Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Time Capsule History

I was recently listening to a speaker who used time capsules as the introductory hook in his talk.  His description of time capsules focused on finding previously lost historical knowledge, the excitement of opening time capsules and the ability of time capsules to speak about the era they were created in.

The idea of finding a hidden piece of history and bringing it to light reminds me a lot of Indian Jones, treasure hunting and successful archival finds.   But, all I could think of when the speaker was using time capsules as an analogy was how vulnerable materials in poorly constructed time capsules are. 

All things deteriorate with time. Ideal preservation conditions can increase the lifespan of historical documents and artifacts.  But the items enclosed in a time capsule that a grade five class made themselves and buried for future grade five class might not have a great hope of extended survival.  Similarly, the digital mediums today will most likely not be usable in 50 years, making DVDs and CDs placed in time capsules rather useless. 

The time capsule analogy is an interesting one.  But I think it could be more aptly used to describe the fragile nature of human memory, the written word and our conceptions of history.  Our insights into the past are limited by what is left behind -- records, artifacts, oral histories, and material culture.  Like a poorly constructed time capsule, aspects of history that we don't actively aim to preserve often grow dim and fade into dust. 

Similarly, a time capsule only shows a glimpse into an era.  Often the contents of a time capsule are include because they hold significance to the creator of the capsule.  But that significance or an explanation of the context surrounding the item are very rarely included inside the capsule.   The items in a time capsule are like random bits of historical information, they have the potential to be important but without more information it's hard to tell what their actual value is. 

On the other hand, I remember being very excited as a child about the idea of creating and saving something for future students who might attend the elementary school.  Time capsules are a neat way of engaging the public with the past, they just need to be approached with a bit of knowledge about preservation and history.

Photo Credits: QuesterMark and Jessica Wilson

Friday, January 25, 2013

Checkout a Person: National Human Library Day

Tomorrow, January 26th 2013,  is National Human Library Day in Canada.  The day is sponsored by CBC and invites Canadians to interact with 'human books' at 15 libraries and cultural centers across the country.  The CBC is also hosting an online component of the program where individuals can interact with human books via webcam, text, twitter, and online chat. 

The 'human books' are typically members of the community from different walks of life, that might show a perspective that many community members aren't exposed to on a day to day basis.  For example, the Sudbury Human Library program features a transgendered woman, a former sex worker, a mine rescuer, a first nations Chief, among others.  Rather than checking out a book visitors to the library can sit down and have an informal conversation with a human book. The idea being that by talking to these people you might learn more about different aspects of society.

The Human Library program is great as it provides a reason for people who might not normally visit the library to participate in the event, it raises awareness of marginalized and under represented groups, and is very community oriented.  All the books come from the community and are typically checked-out by other community members.

I also like the idea that each of these people have stories that are worth sharing.  The story of each human book can be looked at as a personal history or an oral history.  The participants often talk about their personal experiences making their talks snippets of oral histories that they are sharing with others. 

In this particular incarnation of the Human Library, CBC has been heavily involved in promotion.  Local CBC programs have been playing recorded bits of personal stories in weeks leading up to the event.  These interviews are currently available on the regional CBC websites which conducted the interviews. The idea that at least part of these oral history experiences are being recorded appeals to the historian in me and brings to mind the importance of the digitization and transcription of oral history.  So many important experiences that can be provide insight to cultural, social and political history can be found in oral histories.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Graphics in the Archive: History and Comics Unite!

Check out my latest post, "Graphics in the Archive: History and Comics Unite!" over at Activehistory.ca.  The post looks at the prevalence of historically informed comics and the preservation of the comic medium in archives. 

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Digital Publishing and Contents Magazine

If you haven't already stumbled across Contents Magazine go check it out. Contents is a digital 'magazine' platform that releases issues in segments, a typical issue takes about eight weeks to appear on the site.  The magazine focuses on "readers who create, edit, publish, analyze, and care for the contents of the internet."  A lot of the material is applicable to archivists, librarians, and those working in the digital humanities.

I've never been a huge physical magazine reader.  I subscribe to Canada's History and that's the only magazine I read with any real consistency.  But, I do spend a lot of time online reading digital material, much of which is the length of an average magazine article.  It is interesting to see the branding of Contents as a digital magazine not as a group blog.  Contents includes design and illustration staff that are more reminiscent of magazine production than blog creation and it does have a visual element that many blog lack, so perhaps it is aptly named.

