Volunteers and Heritage Events

It’s Gathering and and Conference planning season again.  For the third year in a row my work is planning a large Gathering and Conference for a summer long weekend.  This year’s Gathering is occurring on the long weekend in August and I am substantially more involved in the planning and implementation of the Gathering.  

Events and outreach activities are a fairly common occurrence for heritage organizations.  Events are one of the many ways in which heritage groups encourage first time visitors and promote themselves within a community.  It also fairly common that heritage groups rely heavily on volunteers and donations in-kind when planning an event.

The planning experience so far this year has inspired a lot of thoughts about the importance of having an involved volunteer based and community connections.  Even large heritage organizations utilize volunteers as in day to day activities and special events.  Many hands make for light work. 

Volunteers are wonderful.  They also require planning and coordination.   Every volunteer comes from a unique background and has individual interests and skills sets.  A good volunteer coordinator will establish tasks for a volunteer that are suitable to their interests and skill sets.  I’ve been lucky in my volunteer experiences.  While volunteering for the Dufferin Country Museum and Archives, the Red Cross, and the Canadian Museum of Nature I was given tasks that suited my interests and room to expand my skill set.  All of these organizations were also extremely flexible in working with my schedule and supporting me in my initial foray into public history.

Having organized volunteers for specific events has contributed to me having a huge respect for individuals who work full-time as volunteer coordinators or in an outreach role.  Scheduling volunteers, providing the right amount of guidance and training, and dealing with unexpected volunteer problems requires patience, flexibility, and a huge amount of planning.

What about volunteers for one off events?  A few things I’ve learned from the past events we have organized, include:

  • Having an orientation session prior to the event can be extremely helpful in avoiding day of chaos. 
  • One off volunteers tend to be a bit less reliable than regular volunteers. Having more volunteers than you think you’ll need usually helps mitigate this.
  • Assign someone to be in charge of the volunteers the day of the event.  Have a central place for the volunteers to meet and take breaks. 
  • Treat your volunteers well (free food always helps) and they will be more willing to help out again in the future. 

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.

Archival Outreach and Community Based Heritage

Recently I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about the role archives can play in community based heritage initiatives.  The bulk of my thoughts have centered on the idea that archives have the potential to become community heritage hubs and places of active history. Of course, just because archives have the potential to do this doesn’t mean they instantly become centers for community heritage.  A tremendous amount of effort, planning, and outreach needs to occur for archives to become more than repositories and facilities for occasional researchers.

 A colleague and I recently ran a professional development workshop on community based heritage projects.  The workshop spent a great deal of time focusing on outreach and education programming our archive has undertaken in the past; while highlighting the resulting successes and failures of these efforts.

This presentation and audience questions pointed out the importance of archives knowing their audience and creating outreach geared to their audience.  Similarly, most archives serve more than one type of patron and as such they require more than one type of outreach if they wish to appeal to a range of people.   That being said, due to limited budgets and staff time a lot of archival outreach has a tendency to be broad ranging and not geared to a particular user group.

How can archives and other heritage organizations take an existing outreach initiative and efficiently make that initiative tailored to a range of users? Content development is probably the most important part of this process. It also tends to be the most labour intensive process. If you only have one handout for your archive or one set of research guidelines, consider spending some time creating additional content which can supplement existing handouts.

This might be as simple as creating different archive worksheets for genealogists, professional researchers, and students.  Front-line staff most likely already know which resources are used most by each of these groups and what common questions are asked by each group – it is a matter of committing it to paper or online resources.

Picking the right medium for their message can be just as important as the content archives with to deliver.  Paper resources are good for onsite visitors, digital content tends to appeal to students and distance researchers, interactive workshops may appeal more to community based researchers and genealogists than to academic researchers.

It might be tempting to do so for cost saving and efficiency’s sake but creating all your content in one medium simply doesn’t work.   Different user groups want different types of information.  It might be useful to conduct a user survey or to have front-line staff share user observations over a period of time prior to selecting a medium.  There is no point in creating content in a format that people don’t find accessible.

Keep it simple.  Outreach activities do not need to be these elaborately complex schemes that take years to bring to fruition.  Start small and work towards larger outreach goals.  This could mean starting by creating a facebook page, creating bookmarks with hours/archive info on them, or creating simple handouts that are given to new researchers when they arrive at the archive. 

Outreach has the potential to be an enlightening and rewarding experience. Planning, thought, and time is required to create successful archival outreach programs.  But, increased outreach can help archives learn more about how to better cater to their users, can help increase use of the archive, and can raise awareness about historical issues.  

Photo credit: artofdreaming,…tanja…, and nick wright planning

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? 

Conceptualizing Rural History

Last week a co-worker who is currently reading up on the history of her city asked me if I had ever been interested in the town history of where I grew up.  This simple question had me stumped.  The majority of my life I have lived outside of town, and didn’t readily identify with a closest town.  I had no real town history to speak of.

