Saturday, August 30, 2008


Between the lone SAA session of the day and the conference reception in the evening, I went to the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park with a colleague and one of her friends from graduate school.

The star attraction was an exhibit of the work of Dale Chihuly. He has no shortage of detractors, but I love art glass, and Chihuly is the best glass artist around today.

I was pleasantly surprised that the de Young allowed (non-flash) photography in the exhibit, and I took full advantage of this policy.

The first room in the exhibit is devoted to "Persians"--odd-shaped pieces that call to mind the ancient glass found at archaeological sites around the Mediterranean.

Also on display: a couple of wooden boats filled with glass pieces, this one inspired by the artist's travels in Japan.

My favorite part of the exhibit was the "Persian Ceiling"--a room in which all kinds of Persian forms (plus the odd cherub or two) were placed upon a suspended glass ceiling and lit from above.

It was pure joy. Judging from the amount of time that other attendees spent in this part of the exhibit, lots of people felt the same way.

I was also to see the de Young's permanent exhibits of 19th century American decorative art and painting and its extensive exhibit of art from New Guinea, which was exhilarating.

SAA: Second day of sessions

NB: Sessions occupied only one time slot today.

Digital Revolution, Archival Evolution: An Archival Web Capture Project
Dean Weber (Ford Motor Company), Judith Endelman (Henry Ford Museum), Pat Findlay (, and Reagan Moore (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) discussed their joint effort to use Web crawling software to create preservation copies of the main Web site ( maintained by the Ford Motor Company.

As Findlay emphasized, this site is extremely large and complex: the site contains content created by many different Ford units, pulls content from a large number of different feeds, has Flash and non-Flash and high- and low-speed versions, and has features that allow people to view cars by color, passenger number, etc. As a result, there are literally millions of different page combinations. Moreover, it has strong anti-hacking protection and is hosted on geographically dispersed servers located throughout the world.

The Henry Ford Museum, which wanted to preserve periodic snapshots of the site, worked with San Diego Supercomputing Center (where Moore worked until a very short time ago) to conduct three crawls of the site and store and furnish access to the results. In an effort to improve results, staff from the Henry Ford Museum and SDSC consulted with Ford's IT staff; as Endelman noted, everyone entered into this project thinking that it was about technology, but it was really about management, people, and relationships.

Moore furnished a great overview of the various challenges that the group encountered over the course of the project, and he explicitly linked them to the traditional archival functions of:
  • Appraisal--understanding what was actually present in the Web site and deciding what to preserve;
  • Accessioning--using a crawler to produce copies of the site and place the copies into a preservation environment;
  • Description--gathering essential information needed to identify and access the crawl and system metadata guaranteeing authenticity, etc.
  • Arrangement--preserving the intellectual arrangement of the files and determining their physical arrangement (SDSC actually bundles the files into a single TAR file, which means that it needs to maintain checksums, etc., for only one file per crawl. The iRODS software that SDSC developed can search within TAR and files and pull up content as directed);
  • Preservation--determining whether to store, e.g., banners indicating the archival status of the files, with the files or in a separate location;
  • Access--enabling people using multiple browsers on multiple platforms to examine the files.
I've done quite a bit of Web crawling, and I'm glad to learn that Moore and other researchers are actively trying to figure out how to capture content that current crawlers can't preserve (e.g., database-driven content and Flash). The session was nonetheless a bit disheartening: even with the active cooperation of Ford's IT staff and the involvement of visonary computer scientists, Web crawling remains an imperfect technology. However, for those trying to preserve large sites or large numbers of sites, it nonetheless remains the best of a bunch of bad options.

SAA: ER Section Meeting

I didn't go to Government Records Section meeting this morning as I had initially planned. Instead, I walked around the exhibit hall and spent a few minutes chatting with a former archivist who is now the VP of an archival consulting firm. The two of us met at SAA in DC in 2006 and realized that, although we had never met, we had close friends in common, and now we make it a point to catch up with one another at SAA.

This year's Electronic Records Section meeting was very state government-oriented: we had four speakers, all of whom were heading multi-state National Digital Information Infrastructure Preservation Program (NDIIPP) grant projects focusing on state government records.

Steve Morris spoke about the Geospatial Multistate Archive and Preservation Partnership
(GeoMAPP) project, which focuses on bringing geographic information system and archival professionals together and identifying and transferring to archival custody geospatial data that has enduring value. GeoMAPP is led by the North Carolina State Archives and the North Carolina Center for Geographic Information and Analysis, and the state archives and geospatial data agencies of Kentucky and Utah are project partners.

Justin Jaffee of the Washington Digital Archives outlined the Multi-State Preservation Consortium, which is designed to test whether the digital archives infrastructure developed in Washington State can be extended to other states. State archives and libraries in Alaska, California, Colorado, Idaho, Louisiana, Montana, and Oregon are participating in this project.

Richard Pearce-Moses of the Arizona State Library, Archives, and Public Records discussed the Persistent Digital Archives and Library System (PeDALS), which involves using BizTalk to automate, to the greatest extent possible, the processing of archival records and the use of Lots of Copies Keeps Stuff Safe (LOCKSS) for secure, redundant storage of preservation copies records. State libraries and archives in Florida, New York, South Carolina, and Wisconsin are participating.

