Today we’re talking to Carla Schroer of Cultural Heritage Imaging. CHI is a small company based in San Francisco–the social media capital of the world–that’s doing some interesting things through photography and photosharing through Flickr. They focus on rock art and technologies related to photography in heritage research. In this podcast, we’ll explore how CHI is implementing its social media policy based on its strengths, priorities and available time.
Schroer: Cultural Heritage Imaging has a mission to drive both the development and adoption of practical digital imaging and preservation solutions for the cultural heritage community. (Audio timestamp #00:02:02.6#)
Guin: What are some of the heritage resources you’ve worked on that our audience may be familiar with? #00:02:04.3#
Schroer: We’ve done quite a bit of work on rock art, including a workshop focused on rock art. We’re also working with a number of museums, including the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, the New York MOMA and the Pheobe Hearst Anthropology Museum in Berkley. In all those cases, our primary focus is with the conservation departments in those museums. #00:02:32.4#
Guin: So this is pretty technical. You do a lot of work with laser imaging and scanning of cultural heritage objects. #00:02:43.2#
Schroer: Everything we do is based on digital photography, so one of our core philosophies as an organizations is that we want to develop technology and get it in people’s hands that they can do themselves. We really don’t like the service provider model where you have to hire someone to come do things for you. We’re looking for technologies that people can do on their own. A couple of the primary ones that we’re working with right now are reflectance imaging, where you take a sequence of images with light in different positions around the object. Once you put that together in the computer, you can dynamically relight the object and bring out very very fine surface details of the object. This is one of the reasons we’re working with museum conservation, because getting very fine surface information is of great interest to that community. We also do work with photogrammetry and some other photographic-based imaging techniques. #00:03:37.4#
Guin: With audiences so defined, you wouldn’t ordinarily think of an organization like this needing to adopt social media as part of its communications strategy, but you’ve taken a proactive approach. #00:03:51.8#
Schroer: I sit here in San Francisco, surrounded by all these technology people. We’re not really innovators compared to them. But we always had a web presence and later an electronic newsletter. From there, it became clear that blogging and using Flickr to create sets and have photos people could find online made a lot of sense. We are just starting to foray into video and posting things on YouTube as well. The focus was to make it easier for people to find us through keywords and search. We know from watching our traffic that people are finding us that way. #00:04:46.9#
Guin: You’ve really emphasized photography, and tell stories very powerfully with it. What made you decide to go the “still image” route to connect with your audience? #00:05:08.9#
Schroer: Our work is based on digital photography, which means that we already have good cameras with us when we’re working. So still photography makes a lot of sense. Marlin Lum (http://www.c-h-i.org/about_us/marlin_lum.html), who is our imaging director, also does wedding and event photography, so a lot of the photography on the website is his work. He has a great photo-journalistic style. The rest of us are more studipophotographers–very focused on special needs for getting a reflectance image and photogrammetry sequence, where Marlin is more of a photo-journalist. #00:05:56.7#
Guin: You’re a little different than most folks that I’ve interviewed for Voices of the Past in that you’re not a solo blogger or someone doing this for the fun of it. You’re doing this because it’s rooted in the values of your company. And, though you’re a non-profit, you still have to make payroll. So, how does your social media work? Is it the responsibility of one person, or is you as a group working together? #00:06:23.0#
Schroer: It’s definitely us as a group and we even have volunteers that help. It’s a group blog and we have guest bloggers as well. We are currently updating our website to WordPress to make it easier for all of us to share web management duties as well. We’ve started using CulturalHeritageImaging.org, rather than C-H-I.org, which will allow us to transfer content to the new site while keeping the old site. We’ve had some incredible volunteer help, including a design group that offered to help us pick a theme at get it customized. We’ve also had a writer who’s been doing a lot of work editing existing materials. We made decisions on how to regroup the material, but were missing some “glue” on how to make it flow. #00:08:13.7#
Guin: What kind of topics do you blog and what is your audience for your posts? #00:08:20.6#
Schroer: It’s a group blog, so we’ll have equipment tips on there, we’ll talk about conferences we’ve been to or projects that we’re working on. We also invite people who are adopting technology, particularly reflectance imaging, to talk about their experience doing that. We have guest posts from the Smithsonian and the New York MOMA. We also post FAQs when we get questions. #00:09:14.5#
Guin: Beside your blog, what other social tools do you use? #00:09:14.5#
Schroer: Flickr has been big for us. We have started YouTube as well, including a video on our NCPTT grant project, and we have some additional videos on projects sponsored by the Kress Foundation with a museum conservation focus. Hopefully, the YouTube work will be similar to what happens with Flickr in that it will help people from a broader audience find us and be interested in the stuff we’re doing. #00:10:00.8#
Guin: Now that you’re branching out into these other forms of media, if someone wanted to visit your content there, what do you recommend they take a look at? #00:10:15.8#
Schroer: On our Flickr site, we make use of collections, so it’s easy to identify our work both by topic and project. #00:10:45.5#
Guin: You mentioned optimizing your content for search, so that you make connections. How do you optimize your content for the web through titles, tags and descriptions? #00:11:04.1#
Schroer: That’s what we’re working on right now as part of our website redesign. We’re doing some search analytics for what people are searching for. It’s a little tough, because some of the things we’re known for, like reflectance transformation imaging, are not something most people will go type into Google. So we’re working to figure out what people are searching for when they find us. And terms like “photography” and “cultural heritage” are so broad that it’s hard to optimize for those concepts. As we become more known in fields like museum conservation, that’s an area we’ll work to optimize. #00:11:59.6#
Guin: Since you’re transitioning to a new content management system, is there something that’s changing in your social media approach since you first began? #00:12:15.4#
Schroer: We are trying to tie some things together. For example, we have an e-mail list that we started about five years ago. So we use our social media blog posts, photo galleries and videos, as content to drive traffic that way. We also pick themes. So each month, we’ll focus on something like training and education, or rock art, etc., and use all of our platforms to emphasize that theme. It’s a more powerful way to help people learn about an aspect of our business. The biggest thing is that it always takes more time than you want it to. Because we’re small, we’re always thinking about how much time and effort should we put into these platforms and what kind of payback are we getting from them. We’ve stayed away from Facebook and Twitter at this point, not that we wouldn’t go there, but just because of the amount of time that it takes to really use them correctly.
