Monday, January 17, 2011

How to preserve your photographs and family heirlooms:

Family history is important to all of us. We all would like to have something to pass down to future generations. Scrapbooking is a great way to collect and present our history. The scrapbooking aisle has everything: beautiful papers, glitter glue, and we love it all, but do you know within fifty years these items will begin to degrade and potentially destroy your treasured memories? Shocking, I know. But don’t worry, this article will teach you how to shop for archival quality materials and how to manage your home collection to museum level standards. In order to maintain a collection there are some things you need to consider: light, temperature/humidity levels, storage and handling.

Light: Your collection should never be kept in direct sunlight. Museums purchase UV filters for lights and windows. Certain items are more susceptible to light damage than others. Everyone’s witnessed curtains that fade from years of light exposure. Fabrics, photographs and paper are most vulnerable to light exposure. For your home collection, it should be kept in a dark place unless it is in use.

Temperature and Humidity: The most damaging effects to a collection are extreme changes in temperature and humidity. Items expand and contract under these conditions causing cracking and irreversible damage. This is why collections should never be kept in attics or basements, as these are the places that experience the most climate change throughout the seasons. Your collection is best kept in a dark closet on one of the main floors of your home.

Storage: If you’re a scrapbooker, this section is for you. Make sure you buy acid free paper, folders, and boxes. Avoid dyes and only use pencil, no pens. Most importantly, be sure to purchase archival quality glue. The wrong glue will eventually eat away your photographs. If you wish to purchase these items they can be ordered online through Carr-Mclean’s, a Toronto based archival company, that supplies museums all over Ontario including, the North America Railway Hall of Fame and the Elgin County Railway Museum, with necessary materials needed to maintain a collection. Some craft shops also supply quality materials.

Handling: It is best to wear white archival gloves when handling photographs and fabrics. The oil from our fingers will react with the fibres and cause them to break down. If you don’t have gloves, avoid contact with the face of the photograph; instead attempt to hold photographs from the edges. With glass and metal, however, it is best not to wear gloves as there is more concern about dropping these items if you don’t get a proper grip. As a rule with fragile items, never pick up the item by a handle that could potentially break off, always support it from the base.

At the North America Railway Hall of Fame we are working to improve the conditions of our collection. Our collection is currently housed in improper storage areas. We have applied for funding to create an artefact storage space in the CASO station. As a historian, I hope to one day see a proper collections area that will not only increase accessibility but will also preserve items relating to railway heritage in St. Thomas for future generations to enjoy. This Christmas, I’d like to wish everyone a safe and happy scrapbooking season.

Melissa Robinson-Darnell MA
Published in the North America Railway Hall of Fame Winter Newsletter

A brief history of tea:

Our summer teas have come to an end and the North America Railway Hall of Fame would like to thank everyone for joining us. We would also like to thank those in the community who generously donated items to make our teas a success. Tea at the station is all about the experience. Delicate cups and saucers made from ornate bone china, tea towels, a beautifully set table with flower arrangements, and desserts are all important elements to the tea drinking experience. High tea is usually served at 2pm and is very much a social occasion, but what are the origins of this tradition?

History credits the discovery of tea to Shen Nung, the second emperor of China who discovered tea when tea leaves blew into his cup of hot water. It wasn’t until 1589, that Europeans learned of tea drinking when a Venetian author sites tea as the source of Asian vitality. Tea drinking really took hold in Western society in about 1650. This is the time period when tea parties became popular among women. I was shocked to learn of the cost of tea in early trade. In the 1600’s tea sold for 80-100 dollars per pound! In 1662, Charles II introduced tea drinking to Queen Catherine Braganza and tea became so popular, that alcohol consumption dropped. By the 1800’s the East India Trading Company supplied Britain with more than 9 million cups of tea per year and tea was the most popular beverage among the colonies. We loved hosting tea for you at the station and we hope to see you again next year.

Melissa Darnell
Published in the North America Railway Hall of Fame Fall Newsletter

Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Creation of a Historical Database and Geomapping Project

This post may be interesting if you're also working on a similar project.

Over the past year, I had the pleasure of working for the Promise Land Project. I was involved with completing the database and creating a geomapping project. It contains all information from the original land record books for the Dresden Ontario area, dating from the 1840's until 1901. It is the goal that these tools will provide researchers with a visual understanding of the history and it may provide further insight into African Canadian history.

Designing the database

The database was designed to maintain the integrity of the original records holding to the "protect the fonds" theory of archival management. The main benefit of this database is that it is searchable.

The design of the database included: City, Area, Plan Number, Lot Number, Page Number, Guarantor (first, middle and last name, occupation, name code) Guarantee (first, middle and last name, occupation, name code), Lands, Instrument, Instrument Date, Registration Date, Book, Folio Number, Registration Number, Dollar or Pound amounts, and Lot Notes. These fields in the database all represent columns in the original land records books. The database was also structured according to books. Each land record book was given a tab and the database and page numbers were added. This way, researchers can easily refer to the original records without any trouble. In creating separate tabs for each book and including the page numbers, the information was organized in a very clear way and anyone without a research background can easily manoeuvre the data without difficulty.

