Thursday, November 21, 2013

Best Practices Exchange 2013: digital imaging, data management, and innovation

 The 2013 Best Practices Exchange (BPE) ended last Friday, and I wrote this entry as I was flying from Salt Lake City to Ohio, where I spent a few days tending to some family matters. I've been back in Albany for about 46 hours, but I haven't had the presence of mind needed to move this post off my iPad until just now.

I'm leaving this BPE as I've left past BPE's: excited about the prospect of getting back to work yet so tired that I feel as if I'm surrounded by some sort of distortion field.

The last BPE session featured presentations given by Jason Pierson of FamilySearch and Joshua Harman of, and I just want to pass along a few interesting tidbits and observations:
  • Both firms view themselves as technology companies that focus on genealogy, not genealogy companies that make intensive use of technology. They work closely with archives and libraries, but their overall mission and orientation are profoundly different from those of cultural heritage institutions. And that's okay.
  • Both firms have opted to encode the preservation masters of their digital surrogates in JPEG2000 format instead of the more popular TIFF format. They've discovered that, if necessary, they can create good TIFF images from JPEG2000 files and that JPEG2000 files are more resistant to bit rot than TIFF files. The loss of a single bit can make a TIFF file completely unrenderable, but JPEG2000 files may be fully renderable even if they're missing several bits. However, the relative robustness of JPEG2000 files can also be problematic: JPEG2000 files that are so badly corrupted that only blurs of color will be displayed may remain technically renderable (i.e., software that can read JPEG2000 files may open and display such files without notifying users that the files are corrupt. One firm discovered well after the fact that it had created tens thousands of completely unusable yet ostensibly readable JPEG2000 files. 
  • Ancestry has developed some really neat algorithms that automatically adjust the contrast on sections of an image. Most contrast corrections lighten or darken entire images, but Ancestry's tool adjusts the contrast only on those sections of an image that are hard to read because they are either too light or too dark. Ancestry has also developed algorithms that automatically enhance images and facilitate optical character recognition (OCR) scanning of image files. As you might imagine, attendees were really interested in making use of these algorithms, and Harmon and other Ancestry staffers present indicated that the company would be willing to share them provided that doing so wouldn't violate any patents. (I share this interest, but I think that archives owe it to researchers to document the use of such tools. Failure to do so can leave the impression that the original document or microfilm image is in much better shape than it is and cause researchers to suspect that the digital surrogate has also been subjected to other, more sinister manipulations.) 
  • FamilySearch and Ancestry may well have the largest corporate data troves in the world. FamilySearch is scanning vast quantities of microfilm and paper documents and generates approximately 40 terabytes (yes, terabytes) of data per day. They're currently using Tessella's Safety Deposit Box to process the files and a mammoth tape library to store all this data. At present, they're trying to determine whether Amazon Glacier is an appropriate storage option; if Glacier doesn't work out, FamilySearch will likely build a mammoth data center somewhere in the Midwest. Ancestry is also scanning mammoth quantities of paper and microfilmed records and currently has approximately 10 petabytes (yes, petabytes) of data in its Utah data center. 
  • After a lot of struggle, Ancestry learned that open source and commercial software work really well for tasks and processes that aren't domain-specific but not so well for unique, highly specialized functions. For example, Ancestry discovered that none of the available tools could handle a high-volume and geographically dispersed scanning operation involving roughly 1,400 discreet types of paper and microfilmed records, so it devoted substantial time and effort to developing its own workflow management system. Archives and libraries typically don't deal with such vast quantities or such varied originals, and I think it makes sense for cultural heritage professionals to focus on developing digitization workflow best practices and standards that are broadly applicable. However, Ancestry's broader point is well-taken; sometimes, building one's own tools makes more sense than trying to make do with someone else's tools. 
  • FamilySearch and Ancestry have a lot more freedom to innovate -- and to cope with the accompanying risk of failure -- than state archives and state libraries. Pierson and Harman both emphasized the importance of taking big risks and treating failure as an opportunity to learn and grow, but, as one attendee pointed out, government entities tend to be profoundly risk-averse. In some respects, this is understandable: a private corporation that missteps has to answer only to its investors or shareholders, but a government agency or office that blunders is accountable to the news media and the tax paying public. However, if we sit around on our hands and wait for other people to solve our problems, we'll never get anywhere. I've long been of the opinion that those of us who work in government repositories and who are charged with preserving digital information need to keep reminding our colleagues and our managers that as far as digital preservation is concerned, we really have only two choices: do something and accept that we might fail, or do nothing and accept that we will fail. I'm now even more convinced that we need to keep doing so.
Image: the Utah State Capitol, as seen from the 12th floor of the Radisson Salt Lake City Downtown, 14 November 2013.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Best Practices Exchange 2013: movies, partnerships, and stories

 I wasn't feeling particularly well yesterday, and when I walked into the closing discussion of the 2013 Best Practices Exchange (BPE), I found myself thinking I would have a really hard time explaining to my colleagues what I learned at this year's BPE; I loved every session I attended, but I didn't believe that I could pull together any coherent thoughts about them. Fortunately, Patricia Smith-Mansfield (State Archivist of Utah) and Ray Matthews (Utah State Library) were fantastic discussion moderators, and the questions they asked and the insights offered by several other BPE attendees really helped me to make sense of yesterday's events. Thanks, guys!

Yesterday, Milt Shefter of the Science and Technology Council of the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences delivered an excellent lunchtime presentation that focused upon the Academy's efforts to address the digital preservation issues facing the motion picture industry and individual filmmakers. Filmmaking is becoming a digital enterprise, and filmmakers and production companies are facing a host of new challenges: file formats change so quickly that films produced as recently as five years ago may no longer be renderable, video files require vast quantities of storage space, there are no widely accepted preservation standards, and the need to migrate to newer storage media every five to ten years poses a particular risk to files that may be viewed more as products than as works of art.

Shefter asserted that the industry and filmmakers are keenly aware of the need for open, widely accepted standards and a storage medium robust and durable enough to withstand some benign neglect but lack the clout needed to push hardware and software manufacturers in this direction. Even in my stupor, I was struck by this assertion. The motion picture industry is a multi-billion dollar enterprise; surely it has more clout than the archival and library communities! However, I didn't put two and two together until someone pointed out this morning that perhaps the Academy and the cultural heritage community should consider establishing a formal partnership around storage, format, and preservation issues. This isn't exactly a new idea -- the Library of Congress's National Digital Information Infrastructure Preservation Program brought together archives, libraries, the motion picture industry, the recording industry, the video game industry, and others seeking to preserve digital content -- but it's one that merits further exploration.

Immediately after Shefter's speech ended, Sundance Institute Archives Coordinator Andrew Rabkin introduced a screening of These Amazing Shadows, a documentary that traces the development of the (U.S.) National Film Registry, a Library of Congress-led initiative to identify and preserve motion pictures of cultural, historical, or aesthetic significance. Both Rabkin and the film itself stressed that motion pictures insinuate themselves into our collective consciousness because they tell emotionally compelling stories in visually arresting ways, and during this morning's closing discussion one attendee stated that the film left her convinced that we as a community need to identify compelling stories about the importance of digital preservation and to tell them in a vivid, attention-grabbing manner.

I couldn't agree more. All too often, people (a few archivists among them) think that electronic files lack the gripping content and emotional intensity found in paper records and personal papers.  However, electronic records and personal files can be as compelling as any paper document. We're talking not only about spreadsheets and databases -- both of which can be deeply compelling to someone who has a certain type of information need -- but also about photographs of babies and the remains of the World Trade Center site, videos documenting weddings and natural disasters, audio files capturing the oral histories of relatives who have since died and musical performances of world-class symphonies, geospatial data documenting real property boundaries and the location of hazardous waste sites, e-mail messages containing professions of love and evidence of criminal activity, and a whole bunch of other immensely valuable, emotionally resonant, practically useful things. Most people know this on some level, but they don't fully realize just how fragile these files are or how devastating their loss would be.