Guin: What advice would you give to another small cultural heritage organization that’s just now getting into social media? #00:13:49.6#
Schroer: Blogging is an obvious first choice, because it’s easy to throw in pictures to help tell your story. To take that on, you have to have a person or two on your staff that are into it and feel that it’s fun. For us, Flickr made sense because we already had piles of photographs. We’re learning to use YouTube to tell our story in a more dynamic way. We had a couple of projects that specifically called for producing video. We’re also exploring the use of Screenflow [screencasting] technology to help explain concepts without people having to download data sets or a special view. They can quickly get a sense of what we’re doing. That will hopefully whet some appetite so that people want to download a data set and seeing what’s possible. #00:15:07.3#
Guin: What are your social media goals for Cultural Heritage Imaging? #00:14:42:00
Schroer: For us, it’s an expansion of why we started our website. We want people to learn about us, our work and the people who are partnering with us. It’s also a way for people to find out if they would like to partner with us, undertake a new technology or take one of our classes. As a non-profit, we also hope it will inspire people to volunteer or become donors. We have multiple audiences for our website, so we have multiple audiences for our social media as well.
In this edition of the Voices of the Past audio podcast, we’ll meet Kaitlin O’Shea. Kaitlin is the creator of the Preservation in Pink blog and newsletter. She will explain how the iconic pink flamingo, and a group of bloggy friends, have helped her find her voice to take the conversation about historic preservation to a wider audience.
Intro: Coming up on the Voices of the Past Podcast, we’ll meet a blogger who’s painting the preservation world in pink.
And welcome to Voices of the Past, the podcast that connects you to the world of heritage online. I’m Jeff Guin, and today I’m talking to Kaitlin O’Shea of the blog Preservation in Pink. Kaitlin uses a combination of collaborative blogging and printable media to reach her audience.
And Kaitlin, thanks for being here, and I wonder if you would just start by telling us, what is Preservation in Pink?
O’Shea: Well, it’s a long story. I am happy to share it. It was first a newsletter. When I graduated from Mary Washington in 2006, I went to work for a couple of years. And in the first six months, I realized just how much I missed my classmates and the comfort of the department, and the constant conversation that we would have anytime of the day. Whether we were in classes or studying or out drinking coffee or whatever. I suddenly had this one project that I loved. It was an oral history project. But it was only one thing. I didn’t have my buildings, I didn’t have my conversations. I was interviewing people and transcribing. And that was the extent of my day usually. So I decided that I need to do something. And I could have just read book after book, but when you get home from work, you are still kind of tired. So I have always loved to write and once upon a time, I had a dream of working with a preservation magazine. And I decided that maybe I could write about it. I have this one friend who had been blogging, but she just had a personal blog. And I thought, well, that is kind of interesting, but I didn’t start with a blog. So I decided to try a newsletter. I had four years of journalism experience in high school. I still remember all the lessons that I learned there. I did layout and editing and things like that. My very first issue, I think I only told one preservation friend about it. And she encouraged me. She’s like my preservation cheerleader. And I said, well, I am just going to write all the articles and show people what I can do. And then next time I will ask people to contribute. And she wrote one article, and I wrote six pages of stuff and sent it out to everybody I knew.
Also back in school, senior year, in one of my classes, we watched an anti-Walmart video about how Walmart came into Ashland, Virginia. And the people were fighting, and for whatever reason they chose the pink flamingo to be anti-Walmart. And the movie, it was just so heart-wrenching and by the end Ashland, Virginia lost and they got their Walmart. And my friends and I, we were distraught. We were heartbroken. Some of us were already not shopping at Walmart, and we decided we loved the pink flamingos. And so that kind of just picked up speed that last semester of school.
