Thursday, September 19, 2013

Decision-making and management

Yesterday, we had our professional development meeting. This is for the librarians, and we talk about issues that surround moving up in your career, libraries generally, or management issues. The reality of the meeting is that it's a chance to sit around and think bigger thoughts than we tend to do in staff meetings, where all we talk about is systems, schedules, conferences, etc. I really like the professional development meetings.

Anyway, so  yesterday we all read an article about decision-making, and how people tend to make decisions with their "guts" and how that's really a terrible way to make a decision. We talked about why institutions will sometimes get themselves in trouble over a poorly made or impetuous decision, and how individual personalities and politics are usually wrapped up in that. We also talked about how decisions can be made by thinking that you only have two choices, when in reality you may have four extra choices that you're not seeing because you're too close to the issue in the heat of the moment.

This discussion led me to think of my past bosses, and how I tend to be as a boss (or as part of a project team). When I was younger, I was a true drama-creator. I would blow something way out of proportion and then eventually I'd sit back and say "what the...? Get a grip on yourself." But by then it was usually too late.

In my second "real" job, I had a boss who, while he didn't cure me of this tendency, certainly gave me the tools to keep it in check. He did it by example. Whenever someone came to him with a crisis, his first move was to say "let's think about this" and we'd sit down and talk through the scenarios. If you asked him about something less critical, he would always listen to the whole spiel, then say "great, I'm going to give this some thought and I'll get back to you." He always made a decision, but he also always made his decisions after giving the matter some consideration. There was no wringing of hands and discussing the matter ad nauseum, and also no brusquely telling people that his way was the best and then being afraid to back down. Consequently, he really was the best boss I ever had. And not just because he took the time to make decisions, but because he was a fantastic example of how to make decisions well.

Now, obviously, you could have someone who took time to make decisions and then made poor decisions. I think the genius of his approach was that he not only gave himself time to make the decision, but he gave me (and my peers) time to give the matter more thought. So when I came back to him the next day, he would tell me what he thought and I would have new things to say, and we could come to an agreement with some distance and with calm minds. Even today, when I am about to send an email, I will hold onto that email for 20 minutes or so, come back to it, and re-evaluate.

Decision-making is hard, being a boss is hard, but it was so great to get to work under someone who refused to see his job as putting out fires. I think he saw his job as never letting the fires get started in the first place.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

A Defense of MARC

Today I decided to work on the procedures that we will use in the future to create finding aids. I'm trying to keep things loose and relatively flexible, so I'm creating a form that will have space for typing in all the things we need in a finding aid, and making each heading a combination of both the DACS elements and the MARC field that one would associate with those elements. This way someone else could conceivably take a finding aid and turn it into a cataloging record without me there.
Anyway, so I'm looking through the DACS crosswalks, using the DACS/EAD/MARC table. And here's what I see:
2.1.5 Country identifier COUNTRYCODE

The MARC21 format does not contain a straightforward mapping for this DACS subelement value.
And, in another place, a footnote: The two-character country code is found in the latest version of ISO 3166-1 (Codes for the representation of names of countries and their subdivisions). While EAD requires the use of the ISO 3166-1 standard for names of countries, the MARC 21 standard has not yet adopted this code list. Use the code appropriate to the output system for a given description. The MARC Code List for Countries is used in archival cataloging (e.g., mixed materials) to indicate the country of the repository in the 008 field.

So, the first part made me really angry, and the footnote kind of makes me upset as well. First of all, there is indeed a very straightforward way of noting the country in MARC. The issue seems to be that DACS doesn't trust its poor archivists to read or interpret the MARC country code list. It's not that hard; any fool can google MARC country code list and find it. Plus, why not help archivists understand what MARC is doing and how it relates, rather than just throw up your hands and say "well, its in the 008 field; what can we do?"
And as to the footnote: if you're wondering why MARC hasn't adopted the ISO-3166-1, it's probably because the ISO standard does not allow you to represent the individual states of the United States in the code like MARC does. Which, for an archival system like DACS that is pretty much just for Canada and the U.S., you'd think they would embrace this functionality.

I know I've harped on this before, but I get so tired of people treating MARC like it's a junk standard. It's NOT. It's brilliant. It packs more information into a few lines than most of these standards could ever hope to include, and it does it in a language and system-neutral way. I guess this functionality is what makes it scary, I don't know. I remember being afraid of MARC in graduate school because of its immense complexity. Most of the archives people treated it like a black box, and the cataloging professors were teaching AACRII, and used MARC as its framework, rather than taking the time to show us how MARC supported and built upon AACRII rules.

I'm sure that someday we will give up MARC entirely. No standard lasts forever. But I don't like that people are throwing it over with so little thought, and treating its flexibility as a liability.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Ode to Dublin Core

I'm currently trying to take the courses necessary to fulfill the DAS (Digital Archives Specialist) requirements and get certified. I took my second of the first tier of classes yesterday, which is called Standards for Digital Archives. It was an overview of the different metadata standards and some of the tangential programs that go along with metadata. So, the usual players: OAIS, MIX, MODS, PREMIS, we dabbled in JHOVE, and TRAC and some things similar to that. And we also went over Dublin Core.
My comment to an archivist friend was: "unless you've been literally living under a rock for several years, how is it possible to have archivist who have not heard of Dublin Core?"

I know that this was mean-spirited of me. But seriously. Who on earth is going to be taking the DAS courses and hasn't at least a passing familiarity with DC?
I think my main beef was with how it was presented. "This is *Dublin Core*, named after Dublin, OHIO, where OCLC is located, and it has FIFTEEN elements."

I've heard this so many times, and its starting to feel like one of those Archival Fairy Tales.
"Oh, tell me again about the development of DC! Did they end up with 15 elements?"
"Now, now, let me tell it!!"
"Ok, ok, I promise to be good. But don't forget about qualified Dublin Core!"
"If we have time, and if you're good."

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Access in Archives

I'm back, to ponder the nature of service in the archival world. Get ready to gaze at those navels, people.

When I left the realm of "pure" archives, almost 7 years ago, most large archival institutions had *some* digital content available online, and had EAD finding aids available in union catalogs or online repositories. They had websites that mostly directed patrons on how to come in to the physical building and do research. It was at this point that I left archives and went into cataloging/library metadata.

For a few years I worked as an original cataloger and maintained the ILS for a small university library. Then I worked as a metadata liaison between an archives, digital library, and cataloging department of a medium-large research library. And then...well, then I came back to archives.

After having worked in places where ensuring usability was always my top priority, it was strange to come back to archives, especially as I remembered it. Archives have not historically been known for their accommodating nature when it comes to user needs. In fact, many archivists prided themselves on how restrictive their use policies were.

However, luckily just as I was returning to the world of archives, I got to see the results of the most recent SAA conference and some of the discussions that are percolating through the community. A small sample of some session titles: "Exploring the User Experience with Digital Primary Sources", "Disruptive Components: Reimagining Archival Access Systems", "Archives without Walls".

While some of this was happening when I was an archival student and young professional archivist, mostly at that time we were just trying to come to grips with the realities of electronic records and digitization. Usability was an afterthought in many ways. But now--! As a person whose career focused exclusively on the user for many years (and I hope this job will allow me to stay focused on the user), I feel so much more comfortable now than I did when I was pondering this move back to archives.

The moral of this blog post is best stated by Socrates (forgive the translation as I assume most people do not read Ancient Greek): "the secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but towards building the new."

I should make a motivational poster.
"Wicked people never have time for reading. It's one of the reasons for their wickedness." —Lemony Snicket, The Penultimate Peril.