Sunday, March 18, 2012

One Way the Past Supports the Present and the Future

The Past
Before I went back to school and became an archivist and local history librarian, I wore a few different hats in my professional life. During 2005-2006, I worked at a very large, non-profit technical professional society, managing their online communities program (back in the days when I had to explain what that meant). In my spare time, I also wrote a column on online collaboration strategies.

The side job was a good fit because I could write about the strategies and tactics that worked in practice at the society, as well as those that didn't. Writing the column also allowed me to participate in the field and contribute to the burgeoning stream of knowledge on the topic. Importantly, that work allowed me to continue publishing works when I wasn't writing articles for other publications in the field or pieces for technical magazines in general.

The Present
These days, I frequently draw from the lessons learned in that field, especially those concerning dispersed teams. For example, at Chester Public Library, I am at the tail end of a digitization project done in collaboration with the Scholarly Communications folks at Rutgers University (approximately 30 mi. south of Chester). When I was a student there, I knew about the RUCore service and had used it to research a few topics. I also knew from work at Plainfield Public Library that Rutgers' contributions to the New Jersey Digital Highway collaborative project were large, and that they would digitize maps like Chester's for free (in exchange for inclusion in the NJDH and other online archives -- a boon to small libraries like Chester looking to expand their reach).

Rutgers developed a complex content management system for their RUCore service, which allows users to upload digitized content as well as highly detailed and formatted metadata. It does not allow for the creation of finding aids, however, and does not link to catalog entries. But, it's a work in progress, as any software is, so those features may come down the line.

I have been working collaboratively with a few of the team members in New Brunswick, but one in particular has been enormously helpful. Charlie Terng has been very responsive when I have had questions about their system (and I've had many), and has provided the "why," not just the "how" in his email responses. In remote collaboration scenarios, sometimes emails can be confusing and misinterpreted. Charlie's emails are consistently clear and thoughtful -- a combination for which I am very grateful.

In most of my jobs, I have made the time to noodle around with new (to me) software to learn it well enough to teach it to others. In some cases, I have created online tutorials as well as how-to guides. Writing the documentation that accompanies software is a tough job that requires patience. It also requires time and a decent writer (as well as plenty of proofreaders/editors to check for accuracy as well as correct grammar). In this world of doing much more with many fewer resources, that time is a valued commodity. The next time Rutgers updates its software, I recommend Charlie write the documentation for it. He has gone a long way toward furthering collaboration between local libraries and Rutgers' NJDH efforts. Most importantly (to Chester and its patrons), he has helped me to make available resources which previously were "hidden."

The Future
Last week, I began processing a collection of government records on a superfund site in Chester (the Combe Fill South Landfill). Folded into the sticky vinyl binders were at least 50 maps of the site, locations of hazardous materials, and plans for excavation and treatment. I'm slating these materials for our next collaboration with Rutgers because the team has a special interest in new Jersey's ecological records. It will be up to me to provide all the metadata for the maps and architectural drawings, so between now and then, you know I'll be busy.

Soon, Chester will be releasing its new web site. It will be a huge improvement on the current site, and the wee Local History Department will have an online home. Through the updating of the site, I've learned how to use WordPress (with some help of the Library's freelance designer, Olga). It's not that different from other web software I've used, so the learning curve has been short. Olga collaborated with me to develop a straightforward HTML template for the finding aids because we're too small at the moment to justify using EAD. The main thing is that local patrons and remote researchers will now be able find the materials, easily navigate the information, and use the historical items.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Guest Blogger Ken Cleary on Ben Vershbow’s “Hacking the Library” Talk

Ken Cleary always posts interesting links and ideas on the Rutgers SOURCE (the Student Organization for Unique and Rare Collections Everywhere) Facebook page. For that reason, I thought he would be an excellent candidate for a guest blogger. Ken is working his way through the Master of Library and Information Science program and expects to graduate in May. He also is co-president of SOURCE and serves as the current Archives Assistant for the University Archives at Rutgers. Suffice to say, his time is tight. However, he managed to squeeze in an article on his experience attending the March 6 “Hacking the Library” talk at Rutgers.

Please welcome Ken to Here and There. The rest of this post is his (except my Editor's Note), including the accompanying photos.

