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Category: what if

Caring for Special Collections: Exploring the Connecting to Collections Bookshelf

Connecting to Collections BookshelfI subscribe to the RSS feed from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), and so saw a press release encouraging institutions to apply for the free IMLS Connecting to Collections Bookshelf.

The IMLS Connecting to Collections Bookshelf is intended to provide small and medium-sized libraries and museums with essential resources needed to improve the condition of their collections. The Bookshelf includes books, DVDs, and other collections resources, as well as a Guide to Online Resources and a User’s Guide to all of the materials. It addresses such topics as the philosophy and ethics of collecting, collections management and planning, emergency preparedness, and culturally specific conservation issues.

The Heritage Preservation has created both a 48 page Bookshelf User’s Guide, with a page dedicated to each resources selected for the bookshelf, and a Guide to Online Resources to be used as a companion to the bookshelf. The Bookshelf User’s Guide has a brilliant section at the end giving you pointers to specific sections of the various Bookshelf resources to answer special questions – such as ‘Where can we find information on raising funds for collections care?’ and ‘How can I prioritize the needs of our collections?’.

What is interesting is that it took me a while to realize that each of the institutions that is awarded The Bookshelf will actually receive the books. My past experience with O’Reilly’s Safari Books Online made me assume that the books would be only accessed online. The Safari Books Online site requires a paid membership, but then provides access to an ever growing electronic reference library. The total number of resources is listed as currently over 5,000. One level of membership, Safari Library, provides unlimited access to all the resources (currently listed as $42.99 a month or $472.89 per year) while the less expensive membership level, Safari Bookshelf (currently listed as $22.99 a month or $252.99 a year), provides access to up to ten titles at a time.

Seeing those prices got me wondering, what will the receivers of this bookshelf be getting and what it’s total cost would be? I found my way to a list of the books and resources that will be included. Between the Internet and the 48 page guide to the Bookshelf I found the following information about each element of the Bookshelf. IMLS has broken the bookshelf down into three subsections as shown below:

Bookshelf: The Core Collection

Bookshelf: Nonliving Collections

Bookshelf: Living Collections

Grand Total

The maximum cost (with no membership discounts) to purchase all the components of The Bookshelf would be $951.87. Add in the cost of shipping and printing your own copies from the free downloads and we can probably talk about the monetary value of the Bookshelf being approximately $1000!

Online Acces

While researching all of this I came across a new option on – something they are calling Amazon Upgrade. For an additional fee above and beyond the price you pay for the physical book – you can have immediate and permanent online access to the content of that book. Take a look at the offering explained on the Amazon page for The National Trust Manual of Housekeeping: The Care of Collection in Historic Houses Open to the Public. I assume that they plan to increase the titles for which this is an option. If so, I can envision building an online reference shelf of one’s own – one title at a time. Rather than deciding that something like O’Reilly’s Safari Books Online has enough books to make it worth while for you – you will create your own custom online reference shelf.

The other half of the online access story is of course the number of resources that are posted online for free download (or as living HTML documents being updated over time). These are all the resources from the list above that can be downloaded for free:

What if all the resources that those who care for collections need were available via an online bookshelf? Now that would be an amazing resource for which many would be happy to pay an annual fee. Perhaps it could be provided as part of the membership fee for one or more of the appropriate professional organizations. An additional benefit to an online collection is the opportunity to receive automatic updates and new editions. I will also keep an eye on the Amazon Upgrade option to see how easy it is for someone to build their own online reference shelf – but I think a purposeful online collection designed for cultural heritage institutions would be even more compelling.

Getting the Bookshelf

A lot of organizations have already received the Bookshelf, but the press release that got me looking at all this mentioned that the next (final?) application period will be from March 1 through April 30, 2008. Recipients will be announced in July of 2008.

If you are considering applying you can find more details about the application process and review the questions you must answer online. But even for those that don’t qualify (federally operated and for-profit institutions are not eligible) – the Bookshelf User’s Guide, the Guide to Online Resources and those resources that may be downloaded for free provide a powerful combination of materials to support institutions and individuals as they care for collections of all shapes and sizes.

Note: All prices quoted in this post were valid as of January 27th, 2008. Image shown above from IMLS Connecting to Collections Bookshelf page.

