Monday, November 16, 2009

Princeton Library Tours

Even though time is very tight now that the semester is in its last few weeks, I couldn't let the opportunity pass to tour select Princeton University libraries with a bunch of other MLIS students at Rutgers. We began our tour at the Seely G. Mudd Manuscript Library. Our excellent guides were Dan and Christine (both of whom also attended MARAC). They talked to us about the services the library provides and showed us the archives in all their glory (OK, in all their boxes).

The most-used collection held at Mudd is the ACLU legal case files archives. Mudd also is the home to the university archives, public policy papers, George McGovern's papers, Woodrow Wilson's papers, senior theses for every student, tons of alumni information, and much more. The archives stacks aren't open to the public, which means that if, after searching through the finding aids, you want to view some freedom of speech documents from ACLU's Roger Baldwin years, you will need to either show up at the library or email the Mudd folks with your precise request (i.e., call, series, reel, and volume numbers -- that collection is on microfilm).

You really should start requesting items because they are following the same model as the Amsterdam Archives. Meaning that each time they digitize an archive item, they put the item online for anyone to use and link it to the finding aid. The Mudd librarians now also have these huge photocopiers that function as high-quality scanners (very helpful in lowering costs of digitization efforts).

One interesting thing I learned about climate control and fire prevention was that Princeton uses halon to supress potential fires (they haven't yet had to use it). The way Dan explained it was in case of emergency, halon is released into the air. It sucks all the oxygen out of the air, disabling any fire instantly. It also would disable (and probably kill) anyone in the room pretty handily as well if they didn't make it to an exit.

Mudd houses 250 collections, which take up approximately 15,000 linear feet worth of archives. Since 2005, they have spent less time and fewer resources on sorting and rehousing, and more time on letting people know that these items are available on line (via their extensive finding aids).

During our tour through the stacks, we passed 16th century Mongolian texts, John Foster Dulles' papers (he was Eisenhower's Secretary of State, if you didn't know), files on every single alum and staff person, and much more. They appear to be outgrowing their space and plan to move some things offsite in the next five years.

After our Mudd tour ended, half the group stayed for the afternoon tour of the Marquand Library of Art and Archeology. Well, we went to a fabulous Indian restaurant (Masala Grill) downtown for lunch first.

Prior to our tour of Marquand, we had a very brief look around the Princeton University Art Museum (FREE, so go!), an art museum in the way that the Metropolitan Museum is an art museum -- very historical as well. We were told that it's open until 10 pm on Thursday nights, with free food, so it might be a good place to go on a date night some time.

When we began our afternoon tour, we were first placed with Colum Hourihane the Director of the Index of Christian Art. I wished we had more time with him because his presentation was fascinating. I tried to note most of what he was sharing, but it was so much and so interesting that I just wanted to experience it in the moment. Colum is an excellent storyteller (and the Irish accent didn't hurt either). I'll try to relate as much as I was able to remember here, but do try to get an appointment with him to hear about the Index right from the source.

Did you know that Princeton was the first university to teach art history as a subject? I didn't either. The fellow who started the index, Charles Morey was very into iconography. He collected all kinds of images of paintings, stained glass, postcards, and whatever else he could put his hands on because images were in such short supply at that time. Morey was strict about what he collected in terms of dates. He only collected images of art up until A.D. 700. The collection was later extended up until A.D. 1550.

Getting into the nitty gritty, the collection was cataloged on 300,000 cards using a thesaurus structure with 28,000 subject headings. Can you imagine? The index has scholars who painstakingly analyze the images and describe them in impartial ways. Colum gave the example of describing a painting of 12 gentlemen (last supper, perhaps? or knights of the round table?).

The index was computerized in 1981. I tried to access it, but wasn't able to enter it. My guess is that I'd need a subscription or a Princeton libraries account to see it in action. My last interesting fact about the index is that the indexers have been cataloging all of the Morgan Library's medieval manuscripts.

It's way too much to publish here, so I encourage you to visit the index and see for yourself the largest archive of medieval art in the world. Mind you, the history of the index as described by Colum was far more interesting than what's displayed online.

From Colum's presentation, we were whisked away to Visual Resources and Trudy Jacoby. Trudy, like all of our excellent hosts, was passionate about her collections. She walked us into one of the oldest slide collections in the country (600,000) that serve the Art History department. It reminded me of my sophmore year at William Paterson (back then, it was a College, not a University). We all sat in a huge lecture hall as the professor showed us slide after slide of the images shown in our tome of an art history book. I loved it. Although there's nothing like seeing the paintings in person -- or better yet, interning or working in a museum or another cultural heritage institution where you can be around the art and really see it differently day after day. (That said, you can read about my missing the artists' books project I'm working on now here.)

Trudy talked with us about how she teaches people how to use ARTstor, and she showed us some amazing photographs from archeological digs. I really enjoyed her part of the tour because I could tell how fond she is of the collections and how much she likes serving her faculty and the emeriti. Of course, learning about the collections was interesting as well. It's interesting that they are specifically for the professors. I'm curious to know whether researchers outside the university call for the slides or digital versions of them as well.

Finally, we moved on to the actual Marquand tour. The Marquand library functions very differently than the rest of the Princeton libraries in that it has its own funding through an endowment. Their acquisitions budget is the largest of all the Princeton libraries. The history of the library is quite interesting. Marquand himself bought and selected all the books with his own resources. After he married, the collection was moved out of his home and onto the campus.

The books do not circulate out of the library, and it seems like very little of the library's contents are digitized. Hence, people set up shop at the library in little cubicles called carrels. There are 109 of those carrels, primarily for graduate students and long-term researchers who might be there every day. The library has a system where someone may "check out" a book to their carrel or shelf. If another student or researcher needs the book, they can recall it in a way -- by borrowing it from the person who checked it out.

As our group toured the library facilities, I was continually impressed by the design and flow. The organization and shelving was very tidy. The resources are shelved by size (as is appropriate with art books, which are often so large they are called "elephant folios").

Even the basements didn't seem at all like basements. There were mosaics from historic archelogical digs mounted on the red walls, and natural light was plentiful. They also have very comfortable chairs.

Finally, our tour closed with a presentation and Q&A session with our guides Sandy Brooke, the librarian; Rebecca Friedman, the assistant librarian; Julie Melby, graphic arts curator (who writes a marvelous blog); and Trudy.

I'm not sure I can adequately express how great of an opportunity it is to spend the day touring a portion of Princeton's libraries. Our guides for the day were incredibly generous with their time, especially since they all are doing so much more with so much less and must wear many hats. I'm very glad to have made the time to take the tours. It was well worth the trip.

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.