“Hacking the Library”
I recently had the pleasure of attending a talk titled, “Hacking the Library,” given by Ben Vershbow, head of the Digital Labs at New York Public Library (NYPL). He spoke to a small crowd of graduate students and faculty at the School of Communication and Information on Rutgers University’s New Brunswick campus. The phrase, “hacking the library” is certainly an attention-grabbing title for a talk, but Vershbow quickly clarified that his use of the term “hacking” is meant to convey a desire to make information more widely accessible.

Vershbow began his talk with a frank admission that he never expected to work at a library or as a “digital humanist.” However, after graduating from Yale with a B.A. in Theater Studies, he became the editorial director for The Institute for the Future of the Book. There, he immersed himself in an environment that experimented with how technology influences the ways people interact with information. This environment comprised a wide range of people, including new media gurus, literary scholars, gamers, writers, and philosophers. Their conversations and work explored such topics as the democratization of information, the book as a social object, the networked book, virtual environments, popular culture, blogs, and the future of reading and writing.

One of Vershbow’s notable examples was his customized blog for author and philosopher McKenzie Wark. The blog allowed for interactive, paragraph-by-paragraph public commentary of an early draft of his work “Gamer Theory.” Consequently, Wark’s online “editors” helped to refine his ideas and shaped revisions to the final text.

Below is a photo of Vershbow speaking at Rutgers.

From Guest Blogger Ken Cleary

NYPL Digital Labs
After spending four years within the eclectic and imaginative realm of The Institute for the Future of the Book, Vershbow joined the New York Public Library as part of a larger effort by NYPL to enhance their digital humanities services. At first, his work focused on overcoming cultural and technological barriers to implement a more open-source and decentralized information technology practice across NYPL. Finding new ways to bridge the gap between technology and collections is one of his top goals, and Vershbow said that his untraditional background helps him to more easily “work against the grain” to find innovative solutions. To support this ongoing process, NYPL created a digital labs unit where he and a small team could tinker with new ideas. Vershbow sees the lab functioning as a “hybrid space” that sits between the library technologists and the curators and archivists who care for collections, allowing his team to incorporate both points of view into their work.

According to NYPL Labs,

NYPL Labs is an experimental unit at the Library developing ideas and tools for digital research. A collaboration among curators, designers and technologists, NYPL Labs is dedicated to rethinking what a public research library can be and do in the new information commons. We develop everything from proof-of-concept pilots to fully realized web applications and digital archives, as well as hosting a variety of staff workshops and public talks.

Vershbow described the Labs’ recent work and how some of their successful projects were born. Many of the experiments began with an awareness that NYPL has a small, but growing, collection of digitized items that are displayed on their web site in much the same way as other libraries’ digital collections.

Vershbow could see information in the images of 19th century maps or century-old menus that was visible to the human eye, but which could not be discovered by searching the library’s catalog or Google. The digital versions of these objects only had a simple title and a very basic description, which limited the ways they could be searched. He then began to imagine how much more useful these images could be if all of the latent information could be transcribed into digital form, and thus become “findable” to a Google or library catalog search. The drawback was that accomplishing that task would be extremely labor intensive.

Even an institution as large and distinguished as NYPL does not have the resources to transcribe the information contained in tens of thousands of images. So Vershbow turned to a technique called “crowdsourcing.” This practice has been used by the scientific community (think bird counts during migration), as well as in libraries all over the world.

[Editor’s note: I’ve seen many examples of crowdsourcing, but most commonly, I see it in “tagging.” Instead of using uniform terms (such as those found in the Library of Congress authority terms), the user tags an item with terms familiar to them to describe objects. This method is intended to help other users familiar with the same terms to search for items in a more “natural” way.]

One way to explain crowdsourcing is to highlight an example of how the NYPL Digital Labs utilized it. The Library holds more than 40,000 restaurant menus dating back to the 1840s, making it one of the largest collections of its kind in the world. More than just an historical curiosity, the menus are a treasure trove of economic, social, and cultural history. As Vershbow explained, being able to search for the term “oyster” could be of great interest to scientists who are trying to connect the dots between culinary trends and data on the health of the oyster population. But the only way that the details on prices, ingredients, dishes, and more, can be transcribed is with a lot of help. So, the Digital Labs created a web site called, “What’s on the Menu?” that invited the public to help transcribe menus, one dish at a time. As of today, over 75,000 volunteers have helped transcribe 812,361 dishes from 12,796 menus, and the project is still going strong.