To fast forward again to the newsletter. This time, flamingos have just been out of control. We would send each other little flamingos and do little things like that. So I was tossing around the idea of including flamingos just for fun, and thought it was not that serious, but then I decided that it was going to be mine and I wanted it to be fun and not just “preservation.” Somehow I came up with Preservation in Pink, and it just kind of went from there.
Guin: Excellent. I think sometimes when people think preservation and they think preservationists, they think strident… obstructionists… just talking about average, everyday people. And this seems to be a reputation that has developed overtime, justified or not, but looking at your blog and even the beginnings of it, you’ve got some elements in there where you have a very strong preservation ethic, but it’s presented so well and so subtly that it has a different tone to it. Is that something that was intentional on your part?
O’Shea: I started Preservation in Pink with the mission of teaching people and showing them that preservation is not just academic, it’s not just professional, it really applies to every part of everyone’s life. Because it’s not just buildings, it’s not just battlefields. It’s quality of life, it is pride where you live, it’s heritage, it’s knowing where you came from and where you want to go in respect to the past. And all these things together, whether it is shopping locally or respecting the environment, it’s really important and if we do all that then we will all live in a better place.
And that is a lot to take in all at once, so I try to insert it here and there where it is talking about local shopping or this fun preservation activity, I mean really. I can connect anything to preservation, just give me a few minutes.
Guin: Well, how do you define historic preservation? What’s your personal definition?
O’Shea: It means a lot of things to different people. For me, preservation is collectively looking toward the future with respect for the past. It’s understanding communities, the way of life, your built environment, your heritage values, in the sense that we need to remember the past in order to create a brighter future. That’s the basis of my definition. But the methods of doing that are all the facets of historic preservation, which to me is this huge umbrella term. But it involves architecture history, research, community and preservation maintenance, folklore, museum studies, economics, archeology..the list is never ending. For historic preservation, it provides us the opportunity to shape and direct a world in which people are proud of where they live even though people may be proud of different areas for different reasons. We have to respect cultures and areas and regions. When people have tried in what they and where they live and where they came from, then every action they do in a place matters. And that’s how we can create a better place and that’s how I believe historic preservation has the ability to save the world.
Guin: I guess in that same thing, taking that a step further, looking at your blog, you have a lot of things that are strictly historic preservation or strictly heritage values, but then you sometimes go into some things that are a little peripheral there. And you mentioned Walmart earlier, and actually one of your most popular posts is about Walmart. Can you talk about that?
O’Shea: Sure. That post–Save Money, Live Better–I wrote because the campaign just bugs me, and I won’t go into that. I think that one is one of the most popular because people are Googling “Walmart” or “save money, live better,” and for whatever reason, Preservation in Pink just pops up. So that remains one of the most popular posts every single day. We can get 100 views in one day, just that one.
Guin: Looking at your popular posts, and what people seem to respond to, what seems to make up a good blog post?
O’Shea: I guess I would categorize a good blog post in a few different ways. One is obviously a popular one. One like Save Money, Live Better. If that is getting a lot of people to visit Preservation in Pink, and maybe see the blog and are looking for something preservation related, and not just Walmart related, then that’s great. That helped increase the visibility.
But I guess a good blog post, from my perspective, is one that is well thought out and meaningful, and brings people to historic preservation maybe in a way that they didn’t know before. There is just some little anecdote I told that they became more interested in it. Maybe the story was interesting that day or maybe one of the guest bloggers wrote something fun, maybe broadening their horizons, and hoping that they will come back.
Sometimes I say that a good blog post is one that my sister, who is a freshman in college, will comment on. Because she is just starting to understand what I talk about and what I do. And if she found it enjoyable, then I figured that a lot of people might have enjoyed the post that day.
Guin: Well, tell me bout your favorite blog post on Preservation in Pink. What’s the must read blog post on your site?
O’Shea: I have a few that are my favorite, a lot of them relate to my oral history project, kind of just days on the job. Because they mean a lot to me and to kind of share what I do and what I did as an oral historian, and remember a fun day of what it was like to be in oral history every single day.
One of my favorite to write is called, Why they don’t let me outside. And the title is inspired because most of the time I am inside. But once in a while, in my office we would just go outside. And that day I jumped and kind of twisted my ankle and it was still a really good day, but by the time I got home and sort of fainted from a swollen ankle. And it was a mess of a day. But after I fainted and woke back up, I was fine.
Guin: And you still have good memories of that day?
O’Shea: Yeah. So kind of posts like that. Another one is Oral History and Me: It is Complicated. Not love-hate, but sibling relationship with oral history. It’s so frustrating, but you love it no matter what.
And then I have some others that are more personal reflections. One is called Old Memories: The Evolution of My Favorite Place. And that’s about my grandmother’s town in New York. And I grew up playing on the beach, but now that I’m older, I don’t play as much, but I run on the beach. And I appreciate the place in a different way. And all of those I attribute to touching out on preservation values in a non academic way that I hope people enjoy.
Guin: The reason that we have these cultural resources is because of the people and the traditions handed down. In talking with those people you get a lot more insight and context about the cultural resources themselves. So I think that’s great. Well, you mentioned earlier your newsletter and your journalism experience, and design and layout. You’ve used that in the Preservation in Pink newsletter. Now not many bloggers do this. Why did you do this, and who is this newsletter targeted to?
