Tuesday, June 28, 2016

RBMS conference | part three

Friday | June 24 

8:30 am. Short papers: Diversity and Cultural Communities — another one moderated by Athena, with Rachel D'Agostino (Library Co. of Philadelphia), Natalia Fernández (Oregon State U), Lara Friedman-Shedlov (U of Minnesota), and a pair from UF Gainesville, Florence Turcotte and Lourdes Santamaria-Wheeler.

10:45 am. Final Plenary: Collaborating with Diverse Communities — with Verónica Reyes-Escudero (U of Arizona) as moderator and speaker, Christa Willford (CLIR), and Maria Estorino Dooling (HistoryMiami Museum).

RBMS conference | part two

Thursday | June 23
8:30 am. Transgressing the Norm: Community Archives, Activism, and Human Rights — This "short papers" session was a must-see for me, decided as soon as I first read the conference program. Moderated, very well, by Jocelyn Karlan (Villa I Tatti, Harvard), with all NON-east coast presenters: Marika Cifor (PhD candidate at UCLA), Melissa Hubbard (Case Western), and Mario Ramirez (PhD candidate at UCLA, author of that "Critique of Whiteness" article in the American Archivist last fall that ruffled so many feathers).
  • Cifor was up first, discussing Visual AIDS, an organization that supports HIV+ artists, advocates for awareness of the ongoing AIDS epidemic, and works to preserve the legacies of individual artists affected by AIDS/HIV. One interesting point she made was about the oddness of the nostalgia cycle (that's my phrase, not hers), how on the one hand there's this resurgence of late 1980s / early 1990s style and aesthetics right now, while on the other hand, everyone acts like AIDS is over. Which it is not, btw. (For example, think about Keith Haring: you can buy a million different products with his squiggly graffiti-style figures...but the kid wearing that backpack or those sneakers might have no idea who Keith Haring is, let alone his connection to AIDS or AIDS activism.) Further readings and recommendations from Cifor include: the NYPL exhibit Why We Fight: Remembering AIDS Activism (2013-2014, curated by Jason Baumann, one of my former Pratt professors), and an article about rukus! (a black LGBT organization in the U.K.) featured in the "Special Section on Queer Archives" in the Fall 2009 issue of Archivaria (#68).
  • Melissa Hubbard spoke next, on "Documenting Police Violence in Cleveland." And it kind of walloped me. I had forgotten how much of this recent history has happened in Cleveland. (It is getting harder for me remember all of the names of the people killed by police lately... and in the time between attending this conference and writing about it, that list has grown.) She began with some names: Tamir Rice. Tanisha Anderson. Malissa Williams and Timothy Russell. If you don't recognize them, go to Google and what you'll find will confirm the next thing Hubbard said. Which is that Special Collections and Wikipedia both have a problem with "notability." Alive, these human persons, these people of color, weren't "noteworthy." But their deaths were worthy of news stories, lawsuits, trials, hashtags. (And even then, sometimes their own names were erased, and the story became #BreloTrial or #BreloVerdict.)  ...So. I don't really know how to wrap my mind around the entire falling domino effect of systemic failures that lead us to this moment, right now, in America. But here we are. And here's one good thing: A People's Archive of Police Violence in Cleveland (PAPVC). Hubbard pointed out that this is a project born of Twitter, entirely crowd-funded and volunteer-supported, existing outside of any institution. I saw a little sliver of hope in this. In the idea that archives can survive in the wild, so to speak, without waiting for some big university or virtuous donor to swoop in and rescue them. (In fact, community archives may have a lot to lose if they are subsumed by a powerful external entity.) Hubbard said: we don't need the institutions to do this work. But we do need archivists to do this work. The technical skills, the organizational knowledge, the experience, the will to do the work — that's what the value of our profession is. It was like, in my brain, suddenly, cartoon rays of light! There can be some other position, somewhere in this debate we seem stuck in, as a profession, about activism and social justice versus the impossible ideal of neutrality... I don't think I can yet articulate it well. But I had the kernel of an idea. About the archivist as an individual, with agency and identity, separate from the archivist as job title, as a form of employment, or set of credentials. Like, I don't know, if you're a medical doctor, that becomes who you are, right? Even when you're not on the clock. If you happen to encounter a choking man at a restaurant, or the aftermath of a car accident on the street or something, you wouldn't be like "Oh, I'm not a doctor here, I'm only a doctor in the emergency room at Springfield General on weekdays from nine to five, sorry."
  • I was curious about Mario Ramirez, just because of the article, and I wanted to see him in person.

    10:45 am. Moving on to something lighter: Capturing the Web: Web Archiving in Cultural Heritage Institutions — A seminar session, with Jason Kovari (Cornell) as moderator and panelist, Kristen Yarmey (U of Scranton), Christie Peterson (George Washington U), and Jackie Dooley (OCLC).

    • In terms of tools and activities, some basic factors to consider: the complexity of the site(s), the scale / frequency of web-crawls, the level and type of IT support or infrastructure (in-house?), and managing the division of labor or assignment of responsibilities between 1) curation, 2) capture, 3) QA, 4) discovery, and 5) preservation. 
    • Things commonly used: Heritrix (browser-based web crawler), the Wayback Machine (discovery and access of archived websites), and the WARC data standard (aka Web ARChive format, based on Arc file format), and Archive-It (a subscription service for web archiving). Yes, all of these were developed and are maintained by The Internet Archive.

    1:15 pm. Tour: Vizcaya Museum and Gardens

    4:00 pm
    . Plenary Two: A Broad and Deep Look at Outreach — Moderated by Erika Dowell (Indiana U), with great speakers: Sarah Werner (internet intellectual), Pellom McDaniels III (Emory), and Christoph Irmscher (Indiana).

