Using tags

I’d like your input on something. I’m trying something out on another site: Go and take a look. This site will contain descriptions and links to online resources for digitized primary resources provided by archives, special collections, museums, and other cultural heritage organizations. As you can see, I’ve got two sample reviews up now. The resources are assigned categories and you can browse the site contents by category, so if I’m consistent over the long term you would be able to link to all the sites with resources on say, Maine history. You could also do a keyword search on all the site descriptions.

This is all pretty standard–I think it’s still worthwhile even though there are some other sites out there that do similar things (but not quite the same). Where I think I could do something new is in the area of using tags for online resources. If you click on the link in the upper right to “See my tags” you can see a tag cloud for about 92 sites that I’ve tagged. I started out by looking at sites for Pennsylvania history–just as a starting point–so that’s why it’s heavy on Pennsylvania resources. (And I know I wasn’t consistent–I was just trying it out.) Clicking on any individual tag will take you to a list of all the sites that I’ve applied that tag to. Clicking on “my tags” will take you to the whole list.

What the tagging could do that using the categories on the regular site can’t is, first, to simply enable faster indexing–I don’t need to write a description of the site. More importantly, it could enable sharing of the tagged resources within a network (if we had a network). I’ve looked around a bit at other people’s tags, and as you would expect, it’s pretty random. People tag things for their own reasons, using their own logic. For example, I went to and searched on “Ohio” and “archives”. There were fifty results, and I certainly wouldn’t have called some of them archival. But if we had a network of people sharing their tags for good archival resources, then this could be a way to set up a gateway to archival resources without having to set up database or maintain complicated lists. And we could get around the issue of so many things being described as “archives” or “archival” in other senses of the words. Anybody have any experience with using tags in this way, or any thoughts on it?

My MARAC summary

It’s been great to see the postings from Brave Astronaut (on the Order from Chaos blog) and the Anarchivist about MARAC and also that we’ve got some photos up on Flickr from the meeting (again, search for the tag “maracs07”). Since they’ve done a great job at conveying the social side of the meeting (which was considerable), I’ll try to talk a bit about the sessions I attended.

The program committee did a great job of setting up sessions that followed their theme, “Labor, Business & Archives in the Workplace.” Because I’m trying to find guests for my new podcast series, I attended a lot of these locally-focused sessions (in contrast to what I would have done back in my old job), and I thought the overall quality was quite good.

The first session I attended was “Creating a Sense of Place: Primary Sources and Local History.” The speakers were Robert E. Carbonneau, C.P of the Passionist Historical Archives, Maureen McGuigan, a local poet and playwright, and Jim Quigel from the Pennsylvania State University’s Historical Collections and Labor Archives. Mr. Carbonneau spoke eloquently about using materials from the collections of religious groups to shed light on the day-to-day lives and work of religious persons and to show how their activities were integrated into the larger life of the community. Ms. McGuigan described how she has used primary and secondary source material about local historical figures to bring their stories to life in her works. Mr. Quigel used a collection of reports from the famous Pinkerton detective agency to show how they attempted (sometimes successfully) to infiltrate the forces behind the Great Railroad Strike of 1877.

I arrived late to the next session, “Hidden Labor Revealed: Enhancing Access to Women’s History,” so I only caught the end of speaker from the Hagley Museum & Library describing their holdings related to women and labor. Doris Malkmus of PennState’s Special Collections took an interesting approach–documenting her attempts to find materials in her own collections related to women and labor (largely unsuccessfully), and speculating about how the future application of new guidelines for processing would help or hurt similar efforts in the future. The last speaker, Sarah Keen from Cornell, described collections related to homemaking as a profession and home economics as a discipline, pointing to electronic resources such as the Home Economics Archive.

I was, I have to say, a little disappointed in the next session on “Documenting Irish Immigrant Work, Religion and Culture”–apologies to anyone involved who reads this. I found Paula Kane’s talk very interesting–probably because she took a larger view of the subject, discussing issues of Irish immigrant work within a larger cultural context. The other two speakers (from Seton Hall and NARA’s Philadelphia office) focused more on describing what materials they had in their collections that related to Irish immigration. This type of presentation may be what many of the attendees were looking for, but I was looking for a little more analysis. I should also admit that it was about at this point that spring arrived inside the hotel and so my allergies started to act up. That could have been part of it as well.