O’Shea: Again, the newsletter was first and the blog came after. I needed a way to keep Preservation in Pink on the web for anyone who wanted to access it because I can’t afford to print it and mail it to everybody. And that is kind of silly since everything is on the web. So the blog, at first, was just two posts a year. I need articles for the newsletter, and then in 2008, I started putting on more posts every couple of months. And then toward the end, I really wanted people to read Preservation in Pink. I really needed this to go somewhere, and so I started making it a daily blog. And the newsletter and the blog are intended for the same audience. But it is a wide audience. It is anyone who is interested in preservation because it is what they do or because they don’t know much about it. And I try to gather articles from the wonderful contributors that seem to always be willing to add something. But everyone has different experiences, and for me to just share my own on the blog is not the same as having a newsletter. Having a newsletter kind of bring out more voices than my own, which I imagine people don’t want to read all the time.
Guin: Then let’s look at how your blog has developed over time because aside from having a newsletter, which is kind of rare for a blogger, you also have multiple contributors. And that’s not that rare for a blog. For a heritage blog it is fairly rare. How did that start?
O’Shea: Really, having a 5-day per week blog was kind of hard. And to come up with something that is hopefully interesting everyday. Right now it is three to four with grad school getting in the way. But I thought maybe I could be like other bloggers. I read a lot of different blogs: running blogs, wedding blogs, friends blogs. And a lot of people have guest bloggers. And I thought that would be a good way to draw in more readers/viewers. People could say, hey I wrote for this blog, go read it.
So the guest bloggers, I guess they started out kind of slowly. People I knew, my friends from college and fellow preservationists. And it was a nice break for me, and I figured it was a nice break for the readers. It was something different. It was something I couldn’t write about because I didn’t know much about it. And now I have a permanent posting up on Preservation in Pink asking for contributors and bloggers. Some people are more willing to contribute to the blog because it seems like less pressure. I mea, it is. I always feel like the blog is less serious than the newsletter. I mean, when I talk about cats and flamingos and whatever, it is a little more fun. And it is also more time-sensitive. So, one guest blogger, Brad Hatch, he has a ton of “preservacation” blogs, as he calls them, because he has a whole series that he wrote for me. And we posted them every couple of weeks or so. Whereas keeping all that for the newsletter would be a lot. And having a series in the newsletter that’s only twice a year is hard because that is asking readers to remember or go back six months ago and follow up from that first article. Whereas on the blog, I can link from post to post and readers can find it that way. So I guess the newsletter developed the same way, there was not a lot of people at first and now there is many many people. For this next issue, I have even different contributors than usual. It’s really just helped to bring more of an audience. And more diversity.
Guin: Excellent. Well, you talked about being a grad student. I know that’s a lot of pressure. I want to hear about how you balanced being a grad student with doing such a rigorous blog schedule. Also, I am sure you are involved with other forms of online media or social networks as well. How do you balance all that?
O’Shea: I am just the type to do what I have to do. And it was a concern, maybe I wouldn’t have enough time. But I decided, no. It has come this far, it is still getting a lot of viewers. And I really enjoy it. It is kind of an outlet. So, if I don’t feel like writing my paper, maybe I can do something a little bit easier like writing a blog post. It also keeps me connected with everyone in my grad-school bubble. It’s the same of balancing anything else. I like to run a lot, I help out with the UVM track team. As far as other social networking, I have a few other blogs that are not like Preservation in Pink, they are just for fun or to keep track of running or something. Those I only do when I have the time.
Guin: Do you promote Preservation in Pink through any other networks? Do you do anything else other than consistent blogging to attract readership?
O’Shea: I do. I have a Preservation in Pink Facebook group page. And when I have a newsletter or I am asking for contributors, I pretty much email everyone who has ever met me. Any more former and current classmates have done a lot to help. They will share it with people they know. Send on the newsletter or send on the website. Last year I made business cards and postcards. So anyone who wrote for me, I send them a “thank you” with some business cards and also a Preservation in Pink magnet. Some people put it up at work so their coworkers saw the magnet and asked about the website. I try to make sure the tags and the categories are sometimes general and sometimes specific. So it could come up in photography, it could come up in preservation, and people could come across it that way. I have it on my resume. I like to share it with fellow preservationists.
Guin: Knowing that you are in graduate school right now, and knowing that you are going to have to get a job, does that affect what you blog or what you blog about?
O’Shea: It’s the same as when I started. I won’t write anything that I think is too judgmental or something that I would look back and go, “Oh geez, why did I write that?” I mean, my opinions might slightly change or my intellectual understanding of something might change, but I feel that what I put on Preservation in Pink is fit for anybody to read. And I am really honored when people way above me have read it.
Guin: Well the great thing about a blog is that if you do evolve intellectually or learn something new, you can always update the post or you can go and write another post and reference the old one. And it’s OK to show that you’ve learned something. And your readers learn along with you. So that’s great. Well, you mentioned early about using WordPress, and I use WordPress. I am active in the WordPress community. And you talked about tags and categories. And I don’t think that is something I have covered on Voices of the Past before. Can you tell me, in your opinion, what the different is between a tag and a category. And how you use those concepts to optimize your posts.
