Thursday, October 27, 2011

Feast or Famine

"Historians need to be thinking simultaneously about how to research, write, and teach in a world of unheard-of historical abundance and how to avoid a future of record scarcity."     
~Roy Rosenzweig

As an historian, I am often uncomfortable with the idea of discussing the problems of the future, or contemplating possible solutions.  I would much rather discuss and interpret the past, and allow others to work out the challenges of the future and fill me in on the results later.  However, with classes such as Digital History and Understanding Archives: The Management of Primary Sources in the Digital Age I am being forced a bit outside my comfort zone.  I must also admit, after being bombarded with figures about how much information is being digitally produced and how technology is changing so quickly that information is being lost, I mostly want to bury my dead in the sand and hope that people smarter than I figure this thing out.

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But, as with anything frightening, the more you learn about it, the less power it holds over you.  So after more reading, while the problem may still seem overwhelming - and I might still not be able to predict any solutions, at least I feel capable of discussing the issues (while occasionally interjecting my opinions.)

One of the things that has struck me while learning about digital sources, present and future, is the dichotomy that exists within these problems.  For example, technology now allows us to store vast amounts of data in very small forms, such as flash drives.  However, technology is also changing so quickly that it is easy for things to become unusable in a very short amount of time.  So the same technology that makes it easy to store things, may make it harder to read them.  I recall as an undergrad writing a paper on my old desktop computer.  As Murphy's Law predicted, something happened to my computer and I could not retrieve my work.  However, I was in luck!  I had save my work on a 3 1/2" floppy disk.  I do not even want to begin to tell you how difficult it was to find another computer that still had a floppy drive.  What had once been the standard storage format was now woefully out of date.

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Naturally when considering this problem, my simple solution was to continuously update storage mediums to a contemporary format.  That was until I gave some consideration as to how much work that would be for a constantly growing archive of information.  The rate at which institutions - governments for example - produce documents, it would be incredibly challenging to stay on top of a task such as that.  Next I considered always keeping the old hardware and software around to read old storage formats.  However, as Ross King points out in his Introduction to Digital Preservation, maintaining that old hardware relies on having technology to keep those machines going.  As my example points out - machines fail and without someone producing replacement parts, they can be hard to maintain.

Computer scientist Jeff Rothenberg favours the idea of "emulation," which is to emulate obsolete systems on future, unknown systems, so that a digital document's original software can be run in the future despite being obsolete.  When I read this is sounded like a great idea, but not being a computer scientist, I had no idea how it would work.  Unfortunately, as Roy Rosenzweig mentions, critics of emulation are quick to point out it is still in the theory stage.  I think Rosenzweig's most important point is that we need to stop looking for the "Holy Grail" cure-all solution, and institutions need to start implementing a solution that works best for them.

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My knee-jerk reaction is always to declare "Save everything!"  Until I realize that we have never saved everything, and yet there is still impressive historical scholarship.  Rosenzweig put it most succinctly when he said, "we have never preserved everything; we need to start preserving something."  This is what made me feel empowered to possibly be part of the solution, and not just someone ignoring the problem.  I don't have to come up with some amazing technological (and practical) solution to the digital dilemma.  If I stay involved in the discussion, even as someone just digesting information, I can implement solutions within my own sphere of influence in the future - be it a museum, archive, or academic institution.

Combined with the technical issues of digital preservation, historians are also facing the problem of doing research in a world where people are more concerned about privacy than ever.  Both the United States and Canada have privacy laws that control what kind of information is collected, kept, and released about citizens.  There was a recent controversy in Canada over making the long form of the census voluntary and all the information that would be lost for future historians as a result.  People are more protective of their personal information in the digital age, yet they are still willing to put a lot of it out there on Facebook and Twitter.  These online spaces might be a goldmine for social historians in the future - if they can still be accessed.

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It is hard to imagine how historians will use digital information in the future, especially with potentially limitless amounts of information.  However, today people are studying history in ways that wouldn't have been expected one hundred or even fifty years ago.  Perhaps blogs will become the new diary when it comes to historical research.  Or maybe trends in Google searches will be vital in studying popular culture.  There are always going to be people that want to fit the new medium into the old way of doing things, but with a new medium will come new methods.  Just as we shouldn't use "technology for the sake of technology" - there is no reason to do things the way they have always been done, just because it's the way it has always been done.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Conservation and Cataloging 101

Recently at Fanshawe Pioneer Village I had the opportunity to work on conserving and cataloging some new artifact acquisitions.  Shanna, the curator, gave me a few lessons and let me loose to learn by doing.  I documented my first real curatorial experience to share with all of you.  Enjoy!

This is what waited for me at work last week.

Tin trucks! Before adding them to the collection, 
these artifacts needed to be cleaned and cataloged.

My supplies

First step is to remove as much dirt and debris 
with brushes.  Unfortunately since these toys 
were covered with grime, the brushed did little 
more than move the dirt around.

