time with fewer documents.
  3. Create opportunities for group learning.  Groups of 3-4 students work well for dealing with standard documents.  Group work can promote community, allow students to work through difficult sections together, and highlight the fact that document analysis can vary greatly between people. 
  4. Use direct and tailored research questions to guide student work. Avoid show and tell sessions in the archive.  Generic questions (what is this document, who created it) don't highlight the intricate nature of archival sources and often don't apply to all documents.  A couple of great examples of creating tailored handouts can be seen here.
The site is worth exploring if you're looking for archives instructional resources.  The set of exercises on a range of common historical topics provided on the site is a great tool for those looking to develop their own instructional programs. There is also a selection of pedagogy based articles written by archivists and educators experienced with student archival instruction.

Many archives and educators struggle with effectively integrating collections into a range of courses.  Archival instruction and lessons based around primary sources can be valuable outside of historical methods classes.  Research, analysis, communication, and the ability to synthesize content are skills which reach across disciplines and can be reinforced by working with archival sources.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Community Driven: Thirty Years of Science North

My most recent post, "Community Driven: Thirty Years of Science North" can be seen over on Activehistory.ca.  The post looks at the history of Science North, its connection to Northern Ontario and the community roots of the organization.  

Monday, June 16, 2014

When You Work In A Museum: Museum Dance Off

The When You Work In A Museum site is in the midst of running a Museum Dance Off contest.  The contest features amusing videos put together by museum staff across the globe.  The contest started three weeks ago with entries from 22 museums in 8 countries from 4 continents.

The final round of the Dance Off  features a Canadian museum--the Hamilton Museum of Steam and Technology with their steam-punk video of "What Does the Pump Say?"  All the entries are worth taking a look at and voting for the final round of videos can be found here. Voting closes at 8am EDT on Tuesday June 17th, 2014.

Friday, June 13, 2014

NCPH Topic Proposals

This year the National Council on Public History (NCPH) introduced a new element for the conference submission process.  The 2015 NCPH Annual Meeting call for proposals included the option of submitting topic proposals.  This option was geared towards people who are interested in presenting but who might be looking for ideas to more fully develop a proposal or who are looking for co-presenters. 

The results of this initiative were 55 topic proposals that include a working title, abstract, and descriptions of the type of assistance the proposer is looking for.  The list of proposals can be seen here.  There's a wide range of topics and a variety of people looking for collaborators.  If you're interested in getting involved in NCPH this is a great way to connect with others and get started. 

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Museum Visitor Experience and Learning Styles

The majority of my visits to museums, art galleries, and other heritage sites are undertaken with people I'm connected with through work, by myself, or with my partner.  These visits are normally slow paced and allow for plenty of time for reading and contemplation. 

I enjoy looking at displays, reading text panels, checking out different exhibit techniques and just taking in the whole experience.  It's been a long time since I visited a museum with someone who didn't hold similar interests or explore museums in a similar way to me.

My recent trip to ROM was with my partner and two other people who I hadn't previously visited heritage site with.  The experience reminded me of how individual visitor experiences at a heritage site can be drastically different. The best heritage sites engage visitors in a variety of ways that appeal to different learning styles and different interests.

 For example, one of the people I was with was drawn to anything involving technology or a touch screen.  He seemed to enjoy learning through watching videos and interacting with digital components best.  Long text panels and endless rooms of display cases didn't seem to engage him - regardless of what was in the display case.

Many museums include tactile components or activity stations geared towards children and youth.  Dress up stations and colouring tables are some of the most common examples of simple but effective hands on activities.  But many adults like the interactivity and become more engaged when they are doing something more than passively looking or reading. 

One of my favourite parts of visiting Fort St. Joseph a few years ago with my parents was the dress up station.  In addition to having children sized military uniforms and hats there were adult sized clothes. My 60+ year old dad and I had a grand time dressing up while my mom looked on in amusement.  Not every interactive component has to be digital it just needs to be well thought-out and inviting to visitors.

Visiting a museum with people who were not nearly as excited about museums as I typically am was an interesting learning experience.  The experiences reminded me of the challenges in developing exhibits (interactive or otherwise) that appeal to a wide range of audiences.  It's impossible to please everyone and even more so on a limited display budget. But shifting away from solely using exhibit cases and text to developing different styles of programming is something many effective heritage sites have started to do.