Returning to CUA – the 11th annual Bridging the Spectrum Symposium

Yesterday I returned to Catholic University for the 11th annual Bridging the Spectrum symposium. It’s my fourth time attending in the six years of my association with CUA. Three times I have presented, either on a panel or as a poster presenter.

Going back to the campus is always like a religious pilgrimage for me. I remember the very first time I visited the campus, back in 2012, to attend an information session for the Library and Information Science graduate program. I remember being struck by the cruxifixes on walls, and by the pro-life campus event announcements on bulletin boards. I thought to myself, “Wow, these folks are serious about their religion.” Then there is the huge colorful dome on top of the cathedral, the Basilica, also known as the Basilica of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. What an amazing sight that thing is, visible from all points on campus.

Basilica of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception

The campus became a place of refuge for me, a safe harbor from the storm just outside her gates. 2013. But that’s a different story. Maybe even a different blog altogether! Meanwhile, back to the story.

For the morning session, I attended the Information Organization panel discussion. One of the presenters focused on documenting and archiving performance, and though she talked primarily about dance (she is the archivist for a dance company in New York). Of course I applied it to dramatic production and my work with the August Wilson American Century Cycle. A second presenter, from the Library of Congresss, talked about extracting metadata from print-only serials from Africa. The presenter and I had three institutional connections: SOAS, Howard University, and the Library of Congress. Plus my previous experiences in African countries. We had a lot to talk about after the session.

I was a bit late for the afternoon session because I spent too much time talking with poster presenters and old friends after lunch. Many of the posters were quite excellent and I hope they get posted on the CUA website so i can link to them later. The ones that really stood out for me were the following: Rethinking Library Services for First-Generation Students; Creating and Using a Library Diversity Statement; Linking Liszt: Strategies for Improving Acccess to Classical Music in Consumer Platforms; Relieving Library Anxiety: the Application of Relationshhip Marketing to Libraries; Combatting “Fake News” Through Deepening Our Philosophical Roots; and Not Just Bitcoin; Applications of Distributed Databases for the Information Professions.

In the afternoon, I attended the Digital Collections sessions. Interesting presentations, to be sure, but after investing so much psychic energy into the morning sessions and the lunchtime poster session, I was pretty much exhausted. In the closing session, a guy did a parody on Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven, relating it to work in libraries and archives. He covered the WHOLE poem! You know, as much as I LOVE Edgar Allan Poe, it was just too much!

I ran into an old classmate who has joined forces with her mother to provide archiving and library solutions to associations. It is just the thing I am beginning to do with small marginalized black communities, helping them to preserve their community memories in the form of micro- and mini-historical societies. We had a great conversations and I was able to pick up some tips. Of course, she is making money at it and I barely meet expenses. Ha! Maybe that will change in the new dispensation. I look forward to keeping in touch with them both.

It was great seeing classmates, colleagues, former professors. A successful pilgrimage indeed!

Farewell to Garrett Park

Next week will be my last week as town archivist for the Town of Garrett Park, Maryland. This past Monday I put in my two week notice. Resignation notice conversations can be difficult, but this one was quite civilized.

I have a “next assignment” and I am quite excited about it. I won’t divulge it tonight because it’s bad luck to talk about these things too soon. But as soon as I am firmly in the saddle I will share my coordinates with you all. We will remain in the District of Columbia, where we enjoy all the benefits of disenfranchisement and taxation without representation.

Garrett Park has been the “lone arranger” experience that I was looking for, and more. I was at all times aware of the tremendous efforts of generations of town clerks, town secretaries, archivists, and volunteers before me who got the place running and kept it running. My Garrett Park experience also gave me insight into establishing an archives consultancy practice – how to value my effort and why advocacy is so important. I am immensely grateful for both experiences – one really can’t ask for more. Garrett Park is a lily white town with a rich cultural history. Too bad so many of the current residents don’t really appreciate the value of the legacy they have inherited or purchased into. It is so much more than a collection of houses in a tony part of Montgomery County.

I am leaving the campsite cleaner and more orderly than I found it. The old Boy Scout standard. The place is in good shape and the volunteers will keep things on track until the next archivist is hired. Farewell, and as my father would say, “don’t take no wooden nickels.”


