Historian, Minister, Manager, Scientist: Comments on Other Posts

The discussion regarding the role and responsibility of archivists/historians/records managers is in dialogue again. The Records Junkie posits using the term “Records Science” instead of management. The Heretic responds, suggesting that the term “theory and practice” should replace both terms for both the records and archives management fields. Interesting thoughts, particularly in a world where technology (practical application of science) has changed so much of what and how we do history.

In a world where many of us do not separate our work as historians from our work as Christians, the idea of abandoning the word “science” is, perhaps, easier to swallow than it might be for others. We do, after all, participate in Memory Ministry, a far cry from what most would think of as science. We might find the practical “management” okay, even comforting, depending on our stand on free will or our tendency to accept having our information “managed.” As a certified archivist, I understand the need for managing a record cycle and the frustration of not receiving the records that should come my way.

I especially approve of managing because we have both open meeting and open records policies stated in the Discipline in the spirit of openness, and a good records policy helps assure that the meetings are open and the information from them is available to all. Still, as a historian, I do not like to think of myself as “managing” the stuff of history. It exposes me as a biased person. Oh well.

Thoughts?

Jim

Tn Conf. Archivist

Jim Havron currently serves as archivist of the Tennessee Conference of the United Methodist Church. The opinions expressed, however, are his own, unless otherwise stated. His education and experience is in history with additional focus on public history, archives and museums, and with research and practice focusing on religious history, oral history, user advocacy and where the craft of history meets technology. He can be reached at archivist@tnumc.org. He also blogs at other sites (his own and as guest or designated blogger,) under both his own name and pseudonyms.

Researching Your Church Family Tree #1

I receive a lot of interesting research questions in both my job as archivist and as a special collections library associate (a job I hold based in part on my education in history and archives management.) I was contacted by someone the other day seeking to confirm the date that her church was founded. She stated that she was involved in the planning of the church’s 175th anniversary, a statement similar to those I have heard many times when I have discussed church history with others (100th, 150th, 175th, the number isn’t what is important.) This lady asked “How do you determine exactly when your church was founded?” This is a question that is a bit rarer than a simple statement of the church’s age as fact. Usually the founding date of the church is not questioned if there is a tradition regarding it. I recently was asked to provide information about the founding of a church “X” many years ago in an area that was not settled until about “X” minus 50 years ago, obviously a difficult task. I have found two separate histories of the same church with entirely different stories and dates of their founding. I have also found lists of pastors and membership rolls that are obviously not connected to the church in question. It occurs to me that perhaps more folk would have benefitted by asking that question “How do you know?”

Church history is much like genealogy. Congregations rely on volunteers to keep records, many of whom do, in fact, keep them; forever. Minutes are lost or not kept. Records are just not a priority. This is similar to when family records get thrown out, shoved in the attic, or just misplaced. Years later, someone in the family, church or biological, decides they want to know the history of their forebears. Someone collects the memories as best they are able, interprets what records are available, and fills in the gaps with seemingly sensible, if un-provable, narrative. The story becomes the history of the church or family, and over the years accepted as proven fact. Woe to he who questions it.

The problem is that there are often errors in the histories, as with all other types of history. Only, with family and church history an unusual, if understandable, amount of emotion is invested in the traditional version. The identity of the family member is somewhat based upon that tradition. Just as my great-grandmother was convinced we were descended from Charlemagne, a man who has been proven to be mathematically unable to have fathered the quantity of progeny necessary to develop the number of descendents that claimed his ancestry in the early Twentieth Century, many folk are convinced that they “know” their church and family history based on no evidence whatsoever. Sometimes they are correct, sometimes not.

As an archivist, I dread the times when someone comes in and asks me for the proof (usually expecting it to be sitting on a shelf within easy reach or in a searchable database) for a story that no one has ever researched. What they fail to understand is that non-fiction must be researched by someone before it is accessible in a published form to others. The answer to the question I was asked regarding how you know when your church was founded is the same as how you know your other family history; research. Like genealogy, the answers are often long and hard in coming. Records may not exist or may remain long hidden. The rewards can, however, be great.

Current church members can do their part to help future researchers by checking Aunt Gertie’s attic for records or memorabilia, starting an archives or donating their records to their conference archives, and collecting memories through oral history, photographs, and memoirs. Personal genealogies also may help flesh out a church history, just as church records may help fill in a piece of an individual’s family tree. And by all means, a church should collect copies of all legal documents, court records, deeds, and bequests that might be on file at a local archives.

