“So, what are you working on now?” “Well, I’m taking sixteen spreadsheets . . .”

Ok, so I feel defensive and somewhat embarrassed by what I’m working on these days. Which, as you’ll see, I really shouldn’t because it’s a very worthwhile endeavor, but not one that’s exactly in line with my prior exploits. I’m not just writing this to beg for affirmations, but on the other hand, I am looking for support to help me overcome my feelings that it’s not “enough.” Let me explain.


As some of your probably know, my fabulous partner is the driving force behind the creation of the Carlisle Indian School Digital Resource Center, so I’ve been involved, at least tangentially, since the beginning in the development of this important site. As regular followers also probably know, over the past year or so I’ve taken on a new set of responsibilities with the care of my parents, which has contributed to a virtual work stoppage on my writing and tweeting about archives. Writing, editing, thinking and keeping up on Twitter is hard work, and on many days I’ve found it challenging to pull together the focus to do that. Also, quite frankly, editing those six books in such a short span of time kind of burned me out. I put so much work into them and I thought they were great, but they seemed to have kind of dropped into a void in a way that my previous books didn’t. It was pretty discouraging.

So, when you put those life factors together, it seems somewhat natural that I’d gravitate toward volunteering for some kind of non-writing project connected to the Indian School site. Which is what I’m doing. I was asked to do one simple thing, and of course, I’ve turned into a crazy ambitious years-long endeavor. I was asked to verify the information about a collection of about 1,200 photographs, many or most of which are studio portraits of Indian School students. However, in order to do that I wanted to find an authoritative list of the names of the all students we know attended the school, and also I wanted to compare this set of photographs to others with more reliable metadata. You can see this coming can’t you? Of course, there is no one authoritative list, and the largest collection of images with more-or-less authoritative metadata is not available online.

So, here’s what I’ve gotten myself into.  Starting with all last names beginning with the letter A, I am comparing sixteen separate spreadsheets of names created by many different people from different groups over the course of many years based on primary and secondary sources (and with different systems of organization and documentation, of course).  Oh, and also then I check them against the student files that have been digitized and posted online at the Digital Resource Center.

There is nothing innovative or special about what I’m doing. It’s sheer grunt work, and is just what people doing genealogy and family history have done for ages. We’ve got potential variations in names based on errors, misunderstandings, and inconsistencies in the way the original names were recorded in the documentation, and then we’ve got potential errors in transcription of handwriting and basic typos. All I’m doing is trying to condense sixteen spreadsheets (and the student files) into one, identifying all potential variations on the same name vs. distinct and separate individuals, and logging sources for the names in the documentation.

I have no doubt that the clever technologists reading this will quickly point out that there are tools I could be using to do this. I’m sure there are. Maybe they can even help with assessing the subtle variations between names—is Bird really Bird, or is it Byrd, or Bind? But, for reasons good or bad, I’m just plugging away and doing it the old fashioned way, by hand with Excel.

Oh, and along the way, I’m also pulling all the photos associated with that set of names—starting with A—from the ~1,200 I was originally assigned, along with hardcopy information for about 4,000 other photos from the large collection that’s not available online. (Just pulling those together and printing them out was no small task—and yes, they had to be printed. Don’t ask. And I am grateful for the assistance provided to get those printed.) So that’s a process of finding all the relevant photos and comparing them to the “master” list, and again we’ve got transcription errors in the captions as well as missing information. So that’s its own fascinating little detective project.

I just finished (more or less) the letter A. That’s about 500 names out of a total of somewhere around-who knows? At least 10,000. (That is, about 500 confirmed people out of at least 10,000 who we think attended.) Now I can say with some degree of certainty that these are all the names in the available documentation of students beginning with the letter A and these are all the photographs of them from these two major collections that we’ve been able to identify—subject to further refinement, of course, as I move through the alphabet. When you put it that way, I think it sounds kind of important if not impressive. It’s useful work.   And I’m enjoying it because, like many information professionals, I love nothing more than bringing order to disorderly information. And it will help family members of the students find their ancestors and perhaps help them add some more pieces to their family member’s story. It’s also a good task for me right now, when my ability to focus can be limited, since I can pick it up and put it down easily and much of it doesn’t require deep thinking. (Unlike the kind of writing I used to do.)

So, I do feel good about it, but it’s hard to explain when people ask me what I’m working on—I’m comparing sixteen spreadsheets and one website and about 5,000 photographs to identify a group of people. There’s no book (that I know of) coming out of this. No article for a journal. Nothing to share at a conference session. Not even really anything to tweet about. There’s nothing new here. Is this a digital humanities project? If I were working at an academic institution, some might call it that. Am I a “citizen archivist” because I’m clarifying information related to “old records”? That’s not a term I’d use. Hence, some of my ambivalence.

There’s another aspect to this that I’m hesitant to even try to verbalize. I am also finding it satisfying to do something concrete to fill what could be classified as an “archival silence” in records related to Native Americans.  I have no prior experience with or knowledge of this community. I am an outsider. All I’m doing is using my time and access—my privilege—to pull together existing information so that it can be used more effectively by those who need it. It’s not a big deal, but it kind of feels like I’m at least doing something. “Be the change,” right?

So, I don’t know what to call it, but it’s what I’m working on, and I enjoy it. I’m not necessarily giving up writing about archives or any of the other things I used to do, but this is what I’m doing now and I’m enjoying the change. It’s a concrete project with tangible results, and that feels good. If there’s anyone out there with an interest in the Indian School, I’d love to hear from you and so would the good people at the Carlisle Indian School Digital Resource Center.  And now if you’ll excuse me, I have to move on to the letter B.


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4 thoughts on ““So, what are you working on now?” “Well, I’m taking sixteen spreadsheets . . .””

  1. “I have no doubt that the clever technologists reading this will quickly point out that there are tools I could be using to do this.”

    Is that an invitation? I think there is a tool that will solve the specific problem of variants that you mention and I’d be happy to walk you through it (and it’s not much more difficult to use than Excel). (Also can read this as “get offa my lawn, techie. I like what I’m doing now. OMMMMM.” 🙂 ).

    I love this kind of work, but it’s also the kind of work one gets ZERO credit for doing as an academic. (maybe? I’m currently working on http://lwpproject.org which in its way is about archival silences).


  2. Or a little bit of both? 🙂

    The data are a mess, of course. But I’ll follow up and we’ll see what we can do. I’m willing to forgo carpal tunnel syndrome if I can.

    Thanks for the link to your fascinating project, and really, aren’t all worthwhile projects about archival silences in some way? 😉

  3. Richard Urban, thanks for the post about Open Refine. It looks interesting. Another item to add to the toybox, if I ever get time to play with tech.

    Also, I very much appreciate your comment about not getting credit for doing this kind of work in academia. It may not be insightful (novel) research, but it’s incredibly valuable. I agree with Kate that there’s a certain reward in its mindlessness. Not unlike finger exercises on the piano.

    Kate, I assume you’ve considered creating a Soundex for the names to help correlate similar names spelled differently? That’s something a bit of simple code can do for you. I can’t volunteer to write if for you at the moment, though.

    Best of luck.

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