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After a year away from this blog, I've decided it's about time I return. Despite the fact that the new year begins in January, I have always felt that September is more a time of beginnings. Perhaps it's because I have spent the majority of my life in school, and have recently become a student once again.

My hiatus from writing was partly to do with a feeling that I had nothing to write about, and, in relation to that, a lack of self-confidence. Having graduated last fall with a Master's in Public History and satisfied with the completion of a book and a successful internship, I suddenly found myself unemployed and in the fruitless search for a job. Any job.

Like a few of my classmates, I wanted to stay in London. My partner was entering his second year of a four year program at Western, and I planned to pursue a degree in Library Science the following fall. So the goal was to find some kind of contract position to gain some experience before I embarked on further schooling.

Well, easier said than done. While I searched and applied for jobs I started volunteering at the Sunshine Foundation of Canada as a digital archivist. Their prospect researcher was looking to digitize the organization's donor files, and remove any unwanted paper records. As my former Archives prof Don Spanner used to say, an archivist needs to know when to throw things out. So this was great experience. In between that and job searching, I completed my application for an MLIS degree at the University of Western Ontario.

So, with the Christmas season approaching, and still no job, I signed up with a temp agency here in London. That's when things began to pick up. In a short time I was notified of a contract position at the at the Richard Ivey School of Business as a Faculty Assistant. I interviewed in January, and started work a couple of weeks later.

It wasn't in the field of Public History, but I have to say that without the Master's degree, I likely wouldn't have got the job. I had little in the way of administrative experience, but my boss was interested in my background in academia, and said how important it was to know the way a university works and what a professor might need in terms of assistance. I was hired for a contract of about four months, until the beginning of May.

The new year also brought an exciting new project in- finally!- the field of Public History. Back in December, the director of the Public History program had emailed her current and former students with an opportunity to assist in creating an exhibit for a law office in downtown London. The firm, Hassan Law Offices, had recently bought a heritage building and during the renovations had discovered artifacts and documents dating back to the 1860s. They were looking for individuals to create an exhibit in their lobby.

Of course, I jumped at the opportunity, and in January I met with Sharon Hassan and a then-current Public History student to discuss the project. It took some time to work out the details, particularly as Sharon was involved in a time-consuming renovation on the side of her work as a lawyer. But in April Joanna Dawson (whose blog you can find on this website!) and I signed a contract to complete the preservation side of the project. As the building was still a ways to completion, and technically still a construction site, the three of us decided to focus on keeping the fragile documents from further degradation.

I can honestly say this was the coolest job I've ever had. The first day, Joanna and I laid out the archival material on our long work table and just stood in awe at the amazing stuff before us. The majority of the documents were from 1867. And that was just the beginning of it: other artifacts included various memorabilia from the building's long history in the heart of London's downtown. Old signs, coins, spools of thread, clothing, and old dressmaker's dolly, the list goes on.

So how did a Public History student and a recent graduate of the program tackle this project? We began with the archival material. It was so fragile, and almost everything was covered in a layer of dust. Thanks to the archival supplier Carr McLean we had a nice fresh Hollinger Box and acid-free folders in which to place the finds. On Joanna's computer we created a simple catalogue in Microsoft Excel.  As readers of this site might know already, most museums and archives use more comprehensive databases in which to catalogue their artifacts. For our purposes, however, we knew we were dealing with a different situation. Hassan Law Offices wasn't a huge corporation with a need for a large database, and it was unlikely they would be adding to their small collection. Nevertheless, we did follow proper museum practice by including the necessary fields in our catalogue, by making available a paper and digital copy, and by labeling each artifact.

I think Joanna would agree with me saying it was a fantastic and totally unique experience. While she had to leave the project at the beginning of May (for her internship at this very magazine!) I continued on and finished the cataloguing a month later. The building at 142 Dundas is still under construction, but readers can get some insight into the project by reading the London Free Press article found here: http://www.lfpress.com/news/london/2010/10/12/15663991.html. Sharon still hopes to put on a display of the artifacts once the building has been completed.