A day off to visit the Library of Congress

As a Library of Congress docent, I get advanced notice of special programs at the world’s greatest library. So when I got word of the special program opening the Omar Ibn Said Collection, I quickly adjusted my schedule and came in on one of my off days in order to devote a whole day to the event.

From the loc.gov site, “The Omar Ibn Said Collection consists of 42 digitized documents in both English and Arabic, including an 1831 manuscript in Arabic on “The Life of Omar Ibn Said,” a West African slave in America, which is the centerpiece of this unique collection of texts. Some of the manuscripts in this collection include texts in Arabic by another West African slave in Panama, and others from individuals located in West Africa.” I was excited about the collection for several reasons, including my interest as an archivist, my interest as a former Africanist, my ever-present interest in African American history, and a personal interest in the history of Islam in the United States that dates back to my impressionable teenage years and a youthful flirtation with Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam.

The morning session was devoted to the academic and scholastic significance of the collection. The chief of AMED, Mary-Jane Deeb introduced the session and Eugene Flanagan, Director of General and International Collections moderated a panel consisting of Professor Sylviane Diouf of Brown University, Professor Adam Rothman of Georgetown, and Professor Ala Alryyes from CUNY Queens College.

a photo of the actual, conserved document

All the pertinent information is at the loc.gov site above. I’d like to share here some personal observations from the presentation that stood out for me personally.

First of all, Omar Ibn Said was born in 1770 in Futa Toro, an area that overlaps the border between present-day northeastern Senegal and southeastern Mauritania. The area has an ancient history of advanced metalwork and a more recent history (since around the 12th century) of Islamic scholarship and religious learning. See more about Futa Toro here.

Here is where it gets a bit interesting (and this was brought out peripherally in the panel discussion). Ibn Said was a 37 year old religious scholar when he was captured in 1807, hardly a prime candidate for the slave trade. He was an academic, not a farmworker, and certainly not a manual laborer. So why did he get caught up in the slaver’s web?

It goes back to the US Constitution. Compromises, weird compromises were struck between the northern states and the southern slaveholding states in order to get the document approved by all the states. One such compromise, called the “slave trade provision” was included in Article 1 of the Constitution and said, basically, that there could be no Congressional prohibition on the international slave trade for twenty years from ratification. Sure enough, in 1808, twenty years later, the international slave trade was technically outlawed. But in the two years prior, 1806-1808, there was a made dash by slave traders and slave shippers to get as many Africans as possible kidnapped, captured and shipped to the United States. Omar ibn Said got included in that mad dash, where, frankly, in a more “normal” time, he would have been left to his booksand students.

Another significant point in time was the year he published his autobiography, 1831. I scribled something in my notes that the panelists eventually mentioned. 1831 was the year of the Nat Turner rebellion and there had been a series of slave revolts previously, primarily in Virginia and the Carolinas. Omar Ibn Said was enslaved nearby in North Carolina at the time. (I’ve done some creative writing on Nat Turner, a sort of deconstruction of the “Confessions.” A Sonnet Crown. It’s a work in progress.). I have to do some research to find out what may have been the commercial and/or political forces that supported the publication of Ibn Said’s autobiography, the popularity of the genre at the time, and how the published document might be used. I think we are OK with the idea that Ibn Said had his own personal motivation to putting pen and ink to paper, and there was a mention that writing in Arabic afforded him a bit of safety, because who else inside the power structure could read Arabic at the time?

The final significant point for me is the fact that Omar Ibn Said lived for 93 years. He died in 1863, just two years prior to emancipation. One of the panelists showed deep emotion in expressing his regret that Ibn Said didn’t live long enough to experience freedom. I spoke with the panelist afterwards and shared with him my thinking and sentiment based on my own experience and the Stockdale Paradox. In essence, Omar Ibn Said, whether as a result of trauma or of cool rational calculation, made accomodations with his environment in order to survive, to thrive. He learned English. He learned Christianity (though it is a subject of debate whether he actually converted). He worked in the house, so to speak, and even said (some one quoted it on the panel) he wore the master’s clothes and ate the master’s food. And because of those accomodations, he lived a relatively good life, reached his 90’s, continued his writing, and left a legacy that we are still exploring over a hundred and fifty years after his physical death. Not too shabby for a small town Islamic scholar and religious teacher.

I’ll have more to write on this after reading the Ala Alryyes book.