Personally, I like the emphasis that Contents places on open access and accessibility.  Most of the articles are the length of a longer blog post, include photos and are written in accessible language.  Considering Contents focus on digital mediums and the content that we produce online, it will be interesting to see if the site transforms to reflect trends in digital publishing and reading. 

The current issue's Editor's Note focuses on the idea of archives as an ancient idea that has very real applications and hurdles in a technologically inclined world.  Considering the challenges of digital preservation that archivists face today the topic of issue No. 5 is very relevant.  It should be interesting to see what the rest of the content in this issue ends up being.

What are your favourite digital publishing initiatives?

Monday, January 14, 2013

The New Professional Transition

The transition from student to worker is one that many people struggle with. The transition from new professional to full-fledged member of a profession can be just as challenging at times. New professional groups and grants specifically geared to new professionals can help ease the transition into professional life.  But, what defines a new professional? Years in the field? Years since graduation? Type of position?

The National Council on Public History (NCPH) defines new professionals  as"individuals, such as recent graduates of public history programs, who have been working within the public history profession for less than three years."  Conversely, the advocacy of the Society of American Archivists roundtable, Students and New Archives Professionals (SNAP) focuses on "students, interns, new professionals, early-career project archivists, and archivists who are still looking for their first professional jobs."

Most professional associations have variations on these definitions of new professionals.  Personally I prefer the SNAP definition of new professional as it does not assign an arbitrary timeline to the new professional transition period.   Depending on circumstances becoming fulling emerged in a profession can take as little as a year or as long as several years.  Circumstances which can impact this development might include: type of employment, opportunities for professional development, and opportunities for interaction with others in the field. 

I don't think there is a magic cut off point where you stop being a new professional.  But, I think over time as your experiences continue to grow, you begin to realize that you have knowledge which others in the field could benefit from.  Perhaps, the biggest part of this transition is gaining confidence in your skills and place inside the profession.  Even the newest professionals have perspectives that are worth sharing -- it sometimes just takes awhile for them to gain the courage to share it.

Personally, I had an 'okay, so maybe I'm further along than I thought I was' moment when speaking with undergrad and graduate students who are looking at their career and education prospects. I'm at the point where, I can begin to provide some anecdotal examples of job successes and failures, job milestones, and valuable skill building.  I've held a number of volunteer and paid positions which emphasize different aspects of public history and I've come to realize what type or work I enjoy and what type bores me to tears.  I think this realization is partially what made more confident in my place within the public history profession.  

Mentor programs, professional development courses, and ongoing education have also helped me gain my footing in a new professional world.  Some programs have definitely been more worthwhile than others, but I think talking to other people and continuing to learn new skills are something which all new professionals can engaging in to make their transition easier.

How do you define the term 'new professional'?  What programs helped you as a new professional? 

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

History Education in All Shapes and Sizes

The Fall/Winter 2012 issue of the American Archivist recently appeared on my desk.  I'm still working my way through it, but I found the article "Archival Document Packets: A Teaching Module in Advocacy Training Using the Papers of Governor Dick Thornburgh" by Richard J. Cox, Janet Ceja Alcala, and Leanne Bowler insightful and thought inspiring.

The article focuses on the University of Pittsburgh archival program's introduction of a course project to engage archival students in archival advocacy in outreach.   In particular, the students in a course called Archival Access, Ethics, and Advocacy under took a project to create teaching packets based on archival records relating to Dick Thornburgh.  The article outlines the experience of the students and their introduction to archival advocacy and addresses the relationship between archives and K-12 education.

September to December of 2012 was a particularly slow period for elementary and high school visits to the archive I work at.  This can largely be attributed to the Ontario English Teachers decision to cut extra-curricular activities (including field trips) in reaction to Bill 115.  In previous years, the archive has typically hosted one or two school groups a month.  Instead, September to December saw a large number of post-secondary and professional groups visiting the archive.  This shift in visitor trends contributed to me thinking about how archival visits can be bettered geared to each group.

As an archive we are lucky to be ideally situated on a historic site that reflects the type of material we collect.  Students groups often visit us to learn about the history of the site and not about archival practice.  That being said, I have a really hard time resiting an opportunity to explain the importance of historic documents, archives, and heritage institutions.  Any school presentation I give explains how the archive I work at was started as a community effort to collect lost pieces of history, includes slides of archival photographs and documents, and highlights the fact that archives are much more than just boxes of paper. 

