Edu-tainment at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival

Since I first heard about the Smithsonian Folklife Festival back in February of this year, I knew that it was one of the first things that I (a recent DC transplant) needed to check out. Although I am not one to be aware of important social events at any given time (I completely forgot that the President’s inauguration was happening in my city, and actually made plans to go out of town that weekend), I try to stay on top of any cultural happenings, especially if they are related to music. Needless to say, I was very surprised that I had never heard of the Folklife Festival prior to learning about it in class this past spring semester.

Although it takes place arguably during the hottest week in the year in Washington D.C. (right around the Independence Day holiday), there were droves of locals and tourists who had showed up to witness the Festival.

The theme was “Hungary,” and the area of the Festival was split into two areas, those with programs about Hungarian culture, and a second half, which was dubbed “One World, Many Voices,” and had stories, songs, food, and dance from cultures all over the world, specifically those that have endangered languages and cultures. I was somewhat unsure where to head first, so I decided to go over to the Hungarian programs, since that was the theme for this year.

I witnessed traditional Hungarian dancing (in which both Hungarians and Americans were involved), traditional Hungarian cooking (with a really cool overhead mirror so that the crowd could see how the food was being prepared), and traditional decorative furniture. I was able to listen to a bit of music over there, played by a man who makes traditional Zithers as well as other instruments. He played for us a bit, and was answering questions about the instrument. Although I was intrigued, and wanted to stay for a while longer to hear this man speak about his craft, I had to be satisfied with him answering a few questions, as I was trying to experience everything before the day was over.

I headed over to the second half of the festival, and was instantly drawn to the tent emitting a vibrant, exciting kind of music made for dancing. I learned that these were the Garifuna people—an African diaspora culture mainly found in coastal regions of Central America, but also in New York City and Los Angeles. They were here to party, and everyone in the audience had the party vibe too: everyone was dancing, singing, clapping, or shouting. They were amazing, and I only wished that they could play for longer.

Garifuna performance

Folks movin’ and groovin’ at the performance.

I was able to learn more about the Garifuna people over at their tent, where they had instruments, photos, and books documenting the history of their culture. There were also a handful of Garifuna people there that you could talk to. I was excited to get over there and start asking them about their music: how it’s passed down through generations, or if they have music “masters” in their culture, things like that.

I learned that their music is heavily based in percussion and dancing—two things that were obvious from their performance. What was not obvious, however, was that their music (unlike most other traditional African diaspora music) was not recorded or historically documented until the mid-1990s. Equally as shocking was the lack of people coming over to talk with the Garifuna people, seeing as the performance was packed.

This made me think a bit about the divide that sometimes exists between endangered intangible cultural heritage and the general knowledge of the culture. Many, many people were enjoying the Garifuna music as entertainment, but where was everyone looking to learn more about the culture and its history? Although I’m not one to break up a party, I feel as though some element of teaching should have occurred during the performance. That way, people could have learned more about this endangered culture while still enjoying the show.

All in all, I think the Folklife Festival was a great way for others to experience the society and history of some endangered cultures. It would be even better though if we could have learned a little bit more while we party.

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User Contributions to Cultural Heritage Collections and Experience

Written by Dr. Youngok Choi

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Libraries, archives, and museums (LAMs) are actively using social media tools in their various initiatives and projects to offer users an opportunity to engage with and contribute to their collections and information services. Such initiatives are known as crowdsourcing projects ever since Jeff Howe (2006) coined the term. Several examples of successful projects in LAMs have been introduced (Holley, 2010; Oomen & Aroyo, 2011). As crowdsourcing proves its potential in cultural heritage contexts through repeated success, more cultural organizations are exploring its possibilities in various digital projects.

At Archives 2013, the joint annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists and the Council of State Archivists, which took place from August 11-17 in New Orleans, Louisiana, researchers and professionals presented various crowd-sourced digital projects of cultural heritage collections including FamilySearch and the Citizen Archivist Initiative (Session 404  Incentivizing Volunteer Workforces for Crowd-sourced Projects)

Among those projects at the session, one project I found very creative and transformative was DIY History at the University of Iowa (http://diyhistory.lib.uiowa.edu/). Ms. Colleen Theisen, an outreach and instruction librarian at University of Iowa, spoke about the project. According to her, the University of Iowa Libraries launched a low-tech transcription crowdsourcing project for Civil War diaries and letters in 2011. Volunteers transcribed all 16,000 pages in just over a year. Later, the project was renamed DIY History featuring a variety of documents including handwritten cookbooks and pioneer-era letters and diaries. Currently, more than 35,000 pages of manuscript diaries, letters, recipes and telegrams in DIY History have been transcribed and proofread by contributors (http://blog.lib.uiowa.edu/drp/category/diy-history/). What is more interesting is that using their historic record of cookbooks, the University sponsored a historic recipes contest in the Iowa State Fair http://blog.lib.uiowa.edu/drp/2013/07/22/iowa-state-fair/. At the fair, the community experienced and tasted 18th– or 19th century cooking. This crowdsourced project is exemplary of using social media tools to open up cultural heritage hidden collections to the community to engage with and contribute to cultural memory.