I changed my mind at the last minute on Saturday morning and went to “Mind Your Own Business Records” and I was so glad that I did. This was a great session about 19th and early 20th century business records. David Grinnell from the Heinz Regional History Center gave an interesting description of several of their collections that include records of local businesses–often “hidden” in collections of personal and family papers. You could not ask for a better advocate for the use of railroad business records than Patrick McKnight from the National Park Service’s Steamtown National Historic Site . Finally Dr. Daniel M.G. Raff from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania gave us a completely different perspective, describing how he had used some rather obscure records from the early days of the Ford Motor Company to shed new light on the roots of Ford’s success. Although the earlier two speakers were excellent, I found Dr. Raff’s talk the most compelling. Although he lost me in some of his discussions of his data analysis, I was fascinated to hear a user of archives talk about incorporating our holdings into his research in ways that most of us archivists could not have anticipated. I think we need to hear from more speakers like this at the Chautauqua meeting. I later heard that they had a lot of trouble finding a speaker for this last “slot” on the session–that of the user of records. Another piece of information to file away–maybe we need to do a better job of networking with some of our users to able to tap into them later on.

Finally, since I am currently “unaffiliated,” I went to “I Can Get Paid for This? Archival Consulting as a Business.” Again, there were three excellent speakers: Linda Edgerly from The Winthrop Group, Alan Lewis, an independent consultant in audiovisual archives, and Valerie Metzler, an independent archivist/historian consultant. The panel kept their remarks short and very much to the point, with plenty of time for many questions from the audience, as well as from the chair, Jack McCarthy, another archival consultant. I think it would be useful for either SAA or MARAC to collect information like this on career options in archives and publish it in some way–probably on the web. Or is this already being done? Can we have sessions like this at every MARAC meeting as a way to gather information on career options? Just a thought.

All in all I think most people left Scranton pleasantly surprised–both by the city and the quality of the program. In a small organization like MARAC I think it can be hard to bring in new speakers and easy to rely on the same old faces. The program committee should be applauded for making an effort to create a diverse and interesting line up. The Williamsburg program committee faces the challenge of keeping people in the sessions when there are so many other options. But think of the great pictures we’ll get of archivists in the stocks!

Blogging from MARAC in Scranton

I just read the posts written by Brave Astronaut and the Anarchivist (also known as Geof) about their MARAC experiences yesterday. I am sorry to say that I am not on the Steering Committee and did not enjoy the lavish spread they described. And I had other obligations and so did not visit the hospitality suite–although I will be there tonight. Yesterday I attended a workshop on doing oral histories. I have no plans to conduct any oral histories, but I thought some of the content might be useful to me in one of my other ventures–a podcast series on archives. I thought the workshop was very good, and I heard in the Maryland-DC caucus meeting this morning that MARAC is going to start holding workshops outside of the spring and fall meetings, which will be a very good thing. I then went to the Program Committee meeting for next spring’s meeting at the Chatauqua Institution. The committee is dedicated to making that meeting “different” and we’re exploring ideas for different kinds of sessions and ways to structure the meeting. Anyone with any suggestions, please feel free to comment.

Unlike the Brave Astronaut, I am having no trouble finding sessions that are relevant to my job–my job at the moment being writing this blog and setting up the podcast series. As the other bloggers noted, for most of us one of the main reasons we come to meetings like this one is to socialize and network with our friends, and I’ve been doing a lot of that too. One friend is deciding whether to start gathering signatures for a petition he wants discussed at the SAA Business Meeting in Chicago, and I, as you can imagine, have been encouraging him to do so. I’ve been catching up with news from friends who are still at the National Archives and getting feedback from some of the readers of this blog.

I need to run now to make it to my next session, but I also wanted to point people to photos from the conference being posted on Flickr–look for the tag maracs07 (s for spring).  I am sure after tonight there will be some from the reception at the Trolley Museum too.

