Storymap

Over the spring break, one of the things I had decided to do was to do as much as possible in writing about the USS Asheville (as well as about 4 other projects). The primary difficulty in writing about the Submarine is that it has no “history,” yet. At least nothing declassified. Because of that, most of my text was very dry, technical stuff. An image appeared in my head of some guy asleep at his computer because he tried to read my section of the website.

I’m a very visual person, so my solution for this was to add images. Adding images turned into adding a plugin, and a played around with Timelinejs (which I’ve used before) and with Storymaps (not to be confused with Storymapjs). For reasons I can’t remember, I decided to go with Storymaps, and I very quickly saw an improvement. I also worked on getting rid of some of the dry, academic tone, because I’m not writing a research paper. Because I’m aiming at a “popular audience,” I don’t have to pretend to be some super impartial brain in a jar. Submarines are awesome, and I won’t pretend otherwise. I like ocean stuff in general. I have a ship painting, and everyone who sees it is like, “wow, that’s a cool painting,” so I say “I painted it myself,” and they say “wow, really?” and I say “no.” Then they ask me if they can buy it and I say “no.”

I think I have mentioned before that my group has split up the task of writing about the first ship, since that’s the one with the most information on it. For some reason, we like to read about boats that sunk more than boats that stayed afloat like they were supposed to. That being said, I’m an enormous hypocrite and have decided to write about its sinking. I’ll be going to Special Collections tomorrow.

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Reflection

When I first went for an internship in archiving, I didn’t know what to expect. I more or less understood what archiving was, I knew its purpose. But as far as its nature as a profession, I was pretty much clueless. “Oh, they just look after old documents. Like librarians or something,” I’d say. “Yes, but what do they do?” Future Me would ask? I don’t know exactly how I would answer, but I’m sure it would be wrong. But I have learned a lot since the long, far off time of mid-2018. And I lot of it would surprise spring 2018 me, who was far more naïve in this whole archiving thing.

What I didn’t understand before was how dynamic archiving is. I described the work to Gene as “creating order out of chaos,” which is absolutely a part of it. But to do so, you have to think like not just a librarian, but a detective, a historian, and an administrator. Archiving also contains the DNA of warehouse worker, scribe, and rodent exterminator (still convinced there was a mouse in there somewhere). The sheer variety of tasks was unexpected, even while working on a single collection. The MountainTrue Papers contained letters, newspaper clippings, maps, photographs, slides, posters, flyers, pamphlets, and probably some forms of paper communication that I have no name for. Here there be dragons indeed.

Even outside the MountainTrue collection, there were several, unique things I got to do. I counted stamps for a folder, and I moved entire collections around to make room for MountainTrue, as well as moved a few shelves. I like getting up and moving, so that was always something I enjoyed. Gene and Colin would occasionally space a different assignment into my work on the MountainTrue Papers, I assume so I didn’t get too bored on one thing. Or they just had something they needed done.

I think my favorite part was the sense of accomplishment whenever I had finished processing a folder and completed a box. I completely forgot to do this before I left, so at some point when I return from winter break, I may have to pop in and take a photograph of all the 50something boxes on the shelves of Special Collections. It was a sight to see, and I thought to myself, “I did this.” There were moments that were frustrating, and there were moments that were tedious, but I got most of it done before I had completed my hours, and I can look at all those boxes, and the documents they contain, and know that I had something to do with it.

The sense of accomplishment was also helped by the fact that the subject matter they contained was important to me. I’ve always been a big supporter of environmental causes, which was essentially the main theme of this collection. Late 20th century environmentalism in Western North Carolina. There is definitely something extra to this sort of thing when it’s something you feel strongly positive about.

I also liked the idea of handling old documents and knowing that they were “hopefully” going to be preserved for a long time. Granted, these weren’t exactly ancient documents, they were never from anywhere earlier than the 1970s. The bulk of it was from the 1990s. But that was sort of nostalgic, because I recognized a lot of those old typefaces, and the physical, processed photographs. In many cases, I could see why we moved on, but it was still nice to see them again. It’s like meeting an old friend from high school who you never particularly liked, but it’s been a while, so you’re still happy to see them. Until they remind you why they got on your nerves. With digital cameras, the fact that you don’t have to develop them means that you can get rid of a failed picture immediately. I saw a few failed photos here, and thought to myself “man, they had to wait for that?”

I enjoyed some of the strange things I’d find in the collections, that I presume were there unintentionally. One time I found a leaf. Just a leaf. Who knows how old it was. I also learned that rubber bands get kind of nasty after a while (or maybe my initial impressions were correct, and it really was 20-year-old pasta). And at one point, I found something embedded in one of the folders. The shape was like a flatworm, the color was like a flatworm, it had a raised surface. But I don’t have any idea how a flatworm would get embedded in a folder. Frankly, I have absolutely no idea what it was, I never figured it out and just tried to extricate it from my mind because it was disgusting and terrifying. Some things are better left a mystery.