    5:30 pm. University of Miami Reception

    RBMS part 1 | Tuesday-Wednesday | June 21-22
    RBMS part 3 | Friday | June 24 

    RBMS conference | part one

    Well, I FINALLY made it to my first RBMS conference.    
              It. Was. Hot. I mean that literally. I don't want to reinforce tired old stereotypes about librarians and their ilk, but there is something ridiculous about putting a bunch of curators and antiquarian booksellers — tweedy, bespectacled, wrapped in scarves, weighed down by tote bags full of books — next to a turquoise blue swimming pool ringed with palm trees at a swank resort in southern Florida otherwise populated by suntanned, bikini-clad leisure-seekers.

    Yet, there we were.

    Aside from the sheer physical exhaustion involved (will I ever stop trying to do EVERY SINGLE THING at a conference and remember to eat and sleep enough? It does not combine well with the heat and humidity), this was maybe the most affecting professional meeting I've attended yet. It could have more to do with the theme of this particular event than with RBMS itself; I'm not sure. The title of this year's meeting was "Opening Doors to Collaboration, Outreach and Diversity," and basically that's my whole jam.

    So, I did a lot of things at RBMS. I had to break it into three posts, of which this is the first, because my notes became to voluminous. Links to the other two parts at the bottom of this post or via the #rbms16 tag.

    Tuesday (June 21)
    Arrived in the afternoon and checked in at the Biltmore (WHICH IS INSANE btw).

    4:00 pm. Orientation & Introduction to RBMS
    5:00 pm. New Members' Mixer
    6:00 pm. ABAA Booksellers' Showcase Welcome Reception

    Wednesday (June 22)

    8:30 am. Plenary: Open the Door to a More Diverse and Collaborative Future — This really set the tone for everything to come. Compelling, moving, engaging. (I might have cried in public a little bit...) Moderated by my boss, Athena Jackson.
    • Paul Ortiz (U Florida) spoke of "suffering and solidarity." The conference site, the state of Florida and its history, as especially relevant to the conference theme, i.e. diversity, inclusion, multiculturalism. Florida as the site of repeated tragedy and violence: before Pulse, there was Trayvon Martin (and other incidents related to FL's weird gun laws), the legacy of colonial history, the many kinds of Latinx voices, the Cuban revolutionaries, the migrant farmers' rights movement, the radical and often violent effects of climate change on FL's coastal region (hurricanes, shoreline degradation, loss of the Everglades, the struggle of subsistence fishermen...) Ortiz is the director of the oral history project at UF, so I imagine that provides the underpinning for this great quote of his I wrote down: "Knowledge is dialogical and mutually created." 
    • Michelle Caswell (UCLA) is a co-founder of the South Asian American Digital Archive (SAADA), a post-custodial project created to fill a void, because nobody else (no institution) was collecting this material. That's cool enough on its own, but she also presented a really compelling discussion of the issues around "community archiving" and the meaning of the work we do in cultural heritage archives. The increasing focus on assessment metrics in academic libraries involves a lot of numbers (How many patrons served? How many research papers? Number of citations? etc.) but Caswell asked: what about affective value? Then she gave an overview of the concept "symbolic annihilation" which is what happens when your race/culture/gender/group identity is not represented in the media, and thereby erased from public discourse. Community archives can work to counter this symbolic annihilation 1. ontologically ("I am here"), 2. epistemologically ("We were here"), and 3. sociologically ("I belong here.") Caswell offered the term "representational belonging" to describe the opposite of symbolic annihilation, and presented it as the goal of archival work (see photo below). Altogether, I found her to be incredibly eloquent, but still forceful, in speaking about these issues from the point of view of what might be called an "ally" although I don't know if that's exactly the right word. What I mean is she does not appear to be South Asian American or a member of another minority group; like me, she is a white, well-educated, professional woman working in academia. (And YES, women are totally marginalized and oppressed in all sorts of ways, but we are not exactly under-represented in the library professions or among the ranks of RBMS.) However, this doesn't mean we can't or shouldn't participate in the work of fostering representational belonging reflective of the diverse communities we serve. Caswell has written and argued elsewhere that social justice work is a universal human imperative, in addition to an archival one. The important thing is to try to balance the need for recognizing difference and the ability to talk across difference without collapsing or erasing difference. (At least, I think that's what she said, but I'm sure it sounded better in her words.) 

    • Mark Puente (of ARL) spoke last. He began by reminding us that at least three of the victims from the Pulse nightclub shooting were undocumented immigrants. One was killed, but two survived: wounded and without medical insurance, probably without savings or any kind of financial flexibility, likely employed on a temporary basis, without sick days, without disability benefits, their income dependent on the ability to do manual labor, and now facing a long recovery in a country far from home, under complicated legal circumstances. He said, let's not forget, while we mourn this violent tragedy, the everyday violence of living life as a minority in this country. 

    10:45 am. Short papers panel: Collaborative Cataloging — moderated by Randal Brandt (UC Berkeley). Ugh, why is it always so depressing to talk about special collections cataloging? It's just one of those things there's never enough time or money for, and catalogers always seem to feel undervalued and overworked. I understand how difficult this work can be (although I'm not currently doing any bibliographic cataloging), and I appreciate that there is a rigorous intellectual aspect to the task of description. I wish there were more catalogers and that everybody was paid better, and I certainly wish there weren't so many inaccessible, undiscoverable items languishing in libraries and archives. But at the same time, I wonder: are special collections catalogers just hitting their inevitable MPLP-style moment of crisis? Maybe that's a false comparison to make (obviously, I'm coming from an archives-oriented perspective). But maybe there's some value in figuring out how to get more stuff described more efficiently? Because, at least, it's better than nothing?