Conference I should have gone to: Computers in Libararies

I’m black and blue from kicking myself that I didn’t go to this: the 22nd annual (!) Computers in Libraries conference in Crystal City, Va–this is their wiki site. I’m going to write this post about the web presence/social aspects of this conference and a post (or two) will follow about content. I suggest people interested in creating a wiki for SAA check this one out to get ideas, but I think we might all want to look at it to judge how effectively a tool like this (along with the official conference site, and the pictures and blogs I’ll talk about later) can deliver value for people who don’t actually attend the conference.

According to the wiki, there are 38 bloggers attending the conference. (And they get those impressive ribbons they can attach to their nametags that say “blogger” just like the “speaker” ribbons.) I took a quick look at most of the their blogs, and yup, they’re all writing about the conference. I’ll talk about the content later–which looks to be quite good–but the point (for those of you who aren’t fully caffeinated) is that with that many people writing, you really get a sense of the content being delivered. (The wiki page is called “Conference Bloggers” if you want to check it out.)

As of this posting, there were 504 photos available in Flickr tagged “cil2007” – this is one of them:

Blogga, Blogga, Blogga by Travelin’ LibrarianBlogga, Blogga, Blogga by Travelin’ Librarian


(I would have linked directly to the Flickr image but I spent a lot of yesterday trying to figure out why Flickr doesn’t want to link to my blog. Still haven’t sorted that out yet.)

Go to Flickr and take a look at the pictures–a lot of them are of food, and drinks, and the Metro, and tourist sights, but there are also pictures of the speakers’ slides, the speakers, and people at the exhibit hall. I think that they really give you a sense of what being at the meeting would be like. I think if going to conferences were really all about the presentations, most of us might not go to as many conferences, or at least we wouldn’t enjoy them as much. I look forward to seeing how many pictures we can post of SAA in Chicago to share with people who can’t go what being there was like.

If you go to and look for things with the “cil2007” tag right now, you will find 52. It’s a mixed bag, but again, an interesting one. Info about public transportation, weather, restaurants, along with content related to the presentations and the blogs.

I’ll post more about this soon, but I am actually leaving today for another conference–the Mid-Atlantic Regional Archives Conference spring meeting in Scranton. So in addition to writing about the conferences I didn’t go to, I’ll also be writing about the one I did go to. And, who knows, you might be able to see some pictures of that conference on Flickr soon too.

Welcome to the archivo-blogosphere, Ed!

About the time I started this blog, someone I know from graduate school posted what I thought was a pretty innocuous (and relevant) question on the archives listserv–six little words that got him into a lot of trouble. Now granted, he doesn’t try as hard as I do not to offend people. That’s not his style. But he was asking what I thought were valid questions and he wasn’t getting any relevant answers. The responses to his questions weren’t contributing anything to exploring a new area for discussion–I think. I have to admit that I wasn’t following that conversation as closely as I might have. I don’t think I am the only one who tunes out on some discussions when they start to take a familiar turn.

We all know there are problems with the listserv. I don’t think it’s the place for discussion of serious issues. That’s why I encouraged my friend, Ed, to take his attempts to start a discussion off the listserv and just start his own blog about archives and politics–or whatever it is he wants to write about. He might not get as many people reading what he writes, but those who do will all be interested in what he has to say.

Let’s talk about leadership: Electronic Records

In his comment on my 4/6 post on SAA 2.0, Richard Cox raised concerns about leadership in the profession. Let’s talk about what leadership would look like in the area of electronic records–identified by the highest number of A*CENSUS respondents (39%) as one of the three most important issues that “archival organizations should address in the next five years.” And we’re lucky in this area because we already have a group of SAA members poised to take a leadership role here: the Electronic Records Section. I’m going to throw a lot of ideas out about what I think a leadership role might look like. And then you’re all going to keep this conversation going in your comments–this means you, lurkers! I know who you are.

Right off the bat, let’s make sure our own house is in order. Let’s make sure SAA correctly handles the electronic records it creates and is responsible for (and yes, I mean the listserv too). The Electronic Records Section (ERS) and maybe the Records Management Roundtable should make sure that all necessary policies and procedures are in place. (I’m not saying that they are not, I have no idea. I’m just saying it should be confirmed.)

