Sunday, November 28, 2010

A few tidbits

If you're in the mood for some post-Thanksgiving digital morsels, the following may be of interest to you:
  • The New York State Office of the Chief Information Officer/Office for Technology has just released a new guidance resource, Social Media: Legal Issues for Agencies to Consider, that details how New York State's freedom of information, personal privacy, records management, and other laws may bear upon state government social media content. This resource will, of course, be of greatest interest to people working in New York State government, but it might be a good model for other state governments and for local governments.
  • Jeanne Carstensen of the Bay Citizen highlights both the compelling value of archival film and the challenges of preserving digital video -- and gets great quotes from film archivist Rick Prelinger and digital preservation expert Howard Besser. (The fascinating ca. 1905 San Francisco footage discussed in the article is available here -- with added soundtrack by Air -- and bears watching. You'll see a San Francisco that was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake and fire -- and the tower of Ferry Building, which sits at the end of Market Street and survived the cataclysm -- and discover just how anarchic early 20th-century city streets were.)
  • A donor's perspective on archives: Kathleen Hanna discusses why her papers are now part of the Riot Grrrl Collection at New York University's Fales Library and Special Collections.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving Proclamation of the State of New York, signed by Benjamin B. Odell, Jr., Governor, November 14, 1904. Thanksgiving Day proclamations by the Governor, 1874-1925, series A3286-88. Image courtesy of the New York State Archives.

Just about every American knows the popular story of Thanksgiving: it commemorates a 1621 Plymouth, Massachusetts harvest feast at which both English colonists and Wampanoag Indians were present. The colonists would have perished had the Wampanoag not taught them how to cultivate corn and to catch native fish, and they held the feast in order to thank God and the Wampanoag for their survival.

As turns out, the 1621 feast was not the first harvest festival held in the future United States. Moreover, the holiday's popular narrative has been criticized as a whitewashing of history: it stresses cooperation between and peaceful coexistence of Native Americans and European settlers and erases the Trail of Tears, Wounded Knee, and countless other horrors that Native Americans suffered at the hands of colonists and their descendants. In recent decades Thanksgiving has become a day of protest, not celebration, for many Native Americans.

My own thoughts about Thanksgiving are mixed. I understand perfectly why so many Native Americans find the day repellent. However, I'm also keenly aware that this holiday has acquired multiple meanings. For most Americans, it currently centers around family, food, football, and reflection upon those intangible things for which, as individuals and as a nation, we feel grateful. Although it retains something of a religious/spiritual component, it is comfortably celebrated by Americans of all faiths and none whatsoever. For those Americans who were formerly citizens of other countries, celebrating Thanksgiving is an essential part of claiming a new national identity. In terms of cultural significance and distinctiveness, it is second only to Independence Day.

I'm celebrating this Thanksgiving quietly. In a few minutes, I'm going to start making some bread stuffing -- always my favorite part of the Thanksgiving meal -- and some pumpkin mousse and share it with a dear friend who's preparing some mashed potatoes and other goodies. I'll watch the New Orleans Saints-Dallas Cowboys game (Geaux Saints!), and then clean up the kitchen a bit.

I'm thankful for my family, my friends, my cats, all the wonderful archives and wonderful archivists out there, the Bill of Rights, and countless other things. I'm also thankful for this blog and for everyone who reads my ramblings. If you're in the United States -- or the city of Leiden -- I wish you a very happy Thanksgiving. If you're elsewhere, I wish you a very happy Thursday.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Why you shouldn't become an archivist

There are lots of reasons to become an archivist: a passion for ensuring that the past is adequately documented, a desire to help people find information they need and want, and -- for those interested in working in government archives -- the need to safeguard the rights of citizens and to hold government accountable for its decisions and actions.

However, there are also some good reasons not to become an archivist, and Rebecca Goldman, who blogs over at Derangement and Description (and whom I got to meet at MARAC a couple of weeks ago--yay!) and Amy Schindler have produced a video that trenchantly and hilariously enumerates them.

As Rebecca cautions, this video doesn't provide the whole picture; it's best thought of as a counterweight to all the pie-in-the-sky pronouncements made by silver-tongued graduate school admissions directors. I nonetheless recommend it to anyone contemplating becoming an archivist, particularly at this economically grim moment in time. (Oh, and by the way, if you watch this video and still want to be an archivist, keep in mind that you'll not only be dealing with the voluminous paper records of the postwar era but also with the burgeoning electronic records of the digital age. Enjoy!)