Next I used a soft cloth to removed more dust.

This is a solution of orvus and water.
I'm not sure the ratio, as Shanna 
mixed it for me in advance.

Just a little of this solution on a soft rag to get it 
damp does wonders.  Check out that dirt from just 
one side of the truck.  I went through a lot of rags.

For all the nooks and crannies I used q-tips.  
I went through even more of these than rags.

Immediately after cleaning, I went over with a dry rag.

I cleaned the trucks in sections, with some 
being more challenging/time consuming than others

Finally all shiny and clean! 
(It took me two full days to do all five.)

After they were clean we did a photo shoot.  
Part of this was for cataloging the items later, 
and some for the museum newsletter 
which often features new acquisitions.

This is one of my favorite shots.

 Next was cataloging.  I entered the new artifacts 
into the PastPerfect database.  Notice the tape 
measure for including dimensions, and the 
research to discuss the history of the trucks.

Every new artifact is given an accession number.  
This number is also written on the item so it can
be easily identified in the collection database.
The first step is putting a layer of clear lacquer on the truck.


Then the number is applied with a quick-drying ink.  
I used India ink which I applied with a nib pen.

This took quite the steady hand, but once the ink was dry 
I covered the numbers with another layer of clear lacquer.

  Unfortunately, until the new Visitor Centre is built, there 
is no place to display the trucks.  So into storage they go.

Two days of work complete with many   
conservation and cataloging lessons learned.

Some of you may have noticed that I didn't wear gloves during this process.  Now that these artifacts have been accessioned, you would typically wear gloves when handling them.  However, when cleaning gloves can actually cause more harm by not allowing a firm grip, leading to dropping the artifacts. This is why I do not have on the typical white gloves during the cleaning process.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving!

Depending upon which side of the border you reside, this salutation may seem a tad late - or extremely early.

One of the questions I am frequently asked as an American living in Canada is: what differences have I noticed since moving here?  So far most are trivial.  The accents are a bit different (though the same could be said if I had moved to a different part of the States), the metric system (the U.S. being one of the last hold-outs not to make the switch), the dual national languages, and a few other small things.  For the most part is hasn't been much of an adjustment.  I'm not even that far from home, my colleagues from Alberta have a much longer journey to visit family than I do.

However, this past Monday was Canadian Thanksgiving, and what could be considered my first "culture shock."  First, I simply kept forgetting it was a holiday weekend.  Campus and Fanshawe Pioneer Village were closed, people were visiting home and discussing holiday plans, but the three-day weekend kept slipping my mind.  Second, it seems way to early for Turkey Day.  To me, Thanksgiving is the beginning of the Christmas season, and yet here we are not even past Halloween yet.  Also, it's a Monday, Thanksgiving on a Monday? Crazy!  (However, after some consideration I realized that Thanksgiving is the only non-date specific national holiday in the U.S. that I could think of not on a Monday - MLK Day, President's Day, Memorial Day, Labor Day, Columbus Day - all Mondays.)

Curiosity piqued, I decided to do a little research on the different holidays.  All I could recall from American history about Thanksgiving, was that some president over a hundred years ago proclaimed an annual national day of thanksgiving to take place on the last Thursday in November.  A cursory glance over wikipedia confirmed my recollections, and reminded me that it was Abraham Lincoln who made this declaration in 1863 during the Civil War.  (Although other presidents all the way back to George Washington declared other days of "Thanksgiving" although not always at the same time of year, and sometimes multiple times in the same year.)

In elementary school I can remember the stories of Pilgrims and Native Americans eating together and giving thanks at harvest time (commemorated with the creation of paper hats and headdresses.)  As I grew older it became more about food, family tradition, and the start of the holiday season.  When discussing American Thanksgiving with Canadians, I had several tell me that the impression they have is that it is more of a "family oriented" holiday in the States than here in Canada.  I'm not sure if there is that much of a difference, or if it is just marketed differently in each country.

My research into the origins of Canadian Thanksgiving lead me to discover it is not all that different from its American counterpart.    Similar to the history of the holiday in America, days of thanksgiving were observed beginning in 1799 but did not occur every year.  The first Thanksgiving Day after Canadian Confederation was observed in 1872, and starting in 1897 Canadians followed the American tradition of observing the holiday annually on a Thursday in November.  The date of celebration changed several times until an official declaration in 1957.  On January 31st of that year, the Canadian Parliament proclaimed:  "A Day of General Thanksgiving to Almighty God for the bountiful harvest with which Canada has been blessed - to be observed on the 2nd Monday in October."

I celebrated my first Canadian Thanksgiving at a friends home, enjoying good food and good company, pretty much in keeping with how I would usually spend American Thanksgiving.  It's a good thing I did too - given the fact that Thursday, November 24th will find me sitting in classroom, rather than around the dinner table!

Norman Rockwell's Freedom from Want