Friday, November 30, 2012

Oral History and Documentation Sharing

Earlier this week, Canada's History Society hosted an oral history webinar with Alexander Freund.  The webinar focused on the basics behind oral history, planning and implementation of oral history, and general best practices for oral history projects.  The webinar was recorded and can be viewed online. 

The webinar provided a good starting point for those with little or no exposure to oral history. Freund's presentation was broken down into preparation, interviewing, processing and dissemination.  He provided high level overviews of each oral history component using general examples and suggestions.  

I was particularly pleased to hear Freund's emphasis on the need for oral history projects to work with archives from the very early stages of the project.  Freund suggested that projects should be conducted with a long term goal of archival preservation and that archives should be consulted regarding preservation, donor details and other pertinent documentation.  As someone who works in an archive and who has used archived oral history recordings, Freund's emphasis on a proactive collaborative approach makes me very happy.

Though the content of the webinar was fairly introductory, the resources and samples provided as part of the webinar have the potential to be invaluable.  These resources included items such as an interview guide, audacity audio software guide, sample forms, and interview checklists. Having examples of other policies, guides, and best practices greatly assists in the creation of program specific procedures.

Anyone who has ever written a best practices manual, training guide, or policy knows the value of not reinventing the wheel.  I find looking at the established best practices of other organizations is one of the best ways to gain perspective on your purposed best practices.  Granted, these established practices can (or should) very rarely be copied wholesale -- rather they are considered, incorporated, elaborated on to fit your organization.

Currently, only a limited number of heritage organizations post their documentation online.  It seems redundant for every heritage organization to start each policy from nothing, when so many other organizations have essentially the same basic policies. In particular, smaller organizations with limited resources can gain a lot from looking at studies, working groups, and policies that have been crafted by larger resource rich institutions.  This can apply to everything from effective collection policies, heritage specific software guides, to donor forms. This webinar highlighted the value of sharing resources and community collaboration.  I sincerely hope that as online collaboration increases that so does the use of shared resources in the heritage sector, as most organizations have much to gain from joint efforts.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Aboriginal Archives and the Division of Community and 'Professional' Archives

South Australian Museum, shields
Somebody, somewhere, decided yesterday was (unofficial) Aboriginal Archives Day.  Google failed in finding a definite answer in who was promoting the day, but by the looks of it the University of Manitoba may have started it as an internal event and promoted it via social media; which resulted in a handful of other archives 'participating'.  A handful of archives and organizations shared resources, collections, and special events via social media.  Some of the highlights include:
I think perhaps the most notable point here is that none of the organizations who shared resources were First Nation or Tribal heritage organizations.  There continues to be a divide between grassroots Indigenous archives and more formalized institutional based archives. 

The Association of Canadian Archivists (ACA) does have a Special Interest Section on Aboriginal Archives (SISAA).  According to the summary on the ACA website, SISAA aims to act as " an interface between the community of Canadian archivists and Aboriginal communities and organizations and to form a base of expertise, advice, and support on archival issues that can be shared with Aboriginal communities and organizations."  The most well known example of this is the 2007 SISAA publication of their Aboriginal Archives Guide which serves as an introduction to archival practice for Aboriginal organizations and communities.  

I find the above statement about SISAA unsettling.  The statement speaks of sharing expertise with Aboriginal communities and the separation of the archival community from Aboriginal communities.   Yes, archivists do have expertise, however there is a tremendous amount of knowledge that archivists can also gain from viewing Aboriginal communities as the experts -- traditional knowledge, oral traditions, and cultural heritage can provide a breadth of understanding to archivists that can potentially enrich archival collections.  Additionally, Canada's colonial past and resulting collection with consultation has long been detrimental to the material cultural of Indigenous people in Canada.  Active and equal collaboration has the potential to benefit the archival and Aboriginal communities.

