Archaeology and Residential Schools

This week two archaeologists stopped by the archive I work at.  These particular archaeologists have in recent years been focusing on Residential Schools.  Prior to their visit I had not considered the tremendous value that archaeology can add to ongoing research relating to Residential Schools.   The majority of my work focus on textual records, photographs, artifacts, and oral history — leaving me far away from archaeology field work.  Material culture and archeology speaks to areas of the history of Residential Schools that is not captured in historical documents.

Many of the Residential Schools that existed in Canada are no longer standing and in many cases the original land which the schools resided on has been re-purposed or left abandoned.  Unless a monument or other marker has been erected it is often impossible to tell Residential School sites apart from the landscape. Through archaeology and the use of historical records it is possible to identify where buildings were, uses of the land, and the location of burial grounds that were established as part of the schools. 

Overall, the visit reminded me of the importance of interdisciplinary work and the value of reaching out beyond one’s immediate field.  The video below, “Encountering Modernity – The Piikani Historical Archaeology Project”does an excellent job of describing some of the efforts related to First Nations and Residential School archaeology projects. 

Archives and Historical Research in Works of Fantasy

I recently rediscovered my love for fantasy fiction.  This love was rekindled while I read the Mistborn series by Brandon Sanderson.  In addition to being an excellent fantasy series, the Mistborn series allowed me to consider the portrayal of archives and historians in works of fantasy.

Sanderson’s Final Empire includes a sect of people who are known as Keepers.  In a glossary Sanderson defines the Keepers as “an organization of Feruchemists dedicated to discovering, then memorizing, all the knowledge and religions that existed before the Ascension.”  Throughout the series the Keepers are depicted as the holders and preservers of history, without them the past would be erased from all memory. The Keepers are also dedicated to sharing their knowledge with those in need.

This act of remembrance and sharing strikes me as the essential reason for the establishment of archives and the ultimate goal of many historians.  Like many other fantasy authors, Sanderson uses the act of remembering and the premise of archives to advance the plot in his novels.

A more well known example of historical research and archives impact the plot of works of fantasy can be seen in Lord of the Rings.  Upon learning of the ring held by Bilbo/Frodo Gandalf travels to Minas Tirith in Gondor to research the One Ring. There Lord Denethor grudgingly allowed Gandalf to search among his hoarded scrolls and books. There he found the description of the One Ring written by Isildore.

 This research takes Gandalf 17 years to complete in the books and is shown as a brief clip in the Fellowship of the Ring movie.  Tolkien uses Gandalf’s time in the ‘archive’ and reliance upon historical sources to advance his plot.  It is Gandalf’s historical research that eventually allows him to discover how to ‘test’ the ring held by Frodo. 

Archives, historical research, and other avenues of examining the past often appear in works of fantasy.  Fantasy worlds by their very nature have unique (as in following accepted history) histories. This uniqueness often requires authors to explore the past of a world in a preface, through stories/oral histories, or devices such as archives.

Introducing the Archive: Greeting First Time Visitors

The overwhelming majority of visitors to the archive I work at have never been inside an archive before.  Many of the visitors come from outside academia or are undergraduate and high school students stepping into an archive for the first time.  In addition to being new to archives, many visitors are searching for documents relating to their personal or family history. 

How do you frame the uses and potential research value of an archive to new visitors? 
This is often the ‘elevator pitch’ for the archive and includes a condensed version of services, resources, and archival holdings. We emphasize that staff are available to help new researchers, that material is available online (and we can provide instruction on navigating the site), and that material can be copied for research purposes. 

If the visitor is a student, we often point out potential research topics in their field of study, suggest relevant publications, and encourage them to ask questions.  We also remind students of hours and that we aren’t open weekends.

Additionally, all visitors can take a contact card which has our website, email, and phone information on it.  We also have more in-depth pamphlets for those interested. 

How to you facilitate non-academic research? 
Since the majority of our visitors are not engaged in academic research, our reading room contains material to help people research family history.  We have reproduction photo albums which visitors can flip through, media clip binders (copies of newspaper articles), and copies of frequently used government documents which visitors can flip through at their leisure.

Typically, people researching family histories are able to find necessary material without staff ever having to pull anything from the archive.  This cuts down on staff work and the use of reproductions helps preserve original documents and photographs.

How do you greet new visitors at your organization?

Photo credit: Dublin City Public Libraries

Reference Services: Asking the Right Questions

Thus far, my roles in the heritage field have typically been collection or research based, I enjoy both of these roles and all that goes with them.  However, recently my job has expanded into providing some reference services and assisting patrons with research requests.  The nature of the reference questions that have come across my desk have included: genealogy research, help navigating the online database, help finding photographs, image use requests, and general research questions. 

This foray into the world of reference has made me think about how historical researchers approach reference services and how to ask the right questions when you need assistance.  As a result, I’ve come up with this list of items that can help researchers ask good questions when undertaking research.

