Thursday, September 29, 2011

A few small changes

I've never been particularly attached to the visual appearance of this blog. When I started it, I simply chose the least obnoxious Blogger template available and made some modest alterations. However, l'Archivista the blog is now a little more than four years old -- which means l'Archivista the blogger has maintained it for approximately one-tenth of her life -- and its baby clothes don't fit so well anymore.

I'll continue playing around with the design of this blog during the next few days, so you might see a few tweaks, quirks, and works in progress. Apologies in advance for any confusion or disruptions resulting from my experiments.

If you're new to this blog (hello!) and would like to see what it looked like before today's design changes took effect, the Internet Archive captured it in April of this year.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Interesting thing

Every archivist has at least one interesting-thing-I-found-in-a-box story, but an unnamed archivist working for the Central Arkansas Library System has what may well be the best interesting-thing-I-found-in-a-box story ever.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Government IT investments

A couple of days ago, the New York Times published an article by David Halbfinger that highlights major problems with a City of New York information technology project. Shortly after Mayor Michael Bloomberg took office, the city opted to allocate $66 million to modernizing the system that manages information about the municipal workforce. At the time of this writing, the city has spent $363 million for a system that does far less than initially planned. What went wrong? According to Halbfinger, who relied heavily upon records requested in accordance with the New York State Freedom of Information Law, several things:
  • The Bloomberg administration was so intent on proving that outside consultants could streamline government that it failed to heed early signs that things were going wrong
  • The individuals given responsibility for administering the project did not have the power to make pivotal decisions and overlooked numerous cost-saving opportunities
  • The administration reacted to an early security failure by giving Accenture, the consulting firm responsible for developing the software, responsibility for defining precisely what the new system should do -- something that private corporations are loath to do for cost reasons
  • City agencies kept fighting over the system's features and functionality -- the city was slow to give a single person responsibility for setting policy -- and Accenture repeatedly made and undid changes as a result
  • Managers realized late in the game that they never wrote user instructions or provided training for staff responsible for using the new system and scrambled to cobble together documentation in the days prior to its rollout
At present, the new system is functional -- sort of. Although most City of New York employees can now access their personnel information online, retired employees and tens of thousands of Dept. of Education paraprofessonals and support staffers are currently not represented in the system. Moreover, at some point the city decided not to integrate management of its civil service system into its new personnel system. As a result, the civil service system that was developed in the 1980s is going to remain operational for the foreseeable future.

This is not the only government IT investment gone horribly wrong. The Bloomberg administration planned to spend $70 million developing CityTime, a modern municipal employee payroll system. To date, the city has spent $740 million, has a system that still isn't fully functional, and has suffered the humiliation of having the feds indict a bunch of CityTime contractors and consultants on charges of offering and accepting kickbacks. Several years ago, the Federal Bureau of Investigation junked its Virtual Case File system, which cost over $100 million, after it determined that the system was already outdated and simply couldn't replace its paper-based records management system. Similar horror stories abound at the federal, state, and local government level. Billions of taxpayer dollars that could have been put to better use have been squandered, and I don't even want to think about how difficult it's going to be to pull archival data out of some of these hideously expensive, deeply flawed systems.

Given the frequency with which government IT investments go bad, it's not surprising that some people -- including several of the readers who commented on Halbfinger's article -- conclude that governments are inherently bad at making IT purchases and that we simply shouldn't expect otherwise.

I don't think that this is the case, and I started writing this post with the intent of articulating a few strategies for avoiding the sorts of problems that the City of New York, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and countless other government entities have encountered. However, upon second thought, I think I'm going to save these ideas for another post, simply because the problems that Halbfinger's article highlights are so fundamental that mere "strategies" can't solve them.

Personnel system project leaders and the Bloomberg administration itself knew that major problems existed and did nothing about them. The rollout of the first component of the personnel management system, which was completed in 2002, resulted in a massive security breach. Staff responsible for monitoring the system's development asserted in 2003 that "no sense of economy, efficiency or value is evident in any area of the project," but no one in a position of power paid any attention to their findings. Moreover, no government official has been fired or demoted as a result of the problems associated with this project.

In essence, what we have here is a woeful failure of leadership. No one in a position of power kept the scope and mission of the project from shifting and expanding, prevented city agencies from issuing multiple, competing change requests, or intervened as the contractor's bills skyrocketed. The City of New York did hire a private-sector project manager who was nominally responsible for keeping the project on track, but he quit after less than a year and has become an outspoken critic of the city's handling of the project. It also hired a human relations expert who was supposed to establish one city-wide personnel policy -- more than eight years after the personnel system project got underway. He returned to the private sector after less than six months in the city's employ.