The Stereogranimator
The most recent project to emerge from NYPL Digital Labs takes crowdsourcing a step further by incorporating aspects of Vershbow’s previous work at The Institute for the Future of the Book. The Stereogranimator web site allows the public to choose from over 40,000 stereographs to create their own shareable animated gif or 3D anaglyph.

Below, Vershbow demonstrates examples of 3D anaglyphs created with the Stereogranimator.

From Guest Blogger Ken Cleary

Vershbow explained that the inspiration for the Stereogranimator grew from a patron who created their own animated gifs from NYPL stereographs and publicized them on the web. Vershbow emphasized that this is an important example of the library listening to its patrons and providing useful and creative tools for interacting with the collections.

The photo below shows Vershbow's audience learning how to use special glasses to appreciate the 3D anaglyphs created with the Sterogranimator.

From Guest Blogger Ken Cleary

Vershbow’s talk, including questions and answers, lasted for an hour and a half, but could easily have gone on much longer. Other projects that the NYPL Digital Labs have completed, or are working on, can be found on their web site. Many of the projects rely on public participation for their success, but if the response they have received so far is any indication, NYPL will be able to accomplish a great deal using this technique. I am grateful for having had the opportunity to hear Ben Vershbow speak and I will certainly be following his work more closely in future. I believe that the creative and thoughtful approach that the NYPL Digital Labs is taking towards the digital humanities is an excellent example of how technology can be harnessed to make collections more accessible and engaging to both researchers and the general public.


Ken Cleary is a graduate student in Library and Information Science at Rutgers University. His digital calling card is at:

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Tour of Acadia National Park’s Curatorial Center

Last autumn, John and I visited one of our favorite places, Acadia National Park, on Mount Desert Island, Maine. Like many of the National Parks, it has its own archives that are open for research. It boasts remarkable natural and local history collections that I just had to see. Fortunately, I was able to book a tour with Robyn King (see below), and have a wonderful time learning more about the holdings at Acadia.

About the Museum Technician
Usually, this section is reserved for “About the Archivist,” but my gracious and enthusiastic tour host Robyn King (shown below) is a National Park Service Museum Technician.

From Acadia National Park Archives

At the time I visited Acadia, Robyn had just joined the staff about four months prior. Still, she gave me an excellent tour of the facilities and showed me all kinds of interesting specimens and objects. She also promised to learn more about the manuscripts and papers in the collection, so that when I return, she can show me the treasures in those boxes.

Before moving to Maine, Robyn served as a curatorial assistant at the New York State Museum in Albany, and as a site interpreter at the Ulysses S.Grant Cottage in Wilton, New York. She received her double-major, History and Anthropology degree from the State University of New York in Oneonta. She also served two years in the Peace Corps, stationed in Niger.

Robyn wanted to become a curator because she was inspired by one of her teachers. She explains, “In junior high school, my Social Studies teacher told our class that when she worked at the New York State Museum, their storage facility was better than the Museum itself. It sparked my interest in wanting to see behind the scenes at museums and handle artifacts that the general public could not.” I know exactly what she means, although, at the same time, I know we also both derive a great deal of pleasure in making exhibits of these materials and allowing researchers access to these items.

At this writing, Robyn’s on furlough to the Sagamore Hill National Historic Site, so you won’t run into her at Acadia if you visit before early April. However, the staff there is very knowledgeable, friendly, and helpful.

About the Archive
The archives at Acadia are housed in the William Otis Sawtelle Curatorial Center, the facility built in 1996 to house this National Park’s archival and museum collections. The bulk of the materials originated at the Ilseford Museum, established in 1927 on Little Cranberry Island, Maine.

Two full-time staffers, Robyn and Rebecca Cole-Will, the Cultural Resources Manager, care for the collections and provide research services to the patrons and researchers. Robyn told me that the Acadia’s Curatorial Center has many volunteers in the peak season and immediately afterward. Retired volunteers can stay for up to a month at a time.

