Wednesday, July 29, 2009

ArchivesNext Movers and Shakers

Last week, Kate T. over at ArchivesNext announced the winners of the 2009 Movers and Shakers in Archives Awards. Kate invites archivists to nominate individuals and organizations whose creativity and innovative approaches are enriching the profession and inspiring their colleagues, and a panel of judges selects the winners. Congratulations to Lisa Cohen of the Pacific Northwest Lesbian Archives, the Council of State Archivists (CoSA), Brenda Gunn of the University of Texas at Austin's Center for American History, and Mark Matienzo of the New York Public Library!

All of this year's winners are fantastic, but I'm particularly thrilled about Cohen and CoSA.

Cohen's desire to ensure that the lives of lesbians in her region are reflected in the historical record spurred her to enroll in a graduate-level archival education program and to build a community-based archives from the ground up. She's found a permanent home for its collections, and is steadily moving to expand its scope and reach.

Those of us who are active in SAA's Lesbian and Gay Archives Roundtable have always been keenly appreciative of the pioneering role of community-based archivists in documenting LGBT people and communities. Community-based archivists collected important materials long before academic and other research institutions exhibited any interest in doing so, and community-based archives are still the repositories of choice for many donors. It's good to see the broader archival community recognize the first-rate, visionary work that archivists such as Cohen are doing!

Margaret Mead once asserted: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has." CoSA keeps proving her right. It may be the smallest of the national archival professional organizations, but it's also the most tightly knit and the most agile. Whether it's addressing the need for emergency preparedness and response training, pushing for the Partnership for the American Historical Record, assessing and addressing continuing archival education needs, or assessing state archives and records management programs, CoSA hits the ground running and gets stuff done.

I have the privilege of working for a state archives, and as a result I've gotten to see CoSA's work up close. It really is everything that Kate T. and its anonymous nominator say it is.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

If you're going to SAA this year . . .

Downtown Austin, as seen across the Colorado River Lady Bird Lake from Zilker Metropolitan Park, early evening, 9 October 2005.

. . . you should know that central Texas is experiencing a severe drought. Water levels in the reservoirs that supply drinking water to Austin and surrounding communities have dropped so low that stolen cars dumped underwater years ago are now visible, and farmers and livestock are suffering terribly as a result of the heat and lack of rain. Anyone planning to spend time in Texas's beautiful Hill Country should note that snakes and other wild animals searching for water, food, and shelter from the heat are getting closer to humans than they would otherwise.

Given that sustainability is the theme of this year's annual meeting, let's try to minimize our impact on our host's finite natural resources. Although the City of Austin's drinking water supply seems safe, at least for now, those of us making the trek to Austin should probably make it a point to take quick showers, turn off the faucet while we're brushing our teeth or shaving, and request that our sheets and towels not be changed every day.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

An Orwellian digital preservation challenge

For the past few days, the news media and the blogosphere have been abuzz about's decision not only to stop selling mistakenly published e-versions of George Orwell's Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four but also to delete purchased copies of the books from indvidual users' Kindle reading devices. Amazon has defended its actions on the grounds that it was defending the intellectual property rights of the Orwell estate and that it had issued refunds to purchasers, but it didn't give any advance warning to users, many of whom were stunned to find that the books had simply vanished from their Kindles.

To date a lot of the media coverage has focused on Kindle users' annoyance, Amazon's PR fumblings, or the, um, Orwellian nature of Amazon's actions. However, as Farhad Manjoo, the consistently top-notch Slate technology columnist, points out, Amazon's actions ought to be of grave concern to anyone interested in the free exchange of ideas or the preservation of cultural heritage materials: if corporations such as Amazon and Apple, which frequently removes unathorized applications from iPhones, have the technical capacity to delete materials from users' computers or other devices, it's highly likely that at some point a court or a government will compel them to do so. In the West, such orders will likely be driven by copyright or libel concerns. In other parts of the world, the desire to limit citizens' access to information will likely be a prime motivator.