At best, the Bloomberg administration failed to appreciate the differences between a multi-agency, public-sector operating environment and a single-entity, private-sector operating environment. At worst, it simply assumed that the public sector was inherently incapable of operating effectively and that the consultant would simply do an end run around the dysfunction -- real and perceived -- of the public sector. Instead of tackling the dysfunction head-on and ensuring that the personnel system project remained on track and under control, it sought to take the easy way out and gave its contractor free rein. City of New York taxpayers are now paying the price: the unanticipated $300 million that this project consumed would pay the salaries and benefits of more than a few teachers, nurses, firefighters, police officers, and sanitation workers.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

SAA 2011: Theft Transparency in the Digital Age

At long last, here it is: the last post concerning the 2011 Annual Meeting of the Society of American Archivists. I’m really glad I got the chance to attend Session 705, Theft Transparency in the Digital Age: Stakeholder Perspectives, and my only regret is that so few people were able to do so: Irene caused a lot of East Coasters to leave Chicago on Friday evening or Saturday morning so that they could get home in advance of the storm. (My friend Maggi and I opted to remain in Chicago until Sunday -- a decision that turned what should have been a one-day, fourteen-hour car trip into a two-day, twenty-two hour adventure, but not a decision that I particularly regret.)

This post is going to be long, but the topic of archival security is an important one -- and one that is all too often overlooked until one’s own repository is affected. I work at a repository that recently experienced major theft, and, I urge you not to wait until a theft comes to light and your working life is upended by the experience. Archival security is every archivist’s responsibility.

My former colleague Brittany Turner opened the session by highlighting recent changes in the ways archivists deal with theft: the older view that theft is a shameful thing that should not be discussed is being replaced by a new emphasis on openness and transparency, new technological tools can help archivists and rare book dealers recover stolen materials, and a new conception of stakeholder relations is leading to the creation of a united front against theft.

Travis McDade of the College of Law, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign noted that, thanks to the Internet, archival theft is a growth industry and that thefts of archival materials are now outstripping thefts of rare books. He also stressed that repositories, which often experience the process of criminal prosecution as long, tedious, and frustrating, are starting to explore other ways of taking action against thieves. For example, after federal prosecutors declined to take action against a nighttime library supervisor who was stealing and selling materials from the Kenyon Review archives, Kenyon College successfully filed a civil suit against him. This individual, who was ultimately prosecuted and spent a year in jail, will spend the remainder of his life paying several hundred thousand dollars in restitution. The Mariners Museum in Newport News, Virginia, also won a civil suit against its former director, who was later convicted of stealing materials from the museum.

Mimi Bowling, consulting archivist and co-instructor of SAA’s archival security workshop) focused on the importance of being open about theft. She began by highlighting the damaging effects of sweeping theft under the rug. Several decades ago, Columbia University’s Rare Book and Manuscripts Library discovered that one of its graduate student assistants stealing materials. A search of his home uncovered thousands of manuscript items and rare books, but the library’s director and staff kept quiet because they feared that an influential benefactor would find out and withdraw a large bequest. A grand jury investigation commenced and, as luck would have it, the benefactor was one of the jurors. He was outraged by the library’s failure to inform him of the theft and opted against leaving money to the institution. Moreover, staff learned that the young man had also been a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania and had been caught stealing from the university’s museum -- but no one at Penn ever disclosed this fact. Had his past been known, Columbia would never have hired him.

She then discussed some of the benefits of publicizing theft. When the Edison National Historical Site (now the Thomas Edison National Historical Park) discovered that a board member was stealing archival materials, it called in the FBI, which searched the individual’s house and discovered thirty-three cubic feet of stolen materials. The Edison National Historical Site staged a press event highlighting the recovery of these materials and as a result many collectors of Edisonia came forward and said that they had bought materials from this individual. As a result, many items that might have been permanently alienated from the Edison National Historical Site’s collections found their way back to the repository. (Bowling later noted that, several years after the first Edison theft came to light, a dealer contacted indicated that the culprit was again selling material. The Edison National Historical Site recovered an additional three cubic feet of material as a result.)

Sarah Baldwin, the current president of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America (ABAA), discussed recent ABAA efforts to stop the trade in stolen materials. Members of the ABAA, which has long had a Security Committee, contend not only with theft but also with forgery, credit card fraud, and other scams. There is little or no formal security training for rare book dealers, but no reputable dealer wants to buy or sell materials of questionable status: dealers who trade in stolen materials are professionally and financially liable for doing so.

