“Doing” Oral History & Comments on SEJ Oral History Workshop

I found that the workshop I did on oral history at the SEJ Preservation weekend seemed to be well received. Either that or we have some very courteous folk who pretended to enjoy it. I wish to assume the former.

I was particularly pleased that some folk seemed to take to heart my belief that oral history is not just a means of recording people’s memories of the past, (as in recording a 90 year old man’s memories of being 10 years old,) but also a means of documenting the present for future generations, (as in recording a 10 year old boy’s thoughts on what it is like to be 10 years old; than trying to preserve it for 80 years.) This approach deals with part of why historians of some schools of thought do not accept oral history as legitimate evidence. (I will cover the value of oral history as evidence at another time, either here or some other place to which I will provide a link.)

During the weekend several attendees asked if I would provide them with my PowerPoint presentation, access to tutorials I have done or am doing, and be available to answer questions regarding oral history, particularly as it applies to the church. The answer in each case was, of course, “yes.” Since others have asked similar questions, including readers of this blog, I will try to use this as a forum for some such material; or at least to provide a pathway to such material I may produce or have produced. The blog will also be a good place for me to provide links to other, more experienced sources than myself.

I hope that some of you with ideas on oral history and its many uses (or lack thereof) will comment here, or will seek to become a part of the Tennessee Methodist History Ning social network (http://tnumchistorians.ning.com) and start or add to forums. It is for “members” only and membership must be authorized, but this is mostly a formality just to make it possible to assertively suggest that those who abuse the network find another place to do their business. You may request an invitation. If the main page does not give you the option to join, feel free to e-mail me at archivist@tnumc.org.


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.


My Experience in Second Life Archives

The other day I had a fascinating experience. During my lunch hour I created an avatar ( a computer generated image that represented, but did not look like, me,) visited Second Life (not heaven but a computer generated world inhabited by such avatars, controlled, of course, by “real” people,) and examined “documents” in virtual document cases in a virtual archives/special collections library. Sound exciting to you? Maybe yes, maybe no, but I found it so.

You see, I work in a special collections division of a public library as well as work as the TN Conference archivist. I have become very aware of the desire, in many cases demands, of patrons to have their research needs met in a manner that they can understand and find useful. In the case of the Conference archives we can offer them only what we have, which often means we can help them when staff is available and often means they must go away disappointed. We are trying, at both locations, to find ways to make our collections more accessible and to do a better job of reference through the use of technology. We are also trying, to varying degrees at both locations, to find ways to make our collections more accessible and to do a better job of reference through the simple method of trying to see things from the viewpoint of the user. We live in a culture where methods of communicating and interacting are rapidly changing. Requiring our users (not just those who make use of our archives but also those who make use of our church facilities; e.g. our congregants and community) to approach us on our terms only is more and more a case of asking them to use languages they do not understand and enter places where they are uncomfortable. Some may argue that this is a good thing, and I can see how it may be sometimes, but on the whole I would say not.

That is what I found impressive about Stanford University’s (CA, west coast, definitely not from around here) use of Second Life(SL) as a means to offer a new way to demonstrate its special collections to folks. I was totally unaware of their presence in SL (despite the search engines that many in the church tell me will turn up Websites that will then direct me anywhere I want to go; like church) even though I have researched use and users of public history institutions for years. I had missed, (okay, overlooked, sorry,) the post about their open house in one of my favorite blogs and stumbled back upon it the morning of said open house. I quickly took my laptop to the Conference library, activated the software I had downloaded awhile back, set up my avatar and went to visit the archivist in OZ. Or so it seemed. She explained to me that the SL archives was, in part, a way to introduce folks unfamiliar with closed stack material in a way that was less intimidating than the real thing. Great idea! Wish I had thought about it.

I don’t know how many folk use SL. It may be that few people will see the archives. I do know a lot of folk play video games. I know that many homeless folk who come into the public library I work at are unhappy that SL is blocked from our computers, so I know they use it when they can. I know youth regularly use technology that the church ignores and that there is affordable technology that can let people who would otherwise be out of reach of churches’ libraries, archives, and missions out there and using it might make sense from the point of view of the “user” should we choose to look through their eyes. I have said elsewhere, including this blog, that I am an advocate of use, of facilitating communication and knowledge, and try to advocate for those on the other-side-of-the-desk. As an archivist I struggle to balance the traditional needs of maintaining traditional records with the more modern needs of maintaining modern records. At all times I look for ways to increase the value of those records by facilitating use. Stanford’s work has shown they are also focused on finding ways to increase the value of their collections simply by providing new means of access. More access, more use, more who judge the items to be of value. Simple. Brother Occam would be proud.

