1st week on the new job

If you keep up with me on social media you know I started a new job this week: manuscripts librarian at the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center of Howard University. I opened my window back in September and a wind blew this opportunity into my field of vision. I went to their HR site and posted a resume and cover letter, and, long and short of it, got called for an interview in January shortly after returning from our Christmas vacation in Bissau. A week or two later, I got the offer call from HR, but I was in my car driving back from a trip to Woodberry Forest School and reception was spotty. We connected the following day and I asked for a couple of days before deciding to get my affairs in order. I reported in this week for a day of orientation, but of course Monday was a federal holiday and Wednesday was a snow day. So my first week was a short one.

The walk to Founders Library is uphill. That is a metaphor and a reality. My legs take it better than my heart, but each day gets easier. More in a post next week on Howard’s very unique history and just who these founders were.

My boss is the head librarian and curator. She’s been showing me the ropes, taking me to all the secret places where collections are stored. Let me tell you, the place is awesome, the staff is awesome, I am awe-struck by it all. Might be a standard response for week 1. There is a lot of dirty work to be done, sorting through and processsing collections, relocating pallets of boxes, and exploring campus and commercial storage sheds. Next week I’ve been advised to come in with jeans and steel-toed shoes! It goes with the territory, ossos do oficio as my Portuguese-speaking friends would say.

The highlight of week #1 was most certainly the viewing of the Daniel Payne Murray collection. By all appearances, it’s just a wall full of books in a room that has been repurposed several times. But for those who know, Daniel Murray was the leading bibliographer of books written by and about African Americans at the turn of the century (early 1900’s). He began his life in the 1870’s as a waiter in the capital dining room but reached the height of his career as the primary assistant to the Librarian of Congress. Woodrow Wilson, in repayment of a political debt that helped him get elected, pushed through legislation that reversed many of the gains made during Reconstruction, and more specifically to Murray’s career, passed a federal law which said, in effect, no African American would be allowed to supervise a white worker. Murray was demoted, but continued working at the Library of Congress for a total of 52 years. Read more about Murray in an interview I preserved on my LoC Docent blog here.

Here’s an iconic photo from my first week:

And here are some shots from the MSRC reading room:

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

End of Week Four (4) at the Archives

Never a dull moment at the archives.

Last week I began circulating the draft collection policy I’ve been working on. I think is it pretty good, pretty comprehensive, but we’ll see what comments come back. I may have mentioned in an earlier post my realization that we are simultaneously an archives and a records center, as are many town and city repositories like us, so that requires a broader view of our collections. The records center is not up to date on a lot of records, and I suspect this results from (1) not having an archivist for a number of months, (2) decisions by records creators to just keep stuff on their computers or in the cloud without any formal structure, and (3) not having a formal and agreed upon retention schedule in place. So my next big project is going to be to tackle getting the retention schedule drafted, approved and instituted.

Since my last post, I visited the Montgomery County Historical Association and the Kensington Historical Association and had detailed chats with the archivist/librarian in both. Picked up some good ideas and shared some of my own thoughts. Always good to know your neighbors. It was good to see the web-based PastPerfect software in operation as well as the creative use of historical card catalog cabinets to catalog and make collections available to the public. Also impressed with the use of volunteers and the emphasis on genealogical research resources for folks coming in. Got some good ideas on processing and cataloging obits and other life events of the local citizenry. And don’t we all have too many superfluous photographs in our collections? Weeding them based on duplication and photos whose subjects can no longer be identified is required. But weeding then becomes such an exercise in sentimentality.

Figured out last week that PastPerfect can download to an Excel file and already knew that Excel files can be uploaded to ArchivesSpace. Not that it’s as easy as I stated, and not that there won’t be glitches since it’s likely not a 1:1 conversion. But PastPerfect, your days may be numbered, baby. The conversion, or even the potential conversion will be the subject of its own extensive study and blog post.

Another idea from the visits. Are we (Garrett Park, that is) evolving towards a historical association and not just an archives? We have several boxes of 3-D artifacts taking up valuable shelf space and not enough shelf space for document boxes which are our actual stock in trade. Does the whole idea of GLAM convergence mean that for small operations we become all things to all people? And we converge as we all become more digital and less non-digital in our holdings? So much of the research on this phenomenon is being done by the Canadians and the Australians. Americans are behind but we need to catch up.  I was thinking the other day about how records collections not maintained current become artifacts, museum pieces, time capsules that are useful in their own right, but that fall short when it comes to legal and historical reasons for keeping records in the first place. Also thinking we need to physically segregate town records we are obliged to keep from other archival collections. We might need more space one day soon. OK. That’s that for now.

Because the position was gapped for so long, we decided to use the money in the budget to spruce up the place a bit. New workstations, better lighting, new tables for volunteers and for processing of collections, new chairs (OMG, the folding chairs we have are so uncomfortable!), archival and office supplies for the next year, oral history equipment (headphones, recorders, etc.). Nothing is as fun as shopping! We’ll take photos when it all arrives, is assembled and in place.

Finally, next week I’m driving to Leesburg for the annual meeting VA/MD Caucus of MARAC (Mid-Atlantic Regional Archives Conference). Will be fun and enlightening hanging out with archivists throughout the immediate region.