Bob Horton of the Minnesota Historical Society discussed the Preserving State Government Legislative Information project, which works with state legislatures to improve access to born-digital legislative materials. The project has partners (sometimes multiple partners) in California, Illinois, Kansas, Minnesota, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Vermont.

Of all the presentations, Bob Horton's was the most intriguing (I'm actively involved in the PeDALS project, so most of Richard Pearce-Moses's comments, which Richard delivered with his usual grace and good humor, covered terrain that was quite familiar to me). Horton gave us a version of the presentation he usually delivers to legislatures, and he stressed the following points:
  • Legislators self-consciously set themselves apart from the executive and judicial branches of government, and they generally don't want to hear about "best practices" for managing electronic records and publications; they believe that their needs and circumstances are unique. Horton has learned not to confront this belief head-on and instead makes it a point to emphasize that "appropriate practices" should govern the management of digital legislative resources.
  • E-discovery and other legal issues relating to electronic records and publications are of great concern to legislators, and as a result archivists and librarians should emphasize the legal risks associated with poor management of electronic records and publications.
  • Legislators who discount the advice and pleas of archivists and librarians from their own states may give greater heed to the input of associations; once Horton got the Council of State Legislatures to start publicizing this project, legislators in Minnesota and other states who had initially ignored the project started taking an interest in it.
Horton's conclusions and strategies are in fact more broadly applicable: there are lots of people in the executive and judicial branches of government who are resistant to the concept of overarching "best practices," don't want to hear about records management per se but are profoundly worried about e-discovery, or who are more likely to pay attention to records, etc., issues when regional or national organizations they respect get involved. I'm planning to pass on his words of advice to several colleagues when I get back to the office.

Friday, August 29, 2008

SAA: John Dean

It's late and I need to go to bed, so this post is going to be brief. Today's plenary speaker was John Dean. Yes, that John Dean. His research has led him to become a friend of archives and archivists, and he had some interesting things to say about the undue influence that the foundation supporting the Nixon Presidential Library has had over the library's processing, access, and exhibit decisions; he also questioned whether major donors to the Clinton Presidential Library have had too much say over the library's operations. He also roundly condemned President Bush's efforts to undermine the Presidential Records Act of 1978.

Dean's remarks were largely extemporaneous, and he fired off a few funny zingers ("Mitt Romney is Nixon on Prozac," "Rudy Giuliani is Nixon on crystal meth") but it's blazingly evident that he is no fan of the Republican Party as it currently exists. I happen to share his basic outlook, but some of his remarks--and those of some audience members who asked questions after his speech ended--must have made my Republican colleagues in the audience feel just a bit unwelcome.

FWIW, John Dean and I hold undergraduate degrees from the same small liberal arts college.

SAA: Day one of sessions

YourSpace, MySpace, DSpace? Finding a Place for Institutional Records
Sessions got off to a great start this morning, at least for me: the first session I attended, was really thought-provoking. Tim Pyatt (Duke), Erin O'Meara (University of Oregon), and Nancy Deromedi are all using DSpace, an open-source digital repository, to house access (but not preservation) copies of archival university records, government documents, and other materials.

Although Pyatt, O'Meara, and Deromedi saw DSpace as a valuable access tool, they noted that it was developed to capture the grey literature created by university faculty--the papers and other research products that don't go through peer review or formal publication but which contain information warranting preservation--and wasn't really designed for archival materials. As a result, it doesn't readily accommodate the contextual information (data about records creators, relationships between records, etc.) that enables users to make sense of archival records. Moreover, it requires manual entry of descriptive information about each file placed within it--a real challenge for archivists responsible for managing thousands of files.

Erin O'Meara noted that DSpace's limitations forced her both to be creative in figuring out how to associate contextual information with records and to ponder whether she was creating this information because her archival background demanded it or because users actually needed it. Nancy Deromedi and several audience members concurred that it may be time to rethink our descriptive practices and to focus on providing the item-level access users want.

However, it was Pyatt and O'Meara's responses to an audience member concerned that archivists are creating multiple access systems for electronic records in various formats that really got me thinking. Pyatt noted that we're simply not at the point where we have a single system that can provide all types of electronic records. O'Meara then questioned whether we've ever had a single system for providing access to records of any type: we've all inherited legacy systems--paper files, index cards, ordering schemes--and in many cases we can't integrate them into one overarching system. I started thinking about the multiple and overlapping legacy systems developed at my repository. We continue using some of them even though we've clearly outgrown them, and we're making only halting progress toward building the integrated system that we need. I think most, if not all, archives are in the same boat.

I then started thinking about something that Pyatt said earlier in the session: when he and his colleagues were planning to build Duke's institutional repository, researched the various options for doing so--DSpace, FEDORA, Greenstone, Eprints, various commercial applications--and determined that all of them were somehow fatally flawed. He didn't elaborate, and I didn't get the chance to follow up with him, but I suspect that the flaws stem from the simple fact that these applications were all designed to meet the needs of libraries, not archives.

