Saturday, October 31, 2009

MARAC Fall 2009, plenary session

The Hudson & Manhattan Railroad Powerhouse, Jersey City, 30 October 2009. Built in 1906-1908, this beautiful Romanesque Revival structure -- which by night looks as if it could serve as a set for a Frankenstein film -- once powered what is now the PATH train system. It ceased operations in 1929 and has stood vacant ever since, and its owner, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, wanted recently sought to tear it down and build a parking deck on the site. Owing to the determined efforts of the Jersey City Landmarks Conservancy and other citizens, this remarkably sturdy building has been declared a National Historic Site and is on the verge of redevelopment.

MARAC got off to a roaring start yesterday morning: during the plenary session, Ellen Fleurbaay and Marc Holtman of the Amsterdam City Archives discussed the Archiefbank, the repository's on-demand scanning program, and the institutional changes required to make it work.

The archives, which holds a wide array of municipal government records and other materials documenting the history of the city, experienced substantial declines in in-person visitors during the early 21st century; at the same time, the number of visitors to its Web site increased steadily. Visitor statistics are the measure of Dutch cultural institutions' success, and the archives realized that it needed to reinvent itself in order to survive. To that end, it articulated two main goals:
  • In-person visitors will experience the look and feel of authentic archival documents and the pleasure of doing historical research.
  • Everyone should be able to access all archival collections at home at all times.
In support of the first goal, the archives changed its name and logo, developed a new facility in the city center, developed a permanent exhibit, offered evening events and weekend hours. It also transformed its research room into a wired "information center" in which people were encouraged to discuss their work with others; this idea intrigues me, but the security-minded archivist and the tranquility-loving researcher within me have a few doubts.

In support of the second, it radically expanded its digitization program. The archives holds more than 20 miles of records -- which would take an estimated 406 years to scan -- but quickly realized that it should first focus on its most heavily used documents.

It also developed a stunning new program that allows users to request scanning of specific her records. Online researchers scan the EAD-encoded finding aids in the Archiefbank, and with a simple click of a button request scanning of specific records. The Archiefbank then generates an order number that is used to track the order throughout the scanning process and to generate file names for the scans. Staff retrieve the records, quickly examine them for copyright and preservation issues, and do some minimal prep work (e.g., removing staples), then convey the materials to a scanning vendor. The resulting images are added to the archives' electronic repository, and are then transferred to its Web site. The requester then purchases the scans s/he wants; if a researcher wants materials that have already been scanned and added to the archives' Web site, he or she can do so instantly. The more scans one purchases, the lower the cost per scan.

The archives aims for a turnaround time of 2-3 weeks and a total of 10,000 scans per week. A distinctive mix of circumstance and policy makes this prodigious activity possible:
  • Dutch law. There is no fee for consulting original records or viewing digital images at the archives, but charges for reproduction are allowed, so the archives can assess fees for scanning materials for online researchers -- and the archives has carefully calibrated its fees so that it breaks even.
  • Focus on legibility, not preservation-quality scanning. Instead of the high-resolution TIFFs produced for preservation/conservation purposes, on-demand scans are created as low-resolution JPEGs. This policy dramatically reduces the archives' storage costs: the cost of storing 1 TB of 300 dpi TIFFs in a digital repository with remote backup is $7,000 per year, and but that of storing equivalent 200 dpi JPEG 4 images is $77.
  • Emphasis on high volume. The archives' in-house scanning facilities support preservation/conservation scanning, and on-demand scanning is outsourced. In order to reduce the amount of manual processing needed, the archives scans entire files, not individual documents; researchers pay only for those scans that they want.
  • An efficient back-office operation. The archives has developed a barcode-driven management system that enables staff to identify precisely where each group of records slated for scanning is located and which current and succeeding tasks are to be performed on each group.
  • A well-developed IT infrastructure. Although Fleurbaay and Holtman didn't emphasize this point, it's pretty evident that without robust and seamlessly integrated systems, high-volume on-demand scanning wouldn't be possible. Image ordering and purchasing functionality meshes neatly with the archives' EAD finding aids, and the archives' document viewer has a built-in filter that enables users to increase contrast -- a real help when inks have faded over time.
Everyone present was wowed by the Amsterdam City Archives' efforts, which by every measure are a rousing success: visits to the repository have increased five-fold, 15,000 registered online users have requested scans, and after two years of high-volume scanning more than 7 million images are available online.