Several documentary filmmakers are currently working on films that focus on digital preservation initiatives and the loss of important digital content, but we need more effort on this front. I vividly recall seeing the Council on Library and Information Resources' Into the Future: On the Preservation of Information in the Digital Age (1998) on PBS, and this film -- more than any of the readings I did in graduate school -- kept popping into my head as I pondered whether I really wanted to make the jump from descriptive archivist to electronic records archivist. We need gripping, story-driven films that highlight the terrible risks to which digital content is subject and the ways in which we can ensure that important content is preserved. These films must speak not only to archivists and wannabe archivists but to the general public and to elected officials and other key stakeholders. (And Into the Future, which is now available only on VHS tape, needs to be transferred onto DVD or, better yet, placed online.)

Image: Snow on the Wasatch Mountains, as seen from Interstate 15 northbound between Lehi and Sandy, Utah, 14 November 2013.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Best Practices Exchange 2013: Web archiving

I've been up for a long time and I'm a little under the weather, so I'm going to highlight a couple of cool things that Scott Reed of Archive-It shared this morning and then call it a day:

First, Scott highlighted a tool that's new to me: computer systems engineer Vangelis Banos has developed Archive Ready, a site that enables website creators and people archiving websites to assess the extent to which a given site can be archived using Web crawling software. Simply type the URL of the site into a text box and click a button, and Archive Ready assesses:
  • The extent to which the site can be accessed by Web crawlers
  • The cohesion of the site's content (i.e., whether content is hosted on a single resource or scattered across multiple resources and services) 
  • The degree to which the site was created according to recognized standards
  • The speed with which the host server responds to access requests
  • The extent to which metadata that supports appropriate rendering and long-term preservation is present
Archive Ready also runs basic HTML/CSS validity checks, analyzes HTTP headers, highlights the presence of Flash and Quicktime objects and externally hosted image files, looks for sitemap.xml files, RSS links, and robots.txt files, and determines whether the Internet Archive has crawled the site and converted the results to WARC format.

Archive Ready has apparently engendered some controversy, but it's a handy resource for anyone seeking to capture and preserve Web content. Based upon my very limited experience with Archive Ready, which is still in beta testing, I have to say that it might not be able to locate streaming videos located deep within large websites. However, I have to say that it's overall assessments seem pretty accurate; I entered the URLs of several sites that we've crawled repeatedly, and the sites that we've been able to capture without incident consistently received high scores from Archive Ready and the sites that have given us lots of problems consistently received low scores.  If you're archiving websites, I encourage you to devote a little time to playing around with this nifty tool.

Scott also reported that the Internet Archive is looking to develop new tools to capture social media content and other types of media-heavy content that Heritrix, its Web crawler, simply can't capture properly.  To the greatest extent possible, the Internet Archive will integrate these new tools and the content they capture into its existing capture and discovery mechanisms. Capturing social media content is a real challenge (and if I weren't so tired, I would blog about the great social media archiving presentation that Rachel Trent of the North Caorlina State Archives gave this afternoon). It's good to see that new options may be on the horizon.

Image: quotation above the doorway to the library of the Church History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah, 14 November 2013. The Church History Library houses archival and library materials that chronicle the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its members from 1830 to the present.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Best Practices Exchange 2013: advocacy

The Best Practices Exchange (BPE), which brings together archivists, librarians, attorneys, information technology professionals, and other people seeking to preserve born-digital state government information, is my favorite archival professional event. The 2013 BPE, which is being held in Salt Lake City, Utah, began this morning, and today has -- for me, at least -- centered upon advocacy and working with stakeholders.

In the interest of keeping this post to a manageable length and getting to bed at a reasonable hour, I'm going to devote this post to this morning's plenary address. I attended a great session on working with stakeholders this afternoon, but I'm too worn-out to do it justice at this time.

Plenary speaker Bob Bennett, who represented Utah in the U.S. Senate from 1993-2010, offered some great advice for archivists and records managers who work with elected officials or who seek to obtain legislative support for their programs:
  • If you're seeking to acquire the records of legislators, approach them at the very beginning of their tenure, while they're still "blinky-eyed." Appeal to their ego and offer to help them set up their record-keeping systems. 
  • One of the most important things to understand about the word "lobbying" is that it's a constitutionally protected liberty. Every citizen has the right to petition the government for redress of grievances. 
  • Never ask a lawmaker to do something that is not in his or her best interest. Tailor your request in terms of what he or she needs, not what you need, and discuss how you're prepared to meet that need. You can almost always find a way to frame your request so that the legislator concludes that it would be good for him or her to do it. 
  • Be nice. People remember and respond to kindness, and you never know when someone will eventually end up in a position of power. Bennett, a conservative Republican, was able to persuade a liberal Democratic legislator to embrace one of his policy positions not only because he framed the issue in terms that appealed to her but also because, years ago, he had treated her courteously when she testified before a committee on which he served. He had forgotten that she had appeared before the committee, but she vividly remembered his civility -- and the harsh treatment she received from the other Republicans on the committee. 
  • Be mindful of the legislator's overall outlook and pet causes. If your political views differ from those of the legislator, don't draw attention to this fact. Focus on what you want the legislator to do and on how doing it will benefit him or her. 
  • Understand that you're always competing with someone else for money. Don't pick on someone else's budget item in an effort to obtain funding for your own cause. Instead, highlight how wise investment will save money in the long run. Bennett and other legislators garnered conservative support for Medicare Part D, which solid research showed would reduce hospitalization costs, by emphasizing that funding Part D would actually decrease Medicare outlays -- a key conservative goal. 
Bennett also gave insightful answers to a couple of questions that frequently confront archivists and librarians seeking to preserve digital content:
  • When asked how we can get legislators to understand that we need more money just to maintain the status quo, Bennett replied that former Librarian of Congress James Billington came to Congress with statistics regarding the volume of born-digital documents being created and the extremely short lifespan of digital files. Billington emphasized that if the Library of Congress didn't receive more funding, it would cease to be relevant within X amount of time. The library would continue to be a national treasure, but it would not remain a current resource for the nation and centuries of past investment would culminate in creation of a relic. He then asked whether the current members of Congress wanted the Library of Congress to become irrelevant on their watch. 
  • When asked how archives and libraries, which tend to focus on "quality of life" concerns, can make the case for investment in electronic records management, Bennett noted that Vietnam is the worst-documented of America's wars. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara was the most data-driven individual ever to occupy a high-level government position, and the data that propelled his decision-making was stored on open-reel magnetic tapes that can no longer be read and encoded in formats that no one knows how to render properly. Military historians, the military academies, and the armed forces would all like to access this data, but they can't. Don't talk about quality of life. Talk about historical analysis that can inform future decisions and emphasize that libraries and archives ensure that the "seamless web of history" remains intact and accessible to future generations.
Image: Side view of the Salt Lake Temple, Salt Lake City, Utah, 13 November 2013. The Salt Lake Temple, which was completed in 1893, is the largest temple ever constructed by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and is an international symbol of the Mormon faith. The building's style is rooted in Gothic and other classical forms but is unique and deeply symbolic; for example, the six spires represent the power of the church's priesthood.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

More Podcast, Less Process

Well, this is cool: More Podcast, Less Process is a new podcast that features "archivists, librarians, preservationists, technologists, and information professionals [speaking] about interesting work and projects within and involving archives, special collections, and cultural heritage." The first episode, CSI Special Collections: Digital Forensics and Archives, featured Mark Matienzo of Yale University and Donald Mennerich of the New York Public Library and debuted at the start of this month. The second, How to Preserve Change: Activist Archives and & Video Preservation, was released yesterday. In it, Grace Lile and Yvonne Ng of WITNESS discuss the challenges associated with preserving video created by human rights and other activists, producing activist video in ways that support long-term preservation, and WITNESS's impressive new publication, The Activists’ Guide to Archiving Video.
Hosted by Jefferson Bailey (Metropolitan New York Library Council) and Joshua Ranger (AudioVisual Preservation Solutions), More Podcast, Less Process is part of the Metropolitan New York Library Council's Keeping Collections project. Keeping Collections provides a wide array of "free and affordable services to any not-for-profit organization in the metropolitan New York area that collects, maintains, and provides access to archival materials." This podcast greatly extends the project's reach.

