Collaborative Digital Workspaces

collaborationRecently a couple of projects I’m part of have been trying out collaborative digital workspaces for communicating with large groups, sharing documents, and scheduling.  In both cases the desire is to streamline communication, avoid excessively long email chains, and facilitate collaborative digital projects.  The two platforms I’ve been using are Slack and Basecamp.

Slack

Branded as a communication tool for teams, Slack allows groups to organize conversations using ‘channels.’  Channels are ways to categorize discussion based on project, team, topic etc and can be created to suit your group’s needs.  You can also use Slack as a file sharing tool and it integrates with Google Drive and Dropbox.  Similarly you can sync an existing Google Calendar into the slack interface.

Slack is available as a desktop program or as an app.  I’m still new to this product and the slack ‘team’ I’m part of is still working on how Slack might fit into our workflow.  I do like the mobile app and the way you can customize notifications based on your preferences.  We’re only using the free version, so there is a limit to the number of messages that are searchable (10K) and file storage is limited to 5GB.  But as a communication cool even the free version seems to be fairly agile and good at aggregating conversations.  It also has hashtag functionality to help facilitate after the fact searching and navigation.

Basecamp

Basecamp is a more robust digital tool than Slack.  It is a project management and collaborative workspace than simply a communication tool.  Similar to Slack it’s available as a desktop and as a mobile app.  The pricing model for Basecamp is slightly more aggressive than Slack, the first Basecamp you setup with an account is free but beyond that is $29/month. Basecamp is simple to use and has a fairly clean interface that facilitates the creation of to-do lists, message boards, group chat spaces, the uploading and sharing of files, and scheduling. It has some basic reporting functionality an some search functions.

There have been some criticisms of Basecamp’s functionality as a project management tool – it doesn’t allow the assigning of tasks to multiple people and it doesn’t allow time tracking.  Outside of those flaws I think Basecamp works well as a collaborative space.  It’s been incredibly easy to share documents on and to facilitate conversations among a dozen people. I could see larger groups having difficulty keeping up with content on Basecamp – in my mind huge message chains on a message board are only marginally better to keep on top of then a lengthy email chain. Similar to Slack I like the app functionality of this particular platform which is easy to update and review while not physically at a computer.

What digital collaboration tools have you found useful in streamlining group workflows?

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Self-location and Concepts of Place

During a recent workshop on active archives and archives in the classroom my co-presenter brought up the idea of using self-location as a starting point for talking about residential schools and reconciliation. In subsequent days I’ve had a few conversations with colleagues about the value of using self-location as an instruction tool and how it can be used in teaching history.

The fact that the university I work at is located on the site of two former residential schools can deeply shape how conversations about place unfold. The history of the institution is directly tied to the legacy of residential schools.  How students, visitors, and faculty interact with spaces on campus today says a lot about how the site evolved from a residential school and the fact that the physical space has tangible connections to the past.  How people interact with campus history can be emotional, triggering, and challenging.  But we need to have those difficult conversations and  talk about how the legacy of residential schools interacts with the space we occupy as an institution.

Self-location can be a simple but nuanced a way to discuss how individuals came to be in a place, connections to a physical space and concepts of community.  Where did you come from? How and why did you come to this place?  What is your relationship to this place?  How do you define community in relationship to this place?

In terms of reconciliation discussions about self-location can be a starting point for conversations about land, marginalization, and colonization.  It can also help in the acknowledgement of what background experiences are being brought into a dialogue.  This is also a great way to start conversations about local history, community history, and Canadian history more broadly.  I could also see self-location discussions being shaped to fit students at a variety of education levels depending on how the conversation is framed.

Have you used the idea of self-location as discussion tool before?

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Reading: Interpreting LGBT History At Museums and Historic Sites

Ferentinos-210x300Months ago as part of a National Council on Public History annual conference workshop I received a copy of Susan Ferentinos book Interpreting LGBT History at Museums and Historic SitesI started reading the book months ago but somehow it managed to get lost in my to-read pile until fairly recently.  This book examines queer history in the United States, provides an overview of sexuality and gender studies in the US, includes three case studies on interpreting LGBT history at historic sites, and a lengthy additional reading list for more information.