Most of all though, I liked working with Gene and Colin. Really, they were terrific. Gene was incredibly warm, always quick with a joke, and good at explaining the basics of my tasks. Colin was also quick with a joke (must be something to do with the altitude on Ramsay Library’s second floor), and always helpful whenever I had a question. And I often was confused. I was working with someone else’s organizational system, and it wasn’t always clear how they wanted it organized. I’m sure it made perfect sense to them, but I had to figure out what. Over time, I became confused less and less until I could usually figure these problems out on my own.

The most common problem I had was in properly classifying a folder. Sometimes, there really didn’t seem to be an actual order to the documents, thematic or chronological. So, when it came time to label that folder, I would have to find some commonality. Were all of these documents signed off by the Department of Agriculture? Do they all seem to center around a specific project (as an example, a project stopping an unnecessary road from being built through Pisgah National Forest?). That’s when I would have to think like a detective. Follow the little details to some sort of conclusion.

Regardless, a seeming lack of order was one of the low points for me. The other low point was probably the tedium of going through photographs. Not only were many of them unlabeled (creating familiar frustrations when there was no perceivable pattern), but there seemed to be an infinite number of them. But it was worth going through them, because you get that satisfying sense of completion when you finish a sleeve of photographs, and then a folder, and finally a box. And then you could add that box to the growing collection on the archive’s shelves.

Overall, I think this was a very positive experience. And it was a learning experience. I learned the theories behind archiving as a concept, and I was able to hone my detail orientation, organizational skills, pattern recognition, and experience with digital databases. These are all very helpful skills, especially the last one in today’s increasingly digital world. It is also always incredibly nice to get experience within my field of history, and to gain a better understand over what all history encompasses. And it does encompass a considerable amount of subject matter. I looked through some of the other collections, and there were things related to religion, sociology, science, environmental science (my collection!), politics, and more general history. I already knew that history encompassed so much which was part of the appeal to me, but it really does give you a broader perspective to see it all collected in one place. I really enjoyed working in Special Collections, and I would recommend it for anyone hoping to gain experience in this kind of thing (and of course, credit hours).

 

Grovewood Village

Because I was struck down by illness over the Thanksgiving break, I was unable to visit Historic Yates Mill as intended. I instead chose to use my backup plan: Grovewood Village. In Biltmore Village is the old weaving complex of Biltmore Industries.

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The primary difference between this movie and the Thomas Wolfe Memorial is the general set up. The Thomas Wolfe Memorial attempts to appear as closely as possible to Thomas Wolfe’s childhood home. The weaving complex in Grovewood Village isn’t trying to appear like a textile mill, it’s just trying to look like a museum, with traditional exhibits.

20181206_150934For example, this 101 year old clock.

There are advantages to both types of museums. A “living history” museum like the Thomas Wolfe memorial attempts to “bring you back” to the period, with a feeling of authenticity. The downside is, it’s harder to display artifacts (Thomas Wolfe’s parents obviously would not be displaying everyday objects from the early 20th century in a glass case: can’t go breaking immersion) and they can occasionally be cheesy. Not that the Thomas Wolfe Memorial was cheesy, I’m thinking more along the lines of those colonial sites where costumed actors affect fake British accents and don’t break character.

A traditional museum requires less interpretation. Just read what’s on the sign plaque, pretend you’re interested in the old spinning wheel, and move on, at your own pace. The downside is that you’re entirely cognizant of the fact that you’re in a museum, and can’t sort of pretend you’ve really briefly traveled back in time.

I’m honestly not sure which I prefer, and it really probably just depends on what I’m in the mood for.

Afterwards, I went to the antique car museum, and had a good time imagining myself trying to drive a 1915 Model T on a modern interstate. It sounds like a terrific idea, and I can’t imagine that anything would go wrong, with the impressive top speed of 45 mph.

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I was told by the museum’s employee that all of these cars were owned by one person. I thought that was pretty cool.

Thomas Wolfe Memorial

For the class portion of my internship, we made an excursion to Asheville’s Thomas Wolfe House. This was probably a good choice to have a tour, because I only vaguely knew who Thomas Wolfe was.

My main concern was over how I would compare working at a museum to working at an archive. The main impression I got was that there in an enormous difference in specialization. An archive can contain documents on any subject imaginably. Politics, law, history, tourism, economics, it’s all there. A museum like the Thomas Wolfe House deals with more constrained subject matter. That is, Thomas Wolfe, Thomas Wolfe’s family, and Thomas Wolfe’s literary works. And of course, life in the early 20th century, but mostly has it related to Thomas Wolfe’s childhood. What it lacked in variety, it made up for in depth. Our tour guide was clearly very knowledgeable about Thomas Wolfe. I can safety say that everything I know about Thomas Wolfe, I learned from her.

Because of the more specific subject matter, it is probably especially important that a person is interested in the subject of a museum (albeit not so much more generalized history museums) before working there. A bored tour guide=bored tourists.

Historic Sites are also more likely to be haunted.

Over Thanksgiving break, I’m intending to go to a historic site in Raleigh called “Yates Mill.” I know about as much about gristmills as I do about Thomas Wolfe, so I think it should be educational.

