The Memorial Library: History without Historians

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By Andrew Nurse, Canadian Studies, Mount Allison University

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The failed campaign to “Save the Memorial Library” (STML) at Mount Allison University is a fascinating study of the importance – or, lack thereof – of history in contemporary Canadian culture. For the better part of the past nine months, a small but determined group worked to stave off the demolition of Mount A’s largely unused Memorial Library building. The Library was built in the 1920s to commemorate World War I dead but has not been used as a Library for at least a generation. The campaign organized an on-line petition, wrote a never-ending stream of letters to the editor, and even urged students to make a human chain around the building to protect it. My aim is not to wade post hoc into the merits of this campaign. Instead, my goal is to look at the STML controversy from perspective of “active history”: what does this debate over the Library tell us about history and historical culture in Canada today? What can those of us interested in “active history” — the dynamics of history in contemporary life — learn from this contentious issue? Clearly, I can’t address this entire issue in one short blog, but I will suggest that there are several matters to which we should pay attention.  Continue reading

Bill C-309, Preventing Persons from Concealing Their Identity during Riots and Unlawful Assemblies Act

My Conservative MP sent the following question to his constituents this week:

“Debate has now begun on [Conservative] MP Blake Richards’ Private Members’ Bill C-309.  The Bill proposes creating a new criminal offence for those that wear ‘a mask or other disguise to conceal their identity without lawful excuse’ during a riot or unlawful assembly.  This Bill was crafted in response to disturbances in large Canadian cities in which masked rioters assaulted civilians, destroyed public and private property and looted businesses.  So this week I ask, ‘Should it be a criminal offense to mask or conceal one’s identity without lawful excuse during a riot or unlawful assembly?’”

Bill C-309 poses a severe threat to Canadians’ right to freedom of assembly, and  threatens future protest movements. Anonymity, crowd action and protest have a long and storied history, a tradition which extends well into the present day. Crowd action is deeply rooted in anonymity, allowing an individual to blend into a larger group of people, reducing the risk of state reprisal and repression. In this post, I provide some historical context to this, arguing that we should not allow Bill C-309 to pass. Continue reading

Public History: Skills and Opportunities

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By Jo McCutcheon

Thinking about my work as a public historian and some of the recent and on-going discussions about training in history generally and doctoral training specifically have made me think about the skills and opportunities I try to provide to both students and professional consulting researchers.[1]  Mixing academic teaching with entrepreneurialism has given me the opportunity to work with a diverse group of students and researchers in a rich environment.  Teaching permits me to keep up with scholarship, conferences and academic discussions.  Historical research consulting requires a diversity of history specific knowledge, but has also included developing a research environment that meets the diverse needs of clients, while working with undergraduate, graduate and post-graduate researchers. Reflecting on the skills and opportunities of this work, these may be considered by those teaching, seeking graduate training and professional development.

The most important skill that should be taught earlier and to more students so that more of the analytical training is transferable to students is working with databases and learning to systematize research using primary documents.  Library and Archives Canada, the award winning website, Great Unsolved Mysteries in Canadian History [2] and other extensive digitization projects in Canada and the United States assist with teaching databases and students and researchers can learn to use databases to enhance research and analysis.  Exposing students and professional researchers to the systematization of research provides them with more transferable skills that are often key to many opportunities in public history.
Continue reading

From Black Tuesday to Black Friday to Everyday

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Schoonmaker veegt de vloer na de beurskrach van 1929 / Cleaner sweeping the floor after the Wall Street crash, 1929

"Cleaner sweeping the floor after the Wall Street crash, 1929," The Nationaal Archief in The Hague

Discussing money is generally afforded the same privacy as the balance of one’s bank account. Inviting an open conversation about the subject in public, from basic finance to complex economics, is thought to be rude and even poorer politics.

It is perhaps the most polarizing field of contemporary journalism because it has absolutely no means of circumventing readers’ class ties and can only clash with their compromised socio-economic opinions: what time readers could devote to the possible merits of ‘tax cuts’ or increased ‘government spending’ from one year to the next is usually put in the service of bolstering their own particular side of the trench.