I learned more than I anticipated in the sections which covered queer history in the US – perhaps partially because queer history touchstone events in Canada follow a different time line and the history of the LGBT movement in Canada has been documented in different ways than the US.  This background section is worth a read if you’re not familiar with queer history in the US. I also really enjoyed the case studies which included in the book – all of which looked at approaches and challenges related to interpreting LGBT history as a public historian.  The case studies looked at queer history in museum spaces, historic houses, and archival settings.  They also touched on the value of integrating queer history in permanent exhibition or interpretation guides vs the inclusion of LGBT materials in special or temporary programming.  For me these case studies where the real value add and the best part of the publication.

This book contains a lot of advice around consultation, community based interpretation, and the need to have institutional and local buy-in to projects relating to LGBT history.  It’s a great resource for anyone looking to learn more about queer history in the US or about successful initiatives relating to the display and discussion of LGBT history in the US.

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Interactive History: Indigenous Perspectives and the Blanket Exercise

BlanketsAs part of Orientation Week at AlgomaU students, staff, faculty and community members were invited to participate in the KAIROS blanket exercise.  Originally developed in the 1990s as a response to the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples the blanket exercise is a participatory teaching too that invites participants to learn about Canadian history from an Indigenous perspective.  The exercise has been updated since the 1990s to include information on more recent events such as Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Shannon’s Dream.

The exercise teaches about the impacts of colonialism, the loss of Indigenous land, residential schools, the sixties scoop, and numerous other facets of Canadian history that are not often taught in a classroom setting.  The visual representation of Turtle Island through the use of blankets, the physical act of participants representing Indigenous people and watching the spacial and visceral damage that is caused by colonialism is a really moving and had a huge impact on participants.

This is a very unique teaching tool that can be scaled to different age groups and number of participants.  I particularly liked how the session I participated in combined the national historical perspective with local responses and local experiences.  A local First Nation Chief spoke about his community and the removal of resources from their land and a Shingwauk Residential School Survivor shared their experience at Shingwauk as part of the exercise’s narrative.

Given the potentially triggering nature of the content health and cultural support was available throughout the event and the scripted portion of the exercise was followed by a sharing circle which allowed participants an opportunity to reflect on the exercise and discuss the experience.  Overall I think this is a great teaching tool that should be brought into more classrooms, community centers, and university campuses as a way of talking about history, ongoing inequality, and reconciliation.

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Reading: Unwritten Histories

oldbookA few months ago I stumbled across Andrea Eidinger’s Unwritten Histories blog.  If you haven’t already come across her site it’s well worth a visit.  I’ve particularly enjoyed her Historian’s Toolkit posts and her “What’s in My Bag?” series which uses material culture as a lens to examine the past.

Andrea has been wonderfully consistent in posting new content and typically maintains a schedule of a new blog post on Tuesday and a Canadian history roundup post on Sunday which highlights other Canadian history content online.

I commend anyone who is able to maintain that type of schedule for numerous months and still come out with interesting and insightful content.  I also love the name of her blog and the implications of exposing histories and parts of historical practice that are not commonly discussed.

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Eight Years of Blogging

Startup Stock PhotosI started blogging back in September 2008 as part of a course requirement for a digital history class I took as part of my MA in Public History.  Looking back I have a hard time believing I’ve kept up with the practice for eight years.  There have been the occasional lulls in my writing but I seem to always return to the keyboard.

Eight years of blogging and over 530 posts later, writing in the public sphere is still an essential part of my professional practice.  This informal writing practice has benefited me by connecting me with other professionals, helped me work through ideas in a space that can allow for collaboration, and opened doors to other opportunities. It is also flexible enough that I can adapt my writing style and topics based on interest, time commitment, and professional interests.

Is it worth the effort?  I can point to definite projects that have developed out of my online presence (on twitter and through blogging) and there are people I have connected with virtually who have become valued colleagues and friends. So, yes. I think it’s a practice worth maintaining and one I plan on continuing with for the foreseeable future.

