Tag Archives: Postaweek2011

Heritage branding, analytics and international perspective with Jamie Donahoe of Adventures in Preservation

adventures teaser

What if you could take your vacation time to not only see a new place, but meet new friends and use your hands to preserve built heritage all at the same time?

That’s just the kind of unforgettable experience Jamie Donahoe facilitates around the world. She co-founded Adventures in Preservation with the mission to save the world’s architectural heritage by supporting community-driven preservation projects that seek to create economic and environmental sustainability.

Jamie has a very down-to-earth personality that comes through in her communication online as well. In this interview, she talks about how she uses the web to tell the stories of heritage resources. But, just as importantly, she’ll explore how the Adventures in Preservation concept came about, and hopefully give you some insight into developing and marketing your own heritage brand.

Jamie Donahoe at Bartow-Pell Mansion
Jamie Donahoe at Bartow-Pell Mansion

Guin: Your site is called Adventures in Preservation, and was actually just rebranded. Tell me how it got started, and where you are today. [Time stamp #00:02:30.6#]

Donahoe: We used to be called Heritage Conservation Network and we started back in 2001 with an idea that a friend of mine–Judith Broeker–had. It was a typical Catch-22: People wanted to learn how to preserve buildings, but there was very little opportunity to get practical and experience. What was available was very expensive. So she had this idea of finding buildings that needed help. We did that for a while, and it eventually faded away. Then, in 2001, I was in the process of moving from Bangkok to Switzerland, and she said she would like to give the idea another try. So, I said let’s do it as a non-profit as a way to get grants and work with different types of structures. We launched Heritage Conservation Network, and we have projects in Italy, Mexico, and throughout the U.S. Word started to spread, and we found ourselves with more places in need of help than we had people to work on them. So we decided we needed more volunteers. We changed the focus more toward the volunteer vacation than the preservation training. You don’t need experience to go on the trips, although we love to have people along that will share their experience. That’s where we started. Then we did some research and decided to change the name to Adventures in Preservation, which seemed to be a little more dynamic and fun. For some reason, people couldn’t remember Heritage Conservation Network, just as they can’t remember names like The National Register of Historic Places–it’s always the National Historic Register, or something like that. We’ve had workshops in eight countries at this point. #00:04:57.4#

Guin: It really is a greater experience than just the classroom. Is that what inspired you to enter this “realm of endeavor?” #00:05:09.0#

D: In terms of the hands-on stuff, yes. Similar to the environmental movement, we really believe that the heart of preservation is education. By making preservation more accessible to people we help them realize that much of what they see around them has historic value and help them gain an appreciation of that. Just like teaching children you recycle for a reason, you try to convey why a building should be preserved by pointing out its special architectural value, history, setting, etc. I think that’s why our trips do well. We do a pretty good job converting people who aren’t yet die-hard preservationists. #00:06:02.9#

G: What do you see being the most common story about why people want to get involved? #00:06:09.8#

D: First, there are people who are contemplating a career in historic preservation, but aren’t yet sure it’s for them. We have a high success rate with that. We’ve had people pounding rocks for a week in the hot sun and they finishing saying “this is what I want to do for the rest of my life!” We also get a lot of “desk preservationists” who have never had the opportunity to do any of the hands-on stuff. For example, preservation planners may talk to planners or see their plans get implemented, but never have the opportunity to get their hands dirty. They then return to their jobs renewed and connected to what they’re working for. #00:07:06.8#

G: What do you see for the future of Adventures in Preservation? #00:07:20.8#

D: We’d like to continue to grow. We get many more requests for assistance than we can possibly account for. A sustainable level for us right now is 4-5 workshops a year. We’d like to expand that to 15-20 fully-staffed programs around the world each year. #00:07:51.9#

G: You alluded to the evolution of the brand. Adventures in Preservation is a name that sticks. Probably there are many heritage preservation organizations who are contemplating reworking their image for the digital age. Tell me about the process you went through, and what advice would you have for others? #00:08:19.9#

D: We made a decision early on, due to environmental concerns and the global nature of our work, to be a virtual organization. There are just two of us, so the nature of internet communication lets us accomplish quite a lot. There are so many ways to communicate now–Twitter, Facebook, etc. But before those, we had a strong presence using website and e-mail strategies. We’re very lucky that the person who set up our website was very together and designed our presence to be organized, easy to navigate and polished. In redesigning the website, we began to incorporate social media like embedded video and images to make the experience more dynamic. Interestingly, we have hits from 72 different countries, and when we look at our stats, we have a number of people who choose to receive our e-mail in text only, and have very slow connections. We have to consider the needs of our audience because we have projects in Africa, South America, and other countries. So everyone should keep in mind that not everyone is running broadband and wireless. #00:10:37.8#

G: How did you come up with the new name? #00:10:42.6#

D: In Boulder, Colo., you get a lot of creative and outdoorsy people. So Judith convened a panel–some had marketing expertise, others had adventure travel expertise–who generously donated their time. They brainstormed coming up with a name from both the heritage and travel angles. The name Adventures in Preservation came out of that with the tagline “restore a building, renew a community.” That is essentially what our projects do. #00:11:28.5#

G: You’re using your website to great effect, and your social media presence as well. I’ve never been on one of your trips, but I’m certainly a fan and follower. Tell me how you picked the communications tools that you did and how you use them in such a targeted, conversational way. #00:12:13.6#

D: Unlike many preservation organizations that work locally or regionally, we work all over the world. We honestly sat on the idea of getting into Twitter and Facebook because we couldn’t imagine fitting it in. It got to the point that we realized that we had to be on there if we wanted to start attracting students and younger people to the programs. Then, information started coming out about the fastest growing demographic on Facebook is women 55 and older. We knew we got a lot of those people on our trips, so we knew we had to be there. We didn’t want to miss the boat. I’m a total information junkie and love computers, so I love finding so many interesting things on Twitter. We had people become fans because I talk about so many topics. I don’t know yet it that has translated into people coming to our workshops yet. I’m still having fun. What’s been useful about social media already is getting feedback from people who might tell us they can’t go on our trips because they are too expensive. Because we have a dialog already going, we can let them know we sometimes have scholarships or financial assistance, and offer other tips for reducing their costs. We can also communicate that more broadly to other people who might be thinking the same thing. #00:14:23.7#