Though perhaps the SISAA is merely attempting to grapple with its current state -- very few archivists or archives staff from smaller more community based archives participate in ACA's annual conference, special interest groups, or membership.  Many of the members of SISAA are archivists who work in more traditional institutions which hold substantial collections created by or relating to Aboriginal people (eg. LAC, provincial and local government archives, HBC, etc).

Smaller resource limited archives tend to be disengaged from the ACA and more broadly the Canadian archival and heritage profession. In the US, the Association of Tribal Archives, Libraries, and Museums (ATALM) has worked to engage Tribal based cultural institutions and to provide training and services that are geared to the specific needs of Tribal organizations.  Granted, this still separates Aboriginal heritage organizations and professionals from the rest of the profession, but at least important services are made accessible via ATALM.

In Canada, many archives have worked to established community level collaboration and relationships with Indigenous people.  Currently, these connection just don't seem to transfer into the national level or the realm of professional associations.  Given the current dismal state of government heritage funding, it seems unlikely that ACA and other professional organizations will change their approaches to Indigenous heritage in the near future. 

Monday, November 26, 2012

Memoirs and Our Perception of History

I recently participated in a discussion focusing on the benefits, nature, and drawbacks of the memoir genre.  In the past decade the memoir genre has experienced a huge serge in popularity.  This serge has not been entirely smooth, controversies have surrounded many memoirs in recent years.  Perhaps, most famously James Frey's A Mission Little Pieces was exposed as being a fictional fabrication after being promoted as a truthful memoir on a variety of media outlets. The controversy surrounding Frey's use of fiction in a memoir is not a singular event, in April 2011 Greg Mortenson was sued for including potentially fabricated details in his memoir Three Cups of Tea and the content of many other memoirs has been questioned.

If nothing else these controversies tend to highlight how firmly the general public believes that literary works purported as truthful must adhere to a strict code of reality.  Based on this logic memoirs can be self serving, full of bias and pride but must not include excessive fabrications or stretching of the truth.  Memoirs present only one point of view and tend to present an edited view of a persons life -- does this make them any less of a valid literary work? Or a valid personal history? The point is debatable, but I tend to think they
 are valid on both points, they just need to be treated with care and with an understanding of their nature.

This discussion of the nature of memoirs led to me thinking about the nature of established histories.  Archives and historical records can be just as biased as memoirs.  For example, correspondence that acts as a historical record or an archival source is often fraught with contention.  A written letter only tells a specific story, the one written on the page.  What the author left out, the reasoning for including particular references, and additional context can at times be inferred but can rarely be known with certainty. 

Similarly, ledgers, statistics and other quantifiable records are not always hundred percent truthful.  Look at wartime statistics, the number of enemy kills is often approximated or exaggerated to garner wartime support.  Granted, the fallibility of these statistics often comes to light at the conclusion of war, but 100% accurate numbers often don't appear.  Another example of the fallibility of historical statistics can easily be found in the case of Residential School records.  Quarterly returns, the student lists submitted by school principals to Indian Affairs to gain a per student compensation rate, often included 'errors' which would result in the school gaining additional funding.  Students who had left the school or passed away were at times left on the official class list, gaining the school funding for a student who wasn't in attendance.  Statistics are not always the ultimate historical source when looked at in isolation. 

Additionally, archives, museums and formal histories are not the be all and end all of history.  Selection procedures and display policies all impact what history is kept, recorded, and presented.  Visitors to a historic site are seeing a curated presentation of the past.  It is physically impossible to keep or display everything.  Researchers and the general public need to be aware that just because something isn't prominently display or well represented in an archival collection, doesn't mean that it didn't happen or impact historical events.  

Most records and perceptions of the past have some kind of inherent bias.  Personal correspondence, official business records, government records, etc may all contain underlying motives that aren't apparent at first glance.  Contextual analysis and examining documents in an inclusive manner can help bring about the most representative truths from documents.  Looking at history from a variety of vantage points helps expose hidden aspects of the past and helps drive further historical research. 

