Monday, August 24, 2015

SAA 2015: Cleveland Digital Public Library

Main lobby, Cleveland Public Library, East 3rd Street and Superior Avenue, Cleveland, Ohio, 2015-08-22. This is what a library should look like.
The annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists ended early Saturday afternoon. I then visited the main branch of the Cleveland Public Library. I fell in love with this library as an undergraduate, and I was pleased to see that the original building, a Beaux Arts beauty, has received some much needed care and that a sparkling 21st century addition now sits immediately to the east of the library's reading garden.

I was particularly pleased to discover that earlier this year, the library launched the Cleveland Digital Public Library, which supports digitization of historically significant materials owned by the Cleveland Public Library, other cultural heritage institutions, and organizations and individuals in the Cleveland area. Cleveland was one of four large public libraries that received Library Services Technology Act and Ohio Public Library Information Network funding that supported the purchase of high-resolution scanning equipment and storage, and Cleveland's program is unique in that it allows community members to use its scanning equipment and to add copies of the resulting image files to the library's permanent digital collections.

I know that the Cleveland Public Library isn't the first institution to create and maintain digital images of manuscript and archival materials that remain in the hands of their creators, but it may be unique in that it puts community members in charge of determining whether their materials should be added to the library's collections and enables them to create and donate copies of their materials at their convenience. Almost all of the other "scan and add" projects with which I'm familiar have sought to collect copies of materials that focused on a given event (e.g., the Civil War) and make their scanning services available to community members for only a few hours or a few days at a time.

I imagine that, in at least a few instances, the community-created images added to the Cleveland Public Digital Library's collections will strike archivists, librarians, and other members of the community as less than preservation-worthy. However, judging from the videos embedded in the Cleveland Digital Public Library's web page, this program will help to ensure that some fascinating Cleveland lives and stories are preserved and made broadly accessible. It pleases me deeply that the Cleveland Public Library is taking a 21st century approach to collecting and facilitating access to the city's historical record.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

SAA 2015: thinking about access

Glass globe (1925) based upon a drawing by Leonardo Da Vinci, main branch of the Cleveland Public Library, East 3rd Street and Superior Avenue, Cleveland, Ohio, 2015-08-15.
The 2015 meeting of the Society of American Archivists ended early yesterday afternoon, and I spent the remainder of the day thinking about . . . well, a lot of things, but mainly about the conference and my hometown.

By my count, there were five sessions -- four listed in the preliminary program and a fifth "pop-up" session that came together shortly before the meeting began -- that focused on making born-digital records accessible to end users. I heard a little grumbling about the weight given to this particular topic and to electronic records generally, and I also heard some griping about the timidity and complexity of the access solutions and systems that were discussed. As I walked through the Cleveland Public Library this afternoon and visited various suburban bookstores this evening, the subject of access to records kept popping into my mind.

I agree that in some instances, we allow fear -- of embarrassment, of reprisals, of vague and undefined consequences -- to play an inordinately large role in shaping our access policies and procedures. I also agree that it's quite easy to develop online access mechanisms that force users to jump through additional hoops instead of providing a seamless entree into one's digital holdings. However, it's important to remember that our hangups regarding access aren't merely the product of fear.

In some instances, access restrictions are the result of negotiated agreements with donors. In other words, we've made a promise that we need to keep -- in part because it demonstrates our trustworthiness and in part because -- generally -- it's the right thing to do. One can argue that the terms embedded in a given agreement are excessive, needlessly complex, or downright unreasonable, but I don't think that any archivist would assert that we should treat donor agreements lightly.

In other instances, restrictions are imposed by law. Is every law that might bear upon access to records well written, easy to enforce, and in alignment with archival principles. No, no, a thousand times no. However, archivists generally seek to operate within the bounds established by law and those working in government repositories may have a legal as well as an ethical obligation to uphold the law.

Moreover, upholding laws relating to records access is, in some instances, a matter of social justice, particularly when public records are involved. Over the course of my career, I have encountered records that a) concern individuals who are quite likely still alive and b) contain detailed documentation of injuries and illnesses, identify victims of sexual assault, document psychiatric histories, or plumb the family histories of minors who came into contact with the criminal justice or social welfare systems. Releasing such records might very well do these individuals substantial psychological harm. If the records document abuses that these individuals suffered while being "served" by government-operated facilities and programs, their improper disclosure may rightly be regarded as perpetuation of that abuse.