In order to combat the trade in stolen materials, ABAA now maintains a security blog. Since its creation last year, it has been used to disseminate forty-two security alerts. Repositories and dealers wishing to have information posted on the blog should e-mail or phone the ABAA’s executive director. After the information is vetted, it will be shared via the blog, and the ABAA's Twitter feed and listservs.

Baldwin also noted that in some instances, it’s not easy to determine whether an item has been stolen. This is particularly true of 19th-century and older government documents, many of which entered into private hands shortly after creation. This flow into private hands was seen as legitimate at the time, but these records are now often subject to replevin. Some dealers prefer to donate the materials back to government archives in an effort to avoid remaining at risk of replevin.

Scott Peterson, a collector of original letters of U.S. Supreme Court justices, manuscripts dealer, board member and past president of the Manuscript Society, and a partner in the Chicago office of the law firm of Holland and Knight, which has been involved in a number of cases involving manuscript materials, offered an interesting perspective on archival security.

As a collector and dealer, Peterson has returned materials that turned out to be stolen, and as a board member and president of the Manuscript Society, he has helped to develop policies relating to theft and stolen materials. As an attorney, he has represented several individuals who were accused of stealing or holding materials –in large part because state governments have started trying to get back records that were alienated centuries ago. Many manuscript collectors view replevin as theft, and they are suspicious of archivists as a result; some people would prefer to shred a record than be subject to replevin. (I don’t know how other attendees reacted to this statement, but my heart skipped a beat.)

Peterson noted that the legal doctrine of laches, or “sleeping on one’s rights,” is in some instances a successful defense against replevin actions. If a defendant can prove that a government knew or should have known at some point in the past that a record had been offered for sale or was in the hands of a known individual but didn’t take action to recover it, it has essentially forfeited its right to recover the record.

The Manuscript Society been working with the Council of State Archivists to come up with some sort of replevin policy. It is also working with the ABAA; Mansucript Society and ABAA members are among the first people to be offered stolen materials, and it makes sense for us to work together.

Peterson also recommended reaching out to international archival organizations. The market in stolen materials is global, and anti-theft efforts should also be global.

Peterson then outlined a four-point plan for combating theft: proper security and monitoring, stiff warnings re: prosecution, inventory control, and a reporting protocol for theft (local law enforcement, groups and associations, press releases). Repositories should also be prepared conduct their own internal investigations, monitor the Internet and dealers’ catalogs, and to prosecute and to sue in civil court.

Building upon Peterson’s remarks, Bowling emphasized the need for archivists to get to know local dealers and establish broader contacts. Most dealers are honest, and establishing a relationship facilitates communication in the event a problem comes to light. She also urged reformatting of materials whenever possible. Doing so passively prevents theft by enabling researchers to use reformatted surrogates and provides clear proof of ownership.

During the question-and-answer part of the session, the panelists identified a number of other problems and needs:
  • There is no central clearinghouse for reporting thefts at present, and the reporting mechanisms that exist are not always tailored to librarians’ or archivists’ needs. For example,, which is maintained by OCLC, makes it possible to annotate appropriate WorldCat records. It has fostered recovery of rare books, but archives aren’t using it: the types of materials that are typically described in WorldCat are not the materials that are most likely to be found in archival repositories.
  • Libraries’ deaccession procedures vary widely, and as a result and the presence of an institutional stamp doesn’t necessarily mean anything; a book lacking a “withdrawn” stamp or other marker may well have been legitimately deaccessioned. This is frustrating, and dealers are less aggressive as a result.
  • We are just starting to explore cross-organizational collaboration. The ABAA has worked with the Rare Books and Manuscripts Section of the American Library Association and OCLC on and has explored possibility of having an RBMS security workshop every year, but everyone who has a stake in archival and library security must be able to exchange suggestions, protocols, etc., across professional and organizational boundaries.
  • We have yet to figure out how to enlist researchers in archival security efforts. (None of the panelists was quite sure how to do this, and I’m not either, but it strikes me as an important and overlooked subject: in the wake of my own repository’s theft case, I was struck by the frequency with which researchers were deeply outraged the culprit’s actions. Honest researchers value archives, and they can’t abide people who steal, destroy, or corrupt our holdings. Surely they have a role to play in safeguarding our collections.)
  • We need an online mechanism for disseminating photographs and information about people arrested for or convicted of theft and quieter means (e.g., phone trees) of sharing information about researchers who behave suspiciously but haven’t been apprehended.
Good suggestions all. I really hope that the communication capabilities of the Internet, which to date has proven to be a superb mechanism for facilitating the theft and sale of cultural heritage materials, will soon become an equally superb mechanism for deterring and detecting thievery.