    To clarify, I don't mean that any of the presenters were depressing bummers. It was just something in the air. A lot of questions from the audience (which I assume included catalogers) seemed... worried, concerned about the potential de-professionalization suggested by these projects:
    • Daryl Green (University of St. Andrews) described a program that harnesses student labor to address a huge backlog of uncataloged rare books, and has been pretty successful, creating approx. 80,000 new bib. records. (Side note: St. Andrews is literally ANCIENT, so imagine your idea of a "backlog" but multiplied by like 500 years. Also: apparently the UK has a shortage of skilled, professional special collections catalogers?) A few key factors to consider here: 1. the student catalogers do receive oversight from a professional rare books librarian, 2. the records are pretty basic (i.e. not DCRM-standard), and 3. the books have already been assigned classmarks (yes, on their actual spines, fortunately/unfortunately, long ago). Without this last bit, I think the project might actually not be possible, because shelf marks are just so tricky. Also, the core-level records aren't ideal, but having at least the transcribed title and publication date/place means an experienced researcher should be able to figure out if an item is relevant to their interests or not.
    • Kelly Spring (UC Irvine) talked about an NEH-funded linked data pilot project to describe UCI's collection of artists' books. I don't know if this really counts as cataloging but it was definitely collaborative, in that it requires a lot of people in various departments to make this kind of thing work. (I eagerly await the day that all of our Linked Data Projects bloom into self-sufficient Linked Data Adults and finally start pulling their own weight.) Anyway, the visualizer / discovery tool can be viewed at: http://www.lib.uci.edu/sites/all/plodab/index.php. In addition to this tool, the site helpfully includes project documentation and links to GitHub code (in the "About" section.)
    • Audra Eagle Yun (UC Irvine) is the head of Special Collections & Archives at Irvine and I must admit I was surprised to hear "We Don't Have a Rare Books Cataloger" from her, given that I think of the whole University of California system as this huge, powerful, well-funded thing. But they experimented with having students do rare books cataloging, not unlike the St. Andrews project (above), but in this case it was part of an actual course, and initiated by a faculty member. On the one hand, that's great, because you're sort of doing outreach at the same time, and making the catalog record an actual graded assignment means the students are really going to take the task seriously. But they had to bring in an outside professional cataloger as an expert consultant, and this doesn't seem like a very sustainable or scalable approach. But I wrote down this quote that I'm super into (so I hope it accurately depicts what Yun said) about "leaning in ... to the discomfort of embracing imperfection." (I.e. the MPLP approach?)
    • Laura Aydelotte (U Penn) presented The Provence Online Project (aka POP) which uses Flickr to share images of bookplates, inscriptions, and other ownership marks in early modern books. Then, the magic of crowd-sourcing!

    12:30 pm. New Members' Box Lunch Meet Up

    1:45 pm. Seminar: Experience with Diversity Initiatives: IMLS-RBS Fellows Speak — featured cohorts from the first year of my RBS fellowship: Yuh-Fen Benda (Vanderbilt), Sarah Allison (NM State U), Jamillah Gabriel (Purdue). Moderated by Julie Grob (U of Houston). I didn't take notes, apparently, probably because I don't think the fellows said anything really unexpected. What can you say when you've been given a bunch of money to get to do something cool? They sounded appreciative, and otherwise simply described their experiences with RBS and RBMS. (I don't think that the conversation actually approached a real examination of the "necessity of diversity initiatives within librarianship" but I guess that is a difficult public conversation.)

    4:00 pm. Linked Data Consumption for the Rare Materials Librarian: An Introduction and How-to — caught my eye partly because my former library school instructor / former Brooklyn-area drinking buddy Amber Billey (now at Columbia) was presenting. Also: Brian Geiger (UC Riverside), Allison Jai O'Dell (UF Gainesville), moderator Amy Tims (American Antiquarian Society).

    One of the things that I love about Billey, which is also one of her gifts as a teacher, is that there seems to be no separation between her personality and her professional persona. She's a super-nerd about library stuff, who would be doing volunteer work for libraries in her free time and probably reading and writing about libraries even if she didn't work at one. Enthusiasm like that is important from the instructor of a metadata course (especially one scheduled at 6 pm on a weeknight). Also, from my current point of view as a fellow professional, I appreciate that she's so frank about her personal and political positions, given where we are right now (I mean not just RBMS but also The World) regarding diversity, authority, privilege, neutrality. {See, for example, some projects she's been involved with: The Digital Transgender Archive (or DTA), Homosaurus (an international linked data thesaurus of LGBT index terms), and this recent paper: Billey, Amber; Drabinski, Emily; and Roberto, K.R., "What's Gender Got to Do With It? A Critique of RDA Rule 9.7" in Cataloging & Classification Quarterly, Vol. 52, Iss. 4, 2014.} So anyway, her take on Linked Data:
    • MARC is great! It's perfect for what it is. But 'what it is' is a closed system, a gated community, an arcane, ivory tower. It doesn't 'talk to' the internet; it's not part of the web.
    • Linked Open Data IS made of the same stuff as the web. It doesn't need to be translated or crosswalked. 
    • In the future, bibliographic entities will exist as URIs instead of MARC records
    • Future bibliographic description will be more focused on context and explaining the relationships between entities (and less time will be spent on spelling things correctly and formulating authority terms).
    • LOD has some radical potential for changing our relationships with outside (for-profit) vendors. If librarians can mint URIs, and bibliographic description "lives" on the web itself, we don't need the vendors to build discovery layers or tools for extracting MARC data from the special silos we put it in. (See also: BIBFRAME; library consortia and inter-institutional projects of the recent past, like: RLIN, Z39.50 protocol.)  
    Brian Geiger talked about the English Short Title Catalogue (ESTC), which is still in beta, but my notes consist solely of the web address.