To make a long story short, those us who work with electronic records typically use a variety of overlapping systems that were built with specific purposes in mind, often fail to exchange information easily, and don't always meet our current needs. We also spend a lot of time adapting tools and practices designed for the library community to meet our own needs. In a lot of ways, the new world of electronic records isn't new at all. Maybe it's time for us to stop making do and start designing systems that truly meet our current needs; doing so would require substantial institutional (or, preferably, multi-institutional) commitment and, in all likelihood, substantial grant funding, but the end result might be worth it.

Convergence: R(e)volutions in Archives and IT Collaboration
Another good session. Phil Bantin (Indiana University), the panel chair, noted at the outset that IT folks don't view archivists and records managers as "players" because they don’t know what we can contribute to system design, etc., and that we need to work on winning small victories that will eventually lead others to recognize what we bring to the table. Rachel Vagts (Luther College) and Jennifer Gunter King (Mount Holyoke College) discussed how the merger of the library and IT departments at their institutions benefited their archives. Daniel Noonan (Ohio State) discussed how he was able to leverage concerns about e-discovery and users' lack of knowledge about the differences between archiving and backing up files to establish relationships with IT staff; however, owing to IT staffers' reluctance to avoid "scope creep," he hasn't been able to get involved in existing system design projects.

However, the real standout was Paul Hedges (Wisconsin Historical Society), who started out as an archivist but eventually became head of IT at his repository. He emphasized that archivists are like most people in that they see IT as responsible for maintaining basic services such as e-mail but that they should see IT as a strategic tool that will further their mission and aims. He also emphasized that archivists need to educate themselves about the basics of IT and that IT personnel needed a basic grasp of archival terms and concepts--and that, in his experience, it's been far easier to explain archival concepts to IT people than it is to explain IT concepts to archivists. In his view, archivists need to start reading Government Computing News, eweek, etc., so that they know, in a general way, what IT folks are concerned about and become familiar with IT acronyms and terminology. They also need to start going to IT conferences--even if it means they have to skip archival conferences in order to do so--and learning about IT departments' stated missions and goals.

CONTENTdm Brown Bag Lunch
I attended this lunch so I could meet the awesome Erik Mayer from OCLC, who was there to outline recent improvements to CONTENTdm, OCLC's digital collections management application. I've spoken to Erik many times over the phone and have exchanged hundreds of e-mails with him, but this is the first time we've actually met. He's as delightful and helpful in person as he is online, and he had all kinds of interesting things to say about OCLC's new Web crawler and CONTENTdm, which is due for a really promising upgrade.

Digital Dilemmas: Dealing with Born-Digital Surrogate Audio and Audiovisual Collections
I attended this session because a colleague who is responsible for overseeing the digitization of our multimedia holdings couldn't come to SAA this year. The technical presentation given by George Blood (Safe Sound Archive) was fascinating but a bit over my head, but he and Angelo Sacerdote (Bay Area Video Coalition) identified a number of resources that I'll pass on to my colleague. I'll also let her know about the Monterey Jazz Festival audio and video digitization project; Hannah Frost (Stanford University) highlighted some of the technical problems she encountered as the project unfolded and discussed how the digitized recordings will be made accessible to the public.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Del Martin, R.I.P.

Shortly after the LAGAR meeting ended, I learned that Del Martin, the pioneering San Francisco lesbian activist, had died earlier that day. Martin and Phyllis Lyon, her partner of almost sixty years, were the founders the Daughters of Bilitis, the first lesbian advocacy group in the United States.

Martin and Lyon were married in San Francisco in 2004, were plaintiffs in the lawsuit that led the California Supreme Court to overturn the same-sex marriage ban, and they were the first same-sex couple to be married in San Francisco after the court's ruling took effect.

My heart goes out to Lyon.

The Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin Papers are held by the GLBT Historical Society in San Francisco.

SAA: LAGAR meeting

Today was a work day. I spent the morning doing some stuff that I didn't have the chance to finish before leaving for San Francisco and the afternoon helping to run the annual meeting of the Lesbian and Gay Archives Roundtable (LAGAR) of the Society of American Archivists (SAA).

As usual, we met away from the conference hotel and at a local LGBT Archives. The Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Historical Society, which is located a few blocks away from the conference hotel, was an incredibly gracious host, and we all appreciated being able to see its exhibits on the Folsom Street Fair and GLBT people who served in the military from World War II to the Iraq War.

The meeting followed its usual format, which meant that we had a little time to socialize, then introduced ourselves, and got down to the business of electing a new male co-chair. Congrats go to (newlywed!) Jim Cartwright, who was just elected, and profound thanks go to Steve Novak, who just stepped down.

We then listened to reports concerning LAGAR's newsletter, Web site, online manual for community-based archivists who lack library/archives/information science backgrounds and revised our bylaws so that they conform to recent changes in SAA regulations concerning roundtable leadership; SAA now mandates that roundtable chairs serve no more than two consecutive years.

In addition, we got an update from Ben Primer, who just finished his term as SAA Council liaison and let us know that Council is planning on phasing out every roundtable that has less than fifty official members (i.e., dues-paying SAA members who indicate on their membership renewal forms that wish to be a member of the roundtable). To make matters worse, SAA now allows each member to join only two roundtables; at one point, one could join as many roundtables as one wanted.

