Public History and Administrative Skills

A lot of work I’ve been doing recently falls more under the project management and administrative support category than hands on archival work.  All of my jobs have included administrative and planning tasks that many people don’t associate with public history.  Getting ready ready to go public takes a lot of work.  Exhibit schedules do not magically create themselves and educational programming doesn’t just happen when visitors are around.

On that frame of mind, some of the administrative skills I’ve found tremendously useful to have in my public history tool box include:

  • The ability to create, implement and evaluate work flows.  I gained experience creating working flows while working as a Digitization Facilitator for the Our Ontario, Community Digitization Project.  That experience allowed me to learn how to organize the work of multiple staff working on collaborative and individual tasks. 
  • Short term and long term task management and planning. Juggling multiple projects, multiple priorities, and multiple stakeholders is fairly common in the public history world. Even more so if you are working in a smaller organization where you might have multiple hats.
  • Experience in general administrative tasks such as creating conference packages, troubleshooting printers, document formatting, book binding, filing, and general paperwork.  Creating good meeting minutes, agendas, and experience running meetings are also skills that can be invaluable in collaborative spaces.
  • Copy editing skills.  You know all those pretty exhibit labels, signage, handouts and other material created by heritage organizations?  Someone had to create all of that and chances are some serious effort also went into the copy editing of the text.  No one wants to see a giant sign go to print with the name of the organization misspelled on it.  
  • Knowing when to ask for help. No matter how hard you try you can’t be good at everything.  It’s okay to ask for help you need instruction or pass on a task because it is outside of your area expertise. 

This by no means a definitive list, but it’s a good place to start thinking about the different type of work public historians do.  Yes, some people work purely with artifacts or archival records.  But, many heritage professionals are engaged in work that requires a diverse skill set.  It’s worth thinking about all the things you do that don’t fall under typical notions of heritage work. 

Speaking Up for Heritage

Earlier this week someone asked me why I first became interested in archives and what I like about my job.  I responded with my fairly standard response about my background in public history and how I really like that my place of employment focuses on engaging communities through archival material and placing an emphasis on sharing and education.

The follow-up question to this initial probe is what got me thinking.  The person asked how my personal emphasis on public engagement might influence by views on the recent Library and Archives Canada (LAC) code of conduct fiasco (see here and here for some background on the recent controversy) and the general perception that archives operate as gatekeepers.  My response was predictably focused on the need for balance of accessibility, protection of personal/organization privacy and free speech. 

I use twitter and this blog to talk about a variety of  public history focused topics.  Many of these topics are inspired by or indirectly related to work I’m doing.  Similarly, a lot of my more formal writing and conference presentations have been based on the projects I’ve been fortunate enough to work on as an employee or volunteer. I can’t imagine not being able use these digital and physical spaces of collaboration, sharing, and  expression. 

Countless groups of people have been marginalized by official histories, their stories left out of archival records, and their voices silenced in historical narratives.  History projects of all shapes and sizes have the potential to help marginalized groups have their stories told.  New historical narratives can be created that include a myriad of voices and perspectives.  Silencing the caretakers of historical records can have the impact of silencing the historical records themselves.  Education, outreach, and promotion of new scholarship are essential to making history accessible.

If you haven’t already heard it last week Jian Ghomehi’s opening essay on Q focused on the LAC code of conduct and he hit the nail right on the head, “…the management of information and memory and artifact is a vocation and maybe a passion that extends naturally beyond their confines of their work day to their communities, their families, to schools…”  History isn’t confined to neat little boxes and discussions of history shouldn’t be limited to what is arbitrarily deemed acceptable.

Project of Heart: Hands on History

Comparable to the (official denial) trade value in progress sewing actions I wrote about last week, Project of Heart is a commemoration project which combines an artistic activity with history education.  Project of Heart aims to educate Canadians about the lasting impact of the Indian Residential School system.  The project places an emphasis remembering those students who passed away while at Residential School.

Participants in Project of Heart learn about Residential Schools and are then asked to decorate a small wooden title to represent the death of one child at Residential School.  The education component of Project of Heart focuses on learning through oral history and experiential learning.  Residential Schools Survivors are invited by school and community groups to tell their personal experiences, and give voice to language and traditions that were suppressed by Residential Schools.  The Project of Heart website also offers a great list of educational resources and discussion questions for those facilitating education activities.

Project of Heart also requests that each group focus on a specific Residential School.  Focusing on a particular school and on the students who attended that specific school held make the topic more tangible and less abstract.  The name of the school studied is written on the back of each title decorated by participants.

The artistic activity of the project, decorating a small wooden tile using sharpie markers, emphasizes creating something to remember and commemorate a child who died at Residential School.  Allowing students to express what they have learned through a creative medium makes this project appealing to many educators and the hands on component helps make the history lesson increasingly memorable. 

Transcription and Oral History

A number of jobs and volunteer positions I’ve held have allowed me to work from home or off-site.  For example: The History Group internship I completed in 2009 had me working on source identification projects from home and in 2010 I volunteered as a historical research associate with the Red Cross.

 In the same vein, I recently started volunteering with the Multicultural History Society of Ontario (MHSO) on their Discovering Multicultural Ontario Digital Archive project.  In this role I’m helping with the transcription of oral histories that have been collected by the MHSO.  I can work from home on this project as the MHSO has set up an FTP site and guidelines for volunteers who live anywhere in Ontario.

The MHSO has over 9000 hours of recorded oral history, much of which was recorded on cassette tapes.  This current initiative, funded by an Ontario Trillium Foundation grant, aims to preserve and increase accessibility to these oral histories.  Over 1200 recordings have been digitized and people across Ontario are helping with the transcription of these recordings. 