Given the mission and interests of its creators, I suspect that quite a few More Podcast, Less Process episodes will focus on the challenges of preserving and providing access to born-digital or digitized resources. I'm waiting with bated breath.

More Podcast, Less Process is available via iTunes, the Internet Archive, Soundcloud, and direct download. There's also a handy RSS feed, so you'll never have to worry about missing an episode. Consult the More Podcast, Less Process webpage for details.

Full disclosure: Keeping Collections is supported in part by the New York State Documentary Heritage Program (DHP), which is overseen by the New York State Archives (i.e., my employer). However, I'm plugging More Podcast, Less Process not because of its DHP connections but because it's a great resource.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

E-records jobs: University of Texas at Austin, Marshall University, OMNITEC

Three more jobs: the University of Texas at Austin is looking for a Librarian III -Digital Curation Services, Marshall University (Huntington, WV) is searching for a Digital Preservation Librarian and Records Manager, and OMNITEC Solutions (Washington, DC) is hiring a Digital Management Asset Archivist. Details below the fold.

Friday, October 18, 2013

E-records jobs: Baruch College (deadline 21 October), Louisiana State University, University of Hawai'i at Manoa, DePaul University

I leave town for a week and the job market explodes -- which is a good thing! In the interest of keeping my posts to a manageable length, I'll post four job descriptions today and will put up the remainder tomorrow.

Baruch College, City University of New York is searching for a Digital Initiatives Librarian (application deadline 21 October 2013), Louisiana State University is looking for a University Archivist, the University of Hawai'i at Manoa seeks an Archivist,  DePaul University in Chicago is hiring a Digital Archivist. Details below the fold.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

NYS Education Department's Office of Cultural Education seeks an Archives Conservation Specalist 1 (deadline 5 November)

I usually don't post non-electronic records jobs, but this one's kind of special: the New York State Education Department's Office of Cultural Education oversees the State Archives, the State Library, the State Museum, and the State Office of Educational Television and Public Broadcasting.

If you're an experienced paper conservator who likes working with amazing collections and cool colleagues and who lives or would like to live in the historic Hudson Valley, the New York State Education Department's Office of Cultural Education would to hear from you:
The State Education Department’s Office of Cultural Education (OCE) is seeking to fill an Archives Conservation Specialist (ACS) 1 position.  Under the direction of an ACS 3, the incumbent will perform conservation/preservation activities for paper-based collections in the Office of Cultural Education.   Collections encompass, but are not limited to, archival holdings, manuscripts, prints, drawings, and maps.  Abiding by the American Institute for Conservation Code of Ethics and Guidelines for Practice, duties will include, but not be limited to, the following: 
  • Examine, treat, document, and house high priority paper based collections and prepare the collections for exhibition;
  • Participate in collections stewardship activities and teams,  including: environmental monitoring programs, including operation of dataloggers, reporting of data, and collaboration with facilities managers and building engineers to improve conditions; emergency planning and response, including staff training, maintenance of supplies, protection of collections from hazards, immediate response to disasters, and evaluation and treatment of damaged collections; stacks and storage maintenance and housekeeping; preservation assessment of collections and recommending preventive and remedial preservation action and maintaining documentation of preservation needs and actions; planning and supervising rehousing and processing activities for selected paper based   collections; preparation of selected paper based collections for reformatting initiatives;
  • Deliver presentations and demonstrations illustrating conservation principles, techniques and results;
  • Provide preservation and conservation advice to government customers and the public;
  • Provide advice, assistance, and training to staff as needed and participate in disaster response outreach activities;
  • Participate in OCE lab management activities, including maintaining inventory of supplies, and maintenance and use of OCE equipment; an
  • Supervise Historic Conservation Technician, interns, and support staff, as assigned.
MINIMUM QUALIFICATIONS: For provisional appointment, candidates must have a Master’s degree in paper conservation, OR a Bachelor’s degree and two years of experience as a conservation technician with duties including one or more of the following: assisting conservator with conservation lab treatments, such as washing, lining and deacidification; independently carrying out conservation lab treatments, such as dry cleaning, mending, or fabrication of custom storage containers; monitoring and recording environmental conditions; overseeing technical components of micrographics or imaging operations; or assisting conservator with preservation training activities.
The starting salary for this position is $41,170 (in accordance with a collective bargaining agreement, this figure is not negotiable). Within approximately seven years, annual performance increases will bring the successful candidate's salary up to a maximum of $52,552. The State of New York offers a comprehensive package of benefits.

As noted above, the deadline for applying for this position is 5 November 2013. For more information and detailed application instructions, consult the position description.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Federal government shutdown: Internet Archive needs your help

Today is the second day that all federal government facilities deemed non-essential have been closed and all federal employees whose jobs have been deemed non-essential have had to stay home. The shutdown has extended -- sometimes in ways that seem to defy common sense -- to the federal government's Web presence. In response to this situation, the tireless souls at the Internet Archive have sprung into action: they're "creating a collection of websites affected by the government shutdown."

At the present time, the only publicly accessible content on many sites is a notice indicating that the site's creator has shut down.

Other federal government entities continue to make large quantities of site content available but stress that the information may not be current, that offices are closed, and that inquiries will not receive prompt attention.

The Internet Archive wants to capture and preserve all of these shutdown notices, contingency plans, and other shutdown-related Web content, and its archivists need your help. If you run across a federal government site that features a shutdown notice or contains information about how the agency will operate during the shutdown, please consider going to the Internet Archive's Government Shutdown Seed URL Nomination Form, entering some basic information about the site and the URL of its home page, and clicking "submit."

If you would like to see whether the Internet Archive has already captured a given site or simply want to check out the collection, Internet Archive has is already making the 2013 Government Shutdown collection available to researchers.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Electronic records jobs: Winthrop Group, Michigan State University, University of California Irvine, Historic New England

Four jobs -- one on the West Coast, two on the East Coast, and one in the Upper Midwest -- calling for three very different skill sets and levels of experience.  The Winthrop Group, an archival consulting firm located in New York City, is seeking a seasoned professional to lead its Information and Archival Services Division. Michigan State University is looking for an early career archivist/records manager to serve as its University Records Manager (deadline 6 October 2013). The University of California Irvine is hiring an earlyish career professional who will serve as its Archivist for University Archives. Finally, Historic New England wants someone with IT skills and, if possible, experience working for a cultural heritage institution to become its Digital Projects Developer.  Details below the fold.

Sorry for the long silence -- and for failing to post at least two positions whose deadlines passed. Much as I enjoy my online life, sometimes the real world takes precedence. Now that things seem to be calming down a bit, you'll probably see a little more activity around here.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Electronic records job: City of Seattle, Washington (deadline 3 September 2013)

I'll publish a couple of additional notices over the weekend, but I'm posting this one -- which escaped my attention while I was in New Orleans -- because the application deadline is 3 September (i.e., next Tuesday) at 4:00 PM Pacific Daylight Time.

If you're comfortable digitizing paper- or analog-based records, relish the thought of building an electronic records management program from the ground up, and live or would like to live in the Pacific Northwest, the City of Seattle is looking for a Digital Asset Manager (follow link and do a keyword search for "digital"):
The Seattle Archives and Records Management Program (ARM) has an outstanding opportunity for an experienced Digital Asset Manager. This is a dynamic program offering a rich resource of historical information on Seattle City government to the global public. ARM is a model for local government records programs and has a national reputation for excellence. ARM is a program of the Office of the City Clerk, a division of the Legislative Department.