Photo: the main branch of the Chicago River and the corncob towers of Marina City, as seen from the 29th floor of the Hotel 71, 22 August 2011, 9:14 PM.

Friday, September 16, 2011

SAA 2011: Skeletons in the Closet

This just about beats the record for tardy posting, but below you'll find the slides from my Society of American Archivists presentation, which was part of Session 101, "Skeletons in the Closet: Addressing Privacy and Confidentiality Issues for Born-Digital Materials." In it, I outline the current climate in which government archives operate, discuss how my repository responded to two sweeping freedom of information requests, and detail some of the lessons we learned as a result of these experiences.

Personal Privacy and Freedom of Information in the Digital Age: Challenges and Strategies for Government A...

I'll have a post concerning session 705,"Theft Transparency in the Digital Age: Stakeholder Perspectives," up later this weekend.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

2011 Capital Region Archives Dinner

The 16th Annual Capital Region Archives Dinner will be held on Wednesday October 5, 2011 at 6:00 PM.

This year's dinner will be at the storied Jack’s Oyster House in Albany, N.Y. The keynote speakers are Paul and Mary Liz Stewart, founders of the Underground Railroad History Project of the Capital Region (URHPCR). The URHPCR seeks to acknowledge the active Underground Railroad movement in our region, to raise awareness about and stimulate interest in this little recognized and inspiring part of our history, to understand it in its historic context, to encourage the recognition of local historic figures, and to preserve that history.

The cost to attend this year's Archives Dinner is $37.00 per person, payable by check to "Archives Dinner" and mailed to Kathleen Newkirk at 331 Clapper Road, Selkirk NY 12158; other members of the Archives Dinner Committee (l'Archivista included) can also accept your check. Please be sure to indicate your choice of entree: Chicken Tuscan, Herb Encrusted Salmon, or Rigatoni Pomodoro (vegetarian).

If you have any questions about the Archives Dinner, contact Brian Keough (

The Capital Region Archives Dinner is the annual celebration of our documentary heritage in the greater Capital Region. Each year during Archives Month, the Archives Dinner Committee recognizes individuals and organizations which have advanced the appreciation of our documentary heritage in northeastern N.Y. For more information, please see the Archives Dinner Web site.

Friday, September 9, 2011

September 11: electronic records, service, and remembrance

The New York State Archives has just published Ground Zero from the Air, an online exhibit that features aerial photographs, thermal images, and flyover simulations of the World Trade Center site created in September and October 2001. These records were created by EarthData, a mapping firm working under contract to the New York State Office for Technology, which ultimately transferred them to the State Archives for long-term preservation.

I helped to put this exhibit together, and I have to say that the experience was, in some respects, profoundly rewarding. The records document an event of profound significance and are visually compelling (the level of detail in the aerial photographs is nothing short of astounding). I got to work closely with several colleagues whose work typically doesn't overlap with mine, and I am once again in awe of their talent and dedication.

Moreover, all of these records were born digital, and this is the first time that electronic records have been featured in one of our online exhibits -- and incorporated into the Digital Collections section of our Web site. Electronic records can be every bit as haunting, fascinating, and visually arresting as paper records, and it's good to remind people -- archivists and researchers alike -- of this fact every now and then.

At the same time, the experience of putting together this exhibit was extremely difficult. Anyone who spends any time with these records will instantly be transported back to the days immediately following September 11. Magnify one of the aerial photographs of the World Trade Center site, and you'll understand instantly why the first responders who worked there always referred to it as "the pile." In some of the September 2001 images, you can see bucket brigades of emergency personnel removing debris by hand. In some of the October 2001 images, you can see tractor trailers carrying debris away from the site.

As glad as I am that these records exist and are in our holdings, sometimes I had to get up and walk away from them for a while. I wish with all my heart that the circumstances that led to the creation of these records had never come to pass, and I don't think that this wish will ever fade away.

