NCPH recap: Day Four, March 19

I’m recapping my NCPH 2016 experience.  I’ve already written about the first three days of the conference and some of the great workshops and sessions from those days.  The final day of NCPH included a great keynote address and the bittersweet nature of a conference winding down.

Awards Breakfast and Presidential Address

The awards ceremony celebrates the winners of the numerous awards offered through NCPH including book of the year, public history project of the year, and others.  The awards were followed by Patrick Moore’s presidential address titled “Places, Privilege, and Public History: A Journey of Acknowledging Contested Space”. Moore’s talk took the form a personal narrative exploring his exposure to history in his childhood, youth, and professional life and the personal realizations he developed about how history is interpreted and experienced.

Moore raised questions around interpretation – is it possible to overlap different historical narratives? To share space in history? How do we as professionals reframe questions to look at things in different ways? And how do we talk about people who ‘lost’ who are not part of popular narratives? It is crucial that we give history and authority back to communities and provide opportunities to people who have never had their stories told.  It can be deeply challenging to recognize your own privilege but that recognition can make for better professionals and better approaches to historical work. This talk was great mixture of reflection on the public history profession and a call to arms around approaches to challenging the exclusive past.  A very fitting presidential address considering the theme of this year’s conference.

Not Lost and Not Forgotten: How to Help Cultural Communities Preserve Their Sacred Traditions and Sacred Spaces

Singing and Praying Band
Singing and Praying Band

This was one of the most unique conference sessions I’ve ever attended.  It focused on the African American Singing and Praying Bands of Maryland and Delaware and one of such bands actively participated in the session.  The session hinged on the idea of how historians can document cultural communities and what tools are needed to build collaborative partnerships – especially around the documentation of spiritual traditions.

Prior to this session I had zero knowledge about the Singing and Praying bands.  The session did an excellent job of highlighting how these bands are deeply connected to church culture and African American history.  The bands brought people together, they were the worship experience of many early Methodist societies, and have a connection to the participatory worship that links back to the slave trade.

This session also picked up a number of themes that were discussed throughout the conference – the need to build relationships of trust within the community, the fact that history can be deeply personal and that personal experience has a place in historical narrative, and the fact that successful collaborations are a relationship, not a project. Having the singing and praying band participate in this session was a great experience – it brought the community history to the forefront and showed the nature of this deep history.  It also brought community voices and community realities to the forefront – something that could not have been accomplished by someone simply presenting on this topic.

Cemetery Activism Roundtable

The final session I attended at NCPH 2016 was a roundtable focusing on cemeteries and the use of cemeteries to present more diverse and inclusive historical narratives.  The discussion was facilitated by Lynn Rainville of Sweet Briar College and included Steven Burg, Shippensburg University; Savannah Darr, Metro Louisville Planning and Design Services; Dennis Montagna, National Park Service; and Ryan Smith, Virginia Commonwealth University.

This session focused primarily on the preservation and documentation of community cemeteries and African American burial grounds.  The presenters all highlighted the need to advocate for cemetery preservation, the need for community engagement around these sites, and how to get people to care about these sites — particularly if they exist in an area which the impacted community is no longer represented in the population.

The Hurdles of Moving a Heritage Institution

Anyone can who working in a heritage organization or archive can tell you that storage space is often at a premium.  No matter how much space you have you often need more. Sometimes this space crunch, space renovations, or other factors can cause a heritage organization to decide to relocate.  Moving a heritage institution isn’t a task to be done on a whim, tremendous planning, manpower, and organization are needed when relocating archives and museums.

Think about the shipment of temporary exhibits: insurance and loan documents need to be completed by both parties, the exhibit is normally store in specially made packaging, the condition of everything needs to be documented when it arrives and when it leaves, and space needs to be made available to unpack and install the exhibit.  Even the relocation of small temporary exhibits take lots of planning and paperwork.  Multiple that effort tenfold when an entire facility is being relocated.

