Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Spring MARAC, April 14-16 2016

As always, the Spring Mid-Atlantic Regional Archives Conference, held in downtown Pittsburgh, PA, provided a great deal of bang for the buck. Attendees were favored with excellent weather, a fine conference hotel, and a lively location with plenty to see and do. It’s hard to say what was the best part of this most recent MARAC, but I’ll share the highlights of my experience with you.

The Plenary
Many of us are familiar with the plenary speaker, David Carmichael, State Archivist of Pennsylvania and former State Archivist of Georgia. He spoke on the conference theme, Archival Confluence (Pittsburgh is where three major rivers meet), as we as archivists are “at the confluence of past and future.” The thrust of his message was “What value does our repository create, and how do we measure and articulate that value?” The answer is through the stories of use and value to our patrons. What are the key record series that our patrons cannot live without? He spoke about using metrics to demonstrate our value. Many of us do this through counting patrons, tabulating hours spent on reference work, etc. He also suggested using surveying tools to expose the economic impact of our collections and institutions.

What he has learned through his work is that the value of what we do is not self-evident. We have to believe we have value to add. How do we communicate what the value is? He said that it’s about who benefits directly by our work. Additionally, we have to collect the stories and data – what can be measured and is it meaningful? We need to be able to draw the line to the value that the story delivers. Finally, his last, but key message was that because the “urgent gets in the way of the important,” we need to talk about why we do what we do, not just what we do.

Sessions I Attended

Culture in Transit (CIT): Digitizing and Democratizing NYC’s Cultural Heritage
CIT is a grant-funded partnership between the Metropolitan New York Library Council, Brooklyn Public Library, and Queens Library. They use the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) as a platform for the materials created at community digitization events. These scan-a-thons (my term) aren’t just about getting grandma’s scrapbook online. The CIT team members help the donors with licensing, creation of metadata, and most importantly, the contextualization of the materials.
The speakers, Maggie Schreiner of Queens Library, Sarah Quick from Brooklyn Public Library, and Caroline Catchpole of the Metropolitan New York Library Council, emphasized the need for a great deal of planning and outreach, especially media planning, to ensure success. Friends of Libraries groups also were used to raise awareness of scanning events. One of the patron groups turned their oral histories into podcasts as a class project. Overall, the session provided great examples of how to create, host, and publicize small-scale digitization services to the community that also help the library.

“Scope Drift” and the Changing Role of the Archivist
The speakers here represented a varied group of archives, including The Abraham Lincoln Foundation of The Union League of Philadelphia (Theresa Altieri), University of Baltimore (Ben Blake), Maryland State Archives (Maria A. Day), Eastern State Penitentiary (Erica Harman), and Seton Hall University (Amanda Mita). In addition to sharing their individual experiences with jobs that became nearly completely different than what they’d originally signed on to do, the speakers shared some very practical tips. Here are just a few:
  1. Recognize things out of your control. 
  2. Prioritize your time and resources. 
  3. Focus on the things you can control (e.g., mission, collecting scope, preservation, job description, etc.). 
  4. Be assertive, diplomatically. 
  5. Challenge the business perspective (i.e., expectations of revenue generation). 
  6. Get the appropriate access you need to accomplish your goals.
Hearing about the massive challenges these folks face/faced in their work and how they approached them was inspiring, to say the least.

The Duchamp Research Portal: Moving an Idea to Proof of Concept
This fascinating session was a rarity in that it focused on a single, international project that involves four different organizations. The speakers were Susan K. Anderson, Philadelphia Museum of Art; Christiana J. Dobrzynski, Deadalus Foundation; Matt Shoemaker, Temple University; and Deborah Wythe, Brooklyn Museum. Funded by an NEH Preservation and Access grant, the end result of the project will be an online research portal for the artist Marcel Duchamp. The session focused on the 18-month effort to research and plan for a very complex collaboration between archivists, curators, IT professionals, and other museum team members. Add in the additional levels of complexity in that the IT team is in France and requires French translation, copyrights aren’t the same in the U.S. as they are in the E.U., the metadata to be collected differed for each organization, and the collections of Duchamp pieces had to be inventoried at each institution. Subsequently, the group published a gigantic white paper which will be included in their implementation grant proposal. It’s going to be quite something when it’s finished, and I can’t wait to hear the rest of the story.

If You Give a Kid a Document: Bringing K-12 Students into the Archives
In this session, the speakers talked about the successes they had with kids interacting in a very hands-on way with the materials in their collections. The speakers, Kira A. Dietz of Virgina Tech, Stephen Ammidown of the Gilman School, and Melanie Meyers of The Center for Jewish History focused on specific experiences, whether they were connected to a given event or collection. Getting the kids to share their observations about an object or record was of specific importance, especially in the effort to bring a new understanding about what is “old.” All of the speakers had good tips, but the ones that stood out for me were:

  1. Keep groups small, especially if you are limited as far as staff is concerned.
  2. Keep to 15 minutes of talking – 5 minutes on what I do, 5 minutes on what we have, and 5 minutes on what they could do with the materials.
  3. Expect troublemakers, and have extra hands available to deal with them.
  4.   Engage with teachers.
  5. Be clear about the teachers’ goals.
  6. Don’t underestimate the kids.
  7.  Know your limitations – they might know more than you do on lots of different topics.
  8. Create an opportunity for the kids that they wouldn’t ordinarily have.
  9. Create a photo contest for kids who take pictures of materials.

The End of Archival Adventures in Small Repositories: HCI-PSAR Findings and Methodologies
For this last session, I was very interested in learning the details on the Hidden Collections Initiative for Pennsylvania Small Archival Repositories project that just came to a close (2011-2016). The speakers were Jack McCarthy, Anastasia Matijkiw, and Sarah Leu of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Focused on private non-profit, volunteer-run history organizations, the project sought to bring to light (in a digital sense) collections that had not been adequately described in finding aids. The project also did a great deal to bring archival and preservation training to groups on a monthly basis. The end result was the development of an assessment tool that includes information on collection condition, housing, physical organization, intellectual organization, and research value (developed by the HSP previously). Conference attendees participated in exercises to determine how they would survey collections. It was highly educational.

While I’m conferenced-out for the year (recently participated in NJLA, too), I’m already looking forward to next spring’s MARAC, this time in Newark, N.J. It should be a blast.

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