A Garrett Park Archives moment 01.22.2019

A Garrett Park Archives moment

From a letter from Mrs. E. M. Riordan, dated 10/6/1966

“Many commuters went into the city on the morning train returning in the evening – The train was used for all transportation to the social affairs, etc., in the town (City)

“Temple Baily the authoress lived with her Father Captain Bailey in the summers – She borrowed (me) when I was three to spend the day while she was writing – She received a check for a story and My Father had the Post Office in the Station then – She danced around laughing and singing and ran up the path home singing “I sold my story”

Dad often recalled this – I spent many days with Miss Bailey and her father.”

Of course, Temple Bailey would go on to sell many novels. She had short stories published in all the leading magazines of her time. At the time of her death in 1953, it is estimated she had sold three million copies of her novels spanning the period from WW1 to WW2, and the New York Post placed her among the best paid writers in the world.

https://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/bailey-irene-temple

Moving our collections to the online environment for outreach and for research access

We’ve discussed taking our show on the road, that is, making our archival collections discoverable in the online environment. Up to now, we have a mention on the town’s website, buried several clicks down under town committees, but our cataloguing and even a listing of our holdings have been restricted to an internal collections management software designed for museums, or scatter-shot in documents across several computer desktops within the town office, neither of which is accessible to the exterior town members and the research community.

In previous postings, we have discussed the pros and cons of PastPerfect, the software we have, and ArchivesSpace, the industry standard for the archives community. Meanwhile, I have focused my efforts on identifying and consolidating our holdings and managing for space efficiency. Through our efforts, we are approaching those milestones and beginning to cast our managerial glance both inward, on improvements in collections management, and outward, on outreach and accessibility.

At conferences (and, more specifically, at unconferences) I have seen demonstrations of Omeka, a web hosting and collections management system used by, it turns out, many archival organizations. Over the Thanksgiving break I visited the Omeka website and considered that it may be useful for the applications we are looking for. This week, I began building a prototype on the web-based application, Omeka.net. Here is a link to our beginnings on Omeka: https://garrettparkarchives.omeka.net/


Processing in place: discovering the records overflow in the attic

Some photos from the building attic, where overflow records from the Town Office have been stored/stashed/hidden for the past ten years. Plowing through these boxes, as well as vertical file drawers in the office, have occupied the bulk of my time since my last post here.

The “Autumn Cleaning” began in the Town Office itself, after the decision was made to purchase a new server system and  the requirement arose to clear out old file drawers to make space for the server components. Ultimately, we moved eight vertical file drawers (two sets of four each) of records to the archives, using the recently submitted records retention schedule to separate “good stuff” from garbage. The transformation and reconfiguration of the archives cited in earlier posts freed up significant space and opened the possibility, first in our minds, and later in actual space, for such a  consideration (yes, I’m taking credit for it!). Something happened in town finances and I was directed first to decrease my already part-time hours, then later, to bill the Town directly and apart from the archives salary budget for all my time spent on official town records (which had become about 80% of my time). A bit of a bait-and-switch, perhaps, and one that I would not have accepted so casually in an earlier time in an earlier career. But I watched it unfold and accepted it as part of my dues to my new profession.

I had known since the beginning of my time here about the records storage in the attic, but it was too hot during the summer months to try to tackle the project. In October, with temperatures lower, I took the attic plunge. We moved a folding table up the rickety attic staircase, along with acid free folders, Hollinger boxes, and lots of sharpened pencils. The attic, by the way, served as bedrooms in a boarding house back in the day, when the post-mistress also ran housing for single men who were casually employed in the town and nearby. The maintenance guys tell me the post-mistress had a dog who lived upstairs, and that the ghost of the dog runs through from time to time. So far, i haven’t had the privilege of meeting up with the ghost dog!

So far I have processed eight boxes of Town Council meeting minute files, one box for every year from 2004 to 2011, and four boxes of audio cassette tapes of actual meeting proceedings. 2012 through 2015 are already accessioned to the archives (about the time an actual archivist was here), and the remains are still in vertical files in the Town Office. One thing I have noticed is that the Town Council folders have way too many duplicate copies of everything and I’ll be able to address that in my expanded responsibilities as Town Records manager. If I last.

Most of the banker boxes are filled with town business files, i.e., procurement and contracting files, employment records, and business records for goods and services . Most of them will be retired and disposed of in accordance with the records retention schedule.