I was able to help the lady who asked me the question about how one “knows” because I have a copy of the page in the record book where the deed to their church was recorded at the time of its founding. I cannot help the one who wants to find evidence of how his church was founded years before the area was settled. I do hope that more folk will participate in research and question the traditions of their church rather than accepting them blindly. The truth might be far more interesting and enlightening than a legend of dubious origins. Truth is what it is about, after all. Oh- and when you find that truth, send a copy to your conference archives. They will appreciate it.

Jim

Tennessee Conference Oral History Project to Record Preachers and Preachers’ Spouses (Spice?)

The Conference Archives has long collected biographical information on clergy. Now they will be expanding the target of the information as they accept the donations of oral histories recorded as part of a new project to document the clergy through oral history. A small team of oral historians has decided to undertake the recording of both clergy and their spouses as part of a project that will produce broadcast quality, digital format, audio recordings of the interviews. Copies of the recordings will be donated to both the Conference Archives and Southeastern Jurisdiction Heritage Center for research purposes. The participants will get copies and the team will keep archival copies on hard drive and disk, planning on migrating the recordings to newer formats and storage methods as technology advances. The focus on the spouses of clergy is a new thing and will hopefully fill a gap in research material that has existed for some time.

On a related note, the SEJ will be offering its bi-annual preservation training November 14, 2009 at Lake Junaluska, NC. One of the sessions will be on oral history. Should you know of anyone who would like to start such a project, this might be a good opportunity to learn more about it. More contact information will be available here in the future or at the Tennessee Methodist Historians social network. Visit and join at http://tnumchistorians.ning.com.

Tennessee Conference Archives News

That Their Wishes May Be Carried Out: Donor Forms and Other Paperwork In Church Collections

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I suspect that many people in the church today do not understand the importance of paperwork such as deeds of gift, releases and transfers of copyright forms. For some reason we think such things are unnecessary in a church environment. In truth, such things are nothing more than good stewardship. Such paperwork ensures that donations are available for research or other use and that such use cannot be curtailed by some person with a different agenda than the church and donor. These records also help identify the origins of items in a collection, becoming additional sources of information for researchers. Forms help communicate the thoughts, feelings and intent of both donors and the church at the time of the donation. Forms that document items in a collection can save a lot of unnecessary trouble, and can help keep well meaning folk from making mistakes they may live to regret. Examples forthcoming.

I am not, at present, able give names in these instances, but since they are just samples of things that happen frequently in the archives/museum/history world, just let them serve as illustrations of possible scenarios. Each of these has happened, but it is enough for the reader to imagine that they might have happened. Accept them as you will or will not, but they are all cases of which I am personally familiar.

1) A supporter of a historical institution gave a portrait of her ancestor to the institution on the condition that it be displayed in a public area. Later, a relative of hers claimed that the portrait had only been loaned to the institution and that it rightfully belonged to him, as he was her heir. (It was valuable, and this is the world of Ebay and auctions.) The institution fortunately had a donation form signed by the donor and could prove ownership. The wishes of the donor were carried out and the portrait remained. Ebay’s loss was the institution’s gain.

2) A series of portraits was donated to an institution. They somehow ended up in private hands and surfaced some years later in other institutions. The original institution had no donor forms. The portraits were never returned to the place that the original donors had intended for them to reside. The wishes of the donors could not be carried out.

3) A woman told the story of her faith conversion to an oral history interviewer. She bared her soul, telling of her battles with addiction and depression. The interview was very important to her because she wanted others to hear her testimony and perhaps learn from it. Hers was a strong witness and she hoped that perhaps it would even be part of a published work. She was, however, terminally ill. After her death, a sibling claimed that the interviewer did not have a right to make the story available to the public, either for publication or research. The sibling was embarrassed by the story. There was a problem with the release, so the interviewer will not use this powerful witness in the manner that was intended. Her wishes were not carried out

4) There are boxes and shelves of documents, photographs, audio tapes and objects in almost every historical institution where I have worked. In some cases the items have little meaning because no one knows what they are or where they came from. If we don’t know the source of items in our historical collections, we might miss some of their historical value. Additionally, we may not be able to use them as the donor wished because we do not have copyright or proof of ownership. In this world of litigation, we must be careful if we cannot prove our rights. The wishes of the donors may not be carried out.

5) An organization accepted an item from a donor who did not want to sign a donor agreement. It was later found that there was an argument in the family of the donor about where this item should be placed. The donor did not want to let anyone in the family know he was the one who had given it away. Apart from the fact that the receiving organization has become part of a family quarrel to which it should not be party, it cannot prove ownership of the item and could lose it to a family member or someone else at any time. What right does this organization have to the item? There is a difference of opinion among its members, but I would argue none. If a donor is unwilling to make an open gift of something, or in the case of an anonymous gift at least provide documentation of the gift in case it should later be needed, I feel it should be graciously refused.