The Digital Asset Manager coordinates digital initiatives regarding overall management (production, capture, description, preservation, and access) of ARM’s digital content. The position’s primary functions are to develop strategies for the preservation of digital archival materials, to collaborate with the City Records Manager on development of a City-wide electronic records management solution, and to manage the development of information systems and provide high level management for automated retrieval systems.

The successful candidate must demonstrate the following abilities: communicate effectively orally and in writing; search computerized databases in an efficient, cost-effective manner and to learn new applications as appropriate; operate audio/visual and imaging equipment used in the office. The Digital Asset Manager reports to the Director, Archives and Record Management Program.

Job Responsibilities   

Digital Asset Preservation
  •  Lead digital preservation program and manage and administer the Municipal Archives’ digital repository, including design of workflow, records ingestion, tracking, reporting, and running backups 
  • Research and develop tools and systems for extraction and creation of metadata for archival records, including development of metadata standards, classification systems, and information architecture for internet and internal resources 
  • Provide technical support for systems used in digitizing records, including audio/visual materials, photographs, and maps  
Electronic Records Management
  • In collaboration with City Records Manager, develop, implement and administer electronic records management systems 
  • Conduct research for applicable software systems and hardware needs, analyze system functionality, and serve as co-lead in implementation of electronic records management solutions 
  • Lead technical training in use of electronic records management software, and conduct quality control of system implementations to ensure compliance with City and State standards 
Education, Experience, and Skills 
  • Master's degree in Library and Information Science from an American Library Association accredited institution, History with archival education coursework, or equivalent degree
  • Three years progressively responsible professional experience or demonstrated familiarity with professionally accepted library and/or archival standards of classification, indexing and cataloging, and knowledge of automated records storage and retrieval systems 
  • Expert knowledge of professional records management principles and practices 
  • Experience or training in thesaurus design and construction, and controlled-vocabulary indexing 
  • Demonstrated ability to learn and master new and legacy systems quickly 
  • Training and/or experience in issues related to preservation and management of electronic records 
  •  Knowledge of indexing and metadata standards related to archival records in multiple media
Desired Qualifications and Skills
  • Experience administering full-text database systems 
  • Familiarity with BRS/Search, Open Text Discovery Server, or any enterprise information management system 
  • Experience with programming in Perl and one or more other programming languages 
  • Advanced knowledge of HTML and CSS
  • Intermediate knowledge of JavaScript 
  • Knowledge of professional standards for creating and maintaining a Trusted Digital Repository 
  • Demonstrated skills at successful oral presentations, in training or in public settings 
  • Competency in Windows Server operating system; working knowledge of networking in TCP/IP environment; working knowledge of Windows batch processing 
  • Two years experience with relational database administration, systems integration, and developing and managing automated information systems
The pay range for this position is $38.31 - $40.71 per hour (i.e., $79,684.80 - $84,676,80 per year -- provided that the workweek is 40 hours), and the City of Seattle offers a comprehensive benefits package. For more details, consult the position posting (again, do a keyword search for "digital").

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The French Quarter and the Faubourg St. John

The 2013 joint annual meeting of the Council of State Archivists (CoSA) and the Society of American Archivists (SAA) ended on Saturday afternoon, and I left New Orleans for my parents' house in Ohio the next morning. Now that I've had the chance to catch up on a few things, I can say a few things about the sightseeing I did after the meeting ended. I injured my knee a few weeks ago and have to be careful about overtaxing it, so I decided to take the streetcar over to the French Quarter and explore a couple of historic houses.

My first stop was the Beauregard-Keyes House at 1113 Chartres Street, which was built in 1826 and is named for its two most famous inhabitants: Confederate General Beauregard, who resided there in 1860 and in 1866-1868, and Keyes, a writer of historical fiction who bought the house in 1943 and restored it.  The house is an elevated center hall colonial -- a distinctively "American" design -- and as a result it's something of an oddity for the French Quarter, which remained solidly French and Spanish well into the 19th century. Its design is the result of its architect's rather unusual background: his parents were French colonists who fled a slave revolt in the Caribbean and made the unusual choice to go to Baltimore instead of one of the other French colonies.  As a result, he received his architectural training on the East Coast, where neoclassical center hall buildings were common.

The building behind the Beauregard-Keyes House resembles those situated behind many grand French Quarter homes.  The first floor housed the kitchen, which was kept away from the main house in order to reduce the risk of fire, and the second floor was inhabited by slaves; in some instances, French Quarter inhabitants also installed their teenaged sons in these rough quarters.

I then headed to Madame John's Legacy, a French colonial home built in 1788. This home, which is one of the few French Quarter structures to survive the devastating fire of 1794. Homes resembling Madame John's Legacy once filled the city, but changing tastes and laws intended to reduce the risk of future conflagrations led the city's inhabitants to rebuild their homes in the Spanish colonial, not the French Colonial, style.

Madame John's Legacy, which was named for a George Washington Cable short story and not a former inhabitant, is now owned by the Louisiana State Museum, which uses it as exhibit space. At the moment, the house features an exhibit devoted to Newcomb Pottery, the New Orleans art pottery firm initially established to employ young women who had majored in fine arts at Newcomb College.

Today, Newcomb Pottery's wares are highly collectible.

I spent a little time walking around and admiring the lavish plantings hanging from the balconies of many of the French Quarter's townhomes, many of which feature Spanish-inspired balcony railings, but I have to be honest: the French Quarter attracts more than its share of idiots, and after a few hours of witnessing the various acts of rudeness, cluelessness, and poor reading comprehension committed by some of my fellow tourists, I had had enough.

My knee was holding up pretty well, so I decided to return to Faubourg St. John, a Mid-City neighborhood I visited in 2010 and which attracts far fewer tourists than the French Quarter.

While waiting for the streetcar, I had a little time to ponder the fate of the World Trade Center, which was designed by Edward Durrell Stone and has been vacant since 2011.  The city wants to tear it down, but historic preservationists are campaigning to save it.  I'm not overly fond of Stone's Albany masterwork, but the World Trade Center has a 1960s, Men in Black vibe that I like.

 Once I boarded the streetcar, I had ample opportunity to contemplate the weirdness that is the French Quarter on a Saturday evening. While we were at a stop, we were passed by this bus, which had a powerful sound system that was blasting bounce, a distinctive form of hip-hop that developed in New Orleans. I assumed that it was some sort of chartered bus for adult revelers and was stunned when I realized that it was full of very small children. A few minutes later, a grown man in a Spongebob Squarepants costume drunkenly curtseyed to the streetcar . . . or to the passengers in the streetcar. I couldn't tell, and he probably doesn't remember.

The French established a small settlement in the Faubourg St. John area in 1708, ten years before the city of New Orleans was founded. Travelers who came to New Orleans from the north entered the city via Bayou St. John, which drains into Lake Ponchartrain was connected to the Mississippi River via canal in 1803. The canal was filled in during the early 20th century, and at present the bayou forms the centerpiece of a pleasant residential neighborhood.

The Pitot House, a West Indies-style Creole colonial plantation house built in 1799, is one of the neighborhood's most noteworthy homes.  However, it was not always at 1440 Moss Street: in 1970, it was moved approximately 200 feet to accommodate the expansion of nearby Cabrini High School.  The house is named for James Pitot, the first "American" mayor of New Orleans; Pitot had been born in France, but he became a naturalized American citizen before he took up residence in the city. Other owners of note include Madame Rillieux, the great-grandmother of French Impressionist painter Edgar Degas (who in 1872-73 stayed with his New Orleans cousins in an Esplanade Avenue house located a few blocks away) and Frances Xavier Cabrini, the first American citizen to be canonized by the Catholic Church.  The house is currently the headquarters of the Louisiana Landmarks Society and is open for tours during the day, but staff close the shutters during the evening.