One of the interesting aspects of this project is that the oral history recordings were recorded across Ontario.  As a result, even though the MHSO is located in Toronto and many of its projects have focused on Toronto communities, in this project I have been able to listen to and transcribe oral history recordings from Northern Ontario.  Even though I’ve just started volunteering with the MHSO, I’ve already learned a number of interesting facts about life in Sudbury in the early 1900s.

Overall, volunteering with MHSO has reminded me of the value of volunteers and collaboration within the heritage field.  The Digital Archive project has also highlighted the time consuming, detail oriented nature of transcription.  There is an overwhelming number of archives and museums that hold unprocessed oral history collections, many of which are recorded on cassettes and other slowly deteriorating mediums.   It’s great to see a project placing such a high value on oral history and working to make oral history collections more accessible to the general public.

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

Digital Publishing and Contents Magazine

If you haven’t already stumbled across Contents Magazine go check it out. Contents is a digital ‘magazine’ platform that releases issues in segments, a typical issue takes about eight weeks to appear on the site.  The magazine focuses on “readers who create, edit, publish, analyze, and care for the contents of the internet.”  A lot of the material is applicable to archivists, librarians, and those working in the digital humanities.

I’ve never been a huge physical magazine reader.  I subscribe to Canada’s History and that’s the only magazine I read with any real consistency.  But, I do spend a lot of time online reading digital material, much of which is the length of an average magazine article.  It is interesting to see the branding of Contents as a digital magazine not as a group blog.  Contents includes design and illustration staff that are more reminiscent of magazine production than blog creation and it does have a visual element that many blog lack, so perhaps it is aptly named.

Personally, I like the emphasis that Contents places on open access and accessibility.  Most of the articles are the length of a longer blog post, include photos and are written in accessible language.  Considering Contents focus on digital mediums and the content that we produce online, it will be interesting to see if the site transforms to reflect trends in digital publishing and reading. 

The current issue’s Editor’s Note focuses on the idea of archives as an ancient idea that has very real applications and hurdles in a technologically inclined world.  Considering the challenges of digital preservation that archivists face today the topic of issue No. 5 is very relevant.  It should be interesting to see what the rest of the content in this issue ends up being.

What are your favourite digital publishing initiatives?

The New Professional Transition

The transition from student to worker is one that many people struggle with. The transition from new professional to full-fledged member of a profession can be just as challenging at times. New professional groups and grants specifically geared to new professionals can help ease the transition into professional life.  But, what defines a new professional? Years in the field? Years since graduation? Type of position?

The National Council on Public History (NCPH) defines new professionals  as”individuals, such as recent graduates of public history programs, who have been working within the public history profession for less than three years.”  Conversely, the advocacy of the Society of American Archivists roundtable, Students and New Archives Professionals (SNAP) focuses on “students, interns, new professionals, early-career project archivists, and archivists who are still looking for their first professional jobs.”

Most professional associations have variations on these definitions of new professionals.  Personally I prefer the SNAP definition of new professional as it does not assign an arbitrary timeline to the new professional transition period.   Depending on circumstances becoming fulling emerged in a profession can take as little as a year or as long as several years.  Circumstances which can impact this development might include: type of employment, opportunities for professional development, and opportunities for interaction with others in the field. 

I don’t think there is a magic cut off point where you stop being a new professional.  But, I think over time as your experiences continue to grow, you begin to realize that you have knowledge which others in the field could benefit from.  Perhaps, the biggest part of this transition is gaining confidence in your skills and place inside the profession.  Even the newest professionals have perspectives that are worth sharing — it sometimes just takes awhile for them to gain the courage to share it.

Personally, I had an ‘okay, so maybe I’m further along than I thought I was’ moment when speaking with undergrad and graduate students who are looking at their career and education prospects. I’m at the point where, I can begin to provide some anecdotal examples of job successes and failures, job milestones, and valuable skill building.  I’ve held a number of volunteer and paid positions which emphasize different aspects of public history and I’ve come to realize what type or work I enjoy and what type bores me to tears.  I think this realization is partially what made more confident in my place within the public history profession.  

Mentor programs, professional development courses, and ongoing education have also helped me gain my footing in a new professional world.  Some programs have definitely been more worthwhile than others, but I think talking to other people and continuing to learn new skills are something which all new professionals can engaging in to make their transition easier.

How do you define the term ‘new professional’?  What programs helped you as a new professional? 

Looking Forward: Heritage Activities in 2013

My last post of 2012 looked back some of my favourite heritage experiences of 2012.  This post looks forward to 2013 and some of the heritage activities I’m excited about for the upcoming year.

  • The winter issue of the Public Historian contains a review I wrote about a walking tour in Milwaukee.
  • In April, I will be attending and presenting at the NCPH 2013 conference in Ottawa, Canada. Later in the month I will also be visiting Montreal for work. While in Montreal I hope to visit the McCord Museum and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.  
  • Singing with the community choir, in the historic 12-sided round barn in May.  It’s great to see a heritage space being used by the community in so many diverse ways.
  • In late September/early October 2013 My partner and I are planning a trip to Ireland.  We haven’t fully fleshed out what were are going to include in our trip — but I’m sure it will include museums, built heritage, historic sites, and lots of natural heritage.

 I’m also looking forward to continuing to read and engage in activities for professional development.  In 2013, I hope to continue to strengthen my skill set with activities relating to exhibit development and records management. 

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.