Saturday, September 27, 2008

Paul Newman, R.I.P.

I woke up this morning to learn that Paul Newman had passed away, and was surprised by the wave of sadness that washed over me. I've always thought that Newman was a terrific actor, and I've been even more impressed by Newman's Own: with great wit and verve, the company helped to make natural food and organic food a mass-market phenomenon, made corporate philanthropy and social responsiblity cool, and generated millions upon millions of dollars for charitable causes.

The Web is full of obituaries that were obviously prepared well before Newman's demise, and their format and the story that they tell--of Newman's distinguished acting career, his solid and long-lived marriage to the amazing Joanne Woodward, his enthusiasm for auto racing, his social activism, and his devotion to good works--ought to be familiar to anyone who has been semi-conscious for the past couple of decades.

However, if you want to understand precisely why Newman won the love and admiration of so many people, check out the remembrance written by Slate's always excellent Dahlia Lithwick. Lithwick worked as a counselor at one of Newman's Hole in the Wall Gang Camp in Connecticut for several years during the late 1980's and early 1990s. The camp, which is designed to enable children with cancer and other serious illnesses to forget about their health issues and focus on simply being kids, was the first charitable enterprise supported by Newman's Own profits.

Newman, who lived nearby, was a frequent visitor. To the kids, he was just "this friendly old guy who kept showing up at camp to take them fishing," and they "indulged [him] the way they'd have indulged a particularly friendly hospital blood technician." As it turns out, this is exactly what he wanted:
It took me years to understand why Newman loved being at the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp. It was for precisely the same reason these kids did. When the campers showed up, they became regular kids, despite the catheters and wheelchairs and prosthetic legs. And when Newman showed up, he was a regular guy with blue eyes, despite the Oscar and the racecars and the burgeoning marinara empire. The most striking thing about Paul Newman was that a man who could have blasted through his life demanding "Have you any idea who I am?" invariably wanted to hang out with folks--often little ones--who neither knew nor cared.Paul Newman had his priorities in order--which is no small accomplishment these days.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Doonesbury, archivists, and partisanship

In case you missed it, a "Library of Congress archivist" was featured in the September 21 installment of Doonesbury. Violet McPhee, a repeat guest on Mark Slackmeyer's radio show, has brought a document that she describes as "an extremely valuable acquisition": the original copy of the "the founding document of the modern hate-speech movement--Newt Gingrich's famous GOPAC memo." This "Magna Carta of attack politics" tells "Republican candidates to smear opponents with words like 'sick, disgrace, corrupt, cheat, decay, pathetic, radical, traitor, anti-family, greed,' and so on," thus codifying "the toxic rhetoric that came to define an era!" The document even has "the original mudstains--so prized by curators!"

I've been a Doonesbury fan since I was about twelve, and I'm always fascinated when our low-profile profession is depicted in popular culture. Violet McPhee, an amply proportioned and bespectacled woman of a certain age, looks like a number of archivists I've known--and, in all likelihood, she looks like the archivist that I'll be about ten years from now. Garry Trudeau has obviously had some experience with archives, as evidenced by the nicely drawn tan clamshell box that houses the GOPAC memo; the memo itself is enclosed in a sheet protector meant to be inserted into a three-ring notebook, which is a bit off, but some repositories do use archival-quality sheet protectors of this sort.

Why McPhee needs to bring the document to a radio show is beyond me, but Garry Trudeau is entitled to a little artistic license. I also doubt that GOPAC's records are or ever will be at the Library of Congress or any other repository--when I was a student assistant at the M.E. Grenander Department of Special Collections and Archives, I learned that, with the exception of the Conservative Party, which donated a great collection to the department, all of New York State's party organizations had tossed their older records--but it's not impossible.

I fully recognize that Trudeau is merely using the character of the archivist to make a political point. However, Violet McPhee's lengthy, overtly partisan description of the GOPAC memo brings to mind the real-world nastiness in which some of my fellow archivists have been indulging as of late. Don't get me wrong: I'm a lifelong Democrat who made a conscious decision to live in a "blue" state, and I'm impatiently waiting for the Obama campaign to send me the car magnet it promised me. However, as I've noted before, some of the statements that John Dean made at SAA's 2008 annual meeting and some of the "questions" asked by audience members crossed the line into naked partisanship. Some of the comments that have been posted to various archival listservs during the past couple of weeks have been similarly one-sided and provocative.