Explaining research practices and archival selection to a grade four class isn't really the way to win supporters of archives in the education world.  But, I do think it is possible to begin introducing archives to students at a young age.  When a K-12 class visits our archive we typically try to pair their visit with a visit from a local Elder, who explains their personal experiences to the students as a form of oral history.  Having a living person sharing their experience tends to add a tangible element to the archival visit, it brings the photographs I use to describe the past to life.

I think my first visit to an archive wasn't until sometime in my undergrad. That visit included a standard introduction to archival research and prepared myself and my classmates to work on a source finding assignment in the archive. It was an okay introduction to the archive, but it really didn't inspire any interest in learning about about how archives are organized or historical research.

I also don't remember really being exposed to documentary heritage in any way in my earlier education.  I recall a couple of museum visits, but I think those were outside of school.  Heritage institutions have the potential to enrich history, social studies, civic lessons, geography, and so many other school topics.  But, for educators who have little to no exposure to heritage organizations or their holdings it's understandable that this avenue of instruction is often overlooked.  Archives shouldn't simply expect school groups to show up at their door.  Outreach and advocacy is needed to highlight the value of documentary and material cultural heritage within the formal education system.

How can archives/heritage organizations and educators collaborate more effectively?

Photo Credit: North Carolina Digital Heritage Center

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Family Heirlooms: From Cutlery to Adornments

Who else has a relative who collects spoons?  In many instances these relatives tend to be older, female, and the spoons tend to be hanging in a wooden/glass display case of some sort.  My mother, grandmother and a number of aunts all collected spoons at one point or another. 

Theses spoons were often purchased while away on vacation or as a gift when someone else went away.  The spoons come in all shapes and sizes, but most tend to be silver and have a delicate look about them.  They are clearly decorative and not your everyday soup spoon.

Often a spoon collector has a personal story or memory associated with each spoon.  These stories are rarely recorded and often not remembered by anyone other than the collector.  Following a death, many children have given away spoon collections that once represented pieces of family history and material culture. 

I think the lack of appeal of spoon collections to younger generations is one of the reasons why I was so interested by the idea of spoon jewelery.  This Christmas my Mother gave my sister and I spoon bracelets.  These bracelets weren't made from her spoon collection, but I'd like to think that they were made out of special occasion cutlery that once held a place in a family's life.
Evening Star Spoon

Each bracelet was accompanied by a card which detailed the make of the original cutlery and a short history of spoon jewellery.  My bracelet was made from a 1950s Evening Star, Oneida Silverplate spoon (pictured at right).  The Evening Star spoon is definitely not as decorative as many of those in typical spoon collections, but it does look as though it belongs to a 'nice' antique silverware set, that was maybe only used on special occasions.  

So why make jewelery out of spoons? Spoon jewelry isn't a new fashion trend, but apparently dates back to the 17th century.  Early spoon jewelry is said to have been predominately rings and was made by servants who had stolen flatware from their masters. Another history claims sailors in the navy would sneak silverware away from a ship galley to make engagement rings for their girlfriends. 

Personally, I like the idea of reusing objects that once held significance to make an item that is cherished by someone else.   Jewelry made out of antique objects that are no longer valued by a family seems like a great way to provide a second life to a family heirloom.  It makes me wonder about how other family collections could be re-purposed---eg. that overwhelming set of teacups your aunt has been storing for years.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Looking Forward: Heritage Activities in 2013

My last post of 2012 looked back some of my favourite heritage experiences of 2012.  This post looks forward to 2013 and some of the heritage activities I'm excited about for the upcoming year.

  • The winter issue of the Public Historian contains a review I wrote about a walking tour in Milwaukee.
  • In April, I will be attending and presenting at the NCPH 2013 conference in Ottawa, Canada. Later in the month I will also be visiting Montreal for work. While in Montreal I hope to visit the McCord Museum and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.  
  • Singing with the community choir, in the historic 12-sided round barn in May.  It's great to see a heritage space being used by the community in so many diverse ways.
  • In late September/early October 2013 My partner and I are planning a trip to Ireland.  We haven't fully fleshed out what were are going to include in our trip -- but I'm sure it will include museums, built heritage, historic sites, and lots of natural heritage.
 I'm also looking forward to continuing to read and engage in activities for professional development.  In 2013, I hope to continue to strengthen my skill set with activities relating to exhibit development and records management.