I have the feeling that just about everyone who attended this presentation is going to devote a lot of time to thinking about their repositories can emulate the example set by the Amsterdam City Archives. Most of us probably won't be able to establish programs as sophisticated or as large as that of the Amsterdam City Archives -- because we lack the needed IT infrastructure, hold tons of copyrighted or restricted materials, or work in government archives that are legally barred from charging for online access -- but many of us will likely reassess some of our digitization practices and priorities. And that's a good thing.

Friday, October 30, 2009

MARAC Fall 2009, day one

Midtown Manhattan, as seen from the Newport, Jersey City esplanade, 30 October 2009, 9:35 PM.

Today was a really full day: Ellen Fleurbaay and Marc Holtman of the Amsterdam City Archives delivered a knockout plenary presentation about their repository's on-demand scanning program, I attended a great session focusing on new developments relating to Encoded Archival Description, and a poignant and informative session about new challenges to the survival of personal papers.

I took part in a morning session relating to acquiring and providing access to electronic records. My co-presenters, Ricc Ferrante from the Smithsonian Institution Archives and Mark Wolfe from the University at Albany's M.E. Grenander Department of Special Collections and Archives, did a great job. I was also pretty pleased about how my session turned out, even though I started coming down with a cold yesterday and darn near lost my voice midway through my presentation.

Owing to said cold, I'm turning in early. Look for after-the-fact recaps over the next few days . . . .

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Greetings from Jersey City

View from the 10th floor, Westin Jersey City Newport, 29 October 2009

The Mid-Atlantic Regional Archives Conference (MARAC) is holding its Fall 2009 Meeting here in Jersey City, so a couple of colleagues and I took the train from Albany yesterday. My colleagues took an excellent tour of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, and I was supposed to tour the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and Trinity Church. Unfortunately, I messed up my back last week, and my doctor and physical therapist told me to resume activity gradually and to avoid overexerting myself.

However, they also told me not to baby myself too much, so I did explore the immediate area around the conference hotel, the Westin Jersey City Newport.

The Newport neighborhood, a large, modern "mixed use community," sits on the western bank of the Hudson River. As the sign above notes, the area has a lengthy and storied history. For much of the 19th and 20th centuries, the area was home to a mammoth Erie-Lackawanna Railroad yard, warehouses, and port facilities that facilitated the transfer of goods to and from the trains. From the 1950s onward, the completion of the Interstate Highway System and the resulting competition from trucks rendered the rail yard redundant, and the area fell into decline. By the 1970s, it was generally abandoned. It was redeveloped in the 1980s, and it's now home to carefully planned mix of apartment towers, office buildings, retail outlets, eateries, and green space.

It's a little too new for my taste: apart from the buildings of the Newport Yacht Club and Marina and ventilation towers for the Holland Tunnel, none of the buildings are more than 30 years old. However, I can see why people want to live here. It's a very walkable neighborhood, and it's surprisingly tranquil.

It also has spectacular views of western Manhattan, and Newport's developers have capitalized upon the setting by building a six-mile long esplanade along the river. I ate lunch while sitting on one of the many benches that line the esplanade, and was treated to a stellar view of a Holland Tunnel ventilation tower, the Empire State Building, and the Chrysler Building.

I could also see (most of) the Manhattan Municipal Building and, of course, the boats and ships that were traveling up and down the river. During my time on the esplanade, I saw large, ocean-going vessels, commuter and tourist ferries, and even a few kayakers enjoying a sunny fall day on the river.

Some parts of the esplanade are particularly picturesque . . . even if the lighthouse is a recent decorative addition.

Many people choose to live in Newport because it is a transportation hub. Ferry service at the Hoboken Terminal is readily accessible via the esplanade, and PATH, New Jersey Transit, and Hudson-Bergen Light Rail trains also serve the area. Given the plethora of stores and essential services within walking distance and the wealth of available public transportation options, one really doesn't need a car.

And, of course, Newport's inhabitants look out their windows and see sights like this . . . .