O’Shea: Well, this is just my understanding, and I might be slightly off. But from what I found, is tags are what people come across when they Google something and categories seem to be just within the site itself. I have a lot of tags because of all the posts, and I try to minimize the categories. So categories I use if someone is searching within Preservation in Pink itself. How can I find out your roadtrip posts. Whereas tags I look at as something people search on the web that could bring them to Preservation in Pink.
Guin: You said that you actually get inspiration from other blogs sometimes. What other blogs do you actively follow?
O’Shea: A new blog that you just did a feature on, My Own Time Machine by Sabra Smith. I think we are blog soulmates. Our blogs are similar, they are complimentary, they are a lot of fun. I love what she writes, so I have been following that since she started.
I follow Place Economics, which is not updated that much, but I like reading whatever he writes.
I follow Route 66 blog. Another WordPress blog. It is like the clearinghouse for Route 66 news.
Then I follow unrelated preservation blogs as well.
Guin: Obviously social media and blogging and all this stuff is growing. And a lot of heritage folks, although some have been slow in coming on board to using the social networks, that is going to change. And folks are getting on there wondering, what do they do to get started. Especially with blogging because that seems to be the heart of any social media effort. What advice do you have for those individuals or organizations getting involved in blogging for the first time?
O’Shea: I would say, if you have something that you love and you want to start a blog and write about it and talk about that subject, don’t start it expecting tons of readers and comments. Do it because you love it and keep doing it. I mean, Preservation in Pink isn’t the biggest blog out there by any means or even close to it, but the readership has grown immensely between this year and last year, and it is just consistency and I don’t really do it for anyone other than myself. I write for people who are interested in preservation, but I do it for myself too. So just keep at it and share your blog with anyone you know. I guess that’s my best advice for anyone.
Guin: OK, I want to take a step back a bit. What made you decide to use WordPress instead of any of the other blogging platforms that are out there?
O’Shea: Well, I love WordPress, let me just say that. I don’t really like Blogger for a professional looking blog. I think it is too simplistic and too kind of bubbly. You can’t create very many pages, and I don’t know much about creating your own template. Whereas WordPress had all these beautiful templates and you could change them all the time. And add all these Widgets, I think we call them. And those were really the only two I knew. I guess TypePad and so many others you have to pay for, or at least you used to. But anyone who is going to start a blog, I always recommend WordPress because it is just really easy and really fun.
Guin: Well, good. Kaitlin, thanks for being on Voices of the Past.
O’Shea: Thank you very much!
Outro: And that was Kaitlin O’Shea of blog and newsletter, Preservation in Pink.
Now, if you would like to learn more about Kaitlin and Preservation in Pink, that is at voicesofthepast.org. There you will find a transcript of this interview plus several others we have done with other folks in the heritage field using social media to make a difference in their world.
That’s all for this edition of Voices of the Past. Until next time, I’m Jeff Guin, and we’ll see you online.
Carla Bruni is an historic preservationist, architectural historian, soon-to-be energy rater, and neurotic volunteer, and in this Heritage Blogger profile, she discusses how she combines her passions to create a hospitable environment to discuss preservation-related ideas in her blog, The Green Preservationist. Carla hopes to bridge the gap between historic preservationists and green building advocates…one post at a time.
How do you try to bridge the gap between historic preservationists and green building advocates? What role does your blog play in your mission?
Well, if I were to sum up how these two groups often view each other via “light bulb jokes,” it might go something like this:
Q: How many historic preservationists does it take to change a light bulb?
A: Change? We should just go back to candles and forget this light bulb nonsense!
Q: How many green building advocates does it take to change a light bulb?
A: Well, that old fixture isn’t terribly efficient so we’re going to go ahead and tear your old house down and design a better one.
Obviously this might be a wee bit exaggerated, but I’ve been in meetings where the tension was so thick that I thought the cornice would explode off of the building, and as a result, nothing is accomplished. I think we need more people working with, and listening to, both green building advocates and historic preservationists with an open and creative mind. I like to think that me being active on both sides of this coin gives me a unique angle, and honestly, I’m still learning all the time, so having a blog is a great way to throw my questions and opinions out there and see what I get back.
I also give lectures and workshops for universities, preservation and green building organizations throughout the city; this gives me the opportunity to introduce “greenies” to preservation issues and vice-versa. I have recently been working with an organization to administer grant funds for green retrofits on historic homes, and the homeowners get really into it, which is super fun. On the flip side of that, I worked as a spokesperson for the Chicago Department of Environment while getting my Masters in Historic Preservation, so I would always weave my preservation agenda into my environmental tours, when most of the time they expected the answer to be “buy solar panels” or “replace your windows with triple-pane low-e fiberglass sashes.”
So, after two light-bulb jokes and a couple paragraphs, I guess the answer is simply “educate people through whatever means possible.”
Why do you think historic preservationists and green building advocates need each other?