I also recommend it to archivists who have the immense good fortune of having reasonably secure employment and extensive professional networks. It's all too easy for those of us who have somehow managed to establish ourselves to avoid thinking about how our profession looks to those going from contract job to contract job, working as technicians despite having mad archival knowledge and skills, or getting out of grad school at a time when the job market seems unremittingly wretched.

Finally, I would be remiss if I neglected to point out that this video isn't the only great thing that Rebecca has done lately. During the dozen-odd years I've been an archivist, I've been moved to tears twice by records that I've processed and once by a post on an archivist's blog. Rebecca's contribution to the It Gets Better Project is astounding, and you owe it to yourself to check it out -- and then share it with your friends.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Archives matter

Yesterday, the New York Times posted an article concerning a Dept. of Justice report documenting the work of the U.S. Department of Justice's Office of Special Investigations (OSI). OSI, which was recently folded into the department's new Human Rights and Special Prosecutions Section, was responsible for initiating denaturalization and deportation proceedings against American citizens found to have participated in the persecution of civilians in Nazi-occupied Europe, and ensuring that foreign nationals who took part in persecuting civilians are denied entry to the United States.

The Department of Justice has refused to release the report, which was written in 2006, in its entirety, but the Times somehow obtained an unredacted copy and has made it publicly accessible; it also created a supplement contrasting the redacted and unredacted versions. For reasons that are completely understandable, the Times article emphasizes the report documents instances in which the United States government gave "safe haven" to people who had been actively involved in wartime persecution or enslavement of civilians; the Central Intelligence Agency, in particular, comes off quite badly.

However, one of the most striking things about the report itself is the manner in which it highlights the centrality of archival records to the work of the OSI, which had a professional archivist on staff almost from the moment of its creation. Unlike other Department of Justice officies, OSI relies not upon interviews and surveillance conducted by law enforcement personnel but upon archival research conducted by academic historians. The report, which discusses not only the OSI's investigative techniques but also the state of and access challenges associated with archival documentation of Nazi atrocities, emphasizes: "Given the advanced age of survivors and questionable value of eyewitness testimony, a[n OSI] case is generally only as good as the archival evidence."

To date, OSI's work has resulted in the denaturalization of 83 people, the permanent departure from the United States of 62 people, and denial of entry to more than 170 people.

One could argue that, in the grand scheme of things, the denaturalization and deportation of these people doesn't mean much: nothing bring back the men, women, and children who perished at the hands of the Nazis or make whole those who survived, and even the youngest perpetrators likely aren't long for this world. However, in spite of the Cold War-era actions of the CIA and other U.S. government bodies, war criminals and human rights violators have no place within a society that values individual freedom and dignity, equality before the law, and democratic governance. We cannot undo old crimes, but we can bring them to light and ensure that those who perpetrated them -- whether in Central and Eastern Europe 60 years ago, in Guatemala 30 years ago, in the former Yugoslavia 15 years ago, or in any place at any time -- do not find sanctuary in this country.

Without archives, justice would be an even rarer thing.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

MARAC Fall 2010: Commemorating the Civil War

Pennsylvania Railroad Bridge and Reading Railroad Bridge, Susquehanna River, as seen from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, 12 November 2010.

Even though, in all likelihood, I won't be actively involved in my employer's or my state's efforts to commemorate the Civil War sesiquicentennial, I was drawn to this morning's "Celebrating the Sesiquicentennial: The 150th Anniversary of the American Civil War" session. New York State just wrapped up a quadricentennial commemoration, and the nation as a whole is a bit agitated at the moment; thankfully, we don't seem ready to slaughter one another, but I think I'm starting to see how Americans might come to believe that taking up arms against one another is necessary and justified.

