Monday, July 30, 2012

Fresh, Local, and Financially Sound: Community Supported Agriculture in Canada

My latest post on the rise and history of Community Supported Agriculture in Canada can be seen over on  The post examines Canada's history of community based agricultural efforts, including community gardens and agricultural co-operatives.  Special thanks to my friend and colleague Tracy who operates the Be True Farm and was the partial inspiration for looking into CSA history.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Upcoming Historical Tourism Adventure

In September my partner is attending a work conference just outside of Washington, DC.  I've decided I'm going to tag along on the trip and explore some of historic sites, museums, and general history goodness in the area. So far I've come up with a few must see places, but I would love to hear suggestions from anyone who is familiar with the area and who has a general love of history.

The must see list so far:
  • American Indian Museum.  Given the lack of national Indigenous museum in Canada I'm intrigued to see how the American Indian Museum portrays the complex First Nation-Settler history.  My visit to the CMC's First Peoples Hall a couple of years ago was disappointing at best.  
  • National Museum of American History.  The desire to make this visit is mostly based on the insistence recommendations of colleagues and friends.
  • National Archives and Records Administration.  The desire to visit the National Archives is once again based in the desire to compare national differences.  Library and Archives Canada is far from welcoming to the casual visitor and has very little in terms of exhibits and public vaults. 
If time permits I would also like to make a visit to one of the numerous art galleries or art museums.  If you have visited Washington in the past what were some of your favourite experiences?

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Archival Advocacy: Beyond History for the Sake of History

"Think creatively --and beyond the confines of regular archival management.  We live in a service economy---and archives can provide an array of services to a variety of clients.  Be entrepreneurial when seeking opportunities....the work of managing records for others may well mean far more in terms of meeting both internal and external needs and objects than any attempt to take on ownership of the materials in question." 
The above quotation from James E. Fogerty's essay "Competing for Relevance: Archives in a Multiprogram Organization" in Leading and Managing Archives and Records Programs speaks to the need for archivists and archives staff to be proactive in their approach to archives management and development.  Given the economic and spacial constraints that many organizations are currently faced with, proclaiming that archives should exist for the sake of history alone is no longer a sufficient advocacy tactic.  

Very few archives work in isolation.  Most archives are part of a parent organization, a government body, corporate organization, or another oversight body.  Archives are dependent on external funding and support.  Being part of a large organization means that archives need to become aware of institutional missions, culture, and politics.  Gaining supporters in upper management, specific departments, and amongst general employees can help archives in their requests to the organization as a whole.

It is increasingly important that archives demonstrate their value to both internal and external benefactors.  This value should be demonstrated in ways which everyone can understand, even if they do not understand the historical value of an archival collection.  Many organizations understand dollars saved, staff efficiency numbers, statistics, and positive media reports.  Numbers of linear feet processed and items digitized can sound like huge accomplishments to those in the archival field, but may have little meaning to upper management.

But the are ways that archival accomplishments can fit inside corporate and organizational structures. For example, the establishment of a record management program which facilitates speedy retrieval of documents can save parent organizations money in wasted staff hours looking for old records.  Partnering with the communications department to create media content on past initiatives, anniversaries, and  staff can be a huge boon.  Assisting IT with an electronic records strategy can be another way which archives can ingrain themselves in a corporate culture.

Creative outreach is becoming more and more important in the archival world.  Archives need advocates who understand the importance of archival development and can see beyond the processing of archival material.  Professional development programming, exhibits, mentions in the press, and development of systems that benefit more than the archive (Records management or web infrastructure for example) are all steps towards archives as a service not just a holding place.  Archival staff need to balance archival priorities with organizational priorities.

How have creative approaches to advocacy helped your organization?  

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Other Duties as Assigned: Cemetery Maintenance

Part of my job this week included a number of 'other duties as assigned' tasks.  One of such tasks included assisting with cleanup of the Residential School cemetery which is on site where I work. Since I like gardening this was actually a nice afternoon break one day.