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Teaching and Learning in the Archives

231011361_4a4a257a60The Hack Library School (HLS) blog recently included a post titled “How to Librarians Learn to Teach?”  The post looked at the challenges of being thrown into the librarian instruction fire and the lack of formal training many librarians (and archivists) have in teaching, despite the fact that many will probably run instruction sessions at some point in their careers. Last year HLS also featured a two part post by Liz McGlynn’s on “Instruction Instruction” which looked at learning about instruction while in library school and seeking out opportunities related to teaching and educational programming.

I’ve written about archival literacy before and both of these posts had me thinking about all the instruction and education based outreach work I do and how to create better learning experiences for new professionals.  For the past number of years I’ve handled 75 to 100 educational groups a year.  Often these groups are coming to learn about the history of the Shingwauk Residential School site and about residential schools more broadly.  The style of each visit varies but generally includes a presentation, a walking tour, discussion, and maybe a hands-on activity or two depending on the length of visit and the age of the participations.  I’ve done this style of programming for a whole range of groups: day camps, K-12 classes, post-secondary classes, professional organizations, and small family groups.  This type of instruction is more public history/heritage site in style and is a bit out of the norm for most archival settings.

When I started there was no training process of learning how to conduct our standard walking tours – essentially you went along a number of them with a more experienced coworker and then were thrown into the fire to handle your own group.  I still encourage new staff or student assistants to go on a number of tours before asking them to run their own.  However I also often have them co-facilitate a couple of tours before handing over the reigns and I’ve also created a ‘tour cheat-sheet’ that has important dates and talking points that they can use while they are still learning.  We also now have a more formal walking tour companion handout that staff and visitors can use to guide them around the site.

The other type of instruction I do occasionally is more standard archival literacy based instruction and focuses on teaching about our collections, accessing archival materials, and what archives actually are. These sessions tend to be very syllabus driven and are often shaped based on faculty collaboration. This type of archival/special collections instruction can be very case specific but having some type of documentation about your process can be a huge boon for future coworkers and provide institutional consistency to programming.

I’ve also been working the past couple of years to develop a small teaching collection that can be pulled out when classes visit.  The collection is made up of duplicates and de-accessioned material and can be passed around without fear of damage.  I often pull a couple of boxes of relevant material to the class as well but I’ve found it’s nice to have a prepackaged toolkit of material that has lots of different formats and is in varying states of preservation to use as examples, without having to lug up a mountain of different boxes.

I really enjoy the instruction and educational outreach part of my job.  It can be exhausting – every time I have a group of particularly energetic school children I am very glad I didn’t go into teaching – but the rewards are well worth the effort.

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Service Excellence Award

Earlier this month I was awarded the Service Excellent Award at AlgomaU.  This award aims to celebrate employees who consistently:

  • Demonstrate extraordinary commitment by continuously providing excellent customer service.
  • Make a significant impact on students, staff, departments or the University.
  • Demonstrates open communication and quality improvement opportunities.
  • Knowledgeable about various department responsibilities and the University in general
  • Executes their job duties in a positive manner
  • Willing to go above and beyond regular work duties to assist clients (both internal and external)
  • Minimizes delays and assures timely follow up
  • Excellent interpersonal relations

I feel very fortunate to work in a place with supportive coworkers and was a bit shocked to be awarded this.  My brain had a “you mean people actually know who the person working in the archives is?!?” moment when I found out.  I’m also extremely lucky to have the flexibility in my position to pursue projects that interest me and to work on a range of outreach projects.  As September rapidly approaches I’m looking forward to another year of interaction with faculty, students, and community members and tackling new way to get archives into the hands of researchers and the public.

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All the VHS Tapes

VHS-tapesRecently I’ve been working with a lot of audio-visual media and trying to begin to get a handle on what older audio and video footage we have in the archive that is in need of being migrated. Last month it was announced that the last company still making VCRs is going to cease production of them adding VHS tapes to the list of media that will become harder to find a player for.  Videocassettes (in all their permutations) have long been an outdated medium but there are still plenty of individuals and organizations who have a slew of content saved on them that hasn’t been migrated to DVD or a digital medium.