Nurturing Fearlessness in the Face of Computers

Photo by Grant HutchinsonI have spent a fair amount of time thinking about what makes me different from those around me who proclaim themselves “not techie”. It isn’t that I know more about specific programs. I think it is that I am not afraid.

My friends and family always ask me to find them information online (or the best price for a new camera or the best airfare for their next trip) – and I really don’t think that I know better places to look online before I start. I think that I just don’t give up after the first two tries don’t work!

We talked about some of these ideas in the ‘Archives and Web 2.0 Technologies’ discussion at SAA2007 in Chicago. How do you get folks more comfortable with new technology? How to nurture fearlessness?

Dorthea Salo’s recent post, Training-wheels culture, got me thinking about this again.

She says:

Librarians are a timorous breed, fearful of ignorance and failure. We believe knowledge is power, which taken to an unhealthy extreme can mean that we do not do anything until we think we understand everything. We do not learn by doing, because learning by doing invariably means failure. So a librarian just won’t sit down with AACR2, Connexions, and the AUTOCAT mailing-list archive and work out how to catalogue a novel item. Nor she won’t sit down at the computer and beat software with rocks until it works.

She’ll sit passively, hands in lap, and ask for training, feeling guilty the whole time for displaying ignorance.

I know I do have more experience with some things. Yes, I have spent years designing databases and years building software, but that doesn’t mean that I know how to use a database with which I have never had contact before. The difference between myself and many others is that I am not afraid to just try. I back up often and I give myself permission to make mistakes. There is nothing I can do (short of wielding a hammer) that will break my computer like the one in the image I included above.

So how do we get more archivists and librarians (those in school and those already on the job) comfortable with trying things when they sit down in front of a computer? I have a few ideas.

Full Immersion

This approach would be akin to learning a new language by full immersion, and perhaps it might work well for the same reasons. What if a person was put in front of a computer with 3 programs they don’t know how to use, but have always wished they could get ‘trained’ on? And what if that computer had a handy button for the instructor to instantly reset the student back to a clean slate at any time? I really think a day (or even an afternoon) with the opportunity to play and know that you can’t break anything permanently could be very empowering.

There are self defense training courses that put a ‘mock attacker’ in a big padded suit and coach the student in how to attack them. Because of the big suit they can hit and kick and go full force but know that they won’t really hurt this person. At the same time they teach their body what hitting that hard would feel like. They teach their body how to react to defend itself when they need it. It may seem extreme, but I think that some people need a safe environment to try anything. Go ahead, see what happens if you try! Yeah – it won’t work sometimes.. but other times it will.

The class could start with a lesson in hunting for computer software “how to” answers online. Add some knowledgeable floaters to the room to prevent total frustration from taking its toll (but with strict instructions to avoid too much hand holding) and we might have something.

Scavenger Hunt

People know what a scavenger hunt is – so what if we harnessed that understanding and made them look for stuff online. What if they HAD to use some Web 2.0 style sites to find (and bookmark? and screen capture?) items on their list? Purple Duck by Kristen RutherfordThis sort of idea could be implemented remotely with new hunts launching on a specific date and time and with a firm deadline so people are urged to stick with it long enough to start feeling comfortable.

I think one of the saddest thing about the whole ‘Web 2.0’ label is that it scares people away. A scavenger hunt that happened to push you into the brier patch hunting for a creative commons licensed photo of a purple duck could having you using those tools before you remembered they were supposed to be threatening.

How Did You Do That?

I have noticed a pattern among those who don’t feel at home on a computer. They will often find one way to do something and then do it that way every time – forever. While I can understand the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality, I also cringe when I see someone take 10 keystrokes to do something that could take 2.

Now, take those same folks and make them watch me do something an easier way – either on their computer or at least with programs they are familiar with on my own. Things I don’t even think twice about can be a revelation. “How did you do that?” is something I frequently hear when I work in front of someone who takes pains to stay within their comfort zone when they use their own computer.

There are a number of different ways this could be implemented in the real world. I imagine a group of tech savvy volunteers willing to be a mentor to someone who works nearby. They could get together once a week for even just an hour – the idea being that the mentor drives and does WHAT the mentee asks to be done, but does it using shortcuts or hunts for the BEST way to do that activity through trial and error.

