Building Bridges and Reading Across Disciplines

black and white Drone view of San Francisco Golden Gate Bridge.

During one of my recent writing projects I started thinking about the implications of disciplinary silos and the value to reading across disciplines. A lot of my work is grounded in archival theory and public history practice, however it often intersects with the Canadian academic history profession.  From an outsider differentiating these three disciplines may seem like splitting hairs, but they really are proudly different in their approaches and literature.

A lot of my recent work has been thinking about archival silences and the power relationships entrenched in colonial archival spaces. This power dynamic and the challenge of doing research about historically marginalized communities is something that intersects across archival practice, public history, and academic history.  I started diving into this topic by examining archival theory and literature written by archivists. I then expanded to look at community based perspectives and a more public history take on archival voices.  Lastly, after consulting with a couple of colleagues I added a stack of Canadian history books and articles to my to read pile.

This exercise in reading across disciplines was enriching and helped broaden my understanding of the topic it hand.  It also highlighted how fields can approach the same topic from very different angles.  Many of the archival based works I was reading focused on the role of the archivist in creating or mitigating silence within the historical process.  The more public history leaning works focused on communities challenging silence, the right to internal community memory, and ways to build bridges across shared pasts.  Conversely, the more academic history reads were really focused on subverting archival silences – reading against the grain, using non-traditional archival sources to expand historical narratives, and how to overcome lack of records.  All of these areas of interest had overlapping points and areas of commonality.

These areas of similarity struck me as so important. Archivists and historians need to talk more.  Understanding how archives work and the intellectual/emotional/physical labour that goes into making archival records accessible is so important. Historians and media indicating that something was ‘discovered in the archives’ erases the archival labour that went into arranging and describing that material.  The archivist knew it was there and did a lot of work so a historian could access that material as part of their research.  Historians and archivists have definite overlapping interests and we would be better served by increasing the amount of work we did collaboratively.

What are your strategies for reading across disciplines? 

Photo credit: Jared Erondu on Unsplash

Reading that changed my thinking in 2017

Book open on table with a white mug, red background with white lights.

For my last post of 2017 I’m going to highlight some of the books, blog posts, and articles I read this year that have had an impact on my thinking and professional practice.  These items are not necessarily new publications but just works I have read (or re-read) this year.

Silencing the Past by Michel-Rolph Trouillot
This is a book that completely changed my thinking about the silences in history.  I think it is a must read for any archivist or those who use archival records as part of their work.  It includes a deep and well framed dive into the nature of power in historical narratives. Trouillot argues that silences are created during every step of the historical process – from source creation, to preservation in archives, to the writing of historical narratives/the work of historians.  Personally, Trouillot’s framing has been helpful when I’ve been thinking critically about the colonial archives in Canada and the silences presented around Indigenous communities in those archives.

150 Acts of Reconciliation for the 150 Days of Canada’s 150 by Crystal Fraser and Sara Komarnisky
In an year filled with Canada 150 celebrations and #Resist150 protests there is a need for Canadians to think critically about what it means to live on Indigenous land. The #150Acts list presented tangible actions settlers could take towards reconciliation. This is a must read for anyone interested in reconciliation work or building better relationships with Indigenous communities.  Read each act. Then actually do the work.

The Canadian Indian Residential School System Wikipedia Article
Since June 2016 Danielle Robichaud and so many other archivists, librarians, and activists have worked to improve this Wikipedia article.  At the start of this effort the article was rated as C-class. It had a number of content and source problems. As a result of a whole lot of work the article now well written, properly sources, and was a Featured Article on December 26, 2017. I think it’s fantastic that so many people worked together to improve this article and hold this up as an example of how editing Wikipedia can be a form of reconciliation and decolonization work.

Tending tenderness and disrupting the myth of academic rock stars by Zoe Todd
In this blog post Todd presents an approach of radical empathy to move away from the cult of the academic celebrity.  Her work emphasizes building meaningful and nurturing relationships while, rethinking “our relationships to the academy and to centre a strong ethic of collaboration and co-thinking within our efforts to disrupt the academy itself.”

“The Holiday Spirit Will Prevail: Settler Colonialism and Indigenous Erasure in Ontario’s ‘Cottage Country’” #Beyond150CA Twitter Conference Presentation, by Anne Jahunen
This was one of the many fantastic presentations that were part of the Beyond 150 Twitter Conference held in August 2017.  Jahunen’s presentation does an excellent job of illustrating the colonial roots of cottage country and the Parks system in Canada.  The presentation looks specifically at the Georgian Bay National Park but many of colonial systems pointed to can be applied to other parks as well.  I included this presentation in the readings for my public history students during the week were talking about Parks and it generated a lot of thoughtful discussion.

She’s Hot: Female Sessional Instructors, Gender Bias, and Student Evaluations by Andrea Eidinger
This post shattered the record for most reads on the Active History website.  It is a must read for anyone in academia.  Eidinger takes a critical look at the gender bias behind student evaluations and examines the structural problems with heavily weighting student evaluations in relation to tenure/promotion.

Archiving the Unspeakable: Silence, Memory, and the Photographic Record in Cambodia by Michelle Caswell.
I struggled to pick just one of Michelle Caswell’s works to include on this list.  But ultimately her book Archiving the Unspeakable won because of its breadth and perspective on the the nature of archives within colonial or oppressive regimes.  Caswell’s work examines the Khmer Rouge archives in Cambodia with an emphasis on the photographic archives and the associated silences found in these records.  This book address archival silences in photographs but also talks about the power of photographs in terms of community memory and identity.

