Monday, May 28, 2012

Personalizing Traditional History

Family, voice, sense of place, and time travel.  According to Benjamin Filene, these are the core themes in history created by non professionals, all of which are driven by a personal and emotional approach to the past.  Filene's recent Public Historian article, "Passionate Histories: 'Outsider' History-Makers and What They Teach Us," grapples with the development, validity, and spread of history created by persons outside of the formal history profession.

The struggle to quantify what constitutes 'real' or 'good' history is nothing new.  Public history as a field faced considerable from traditional academia during its rise to acceptance.  Genealogists are often scoffed at by academic historians and local historians are over looked.  Filene does not ignore the professional/outside divide in the history field.  Rather, he suggestions that both parties could learn from each others strengths.  Granted, suggesting two segregated sects work together is a lot easier said than done.

Public history that doesn't reach the public isn't very good public history.  Similarly, it wouldn't hurt more traditional historians to try new avenues of disseminating their research.  History practitioners outside of the formal field have interpretation and display techniques that could easily be adapted to public history.  Focusing on individual stories, using clear language, providing specific examples instead of broad themes, and relating history to present events are all approaches which can assist in interpretation. Some museums have already begun adapting new methods of interpretation.  This often means changing their exhibit style to be more personal and emotional and less telling an overarching story of a historical event.

Academic and professional history can be emotionally compelling.  However, this typically isn't the aim of professional history or something that is considered a top priority in presentation.  But, when people identify and can relate to history they show greater interest and are more likely to actively participate.  Historians of all shapes and sizes need to look at how they are reaching the public and begin to draw on interpretation and outreach work done by those outside of their immediate circle.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Milwaukee Built Heritage

I took an abundance of photographs while in Milwaukee for NCPH2012.  The bulk of these photos focused on the local built heritage and local landmarks that were highlighted in the walking tour I went on.  Here are a couple of choice photographs from that tour:

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Battle of Documentation

Documentation provides a written account of procedures, practices, successes, failures, and countless other big and small details.  The benefits of documentation include preserving institutional memory, providing new employees with detailed explanations of work tasks, and avoiding personnel from reinventing the wheel.

 Even with all these wonderful benefits, documentation is often neglected in favour of more 'important' tasks.  This can result in a loss of information, incomplete records, and the reproduction of labour later on.  I actually really enjoy creating documentation.  I find creating workflows, policies, and best practices oddly relaxing - perhaps it's the feeling that if I was to get hit by a bus tomorrow, someone would be able to pick up and understand the work I was doing.

My place of work currently uses a wiki to hold our documentation.  Using this communal space allows all staff to read, edit, and reference documentation when necessary.  Since our documentation is all online, staff can access it regardless of where they are working from.  The wiki also automatically tracks changes made to content,Initially a few staff members were reluctant to learn wiki markup, but with some gentle encouragement it became clear that even staff who aren't so tech savvy could learn with time.

In past positions I've used word documents for documentation.  This is probably my least preferred method of documentation.  You end up with multitudes of different versions of the same document and everything needs to be emailed or printed for other staff.  I do recommend that if you are using this method you come up with standard file naming procedures and footnote templates that denote version number.  Standardized naming helps make this slightly cumbersome method of documentation a bit easier to track.

Using Google Docs for documentation eliminates some of the email headaches caused by using Word.  Google Docs allows for items to be shared with multiple people, and can provide a collaborative editing space.

How does your work handle documentation? Do you have a preferred method of documentation?

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Creating Archival Professional Development Workshops

Over the course of the spring and summer my work is holding weekly events focused on library and archives professional development, training, and themes.  The sessions will be open current staff, university faculty, and local professionals. 

As part of this series a colleague and I are going to be facilitating three sessions focusing on archives.  Our library/archives staff is primarily made up of personnel with significantly more library than archival experience.  We hope our sessions will help library staff, other departments, and community members understand a bit more about archival practice.  Our sessions will focus on the basics of archival organization and preservation, community based heritage projects, and how to establish a successful digitization program. 

So, what makes a good professional development workshop? How do you gear your programing to suit a wide ranging audience who hold a variety of skill sets? What have been some of your best workshop experiences? Some of the aspects I particularly value in workshops include:

  • Hands on learning. In this particular instance incorporating hands on experiences could be done with preservation techniques, numbering files, scanning items, and creating metadata.
  • I also like having resources available after the workshop.  Be that an email with links to projects mentioned, a PowerPoint presentation, or additional resources for participants to look at.
  • Specific examples of successes, failures, and work-arounds.   Theory is all well and good, but at a workshop I prefer to learn about actual best practices and implementation that is in progress.
  • Being able to ask questions throughout the workshop if in an informal setting or having ample time at the end to ask questions about the material.  
What do you think are essential components of archival (or any other) professional development sessions? 

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Cultural Heritage and Traditional Ukrainian Dance

Last weekend I had the privilege of attending a Ukrainian dance recital put on by the Zorya Ukrainian Dance Association in Thunder Bay, Ontario.  The recital depicted history from numerous distinct regions of the Ukraine.  The dances, costumes, and music all reflected particular events in Ukrainian culture from various different regions.

