One of the best parts of my job is getting to sift through millions of digitized heritage items (over 2 million in OurOntario.ca alone – not including individual book and newspaper pages!).
If you’re like me and left your costume planning to the last minute (again!), searching our collections can give you some ghoulish Hallowe’en ideas. (You’ll get the best results if you search for both “halloween” and “hallowe’en”.)
It’s interesting to use historical collections to find out what kinds of things were photographed and documented the most when cameras were more scarce and expensive. The farther back you go, the more posed and pensive people look; you get mostly group shots of families or individuals in portrait studios, dressed in their finest clothing.
A little later on, you might get families standing in a row in front of their houses or businesses. Move forward again and you find more candid shots, photos during the holidays, at sports events or community gatherings, birthdays, graduations, and vacations. This is where we hit the jackpot: Halloween photos!
Costumes and dressup from the past can sometimes include ideas that we would find offensive now, such as dressing up as a stereotype of a cultural or ethnic group. When we look at historical images, we have to remember that they were created in a time and context that is not our own, just as when we read historical writing they sometimes include words we would never use now.
Sometimes we field questions in the archival field about renaming items that use derogatory terms. Here’s a story about the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam preserving past titles and inventing new ones for common use today.
No matter how things gets indexed and described, libraries and archives shouldn’t shy away from sharing material that reads as insensitive to us today. It’s important to share an honest view of the past.