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.