G: Have you run across anyone who went on your trips and really discovered a new passion, and went on to become involved with preservation as a mission in their own lives? #00:14:33.2#

D: A lot of our guests already have a preservation bent anyway. There is a woman who has been on four trips with us. She is a self-described conservation junkie. There are more people who went on a specific project and became preservation advocates of just that project. For example, in Waynesville, N.C., at the Francis Gristmill, there’s a man there who turns out to be my father’s long-lost cousin. He lived part time in Waynesville and saw an article in the newspaper. As retired engineer, he was intrigued. So he joined that workshop and has since become one of the key volunteers of the Francis Mill Preservation Society. He is now one of only three people who know how to run the mill, so that resource certainly benefited longterm from his participation in that project. #00:15:47.2#

G: What sparks people to make the leap to sign up for one of your projects? #00:15:58.8#

D. That is the $100,000 question. Ordinarily, they see something on the website. It interests them personally, but not quite sure so they call for more information. We do have a lot of people who hear about a project, instantly fall in love with it, and sign up. To show you how far the web has come since we started, there is a group called the Analysis Exchange, and they match mentors. They are helping us with the web analytics, which is more deeply scientific than I ever knew. That is helping us understand how people are interacting with our website and informing what we do to communicate through it. #00:17:03.4#

G: What analytics platform are you using? #00:17:09.9#

D: We’re using Google Analytics, and learning so much. I always just looked at the reports to note if our hits had gone up, but have now learned an incredible amount. I would recommend that any non-profit organization that’s looking to use its website to help further its mission to contact them. #00:17:42.2#

On a return visit to Francis Mill in 2009 to check up on the structure. Pictured are Tanna and Tim Timbes of the Francis Mill Preservation Society, Jamie's daughter Colleen, Jamie, her uncle Jerry Donahoe, and Ken Walton, who also volunteered at the first workshop in 2004 and has become a long-time supporter and volunteer.
On a return visit to Francis Mill in 2009 to check up on the structure. Pictured are Tanna and Tim Timbes of the Francis Mill Preservation Society, Jamie’s daughter Colleen, Jamie, her uncle Jerry Donahoe, and Ken Walton, who also volunteered at the first workshop in 2004 and has become a long-time supporter and volunteer.

G: How important is an international perspective for a preservation organization? #00:17:46.8#

D: I think an international perspective is important for everything. I’m personally very grateful to have worked overseas for so many years, and for my daughter work grow up overseas as well. I think the more information you can get for any problem you are facing, the better. A lot of the problems buildings in the United States are now having, people in Europe dealt with 200 years ago. We have to share that knowledge. There’s a lot of historic reinforced concrete (yes there is such a thing) here that’s falling apart due to humidity, and they bring in experts to deal with those problems. Steven Booker is an Australian conservation architect who went to our workshop in Slovenia two years ago and just fell in love with the country. He agreed to come back this year and lead the work. His perspective is that our purpose is to share our stories and experiences and hopefully they decide that approach is for them. But we’re not telling anyone how they have to do anything for it to be right. It’s about doing what’s right for the buildings, but also helping people make informed decisions. #00:19:22.3#

G: How can people connect with you, and are there any new areas of the web you are starting to explore? #00:19:33.6#

D: We have started blogging, and the site is called “Preservation Journey.” We’re currently merging the blog into our main site. Blogging is fun because it can be about anything–Twitter on a larger scale. We’d also like to be able to do commerce online more easily. This is a bigger issue when you are working internationally. For example: we have people who are Slovenian and they want to go to a workshop in Albania, but PayPal may not take their currency. As the world becomes even smaller and web software makes these kind of transactions easier, these problems will continue to become fewer. #00:20:48.4#

G: Do you ever get to do some of the hands-on work, or are you stuck in the virtual space? #00:20:48.4#

D: I get to do a little of both. I had a good time broiling in the sun at the Bartow-Pell Mansion. My best experience was at the Francis Mill, though. Partly because of finding my father’s cousin. The people were great. When I was there in 2004, the building was in a state of near collapse. The east side was completely water damaged. We had two weeks there, and the last hour, we had a boom crane lift this 26-ft. hemlock sill beam and we slid it into place. It was the greatest experience of my life, other than having my daughter. We were all saying “Oh my God, we did it! We saved this building!” There’s not too many opportunities you can say you really did that. #00:22:06.6#

G: Very good! Is there anything else you’d like to add? #00:22:07.8#

D: We certainly invite you to come along on one of our workshops. We’ve got some great ones planned for the future!

More links:

Adventures in Preservation Flickr Stream

Facebook Page

Twitter Stream

You don’t have to be a King to find your voice

This is a post I’ve literally waited over a year to write. It concerns something only a handful of people have known about me to this point.

king george vi
king george vi

In late 2009, I found myself in a Wikipedia-induced causality loop. You’ve been there. One search leads to another one and then a morning has suddenly passed. I don’t know where this particular one began but it ended with the story of King George VI and the commencement of production on “The King’s Speech.” I immediately put the film on a Google Alert.

Reading the ever-increasing number of stories and blog posts about the stellar film was excruciating since I apparently live in the last place on earth the movie would ultimately run. I’m proud to see the film is as beautiful and brilliant as I’d hoped.

Why the weird obsession? Because it’s my story too — and the story of many others who conditions that affect their hearing and speech. While most of us will never influence the course of history, the struggle is much the same.

The Beat of a Different Drum

From the time I was a child, I knew I heard things differently than other people. I could discern sounds no one else seemed aware of in some situations, but there were others in which I couldn’t make out the words of someone standing talking directly into my ear (particularly when there was background noise). Severe ear infections throughout my pre-teen years led surgery to put tubes in my ears and have my adenoids removed. The pain went away, but the problems with sound and articulation continued. My family moved a lot in those years, and with each new school, I’d eventually end up in a speech counselor’s office.

Several years ago, I got fed up. I’d been to audiologists, speech pathologists, and had my hearing checked countless times. My hearing was perfect–hypersensitive even–so how could I have so much trouble understanding and articulating speech? None of the local doctors could tell me.

Finally, I turned to the ultimate “expert,” Google. I listed every hearing and speech-related symptom that was driving me crazy.