A lot of the audio-visual content I’ve been working with is from Shingwauk reunions between 1981 to 2006.  Much of this content is irreplaceable, it includes footage of survivors speaking about their residential school experience and documents the early residential school survivor movement from the survivor perspective.  At this point it looks like a fairly high percentage of the footage has already been migrated in some form, however the migrated footage is at times labelled differently than the original tapes in any way so it’s a bit of a puzzle connecting all of the versions of the recordings.  I’m also working to connect this audio-visual material to the broader archival collections surrounding the Shingwauk reunions as the footage compliments photographic and textual records that have already been processed relating to the events.

A couple of thoughts about working with VHS tapes and outdated audio-visual media more broadly.  How you label your content is important.  Labeling videos tape 1, tape, 2 etc with no other contextual information is not a good way to approach things.  Including approximate dates, individuals in the video, and event details can be hugely helpful to archivists and others going back through this content decades later.  One of my recent favourite finds is a tape labelled “Jerry Maguire.”  To my surprise this was not a VHS copy of the 1990s movie by the same name, rather it was an interview with an individual who happened to be named Jerry Maguire from the 1980s.  Good thing we checked the content before tossing that tape.

Having a player that plays the media you’re working with is hugely important.  This is partially due to the labeling point I just mentioned.  It can at times be impossible to tell if something is worth saving just be reading a hastily scrawled notes on the case – especially if there’s a chance the case doesn’t match the actual recording.  Having a player is also essential for any migration you might want to do.  I would also suggest looking into best practices for labeling/naming subsequent versions of the video footage.  Documenting how and when the material was transferred can be extremely valuable for others who come across the transferred footage years later.

Prioritize migration and digitization.  Regardless of if you are going the migration in house or externally there are substantial time and fiscal costs associated with the process.  It may not be possible (or desirable) to digitize everything initially.  Priorities will vary from organization to organization but should take into consideration the fragility and stability of the original medium, the historical value of the content, and the feasibility of digitization based on resources.  At the moment migrating VHS and cassette content is manageable by many organizations but finding players and expertise to migrate reel film, beta tapes, mini-discs, and other obsolete media might be more challenging.

What are you experiences dealing with older audio-visual media?  Do you have examples of challenging or successful migration projects?

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Organization Social Media Accounts

MediaFor the past number of years I’ve been managing the Activehistory.ca social media accounts, namely Twitter and Facebook.  Since the fall I’ve also been managing Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr accounts for my work.

The accounts are somewhat different in nature.  The Active History accounts are primarily used to promote new website content, so I don’t have to be overly creative in my posts other than writing captions, pulling quotes, or selecting accompanying images.  On the other hand the archives social media accounts are pretty wide open – they can cover ongoing projects, events, draw attention to digitized content, and basically anything else I can think of.

In both cases I’ve found a few different ways to make the process more manageable:

  • Schedule content.  In the case of Facebook and Tumblr you can pick the time and date of posts and schedule them in advance.  I find this a huge help, it lets me put together posts when I have the time and have them appear later on at appropriate intervals. For twitter I tend to use TweetDeck to manage content, and that platform also has a scheduling feature.
  • Hashtags are your friends.  Hashtags connect new audiences to your content. Andrea Eidinger recently wrote a great summary of hashtags for Canadian historians if you’re interested in learning more.
  • Theme days are also your friends. #MinitureMonday, #TinyTuesday, #WordlessWednesday, #InternationalBookDay, #Caturday etc are all easy ways to promote existing content on a regular basis while attaching your organization to a larger social media movement.
  • Take photographs of what you’re doing and share them.  Photographs of events, new donations, processing, and photographs of all that day-today work GLAM professionals do can be a way to provide a behind the scenes look at your organization and also explain to people what work actually goes on in an archive.
  • Start collecting content for future posts.  Most GLAM organizations have a lot of existing digitized content that is great for sharing on social media.  If you come across interesting photographs, letters, books etc make a reference of them or save a copy for future use on social media.  This is an easy way to build up a backlog of ideas that you can pull from for future posts.
  • Don’t be afraid to try different things.  Experiment with what days and times you post different types of content.  Try new hashtags or new approaches to presenting content.
  • Use some type of analytics.  Many social media platforms come with basic stats built in.  But it’s sometimes helpful to add Google Analytics or something similar to the content you’re creating so you can measure how your content is being accessed and used.
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