Thursday, June 30, 2011

Looking for a digital preservation workshop or course?

The Library of Congress's Digital Preservation Outreach and Education (DPOE) initiative has a new online calendar of online and in-person digital preservation courses and workshops offered by American academic institutions and professional associations.

At present, the calendar includes offerings from the following organizations:
  • AIMS Project
  • American Library Association
  • Amigos
  • Library of Congress
  • Los Angeles Preservation Network
  • Lyrasis
  • National Association of Government Archivists and Records Administrators
  • North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources
  • Northeast Document Conservation Center
  • Purdue University Libraries
  • Rare Book School
  • Society of American Archivists
You can sort the offerings by title, start date, format (i.e., on site or online), location, and cost. You can also use this dandy Web form to add information about courses and workshops that your own organization is offering.

Despite our best intentions, efforts to publicize continuing education opportunities are sometimes scattershot or excessively localized. We've needed a calendar of this sort for quite some time, and I'm really glad that DPOE has created it. I plan to consult it frequently and add to it as appropriate. Please do the same.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Archival mysteries

Yesterday, Der Spiegel and Lens, the visual and multimedia reporting blog of the New York Times, published a lengthy, unsettling, and thought-provoking post about a Nazi photo album that has recently surfaced. The album is unusual in that it depicts both Nazi leaders -- Hitler among them -- and victims of Nazi persecution. No one, including the elderly garment industry executive who received it in lieu of cash repayment of a loan, knew who created it, but it documents the travels of a Nazi Party unit responsible for planning mass rallies from Berlin to Minsk and Smolensk -- via Danzig (now Gdansk), Königsberg (now Kaliningrad), and Barysaw -- and to Munich.

The owner of the album, who has pressing health and financial problems, wants to sell it, and he hoped that pinpointing its provenance would increase its selling price. The New York Times, intrigued by the historical mystery, researched the album, digitized some of its images, and put them online in hopes that readers would be able to shed light on its origins; however, they made it plain to the owner that their findings might decrease the album's monetary value and that they would not ask any of the experts that they consulted to furnish an estimate of the album's selling price.

Lens author David Dunlap and his colleagues consulted with staff at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Yad Vashem, and New York University and with professors at New York University and Columbia and learned the following:
  • As even a cursory glance at the well-composed and well-executed photographs reveals, the photographer was a skilled professional. Moreover, the photographer may have been attached to the Propagandakompanie of the Wehrmacht, and this album may have been his personal property.
  • The pictures were taken in 1941, as evidenced by images of a meeting between Hitler and Admiral Miklos Horvathy, the regent of Hungary, in what was then the East Prussian city of Rastenburg (now Katrzyn, Poland).
  • The album contains a number of images of prisoners of war, including several of prisoners who wore yellow Stars of David. Photographs of Jewish P.O.W.'s are relatively rare: in most instances, Jewish P.O.W.'s were swiftly turned over to the S.S. and executed, a fate that almost certainly befell the Jews depicted in this album.
  • One of the images of prisoners is identical to photograph No. 1907/15 held by Vad Yashem's Stephen Spielberg Jewish Film Archive.
  • The photographer himself appears in several of the images, most notably those taken in Bavaria, where he wore civilian clothes. Moreover, many of the Bavarian photographs, including several in which the photographer is depicted, feature an anonymous woman.
In a textbook example of the value of crowdsourcing, the mystery of the album was solved a few hours after the New York Times and Der Spiegel published the images. Harriet Scharnberg, a German doctoral student who is researching German propaganda photographs depicting Jews, recognized the images of Jewish prisoners and identified the photographer, Franz Krieger (1914-1993), a native of Salzburg, Austria who left the S.S. to join the Propagandakompanie in 1941. Dr. Peter Kramml, the author of a book on Krieger's work, also identified Krieger and supplied confirming evidence.

Scharnberg and Kramml shed light on the circumstances that led to the album's creation and, to a lesser extent, its arrival in the United States:
  • Krieger traveled to the Eastern Front in August 1941, and the album documents his journey. He photographed the meeting between Hitler and Horvathy on his way home from the front.
  • The woman in the Bavarian photos is Krieger's wife Frieda, who died in the 17 November 1944 Allied bombing raid on Salzburg; the couple's two year-old daughter, Heidrun, also perished.
  • Shortly after Krieger returned from the Eastern Front, he left the Propagandakompanie and became a regular soldier, and when the war ended he became a businessman. He never again worked as a professional photographer.
  • The album, which might have been among the photographs that his mother apparently gave away at one point, was most likely brought to the United States by an American soldier, but its postwar chain of custody may always remain a mystery.
I strongly encourage you to check out the Lens posts (or, if you're fluent in German, the Der Speigel post, which is available here). The images are compelling and disturbing, and the speed with which the album's creator was identified ought to be an inspiration to archivists and other people seeking to learn more about records that have a tantalizingly incomplete provenance.