Jim Havron

TN Conference (UMC) Archivist

(Note: Since posting this originally, I was asked about the last comment. Occam’s Razor, in one popular form: When 2 competing theories produce the same outcome, the simpler of the 2 should be preferred. I don’t mean to imply that this applies specifically to the above situation, but it might in a larger context of what makes records valuable and why we should keep them. I was also suggesting, a bit tongue-in-cheek, that the “simple” was by definition the friend of William of Occam – Jim)

Jim Havron currently serves as archivist of the Tennessee Conference of the United Methodist Church. 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

Paper or Plastic, er, PDF.

During a dinner with some other historians the other evening, we had a very short discussion about whether or not to publish historical journals online as pdf documents. One of the party, a publisher, was adamantly opposed to the idea, at least as a sole source of publication. One of his arguments was that paper documents will survive longer than digital ones, a concept with which I agree, up to a point. I see the discussion as part of a couple of larger issues, however, and one has some bearing on the issue of preservation. I hope that there will be some open discussion about this.

The first of the two larger issues I see is that of the purpose of a historical journal, or for that matter any publication. Are we producing it for communication in the present time or as a part of the greater historical record (communication over a long period of time?) If the former, should we not seek to provide the publication in a form that will most efficiently communicate what, and to whom, we wish to communicate? A pdf file is certainly an option. Readers may read or print the pages as they desire. There are, of course, potential  issues concerning copyright and distribution, maybe unauthorized people easily obtaining copies, things like that, but those exist if someone scans a hard copy as well. If you have an open license and wish to distribute to as many folks as possible, this would definitely be an advantage.

Libraries have found that electronic versions of journals are economical and provide greater access than print copies. In many cases, the journals also exist in hard copy, but it seems likely that, just as many other documents have ceased to be published in non-digital formats, this will eventually be the case for journals. But on-line publishing is not new, nor, in my opinion, is it likely to go away any time soon. The e-zine is already well established, and many news publications are online only. Some strange folks publish blogs. Go figure.

The point is that if a journal is published to reach as many people as possible, it seems unlikely its mission will be met by paper publishing only. [Aside: I am assuming that if my publisher friend reads this, he will excuse my use of passive voice because he has already made it through various other anomalies of style and grammar by now.] Now if the purpose of the journal is to create a historical record that will last, that is another matter. Or is it?

The dilemma that many archivists are likely to face in the not too distant future is one of how many resources they will be able to devote to preservation of physical documents when more and more of the records in their care exist in digital formats. If enough of the documents in their care are in these seemingly more fragile media, it will become “economical” (in terms of all resources, not just financial ones) to find better ways to preserve them and migrate them to new media where they can be accessed more readily. Published materials, not unique as are original records, will be just as easy to preserve as records should this happen, since the methods used will be the same or similar. The inclusion of published, mass produced material in the mix will increase the quantity of things to be preserved, increasing the pressure to find ways to accomplish that feat as well as making the per -item cost (again, in overall resources) decrease.

There is also a built in aspect of preservation with digital publications that may not be there for records. That is redundancy. The lower cost of making and distributing digital copies of journals, as well as the practice of backing up digital files,  allows more copies to exist in more places at a time, thus increasing the chances that at least a few copies of a journal will survive should a mega disaster occur. The relatively small amount of space that such files take up reduces the chances that they will need to be discarded to make room for others.

So why not do on-line publishing for all such journals? Well, the negatives I see are that, first, there is a difference between reading a physical book and a digital one. I tend to print the parts of pdf file journals that I want to peruse and read them in hard copy. Second, paper is unlikely to become obsolete anytime soon, unlike many file formats that exist in the digital world. It will not have to be migrated to a new format. Third, I believe that for the present there is a sense of added value to paper products that is not attached to digital ones. This last is, perhaps, enhanced by a perception based on the difference in a concrete item vs. a virtual one, but there just the same.

All this being said, I think that as more and more people accept the concept of digital communication and publishing, more people will begin to demand it. The challenge for the preservation minded historian, archivist or librarian will be to remain alert and be sure that the published material migrates from format to format, assuring its continued existence. There will always be specialty publishing that will put out print copies, but these last will be paid for at a higher rate than their digital counterparts. And as anyone who has worked in or studied archival management or library sciences knows, they will still require conservation and preservation.

Today at the library where I work my “day job,” I had a couple who wanted me to show them how to use our microfilm scanner to scan copies of articles from a newspaper so they could e-mail them to themselves and others. They were in their 80s. Yesterday a woman in her 70s wanted to know if she could just download a book because we, as a non-circulating collection, could not loan it to her.  Imagine how things will be when the majority of our readers are folk who grew up using computers. (Imagine what we might want to do if we wish to attract such people now!) If we produce material for publication, particularly if we are non-profit and want to get the message out to as many people as possible or we have a very limited budget, I think we should consider the advantages of publishing at least part of our material online.

Response &/or rebuttals may now begin.