Activism and Historic Preservation in Lakewood-Balmoral [Roundtable]

For the 10th Annual Loyola History Graduate Student Conference, the LUC Public History Committee will host a roundtable on “Social Justice, Sustainability and Activism in Public History.” This is a post that introduces a case study on the topic. The Committee welcomes participation both online and at the conference. If you have an example of Social Justice, Sustainability or Activism in Public History, please feel free to mention it as a comment on the blog, or contact the blog editors to request the opportunity to author a guest post. For more information on the Conference and the Roundtable–to be held November 9 at Loyola’s downtown Water Tower Campus – click here.

Activism is inherent in Historic Preservation. Whether the agent is a community group, a local government, or another interested party, the historic preservation process forces people to engage directly with the past and ask how it is relevant to the present and future. Additionally, preservationists actively shape built environments and public spaces which are shared and consumed by members of a more general public beyond those with a vested interest in the architecture of the past.

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Detail map of the Lakewood-Balmoral Historic District, Chicago, IL. (Mary Ann Smith Papers, Women and Leadership Archives, Loyola University Chicago.)

This notion about activism was central to my master’s research, a case study of the Lakewood-Balmoral Historic District in northern Chicago. I stumbled onto the research topic while I was processing the papers of former Chicago 48th Ward Alderman Mary Ann Smith at Loyola’s Women and Leadership Archives. Buried amidst CDOT memos and aldermanic menu fund budget breakdowns, the collection included several passionate letters written in the late 1990s by community members to the alderman with regard to the proposed boundaries of a historic district in the area. The letters were juicy. Community members were agitated due to conflicting opinions of how their shared space should and would be used. I was fascinated by the idea of community identity being tied up with historic preservation, and the resulting emotional responses.

Continue reading “Activism and Historic Preservation in Lakewood-Balmoral [Roundtable]”

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Review: The Wright Brothers National Memorial

WB Portrait
Two brothers, one mustache, one soaring moment in history.

Over Thanksgiving break, I visited North Carolina’s Outer Banks, home of sprawling vacation homes, wild horses, and the site of the humankind’s first flight on December 17, 1903. On that day, Orville and Wilbur Wright (respectively) piloted a self-powered aircraft, achieving four separate flights of increasing distance and duration. A monument to the brothers was erected in 1932 on the top of Kill Devil Hill, overlooking the field where they conducted their flight experiments. The National Park Service took over the site’s administration in 1933 and built a visitors center in 1960.

I accompanied my father, an ex-Air Force Pilot and aviation history enthusiast, to the Wright Brothers National Memorial on November 21, 2012 and was impressed by how NPS uses several different types of material culture to interpret the first flight and commemorate the men who achieved it.

Continue reading “Review: The Wright Brothers National Memorial”

Lunch at the Archives- More Jokes Than You Can Make a Sandwich With

A few months ago, I found some left over sandwiches in the break room at work. As I was eating one, I thought of a hilarious tweet idea:

Just “gained access” to some leftover “materials” related to bacon, lettuce, and tomato. “Accessioned” them into my stomach. #LunchAtTheArchives

In the subsequent weeks, I thought of several more jokes that were food and archives related. I realized it was time to start another comedy blog. Appropriating my oh-so-clever hashtag from the original tweet, I created Lunch At The Archives, a tumblr site dedicated to jokes at the intersection of “food and the profession,” [of archives].

I think it is important for every profession to have a humorous totem they can cling to [see Public History Ryan Gosling]…and I just really like cracking jokes that appropriate professional jargon and concepts.

The blog serves several functions. First, to share jokes that reflect the common quirks of the job:

Lunch at the Archives
Lunch at the ArchivesLunch at the ArchivesLunch at the Archives

Once, I also created a full Dublin Core Entry for a sandwich I ate.

Sometimes, though, I use the blog to address more serious professional issues:

Lunch at the ArchivesLunch at the Archives

Although the blog is young, I invite you to visit. I’m sure there will be some incredible material for your consumption.

(cringe)

Living Donors and the Maintenance of Legacy

It’s 95 degrees and about 75% relative humidity. I’m hunched over a box of documents in the un-air-conditioned attic of a former US Senator who now lives in Chicago. As I flip through hundreds of file folders, I remove all financial records and anything that says “FEC.” To the left, my boss stands and hands folders one-by-one to the Senator, who reviews every document-be it a lawsuit or a Christmas card- and tells a brief story before approving it for donation or discarding it. 30-odd large boxes surround us, brimming with files and papers yet to be sorted. After 4 stuffy hours, we’ve made it through 1/10 of the material. Does anyone have a bucket of ice water I can borrow?

After some rehydration and reflection on this archival materials pick-up I recently accompanied my boss on, I realized how the experience can be used to examine some of the benefits, pitfalls, and other issues archival professionals face when dealing with living donors.

Living donors can be an amazing resource for archivists- and indirectly for historians. Donors can answer questions and provide context for their collections through storytelling or other verbal and written communication. Interaction with donors also gives the archivist an idea of the donor’s personality, which could lead to insights when arranging and describing a collection. Such knowledge can also be shared with users to provide deeper context for their research.

Of course, the politics of working with a living donor can be difficult too. Some donors make demands for control of the arrangement and description of their collections. Some donors ask for materials back after they have been legally signed over to a repository through a deed of gift. Headaches, to be sure.  But to me, the most interesting aspect of a living donor is the desire that often manifests for one to edit-or in some cases censor- one’s own legacy. We all want to look good in the history books, right? When donors are alive, they can decide what not to include in their own record. And in the name of shared authority, this is unquestionable. But it makes for an incomplete historical record.

It also raises questions about who has the right to dictate a legacy. Should an individual alone decide how he or she is remembered? Does that right fall to those who were most affected or closest to the individual? What about outsiders or third-parties (including but not limited to Public Historians) who can come in with a supposedly unbiased approach? Of course in the case of archives, it is less about memory and more about creating and preserving a complete and accurate historical record. A gap in context created by the omission of one document could shape historical interpretation for centuries.

Of course, legacy maintenance is nothing new. Court historians have flattered their monarchs to keep their jobs (and sometimes their heads). Corporate lackeys have shredded papers to escape prosecution but also to erase histories of corruption in their companies. Because all primary resources are biased in some way, archival professionals must recognize the importance of working with living donors to document recent history and to ensure the most robust historical record possible.

Efficiency, The Web 2.0 Way

Great news for cultural institutions: your forays into Web 2.0 just got way easier!

I just heard about a website, ifttt.com, which basically streamlines your social media “blurbs.”

(Side note: what is the word for one unit of social media content? A “tweet” is on twitter, a “post” is on a blog or Facebook…but someone needs to coin a term for units of general social media output. Can we make this happen?)

Ifft is an automated system based on “tasks” that create bridges between websites and are constructed in an “if this…then that” format (thus the site’s t-heavy name). If my organization posts a picture on Facebook then tweet it as well. If someone comments on my institution’s Flickr picture then add that person automatically to our contact list. Continue reading “Efficiency, The Web 2.0 Way”