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

Looking Back: Top Heritage Experiences of 2012

This past year has been filled with a variety of heritage focused experiences, archival moments, and history based exploration.  Below are some of my favourite public history moments from the past year:

  • The best museum experience I had this year was hands down my visit to the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. I wrote about my experience here.
  • The best conference experience I attended was the National Council on Public History 2012 conference.  The dynamic nature of the conference, the variety of attendees and general history goodness won me over. 
  • Similarly, the best historical tour I participated in 2012 was at the NCPH conference.  It was a walking tour of downtown Milwaukee put on by Historic Milwaukee Inc.  The weather was on the chilly side during this tour and I remember the wind being particularly harsh, but I loved learning about the built heritage, early history, and local events of Milwaukee.  The tour was well contextualized and provided a great introduction to the history of Milwaukee. 
  • Best natural heritage experience of 2012 is a hard choice.  I’m torn between the drive along the beautiful North Shore of Lake Superior and seeing the Agawa Pictographs.  Both were memorable experiences and spoke volumes about the rich heritage that exists in Northern Ontario. 
  • I was fortunate to celebrate Canada Day  at The Forks heritage site in Winnipeg, Manitoba.  This was probably the most memorable and most diverse celebration at a heritage site.  It was great to see a natural heritage space being used for events by the general public and to see the in progress building of the Museum of Human Rights.

Other heritage highlights of 2012 include seeing the Body Worlds Vital exhibit at Science North, drinking tasty beer in the Third District in Milwaukee, being proposed to with a piece of estate jewelery, the Truth and Reconciliation event I attended in Toronto last February, and having the time to read about aspects of archival practice, public history, and Indigenous heritage that I’m interested in.  Looking forward to many more heritage filled moments in 2013.  Providing the world doesn’t end tomorrow, of course.

Canada’s Churches: A Struggle of Built Heritage and Social Services

It won’t be surprising to anyone to note that Christan church attendance in Canada has been declining in recent years.  The United Church of Canada, which has been seen as one of the more forward thinking and social activist churches (ordaining women ministers in the 1930s, tolerant and supportive of gay rights since the 1980s and promoting rational thought in the church since the 1990s) has had a declining membership since 1965. The once dominant Protestant churches in Canada are feeling a similar decline in membership.

In the small town of 1200 people where I live, there are five Christian churches which hold services on Sundays.  On the average non-holiday Sunday most of these churches see under 30 people in the pews.  Many congregations are struggling with financial concerns, lack of new members, and aging congregations. 

Looking at the United Churches in the North Shore region of Ontario paints a rather dismal picture.  Many of these churches are struggling to keep their doors open.  The congregations simply do not have the financial means to heat, maintain, and repair the historic buildings the churches call home.  In many cases the unwillingness to let go of these historic buildings is slowly resulting in the demise of congregations.  Ministers, secretaries, organists and other once essential staff are let go in hopes of saving money to support a building.  These decisions to discontinue with paid staff often result in further instability and additional church members leaving the church.  All for a building.

I find this instance on identifying a church with a building mind boggling.  Similar to service clubs (which are also facing declining membership), churches have long been community staples, providing community services and a sense of working for the less fortunate/the greater good.  Churches have served as gathering places and places of community spirit.

Historically, the social role of church has been just as significant as the heritage buildings the church communities have built. Many early church congregations met in community halls, private homes, and schools.  The location where these congregations gathered didn’t make them any less of a church.  The congregations still worshiped and worked together to improve their community.  The Church buildings came much later, as the congregations grew in size and prosperity.  Logically, if there has been a drastic decline in size and prosperity the church building should reflect that. 

 By no means would I want a historic building to be torn down or simply abandoned.  But, I can’t see the value in a handful of people holding onto a building after the worship and social components of a church have been lost.  The financial burden of a large church is huge. The winter heating costs alone can be crippling.  Desperately holding onto a building that you can’t afford in the long run seems like a form of denial and simply delaying the inevitable. 

There are a number of adaptive reuse possibilities for churches.  In the small town of five active churches which I spoke about earlier.  There is a sixth church building which stopped operating as a church in the 1990s.  Since that time, the building as been a public library, town offices, and an arts center.  The building still exists and many people have entered it that never would have had it stayed a church. Church buildings in larger cities have been turned into condos, office space, fitness centers and used for a whole range of other purposes. 

People don’t like change.  But, declining membership numbers and financial reports speak for themselves, ignoring them doesn’t make them go away.  Many church congregations and communities need to take a serious look at their future and decide how to move forth in an increasingly secular society.

Additional Reading:
The Globe and Mail article on “The Collapse of the Liberal Church” from June 2012 is an interesting read for anyone looking to learn more about the place of liberal Christianity in Canada and the United States.

Community Knowledge and Active Listening

This week I am spending a lot of time outside of the archive.  The archive is hosting a group of concurrent education students as part of a trial summer institute experience.  The basis for this summer institute is providing an education setting that focuses on experiential learning in relation to Aboriginal heritage and Northern Ontario.  The week includes a few formal lecture type discussions, but for the most part activities are focusing on the real world and engaging with local communities.

Learning outside of a traditional education setting can be extremely rewarding.  It can also be a bit overwhelming for students who have been trained to learn in a lecture or classroom setting.   One of the most important skills that aren’t emphasized in formal education settings is the act of active listening and effective oral communication. 