And then there’s the fact that financial reporting was tasked with covering the ascendancy of “Reaganomics” in Western political discourse during the 1980s, and outright drafted to make sense of “globalization” (a vague catch-all for the apparent international prosperity brought about by free trade agreements but also the arrival of budgetary shortfalls, lapsed or eliminated regulatory provisions, and rising unemployment) since the 1990s.

To meet the demand, and keep pace with a burgeoning cottage industry of self-appointed financial experts, we borrowed more and more aloof language and overly-complicated concepts from the notoriously noncommittal (read: variable-rich) social science of economics that is inaccessible to most of us, even if we had the time between our first and now second jobs to look into it. Continue reading

Historical 2012 Olympic Tour (1st Edition)

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By Jim Clifford

British politicians and planners are using the 2012 Olympic games to “revitalize” the Lower Lea Valley, a post-industrial landscape, situated between four inner-suburban boroughs in the East of London, including West Ham, which was the focus of my dissertation research.

A century ago R. A. Bray described West Ham “as that of a spot somewhere near London to which people went with reluctance if they had business there, and from which they returned with joy as soon as the business was over.”[1] Sadly, I don’t imagine most people would describe it any differently today.

Half a century of rapid industrial and population growth in the second half of the nineteenth century transformed the once green wetlands of the Lower Lea River and Thames Estuary into a dirty manufacturing suburb with a range of social problems that matched the extensive environmental decline. Despite this troubled history and the scarred landscape it left, I would suggest travelers to London should venture eastward and see a different side of London from the regal and imperial parks and buildings in Westminster. The Docklands Light Rail lines make it easy to travel through East London and they are above ground, so you can see where you are going. Most of the West Ham sites listed below are within walking distance of a DLR station. Continue reading

What can the past teach us about First Nations’ education?

This was originally posted on Teaching the Past.

Edited digital image from Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-3924 (b&w film copy neg.) Lithograph of Stodart & Currier, N.Y. published by B.O. Tyler, [1834 or 1835]. See Currier & Ives : a catalogue raisonné / compiled by Gale Research. Detroit, MI : Gale Research, c1983, no. 1571.

Dartmouth Hall

The Canadian press has recently been replete with stories and op-ed pieces covering the National Panel on First Nation Elementary and Secondary Education, which this month wrapped up a series of roundtable discussions.  The panel, created through a partnership between the Canadian federal government and the Assembly of First Nations, has a mandate to develop options and to suggest legislation for improving on-reserve education across the country.

Inequitable funding for band-operated schools in many First Nations communities has created a crisis.  Despite education being a treaty right for many First Nations, the panel notes that “fewer than half of First Nation youth graduate from high school, compared to close to 80 per cent of other Canadian children, and some 70 per cent do not have a post secondary degree or diploma.”

As an historian of the eighteenth century studying Aboriginal engagement with European forms of higher education, these numbers startled me. In much of my research these figures are reversed. Continue reading

Sharing Archival Photographs in a Digital World

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UA archives, Upper Arlington History, Flickr Commons

Earlier this month there was considerable discussion on the ARCAN and the Archives & Archivists listserves about which photo sharing/hosting sites can best serve the needs of archival institutions.  Despite all the chatter there was little consensus on what hosting site was ideal for archival organizations.

Many cultural heritage groups are looking for affordable solutions to making their collections more accessible to the general public.  There are numerous options available but no clear winner has come across as an ideal image hosting site.

The current forerunners of the free or low cost image sharing options include:

There are three different account options available to organizations using Flickr; the free account, a professional account, and a Flickr commons account.  All three accounts have the ability to include metadata in photograph tags and include photo descriptions.  Users also have the option of limiting access to photographs or making them available to everyone. Organizations can organize photographs into collections, overlay photographs on maps, and include copyright statements.

