Guest Post: CurateGear 2014

You never know what a tweet will lead to … one from Tanya Zanish-Belcher about her experience at CurateGear led to this great guest post by Tanya and two of her colleagues. I’m pleased to be able to share this overview with you, and I know that all three authors would love to answer any questions you may have. If you know of other resources that might be of interest to other archivists, please share them in the comments.

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Time to nominate publications & colleagues for SAA awards–Feb. 28 deadline

Everyone likes to be recognized for the work they do, and you can help your colleagues and the profession by submitting nominations for this year’s round of SAA awards. Here are just a few categories for you to consider, and you can see a full list of all the awards on the SAA site. The deadline for nominations for all awards is February 28.

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“Now is what matters”: My first official appearance as an “agent provocateur” at the Canadian Archives Summit

I was very honored to have been invited to present as one a group of “Agents Provocateurs” at the Canadian Archives Summit last week. It was an exciting line-up of speakers, as you can see from the program. My remarks, along with those of the other presenters, will be made available by the conference organizers, but I wanted to post them here as well. And I wanted to give some context for them. (I believe “context” may be my word for 2014.)

When I was invited to speak, I was assigned my topic (“The Role of Archives in a Digital Society”) and give a strict time limit of seven minutes. In coming up with my remarks I tried to write something genuinely “provocative” around that theme that could be effectively delivered in seven minutes. My task as I saw it was to give people something that would get them thinking and talking. Here’s what I said:

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Call for proposals for case studies for next books in innovation series: instruction & appraisal and acquisition

I hope you got so excited by seeing the contents of the first four books in this series in the previous posts that you’ll want to contribute to the next two!

In 2014 I will be editing two new books of case studies for the Rowman & Littlefield series “Innovative Practices in Archives & Special Collections.” The new volumes will focus on:

– Appraisal and Acquisition

– Instruction

If you have experience with an effective or innovative approach in these areas, or if you have encountered a challenging situation that you think would be useful for other practitioners to learn from, I encourage you to submit a proposal for a case study.

The book on instruction will cover working with K-12, undergraduate and graduate students, as well as any instances of providing instruction to the general public. The book on appraisal and acquisition is intended to cover a wide range of activities related to those functions, including de-accessioning and re-appraisal. If you want to propose a case study but are not sure your experience is appropriate, please contact me and we can discuss it.

Proposals should consist of a narrative of no more than 1,000 words with the following sections:

 Introduction: describing the problem, process that needed improvement or opportunity that sparked what you’re going to talk about.

Planning and Implementation: discussion of possible approaches considered, why one was selected, and how the project or effort was implemented.

Results: how the implemented project/effort was received by archives staff, management and users and how the archives assessed the success of the project.

Lessons learned: any changes to be incorporated into your own iterations of project, observations about anything you feel was very successful or not successful.

Conclusion: any reflections on your experiences and describe any planned next steps for your organization.

Proposals are due by Friday, February 28. Decisions regarding the proposals will be made in mid-March.  If you have any questions about the specifics of the case studies or the schedule, please contact me. Proposals and questions should be sent to kate.theimer at

The scope of these two new topics should allow for varied and exciting collections highlighting the diverse range of approaches being explored in the profession today. I’m happy to answer any questions about the series, and I look forward to working with many of you on these new projects.


Innovative Practices in Archives & Special Collections: Reference & Access – Table of Contents now available

As many of you may know, I’m editing a series of books on “Innovative Practices in Archives & Special Collections” for Rowman & Littlefield. The first four books are scheduled to be available this May, and I’m pleased to be able to share the list of case studies and contributors for the book on Reference and Access:

1) Building Bridges: Closing the Divide between Minimally Processed Collections and Researchers
Emily Christopherson and Rachael Dreyer, American Heritage Center

2) Managing Risk with a Virtual Reading Room: Two Born-Digital Projects
Michelle Light, University of California, Irvine

3) Improvements on a Shoestring: Changing Reference Systems and Processes
Jackie Couture and Deborah Whalen, Eastern Kentucky University

4) Twenty-First Century Security in a Twentieth-Century Space: Reviewing, Revising and Implementing New Security Practices in the Reading Room
Elizabeth Chase, Gabrielle M. Dudley and Sara Logue, Emory University

5) Talking in the Night: Exploring Webchats to Serve New Audiences
Gary Brannan, West Yorkshire Archive Service

6) A Small Shop Meets a Big Challenge: Finding Creative Ways to Assist the Researchers of the Breath of Life Archival Institute for Indigenous Languages
Leanda Gahegan and Gina Rappaport, National Anthropological Archives,
Smithsonian Institution

7) The Right Tool at the Right Time: Implementing Responsive Reproduction Policies and Procedures
Melanie Griffin and Matthew Knight, University of South Florida

8) Going Mobile: Using iPads to Improve the Reading Room Experience
Cheryl Oestreicher, Julia Stringfellow and Jim Duran, Boise State University

