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:  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 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!

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