Last week I attended both the new faculty orientation and the annual conference of the Society of American Archivists in Washington D.C. I won’t go over the same ground covered admirably by Molly, but I will add a few things. Since I am much newer to the scene, I found most of the orientation valuable and informative, not the least of which was the overview of library services. I must say that we (ZSR) made a fine showing and offered the liveliest presentation. I was proud to be part of the group. The police chief’s uniform and gear on benefits day was pretty impressive too (great belt).
I also went to the pool party for new recruits and their families. I am happy to say that my two sons were not an embarrassment amid the largely 10-and-under set at Grayland pool. (Unless the spectacle of two newly hairy teens queuing up repeatedly at the bar to gruffly request Shirley Temples is embarrassing.) As they lounged amicably, I was able to meet a number of faculty in departments I might not have encountered in the normal course of work (business school, law school, math department) and talk to some deans as well. All in all, it was a good opportunity, as with nearly every event, to mix with new faculty and discover their openness and professional interests.
Then there was SAA. After three plane cancelations due to bad weather in the Northeast, I finally arrived. The only thing going when I arrived was a slate of committee meetings. But after all the trouble getting there, I wasn’t about to miss anything. So I zeroed in on the “Description” (as in archival description standards, tools, and trends) committee meeting. This turned out to be a good choice because it was very organized and conveyed lots of information effectively. The meeting provided a great overview of current practices, initiatives, useful websites for reports and access to the development environment. I was glad to learn that Archivist Toolkit is the single most used software tool for processing archival collections, since, thanks to Audra, this is what we have adopted. I also learned that the Mellon is currently funding an initiative to meld the best features of Archivists Toolkit and a similar tool, Archon, into a new tool called ArchiveSpace. Need to keep our eye on this development.
The ho-hum second plenary was followed by a spectacular evening at the Smithsonian, where it seemed that everyone I met had relevant experience to our archives, special collections and digital projects; and was eager to exchange cards and be in touch. I also encountered, unexpectedly, Fran Blouin from the University of Michigan who directed the Vatican Archive Project, for which I was the Project Historian. It was great to catch up.
Day two was good too. First I went to “Grant Agencies Tell All;” which at this point in my life didn’t tell me much, but served up some cautionary tales of what not to do. Despite the call to innovate, grant agencies, as represented by this group (IMLS, Mellon, NEH, NEDCC), are fairly conservative. Cutting edge, not bleeding edge. The info was a bit generic and canned. However, I did feel empowered, having gone to the session to, at some point in the future and if Lynn agrees, inquire of the NEH preservation group why our climate control proposal was not accepted. HVACs seemed their bread and butter, though they did say that if there was not significant demonstration of processing activities a climate control proposal slipped down in their ratings. In other words, you have to make a compelling case for what you are trying to preserve. (“We get sick of stories about how bad your conditions are” one agency representative said.) The importance of obtaining some matching funds from one’s institution or a donor was also stressed. I now have the names and faces of representatives whom major grant agencies offered the SAA audience.
Next, Juan Williams (NPR, Fox, Eyes on the Prize, numerous publications) gave the third plenary, which was inspiring and made one feel good to be a custodian of cultural memory. The service role of librarians and archivist was eloquently valorized. “If heaven is a library or archive then guess who the angels are?” (Williams’ riff on Borges)
Lunch was provided for me, Vicki and Audra through the largess of Christian Dupront, the consultant who provided an analysis and report of ZSR Special Collection and Archives last November. He was a grand host, introducing us to his 20 odd other quests at the Taverna Lebanese. More cards exchanged. More war stories exchanged. More confirmations attained.
My afternoon was devoted to sessions focusing on the theme “More product, less process” as it pertains to archival description and getting our collections out there to be discovered. (For the research that stimulated recent strategies to process faster so as to get digital finding aids and surrogates on the web faster, see Greene and Meissner, “More product, less process: revamping traditional archival processing,” American Archivist 68, 2 (2005): 208-256.) These sessions, which offered the experiences of groups who had applied the “mplp”principles to concrete situations, were really useful and I have pages of notes. I will give here a bulleted list of points that struck me as particularly relevant to Special Collections and University Archives’ trajectory forward. [Sorry: my bullets got all messed up when I pasted into WordPress].
- Lean processing practices are salutary for a number of reasons
- Quicker online access to materials
- Verbose inventories and finding aids may please the seasoned researcher but repel the novice and undergraduate user
- · Each archive and special collection needs to take a hard look at its own processing and pre-processing practices in order to eliminate wasteful activity (e.g. limiting relabeling and refoldering). Ask: do I still need to be doing this? Why?
- Jumpstart momentum. Many organizations have benefited from implementing quotas in processing – establishing expectations for a certain volume each person will process per month or year. Frequent, attentive communication between those who process and those who primarily work with researchers (shorthand = technical and reference services) is very important in honing and prioritizing leaner, quicker, more effective processing.
- We should use donor and reference interactions to prioritize processing activities.
- “Public service” staff (or all who interact with users and potential users) need to be more proactive in indicating gems within a collections in order to accelerate their discoverability
- · If public service, user experience and user needs are to more deeply inform processing practices then reference/public service processes in archives and special collections probably need to become leaner too.
- Limit time invested in fielding reference requests.
- Our role is to work with our colleagues to provide a rich environment of discovery by efficiently exposing our collections.
- Likewise, we are co-creators of access together with researchers (not search and find bots or hand holders).
- At a certain point one must say: here is a list of proxies.
- Develop mechanisms to capture researchers’ (and teachers’) passion for the materials you hold.
- One highly recommended mechanisms, which also serves other purposes, is LibStats, an open source reference tracking, capture and knowledgebase-building tool. (Erik is already working on implementing this for us here).
- Look for an upcoming RLG report on harvesting social metadata in special collections
- Check out recent ARL SPEC Kits.
- SP317 Special Collections Engagement, August 2010
- SP314 Processing Decisions for Manuscripts & Archives, November 2009
- SP307 Manuscript Collections on the Web, October 2008
- SP305 Records Management, August 2008
- SP298 Metadata, July 2007
- SP296 Public Services in Special Collections, November 2006
- SP294 Managing Digitization Activities, September 2006
- SP284 Security in Special Collections, October 2004
Suffice it to say that I am newly energized to work with my department to implement the strategies and principles articulated as appropriate to our environment and talents. It was great to be in the same room, hearing the same messages and examples, with Vicki and Audra.
Getting home was a lot easier than getting to D.C. Storms over.