Listening to someone explain their own past as a formal oral history or in a more casual conversation can be an amazing learning opportunity.  However,  listening passively and not having a feel for the situation and atmosphere of the conversation can limit how much is shared or learned.  Sometimes it is not appropriate to interrupt a speaker to ask questions, other times a conversation where you ask directed questions is completely fine.  Knowing the person who you are speaking to helps a lot, as does reading the setting. 

For example, interrupting a First Nations Elder with questions when they are providing a formal teaching probably isn’t the most appropriate.  Chances are the Elder will ask you if there are questions at the end.  If a question period isn’t part of the session it’s often possible to say thank you to the speak and ask short questions individually at the end of the session.  A good facilitator will explain if questions are appropriate at the beginning, but this doesn’t always happen. 

Yesterday, one of the community members the group visited spoke about the importance of thinking with both your heart and mind and responding to the situation appropriately.  I think the advice is definitely valid.  A lot of academically trained individuals have a hard time expanding beyond traditional school thoughts.  When learning in a less formal more community based setting it is important to step away from purely academic modes of learning and be open to different interpretations and understandings of knowledge. 

Collaborative History: Editing Mayham

The fist Knox Church, ca. 1910

I’ve recently been working on an editing project that has me simultaneously enthralled and going a bit squirrely.  The project is a church history that highlights a congregation’s journey from 1862 to 2012.  As you might have guessed, the impious for this project is that 2012 marks the 150th anniversary of the Church’s founding. 

Prior to this project beginning, a basic history of the church has been created for the Church’s centennial celebration.  So how did the congregation proceed? A heritage committee was established and numerous congregation members were assigned parts to research and write.  The current minister (who has been at the church since 1994) also undertook writing a substantial part of the more recent history.

Knox Church, 2010.

I think it’s great that the history is being written at all.  The history of a 150 year old congregation is a huge project and one which often doesn’t get undertaken unless there is a congregation member who is very passionate about it.  There are multiple building changes, a fire, and many community accomplishments to be looked at in the Church’s history.

However, editing a lengthy document that was written by between 5-10 people (all of who feel their information is crucial to the history) has been a learning experience.  Initially it felt as though I was handed drafts of ideas, snippets of previously written histories, paragraphs about church groups, and a pile of photographs.  After finding my way through all the material, I’ve managed to force things into a bit more of a coherent story line.  I’m now starting to look at more formal copy editing and eventually layout. 

I’m looking forward to this project’s continued development and eventual publication.  It’s a huge milestone for the Church and this history has the potential to be something that future congregations look back upon.

Tale of a Town: History Meets Theater

This morning CBC played a documentary entitled, “Small Time Stories: From the Tale of a Town – Queen Street West.”  The radio documentary was based on the work done to compile the multimedia interactive play Tale of a Town that focuses on the history of the Queen Street West neighbourhood in Toronto.  The radio production provided an interesting look into some of Queen Street West’s more prominent buildings and past residents. 

The premise behind the production is very similar to a historical walking tour.  The show takes the audience on a promenade-style tour of Queen West by a fictional condo developer, which allows theater to be intermingled with built history and local memories of the area.

The idea of incorporating theater into history isn’t anything new –  reenactments and many living history sites have been doing this for years.  However, Tale of a Town attempts to combine theater, oral history, built heritage, local history, and music.  I’m interested to know if similar productions have been undertaken in other cities or venues. 

Photo credit: rachel in wonderland

Quilts Galore

In my previous job as a Digitization Facilitator, for an OurOntario project, I had the opportunity to work with a number of great local history collections.  A few of these collections contained quilts made and donated by community members.  I was instantly impressed by the work and community memory contained in so many of these handmade quilts. A number of the quilts were done as community fundraisers or as keepsakes and have local family names stitched onto them – a great source for any local historian.

Since my first introduction to quilts in a historic context I’ve continued to be amazed by the work that goes into quilt making.  Some of my favourite quilts from museum collections include: 

From the Huron Shores Museum, a Pink and White fundraiser quilt.  Community members paid a small fee to stitch their name into the quilt.  Additional details for this quilt can be seen here.

Circa 1940

Detail of a section of the names on the quilt. 

An intricate scrap style quilt held by the McCord Museum.

Crazy quilt, M965.76.1 1897, made in 1897

The Castle Kilbridge National Historic Site has placed a virtual exhibit on the Virtual Museum of Canada which focuses on quilts given as wedding presents.  The quilt below is an example of the items contained in that exhibit.  

“Rising Sun,” made in 1885

Our Roots Our Future

CC licensed, Steven Burke.

This week the Sudbury CBC radio programs Morning North and Points North are running a series called Our Roots: Our Future.  This series is focusing on the history of immigration in Sudbury.  Despite having lived in Sudbury for awhile, I had no conception of the diverse cultural past of the city’s residents.

So far the series has included segments on: 

Well worth a listen if you’re interested in local history or immigration patterns.

Come On Over! Northeastern Ontario A to Z

May 10th marked the release of Come on Over! Northeastern Ontario A to Z by Dieter Buse and Graeme Mount, professors emeritus of Laurentian University. From September to November 2010, while developing the book Buse and Mount were featured weekly on CBC Northern Ontario Radio’s Morning North program discussing communities from their book.

Come on Over! features antidotes and histories from over 100 communities in Northeaster Ontario. Excerpts of the book can be viewed online here. Buse and Mount have managed to succinctly cover a range of material, have used approachable language, and provided reference citations for anyone looking to explore their sources in detail. It’s great to see Northern Ontario history being explored and discussed on a popular forum and appreciated by a range of people.

An official launch of Come On Over! will be held Thursday May 19th at the Art Gallery of Sudbury at 7 p.m.