So, what did I do then? My contract at Ivey had ended, along with my job with Hassan Law Offices. I have to admit that while I was aching for a job in the fall, after I had worked two simultaneously I was glad for the break. I knew I would be returning to Western for the library science program in the fall, and  my partner and I had decided to take the summer to travel. After a year of some ups and downs we indulged ourselves in the sights and sounds of central Europe, visiting Austria, Germany, and the Czech Republic. I drooled over some amazing baroque libraries, and dragged my science-major partner from one fabulous museum to another (in my defense, he does appreciate history). On my travels I did truly realize how the Public History program has been a wonderful education for me. I no longer step into a museum or heritage site like any other visitor but critically assess each one as part of a broader fabric of interpreting history to a global audience.

While it wasn't the last step in my academic career, it really was a crucial one in providing a solid foundation in the field and giving me an exposure to all facets of Public History so that I found a new direction for where I want to take my career. My interest in Archives has led me to the area of library science where I know that my Public History degree will serve me well.

So that's what I did with my year in between degrees. I hope that it hasn't discouraged those interested in the field or newly entering it, but rather shown you the broad range of things you may find yourself doing after you graduate. You might end up working in a job you thought was unrelated, but I found that I used some of the skills I learned in Public History when I was working at a business school.

And I think that, if you have a love of history, you'll always find a way to keep it in your life, whether it's in a career or volunteering or even blogging about it.
Posted: 13/09/2011 4:19:58 PM by Shelagh Staunton | with 0 comments

At the beginning of the summer, I had begun this blog with a post about my war letters project for Dr. Vance’s Social Memory class. Over the course of a busy summer internship I read through three proofs of the book, made many a visit to the accommodating staff at InPrint, and called my mother to ask her about some minor point of family history. The book, I am pleased to say, is now finally finished.

                       Front-cover-(1).jpg

It was strange flipping through the finished pages. Of course I was excited- did I really get to publish a book? How did that happen? And then I was almost afraid to look at it too closely, else I catch the few mistakes that were sure to have slipped through my editing.

I was a little sad, too, because it meant that, for now at least, the journey was over. Since last winter, I had read and re-read Gerald’s letters, researched his family and its ties to my own, studied the photographs that stilled the face of a man ninety-five years dead. I feel as though I know him better than I ever knew my great-grandfather, the man who Kathleen eventually married.

It’s funny how letters do that. When I spoke to Dr. Vance after the book had been published, he was not surprised by this admission. I don’t doubt that it is a common feeling amongst most historians, academics who spend their lives reading the words of people long since passed away. My Archives professor Dr. Spanner was also adamant about the power of letters, and quoted literary critic Janet Malcolm, who stated that “letters…are the fossils of feeling.”

Despite the fact that I added footnotes, broke the letters into chapters, and changed some of the formatting for clarity’s sake, I have tried as much as possible to keep these letters Gerald’s own. I wanted it to be his voice that spoke to readers. That’s why I protest whenever some family member or friend says “Shelagh wrote a book.” They think it nitpicky of me when I insist that I edited one. But I think you can understand the difference.

I sometimes wonder what Gerald would say if he knew his letters had been published (however modestly!) Maybe he’d laugh; his writing reveals a humility that I find admirable and touching. I can only imagine, anyway. As for my own thoughts on the finished product, there are of course things I wish I could change- I admit to being a perfectionist- but it’s more than I could have hoped for, to be given the opportunity to share this story.

On a related note, this fall also marks the opening of a new pub on Jarvis street called the Blake House. Incidentally, it’s also the home in which Gerald was raised. Last winter, my mother and I decided to take a trip down to Jarvis street to visit the house. At the time, the red-brick building was being gutted for renovations, and when we sidled up to the door with our cameras, one of the builders invited us to go in and take a look around.