    Everything else I wrote down is incomplete (they were moving too quickly for me to capture all the points they covered) and I wrote a note to myself to 'see the presentation slides when available' but I have no idea if that's even a thing. (Additional note to myself: I still haven't read Charles Ammi Cutter's 1876 "Rules for a Dictionary Catalog" which Billey also talked about back in class, so maybe I should actually check it out...)

      6:00 pm. IMLS-RBS Fellows Reception

      7:15 pm. Restaurant Night — ended up at Whisk with a fellow (former) fellow and a whole slew of lovely ladies, and it was DELISH. (Although I think I accidentally ate bacon.)

      RBMS part 2 | Thursday | June 23
      RBMS part 3 | Friday | June 24

      Wednesday, April 20, 2016


      So, MARAC's Spring 2016 meeting was held in Pittsburgh, luckily for me — close enough to drive to and it's a city I like. It seems the converging rivers twined around our downtown hotel venue provided some thematic inspiration; the program was entitled "Archival Confluence: Connecting Theory and Practice."

      The schedule is much more condensed than SAA. The list of what I crammed into two short days easily might have been spread over four or five. (Especially since Thursday was just driving, arriving, and trying to find dinner.)
      New Member Orientation, at 8:30 am (!!!)

      Breakfast and Plenary with PA State Archivist David Carmicheal, who was much more delightful than I expected: "Between a Rock and Hard Place: Archivists at the Confluence of Past and Future." (A print version of this talk was published in MARAC's newsletter, The Mid-Atlantic Archivist, Summer 2016; Volume 45, No. 3, ISSN 0738-9396; beginning on page 10.)

      S4 | Culture in Transit: Digitizing and Democratizing NYC's Cultural Heritage. I think this was my favorite session of the conference. This is exactly the kind of project I get really excited about, and they have been excellent about documenting everything. See: www.mnylc.org/cit/. (Partner organizations include: Brooklyn Public Library, Metropolitan New York Library Council, Queens Library)

      Luncheon speaker Eric C. Shiner, Director of the Andy Warhol Museum: "Consumption X Production." Among lots of interesting things he said, I was perhaps most struck by his discussion Andy as collector (hoarder?)  and how that is sort of essential to his process of becoming (both artist and persona). Reminds me a bit of another collector/designer I know...

      S6 | The DIY Manager: Teaching Yourself What You Need to Be an Effective Manager. (I did not learn how to be an effective manager, but I also didn't take ANY notes, so I can't recall why not.)

      Schmoozing with vendors ... trying not to nap when retrieving jacket from hotel room...

      S15 | The Duchamp Research Portal: Moving an Idea to Proof of Concept. This project is still in process, involving a partnership between the Philadelphia Museum of Art and two French organizations: the Centre Georges Pompidou and the l'Association Marcel Duchamp (his family foundation, I think). Other speakers on the panel are consultants from yet more institutions: Brooklyn Museum, the Dedalus Foundation, and Temple University Libraries.

      Reception at the Heinz History Center museum, where we wandered drunkenly through the incredible and incredibly nostalgic vintage toys exhibit.

      Impromptu visit, on foot, to the Warhol (skipping dinner until something like 11:00 pm and thus I was dead).
      S16 | Who's Driving the Bus? How Digitization Is Influencing Collections. This was a crew from UNC Greensboro. Well put-together and organized, but not very visionary. (Is that a fair criticism?) I'm not sure there's much for me to learn from hearing that digitization is complicated and imperfect and that everybody needs to compromise and play nice with each other.

      S23 | In the Beginning: Building an Archive from the Ground Up. These guys were actually interesting (although missing a speaker). It was sort of like a more practical version of the "DIY Manager" session earlier, and I think I got more out of it. Like, realizing I'm pretty sure I wouldn't be good at working as an independent consulting archivist embedded in an unfriendly corporation. I just don't have that kind of self-esteem.

      Wednesday, September 16, 2015


      Hello, Cleveland! Now that I live in a small town, I've lost that sheen of New York City snobbery, and you are looking like a mecca of cosmopolitanism right now. I've never been so excited to buy a $5 cup of coffee before.

      So... this year's SAA Annual Meeting was tag-lined "make the connection." (Or possibly "THE people, THE ideas, THE tools" but I hope not. Thus are the perils of graphic design.) Officially, its hashtag was supposed to be #saa15, but surely I can't be the only historically-minded conference attendee insisting on the specificity of the more complete #saa2015! (...and thus the reasons we bother with authority files and content standards.)

      Notes and thoughts on sessions, in semi-chronological order 
      Wednesday | August 19
      Collection Management Tools Roundtable — I had high hopes for this, as the agenda looked like it would actually cover a bunch of useful information. But my hotel check-in snafu meant I missed it. And the webcast recording got cut off during the last presentation...

