Save Our City: Archives administrator makes history fun

A recent forum I attended got me thinking about the critical relationship between local media, collectors and preservationists in developing a broad and authentic understanding of a locale’s history. The discussion, part of Trinity Repertory Company’s Context and Conversation series, featured an array of prominent panelists and attendees in journalism, arts and politics and was intended to stimulate a conversation surrounding the oft-unseemly backstory behind The Prince of Providence, the theater’s wildly successful recent run based on the book by Mike Stanton, which depicts former Providence mayor, talk radio host and convicted felon, the now deceased Buddy Cianci.

Photo courtesy of @ProvidenceCityArchive

My big takeaway from the talk, which was held beneath Cianci’s official portrait in the rarely used Alderman’s Chamber at City Hall, is that local media is the most effective and important tool to build a contextual understanding of anything (using the term broadly, to include journalistic and artistic media, both professional and amateur contributions).

While several RI archivists have done an outstanding job to preserve critical assets (see Bartholomewtown Podcast: RI State Archives), transmitting the content to a broad audience remains a challenge.

As large corporations continue to dominate the local media landscape and control their own content, intellectual property and legacy, new platforms and venues are being developed to engage audiences in real time, as well as to develop a digital footprint and historical record for future Rhode Islanders to understand the specifics of their backstory and to gain the tools to better see — and impact — the state and world. 

Take, for example, Shaina Wentraub, the reference and multimedia administrator for The Providence City Archives, who has created Instagram and Twitter accounts that offer humorous and interesting local photos, documents and other media. In developing the social media platforms, Weintraub has brought forth the building blocks to bring a greater understanding of the region’s many identities to a broad audience. During a recent episode of The Bartholomewtown Podcast (RIpodcast.com), I asked her about the origins and soulfulness behind her content.  

Shaina Weintraub: I started The Providence City Archives Instagram (@providencecityarchives) account around the beginning of this year, back in January. I remember it being at that time because it was right around the AFC Championship, Super Bowl time. I found this photo of an old ice truck. In the past, they would have to bring ice to Providence from colder places, because we didn’t have refrigerators or anything like that. So, there was this truck in an old photo and it said “ice” across it. I was like, “Oh, okay. I can tie this into football somehow.” 

I wrote a caption that said something like, “This is what’s going to be flowing through Tom Brady’s veins come Sunday,” or something like that. And I did “hashtag Patriots,” “hashtag Providence,”  “hashtag” all those things. 

And then it kind of took off a few posts later. 

I was looking back at the account last night. There was something about the Point Street Bridge that I posted early on that you commented on. I captioned it, “I could say many things about this point street structure, but I’ll keep it… a bridged.”  

They say that puns are the lowest form of humor, but I love it. It’s my humor. So it’s been really fun doing that.

Bill Bartholomew: The account obviously ties together a field that is sort of niche in a way — history — in terms of peering through historical documents. It’s not something that I think everybody does at night. You’ve created this bridge that utilizes social media platforms to take local history into the modern era, and also present and preserve it for the historical record in a different way. 

SW: This means so many things. History can become entertainment now. We’ve seen that with Hamilton and we see it with Netflix shows that are about comedy and history and tie it together in a way that is for people who don’t necessarily like history, for people who really didn’t like history growing up. I didn’t like history when I was in high school at all. I remember writing a paper and I was just so bored with it. But once I found that history can be what you make of it and you can get really excited with it, that’s when I started liking it.

New episodes of “Rhode Island’s Podcast of Record,” The Bartholomewtown Podcast (RIpodcast.com), are available every Tuesday and Friday.

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