These are just some of the reasons for obtaining and maintaining proper releases and donor agreements when accepting gifts of any kind. It is a matter of stewardship, as I said. A small amount of effort will make sure that the gift of an individual is used to its fullest value. The trick, of course, is persuading members of a church of that necessity. Maybe it would be best to start with discussing their wishes in regards to their gifts, then discussing how best to ensure that those wishes are carried out. It just might include paperwork.

Jim Havron

Web 2.0/Archives 2.0 Opinion Piece

This is primarily for those who work with archives and manuscript collections. It is an opinion piece that I wrote awhile back and is solely my opinion. I do wish to hear comments from folk, so feel free.

I will add that this was originally written as part of a piece that discussed the importance of folk, in this case religious folk, making sure that our history is preserved and also conveyed to others in a language that they can understand.  Because the methods of communicating and recording activity is changing, as is the “language” (including format and technology) used to access those pieces of history we record, we must actively seek to be aware and adapt. It is not a stretch to say that we are in days that might have as much impact as the printing press and vernacular Bible.

And now for our feature presentation.

Jim Havron

 

Not-Just-a-Buzzword 2.0

(or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Web 2.0)

 

Twitter. Flicker. Youtube. Digg. Second Life. Avatars. Social bookmarking. Tagging. Picassa. Open-source. Boxes.com. Wikipedia. Wikis. Scype. del.icio.us. stumbleuopn. Ning. Facebook. Facebook.

 

A few years ago the term Web 2.0 came into being. Shortly thereafter I saw a proliferation of similar terms: Library 2.0, Archives 2.0, Oral History 2.0, Records Management 2.0. The numerical part of these frames suggests an upgrade from a previous version, but in many of the articles I read and seminars I intended the term was just loosely applied to mean that whatever group was hosting the event was acknowledging (usually grudgingly) the existence and (sometimes) importance of digital technology. I have trouble with accepting that the struggle with dealing with archiving e-mail, or digitizing photos. however important these issues it may be, is Web 2.0 when these issues have been discussed since the advent of Web 1.0. The Web 1.0 ( as we will refer to the earlier methods of using the Net with which many of us have become familiar over the past few decades and some of us are just beginning to know) issues, dealing with the increased use of the Internet and digital technology in records and communication, are still with us, but I hope we as archivists will also consider the importance of Web 2.0 to our profession. I am not a Web expert, though I have spent the last several years studying information use and users and have personally embraced many of the “2.0” applications and ideas, and there is not enough room in this post to discuss all the aspects of this phenomenon, but I would like to put out a few thoughts I have on the subject for your consideration.

Web 2.0 is essentially a change in mindset, (I am trying to avoid the term “paradigm shift,”) a new way of approaching things using the Internet as the platform for activity. It is interactive and social in nature and both shapes and is shaped by the users of the Internet. Users of the Internet are no longer satisfied with passive roles as receivers of whatever is placed on the Web by some entity, but instead participate in the process in ways they previously had not. In Web 1.0 on-line newspapers published stories, now they are accompanied by blogs, comments, tagging, and digging. Virtually anyone can place their own video on Youtube or similar sites, self publish their own music, design their own surveys, and add their own research to collective Wikis. People tweet with Twitter and it is now being used in addition to or in place of committee meetings or other activities that support basic functions of organizations. There is what looks like to an outsider to be an entirely new language in text messaging. Avatars (virtual representations of real life individuals) can now do research in Second Life (a virtual world existing in cyberspace) at a virtual library, as well as do business with virtual representations of “First Life” businesses.

If any of these concepts seem unfamiliar, consider that they are things with which an old fogey like me is already familiar. Just imagine how much more there is out there. Perhaps it is time we take a look at the phenomenon of Web 2.0 and discuss among ourselves and with others how it may affect archival theory and practice. Like it or not, we will soon find (if we have not already) that our users’ expectations are shaped by this world. We will have to deal with it.

I suggest three areas for you consideration. First, there are big challenges in issues of appraisal and preservation. The Web 2.0 world offers many choices and methods for communication and interaction. There is a challenge here for archivists. The methods of communication now include not only e-mail and electronic documents, but text messaging, video conferencing, and communication through computer generated surrogates. Many documents found online were specifically designed for or generated by software through, Web sites, and it might be argued that they would have to be viewed in such a format to retain the context of the record. The creator of content is no longer just the organization that hosts the records but might include a variety of different entities that the archivist knows nothing about. All of this will affect how we collect, arrange, describe, and preserve documents from the Internet or that are in some way related to the Internet.