      Encoded Archival Description Roundtable — This was possibly silly for me attend, as I'm not doing much technical work with EAD right now, but it was actually super-informative. The amount of recent progress made on EAD3, EAC, SNAC, and the new ICA conceptual model are really exciting. (As in, it's almost like all this annoying data-stuff we're doing will finally make certain kinds of functionality possible!) With presenters, speakers, and FAQs from THE most knowledgeable people involved, this meeting had a lot of overlap with the ICA session (#s109 below).
      Thursday | August 20
      Plenary I — "Telling the Stories of Archives and Archivists" featured a speaker from StoryCorps, which is a pretty great way to make people pay attention and care about what you're saying at 9am.

      Session 109 — The "ICA [International Council on Archives] Expert Group on Archival Description [EGAD] Interim Report on the Development of a Conceptual Model" and ontology for archival description ... is probably something you're just either psyched about or not. (Note: I AM PSYCHED.) While there are a bunch of more esoteric benefits of this work (like trans-discipline communication and technical development), as an archivist who primarily does description, it just feels right to me to shift the way we think and talk about the hierarchy of documents/records, fonds, collections, etc. The idea that "a record" can and often will belong to more than one "record group" concurrently or subsequently is kind of like ...yeah, uh-huh, I know. Ditto for breaking out of the strict hierarchical descriptive structure and acknowledging relationships that are "multidimensional" (to quote Aaron Rubinstein). At the same time, I'm eager for more structure and definition when it comes to terms like 'entities,' 'relationships,' 'agents.' And don't even get me started on the possibility of harnessing graph technologies to DISPLAY finding aid data in a reasonable way...! Yes PLEASE to enabling new kinds of discovery and moving toward query-able, non-document-based finding aids. In summary, these guys (Rubinstein, Daniel Pitti, and Bill Stockting) seem like exactly the kind of super-smart people you want to be working on this.  

      The American Archivist lunch discussion was intense and extremely interesting and is too big of a topic to address here with any of the necessary complexity, BUT: one of questions that keeps coming up in this argument about the archivist's role in relation to diversity, social justice, and objectivity/neutrality is: 'Well, what if we offend one of our donor communities? How then do we build diverse collections?'

      Session 201 — "'Mind Your Own F#@king Business': Documenting Communities that Don't Want to Be Documented and the Diversity of the American Record" was a great counter-point to the lunch discussion preceding it. So...if the question is 'how do we diversify collections without pandering to every donor' maybe this panel provides a few answers. The truth is that we have plenty of stuff in the archives that we didn't just wait to be given to us but went out and collected because we knew it wouldn't be documented any other way. Terrorists, polygamists, police brutality, graffiti, Native American community archives versus "copyright law as a tool of colonialism," whether or not LGBT collections can live in harmony with a conservative politician's papers, and Terry Baxter's beard... This. Session. Had. It. All. I guess sometimes you just have to do what you can, and you scrape your collections together from around the edges of things: court documents, web-crawls, google street views... ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ ?

      <relatedmaterial> #s104#s606, #s702 </relatedmaterial>

      Visual Materials Section — So I actually attended this on accident because I get Sections and Roundtables mixed up all the time (see also: http://www2.archivists.org/news/2015/council-seeks-comment-on-proposed-changes-in-member-affinity-groups).  But I like VMS and the work they've done with the new website, and there were some interesting ideas discussed about VM education and Visual Literacy.

      Then there was the exhibit hall and grad student poster presentations (the girls from China were amazing!) and then we all went to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum and I was super overstimulated and lost my mind somewhere around the Beyoncé costumes. Thus...
      Friday | August 21
      I slept through Plenary II: "The Leadership Plenary." (Boo.)

      Session 309 — "The Community IS the Archives: Challenging the Role of the Repository in Community Archives" was somewhat of a continuation of my self-imposed #saa2015 theme. (Something about "non-traditional" collection-building and under-served user groups.) The three presenters had very different angles, which was great.
      • Jennifer Marshall offered an academic perspective, a sort of overview of the general cultural shift towards postmodernist thought (the Truth vs. truths) and how that might translate into archival practice. 
      • Lila Teresa Church thoroughly covered issues related to "hidden" African-American collections and provided some practical advice for collecting in this area (approach the community as a "learner," not a "knower"). These non-traditional strategies seem often to be oriented around events: exhibits, church or community gatherings, deaths or estate sales(!), holidays/anniversaries... She illustrated her talk with wonderful photographs of her own ancestors, which were found and rescued from just such an estate sale. 
      • But I think my favorite speaker of the session was Marty Olliff, who eschewed a visual presentation altogether, but was such a good orator that it was quite enjoyable nonetheless. I did tweet his recommendation to avoid being a "records Gollum" but that was really the least important thing he said. He described, in detail, something he called a Distributed Archives Model (which I've not encountered before) and BEST of all, it made sense and seemed practical and manageable. The way I imagine it is something like a hub-and-spoke structure, with professional expertise, resources, and a unified point of access (catalog, website) at the center. So the whole thing is kind of like a university records management program, with the wider community as your various academic offices and functions. As the archivist, you only do the difficult work of appraisal at the level of individual donor organizations (communities), but provide them with education about retention, preservation, and appraisal. Sure, there might be some issues about bias and neutrality. But the overall system leads to a more democratic, complete, and representative archival record... I like that.  
      <relatedmaterial> #s205, #s406, #s407, #s508, #s610#p06#p09, </relatedmaterial>

      ...a different kind of records Gollum...