Flickr Free Account
-Upload limit of two videos and 300MB worth of photos each calendar month.
-Only small compressed images are available to you and to the public
-Does not store high-resolution originals for you.
-Only the 200 most recent photographs will be displayed. Continue reading

Turnpikes and Toll Roads in Perspective

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by David Zylberberg

Last week I presented some of my research at a conference in Boston and drove from Toronto in order to do so. I have not driven in the north-eastern United States in a few years and was quickly surprised to learn that I-90 for most of its length from Buffalo to Boston has become a toll road known as the Thomas Dewey Thruway and the MassPike. The existence of tolls on a previously free road made me think about the relationship between how roads are paid for and other economic behavior.

The tolls to get from Buffalo to the Massachusetts border were $14 for my car, with a further $3.50 to get from the border to Boston. Gasoline Taxes are also lower in the United States, so at $3.39/gallon (rather than $1.18/litre in Toronto) it cost me about $15 less to fill the one tank required to get from Buffalo to Boston. In Canada, the added taxes that make gasoline more expensive contribute to the construction of roads, so are somewhat analogous to the tolls charged on some American highways and bridges. My car is fairly efficient on fuel, so while I paid about $3 more to drive on I-90 than a similar Canadian road, a larger and less-efficient vehicle would have paid less to drive on American turnpikes, despite the tolls. Which transactions are taxed affect behavior and it is worth noting that vehicles tend to be somewhat smaller in Ontario than in New York. To the extent that limiting gasoline consumption is important for limiting the problems of peak oil and climate change, New York would be well served to institute much higher gasoline taxes to replace tolls on the interstate. Such high taxes would also affect behavior on the many non-toll secondary highways and local roads. It would also be more efficient to increase gasoline taxes as they would not require building toll booths or having people collect small tolls, like the $0.15 charged when I made a brief stop in the suburbs of Buffalo. Continue reading

The Political Uses of Public Space: A Podcast of Craig Heron’s Talk on Labour Day Parades

Over the past few weeks, cities across Canada have evicted Occupy protesters from camping overnight in public parks.  Opinion remains divided over the tactics of the amorphous movement.  One lawyer recently defended the group by arguing in court that the occupation of Toronto’s St. James Park was a “physical manifestation of the exercise of … conscience.”  In other words, the medium is the message.  But some residents living in the area expressed that they felt threatened, and local businesses complained about a loss in revenue.  A Toronto judge ruled that the reasonable limits clause of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms overrides the protesters’ particular means of freedom of expression.  Last Wednesday, police evicted the final protesters from the park.

The use of public space for political protest has a long and contested history in Canada.  Historian Craig Heron recently presented a timely talk entitled “Labour on the March: 150 Years of Labour Parades in Toronto.”  He began his presentation by pointing out the Occupy movement’s uses of the street.  For example, protesters in Toronto had used their bodies to form a “99” (as in “99 percent”) at the intersection of Yonge and Dundas Streets while media helicopters hovered above.  People move through streets to communicate a message, Heron argued.  Historically, parades have been an “extremely important form of mass communication,” and it was one way in which labour demanded respect within wider Canadian society during the nineteenth and twentieth century.

Heron’s talk comes from research for his 2005 book The Workers’ Festival: A History of Labour Day in Canada, which he co-wrote with Steve Penfold.  The talk is available here for audio download.

The presentation was part of the 2011 History Matters lecture series, which gave the public an opportunity to connect with working historians and discover some of the many and surprising ways in which the past shapes the present.  This year’s talks focused on two themes: labour and environmental history.  Some of these presentations are now available in our podcast section. Stay tuned for recordings of subsequent talks from the series.

Announcement: Approaching the Past Workshop

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The next Approaching the Past workshop is scheduled for Tuesday November 29th, from 5-7 pm at the Zion Schoolhouse, 1091 Finch Ave East, Toronto.  The theme of this workshop is Secret Lives: Affective Learning, Using drama to teach history.  The workshop features performances and demonstrations that integrate teaching history through historical drama.  The event is free, but please RSVP to  Approaching the Past Workshops are sponsored by THEN/HIER, in partnership with the Archives of Ontario, the City of Toronto, and OHASSTA.