Of course, courts and governments have always, for various reasons, influenced what and how materials are published, and publishers themselves sometimes opt to withdraw materials even if they are not compelled to do so. However, as Manjoo points out, our networked digital age opens up the possibility that "in our paperless future -- when all books exist as files on servers -- courts" and governments will likely "have the power to make works vanish completely."

In a paper-based world, the ability of governments, courts, and publishers to make a book vanish is pretty limited. For example, I own a book that was banned in Britain and withdrawn from circulation in the United States. The first version of While England Sleeps, David Leavitt's very good novel about an affluent English writer and his working-class lover set against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War, was well-received when it was released in 1993. However, it aroused the ire of Sir Stephen Spender, who asserted that Leavitt (who freely admitted that Spender had been the model for While England Sleep's protagonist) had plagiarized from his memoir of life in the 1930s and had violated his moral right not to have his work adapted against his will. Spender sued in a British court, and Leavitt's publisher withdrew the book from circulation and arranged to have all of the unsold copies in Britain "pulped" (i.e., destroyed). The following year, a slightly revised version of the book was published in the United States.

By the time Leavitt's publisher decided to take action, it had already distributed 30,000 hardcover copies of the book in the United States. A substantial number of these copies had already been sold, and I found one of them at a secondhand book shop in 1995 or 1996; I still recall my delight at having obtained one of the original copies. A little while later, I picked up a paperback copy of the revised version, and at this moment both books are sitting on a shelf in my living room. I've never systematically compared the two versions, but I could if I wanted to. Moreover, I'm sure that at least a few of those 30,000 hardcover copies made their way into academic libraries, thus enabling people interested in Leavitt's work to study both versions very closely -- or to compare the first version of the book with Spender's writings.

If a controversy akin to that which surrounded While England Sleeps erupts twenty years from now, the court or the publisher might want not only to bar future sales of the book and destroy the unsold copies but also to perform the electronic equivalent of entering my apartment and removing the offending title from my bookshelf -- and to do the same thing to every other person and institution that held a copy of the book. If I lived in a country that lacked a strong tradition of individual liberty, the order to pull the book might come directly from a government censor.

Of course, there are limits to such Orwellian scenarios. Given the wide variation in libel, plagiarism, and other laws from country to country -- Spender's suit likely would have been tossed out of a U.S. court -- digital materials that are destroyed in one country may continue to exist in another. Moreover, as Manjoo points out, file-sharing networks and other clandestine distribution channels will no doubt allow some electronic works that have been deemed illegal -- for reasons of copyright or content -- to survive. However, he is also right that the "anonymous underground movements that have long sustained banned works will be a lot harder to keep up in the world of the Kindle and the iPhone" -- and that the resulting cultural losses will likely be substantial.

Manjoo concludes that, in the short term, people should avoid buying Kindles until Amazon clearly states in its terms of service agreement that it will not delete content remotely or, better yet, divests itself of the technical ability to perform such deletions. That's a good piece of advice. Moreover, he's absolutely correct that what we need are new laws that plainly spell out and safeguard the rights of end users of networked devices such as Kindles and iPhones.

This Kindle controversy also underscores the need for cultural heritage institutions to ensure that governments, courts, and publishers cannot render books, artwork, and other cultural materials non-existent. This endeavor will require work on a number of fronts: advocating for amendments to copyright law that reinforce cultural heritage institutions' right to make preservation copies of electronic materials, agitating for passage of new laws that ensure the preservation of at least a few copies of digital works deemed illegal, and proactive efforts to collect digital materials that arouse the ire of authoritarian governments. A lot of good work that addresses these issues is already underway, but we need to do more -- and to do it soon.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

First harvest

The first cucumber (Picolino F1 Hybrid) from this year's garden, which is larger and more varied than its predecessor, rests in the palm of my friend, neighbor, and fellow gardener, Ron. Summer has finally come to upstate New York.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

New York State Archives RSS feed

The New York State Archives has just launched an RSS news feed that will enable subscribers to learn about events taking place at the State Archives, resources for state agencies and local governments, award and grant opportunities, acquisition of new records series, publication of new guides to records, and and creation of new educational resources for teachers and students.

