Librarians and Preservation

Recently I wrote an essay about the Baker-Cox debate.  This debate reached its height between 2001 and 2002, but the points discussed during this debate still have not been resolved.  Nicholson Baker, in his book Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper, accused librarians of being careless in their stewardship over current and historical newspapers.  He hated that common practice in libraries was to take newspapers, microfilm them, then throw the paper away.  One of the reasons why libraries would throw the paper away would be because they would have cut the paper up into single sheets, making the scanning a lot easier.  Similar procedures are used for digitization. Baker saw this as irresponsible and that libraries should shift their focus toward preserving the original copies, and adopting microfilming practices that don’t damage the newspapers.  Baker was adamant that libraries ought to preserve every newspaper possible since microfilm is tedious to use, and that the newspapers themselves are important historical artifacts, in his opinion.

Richard J, Cox, an archivist, defended librarians in their current practices saying that librarians are not in the preservation business, they are in the information business, meaning that they are not guardians of paper information, but guide people to all information no matter the medium on which it is found, whether it be online, on a CD, or a stone tablet.  Public Librarians go beyond the responsibility of being information guides and carry out programs that help, for example, new immigrants to Canada learn English and help adapt to the culture of the country.  Librarians also put on a multitude of other programs such as resume workshops, clubs for youth (e.g. chess, video games etc.), test proctoring, and nutrition classes.  In essence, the library has evolved from being an information repository to an important community centre.  Some cities built new library buildings as the start of

Library of Birmingham

Library of Birmingham

downtown revitalization projects, like in Birmingham, UK.  Say what you want about the the post-modern architecture of this particular library, it is exciting that the city decided to build a new library as a means of cleaning up downtown.  Same goes with Vancouver Public Library in British Columbia whose library structure has become an iconic feature of Vancouver’s downtown landscape.

Baker’s opinions represent a fundamental misconception over what librarianship has become and what its purpose is.  To be fair, Baker isn’t the only person that’s fallen into this misunderstanding.  I’ll bet if we surveyed lots of people in the community, many would say that one of the librarian’s main purposes is preservation.  While preservation of information is important, it’s not the librarian’s job.  In terms of collecting, the librarian needs to stay on top of reading trends and purchase the books that will best meet his/her patrons’ needs.  If the librarian collected and never discarded or put materials in alternate formats, library buildings would need to be massive structures.

So whose responsibility is it to preserve the written word?  Well, it depends on the community, but generally it falls on to the shoulders of the archives–or, if your community is privileged enough to have one–a rare book library or special collection.  By the way, most public libraries do not have rare book collections.

So, should the librarian be in the business of both preservation and dissemination?  Possibly, but the problem is that their parent institutions are not willing to increase the library budget, increase staff, or give them a larger building in order to take on that role. When a librarians discard a book, or pulls it apart to digitize it, don’t worry, they haven’t devolved into Nazis or the Westboro Baptist Church, burning books they don’t like or agree with, they are simply doing their best to work within their budgets. Collection review is a challenging task (most of the time), and it’s difficult to be cold-hearted and take a book off the shelf and put it out of its misery, but that’s the way it is for now.

If you feel libraries should be in the business of preservation, contact your town councillor and make a fuss.  Politicians won’t change until their constituents tell them to (democracy!).  As it stands, most communities are not interested because the money  and support isn’t there.  To be honest, I believe most librarians would like to keep more books; I don’t know a librarian that hates their collection, but the powers that be have determined that it’s not financially viable to keep all of the books, so the librarians are forced to make do with what they have.

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Reflections on Historical Building Tours

As I’ve been working on my digital doors open project on Huron University College I’ve been reflecting on the usefulness of historical tours as a means of teaching history to the general public.  Don’t get me wrong, I love building tours, and I’ve been to a few significant buildings in my life like Windsor Castle, Westminster Abbey, Salt Lake Temple, Empire State Building, and El Cabildo.

As I was searching through primary sources for old images of Huron College (yearbooks, photograph collections, etc.), I realized that there were relatively few clear, quality images of rooms in the college.  Frustrated, I thought to myself “Why? Why weren’t there good images of the spaces in this building.”  It was important to me because I wanted to kind of do a “then and now” comparison of the rooms.  I realized there weren’t any good pictures because there nothing inherently historically significant about rooms or buildings themselves.  Buildings are transformed by events and relationships.  What I did see in these primary source documents were lots of pictures of intramural teams, dances, clubs, dramatic productions, and random and impromptu social gatherings.  In a nutshell, it’s the tradition and spirit of the institution that’s makes a building historical, not the building itself, hence the lack of images for my project.

As an institution, Huron College has been around since 1863; however, the current building in which the College is housed only opened in 1951. So it’s interesting that Huron was designated an Ontario historic site in 1963, even though the building was just 12 years-old at the time.

Another thing I’ve realized is that. when we do a building tour, we typically go from room to room, with a brief description of the historical significance of the room, and its architectural features.  There’s nothing wrong with this, but it presents an incomplete history of the structure.  What we don’t talk about is the interaction between rooms and how they function together to create events and significant moments.  For example, when planning the Huron Ball–an annual semi-formal dance–certainly the whole thing did was not planned and executed in the Great Hall of the College, where it used to be held.  I’m sure a planning committee was formed, meetings occurred in various offices, classrooms, or dorm rooms, before the Huron Ball happened.  What I’m suggesting is that we talk more about the relationships between the rooms to get a better sense of the building’s function.