Well, it’s completely unrealistic to think that we can build ourselves out of an environmental crisis. Any new building takes a whole lot of energy and creates a whole lot of waste—from the manufacturing and mining of building materials (also depleting our resources), to transportation, to creating new infrastructures, to demolition—there is simply no way around it. Of course, it is also unrealistic to think that human beings will never build new, so we need to be much smarter about building materials, sustainability, design, density and walk-ability than we have been for the past 50 years. What I spend the majority of my time doing is working on projects that involve making older buildings more energy efficient.
Of course, beyond energy, we also need to remember our history and culture and honor much of the existing architecture around us, which typically has incredible detailing, craftsmanship and materials, not to mention that our country is so young that this stuff is literally some of the oldest architecture in the history of the United States. It’s a tough balance right now for preservationists. I think that both groups are starting to come around a bit, however, and finding ways to work together. Preservationists are realizing that due to the current state of the environment, we need to worry less about the thickness of mullions during restoration projects, and begin focusing more energy on HVAC systems and weather stripping if we want to be socially responsible and actually save more buildings. Conversely, there has been more focus on energy efficient retrofits at green conferences lately. Both of these changes are likely encouraged by the current economic recession, but hey, at least some good is coming of it.
How did you get interested in preservation and architecture?
Ah, well, I stumbled upon the Robie House as a child and have dedicated my life to architecture since then. Ha, yeah, that’s totally not true. I was an English Literature major in my undergrad with a poetry focus, and thought I might go back to school for a Master’s in either Comparative Theology or Medieval Literature. In the meantime, I did public relations for the City of Chicago, worked in an orthopedic office promoting a knee replacement device, was a shipping and receiving manager at a software company, and then worked in a custom metal welding studio, among other things. Fortunately, a coworker friend introduced me to his future wife, who was a preservationist, and I was like “people can actually save buildings for a living? Whoa.”
Once the greystones started coming down around me, or being turned into unrecognizable monstrosities, I decided to volunteer with a local preservation group called Preservation Chicago, and was inspired by their chutzpah much more than I was by the work I was currently doing. I started studying architecture on my own and soon after applied to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s Historic Preservation Master’s program. I began paying more attention to environmental issues at around the same time and managed to snap up an internship with the for Green Technology, where I was able to help the public on a regular basis and gather information for a manual that I was writing to help historic homeowners “green” their homes. It was both a challenging and seriously cool experience. I’m currently in the process of becoming a certified energy rater and am thinking of also getting my LEED Green Associate certification just because I can’t seem to learn enough about how these issues impact each other. I figure if I’m going to write about these things and express my opinions, I had better have an intimate knowledge of what they are all about.
Tell us about your blog “About” photo. Is there a reason you are “Superwoman?”
Oh, I’m just mostly poking fun at myself for taking on huge, seemingly insurmountable projects because I just get so obsessed and excited about things. A recent “To Do” list on my desktop actually reads: 1) Get three new certifications by the end of the month, 2) Clean apartment until it sparkles and get rid of 50 percent of my total belongings, and 3) Change the general public’s perception of architecture throughout the United States.
I realize, of course, that #2 will never happen.
Why did you decide to begin blogging?
I think it was a combination of reasons. First, I realized I was really skirting both careers and thought that perspective could be useful. There are a lot of preservationists who know about environmental issues and vice-versa, but I think that it is easy to maintain a (strong) bias when you come much later to one field than the other. While I started off with preservation, I very quickly saw the connection between the two fields in light of recent trends, so I don’t think I even know how to separate the two most of the time. Also, I think that preservationists really need to change their image, and we seem to be struggling with that. We live in a very different time than we did even 10 years ago, and now preservation is constantly measured up against exciting, innovative technologies and a sort of environmental morality that didn’t exist before. To top it off, there are a zillion new (supposedly) “eco-friendly” products and homes out there that are being marketed like mad, and it’s a lot easier to market new things than old things. It is also difficult to make the argument that some things should not change when we are constantly told that anything that isn’t new and “green” is responsible for killing baby seals.
Beyond making people understand how crucial it is environmentally to preserve, maintain and perform energy efficient retrofits on existing buildings (somewhere along the line we lost sight of “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle!”), Historic Preservation needs a more energetic, creative and fun side to it. You can certainly debate whether I have these qualities or not, but I can at least point out the fact that we need more of this if we are going to win over the masses and save more buildings.
And also, I think my friends and family would have thrown me to the wind turbines if I didn’t start talking about something other than architecture and the environment, so I figured I’d ease their burden a bit and find a more, er, tolerant audience.
What is your dream for your blog?
That’s a really good question. I suppose I want it to be a touchstone for students, preservationists, green building advocates, planners, landscape designers and architects, etc. when they have some downtime, and ideally a way to generate more discussion on the timely and important topics. I have also been using my friends as lab rats to see if the content is accessible for people who do not already work in the field. It’s a difficult balance to strike because I try to keep the posts relatively short—an almost impossible feat for a notorious rambler—so I can’t spend too much time explaining concepts and then also get down to the nitty gritty. I suppose it would be great if a more general public could at least start thinking more about these concepts and then possibly even get more involved in their free time.