I realize that there is a close and hotly contested Presidential race going on, that the economy may well be disintegrating before our eyes, and that the current Presidential administration has proven itself to be no friend of records, archives, or governmental accountability. I firmly believe that the profession has the right and the obligation to draw attention to this--or any other--administration's records-related deficiencies and that individual archivists should be free to make known their support for a given party, candidate, or policy.

However, we're not doing the profession any favors by being openly contemptuous of people who happen not to share our individual political views. I strongly suspect that most archivists are Democrats, but there are a substantial number of Republicans in our ranks. All of the Republican archivists I've known have been committed, thoughtful, and smart people, and they deserve to get through the workday without being demeaned by their colleagues. A little spirited debate is one thing--heck, one of my Republican colleagues sometimes goes out of his way to get the debate going! Disdain and abuse are another.

Moreover, we need to remain mindful that, as inconspicuous as we generally are, we have awesome superpowers: we are the shapers and keepers of the historical record. As the SAA Code of Ethics states, we must use these superpowers appropriately, i.e., we must "exercise professional judgment in acquiring, appraising, and processing historical materials" and avoid allowing our "personal beliefs or perspectives to affect" our professional decisions. I would add that we should also strive to avoid giving the impression that we might allow our personal beliefs to color our professional decisions in ways that might damage or distort the historical record.

Again, I think it's a matter of degree: it's alright to express dislike of or disagreement with a given leader, organization, social movement, etc., but we also have to keep emphasizing that, individually and collectively, we are committed to ensuring that the historical record is as comprehensive and accurate as possible. I know it's really hard sometimes, but let's exercise a little restraint, okay?

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Responding to Ike

News of Ike's impact on Gulf Coast cultural heritage institutions is just starting to come out, and some of the news is very bad. The Society of Southwest Archivists is allowing affected repositories to post updates on staff and collections on the unofficial SSA wiki, the Texas Association of Museums has information about museums affected by the hurricane, and the Texas Library Association is regularly reporting on the status of Southeast Texas libraries.

In 2005, the Society of American Archivists established a fund designed to help repositories affected by hurricanes Katrina and Rita. This fund, which provided assistance to twenty-one archives, has just become the SAA National Disaster Recovery Fund. It will provide "grants that support the recovery of archival collections from major disasters regardless of region or repository type."

Given the extent of Ike's destruction, it's quite likely that the fund's current balance, which was $18,485 as of September 9, isn't going to go very far. Those of us who wish to aid our Gulf Coast colleagues ought to donate to the SAA National Disaster Recovery Fund for Archives at this time. The online donation process is fast and easy.

Paul Klusman is my Internet man crush

Paul Klusman is an aerospace engineer and cat lover who makes short films in his spare time. I hope you all find "An Engineer's Guide to Cats," his most popular film to date, as smart and as funny as I did. (My father, a retired engineer who came to love cats relatively late in life, and my mother, who has been married to my father for more than 50 years, also heartily recommend this film.)

Klusman's also used YouTube to disseminate a couple of short films about stray cats he's taken in; both cats now have new homes as a result. These films are designed to highlight the cats' beauty, playfulness, and loving dispositions, but they also reveal his own gentleness and reflectiveness. And he plays guitar and has the went-gray-at-a-young-age thing going on, too . . . .

Okay, I'm going out on a limb by admitting I have a man crush, but what a sweet guy!

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Kamp Krusty

Second in an occasional series on archives in popular culture, with particular focus on The Simpsons . . . .

In tandem with some great visual references to Apocalypse Now, The French Lieutenant's Woman, and National Lampoon's Vacation, records of various kinds help to shape the narrative structure of Kamp Krusty, the first episode of the transcendently great fourth season. Kamp Krusty opens with Bart's dream about the last day of school. Bart, whose father has threatened not to send him to Kamp Krusty unless he gets a "C" average, successfully persuades Mrs. Krabappel to change all of his F-'s to C's. Then Principal Skinner uses the PA system to announce that the school year has come to an end, stating "I trust you all remembered to bring in your implements of destruction." Children pull out hammers, flamethrowers, and automatic weapons, and proceed to demolish the school.

Principal Skinner gets in on the act by pulling out a couple of Paige boxes filled with neatly filed papers and announcing, "Somebody put a torch to these permanent records!" The children happily oblige.

Of course, the real world isn't as accommodating. The last day of school has indeed arrived, but Mrs. Krabappel refuses to change Bart's grades and the school remains standing. Bart, who desperately wants to go to Kamp Krusty, changes every D+ on his report card to an A+. The doctored record doesn't fool Homer: "'A+'? You don't think very much of me, do you, boy? . . . . You know, a D turns into a B so easily. You just got greedy." However, Homer doesn't want the kids hanging around the house all summer, so he allows Bart to accompany Lisa to Kamp Krusty anyway.

