Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Mark Twain Project and the Autobiography of Mark Twain

The Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 2  was published in October 2013 in print and digital form.  Twain dictated much of his autobiography during the later years of his life.  He insisted that the lengthy work not be published until 100 years after his death. The first volume of this complete authoritative autobiographical series was published accordingly in 2010.

The second book in a three volume set picks up where his dictation left in April 1906 and continues until February 1907.  The writing reflects a stream of consciousness writing style and often wanders off in various directions at once.  Many of the entries begin with reference to contemporary events, newspaper articles, or letters, which Twain then expands on, rants about, or analysis.  The work includes many personal reflections, political views, and discussions of his contemporaries.  These often scathing comments highlight Twain's reasoning for a long publication ban.  He spares no feelings when discussing those he dislikes.

Twain's writing is often self centered and vain but you can't help but being drawn into his world.  The pages are infused with his famous humor and wit.  Twain is also very open about the fact that he is selective about what is being dictated and that he is presenting himself in a good light. The Autobiography is not at all what I expected as it is more personal recollections of events or people that are often disconnected from each other.  There is no overarching 'great man' narrative or grand story propelling the work.  But, the nontraditional format does allow Twain's personality to come forth and reveals previously unpublished insights into the life of Twain.

Samuel Langhorne Clemens, Seattle Tacoma, 1895
To call Mark Twain a prolific writer might be an understatement.  Born in 1835 as Samuel Langhorne Clemens, the man published over 30 books and over 300 articles in his lifetime.  He also penned a massive amount of material that was unpublished at the time of his death. 

Some of this unpublished material was later published under a series of editors selected by Twain or his daughter Clara.  And the bulk of it was eventually donated to the University of California in 1949.  Since this time a series of editors at Berkley have worked diligently to edit and publish parts of the Twain papers.  In 1980 Robert H. Hirst took over as editor of the project and expanded the scope of the project to be as comprehensive as possible, aiming to collect everything Mark Twain wrote.

In 2001, the Project began incorporating digital components into its work. This movement allowed for the digital markup and encoding of Twain's writings, the digital publication of his works, continuous updating of publications.  One of the best features of this movement online is the ability to compare transcriptions of texts (eg. original manuscript vs. typescript) and the hyperlinking of references and emendations.

I enjoyed the print edition of the Autiobiography but I did find myself frequently wishing the notes were more accessible.  The 733 page volume contains roughly 450 pages of the autobiography with the rest being notes and index.  The notes provide a lot of insight and context to the news clippings and people referenced by Twain.  However, flipping back and forth between the main text and the line notations can be disruptive while reading.  The digital version's feature which hyperlinks notations and places the explanatory notes next to the main text is much less cumbersome. 

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Social Justice in the Archives

The 2013 Fall/Winter issue of The American Archivist opens with two articles focusing on social justice within the archival profession.  The first "A Critique of Social Justice as an Archival Imperative: What Is It We're Doing That's All That Important" by Mark A. Greene.  This piece challenges the idea that "to be an ethical archivists, one must pursue 'social justice' in all phases of archival practice" (p. 303) Green maintains that the archivists role is primarily to serve it's patrons and that "It isn't the job of the archivist to lead the social justice crusade.  But it is his or her job to pursue, acquire, and make available the records that will, among other things, allow social justice crusaders to show that injustice has occurred" (p. 328).

The second article, "Archivists and Social Responsibility: A Response to Mark Greene", is a rebuttal by Randall C. Jimerson.  This piece focuses on Green's criticisms of Jimerson's previous work and clarifies Jimerson's stance on social action, politicizing the archival profession and societal roles.

Both articles are well worth reading and provide an interesting look into the social implications of archival practice.  Greene and Jimerson both highlight the importance of archives to public and private institutions and the impact archives can have on society and the historical record. 

I work in an archive that has a long history of social justice advocacy or at the very least is entangled in a social justice issue.  The legacy of residential schools is something that is still being addressed and struggled with in Canada.  During the implementation of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement (IRSSA) the archives I work in were used frequently by Survivors to legitimate their claims and challenge legal decisions. 

The very nature of the records in an archives which focuses on Residential Schools is challenging.  Most records and photographs relating to residential schools were created and kept by school staff or government agencies.  But it is the former students who are pictured, written about and who find importance in these records today.  This particular archive is governed by a Survivor based organization and a large portion of resources are dedicated to serving survivors and their descendents.

But, archives staff have also worked closely with religious organizations and groups who were involved in the operation of residential schools.  These working relationships and partnerships have resulted in the many of donations that Survivors have subsequently found so invaluable.  It is only through maintaining a balanced cross-cultural approach that the development of collections and programming in the archives has been so successful.

Archives have the potential to deeply impact peoples lives and archivists play a crucial role in how the historical record is preserved and accessed.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Artifact Meanings and Contextualization

In the museum world, objects are generally described with reference to their designers, or purchasers, or donors...But the whole history of an objects intersects with many other people, who employ many other skills and attach many other meanings.1
The above quotation from Richard Rabinowitz's article highlights the traditional way that museums tend to display and think about artifacts.  Artifacts are often included in exhibitions with labels about where they were created, who they belonged to, and who donated them.  This isn't necessarily a bad thing. Provenance allows for the context of an object to come to the forefront and helps tell a specific part of history.  However, Rabinowitz's statement also rightly points out that artifacts don't exist in a vacuum.  

Objects are frequently handle by people other than their owners.  For example, the average car comes into contact with an uncountable number of people throughout its existence -- the assembly line workers, transporters, the staff at the dealership, mechanics, cleaners, insurance appraisers, junk yard staff, etc. 

In Rabinowitz's case the inspiration to look beyond the original owners of an object was generated by a lack of artifacts representing the experience of salves in New York.  The possessions of people at the margins have tended to be less likely to end up in museum collections.  The Slavery in New York exhibition included numerous heirloom objects from upper class families accompanied by the text "everything is touched by slavery."  The point being that household items were polished, cleaned, and maintained by slaves.  Using well known eighteenth century items and re-framing them with contextual research about slavery allows the items to be part of the exhibit in a meaningful way.

In my mind, the whole idea is brilliant.  It allows the hands of those who touched the artifact but aren't normally associated with it to be exposed.  The example also highlights the importance of curatorial planning, research, and interpretation.  Without interpretation artifacts are just old objects. Interpretation is needed for contextualization, the creation of narratives, and to engage visitors.

1 Richard Rabinowitz, "Eavesdropping at the Well: Interpretive Media in the Slavery in New York Exhibition," The Public Historian, Vol. 35, No. 3.  

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Children to Children Art Installation Opening

Part of the Project of Heart Commemorating the Children of Future Generations Initiative the Ontario based commemoration project "Children to Children" will open at the 180 Projects Gallery in Sault Ste Marie on December 7th at 7pm. 

Project of Heart is a hands on artistic and history project aiming to commemorate the children who died while at residential school, teach the general public about residential schools, and promote social action.  Project of Heart has resulted in thousands of school children learning about residential schools, speaking with and learning from survivors of residential schools, and creating commemorative titles.

These commemorative titles have become the basis for commemoration projects across the country.  For example, in Vancouver a Tsleil-Waututh racing canoe was unveiled that was made from over 9000 Project of Heart tiles decorated by students from over 250 schools in British Columbia.  

The "Children to Children" opening will feature an installation piece created by Shingwauk Residential School Survivor and Elder Shirley Horn, inter-generational survivor Shelly Fletcher, artist Zenith-Lillie Eakett and Dayna Rainville. The installation will use thousands of titles create by students from across Ontario, in commemoration of the legacy of residential schools.