 I grew up on a concession road, part of a rural township that had very little in terms of central services. The majority of the houses on my road were farms with kilometers of fields separating neighbours. How does one explore a community’s history when the vast majority of area residents live outside of what most people see as traditional community?

Rural communities are not void of history, but often these histories are recorded and remembered in different ways.  Very few rural areas have written historical accounts or a dedicated ‘town’ museum.  Many rural communities once had vibrant churches which recorded much of the area’s history, but with many of these churches closing due to low attendance rates that recorded history is in jeopardy of being lost.

In the case of farming communities there are years of family history tied into the history of the land.  Looking at land registries and deeds of land can tell the story of a family.  For example, the original McCracken homestead owned by my family was traditionally passed down to the eldest son who then carried on the work on the farm.  However, if you look at nearby land records you can see that often the younger sons would buy farm land nearby, and continue to expand the family farm that way.

Stories of barn raisings, helpful neighbours plowing a field when someone’s tractor broke, and calf-cow picnics and many other stories make up the fabric of rural relations.  Oral histories can provide depth to otherwise forgotten relationships and connections.  Rural history definitely exists, one might just have to look beyond published sources to find it.

Collaborative History: Editing Mayham

The fist Knox Church, ca. 1910

I’ve recently been working on an editing project that has me simultaneously enthralled and going a bit squirrely.  The project is a church history that highlights a congregation’s journey from 1862 to 2012.  As you might have guessed, the impious for this project is that 2012 marks the 150th anniversary of the Church’s founding. 

Prior to this project beginning, a basic history of the church has been created for the Church’s centennial celebration.  So how did the congregation proceed? A heritage committee was established and numerous congregation members were assigned parts to research and write.  The current minister (who has been at the church since 1994) also undertook writing a substantial part of the more recent history.

Knox Church, 2010.

I think it’s great that the history is being written at all.  The history of a 150 year old congregation is a huge project and one which often doesn’t get undertaken unless there is a congregation member who is very passionate about it.  There are multiple building changes, a fire, and many community accomplishments to be looked at in the Church’s history.

However, editing a lengthy document that was written by between 5-10 people (all of who feel their information is crucial to the history) has been a learning experience.  Initially it felt as though I was handed drafts of ideas, snippets of previously written histories, paragraphs about church groups, and a pile of photographs.  After finding my way through all the material, I’ve managed to force things into a bit more of a coherent story line.  I’m now starting to look at more formal copy editing and eventually layout. 

I’m looking forward to this project’s continued development and eventual publication.  It’s a huge milestone for the Church and this history has the potential to be something that future congregations look back upon.

Unique User Groups and Heritage Organizations

The users groups of heritage organizations vary greatly from organization to organization.  People who frequent a university archive, a children’s museum, and a local history corner at a public library typically have very different needs.  Providing quality programming depends on heritage institutions knowing their users and gearing specific programming to different types of users. 

One of the unique user groups I’ve been thinking a lot about recently is visitors from outside of Canada.  This group of patrons contains a variety of users but in my case the group is made up of academics from foreign universities, tourists, and international students.

Visiting academics from afar are often undertaking directed research and may require assistance in making the most of their time in the area. Conversely, tourists and international students often know little about the institution or local history.  Tours and basic public programming should be expanded to explain the significance of the heritage held by your institution.  You may also need to incorporate some broader Canadian or regional history into your tour for the information to make sense.

For example, a group of international students receiving a historic site tour of a former residential school may have little understanding of colonialism in Canada.  It would make sense for the tour introduction to include an explanation of the residential school system, the factors that contributed to the creation of such a system, and a general overview of Settler-First Nation relations.  It is also crucial that staff are using language appropriate to the group – using Canadian-ism and jargon isn’t going to be helpful to most international visitors.

Thoughtful planning and tailoring tours to specific groups help enhance visitor experiences.  Feedback from visitors and experimenting with different formats can help you decide what outreach methods work best.

What types of targeted user group programming does your institution offer?

Photo Credit: Ed Yourdon

Quilts Galore

In my previous job as a Digitization Facilitator, for an OurOntario project, I had the opportunity to work with a number of great local history collections.  A few of these collections contained quilts made and donated by community members.  I was instantly impressed by the work and community memory contained in so many of these handmade quilts. A number of the quilts were done as community fundraisers or as keepsakes and have local family names stitched onto them – a great source for any local historian.

Since my first introduction to quilts in a historic context I’ve continued to be amazed by the work that goes into quilt making.  Some of my favourite quilts from museum collections include: 

From the Huron Shores Museum, a Pink and White fundraiser quilt.  Community members paid a small fee to stitch their name into the quilt.  Additional details for this quilt can be seen here.

Circa 1940

Detail of a section of the names on the quilt. 

An intricate scrap style quilt held by the McCord Museum.

Crazy quilt, M965.76.1 1897, made in 1897

The Castle Kilbridge National Historic Site has placed a virtual exhibit on the Virtual Museum of Canada which focuses on quilts given as wedding presents.  The quilt below is an example of the items contained in that exhibit.  

“Rising Sun,” made in 1885