Monday, April 16, 2012

MARAC Spring 2012: a few tidbits

As promised, here are a few of the interesting snippets of knowledge I learned at the Spring 2012 meeting of the Mid-Atlantic Archives Conference, which was held in Cape May, New Jersey last week.
  • Isiah Beard, Rutgers University Libraries, Center for Scholarly Communication: There are at least 27 commonly used digital audio file formats and approximately 90 codecs that are used to encode and decode various types of audio file formats. The number of digital video file formats and codecs is even greater. (I already knew that the profusion of audio and video formats and codecs is a big preservation problem, but hadn't quantified the problem. Sobering numbers, aren't they?) (Session 1, "Preservation and Conservation of
    Captured and Born Digital Materials")
  • Laura Hortz Stanton (Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts): Arson is the number one cause of fire in archives and libraries, and library book drops are a particular point of vulnerability. (Session 8, "Fundamentals of Emergency Preparedness: Conducting Risk Assessments")
  • Laura Zucconi (Richard Stockton College of New Jersey) and several colleagues are using archival records to develop a role-playing game, Pox and the City, that will teach students enrolled in middle schools, high schools, undergraduate programs, and medical schools about the history of medicine by focusing upon the spread of smallpox in early 19th-century Edinburgh. When the game is finished, players will be able to play the role of a doctor seeking to build up a practice, an Irish immigrant trying to avoid the disease, or the smallpox virus as it spreads from one person to another. Not surprisingly, everyone wants to play the virus. (Session 13, "Digital Humanities in the Archives")
  • Nelson Johnson (author, Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times, and Corruption of Atlantic City) was a member of Atlantic City's planning board and initially began researching the city's history because he wanted to understand how its government became so messed up. After doing a lot of preliminary research, he concluded not only that the African-Americans who worked in the city's hotels and other establishments were integral to the city's history but also that the city's corruption was organic and essential to its survival. The secret to success in a resort community is repeat business, and the working-class Philadelphians who flocked to Atlantic City during 19 and early 20th centuries didn't want wholesome, morally uplifting entertainment. In the words of one of the people Johnson interviewed, they sought out "booze, broads, and gambling," and the city gave them what they wanted. Although Johnson's conclusion doesn't have much to do with records, I kept thinking about it as I walked around Cape May, which is also a tourist town. Cape May's appeal currently centers around its well-maintained beach, immaculately maintained Victorian architecture, civility (motorists readily yield to pedestrians), and generally family-friendly atmosphere. It survives because it gives people -- or, more correctly, a specific subset of people -- the vacation experience they seek. (Session 19, "From the Pages of History to the Screen: The Role of Archives in HBO's Boardwalk Empire")
  • Heather Perez and Shannon O'Neill (Atlantic City Free Public Library): The HBO show Boardwalk Empire has resulted in 75 percent increase in reference questions, and the volume spikes immediately after season premieres. In an effort to meet the public demand for information about the city's Prohibition-era history, the library has developed a Web site that uses the show as an entry point into the city's history and has stepped up its collection of 1920s materials. (Session 19, "From the Pages of History to the Screen: The Role of Archives in HBO's Boardwalk Empire")
Photo: The former Bell Shields House, built ca. 1880, at the corner of Hughes and Decatur Streets, Cape May, New Jersey, 14 April 2012. This massive residence is now called "The Empress." The current owners refurbished the home -- and added a lot of decorative woodwork to the exterior -- with the intent of turning it into a bed and breakfast, but they were so taken with the finished result that they opted to keep to themselves and to their friends and relatives, at least for a little while. Click here for interesting "before" and "after" photos.

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