Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Square pegs in round holes

There is really nothing like trying to explain best practices and limitations to lay people to clear your thinking on archival and library processes.

Yesterday I was interviewed by a group of MBA students out of UCLA. They were curious about how archivists and digital librarians approach their large digital projects, including how we create metadata. They are hypothesizing a content (or digital asset) management product which would go through audio or audiovisual materials and pull rich subject metadata out of those objects. Not to toot my own horn, but since I've been working in libraries and then archives and then libraries and then metadata and then archives, I feel like I know quite a bit about how products work or don't work for digital projects of many types.
(I informed them that the QC on the backend would be substantial (especially since you're throwing all these subject terms into a relational database!) and that's something a company would need to be upfront about or no one would touch it.)

But these people were babes in the proverbial woods, seriously. They asked me if I thought it was "important" to be able to get my data out of a proprietary system. HAVE YOU EVER MET A LIBRARIAN BEFORE. Yeah, it's moderately to extremely-goddamn-important to be able to use this data in applications beyond your proprietary system.

But the reason I'm writing about this is because of one thing that we talked about in particular, and it came out of the discussion about flexible metadata. They asked me if I'd like for my DAMS to work directly with an ILS or federated searching agent or union catalog, without my intervention. So I thought about it, because yes, that sounds great to me, but...there is a problem. I almost never put single digital assets into a catalog.

I use ContentDM. It works fine. But like many digital asset management systems, it deals with single objects. On the other hand, the lion's share of my cataloging and sending off to various places happen with collections of items, with descriptions rarely getting down to the granularity of a digital object.

Suddenly the immense problems in digital archives came into focus (and I admit, I kind of laughed hysterically while explaining this to the poor baby MBA students): creating digital records for digital objects bogs us down because our work is designed to ignore single objects.

I know we have a ton of workarounds for this problem--digitizing a whole collection (or most of it), creating finding aids that integrate links to digitized items, etc--but seriously this is such a huge, huge fundamental problem. My traditional archival practices and procedures and ideals, if I am expected to couple them with parallel digital and physical collections, simply don't work very well. If they work at all. No wonder so many archivists are pulling their hair out trying to make a square peg fit into a round hole. The square peg fits but only if you take a saw and make the hole a lot bigger.

Friday, October 24, 2014

The Story V. The Reality

A fellow archivist and I saw a job ad for the position of assistant archivist at Tiffany & Co. Now, neither of us knows anyone from their corporate or historic archives, nor do we have any idea of how the institution works. But some job ads just grab your imagination!

This is what we imagined:

Everyone is in pencil skirts and fashionable scarves, wool trousers and silk vests, slender and tall. People bring their lunches in custom bento boxes and sit among the trees on the expansive grounds surrounding the buildings. They go to the City on the weekends, just to get brunch and do some shopping. They ride vintage bicycles to work through their small town streets. The women have long hair which they put up with pencils in a fit of pique while studying design drawings. 


Then, we were laughing because of course no archives is truly like that. It's more like THIS:

It's a faceless concrete box with arrow-slit windows in Jersey, there are backlogs of files and drawings everywhere. No one can find the 1936 Fall catalog even though Jeanette said she put it back. Jeanette, by the way, is the worst. She talks about everyone behind their back, has no sense of how to properly enter metadata into a database, but got hired because she speaks French (she's the daughter of a French farmer's daughter and an engineer from Jersey City, something she keeps a secret). 
The coffee is always bad because Jeff, the head of Decorative Arts, refuses to clean the coffee pot properly, citing potential ruination of his vintage cuff links. Jeff has Pomeranians and is generally horrible to everyone. The previous archivist didn't keep proper accession records so everyone has to work backwards from the old records, making it all ten times harder. The subject of electronic records is being "saved" for the new archivist they're hiring.
The one person of note at this institution is Gwendolyn, the head of the jewelry collections, the irrefutable Queen. Her outfits are simple but impeccable; she carries the same vintage Dior handbag every day because it was her grandmother's. She grew up in Boston but studied at the Sorbonne, and gives Jeanette a withering glace every time she starts talking about how superior the French are at everything. Jeff has been trying to get into her good graces for years; he desperately wants to get out of the document archives and into the museum collections. Unfortunately for Jeff, she knows that his "vintage" cuff links are really late-era reproductions. Gwen never talks about people behind their back, but once complimented your scarf, which you knit yourself, and you almost died. 

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

On Curiosity

I am a very curious person. I like looking up random facts and tucking them away in my mental pockets, to pull them out and study them later. I enjoy microscopes and bits of information and sitting very still in various locations to see what happens when I do that. Curiosity, though, seems to be for the young. If I do a google search on "places for curious people" I inevitably come up with 80% children's museums, 15% adult reenactment websites, and 5% restaurants.