There is, of course, nothing any of us can do to change what happened on September 11, 2001. However, we do have the power to determine how we respond to it. This morning, National Public Radio aired a quietly and profoundly moving story about Father Mychal Judge, the Fire Department of New York chaplain who died at the World Trade Center site. The story featured a substantial excerpt from the homily that Father Michael Duffy delivered at Father Judge's funeral, and I couldn't help but think that we should all strive to live as Father Judge did:
And he would say to me once in a while, “Michael Duffy,” he always called me by my full name, “Michael Duffy, you know what I need?” And I would get excited because it was hard to buy him a present or anything. I said, “No, what?” “You know what I really need?” “No, what Mike?” “Absolutely nothing. [MURMURING] I don’t need a thing in the world. I am the happiest man on the face of the earth.” And then he would go on for ten minutes, telling me how blessed he felt. “I have beautiful sisters. I have nieces and nephews. I have my health. I’m a Franciscan priest. I love my work. I love my ministry.” And he would go on, and he would always conclude it by looking up to heaven and saying, “Why am I so blessed? I don’t deserve it. Why am I so blessed?” But that’s how he felt all his life.
Father Judge knew that service, not self-aggrandizement, is the way to fulfillment and that meaningful work is a gift. The families of many of the men and women who were killed on September 11, 2001 also know these things: in 2002, they began pressing to have September 11 designated a National Day of Service and Remembrance focused on honoring the dead, helping the living, and recapturing the spirit of unity, generosity, and compassion that prevailed in the weeks following the attacks.

If you have a few hours to devote to community service on Sunday, can help you find an organization that could use a helping hand. If you live in the Northeast -- which has just suffered yet another round of catastrophic floods -- your help is particularly needed; if you do a Google search for "Hurricane Irene volunteer opportunities [your state]" you'll find ample opportunities. Of course, there are countless community organizations that can use your help not only on Sunday but also throughout the year; September 11 should be merely one day in a lifetime of service and purposeful work.

I'm going to spend Sunday morning sorting donations at an area food bank, and as I shift the canned goods, bottled water, and toiletries around, I'm going to reflect upon my good fortune: I have a home, my friends and family are safe, and I have work that gives me purpose and direction -- in large part because the archival profession is, on every conceivable level, a service-oriented profession.

I'm also going to think about the most important passage in Father Michael Kelly's funeral homily for Father Mychal Judge:
And so, this morning … we come to bury Mike Judge’s body but not his spirit. We come to bury his mind but not his dreams. We come to bury his voice but not his message. We come to bury his hands but not his good works. We come to bury his heart but not his love. Never his love.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Labor for Your Neighbor

Being in Albany is a little strange right now. Anyone who stays close to the city and its environs could be forgiven for thinking that nothing's out of the ordinary. The bundles of tree limbs that appear on the curbs on trash day make it plain that a storm recently passed through, but that's par for the course for upstate New York in August.

Less than an hour away in any direction, however, life is anything but normal. Irene wreaked havoc in and around the Schoharie Valley, the Catskills, the Adirondacks, and in Vermont. Eleven New Yorkers -- one of them the wife of a recently retired colleague -- and Vermonters died, hundreds of people -- among them a colleague's son and daughter-in-law -- have lost their homes, tens of thousands of others are cleaning up flooded homes and businesses, and many others are largely cut off from the outside world as a result of washed-out bridges and roads. Farmers in eastern New York and Vermont have suffered devastating losses of crops and livestock.

It's increasingly apparent that history is one of the casualties of Irene: historic covered bridges in nearby Schoharie County and in Vermont were swept away by flood waters, the Revolutionary War-era Guy Park Manor in Amsterdam, New York may have to be demolished, and several of my colleagues have helped local governments salvage water-damaged records. All of them have come back to the office visibly shaken by what they've seen.

I realize that Irene's impact wasn't limited to New York and Vermont -- people in twelve states are dead as a result of this storm -- and that several other states are also dealing with severe flooding. However, I also know that a disproportionate number of this blog's tens of regular readers live in the Albany area, so I'm focusing on local matters in this post.

If you want to help your flood-affected neighbors, you have several options:
  • Governor Cuomo is asking New Yorkers to take part in a “Labor for your Neighbor” volunteer effort on Labor Day weekend to assist in local clean-up efforts in the Schoharie Valley, Catskill and North Country Regions. Volunteers will devote a few hours on Sunday or Monday in the affected regions helping people in flood-stricken areas clear their homes of the mud and debris Irene left behind. The New York National Guard and the New York State Office of Emergency Management will coordinate volunteer efforts and transport volunteers. If you are interested in taking part, sign up here. (N.B.: Advance registration is mandatory -- you can't simply show up and expect to be put to work!)
  • If other commitments or health issues prevent you from taking part in Labor for Your Neighbor, you can donate to the United Way of New York via the Labor for Your Neighbor Web page. All contributions will be funneled to reputable charitable organizations serving the affected areas.
  • If you're looking for other ways to help in New York, the Albany Times-Union has posted a list of organizations seeking volunteer assistance (advance registration required!) or monetary donations. N.B.: the list includes a historic site and a public library.
  • If you want to help our neighbors in Vermont get back on their feet, the Vermont indie newsweekly Seven Days has posted a list of ways you can do so.
Please, please do what you can.