Let the People Lead: Supporting Sustainability vs Dependency Models for Funding Community-Based Archives by Bergis Jules.
This post takes a look at community based archival models in the United States with an emphasis on the funding, staffing, and sustainability of community models. Jules argues that, “Grant makers can have an extremely important role to play in funding the sustainability and the growth of community-based archives, but they risk replicating exploitative models if the people who do the the work of community archives aren’t at the table from the beginning or tapped to lead some of these efforts.” The post also discusses the challenges of community based archives houses within post-secondary spaces.  As someone who works at a community archive within a university this really hit home for me.  There is a lot of food for thought in the piece which I’m still chewing on.  Recommended for anyone interested in community archives.

This is just a snapshot of some of the fantastic reads I’ve had the chance to consume over the past year.  What are you favourite reads from 2017?

Photo Credit: Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Friday Reading: #AHIndigenous Week

This week over at Active History guest editor Crystal Fraser put together an amazing line up of posts from Indigenous scholars in Canada.  For more information on the series as a whole check out Crystal’s “Politics and Personal Experience: An Editor’s Introduction to Indigenous Research in Canada.” Every post in this the series was worth reading and the week’s lineup included:

  • Monday, January 11 – Crystal Fraser, Editor’s Introduction; Leanne Simpson, “A Smudgier Dispossession is Still Dispossession”; Zoe Todd, “Conversations with my Father’s Paintings: Writing My Relations Back Into the Academy
  • Tuesday, January 12 – Claire Thomson, “Holding Our Lands and Places”; Daniel Sims, “Not That Kind of Indian”
  • Wednesday, January 13 – Adam Gaudry, “Paved with Good Intentions: Simply Requiring Indigenous Content is Not Enough”; Anna Huard, “A Wrench in the Medicine Wheel: The Price of Stolen Water on Indigenous Cultural Continuity”
  • Thursday, January 14 – Lianne Charlie, “Together Today for Our Children Tomorrow: The Next Generation of Yukon Indigenous Politics”; Norma Dunning, “Strengthening the Nunavut Educational System”
  • Friday, January 15 – Billy-Ray Belcourt, ” Political Depression in a Time of Reconciliation”; Mary Jane McCallum, Title Forthcoming

Journal of Western Archives: Native American Archives Special Issue

The current issue of the Journal of Western Archives focuses on Native American Archives.  The articles are open access and on a range of topics including tribal archives, decolonizing archival practice, developing training opportunities for Indigenous archivists, and the challenges faced by archives holding contrived photographs of Indigenous people.

I’m still working my way through all the articles but Zachary R. Jones’ article, “Images of the Surreal: Contrived Photographs of Native American Indians in Archives and Suggested Best Practices“, is an excellent read for anyone interested in the complex nature of colonial photography.

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. 

December Reading

As the month of December approaches so does long hours spent driving to visit family.  Luckily, more often than not I am passenger on these trips and I tend to use the time to get some reading done. Books on my current reading list include:

Unsettling the Settler Within by Paulette Regan.  This book has been on my reading list since April when Laura Moadokoro discussed the work in “History in Turbulent” times in an ActiveHistory.ca post. 

Collections and Objections: Aboriginal Material Culture in Southern Ontario by Michelle Hamilton.

Manufacturing National Park Nature by J. Keri Cronin.  This works looks at the contrived nature of Canada’s national parks.



Heritage reading

December 20th’s #reverb10 prompt:

Beyond avoidance. What should you have done this year but didn’t because you were too scared, worried, unsure, busy or otherwise deterred from doing? (Bonus: Will you do it?)

In 2010 I have avoided dedicating more time to reading academic writing relevant to my field. The majority of the material I have read outside of work in 2010 was fiction. Granted, a large percentage of the fiction has been historical fiction but that really doesn’t measure up to academic reading. One deterrent to academic reading has been my lack of direction in what to read. Picking specific topics I would like to know more about would help give my reading purpose and structure.

Topics I would like to explore through reading in 2011 include:
-Material culture
-Built heritage
-Collective memory
-The interaction of First Nation heritage and public history

Constructing a reading list

Today’s Prompt for #reverb10:

December 6 – Make. What was the last thing you made? What materials did you use? Is there something you want to make, but you need to clear some time for it? (Author: Gretchen Rubin)

I’ve been struggling with today’s prompt since this morning. The most recent thing I’ve made is chocolate chip pie. However, I wanted to focus on something related to my foray into the heritage world. I’m in the process of compiling a list of things I would like to read of re-read in the upcoming year. The part of the list I’ve completed so far is below:

History/Heritage Related Reading:

  1. Shingwauk’s Vision by JR Miller (re-read)
  2. Death So Noble: Memory, Meaning, and the First World War by Johnathan Vance
  3. The Madman and the Butcher by Tim Cook
  4. Compact, Contract, Covenant: Aboriginal Treaty-Making in Canada by JR Miller
  5. I’m also still debating about reading a number of books from the Extraordinary Canadians series

Fiction and Leisure reading:

  1. The Origin of Species by Nico Rici
  2. Fall of Giants by Ken Follett
  3. The Forrest Laird by Jack Whyte
  4. Sanctuary Line by Jane Urquhart
  5. Light Lifting by Alexander MacLeod

Considering my passion for books this version of the list is a shortened one of the list that seems to constantly be multiplying.

E-Readers and Book Length


A recent Spark episode included a short discussion of the possible impact of e-readers on the length of books. It was suggested that e-readers may be responsible for an increase in book length. The argument being that e-readers make huge tomes easier to transport and more accessible.

In some ways this argument does make sense. Book lengths have often impacted by external factors, the invention of the printing press, how authors were paid, the price of paper, and the increase of leisure time all impacted the general length of books being published. However, given the wave of resistance against e-readers that still exists, I’m not entirely sure that e-readers can be deemed solely responsible for the changes in the literary world.

A recent Active History post also deals with the history of books and The e-Book Revolution.