Friday, October 23, 2009

Archives and Web 2.0

Here's a tasty tidbit: Library Journal has a great overview of a recent Association of Research Libraries (ARL) and the Coalition for Networked Information (CNI) session on the pluses and minuses of adding digitized archival material to Wikipedia and other popular Web 2.0 sites.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Metro NYC ARMA presentation on electronic signatures

Remember electronic signatures? In the late 90's and early 00's, there was a tsunami of legislative and standards-making activity centering upon them, and records managers, archivists, IT professionals, elected officials, attorneys, and others spent a lot of time grappling with signature-related issues; one of my colleagues was pretty heavily involved in New York State's efforts to develop workable electronic signature practices and policies.

However, all of this activity has led to . . . not much. Who uses electronic signatures these days? Does anyone even think about them anymore? If you're curious about how this situation came to pass and will be in New York City this Thursday, you can find out: at the October meeting of the Metro NYC Chapter of ARMA, Jean-François Blanchette (Department of Information Studies, University of California, Los Angeles) "will investigate this failure to perform through an exploration of issues of risk, liability, proof, evidence, and user friendliness . . . with specific attention to the thorny issue of retention."

The meeting will be held on Thursday, 22 October 2009, at the Muse Hotel, 130 West 46th Street, New York, New York, from 5:30-8:00 PM. Online registration is available, and registration must be completed no later than 21 October 2009 (i.e., tomorrow!) NB: there is a registration fee of $52.00 for chapter members and $65.00 for non-members.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Whither autumn?

Looking eastward into Berkshire County, Massachusetts, from Petersburgh Pass, State Route 2, Rensselaer County, New York, late afternoon, 16 October 2009.

At least in this part of the United States, autumn seems to have joined spring in the Land of the Fugitive Seasons. Temperatures in the Northeast have been about 10 degrees below average, it's currently snowing in southern Vermont and New Hampshire, and Albany may see a few flurries later today. Why do I have the feeling that winter will be the one season that opts to stick around for a very long time?

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Government archives and records in the news

Sorry about the light posting over the past couple of weeks. Between being under the weather for most of last week and getting ready to go on vacation later this week, a few things -- blog included -- have fallen between the cracks. Posting will probably continue to be light until the second half of next week, but I'll do what I can.

In the meantime, this trio of stories concerning various state archives may be of interest to you:
  • Alaska Governor Sarah Palin has left office, but year-old public records requests for her e-mail are still outstanding. Alaska Democrats are starting to suspect that officials responsible for filling the request are stalling for some reason, but officials in charge of responding to the requests state that the delay is due to the staggering size of the requests and the state's limited resources. My own $.02: I'm really inclined to believe the officials. Given the fiscal climate, the generally wretched state of e-mail management within the public (and private) sector, and the unprecedented size and scope of the requests, they've got to be completely overwhelmed. And here's another $.02 for good measure: until governments do a better job of managing e-mail, requests of this nature will eat up a steadily increasing percentage of staff time and other resources.
  • California now has a replevin law! Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed the bill, which was sponsored by Assemblymember Bill Monning, into law on the evening of 11 October. The legislation allows the Secretary of State, in consultation with the State Archivist, to take action to recover any "public record belonging to a state or a local agency . . . in the possession of a person, organization, or institution not authorized by law to possess the record.: Archival repositories that follow Society of American Archivists guidelines for managing and preserving historical records and observe state laws concerning access to public records are exempt from the provisions of this legislation, which is intended to protect records that may otherwise be lost to Californians.
  • The Indiana State Archives has a very, very leaky roof, and, owing to the state's fiscal situation, the problem likely won't be fixed anytime soon. My heart goes out to my Indiana colleagues: they're dealing with this terrible situation as best they can, and being the subject of this sort of news coverage is never pleasant. However, sometimes a little attention from the Fourth Estate is the spur to legislative and executive branch action -- which is why I'm drawing your attention to these stories. If you live in Indiana, please contact your legislators and Governor Mitch Daniels and request that they act before disaster strikes.
And here's a federal-level tidbit. David Ferriero, who has been nominated to serve as the next Archivist of the United States, recently completed a pre-hearing questionnaire at the request of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. The questionnaire is now available online, and Ferriero's statements concerning the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration's Electronic Records Archives program and electronic records generally are pretty interesting. (A sweeping tip o' the hat to the indefatigable Kate T. over at ArchivesNext for finding this document!)