Meanwhile, we are doing a pretty major re-arrangement and re-description of many of our sub-collections, reducing overlaps, consolidating subject similarities. The catalog of our holdings is a work in progress, but many of our users are happy to see the whole of our holdings in one place. Finally, in anticipation of new official responsibilities as records manager, I separated all the official “inherently government” files, folders and boxes and gave them all a separate rack in the mobile rack system.

I passed the ACA (Academy of Certified Archivists) exam!

I got the email this week, just as I was pouring through a treasure trove of monthly meeting minutes from the 1920’s to the late 1950’s of the Garrett Park Civic Study Group, the local women’s neighborhood association. I felt fairly confident taking the exam and I had spent hours at the local library and on the rooftop of our building pouring through the readings and notes from Prof. Jane Zhang’s courses at CUA-MSLIS. I passed and as soon as I complete the required work experience I will be a full member of the Academy of Certified Archivists.

But the real story is the treasure trove I discovered. The women’s group was founded in 1914 but it wasn’t until the end of World War 1 that they got really serious about meeting regularly and keeping a very meticulous record of their activities. They met every month from 1917 until 1959, recording local events, holding discussions about national events, recording dues payments and expenses, and, in short, building their civil society. It’s an amazing collection of stories, data, and daily chit-chat over a most momentous time in American history. I’m hoping I can get one of our student volunteers to take it on as a project and I am thinking about doing a presentation for the county historical society annual meeting.

The items altogether were scattered across several different subject sub-collections, but when one of the town archives pioneers (she’s in her nineties now but still sharp as a tack) told me that the archives had been built originally around the collection of records of various women’s associations in town, I realized that that was the true “original order” and pulled it all into one new sub-collection. It’s what I love most about archiving: original order, provenance, and, of course, the archivist’s discretion in arranging and describing.

Different plate.

I missed the Emir Abd-elkader seminar at AU this week. I first heard about Abd-elKader, the mid-19th century Algerian Sufi sheik and international human rights advocate from my Arabic tutor in Cairo, himself a “closet” Sufi sheik (you have to be careful with religious identity in Egypt!). Abd-elkader, aka Abd-el Qadir for you Arabic purists out there, fought valiantly against the French occupation and eventual annexation of Algeria, spent time exiled in Damascus where he saved the lives of thousands of Syrian Christians, and was eventually honored for his humanitarianism in Paris by Napoleon III, in London by Queen Victoria, in Rome by Pope Pius IX, and in Washington by President Lincoln who sent him a matching pair of Colt pistols as a tribute.  A group of his followers emigrated to the U.S. and settled in a small town in Iowa, Elkader, IA, which bears his name until today. He was well known and respected among American intelligentsia and religious scholars, especially the Mormons, Christian Scientists, and evangelical groups of the mid 19th century.

My little secret is that when Emily Dickinson (whose family was part of that intelligentsia) says in one of her poems that she “never saw a Moor,” she was telling one of her slant truths – She knew of Abd-el Qadir! I’m willing to wager that Walt Whitman also knew of the Algerian Moor. Here is more information on Abd-el Qadir. Wikipedia has a well sourced article with great references and external links.

In full disclosure, I have a deeper interest in Algeria. I worked for a couple of years in my former career with the Algerians and Moroccans trying unsuccessfully to resolve the conundrum (what’s a better term for a permanent state of war) known as Western Sahara. I later learned that, unknown to us, or at least to me at the Deputy Assistant Secretary level, both the Algerians and Moroccans were making huge contributions to the Clinton Foundation to curry favor with the Secretary of State, each hoping for top level buy-in on their respective sides of the conflict. The New Diplomacy. Soft Power! Pay to play! Diplomatic efforts were a joke compared to all that high finance.  We thought we were making a difference. We thought we were saving the world. It was just about the Benjamins for the Clinton machine.

Different plate.

In the next phase at work I will shift from archives to records management and complete the records retention schedule. Shouldn’t take more than a week. Then it’s back to arranging and describing and preparing for the migration to ArchivesSpace. ArchivesSpace is an open source, web based archives information system. It is also a community of really cool archivists and IT genuises.

There are several stages to complete, and between archiving, catching up oral histories, training and supervising volunteers, and records management, all while working two days a week, I anticipate completing the whole migration project by Summer 2019, with a bit of luck, insha-llah.

Keep in touch!