Next, let’s find out what people really need and let’s find it out now. How about the ERS gets a survey online within the next month or two asking SAA members (or just anybody, maybe) what they need in the area of electronic records. SAA has some continuing education products in this area. What else is needed? Advice on scheduling? Information about formats? Help talking with IT people? Help getting people to transfer the records? Help with processing them? Advice about preservation and storage? Let’s get a to-do list for the ERS (and SAA). (And if you can’t get a survey up in a reasonably short amount of time, let’s talk about why you can’t and try to fix that.)

Once we know what’s needed, let’s get stuff out there–fast. I shouldn’t have to beat this drum again. With the technology that’s out there, there is no excuse for not making information available quickly. The members of the ERS have the expertise. I know they do. And if they don’t, they know who does have it. I assume that what people need (and I could be wrong) are answers to questions about specific situations. There are lots of good general books out there. Instead of people posting questions to the listserv and getting answers that may or may not be valuable, let’s have ways to get answers from experts. Use a wiki, use a blog, use whatever works.

Do people need help selling the idea within their organization? I’ve seen dozens of Power Point presentations with charts and graphs. How about taking that “Press Kit” section on your website and using it as a place to put reusable presentation elements for members? How about getting a cross-section of recognized leaders to do 1-2 minute digital video “adverts” for electronic records issues? People can then use them anyway they want. (Hey, I didn’t say all these ideas were great or feasible. I’m just trying to get people thinking.)

And what about leadership outside of helping members with their own problems? What about leadership on a national level? Does SAA need to be more vocal (or more effectively vocal) in speaking out about electronic records issues on a national level? You’ll have to help me out on this one, readers, because I really don’t know. Are they being as visible as they should be? Are we partnering with the right allies in making our case? Are we getting there fast enough? Does the ERS have the influence it needs to get SAA leadership to do what needs to be done?

I guess the point I’m trying to make is that instead of waiting for the leadership of SAA to decide how to help members with their electronic records needs, let’s find out what kind of help they need and get what we can to them fast. And if that means working outside the traditional ways SAA has delivered information, let’s try to do it. If there are organizational barriers to getting this done, let’s identify them and get them addressed. Maybe we’ll find out we need to change some structures or processes in order to allow members to help other members. Maybe we need to take this to the regional level in order to get it done; we’ve got more flexibility there.

How can we discuss change productively?

A short aside. I worked, once, in a place where it was almost impossible to implement any truly meaningful or innovative changes. Whenever an idea was brought forward the proposal would be criticized (usually at length) for its choice of words, style, and discussion of the current situation. Those affected would spend a great deal of energy defending their status -even if they knew it to be problematic – or nitpicking language in order to demonstrate some kind of expertise or value. Almost all proposals for change would be destroyed–either because the final product would be so watered down as to be meaningless or the discussion would drag on so long that it would eventually die out. Along the way, those proposing the change would be disheartened or effectively marginalized, further discouraging any future discussion of similar subjects. I have seen the same thing happen, occasionally, on the archives listserv. Anyone who starts to initiate a discussion that challenges the opinions of the dominant voices or tries to start a meaningful analysis of a problem is shouted down or ignored, and so the ideas eventually die out.

I hate to think that this is hallmark of the archival profession. One of our stereotypical characteristics is that we are resistant to change. Are we so resistant to change (and perhaps, defensive about vulnerabilities we know we possess) that we cannot support meaningful discussion about how to move forward? I hope not. I am sure that in the future I will use words that people won’t like. I know my tone may rub some readers the wrong way. My assessment of a current situation may not be completely correct. Believe it or not, I actually spend quite a bit of time trying to make sure what I write will offend as few people as possible. I hope that in this forum, at least, people can focus their discussion on the ideas and about what we can do to “move the ball down the field.”

What is the “archives” brand?

I’ve been doing some reading about the “library” brand and branding in general. I found the 2005 OCLC report Perceptions of Libraries and Information Resources very interesting and suggest you take look at it–even if you just look at the conclusions. I think it’s time to do some thinking about our “brand” and whether we want to try to do something about it.