Here were the top two search results I saw:

I was dumbfounded (no pun intended) reading those entries. Literally numb. Having a name for my “defect” didn’t change its reality, but it changed everything about how I viewed it. In that moment, I remembered the nine-year-old boy hiding in the corner at public events because the noise was driving him mad and didn’t feel contempt for his weakness. Instead, I felt respect for someone who never gave up hope that some day he would find a way to make a contribution.

Life with an auditory processing disorder is a Skype conversation with a long time lag, or hearing someone speak a language you don’t know and waiting for the translator. Sound comes in, but has to settle before the can brain process it and forms a response. The kicker is that the response, no matter how perfectly formed in the mind, doesn’t automatically articulate itself the same way vocally. Additionally, the ability to filter sounds is limited, so I can hear conversations going on throughout a wide area.

Me at one week
They say I took the heavyweight crown in the week-old division.

APD is thought to be caused my two things–recurrent ear infections as I mentioned earlier and oxygen deprivation during birth, which also fit my story. In 1970’s small-town Louisiana, your general practitioner was your only doctor and you didn’t question his word even if it killed you. My 4’11” mother had a difficult, prolonged labor with me before her doctor realized her pelvis was too small and performed an emergency c-section. Besides a temporary conehead and scratched-up face (from my fingernails), those hours in the birth canal resulted in flattened cartilage and an unknown period of time without oxygen.

Again, I contacted doctors, audiologists and pathologists throughout Louisiana, certain they could do something with this new information. I got one acknowledgment, which was “this condition can only be treated in children. There’s no point in a diagnosis, because the wiring in your brain is set.” Probably true, but I wasn’t willing to stop there.

My odyssey led to Judy Paton (the second link in my Google Search) in San Mateo, Calif., who specializes in working with adults. She performed the testing, confirmed the diagnosis and provided advice to keep challenging the speech and hearing center of my brain. One of the things she suggested was to work with a vocal coach. The musical element would improve diction, timing, rhythm and tone.

Just Breathe

Another Google search led me two buildings from where I work in rural Louisiana to Terrie Sanders, one of the few McClosky-certified vocal trainers in the country.

As in the film, we did some of the funny exercises (lying on the floor, skipping, swinging arms, stretching the tongue). The emphatic cursing trick depicted in the movie I discovered purely on my own, and it is frighteningly effective. But the biggest revelation was awareness of my breath.

I knew I had to go deeper. Those poor young blokes had cried out in fear, and no-one was listening to them. My job was to give them faith in their voice and let them know that a friend was listening. That must ring a few bells with you, Bertie.  ~Lionel Logue, The King's Speech
"I knew I had to go deeper. Those poor young blokes had cried out in fear, and no-one was listening to them. My job was to give them faith in their voice and let them know that a friend was listening. That must ring a few bells with you, Bertie." ~Lionel Logue, The King's Speech

“Inhale from the diaphragm and let the words flow out with the breath,” my teacher would say. “Just breathe.” It seems like the most natural thing, doesn’t it? Biologists say it’s an involuntary function of the body. For sustaining existence, that’s true. But I would discover that deep, life-giving breaths are a matter of intention. If two words can sum up a personal philosophy, “Just Breathe” became fuel for my thoughts, a moment to decide, a prayer — and perhaps most surprisingly, the foundation of a decent tenor singing voice.

So why am I in the communications field? Seems like the ultimate masochism, doesn’t it? Sometimes, absolutely! But we all have “something” to overcome in the quest for a legacy. And meaningful connections can be forged in so many ways that have nothing to do with skills of articulation.

Still, public speaking is no longer just the realm of world leaders and Dale Carnegie types. We all have to do it to be effective in our work. That was one of the reasons I threw my hat in to present at O’Reilly Media’s Gov 2.0 Expo last spring. The presentation was selected to be included in the last round of “lightening” keynotes, which meant the presenters had about five minutes each. My presentation wasn’t going to be one of the philosophical types that frame the future of governments and the world and wow the audience with its profundity. The audience wasn’t going to be blown away by its delivery either, as I’d have to read it to maintain my timing. But it was MY story: a simple and direct explanation of who I am and what I do. This presentation would be my declaration that cultural heritage defines our humanity as much as climate change, national defense or the value of currencies. It was also a powerful testament to the power of the online community, as friends like Lorelle VanFossen and Lisa Louise Cooke, both natural speakers, spent their valuable time helping me to refine it. And other online friends who I’ve never interacted with, like Todd Henry, Chris Guillebeau, and Liz Strauss, whose blogs and podcasts have, over time, empowered me with transformative habits to make a difference by focusing on the “now.”

Ultimately, the experience was a continuing reminder of the power of family. Watching the experiences of the historical Queen Elizabeth portrayed in The King’s Speech, I chuckled to think of how familiar they might seem to my own wife, ElizaBeth, in bolstering a recalcitrant husband to discover his message and believe himself worthy to deliver it.

When my name was announced on May 27, 2010, deep gratitude for so many supportive people had replaced any lingering fear. Emerging into glaring spotlights and a podium in front of several hundred people (including a livestreamed worldwide audience), I didn’t think about the first words I would say or how I would look on the 30-ft HD screens on either side of the stage. I thought only two words again and again:

“Just. Breathe.”

Meet the Blogger: Mike Anderson of “Ancient History”

Mike Anderson’s blog “Ancient History” is framed by a statement and a question: “History can teach us about the present. Are we progressing or regressing?” In this Meet the Blogger interview, we ask him that question, as well as his tips for conveying the importance of ancient history through the web.

How did your interest in ancient history begin?

I have always been interested in history because it teaches us so much about where mankind has been and how the lives of men have made us what we are today. The stories of Greece and Rome are particularly important because of their impact on the development of Western Civilization. I find it compelling that Greece and Rome took us so far only to see that momentum lost when Rome fell and the Dark Ages began.

How do you think history can help us or teach us about today’s history-in-the-making?

Mike Anderson

One of the things I leaned early on was that people are the same now as they were two thousand years ago. There are nuances that are different in our attitudes but the world is about people looking for happiness. Some get it through power and wealth. Others by having freedom to live their lives the way they choose.  When you read history, you see life stories repeated over and over again.