On one of the sessions (I forget which one), one of the panelists (again, I forget which one) said that she thought it would be a good idea if archivists focused less on the harms that inadvertent disclosure might cause ill-defined third parties and more on advocating for the interests of end users. Keeping in mind the perspective of end users is absolutely appropriate, but we need to remember that some of the people documented in our holdings have claims that may be even more compelling.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

SAA 2015: making born-digital records accessible

Terminal Tower, Public Square, Cleveland, Ohio, 2015-08-21. Until 1991, Terminal Tower was the tallest building in the city of Cleveland and the state of Ohio. I have loved this building as long as I can remember.
SAA 2015 is in full swing. Today, I sat in on two sessions -- Arrangement and Description and Access for Digital Archives (session 401) and Out of the Frying Pan and Into the Reading Room (session 507) -- that focused on on providing access to born-digital materials. I was tardy in arriving to the first and had to leave the second in order to travel to an offsite meeting, so what follows is a partial listing of things I found interesting or useful.
  • One repository is providing access to a born-digital body of materials that is subject to varying copyright and donor restrictions by loading copies of the files onto a laptop that is not connected to any network and has disabled USB ports. This approach isn't perfect, but archivists shouldn't wait for perfection to start making their holdings accessible. (Moreover, as another archivist pointed out, this approach requires minimal IT support.) 
  • No two collections are the same, and processing is always time-consuming. Another repository assesses each collection of born-digital materials for quality of data, authenticity of data, complexity of the access restrictions associated with copyright and donor stipulations, and anticipated level of use. Records that contain high quality and authentic data, lack complicated access restrictions, and will likely receive high use receive more intensive processing than those that don't meet these criteria. 
  •  The amount of processing work we do will likely vary. One institution has some born-digital collections that consist of flat groupings of items and some collections that consist of files arranged in directory structures. In other instances, collections are mixtures of analog and digital items, and the archives wants the arrangement of the digital materials to correspond to that of the analog. 
  •  We don't yet have a firm sense of what our users want. Some of our users are comfortable with doing keyword or other types of searches, and others are accustomed to box-and-folder hierarchies. We may discover that we need to try to meet the needs of both groups. 
  • Access solutions are varied, constantly changing, and have a way of emerging in response to pressing user requests. We need to remain flexible and mindful of the fact that solutions that work at one institution might not work at another. 
  • We need to publicize our born-digital holdings, and we need to make sure that colleagues who do reference work are comfortable working with these materials and highlight their existence to researchers when appropriate.
The question of making restricted materials available online also came up, and one presenter recommended making use of the redaction functionality being incorporated into BitCurator and informing end users of their responsibilities regarding inappropriate disclosure of information that may be subject to various restrictions. The latter approach was also explored quite extensively in a Thursday afternoon pop-up session that centered on issues raised by recent events at the University of Oregon, and the discussion included making access contingent upon entering into formal, online agreements.

I find this an intriguing approach, but most most government archives will likely be very slow to embrace it. Some state open records laws specify that records creators and archives cannot impose limitations on the use of information that is disclosed in response to freedom of information requests; if a record contains restricted information, the creating agency or the archivist must redact it prior to disclosing it. Moreover, governments tend to be risk-averse -- sometimes excessively, and sometimes with good reason. However, I can envision some scenarios in which government archives might well adopt this approach; using a click-through agreement to highlight the presence of records potentially covered by copyright isn't quite the same thing as hoping a researcher will abide by an agreement prohibiting disclosure of information found within psychiatric case files.

Finally, in response to a question concerning whether we should embed all of the metadata we're creating as we work with digital materials into our finding aids, one of the panelists in session 401 said something that's been on my mind for some time: we need to start thinking about moving away from document-based finding aids. I like Encoded Archival Description (and well-crafted MARC records make me feel as if there is an inner logic and order to the world), but it's high time we stopped thinking of archival description solely in terms of "fast paper."

Thursday, August 20, 2015

SAA 2015: new approaches to documentation

Album cover, The Impressions, People Get Ready (1965), and hat (c. 1981) and jacket (c. 1981) owned by Curtis Mayfield. Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Cleveland, Ohio, 2015-08-20.
 The annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists is in full swing, and I put in a full day attending sessions and catching up with people. I am not going to blog about every session or meeting that I attend-- I no longer have the stamina needed for that sort of thing -- but will instead post about the most interesting, compelling, or useful session or idea that I encounter each day.

Today, I attended two very good sessions that concerned balancing privacy and access considerations as they relate to electronic records. I also found thought-provoking a session that focused on how and whether one should document communities that either do not wish to be documented and on how some of the assumptions and understandings embedded in archival practice can perpetuate the past injustices done to indigenous peoples. However, for me, a lunchtime forum entitled "The Secret Life of Records" was the high point of the day. What follows probably will not do it justice -- as is usually the case when I'm at SAA, I've been sleeping wretchedly -- but I wanted to sketch out a few thoughts before crawling into bed.

