Community Archives and Sharing Information

Bates Hall, reading room

Morning North recently featured a segment on the facebook page “Sudbury’s Fine Past & Future Let’s Reminisce.”  The page aims to share photographs and memories of Sudbury.  The page has over two thousand likes and over 50 photo albums focusing on all aspects of Sudbury history including theaters, hospitals, streetcars, and neighborhoods. The success of this historically focused initiative surprised me, I expected to see a page with lots of content added by a small handful of contributors and little discussion.  Fine Past & Future seems to have an active and dedicated community of users and contributors who actively contribute and comment on photographs. 

What intrigued me about the Morning North Interview of the page founder, was the comparison of the page to an archive.  When asked if she thought the page was like an archive Church-Beaudoin indicated that she thought it was something different and that archives were really only for research and not designed for sharing photographs for those with just a casual interest in the past.   [Full disclosure: I almost started telling my car radio the many virtues of archives at this point.] 

A facebook page is definitely not an archive in the traditional sense.  I suppose one could argue that this particular collection of photographs represents a snippet of a personal collection or a personal archive.  Regardless, the comparison of a collection of photos to an archive isn’t what bothered me.  The relegating of archives to serving only professional researchers is what didn’t sit well in my mind. 

Archives do a lot more than merely serve academic researchers. Archives help preserve the heritage of communities and aim to share that preserved heritage with the community.  Many archives have started using social media in a way similar to the Fine Past & Future page–to share photographs and gain user generated metadata about unknown images.  

 Archives also undertake the preservation of physical and digital content.  That user generated metadata is being preserved by archives and not merely left up to facebook to keep safe.  Those physical photographs of community landmarks, historical buildings and community gatherings are being preserved  in acid-free sleeves and environmental conditions that are designed to limit deterioration. 

Yes, archives have traditionally been the domain of academic researchers.  But genealogists, casual researchers and community historians are all welcome in many community archives.  Many archives have created finding aids specifically to help with genealogy research or have reading rooms focused on local history.  The users of archives are just as diverse as the content held by the archive.  Archives need to continue to promote themselves, their services and their collections to the general public. 

Photo Credit: Boston Public Library

Reclaiming History Through Photographs

My most recent post, “Reclaiming History Through Photographs” can be seen over at the Active History site.  The post focuses on the use of photographs by repressed and minority peoples to reclaim a lost past.  Images can have a pivotal role in healing, reconciliation, and in the reclamation of lost history.  This particular post highlights Residential School photographs as an example of healing and rediscovering lost heritage through photographs.

Historical Photographs: Insight and Value

The April/May issue of Canada’s History Magazine contains a short article by Paul Jones, which highlights the ability of photographs to speak to the past.  In “Roots: Understanding Family Photos”, Jones deconstructs a photograph of his wife’s ancestors.  This deconstruction allows Jones to date the photograph, provide a location of the photograph, and the entire process provides him further insight into the family’s actions.

Jones’ experience brought two things to my mind: the importance of documenting your family photographs and the usefulness of photographs as historical sources.   Documenting your photographs (in pencil or non-corrosive ink of course) with the date, names of people in the photograph, photographer name, and location/event can be invaluable to later generations and historians.  Provenance is what creates great artifacts and allows heritage organizations to properly credit and describe their collections.  Documenting your family photographs can make correctly remembering events a lot easier.

Holland House Library, 1940

Photographs can contain a wealth of historical information. Roland Barthe’s Camera Lucida notes “The important thing is that a photograph posses an evidential force, and that its testimony bears not on the object but on time…in the photograph, the power of authentication exceeds the power of representation.”  Photography allows for types of representation and interpretation that do not exist in written works.  Photographs can be used to examine no longer existing persons and structures – developments in built heritage are often tracked through period photographs.  Styles in fashion, social conduct, and family structure are all captured by photographs.

Additionally, the visual nature of photographs provides them with an advantage over written documents.  People tend to be drawn to images far more than a block of text.  Photographs are routinely used in outreach and instructional programming by local history groups, genealogists, educational institutions, museums, and archives.Historical photographs can be used to introduce people to history that they would otherwise have no interest in.  Glimpses into the past through photographs can be invaluable to all levels of historical practice.

Photo credits : zmustapha and Lee Cannon