We should nonetheless keep in mind the counsel of Marvin Taylor, the head of New York University's Fales Library, who noted before the images were published that the photographs were printed on two different types of paper and thus may have been the work of more than one person, that the album might have been assembled by a third party, and that the photographs might not have been in chronological order: "We think we can get so close to these people [i.e., records creators], but we can’t. They are not the same people we are. We come up with assumptions -- and the material always undermines what we think." Although it's heartening to see an archival mystery solved with such speed and accuracy, we archivists should always keep in mind that some of our mysteries resist solution and that our own assumptions and conclusions may lead us astray.

And if you believe that the digital age will be devoid of archival mystery, let me assure you that, thanks to missing and incorrect metadata, corrupted files, ill-advised migrations and conversions, murky transfers of custody, and a host of other problems, we are on the cusp of a most mysterious age. Earlier today, I was looking through a series of born-digital photographs in an effort to find exhibit-worthy images and started scrutinizing their internal timestamps, which are visible only when the images are displayed at 10 times their original size and which aren't included in the metadata that accompanied these images. I quickly realized that when sorted by file name, these images, which were taken seconds apart and run through a variety of systems before they were transferred to my repository, are actually in reverse chronological order -- something that escaped me when I initially processed these files several years ago. This isn't the first digital mystery I've encountered, and it most certainly won't be the last.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

E-mail management, part two

. . . And now for something completely different. David Stephens's approach to managing e-mail, which I posted about yesterday, is an enterprise-level solution to an enterprise-level problem. What about those of us -- l'Archivista among them -- who just can't seem to manage their personal e-mail appropriately? I've got a couple of personal accounts that are filled with sales pitches, listserv detritus, and other stuff that I really should delete, but I've got generous storage quotas and a finite amount of time. I've also got pretty decent search capability, but the volume of junk is starting to affect my search results. I recently needed to track down a Continental e-ticket and had to wade through a bunch of old Continental sales pitches before I could find it. Urgh.

For some of us, a new service, GiveBackMail, may help. GiveBackMail displays a new advertisement each time a user sends, opens, or deletes a message, and the service makes a small donation to charity each time a user performs one of these actions. At present, GiveBackMail allows users to earmark their donations for one of seven non-profit organizations working in a variety of areas: cancer, education, conservation, animal welfare, people with AIDS, microlending, and victims of the recent tornadoes. GiveBackMail hopes to add additional charities, and account holders can suggest charities that might warrant inclusion.

GiveBackMail users have the option of routing one or more of their existing AOL, GMail, Hotmail, and Yahoo accounts through GiveBackMail or setting up a separate GiveBackMail account; if they opt for the latter, they can keep their existing e-mail addresses and their correspondents will be none the wiser. Users can also the service to post updates to their Facebook or Twitter accounts.

A recent New York Times article notes that GiveBackMail's business model seeks to redirect users' eyeballs: instead of viewing ads served up by AOL, Google, Microsoft, or Yahoo, GiveBackMail wants you to route your e-mail through its servers and to view the ads it displays, and its charitable donations are designed to induce you not only to reroute your e-mail but also to change your e-mail management practices.

The Times article also notes that GiveBackMail is built upon the embedded-giving model that myriad corporations have recently embraced. If you purchase something or do something, a portion of the purchase price or corporate funds (up to a certain amount) will be donated to a specific cause. As Laura Starita points out, we should all think critically about this model, which can render "philanthropy subject to the retail cycle," undermine donor trust by failing to communicate how donations are being used, corrupt the desire to give by melding it with the desire to acquire, and paper over problematic environmental, labor, or other practices. However, if you're comfortable with viewing a few ads, think that the prospect of directing small sums of money to a non-profit organization will motivate you to clean up your inbox, and keep in mind that using GiveBackMail won't make you any sort of activist, then you might want to check it out. Moreover, GiveBackMail supplies monthly statements outlining how each users' donations have helped the charity he or she selected, which ought to help users feel more confident about the service.

I recently registered with GiveBackMail, and I found the process simple. I have only one complaint: I discovered only when I first attempted to register that GiveBackMail cannot be used to manage free, basic Yahoo e-mail accounts. GiveBackMail works only with Yahoo Plus accounts, but there is no mention of this fact anywhere in the "How It Works" or "Features" sections of the GiveBackMail site. I can't determine from the GiveBackMail site whether GiveBackMail works with the free versions of AOL, GMail, or Hotmail.

