Archive for September, 2009


After archives inventory, then what?

I came to my job as a special collections librarian in an urban public library with grand ideas about interactive finding aids, MARC records linking to HTML or EAD finding aids or maybe a catablog, digitized content in a DAM system or collaborative project, and envisioning our first born-digital acquisitions. What I found: tens of feet of unprocessed manuscripts, rare books, objects, and ephemera without printed finding aids or even donor agreements; uncataloged maps and card catalog-indexed vertical files, uncataloged microform, and a backlog “closet of doom.”

Nearly one year into my first professional position as librarian-archivist, I have some idea of how I would like to proceed with the unique collections of the North Carolina Room. I decided early on to formulate a structure for our existing archival and special collections materials, but first we needed a place for stuff to go. I got an NCPC grant and had a locking cage built where our department would be moving. Then my colleagues and I started moving collections, objects, and rare books into the cage (photographic and audiovisual materials are kept in a temperature-controlled closet).

The North Carolina Room has officially moved to the ground floor of Central Library, where I am now able to deal directly with the materials in our cage, particularly record groups that need finding aids. Our community organization archives (League of Women Voters, Daughters of the American Revolution, as well as StoryLine) can be kept securely in one place, but no one knows about them. My next step? Create an inventory of fonds (as well as objects, scrapbooks, and other unique materials).

After that, I have to admit I am unsure where to go. Ideally I would work with an IT team and administration to purchase and install Archon/AT and start adding finding aids that can be exported into our catalog as MARC and through our website as EAD/HTML. But we don’t have an IT team, our budget is slashed, and our county government programmers are not interested in supporting a database (yet).

I’ve developed an accession numbering system to go through all of the inventoried “collections” and am creating MS Word-based, very preliminary finding aids that I will hand to our cataloger so we can at least get some “placeholder” MARC records in the catalog. Then I am going to create a catablog and/or create HTML finding aids and investigate the possibility of our finding aids becoming part of ArchiveGrid.

In some ways, I have come to prefer “placeholder” MARC records that can be shared on WorldCat to the multitude of complicated, expensive finding aid programs out there. At UCLA (before AT) we would create a MS Word finding aid, an MS Excel container list, then send these files to an EAD coder who would then program the finding aid and send it to the OAC for harvesting. The Brooklyn Historical Society’s catablog, Emma, combines full-text searchable summary entries with links to PDF finding aids — using a free blog interface.

In my mind, and in line with the now overhyped MPLP method, people prefer to know that you have a group of records about someone/something instead of waiting for a precise description of every single item in a group of records. I see rows of unprocessed scrapbooks, slides, maps, artwork, administrative records, etc… and see a lot of information that isn’t being shared. Basically what I am wondering is: are finding aids in the traditional sense worth it?

Here’s to making things available. Feedback/suggestions are welcome!


THATCamp Austin reflections

With THATCamp Pacific Northwest coming up next month, it’s about time I posted about my experiences at THATCamp Austin. I think I’ve been delaying this post for a while out of simultaneous excitement that I got to participate and fear that I’ll be exposed as a big groupie of all the amazing folks who participated in THATCamp.

This year was the first regional session of the original THATCamp, or “The Humanities and Technology Camp,” first held by the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. As a user-generated “unconference” consisting of discussion groups, training sessions, and “dork shorts” demonstrating new projects, THATCamp is an ideal kind of spontaneous, creative outlet for  newbie archivists/digital humanists/historians.  Lisa Grimm was one of the archivists in attendance in June and wrote this inspiring post about the potential for THATCamp in Austin.

A few weeks later, THATCamp Austin was  born (care of Lisa Grimm, Ben Brumfield, Peter Keane, and Jeanne Kramer-Smyth). As I read the excited tweets about the program and encouraging news that anyone interested in digital humanities could apply, my hesitation about being a public library archivist/special collections librarian among digital humanities folks began to subside.  I applied and my idea to discuss redefining the  boundaries of memory institutions was accepted!

Overall, I could sense that the environment at THATCamp would be supportive, energetic, and a lot of fun. My enthusiasm grew as I got to the UT-Austin lecture hall where our event would be held. A narrow hallway was filled with smiling faces, free pizza, and free t-shirts thanks to some angel sponsors and a few incredibly hardworking organizers.