This particular cemetery was in use from 1876 to around 1970 and has staff, students, and members of the Anglican Church buried there.  Following the closure of the Residential School on the site, the cemetery fell into a state of disrepair and neglect.  Today the cemetery is well looked after, however years of poor maintenance and weather eliminated all the wooden markers in the cemetery and many of the stone tombstones are in rough shape. 

Overgrown weeds, mossy broken tombstones, missing grave markers, and unknown boundaries are characteristics of cemeteries throughout Canada.  Upkeep of no longer used or unregistered cemeteries have a tendency to become neglected over time. Additionally, the very nature of grave markers and tombstones - outdoors and exposed to the elements - make them susceptible to premature damage and deterioration.

Some cemeteries are well documented and the loss of a marker or the fading of a stone inscription isn't a complete loss of burial information as the plots have been documented by the cemetery.  However, even when burial plots are well documented often the actual inscriptions on tombstones aren't formally recorded.  Similarly if a municipality doesn't (or didn't) keep accurate records of burial plots if a wooden marker rots or the inscription on a tombstone fades, the information on who was buried in that location is lost.

For example, the Residential School cemetery where I work no longer has any of the wooden crosses which marked the majority of the student graves.  The loss of markers was a huge loss as no formal records noting burials or plot locations have been located for this cemetery.  As with many Residential School cemeteries, the number of students buried and the names of all the students buried in the cemetery are unknown. 

Cemeteries and grave markers can provide an abundance of genealogy and historical information, but only if they are well documented or preserved. So what about those crumbling tombstones and loss of information through deterioration? There are a variety of different preservation tools that can be used by municipalities and other interest groups to preserve the historical information found in cemeteries.
  • Document existing gravestones, especially those which are made of wood or other elements which are very susceptible to rot and other forms of rapid deterioration. Gravestones and inscriptions can be documented by using photography and written documentation. 
  • Organize and keep accurate burial records.  This might be employing an archivist to organize existing records relating to the cemetery.  An archivist can help provide order and structure to boxes of unused records.  This organization will help make the records more accessible and searchable for researchers. 
  • It is possible to clean stone tombstones. This is typically undertaken to remove moss, dirt, and other surface growth.  However, I would recommend looking into a professional providing this service (or at very least providing training on how to go about the cleaning), as it is possible to damage the stones if you use abrasive products or tools. 
If you are interested in searching out ancestors or information about a particular cemetery in Ontario, you might want to begin by using Ontario Genealogical Society's Ontario Cemetery Ancestor Search.  A list of the cemeteries which have been indexed by the OGS and are included in the Ancestor Search can be also be found online.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Archival Outreach and Community Based Heritage

Recently I've been spending a lot of time thinking about the role archives can play in community based heritage initiatives.  The bulk of my thoughts have centered on the idea that archives have the potential to become community heritage hubs and places of active history. Of course, just because archives have the potential to do this doesn't mean they instantly become centers for community heritage.  A tremendous amount of effort, planning, and outreach needs to occur for archives to become more than repositories and facilities for occasional researchers.

 A colleague and I recently ran a professional development workshop on community based heritage projects.  The workshop spent a great deal of time focusing on outreach and education programming our archive has undertaken in the past; while highlighting the resulting successes and failures of these efforts.

This presentation and audience questions pointed out the importance of archives knowing their audience and creating outreach geared to their audience.  Similarly, most archives serve more than one type of patron and as such they require more than one type of outreach if they wish to appeal to a range of people.   That being said, due to limited budgets and staff time a lot of archival outreach has a tendency to be broad ranging and not geared to a particular user group.

How can archives and other heritage organizations take an existing outreach initiative and efficiently make that initiative tailored to a range of users? Content development is probably the most important part of this process. It also tends to be the most labour intensive process. If you only have one handout for your archive or one set of research guidelines, consider spending some time creating additional content which can supplement existing handouts.

This might be as simple as creating different archive worksheets for genealogists, professional researchers, and students.  Front-line staff most likely already know which resources are used most by each of these groups and what common questions are asked by each group - it is a matter of committing it to paper or online resources.

Picking the right medium for their message can be just as important as the content archives with to deliver.  Paper resources are good for onsite visitors, digital content tends to appeal to students and distance researchers, interactive workshops may appeal more to community based researchers and genealogists than to academic researchers.