LAGAR currently has fewer than fifty official members, but our bylaws allow non-SAA members to join our roundtable: we try very hard to bridge the gap between archivists who have academic credentials and professional positions and the community-based practitioners who began preserving LGBT archival materials long before research repositories took an interest in LGBT history. We also have some SAA dues-paying members who haven't indicated on their renewal forms that they wish to be official LAGAR members.

What a mess. I understand that roundtables consume a certain amount of SAA's resources and that there are a few roundtables that are not particularly well-run, but this policy is a disaster in the making. SAA has gotten so big during the past few years, and it's hard for newbies to get to know one another. Roundtables, which tend to be small, allow people to get to know one another and to take on their first SAA leadership roles.

Moreover, SAA is currently trying to promote diversity within the profession. Its new roundtable policy, which will likely have a negative impact not only upon LAGAR but also upon the Archivists and Archives of Color Roundtable, the Latin American and Caribbean Cultural Heritage Roundtable, and other roundtables that seek to make this profession more inclusive, isn't going to do much to make SAA more diverse.

No one at the meeting was happy about this new policy. In the coming weeks, LAGAR's Steering Committee is going to have to figure out how to respond to Council's directive. We discussed a few ideas at the meeting, but we need to flesh them out.

LAGAR was founded in 1988, and in honor of our anniversary, we then moved on to an informal panel discussion on LGBT archives. Ron Grantz of the Lavender Library, Archives and Cultural Exchange of Sacramento, Karen Sundheim of the San Francisco Public Library's Hormel Gay and Lesbian Center, and Greg Williams of the ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives talked about their repositories' history and holdings.

I wish we had had more time (I always wish that), but I'm glad for the time that we did have. Everyone had lots of great stories about their holdings (Ron Grantz's story about the papers of Jerry Sloan, a gay ex-minister who won a legal battle against Jerry Falwell, was particularly delightful), and it's apparent, at least to me, that those of us seeking to document LGBT history face some challenges that didn't exist twenty years ago:
  • As Greg Williams so aptly put it, a lot of community-based LGBT archives (i.e., archives that were started by LGBT activists and are not affiliated with academic institutions or other research entities) have gotten too big to manage properly or to die a peaceful death. What's going to happen to these archives when the current generation of community-based archivists passes from the scene? Will they simply be absorbed by research institutions? If so, what will it mean for LGBT people?
  • Staffing, funding, and space are real concerns for everyone. However, as Steve Novak noted, these are concerns that all kinds of community-based archives (i.e., local historical societies) face. The fact that we've encountered them is in some ways a sign that we've joined the archival mainstream.
  • Lots of people at the meeting expressed a need for a national network of LGBT archives and archivists. LAGAR has a guide to repositories holding LGBT materials on its Web site and encourages non-SAA members to join, but it's plain that the need is greater. Just how much LAGAR, an all-volunteer organization, can do to build such a network isn't clear, but the Steering Committee needs to do some brainstorming.
Thanks to Ron, Karen, and Greg for being such great panelists!

Pier 39

Pier 39, "San Francisco's premier Bay attraction," is a "festival marketplace" featuring over a hundred stores, a dozen restaurants, and "a variety of fun-filled attractions." In other words, it's the mother of all tourist traps.

The Aquarium of the Bay is at Pier 39, and the Blue and Gold Fleet docks there, so I've spent a little time there. It's appalling and fascinating all at the same time: the crass commercialism, the schlock, the crowds. Despite being a bit repelled by it, I ended up buying a few gifts and a few things for myself while there.

I also walked out to the end of the pier, which offers some pleasing sights.

In 1990, a group of sea lions colonized the docks at the end of Pier 39. They were such a tourist draw that they were allowed to stay. Now, hundreds of these noisy, playful, and . . . fragrant creatures call Pier 39 home. You can hear their barking all along the Western side of the pier.

The sea lions are still a huge tourist draw, as evidenced by the throngs that gather at the end of the pier and the viewing gallery that has been built there. The Marine Mammal Center, a non-profit rescue and research organization serving Northern California, monitors the sea lions at Pier 39 and treats sick or injured animals. Panels adjacent to the gallery outline the organization's work and the natural and human threats that sea lions and other marine mammals face.

In the early evening, gulls, cormorants, and pelicans perch on the cement breakwater at the end of the pier. I had never seen a pelican prior to coming to San Francisco, and now I've seen dozens of them in flight and at rest.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Golden Gate

Playing blog catch-up on a Wednesday night . . . .

After I finished walking the Castro yesterday afternoon, I took the streetcar back to Pier 39 and got on an hour-long Blue and Gold Fleet cruise around the Bay.

This cruise exists for one reason: to allow people to see Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge. I had initially planned to walk over the bridge, but I've been doing a lot of walking over the past few days, a Blue and Gold Fleet voucher is included in the CityPass, and I was able to get a ticket for the 5:35 PM cruise.

The start of the cruise was not promising: instead of having the captain or another crew member narrate the tour, the Blue and Gold Fleet uses a recording of "Captain Nemo" (yes, that Captain Nemo) and "friends" (i.e., various famous and obscure San Franciscans) relating stories about San Francisco and the Bay. It's obviously pitched toward kids, but to adult ears it's hopelessly contrived. Blue and Gold could learn a few lessons from the National Park Service.

The boat ride itself, however, is quite pleasant. I won't post any more pictures of the San Francisco skyline or Alcatraz, but the cruise affords excellent views of both.

A Western Gull taking advantage of our air currents coasted with us most of the way to the bridge.

As is often the case at this time of year, the bridge was enveloped in a light, low fog. In fact, the bridge is painted orange because orange is relatively easy to see in foggy conditions.

I was one of the last people to get on the boat, and I didn't get a good seat. As a result, I couldn't take an iconic picture of the bridge (i.e., one in which both pillars are visible). I had to settle for taking pictures of the San Francisco side . . .

. . . and of the Marin County side. However, viewing the bridge from a boat does enable one to see its underside, which isn't otherwise visible. It also gives one a sense of just how cold and furious the currents at the mouth of San Francisco Bay can be. We were out on a calm day, and the water got choppy and the spray got chilly as we approached the bridge.

The narrative provided by Captain Nemo and friends improved as the tour progressed, although it never approached the quality of the Alcatraz tour. Maybe it's just the old labor historian in me, but I was genuinely moved by the section, allegedly narrated by a construction worker who helped to build the bridge, discussing the builders' genuine efforts to ensure worker safety and the horrific accident that claimed the lives of eleven men. The portion of the tour dealing with the discrimination experienced by San Francisco's Chinese and Chinese-American residents was concise and easy for everyone, including older children, to understand.

Captain Nemo ended the tour by pointing out that the Golden Gate Bridge has achieved iconic status, while the other big bridge in San Francisco Bay--the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge--has never attained such popularity despite being substantially longer than the Golden Gate. I think it's because the Bay Bridge (which is actually a trio of bridges and a tunnel) is painted a workaday gray. Despite being having the same graceful curves as the Golden Gate, it tends to blend into the water and the sky. Owing to its size, it's also difficult to photograph; I took the picture above while en route to Alcatraz the day before, and it's the best of a bad bunch.

The Golden Gate is truly lovely, but I find being in its presence a bit unsettling. The railing on the bridge's pedestrian walkway is low, and the walkway itself directly overhangs the water. As a result, the bridge is a suicide magnet: people have come to San Francisco from across the country, and even from other parts of the world, in order to end their lives in the cold waters of San Francisco Bay . . . or on the rocky headlands underneath portions of the bridge. The Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District has responded by installing cameras and having first responders patrol frequently and are exploring the possibility of building some sort of physical barrier, but there is a notable lack of public support for the idea.

The whole time I was on the boat, I kept hoping that everyone on the bridge was simply enjoying the view and the fine summer weather.

'Nuff said

Storefront window on Valencia Street, San Francisco, August 26, 2008.


I went from the cool, amber-toned hush of Mission Dolores to the color and noise of the Castro. It was quieter than I expected; however, I was there at 1:00PM on a Tuesday.

I've heard complaints that lesbians are few and far between in the Castro, and I was decidedly in the minority. However, I saw a fair number of paired-off women . . . and a surprising number of straight couples, who are apparently moving into the area.

The Castro Theatre, which is currently having a Little Mermaid sing-a-long, is a wonderful Art Deco movie palace; I seriously considered buying a ticket just so I could check out the interior.

Harvey Milk, California's first openly gay politician, ran a camera store at 575 Castro; a home design store now occupies the retail space. A tiny commemorative plaque is embedded in the sidewalk of the front of the building.

Twin Peaks is the oldest gay bar on the Castro. Note the large windows: Twin Peaks unshielded its windows in 1972, thus making the statement that gay people in the Castro didn't have anything to hide. Many gay bars across the nation (including one of the most popular bars in my city) have since followed its lead.

Had I been thinking, I definitely would have arranged to go on the Crusin' the Castro walking tour of the neighborhood. Perhaps Saturday . . . .

Harvey Milk's papers--and lots of other archival materials documenting the history of LGBT San Franciscans--are held by the San Francisco Public Library. Milk was a 1951 graduate of what is now called the University at Albany, SUNY, and people interested in learning about Milk's college years may also wish to examine the columns he wrote for the Albany Student Press columns. The M.E. Grenander Department of Special Collections and Archives has a complete run.

Mission Dolores

This morning, I took the streetcar to Church Street and walked to the Mision San Francisco de Asis, commonly known as Mission Dolores. The Mission was built in 1791 by Franciscan monks seeking to bring the word of Christ to the native peoples who lived in what is now San Francisco. Its adobe walls, which are over four feet thick, survived the 1906 earthquake.

The interior of the Mission has an incredible Baroque altar. The patterned ceiling was designed and painted by Native Americans who converted to Christianity.

A small spiral staircase stands at the back of the church. The wood is obviously hand-hewn.

Mission Dolores was one of the San Francisco locations featured in Vertigo. However, a tour guide told me that Hitchcock shot footage at Mission Dolores and at another mission and then combined the two; for example, the film depicts Kim Novak entering the church and then exiting right to go to the adjacent cemetery, but the cemetery at Mission Dolores sits to the left of the Mission itself.

Given the place's history and function and the hush that pervades the place, I was at first a bit hesitant to ask questions about Vertigo; however, I eventually decided that if it was okay to film Vertigo at the Mission, it was certainly okay to ask questions about the filming.

Aquarium of the Bay

After I got back from Alcatraz yesterday evening, I went to the Aquarium of the Bay, which is a short walk away from the Alcatraz Cruises dock and stays open relatively late during the summertime. I love aquariums (and regret that my schedule won't accommodate a visit to the superb Monterrey Bay Aquarium), and I had another incentive to go: I purchased a San Francisco CityPass, which bundles together a seven-day public transit permit and admission to the Museum of Modern Art, the deYoung Museum, the Legion of Honor, the Aquarium of the Bay, and other attractions for a flat fee. Definitely a good option for the museum devotee.

The Aquarium of the Bay is located at tourist-trappy Pier 39. Its a small facility devoted to the study and conservation of the San Francisco Bay.

Visitors first view a number of small tanks highlighting the ecosystems that exist within the Bay.They then move through two clear tunnel tanks, one of which houses creatures that live in the shallows of the Bay . . .

. . . such as these anchovies, schools of which pass with stunning speed and change direction in the blink of an eye . . .

. . . and star- and rockfish.

After passing through the first tank, visitors see a few small tanks housing other Bay inhabitants, such as these moon jellies. Then they proceed to the other tank, which contains the animals that live in the deeper waters . . .

. . . such as sharks . . .

and sturgeon.

A few small touch tanks allow visitors to touch starfish, leopard sharks, and rays.

The Aquarium of the Bay is a lovely facility, and the staff are knowledgeable and helpful. However, given that it takes about 45-60 minutes to go through the exhibits at a leisurely pace, the admission fee ($14.95 for adults, $8.00 for seniors and children aged 3-11, $37.95 for a family ticket) seems a bit steep. Given that it's a non-profit with a worthy mission, perhaps the fee is understandable. However, part of me suspects that the fee is high because Pier 39 is touristy and pricey (and a lot of the tourists at Pier 39 these days are getting such good exchange rates for their Euros that the price is still reasonable). For CityPass holders, however, the Aquarium of the Bay is a pleasing and informative break from the hubub and relentless commerce of Pier 39.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Rock

Yesterday afternoon, I did the touristy thing and took a tour of Alcatraz. The worst part of the trip was waiting for it to begin: The Rock is a big draw for sightseers, and we were hemmed in by Tensabarriers until each group was photographed in front of a mock backdrop of the island and then herded onto the boat. Having dealt with madding hordes at the Frida Kahlo exhibit, I felt my patience wearing thin.

Once we were on the boat, however, things changed. Although there was some low-lying fog on the water, the day was sunny and warm.

The view of San Francisco from the water was stunning (bit of a cheat: this photo and the one that appears at the very start of this post were taken as we were coming back from the island).

In the late 1960’s, a group of Native American activists took over the island, which was unoccupied after the federal prison it housed was closed in 1963, and declared it “Indian land.” The island still bears evidence of this event, which galvanized a generation of Native American activists.

I was initially disappointed by The Rock: the elements are not kind to the place, and although the National Park Service is actively fixing up the place, parts of the island were off-limits to visitors for various reasons. However, as I got away from the crowd and got into exploring The Rock, my mood lifted.

At present, no human lives on the island, but thousands of birds call it home.

Part of the island is currently closed to allow Western gulls to nest and raise their young without human interference. However, the gulls, which mate for life and live to be 15 years old, don't seem to mind the visitors: some of them nest just a few feet away from the footpaths. The gull on the left is a youngster starting to get its adult plumage.

The island is also home to a large colony of double-breasted cormorants.

I almost didn’t take the tour of the cellhouse (seen here from the recreation yard). Instead of having rangers lead the tours, the National Park Service has placed a self-paced audio tour onto portable playback devices that are loaned to visitors. People who take the tour listen to the narrative on headphones as they make their way through the cellhouse.

I didn’t take the audio tour offered at the Frida Kahlo exhibit, and I was really kind of annoyed at some of the people who did: enveloped in their audio cocoons, they bumped into others, clustered around paintings, and generally made it difficult for others to enjoy the exhibit. However, after a few minutes’ cranky deliberation, I decided to give the Alcatraz audio tour a shot. I’m incredibly glad I did.

The tour was narrated by a former Alcatraz guard and included excerpts of oral history interviews of former guards and former prisoners, and it was superb. The narrative was compelling yet easy to follow, the memories of guards and prisoners were skillfully woven into it, and the directions for moving through the cellhouse were crystal-clear. The sound effects that at times supplemented the narrative were evocative and used with restraint; they were never hokey or jarring.

Although I noticed (and at times was guilty of) some cocooning-related problems, the site was large enough to allow us to spread out (which was not the case in the Kahlo exhibit), and each of us had the option of pausing the audio tour and exploring on our own. As a result, I was able to keep away from the crowds most of the time.

Harsh as the place is, I kept finding unexpected flashes of beauty, such as this view from a dining hall window.

Go to Alcatraz if you can. Despite the hassle and the crowds, it's worth it.

The National Archives-Pacific Region, which is in San Francisco, holds holds Alcatraz inmate case files, prisoner identification photographs, and warden's notebook pages for most prisoners and has an online index of prisoners.


Sorry about the lack of posts yesterday. My hotel's WiFi network was down.

Yesterday morning, I went to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art morning to check out the Frida Kahlo and Lee Miller exhibits. Photography isn't permitted in these exhibits, so I'm not posting photos here.

The Kahlo exhibit was revelatory. Kahlo has become extremely trendy, as evidenced by the Frida-themed aprons, etc., on sale in the SFMoMA gift shop and the teeming mass of people who wanted to see this exhibit. I haven't embraced the trend, which seems more rooted more in her biography (tortured relationship with her artist husband, affairs with men and women, leftist politics, disregard for conventional notions of femininity)--than in her art. The art, however, is much more complex and satisfying. I hadn't recognized how inventively she used and reworked Mexican folk idioms or how those stern self-portraits are sometimes slyly witty as well.

I also hadn't appreciated how groundbreaking some of her art was. Henry Ford Hospital (1932) may well be the first painting in the Western tradition that visually documents the grief, isolation, and pain that accompanies a miscarriage, and it is wrenching.

The Miller exhibit, which drew me to SFMoMA in the first place, was also first-rate. Miller started out as a fashion model, apprenticed under Man Ray, and began creating her own surrealist-influenced photographs. She became a very successful commercial photographer in New York, but relocated to London when she married her second husband. During the Second World War she worked for British Vogue and became one of the few female photographers to be credentialed as a war correspondent. Her photographs of London and Paris under bombardment, Dachau immediately after liberation, and Allied troops' entry into Hitler's headquarters appeared in Vogue . . . along with her updates on fashion trends in newly free Paris.

After the war, Miller gradually retreated from professional photography and devoted herself to running her husband's estate, gourmet cooking, and, sadly, alcohol. Her son, who was born after the war, discovered that his mother had been a noteworthy photographer when he was sorting through her effects after her death. He is now the head of the Lee Miller Archive, which cares for her photographs and manuscript materials.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Ocean Beach

After I took a few minutes to stow my stuff in the hotel room, San Francisco sightseeing commenced: I took a Muni bus to Ocean Beach. I've never seen the Pacific, and today seemed like a good opportunity to do so. Although the bus ride was looong, it was fascinating: we went through the city's Richmond neighborhood, which is home to a large and vibrant Russian community.

Ocean Beach is part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. In keeping with National Park Service rules, I took only photographs and left only footprints.

The bus dropped me off right next to the beach, and within a few minutes I could see Seal Rocks.

I was warned that San Francisco can be quite foggy at this time of year. Although downtown was the epitome of balmy, there was a bit of fog hovering just above the water at Ocean Beach. The sun was going down, which made the haze all the more apparent.

I didn't see any seals, but I did see lots of gulls. I also saw a couple of pelicans off in the distance.

Incidentally, all of the beach photos were taken using my camera's zoom. The tide was rising rapidly, and I wanted to stay well away from it. The big waves that make Ocean Beach popular with surfers (a few of whom were out) pose a real threat to the casual swimmer or wader. Owing to the nature of the undersea terrain, the currents are strong and, at least to someone unfamiliar with the area, completely unpredictable. They also keep the water extremely cold: water from the depths is consistently thrown against the shore, and warm water is pulled out to sea. The breeze coming off the water was surprisingly chilly.

I then spent a few minutes climbing up the steep hill to Sutro Heights Park, which overlooks Ocean Beach and the Great Highway (a snippet of which appears, lower left, in the photo above). Unfortunately, owing to the setting of the sun, my photos don't do the setting justice.

I had better luck capturing the Bird of Paradise that was growing next to the footpath . . . .

. . . and a model-for-a-bonsai-tree growing on the cliff overlooking the beach.

I left the park just in time to catch a bus back to the hotel--with a detour to Trader Joe's for provisions.

Later today (this blog post is going up in the wee hours of the 25th): SF MoMA and Alcatraz.


After months of anticipation, I left for San Francisco this morning. No flight or luggage snafus, but the flight from ALB to ORD was torture: the fellow who sat to my right spent the entire flight flirting obnoxiously with the young woman sitting to his right (He predicted the crash of the tech bubble! He speaks at investment seminars! He's appeared on the Canadian equivalent of CNBC several times!) Ugh.

The flight from ORD to SFO was a lot better, even though I sat in front of a couple of toddlers who were not happy about being trapped in a metal tube for hours. Their father apologized for the commotion, and I told him about my morning and said that I would much rather listen to his kids than to an on-the-make investment guru. He cracked up and said that he blogged about stuff like that. I told him that the thought had certainly crossed my mind . . . .

Landed at SFO this afternoon, took BART into the city, walked through tourist hell (aka the intersection of Powell and Market), and made it to my hotel. The accommodations aren't deluxe( kind of like a cross between a dorm room and a spartan studio apartment--which is not surprising given that it was at one point a single-room occupancy apartment building) but it meets my needs and my budget. It's actually kind of quaint in a European sort of way. (It's also populated in a European sort of way: the night manager, who checked me in, told me that I'm the only American here at the moment and that all of the other guests are taking advantage of the Euro's buying power here in the States.)

At some point, my room had a Murphy bed . . . .

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The week before SAA . . .

. . . is always filled with surprises. I've had to deal with some unanticipated and time-sensitive SAA stuff, and I need to focus on getting ready to travel to San Francisco, so there won't be much blogging for the next few days.