I'm incredibly glad I opted to attend this interesting and thought-provoking session, which highlighted commemorative activities underway in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Virginia, and Maryland, and I'm going to devote this post to what were, for me, the session's takeaway points:
  • Diversity of perspective and experience will be at the forefront. Barbara Franco (Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission), who served as both session moderator and panelist, set the stage by noting that commemorations say more about the values of society at the time of commemoration than about past events, and, in one way or another, the panelists drove home this fact: Franco, Liz Shatto (Heart of the Civil War Heritage Area, Maryland), Mark Snell (Shepherd University and West Virginia Sesiquicentennial of the American Civil War Commission), and Laura Drake Davis (Library of Virginia and Virginia Sesiquicentennial of the American Civil War Commission) all asserted that their state commemorations would foreground the experiences not only of the white male citizens who made up the bulk of the combatants but also those of African-American soldiers, civilians, and slaves, male non-combatants, women and children of all races, recent immigrants, and other people affected by the conflict.
  • The Web will be central. Pennsylvania, which has a statewide commemorative planning committee, and West Virginia and Virginia, which have official state commemorative commissions, are building Web sites that will serve as portals to information about events held throughout their states, digitized archival materials, and other resources. Many organizations in Maryland, where local and regional organizations are spearheading the commemoration, are also using the Web to drive interest in the sesiquicentennial. Moreover, the Web is also being used to drive citizen participation. All four states are using social media to publicize commemorative events, and Virginia is encouraging citizens to bring family letters, photographs, and other Civil War-related materials to special scanning sessions held throughout the state and to allow the resulting images to be posted on the Web. Pennsylvania, which has incorporated a scanning station into its mobile exhibit, is encouraging citizens to allow scanned materials to be posted to the Web; it's also encouraging citizens to use a Web-based form to tell their families' stories.
  • Visual and multimedia materials are also important. All of the panelists stressed the need to make history accessible and compelling, and several of the mare using audio and video productions to capture the interest of students and adults. West Virginia has prepared a DVD containing several 20-minute video segments and has distributed a copy to every public school in the state, and a DVD designed for classroom use is also a key component of Virginia's commemorative effort. Maryland's Heart of the Civil War Heritage Area is working with an acclaimed documentary filmmaker to produce a 60-minute film and will be involved in a variety of other commemorative film and video projects. Nicholas Redding of the Civil War Preservation Trust, which seeks to ensure that battlefield sites are preserved, noted that his organization has made extensive use of posters and other materials created by volunteer graphic artists.
  • Policy makers want to see economic benefit. Mark Snell emphasized that West Virginia opted to create a formal commission to oversee the commemoration because it hoped that commemorative activities would attract tourists to the state, and Barbara Franco, Liz Shatto, and Laura Drake Davis also noted that their state and local leaders hoped that well-done commemorative events would boost the local economy. They may be on to something: as Snell noted, research indicates that, as a rule, visitors to historic sites stay longer, spend more money, are better educated, and are more likely to make travel recommendations to friends than the tourist population as a whole. (I suspect that people who travel to conduct archival research also fit this profile.)
  • Absence of a state or national commission isn't necessarily a liability. At this time, it is highly unlikely that a U.S. Sesiquicentennial Commission will be formed, and Maryland is not alone in opting against establishing a state commission. Although such commissions can help to guide and sustain commemorative events, they are not all-powerful. For example, the U.S. Centennial of the American Civil War Commission, which was formed as the civil rights movement was at its peak, proved unable to stop numerous Southern states from commemorating the war in a racially exclusive manner; in fact, both Mark Snell and Barbara Franco noted that the current emphasis upon the diversity of Civil War experiences and perspectives is in part an effort to overcome this bitter legacy. Moreover, although federal and state commissions that provide financial and other forms of support can be helpful, local governments and regional organizations can be extremely effective. As Barbara Franco noted, grassroots enthusiasm, not centralized planning, was responsible for the initial success and the lasting impact of the U.S. national bicentennial celebrations that took place in 1976. When you think about it, this observation makes sense: it's a lot easier to channel enthusiasm than to generate it, "grassroots" is not a synonym for "disorganized," and commissions run the gamut from extremely effective to profoundly dysfunctional.
What a great session. I came away from it energized -- I really want to find out more about New York State's commemorative plans -- and a bit wistful: I became an archivist because I had a deep passion for the mystery and contingency of history and a belief in the immense value of the historical record, and at this point in my career I don't spend as much time with records as I would like. I'm more than a bit envious of all of the archivists who are doing lots of hands-on work relating to this commemoration.

Friday, November 12, 2010

MARAC Fall 2010, day one

Market Street Bridge over the Susquehanna River, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, 12 November 2010. The Ionic columns at the entrance of the bridge were salvaged from the old State Capitol building, which burned down in 1897.