Film At Eleven

Screencasts are easy to make these days – so what if a different set of mentors were willing to make top five shortcut videos on a per task basis? I can imagine one on ‘top five shortcuts when surfing the web’ and another for ‘top five shortcuts to use on your Windows desktop’. There are certainly plenty of videos that come back on YouTube when I search on windows tips, but it would be more appealing if the videos were made using examples from the point of view of ‘our’ audience – libraries and archives. People can get their heads around new ideas more easily if the context in which they are learning is familiar.

The “Break Me” Challenge

I have a running joke with some of my friends (and many of those around me who write software) that given enough time, I can find a bug in any software I use. I expect this. I know (I was a developer, remember?) that all software has bugs. I know that the only thing a software company who makes something you need has to do is make their software less buggy than the other guy.

What if more people felt a new software tool was a challenge? I must admit, I do feel that way. For me, hunting for obvious bugs is like finding the edges of the world before I start exploring. What are the limits on what I can do here? I want to lift all the rocks and see where the bugs are wiggling so that when I actually must depend on the tool to do something for me I will know where not to step.

Could we create a workshop where people are taught this way of approaching software? I am not talking about teaching people to be pessimistic, rather to make them realize that even when they find a bug it won’t be the end of the world. Trying new things when you first start out rewards you with the knowledge of what your tool can really do. What do most people who buy a new kitchen gadget do when they get home? Find something to cook that requires the gadget. There is no guarantee that it won’t end up in the bottom of your drawer a month later – but at least people are willing to experiment with (and read the instructions for) cooking tools!

Core Education

What all of this was part of an MLS student’s training? I know that there is a basic Information Technology course that is required in the MLS program at my school. I will admit that I didn’t take it (I took an Information Visualization course in the Computer Science department instead) – but I suspect that trying to break software and learn computer shortcuts wasn’t part of the training. No matter who teaches it, the syllabi for the core class always includes a sentence like ‘Become familiar with common information management tools’ in the list of their goals. I think there are a lot of assumptions about what people already know when they get to graduate school. I think we need to acknowledge that every graduate student is not equally comfortable with computers (even those young students right out of college). School is about learning – this should be the easiest place to spread these skills.


Andrea Mercado (of LibraryTechtonics fame) has blogged about both her Geek Out Don’t Freak Out classes and NetGuides program at Reading Public Library. The Geek Out classes are geared toward patrons who have some technology they don’t really know how to use – the digital camera with 50 settings when they only use 2.. or the PDA that they don’t actually know how to sync. The NetGuides are described on the RPL site as “students trained at the library to provide patrons with one-on-one technology answers and personalized instruction”. The topics they cover include basic computing, basic Internet, MP3 players and more (check out all the topics).

Both these examples are real world implementations for the ‘How Did You Do That?’ category above. It is so great to see examples of what can exist. I bet in some institutions there are staff members who need this support as much as their patrons.

Five Weeks to a Social Library was described as “the first free, grassroots, completely online course devoted to teaching librarians about social software and how to use it in their libraries.” I read blog posts from some of the librarians who went through this program (out of the 40 total who took it the first time around) – and they seemed to enjoy their experiences.

Learning 2.0 is an “online self-discovery program that encourages the exploration of web 2.0 tools and new technologies, specifically 23 Things“. I loved seeing that the original creators gave out prizes to their local staff at PLCMC who completed all 23 things (USB MP3 players). From the list on the right side of that Learning 2.0 page, it seems like the idea has spread to other libraries. The PLCMC folks also have created Learning 2.1 – complete with the fabulous tag line “Mashing up 21st century skills with lifelong learning”. They state that the site was created to support on-going learning beyond what was done with Learning 2.0.

Would You Volunteer? Would You Attend?

So.. lots of ideas. There are clearly a number of great programs already out there. Any folks out there want to chat about if they think my ideas would be helpful? Or doable? Or too intimidating? Or overly optimistic?

How can we build on the success of existing programs? Tell me encouraging tales of programs like NetGuides. Point me to other initiatives like Five Weeks and Learning 2.1. Is any of this making it into onto the radar of archivists?