To subscribe to the RSS feed, simply copy the following URL to your RSS reader:

Or, if you're less technically inclined, you can visit this blog regularly and scroll down to the "New York State Archives News and Events" section on the right-hand side of the screen . . . .

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Capital Area Archivists event in Schenectady

Late this afternoon, about a dozen members of the Capital Area Archivists of New York met at the Schenectady County Historical Society.

The historical society is housed in an 1985 neo-Georgian home, and a modern addition behind the original building houses its library and archives.

Our host, librarian/archivist Katherine Chansky, first led us on a walking tour of Schenectady's historic Stockade District, which sits on the banks of the Mohawk River. The area was first settled in 1664, but all of the original structures were burned to the ground by a French and Mohawk raiding party in 1690. The settlement was rebuilt and quickly became a commercial center: until the Erie Canal opened, settlers heading west had to travel overland from Albany to Schenectady and then resume traveling by ship.

Although the area suffered a devastating fire in 1819, the neighborhood is home to many 18th-century buildings. Two of them, the Hendrick Brouwer House and the Abraham Yates House, may have been built in the late 17th century.

The Hendrick Brouwer House sits at 14 Front Street, and was known to have existed as of ca. 1705. Some of its cellar beams are 13 inches square, and its foundation walls are 25 inches thick.

Although the building has settled a bit with age (look closely at the doorframe), it is sturdy and well maintained.

The Abraham Yates House, which is at 109 Union Street, is a classic Dutch vernacular home; note the street-facing gable end. The portion of the house to the right of the front door is a later addition.

A look at the side of the Abraham Yates House reveals that it has in fact been the recipient of many additions.

Another structure of note is the Widow Kendall House at 10 North Ferry Street. The home was built ca. 1790, and for many years was the home of Annie Kendall, who did a good business selling cakes and ale. The home's facade likely assumed its present form during the early 19th century.

Joseph Yates, the first mayor of the city of Schenectady and the fourth governor of New York State (1823-1825), lived at 17 Front Street; Yates apparently didn't believe in patronage, so it's not surprising that he didn't have much of a career in state politics. Yates's three-story home was built in 1760, and the two-story addition on the left housed his law offices.

The small circular park at the intersection of Front, Ferry and Green Streets marks the site of Queen Anne's Fort, which was built in 1704 and housed approximately 300 soldiers. The statue at the center of the park commemorates Lawrence the Indian, a Christian Mohawk who befriended the Dutch and English and doggedly tracked the French and northern Mohawks responsible for the 1960 raid.

After about 45 minutes, we returned to the historical society for a tour of its museum, library and archives. The museum's exhibits document Schenectady's origins as a Dutch settlement, rise to commercial and industrial preeminence, and efforts to grapple with recent structural changes in the economy. It's a lot larger than it looks from the outside!

We held a brief business meeting in the museum's dining room:
  • Susan D'Entremont (Capital District Library Council) noted that the 2009 Capital Region Archives Dinner will be held on October 7. She also highlighted the CDLC's new CDLC Digital Collections site, which makes available digitized materials held by a growing number of libraries, archives, museums, and cultural organizations, and New York Heritage, a portal to digitized materials held by institutions throughout the state.

Our visit ended with a tour of the library and archives. The research room, which also houses the library, is incredibly airy and inviting. The large picture window in the back of the room overlooks a creek that feeds into the Mohawk River, and the high windows ensure that the space is flooded with light. Modern temperature and humidity controls (which the museum also has) keep the space cool and comfortable for both collections and people.

I didn't take any pictures of the archives storage area, which is located below the library. The historical society is running a bit short on shelf space (what archives isn't?), but hopes to be able to secure the funding needed to install compact shelving.

This was my first visit to the Schenectady County Historical Society and to the Stockade District, and I was really impressed. The historical society may have a small professional staff, but it's been able to secure a lot of community support and recruit a corps of dedicated and creative volunteers. It sits in the midst of a beautiful and historic neighborhood, and it's pretty plain that the historical society and the neighborhood have a close and mutually beneficial relationship. I'm planning a return visit soon.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Catching up: mid-summer edition

Sorry for the light blogging as of late. Between work, helping to plan the 2009 Best Practices Exchange, and getting some stuff done around the house, I've been spending more time than usual away from the computer (which isn't always a bad thing!)