Where is the place for grownups who are curious about things? Some people might argue "graduate school", but I think most people who have attended graduate school know that there is generally very little room for curiosity in graduate school. I try to rope my friends into being curious with me, with usually quite limited success. I have resorted to sort of randomly barraging them with new knowledge while they snack on queso during a sporting event. And the thing is, I have amazing friends who are all quite talented and intelligent and interested in things. Yet, I can count on one hand the number of people I know that are just CURIOUS. And those people are just as fed-up with this situation as I am. Why are children the only ones encouraged to be curious? "Youth is wasted on the young", indeed. Where's my version of a children's museum, filled with science experiments and factoids and water tables? Some people point me to Makerspaces, which....ok? I suppose? but I'm not a builder. I see that these are fellow-curious people, but they want to discuss engineering concepts and solutions to physical problems. Makerspaces are also geared more towards the young, with the idea that curiosity can be commodified into generating engineers.

Another angle I've considered is political issues. Some people like to argue politics, but I do not think that discussing politics is an appropriate outlet for the intellectually curious, if I'm totally honest with myself. I find myself envying the old Royal Society of London (even though it's strictly scientists) for its camaraderie of inquisitiveness. But guess what? It's reserved for the "most eminent" scientists. If you are curious but not capable of successfully navigating the world of peer-reviewed research journals, you need not apply, sir.

 So where do the curious go, once they've grown up? I'm no Peter Pan, I have no desire to return to childhood. I just want to keep my curiosity going, to keep it fresh, to keep looking and learning and exploring knowledge. The internet assures me that I, as an adult, *should* be curious, because it makes me healthier and helps me live longer. As if curiosity can be turned on and off depending on how high my cholesterol is. Do people turn off their curiosity? Do they grow lazy? Have they learned everything already and I'm just lagging behind everyone else?

I bought a magnifying glass the other day. It seemed like a tool I could use. I also keep a tape measure near me in case of measuring opportunities. I keep my smartphone always, for checking Wikipedia or music lyrics or finding etymologies in the OED. I have no idea what drives me to be so curious, but I am and I like it. I just wish more other adults liked it, too.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

The Future of the Archival Professional

Lots of people are talking about the future of archives, mostly from the point of view of materials and access, and these are indeed very pressing issues. Reinventing the mission of the archives and finding ways to mediate and educate the user will certainly be the greatest challenge in the coming years.  But occasionally scholars are diving into the waters of defining archivists themselves. Richard Cox wrote a bit about what he terms the “generational divide” that archivists are facing. Cox postulated in 2011 that since many managerial archivists today did not grow up in a multiverse of information technologies, while their subordinates are “first-generation digital natives”, this is going to lead to a lot of friction about future paths, if it has not already. New careers and job titles are already flowing out of this new reality: digital archivist, data curator, instructional archivist. Seamus Ross, involved in digital humanities at the University of Toronto, has said that one of the most serious problems in archives today is the lack of collaboration between archivists and IT workers.  The gaps between those two groups are still large, although archivist like to think that they're closing it. Perhaps the "native digital" generation will help close that further, or maybe it's up to who will follow us to close it.
Lawrence Serewicz had an interesting postulation on how the materials we preserve will change: he claimed that in just 20 years, we may be faced with digital collections surpassing paper collections. I don't think he's being too hasty; if my own collections are any indication, some institutions are already at that point. Kate Theimer recently wrote that she envisions the entire mission of archives changing. To put it bluntly, I think this is amazing and I love her idea of explicitly calling archives a place that adds value to people's lives. For me, it ties in with how I want my institution's archives to be: a place where the community comes to find out about itself.

And these changes will necessitate a change in how archivists are created, and how archivists perceive themselves, and how archivists educate themselves and interact with their peers in IT and libraries and museums. As the archivist changes, so too does the archivist’s goals and ambitions. Diversity of experience leads to new definitions of what’s important to collect, the best means of collecting and preserving, and the best way to provide access. The whole plane is shifting under our feet. Embracing these changes is the only way to stay standing. I think that figuring out ways to incorporate the variety of skill sets/experiences of current or new archivists, beyond just their archival training, is a good way to start taking action. As Richard Cox said, we are dealing with generational issues and professional status issues, not just issues of products or process. This would be a small step, to be sure, but if we don't start with what we already have--our own diversity of experience and knowledge of the world, and personal feelings about how we interact with technology and the historical record--I'm not sure that we'll get very far with the other areas, either.
"Wicked people never have time for reading. It's one of the reasons for their wickedness." —Lemony Snicket, The Penultimate Peril.