More resources on crowdsourcing projects in cultural heritage

A series of blog postings on crowdsourcing by Trevor Owens

Blog site and postings by Mia Ridge (a PhD candidate at Open University)

They’re Just Like Us!

Written by Justine Rothbart

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While flipping through the University of Mary Washington (UMW) Yearbook, The Battlefield, I came across this photograph:

Midnight Feast Club, The Battlefield, 1914

Midnight Feast Club, The Battlefield, 1914

When I first saw it, I almost laughed out loud! It wasn’t just the nature of the photo that was surprising, but the date. This photo is from the 1914 edition of The Battlefield. To put it into context, this was almost 100 years ago and just two years after the Titanic sank. The photo looks as if these students are having fun dressing up in their pajamas, staying up late, and eating a midnight snack. They are obviously trying to make it look funny. It’s so surprising this “Midnight Feast Club” actually existed! As a student at the University of Mary Washington at the time, it reminded me of the times I would hang out with my friends in our dorm rooms. Ok, of course I would never dress like that, but it got me thinking, are we really that much different today?

My junior and senior year at Mary Washington (Fall 2009 – Spring 2011) in Fredericksburg, Virginia, I was the Student Aide at the UMW Special Collections. In the spring of 2011 I assisted in the UMW Yearbooks digitization project. I worked with the UMW Special Collections Librarian, Carolyn Parsons, to prepare the yearbooks for the digitization process. This is when I first saw the “Midnight Feast Club” photo and when I really began to know the yearbooks. In these yearbooks I saw a photo of the Basket Ball Team from 1920 posing in front of the same building where I just went to class. I saw a photo of the students in 1952 walking up the same stairs I walked up just a few hours before. I saw a photo of the student from 1972 going into the same dorm I lived in freshman year. Even though I never knew these students, looking through the yearbooks made me feel like we’re not so different.

My experience working in the UMW Special Collections led me to my current studies in Cultural Heritage Information Management at Catholic University. I want others to make that connection with the past the same way I did with the yearbooks. I want others to think, “Hey, that could be me!” Having the archival collection speak for itself might be it’s biggest advocate.

Here’s a video of the exhibit I designed and created about The Battlefield digitization project:

And who knows, the next time you look in the archives, maybe you’ll see yourself.

Click here to see The Battlefield. 

Click here to learn more about the UMW Special Collections.

Just what is an alternative research library?

Written by Joseph Koivisto

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Established in 2004, the Prelinger Library In San Francisco, CA bills itself as an “independent research library […] open to anyone for research, reading, inspiration, and reuse.” It is a small institution that is sponsored by private donations and the Intersection for the Arts in San Francisco and whose small collection — six rows of stacks — is centered on 19th and 20th Century historical ephemera, periodicals, and maps.

pelingerThe Prelinger was recently brought to my attention by a fellow blogger who pointed me to this post about Megan Prelinger, one of the original founders. And this got me thinking: what is an alternative research library and how is it different and/or better than a conventional institutionally-affiliated research library?

The very first difference that springs to mind is the question of access. The Prelinger prides itself on being accessible to all interested parties. Additionally, much of their assets are available in digitized format via the Internet Archives. While many research libraries prohibit access to their physical collection and digital repository, an alternative research library setting does not have to abide by such restrictive policies.

Another difference is that of collection policy. A non-affiliated research institution is free to make unilateral decisions on their curatorial approach and acquisition policy. In this way, the Prelinger can create a body of research material that is both highly customized to the institutional mission and of the greatest use to the identified patron community. Additionally, questions of budgetary allocation are not beholden to larger departmental and institutional requirements. Conventional research libraries must operate under many influences on collection policies and budgetary use that can negatively impact library goals.

Then there is the issue of organizational standards. Prelinger has arranged the library’s collection in a non-standard conceptual manner that is based on her own grouping methodology, a unique approach that promotes shelf-reading and serendipitous finding. While this approach does seem in line with a romantic idea of the library as a place of chance encounters and unexpected connections, it goes against the conventional wisdom of ease-of-use that is facilitated by standardized organization and numbering (I’m not sure if the Prelinger even uses a numbering system, instead depending on a geospatial scheme). Alternative research libraries may be free to make their own policies on organization approach, but are these decision always made for the benefit of the patron?

Lastly, what about conservation? Granted, the Prelinger is a small collection and the staff can most likely manage their collection usage with ease. But, as you can see from this instructional pamphlet, patrons are expected to retrieve books, periodicals, and archival storage boxes themselves, raising concerns about shelf-wear and inappropriate handling. Without a large institutional budget for conservation and refurbishing, the Prelinger could, in time, encounter a large issue of crumbling resources.