It was strange timing, because had we arrived even a week before or after, we might not have seen the original fireplace and wallpaper, the remnants of the staircase, and some beautiful old stained glass windows that were uncovered by the renovation. It was hard to believe that I was standing in the childhood home of the man I’d been studying for months. You can understand, in moments such as these, the appeal of historic sites; people and events suddenly become more real, a feeling that can be difficult to capture when your main points of reference are flat images and text.

Naturally, as I had to visit the website of this new establishment. Being in London I have to settle for a menu list and pictures at the moment. On the site there’s also a press release by Marty Galin, and in it he writes, “You can almost hear Edward Blake saying I can rest now.”

What would Gerald have thought of that? I won’t share my own views, but at least the restaurant is taking inspiration from the building’s past. As in all aspects of Public History, there’s a debate here. But I’ve babbled on long enough. I’ll leave it up to you to decide.

I have included a picture of the book’s cover above. And, at the risk of self-promotion, if you are interested in a copy of the book, please feel free to contact either myself or Dr. Jonathan Vance at the University of Western Ontario.  

 
Posted: 15/09/2010 4:07:00 PM by Shelagh Staunton | with 0 comments
In a recent episode of the television series Modern Family, a boy named Luke interviews his grandfather, Jay, for a class project on “life in the 60s”. After hearing Jay’s memories of working in his father’s barber shop, Luke complains that his grandfather’s past is boring in comparison to a classmate’s relative who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. on Capitol Hill. Without missing a beat, Jay stops what he’s doing and says, “Well who do you think cut his hair?” In the next scene, he reveals to the camera, “Do you know who cut Martin Luther King Jr.’s hair? I don’t. And Luke’s teacher won’t either.”
           
Ah, the problems of oral history. When you are dealing with memories, you can never be sure of what is fact and what is fiction. Sure, it is probably more difficult for an eight-year-old to figure out that his great-grandfather probably didn’t cut Martin Luther King Jr.’s hair, but professional oral historians grapple with similar, if less obvious, issues.
 
While my experience with oral history is fairly new, I am gradually being exposed to both the joys and the frustrations of this field. This summer, my fellow classmate and I are designing the oral history component of the Promised Land Project, a joint project between a number of universities and community partners in Canada that aims to create a database of primary sources regarding the experience of the black community in the Chatham-Kent area of Southwestern Ontario, and extending as far as the American-Canadian border. We have tried nearly every form of communication to reach potential candidates in the area: mailed, cold-called, emailed, and, perhaps the most effective of all, relied on word of mouth.
 
This is a small community, as we have quickly come to learn. If the people we interview aren’t related to one another, they certainly know who the other person is, and their family, and dog, and (you get the picture). Despite the numerous connections, however, it is not easy to persuade people to share their memories, particularly since those memories are believed to be unimportant, or trivial. Many people think that they have nothing of significance to say for the purposes of historical research. While oral history began to appear in academia in the 1970s it is still a popular belief that history is to be found in books rather than the voices of average people. 
 
On both sides of the table, there is almost a fear of memory. For the researcher: how do I know what is fact from fiction? How will my own life experiences colour the way that I hear this history? For the narrator:  What if I misremember things, or forget certain details about my own life? What if I say the wrong thing?
 
I can see now why the literature on oral history stresses the importance of building a good rapport between the researcher and the narrator. These fears have to be subdued by a common understanding that the goal of oral history is, essentially, to collect stories. I am of the belief that all history must be created anyway. History doesn’t just exist. It is studied, analyzed, compared, applied and interpreted, debated and spoken about and written down. Oral history is a different animal, and perhaps more delicate, because the product results from the interaction between two individuals rather than an academic and her texts.
 
Is history less objective in this way? I haven’t decided yet, and it’s a subject of debate amongst historians. Maybe that’s not the point. Because really, oral history is just another source, another lens through which we might see the past. Combined with thorough research on the subject at hand, be it a particular time period or community, an oral history interview can provide a much-needed human element. It connects the world of academic history to the memories of a community’s past, an individual’s past.
 
