Sunday, November 01, 2009

My Time at MARAC

What is MARAC (pronounced with the accent on the MAR)? It's the Mid-Atlantic Regional Archives Conference, and it was one of the most interesting events I've attended in quite some time.

Most of the people attending were archivists from all over New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, and D.C. And, then there were all the Rutgers folks who attended and helped host the event with the other locals. There were all kinds of librarians, catalogers, and other professionals in the archival fields, including museum professionals (and much more on them later).

Because I'm still a student in the MLIS program at Rutgers, my attendance fee was only $35. Typically, these kinds of conferences cost much more than that, so I had enough money left in my educational budget this semester to attend one of the all-day workshops ($75 -- quite reasonable for what I learned). I originally signed up for Records Management, but after I read more about Strategies and Sources for Funding, I decided to attend that workshop.

The Workshop

It was taught by Ben Primer, Associate University Librarian for Rare Books and Special Collections at Princeton. Due to the crazy traffic, I'd arrived a little late and Ben became my partner for an ice-breaker exercise. Had I known what I was getting into, I probably would have taken more notes than I had. However, it all worked out well.

I sat next to the very charming Heidi Abbey, Humanities Reference Librarian & Archivist at Penn State, Harrisburg. I liked her immediately, and even more so after she told me of her background in art librarianship.

During the workshop, which was focused on good management during the morning and some of the afternoon before proceeding to the funding section of the program, Ben gave us the big picture about the fact that archives are a luxury. It's our job as archival librarians to convince those in power that archives are not a luxury, but a needed element of the community. For example, he told us about how his group stepped up to deliver unique and valuable reports that no one else could have been able to process (at least not without them).

He also talked about some things I already knew, but brought new ways of thinking about them. For instance, as librarians, we all had been taught the value of the reference interview (how we listen in an inquiring way to patrons who may not necessarily know how to articulate their research need). But I didn't know that successful archivists also conduct exit interviews. These aren't necessarily done to everyone who visits the archive or special collections. Those are done with people who spend days there actively researching their topics. I need to ask them what they learned from the collection. I also need to ask if there was a single item that would satisfy their needs, what would it be? These are are important things to know if the library wants to continue providing good archival support.

One thing I didn't know was that Princeton and other big libraries (Rutgers among them) don't examine every single piece of archival material in their archives. They simply don't have the resources. They may describe boxes or linear feet of materials in a satisfactory way in a finding aid (a good tool for grasping the content and scope of a particular collection within an archive).

When Ben moved on to the funding part of the program, I'm glad to have had my mini computer with me because I type much faster than I write, and there was a lot to type. In order to find the funding for projects, he said that we need to find the people who have vested interests in projects. For example, my mother's congressman is a Frelinghuysen, which means he's one of many in the line of famous New Jersey politicians. He stands to have a vested interest in a project that may include archives of his family members' papers.

The thrust of Ben's message was that we should try to find private funding since the competition for federal and state funding is so very stiff. One easy was is to build funding into gifts. Let's say my mom makes a gift of her papers to the John Cotton Dana Library in Newark (it's part of the Rutgers Library system). If I were the person working with her on the deed of gift, I would build funding into the gift by letting her know what goes into processing a gift of that kind (staffing, time, effort, preservation, etc) and the accompanying costs.

He also mentioned approaching class presidents because alumni want to help the students, and providing researchable archives helps students. Overall, it was a wonderful workshop that was well worth the price of admission. Ben sounds like a great boss, but I'm not sure I agreed with his views about metadata. I'm a big fan of documenting as much as possible in metadata, and he doesn't see it that way. That's alright though. It's diversity in opinion that makes it all interesting.

The Plenary Session

By far, the highlight of the MARAC was the plenary session, which was way too short for the presenters to adequately show their rapt audience their whole presentation on the Amsterdam City Archives and the Archiefbank (the archives database -- GO SEE IT!) The two presenters were Ellen Fleurbaay, Division Leader of Public Services, and Marc Holtman, Senior Digital Public Services Project Leader.

They had a clever catch phrase -- "Yes We Scan!" I would buy it in a T-shirt. Fluerbaay explained that the archive was digitizing approximately 1 million documents a year. Now you may not think that's incredible if you're thinking in Google Books terms, but it is. One of the major reasons why is that it's consumer driven. The users of the online inventories determine what gets digitized.

