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.

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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

The Significance of Special Collections


The title of this presentation, “The Significance of Special Collections,” is a statement of fact. But is it also a question? As a declaration it reaches a dead end: either special collections are significant or they are not. But as a question, it opens several lines of inquiry. For example, significant to whom or to what? And significant in the past, in the present or in the future? Or for all time?

Garrett Park Archives, where I work, is a type of special collection. We have a small library, a stock of town records dating back to the incorporation of the town in 1898, some artifacts, and some donated private collections which include residential files, records of various civic groups, and oral histories. Our nearby  neighbors in Kensington, Rockville and Chevy Chase call their collections historical societies, and that, in essence, is what we are, a historical society, a memory institution.

A special collection is significant as a memory institution to the community it covers and represents. In the case of Moorland Spingarn, that community is Howard University students, faculty and researchers, in particular, and the community of people of African descent in general.

I read in the Libguide that Moorland Spingarn Research Center is comprised of four content units: the university archives, a library division, a print and photo unit, and a manuscript division. And a fifth unit consists of digital collections, both born digital assets and items digitized on site. This brings us to an additional significance of a special collection.

For promoting access, for preservation considerations, for space and cost constraints, digitization is by all accounts the path forward. Digitization of records and actual items across content types, like books, photographs, manuscripts, archive and museum artifacts presents a great opportunity to apply common cataloguing standards and common taxonomies that will serve as a multiplying effect for additional access opportunities for students, faculty, researchers, and community users, both on site, and in an online environment.

Additionally, it could provide avenues for cooperation and collaboration across institutions in the future that may or may not exist in the present. I am thinking here about the Library of Congress and the massive universe of Smithsonian museums. But this also could include smaller institutions and learning centers as well.

Of course, digitization is not a panacea. We are already seeing digital decay in degradations in the quality of storage media (try playing that CD you bought twenty years ago). File glut, bit corruption, hardware failure, and obsolescence of formats over time are all examples. Document formatting changes over time. In general, entropy rules – things gradually decline from order to disorder.

Even the internet is not a cure all, though from where we sit it looks like it may last forever. One internet guru says, “If it doesn’t exist on the Internet, it doesn’t exist.” He points out the obvious, that access to special collections on the internet can promote greater access to that collection. But he makes a more significant point – when the collection is also connected to a learning institution, there are added benefits: the institution gives added credibility to the online resource, and the online resource brings a much larger audience of students, scholars and researchers to the learning institution. Without going into too much detail, a center like Moorland-Spingarn connected to Howard University has built-in advantages that a larger center like Schomburg lacks.

Finally, much of my MSLIS course work revolved around a growing trend of convergence across cultural heritage institutions, galleries, libraries, archives and museums. I am including a list of readings from various courses at the end of this presentation. Convergence ultimately results in the creation of a networked information society with online access to all facets of information in the social and informational space. The opportunity to approach and take part in this convergence movement may be the greatest significance offered by special collection, a significance shared equally by staff, students, faculty, scholars and the community at large.

Thank you for this opportunity to have this conversation.

References and additional reading

Bray, David (2007) ‘Knowledge Ecosystems: A Theoretical Lens for Organizations Confronting Hypertubulent Environments,’ in IFIP International Federation for Information Processing, Volume 235, Organizational Dynamics of Technology-Based Innovation: Diversifying the Research Agenda, eds. McMaster, T., Wastell, D., Ferneley, E., and DeGross, J. (Boston: Springer), pp. 457-462. Accessed January 14, 2019 at http://dl.ifip.org/db/conf/ifip8-6/ifip8-6-2007/Bray07.pdf

Erway, Ricky, and Jennifer Schaffner (2017) ‘Shifting Gears: Gearing Up to Get into the Flow’. 2nd Ed. Dublin, OH: OCLC Research. doi:10.25333/C3159X. Accessed January 14, 2019 at https://www.oclc.org/content/dam/research/publications/2017/oclcresearch-shifting-gears-second-edition-2017.pdf

Fox. Robert (2011) “Forensics of digital librarianship”, OCLC Systems & Services: International digital library perspectives, Vol. 27 Issue: 4, pp.264-271, https://doi.org/10.1108/10650751111182560

Goldsmith, Kenneth (2007) ‘If it doesn’t exist on the internet, it doesn’t exist.’ Poetry Foundation, March, 2007, Accessed on January 14, 2019 at https://www.poetryfoundation.org/harriet/2007/03/if-it-doesnt-exist-on-the-internet-it-doesnt-exist.

