From Pulp and Paper to Community Hub

During the month of December I am participating in #reverb14 as a means of getting my writing habits back on track. I will be altering the prompts as needed to fit within the scope of this blog. Today’s prompt is: When did you feel beautiful this year? Why? Altered prompt: Discuss a beautiful heritage project or site from the past year.



St Marys Pulp and Paper Complex

One of the most inspiring revitalization projects in my community this past year has been the transformation of the St. Mary’s Paper Mill site. Initially known as the Sault Ste. Marie Pulp and Paper Company, which was built by Francis H. Clergue in 1895, the site remained operational until St. Mary’s Paper went bankrupt in 2011. A shot history of the pulp and paper industry in Sault Ste Marie can be found here.

Riversedge Developments purchased the site in 2012 and since that time the site has undergone significant revitalization. Much of the unique architecture found on the site has been preserved and there are plans for the site to be developed as a cultural and tourism hub.

The first phase of the project has seen the opening of the Mill Market in the former Board Mill Building, the former machine shop being developed as a concert venue, and the Algoma Conservatory of Music moving into the old administration building.

The site is being used for both public and private events and is slowly integrating itself into community life. It is great to see the revitalization of this industrial site and the preservation of such an important piece of heritage. Overall this is a great example of adaptive reuse of an industrial heritage site.

Public History and Environmental Engagement: Scotland’s Coastal Heritage

The recent special issue of The Public Historian focused on public history and environmental sustainability.  This issue builds on the sustainable public history theme that was the focus of the 2014 National Council on Public History conference and the digital collection Public History in a Changing Climate which appeared on the Public History Commons.  The special journal issue contains a number of interesting articles on the desire to engage the public with environmental history and a changing environmental landscape. 

The article “A View from Scotland’s Coast” by Tom Dawson which looks at coastal erosion and the impact of erosion of heritage sites provides a glimpse into the potential of engaging the public in issues of heritage, climate change, and natural heritage. 

Dawson’s writing focuses on the work of the Scottish Coastal Archaeology and the Problem of Erosion Trust (SCAPE Trust) and highlights examples of coastal erosion’s impact of heritage sites in Scotland.  For example, in Bora, a small coastal town in Northern Scotland, industrial buildings from the sixteenth century were uncovered on the coast.  Beginning in 2004 SCAPE worked with the local community and organizations to excavate buildings and begin to document the site.  However in 2012 a winter storm destroyed the sixteenth-century salt pans that had been uncovered.  All that remained were piles of ruble on a beach below.

This and other examples of heritage sites endangered by coastal erosion reminded me a lot of my trip to Ireland.  While touring the Dingle Peninsula there were a number of site that had been partially destroyed be erosion or were at risk because of the changing shoreline.  I remember thinking at the time about what could be done to save such sites, particularly in a country that is filled with similar heritage structures.

Dawson argues that “being able to demonstrate the value of an asset is key to getting the item preserved, or at least recorded before it is destroyed.”  Heritage sites need to advocate for the value of their existence and preservation, especially if an economic advantage to preserving the site isn’t immediately apparent. 

SCAPE believes that involving communities and local populations in archaeological and preservation projects is key, “working directly with heritage gives people a greater understanding of its importance, and this appreciation spreads through the community and beyond”  Additionally local residents often hold valuable knowledge which has been passed down through generations about local heritage sites, landscape changes, and past events. 

SCAPE’s development of the Scotland’s Coastal Heritage at Risk Project (SCHARP) highlights a collaborative effort to engage communities in preservation.  The project relies on the public to update and correct information collected via coastal surveys and report any changes to the sites.  The SCHARP project website includes data for 12,000 coastal sites and invites the public to update information based on local knowledge.  The site is relatively user friendly and interesting to explore even for those without a local connection to Scotland.

SCAPE also asks community members to nominate sites for preservation.  Though the ShoreDig project SCAPE works with communities to facilitate community excavation and to encourage engagement with threatened local heritage. 

Dawson’s work highlights the crucial role the public has to play in the preservation of coastal heritage.  Community engagement is essential to assessment of local heritage sites and working with the public can help preserve information and sites which would otherwise be lost in changing landscapes.

Books and Built Heritage: Trinity College Dublin

Long Room at Trinity College Dublin

I recently spent two weeks in Ireland.  This trip included a number of visits to museums, historical sites, and natural heritage places.  This post is the first of many recounting my experiences at these heritage spaces.  

One of the things I had been looking forward to prior to my trip to Ireland was visiting Trinity College Dublin and the Book of Kells exhibit there.  The Trinity College campus is beautiful and many of the residences and classroom buildings are great examples of the preservation of built heritage in Dublin.  For example, the Old Library building which houses the Book of Kells exhibit was constructed in the 1800s and much of the interior and exterior remains true to the original construction.