The Prelinger is certainly a unique specimen of the library environment; it throws an inquisitive light onto many of the long-held assumptions about what constitutes a research environment. Truly, the Prelinger does exhibit many patron-centric policies that are only possible due to their independent nature. However, some of their practices fall within that realm of “different, not better” and should be viewed with a critical eye. As the discourse on research libraries, organizational standards, and patron services continues, we can look towards the Prelinger as a point of reference for what should and (possibly) shouldn’t be done.

Telling the Lesser Known Stories

Written by Justine Rothbart

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You all know about George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln. Countless books have been written about these iconic figures. Stories about George Washington chopping down the cherry tree or Abraham Lincoln’s log cabin have been told thousands of times. But what about the lesser known people? What about their stories? I am studying Cultural Heritage Information Management so I am able to tell their stories.

The summer after I graduated from the University of Mary Washington (Fredericksburg, VA) with a B.A. in Historic Preservation, I had the opportunity to work on a project digitizing oral histories at Prince William Forest Park. You ask, where is Prince William Forest Park? Exactly. Many people have not heard of it. I have driven countless times to Fredericksburg on I-95 without ever setting a foot in this park until the summer of 2011. Prince William Forest Park is located just off of I-95  in Triangle, VA right near the Marine Corps Base at Quantico.

My project that summer was to digitize forty cassette tapes which contained oral history interviews about the history of the park. I began the summer not knowing a thing about the history of the park. But by the end, I became to feel as if I knew the people being interviewed and felt as if it was my responsibility to have their voice heard.

By listening to their stories, I learned about the families who once lived here, the Civilian Conservation Corps building cabins,  the Office of Strategic Services taking over the park during WWII, and the children who spent their summers at camp in this park. Everyone had a story. This story might have been seeing Sasquatch in the park or it could have been singing summer camp songs around the campfire. Whatever the stories were, they were important to that person.

Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) at Prince William Forest Park

Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) at Prince William Forest Park

How can studying Cultural Heritage Information Management help get these stories heard? In our program we learn how to preserve and provide access to collections in a library, archives, or museum setting. At Prince William Forest Park, I migrated the oral history interviews from a cassette tape to a digital file. The purpose is to both preserve the information and provide access. With the oral histories in digital format, you no longer have to visit the park to hear their stories. It is now possible for everyone to hear the stories of Prince William Forest Park before and after visiting.

Here are four videos I created using photos from the collection and the digitized oral histories:

Life Before the Park

Civilian Conservation Corps in Prince William Forest Park, Part 1

Civilian Conservation Corps in Prince William Forest Park, Part 2

Camp Mawavi Camp Fire Girls

I hope this post makes you interested in learning about the lesser known stories. And hey, the next time you’re driving down I-95 complaining about the traffic, think about taking a detour to Prince William Forest Park. Maybe you’ll be able to create some stories of your own.

Click here to visit the Prince William Forest Park website.

Click here to listen to more oral histories.

Digital Directions 2013 Takeaways

Written by Joseph Koivisto

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Writing for the POWRR Blog, Aaisha Haykal — University Archivist for Chicago State University — put together a great post about the Fundamentals of Creating and Managing Digital Collections Conference at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. In her post, she discusses the variety of sessions and workshops that occurred over the three-day event and shares some pictures from a tour of the Digital Conversion Unit or of the Technology Lab.

The most interesting part of the post is a list of conference takeaways, points that can be applied to any digital conservation environments. They are as follows:

  1. Know your institution, in terms of risk management (is some loss acceptable to you? who will be doing the metadata, how specific will it be?), budget, staffing (who responsibility is what), formats, mission, etc.
  2. It does not take much to get started with digital preservation-every little bit helps
  3. You really cannot do it alone (get assistance at every stage of the process)
  4. Modify standards, guidelines, and best practices to your institution, sometimes just good enough works
  5. Make your metadata interoperable and specific (ex. downstate and Illinois versus just downstate), so that when you merge records it is clear
  6. Approach stakeholders with a tailored message this can be done through workshops and one-on-one sessions. When involving IT, do not let them take over the project, this is your territory.
  7. Assessment of digital collections has to be done, either qualitative or quantitative.
  8. Document what you have done to the collections so that 1) those in the future can know and 2) that data was not lost in the transitions (bit count)
  9. Within the conversation of digital preservation we need to make clear the difference between preservation and access copies
  10. Learned more about the environment that digitization should be taking place in, in terms of lighting, monitors, and equipment.

Of this list, I found two points to be most insightful. First, standards, guidelines, and practices need to be custom tailored to the institution. Each institutional repository has unique needs and serves a particular collection and audience. Therefore, information professionals must design project standards and practices around the needs of the collection and the identified end users.

Second, information professionals must be wary of ceding control to IT staff that have been brought in to work on digital collections. Considering the increasingly tech-centric nature of conservation initiatives, information professionals need to make sure that governance does not change hands during the project time frame. How we do this is — again — something that will vary from institution to institution and project to project. However, acknowledging the issue prepares us to  better address the issues as they arise.

The original POWRR blog post can be found here.