Once Lisa and Bart get to Kamp Krusty, they find that the facility doesn't live up to the promises of Bart's hero, TV's Krusty the Clown: Krusty is nowhere to be found, the facilities are rundown and dangerous, Springfield Elementary's biggest bullies are serving as counselors, the arts-and-crafts facility is a sweatshop producing counterfeit designer goods, most of the campers subsist on Krusty Brand Imitation Gruel, and campers with weight issues are continually hectored by a sadistic drill sargeant.

Campers are barred from communicating with the outside world, but Lisa, resourceful and courageous as always, manages with difficulty to smuggle out a letter documenting conditions at the camp. However, her parents, convinced that she is merely homesick, discount her tale of abuse and exploitation.

Once Bart realizes that Krusty isn't coming to save the day, he leads a campers' revolt that attracts media attention. Springfield news anchor Kent Brockman, reporting live from the scene, asserts: "Ladies and gentlemen, I've been to Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq, and I can say without hyperbole that this is a million times worse than all three of them put together."

Krusty, who has been taking in Wimbledon and is on the verge of being knighted by the Queen of England, reacts to the TV news coverage by rushing to Kamp Krusty. Krusty freely admits that he will endorse just about any product put before him, but feels bad that the children have had such an awful experience.

In an effort to make it up to them, he takes them to the "happiest place on earth": Tijuana, Mexico. The episode ends with a series of photographic records of the event: Krusty buying the children sombreros, Krusty taking the children to a cockfight, Krusty passed out drunk in the middle of the street, Krusty left behind in Tijuana as the trip comes to an end . . . .

If I were given to making tortured intellectual arguments, I could make the case that Kamp Krusty says something important about adult interpretation of the records created or modified by children: Marge and Homer dismiss the truth contained within Lisa's letter as readily as Homer discounts the false information on Bart's doctored report card. However, let's just say that Kamp Krusty is a first-rate episode and that the records that help to propel its narrative occupy a position that is central yet subtle--as is so often the case with the records that document and shape our own lives.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

12:12 AM: l'Archivista is blogging

In the September 7, 2008 edition of the New York Times Magazine, Clive Thompson explores the "Brave New World of Digital Intimacy" brought about by social networking tools such as Twitter and Facebook's Live Feed feature, which provide users with "constant, up-to-the-minute updates on what other people are doing." Any archivist worth his or her salt should find this article extremely intriguing. As Thompson notes, most people over 30 simply can't grasp the appeal of these "micro-blogging" services (Twitter limits people to 140 words per post). For the most part, folks born before ca. 1975 view the popularity of these tools as yet another manifestation of the millennial generation's (alleged) narcissism.

However, Thompson emphasizes that something more is going on. Devotees of Live Feed and Twitter are inundated with "snippets of information" about the minutiae of the lives of others. These little pieces of data are, by and large, meaningless in and of themselves. However, "over time, the little snippets coalesce into a surprisingly sophisticated portrait of . . . friends’ and family members’ lives, like thousands of dots making a pointillist painting." Users of these services come to know and value the rhythms and textures of friends' and relatives' lives in ways that they never would have otherwise.

This phenomenon should come to no surprise as archivists: we've always recognized that the intellectual value of a records series is sometimes far greater than the sum of its parts and that context is, in many instances, the chief supplier of a record's meaning. It should also propel us to start thinking about ways to preserve at least a sampling of this "micro-blogging" activity: Live Feed, Twitter, and the like promise to be a goldmine for future social and cultural historians, who will be able to examine all of those seemingly random snippets of information for evidence of the habits, pastimes, and preoccupations of early 21st-century people.

Scholars attempting more ambitious reconstructions of early 21st-century life may also find them immensely valuable. Twitter postings remind me in many ways of the terse diary entries of Martha Ballard, the late 18th-/early 19th-century Maine midwife whose journal sat quietly in the stacks of the Maine State Library until Laurel Thacher Ulrich figured out that a close reading of the diary and other available sources would allow her to decipher the entries' meaning and reconstruct the complex, tumultuous world in which Ballard lived. Some discerning 24th-century historian may be able to combine a close analysis of an individual's Live Feed entries with careful examination of other sources and come up with an equally vivid and daring portrait of life and community in our own time.