Sponsored by SAA's Diversity Committee, this forum highlighted several recent efforts to document the Black Lives Matter movement and other responses to the recent high-profile police shootings and other actions that resulted in the deaths of African-American citizens. As panelist Jarrett Drake (Princeton University) noted, the news media and substantial segments of the public tend to accept the narratives embedded in police reports and other government records. However, recent events have highlighted the fact that these records may contain inaccuracies, distortions, and deliberate untruths and that they must be supplemented by materials created by individuals and communities affected by police misconduct.

The panelists discussed numerous approaches to capturing these materials in the digital age. Bergis Jules (University of California at Riverside) detailed how he and his colleagues were capturing tweets (i.e., Twitter content) relating to African-Americans who died in police encounters and to the Black Lives Matter movement. Nadia Ghasedi (Washington University) discussed how her repository established an Omeka-based website that enables area residents to upload copies of still images, video and audio recordings, and other materials that documented the community protests that took place in the St. Louis, Missouri area following a police shooting that resulted in the death of a young African-American man in the suburb of Ferguson. Stacie Williams (University of Kentucky) and Jarrett Drake detailed how an online discussion between archivists throughout the United States gave rise to an online repository and oral history initiative documenting citizen experiences of police abuse in Cleveland, Ohio.

I find these projects intriguing for a number of reasons:
  • They're a striking departure from the traditional archival approach to acquisition of records, which involves allowing time to pass before attempting to take in records documenting a given event, careful evaluation of potential acquisitions, and, in many instances, the privileging of records created by institutions or individuals that wield significant social and economic power. These projects involve proactive capture of materials soon after creation and consciously seek out materials created by individuals and organizations that are all too often marginalized.
  • They involve copying materials that are born digitally and will, in all likelihood, be maintained digitally and leave the originals in the hands of their creators (or, in the case of tweets, the online service used to disseminate them). If the "custodial" approach to preserving electronic records represents one horn of a bull and the "post-custodial" approach to preservation represents the other horn, this approach sails through the space between these horns.
  • They suggest that creating an "archives" as we currently understand the term may not be the only model for preserving the history of a community. The Cleveland project is propelled by a geographically dispersed group of archivists, doesn't have a formal institutional home, and may well never "belong" to a single "archives" as we currently understand the term. I suspect that we're going to see a growing number of informal, online-only "archives" (and I hope that the Internet Archive will capture them, because some of them may well perish otherwise).
  • They underscore the fact that archivists will still have to grapple with questions of power and privilege -- and may find that working in an online environment heightens them. As Bergis Jules noted, a Twitter user may come to regret a given tweet -- and be shocked to discover that an archives captured and preserved said tweet without asking her permission. Stacie Williams and Jarrett Drake asserted that they were painfully aware that they were privileged strangers who were asking Cleveland residents to trust them even though they lacked detailed knowledge of the community's history and struggles. The speed with which one can find collaborators online and establish a presence on the Web means that one can get a project underway very quickly, but winning the trust of potential donors/interviewees will no doubt continue to require a substantial commitment of time and effort. I suspect that a growing number of archivists are going to find themselves grappling with such conflicts.
Off to bed.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

I went back to Ohio, and my city was . . .

. . . looking pretty darned good, actually.

The Society of American Archivists (SAA) is meeting in Cleveland, Ohio this year, and I've been pleased and surprised by the changes that have come to the city's downtown in recent years. I grew up roughly twenty miles east of Cleveland, and I have vivid memories of the city's bad old days. Things have changed. Downtown is full of new restaurants, hotels, shops, and the sights and sounds of construction are everywhere.

Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, East 9th Street and Superior Avenue, Cleveland, Ohio, 2015-08-18.
 SAA is meeting in the Cleveland Convention Center, and attendees are scattered throughout a number of downtown hotels. Judging from my Facebook feed, many of my friends are staying in upper floor rooms that have panoramic views of the city skyline. I'm staying in a lower floor room that faces away from the downtown core, but the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, which was built in 1848-1852 and extensively reconstructed in 1946-1948, is directly across the street from my window. I've already gotten used to hearing its bells chime every quarter hour.

John Morrell, "Life Is Sharing the Same Park Bench," East 9th Street and Rockwell Avenue, Cleveland, Ohio, 2015-08-19.
 Just down the street from my hotel is an appealing wall mural that I at first found both appealing and oddly familiar: "Life Is Sharing the Same Park Bench." A quick Web search revealed that it was painted by Rochester, New York artist John Morrell and that the Association for the Advancement of Social Work with Groups made this image its logo at some point in the 1970s.

