Thursday, July 16, 2015

Thoughts on the Practice of Description

As an archivist and local history librarian, one of the primary elements of my work is the description of collections and individual items. Sometimes, this description ends up in a finding aid such as this one on the Combe Fill South Landfill Records ( The purpose of that work is to make it easier for researchers to find and use the collection. It also provides a much deeper level of documentation of the collection that previously hadn't existed.

Beyond the finding aids, I also create a fair number of exhibits each year, both online and in cases within the Chester Library. Each of the items featured in the exhibits requires some description, but the more exhibits I create, the more time I spend describing the items. For my latest online exhibit, I kept a friend of mine in mind as a potential visitor. He uses a screen reader to experience web sites, as well as digital documents (think Word files), because he's blind.

Last week, I talked with another librarian about these types of motivations and decision-making efforts when it comes to description. I was reminded of attending the ARLIS annual meeting in Boston a few years ago. In one of the sessions, the speakers touched on the nature of description as applied to artworks. Her talk was in the context of describing paintings and other works to patrons with varied abilities, such as my friend Ken

Thinking about how to make a meaningful experience for anyone who might use a screen reader drove my process. Here is an example from the Memories of Chester, Herman Rademacher Series exhibit, "West Main Street and Morris Chamberlain" (

The postcard, copyrighted in 1915 by local printer George E. Conover, shows leafy trees lining the right side of the dirt road. On the left side of the image are businesses, a gas station, and a garage. There is an early Model T parked in front of the striped gas pump tower. A man stands in the doorway of the second building on the right (the Masonic Lodge). The Lodge is a two-and-a-half story building with a painted shield hung between two windows on the second floor. The garage is a single-story building with a flat façade.
It's been a few months since I released the exhibit, and without the pressure of a deadline, I can see areas where I could have been more descriptive. For example, I would describe the façade as a brick one in the block, Art Deco style. Here's a link to the high-quality, larger image of the postcard:

This week, I've been teaching a volunteer and Friend of the Library how to describe another set of postcards given anonymously to the library. These came fully captioned and annotated on their versos, but they still required more description. For the first postcard, I told her what I was seeing, and I brought out a large magnifying glass so that we could read a hanging sign in the card. (It reads "heste House," due to weather damage, but it should read "Chester House," because that's what the subject of the image is).

We talked about the fact that the trees had no leaves, which indicated winter (confirmed by the snow on the dirt road), and the possible time of the day based on the shadows. She understood right away why we were embarking on this project, and did a great first pass. This particular volunteer completed all the transcription work on the Herman Rademacher oral history videos, and enjoys her work in Local History. Because she was so familiar with that project, she was able to transfer what she learned onto her current project.

In my very compact schedules at Chester Library and the Plainfield Historical Society, it's a challenge to spend as much time thinking about projects as I'd like to do. Fortunately, I have a handful of smart and capable volunteers (who sometimes end up with the fun projects I'd like to do myself) doing great work and, through training, taking a some of that thinking off my plate.

Just as an aside, recently I've become President of the New Jersey Library Association's History & Preservation Section. That also puts demands on my time, but I'm happy to do what I can to help move our profession forward. For example, with great help from Jacqueline Haun, the Archivist at the Bunn Library, our next meeting on July 27 will be held with the Princeton Preservation Group at The Lawrenceville School. Importantly, in addition to our meeting, we booked a hands-on photo preservation workshop with Peter Mustardo of The Better Image. I also arranged a catered lunch for those interested in staying for it. It will be a day of filling our minds and bodies with very good things.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Spring MARAC/NEA 2015 in Boston

Prior to the joint Mid-Atlantic Regional Archives Conference/New England Archivists events this past week, my excitement and anticipation had been building steadily. I’d signed up for a workshop on the Thursday, as I usually do because MARAC workshops tend to be worth more than the price of admission, and this one promised to be fun and educational. I had printed out the online program and circled the sessions I intended to attend (we had been warned early on to get to sessions early because 500 people had registered and there might be some difficulty finding a seat; by the end, we numbered 700, mostly local NEAers). I also wanted to try to meet some of the NEA folks because, well, I’m friendly that way – like most of the MARAC people I know. Lastly, I was looking forward to visiting with colleagues and friends I only see at MARAC meetings.