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Capital Area Archivists FDR Library-CIA Library visit

On Friday, about twenty members of the Capital Area Archivists of New York (CAA) toured two repositories in Hyde Park, New York: the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum and the Hilton Library at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA).

We began our tour at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum. President Roosevelt was the first president to establish a library, and the manner in which he created it -- privately raising funds for construction of the facility and then donating the building and grounds to the federal government so that the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration could operate it -- established the model (now being re-examined) for the creation and maintenance of presidential libraries.

FDR himself designed the building, which is modeled upon the fieldstone houses that Dutch colonists and their descendants built in the mid- and lower Hudson Valley during the 17th and 18th centuries.

The FDR Library opened in 1941, and to date it is the only presidential library in which a sitting president has worked. President Roosevelt's study is now part of the museum that occupies most of the first floor of the building. The desk in the far corner of the room is an approximate replica (one of FDR's sons took possession of the original desk in 1945), but the rest of the furniture -- including the wheelchair fitted with an amber glass ashtray -- belonged to FDR.

Supervisory Archivist Bob Clark gave us a tour of the library's stacks. Although it's kind of hard to tell from the image above, the design of the stacks reflects one of FDR's abiding passions: the U.S. Navy. The "mid-deck" floor on which many of the archival records are stored was designed to look like the interior of a ship: most of the surfaces are painted battleship gray, the metal support beams running along the ceiling resemble those found on ships, and narrow metal staircases connect the mid-deck and other floors.

The design of the stacks also reflects a more practical concern: FDR made sure that the aisles were wide enough to accommodate his wheelchair. The aisles are now narrower than they were in FDR's day -- the records were rehoused in modern archival boxes a few decades ago, and the new boxes are larger than the old ones -- but the fact remains that the FDR Library is likely the first federal building to be designed with accessibility in mind.

Clark allowed us to take a look at a few of the repository's treasures, including the draft of President Roosevelt's 8 December 1941 address to Congress requesting a declaration of war against Japan. The manuscript edits are in FDR's own hand. If you look at the top right of the image above, you'll see he changed " a date which will live in world history" to "a date which will live in infamy."

The FDR Library is still the most heavily used of the presidential libraries, and just about everyone who studies the history of America during the 1930s and 1940s conducts research at the facility. We got a chance to see the research room, but left after a few minutes because a couple of researchers were getting ready to start working, and we didn't want to disturb them.

As you might guess, the research room is located on the uppermost floor of the library. Although it's hard to tell from the photograph above, there several dormer windows within the room, which means that some natural light spills in. It's a pleasant space, and, as Clark pointed out, its proximity to the stack areas means that staff can retrieve records immediately after a researcher requests them.

After we left the library, we walked to Springwood, the home in which FDR and in which he and his family lived while they were staying in the Hudson Valley. It's part of the Home of Franklin D. Roosevelt National Historic Site, which is administered by the National Park Service.

Photography is not allowed inside Springwood, so you'll need to visit it yourself if you want to see what the interior looks like. If you go, you'll see all kinds of interesting things: FDR's methodically assembled boyhood collection of stuffed birds, his collection of anti-British political cartoons (which stayed up when King George VI visited the house), paintings reflecting his interest in sailing and the U.S. Navy, and the manually operated luggage lift that he used to pull himself up to the second floor of the house -- no mean feat. Springwood is filled with odd corners and little sets of stairs that must have made life extremely difficult for a man who made heavy use of a wheelchair.

After we left Springwood, many of us paid a quick visit to the rose garden, which contains the graves of President Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Fala, the president's beloved Scottish Terrier. As you can see, the rose garden is very close to the library.

After we left the FDR library and historic site, we made the quick drive to the CIA. Christine Crawford-Oppenheimer, who was initially hired as the institution's archivist and is also its reference librarian, met us in the lobby of the Conrad N. Hilton Library and answered many of our questions about the school, which occupies a former Jesuit novitiate and is the oldest culinary school in the United States.

She then took us on a tour of the school's archival and rare book collections, which are small but extremely interesting: the Hilton Library holds a substantial number of rare books concerning food and cookery and holds a large number of restaurant, train, and ship menus dating back to 1823. Some of the older menus have been digitized and are available online via the library's Web site or online catalog (do a keyword search for "digitized menus").