Undeterred by GiveBackMail's inability to help me get a grip on my Yahoo accounts, I set up a separate GiveBackMail account and plan on using it for a few routine things. GiveBackMail is currently in beta mode, and, as the Times points out, there's always the possibility that Google or one of the other big Web e-mail providers will undercut GiveBackMail by replicating its view-an-ad-make-a-donation business model, so I'm not 100 percent certain I want to make it my primary account at this time. However, so far I've been pretty pleased with GiveBackMail. Its interface is simple and intuitive, and it seems to do what it's supposed to do -- enable me to send, receive, organize, and delete messages and keep track of contacts -- without any hitches. Moreover, at least in the short term, I've gotten better at deleting all those useless messages . . . .

Saturday, June 4, 2011

E-mail management, part one

A few days ago, I attended a Central New York ARMA event at which David O. Stephens analyzed the Top Ten Issues Driving Records Management Today. As might be expected, Stephens devoted a lot of attention to the challenges posed by electronic records, and I was particularly struck by his strategy for improving the management of e-mail.

Stephens noted that e-mail is now the dominant form of business communication: more than 60 percent of electronic business documents are transmitted as e-mail attachments, and up to 60 percent of business-critical information is stored in the messaging environment. However, IT departments struggling to keep e-mail systems operational typically purge all messages after a relatively short time (e.g., 90 days) or force end users to limit the number of messages stored in the system. End users who need to retain older messages must either save them to an "archive" on a local or shared hard drive or print them out.

From a legal discovery standpoint, these practices are profoundly troubling: retaining messages that could have been disposed of increases an organization's legal exposure, combing through individual e-mail archives, paper printouts, or backup tapes is time- and resource-intensive, and overlooking an obscure archive or tape stored offsite can have devastating consequences.

Stephens also pointed out that the orthodox records management approach to e-mail -- having end users match the content of individual messages to a specific records series and organize the messages accordingly -- is, quite simply, a recipe for failure. Unfortunately, too many records managers still believe that end users must be responsible for managing their own e-mail.

Stephens asserted that individual messages fall into one of three categories -- short-term value, medium-term value, and long-term value -- and treating each category as follows:
  • Short-term. This category comprises messages of transitory value. Users should be trained to identify such messages and to delete them from their mailboxes on a daily basis. Most users will have to devote 10-15 minutes a day to doing so, and supervisors should support and encourage this practice.
  • Medium-term. Messages not deleted by users should be classified as having routine business value and should be automatically transferred to an e-mail archiving system at regular intervals. These messages should be retained in the e-mail archiving system for 3-7 years depending upon the organization's resources and needs; 3 years is generally the minimum retention period needed to satisfy legal requirements, but organizations that opt for a more conservative approach may opt to keep e-mail for 5-7 years.
  • Long-term: The number of employees who send or receive messages that should be retained for more than 3-7 years is relatively small, and the total number of messages that warrant lengthy retention is also small. Employees who are likely to send or receive such messages should be taught how to identify them and to either print them out or transfer them to an electronic records management (ERM) system.
As Stephens points out, this approach isn't perfect: some employees simply won't identify and delete messages of transitory value, and some employees who send and receive messages that have long-term retention needs won't consistently identify them and remove them from the messaging environment. However, it is a vast improvement upon current practice: it relieves end users of all responsibility for managing messages of routine business value, relieves IT and legal staff of the obligation to go through backup tapes and those pesky individual e-mail archives, and ensures that messages that have reached the end of their retention period won't hang around and increase the organization's legal exposure.

The only problem that I have with Stephens's approach is its reliance upon technology -- not because I believe that e-mail archiving systems and ERM systems are inherently deficient but because many records managers will find it hard to justify their purchase, particularly in the current economic climate. In the absence of pressing e-discovery concerns or regulatory requirements, governments and a substantial number of non-profit and corporate bodies will no doubt continue to classify e-mail archiving systems and electronic recordkeeping systems as second- or third-tier priorities.

Moreover, in some instances, organizations that see the need for these IT investments may have difficulty finding products that truly meet their needs. Owing to the market dominance of Microsoft Enterprise/Outlook, users of Enterprise/Outlook systems can select from a wide array of compatible e-mail archiving products. Lotus Notes users also have a decent number of choices, but users of other systems have fewer options. Users who are outsourcing their e-mail to the cloud may well be dependent upon their cloud service providers.

I nonetheless hope that records managers embrace this approach and start pressing their employers to make the requisite IT investments. Stephens noted that when we get snail mail at home, we toss the junk mail, put the magazines on the coffee table or nightstand, and place the bills in our "to-do" pile, but we don't put any of this stuff back in the mailbox. Why, then, are we storing e-mail in our inboxes? We need to start asking senior managers and IT personnel this question and pushing them for a better answer.