Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Formatting your Family History: Images and Documents

This post builds upon my previous post regarding Putting your Family History in Context. I’ve learned over the years that not everyone thinks the same way I do, which makes for some frustrating moments as I try to explain a concept in a way that makes perfect sense to me, but seems disjointed and hastily put together to someone else. The same goes for a family history. If you’ve put it together the way you think it should be, without thinking of the way other people might prefer to intake the information, you’re going to disappoint a lot of your readers who might then be tempted to stop reading all together. And that’s a waste of all your hard work.

You’ve done all your research and written up an engaging account, but how to present it?

Sometimes it’s best to follow the crowd. The format of books, and more importantly, history books, has slowly evolved over the past few hundred years. There’s a reason that most history books you pick up are formatted so similarly: because time and reader experience has shown that these formats are most effective at getting information across to readers.

Some of the most important questions you should ask yourself when deciding how to format your family history should be related to format. You should think carefully about 1) how best to present photos or reproductions of documents (images), and 2) how you are going to tell your reader where you got your information (sourcing).

This post will discuss how to present photos or reproductions of documents.

It has become increasingly easy to get high quality reproductions of documents and photos that you can include in your family history. A two-hundred year old signature of a relative in a church register can be scanned, as can old family photos. But, where should they go in the book? You have a few fairly solid options for this: you can place them in an appendix, or you can place them on the page of the narrative that discusses the image.

I know many people dislike appendices precisely because most people won’t bother to flip to the back to look at it, or if they do, it won’t be until they have finished reading the narrative entirely. However, appendices have benefits as well. If you have a lot of documents or images, sometimes it’s best to keep them all together – especially if they tend to be full page size. This makes it easier for the reader to digest all the images at once and they don’t have to flip through all the pages, looking for them. If the number of images you have, stacked in a pile, rival the thickness of your narrative, consider placing them in an appendix. This will give your family history a much more professional, clean look.

If, however, you have a spattering of interesting, small images, perhaps just your Great-great-grandfather John’s signature, consider placing it in the body of the text in the spot where you make reference to what information you have about John. As long as you keep your images sparse, small and close to the relevant point in the narrative, you will enhance the story you are telling. This will give your family history a much more intimate feel for the reader.

What you should try to avoid is a seemingly haphazard array of documents and photos stuck into the book in a manner that the reader has trouble understanding why you are showing them this at this particular spot. If you want to include a full page reproduced document, but you don’t have room near the point in the narrative where you discuss this document, place it as an appendix - anything more than a couple lines away from the relevant narrative point and you're going to confuse your reader. If you have room and you feel it enhances the story, place it in the text. Choose carefully, and your reader will thank you.

*Note: random pictures of ducks in your blog post do not enhance your message. Neither do poorly formatted images in books.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Put your Family History in Context

I’ve become increasingly interested in my family history of late, and it’s become abundantly clear to me that I’m not alone. Even within my own family tree, there are multiple people researching independently and cooperatively over the internet. And people all over the world are doing the same, tracing their own family histories.

However, after all those years of researching are done, you’ve got to write it all up and leave the best possible record of your work, and of your family. But, this isn’t easy. Many people out there aren’t the best writers and in an effort to stick to the facts, the family history that you treasure often comes out dry and boring to another reader – even to your children. Part of the problem might have to do with your methods.

Most people who are writing family histories tend to want to single out their family. You dig through archives and church records and you find your most distant relative. Let’s say, John from Suffolk county, England, born in 1765. But, you probably don’t know very much about John, beyond his name and where he lived. So you start your family history something like this:

“The first known member of our family was named John. He lived in Suffolk County, England and was born in 1765. We know this because his name is written in a Church register.”

Typically, this is followed by who John married, what children he begot, and then proceeds to the more recent family history for which more information is available.

It can be frustrating, faced with only one little signature in a church register, and seemingly nothing else to go by to find out who your ancestor was. However, John didn’t think of himself as a man who left a single record for future generations, he thought of himself as a part of a community, living in an even wider community. So, when faced with this shortage of information, put your family in context.

You know John lived in Suffolk in the late eighteenth century. What else happened there during that time? Was there a war that affected the people of Suffolk? A religious movement? A political battle? Who was the local lord? What was he like? Who was the minister at John’s church? Can you find a copy of a sermon given by that minister? What did the people of Suffolk want out of life? What was the landscape like? How did they differ from other Englishmen? What did they tend to eat for dinner?

Questions like these can bring to light new information about John and his neighbours that can bring him to life. The brief and boring factual account becomes:

“The first known member of our family was named John. He lived in Suffolk County, England and was born in 1765. We know very little about John, but we do know quite a lot about the county he lived in. At the time of John’s birth, it was known as a center of weaving, and produced mainly for the European export market. Most rural families were in some way connected to this cottage industry, and it is quite possible John’s family was too. Around the time John turned twenty-five, Napoleon blocked this export trade and the people of Suffolk fell on hard economic times…

The major religion in Suffolk at the time was still the Anglican church, however compared to many regions of England, Suffolk had a very high dissenting population, mainly Quakers and Methodists. We know from the name of Church John attended, that he was one of these Quakers. Quakers at this time were known for their strong belief in…”

This context lets us feel like we know John just a little bit better. Even though we don’t know exactly what he did, thought or said, we know what his home might have been like. And you’re not doing him a disservice by lumping him in with his neighbours, you’re giving him life on the pages of your family manuscript that a one-time record of his signature does not.