Your blog has a fascinating combination of “personality” and fact throughout your posts …
I think that having a more casual and accessible tone makes more people want to listen to the issues and better able to grasp them. And as I’ve mentioned before, accessibility is really key. It is also important, in my humble opinion, to not take oneself too seriously or be so self-righteous that you ostracize people vs. bring them into the fold. I am certainly not infallible and always have more to learn, and want the blog to be casual enough that friendly and useful discussions can bubble up from posts. Of course, I also come from a rather large and loud Italian family—if you want to be heard you have to be either really, really loud or funny enough to at least warrant a pause.
I can’t yell on a blog…
You have some interesting guest bloggers. How do you go about finding them and getting them engaged?
I realized from the beginning that I needed to get some perspectives on these issues from places other than Chicago and beyond my own experiences. Whenever I meet an enthusiastic soul—either through my blog or various events—who have a different experience either nationally or internationally, I find it to be incredibly valuable. I’ve been fortunate to do preservation work in Louisiana, Washington and Idaho, and realized pretty quickly that different places have different battles and feelings regarding preservation. I’d like to keep growing the blog readership around the country, so including these voices is really important. And heck, they’re interesting!
How do you develop and maintain a relationship with your viewers?
I always to respond to people who contact me through my blog. I’m curious about what they do and ask them to come back and express their opinions. I also try to keep the tone playful enough that it is engaging and people want to check back periodically. Fortunately, some local advocates and organizations have also put me on their blog roll and this bumps up my readership. I think I’m really lucky to be involved in two fields that are brimming with feisty advocates and like to keep stoking those coals to keep the dialogue between groups alive.
Are you engaged anywhere else online? If so, where and why?
There are so many great places to read about what is going on in these areas. Vince Michael’s incredibly insightful blog on preservation issues is an excellent source for preservation info and great fun to read. I often to jump over to Matt Cole’s Twitter page, which covers a variety of issues, often involving planning, preservation, and sustainability issues—he updates it obsessively, so there is always something new and fun to look up. I also work with the Historic Chicago Bungalow Association on a variety of projects, and we’ve recently been discussing a series of video podcasts that cover discussions with contractors, architects and energy raters, as well as filming how to properly weatherize and insulate single-family homes. It is somewhat similar to the This Old House website links that I like to check out when I cant wrap my brain around how something works—really practical, budget-conscious and effective projects for homeowners. Check in at http://www.chicagobungalow.org in the near future for that. Beyond that, there are a variety of online research sources that I can access for free by logging into the Chicago Public Library site, and Ancestry.com is perfect for digging up historic census information.
What is your advice for anyone wanting to start a blog? Or get involved with preservation?
My favorite thing to do is convert unsuspecting citizens into preservationists, and when they are within my clutches, I can’t help but rattle off a variety of volunteer organizations or free field trips that I know will ensnare them. I occasionally even undergo covert operations with design school students to try and convince them to weave creative adaptive reuse ideas into their projects. It is always rewarding to fight for something that you are passionate about. In my experience, looking up and noticing the architecture around you, and having someone explain that many of these buildings are, or likely will be threatened for demolition is a startling discovery—call it a preservation baptism or bar mitzvah or whatever you like. Once people start really seeing the built world, the whole city becomes alive and more engaging, and once that relationship is there a person will fight to keep it because there is a connection and respect.
As for blogging, well, I think that we are incredibly lucky to have these forums where we can talk about whatever it is that we want to talk about and share it to a much wider audience than ever before. Some will argue that “tweeting” is the best way to do this, others just don’t like writing all that much, but if you have a hankering to express yourself, why on earth would you stay silent? Restorations may cost a lot of money, green retrofits can add up sometimes, but our ability to rave and educate and change a collective mentality for the better is free, and ultimately, what is more exciting than changing people’s minds? It’s simply the cheapest, most effective way to take over the world.
There are lessons that hit you like a ton of bricks, and then there are lessons that need time to simmer like homemade jambalaya. By allowing it to sit, the flavors are able to absorb and strengthen.
Last week, power blogger Lorelle VanFossen came to the National Park Service office where I intern and taught a workshop on the art of blogging and its uses in the heritage field. Lorelle stood in front of us and asked, “what do you say when someone says they have a blog?” Without missing a beat, one participant responded, “ask if there is a cure.”
That sudden burst of laughter broke the ice as we all discussed our thoughts on how blogging could potentially help the organization. Some responded with, “I don’t know; I am here to learn the answer” or “Because my boss told me to.”
But then we started discussing how blogging could help us reach a wider audience.
If you want to have a discussion on true Cajun cooking, you don’t go to Massachusetts or Texas. You go “down south” to southern Louisiana. If you want to converse with a younger audience and share your heritage values, you go online. That is where the people are. That is why we learned with Lorelle for a day and a half.
We still need and want to converse with folks already in preservation, but right now that is an older audience. What happens in another decade or so when the tools that the audience uses to communicate are obsolete?