Have we progressed as a species?

We have certainly progressed morally and we seem to care more for each other. Today, man is consciously trying to deny his “animalness” in favor or a logical caring existence, but the pathway to this noble goal remains elusive.

How did you decide that blogging was the way to tell your audience about ancient and world history?

It’s immediate and lends itself to short articles. I can communicate directly to my readers and they can tell me what they think.

For modern history, do you get more information from the economic side or the social side of life?

I try to stay balanced between the two because both are important in any society. Social attitudes affect the way people see themselves in a society.  Economics is a measurement system which is use to evaluate government performance.

Recently, one of your posts (Sparta) has been recognized as one of the five best history articles. How did you feel about that, and what was your inspiration?

I was very excited to be recognized. A writer writes first what he feels he has to say, but when others recognize your work you have validation that the message is getting through. Sparta is one of the most interesting cultures of antiquity because their political model was carried to an extreme. In order to protect herself from a larger subservient class of Helots, the Spartans formed a military society which was prepared for war at all times. This unique government form lasted 400 years.

In blogging to your audience, what viewpoint of message are you trying to convey?

I am a trained academic, but I want to write for a wider audience. There are many non-academics who are interested and passionate about ancient history, but not interested in the granularity of the standard academic approach.

For the future of your blog, do you plan to expand to new audiences?

I get requests all the time to add advertising to my site or commercialize it, but I reject these as putting self interest above content. The best way for me to expand my audience is to talk about what I’m doing to organizations like yours AND write good articles. People stay with you when the trust what you say and that makes them excited to hear the next installment.

What is your advice for people that are looking into the field of history as well as blogging?

History is fascinating. I mean the real history, not what we learn in school. Pick a time, whether it be antiquity, the American Revolution, or the Middle Ages – all are full of great stories. If you like one era, you’ll like them all if you are willing to discover them.

Blogging is an enjoyable vocation because it allows you to publish without the hassle of agents and publishers. Since the internet is an open forum, you have to be responsible for the quality of your writing. As I said before, your readers will judge you by what you write.

Can you help this heritage project? Preserving Nicholson’s Past by Renovating and Restoring 1849 Railroad Station into a Community Center

nicholson teaser

UPDATE:  Great news! The Nicholson Heritage Association purchased this station in June 2012. The next step is a feasibility study and the Association is waiting to hear back on whether or not they received a state grant to assist with this phase of the project. More information can be accessed at:  www.nicholsonstation.org


The town of Nicholson, Pennsylvania is like many rural towns across America, hit hard by the migration of residents to cities and urban areas. At one time, small dairy farms surrounded this borough. Now, there are only a few farms left. While the permanent population hit an all-time high in 1940 at a little over 1,000 residents, it is now less than 700. U.S. Census Bureau population statistics for Nicholson since 1880 are captured below:

Nicholson PA Population
Nicholson PA Population
Station around the turn of the 20th Century
Station around the turn of the 20th Century

As someone who grew up in this small town, I myself now live and work in the Washington, DC metro area. Even so, Nicholson is still my hometown and there are many fond memories of summers spent mowing neighbor’s lawns, winters shoveling snow, afternoons after school delivering newspapers on my bicycle, and Friday nights and Saturdays working at the local grocery store. I still go home often to visit family. This project is one way for me to give back to my community.

In 2009, I contacted the Chair of the Nicholson Heritage Association, Marion Sweet, to offer my assistance and we’ve been working hard ever since! The Nicholson Heritage Association was founded as a non-profit organization in 1989 to organize the 75th Anniversary of the Nicholson Bridge and is dedicated to the historical preservation of Nicholson, PA. Not only can we preserve Nicholson’s past by renovating and restoring the former Delaware, Lackawanna and Western (DL&W) station into a community center, we can revitalize the town and the region at the same time.

Station in 2010
Station in 2010

History abounds in Nicholson, from the American Indians that lived and traveled here to the coming of the railroad and trolley that opened Nicholson to the rest of the region. Building a rail line in Nicholson forever changed the community as it connected people, commerce, and trade. In May 1878, the first telephone service in Northeastern Pennsylvania connected the Nicholson station to the DL&W Scranton station. In 1855, the local United States Post Office moved from the edge of the settlement to the Nicholson station.

With the completion of the Clarks Summit-Hallstead Cut-off in 1915, passenger service was provided out of the station next to the then just completed Nicholson Bridge, or Tunkhannock Viaduct, a half mile long reinforced concrete bridge that was the eighth wonder of the world when completed. After 1915, the station handled all freight, including after the merger of the DL&W with the Erie Railroad to become the Erie Lackawanna Railroad (EL). Due to financial hardship, the EL permanently closed the station in 1971 and only managed to survive until 1976 before being absorbed by Consolidated Rail (Conrail) in 1976.

Purpose of the Initiative
The Nicholson Heritage Association wants to renovate and restore the more than 160 year old historic railroad station into an innovative community center to encourage revitalization of the local and regional economy. We also believe that this community center will have a positive impact on the small town of Nicholson and the surrounding region by providing a place for residents to gather, as well as a local/regional museum for visitors.

Moreover, we want to encourage innovative partnerships and approaches to the historic preservation of this station, which was previously the center of the community, with local, state, and federal partners and other organizations. By working together, we can preserve this historical, cultural building and promote economic development within our region.

Right now, we are in the running for a Pepsi Refresh Project grant, but we need votes to win. You can vote for the project at http://www.refresheverything.com/revitalizeruraltown, up to ten projects once each day throughout the month of January. You can also vote by texting 105508 to Pepsi at 73774. We need your daily votes, one each by visiting the Web site and sending a text, to ensure that this preservation project gets funded and not left behind. Remember: VOTE daily, spread the word by telling your family and friends, post on your Facebook status, or even send a Tweet!

Moving Forward: Ideas Welcome!
At the moment, we are focused on the Pepsi Refresh Project, but voting will end on January 31, 2011. No matter the outcome, we will move forward to make this project a reality. Not only have we set up a website to get the word out about us and all our initiatives at www.nicholsonheritage.org, we also created a Facebook page and a Twitter account @NichlsonHertige. Moreover, we reached out to railroad historical societies and historical preservation organizations.