The Fall 2010 meeting of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Archives Conference got underway today. I'm offering only a few highlights from a jam-packed and rewarding day:
  • Colgate University, the Rockefeller Archive Center, and Syracuse University are investigating the possibility of developing a New York State EAD consortium, with particular emphasis on assisting repositories that have some EAD knowledge and experience but are having problems with publishing their finding aids and securing adequate technical support. If you're interested in seeing how this project proceeds or in contributing your expertise, contact Colgate University Archivist Sarah Keen at skeen - at -
  • Kathleen Roe (New York State Archives) delivered a great plenary address on the importance of advocating for archives. Noting that we all need to explain -- to administrators, boards of directors, or local, state, and federal politicians -- the value of archives and what we need to do our jobs as effectively as possible, she offered some practical words of advice:
    • Learn the rules of engagement and accept them for what they are. You don't have to compromise yourself or your principles, but you do need to learn how to find your way through established channels. For example, if you're seeking Congressional support for legislation, you simply have to accept that you'll be making your case to the incredibly bright twenty-somethings who run Congressional offices.
    • Archival issues are generally poorly understood, and you need to explain, clearly and succinctly, the value of archives: records safeguard rights and benefits, influence major policy decisions, enable people to connect to family and community history, help to document and correct longstanding injustices, and, in some instances, help to save lives. When dealing with legislators, make the story local -- how do records help their constituents? Have records helped constituents secure benefits to which they're entitled? Are archives attracting tourist dollars to their districts?
    • Archivists have substantial competencies and qualifications that can be of use to legislators and other stakeholders. We can help legislators manage the ever-increasing volume of records that they create and can help all stakeholders care for electronic materials.
    • Don't listen to people who tell you that you can't do what you need to do; just go ahead and do it. You may be pleasantly surprised by the results.
    • Don't forget to state plainly what you want. Legislators, administrators, and board members aren't mind readers.
  • In "Replevin: Pros and Cons," Joseph Klett discussed the New Jersey State Archives' new Document Recovery and Amnesty Web pages, which encourage holders of alienated state government records to convey them to the State Archives without penalty, lists records known to be missing, and lists records that have been returned to the State Archives. Most of the missing records listed are enrolled laws of the Royal Colony of New Jersey (1703-1775) and the State of New Jersey (1776-1804), which were alienated from state custody a long time ago and which have been sold openly for decades; in fact, the listing on the Web site is based upon auction catalogs from the 1950s onward. Making these lists, which have been shared with law enforcement, readily accessible alerts dealers and members of the public to the fact that the listed records are the property of the State of New Jersey. This is a good thing -- after these Web pages went live, several people contacted the State Archives and voluntarily returned listed records that they held -- and I hope other states follow New Jersey's lead.
  • In "Compulsory Candor? Open Records Laws and Recordkeeping," Pennsylvania State Archivist David Haury noted that new ways of doing government business can eliminate documentation of how things are done. For example, press releases, which were once issued and retained in paper format, are now issued electronically -- and even the electronic master copies may be deleted after the releases are posted on the Web. Archivists and records managers have yet to come to grips with the transitory nature of modern recordkeeping.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

An afternoon in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania

Last night, I came to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania for the fall meeting of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Archives Conference (MARAC). The meeting doesn't start until tomorrow morning, so I spent a leisurely morning at the hotel and devoted the afternoon to sightseeing.

Harrisburg is both a small city and the capital of Pennsylvania. As a result, state government is the city's driving economic force and the Pennsylvania State Capitol is the city's signature landmark. This Joseph Miller Huston-designed Beaux-Arts building, which is modeled in part upon St. Peter's Basilica, was completed in 1906.

The main entrance of the Capitol leads to a rotunda that features an impressive imperial staircase.

One of the light fixtures at the foot of the staircase.

The rotunda itself seems dazzling . . . until you look up. The interior of the dome features four allegorical medallions depicting Science, Religion, Justice, and Art, all of which were painted by Edwin Austin Abbey.

Abbey also painted the lunette murals, each of which symbolizes one of the state's contributions to modern civilization, at the base of the dome. The Spirit of Light is my favorite.

Henry Chapman Mercer of the Moravian Tile Works handcrafted the tile floor of the rotunda, which features hundreds of mosaics. Some of these mosaics, such as the steel mill scene above. depict Pennsylvania's industries and workers.

