Archive for the ‘archives’ Category

Please note: this blog first appeared on ActiveHistory.ca 20 June 2013. See http://activehistory.ca/2013/06/tap-dancing-and-murder-in-a-grade-seven-classroom/

“My tap dancing just isn’t good enough,” she wrote. She: my daughter’s high school English teacher. Tap dancing: teaching (to pubescent, smartmouth, intelligent, tired kids at the end of June in rural Saskatchewan). “I remember a staff meeting conversation from some point where you were willing to come in and talk with students.” What’s the topic, Mrs. J? Reconstructing Past Lives.

Excellent. That is EXACTLY what historians do, right? So I set off to find out if I could tap dance for teenagers. Just for a couple of hours. After all, I tap dance for University students on a regular basis. How hard can it be?

Amid recent media controversy about the conservative federal government looking to choreograph the tap dancing of Canadian history (see here and here), I was curious to find out just what a typical Canadian grade seven student already knew.

We decided to focus on source hunting for the first hour. Here’s the question: if you’re writing a movie, let’s say, set in 1931, what do you already know? Great Depression! And we’re off and running. Where do you look for more information? Google (of course. Duh.). Grandparents. Books. My daughter said ‘archives’ but then had to explain what they were, and what kind of stuff is kept in there.  She sounded bored and resigned, smart and engaged, all at the same time.

Then it was time to get personal. What was going on in our town, Biggar, in 1931? How do you find that out? Was there a newspaper, Mrs. Massie? Yes. Same newspaper we have today, the Biggar Independent. I had borrowed a microfilm copy from the local museum, and brought it in, along with a microfiche reader (which are small, light, and more portable than a microfilm reader, even if you can’t see as much). Is that a television, Mrs. Massie? A really old computer? So I took it apart, and let them look inside. COOL! It’s nothing but a mirror and a light!

Really, I felt like a magician. Ta DAH!! Old newspaper, on the wall of the darkened classroom for all to see. I had scanned and digitized it properly, so we put that on the smartboard. And I’d made paper copies. Triple the technology – but the students liked the micro just as well.

Front page news: MURDER near Biggar. Really, I hadn’t planned that part. I chose 1931 at random. I chose a date as close to my classroom visit as possible – June 11, 1931. Serendipity pulled us along.

Not only was it a murder (manslaughter, actually), but the murderer was none other than Louis Forchetner. He’s not famous. You’ve never heard of him. But I had – because my husband’s grandfather was there when the murder happened, and bought our farm from the murderer. Family lore knew the story, albeit slightly corrupted by the years. At a Farmer’s Unity League meeting (we thought it was a dance), a fight broke out. Forchetner stabbed Reid Hayes, who died in hospital after giving a deathbed statement. The enraged stabber went to jail for five years, in the depth of the Great Depression.

COOL! Murders (think CSI Biggar – you think we can franchise that?) pop kids eyes open. But there were other neat stories and advertisements in the paper. “What are piles, Mrs. Massie? Where’s your dictionary? [three minute wait…] OH GROSS!!!!” Did you know that Ogopogo was dead? And that some scientists added green and purple serum to fertilized eggs and came up with green and purple chickens? Grey Owl had moved to Manitoba, and Queen Mary was in her 60s. There were no speed limits on cars in Saskatchewan, but you had to slow down when passing horses, and pull off to the side of the road for hearses.Glaciers were melting. Attendance was down severely at the year-end fairs and picnics. A sense of despair exuded from the paper, but a Mickey Mouse cartoon was at the theatre.

“Mrs. Massie, why were newspapers so much more interesting back then?”

Well, why do you think? (Imagine the 13 year old collective BORG scrunching their eyebrows in thought). Answer: there was no TV or internet back then. I nodded my head proudly.

Mr. Harper, they’re doing fine.

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This post was originally published on ActiveHistory.ca 14 May 2013.

Over the past two years, I lurked in the halls and wandered wide-eyed through the conferences of my social and natural science colleagues. An interdisciplinary institutional postdoctoral fellowship, funded by MISTRA (The Swedish Foundation for Strategic Environmental Research) and routed through the University of Saskatchewan, ensured my place at the lunch table and at the front of the classroom.

So, I’ve spent two years trying to explain how I, as a humanist, conduct my research. More importantly, I’ve noticed, the question is not so much how, but where does that research take place?

Since most of my professional work has focused on the 20th and 21st century, I do (on occasion) conduct interviews and focus groups with living people. I even have a working knowledge of qualitative methods, rigour, and the point of statistical analysis. I parlayed this penchant into the postdoc, with good results. But I remain, at heart, a document hunter/gatherer.