What else would you suggest? Do you have any ideas on how else to move forward, get the word out, and get individuals, not just in Nicholson, involved?

Besides this initiative, the Nicholson Heritage Association meets regularly to discuss projects, including sign placement at the Route 11 scenic stop, the Viaduct Valley Way Scenic Byway, and the 100th anniversary celebration of the Nicholson Bridge to take place in 2015. Nicholson Heritage Association’s next meeting will take place at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, January 25, 2011 at the First Presbyterian Church, 65 State Street, in Nicholson.


Photos courtesy of Josh Stull

Railroad background teaser photo by oops00086 on Flickr

Is our digital lifestyle leading to a dark age for cultural heritage?

406286812_121ba20709_zIf you want to see the future of heritage, look no further than your computer screen.

I’ll explain what I mean. Right now, when we think about material heritage culture, most folks think about things like old photographs, written documents, buildings and sculpture. These objects that have been handed down since antiquity are perishable but, as physical products of our world, can be preserved with vigilance and a little luck.

Now think about it: what will your descendants have to remember you by? Your Facebook page? The digital photos on your computer?

This is an information golden age for our civilization, but it could easily be the dark ages historically if we’re not careful. It’s no surprise that things carved on rocks have survived the centuries, but I’ve lost enough data to tell you nothing stored on a hard drive–or even an online network–is necessarily forever. Factor into that the problems inherent in our “patch” culture and keeping files current on our computers, and you see the potential issues.

The term for these objects is “born digital.” In other words, they were created digitally and never printed on paper or existed as a physical object. There have been so many versions of software platforms and file formats in this still fairly young stage of personal computing, that there’s no way to save all of it. I’m not even necessarily saying we should. But it is worth us thinking about what we create on a daily basis and deciding how we could potentially save it to share our legacy after we’re gone.

Create a digital inventory today

Over the next few weeks, I’ll explore how you can preserve different types of digital files that you might want to pass down. But that starts with actually knowing what you have and creating a system for updating it. To start getting a handle on your data, you need to create an inventory of what you have. That will take a little time, but all you need are six sheets of letter-sized paper and a pen.

  • Label each sheet of paper with one of the following titles: Digital Photographs, Digital Audio, Digital Video, Electronic Mail, Personal Digital Records, and Websites.
  • Schedule some time to assemble all the digital storage you own–current and old computers, external hard drives, CDs, DVDs, and floppy disks.
  • Go through the contents of each one and note the disk name and general contents (thematically, not the name of each file) on the appropriate paper.
This decidedly non-digital approach will be important for really thinking about your files and creating a strategy for archiving and updating your data later, so try to do it in one sitting to make sure you catch everything. Next time, we’ll focus on the type of media that gives the most people trouble: digital photographs.I’ve recorded a couple of episodes of NCPTT’s Preservation Technology podcast with experts from the Library of Congress and the SAVE initiative regarding different aspects of digital preservation. Check them out if you can. In the meantime, I’d love to hear about your approach for preserving today’s memories for the future.
Graphic image by De’Nick’nise on Flickr

Mike O’Laughlin of the Irish Roots Cafe talks about discovering shared family history through new media

“Who are you?” A simple question, but one that could take someone on the adventure of a lifetime. For Mike O’Laughlin of Irish Roots Cafe, it took him on a trip to discover his Irish roots and began his journey to help others find theirs using his books, blog, podcast and personal tours of Ireland. Today we join Bethany Frank as she talks with Mike O’Laughlin. Mike is going to explore the ease of podcasting and how he uses it to share connect folks around Irish heritage worldwide.

olaughlin teaser

Frank: Well Mike, thank you so much for joining us today at Voices of the Past. Tell us about yourself.

O’Laughlin: Well I guess we are talking about how I got into the website and the Irish heritage or the Irish American heritage, and actually now it is the Irish heritage all over the world — Canada and Australia and England and Ireland and the U.S. It’s amazing. And it really started when I was a young boy when I go to the grandparents’ house with the parents on Sunday. And the old folks would always talk about the old days and sometimes they would hold it over you about how they knew everything and you didn’t even know who these people were. So at one point I came and found a travel brochure to Ireland, and it said, “O’Laughlin’s Castles.” And it said, “Here’s an O’Laughlin’s Castle in County Clare.” And my O’Laughlin family knew we were Irish, they didn’t know why, they just knew it. And maybe it was the “O” in front of the name, but I thought, “you know what. If I could go over there and see that castle and claim it as ours, then I would have something on them and I could drop by on a Sunday now that I am a little older and tell them some things that they might not know.” That’s really what started the whole thing. I made a reservation with an B&B whose owner was the same name as mine. From there I came out with a book and it just kept going and I just kept writing, and now I am the most published author in the world in my field of study in the world. But you notice, I didn’t say the best. In the world–there’s a difference.

Frank: There’s a difference. Well, why did you go about starting your blog?

O’Laughlin: Really I was on the web for several years before I even started the blog. I didn’t really understand exactly…I know it is whatever you want it to be when you get right down to it, but I didn’t quite understand exactly what people were doing and I wasn’t real comfortable with it. And I go, well, I’d have to take a lot of time if I wrote a syndicated column or something along those lines. So I waited and finally, I got the podcast going. The podcast actually came first. I thought, “Well, this is a perfect way to get into it. I’ll put the shownotes from each podcast onto the blog and maybe add some things now and then. So that got me into blogging very comfortably since I had several podcasts going. Actually, we’ve got seven different podcast series going now. All the way from genealogy to song and recitation, and local history and history in Ireland. And it’s really blossomed.

Frank: You said before you’re very well published and can see all of the stuff that you’ve published on your site. How did you make that transition from publishing books to publishing podcasts?

O’Laughlin: Basically it was born out of fun. I had no idea how easy it was to get started. Now, it takes a while, maybe 50 shows or so before you start to understand what sound is and how to adjust it and the different kinds of microphones. But in the beginning I got this new Mac computer, which is an upgrade, and my IT guy that came in and was helping me with it said, “Oh, you’ve got to check out GarageBand.” And I thought, “yeah, yeah, I’ve got so much to worry about.” And thought it was just maybe if I was a kid and I wanted to practice the guitar, that’d be the place the go. I didn’t know that you could do a podcast in five minutes. And I just went right to GarageBand, pressed the button to record, and there my voice was recording. So, it was so easy to start that it got me hooked. And plus it was fun, and who wouldn’t want their own radio show?