Before heading back to Albany, we stopped by the Apple Pie Bakery Café, the most casual of the student-run restaurants on the CIA campus, for a delicious light dinner. Everyone had a wonderful time, and I'm deeply thankful that we got the chance to see these repositories.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Fourteenth Annual Capital Region Archives Dinner

The Fourteenth Annual Capital Region Archives Dinner wrapped up about half an hour ago. Almost seventy archivists, records managers, local government officials, and their significant others convened at the Franklin Terrace Ballroom in Troy, and we had a great time. I always enjoy catching up with friends who work at other repositories and getting the chance to relax and socialize with my co-workers.

The evening's main speaker, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist William Kennedy detailed how an assignment from his editor at the Albany Times-Union -- writing a series of feature articles on the history of Albany -- proved to be a defining moment in his creative life. He was a part-time journalist intent upon getting out of Albany and becoming a novelist, but his work on the series took him to the Albany Institute of History and Art, the Albany History Room of the Albany Public Library, and the New York State Library, and he came to realize that his hometown was an infinitely complex and fascinating subject.

Although Kennedy has made use of a wide array of archival sources, he emphasized the particular value of newspaper archives. He asserted that they provide a unique window into the events and preoccupations of the past and noted that even minor details (e.g., a fierce summer storm that took place in the late 1950s) have made their way into his work and affected the course of his narratives. Moreover, in some instances, they are the best available sources about the city's history; when investigating the death of bootlegging gangster Jack "Legs" Diamond, who met his untimely end in an Albany rooming house in 1931, he found it impossible to gain access to relevant federal and state law enforcement records.

In his wondrously titled 1983 history of the city, O Albany! Improbable City of Political Wizards, Fearless Ethnics, Spectacular Aristocrats, Splendid Nobodies and Underrated Scoundrels, Kennedy described himself "as a person whose imagination has become fused with a single place, and in that place finds all the elements that a man ever needs for the life of the soul." Tonight's talk made it plain that he uncovered many of those elements while sifting through the holdings of archives and libraries.

After Kennedy's speech, we honored two area archivists who have made substantial contributions to the community and the profession:
  • Sister Elaine Wheeler, who founded the Daughters of Charity Archives of the Northeast Province and served as a role model and inspiration for countless other archivists within the Daughters of Charity and other religious orders. Sister Elaine was in her mid-eighties when I first met her, and, like everyone else, I was deeply impressed by her boundless energy and her devotion to her order and its archives.
  • My former colleague Bob Arnold, who, among many other things, established the City of Albany and Albany County's joint archival program and headed the Government Records Services bureau at the New York State Archives. Bob's now teaching New York State history at an area college and is devoting a lot of time to lecturing and writing about archives and New York State history.

The evening ended with a surprise award to my colleague Andy Raymond, who during a 1995 breakfast meeting with Kathy Newkirk, the Bethlehem Town Clerk, and Kathy Sickler, then the Guilderland Town Clerk, first floated the idea of having a formal dinner for records professionals in the Albany area. Fourteen years later, Andy's idea is still going strong: the Archives Dinner Committee is already starting to talk about the fifteenth dinner! Kathy Newkirk, who has chaired or co-chaired the Archives Dinner since its inception, and Kathy Sickler presented him with a commemorative brass bell.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

It's Archives Month!

October is American Archives Month. Archivists throughout the United States will make a particular effort to highlight the ways in which archives and archivists help to protect the rights of citizens, promote government accountability and transparency, capture family and community histories, and make possible new scientific and other discoveries.

Archives Month was born in New York State, which in 1989 designated the first week of October New York Archives Week. Other states quickly started their own Archives Week or Archives Month celebrations, and in 2006 the Society of American Archivists launched the first American Archives Month celebration.

In honor of American Archives Month, archives throughout the United States are offering special exhibits, tours, lectures, family history days, and many other special events throughout the month of October. Information about these events can be found on events calendars and online bulletin boards maintained by state archives and public library systems and, in many instances, local news media. Doing a Web search that combines the name of your state with "Archives Month" ought to generate lots of results.

Looking for information about New York Archives Month events? The following resources will get you started: