Friday, October 31, 2008

"The big thing I'm fighting is lack of awareness of the past"

Studs Terkel, whose interviews with ordinary Americans on the subjects of urban life, the Great Depression, World War II, religion, race, and work played no small part in making oral history both popular and intellectually respectable, died earlier today at his Chicago home. He was 96.

Terkel was one of the panelists who took part in the "Free Speech, Free Spirit: The Studs Terkel Center for Oral History" session at the Society of American Archivists' 2007 annual meeting in Chicago. I opted to go to this session instead of one of the electronic records sessions being offered at the same time. I did some oral history work in grad school, where I was first exposed to Terkel's work, and decided that for once I would attend a session that didn't focus directly upon my immediate professional concerns. I have to admit that Terkel's age also factored into my decision as well: although he was still working, I was all too aware that I might not have another opportunity to see him in the flesh.

Many of us who were in the audience were initially surprised that Terkel was a mere panelist. However, Terkel made it plain that this was his choice: he did not want to be a keynote speaker or dominate an entire session. I suspect that this decision was in some respects the result of his hearing loss and perfectly understandable desire to remain seated throughout the session. However, it was also plain that he really wanted to share the spotlight with others.

Russell Lewis of the Chicago History Museum, who chaired the session, opened the session by explaining that oral history is the oldest form of history: we make sense of the world through narrative. Storytelling conveys the norms and expectations of a society to children, and we adults use stories to create identities and to situate ourselves within the larger world; elements of life experience that don't conform to our identity often drop away.

He then turned to Terkel's work, which was based upon the assumption that ordinary people have compelling stories to tell and that the American people need to hear about the ways in which America falls short of the ideal, and the Studs Terkel Center for Oral History at the Chicago History Museum, The center is more of an umbrella concept than a staffed and functioning research center. It allows high school students to engage with Terkel's work and become oral historans in their own right, promotes capturing of oral histories on eight key topics (family, race, aging, neighborhood, etc.), and seeks to record the oral histories of Chicagoans from all walks of life. The histories will be made accessible in accordance with national standards (e.g., MARC), and with luck the center will serve as a national model.

Michael Gorman of the Henry Madden Library (California State University-Fresno) focused on the need to work collaboratively to address the preservation challenges posed by oral histories and other multimedia/digital resources. Although they differ on particulars, archivists, librarians, art gallery operators, and museum curators have the same goal: the permanence of cultural heritage materials and the transmission of these materials to posterity. Unfortunately, each discipline focuses on a subset of these materials. Now that the digital age has led society to sacrifice durability for accessibility, these professional divisions are no longer viable. Archivists, librarians, and professionals need to ensure that oral histories and similar materials are properly preserved for future generations.

(BTW, Gorman, a librarian, also offered a provocative assessment of changes that have taken place within his profession during the past decade: librarians eager to embrace the potential of technology uncritically adopted the values of IT and scientific management. In his view, librarians were not put on this earth to maximize productivity or efficiency; they're here to preserve the record of human activity and guide users to materials! Every now and then, my conversations with younger archivists who lack solid grounding in the study of history lead me to suspect that the archival profession will have to grapple with similar issues at some point.)

Terkel himself spoke first about the nuts-and-bolts aspects of conducting oral histories. He stressed that he was not a technically proficient person and that he has sometimes lost entire interviews because he pressed the wrong button on his tape recorder. However, his clumsiness helped interviewees, many of whom tried to help him sort out his technical issues, feel at ease when talking to him.

Terkel then talked about why he did oral history. He deliberately sought out people who are not represented in the traditional history of this nation, and he sought to make them recognize that their experiences and beliefs were of value. One interviewee who subsequently listened to her interview said that she never knew that she felt that way about things; the tape recorder, often regarded as an impediment, can actually free people.

Terkel took a few questions at the end of his loosely structured presentation, which included a number of entertaining digressions about his encounters with the yuppies moving into his gentrifying blue-collar neighborhood and other life experiences. When asked which project he would redo if he had the opportunity, Terkel responded that he would return to the history of the Depression and the New Deal: young people, in particular, had no idea that there was a time when free marketeers were reined in and organized labor wielded real power. Although he didn't come out and say it (at least in this session), it was obvious that he saw oral history as a means of getting ordinary Americans to see themselves as historical agents, not as hapless pawns of the powerful, and that he hoped that this shift in awareness would ultimately produce a resurgence of New Deal-type politics and public policy. When asked how to respond to academics who denigrate oral history as mere opinion, Terkel noted that everyone has an opinion, but oral history enables us to discover how opinions are formed.

I haven't done any oral history interviews for quite some time, and I miss it. Being interviewed sometimes makes people take stock of their lives and conclude that, in spite of disappointments and regrets they acquired on the way, their lives have meaning and their accomplishments are significant. They stand tall when they rise from their chairs at the end of the interview. It's a wonderful thing to see, and I can see why Terkel kept at it all those years.

Terkel was still working as of August 2007, and oral historian Sydney Lewis of Atlantic Public Media ended the session by describing how she collaborated with Terkel to produce a memoir that was published last November.

Terkel's final statement -- “the big thing I'm fighting is lack of awareness of the past” -- seems to me to be a fair enough description of what we archivists -- and curators, librarians, and other cultural heritage professionals -- are trying to do, and even those of us who don't share his politics ought to be able to appreciate his work. Let's all keep fighting, okay?

Thursday, October 30, 2008

GLBT Historical Society photos in new Milk bio

Five photographs held by the GLBT Historical Society in San Francisco are featured in Milk, the new film chronicling the life of Harvey Milk, who was one of the nation's first openly gay elected officials. In addition, producers carefully combed through numerous archival collections held by the repository and created replicas of Milk's chair, dining table, and suit, all of which are also held the repository, for use in the film.

The GLBT Historical Society, which graciously hosted the 2008 annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists' Lesbian and Gay Archives Roundtable a few months ago, is also putting the finishing touches on an exhibit, Passionate Struggle, that will be housed in its new display space on Castro Street.

Kudos to Rebekah and all the other hardworking folks at the GLBT Historical Society!

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Today is . . .

I don't ordinarily use this blog to trumpet my views on politics and social policy, and I certainly don't plan to start doing so on a regular basis. However, every now and then, I feel compelled to have my say. How could I not join today's Write to Marry blog carnival -- organized by Mombian -- which has at the time of this writing been joined by over 300 bloggers?

Earlier this year, the California Supreme Court ruled that state laws barring same-sex couples from marrying were unconstitutional. Tens of thousands of Californians--and people from other states -- rushed to formalize their de facto marriages and to join the mainstream of American life. However, the court's decision also engendered opposition and led to the introduction of a ballot initiative, Proposition 8, that, if passed, will nullify the court's decision. Opponents of same-sex marriage have swamped the state with donations and volunteers, and supporters of marriage equality have thus found themselves outgunned and outspent.

I realize that my desire to see LGBT Americans enjoy the same rights and shoulder the same responsibilities as everyone else may not be shared by the archival profession as a whole. However, if you share my viewpoint, please contribute to No On 8, which sorely needs your support. You need not be a Californian in order to do so; however, if you do live in California, consider giving your time as well as your money to the cause! (And, of course, if you're an archivist, please do your part -- regardless of your own views -- to ensure that the documentary record fairly represents all sides of this tumultuous story.)

If you're uncertain about the whole same-sex marriage issue, please ponder the words of the late Mildred Loving. Mildred, an African-American, and her late husband Richard, a European-American, were arrested in their home state of Virginia shortly after they married in Washington, DC. They responded by suing, and in 1967 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Loving v. Virginia (was there ever a more aptly named ruling?) that laws barring interracial marriage were unconstitutional.

Mrs. Loving shunned the spotlight. She saw herself not as a political activist but as an ordinary woman who wished to marry the man she loved and to live quietly in the community in which they both grew up. However, in connection with the 40th anniversary of Loving v. Virginia, she spoke out about the ruling and same-sex marriage:

My generation was bitterly divided over something that should have been so clear and right. The majority believed that . . . it was God's plan to keep people apart, and that government should discriminate against people in love. But I have lived long enough now to see big changes. The older generation's fears and prejudices have given way, and today's young people realize that if someone loves someone they have a right to marry.

Surrounded as I am now by wonderful children and grandchildren, not a day goes by that I don't think of Richard and our love, our right to marry, and how much it meant to me to have that freedom to marry the person precious to me, even if others thought he was the "wrong kind of person" for me to marry. I believe all Americans, no matter their race, no matter their sex, no matter their sexual orientation, should have that same freedom to marry. Government has no business imposing some people’s religious beliefs over others. Especially if it denies people’s civil rights.

I am still not a political person, but I am proud that Richard's and my name is on a court case that can help reinforce the love, the commitment, the fairness, and the family that so many people, black or white, young or old, gay or straight seek in life. I support the freedom to marry for all. That's what Loving, and loving, are all about.
UPDATE, 2008-10-30, 12:17 AM: I forgot to mention that two other states have "marriage protection" initiatives on the ballot. Arizona's Proposition 102 and Florida's Amendment 2 will, if passed, amend the constitutions of these states to bar same-sex marriages; the Florida amendment will likely put an end to domestic partner benefits for straight and gay couples. As is the case in California, the Arizonans and Floridians who oppose these amendments are short of troops and funds; if you're in a position to do so, please help out the good people at Arizona Together and Fairness for All Families.

If these amendments pass, their practical impact of these amendments will be different from that of California's Proposition 8 -- neither state currently recognizes same-sex marriages performed within its boundaries -- but their symbolic meaning is just as crushing.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Desert Botanical Garden

After the third day of the PeDALS project partners meeting ended, I went with three of my colleagues -- Mark from the Florida State Library and Archives, Matt from the South Carolina Department of Archives and History, and Lynne of the New York State Library -- to the Desert Botanical Garden.

The DBG has cacti and succulents from around the world. We spent most of our time in its exhibits concerning the Sonoran Desert, in which the city of Phoenix is located.

The sun went down while we were there. Watching as the blues and purples of dusk sweep over the saguaros, organ pipes, prickly pears, agaves, and mesquites was a tranquil way to end an intense and eventful day.

Afterward, we stopped for some great Thai food, talked about the differences in outlook between IT and library/archives folks, the challenges of internal and external collaboration, all of the work before us, and travel, movies, TV, and alligators. We then went back to our hotel, wished each other safe journeys, and parted ways.

PeDALS partners meeting: day three

For most of us, the meeting of the PeDALS project partners -- Arizona, Florida, New York, South Carolina and Wisconsin -- ended today at noon. We spent the morning discussing development of a pamphlet and expanded Web site publicizing the project, going over some remaining metadata issues so that our database designer can start working in earnest, and reviewing the project timeline and divvying up responsibility for tasks that need to be finished soon. We also discussed how the partners collaborate -- internally and across state lines -- and started thinking, in a very preliminary way, about what will happen when our grant funding ends.

After we wrapped up, most of the non-technical people (i.e., librarians and archivists) left. However, the IT people at this meeting reconvened this afternoon and will continue working until around noon tomorrow. My colleague Lynne from the New York State Library and I are flying out tomorrow morning, so we sat in on the technical meeting that took place this afternoon.

Until this afternoon, we were meeting at our hotel, but the IT folks traveled to the 1900 Capitol Building, which houses the Arizona Capitol Museum; until a few weeks ago, when Polly Rosenbaum Archives and History Building opened, it was also home to the holdings and staff of the State Library and State Archives.

We met in what was once the courtroom of the Arizona Supreme Court. Miranda v. Arizona was heard in this very room, which has awesome light fixtures. However, we weren't there to discuss constitutional law or interior design: we were busy figuring out how to set up a LOCKSS box and configure Ubuntu operating system software. I was more than a bit out of my depth, but I'm looking forward to learning more.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Polly Rosenbaum Archives and History Building

After the second day of the PeDALS partners meeting ended, we went on a tour of the Polly Rosenbaum Archives and History Building, the new storage, processing, and research facility of the Arizona State Library, Archives and Public Records.

Staff moved into the building last week and are in the midst of doing tons of setup work, so I'm not going to post any photos of the interior. However, the building, which was built specifically to hold cultural heritage materials, is chock-full of great features, including:
  • A dedicated isolation area, with blast freezer and humidification chamber, for incoming records transfers
  • A secure public reading room that can accommodate tables for 10 researchers and a dedicated area for approximately 10 microfilm/microfiche reader-printers
  • Separate processing areas for paper records, photographs, electronic records and audiovisual materials, and artifacts
  • Seven storage compartments featuring tall (16 feet high) compact shelving
  • Cold storage for microform masters
  • A server room with hard-wired uninterruptible power supply, backup generators, and a backup HVAC system
  • A large conservation lab
  • Four separate HVAC systems, all of which can be monitored remotely, that are designed to remove pollutants and maintain consistent temperature and humidity
  • Security cameras -- with remote monitoring capability -- in the research room, staff work areas, and storage areas
  • Wired and wireless Internet access throughout the building
Although the building was designed to accommodate the State Library, Archives, and Public Records' needs for the next 50 years, the architects (one of whom is the man in jeans and a khaki t-shirt in the photograph above) deliberately designed the building to allow for expansion on one side. The architects also listened to staff and designed the building with archival needs and workflows in mind. As a result, my Arizona colleagues have a building that is not only attractive but highly functional. I'm glad for them -- and just a bit envious.

PeDALS partners meeting: day two

The meeting of the five PeDALS partner states -- Arizona, Florida, New York, South Carolina, and Wisconsin -- continued today. This morning, we reviewed some of the preservation metadata elements included in our draft metadata schema. We also created a subgroup responsible for identifying content standards (e.g., AACR2) and data value standards (e.g., LCSH) that might apply to specific elements.

We then discussed some of the Web interfaces that we will need in order to facilitate the records transfer process, ingest into LOCKSS, etc. We ended up revisiting issues of workflow and identifying specific steps that should be taken as records move through the PeDALS system. Our deliberations were a bit chaotic at time, but they did force us to bring to the surface some unexamined assumptions and addess some unanticipated issues. I realize that, again, I'm being really vague, but our discussions will continue after we return home and I don't want to report any erroneous information.

We then had a quick (and daunting) display of BizTalk -- which was chiefly valuable, at least from my point of view, becuase it highlighted how it could pull out and act upon information entered into, e.g., an online library catalog -- and LOCKSS. However, none of this stuff looks impossibly complex; once we start getting our hands dirty, I think we'll be fine.

PeDALS partners meeting: day one

My Arizona vacation came about because I needed to travel to Phoenix for a Persistent Digital Archives and Library System (PeDALS) project partners meeting. PeDALS, which is funded by the Library of Congress's National Digital Information Infrastructure Preservation Program and the Institute for Museum and Library Services, is designed to allow the state libraries and state archives of Arizona (the project lead), Florida, New York, South Carolina, and Wisconsin to:
  • Develop a highly automated workflow for acquiring, describing, and providing access to electronic government publications and records.
  • Build a storage network that inexpensively and reliably preserves the authenticity and integrity of records and publications.
I'm being purposely vague about the day's proceedings because our discussions are still in progress (and may not be resolved for some time), but I think I can say that we spent some time this morning reviewing project progress and timelines, but devoted most of the day to a review of the draft metadata schema that we developed several months ago. We also engaged in some real-world exploration of two metadata extraction tools: JHOVE and the National Library of New Zealand's MetaExtractor. We got a lot of work done today, and tomorrow promises to be just as intense and fruitful.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Montezuma Castle

My vacation officially ended yesterday afternoon with a stop at Montezuma Castle National Monument, which is located about 45 minutes south of Flagstaff. This 1,000 year-old cliff dwelling was built by the Sinagua people, who left the area approximately 600 years ago. Why they left is unknown; however, possible reasons include overpopulation, climate change, and intergroup strife. Their final destination is also a mystery, although legends and folkways suggest that the Sinagua joined the Hopi living in the mesas north of the region.

Europeans discovered the ruin in 1874. They erroneously concluded that the area had been settled by Aztecs who had migrated north, so they named it after the legendary Aztec ruler. The name stuck.

As this National Park Service diorama illustrates, Montezuma Castle contained 19 rooms. It was home to 35-50 people, and it was one of a number of pueblo structures built into the cliffs of Arizona's Verde Valley.

The building sits about 100 feet above the valley floor; you can see the remnants of the steps leading up the cliff in the lower right side of the image above.

Archaeologists discovered that another pueblo dwelling sat at the foot of the cliffs several hundred feet away. However, unlike Montezuma Castle, this dwelling was not protected from the elements. Only remnants survive.

It's possible to see Montezuma Castle in about an hour, making it an accessible and interesting stop for those traveling between Flagstaff and Phoenix on I-17. It's also an aesthetically pleasing structure, and the National Park Service's interpretive signs and exhibits are first-rate. It's definitely worth a stop if you're in the area.

If you would like to see more of Montezuma Castle, the National Park Service has placed some historic photographs online.

Meteor Crater

En route to Phoenix yesterday, I opted at the last minute to stop at the Meteor Crater National Landmark. I saw the sign as I was heading west on I-40, and thought, "why the heck not?"

I almost turned back when I discovered that I would have to pay $15.00 to view what is, in essence, a giant hole in the ground. However, how often does one get to see an actual meteor crater? Memories of countless family road trips -- always with an educational component -- were also a factor.

The crater was formed about 50,000 years ago, when a 150-foot meteor slammed into the earth. The resulting crater is about 4,000 feet wide and almost 600 feet deep. The impact was so great that part of the meteor was pulverized on impact and part of it was driven some 3,000 feet below the earth's surface.

The largest surviving fragment of the meteor, the Holsinger meteorite, is on display at the site. It's about the same size as a footlocker and weighs about 1,400 pounds.

The crater is not the largest, the oldest, or the most recent, but it is the best preserved owing to the extreme aridity of the Arizona desert.

The crater was an astronaut training site during the 1960s and 1970s, and the small museum at the crater site has a kitschy -- sometimes in a fun way, sometimes in an annoying way -- Space Age look and feel. Most of the information presented in the museum is also conveyed in the 10-minute film that precedes the hour-long tour of the crater itself.

The crater was interesting, and our tour guide was well-informed and funny in a hokey sort of way, but I'm still not sure it was worth the expense. However, the German geologists who were on the tour with me clearly loved it, and anyone else with an abiding interest in geology, astronomy, or space exploration ought to enjoy it.

Monument Valley

Monument Valley is an iconic American landscape. It's provided the setting for the Westerns of John Ford and other directors. Clark Griswold wandered around and nearly died here in National Lampoon's Vacation. It's provided the backdrop for innumerable print and TV ads for cigarettes, trucks, and other products.

Although parts of Monument Valley are plainly visible from U.S. Route 163, which runs to its north and west, I wanted more than a "drive-by" experience. I didn't want to risk damaging my little rental car on the dirt road of the Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, so I decided to go on a guided tour. There are numerous tour firms operating in the park, but I did a little research and found that people seemed consistently pleased with the tours offered by Goulding's Lodge.

I secured a place on the 3.5-hour afternoon tour, and joined about 15 other tourists (mostly French and British) on a dusty, bone-rattling, and thoroughly amazing ride through the park.

As is the case with the Grand Canyon, it's pretty hard to take a badly composed photograph of Monument Valley; even the shots I took from the open-air tour van as we went over jolting stretches of road generally turned out well.

The Mittens (only one of which is pictured here) are probably among the most photographed geological features in America--and with good reason.

One of the perks of going on a guided tour of this sort is that you get to see portions of the park that are not open to people traveling on their own.

Had I been driving solo, incredible formations such as Big Hogan would have been off-limits to me; I was actually standing inside the formation when I took this picture!

I wouldn't have gotten to see these pteroglyphs, either. (FYI, the dark streaking that forms the background of these pteroglyphs and is evident on Big Hogan and other formations is desert varnish.)

One key reason that parts of the park are off-limits to unaccompanied travelers is that a sizeable number of Navajo people live in it. Our tour includes a stop at the hogan of an elderly Navajo woman who has lived in Monument Valley all her life. She cleaned wool, spun yarn, and demonstrated how she used her loom to weave rugs as our guide, a Navajo herself, explained what the woman was doing. Although our guide subtly emphasized this woman's agency (by, e.g., pointing out that all of her rugs are of her own design) and the importance and value of traditional lifeways, the fact that we tourists were traipsing in and out of this woman's very modest home drove home some hard truths about the disparities of wealth and power that exist in this world.

I anticipated that sunset at Monument Valley would be spectacular, and I was not disappointed.

As the light faded, the orange of the rocks was washed in soft lavenders, blues, and mauves.

After the landscape was dark, the clouds caught fire; unfortunately, compressing this photo so that it's suitable for Web posting dampens the flames a bit.

Go to Monument Valley if you can.

John Wayne slept here

After leaving Kayenta yesterday morning, I headed north. I was initially planning to tour Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park by myself, but I opted against pitting my rental car against the park's unpaved road. At the last moment, I stopped at Goulding's Lodge, which is in Utah just over the state line, and secured a slot on the afternoon tour.

Goulding's Lodge was established in 1921 by Harry and Leone "Mike" Goulding. It was initially a trading post that enabled the Navajo to exchange crops and goods that they produced for items that they needed and provided lodging to the travelers who sporadically visited the area. It is no longer owned by the family, and it has evolved into an international destination hotel, with an RV park and campground, gas station, and grocery store.

However, in the 1920's and 1930's, the lodge consisted of a modest two-story brick structure, which is now a museum chronicling the Gouldings' lives and work.

The upper floor of the building has been restored so that it looks much as it did when the Gouldings lived there. It's an incredibly homey, comfortable space; I can see why the Gouldings' friends and guests loved being there.

Much of the first floor is devoted to the Gouldings' place in film history. During the Great Depression, the Gouldings sought to aid their Navajo neighbors by luring Hollywood film productions to Monument Valley. They were particularly successful in capturing the attention of John Ford, who became a close friend and who used Monument Valley as the setting for many of his Westerns. Ford and his actors and crew stayed at Goulding's when on location in the area; Ford and the stars stayed in small rooms, and everyone else lived in tents.

John Wayne starred in many of Ford's films, and his presence looms large in the museum. One of the walls in the museum's Movie Room is devoted to Wayne himself, other portions of the exhibit concern individual films in which he starred, and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon plays continuously.

Wayne's presence is also manifest in "John Wayne's Cabin," a small building to the rear of the museum that served as the exterior set of Wayne's office in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, which was the only film ever shot on the property.

Given that I'm mildly fixated upon The Searchers, which may well be the most unsettling exploration of America's racial and sexual obsessions ever placed on film and which led me to Monument Valley in the first place, I'm really glad I made it to Goulding's.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Navajo Cultural Center

The Navajo Cultural Center consists of a small grouping of buildings and artifacts situated between the Hampton Inn and the Burger King. I suspect that it is, in part, designed to lure charter bus traffic to the Burger King (several buses stopped at the BK while I was there, but none of them went to the McDonald’s down the street). However, I’m glad I checked it out. I learned several things:

  • Until the early twentieth century, many Navajo living on the reservation had no way to haul goods to market or to bring supplies to their homes. This situation changed when the U.S. government started a program that enabled Navajo to purchase horse-drawn wagons on the installment plan and started giving wagons in lieu of wages to Navajo employees.
  • Navajo traditionally lived in hogans, which are small buildings constructed of mud-covered logs. Every hogan has an opening in the roof so that contact is maintained with the sky, and every door faces east so that the inhabitants greet the morning sun.
  • There are two types of hogans: "female" and "male." These designations refer only to the style of the building, not the gender of the people who built or resided in them.
  • The round, “female” hogan was used as a dwelling space and for storage of food and possessions. Most families built several hogans of this sort.
  • The more elongated “male” hogans were used strictly for ceremonial purposes. They are increasingly rare; owing to changes in Navajo culture, ceremonial observances can now take place in “female” hogans.

  • The materials used to construct hogans are good insulators. The interiors of the hogans were substantially cooler than the surrounding area, and in summer Navajo families would cook outdoors in order to keep the hogans cool. In the wintertime, the stove at the center of the hogan keeps the space comfortably warm.
The center also features a small summer shade house that contains exhibits, but it wasn't open when I was there.

I wouldn't travel a great distance to see the Navajo Cultural Center, but anyone venturing to the Kayenta area really ought to check it out.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Stay tuned for more episodes . . . .

I'm having breakfast at the Hampton Inn in Kayenta, Arizona. I'm planning to spend a little time at the Navajo Nation Cultural Center here in town, and then I'll head up to Monument Valley.

I'll be staying at what is known as an "historic property" tonight, and I might not have Internet access until I reach Phoenix late tomorrow afternoon. I'll keep taking photos and writing blog posts tonight, but I might not be able to post them until tomorrow evening.

In the meantime, happy trails . . . .

Navajo history in a Burger King

After I left the Grand Canyon, I drove through the darkness to Kayenta, where I'm staying in the new Hampton Inn on the edge of town. Kayenta is located within the Navajo Nation, which observes Daylight Savings Time. I had forgotten this fact when planning the day's activities, and as a result, I arrived in Kayenta after almost all of the restaurants had closed.

When I scanned the listing of area amenities that the desk clerk handed to me, I noted that the Burger King next to the Hampton Inn was still open and that it had "an excellent display of the famous WWII Code Talkers." How could I not investigate?

Sure enough, the dining area of the restaurant had a small exhibit --consisting chiefly of photographic prints, with some fascimile documents and artifacts -- devoted to the approximately 400 Navajo men who served in the U.S. Marine Corps during the Second World War. These men developed a code, based upon the Navajo language, that was used to transmit information about military operations in the Pacific Theater. Their contribution to the Allied war effort was immeasurable.

My photographs of this modest but affecting exhibit are a bit wanting; I was trying to be considerate of the staff and the other people in the restaurant, so I was dependent upon the restaurant's lighting (I think that the exhibit cases have UV film--I didn't notice any fading) and had to shoot from odd angles.

I wouldn't drive a great distance to view this exhibit, but I enjoyed it and am really impressed that the owner(s) of the Kayenta Burger King saw the value of installing such an exhibit in a public space that is usually devoid of such things. We archivists are always talking about the need to make people aware of the significance of historical records and to build partnerships with non-academics and non-genealogists. Until tonight, the thought of partnering with a fast-food restaurant had never crossed my mind. What other kinds of potential partnerships might we be overlooking?

Update 2008-10-19: according to the guide who led my tour group through Monument Valley, the owner of the Kayenta Burger King is the son or grandson of a code talker.

Grand Canyon: Lipan Point at day's end

Sunsets at the Grand Canyon induce the stillness I mentioned in yesterday's post: there were about thirty other people at Lipan Point this evening, and it was amazing to hear the idle chatter die down as people simply watched the colors change: the orange strata of the canyon became firey as the sun hit them, and then everything was bathed in gentle lavenders and mauves as the sun sank below the horizon.

I took approximately 170 photographs today, but for some reason I'm particularly fond of this one, which best captures the loveliness of the canyon at the end of the day.

Grand Canyon: day two

I took a little time to relax and collect my thoughts this morning, and as a result didn't arrive at Grand Canyon National Park until early afternoon. I decided to check out Grand Canyon Village, where the bulk of the shops, onsite hotels, and studios are located. This was a mistake: the village was teeming with people, and I was a little annoyed and overwhelmed. (Word of advice: if you're looking for solitude at the Grand Canyon, walk the 1.3 mile stretch of the Rim Trail between the ludicrously overcrowded Mather Point and Pipe Creek Vista. I did so yesterday afternoon, and once I got away from Mather Point I saw only a handful of people until I reached Pipe Creek Vista. If you're not up for a 2.6 mile walk, you can make the return trip on one of the free shuttle buses operated by park personnel.)

I then tried going down into the canyon itself on the Bright Angel Trail. The views (see above) were stunning, but my fear of heights kicked in after about ten minutes, and I had to turn back and walk through Grand Canyon Village.

Irked as I was by the crowds, I'm glad I got to see the Lookout Studio, Bright Angel Lodge, El Tovar, and Hopi House (above), all of which were designed by Mary Colter. Colter, who was professionally active during the first half of the twentieth century, enjoyed a lengthy and distinguished career at a time when female architects were few and far between; however, given that Julia Morgan was also working at roughly the same time, perhaps the West afforded women architects opportunities that simply didn't exist elsewhere. Her buildings at Grand Canyon National Park were inspired by the vernacular architecture of the region, and they are stunning.

Once I got out of Grand Canyon Village and retrieved my car, I headed west on Desert View Drive. I stopped at a couple of overlooks and viewpoints and at the Tusayan Ruins. About eight hundred years ago, approximately 15-20 people lived in this small pueblo village. They lived in five small rooms, kept food and supplies in small storage rooms (see above), held religious ceremonies in kivas built for that purpose, and raised crops nearby. What happened to this community is a mystery.

Adjacent to the Tusayan Ruins is a tiny museum housing some artifacts relating to the Native Americans who lived in this region. The highlight of the collection is pictured above: these small twig figurines, which were found in caves in the canyon, are 2,000-4,000 years old. Owing to the darkness of the caves and the aridity of the climate, they are in astonishingly good condition.

I then drove to the Desert View viewpoint, which is home to the Watchtower, another stunning Colter building. Colter was inspired by the watchtowers built by the Anasazi, but her design differs in many respects from the original. Some critics regard this structure as Colter's masterpiece.

The paintings inside the Watchtower were done by Hopi artist Fred Kaboti, who drew inspiration from traditional Hopi iconography and pteroglyphs found in the surrounding area.

Like Grand Canyon Village, the Watchtower is a hustling, bustling place. I had to wait several minutes in order to capture this shot of from the ground floor of the building; people kept running in and out of the shot.

So what is there to see from the Watchtower? Oh, not much, just more staggering beauty. Note the Colorado River --which is chiefly responsible for the Grand Canyon's existence -- wending its way through the canyon. For the most part, you can't see the river itself from the top of the South Rim.

I ended the day at Lipan Point, but I'll deal with that in a separate post.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Grand Canyon

I'm so tired that I can barely keep my eyes open, so this post is going to be short and isn't even going to begin to do justice to today's events.

I spent the day at Grand Canyon National Park. The size of the Grand Canyon beggars description. So does its beauty.

Taking a badly composed photograph of it may be well nigh impossible, but no photograph can ever do it justice. I tried nonetheless; I took over 200 pictures today.

Throughout the day, the Grand Canyon forced me to ponder the smallness of human existence and human concerns. We spend our lives consumed by our passions, our hatreds, and our desires, all of which amount to nothing in the larger scheme of things. The canyon was formed long before walked this earth, and it may continue to exist long after humans have ceased to walk the face of the earth.

Strange as it may seem, I find this realization both instructive and comforting. Personally and professionally, 2008 has been chaotic and difficult, and I've had a really hard time letting go of my rage at and resentment of some of the things that have happened this year. Now that I've been confronted with the fact of my own insignificance and the insignificance of my concerns, I'm starting to feel a rather blissful sense of detachment from it all.

I also feel still. The sheer size and the staggering beauty of the Grand Canyon simply force people to be quiet at times. There were a lot of other tourists running around the park today, and there was plenty of laughter, joking, parents reprimanding children, etc. However, while walking the Rim Trail today, I noticed several times that other people who were walking the trail together would go around a bend in the trail and stop talking in mid-sentence -- the vistas before them simply shut them up. I walked alone, allowing my mind to wander as I navigated the trail, and found that the views stopped me in mid-thought. I quit thinking and just experienced what was before me. I seem to have carried that stillness with me, and I hope to keep it with me in the days that come.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Getting my kicks

Williams, Arizona, will be my basecamp until tomorrow morning. Williams is a small town situated on the iconic former U.S. Route 66, and it was apparently the last town on Route 66 to be bypassed by the Interstate Highway System.

The town's economy has been tourist-driven for a long time. A good many of the restaurants, hotels, and shops that were built to accommodate the masses who discovered the joy of auto travel during the postwar era are still standing and have been renovated. It's now a destination for present-day tourists who seek to re-experience Route 66's glory days en route to the Grand Canyon, Lake Mead, the Kainab National Forest, and other area attractions.

It's a cute little town. However, looking around, I can't help but think of an earlier generation of Route 66 travelers: the Dust Bowl farm families who sought better lives in California and who, as John Steinbeck eloquently chronicled in The Grapes of Wrath, all too often found their misery compounded. No one is particularly nostalgic for this aspect of Route 66's history, so there's not much evidence of it on public display.

Postscript re: last night's motel confusion: in my sleep-deprived haze, I missed the small sign regarding overnight service at the motel at which I made reservations, and the manager on duty this morning was aghast when I told him that I ended up staying at another motel. He offered to work something out, but I told him not to worry about it; I failed to see the sign, and he let me move my stuff in first thing this morning, so I've had more than one day's use of the room.

On the road (and in the air) again

I’m writing this entry in the Au Bon Pain in Concourse C of EWR, where I have a long layover between ALB and PHX, with the intention of posting it once I get Internet access. I’m heading to Phoenix for a meeting of the Persistent Digital Archives and Library System (PeDALS) project partners, but I’m taking a few days’ vacation before the meeting and heading up to the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, and perhaps Canyon de Chelly or the Petrified Forest.

I always approach vacations with a mixture of anticipation and guilt. I look forward to novel experiences and the opportunity to recharge, but at the same time I stress about the preparations and tell myself that I really don’t deserve time off; if I were a good person, I would quit shirking and get back to the work at hand. I suspect that these sentiments are in some respects a legacy of my decade in graduate school, when I had neither the time nor the money to go on vacation. Delusions of indispensability are probably at play as well.

Fortunately, once I’m on the road, I usually relax and get into the experience. At this moment, I’m feeling an almost Zen-like calm. It’s kind of surprising, really. I woke up with a nasty migraine this morning, and managed to break both a floor lamp and my vacuum cleaner before leaving my house today. I was also a bit short with my colleague, Michael, who really is indispensable and who needed to call me and clarify something before I left; he’s definitely getting an apologetic e-mail later tonight and something nice from Arizona when I get back!

I didn’t get the chance to eat before I left, and was famished when the plane touched down. So I stopped at the Au Bon Pain and got a lovely mozzarella and tomato salad, a fresh and staggeringly good piece of bread, and a heady cup of dark roast coffee. One of my friends has made it a habit to say “thank you for being sacred” to each morsel of food that she eats. It’s a good practice, I think: food of the sort I just ate really is, in a humble and humdrum way, a blessing, and we should take the time to appreciate the goodness in our lives.

I still have miles to go before I sleep: I’m going to be at ERJ for another 2.5 hours, and my plane won’t land in Phoenix until about 9:00 CST (midnight EDT). I will then have to drive about 2.5 hours before I reach my hotel. I’m pretty good at sleeping on planes, so I should be fine.

Tomorrow, if all goes according to plan, I’ll post my first pictures of the Grand Canyon.

POSTSCRIPT: My flight was supposed to leave EWR at 6:00 PM EDT, but we sat on the ground awaiting permission to take off until 7:40 PM. No one was happy about this state of affairs, and and it was particularly hard on my seatmates -- a sweet but very tired 16 month-old girl and her extremely capable mother. We got to Phoenix about an hour after we were supposed to arrive, and getting my rental car took a lot longer than anticipated. I finally got to Williams, where I'll be staying for the next couple of days, at around 1:30 AM CST (AZ doesn't observe Daylight Savings Time), only to find that the registration desk of the motel at which I made reservations closes at 11:00 PM. So I'm paying for two hotel rooms tonight -- the one I reserved and one I'm actually occupying.

At least the motel I'm staying at has free wifi. My body is telling me that it's 5:00 AM, and I'm sitting here blogging and eating a garden salad I bought at EWR so that I could eating dinner on the plane; however, there was no way I was going to attempt to eat a massive salad while sitting inches away from a wriggling and increasingly unhappy toddler.

I don't know why, but I'm still in a relatively good mood.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Los Angeles Archives Bazaar

American Archives Month is upon us. I'm always impressed with the diverse ways that we as a profession commemorate this month, and I'm particularly taken with the approach adopted by a group of Los Angeles archives: on October 25, the University of Southern California will host the Third Annual Los Angeles Archives Bazaar, which will enable anyone doing archival research--whether genealogical or scholarly--to discuss their projects with staff from approximately fifteen area repositories.

Repositories that will be represented at the Archives Bazaar include:
The Archives Bazaar is sponsored by L.A. as Subject, an alliance of Los Angeles-area repositories led by the University of Southern California Libraries, and will also feature displays of archival material, film screenings, genealogy presentations, teaching sessions, and book signings. The Archives Bazaar is getting some media attention, and I hope that it gets even more notice as the 25th approaches.

What a great idea! I would love to see a Capital District Archives Bazaar next year.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

NYS Electronic Records Symposium

Today, I attended Taming the Wild Frontier: EDMS Implementations for State and Local Government, one of an ongoing series of electronic records symposia sponsored by the NYS Archives’ Regional Advisory Committees (Regions 3 & 4 for today's event), the State Records Advisory Committee, the NYS Association of Local Government Records Officers, the and NYS Association of County Clerks. The Clifton Park-Halfmoon Public Library graciously allowed us to use its brand-new, attractive, and environmentally friendly facility.

Steve Goodfellow of Access Systems Consulting kicked off the morning by providing a working definition of an electronic document management system (EDMS): a system that facilitates access to scanned and born-digital documents (e.g., e-mail, GIS data, reports from other systems, office productivity suite files). According to Steve, EDMS’s are distinct from: imaging systems, which convert paper records to electronic form; electronic content management systems; which also support management of Web sites; and electronic records management systems, which also support development and application of records schedules and allow for legal holds.

EDMS’s can offer a lot of benefits: faster and more convenient access, cross referencing and searching capability, reduction of paper volume, managing of compliance needs (records schedules, security, authenticity), and improvement of collaboration and workflow.

EDMS projects typically start because someone wants to be more efficient, get to information more quickly, comply with records schedules, or improve collaboration and information sharing. However, some people decide that they want an EDMS because they want to get rid of paper records that are taking up space. Steve strongly emphasized -- and other presenters seconded this point throughout the day -- that this is not a good reason to initiate an EDM project. People who simply want paper to disappear will not engage in the careful planning needed to make the project a success.

Steve then outlined how to develop a successful EDMS:
  • Understand your current process and workflows: work processes vary from unit to unit, and in many units, different people do things differently. You really need to understand how things are currently being done -- looking both at the forest and the trees -- and avoid assuming that the vendor’s default, e.g., accounts processing routine will meet your needs.
  • Complete a full-scale business process analysis and draw upon it when designing your system; simply throwing technology at a dysfunctional work process won’t fix it. If at all possible, conduct your needs assessment and business process analysis before talking to vendors. If you don’t have a clear sense of what you want and need, you can easily become overly impressed with features and “neat stuff” that might not be all that useful to you.
  • Review and update your organization’s policies and procedures and make sure that all employees are aware of them. You may need to develop training for new and veteran staff.
  • Clearly define project roles and responsibilities. Every EDMS project needs: a project leader to guide the initial implementation and subsequent expansion; a system owner who is in charge of the EDMS; a technical systems administrator who provides backend support; a business process analyst who studies existing and proposed workflows; an application administrator responsible for developing indexes, applying retention schedules, etc.; and a system support resource that end users know to contact in the event of a problem. Bad project management has killed off many a worthy EDM project.
  • Devote lots of attention to designing index fields that are appropriate and reasonable in number. People are busy enough; they will avoid using a system that forces them to do large amounts of additional work. Developing a set of index terms that is “good enough for now” is a surefire way to make everyone miserable. Careful planning upfront will save a lot of effort and heartache down the road. Try to be logical: if your paper system organizes records by, e.g., case number and this approach more than meets your needs, why insist upon twenty additional terms? A handful may suffice.
  • Think about retention, disposition, and preservation of records that have long-term or permanent value. Your system will be replaced some day, and the data within it will be migrated. Avoid systems that will make these actions more difficult. Keep in mind that every record added to the system will eventually need to have a schedule applied and that you may need to apply legal holds, etc., to some records in the system.
  • Throughout the project and afterward, communicate with staff. Provide staff with initial training, follow-up sessions, and use training sessions or focus groups to identify any problems that end users have -- and be sure to address these problems ASAP.
The remainder of the symposium was devoted to breakout sessions in which state and local government personnel discussed their own EDM projects, lessons learned, and next steps. Highlights of the presentations I attended:
  • Jay Ruparel of Sunrise Systems discussed the two EDMS’s that his firm is building for the New Jersey Division of Archives and Records Management (NJDARM). One will allow NJDARM to create and update its records retention schedules for state and local government, review requests to destroy records that have reached the end of their retention period (NJDARM’s legal control over records destruction is substantially greater than that of the NYS Archives!), run reports, and provide some online services to state agencies. The other will allow local governments to track paper and electronic records, submit records destruction requests to NJDARM, provide access to shared scanning and COM services, and produce management reports. The systems are in the pilot phase of development, but they seem extraordinarily promising.
  • Steve Goodfellow and Diane Myers, Tammy Hayes, and Suzanne Palmer of the Madison County (N.Y.) Department of Social Services discussed the development of an EDMS used to manage the department’s case files. They carefully planned the pilot project and made sure that their test users consisted of senior and veteran employees at all levels of the organization. They also devoted a lot of thought to indexing and quality control; every item that is scanned goes into a holding pen until a supervisor confirms that it is legible and properly indexed. Finally, in order to save time and reduce confusion, the department scans all records from 2006-01-01 onward at the point of receipt; as a result, everyone knows that all records received before this date are in paper form. Each staffer who does the scanning keeps a box at his or her desk and files paper originals chronologically. Once the box is full, it goes to remote storage; in the event that another staffer needs to retrieve the paper original, he or she uses the EDMS to identify the date it was scanned and the name of the staffer who scanned it and then has the appropriate box retrieved from storage.
  • Kevin Broderick of the NYS Division of Housing and Community Renewal detailed his agency’s development of an EDMS that manages its case files. He reinforced, charmingly and vividly, many of the points that Steve Goodfellow made earlier that day. He debunked the Big Hopper Theorem, the false but all-too-common belief that an organization can simply dump documents into an EDMS and have the system sort them out. He also stressed the difference between pitching and throwing: to be a good pitcher, you have to think about your situation and figure out how you’re going to deliver a given pitch. A good scanning project demands the same analysis and care. He also refuted the widespread and erroneous notion that an EDMS is a “virtual shredder” that frees up physical space that could be used to house additional staff, etc. In reality, there is no free lunch: vendors typically charge $.10-$.15 per image, and there are other costs associated with developing and implementing an EDMS. Reducing the amount of physical office or storage space might offset the cost of implementing an EDMS, but it might not.
At the end of the day, my very cool colleague Andy Raymond offered the following summary of the day's discussions:
  • All of us have huge problems managing electronic records—hence the theme of today’s symposium. All of the protocols we’ve developed for paper records must be applied, albeit in different ways, to electronic records, the volume of which continues to increase.
  • We can see the functionality and potential functionality of EDMS’s: these systems can help us get a grip on the ever-increasing volume of electronic records. However, with great potential comes great complexity and, for the most part, substantial expense.
  • Implementing these systems will lead us to a new paradigm of records management. In the past, we’ve allowed individual units, agencies, etc. to develop their own records management records programs. We need to move to a more collaborative solution. The complexity of EDMS’s will force us to work with other units in our organizations and with outside entities that have similar needs. For many of us, that’s new and challenging.
  • In a time of reduced budgets, hiring freezes, and fiscal crises, our organizations are under pressure to sustain existing levels of service and meet new challenges. How can we do this? What are the next steps for us?
All in all, a wonderful and, to put it mildly, information-packed day. We all have a lot to think about.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Capital Region Archives Dinner

The Thirteenth Annual Capital Region Archives Dinner, which may well be the longest-running event of its type in the nation, was held tonight at the lovely Mansion at Cedar Hill in Selkirk, NY.

The Archives Dinner allows archivists, records managers, and archival allies in the Albany-Schenectady-Troy area to kick back, enjoy some good food and good company, and honor folks who have made significant contributions to the archival community or raised awareness of historical records. I got to see all kinds of people I wish I could see more often, including but not limited to:
Of course, lots and lots of folks from the New York State Archives were there, too. I interact with 'em five days a week, but I love seeing them in an informal setting and getting to chat with all their significant others.

Susan D'Entremont, the Capital Region's DHP Regional Archivist, junior co-chair of the Archives Dinner Committee, and another person I would like to see more often, got the evening off to a rollicking good start, and the State Archives' Ray LaFever did his usual bang-up job as MC.

We have a speaker at each Archives Dinner, and William T. "Chip" Reynolds delivered a great presentation. Chip is the captain of the Half Moon, a full-scale and fully operational replica of the ship that in 1609 Henry Hudson sailed up the river that now bears his name. (As you might expect, 2009 is going to be a big deal in New York State--it's the 400th anniversary of the voyages of Hudson and Samuel de Champlain and the 200th anniversary of Robert Fulton's first steamship voyage up the Hudson River--so Chip's presentation was very apropos.)

Chip started out as a scientist studying changes in reef formations, and his presentation drove home the ways in which archival materials shed light on not only human history but natural history--in his former career, he made heavy use of survey records held by the National Archives when studying reefs. Using a number of late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century maps as examples, he then detailed how they document the emergence of empirical ways of understanding the world and the findings of successive explorers.

The bulk of Chip's presentation highlighted the centrality of archival records such as the original ship's log to the operations of the replica ship, which has an educational mission. Groups of middle schoolers spend one-week stints on the ship and are responsible for sailing the ship, using replicas of seventeenth-century instruments to measure the ship's speed, course, etc., and keeping records of the ship's operations. In some areas of the Hudson, they use fascimiles of early seventeenth-century maps to navigate the ship--in sections of the river that haven't been extensively altered by dredging, etc., some maps that were created over three hundred years ago remain extremely accurate. When they're not sailing the ship, they perform scientific experiments--gathering and testing water samples, etc.--and document their findings.

I'm working from memory, and I know I'm not doing justice to Chip's presentation or the Half Moon itself. Chip and his colleagues have developed a fantastic program, and they compel students to apply their knowledge of history, mathematics, and science to a host of real-world problems and scenarios--and to understand the importance of drawing upon existing records and creating new ones that document their findings. A good friend of mine regularly crews on the Half Moon, and I can see why he keeps going back year after year.

Chip also imparted one fascinating fact that was totally new to me: the first European to take up permanent residence in New Netherland was one Jan Rodrigues, who in 1613 opted to settle on Manhattan. Rodrigues is referred to as "the Moor" in the records, indicating that, in all likelihood, at least some of his forebears were of African descent. Rodrigues was a free man, and he freely chose to settle in New Netherland and live among the Native Americans--something that Chip's African-American students find surprising and inspiring.

After Chip's speech ended, we gave awards to Jan Allen, who could not attend the Archives Dinner due to illness but has helped to develop all sorts of curricula that make use of archival materials and has tirelessly championed student use of historical records, and to Gerry Zahavi. Gerry is a true friend of archives: he's helped find archival homes for the papers of labor activist Helen Quirini and folklorist Norman Studer, the records of IUE Local 301, and other important collections, he ensures that his oral history interviews and those of his students are held by repositories, and he takes great pains to make his students aware of the riches that await them in archives.

Gerry said something really striking when he received his award: whenever people ask him what his favorite book or article is, he doesn't know how to answer because he finds archival records so much more interesting than monographs and journal articles. All of his favorite readings are primary sources.

The evening sort of wound down after the awards were given out, but I stayed a little while longer and talked to Gerry, Chip, and some State Archives folks. It was a great evening.

And if you're in the Albany area and are looking for a banquet facility . . . the Mansion at Cedar Hill lacks a Web site but has plenty of historic ambiance--a 19th-century governor of New York lived here, the gangster/bootlegger Legs Diamond spent a little time at the place, and it served as an Elks Lodge for a time. It's quaint, the owner's great, and so is the food; having feasted on superb egglant Napoleon and pumpkin cake tonight, I hope that that the Mansion at Cedar Hill evolves into a full-fledged restaurant!