Frank: Have you ever done radio shows or anything like that before?

O’Laughlin: No. I had been interviewed a few times and I was active in cultural things on the Irish side. So, I started up a group and the local radio station interviewed me a couple of times, and I think I was on television once. But very small little parts, but I always thought it was great fun.

Frank: After you started, you hit start on GarageBand for the first time, how did you get it to evolve?

O’Laughlin: I will tell you, it still takes me a while to jump into things. But I had recorded in my living room several shows, and it’s not really shows. It was interviews with seven of my friends in a roundtable discussion on genealogy. This is back in 1984, and I had saved those recordings. And I thought, “Hey, I will just take each of those, break them up into seven segments and make those my first seven podcasts.” So really I got over the nervousness of it by the first seven podcasts were really rebroadcasts from 1984 that I had been done at home. So I sort of cut my teeth on that and got familiar with it and then started to try to refine things.

Frank: How’d you go about refining them?

O’Laughlin: Well, first of all, better microphones. And then the little setting on the machine. I didn’t know what those were at first, like the echo and the reverb and the different voices. I hadn’t really experimented with them. And how you keep the sound even and something like compression, which makes sounds that are a little too small come up to a level you can hear them and the ones that are a little loud come down to where you can hear them a little better. So little things like compression settings and the difference between the different kinds of microphones. And some are too sensitive and pick up every noise in the house when I’m recording or in the Cafe here when I’m recording, especially if it is a busy night.

Frank: You mentioned recording in the Cafe.

O’Laughlin: Yes.

Frank: So, it’s a real Cafe? Not a virtual one?

O’Laughlin: It’s a Cafe. Is there a difference? I’d say, at times it is just my place. And then at special times of the year, we open it up and it’s a cafe. And we do serve the food and we do have the performances. And we do record the Irish Song and Recitation Festival, and we are getting ready to have the seventh one of them, and I have been practicing old style Irish song, which I find very few people know about so I feel safe with that.

Frank: What exactly is old style Irish song?

O’Laughlin: Well they call it the sean nós. And it was usually solo and in the Irish language, although it’s loosened up in its interpretation now. And it usually told a story, and shoot, the old fellows might come in from the sea and be singing a song, and that was it. It’s really natural singing, I think, without so much concern for particular notes or phrasing. And each time it’s not the same. And I thought, boy, that sounds like the way I sing anyway. You miss a few notes and it’s not always on the same track. So I thought I’d give it a try. And we started up a little group here in town for sean nós, and we are just having fun with it.

Frank: So, back to Irish Roots Cafe, how did that get started and what all is it?

O’Laughlin: It’s really, that’s a very good question, It’s really presence of everything I’ve ever done on the Internet. And it is just a combination of everything because I’m spread out so far and I am just one person. I have no help other than volunteers that come in and help with the podcast or I interviewed, that type of thing. So it is a way to tie it all together, and it’s a way to put all 60 of the books I’ve written or published up online. And it was also a way to get all seven podcast series going and feeding into each other. So, it really started to tie everything in together. Plus I could have some fun, and I could talk about the things I like, like rare old books. And some little history tidbits now and then, and I’m still…I have a side site, that if you go to my site and you click on “Quick and Easy,” that’s the pages where I can play with myself. I don’t have to give them to a webmaster. And so I do a lot of little strange things there. And then give them to my webmaster and then he puts them on the formal pages.

Frank: And so you have an annual festival with Irish Roots, correct?

O’Laughlin: Yes. And that is basically the Irish Song and Recitation Festival. And we will get folks together and we will sing songs and then we will vote on who wins, and it can be anything at all. You never know what’s going to be walking through the door next.

Frank: On your site, you have your Irish Hedge School, and you talk about carrying the sod.

O’Laughlin: Yes. Well I will tell you. If you go back and read Irish history particularly in the 17th Century, that’s when the Irish culture, the existing culture, was plundered. There was nothing left and even the old Bardic traditions started to disappear. And everything was, you might say, government schools. And the new people that were coming in and taking over Ireland were maybe ruling it in a different way, and they said, “No, no Irishman can actually be a teacher. No Irishman could actually teach Irish.” That type of thing, and you cannot have your own school. And if you have a school house, you will be fined. And so, or maybe they will ship you to the Barbados. You never know what’s going to happen. And so, it was pretty rough times.

So in rebellion, the Irish said, “We’re going to keep our ways and our education, and we’re going to find old cow sheds or we might go and teach out on the side of the lawn on a sunny day next to a hedge row where nobody can see us.” And so the name “hedgerow” came about because of that. And so it became “hedge schools” with “hedge teachers,” and the hedge teachers would travel the country all on their own. They were sort of like migrant teachers, and they would be on the run sometimes. And they would hide, and they would meet with the local people and the local people would have to like them and send their kids to school. They might pay them with butter. Might pay them, if they were real lucky, they might get part of Patty’s pig. But it was a pretty rough way to go really. And you could imagine the conditions, but they actually taught Greek and Latin, things like that in these schools. And some of the folks of the upper classes were amazed at how these peasants that were holding their horses when they went into town could speak Latin and Greek.

Frank: So then how do you incorporate that with your site?

O’Laughlin: Well what we are doing is also teaching and trying to bring up and save the Irish culture and heritage in what little way we can by reviving the old ways, the old songs, the old history. The history podcast brings back the history of Ireland. We have the Irish in America, which does the local history in America and reminds people what role the Irish played in America, what role their ancestors played in America and in settling the country. And there’s things we’ve forgotten. So each one of these podcasts really brings back part of that history and brings it alive just like they did in the old days with the hedge schools, except I think, we have a lot more entertaining time doing it.

Frank: On your site you mention an Irish DNA project.

O’Laughlin: Yeah, that’s really my current issue. That’s were I am focusing right now. I am working on a book on Irish DNA, and I have been interviewing some folks that do Irish DNA for a living, and They’ve done movies on it. It is really fascinating what that’s going to do with what the whole genetics thing (15:28) means to people.