Gorzalski, Matt (2016) ‘Archivists and Thespians: A Case Study and Reflections on Context and Authenticity in a Digitization Project,’ The American Archivist Vol. 79, No. 1 Spring/Summer 2016 161–185, Accessed January 14, 2019 at http://americanarchivist.org/doi/10.17723/0360-9081.79.1.161

Marty, Paul F. (2009) ‘An introduction to digital convergence: libraries, archives, and museums in the information age.’ Museum Management and Curatorship Vol. 24, No. 4, December 2009, 295-298. Accessed January 14, 2019 at https://marty.cci.fsu.edu/preprints/marty_mmc2009.pdf .

Trant, Jennifer (2009) ‘Emerging convergence? Thoughts on museums, archives, libraries, and professional training’, Museum Management and Curatorship, 24: 4, 369 — 387. Accessed January 14, 2019 at https://courses.ischool.berkeley.edu/i290-ppos/reading/EmergingConvergence.pdf

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!

Long time since last post

Yes, it has been over a month.

A lot needed to settle after the space reconfiguration. Moving things to the new shelving system revealed weird numbering sequences of accessions, odd-numbered lots, and a few other irregularities. Spent a good two days cleaning, sweeping, and scrubbing (they don’t tell you about that in MSLIS programs!). And we have had a steady stream of summer student volunteers who have been helpful with getting things resettled in a host of project-type ways.

So, the big thing this past month was the combined SAA, COSA, NAGARA conference in Washington, a couple of day-long pre-conference courses, the ACA exam (that I dare not mention in case I end up taking it again next year!), and the sessions. Don’t worry, I’m gonna give you the whole rundown. And in a month I’ll be able to link to the various presentations (and others that I wasn’t able to attend).  Anyway, here is what I did for the week:

Participation in SAA Annual Conference, August 12-18, 2018

Sunday, August 12. Command Line Interface (CLI). 9am to 5pm (day long course). I was just a bit “put off” by the technical sound of it, but it was manageable. Remember back in the pre-Windows day when we had to use DOS commands to get the computer to do stuff? That pretty much sums it up.

Monday, August 13. Completed online exam for CLI. The test, open-book, was a breeze. Mostly concepts and theory.

Tuesday, August 14. Building Advocacy and Support for Digital Archives (BASDA) (day long course). Soft stuff as one of my favorite math teachers used to say.

Tuesday, August 14. Annual Research Forum. Research Forum is always interesting. But I was dancing back and forth between presentations and the all day course I was taking. A bit of a juggling act but we managed.

Wednesday, August 15. Academy of Certified Archivists Certification Exam. 9:30 to 12 noon. Questions were pretty straight forward. Lots of opportunities to draw on project management experience from my past. Interesting questions on preservation and on security, of all things. and I learned a new word, artefactual literacy. But again, straight forward. We’ll know the results in six weeks or so.

Wednesday, August 15. Completed online exam for BASDA. Piece of cake.

Thursday, August 16. Attended Opening Plenary, featuring speeches/presentations by David Ferriero, Archivist of the U.S. (AOTUS), and Zeynep Tufekci, UNC professor. Always impressed with the AOTUS! Cool guy with lots of guts. I really like him. And Professor Zeynep was as dazzling and as informative as always. Lots of good stuff. Had me flashing back to Cairo and Damascus and other hot spots. And Aretha Franklin died.

I attended the following sessions:
101 – Towards Culturally Competent Archival (Re)Description of Marginalized Histories
203 – From Best Practices to “Next Practices”: Documenting Underrepresented Communities through Oral Histories
301 – Archiving “Dirty Laundry”: Issues of access, Transparency, and Respectability Among Archives of Under-documented Communities
410 – Sharing Our Stories: Using Archival Collections to Develop Commemorative Events
501 – The National Archives Aims for Digital Future: Discuss NARA Strategic Plan and Future of Archives with NARA Leaders
604 – No Monuments in the Archives: Historical Records and Contested Public Space
704 – Blockchain: What Is It and Why Should We Care

More on all that when they post the slides, though some are already up at #saa18.