Rejected Collections

As a followup to a previous post on what I would choose to reject if I ran an archive, I decided to ask Gene what had been rejected in the past. According to Gene, they recieve about one or two offers per month, many of which, while interesting, fall outside the scope of Western North Carolina. For example, records from another region of the country, like Boston or Los Angeles. There are also frequent offers of collections of everyday objects, like old National Geographic magazines (a collection which I certainly own). Gene also told me that they frequently get requests for appraisals, which is beyond the scope of Special Collections, and requires an actual appraiser.

Gene says he has never received an offer of anything that he felt the need to reject on controversial grounds, but that larger collections may have to do so. I can only guess at the kind of offers the National Archives get. But I can assume that they feel little need to collect old National Geographics. If they do,  I can certainly offer them mine.

Archiving Photography

As I have recently finished processing the MountainTure Collection’s paper documents, I have moved on to processing photographs. The Collection has far fewer photographs than documents, which is a blessing. My primary objective is still foldering, with the added step of inserting photographs into protective slips.

I still have to watch out for duplicates, as well as “failed” photographs. I tossed one out because it was incredibly blurry, and contained the photographers finger in the upper left. I have a very bad habit of accidentally allowing my left index finger to drift into photographs, so I found this picture to be highly relatable.

My favorite part of working with photographs so far, is the vague familiarity of it. These developed, physical photographs, rather than digital. I can vaguely remember a time where you’d go inside a store to get photos developed instead of just printing them off your camera or uploading them to a computer.

The major challenge so far is in parsing the cursive, which appears more commonly on photograph tags than on document tags. Generally, I can read cursive. I learned it in school just before it left the curriculum, and am one of the few family members that can read my paternal grandmother’s handwritten letters. But there’s always that one word that I can’t make out. My go-to strategy so far has involved making a list of possible words, and looking through the photos to see if anything like that appears in the set.

Community Engagement in Archiving and Academia

In The Future of Archives is Participatory , archivist Kate Theimer expresses her vision of archives as proactive spaces of learning, rather than passive storehouses of cobweb filled boxes. I could not possibly agree more, and I believe a sort of self-satisfied isolation is far too common in academia.

I don’t want to be too sweeping with that statement. Many academics DO consider themselves educators, and our countries many museums, historical parks, and roadside markers attest to that. But I don’t think anyone will argue that there is a degree of insularity in academia: the stereotypes of a shushing librarian or the “absent-minded, egghead professor” will attest to that. At best, it creates a bubble, at worst it allows bad understandings of history/science/literature/anything to flourish.

For example, I often see considerable badmouthing of historical documentaries and “pop history.” This isn’t entirely undeserved (aside from “pop history” being poorly defined), historical works aimed at mass audiences are generally more concerned with selling copies. And don’t even get me started on the History Channel with its “Ancient Aliens” and conspiracy themed programming. But what does it say when academics are more concerned with writing books aimed within their small niche? By not communicating their ideas to a mass audience, they are creating a vacuum that can be filled by hucksters peddling political agendas, conspiracies, or cynical cash-grabs.

This applies to archiving in its perception as a dusty old room containing dusty old boxes. Which it is, don’t get me wrong, I start coughing within an hour. But they should be seen as more than that, as they contain documents that may benefit the entire community. I’ve seen genealogical records, stunning photographs, and histories of well known landmarks that thousands of people pass on their commutes. All of this should appeal to more than just an academic doing research. I’d imagine that you could almost create a pseudo-museum, space and money permitting (at least in whatever alternate universe these sorts of institutions are well-funded in).

And things seem to be changing. Gene and Colin have no difficulty engaging the public. Gene even told me about a group of elderly dementia patients who come in, and try and locate things from their past in Asheville. I guess it helps with memory recall. This is community engagement, and a good example of an archive providing a service, and I hope I more and more archives do this sort of thing.

As I said, I don’t want to sweep academia with too broad a brush. I’ve met park historians very dedicated to their jobs of engaging the public, and have been to fantastic museums and parks. Many historians are more than happy to talk about their favorite historical subject matter to anyone and at anytime (you may even have trouble prying yourself away once they get started), and even when this isn’t the case, there isn’t anything inherently wrong with works aimed mostly at academics. I don’t want to push the “death of professionalism” angle, because that’s how we end up with things like “alternative facts.” But I have seen academic elitism first hand, and it was disappointing to find out that it wasn’t just a boogeyman used to scare the over-credulous.

I would like to end this post with a few photographs from my trip to Gettysburg.

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I would strongly recommend it to anyone interested in America’s history. Much of the park is kept in the same condition that it was in during the 1860s, with a natural beauty that almost belies the ferocity of the battle that occurred there that sweltering summer day (as opposed to the crisp fall day when I went). The employees at Gettysburg were passionate and knowledgeable, always a good combination, and the battlefield has an almost naturally solemn quality to it. Whether it’s because I was just aware of what had happened there, or whether it’s an inborn of the natural landscape, I don’t know.

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