Frank: Can you tell me about it and what all is happening with it?

O’Laughlin: I think we are linked up with Family Tree DNA, and we interview them everyone once in a while with the podcast to tell us about R1B, which is a distinctive Irish marker, or moving up to M222, which is another marker. And so, they tell us what to look for and what has been traced back and examples of let’s say this fellow, the minute he took his DNA, he knew he came from this village in County Clare because that is where this DNA marker first started. So we are having some remarkable success stories with people who cannot find their family heritage, their location in Ireland or really in Europe or anywhere in the world. And that’s really what got us started and it takes the place of…well, if you have reached a dead end in genealogy research, it’s really the only way to go. And let’s say you were adopted and they couldn’t get any records, well they could take your DNA, and you might be able to find out what county or town or area that you came from. And it’s just another part of genealogy resources.

Frank: Did you go through all of this stuff and track your own heritage?

O’Laughlin: Yes. That’s way back to that first story when I talked about O’Laughlin’s castle. I was actually real lucky on my way over. I actually found the O’Laughlin ancestor and the Donoghue ancestor, which was my mother’s side. And that’s a story in itself. But I got very very lucky, and very few people can get that lucky. I actually had a flat tire in kilkan nora (17:06) County Clare, which is the town that eventually I found my ancestors in. I went up and talked with Father Van (17:14), who is the priest there, while my tire was being changed. I’d gone to about 10 parishes before then, and he took me down to the church, opened a safe and handed me the birth register they had kept, and I guess they had sent a copy in to the government when they had collected them. But he says, “Here. Look at it and lock up when you’re done.” Well, I was shocked at that too, but I said OK. It was a bit chilly, but I didn’t care. I kept going through this register page by page until I found it. The exact date that say Peter O’Laughlin had gotten married, and there was the marriage on that date in that parish. And so I nailed it in that case, and it was amazing. The feeling was just incredible. The whole search, to say that I’ve done this. And it was almost just as amazing in County Clare with my mother’s folks. I had to take time. You know you can’t be too pushy when you’re asking people for help. And I found that if you were patient and you went back maybe a second time or a third time, and just casually mention that you were looking for family roots in a certain area or a certain name, you might actually get some pretty intelligent answers, whereas in the beginning they might just think, “Oh, this guy, they don’t know what he is doing. He’s just going to fly by in a car and be gone tomorrow. He has no idea what he’s talking about.” But I have found out that if you ask more than one time, even to the same folks and you’re patient, you’d be surprised. You could have some pretty good luck.

Frank: So, you’ve done your journey for genealogy, and you have all these resources for other folks to work on their journey. Why is having it all available through the web and through the Internet important?

O’Laughlin: Well, I reach the whole world. Or the information reaches the whole world. And I get feedback, and I get corrected if I’m wrong. Somebody says, “No wait, here’s the family history. That’s a little bit off what you’ve got there.” And never in the history of the world could somebody like me be in their house, reach out and get 5 million hits a year from people all over the world–Australia, like I said before, Canada, England, Ireland–regular conversations and regular input. And it’s not a one-way thing. You are sharing back and forth both ways. It could have never have happened. And it is really a way to share knowledge, and it is almost like a quickening. The world is so much smaller now. And here is one of the good things that the smallness of the world has brought about. You can share things and understand things, whereas before you’d never have a chance. I don’t know that I ever would have talked to someone from Australia about Irish roots–or maybe about anything unless I bumped into them on the street.

Frank: Are you anywhere else online other than just on your website?

O’Laughlin: Well my blog propagates pretty well since I am an author on Amazon. I’ve got a, with each of my books, I’ve got a blog. So I have several blogs on Amazon.com. And then I have a separate blog on IrishCentral.com, which is like a gigantic site for all things Irish–Irish news and all things great and small in every subject what so ever. So, that helps reach out to a whole new group of people that I might not be able to contact. Those blogs are great, but still, my best pull is the podcast.

Frank: Where can folks find that?

O’Laughlin: The podcast is at IrishRoots.com. And I’ve got all seven of them there. And we’ve got three different kinds: regular audio, video podcast and then the enhanced podcast, which is a podcast that is audio, but you can put pictures up on the screen and embed links in it. So if I am talking about the McCleary family on the screen, you can have a little link and it will say, “Go here to see the McCleary family.” And you click it and you go while you are listening to the podcast. So that is sort of fun. And I think you have got to have QuickTime or you have got to have iTunes for that to work, but it is just another form of podcasting that is nice to play with.

Frank: And then with your website and with everything else, what is your ultimate goal?

O’Laughlin: Ultimate goal. Well, since we’ve been doing it for forever, I would say it is just to spread the word, to enjoy the Irish culture and heritage, and particularly enjoy the Irish-American heritage on my part. And the Irish-Canadian or the Irish-or whatever country you come from. But to enjoy the good parts of it, and to realize what are some of the good things that bind us all together and that we’ve all experienced in the past that can help us in the future. And it is also always fun to compare one culture to another, and to understand them and the things you have in common and the things that they have differently. And really you get into being an historian after a while because there is no way to avoid it.

Frank: Is there anything else that we can expect in the future from Irish Roots?

O’Laughlin: Oh my gosh. Well we are going to keep up the podcast, and I am going to try to add some links pages. I haven’t had time to do much with links, they change so quickly. And they take up so much time. I prefer to just go with data and things that help directly with research. But we are going to add some links and some more on the Song and Recitation. I’m going to do some more on that. And definitely we are going to have, I am going to do a book on Irish DNA and expand the page to explain more on our site to increase our links on the DNA links. That’s sort of the future of so much of what we’re doing.

Frank: What is your advice to anyone wanting to go seek their ancestors and find out about their genealogy?

O’Laughlin: Well the first thing you have to remember is to start researching at home. If you don’t live in Ireland, you don’t want to start researching in Ireland unless you have some kind of clue. What you want to do is find the place in Ireland that you came from on a piece of paper in the country that you’re living in. So you’ll want to find, Ireland is organized by counties, so you will want to find your county first of all, and then go in for the records. And if you are in America and you want a birth certificate or a marriage certificate or an obituary in a newspaper, you want that to say, “Came from County Clary (23:49) Ireland in 1850 with two sons and his wife.” And there you have your connection and then you can make the jump and look for the folks with the same surname and first names in Irish records. The top thing to remember: start in your country and start with every piece of paper they might have signed and with the computers today and all the massive databases, you can find out fast. You will find out with more information than you want to sort through as apposed to back in the 1980s, sometimes you couldn’t find enough to look at. Now, there’s plenty.