The actual exhibit which leads up to the Book of Kells is fairly interesting.  It focuses broadly on the book making process, scribes, material usage and providing context to the 9th century origins of the Book of Kells.  Though this information was interesting the layout of the “Turning Light into Darkness” exhibit was confusing and didn’t allow for great traffic flow.  Considering the popularity of the Book of Kells I was surprised by how small of an exhibit space is devoted to contextualizing the book.

Following the opportunity to look at a page from the Book of Kells, the Book of Armagh, and the Book of Durrow (or similar texts depending on the days rotation) visitors can do up to the Long Room.  I enjoyed this part of the visit much more than the actual Book of Kells exhibit.  The Long Room is a beautiful old library that houses special collection manuscripts.  The Long Room also includes a number of display cases featuring examples from the Trinity College archival collection. 

During the time of my visit the Long Room also included the temporary exhibit, “Preservation & Conservation: What’s That?”  The the public historian and archivist in me loved the fact that these educational panels which explained essential components of the field were on display.  The exhibit explained historical photograph treatments, book bindings, the difference between preservation and conservation, and what type of education you need to enter this field. 

Overall, I enjoyed the visit to Trinity College but the Book of Kells exhibit and display was probably my least favourite part of the experience.  The Long Room and the campus grounds were far less crowded and much more enjoyable.

Cultural Landscapes at NCPH 2013

Tongariro National Park, NZ

Thursday afternoon I attended the “Whose Public? Who speaks for Cultural Landscapes” session at  NCPH featuring Susan Gray, Elizabeth Pishief and Aurelie Gfeller.  This session was a more traditional format with the presenters each reading a formal paper.  The common theme in the session was the preservation of cultural landscapes and the connections that indigenous people have to traditional landscapes.

Pishief spoke about her experience in the development of  land use and cultural landscape policies in New Zealand.  Pishief’s presentation provided insight into the cultural practices of the Maori people and the impact of their beliefs have had on the development heritage discourses.  Perhaps most signficantly, Pishief described the Maori understanding of land as being both material and spiritual and uniquely connected to a sense of place and belonging. This presentation provided food for thought regarding Canadian indigenous conceptions of land and stewardship. 

Gfeller’s presentation was focused on the UNESCO world heritage designation process.  Though this presentation was not focused directly on indigenous conceptions of heritage, Gfeller did explain the roots of UNESCO designation and the difficulties many indigenous communities have getting their cultural landscapes recognized.  Gfeller indicated that indigenous communities are often hampered by the UNESCO application process, the need to apply through formal government channels, and the need to explain non-tangible conceptions of cultural landscapes. 

This panel concluded with Gray’s description of her experience working as an expert witness during litigation surrounding the 1836 Treaty of Washington with an emphasis on the historical and contemporary definitions of settlement.  I found Gray’s discussion of settlement as a European term which is closely linked to the transformation of forest into farms intriguing and appropriate considering the many land disputes that are still occurring in North America. Understanding  language used in original treaty documents is crucial to land dispute resolution.

Overall, I found this panel to contain a lot of interesting ideas about indigenous and settler conceptions of cultural landscapes across international boarders.  The only drawback of the panel was that the format left limited time for audience questions and interaction.

Preservation of the Northern Michigan Asylum

One of the highlights of my recent trip to Traverse City was visiting The Village at Grand Traverse Commons.  The built heritage preservation and adaptive reuse of the buildings contained in the 63 acre site is amazing and serves as a reminder of the possibilities encompassed by built heritage.  The Village is built on the site that was home to the Northern Michigan Asylum, later known as the Traverse City State Hospital from 1885-1989. 

The site comprises a large complex of buildings, with the main building being surrounded by cottages and smaller out buildings.  The main building (Building 50) is the last remaining Kirkbride style building in Michigan and large portions of it have been renovated and turned into public and private spaces.

The renovated building features a Mercato market space which features shops, restaurants, and  hallways filled with artwork.  The building also includes a number of residential spaces and office space.  During my visit the space was also home to an indoor farmers market.  The variety of adaptive reuse options that have been used on this one building are amazing, historical spaces have been converted to a variety of modern uses that have broad appeal and sustainability. 

In addition to the amazing adaptive reuse the site is located amongst 480 acres of preserved parkland.  The village grounds also contain a  heritage arboretum.  This arboretum developed out of Dr. James Decker Munson’s belief in beauty is therapy, which resulted in a variety of beautiful trees being planted around the Hospital. It’s nice to see a space preserving aspects of the natural landscape which complement the built heritage features.  

Overall, the site is an amazing preservation project that has garnered tremendous local support and inspired contemplation of the history of the site.  Visitors to the Village can’t help but notice the rich history of their surroundings.  During our visit I heard more than one person talking about the social history of the site and explaining aspects of the local history–the space is a great model for communities looking to reinvigorate unused heritage buildings. 