Next week, however, will be quite different. Weather and United permitting, I'll be in San Francisco by late Sunday afternoon. Photos and heaps of recaps, commentary, and observations to come . . . .

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Your photos, finally off the shelf . . .

. . . and onto portable media. A couple of days ago, a David Pogue piece in the New York Times focused on, which will, for $50.00, digitize 1,000 of your home photos and place them on DVD. isn't the only company providing such services, which might be useful to people who want to produce digital copies of their photos but don't want to take the time to scan thousands of images at home. However, Pogue doesn't discuss the file format and dpi/ppi that ScanMyPhotos uses or the file naming conventions that it employs. According to its Photo Scanning FAQs, bulk scanning customers can receive their images in only one format and resolution (300 dpi JPEG only, at least for bulk scanning customers) and those who want their photos scanned in a specific order, vertical/horizontal orientation preserved, etc. , will have to pay extra. Detailed information about file naming conventions isn't available, but it's pretty evident from the FAQ's that the first image on each DVD is no. 1, the second is no. 2, and so on. Anyone sifting through 1,000 arbitrarily numbered files in search of that wonderful picture of Great Aunt Oona at the 1972 family reunion will have some work to do . . . .

Moreover, although he notes in passing that one advantage of digital photos is that they are "easily backed up," Pogue doesn't explain that the long-term survival of these images will require periodic intervention. Pogue's a sharp guy, and his readership is most likely more technologically savvy than the public as a whole. However, even people who understand, in a general way, that DVDs will eventually become obsolete, that storing backup media right next to the computer isn't a good idea, and that electronic storage media have wildly unpredictable lifespans sometimes fail to plan for the preservation of their data. A paragraph or two about the importance of creating multiple backups, storing backups well away from the computer (in a safe deposit box, at the home of a trusted relative or friend, or at the office), copying files from old media to new in accordance with a predetermined schedule or when replacing one's computer, and remaining abreast of changes in storage technology would have been extremely helpful.

Pogue's absolutely right that digital copies provide an added layer of protection for photos. The parents of a close friend of mine have spent the past few weeks cleaning up after a major house fire, and their family photos were either badly water-damaged or became what Pogue vividly calls "Toxic Photo Soup." They're heartbroken, and I'm sure that they would love to have digital copies of those images--even if said copies were in no discernable order, needed extensive descriptive/indexing work to be truly useful and accessible, and couldn't be used to produce good-quality enlargements. They would also doubtless appreciate some of the extra services (e.g., ability to create albums) that and other vendors offer.

Pogue's piece concludes with a brief but very welcome discussion of preservation of photographic prints, and I'm glad that he recognizes the value of keeping the paper originals. I just wish that he had devoted a little attention to the preservation of digital files as well.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Yes, but the records only go back to 1978 . . .

I don't always watch new episodes of The Simpsons, but I do own Seasons 1-10 on DVD and know lots of other archivists who cherish the show as much as I do. This post is the first in an occasional series highlighting the depiction of archives, historical records, etc., in The Simpsons and other pop culture artifacts.

One of my favorite Simpsons references to archives appears in "Hurricane Neddy" (Season 8, Episode 8), when the town of Springfield is beset by a hurricane. Lisa Simpson, the first to realize what is happening, rushes to tell her father, and the following exchange ensues:

Homer: Oh, Lisa, there's no record of a hurricane ever hitting Springfield.
Lisa: Yes, but the records only go back to 1978, when the Hall of Records was mysteriously blown away!

Over the years, I've repeatedly quoted this exchange to colleagues who don't watch The Simpsons, and all of them have found it hilarious. However, in recent years the joy of watching this episode has been muted a bit. Season 8 wasn't out on DVD in late summer 2005, but I saw "Hurricane Neddy" in syndication a few weeks after I returned from SAA's annual meeting in New Orleans. The meeting ended less than two weeks before Hurricane Katrina dealt the city a devastating blow. None of the city's repositories were blown away, but many were destroyed or badly damaged by the toxic water that seeped into the city when the levees broke.

I still laugh when I see "Hurricane Neddy," which also features my favorite Ned Flanders quote ("Aw, hell-diddly-ding-dong crap!") and illuminates his boho parents' child-rearing philosophy ("We don’t believe in rules, like, we gave them up when we started livin’ like freaky beatniks!" "We’ve tried nothin’ and we’re all out of ideas.") At the same time, I think--sometimes a little, sometimes a lot-- about the vulnerability of records and how gaps in the historical record can distort our thinking in large ways and small . . . .

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

To be or not to blog?

After years of semi-principled resistance, I've entered the blogosphere. I spend most of my days working with electronic records and too many of my nights thinking about them, and this blog is a brand-new and very personal electronic records management challenge.

So . . . let's explore some archival issues, shall we? I hope to use this blog to ponder the not-so-brave, not-so-new world of electronic records and other issues and events of importance to archivists and archivy. I also plan to use it as a space for quick and idiosyncratic reportage about archival happenings such as the upcoming Society of American Archivists meeting in San Francisco.

And . . . because all work and no play makes l'Archivista a dull girl and disgruntled archivist, let's have some fun along the way . . . .