We settled ourselves in an auditorium in the basement of the building, with live tweets popping up on the overhead screen. Open discussion, creativity, and freedom of thought was the order of the evening — I was overjoyed! We shouted out our potential topics and organized ourselves on loosely-related themes. I chose to participate in the session on crowdsourcing in digital projects and was a discussion leader for the session on “web x.x and diversity and community.”

I didn’t take notes. For the first time in my career, my ubiquitous notebook sits devoid of scribbled entries, doodles, or quotes. Perhaps it’s because I found it faster to type than to write…so most of my remarks, in reverse chronological order, can be seen via tweets:

Perhaps the best thing about THATCamp was being given the opportunity to speak freely about new concepts with intelligent, creative folks in a non-competitive, relatively unstructured environment. No one had to submit a proposal a year in advance (many of these projects and ideas will have morphed multiple times within a few months). I relished the chance to meet some of the emerging contributors to my field and have conversations with my colleagues without the constraints of a formal panel. I am so grateful to have been there and cannot wait to see what concepts and innovations come out of future THATCamps!


SAA Research Forum: collaboration for the greater good

My presentation at the 2009 SAA Research Forum was “Sharing for the Greater Good: Outreach and Collaboration from the Perspective of Community-Based Archives,” which was an attempt to bring attention to collaboration between large and small memory institutions. You can read the abstract here.  

Following the initial shock of actually being selected to participate in the forum, I realized that there was much I wanted to say and very little time (10 minutes to be exact) to say it. I attempted to explore the process of creating a successful collaborative partnership, using the Collaboration Continuum created by Gunter Waibel in the now-famous report “Beyond the Silos of the LAMs.” While the OCLC report was meant as a high-level analysis of primarily intra-insititutional collaboration, I felt that the continuum could be applied to many local-level projects and relationships between libraries, archives, and museums.

For example, Digital Forsyth is a county-wide collaborative digitization project bringing together LAMs for a common goal. The technical and grantwriting expertise of Wake Forest University was key to the creation of the project, while Forsyth County Public Library, Old Salem Museum and Gardens, and Winston-Salem State University provided the content depth. All of this was done without the smaller institutions feeling obligated to donate their materials to Wake Forest. As a result, the DF website has become the new archive of visual history of Forsyth County, undefined by physical or institutional boundaries.

I believe that these boundaries can be blurred, indeed erased, by the formation of digital archives/libraries/museums. Through the creation of topical/geographic digital LAMs, we can permit greater access and findability to the researcher/patron/end-user. This carries great significance for community-based archives, who can keep their records in cultural and geographic context. Communities and individuals can re-define their context artificially and create new archives without diminishing or erasing historical/evidential/documentary/cultural value.

By including records and collections in subject-based archives (like the Walt Whitman Archive) or union catalogs/federated searches (like ArchiveGrid or OAIster), multiple points of access — and description — can be conceived. Some archivists ponder the interest of non-archivists in such a project. I think “non-archivists,” particularly those coming from community-based archives, would welcome the opportunity for autonomy and laying claim to their records online.

Problems arise when we consider the lack of physical preservation and digitization resources available to these community-based archives. That’s where larger institutions come into the picture: to collaborate “for the greater good.” I think the state of North Carolina is headed in a very positive direction with the Traveling Archivist program and the NC Digital Heritage Center (see previous post), both of which focus on smaller, community-based memory institutions. Smaller institutions can then take the initiative to make contact with larger institutions and be responsible for their community’s history being represented (if they so choose).

I guess my ramblings demonstrate the largeness of my topic, and the overall squishiness of my argument. I believe collaboration can be much more than a buzzword. Between the large and small repositories I can see convergence, which the Collaboration Continuum notes as the high-investment, high-risk, high-benefit result of a successful partnership. Through it, both actors are responsible for their roles and become intertwined in a mutually-beneficial relationship and at least one “common function.”

I plan to post a paper exploring my topic in a bit more detail for the forum proceedings later this month. I hope to make better sense of all this by then!