I spent the last two days at my first Virginia Forum. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I really enjoyed myself.One of the strengths of the Forum is the diversity of the attendees: professors, graduate students, museum types (like me), university librarians, museum librarians, library librarians, archivists, historical society staff, independent scholars, and I’m sure I’m forgetting something. Anyone can apply to present, and nametags only have your institutional affiliation, not your rank or title. Sessions are three or four presentations of 15-20 minutes, all based around a common theme, with plenty of time left at the end for questions and comments.
I’m not going to try and offer thoughts on every session I attended; maybe at some point, but I still have to check out my hotel this morning, and get on the road home. There is, however, one experience from Forum I want to share.
One discussion which started in a session and (for me) took off on twitter was about archivists and approaches to processing material. E. Lee Shepard, from the Virginia Historical Society, talked about the difficulties of deciding how closely to follow the material when creating a finding aid. He read us a quote from an incredibly moving letter written by James Ewell Brown Stuart to Mary Walker Lewis a year after the death of his daughter. It was very moving, and an insight into the psyche of the man, but how do you put something like that in a finding aid, where most of the time all you can do (because of time limitations, etc.) is write “Stuart to Mary Walker Lewis, Year month day”? What his presentation, and the others in the session, revealed was that archivists frequently know a great deal more about their collections than what’s written in the finding aid.
This concept was summed up in the phrase I tweeted “make friends with the archivist.” I got a response from @amycsc, who (having only read the tweet) said she objected to the idea that in order to find what you’re looking for, you have to buddy up to someone. Once I explained the background to the tweet, she pointed me to the Special Collections Research Wiki for the College of William & Mary. She explained “The idea of ours is in part to download what’s in our heads, share what we’ve just emailed to a researcher, & seek info from others”. I think that’s fantastic. It’s probably not applicable to every institution, and I have no idea how easy it is to find from the more standard web pages (I was tweeting from my iPhone, which can surf the web but isn’t ideal for such things). Still, I think it’s a good way to start getting information out of people’s heads and into something more permanent, so that when they are gone, the information will still be around. That problem isn’t limited to archives – we have trouble with it in my department at the museum!
I had a fantastic time, and met some very interesting people. I feel really energized and enthusiastic today. I want to come back and spend a whole day at the Mariner’s Museum, and explore this area a little more. I plan to drive on some of the Colonial Parkway, rather than just taking the highway home. Thanks to everyone who made Virginia Forum happen – see you next year!