Other mosaics, such as this very Arts and Crafts dragonfly, depict the state's fauna.

I like bats -- they're beneficial, fascinating creatures, and they get a bad rap -- and I was particularly fond of this bat mosaic.

After I left the Capitol, I walked through the State Capitol Complex toward what turned out to be the pylons of the State Street Bridge (also known as the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Bridge), which was completed in 1930.

Art Deco eagles sit atop each pylon, one of which symbolizes the U.S. Army and one of which symbolizes the U.S. Navy. And this afternoon, flocks of pigeons sat atop each eagle.

I kept walking through the complex, and was captivated by the stunning north facade of the Finance Building, which was designed by William Gehron and Sidney F. Ross, built by the Public Works Administration, and completed in 1939. The Lee Lawrie bas-relief in front of the entrance depicts Pennylvania's evolution from a place of nature to a modern industrial state.

In this section of the bas-relief, Justice stands guard over a working-class family.

The mammoth bronze doors, created by Swedish sculptor Carl Milles, depict the state's agricultural heritage and its industrial strength. Above, a detail from the door to devoted to mining.

A detail from the door dedicated to the glass manufacturing.

The main entrance of the Northwest Office Building, which houses the State Liquor Control Board, features an impressive pair of eagles.

A side view of the State Capitol, taken from the north.

This mysterious-looking structure, which could have served an exterior location in the Men in Black movies, is home to the Pennsylvania State Archives. It was designed to house records, but it is suffering a host of age-related problems and is almost completely full. Funding for a new archival facility has been authorized, but owing to the state's fiscal situation, monies have yet to be released.

The Second Baptist Church stands roughly opposite the State Archives. I find its small size and rough-hewn stone appealing.

North of the State Capitol Complex is a quiet neighborhood of consisting chiefly of rowhouses. These homes, some of which are extremely narrow, were no doubt built to house working-class people. However, the area now seems to have been gentrified.

Just a few blocks north of the State Capitol Complex stands the astounding Midtown Scholar Bookstore. Housed in a former movie theater, this place is a scholar's dream. I had a lovely light lunch at the Famous Reading Cafe, which is housed at the front of the store, and then spent a couple of hours perusing the shelves. I walked out with half a dozen books, including a couple of titles that I really wanted to purchase when I was in graduate school but simply couldn't afford at the time. If I hadn't forced myself to stay away from the art books, the damage would have been much worse. If you ever find yourself in Harrisburg, this is one place you won't want to miss.

After leaving the Midtown Scholar, I started making my way back to the Harrisburg Hilton, and passed the State Capitol a second time. The dome, which is covered with green-glazed ceramic tile and topped by Roland Hinton Perry's bronze, Commonwealth, was lit up for the evening.

MARAC begins bright and early tomorrow morning. I'll be posting updates.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Bannerman's Castle

Ruins of Bannerman's Castle, Pollepel Island, New York, as seen from Amtrak train 253, 10 November 2010.

Earlier today, my friend Maria and I took the train from Albany, New York to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where we'll be attending the fall meeting of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Archives Conference (MARAC). The Albany-Penn Station leg of the journey was, as usual, lovely. The train runs right on the western bank of the Hudson River, and passengers are always treated with a wide array of interesting sights, among them: lighthouses, bridges, boats and ships, all manner of waterfowl, the United States Military Academy at West Point, and Ossining Correctional Facility (popularly known as Sing Sing).

Bannerman's Castle, which is located about 80 miles of New York City on Pollepel Island, is one of my favorite sights. Built in the first decade of the 20th century by Francis Bannerman IV, who owned a military surplus business, it housed various types of goods. However, over the course of the 20th century the castle and other buildings on the island fell into disuse. New York State assumed ownership of the island and its structures in 1967, and gave public tours until 1969, when a fire tore through the castle and destroyed its roof and floors.

The island has generally been closed to the public ever since the fire, but thousands of Amtrak Empire Service and Metro-North Hudson Line passengers enjoy a fleeting view of it every day. Despite the concerted efforts of the Bannerman Castle Trust to secure funding needed to stabilize the structure, it's quite possible that the castle will continue to crumble: two exterior walls partially collapsed in late December 2009, and some of the remaining walls look disconcertingly unstable.

At present, however, Bannerman's Castle continues to fascinate children and to encourage busy adults to devote a few minutes to contemplating the fragility and impermanence of all things human.