Preservation is as much about preserving the memories of today as those of yesterday.That is what we learned to do. Instead of just jumping into the “work” aspect of blogging, we received the opportunity to begin our own blogs. Everyone was asked to find something he/she was passionate about. Something worth blogging.
We then began the “creation” part of our blogs.
We worked on finding a focus and creating a goal. Lorelle challenged us all to think about whom we were talking to. Who did we want to read our blog? And why were we writing? That was my favorite part. I enjoyed looking around the room and seeing the participants’ eyes twinkle with passion as they created their lists of tags and categories as they rediscovered their passions.
It was apparent during the outlining stage that I was in a room of established professionals. They had some of the most beautiful lists I had ever seen. But what was more fascinating were the subjects they chose to discuss.
Some found the new Apple technologies fascinating while other looked toward the dead and wanted to discuss graveyards and tombstones. One looked beyond the grave and deeper in the past to letters from a family who lived decades ago.
“If you want to get someone’s attention, you need to show them something they’ve never seen before or show them something in a way they’ve never seen before,” Lorelle said.
Lorelle reminded us that there are a hundred and ten different ways to show our passions. Some might be pioneering new land with an innovative idea. But most will broach subjects that have been discussed before, and it is our job to ensure that we cover them in a new way.
Lorelle’s lessons lingered on throughout the workshop. She provided opportunities for everyone to practice various blogging techniques and tools including video and podcasts.
She left mark on everyone by the time the workshop had concluded.
We all reflected about what we learned throughout the workshop. Our thoughts truly reflected the wide array of personalities in the group. Some found the power in block quotes and the value in writing out the plethora of thoughts and ideas in a blog format. Some were intrigued by the possibilities available with speed blogging and one even found a friend in WordPress.tv (a site with videos on how to use various WordPress applications).
The group, as a whole, found its voice. It found the ability to ensure it is heard in today’s hectic world.
For the last few years, the terms “web 2.0” and “social media” have been used for nearly anything new and interactive on the internet. Since Voices of the Past and sites like it integrate many basic social media tools, let’s take the time to consider the concept of social media and its potential to advance heritage preservation.
Core to this connectedness is the idea of community and how it’s being redefined. For example, the purpose of Voices of the Past is to inspire connections to heritage values using new media. You don’t have to have lots of money, a Ph.D., or be a credentialed preservationist to view the site or interact with it. It doesn’t matter where you live either. If you care about heritage, you belong here.
The accessible nature of social media tools, coupled with the relative anonymity of the web, levels the playing field for discussion. This takes away some of the fear of saying the wrong thing and allows people of many different backgrounds to interact as peers.
Social media comes in a variety of flavors. Some of these tools—like forums and message boards—you may already be familiar with. Others, like photo sharing (Flickr), video sharing (YouTube), wall posts (FaceBook), blogs (WordPress), music sharing (iTunes), and internet telephony (Skype), may be new.
When you visit the a site like Facebook or MySpace, what you’re seeing is a form of social media called a “social network.” Essentially, it brings social media tools together on the same web page. The efficiency of social networks is leading to an explosion in their popularity. The combined worldwide user base of MySpace and Facebook roughly equals the population of the United States.
So how’s this different from the web we used to know? For one thing, you’re no longer just reading the company line. The web is now instantly interactive with the potential for infinite conversation on any given topic. It’s like the old gossip fence, except your neighbor is potentially anyone in the world.
What’s been the reason preservation and heritage issues have been so hard to communicate? It’s because they, like politics, are traditionally local. And while probably nothing will ever most people care who’s the state representative for Burning Moscow, Nev., you very well may throw in with an online group that is fired up about preserving the Old West mines there.
So, your worldview isn’t just limited to your place of residence anymore. With social media, your interests can help define your social responsibility in the realm of heritage values. Explore and enjoy!
I know just enough code to be dangerous, and my wife has never even heard of WordPress. So it was with equal amounts of faith and trepidation that we loaded up the truck last weekend and moseyed over to Dallas for WordCamp 2008.
Now, I’m a communicator and my wife is an educator. Both geeks in our chosen fields. But how would we hold up in a room of 150 pro bloggers? Between talk of php, sql, seo and “link love” would we understand anything being said? Did we even want to?
My descent into social media madness will likely be detailed in another post. For now, the relevant fact is that I’m attempting to build the elusive social media newsroom for the federal organization with which I work. I chose WordPress as my platform because it’s a content management system that regular folks can figure out. It’s also Web 2.0 saavy, with a plug-in and widget for every flavor, nationality and orientation of social media. I’m a big fan of it, which brings me back to WordCamp.
I’ve been jonesing for professional development in social media in the worst way. But federal travel cutbacks, the insane cost of conferences these days, and the rural location of my hometown has limited my training to webinars. Then I subscribed to the WordPress podcast a few weeks ago. Hosts Charles Stricklin and Jonathan Bailey were talking about WordCamp Dallas. Dallas?! Four hours away. I can do that! Just 20 bucks? You’re kidding me. A T-shirt and lunches too? Then the kicker: Charles lives an hour north of me and Jonathan a few hours south, in the Big Easy. The stars were aligned. I had to go.