Here are a few things that have caught my eye recently:
  • The New York Times' City Room blog posted a fascinating piece on federal Standard Form 152, which federal agencies use when creating, modifying, or doing away with "standard" or "optional" federal forms (and, yes, there are other types of federal forms not covered by Standard Form 152). Archivists and records managers should ponder the fact that the electronic era has witnessed an increase, not a decrease, in the number of forms in use.
  • Finally, on a lighter note, the City of Vancouver Archives and the Florida State Library and Archives have recently placed digitized moving images on the Web. If you're interested in seeing how Vancouverites amused themselves in the 1920s, World War I flying aces soar over British Columbia, a young Jim Morrison (yes, the Jim Morrison) learn about Florida's public university system, or on-the-job training of Weekee Watchee Mermaids, you're in luck! Seriously, these clips are enough to make any archivist question why s/he opted against specializing in moving image materials.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Best Practices Exchange 2009 Web site is live

The Web site for the 2009 Best Practices Exchange (BPE) went live today.

The BPE is an annual event that brings together archivists, attorneys, information technology professionals, librarians, educators, product developers, records managers, and others interested in the management and preservation of digital information in state government.

The 2009 Best Practices Exchange will be held at the University at Albany, SUNY on 2-4 September. Registration, lodging, and other information about the 2009 BPE is available via the Web site.

Kudos to my colleague Sarah Durling, who devoted a substantial chunk of her free time to creating this very attractive site!

Sunday, July 5, 2009

6 July deadline for Early Bird SAA/CoSA registration

If you're planning to attend Sustainable Archives: AUSTIN 2009, the joint annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists and the Council of State Archivists, you have approximately 25 hours from the time of this posting to secure the Early Bird registration rate of $299.00. After tomorrow, registration goes up to $349.00.

Registration information is available here.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Happy Independence Day!

Fireworks, Empire State Plaza, Albany, New York, 4 July 2009. Friends and I watched the fireworks from the sidewalk in front of my home. Price Chopper, an area supermarket chain, is the celebration's official sponsor -- hence the lighting of the Corning Tower.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Government e-records

On the eve of the 4th, here are a couple of examples of the heady new opportunities and horrific challenges that governments face in the digital era:
  • The City of New York's NYC Big Apps contest exemplifies how a little creative thinking can make government more open and enhance citizen access to government information. The city is inviting software developers to create applications that enhance access to and use of one or more of roughly 80 datasets created by 32 city agencies and commissions. Officials are still determining which datasets will be released -- and are soliciting public comment -- but some possibilities include restaurant inspection data, recreational facility directories, and citywide event schedules. The developers who produce the applications most useful to New Yorkers will get a cash prize, dinner with Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and opportunities to market their work.
  • On the other hand, the plight of Alaska illustrates just how damaging deficiencies in government records systems and recordkeeping practices can be, particularly in an era of hiring freezes and scant funds for upgrades. Alaska officials have announced that, to date, they have devoted over 4,000 hours of staff time (roughly $450,000 in salaries) to attempting to fulfill freedom of information requests for e-mails sent or received by Governor Sarah Palin, who a few hours ago announced her intention to resign from office on 26 July. This unenviable situation is what happens when an unprecedented number of sweeping requests intersects with an electronic recordkeeping system that doesn't facilitate electronic search, retrieval, and disclosure of e-mail.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Stonewall wrap-up

The Stonewall riots erupted in the early morning of 28 July 1969 and continued throughout the next three days. The 40th anniversary of the riots has attracted a lot of media attention, and some of this coverage is of interest to archivists and historians documenting the history of the LGBT community:
  • The Chair and the Maiden Art Gallery held an exhibit featuring the work of Suzanne Poli, who photographed the riots themselves and LGBT marches and parades that were held in the years that followed. Poli is donating her photographs to the New York Public Library.
  • The BBC interviews Martin Royce, who was at the Stonewall Inn when the New York City Police Department raided it and recalls how the riots started.