Of course, Martha Ballard's diary and all of the other records and publications Ulrich consulted exist on a relatively stable medium: paper. The new social networking tools are born digital and, almost invariably, remain digital. Moreover, Facebook, Twitter, etc., are designed to turn a profit, not facilitate creation of the raw materials of history. It's extremely difficult to extract content from the servers maintained by the tools' creators--at least in a meaningful way--and the creators have no compelling reason to make it any easier to do so, at least at the present time.

At present, I don't have any solutions to the problems associated with the commercial nature of most social networking tools, but it seems that I'm not alone. The Library of Congress's National Digital Information Infrastructure Program is funding the Preserving Virtual Worlds project, which is examining how to preserve Second Life and video games, but, to the best of my knowledge, no one is tackling the preservation of social networking information. It's about time we as a profession focused a little attention on doing so.

I have lots of other things to say about Thompson's article, and will do so later this week. In the meantime, please don't hesitate to read the article yourself.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Gardening at night

Bad news on the garden front: I came home this evening to find that several of the stems of my tomato plants had flopped to the ground. I don't know whether to blame the wind, which is picking up (what's left of Hurricane Hanna is heading our way), or the small hands of a neighborhood child or two; given that I had carefully trained the stems to grow around the stakes, I suspect the latter. At any rate, I had to pick several tomatoes early and have likely lost a significant number of tomatoes-to-be. At any rate, the stems are now tied to the stakes like slaves in an eco-friendly S&M dungeon.

Moreover, my dahlias, which hadn't been looking too good before I left, died while I was in San Francisco. Given that they were at the very center of my flowerbed, this was a real problem: my neatly planted yellow cockscombs, which are doing quite well, were nicely framing lots of dead brown stuff.

So . . . I bought a black pearl pepper plant at the farmer's market on Wednesday. I didn't have any more organic garden soil, so I ran out to the garden supply shop last night and picked up some soil and some lavender and purple chrysanthemums to help fill in the holes left by my departed dahlias.

By the time I got home last night, it was much too dark to plant the mums or place the pepper plant in a pot. I got a bit of a late start this evening as well, but I didn't want to wait until tomorrow; Hanna's leftovers should be here by morning. I tried to make the most of the vanishing light, but by the time I finished the sky was a deep blue and the mosquitoes were out in force.

The pepper plant really is lovely. Unfortunately, this harsh flash photo doesn't do it justice. FYI, this plant is chiefly used as an ornamental. However, the seller at the flea market assured me and a Web search confirmed that the peppers are edible--but very hot.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Taking a little time off

So far, I've taken up two new things this year: blogging and gardening. My landlord and landlady are generous, flexible folks, and they let me put in a small flowerbed (conventionally cultivated) and a trio of cherry tomato plants (organically grown) in containers. When I left for San Francisco, all of my tomatoes were still green. However, by the time I got back, several had ripened and several more were well on their way. I picked four of them (including two shown in this picture) just a few moments ago, and popped one into my mouth just before drafting this post. My tomatoes are of the "Sweetie" variety, and my first tomato more than lived up to its name.

Blogging my way through my brief San Francisco vacation and SAA was a lot more challenging than I had anticipated, and I'm going to take a few days off, catch up on everything that happened while I was away, and find a little time to enjoy the sweetness of late summer. I hope you get the chance to do the same.

"The Sky's the Limit"

I'm not a fan of air travel, and I'm not certainly not fond of United's "Terminal for Tomorrow" (a.k.a. Terminal One) at ORD: it's constructed largely of glass and metal, and as a result it's often unpleasantly warm.

However, I love the underground tunnel that connects the terminal's two concourses. It's home to "The Sky's the Limit," a light and sound installation by Michael Hayden. It's both kinetic and soothing, and it makes all of the hassle and discomfort of air travel fade away, at least for a few minutes.

I had no need to pass through this tunnel on Sunday--my incoming and outgoing flights were both assigned to Concourse C--but I had a long layover and needed a break. After a couple of passes through the tunnel, my spirits were indeed lifted.

Monday, September 1, 2008

SAA: Day three of sessions

Immediately after the conference ended on Saturday, a friend from North Carolina and I spent some time exploring Pier 39 and Golden Gate Park. I had to start packing as soon as I got back to my hotel, so I didn't get the chance to do any blogging. Most of this entry was written during a long layover in Chicago yesterday afternoon, but I wasn’t willing to pay the $7.00/hour fee for WiFi access at ORD and was simply too tired to post it last night.