Technical Challenges

The original database was created using Open Access Base and it became clear that Base would not be compatible with the GIS mapping software Arcmap. In order for the database to talk to the map it needed to first be converted into Microsoft Excel.
Not only would Excel be compatible with the mapping software, Excel has many other benefits over Open Access Base. Excel is overall a more powerful program and it can easily handle large amounts of data without slowing down. It has more features which make it both easier to use and provide more options to the user. For example, Excel provides the option to freeze panes, in doing so selected columns can always be visible. This makes it easier to input data if the column headings are always visible. Base did not offer this feature.

After conducting research online, my co-worker was able to convert the database into Excel; however, Excel did not recognize any of the numbers in the database including the dates or land costs. This information would all need to be re-entered by hand, as it became clear that there was no other way to accomplish this using any other method, even the copy and paste method would not recognize the numbers from Base. The only way to correct this conversion problem was to re-enter manually, every date and dollar amount. First, middle and last names also needed to be re entered into separate fields, that had originally shared the same field.

The use of name codes, were also introduced into the database. This was done because the original writing in the land record books was often difficult to read due to the flowery writing of the time. The code 1 was used to represent names that we were, almost certain to contain no errors, and the number 99, was used when errors in the name were suspected. This way, users could easily identify where there may be problems with the data and use their own judgement and knowledge of family names to recognize individuals despite potential inputting errors in the database. Name codes will also be a useful way for project partners to quickly refer to problem names and use their knowledge from research and by referring to the original records to correct any errors.

With the database complete data transcribing policies were created which outlined the methods used for designing and maintaining the database.

Geomapping Project

I then used this database to create a geomapping project in Arcmap. For the purposes of this project, I took the original plans, scanned them, and placed them in Arcmap. I then needed to provide them with spatial references and georeference them with a satellite image of the area. I then created a shapefile and with this shapefile, I was able to give each lot its own identity in the program, that I could then label with the appropriate lot and plan number. With this information in the program I could then join the information in the database with the map.

Project Uses

With these tools, which will be made available online, researchers will be able to search the database for particular historical figures or even family members. The mapping project will present the data visualy and may provide historians with new insights.


Accuracy, is the most important thing when creating a database. Data entry is tedious and needs to be done meticulously; any error can undermine the integrity of the data, which is why it is important to give it the time that it needs. This project is now available to be seen online at:

Jemima Williams

"Jemima Williams with School Children 1859"
Mission to Fugitive Slaves in Canada: Being a Branch of the Operations of the Colonial Church and School Society . . . 1858-9.
[London]: Society's Offices, 1859.

In the wake of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, which forced Northern law enforcement officers to aid in the recapture of runaways, more than ten thousand fugitive slaves fled to Canada. In response the Colonial Church and School Society established a mission school in London Ontario for children of fugitive slaves but open to all. The school was started by Thomas Hughes and Jemima Williams was appointed the school's Mistress. Williams, noted that their success proves the "feasibility of educating together white and colored children."

Christ Church, Dresden Ontario

Christ Church, Dresden Ontario. (Dresden is a cute little town in you're ever in the area.)
Marking its 150th anniversary as a congregation in 2009, Christ Church, in Dresden, Ontario has a rich history to celebrate. In the 1850s, Dresden was home to a powerful black abolitionist community and was a centre of the anti-slavery network in Canada West. As an anti-slavery mission founded by the Church of England’s Colonial Church and School Society, Christ Church was built on the principle of racial equality and integration. Mission schoolmaster and Christ Church founder, Reverend Thomas Hughes put it best: “All children are of one common Father, why should we not worship together at all times?”
Research on Christ Church and the abolitionist culture of 19th-century Dresden is supported by the Promised Land Community-University Research Alliance, funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. For more information visit

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Accessibility of Digital Exhibits

I would never have suspected that digital exhibits could be within reach of small, low budget museums. Over the course of a school year, my digital history class at Western proved just that. We were able to produce five, high quality digital exhibits, without the need for a big budget. These exhibits were put together with the use of programming, arduino boards, smart boards, models, open access software and a lot of trial and error. The material used was not expensive and the technology was accessible. What I found most surprising is that you didn't need to be a computer programmer to create a digital exhibit. Anyone can do it, if they take the time to learn how. The most successful exhibits were the ones that were interactive, quick, and fun. I hope that I have the opportunity in my career to create another interactive digital exhibit.

Digital History and the Evolving Historian

The digital age knows no borders even in the world of academia. It has crossed disciplines bringing with it possibility and change to every field. Even the study of history is profoundly impacted by the digital age. Historians now have new tools, to collect, present, and interpret information.

Take for instance traditional versus modern research methods. The digital age has revolutionized the the field of library and information science and with it the our methods of collecting and accessing information. Accessibility to information has been completely transformed by the digital age. We now live in a world of Keyword searches, free online articles and books, even the contents of books are searchable. This means that a historian will now be able to access and sift through more information and may be able to create a more thorough examination.

The digital world has also provided a new way of presenting information. Online exhibits and web based reference tools offer online access to primary source documents.

Information can now even be interpreted in new ways, thanks to the digital age. Geomapping is the perfect example of how history is incorporating the use of technology in the writing of history. Geomapping is the process of mapping historical events in the hopes that links with show themselves, if they are revealed visually. Such connections will surely add more to the historic narrative. For example geomapping can be used to show the geographic spread of ideas or objects. This sort of information reveals trade routes although much more can be learned from studying these searchable maps and can reveal many more important historic clues.

Historians may be able to provide a better insight into history by making use of digital tools.