Faubourg St. John is home to a wide array of vernacular New Orleans architecture. Shotgun homes, which are long, narrow, and rectangular dwellings in which all of the rooms are arranged in a straight line, and double shotgun homes, which look like two shotgun homes pushed together, are extremely common.  The colorful home above is a classic Eastlake double shotgun built during the Victorian era; the "Eastlake" in question is British architect Charles Locke Eastlake, whose ideas about furniture design influenced many American architects and builders. 

Next door to the double shotgun pictured above is this bracket single shotgun home; the style takes its name from the fancy brackets supporting the roof over the front porch.  This home is currently unoccupied, and a close look at it reveals why:  this section of Faubourg St. John was flooded when the city's levees failed in August 2005.  Most of the flood-damaged homes have since been restored, but this one is still awaiting refurbishment.

One of the oldest extant houses in the neighborhood is popularly known as the Spanish Custom House; however, there is no evidence that this building was ever used as a customs house. It was built in 1784 and is situated at 1300 Moss Street, and it is a stunning example of Creole plantation architecture. When you look at it from across Bayou St. John, you can sense just how stately it must have seemed to the men and women who traveled on the bayou in the 18th and 19th centuries . . . and are forced to ponder the slave economy that propelled its construction.  The domed structure behind it is the Church of the Holy Rosary, which plays an important role in the neighborhood's social, cultural, and religious life.

No amount of time spent in New Orleans is ever quite long enough.  I really wanted to spend more time exploring the neighborhood -- and other neighborhoods I have yet to see -- but it was getting dark, it started to rain, and I needed to return to my hotel and pack my things in preparation for my morning flight to Ohio.  However, I'm already starting to sketch out the itinerary for my next trip to the Crescent City, and I hope that the Society of American Archivists returns to New Orleans sooner -- much sooner -- rather than later.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

CoSA-SAA 2013: Thinking Beyond the Box

The 2013 joint annual meeting of the Council of State Archivists (CoSA) and the Society of American Archivists (SAA) ended at around 1:00 PM today. I'm feeling a bit crispy around the edges and a bit sad about not getting to see everyone or everything I wanted to see, but I'm nonetheless happy. The sessions I attended were all excellent, and most of the people with whom I spoke were also pleased with this year's meeting.

I particularly enjoyed Session 610, Thinking Beyond the Box: How Military Archivists Are Meeting 21st Century Challenges, which started at 8:00 AM this morning (N.B.: I would be remiss if I failed to mention that I am not a morning person. As enthused as I was about this session, I suspect I didn't catch some of the details.)

I asked to serve as the Program Committee's liaison to this session because I thought it would be really interesting, and I was not disappointed. In a society that has for four decades relied upon an all-volunteer military, it's all too easy for those who don't have deep connections to individual military personnel or to the armed forces as institutions to overlook the size, scope, and complexity of the military and the volume, richness, and variety of the records generated by the armed forces and the personal papers created by individual military personnel. This is a problem: if we're to gather and maintain a documentary record that does justice to American society, we need to give the military its due. As today's session emphasized, military records also help to document other aspects of our history and culture. Moreover, the approaches that military archivists have developed to ensure that the documentary record is sufficiently comprehensive and that vast quantities of electronic records are processed quickly and appropriately ought to be of broad professional interest.

Anthony Crawford (Kansas State University) emphasized the value of military records and personal papers of individual servicemen and -women to scholars researching a wide array of subjects:
  • Papers of medical personnel are of interest to historians of medicine and, in the case of women who served, historians of women and gender.
  • Military records and persona papers also document the history of the communities in which they served. A historic preservationist seeking to preserve a British refugee facility that had originally been a military hospital made extensive use of the personal papers of a Using the papers of a member of the U.S. Army Nurse Corps who had been stationed there during the Second World War.
  • Artwork that appears in military publications and on military posters is of interest to historians of art. Hollywood has often sought assistance from the military, films that depict the armed forces in a positive light are sometimes shot on military bases and use soldiers as extras, and historians of film will find these relationships documented in military records.
  • Historians of food and foodways will find that military has reached out to experts of various kinds to obtain information about the nutritional needs of troops and to supply information about the nation's food supply. Menus documenting the meals served to troops are also of interest to these researchers.
James Ginther (Library of the Marine Corps) detailed his repository's efforts to ensure that the Marine Corps's involvement in the recent conflict in Iraq is appropriately documented. The Marine Corps views command chronologies prepared by commanders as the official record of unit-level involvement in conflicts, but many of these chronologies lack essential detail. Marine Corps archivists devised a variety of strategies to overcome these deficiencies – and did so in ways that will be of interest to other institutional archivists seeking to encourage improved recordkeeping:
  • They assembled lists of the personnel responsible for preparing command chronologies. Recognizing that units engaged in combat had other priorities, they didn't press those responsible. However, they did start sending letters of acknowledgement to commanders, who for a long time thought that the reports were disappearing into a black hole in Washington; the letters also indicated that archivists could help them obtain historical information about their units. Once commanders realized that their reports were being read, their reports became more detailed.
  • They trained captains who attended the annual Expeditionary Warfare School and stressed that command chronologies constitute the official record of a unit's activities: the Marine Corps assumes that anything not mentioned in the reports didn't happen. They also emphasized that the Marine Corps uses command chronologies to set budgets and grant awards and that the Veterans Administration (VA) also consults them.
  • They began collecting personal papers and other materials that supplemented the command chronologies. A friend of Ginther's who was deployed to Iraq took a vast number of photographs and conducted oral histories that formed the basis of an award-winning book and donated all of the materials to the Library of the Marine Corps.
  • They also reach out to visiting groups of veterans and other people. When visitors learn about the archives' holdings, they often donate personal papers or agree to an oral history interview with a Marine Corps archivist.
Joel Westphal, who was until recently employed by the United States Central Command (CENTCOM), detailed how CENTCOM is preserving the joint headquarters records created as a result of Operation Iraqi Freedom. The Iraqi conflict is significant in that it marked the first time in military history that the majority of records (more than 95 percent) were created in digital format, and the joint headquarters records were at the center of the largest single transfer of electronic data from a war zone during an ongoing military operation. At the present time, the records, which comprise approximately 52 TB of data, constitute the largest single collection of electronic war records ever assembled; however, the records documenting joint headquarters operations in Afghanistan will ultimately comprise roughly 150 TB of data.

Efforts to preserve these records grew out of a previous failure: only a small percentage of Gulf War records were ever transferred to the U.S. Archives and Records Administration (NARA), and both CENTCOM and NARA were intent ensuring that Operation Iraqi Freedom was documented appropriately. CENTCOM began working on records preservation projects as early as 2003, and NARA began asking about Operation Iraqi Freedom records in 2009. As a result of NARA's inquiries, a war records group was established and United States Forces-Iraq was pushed to establish a records management program and to transfer its records to CENTCOM.

 In April 2010, a five-day assessment of United States Forces-Iraq recordkeeping practices was completed. Although some of the published findings of this assessment turned out to be inaccurate, its estimate of the volume of records was both accurate and extremely important. The records were then inventoried, and CENTCOM established a technical transfer team and a technology team to prepare for the transfer of 52 TB of data.

On August 31, 2010, President Obama declared that Operation Iraqi Freedom had ended, and CENTCOM focused on copying the records onto a storage array and transferring the storage array to CENTCOM headquarters in Tampa, Florida; a full backup copy of the unprocessed data was conveyed to NARA.

A team of three CENTCOM staffers is currently processing the records and sending those identified as permanent to NARA, and the team's processing decisions will be of interest to anyone attempting to implement More Product, Less Processing to born-digital records:
  • The team was adamant that the original order of the records be preserved at all costs, which saved vast amounts of time; the team can now processing 175,000 records per staff member per month.
  • Millions of the records are e-mail messages, and many of them are of transitory value or are non-record material. In order to speed processing and avoid retaining an unmanageable mass of records, the processing team decided that e-mails of generals, admirals, and colonels who held important positions are permanent and that all e-mails of lower-level personnel are retained for 6 years and then destroyed.
  • The team is working with a document analytics vendor whose tools could weed out redundant or near-redundant records, empty folders and zero-byte files, executable files lurking in data-only directories, and other materials that clearly don't warrant preservation.
One final word about this session:  it was assembled by the Military Archives Roundtable, which was established last year.  I took a few minutes today to read the petition to SAA Council seeking permission to form the roundtable, and it's a pretty impressive document.  I expect all manner of interesting things from this group.