Archival Transcriptions: for the public, by the public

There is a recent thread on the archives listserv that talks about transcriptions – specifically for small projects or those that have little financial support. There is even a case in which there is no easy OCR answer due to the state of the digitized microfilm records.
One of the suggestions was to use some combination of human effort to read the documents – either into a program that would transcribe them, or to another human who would do the typing. It made me wonder what it would look like to make a place online where people who wanted to could volunteer their transcription time. In the case where the records are already digitized and viewable, this seems like an interesting approach.

Something like this already exists for the genealogy world over at the USGenWeb Archives Project. They have a long list of different projects listed here. Though the interface is a bit confusing, the spirit of the effort is clear – many hands make light work. Precious genealogical resources can be digitized, transcribed and added to this archive to support the research of many by anyone – anywhere in the world.

Of course in the case of transcribing archival records there are challenges to be overcome. How do you validate what is transcribed? How do you provide guidance and training for people working from anywhere in the world? If I have figured out that a particular shape is a capital S in a specific set of documents, that could help me (or an OCR program) as I progress through the documents, but if I only see one page from a series – I will have to puzzle through that one page without the support of my past experience. Perhaps that would encourage people to keep helping with a specific set of records? Maybe you give people a few sample pages with validated translations to practice with? And many records won’t be that hard to read – easy for a human’s eye but still a challenge for an OCR program.

The optimist in me hopes that it could be a tempting task for those who want to volunteer but don’t have time to come in during the normal working day. Transcribing digitized records can be done in the middle of the night in your pajamas from anywhere in the world. Talk about increasing your pool of possible volunteers! I would think that it could even be an interesting project for high school and college students – a chance to work with primary sources. With careful design, I can even imagine providing an option to select from a preordained set of subjects or tags (or in Folksonomy friendly environment, the option to add any tags that the transcriber deems appropriate) – though that may be another topic worthy of its own exploration independent of transcription.

The initial investment for a project like this would come from building a framework to support a distributed group of volunteers. You would need an easy way to serve up a record or group of records to a volunteer and prevent duplication of effort – but this is an old problem with good solutions from the configuration management world of software development and other collaboration work environments.

It makes a nice picture in my mind – a slow, but steady, team effort to transcribe collections like the Colorado River Bed Case (2,125 pages of digitized microfilm at the University of Utah’s J. Willard Marriott Library) – mostly done from people’s homes on their personal computers in the middle of the night. A central website for managing digitized archival transcriptions could give the research community the ability to vote on the next collection that warrants attention. Admit it – you would type a page or two yourself, wouldn’t you?

Reflections on Blogging at SAA 2006

Mark A. Matienzo’s recent post (and its related comments) On what “archives blogs” are and what ArchivesBlogs is not over on got me thinking about my experience of blogging SAA2006 again (as well as making me want to send out a special thank you to everyone for their kind words – as much as I am writing for myself, I will admit to being encouraged that there are others who find my posts worth reading).

Since there was no internet available in the rooms where the panels were held – I found myself taking notes on my laptop. 37 pages of notes later and sitting at home alone trying to convert those notes into coherent posts and I found it hard sometimes to not be overwhelmed. It was interesting to try and strike a balance between sharing the ideas the panelists had presented and including my own insights. I think what I ended up with was a decent mix – with the opportunity to include ideas about the connections among many of the panel topics, as well as other ideas and websites from outside the conference. On the downside – I never did finish writing up all the talks I took notes on. The scale of the task got to me – and realized that I had started to wish I could write about something else. So I did!

I do wonder how different my posts would have been if I could have posted them live. I think that I would have covered a greater breadth of speakers – but with a loss of depth. I would have had less opportunity to reflect on how the speakers talks connected with the rest of the archival world – especially those examples and other ideas I was able to link to as a result of my extra time.

I hope that we (ie, anyone who wants to try their hand at it) can coordinate a broader group of bloggers at SAA 2007 in Chicago, both to expose the ideas presented with those who could not attend as well as to permit further reflection on connections among all the new ideas that might otherwise be hard to share. The library community is ahead of us on this front. Take a look at the page for the Public Library Associations’ recent conference in Boston. This page gives people an easy link to view the posts from the PLA 2006 conference – while spreading the work among many keyboards. Perhaps there is a place for something like this in the future of archives conferences.