Let me back up a bit to share what Fluerbaay talked about in her history of the archives. Year after year, the archives had been seeing huge drops in the number of people who visited the reading rooms, but a huge increase in the number of people requesting digital scans of the materials in the archives to be delivered via email or on the web. The archives made a major decision that in order to remain relevant, they had to be at the forefront of technological developments in the field and be able to offer access online 24-7. (They succeeded there!)

One of the issues they had to deal with was public perception. Because the collection, previously located on the outskirts of Amsterdam, was known as the municipal archives, the public didn't think they had access to its contents. They gave themselves a new corporate identity, logo, and name that reflected the larger access offered to the citizens -- the City of Amsterdam Archives. They also moved to the cultural heart of the city in a historic bank building which could hold the archives (which previously had been spread across many buildings).

When the archivists originally calculated how long it would take them to scan the 20 or so miles of archives, they knew that they had to be making approximately 730,200,001 scans. If they scanned 10,000 scans per week, it would take them 406 years to complete the project.

Instead, they prioritized the project. Or rather, the patrons set the priorities. Amsterdam's archivists honor all requests except in the cases of materials that just cannot be scanned due to their fragile or dangerous condition, or in the case of copyright infringement. After a user pays the 0.50 Euro per scan (sliding scale, gets cheaper the more items you request to be scanned), the item becomes available to the user and the entire world via the Internet. The low price is important because it makes it equivalent (more or less) to making copies in a reading room.

The delivery takes between two and three weeks because some items may require more processing and preparation than others. That seemed like a long time to me, but I didn't have the opportunity to find out how long the queue is (probably pretty long if they are scanning 10,000 items per week!).

The institution works on a project basis, meaning that if I select a page from a book, they will scan the whole book (which probably is the why it takes 2-3 weeks).

The really cool stuff comes when you look at the images online. You can change the quality of the scan with a slider the changes the legibility and the shading as well as the zoom. Overall, it's great if you understand Dutch. However, I found it tough to get through because I don't speak/read it. But, if you do, you can get all kinds of information at the site.

Unfortunately, we, the audience of the plenary, didn't get to hear the whole story of all their processes, but it certainly whetted our appetites. The most remarkable thing was that in a pretty full ballroom, you could have heard a pin drop during their presentation. I've never seen such a focused audience in my life. It was quite inspiring.

The Andy Warhol Museum Catalogers Speak

After the plenary, there was a break then the first sessions of the conference. I signed up for "Exploding Acid Free Inevitable: An Item Level Passageway Into the World of Andy Warhol" given by Molly Tighe and Liz Scott, both Project Cataloguers of the Museum Archives at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. Sitting right in front of me was Heidi, so I knew I was in the right place.

It was clear that the speakers really enjoyed their jobs cataloging the 600 or so time capsules made by Warhol during the period 1974-1987. It seems he chronicled his life by obsessively collecting all manner of items (correspondence, fan mail, artwork, alcohol, magazines, and other objects that came across his desk) and placing them into cardboard boxes, then sealing and dating them. His intention was to eventually sell the time capsules as works of art (sometimes squirreling away legitimate works as incentives to get people to bid on them in auctions), so they are treated as individual artworks. Which makes things a bit complex.

Molly and Liz are proceeding to catalog each item within each box at the item level -- a huge job to say the least, especially since they said that on average they had been finding 400 items per box. The catalogers mentioned that it was important to do the item-level cataloging for other reasons. For instance, researchers and art historians have been using some of the un-boxed items for provenance. Additionally, 90 of the previously cataloged time capsules had been exhibited.

Eventually, they plan to digitize the collection, however their grant is written primarily for the cataloging project. They don't seem to be worried about that because the majority of the funding comes from the Andy Warhol Foundation, which will most likely fund the digitization project (and wouldn't I just love to be in on that gig!!).

They are using TMS (The Museum System) to keep the records of the project, along with a wiki for the interns who work on the project. Interesting, I remembered that the Zimmerli Museum, where I did my internship this past summer is in the process of transferring their records to TMS. It looks pretty easy to use and allows you to do all kinds of neat stuff with the data.

The catalogers' biggest challenges came from the nature of the items themselves. There is an inherent blurring of the line between art object and everyday material that makes things a bit sticky. OK, truly sticky. Some of the altered soup cans sent to him by fans (intended as art) exploded or leaked in their respective boxes, causing damage to the rest of the box contents. They also told us that they found a lot of bugs (dead) in the food items included in the boxes. Good for them for wearing gloves when handling the objects.