So, how do we convey these relationships between spaces in the college or any other historic building?  My suggestion is that we take a significant person who was affiliated with the building and center it around him/her.  For example, suppose we’re putting on a tour of the Canadian Parliament in Ottawa, what if we put on a tour called “A Day in the Life of Pierre Trudeau“, and took visitors through Parliament as if they were Trudeau through his daily routine during a significant moment during his Prime Ministry like the October Crisis in Québec in 1970 or the Patriation of the Constitution in 1982.  With this kind of approach to building tours, I think the historical significance of the building would impact people more deeply, and leave them with a greater appreciation for the history of the building.

Thoughts on Community Outreach and Doors Open London

The other day, my wife asked me about the story of Grand Duchess Anastasia, the youngest daughter of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia.  In 1917, the Russian monarchy was overthrown, and subsequently executed in 1918 by Bolshevik Revolutionaries led by Vladimir Lenin. Rumours persisted for the longest time that Anastasia had survived and somehow escaped the coup and was living in hiding somewhere.  I was not clear on the story since I had not spent a lot of time during my undergraduate years studying Russian History outside its involvement in World War II–I’ll be honest, most of my knowledge of Anastasia came from this film…

…Not a promising start.

After doing some quick research I learned that the rumours of Anastasia’s survival stemmed from the fact that her burial place was unknown during the decades of Soviet rule since the Tsar and his wife were only buried with three of their daughters, meaning the body of one daughter, and their son was missing.  Furthermore, many women came forward claiming they were the missing princess, which fuelled suspicions and conspiracies.  In 2007, the bodies of  one of the daughters–either Maria or Anastasia–and Alexei were discovered, confirming they also died in 1918 with the rest of their family.

So where did I find this information?  I’d love to say I hopped on the next plane to Russia to visit some archives in Moscow to figure it all out, but the truth is I went directly to Wikipedia for my answer.  I was struck by something I read in Nesmith’s article, “What’s History Got to Do with It?: Reconsidering the Place of Historical Knowledge in Archival Work.”  Nesmith arugued that,

Archivists can continue to renew and enhance their social relevance and professional knowledge by constantly exploring and critiquing their professional and societal pasts and opening this (their own “archive”) to different ideas, experiences, and circumstances. Where, then, should the still developing archival profession go from here? It can develop further by more fully embracing the historical knowledge relevant to its work and by welcoming and encouraging the reviving historical interests in society at large. (The more society values historical information, the better will be the archivist’s position as one of its key providers.) (Page 4).

As much as I appreciate Nesmith’s optimism, the truth of the matter is that when society looks to quench its thirst for historical knowledge, the likelihood of those people banging on the archives’ doors is slim.  Why?  I believe theses are some of the main reasons:

1. Few people know what an archives is and what it’s for

2. Most people don’t know how to use an archives

3. Archives have very specialized collections and some people’s questions may veer outside of the expertise of the archives

4. Most people have access to the internet and will run to Google or Wikipedia before the archives because it’s easier (Think about Zipf’s Law!)

5. The answers found on the web, even if they’re not quite right, will mostly satisfy the information needs of the user

Though I agree with Nesmith in that introspection and self-critiquing is necessary to improve archival services, we ought not to sit back and wait for our citizens to stroll in.  Self-improvement is only half the battle, community outreach is the other half.

On that note, I wanted to applaud Doors Open London event last weekend.  This was an amazing example of community outreach well done. I was shocked at how many community and cultural institutions opened their doors to show off to the public what they were all about.  When I heard about the event, I was very excited to enter some institutions I had never been to before.  I visited three sites on Saturday.  First, I visited the Royal Canadian Regiment Museum.  I was pleasantly surprised at how large the facility was, and how extensive their coverage was of the key events in Canadian Military history, and the regiment’s involvement in those conflicts.  They had everything from authentic hat badges, medals, weapons, and uniforms on display.  Definitely a family friendly place, I recommend it to anyone with even a casual interest in Canadian military history, It’s obvious that the museum’s donors are very generous with sharing their artefacts for the benefit of the community.

I then made my way down Adelaide to the Banting House National Historical Site, the house where Sir Frederick Banting had his epiphany and discovered insulin.  Though the house is small, I was impressed with the exhibits and how the site managed the challenge of being informative like a museum, but also maintained the character of a historic site.  This is a great place for folks to learn about Banting’s contributions to medicine and his impact on individuals suffering from diabetes, and to get a glimpse of what medical practitioners were like in the early-Twentieth Century.

My last stop was London Life Insurance Company in downtown London.  This was a unique opportunity because Doors Open is the only time when London Life is open to the public.  The building itself is a historic treasure, built during the decadent 1920s, the elaborate details in the architecture are stunning.  London Life also put together a small exhibit chronicling the construction of its first computer in the 1950s.  The photographs are a stunning reminder of how far information technology has come in the last 60 years.  My favourite picture was one of an IBM technician standing in the midst of a complex wiring system and hooking it all up.   I don’t have the actual photo, but the computer in the image looked something like the one below.

Complex wiring inside an early computer

Courtesy of The Computer Museum

In summary, it’s this kind of outreach that will grab the attention of the public and have them banging on the archives’ door.  We can’t just assume, that people will come when they realize they need us, because that realization may never come, and if it does, it may be too late for the archives.  Archives must advertise, and jump into the public eye to grab their attention and tell the public what they can do for them. I think the general public likes history.  I think they enjoy looking at documents from the past, I think the challenge is that they do not know where to find them, and do not realize how accessible those documents actually are.  In movies, archives are often seen as these exclusive places where only VIPs are permitted and only top secret information is held, like in this scene from Angels and Demons where Dr. Langdon is begging for access into the Vatican archives.

This myth needs to be dispelled now, and the archives need to simply open up and reach out.  Let the public know they can do Family History research, let them know they can look at older pictures of their neighbourhood and community, or let them know children can get help with school projects.  Whatever, archives’s specialty, let the community know what the archives can do for it.