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

Digital Tools For Transcription

In the past when I have worked with audio recordings of oral history interviews I have worked with Audacity for the digitization and transcription of the recordings.  Audacity is open source and does a great job in the digitization process and handles the manipulation (clean-up) of audio files well.  Additionally, Audacity does allow users to slow down the playback rate, which helps a lot in the transcription process.

However the transcription process can be a bit clunky if you are constantly switching between an Audacity window and a word processing program.  I’ve found that using two screens and Alt+TAB can help with switching between programs to replay bits of audio, but the process has never been ideal. 

Enter Express Scribe (possibly accompanied by sounds of transcription joy). As I mentioned in an earlier post I’m currently volunteering with the Multicultural History Society of Ontario (MHSO) as a transcriber on their Discovering Multicultural Ontario Digital Archive project. This transcription gig is what introduced me to Express Scribe as a tool for transcription.

I haven’t bee using Express Scribe for nearly as many different tasks as I use Audacity for, but it has a good setup for transcription.  The interface is super easy to understand and it can be downloaded for free. Setup and figuring out how to use the program for transcription took under ten minutes. Comparatively, I found Audacity great once I got used to it but the multiple toolbars and copious numbers of icons made it a bit daunting at first.

Express Scribe has also been mentioned multiple times on the H-oralhistory listserv as a good option for oral historians.  Personally, I like the program because you can adjust the audio and type all within the same window.  It’s like a playback program and a word processing program combined.

What digital tools do you use in the transcription process?

Photo credit: Keenesaw State University Archives

Time Capsule History

I was recently listening to a speaker who used time capsules as the introductory hook in his talk.  His description of time capsules focused on finding previously lost historical knowledge, the excitement of opening time capsules and the ability of time capsules to speak about the era they were created in.

The idea of finding a hidden piece of history and bringing it to light reminds me a lot of Indian Jones, treasure hunting and successful archival finds.   But, all I could think of when the speaker was using time capsules as an analogy was how vulnerable materials in poorly constructed time capsules are. 

All things deteriorate with time. Ideal preservation conditions can increase the lifespan of historical documents and artifacts.  But the items enclosed in a time capsule that a grade five class made themselves and buried for future grade five class might not have a great hope of extended survival.  Similarly, the digital mediums today will most likely not be usable in 50 years, making DVDs and CDs placed in time capsules rather useless. 

The time capsule analogy is an interesting one.  But I think it could be more aptly used to describe the fragile nature of human memory, the written word and our conceptions of history.  Our insights into the past are limited by what is left behind — records, artifacts, oral histories, and material culture.  Like a poorly constructed time capsule, aspects of history that we don’t actively aim to preserve often grow dim and fade into dust. 

Similarly, a time capsule only shows a glimpse into an era.  Often the contents of a time capsule are include because they hold significance to the creator of the capsule.  But that significance or an explanation of the context surrounding the item are very rarely included inside the capsule.   The items in a time capsule are like random bits of historical information, they have the potential to be important but without more information it’s hard to tell what their actual value is. 

On the other hand, I remember being very excited as a child about the idea of creating and saving something for future students who might attend the elementary school.  Time capsules are a neat way of engaging the public with the past, they just need to be approached with a bit of knowledge about preservation and history.

Photo Credits: QuesterMark and Jessica Wilson

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?

Creating Archival Professional Development Workshops

Over the course of the spring and summer my work is holding weekly events focused on library and archives professional development, training, and themes.  The sessions will be open current staff, university faculty, and local professionals. 


As part of this series a colleague and I are going to be facilitating three sessions focusing on archives.  Our library/archives staff is primarily made up of personnel with significantly more library than archival experience.  We hope our sessions will help library staff, other departments, and community members understand a bit more about archival practice.  Our sessions will focus on the basics of archival organization and preservation, community based heritage projects, and how to establish a successful digitization program. 

So, what makes a good professional development workshop? How do you gear your programing to suit a wide ranging audience who hold a variety of skill sets? What have been some of your best workshop experiences? Some of the aspects I particularly value in workshops include:

  • Hands on learning. In this particular instance incorporating hands on experiences could be done with preservation techniques, numbering files, scanning items, and creating metadata.
  • I also like having resources available after the workshop.  Be that an email with links to projects mentioned, a PowerPoint presentation, or additional resources for participants to look at.
  • Specific examples of successes, failures, and work-arounds.   Theory is all well and good, but at a workshop I prefer to learn about actual best practices and implementation that is in progress.
  • Being able to ask questions throughout the workshop if in an informal setting or having ample time at the end to ask questions about the material.  

What do you think are essential components of archival (or any other) professional development sessions?