They also ran into a lot of preservation issues due to the high acid level in so many of the paper-based items, as well as the alcohol-based materials (booze, perfume, etc.).

So far, they have cataloged 78,000 items. They sort them in series per box, within the larger collection of boxes. The series are actually more like subgenres like toys, food, products, etc. Some of the archivists in the audience couldn't get it, but my light bulb went on right away due to my experience with the artists' books collection.

One of the big surprises was that they developed their finding aids in Word. However, they used AAT terms, which are standardized through the Getty. They also used LoC subject and authority headings. They also included discarded items (e.g., soup remnants which could be filled with botulism and therefore discarded) in their finding aids so that the integrity of the collection could be respected.

One thing that surprised me, but not entirely because of the nature of artworks, was that they repackaged all the items back in their original boxes. However, they always line the boxes with acid-free liners and place the items in mylar bags or other acid-free materials.

The Lunch of All Lunches (except for the food)

In an unexpected turn events, I wound up lunching with our guests from Amsterdam. After the morning sessions, some of the other Rutgers MLIS students asked me to join them at the food court in the mall next to the conference venue (the Westin in Jersey City -- a really nice place to attend a conference). I went along, got my food, and when I got back to the table where my classmates were waiting, there were Marc and Ellen finishing their food.

So, what would you do in my spot? Would you politely ask them about their trip? How long are you in town? Or, would you start asking them about their groundbreaking work in digital archives? Well, I did both. I also recommended doing one of the best free things you can do in NY -- take the Staten Island Ferry around the Statue of Liberty because that's just the way it goes.

If I haven't spent this semester immersed in critiquing digital libraries and user interfaces, I probably wouldn't have been able to ask all the questions I did. I felt like I monopolized their time, so I opened it up to the other Rutgers students. They didn't take the opportunity -- perhaps they had been interested in the question and answer session I was having or perhaps were thinking of other things they heard earlier in the morning. I don't know. But I was very glad to have had the opportunity to pick their brains. I also got an invite to a behind-the-scenes tour of the archive and Amsterdam when I eventually get there. How cool is that?

After lunch, I attended another session that turned out to be, well, not a good match for my interests, so I won't tie up this blog with info on it.

Career Lab

One the most helpful things MARAC did was to offer a place where students and other participants could shop around their resumes and perform mock interviews. I didn't participate in a mock interview, but I did talk with someone from the Smithsonian Institution about my resume and a career in museums/library special collections. She had some very good advice and told me I was on the right track. She also recommended that I consider whole house museums (e.g., The Dickens House Museum) for a place to work because it would allow me to do all kinds of fun things, from giving tours to archiving, to cataloging objects, to keeping a blog on new discoveries. This was in opposition to a place like the Smithsonian, which prefers very specialized professionals over generalists like me. She also recommended that I get some reference experience, which I sorely need.


The last session I attended was one on NJVid, a online digital video project by several New Jersey Universities and supported by an IMLS grant. I came in a bit late, so I missed the beginning of the presentation, but it seemed like it was primarily a place for institutions to house their videos and provide access to them to other institutions.

Since I've been studying copyright law, this was a good presentation for me to see because it involved an interesting way of handling copyrights and intellectual property rights. I'm not going to go into details, because they are available online here.

But, just as a synopsis, NJVid places the responsibility on the depositor for all rights and protections. Check it out, it's worth the read if you follow these things. Suffice to say, it provided a lot of food for thought.

Finally, I joined a bunch of the Rutgers folks in attending the MARAC reception at City Hall. It was a pack of us, eating the tiny quiches, cheese squares, and assorted nibbles. Finally, I had to break us up and mingle otherwise we wouldn't network and meet new folks. I told the group that we should go talk to folks who weren't talking to anyone else. Just be friendly and ask people about themselves, and the conversation will happen on its own. Oh, and smile.

I edged over to a solitary fellow to strike up a conversation. Within 5 minutes another Rutgers person came over and started chatting with us. Since he was in good hands, I moved on and walked over to one of the women who I'd sat with at the Warhol session. She is a delightful person who had the good fortune of interning at the Warhol museum on the Time Capsule project. Eventually, more Rutgers folks and the man came over to join us. He picked up on my cue and immediately introduced himself to the woman I'd been talking to. It looked like there were some sparks, so I moved on to chatting with the Rutgers grad who interned at the Baseball Hall of Fame.

It was a long, very interesting day full of lively conversations and brain-tingling moments. Well worth the price of admission.

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