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

Graphic Novels and History Education

What to superheros, anime, and history education have in common? They can all be found in graphic comic format.   Recently a number of publishers, historians, and education professionals have attempted to make lessons of history more tangible.  This has contributed to a variety of history based graphic novels being produced.

This month Renegade Arts and Entertainment released The Loxelys and the War of 1812.  This hardcover graphic novel chronicles the experience of Canadian family living in the Niagara region during the war of 1812.  The family’s experience and the colourful accompanying graphics are framed by actual historical events.  The graphic novel covers bits of perspectives from the American, Canadian, and Indigenous sides.  The target audience is children over the age of ten, making this a more kid friendly than adult oriented publication.  However, The Loxelys have the potential to provide an introduction of the War of 1812 to a wide range of school aged children.

There are graphic novels covering a surprisingly wide range of historical topics. Some of the more interesting novels I’ve come across include:

  • A number of works by Rick Geary focus on history in the 19th and early 20th century.  Geary’s works cover topics such as the assassination of Lincoln, a biography of Trotsky, the Lindbergh kidnapping and number of other topics. 
  • The Age of Bronze series by Eric Shanower.  This series explores the Trojan War via graphic novel at a level that would appeal to youth and with a surprising amount of historical detail.
  • Maus by Art Spiegelman.  This graphic novel does a good job of broaching a difficult historical topic, Maus focuses on the experience of Art’s father in concentration camps during the Holocaust.  The comic addresses the Holocaust in a way which is educational, powerful, and appropriate for youth to adults.

Learning from the Doctor

 The BBC series Doctor Who combines fantasy, science fiction, and history; all of which happen to be some of my favourite things.  I’m actually kind of surprised that it has taken me so long to address the show on this blog and to look at it from a public history perspective.

Doctor Who was originally conceived as an educational program for children. The idea was that the episodes set in the past were to teach kids about history, while the space episodes would provide bite-sized facts about science. This concept was reinforced by the Doctor’s first two companions being a history teacher and  a science teacher.

Today’s version of Doctor Who has an increasing fantasy and includes content that would be downright frightening to children– weeping angles anyone?  However, I still think that the program does contain some historical content that is of educational value.  The BBC has actually created some lesson plans based on Doctor Who episodes. These lesson plans typically focus on episodes where Doctor Who visits the past (eg. Victorian England, England during WWII, the era of Vincent Van Gogh, etc).  The historic setting is then used to spark conversations about the past.

A large number of Doctor Who episodes fall into the category of ‘alternate history.’  They contain a bit of historical context, but the details — eg. Winston Churchill is using Daleks to fight the Germans during the WWII blitz — aren’t completely accurate.   In this particular instance the setting of WWII and the actual portrayal of Winston Churchill are fairly accurate.  Most episodes where the Doctor visits the past are like this, they contain grains of truth amongst the fantasy.  Doctor Who provides an introduction to a historical era which may inspire viewers to dig into the past to learn about what actually happened. 

The Doctor Who of today is a far cry from children’s educational television.  However, there are gems of historical knowledge and context amongst the aliens, TARDIS, and sonic-screwdrivers.  And besides, who doesn’t want a TARDIS that would let them travel through time and space?

Historical Gaming


The validity of using video games to educate children is something that is discussed by both public historians and parents almost everywhere. Recently the Globe and Mail featured an article discussing Microsoft’s move to exploring the educational resources that potentially exist in video games. Microsoft and New York University have created The Games for Learning Institute. The Institute is designed to see if regular video games can draw students into math, science and technology programs. The idea that some video games can improve problem solving and reaction times is nothing new, however Microsoft is the first to attempt a study on a much larger scale. Microsoft may have ulterior motives to this study (maybe selling video games to schools for educational purposes and profit), but regardless of this understanding how children and youth learn from gaming has the potential to benefit a number of disciplines.

So what does this mean for the public historian? The Institute’s study is geared towards developing math, science, and technology skills through video games. However, the popularity of war focused video games seems like perfect forum for learning more about military history. Even board games like Risk have the potential to teach youth about military strategy, political boundaries, and military history in general. If games are constructed in consultation with a historian the educational possibilities multiply, it’s just a matter of understanding the best way to reach youth. Perhaps a heritage or historical group needs to create their own institute to discover how youth best absorb historical information….though very few historical organizations have a fraction of the money that Microsoft does, so learning more about the history and gaming might be awhile off.

Consumed by History.

Being a university student who is interested in the digital representations of history has its downfalls. One of the largest being that because there is such a wide range of digital information available online, hours can be spent looking up different historical topics and tools online. Since I have spent so much time looking at different history related digital items I thought I would share some of my favorites:

Podcasts:
-The BBC podcast, In Our Time by Melvyn Bragg. This podcast covers everything from science, religion, philosophy, culture and traditional history. A lot of the podcasts focus on the history of a particular idea, person or concept and include guest speakers who are often experts on the topic.

Making History by Vanessa Collingridge is another BBC podcast. This podcast focuses on the historical quires of listeners and the way in which history is perceived and constructed.

CBC podcasts could consume my entire day if I let them. They have podcasts of their radio shows, the hour, various TV productions, and numerous regional based podcasts.

-The History section of LearnOutLoud.com features numerous podcasts which are historically focused. A good majority require the user to pay, however they do occasionally include include featured podcasts which are often free.

Alan Cross ‘ podcast of The Ongoing History of New Music. Okay so this may not be traditional history. But it is definitely well researched and well worth a listen to anyone who is interested in the evolution of a particular band or music genre. As with over 500 episodes produced there is bound to be something that interests you.

Educational Resources:
CBC Digital Archive. The site has numerous video clips and interviews which are easily accessible and search-able. The site also includes an educational section which is designed for teachers, which includes a variety of multimedia learning activities such as “What was Oka About”, “What was the October crisis?”, “The World of Satellite Technology” etc.

Canada’s National History Society: The Beaver. Like CBC The Beaver’s website has a section dedicated to the educational uses of history and includes lesson plans and resources for teaching history.

Early Canadiana Online, is a digital library which features works published from the time of early settlers, up until 20th century Canada. Its a valuable resource as well as a good example of the use of digital technology to transmit historical information to an increasingly diverse audience.

The Canadian Encyclopedia. This resource is both Canadian and informative. It also includes a youth Encyclopedia which provides public and high school friendly interpretations of historical events.

-You know those catchy history minutes that are shown on TV? Well they are available online at Historica Minutes Online. The site also features lesson plans based on the history minutes.

Steve.Museum. A site which is based in applying social tagging principles to museum collections and is based in open software to allow people and institutions from a variety of backgrounds to participate.

Digital History Online. This site is primarily focused on the history of the United States but includes a ton of resources for making learning interactive. The “For Teachers” section includes interactive modules, handouts and fact sheets, lesson plans and resource guides. Outside of the teacher section the site also includes a ton of digital resources such as maps, music clips, online exhibits, games and newspapers.

Digital Things (That aren’t really history geared, but could be)
Google Sketchup. I’m not quite as addicted as my classmate Meaghan. However I definitely agree with her assessment of the potential of sketchup for creating plans for collection displays and any type of physical project.

del.icio.us. A social bookmarking tool which is search-able, and if nothing else provides an interesting look at what the general public consider history.

Google Books. Its raining outside and I have readings to do. Needless to say Google books often wins over trekking to the library.

This list is not nearly exhaustive and isn’t close to being a complete list of everything history related I do online. But it does highlight a few of the digital things that I am intrigued by.