Second, there are challenges in reference services. The Web 2.0 user expects ready access and quick answers. More than ever we will find it difficult to explain the way archives are used. There are almost unlimited sources of information, much of it of dubious quality, far more easily available to researchers than that in many of our collections. If we wish to be a relevant source for researchers, we will need to study them and find where we have the ability to meet their needs in their way, or what means we can use to persuade them to come over to our turf. For that matter, we should honestly re-evaluate “our turf.” Are our ways of doing things, historically derived from a study of records and how they were created and used, still valid in a world where the sources of our theories and practices derived have changed so radically? A tough question, I think.

Third, there are many opportunities for archivists with Web 2.0, perhaps particularly for smaller operations with smaller budgets. Because Web 2.0 encourages active participation by all, there is a strong emphasis on open access software and community Web sites. One of my archives jobs is with a repository with virtually no budget. I have taken advantage of free, on-line seminars. We have used open-source software to edit audio and photographic images. We have plans to add training and informational videos to Youtube and samples of some of our material to other sites where they may be easily found by search engines. We blog, participate in social networks, are planning podcasts, and intend to conduct a survey of users and potential users to see how we can best meet their needs. I have already received reference requests from individuals who found out about our collections through a social network for people researching of similar subjects. I conducted a cross-country reference session through the use of Skype. Perhaps I will place some images at a photo site and invite people to help identify people and places in the images. In my own research I followed directions from other researchers’ tags and was able to find three sets of records that were once part of a single collection but have since been divided. I have “virtually” restored some of the context that was lost. Web 2.0 provides tools that can be used by archivists practicing their craft in more or less traditional ways as well as helping us interact with users who are rapidly moving away from some of the traditional means of doing research.

I have been told that “serious” researchers will still come to archives because they have to. I think that is also a good topic for discussion. As a researcher myself I have often weighed the value of visiting an archives against other alternatives; and many more such alternatives exist today than not so long ago. There is also the question as to whether our obligation is only to the “serious” researcher or does it include the person wanting a quick answer or even to just browse collections?

Perhaps all this is rooted in what we see as our mission as archivists. If our value is in any way connected with our knowledge of the records in our care and the functions of organizations that created them, we must seriously study Web 2.0 and related technology. I suspect we will also have to take part in all of this to some degree in order to understand it. For example, I was in a room full of archivists and historians the other day when someone brought up Twitter and asked if someone else “tweeted.” At least half the faces were totally blank or openly confused, in spite of the amount that has been in the news regarding Twitter recently. From many of the others, I heard mutterings of things like “I don’t do Twitter!” When working on my thesis (on studying use and users in archives, mind you) I was told by one professor that I shouldn’t talk about all these things so much because they were not things we needed to deal with right then. I had brought up the fact that a teenager had wanted to know why she couldn’t access our collections through Second Life. (The young lady did, by the way say come back to tell me that she had found an answer to her question on the Internet.) If we know nothing of the technology, we can not help others use it. As important, perhaps, if we know nothing of the technology that creates the records, we cannot preserve, arrange, describe, or provide access to them.

There are commercials for PCs out there that use children from ages 4 to 10 doing all manner of things that are beyond the skills of most people my age. These children will be in business, designing technology and producing records before I am able to retire. Depending on what years you use to define it, the Internet generation may be larger than that of the Baby Boomers. If they only affect the world a fraction as much as that last mentioned group, I think the Net.Generation will make the life of the archivist interesting, to say the least.

Like Web 2.0, Archives 2.0 isn’t just about technology and how we deal with it but is a mindset, an approach towards who we are and what we do as a profession. These are ideas that deserve discussion. I would welcome the opinions of others.

Published in: on April 11, 2009 at 3:55 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Some Fun With Technology and Reference

I had an e-mail reference question from a lady in CA the other day. We really needed to talk in person for me to be able to get a sense of what she really wanted. It turned out we were going to have to communicate during a time when I was not going to be at the archives (Tennessee Conference Archives) and would not have access to long distance phone service. I was going to have access to broadband Internet, so I asked if she Skypes. She did indeed, So I plugged in my mic and video cam (these came standard on my wife’s computer but mine is older) and I conducted my first video reference session with someone across the country. There were glitches, of course, but it was a neat experience. Particularly for someone old enough to still use “neat” as an adjective. My intention is to add Skype, including camera and mic,  to the repository computer if it will handle it. This may provide better access for our users.

For those unfamiliar with Skype, it is a voice over Internet protocol software (free) that allows one to communicate from one computer to another over the Internet or even to make phone calls. “Calls” from one computer to another are free. There is a charge for calling a phone number, though so far it seems to be cheaper than long distance services. The neat thing from my point of view is that it also supports video images. My camera is cheap (money and quality), as is my mic. Their combined cost was about $50, but they do serve. I was able to discuss the reference question face-to-face without the cost of the airfare.

Jim

Published in: on April 6, 2009 at 11:32 am  Leave a Comment  
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