The Workshop: Copyright Fundamentals for Archivists and Librarians Led by Peter Hirtle
Peter, whom you’ll remember from this blog post: or perhaps this one:, has physically moved from Cornell University Library to the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School, where he is a Research Fellow. He continues to use his Cornell email and serves as Senior Policy Advisor to the Cornell University Library on intellectual property rights issues.

I had heard great feedback about his workshop from other MARAC members, so this time I took it. Even though the title focuses on fundamentals, the course also dealt with risk assessment; “copyfraud” (the notion that institutions are asserting rights that they simply do not have; e.g., a work is in the public domain and a museum states on its web site that a copy photo has “All Rights Reserved.”); reproduction of copyrighted works; and key for cultural heritage institutions, fair use. During the day-long course, I participated in group exercises with my table neighbor, the very bright and fun Caitlin Goodman (link to her twitter: from the Free Public Library of Philadelphia. Peter’s instruction was useful and fun, and the day flew by.

Friday Plenary and Concurrent Sessions

The Friday Plenary session featured Danna Bell, Past-President of the Society of American Archivists (SAA) and Educational Resource Specialist at the Library of Congress. She spoke about professional development for archivists, and where improvement was needed in educational offerings. I wished that she had recognized the people who deliver consistently good workshops at MARAC, but maybe she was preoccupied about her talk.

The first session I attended was S2. Lessons Learned: Legal Aspects and Ethical Principles of Oral History, with speakers Christine Anne George of the University at Buffalo, SUNY, and Cara Howe of SUNY Upstate Medical University (formerly of the Pan Am Flight 103 Archives at Syracuse). Christine spoke about her recent research on the Belfast Project at Boston College (she is not affiliated with BC), and mainly focused on the legal quagmire. The New Yorker magazine recently published an article that gives the history and the ethical issues connected with the oral history project ( 

Cara, whom I’d seen speak before, talked about the extensive oral history project for the Pan Am Flight 103/Lockerbie air disaster. I’m especially interested in her work, not just because it’s inherently interesting, but because she and her team invested a great deal of time documenting what they did and adhering to best practices.

The afternoon session was S11. Nurturing Nature, and it was where I presented for the first time at a professional conference. I had answered the call for speakers specifically because it was a “lightning” session, and we each would have about 6 minutes to present on our topics. Because Chester Library is the designated local repository for the EPA’s records on the Combe Fill South Landfill, I wrote that I could speak on the records for a local superfund site. Greta Suiter from MIT, the session moderator, was pleased, so I joined the 9 other speakers on the slate. 

Each of the speakers had great presentations, but I’ll just spotlight a handful here. One of my favorites was Sean Fisher’s (Mass. Dept. of Conservation and Recreation). He has an enormous job locating Mass. Parks materials stored in attics, crawlspaces, and essentially anywhere people could put stuff all over the state of Massachusetts. Miles Crowley also from MIT, spoke about pollution in the Charles River. Both Katie Hall and Sarah Denison represented the Delaware Public Archives. Katie focused on mosquito controls (and was hilarious). Sarah took a novel approach to her presentation on the storm of 1962 by running color films of the storm damage on a loop while she talked about the records (it was very effective). Liz Banks from the National Park Service, Northeast Region hit on a number of areas, but mainly focused on Yellowstone, especially Thomas Moran’s diary and paintings and the wolf research (some of which John and I had the pleasure of seeing when we took the Yellowstone archive tour). Rachel Donahue from the National Agricultural Library’s presentation was lots of fun, and spotlighted plant specimens. 

NJ/NY Caucus Meeting

This meeting was the first time I’d experienced a combined New Jersey and New York Caucuses meeting. It was led by Laura Poll of the Monmouth County Historical Association (more from her later) and Michael Martin of the New York State Archives. The meeting was an opportunity to hear what kinds of things are going on in each of the caucuses, although it was a bit of a shy group. It also could have been that it was at the end of the first day of the conference. Usually at MARAC meetings, the caucuses meet in the morning. I almost forgot to introduce myself as the incoming President of the New Jersey Library Association’s History & Preservation Section, but I squeezed it in and mentioned that I’ll be working with Laura on getting together some more H&P/NJ Caucus/Princeton Preservation Group meetings, since there’s so much of an overlap.

Saturday’s Events
On Saturday, I started the morning by attending the MARAC business meeting and enjoying the tasty breakfast buffet. The NEA folks also had a buffet and their business meeting in a different location at the venue. At our meeting, I learned that MARAC now has a Café Press site ( Outgoing Chair John LeGloahec from the National Archives and Records Administration also mentioned that changes to the Bylaws were in the making and he recommended that we attend a lunch session on the topic. There will be more discussion at the next MARAC in West Virginia, but I won’t be attending that one because I plan to attend the SAA annual meeting in August in Cleveland (and there’s only so much budget to go around).