This morning, I walked down East 9th Street to the Galleria at Riverview; given that no river can be seen from this building, the name is a bit odd. The Galleria was a shopping mall that opened to great fanfare in 1987, but it rather quickly fell on hard times. Cleveland was a lot rougher around the edges in the 1980s and the 1990s, the Galleria itself is located on the outer edge of downtown's core, and the facility didn't get the foot traffic needed to sustain the relatively high-end shops that were its first tenants. The Galleria is currently home to several popular restaurants and a large YMCA branch is slated to open in a few months, but quite a few of its storefronts are still vacant.

Cleveland Hungarian Museum, Galleria at Riverview, East 9th Street and St. Clair Avenue, Cleveland, Ohio, 2015-08-19.
I didn't go to the Galleria to ponder real estate development gone wrong but to visit one of its newer tenants: the Cleveland Hungarian Museum. The Cleveland area has long had a large and vibrant Hungarian community, and there was talk of creating a museum that focused on the community's history well before I moved away. When I discovered that the museum was located two blocks away from my hotel, I figured I should check it out.

Folk embroidery, Cleveland Hungarian Museum, Galleria at Riverview, East 9th Street and St. Clair Avenue, Cleveland, Ohio, 2015-08-19.
The museum, which is quite small, features two permanent exhibits. One traces the rise of Hungarian immigrant communities in Cleveland and the United States and profiles prominent Hungarian-Americans. The other focuses on Hungarian and Hungarian-American folk art.

Panel from "End of the Cold War: The Fall of Communism in Hungary and Eastern Europe" exhibit, Cleveland Hungarian Museum, Galleria at Erieview, East 9th Street and St. Clair Avenue, Cleveland, Ohio, 2015-08-19.
The museum also has a temporary exhibit space, and the exhibit currently installed in this space concerns the end of communism in Hungary and Eastern Europe. The panel above depicts events that took place during the Hungarian Revolution in 1956. After the Soviet Union reasserted control, a substantial number of Hungarians managed to make their way to Cleveland. (My father ultimately hired one of them. He was looking to expand his engineering team, and he figured -- correctly, as it turned out -- that anyone who possessed such formidable technical knowledge and responded to the question, "Why did you leave your most recent position?" by saying, "Russian tanks," and leaving it at that would make a good addition to his work group.)

Three very kind, very helpful volunteers were staffing the museum at the time of my visit. They answered all of my questions with cheer and grace, and they had some interesting questions for me. (What brought me to the museum? Where did I live when I lived in the area? What precisely is the difference between a librarian and an archivist? What does "born digital" mean?) In the course of our conversation, I discovered that we used to live a couple of blocks away from one of the volunteers.

Cleveland Trust Rotunda, East 9th Street and Euclid Avenue, Cleveland, Ohio, 2015-08-19. To the right, you can see the lower floors of the 9 Cleveland (formerly known as the Ameritrust Tower and as the Cleveland Trust Tower). This Brutalist skyscraper, which was completed in 1971, was the only high-rise building designed by Marcel Breuer and Hamilton Smith
After I left the museum, I headed south on East 9th Street with the intent of exploring another quirky treasure: the Cleveland Trust Rotunda at East 9th and Euclid Avenue. This building, which was completed in 1908 and sat vacant from 1996-2014, is now home to a supermarket operated by Heinen's, a local grocery chain.

Interior of the Cleveland Trust Rotunda, East 9th Street and Euclid Avenue, Cleveland, Ohio, 2015-08-19.
Heinen's has done an amazing job of preserving the building's historic character.

Dome of the Cleveland Trust Rotunda, East 9th Street and Euclid Avenue, Cleveland, Ohio, 2015-08-19.
If this isn't the most beautiful supermarket in North America, it's certainly among the top ten.

View from the corner of East 9th Street and Euclid Avenue, Cleveland, Ohio, 2015-08-19.
 Every city is a mix of the old and the new, but I kept finding all manner of interesting juxtapositions today. After I left the Cleveland Trust Rotunda and crossed Euclid Avenue, I turned and looked westward and realized that I could see the tower of Terminal Tower, which was the tallest building in the city of Cleveland -- and the state of Ohio -- until 1991, a hodgepodge of early and late 20th century architecture, and part of Triple L Excentric Gyratory III (1980), a kinetic sculpture by George Rickey.  

Cleveland Convention Center, Lakeside Avenue, Cleveland, Ohio, 2015-08-15
 I found another interesting melding of past and present as I made my way into the Cleveland Convention Center for meetings this afternoon. The Convention Center, which was completed in 2013, is almost completely underground, and I don't know whether the mirrored pillars that anchor the eastern corner of the entry way are decorative or encase some sort of functional component of the building. I do know that they frame the Key Bank Tower -- the structure that replaced Terminal Tower as the city and state's tallest building -- and another new building while capturing the reflected image of the Cleveland's Beaux-Arts City Hall.