Frank: What’s your advice for folks their own blog or website and want to get interested in podcasting and stuff like that?

O’Laughlin: Well, if you want to get into it, first of all, follow your instincts. Follow what you think is fun, and then develop that into what you want to do in a more real sense. And then that way, it will carry you through. Because there are time when you are going to say, “Well I don’t know anything about microphones and what I want to do is get the word out to people on this or that.” Well you learn a microphone. It might take a while, but you will be much smarter at the end of it and everything you’ve done. You just start one piece at a time, and a blog is real easy to do. It doesn’t cost anything really. There’s sites that you go up for almost nothing, and so expense is no excuse. It just might take a little bit of time to understand it. And podcasts, I’m telling you, you can have a podcast going in five minutes and another five by just pressing a button and sending it off to iTunes, if you are using them. And then it is going to take you some time. It might take you 50 shows before you get a pattern down or you get the sound down, or you start understanding about echoes or microphone sensitivity. But that’s OK. You just go and you have fun and you will grow into what it is you want to be.

Frank: As far as social media is concerned and genealogy, what do you think is the future of genealogy with the impact of social media?

O’Laughlin: Well of course it’s changed things greatly. There’s going to be some megasight, it’s already happening. And I saw this 10 years ago, but as everybody gobbles everybody up with huge databases, there is going to be a few places who have most all of the data, and then the important thing is going to be making that data understandable and accessible. And of course, supplying new input to people. Now, you can always do that with a podcast because it’s current. It’s like a news show. And that will always be valuable to people no matter what and the same thing with the blog. And so, it’s really not a lot of work to do. It is a little more work to do the podcast than the blog because you have to learn about audio, but once you do it, it’s rewarding. Well with my podcasts, my genealogy podcast is first with the number of audience and then my blog is second and then my other podcasts fall in behind that. So it gives you an idea, you can reach a lot of people, and some people will not read and some people will not listen. So if you go both ways, you are hitting both people.

Frank: You’ve helped all these folks find their heritage, do you have a story that you can share with us with one of those journeys with one of those families?

O’Laughlin: Oh I tell you. One of my early trips to Ireland–I regularly took people over to Ireland that were members and helped them have a good time and also help them search their ancestors if they still wanted to do that when they got there. Most people want to just enjoy themselves when they get to Ireland, I’ve found, but a few people are looking seriously. And I tell you, our bus driver that drove us around at, at the end of the first tour he said, “You know what. I didn’t understand you guys. Coming over here, searching through graveyards that nobody cares about and they are just sort of a fixture in the community, it’s just overgrown with weeds and no one cares.” He said, “I couldn’t imagine why anyone would fly across the ocean and come over here, but once I saw the look in Ms. So-and-so’s eyes when they found the name on that gravestone”–you know when the tears come into your eyes. He said, “I understood.” He said, “We don’t know what we’ve got here in Ireland. We’ve been here forever so we don’t have to go hunting. And you do.” So that was a real neat comparison. Of course they don’t have to go looking. They know. That’s where they’re from. And that was in a, I think, Quaker graveyard. It was through this little town and we found an old graveyard, and one of the people had found the name there and that happens all the time with research.

Frank: Thank you so much for chatting with me.

O’Laughlin: And thank you.

What I’m about, through my daughter’s eyes


I visited Memory Lawn Cemetery in my hometown of Natchitoches, La., with my daughter this past week. And it brought hope to my world.

I’ll admit, 2010 was a challenging year. It began with the unexpected passing of my father and seemed to roll downhill ever since. Not just for my family, but many others here and throughout the world. Listening to the recent reports about how companies are set to rebound on the strength of their foreign investments while leaving most of the American workforce behind made me feel even more guilty and depressed about the world I’ve brought my child into.

It probably doesn’t help that I write this on the anniversary of my dad’s passing. Grinning through moist eyes, I try to remember how many times he told us “It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there, kids. People will step all over you without a second thought. You gotta protect yourselves first.”

Yeah, Daddy. There are times I can certainly see the point. But every time I try to use that logic to harden my heart and give my life a little clarity, there’s this little well of hope that keeps springing up through the cracks. Put a rock over it, and it seeps around. Try rolling a boulder over it and turns into a gusher, violently attacking and destroying the foreign object as the body responds to a virus. And no matter what you said, I saw it was the same with you.

We resist pain, both for ourselves and the people we love. But in my own life, it’s always been the necessary launchpad for grace I could never imagine and ever greater clarity about why I’m here.

Which leads me back to Memory Lawn.

We stood at the grave of my Great-Aunt Bobbie, still fresh with loose dirt, the flower sprays fading. I was remembering her dead-pan wit that flashed like lightening and sometimes took days to cipher. And her homemade buttered biscuits that were good enough to make grown men cry.

My daughter, who has spent a fair amount of her six years happily cleaning grave markers (or watching her mom repair them), took my hand. “Cemeteries can be sad places, can’t they,” she said. It wasn’t a question.

“Sometimes.” I didn’t want to worry her. “Let’s see if you can find my Mamaw and Papaw’s names.” I watched her skip toward my family’s little collection of memorial plaques, hot pink toy butterfly wings flouncing from the back of her red Christmas dress. “Remember that cemeteries are places where we can remember people too. When we share our stories with other people, they can live on for a very long time.”

She stopped in front of a double-marker embossed with the surname “THOMPSON” and looked up at me. “That’s what you do, isn’t it Daddy … share stories so we remember about people?”

That small statement was the biggest and most unexpected gift I could have received this year. I don’t recall ever telling my child about my work, or why I chose it. But then again, she lives it too.

A lot about the larger issues of the world doesn’t make sense right now and I’m clueless about the specifics of how my own life will look over the course of the new year. But I do know why I exist, and so does my family. And that’s something I will treasure until I return to the place of that memory for the last time.

Note: this was originally published in my Hometown Heritage newspaper column