The second plenary of the meeting followed the business meetings. It featured Sands Fish of MIT, who talked about networks in data and his project, Media Cloud. 

The first session of the day I attended was S15. Provenance vs. Artificial Collections: To Restore or Not to Restore? It was the most controversial session I experienced at the meeting. The speakers were Molly Stothert-Mauer of the Perkins School for the Blind, Laura Poll (see the Caucus meeting earlier), Linda Hocking of the Litchfield Historical Society, and Lindsay Turley of the Museum of the City of New York. The speakers talked about the individual experiences with dispersed, intermingled, and artificial collections, and more importantly, the justifications for the choices they made. I think all of the choices were valid, although I think in some cases I might make more use of subject/genre/etc. terms in finding aids to keep created collections together.  But keeping the researcher the top priority regardless of the arrangement choice is the bottom line. 

Another aspect worth considering is the idea of connecting previous indexes and cataloging efforts to the new arrangement. Laura pointed out that an archivist could create more of an issue if he/she didn’t invest the time to make clear the ties between the old and new. It also seems even more important to document all of those decisions and methods so that those who come afterward aren’t lost in the tangle of archival threads.

The last session of the day for me was S21. Physical vs. Digital and the User Experience. The moderator was Susie Bock of the University of Southern Maine and the speakers were Jane Metters LaBarbara of West Virginia University, Samuel Smallidge of Converse, and Anastasia S. Weigle of the University of Maine. Each speaker had a different perspective on the topic to be sure, but Samuel’s argument for practical uses of digital media for internal use at Converse in order to produce a new product (based on one from the 1970s) was pretty persuasive. I didn’t expect to learn about Chuck Taylor sneakers when I came to Boston for MARAC, but now I have a better understanding of some of the structural changes in them over time. By using digitized images of sneakers, he was able to help designers and marketers put together a custom sneaker for consumers in time for a big anniversary at the company.

The Conference Venue and Where I Stayed

There was a bit of construction in the Boston Park Plaza during the meeting. Because Boston had spent much of the winter under more snow than was reasonable, the work that was targeted to have been completed long before our arrival was still underway. In fact, the construction workers were laying carpet in some of the conference areas on the first day. It was inconvenient to be sure, but nothing we archivists/librarians couldn’t handle. 

I didn’t stay at the conference hotel, although I’d originally booked there. When it came closer to the event, my buddy John Beekman, Assistant Manager of the New Jersey Room at Jersey City Free Public Library, mentioned on the MARAC Facebook page that he’d checked to see if the construction had been finished. After I saw his post, I read the comments from recent visitors, and changed hotels to Hotel 140 ( They were very accommodating and helpful. The hotel is located a few blocks away from the Boston Park Plaza, which wasn’t a big deal except that on the first two days, it was cold and very windy. However, the room was clean, the bed was comfortable, and no fragrances were used on the linens (key for those of us who are sensitive to heavy, synthetic fragrances often used in detergents). 

Dining at Davio’s
Last, but never least (this was originally a food blog, you know), something about the restaurant I frequented. My pal Jane Ingold, a Reference Librarian at Penn State Erie, The Behrend College, and I made plans to have lunch together during the Thursday break during both of our workshops. We dined at a lovely Italian restaurant that caters to GF people like me, called Davio’s ( located across the street from the Boston Park Plaza.  The food was very tasty and the service was attentive, albeit a bit slow. However, when I returned for lunch again the following day with another friend, Jacqueline Haun, Archives Librarian at The Lawrenceville School, I mentioned I was pressed for time (because I had a short presentation to make at 1:30 p.m.). The waitstaff made sure to get us out the door by the time specified, and we were grateful. In case you were wondering, I enjoyed the chopped salad (sans bacon) and the GF tomato pizza (on both days, they were that good, and I had leftovers for my little hotel fridge).  

Wrapping Up
As always, I enjoyed the MARAC meeting, made some new friends, and learned a lot more than I expected. The best advice I can give to new archivists and librarians is to join your local/regional professional society and get involved. Next is the NJLA meeting in April, complete with a full day of History & Preservation Section sessions for attendees to enjoy. Can’t wait!