  • If there is an online research request form use it.  Chances are this form will be automatically directed to the correct staff member, which will safe you time looking for the correct person to ask. 
    • If there isn’t a form look at the staff listing to see if it list someone as reference staff or if there is a department which is relevant to your inquiry.  
  • Similarly, if you are leaving a voicemail on a machine that service multiple staff members be explicit about your area of interest.  And don’t forget to leave your phone number! 
  • If you are interested in something you saw online include links to the material.
  • If inquiring about material that has reference numbers (accession numbers, finding aid title, photograph number, etc) cite this information in your inquiry. 
  • When requesting use of images or information in a project or publication include all pertinent details 
    • What are you going to use the images for? Is it a commercial or a non-commercial use? What quality of images would you require?  Is there a time constraint on your request?
  • If you are asking a more topical question or doing genealogy research be very clear about what information you are looking for and what type of help you need. 
    • Asking pointed and specific questions makes reference staff happy and makes it much easier for them to help you. 

Reference staff are there to help you.  However, it is much easier to help someone who is clear about their needs — especially when corresponding via email. 

Photo credit:  ACPL

Tangible History: Artifacts as Gateways to the Past

Powder Flask, McCord Museum, M975.61.76

My most recent post can be seen over on the site.  The post, “Tangible History: Artifacts as Gateways to the Past” focuses on the use of artifacts as primary sources in historical research and in educational settings.

Summer Whirlwind

After completing the course work portion of the UWO Public History program, I packed all my bags and moved to Ottawa. I spent the summer working as an intern for The History Group and volunteering at the Canadian Museum of Nature. I enjoyed my time at both organizations, and was able to gain a number of valuable experiences.

The History Group (THG) is a historical research company that focuses on a variety of research topics including: archaeological, first nations, anthropological, and civil litigation. While working with THG I worked on various source identification, and research organization projects. This work was primarily involving collections held by Library and Archives Canada. Working with these collections was both time consuming and interesting. My experience with THG allowed me to gain an understanding of how to organize huge amounts of material effectively, and which research techniques work best for me.

While volunteering at the Canadian Museum of Nature I assisted in the botany collection. Prior to volunteering my knowledge of botany was limited at best. Spending hours mounting various types of grasses from British Columbia, forges a new interest and appreciation for botanists. Additionally, unlike many of my past experiences the Canadian Museum of Nature was not comprised soley of those from the historical field. A large portion of the staff at the Museum of Nature are scientists and researchers. This mix of professionals was interesting and exposed me to a facility which combines history with numerous other fields.

Overall, my summer was filled with diversity. Historical research and museums collection work are drastically different. This diversity is something which speaks to the field of public history and the variety of fields which a public historian can find employment in.

Online Resource: Our Ontario

I recently stumbled across an interesting digitization project. is a division of Knowledge Ontario. The project aims to make various cultural collections in Ontario more accessible through digitization. Our Ontario works with community organizations throughout Ontario to establish effective and efficient digitization plans. Additionally, the site is geared toward researchers of all ages and the digitized documents from all across Ontario are easily searchable. The site also features a number of social media initiatives including social tagging.

One of the downfalls of this site however, is that not all documents which appear in the search results are viewable online. In some cases copyright restrictions have limited access to material. Despite this, adequate information is proved to describe material to researchers, and to assist in locating potentially useful sources.

The variety of material available on OurOntario is one of the site’s greatest features. The site features sources of a variety of facets including: audio, text, photo, video, and object. The site is also searchable by collection. Additionally, the site features collections from a variety of institutions including: libraries, archives, museums, historical societies, community groups, and government organizations. The variety of content makes this site an increasingly centralized place to conduct a variety of research.

Looking Back: Public History and Expanding Viewpoints

For more than a week I have been trying to collect my thoughts on the past eight months of the public history program. I initially wanted to summarize what I’ve learned, discuss the evolution of my views on public history, and the narrowing of my interests. However, when I sat down to actually do this, I realized that my interests have not narrowed, but actually expanded over the past eight months.

I am still interested in digital history and the use of technology to enhance education. I am also still intrigued by local heritage and the use of public institutions to express history to a broader public. In the past eight months I have also become interested in the divide between academic and public history, the unique research challenges which often face a public historian, and the relationship of tourism, public relations, and history. So where do all these interests leave me? At this point I’m not sure. I enjoy research, I enjoy museums, I enjoy playing with technology, and new digital applications. This summer I am doing a combination of things to expand on my interests, I am working as a research intern with The History Group and I am going to be spending some time a the Museum of Nature. Will this help me actually narrow my interests? Maybe…but having a broad range of interests isn’t a horrible thing in my mind.

Overall, I think one of the most valuable lessons I learned this year is that public history is constantly expanding. Public history is no longer means just museums and archives. Public history encompasses business history, film, television, historical content on the web, landscapes, the building of parks, monuments, heritage tourism, and many more thing. Public history requires a lot of thinking outside of traditional structures, and approaching history from varying perspectives. The fact that public history can be valuable to so many different groups of people makes me hopeful that the public history field in Canada will one day grow to be as vibrant as public history is in other countries currently.

Trends and Google

Lists of what is most popular, and the most popular searches conducted aren’t anything new. However, Google has expanded on people’s interests in trends and created Google Trends. This search feature allows users to search anything their heart desires, and receive a chart which highlights current and past trends on the topic.

This feature is also closely related to Google’s move to make searching public data such as population more accessible. Currently, if you go to and type in [unemployment rate] or [population] followed by a place in the U.S, you will see the most recent estimates and an interactive chart. The information used for these charts and is from the U.S Census Bureau’s Population Division. Most importantly this is a huge step towards making census information far more searchable and accessible to the general public. This newly organized data has the potential to be a valuable to historians attempting to gauge population changes, the movement of people, employment, and numerous other facets of history.