Image: the Beauregard-Keyes House, 1113 Chartres Street, New Orleans, 17 August 2013.  This home, which was built in 1826, is an elevated center hall colonial -- a bit of an odd sight in the French Quarter.  Confederate general Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard lived in the house in 1860 and from 1866-68.

Friday, August 16, 2013

CoSA-SAA 2013: The Web of Sites

 I had the good fortune to attend three great hour-long sessions today:
  • Session 304, Training in Place: Upgrading Staff Capabilities to Manage and Preserve Electronic Records, in which Richard Pearce-Moses (Clayton State University) discussed how online graduate education programs can benefit working archival professionals, Lori Lindberg (San Jose State University) highlighted SAA's new Digital Archives Specialist program, and Sarah Grimm (Wisconsin Historical Society) discussed the educational offerings developed by CoSA's State Electronic Records Initiative project.
  • Session 407,  The Web of Sites: Creating Effective Web Archiving and Collection Development Polices, which is discussed in greater detail below.
  • Session 504, Records Management Training Gumbo for the Digital Age, in which Cheryl Stadel-Bevans (Office of the Inspector General, U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development) facilitated a series of lighting talks given by Jane Zhang (Catholic University of America), Donna Baker (Middle Tennessee State University), Daniel Noonan (Ohio State University), and Lorraine Richards (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill).
However, I'm desperately in need of sleep, so this post is going to focus solely on Session 407, The Web of Sites: Creating Effective Web Archiving and Collection Development Policies drew a standing room-only crowd, and with good reason.  The three panelists represented three very different institutions with three very different goals: 
  • Olga Virakhovskaya discussed how one collecting repository, the University of Michigan's Michigan Historical Collections (MHC) devised a Web archiving policy that dovetails with its collecting policy, which calls for aggressive collecting and broad documentation of the state's history and culture.  In an effort to balance topical importance and the quality of information found on a given site, MHC staff identify sites that are created by individuals and organizations that MHC seeks to document, fill in gaps in its holdings, or contain material that fall outside MHC's collecting priorities but nonetheless warrant preservation and determine whether the sites content that is rich, unique, or new.  If the site meets all of these requirements, MHC will archive it.  MHC, which uses the California Digital Library's Web Archiving Service, stops archiving sites when no new content has been added for three consecutive years; it will also cease archiving sites upon creator request.
  • Jennifer Wright of the Smithsonian Institution Archives discussed the Archives' efforts to ensure that the 257 websites, 10 mobile sites, 89 blogs, 26 apps, and 578 social media accounts maintained by various Smithsonian entities are managed and preserved appropriately.  The archives is responsible for providing retention guidance to creators, maintaining periodic snapshots of Smithsonian Web resources, and maintaining a registry of Smithsonian social media accounts. It has developed distinct approaches to preserving websites, Intranet sites, and social media accounts:
    • Public websites are generally treated as permanent records, and the Archives tries to crawl them annually, before and after major redesigns, and on days of major events.  However, it will attempt to configure Archive-It's crawler to exclude content that is being transferred to the Archives in other formats, is the responsibility of other Smithsonian units, or consists of collections (as opposed to organizational records), or which merely points to other Web content.  Crawls of public sites are made publicly accessible almost immediately after completion.
    • Intranet sites are appraised individually. Given that most Intranet sites block Web crawlers, Intranet content is transferred to the Archives via FTP, hard drive, or other non-crawling mechanism.
    • Most social media accounts are captured once in order to document their existence and show how they are used. After this initial capture, staff reappraise each account annually and recapture it if significant new content is present. Social media content often resists capture, so the Archives uses multiple tools (Archive-It, export tools, and screenshots) as needed.  These captures are not made available online.
  • Rachel Taketa discussed how she created the California Tobacco Control Web Archive CTCWC, a topical collection of archived sites that complements the University of San Francisco's Legacy Tobacco Documents Library (LTDL), which consists of 14 million internal business records created by major tobacco companies.  The archive consists of about 90 sites that were captured with the California Digital Library's Web Archiving Service and complement materials found within the LTDL, but most focus on the other side of the tobacco control movement:  they were created by public health advocacy organizations, anti-smoking campaigns, and sites relating to proposed tobacco control legislation.  A written scope statement that establishes the archive's geographic focus (California and anti-smoking campaigns in the state's large metropolitan counties) and collecting priorities (original and/or unique content found in blog posts, interviews, multimedia, sites of established tobacco control groups, and local government sites).  Site captures cease when a given site hasn't been updated for a year or when a given issue is no longer relevant; as one might expect, reappraising sites consumes a lot of time.
 My key takeaways from this session:
  • Your Web archiving policy should, to the extent that your resources and Web archiving tools allow, align with your main collecting policy.
  • Just as collecting policies vary from one institution to another, Web archiving policies will vary from one institution to another.
  • Given the speed with which sites change and the frequency with which once-active sites become dormant, reappraisal is a must.  However, it's incredibly time-consuming and we need some tools that will help us analyze the evolution (or lack thereof) of site content over time.
Image: traces of a rainbow over the West Bank Crescent City Connection, the twin cantilever bridges that span the Mississippi River, in New Orleans, Louisiana, 16 August 2013. Thanks to my friend S.G. for pointing out to me; I never would have noticed it otherwise.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

CoSA-SAA 2013: 14 and 15 August

For me, at least, the 2013 joint annual meeting of the Council of State Archivists (CoSA) and the Society of American Archivists (SAA) got underway yesterday.  However, I learned an important lesson before my first meeting got underway: if you're in New Orleans in August, always take an umbrella with you.  I left my hotel room about forty minutes before my first meeting began and decided to take a brief walk down by the riverfront. The clouds didn't look too ominous . .  .

. . . until the instant the sky opened and water started pouring down. I spent about twenty minutes sheltering under a stairwell and hustled back to the hotel once the torrent slowed to a light rain.

I spent most of the afternoon in a CoSA work meeting, with a brief break for a meeting of the 2013 Program Committee. All I want to say about these meetings is that a) CoSA is, in my view, the most cohesive archival professional organization in the United States and that b) serving on the Program Committee has been an amazing experience.  Seeing how annual meeting programs are put together is fascinating, SAA's staff is incredibly supportive and efficient, and the co-chairs and other members -- most of whom I didn't know prior to our first meeting -- were just fantastic.  If you're an SAA member and you're ever asked to serve on a Program Committee, by all means do so.

This morning, I chaired a session on cloud computing that I think went quite well; however, it's hard to tell when you're up on the dais how things are really going. At this moment, I'm just glad it's over.

Every Program Committee member serves as liaison to six annual meeting sessions. Before the meeting begins, we answer any questions that session chairs and participants have.  We then attend all of the sessions we've been assigned and help to resolve any audiovisual problems that may arise, walk around with microphones during the question-and-answer component of the session (if the session is being held in a large room), and provide other forms of assistance as needed.