Until attending this recital the only exposure I had to Ukrainian dance was at a wedding.  The dancing at the wedding was done by a dance trope and was fantastic, however I had no idea of the historical roots and context that the dancing embodied. 

The repertoire of the Zorya dance group focuses on the 19th century Ukraine.  Bits of history that were readily apparent through the dances included traditional farming techniques, marriage ceremonies, hospitality protocol, and gender roles. 

Dance steps and costumes in Ukrainian dance are extremely gender oriented.  Certain types of dance are reserved explicitly for males, eg. using swords as props.  Other dance steps such as lifts, shawl dances, ribbon and flower props are used only by females.  At first I was a bit taken by how strictly gendered everything was, however considering Zorya's emphasis on the 19th Century Ukraine, the gender roles are reflective of the period.

Watching this dance trope was a great experience and brought aspects of Ukrainian heritage alive in an interesting, engaging, and lively way.  If you ever have the chance to see Zorya or another Ukrainian dance group I highly recommend it.

What other types of traditional dance embody cultural history in a similar way?

Monday, May 14, 2012

American History Through Currency

I was recently sucked into some guilty pleasure TV.  Yes, I will admit to watching the History Television Pawn Stars.   Despite the lack of real historical content the program did contain mention of the educational currency series which existed in the United States in the 890s.  Being the history lover that I am, I wrote myself a sticky note to research this interesting bit of history.

The educational series was a set of silver certificates created in 1878.  The bills in the series depicted various scenes which are atypical to currency.  The images on the currency highlighted artwork, historical figures, and scientific innovation. These notes were back the government's stockpile of silver, and could be redeemed for silver at the Treasury.  This series went out of circulation when the silver redemption program was stopped in 1968.

The term educational series grew out of the fact that images on the bills had the potential to educate the general populace about American history, science, and politics. Three bills were created as part of this series:

A one dollar bill entitled "History Instructing Youth".  This bill showed the 'goddess of history' instructing a young person in the history of the United States.  The bill also includes the constitution and names of famous Americans.

A two dollar bill titled "Science presenting steam and electricity to Commerce and Manufacture". This note uses art to highlight the impact of steam and electricity on the American economy and development.

A five dollar bill entitled "Electricity as the Dominant Force in the World".  Similar to the two dollar note, this bill uses women to depict electricity.  Some controversy was raised of the artistic merits of this bill, as it featured to women with bare breasts.

This series is by far the most interesting type of currency I have ever seen.  It is reminiscent of classical artwork and touches on themes far outside the range of normal currency.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Canadian Heritage Cutbacks

This week has been filled with announcements of program cancellations, staff reductions, and budget restrictions.  Many of these announcements have been related to Canada's heritage field and have the potential to drastically impact heritage sites, archives, and history preservation across the country.

The major announcements include:
  • Library and Archives Canada (LAC) has announced a 20% reduction in staff.  This means that you will no longer be able to visit the archive without an appointment, as reference service staff is being significantly reduced.  There are also rumors about the entire Inter-library Loans department being scrapped at LAC.  This would be a huge blow to researchers and institutions throughout Canada who rely on loans to access material. 
  • Parks Canada has been hit hard by the recent public service cuts.  Parks staff have been told that 638 positions will be eliminated in the upcoming year.  The impact on individual historic sites will vary, but a number of parks will be greatly impacted.  
    • For example, it was announced that the Fortress of Louisbourg in Nova Scotia will be letting go of ten staff members and reducing the hours of at least 110 employees.  As a result of this staffing cut and funding reductions the parks hours and services will be reduced. 
  • The National Archival Development Program (NADP) has been cut. The NADP was a grant program that funded archives projects across Canada.  Many archival programs, archival staff, and community resources will be eliminated with this decision.
  • The Canadian Council of Archives office has been closed. More information on this decision is to be announced in the near future.  On April 30, 2012 Lara Wilson, Chair of CCA announced that "with the exception of the minor capacity needed to administer Young Canada Works (YCW) and the National Archival Appraisal Board (NAAB), the current CCA staff will no longer be in place and our office will be closing."  Currently it seems as though this level of national support will no longer be available to archives.
I wouldn't change my decision to delve into the world of public history.  However, these recent trends provide mountains for new and experienced professionals to overcome.  Employment opportunities, professional support, and funding avenues seem to be on the decline on multiple fronts.  

These cuts will also have a significant impact on the heritage field's ability to communicate Canada's past to the general public.  Staffing and budget cuts result in less acquisitions, reduced level of care, and less community outreach and programming.  I think the general public, educators, and the government need a reminder of the value of history and heritage.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Active History Celebrating Three Years

Head on over to to check out a great summary by Jim Clifford on the past three years of the Active History site.  It's hard to believe that it was four years ago, in 2008 when I traveled to York University for the Active History symposium.  Since the symposium and the development of the Active History site, a wide range of conceptions of active history have been shared via Active History. 

I'm constantly being exposed to new ideas and types of history via the group blog. I've went from admiring the site from afar to being fortunate enough to contribute to the site as a blogger and currently as a member of the editorial collective. It has been great to see the Active History website develop, grow, and begin to thrive.  I sincerely hope that things continue as positively in the future!