This post will be some speculation about how the general public might characterize the “archives” brand. In the OCLC survey:

We asked the open-ended question: “What is the first thing you think of when you think of a library?” verbatim comments from 3,163 respondents were grouped by main theme. Roughly 70 percent of the respondents, across all geographic regions and U.S. age groups, associate library first and foremost with books. There was no runner up. [p.3-31]

If we had a survey asking that question, I think the response would be an overwhelming “old stuff” (or perhaps the real first thing they might think would actually be “nothing”they might draw a total blank). What are the words we hear associated with archives (and archivists)? Musty, dusty, old, crumbling yellowed? In his post What Should the Fictional Archivist Look Like? Richard Cox wrote of the way archives (as places) are portrayed in fiction:

Archives, that is the place where the records are stored, are often similarly depicted. They are situated in basements or attics. They are associated with dust and old, useless stuff. They are seen as forgotten places, or as places to put stuff that should, or will, be forgotten.

Just as librarians have to fight their stereotype as a bunch of bun-wearing shushers, I think archivists have a reputation as being more actively engaged with the past than with the present. Here Cox summarizes the characteristics of fictional archivists:

They seem to be absent-mindedness, other-worldliness, clumsiness, dustiness, musty odors, awkwardness, and other features suggesting one who is far more comfortable with dead, rather than living, people.

I also think that if asked, most people probably wouldn’t think of most archives as places that collected “new” in other words almost-current, stuff. For example, I don’t think most people would associate archives with electronic records. I think that possibly a lot of people would say that archives (as institutions) are a lot like the things they think we hold–antiquated and sequestered, unapproachable with our rules and white gloves. They are probably glad that we’re here glad that someone is saving “that stuff.” But archives are places they probably have never been to and probably will never go to. You don’t take out of town guests to an archives, as you do to a museum. You don’t go there on a Saturday morning with the kids to check out picture books for them and The Da Vinci Code for you. We’re not a part of the fabric of people’s lives. (Except possibly for genealogists, and even that, I think has declined.)

Am I painting it too bleakly? It’s not all bleak; I think people are glad that we exist. And once you explain to someone at a cocktail party what it is you do (after you get the initial blank stare), they might say something like “that sounds cool.”

Another interesting aspect of the OCLC survey was that the words used by librarians to describe libraries and library services were not those used by the survey respondents. The librarians used “trust,” “privacy,” “authoritative information,” “quality information,” “education,” “learning,” “community,” and “access.” In the survey:

We reviewed the over 3,500 verbatim responses from 3,163 respondents to the question “What is the first thing you think of when you think of a library?” to see how many times “trust,””quality,” “authoritative,” “education,” and “privacy” and other often used library attributes were mentioned as the top-of-mind library image.

The words trust, authoritative, and privacy were never mentioned. Community was mentioned in one response. Quality was mentioned twice. Education was mentioned four times; learning was mentioned nine times. Free was mentioned 70 times. Books were mentioned 2,152 times. [3-33]

You can imagine the same kind of thing might happen in a survey of archivists; he public isn’t going to mention authenticity, provenance, arrangement, accountability, finding aids, description, or processing. I think we might have some overlap on “history” and “preservation.” What do you think our brand attributes are?

The last words of the conclusion of the OCLC report are: “It is time to rejuvenate the ‘Library’ brand.” In future posts I’ll talk about rejuvenating the “Archives” brand.

Another post on SAA in the works

There have been quite a few email messages flying around about my last post on SAA 2.0 — many related to Richard Cox’s comment. So far, I should say, pretty much everyone is agreeing with him. The only question is what to do about it. And, reminder people, I know it takes time but you’ve got to post your thoughts as comments. Talking amongst ourselves is great, but part of what we’re trying to do here is make this a public conversation.

I’ve got a follow-up post written, but I’ve sent it out to some people to take a look at. Just to make sure I’m not too far out of line. I hope to get it up here soon. I hope you can see the connection between my next post on branding and the call for leadership Richard made in his comment. I can see myself getting a little evangelical on this subject, but stick with me and I think I just may be able to get some converts.