Historian Ronald Grele puts it perfectly when he writes that “our stories grow from a process of remembering and forgetting our encounters with the relics, fragments, whispers of an always already-recollected time…we live both the history we have learned through reading and research and the history we have experienced and inherited, passed down through the groups with which we identify, sedimented in the body, and created through talk”[1]. History is interwoven and complex, just like our own lives. It is just as much in people’s homes, in their recipes and quilts and traditions as in the texts of academia.
 
In this pocket of the world that encompasses Chatham-Kent, Essex County, and Eastern Michigan there is a history as rich as the soil which has sustained this community and witnessed its past. Its history does not end with the Underground Railroad, the so-called “Promised Land” for escaped slaves, but includes the complex development of race-relations over the 20th century and the civil rights movement well into the 1960s.
 
Together with our narrators we have been exploring the collective memories that have shaped this regional history, and more generally, why oral history exists. Despite the occasional frustrations, it truly has been a wonderful learning opportunity so far. After nearly ten weeks on the project it is evident that half the work is in locating potential narrators and convincing them that their histories are worthy of being shared and preserved for future generations.
 
As of yet, no one has claimed to have barbered Martin Luther King Jr.’s hair, but I’ll keep you posted.


[1] Charlton, Thomas L., Lois E. Myers, and Rebecca Sharpless, eds. Handbook of Oral History (Lanham, MD : Altamira Press, 2006), 85.
 
Posted: 21/07/2010 10:03:51 AM by Shelagh Staunton | with 0 comments

As historians, we seek to be objective in our understanding and representation of the past. But at the same time we strive for this goal, we acknowlege the obstacles in our way. Can the past ever be separated from our present perceptions? Our own life experiences? Does how we represent history tell us more about ourselves than the past we try to capture?

These questions have often been the focal point of class discussions in my Public History program this year, but I have also asked them of myself as I work towards completing a project that is more personal than any essay I have ever completed for school.

This past winter I approached Dr. Jonathan Vance, my Social Memory professor and the Canada Research Chair in Conflict and Culture, about a collection of family letters from the First World War. They were written to my great-grandmother, Kathleen Jones, from her fiancée who was serving overseas. Dr. Vance was kind enough to allow me to compile and edit the letters for my class project, and the product of five long but incredibly rewarding months of transcribing, scanning, researching, and editing will soon culminate in a book that will be published this summer. I have titled it Now Far From Home: the First World War Letters of Captain Gerald Edward Blake.

As it became such a large part of my degree, I thought I would blog about the process as I think it demonstrates the type of issues- as well as joys- that arise in a project of this nature (along with showing you what kind of neat things public history students have the opportunity to do!)

Before I get to some of the problems, however, I'll give a brief background on Gerald to give you an idea of the type of material I have been working with. I also couldn't resist including his own voice in this little introduction- you can find his first letter transcribed at the end of this post.

Gerald Blake was born in 1892 in Toronto, and was the grandson of former premier of Ontario Edward Blake. He was in the midst of a law degree at Osgoode College when he enlisted for the war in June of 1915. Unlike most of his Canadian peers, however, Gerald signed up with the British army. His cousin, Hume Wrong, who would later go on to be a Canadian diplomat involved in the League of Nations and the creation of NATO, was blind in one eye and was thus refused by the Canadian army. So the two set off for a great adventure overseas to seek a commission with the British.

The night before he left for England via New York, Gerald and Kathleen were engaged. She was just my age, twenty-two, when she travelled to London, England to complete her physiotherapy training. She was just my age when she received Hume Wrong's letter telling her that Gerald had fallen at the battle of the Somme on the night of July 23, 1916.

And now ninety-five years later at the same stage in life I have spent months pouring over his words, trying to separate the woven strands of emotional attachment and historical critique.