Some of the primary areas of consideration when moving or renovating a heritage facility include:

  • Packing: material that is not already boxed needs to be packed in a manner which ensures safety during movement.  Fragile material and oversize material such as artwork requires special consideration in developing material specific packaging.  Books and paper material is heavy and people backing material should be conscious of those who will have to lift the boxes.
  • Shipping: Even just moving material small distances requires a lot of planning.  Staff who are helping move the material should be trained in proper handling procedures, insurance should be acquired for the traveling material, and additional security issues may apply to valuable items.  
  • Documentation: Everything should be well documented including: who is doing the moving, box content lists, timelines, insurance, costs, etc.
  • Public: Many heritage organizations exist for the public and hold items in the public trust.  As such,  planning for the least interruption of public services is often important.  Granted, in some cases service interruption and facility closure is impossible to avoid.

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.

Paperless Record Keeping in the Archive

Discussing the idea of going paperless in an archival setting seems a bit odd to most archival professionals.  After all, the bulk of archival records tend to be paper based in nature, the exception being born digital material and audio-visual collections.

I used to work with a colleague who insisted on printing everything out.  This included emails, instructions on how to fill out online forms, online registration documents, and e-books.  The amount of trees that died as a result of printing born digital material must have equaled a small forest.  Additionally, these printouts were often later misfiled, stuck in a  filing out cabinet never to be looked at again or thrown out upon reading. 

So, can archival documentation and records created as part of the administration of the archive be digital?
Providing a digital records management system is in place and proper tools are used to manage the vast amount of digital content, a paperless documentation strategy is possible.

 Interested in moving to paperless record keeping for administration and documentation?  A few tools I have found extremely helpful include:

  • Zotero as a citation organizer and source collector.  All those grant guidelines and instructions could have easily been stored and sorted using Zotero.  You can also share folders via Zotero, which makes this a great tool for sharing information with colleagues.
  • One of the most frustrating things I’ve seen is a museum which prints out and sticks in binders all the records they create in their digital database.  It is possible to use drupal or another open source database to document all collections related material.  My work has crafted a custom drupal interface that allows us to handle everything from accessions, transfers, to file level descriptions.  
    • If you don’t have tech savvy staff there is also propitiatory software (with support) such as Past Perfect which might suit your organization’s collection needs. 
  •  Processing research requests can be done in a paperless environment, however it does take some extra thought.  A lot of the research requests I process are requests made over telephone.  My initial instinct is to write the details down on scraps of paper.  As a result my desk has often looked like a post-it-note minefield. 
    •  I’ve recently moved to inputting all research requests into a spreadsheet.  The phone sits right next to my computer, make this an easy transition, and allowing for me to capture all relevant information in one spot.  This also helps me keep track of which requests I’ve processed and provides a place to reference common request answers. 

How does your archive or heritage organization handle administration records and documentation? Which digital tools have you found useful in making the shift to a paperless workplace?

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.  Ebook reader outdoors in sunlight. Stack of books. User Martouf

Battle of Documentation

Documentation provides a written account of procedures, practices, successes, failures, and countless other big and small details.  The benefits of documentation include preserving institutional memory, providing new employees with detailed explanations of work tasks, and avoiding personnel from reinventing the wheel.

 Even with all these wonderful benefits, documentation is often neglected in favour of more ‘important’ tasks.  This can result in a loss of information, incomplete records, and the reproduction of labour later on.  I actually really enjoy creating documentation.  I find creating workflows, policies, and best practices oddly relaxing – perhaps it’s the feeling that if I was to get hit by a bus tomorrow, someone would be able to pick up and understand the work I was doing.

My place of work currently uses a wiki to hold our documentation.  Using this communal space allows all staff to read, edit, and reference documentation when necessary.  Since our documentation is all online, staff can access it regardless of where they are working from.  The wiki also automatically tracks changes made to content,Initially a few staff members were reluctant to learn wiki markup, but with some gentle encouragement it became clear that even staff who aren’t so tech savvy could learn with time.

In past positions I’ve used word documents for documentation.  This is probably my least preferred method of documentation.  You end up with multitudes of different versions of the same document and everything needs to be emailed or printed for other staff.  I do recommend that if you are using this method you come up with standard file naming procedures and footnote templates that denote version number.  Standardized naming helps make this slightly cumbersome method of documentation a bit easier to track.

Using Google Docs for documentation eliminates some of the email headaches caused by using Word.  Google Docs allows for items to be shared with multiple people, and can provide a collaborative editing space.

How does your work handle documentation? Do you have a preferred method of documentation?