Our ancestors thought of themselves as a part of a broader community. So there’s no harm in representing them as such. And hey, with a little context, you might even write a history that someone else might want to read it.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Visualization of UWO library's historical holdings

I decided to create a visualization using IBM's program, "Many Eyes." This site allows users to input any kind of data you could imagine, and then graph or chart it in one of fifteen different ways.

I chose to look at the number of books on history that the University of Western Ontario library had on each country. To get this data I did a subject search for each country and "history" in the library catalogue and recorded the data. The result is this many eyes map (minus Colombia, Scotland and the USSR. I misspelled it "Columbia" and therefore got no results - my apologies to all those Colombians out there, and unfortunately Scotland and the USSR do not fit into the Many Eyes map so I elected to leave this data out).

It's interesting to see what countries get the most historical resources. Some results are surprising (123 books on Australia, but nothing resembling an Australian history course taught at the school) and some not (1,261 on Canada)

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Open-Stack Archive: Museum of Anthropology, Vancouver

I was recently out west in Vancouver and while I was there I went and visited the Museum of Anthropology located on the campus of the University of British Columbia. The museum is most famous for its west coast native art, including large totem poles and wood carvings done by west coast native groups. The art is truly beautiful and impressive, however it was the access to the collection that I found astounding. The curators had realized that the amount of space required to put everything out in the open was well beyond what they had. So, they developed what they call “Visible Storage” units, which allow visitors to inspect over 13 000 artifacts at will. Almost half of their massive collection of artifacts is accessible through this system.

The museum also contains traditional displays of well-lit pieces out in the open, or in display cases, however most of the smaller artifacts are at first invisible to the eye. That’s because they are in the “Visible Storage.” These “Visible Storage” units are essentially a series of chests with sliding drawers. In each drawer is a collection of artifacts of similar provenance. One drawer might contain pipes used by the Kwakwaka'wakw people, another, shoes worn by the Haida. Unlike so many museums I have been to in the past, the Museum of Anthropology was packed with these treasure chests, which lined many of the walls. Each was sheltered from careless visitors by a protective sheet of plexi-glass, and visitors are encouraged to look at as much or as little as they desire.

My girlfriend and I chose which drawers to open based on how unlikely we thought it was that the average person would choose that drawer. We looked at quite a few of the drawers close to the floor, in an attempt to get a less traveled tour of the collection. As a researcher, I don’t think I could have asked for more in terms of accessibility. The concept of open stacks so familiar to goers of libraries has been brought into the world of material culture by this museum. An open stack archive, that both protects and provides the option of browsing.

I have become accustomed to expecting upwards of 90% of a museum collection to be hidden in some underground vault, for lack of display space. It was so refreshing to see it all out there at the Museum of Anthropology. The museum was promoting research of its collection by making it accessible. It was peaking curiosity by tempting me to open various drawers to see what was inside – not unlike a kid at Christmas, and it was allowing me, the visitor to decide how much I wanted to see during my visit.

Kudos to the Museum of Anthropology for such a great idea.


Artwork is by Bill Reid. Photograph by Adam Crymble.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Make the Museum More Like the Science Centre

I am always disheartened when I hear from people that history is boring. History is not boring, it’s an adventure through imagination that the literary, television and film worlds have all realized and taken advantage of. Every cartoon with princesses and dragons is really just a play on medieval history, as are fantasy novels such as Lord of the Rings and even Harry Potter. It’s our desire to go to a world that doesn’t exist but in our imaginations that makes both fantasy and history so exciting for people.

And that’s why I’m so disheartened when I hear from people that history is boring. What they’re really saying is that we’re not telling them a good story. We’re not involving them. Unfortunately, in many cases, the hands-on involvement that places like the Ontario Science Centre are famous for with their scientific marvels and gizmos is just not possible in traditional history museums. You can’t have twenty thousand people playing with rare artifacts and expect no damage to come to the items.

But, just because it’s not possible in traditional history museums doesn’t mean it’s not possible. Pack up the fine china from 1753, take the satin ropes down from around the exhibit and the “do not touch” signs, and make history interactive; imaginative. Kids don’t want to look at things. They want to do things. Even I want to do things when I’m at a museum. Give me a button to press, or an over-the-top actor wandering around creating atmosphere. Give me gadgets to play with. I don’t want to see a rug that Charles I once walked on; I want to see his head fly off as the executioners axe comes down and get splattered with fake blood. Don’t give me text-panels, give me activities. But most of all, tell me a story. Because that’s what history is. A story. Our story.

And we shouldn’t expect people to memorize our story. Instead, we should make it something worth listening to; worth participating in.

Why does the mission statement of the Ontario Science Centre say it aims first and foremost “to delight” whereas the Royal Ontario Museum seeks to “be a world leader in communicating its research and collections”?

Delight me!

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Wikipedia article on "Public History"

I'm a big fan of Wikipedia and I've been known to edit the odd article or two, but I'm having trouble with the "Public History" article. As of the time of writing, I am the latest person to have contributed to this article, but it's still not very good.

I thought it would be easy to spout off a few hundred words on what a public historian was, what they did, and conversely, who is not a public historian, but when I sat down to write I found it rather difficult to summarize. Should I explain what public history is by defining it as different from academic history? Or is this even true? Are history professors not also public historians, spouting history to undergraduate students with little or no previous academic background on the subject?

Is Mel Gibson, who has portrayed historical figures in films, a public historian?

Do you have to be associated with a museum or an archive to be a public historian? Do you have to be a paid professional, or are amateur geneologists practicing public history?

Do you have to publish to be a public historian?

So, I'm sending out a call for help. Please contribute to the "public history" article on Wikipedia. With your help, I may soon have a solid answer to give every time someone asks "what's that?" when I explain I'm in a Masters of Public History program.