This afternoon, I served as liaison to Session 210, Reaching Out: Building and Managing Satellite Archives, which featured five archivists who work in a variety of decentralized environments:
  • Session chair Michael Everman discussed the establishment of the St. Louis branch of the Missouri State Archives.
  • Tamar Chute detailed how Ohio State University has tried to ensure that the permanent records generated by its five small regional campuses are preserved.
  • Scott Grimwood discussed how the corporate archives of SSM Healthcare has tried to preserve the records of a large, multi-institutional healthcare system.
  • Paul Daniels outlined the origins of and challenges associated with the informal system of regional Evangelical Lutheran Church in America archives.
  • Steve Hausfeld highlighted how the Nationwide Life Insurance Company has used its archives to create exhibits and other materials that build upon employee interest in the company's history and reinforce the company's marketing and branding efforts.
The panelists offered a wealth of helpful suggestions for other archivists and records managers who find themselves working in decentralized environments, particularly when each unit within the organization enjoys a substantial degree of autonomy:
  • Focus less on power and control and more on ensuring that archival records are saved. Be willing to break established “rules” or disregard precedent if doing so will save materials.
  • Recognize that in at least some instances, the records created and maintained by regional or branch entities may help to document local or regional history; if this is the case, there may be a strong case to be made for not transferring them to a centralized archives.
  • Help and guide the regional or branch personnel who find themselves responsible for caring for archival materials. Visit their facilities in person whenever possible, and use listservs and other mechanisms to share best practices and keep lines of communication open.
  • Request that certain types of materials (e.g., publications, photographs) be sent to the main archives facility.
  • Ask regional or branch personnel to create an inventory of the records in their care and to send a copy of the inventory to the main archives facility.
  • Consider digitizing important records so that they're accessible regionally.
  • Be willing to deaccession or transfer materials to branch facilities once they are willing and able to care for them.
  • Be willing to take in regional or branch facility records that can no longer be kept within these facilities.
  • If you are creating internally-oriented exhibits that document the history of a large, complex, and decentralized organization or reinforce branding messages, keep in mind that treating each building, wing, floor, or office of the organization as a de facto branch facility may be necessary; employees may rarely stray from a single facility, building, or floor

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

New Orleans Museum of Art

The 2013 joint meeting of the Council of State Archivists and the Society of American Archivists will start -- for me, at least -- at noon tomorrow. I got into town late last night, and I spent most of the day at the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA).

NOMA is situated on the edge of the 1,300-acre New Orleans City Park, which is one of the oldest urban parks in the nation. City Park suffered extensive damage as a result of Hurricane Katrina (2005), but New Orleanians rallied to repair it.  As a result, the park is once again a beautiful, inviting, and extremely popular place; however, if you look closely, you can still see lingering damage in many areas.

City Park is home to a wide array of trees, among them bald cypress, magnolias, live oaks, and a wide array of other oak varieties . . . .

. . . . And every now and then you find a tree growing in another tree.

 NOMA occupies a 1911 neoclassical building designed by Chicago architect Samuel Marx. A 1971 addition dramatically increased the museum's storage and exhibition space, and the Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden (which I visited in 2010) opened in 2003.

NOMA's collections comprise approximately 40,000 objects.  Although the museum's collection spans the world and ranges from ancient to contemporary works, French and American art are particular strengths.

NOMA allows visitors to take non-flash photographs of works that it owns and which are on display in its permanent galleries, so I'm going to share a few of my favorite pieces.

NOMA has a small but carefully chosen collection of 16th- and 17th-century Dutch and Flemish paintings, and Marinus van Reymerswaele's The Lawyer's Office (oil on wood, 1545) has long been a favorite.  How could it not be?  The documents depicted in this painting relate to an actual lawsuit that was filed in 1526 but not resolved until 1538 . . . by which time the property at the center of the suit had been destroyed by storms.
Jehan Georges Vibert's The Cardinals' Friendly Chat (oil on canvas, ca. 1880) was meant to be at least slightly anti-clerical; the men are sitting in Marie Antoinette's Fontainebleau boudoir, completely oblivious to the upheavals heading their way.  To 21st-century eyes, however, there's something appealing about the contrast between their opulent surrounding and dress and their relaxed, informal demeanor.

NOMA's collection of French and American Impressionist works is impressive, and I was particularly taken by Elizabeth Woodward's Paradise Wood, Beaux Bridge, Louisiana (oil on canvas, ca. 1910).  If I hadn't seen the painting's title, I would have guessed that Woodward had depicted City Park.

Wassily Kandinsky's Sketch for "Several Circles" (oil on paper, laid down on canvas, 1926, draws the eye of every visitor who walks into the room in which it is hanging.  Owing to its fragility, it's kept under glass, and photographing it means photographing a reflected image of nearby works . . . and oneself.

As one might expect, NOMA's collection of contemporary New Orleans and Louisiana art is particularly strong.  Robert Gordy was known for his whimsical portraits, and his Female Head #2 (oil on canvas, 1976) made me chuckle aloud.

Alexis Rockman's Battle Royale (oil on canvas, 2011), seems humorous at first, but it's really deadly serious.  Rockman depicts fifty-four native and invasive species fighting for dominance in a Louisiana swamp.  Non-native plants and animals -- some of which have been present for a long time and some of which have recently arrived -- are placing increasing stress on the state's ecosystems, and the warfare Rockman depicts is quietly taking place all over the state.

Robert Warrens's The Command Ship of the Toxic Flotilla (painted wood, light bulbs, and mixed media, 1986) is another work that initially seems light-hearted but, as it's name indicates, it's anything but.  Southern Louisiana has long been a center of petroleum drilling and refining and chemical manufacturing, and Warrens's work draws attention to the impact of these human activities upon the natural world.

In contrast, Willie Burch's North Villere Street (acrylic and charcoal on paper, 2007) is a sensitive depiction of one small human community. 

I have a finite capacity for museum-going. After a few hours, my eyes start to skim over the works and my ability to comprehend the contextual information recedes.  When this starts to happen, I leave; there's no point in forcing oneself to look at things one can't appreciate and won't remember afterward. As a result, I didn't view NOMA's galleries of Indian, Japanese, Chinese, or African art -- and thus have a compelling reason to go back the next time I'm in New Orleans.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Teachout on the Detroit Institute of Arts: some lessons for archival advocacy

When times are tough, it can be really difficult to make the case for supporting cultural heritage institutions.  However, it can and must be done—and Terry Teachout, whose Wall Street Journal column focuses on theater and the arts, has some great suggestions

As most of you know, Detroit, Michigan filed for bankruptcy protection from its creditors a few weeks ago.  The city, which has experienced a decades-long downward spiral of industrial decline, population loss, public corruption, and racial conflict, is having difficulty providing even the most basic services.  Forty percent of its streetlights don't work, two thirds of its ambulances are out of commission, and less than nine percent of the crimes reported to the city's police department are ever solved.  The city's employee pension fund is underfunded by $3.5 billion, and it's all but certain that city retirees—who receive an average of $19,000 per year—will be compelled to accept benefit reductions. 

As battered at the Motor City is, it's not completely defeated:  corporations and professionals are moving back into the city's downtown, and young people are streaming into southwestern Detroit (and meeting with some resistance from longtime residents who fear that gentrification will drive them out of their homes).

Detroit is also home to the Detroit Institute of Arts, which is by any standard a world-class art museum.  In most cities, such institutions are non-profit organizations whose operations would be largely unaffected by a municipal bankruptcy declaration.  However, the Detroit Institute of Arts is a city-owned institution, and the city's emergency financial manager has hired Christie's to appraise the museum's collections and assess their cash value.  Although no one in a position of authority has advocated selling off any works of art—at least at this point in time—the museum and its supporters are deeply worried.

Not surprisingly, the hiring of Christie's has sparked intense debate in Detroit and throughout the nation.  Several commentators have argued that the sale of the museum's collections might bring much-needed billions into the city's coffers and that world-class art belongs in dynamic, growing cities, not places like Detroit.  Others emphasize that it's hard to defend keeping works of art when people who receive modest pensions are likely to take a brutal financial hit and basic services range from ineffectual to non-existent.  Others assert that the Detroit Institute of Arts, which enjoys strong regional support, is one of the city's bright spots.