      Session 401 — "Arrangement, Description, and Access for Digital Archives" is an important and timely topic (as indicated by the number of similar sessions at this year's conference). I mostly picked this one because it included one of my coworkers (Ben Goldman). Although we work together—and will need to coordinate when I get to processing the digital portions of my current collection/project—I don't really know that much about what he's up to down the hall. So, the idea behind this panel is to get past the technical "OMG how do we do digital capture/storage/preservation?" questions and figure out the next step: How do we get those digital materials and collections into the hands of researchers? (By which I mean, I suppose, 'hands'.) One of the issues that several panelists brought up was that we don't really know what our users want from this material yet. For those repositories that do have some way of providing access to digital files, there haven't been a ton of requests. Of course, maybe potential patrons don't know the material exists, because there's also the question of discoverability. Should we link digital material to a finding aid? (And, I'd add, should we come up with a discovery tool that sucks less than the traditional finding aid???) Another factor is the fact that our users have very different skill levels and expectations when it comes to interacting with digital objects. Some might love to have a chunk of raw data to play with, while others might need something that reflects the more familiar Series / Box / Folder structure. So... this is really just the beginning. A couple of projects:
      • Brian Dietz, from NCSU, spoke about a their tool, called "Archivision," which aims to harness the metadata already present in the material to provide indexing and some access in an automated way  
      • Danielle Emerling, at West VA University, described a batch file renaming process that also searches for PII
      • Dorothy Waugh talked about Emory University's work, most notably with the Salman Rushdie papers, possibly the most high-profile example of this kind of thing... and of course, not every collection is getting that level of treatment. She shared a handy assessment rubric to evaluate the quality and complexity of digital material against the level of demand expected, which can be used to determine if access will be provided at the "standard," "emulation," or "optimal" level.
      • Gloria Gonzalez (formerly of UCLA) worked with the only other major digital manuscript collection I know of: Susan Sontag's papers. And, like everybody else on the panel, they provide access to the files via a "secure laptop" computer in the reading room (i.e. no internet access, no USB port, some kind of cable lock thing). My favorite part of this whole set-up? They give researchers a paper directory to navigate the collection. Which brings us back to the whole obsolescence of the text-based finding aid in a way that is sort of surreal and I don't know how to talk about.
      If this session had a tagline, it was: "Let the bits describe themselves."

      Obligatory shout-out to panel moderator Jason Evans Groth (NCSU) who kept it real and kept it moving, the Platonic Ideal of session moderators. Also, for reminding us that literally anything that exists is stealable so let's all stop freaking out so much and focus on the positive possibilities of providing access to digital archives.

      <relatedmaterial> #s101#s110Pop-Up 1, #s507#s701 </relatedmaterial>

      Session 506 — "The Archives as Data Set: Creating Opportunities for Big Data Through Archival Access and Description" was another session topic that seemed to have multiple iterations at this conference and something I was pretty psyched about. I regularly find myself in conversations with colleagues (teaching faculty, subject librarians, digital humanists) where I'm basically like "YOU WANT DATA? WE HAVE THE DATA! WE ARE DATA CENTRAL!" Yes, I recognize there's a big difference, usability-wise, between hundreds of boxes of paper archives and a data corpus of high-quality literary text. But I'm tired of hearing non-archives people talk about "data curation" or "research data management" like it's some new species of problem they've just identified. In fact, we already have some tools for organizing and describing massive aggregations of information and hierarchical relationships between files, and we've been thinking about preservation, long-term access, and data re-usability this whole time. (I recognize, also, that as a profession we haven't been great about promoting our work or telling people what we do, and it makes me sad.) I guess I'm not the only one. So here's a couple of things I learned. We really need to have better metadata if we want to be able to connect our data across collections and repositories, and we need that data to be open in order to make connections or let anyone to use our data for anything interesting. If I'd thought about it I might have realized this, but Gretchen Gueguen revealed that DPLA has its own standard metadata profile, which is necessary to normalize all the wonky data it gets from various libraries, archives, and museums. Not only do we each have our own metadata standards (not that archivists are particularly rigorous about enforcing them), but we use different LEVELS of description as well (items vs. aggregates.) So that's a huge pain in the ass. But the good news is ... well, lots of university libraries are making data curation (or some similar phrasing) part of their strategic plans, so NOW is a good time for archivists to get involved in the conversation. Also, when you do get your data structured and put it out there (as APIs, etc.) there are, in fact, people who like to make apps with your stuff. Which is pretty cool.

      <relatedmaterial> #s209#s607, "Where's the Archivist in Digital Curation?" (Archivaria #72)  </relatedmaterial>

      Visual Materials Cataloging and Access Roundtable — This was my first time attending this group (not counting when I accidentally went to the VMS meeting the day before) because a: I figured it might be helpful to me, considering the nature of my current processing work, and b: I really enjoyed the VRA conference earlier this year, which has led me to think that maybe these people (art librarians & archivists) are my people. The meeting agenda, emailed ahead of time, had an interesting line up of speakers:
      • Jackie Dooley on her statistical study of archival MARC records (leader byte 08 = "a") in WorldCat and the consistency (?) of practice in cataloging visual materials 
      • Stephen Fletcher on "The Idea of Visual Literacies" (which introduced me to the word "ocularcentrism")
      And three presentations on "processing hybrid collections" which, in this context, means visual + text instead of digital + paper.
      • Wendy Pflug (Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum at OSU) titled her talk "Just Enough" and presented collection-level MARC cataloging as a sort of MPLP for visual materials. She quoted something I've heard before but can't find the citation for (my notes say "ARL report?"): some access for all is better than all access for some
      • Mary Alice Harper (Harry Ransom Center at UT) spoke about processing the large archive of photojournalist David Douglas Duncan, including papers plus art, artifacts, and approximately a gazillion photos, negatives, and transparencies. (Sounds familiar...) Her advice: "Divide and conquer."
      • Dianna Ford (Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Library & Archives) talked about mixed material processing of a different nature, involving a lot of audiovisual digitization.
      <relatedmaterial> #s405 ("Images of Women in Advertising") </relatedmaterial>

      Saturday | August 22
      Session 603 — "Get Their Hands on It: Teaching with Objects in Archives and Special Collections" was interesting to me not specifically (or not only) because it had to do with instruction, but because it was about things. As much as I am interested in opening up the archives to big-data-esque possibilities, I am always concerned with archives-as-material-culture as well. Does this preclude the born-digital? I'm not sure what I think of that yet, but I know that someone could make an argument, if they haven't already, for the specific "material culture" of the early web and probably some other digital artifacts, too.