It took me a while to realize that I was undergoing an adjustment. During the winter break a family friend asked me what I hoped to achieve from this project. After some hesitation I said that in a way I was doing it for him. He wrote in his letters of wanting to be a writer and produce something someday, and I figured that perhaps I was doing him a postmortem service in exposing the craft of his words. I can admit now that my intentions have changed, and as so they should. History should be written for the present, not for the past. My romantic notions had affected the real purpose for compiling these letters.

I like James Loewen's discussion of eastern and central African societies' terms for the deceased, which include the sasha and zamani. According to Loewen, the sasha are the "recently departed", whereas the deceased become zamani with the death of the last individual who knew him or her in life. In Loewen's words, "as generalized ancestors, the zamani are not forgotten but revered." [1]

I think I have been seduced by this very thing. There is truth in his argument that history can be just as accurate when written in the time of the sasha. My great-grandmother wrote my mom a note when she passed on the letters, and told her that if she felt that they were a burden an Archive might be interested in them. She knew their value to history; I think that's why she kept them afterwards, even though she never visited Gerald's grave back in France.

I, however, never knew the protagonists of this story. My mother was pregnant with me when Kathleen died so these figures have more of a distance to me, and perhaps are in danger of being romanticized into characters rather than real people with their warts and all. In her letter to my mother Kathleen wrote, "so many thousands of young men were lost- for what?" Taking into account this was composed in the 1970s, and her feelings might have shifted over time, I still think it speaks true of Loewen's point that history written in the time of its happening can be just as accurate.

So as I continue to work on this book, now in the proofing stage,  I hope that these letters may be used and appreciated for the living, and not simply as a commemoration of the dead.

That being said, I am still human, and remain touched. I still belive that there is an important function to be served by commemoration. In this case, it is an act of remembrance, but it also reminds us that moments in time- relationships, feelings, words and thoughts- moments in past lives that seemed to have lost their future, are still strands in the web of history and glimmer just as bright.


New York
June19, 1915

Dear Kathleen,

I'm a pretty sad little devil today and philosophy doesn't help much. I hope you're all right my dear. I felt wretched leaving you looking so wretched and so we're pretty wretched all round. But some day if I hadn't gone we all would have been ashamed. I would have been a grouch for the rest of my days- and now perhaps I will be only half the time!

I am alternately proud and humble. I'm so proud of your really loving me that my head's nearly turned right around back to front- and I feel so weak and unworthy that it makes me very serious.

I'm afraid I'm a very poor sort of a lover my dear. I can't express all the beautiful things that are inside. I'm just struck dumb. I haven't an idea what I said to you- only I felt most immensely and I expect you know what I wanted to say.

It was beastly hot last night- but it was bound to be a beastly journey anyway. Isn't New York a horrid place? However it has nice wide streets and some of its buildings are rather fine.

I feel like a little lost child at one moment and the next like a King. You know I feel that I'll come through all right now that I managed to tell you before going. You know I'm a shy little coward and it took an awful effort.

Do take care of yourself, my dear, and don't get glum. Heaps of love to you,

Gerald

PS: By the way, I didn't tell anybody anything- tho' I felt like shouting to everybody in the street the fact that you loved me. You tell anybody anything you like- or everybody everything you like. I'm your humble servant. Excuse my incoherence- I'm in a chaos.


[1] James W. Loewen, Lies Across America: what our historic sites get wrong (New York: New Press: Distributed by W.W. Norton, 1999), 37.

 
 

Posted: 30/05/2010 10:17:46 AM by Shelagh Staunton | with 0 comments

Shelagh Staunton

Shelagh Staunton has a B.A. in History from Queen's University, and is a Master's student in Public History at the University of Western Ontario. This year she has been fortunate enough to publish a collection of family letters from the First World War. The book is entitled Now Far From Home, and is set to be printed this summer.

Shelagh is also in the midst of an internship with the Promised Land Project, a joint project between a number of universities and community partners in Canada that aims to create a database of primary sources regarding the experience of the black community in the Chatham-Kent area of Ontario.

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