Working with social and natural scientists, I soon learned that research is about data generation. Set up the research parameters/test/study/measurement/focus group/survey/experiment, in order to generate data. Few, if any, ever work with someone else’s data set. The core concern is to generate something new.

That was my first hurdle: what I always thought of as ‘sources,’ now had to become ‘data.’ It’s a bump in the sidewalk that I trip over, every time.

No matter. I forge ahead, explaining gently that although I do sometimes generate new data (using oral interview techniques, statistical analysis, or focus groups), I usually work with sources that already exist. It becomes my job to find those sources, hunt and gather, thinking laterally and strategically, sometimes hitting brick walls or large empty chasms where my ‘data’ (sources) should be but are not. Or I am showered in luck, serendipity, and happenstance and find a treasure trove, an untapped new source waiting for me to harvest, like a new bed of sweet grass, or a docile pod of mule deer.

But, but, where do these sources exist? Are you talking about libraries? Confusion reigns, for libraries, of course, contain outdated data. If it’s in a book, it’s too old. Anything more than five years old is virtually unusable. (Of course, we all recognize the deliberately obtuse generalization here – many social scientists regularly work with similar sources and data sets. Natural scientists, though, perhaps not so much).

No. My data/sources are to be found in archives. Archives? What, exactly, are archives and what kinds of information do you find there?

And that’s how I twigged onto a new way of explaining where I conduct research.

An archive, I now explain, is much like a lab: laboratory space along the lines of the Canadian Light Source Synchrotron at Saskatoon or one of the Toxicology labs or a soil science lab or….  A lab has certain physical requirements that are conducive to research: it requires physical space with heating, light, and custodial services; equipment (shelves, tables, chairs, finding aids and guides, archival quality storage boxes and containers, microfilm readers, lightboxes, cotton gloves, and pencils instead of thermal analyzers or microcalorimeters or…); it needs trained staff (archivists); and it houses raw materials (archival documents, which range from photographs to text to sound recordings, collected over time).

The questions that I, as a researcher, bring to the archive are what guide me through my research process, in the same way that another researcher might ask questions and conduct experiments using the materials/equipment found in a lab. Different researchers posing different questions use different equipment and materials. Each archive is slightly different in its materials and equipment, just like no two labs are exactly the same.

Presto pow! Lights on, understanding, and we’re back on equal footing. (There remain big questions surrounding how I do research and if it is objective, verifiable, and replicate-able, but those are larger questions that might never be solved, as they stand at the dividing line between humanities and natural science research).

Why is this important? I call on all of my fellow humanists and social science researchers who use archives to co-opt this terminology switch, and broadcast it freely. Because I believe that this terminology switch might help save our archives from folding under the collective weight of government and institutional non-support. At a time when investment in science-based laboratory and experimental research is growing (witness the Global Institute for Water Security, and the new Global Institute for Food Security at the U of S), archives funding is cut. We can stop this.

Archives (which collects a record of anthro-centric activity reaching back through time) is the laboratory with which to build research that changes the way our world works and thinks about itself. In fact, I charge you to find another lab that has supported an equal range of research depth and breadth and temporal scope. Where would we be in our knowledge about residential schools, lesbian and gay rights, health geography and poverty, First Nations land claims, war activities, medicare, social protest, and climate change without archives? Accessed by researchers not only in history but in archaeology and anthropology, art, literature, science, technology, sociology, linguistics, education, law, commerce and business, industrial development, mining, resource management, First Nations and Metis studies, institutional foundations, governance and government, medicine and nursing, engineering and agriculture, archives reflect how we as humans make decisions, and what the consequences of those decisions have been.

So let’s make one easy switch: the next time you visit an archive, think of it – and talk about it to interdisciplinary colleagues, institutional leadership, and your MLA and MP – as a laboratory. Co-opt the language that is already implicitly understood – and funded.

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First, I’d like to tell you a story about something that happened in our house yesterday.

My ten year old son, a huge J.R.R. Tolkien fan (he has watched all of the Peter Jackson movies — extended version — several times, and has read the books to boot) was rooting around in my office. He unearthed a lovely, boxed BBC radio version of The Lord of the Rings adapted by Brian Sibley and Michael Bakewell.

He was delighted! Some of his favourite stories, in audio format!

The drawback — they are on cassette tape. He was excited, but not quite sure what to do.

“Mom! Do you have a Walkman that I can listen to these?” His eyes were shining in anticipation of crawling into his bed with his stories on a rainy day. Well, that was the first drawback. Once upon a time, I had my brother’s old Walkman, that played cassette tapes. But I lent it, years ago, to my great uncle as he lay dying in hospital, along with a selection of books-on-tape to keep him entertained. It never made it home, for whatever reason.