It might be tempting to do so for cost saving and efficiency's sake but creating all your content in one medium simply doesn't work.   Different user groups want different types of information.  It might be useful to conduct a user survey or to have front-line staff share user observations over a period of time prior to selecting a medium.  There is no point in creating content in a format that people don't find accessible.

Keep it simple.  Outreach activities do not need to be these elaborately complex schemes that take years to bring to fruition.  Start small and work towards larger outreach goals.  This could mean starting by creating a facebook page, creating bookmarks with hours/archive info on them, or creating simple handouts that are given to new researchers when they arrive at the archive. 

Outreach has the potential to be an enlightening and rewarding experience. Planning, thought, and time is required to create successful archival outreach programs.  But, increased outreach can help archives learn more about how to better cater to their users, can help increase use of the archive, and can raise awareness about historical issues.  

Photo credit: artofdreaming,...tanja..., and nick wright planning

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Compatible or Incompatible? Public History and the PhD

It has been three years since I completed my MA in public history.  Since graduating I have been involved in a number of interesting and professionally rewarding projects.  I've continued to learn new skills in each volunteer or paid position I've undertaken.  I also really enjoy my current position working with Residential School archives.

Despite all of this, I often debate about continuing my education - my thoughts have been as ranging as: returning to school for an ALA accredited MLIS program, a PhD, certificate style courses sponsored by organizations such as the Society for American Archivists, or informal continuing education programs.

Alexandra M. Lord's recent article, Writing For History Buffs highlights some of the difficulties I have conceptualizing how a PhD would fit into my public history goals. To some extent practical skills and experience tend to hold more weight in the public history field than a PhD.  Granted, it depends on the position and in some larger organizations a PhD is mandatory for top level curators and archivists. 

Despite at times feeling out of place amongst other public historians, Lord maintains she doesn't regret obtaining her PhD and feels as though it has helped her career and promotions as a public historian.  In contrast, I was told a couple of years ago by an Assistant Curator at the Canadian Museum of Civilization (CMC) that she would never go back for her PhD as it just wasn't worth it.  Her MA in public history contributed to her holding second highest position in her division  but the only way to get a Curator position at the CMC was to have a PhD.  This particular Assistant Curator maintained that the possibility of a position opening up at the right time, in whatever niche you decide to get a PhD in, is so small that the gamble just didn't seem worth it. I'm not sure who is right in this instance, or if there is even a right option.  Levels of education in the public history field vary greatly; as do personal situations.

In addition to the end value of a PhD, I've also struggled with the format of traditional history PhDs in Canada. Currently, the only way of pursuing a PhD in public history in Canada is to take a traditional history PhD program and select public history as one of your areas of concentration.  So despite being interested in public history you would still be following the traditional PhD model - course work, comprehensive exams and writing a doctoral thesis. 

Writing a doctoral thesis can be a great learning experience and is the standard milestone in academia. But is writing a very academic style work the best way to frame higher education for public historians? Would researching a curating a major exhibit, developing and implementing a records management system, or some other form of practical hands on work be more useful?   One of the most useful portions of my MA in public history was the hands on projects we completed and the internship component.  This hands on experience is virtually non existence in most history PhD programs.  History PhD programs continue to focus on preparing students for work in academia, even as positions in that realm becoming increasing limited.

Some public historians do end up working in academia.  However, a large number of public historians work in varying jobs outside of the ivory tower; in museums, archives, government, private corporations, parks, and countless other institutions.  Higher education programs need to consider how they can help prepare public historians for this variety of alternative roles.

What are your thoughts on PhDs in the public history field? If you have a PhD and work as a public historian how has your education impacted your career and outlook?

Monday, July 9, 2012

Happy Nunavut Day

Nunavut Day is a public holiday in Canada's Nunavut Territory.  The day celebrates the July 9, 1993 passing of the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement Act and the Nunavut Act, which established the intention for Nunavut to be a distinct territory at some point.  On April 1, 1999, this became a reality and Nunavut was officially made a territory. Nunavut Day celebrates the original passing of the Nunavut Act, which began the territories journey to establishment.