Monday, November 19, 2012

Where The Old Stuff Goes: The Importance of Appraisal

Institutional archives tend to gain the bulk of their records via a records management program and directly from the institution they are part of.  Thematic archives are typically not linked with an institution in the same way and must look beyond a single organization for records.  This results in theme oriented archives relying on collection policies to dictate the type of material they collect.
Properly functioning records management programs provide a constant supply of new archival records.  Theme basic archives typically have no idea when the next donation might appear on the horizon.  This can result in what some have termed a 'keeper' mentality or a vacuum approach (sucks up everything in sight) to archival selection. Frank Boles in Selecting & Appraising Archives & Manuscripts provides a thoughtful summary of this type of fear based approached to selection,
"The uncertainty inherent in collecting records is real, but in many collecting archives it has been linked to the 'keeper' mentality...this linkage has further lessened the urge to plan.  If an archivist cannot know what tomorrow will bring, this line of reasoning argues, then perhaps he or she should simply seize what is at hand and preserve at all cost." (p. 65)
 Having spent the last two years working in an archive that operated for 30+ years without a collection policy or trained archival staff, has highlighted how this urge to keep anything that might be tangentially relevant can create chaos in any archive.  It isn't physically or financially practical to keep everything.  There is no need to keep 45 identical copies of an event program or every brochure that has ever been mailed to an archive. Think of how many documents you make in the course of a single day -- how many do you throw out or delete as soon as you're done using them? These transitory records have little value beyond their immediate use and are not normally candidates for archival preservation.

The lack of a well conceived collection policy can contribute to resources being spent on material that isn't useful to researchers or community groups the archive aims to serve, collections being accepted that have no 'intrinsic archival or research value' and a whole range of administrative problems such as collections on deposit and a plethora of missing donor information.  Collecting everything in sight can even contribute the collection of items which can be detrimental to the physical collection as a whole -- eg. Collections that contain mold, insects, nitrate negatives without proper storage, etc.

Having a strategic plan, collection policy and mandate can benefit archival staff, researchers, and community groups.  Once collection priorities are established archival staff can focus outreach on potential donors with relevant collections, instead of waiting for scraps of maybe relevant material to be handed to them.  Many useful fonds and collections are not necessarily the largest in existence, but the ones which are well documented, have rich provenance and have been arranged and described with care.  An archive which has many poorly described, non related collections is far less accessible to researchers than an archive which focuses on providing clear access to a well defined type of collection.

Most of the general public sees archives as general storage places for 'old stuff.'  Archives need to actively work toward educating the public and researchers about the purpose of collection policies, acquisition strategies, and archival mandates.  Having strong collection policies makes it easier for archival staff to make appropriate appraisal choices, which in tern makes it easier for archival staff to explain to the public why they don't act as a repository for every old piece of paper. 

Photo credit: wj_souza

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Archival Advocacy: Canada and Abroad

There has been a tremendous amount of discussion in the twitter and blog realms about SAA's new publication Resources for Volunteer Programs in Archives. The publication garnered a heated post on the "You Ought to be Ashamed" blog, this post spurred a charged the twitter debate and number of other blog posts.  See here and here

For those of you who have missed the discussion, it boils down to a criticism of the use of volunteers in place of paid archival staff and a subsequent criticism of SAA's lack of advocacy for paid archivists positions.  Personally, I see volunteers and students as a great thing, but they do need guidance and proper support from trained staff.  Many organizations couldn't survive without the hours put in by their volunteers.  But organization also can't flourish without consistent trained guidance.  I think this issue highlights the need for archives to make the general public, stakeholders and funding organizations more aware of what archives actually do and what specialized skills are held by trained archives staff.

Many people have limited knowledge of what terms like appraisal, processing, arrangement, preservation, etc mean.  As a result archives are often seen as storage rooms for old stuff.  Explaining the value of organization and documentation can be a starting point for introducing archival skill sets to the general public. A lot of misconceptions can begin to be altered through community outreach and active advocacy.