      But that's mostly not what the panelists were there to talk about. So here's another digression! I noticed there was kind of consistency between the concerns of the teaching-with-objects camp and the visual-literacies camp (see above), with someone in this session even referencing "VTS," or Visual Thinking Strategies. (Considering all of this alongside my own experience teaching college-level English composition, I'm beginning to wonder if ANY students are coming out of the U.S. public school system with ANY critical thinking abilities whatsoever... which is yet another digression.) Anyway, the session line-up:
      • Mott Lin (Clark University Libraries) opened with an example 'object lesson': the cotton gin. If you present it to students without any other info, how can they determine what this weird, box-like, wooden object is called? How does one begin to understand its purpose, age, provenance?
      • Sarah Keen (Colgate University Archivist) spoke about using a small bust of Mercury (a salvaged architectural detail from somewhere on campus, I think?) similarly, as a platform to introduce the archives, leading students to construct a narrative via supporting documentation and university records. She pointed out that the methodology can be used to explore a number of disciplines: the same object can provoke an exploration of history, art/architecture, material sciences/technology, etc. 
      • Kathelene Smith (UNC Greensboro, Archivist for Textiles & Artifacts) described an instructional activity for a social science course, in which each student was assigned their own, real-life, historical subject to research, using student records and realia from UNCG's early days as a women's college. The project is long-term, so students often develop a personal "relationship" with their assigned subject, in the process of learning how to conduct archival research. Again this idea of constructing narrative, with narrative as sort of the glue that holds the "learning" together. *BONUS* Pro Tip: approach faculty with a tailored list of relevant resources and an instruction plan based on their syllabi, instead of waiting for them to approach you! (Obviously more difficult in practice than it sounds.)    
      • Ed Vermue (Oberlin College Special Collections) was probably my favorite speaker in this group...is this because he was the one who passed around artifacts, including a civil-war-era cannonball? As Vermue pointed out, the "whole brain pedagogical approach" is, in fact, backed up by research from disciplines like cognitive science and evolutionary theory, showing specific connections between the hand/tactile senses and the brain/memory (but I would LOVE a citation for this). Among the goodies he brought were horribly brittle, detached book pages—which he crumpled to dust in his hands and let flutter to the floor. This to underscore the theatricality involved in teaching with objects, and also a pitch for maintaining a "yuck box." (If you collect some samples of your deaccessionable material, you can use those to show students why we need to be careful with rare books, or how photo emulsion can crack and peel, etc.) Other interesting points: think of archives/special collections as more of a "lab" or "petting zoo" model; remember that text-based documents can be equally "artifactual" as a 3D object; and is it "primary source" learning, or is it "primal"? Perhaps in addition to being pedagogically effective, learning with objects appeals to students because it seems "transgressive" and non-prescribed, whereas they have come to view "learning" as merely  including reading and lectures? (HEY MAYBE THIS IS WHY THEY DON'T KNOW HOW TO THINK CRITICALLY? JUST A THOUGHT LOL.)
      • Anne Salsich (Oberlin College Archives) was the session chair and I don't seem to have many notes on her portion besides a reminder to make sure we show students how to search and access finding aids (or other descriptions) for our very specialized types of collections and formats. 
      Aaaaand for the preservationists whose hearts palpitate at the thought of letting undergrads touch their stuff, please note: in almost every case discussed here, the object lesson doesn't require the object to be authentic. Reproductions, facsimiles, and 3D-printed models work just fine.

      <relatedmaterial> #s501#saa15teach (RAO Section Unconference) </relatedmaterial>

      Session 704 — "A Different Type of Animal? Advocating for Natural Science Archives" was another session only tangentially relevant to me, I suppose (although, holy crap do I love science museums!), but also: I have never understood why these papers are not more routinely accessioned into university archives and manuscript repositories alongside other literary or institutional collections.

      Having written that, I wonder if maybe they are there and I just don't know what I'm talking about? But if that's the case, I'm not alone in my ignorance, because I certainly don't see a lot of natural science researchers coming to the reading room. ...So, that's probably why this group got together to make a session about it. It sounds like the "advocacy"needs to happen on several fronts: A) within science museums and institutions, where they tend to overlook the importance of so-called "ancillary data" and focus on the specimens; B) externally, to the broader community of scientists (potential collection donors and/or researchers) who also tend to think that their important work happens out "in the field" and aren't accustomed to considering historical contexts; C) and inter-archivally (if that makes sense), because there are a number of specific issues important to these natural sciences archivists that the rest of us maybe just don't understand or realize.