Records Speaking to the Present: Voices Not Silenced

When I composed my main essay for my application to University of Maryland’s MLS program, I wrote about why I was drawn to their Archives Program. I told them I revel in hearing the voices of the past speak through records such as those at I love the power that records can wield – especially when they can be accessed digitally from anywhere in the world. It is this sort of power that let me see the ship manifests and the names of the boats on which my grandparents came to this country (such as The Finland ).

All this came rushing back to me while reading the September 18th article 2 siblings reunited after being separated in Holocaust. The grandsons of a Holocaust survivor looked up their grandmother in Yad Vashem’s central database of Shoah Victims’ Names – and found an entry stating that she had died during the Holocaust. One thing led to another – and two siblings that thought they had lost each other 65 years earlier were reunited.

The fact that access to records can bring people together across time speaks to me at a very primal level. So now you know – I am a romantic and an optimist (okay, if you have been reading my blog already – this shouldn’t come as any surprise). I want to believe that people who were separated long ago can be reunited – either through words or in person. This isn’t the first story like this – a quick search in google news turned up others – such as this holocaust reunion story from 2003.

This led me to do more research into how archival records are being used to find people lost during the Holocaust.

The Red Cross Holocaust Tracing Center has researched 28,000 individuals – and found over 1,000 of them alive since 1990. The FAQ on their website states that they believe there to be over 280,000 Holocaust survivors and family members in the United States alone and that they believe their work may continue for many years. As much as I love the idea of finding a way to provide access to digitized records – it is easy to see why the Tracing Center isn’t going away anytime soon. First of all – consider their main data sources – lots of private information that likely does NOT belong someplace where it can be read by just anyone:

While the American Red Cross has been providing tracing for victims of WWII and the Nazi regime since 1939, impetus for the creation of the center occurred in 1989 with the release of files on 130,000 people detained for forced labor and 46 death books containing 74,000 names from Auschwitz. Microfilm copies released to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) by the Soviet Union provided the single largest source of information since the end of WWII.

The staff of the center have also forged strong ties with the ICRC’s International Tracing Service in Arolsen, Germany – and get rapid turnaround times for their queries as a result. They have access to many organizations, archives and museums around the world in their hunt for evidence of what happened to individuals. They use all the records they can find to discover the answers to the questions they are asked – to be the detectives that families need to discover what happened to their loved ones. To answer the questions that have never been answered.

The USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education consists of 52,000 testimonies of survivors and other witnesses to the Holocaust collected in 56 countries and 32 languages from 1994 through 2000. These video testimonies document experiences before, during and after the Holocaust. It is the sort of first hand documentation that just could not have existed without the vision and efforts of many. They say on their FAQ page:

Now that this unmatched archive has been amassed, the Shoah Foundation is engaged in a new and equally urgent mission: to overcome prejudice, intolerance, and bigotry – and the suffering they cause – through the educational use of the Foundation’s visual history testimonies… Currently, the Foundation is committed to making these videotaped testimonies accessible to the public as an international educational resource. Simultaneously, an intensive program of cataloguing and indexing the testimonies is underway. This process will eventually enable researchers and the general public to access information about specific people, places, and experiences mentioned in the testimonies in much the same way as an index permits a reader to find specific information in a book.

The testimonies also serve as a basis for a series of educational materials such as interactive web exhibits, documentary films, and classroom videos developed by the Shoah Foundation.

I guess I am not sure where I am going with this – other than to point out a dramatic array of archives that are touching the lives of people right now. Consider this post a fan letter to all the amazing people who have sheparded these collections (and in some cases their digital counterparts) into the twenty-first century where they will continue to help people hear the voices of their ancestors.

I have more ideas brewing on how these records compare and contrast with those about the survivors and those who were lost to 9/11, The Asian Tsunami and Katrina. How do these types of records compare with the Asian Tsunami Web Archive or the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank? Where will the grandchildren of those who lost their homes to Katrina go in 30 years to find out what street the family home used to be on? Who will give witness to the people lost in Asia to the Tsunami? Lots to think about.