The other point which this discussion highlighted for me was how much more involved and active archival professional organizations seem in the United States.   The Association of Canadian Archivists (ACA) does hold an annual conference, publishes a newsletter and journal, and has a growing social media presence. The ACA also released a number of news bulletins and a letter writing campaign when cuts to Library and Archives Canada were announced.  Despite these efforts, Canadian archivists on a whole just don't seem to be engaged in national professional dialogues to the same extent as their American counterparts.  Though perhaps I'm just observing the wrong segments of the web-- in which case please correct me. 

A number of Canadian archival institutions use twitter and facebook to promote new collections and services.  However these accounts rarely engage on topics related to the archive profession itself. 
Almost all of the prominent individual archives blogs and individual archival users of twitter tend to be from the United States.  Frankly, I can't see an ACA publication causing such a stir in the Canadian archival community even if it was controversial in nature.

This lack of professional dialogue or national community on the part of Canadian archivists can be disheartening at times.  Canadian archivists are angered when cuts are made to archival funding and tend to rise up in the face of crisis.  But on a daily basis very few archivists are engaging in discussions about how to improve the field or change public perceptions.   Last minute action isn't always the best method and continuous education, promotion, and outreach has the potential to root out some problems before they begin.

Additional reading:
Adam Crymble's 2010 Archivaria article, "An Analysis of Twitter and Facebook Use by the Archival Community," provides a good analysis of the different uses of social media by archival organizations and individual.  Despite the data being from 2009-2010 the conclusions about types of usage and outreach are still very relevant.

Some Canadian Archives Twitter Folks:

Monday, November 12, 2012

Crumbling Communities: Declining Service Club Membership

My most recent post can be seen over on the Active History site.  The post focuses on the development and rich history behind prominent service clubs such as the Lions Club, Kiwanis, Rotary, etc.  The post also addresses the recent history of the clubs and recent declining membership rates.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Small Town Gossip and E-Books

Anyone who has ever lived in a small town has probably experienced the power of the small town social grapevine at one point or another.  You told one person news or did something unusual and suddenly the everyone you run into is asking you about it.  Sometimes it feels as though people are by hyper-aware of each others actions and options. 

Perhaps this small town mentality is what caused me to be so shocked when I heard member of the library staff talk down e-books and e-readers.  On a couple of occasions in recent months I've witnessed this person talk about how ebooks can't compare to 'real books', that e-books dissuade people from visiting the library, and that ebooks can negatively impact your brain function.  After reflection I began to wonder how many other people in the library heard these statements and repeated them as fact.  Or have noticed that the library is one of the few in Ontario that seems to have opted out of Overdrive (the Ontario Library Service digital book portal).

I love my physical books.  I am also an active user of a Kobo and I routinely read online.  I also still visit my local library on a fairly regular basis.  In my mind there are distinct benefits to both physical and electronic forms of reading and I like each for different reasons. I can understand librarians (and users) being frustrated with ebooks terms or use and lending conditions.  But, being frustrated with a flawed usage agreement is no reason to discount an entire type of reading or user group. 

On any evening visit to the library the entire bank of computers is typically home to a number of local children and youth, all engaging in digital content in some shape or form.  I have rarely seen these same children/youth browsing through the physical stacks.  Anecdotally this might suggest that these library users are looking for a different type of library than one which focuses solely on physical books.  In this respect the local library is making strides by making a wii available, hosting community events, having an active facebook account and digitizing their local history collection. 

E-books have the potential to be just one of the many services offered by a public library.  Encouraging people to explore digital publications does not mean that libraries will cease to exist.  It merely means that the range of services and focus of the library expands to include digital formats.  Additionally, ebooks have a potential to engage younger users in reading in a way that physical books might not.  I really hope that the small town grapevine doesn't spread the evils of e-readers and that people examine their benefits before making a decision about their value. 

Monday, November 5, 2012

History Education: Remembrance Day

There was a great segment on CBC's Morning North today.  It focused on Canadian teachers who visited France this past summer to visit WWI and WWII battlefields as a means of learning more about the Wars, soldier experience and historical landscape.  The idea being that this experiential learning trip would provide the teachers with better tools to teach their students about the World Wars. This particular program is run by the Juno Beach Centre, which offers a number of different education programs focusing on tangible history and remembrance.