Unfortunately, most of the people opposed to selling off the collections aren't making a solid case for exempting the Detroit Institute of Arts from the coming slaughter.  Terry Teachout is a notable exception.  Twelve days ago, he advanced two excellent arguments against selling off the collections.  Both of them could, with modest reworking, be repurposed by people seeking to defend public archives against cost-cutting legislatures or other cultural heritage institutions that have fallen upon hard times:
  • Contrary to popular belief, any money derived from the sale of the DIA's art collection would not be used to turn on the streetlights of Detroit. It would go straight into the bottomless pockets of the city's Wall Street bondholders. Why slaughter a world-famous museum for their sake?
  • If you truly believe that Detroit has a postcrisis future, then it's your duty to preserve at least some of the things that help make the city worth living in—and visiting. Would you auction off the National Archives' original copy of the Declaration of Independence to help pay down the national debt?
Teachout makes one more excellent point:  it's all well and good for outsiders to condemn the potential gutting of the Detroit Institute of Arts, but the threat of disaster is so pressing that Detroit's business and political leaders really need to step up to the plate:
. . . Such arguments shouldn't be coming from me. They've got to come from Detroit's leaders—and not the corrupt, swinish pols who recklessly mortgaged its future in the first place, but the serious men and women who have to make the hard choices without which the city has no hope. If a no-sale consensus emerges among Detroit's leadership class, and if the smartest and most articulate members of that class can sell it to the public, then it could become politically difficult for Mr. Orr to dispose of any of the DIA's major pieces. But if they shirk their responsibility to the city's future, then Detroit can kiss [Rembrandt's] "The Visitation" goodbye.
Teachout doesn't say it, but there is a role for less prominent people in this process: Detroit's curators, archivists, librarians, and art lovers need to do whatever they can to capture the attention of the city's leaders and drive home the points that he articulated. Those of us who live outside of the region can stress to anyone who will listen that we have no interest in visiting any city that opts to plunder its cultural heritage institutions and will spend our tourist dollars elsewhere.  In addition, we can keep Teachout's points in mind as we combat other misguided efforts to sell off materials of enduring cultural and economic value in an effort to resolve crises that, in the final analysis, are mere blips on the radar screen of history.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Sunday at Schuyler Mansion

Schuyler Mansion, Albany, N.Y., 4 October 1930. New York (State). Conservation Dept. Photographic Prints and Negatives, [ca. 1904-1949], 14297-87_3706. Image courtesy of the New York State Archives.

Last Saturday's visit to one of my neighborhood's overlooked gems, Historic Cherry Hill, prompted me to visit the treasure situated half a dozen blocks away from my home: Schuyler Mansion State Historic Site. This stately home -- which was for several decades Albany's tallest building and most opulent residence -- was built in 1761 by Philip Schuyler, who went on to become a noted Revolutionary War general and U.S. Senator.

Schuyler and his wife, Catherine Van Rensselaer Schuyler, were both third-generation descendants of elite Dutch colonists, but the Schuylers were fluent in both English and Dutch and the house, which Schuyler himself designed, is thoroughly Georgian.  (Schuyler, who had served as a Commissioner of Indian Affairs, also spoke an Iroquoian dialect and had reading knowledge of several other languages.)

The Schuyler home, which the family called "The Pastures," sits upon a steep hill overlooking the former grazing commons of the Reformed Church. It was originally surrounded by an 80-acre working farm.  However, the agricultural operations adjacent to The Pastures were dwarfed by those of the Schuyler family's farm in what is now Schuylerville, Saratoga County. Slaves performed a significant amount of the work on both properties, and slaves were moved north to Saratoga County when extra labor was needed on the farm and south to Albany when the social season began.

Georgian homes tend to have large center halls, and The Pastures is no different. I've always loved this space, which the family used to receive visitors who might not merit entry into the other rooms of the house.  The parquet-seeming floor is actually painted oilcloth -- a practical, inexpensive choice for heavily used spaces.

As one might expect given the family's elite status and Philip Schuyler's military career, the list of the family's houseguests reads like Who's Who in Colonial America: Aaron Burr, Benjamin Franklin, John Jay, George Washington, the Compte de Rochambeau, the Marquis de Lafayette, and Baron von Steuben all stayed here. After the British were defeated at the Battle of Saratoga (1777) British General John Burgoyne -- who had ordered the burning of the family's country home in Saratoga County -- was taken prisoner and brought to The Pastures.  These luminaries and members of the local elite were entertained in the formal parlor that occupies the southeast corner of the first floor.

One guest ultimately became a member of the family. Alexander Hamilton, who studied at Trinity College with one of the Schuyler sons, came to Albany after graduation to study for the bar exam and ended up courting two of the Schuyler daughters. Angelica Schuyler, the oldest child, was his first choice, but she eloped with merchant John Barker Church in 1777.  Hamilton married her younger sister Elizabeth in this room in 1780.  (Family records indicate that this room originally had flocked blue wallpaper and an ornate carpet, and the State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation plans to have reproduction wallpaper manufactured and produced at some point in the near future.)

As is often the case, the formal parlor really was reserved for guests. The family spent of its time in the less formal parlor in the house's northeast corner, and only relatives and close friends were allowed to join the Schuylers in this room.

In winter, the family crowded around the fireplace in order to keep warm. However, the ladies did not wish to have their faces warmed by the fire -- a ruddy complexion was a sign that one was a member of the laboring classes -- and they used fireshades to keep their faces cool.  This embroidered fireshade, which depicts a monkey reaching into a fishbowl, was almost certainly made by one of the Schuyler daughters.

The formal dining room situated in the northwest corner was used only when distinguished guests were present. Most late eighteenth-century Albany homes were modest vernacular Dutch structures that consisted of a large single room and a sleeping loft, and even the homes of the area's elite were quite simple by later standards. The idea of reserving an entire room solely for dining would have seemed quite odd to anyone who had not spent a significant amount of time in upper-class homes in Europe or in cities such as Boston, New York, or Philadelphia.  The Schuylers themselves were not particularly comfortable with the concept, and they took most of their meals in the family parlor.

The ballroom that comprises the center of the second floor was the center of the family's social life.  The wallpaper is not period-appropriate: the State of New York decided shortly after it acquired The Pastures approximately 100 years ago that this grand space needed an equally grand wallcovering.

 As in appropriate as it is, the wallpaper, which depicts historically significant buildings located throughout the world, is nonetheless fantastic.

During the late 18th century, the windows of the ballroom would have had a commanding view of the Hudson River.  However, the landscape has changed substantially.  None of Philip and Elizabeth Schuyler's children wanted The Pastures, and after Philip Schuyler's death in 1804 the house and the surrounding farmland was auctioned off in parcels.  Modest homes occupied by the families of the men who worked in the South End's brickyards and other industrial concerns soon surrounded the house.  The lowlands between Philip Schuyler's lands and the Hudson River were filled in during the nineteenth century, and a rail line and a six-lane interstate now stand between The Pastures and the riverfront.  In an effort to give visitors a sense of what the view was originally like, transparencies reproducing an historically accurate painting of the eighteenth-century view have been installed in the ballroom windows.  The house on the eastern shore of the Hudson is Crailo, another Van Rensselaer family home that has since become a state historic site.

The bedroom that occupies the northwest corner of the second floor was used by the three surviving Schuyler sons. Family records indicate that all of the other bedrooms originally had ornate carpets but make no mention of purchasing a carpet for this room; it's possible that the record of purchase has been lost, but it's also possible that Philip and Catherine Schuyler opted against installing a carpet in a room shared by four boys.  In addition to being somewhat crowded by our standards, the boys were often displaced; if guests needed the beds, the boys slept on featherbeds that were placed in the ballroom just outside the door.  (The five Schuyler girls who survived infancy -- three were born in the late 1750s and two were born in the late 1770s and early 1780s -- shared an adjoining bedroom).

If a guest were truly distinguished, he or she was installed in the bedroom that Philip and Catherine Schuyler otherwise used. General John Burgoyne -- who was treated as a gentleman during his imprisonment -- was among the dignitaries who stayed in this room.  (Can you spot the chamber pot?)

If you ever find yourself in New York's capital city, be sure to visit the Schuyler Mansion State Historic Site.  You won't be able to stay the night, but you certainly won't be confined to the center hall.