Old Movies, New Audiences: Archival Films as Public Outreach Tools
I went to this session because a colleague of mine who isn’t here in San Francisco is overseeing the digitization of many of our audio, video, and motion picture holdings. Now that we’re starting to receive digital files from our vendor, we need to figure out not only how to manage them properly but also to make them widely accessible, so I’ll give her my notes when I get back.

I came in a bit late, so I didn’t get to hear all of Bill Moore’s presentation. However, I did get to learn a little bit about how the Oklahoma History Center, which has worked with the National Film Preservation Program (NFPF) to preserve some of its holdings, highlights its audiovisual holdings through community screenings, production of DVDs, and provision of footage to television and film producers; his repository, which has commissioned creation of a new score for a private film and can supply footage in formats required by professionals, has apparently managed to develop a substantial technical infrastructure.

Christine Paschild, formerly of the Japanese American National Museum (JANM), discussed how the JANM sought to make footage documenting life in prewar Japanese American communities and in World War II concentrations accessible to the K-12 educators who attend its summer curriculum institutes. JANM conducted focus groups with teachers and learned that the teachers wanted the ability to view snippets of footage, access footage without doing a lot of technological prep work, keyword searching, and subject headings that aligned with their lesson plans (i.e., geographic location, names of specific camps, topics such as family life and sports).

JAMN, which got NFPF funding, then worked with a vendor to digitize the footage, break it into short snippets, and create detailed descriptions of each snippet. The snippets are available online via the Nikkei Album, which also allows people who visit the site to comment upon the films and to add their own films, photos, lesson plans, etc. The Nikkei Album allows people to browse JAMN’s motion picture holdings and highlights the value of home movies to viewers and may as a result lead to increased preservation of such footage. JANM makes quite a bit of money through licensing, and Nikkei Album may enable producers to do more of their own searching.

JANM really lucked out in that it worked with a vendor willing to do all of the descriptive and editing work that it needed, and the editing and tagging took 4-5 times longer than JANM initially anticipated.

Paschild concluded by noting that the cataloging of materials on the Nikkei Album site doesn’t correspond to the cataloging of all of its other holdings and that this poses problems. However, the project also made JANM realize that access involved more than simply placing stuff on the Web: archives need to understand what kinds of description people need in order to make use of the material. Of course, Paschild isn’t alone in coming to this realization, and those of us specializing in archival description will likely spend the next decade or two coming to grips with its implications.

Snowden Becker of the Center for Home Movies focused on Home Movie Day, an annual event that began in 2003 and now is held in more than 60 cities on four continents; the next Home Movie Day will take place on October 18. Organizers of each Home Movie Day event invite local people with amateur film in their possession to have their film inspected, screened, and shown in a community setting. They are also encouraged to narrate their films, and audiences can often identify places, people, etc., depicted on the screen. Organizers get local businesses involved as sponsors and contributors and work with volunteers to secure equipment that enables film to be shown safely.

Becker argued that sponsoring a Home Movie Day event has a number of benefits for archivists and audiences alike. It’s an easy way for archivists to raise their repository’s profile (even though the focus will not be on existing holdings), allows staff to hone their identification, evaluation, and interviewing skills, and start identifying materials that they might wish to add to their collection. Moreover, Home Movie Day encourages audiences to recognize that home movies can be historically significant even if they don’t depict famous people or momentous events and to start learning about preservation of home movie footage and to become actively interested in preserving their own movies. Home Movie Day can also result in discovery of previously unrecognized personal or historical connections and bring together people with related interests.

Given my other commitments, there is no way I could organize a Home Movie Day. However, I really hope that someone else in my corner of upstate New York does so.

Game On: Leading Your Championship Team
The always amazing Rosemary Pleva Flynn was the solo presenter at this session, and she succinctly distilled a whole lot of business literature on team characteristics and dynamics and leadership styles and attributes. Pleva Flynn, who is keenly attuned to the managerial dimensions of archival practice, is absolutely right that a) archivists need to pay more attention to these issues and b) generally don’t have the time or, more importantly, the inclination to do so; even those of us who spend the bulk of our days supervising people and directing projects tend to see ourselves chiefly as archival practitioners.

Pleva Flynn’s presentation was really detailed, so instead of recapping it in detail, I’m simply going to point to the resources she identified as being particularly valuable:
Pleva Flynn gave us a lot to think about, and I plan to spend a lot of time mulling over the notes I took when I get home (and get some sleep) and make use of her guidance whenever I can.