But I did have, in the back corner of the closet in my office, not one, but TWO ghetto blasters. Riches, indeed!

He hauled out the first one (the larger one, which was older and heavier and I have no idea why he picked it). And promptly disappeared to get things set up and get his story into his ears.

Back again, within five minutes. “Mom, the earphones won’t fit in the hole.” Hmmm. I had forgotten about this small technicality. Remember, back in the 80s, when headphones were huge, earbuds were not invented, and the plug was about two inches long? Yeah, those kind. Well, I may have the ghetto blaster, but I no longer have those headphones, nor do I have an adapter.

So, we switched to the smaller, slightly newer ghetto blaster. It had the proper-sized headphone jack, adaptable to his snazzy earbuds. Excellent. I returned to my own tasks, and left him to it.

Less than three minutes later, he was back. “Mom, how do I get it to go to the beginning?” He was puzzled and clearly stumped. “Press ‘rewind'” I said, equally puzzled. Wasn’t that obvious? “But it makes a terrible noise, Mom! And it takes so long! I think something is wrong! Please come and help.”

Well of course, everything was fine with the boom box. He had the tape in the right way down, so that was fine, but he had it facing the wrong way (side two) so even if he had pressed ‘rewind’ and waited, he still wouldn’t have gotten to where he wanted to be. I patiently explained how tapes work, how they move through the boombox, how they have been recorded on both sides and so you have to flip them over. And yes, it does take time to find the right spot in the tape. And yes, it does make noise when it rewinds or fast forwards. And yes, it’s a lot harder to skip ahead or back. You have to go by feel.

He glared, grumped, and moaned a bit more at the weirdness of it all, but then settled down to listen.

Typically, when a new piece of technology makes its appearance in our house, I am the last to figure out what to do. Or, second last — I might be a shade more up-to-date than my husband. But miles behind our kids, in most instances. When I brought home a new Samsung tablet computer, my son promptly took it in hand to get everything operating well. Remotes, Wii games, and the kids’ ipods are similarly ‘their’ territory.

So this incident made me feel a lot better. As a parent, I had an area of expertise that I could share — related to technology. Of course, they ribbed me for that. ‘Mom, this is from, like, the 1980s!’, as if that was just after the dinosaurs. Yes, I really am that old. And I like old things. I am a historian, after all.

It reminded me, though, of an incident in the archives last year. While rooting through some Saskatchewan Archives Board files on the Royal Commission on Agriculture and Rural Life from 1952, I found a fabulous recording on a blue, small vinyl record of the meetings that were held in my hometown of Paddockwood. I was beside myself. My grandmother was the secretary of those meetings, which I knew from her written records carefully preserved in the archival documents. I was so excited to hear her voice again, and went running for the archivist to see if we could play the recordings. But, unfortunately, the archives no longer has the technology to play those old records. They weren’t the same technology as a simple turntable, I learned. In fact, I had ‘discovered’ an oral record that the archives had lost track of.

They took it away and assured me that they would investigate getting it transferred onto something useful in our ‘modern’ era. I never saw or heard from them again on the issue — I shall have to send a reminder email to see where they are at. But I’m guessing that no news is bad news, in this instance. The technology may no longer exist to hear those recordings.

I know that archivists are acutely aware of the impact of the frighteningly fast changes in technology. Records put on one kind of disk or burned onto a CD Rom seem out of date just a few short years later. Even computers, with their constant upgrades, no longer seem to take into account ‘older’ technology. (For various aspects of this debate and concern, see:http://blogs.cisco.com/government/technology-changes-the-game-for-next-generation-governments/; http://archivists.ca/content/technology-and-archives-special-interest-section. See also various articles inArchivaria.)

I have one computer that I no longer use but am too afraid to throw away, because it has a ZIP drive and a 3.5 inch floppy — neither of which my new computer possesses. I still have old documents, including my MA thesis, on 3.5 floppies and zips. One of the reasons I bought a tablet computer was so that my children would get used to using touch technology — but I also note their frustration when they have to use my ‘old’ computer. It is pretty slow, by comparison. I can’t imagine what they’d think of my stored computer, gathering dust in the bottom of my closet. I think it has Windows, but a really old version.

(Full disclosure: this house has two desktop computers that are hooked up, and one in storage, in addition to two laptops, one tablet, two ipods and two smartphones. There are four people).

So, although I suppose some people may call me a technological hoarder, I can see the benefit: after all, I had a ghetto blaster, that worked, just when my son needed it. That’s something. I just have to make sure I have a house big enough to keep all my old computers and other technology, when the new ones enter our lives.

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