The CBC segment highlighted the teachers experience making gravestone rubbings, collecting rocks and dirt and taking many videos and photographs of the landscape.  All of these collected items have the potential to illuminate a segment of the past beyond what is written in a textbook.  For example, one teacher spoke of collecting rocks from the beach at Dieppe to help explain why the assault was such a huge failure.  The rocks on the beach have been smoothed by the ocean, making it impossible for soldiers and vehicles to gain traction on.  By bringing back rocks from Dieppe students are able to touch and actually see what the landscape would have been like for solders. 

Using physical objects to explore the past helps explain history beyond textbooks and make it increasingly tangible to students.  Additionally, the days leading up to Remembrance Day provide a time that many teachers utilize to introduce students to Canada's involvement in the World Wars.  Personally, other than making poppy wreaths out of construction paper and memorizing In Flanders Fields I don't really remember learning all that much about Remembrance Day or being taught the context behind the day.  I'm sure it was included somewhere, but the method of instruction clearly wasn't memorable.

For those people looking for instruction ideas, Veterans Affairs has a number of great resources and guides to focused on Canadian war efforts.  Canada's History Society also has a number of lesson plans that focus on Canada's role during wartime. 

Friday, November 2, 2012

Digitization and Holistic Approaches to Data Sets

Over the past two years I have spent a lot of time working with Residential School quarterly return reports.  These reports were completed four times a year by School principals and contain the names, admission date, ages and discharge information of the students who were in attendance at the school.  The set of returns we have is far from complete but they do act as one of the best documents for providing proof that an individual attended IRS.

The majority of the work I do with quarterly returns is dictated by reference requests from former students, staff, families, and communities looking to find information about a particular individual.  While processing one of these typical typical reference requests, I typically flip through a binder that contains all the quarterly returns for a school and pick out any references to a specific individual.  I would then scan or photocopy the relevant pages and send them to the interested individual.  Though this process involves the quarterly returns it never led to me considering the returns as a whole. 

A recent project I've worked on helped me take a more holistic approach to looking at some quarterly returns.  The returns are one of the most frequently accessed documents in the archive I work at and staff spend a considerable amount of time manually searching returns for relevant information.  The majority of the quarterly returns are handwritten and many of them are poor quality copies.

The handwritten nature of the returns means that using Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software to make the documents full text searchable isn't possible.  But given the importance of these records and the frequency of access, creating a searchable transcribed version of the quarterly returns was seen as valuable. Currently, we have only undertaken making searchable the records for the schools that are accessed most frequently.

 Though time consuming, this task has not only increased access to the quarterly returns but provided some insight about the schools as a whole.  For example, the returns often indicate if a student is in the hospital or infirmary.  The process of transcribing and making these records has made it easier to track outbreaks of illness within the schools.  For example, at the schools in Spanish Ontario there were 28 boys sick in December 1943, which is almost 20% of the entire male student population.

Similarly, looking at the returns more holistically has also highlighted education trends within the school.  Often a trade or industry of study is listed for the boys school.  The most common trades include : farming, diary, carpentry, poultry, cooking, tailor and shoemaker.  It is now possible to group data by trade and determine which trades were more popular at particular periods. 

The transcription process has also illuminated the fallibility of these records.  One of the most common mistakes in the returns is misspelling of family names.  The transcription process highlighted how depending on who filed the return the spelling of a name could change (eg. Corbiere or Corbier or Coribiere).

Overall, the process of being able to access information and process requests more efficiently is always a great thing in my mind.  More importantly, this experience has highlighted the potential of records to provide contextual information when looked at holistically and contextually.  Considering the difficulties (eg. missing records) that many people working with residential school records come across, it is important to use the information that does exist to its fullest potential. 

Library and Archives Canada has compiled a guide to conducting Residential School research that might be useful to anyone beginning to work with IRS documents.