      Random general note: the "different type of animal" in the session title is a taxonomic reference, "type" being a sort of idealized example of a species/genus. Additional random general note: consider the "Field Book" as a genre (or "field notes" according to the Getty AAT). It's a very specific type of information resource, which challenges the archivist to figure out ways to connect data from the notes to the physical specimens.
      • Tim White (listed as Russell White in the program), from Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, began with a reminder of the wide variety of disciplines represented within the natural sciences: botanical, zoological, geological, entomological, archaeological...  and alllll the different sets of classification standards and vocabularies involved. (Related/See also: 'Darwin Core')
      • From the AMNH was Barbara Mathe (Museum Archivist) & Becca Morgan (project archivist). The scope of their collections is kind of astounding: 32 million specimens, 25 thousand linear feet of archives, and also, they are dispersed across locations and divisions within AMNH. They do EAD for finding aids, and have also adopted the use of EAC entity records, not only for people (obvies) but also for expeditions, so they can link separate discoveries made during the same trip. Which is sort of interesting to think about, and probably not something that would come up for other types of archives. See also: NSAA (Natural Sciences Archives Alliance), and iDigBio (Integrated Digitized Biocollections), "making data and images of millions of biological specimens available on the web."
      • From the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, speakers were Lesley Parilla (cataloger) & Julia Blase (Project Manager), both of whom work on the "Field Book Project".  Some challenges include: the uniqueness of the material (often needs item-level cataloging), but also the need for data to conform to standards in order to be shareable! They use FileMaker to create MODS records (because MARC-compatible), NCBI (for taxonomy), and EAC (for reusable authorities), and share their records with the BHL (see below). This aggregation = a broader audience, then BHL is also harvested by DPLA, and the Internet Archive.
      • Nicole Kearney represented the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL) Australia, which is an online catalog PLUS digital content. Additional challenge involved with providing access to field diaries: even if cataloged AND scanned, they really need transcription in order to be useful. Crowd-sourcing is one option. But the quantities of data are HUGE: transcribing ~5 diaries yielded something like 5000 unique species sightings, and included ~450 individual scientists.
      • Christina Fidler (archivist @ UC Berkeley Museum of Vertebrate Zoology) was very passionate, saying hey let's respect the quantity and quality of this data and figure out how to describe and preserve it. We need to listen to the scientists, because they care about different kinds of info, and we need to get them to know and value archives and archivists. See also: the Grinnell Resurvey Project in relation to the issue of climate change.
      <relatedmaterial> #s307, #s509 (plus roundtables via Storify) </relatedmaterial>

      In conclusion, dear Cleveland, thank you most of all for your kind locals, your tacos, that hand-harvested monkey-massaged single-origin organic fair-trade coffee, and the vegan chicken-fried cauliflower steak. XXXO!

      Wednesday, September 2, 2015

      S is for Serendipity

      dear Robert,

      I know it's been a while, but I have to tell you about this thing that happened today. It's so random but also entirely true; it seems like something you'd read in a book.

      So, speaking of books. I am a librarian now, which was kind of surprise to me when I figured that out, but somehow I think you could have predicted that way back when I was in your collage class, making what you called "poem-objects." I didn't know then how much you were a poet, alongside from the artist and photographer and teacher I knew. Anyway, today, some 12 years later, in a library in another state, my eyes were scanning the spines of books in section "Z," library science and bibliography, print history, typography. And there, a skinny volume between heavy, encyclopedic tomes, was your name: Seydel. The title: Songs of S.

      'What?' I thought. 'I didn't know he wrote another book before he died.' But then, I opened it up and saw the date, that it's new—the revelation that they've been going through your work since you've been gone. Sharing you with us, as you surely meant to, if you'd just had a bit more time.

      But this book all poems, no pictures. How strange to happen to find this here, I thought, on the search for something else, because I definitely need to read it.

      Here's the really ridiculous part. Poetry belongs in the "P" class, according to the Library of Congress, on another floor of this building entirely. I checked the call number again: definitely Z232. For a minute, I could believe this was a clever joke of yours rather than simple error. It seemed so entirely within the realm of your expansive, omnivorous wit and the impish sense of humor in your art to intentionally mis-classify a library book, or that one of your many alter egos was a typesetter for the government printing office. Another layer of fictional history. A kind of geologically slow performance art, begging the question: is it still a performance without an audience?

      I hope you would find all this funny, if you were still here.

      And I hope most of all that you knew, even if I never said it, that you were the best kind of teacher there is, the kind any student is lucky to come across even just once in a lifetime. 

      Friday, May 22, 2015

      history in things

      Sometimes I try to exercise the other part of my brain, the less analytic part.  But I guess it's all connected.  Because here I am reading this poem, and it's entirely about what happens to things and experiences once time and place has decontextualized them.  So, how do we reanimate them with meaning later?
       . . .

      The knife there on the shelf—
      it reeked of meaning, like a crucifix.
      It lived. How many years did I
      beg it, implore it, not to break?
      I knew each nick and scratch by heart,
      the bluish blade, the broken tip,
      the lines of wood-grain on the handle . . .
      Now it won't look at me at all.
      The living soul has dribbled away.
      My eyes rest on it and pass on.

      The local museum's asked me to
      leave everything to them:
      the flute, the knife, the shrivelled shoes,
      my shedding goatskin trousers
      (moths have got in the fur),
      the parasol that took me such a time
      remembering the way the ribs should go.
      It still will work but, folded up,
      looks like a plucked and skinny fowl.
      How can anyone want such things?

      . . .

      from "Crusoe in England"
      by Elizabeth Bishop

      Tuesday, January 20, 2015

      the greatest show on earth!

      Or, at least, a show. And it's definitely on earth.

      Official exhibition announcement/digital signage for PSU Libraries.

      And here are the various press release links:
      Then there are the book-nerd links, thanks to fabulous PSU book conservator Bill Minter:
      There are also interviews with your truly (for some reason; honestly I don't know why):

      And then, there is the video.