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.

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