The Center’s patrons include park employees, volunteers, students (from high school through graduate school), and researchers around the country. Approximately 10 researchers per week visit the Center. Last summer, the Center hosted two doctoral candidates who worked together on a project entitled “Flora of Acadia and the people who loved them.” They plan to return this summer.

Robyn says, “We have a researcher writing a book on all the ships that have come through Frenchman Bay and its history. We have another researcher who is writing a book using the Naval magazine The Acadian as the main reference; and we have four researchers in Maine and New England who have started their graduate school research, which will last through the semester.

The Center’s collection maintenance is funded through Federal Operating Funds, and complex conservation and preservation efforts are sent to the Northeast Museum Service Center or private conservation firms.

About the Collections
Although a great deal of physical specimens are located at Acadia, the park’s herbarium is housed at the College of the Atlantic, in Bar Harbor. Robyn and her colleagues also work closely with the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor. The National Park has a very active curatorial program. According to the NPS Acadia web site, “More than 1.4 million objects and documents are in the collection from both Acadia National Park and Saint Croix Island International Historic Site.” Saint Croix Island, a small island located on the border between the United States and Canada, in the Bay of Fundy, is one of two International Historical Sites/Parks (the other is Franklin D. Roosevelt Campobello International Park in Canada).

The Center’s holdings date as far back as 1596 (the oldest materials are from Saint Croix Island). The most popular collections are the Sawtelle Collection, Proctor Collection, Cranberry Isles Collection, Carroll Farm Collection, and U.S. Naval Collection from Winter Harbor. In the photo below are some examples of furniture from the Carroll Farm Collection.

From Acadia National Park Archives

The Carrolls lived on their farm between 1825-1917, but then moved to Southwest Harbor to be closer to more people. They still owned the land, but eventually rented it to summer visitors. In 1982, the family transferred ownership of the property to Acadia National Park. The Carrolls left quite a lot of evidence of their life behind, including books, correspondence from Ireland, and the contents of their “mountain home.”

Acadia’s collections also include many maps and architectural drawings. Below is a drawing of one of the original park signs followed by a photo of Robyn holding one of the early signs.

From Acadia National Park Archives

From Acadia National Park Archives

There are more than 15,000 cataloged biological specimens on site, including birds, insects, mammals, and fish. Below is a photo of three owls in the collection.

From Acadia National Park Archives

Two collections that have attracted quite a few researchers over the years are the William H. Proctor invertebrate and the Harold White dragonfly/damselfly collections. According to the Acadia web site, “from 1928 to 1944, William H. Procter studied the invertebrates in the park.” Below are some of the samples he collected.

From Acadia National Park Archives

Acadia holds annual BioBlitz events to attract researchers and volunteers who will collect an assigned invertebrate for 24 hours. This year, in mid-July, the lucky Blitzers will be collecting aquatic insects. Last year’s BioBlitz was all about Lepidoptera. Below is a photo of a few samples collected during the BioBlitz of 2011.

From Acadia National Park Archives

Here’s something I’d never thought I’d say/write – below is a photo of a specimen drawer full of voles:

From Acadia National Park Archives

Of the many projects underway at Acadia’s archive, probably one of the most interesting is the Paintings and Art project. The staff and volunteers are collecting information about the Artists in Residence, photographing them for the new NPS museum website, and rotating the paintings in headquarters and at the Center. These artists donate one piece from the works they create while in residence at Acadia. I’m looking forward to seeing the works digitized because the ones I saw were located in a dark area of the archive, and therefore not easily photographable (even with my good low-light camera).

I’m very glad that Acadia is within a day’s drive of so many places in the Northeast. It gives the visitor a new perspective on the vibrant coastal life that can be had in Maine. The park also provides researchers with rich natural and local history resources within a beautiful setting. My favorite time to go is in the Fall, because I enjoy the cooler weather and colorful leaves, but no matter what time you visit, you won’t be able to miss why it’s called the “Pine Tree State.”

Contact Information
William Otis Sawtelle Curatorial Center
Acadia National Park
PO Box 177
Bar Harbor, ME 04609