Nunavut is over two million square kilometers and makes up  20% of Canada's land mass.  As of 2011, there are approximately 33,330 people living in Nunavut the majority of which are Inuit peoples.  The creation of Nunavut marked a significant milestone for Canada;s Inuit people -- as the creation of Nunavut marked the beginning of self-governance of the Inuit.

Also, as far as I know Nunavut is the only province or territory in Canada that has an official holiday to celebrate its founding, heritage, and culture.  The day emphasizes the significance of the creation of this territory and also serves to remind residents and other Canadian's of the long debate and struggle undertaken in the establishment of Nunavut.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Ontario Closed For Business?

 Appearances aren't everything.  But in a society that is extremely visual oriented, appearances definitely count for something.  In March 2012, the Ontario government decided to close the Ontario Tourism Centre which was located on the Ontario-Manitoba border.  The once vibrant visitor stopping point is now abandoned and windows have been replaced with plywood.  To someone driving into Ontario this building provides a visual impression of "oh? Is Ontario closed?" 

The closure of the border Visitor Centre coincided with closures of seven of Ontario Tourism Centres, three of which were in Northwestern Ontario.  The other Northwestern closures were at Fort Frances and Rainy River, both of which are international border crossings with the United States.  Given the three boarded Visitor Centres in the Northwest, regardless of what direction you're traveling from it looks like someone decided to close off or just abandon a section of Ontario. 

When the Ontario government announced the decision to close seven Ontario Tourism Centres, a decrease in tourism in recent years was cited.  Additionally, the government suggested that it would ‘focus on online travel marketing activities to meet consumers’ travel research preferences through major redevelopment of its tourism information website, call centre and brochure distribution service.’  

Online resources are great, but have you ever traveled in Northwestern Ontario? Cell and internet service in-between major cities is spotty at best.  Also, despite this apparent renewed focus on online resources, the Travel Ontario websites has no information on Fort Frances or Rainy River.  The Northwestern Ontario section focuses mainly on Ontario parks, historical sites, and fishing.  Regional maps and smaller local attractions are nowhere to be found on the website. 

The closure of border crossing Ontario Tourism Centres has left a huge gap in Ontario's tourism landscape.  Visitors no longer have a clear welcoming entrance to the Province and local tourism information which was once in abundance in these Centre's has now more or less disappeared.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Connecting Canada: The Trans-Canada Highway

Every weekday I spend two hours on the Trans-Canada Highway, but it wasn't until my recent trip to Winnipeg that I put any real thought into the history and development of the Trans-Canada Highway.  The highway runs through all ten provinces of Canada and spans 8,030 km.  Additionally, most provinces have at least two routes which have been designated as part of the Trans-Canada Highway.

In 1949 parliament passed the Trans-Canada Highway Act, which established a Provincial and Federal cost-sharing scheme for the highway.  Construction started on building a highway across Canada in 1950, and the highway was formally opened in 1962, despite construction not being completed on the Highway until 1971. 

Part of this lengthy construction process was due to the natural landscape that was being covered.  Between Sault Ste Marie a stretch of 265 km proved one of the greatest challenges. If you have ever traveled this beautiful stretch of highway you are probably well aware of the lack of development, overwhelming amount of rock, and the expanses of water. Over 98 miles of forest needed to be cleared and 25 bridges were constructed over the numerous bodies of water in the area. 

Within 20 years of the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1885, Canadian citizens were asking for a national highway.  For many years government put off this concern deeming it unnecessary.  However, upon the eventual completion of the Highway parts of Canada became connected in ways that previously impossible.  This marked a huge improvement in infrastructure, national corporation, and job creation.  The Trans-Canada Highway began as a national wide public work project that has revolutionized roadway travel in Canada. Construction and in turn employment continues to be associated with the Trans-Canada today as many provinces undertake initiatives to widen and provide more lanes to the highway.   

The creation of the Trans-Canada highway definitively altered the natural landscape of Canada and the connect of Canada's people. This CBC radio clip captures the initial negotiations surrounding the establishment of the Trans-Canada Highway.