9) Beyond “Trial by Fire”: Towards A More Active Approach to Training New Reference Staff
Marc Brodsky, Virginia Tech

10) Access for All: Making Your Archives Website Accessible for People with Disabilities
Lisa Snider

11) No Ship of Fools: A Digital Humanities Collaboration to Enhance Access to Special Collections
Jennie Levine Knies, University of Maryland

12) Websites as a Digital Extension of Reference: Creating a Reference and IT Partnership for Web Usability Studies
Sara Snyder and Elizabeth Botten, Archives of American Art

You can access more information on this book and the others in the series and read some enthusiastic early reviews from Sharon Thibodeau and Kathy Marquis on the Rowman & Littlefield site:

Thanks to all the wonderful contributors and I’m looking forward to seeing all the books in print in May!

Innovative Practices in Archives & Special Collections: Outreach – Table of Contents now available

As many of you may know, I’m editing a series of books on “Innovative Practices in Archives & Special Collections” for Rowman & Littlefield. The first four books are scheduled to be available this May, and I’m pleased to be able to share the list of case studies and contributors for the book on Outreach:

1. The Oregon Archives Crawl: Engaging New Users and Advocates
Diana Banning, Mary B. Hansen, Anne LeVant Prahl, Portland Area Archivists

2. Moved by the Spirit: Opportunistic Promotion of the Hamilton Family Séance Collection
Shelley Sweeney, University of Manitoba

3. Working Within the Law: Public Programming and Continuing Education
Leigh McWhite, University of Mississippi

4. Staying Connected: Engaging Alumni and Students to Digitize the Carl “Pappy” Fehr Choral Music Collection
Amy C. Schindler, College of William & Mary

5. “Pin”pointing Success: Assessing the Value of Pinterest and Historypin for Special Collections Outreach
Mark Baggett, Rabia Gibbs, Alesha Shumar, University of Tennessee

6. Creating a New Learning Center: Designing a Space to Support Multiple Outreach Goals
Dorothy Dougherty, National Archives at New York City

7. “Wikipedia is made of people!”: Revelations from Collaborating with the World’s Most Popular Encyclopedia
Sara Snyder, Archives of American Art

8. 21 Revolutions: New Art from Old Objects
Laura Stevens, Glasgow Women’s Library

9. Happy Accidents and Unintended Consequences: How We Named Our Tribble
Rachael Dreyer, American Heritage Center

10. Navigating Nightingale: Creating an App Out of Archives
Geof Browell, King’s College London

11. DIY History: Redesigning a Platform for a Transcription Crowdsourcing Initiative
Jen Wolfe and Nicole Saylor, University of Iowa

12. Taking Preservation to the People: Educating the Public About Personal Digital Archiving
William LeFurgy, Library of Congress

You can access more information on this book and the others in the series and read some enthusiastic early reviews from Larry Hackman and Terry Baxter on the  Rowman & Littlefield site:

Thanks to all the wonderful contributors and I’m looking forward to seeing all the books in print in May!

Innovative Practices in Archives & Special Collections: Management – Table of Contents now available

As many of you may know, I’m editing a series of books on “Innovative Practices in Archives & Special Collections” for Rowman & Littlefield. The first four books are scheduled to be available this May, and I’m pleased to be able to share the list of case studies and contributors for the book on Management:

1) “We’ll Never Let You Retire!”: Creating a Culture of Knowledge Transfer
Maija Anderson, Oregon Health & Science University Library

2) Raising Cash and Building Connections: Using Kickstarter to Fund and Promote a Cultural Heritage Project
Thomas Smith, Project Gado

3) A Winning Combination: Internships and High-Impact Learning in Archives
Lisa M. Sjoberg, Concordia College

4) A Thief in Our Midst: Special Collections, Archives and Insider Theft
Christopher J. Anderson, Drew University

5) Tackling the Backlog: Conducting a Collections Assessment on a Shoestring
Joanne Archer and Caitlin Wells, University of Maryland Libraries

6) A Platform for Innovation: Creating the Labs Environment at the National Archives of Australia
Zoё D’Arcy, National Archives of Australia

7) Setting Our Own Agenda: Managing the Merger of Archives and Special Collections
Caroline Daniels, Delinda Stephens Buie, Rachel I. Howard, and Elizabeth E. Reilly, University of Louisville

8) Taking Control: Managing Organizational Change in Archives
Fynnette Eaton, Independent Consultant

9) Implementing Pre-Custodial Processing: Engaging Organizations to Invest Resources in their Records
Rob Fisher, Library and Archives Canada

10) Building Effective Leaders: Redesigning the Archives Leadership Institute
Rachel Vagts and Sasha Griffin, Luther College

11) From Evaluation to Implementation: Selecting Archival Management Software
Kira A. Dietz, Virginia Tech

12) More Bang for the Buck: Sharing Personnel and Resources Across Institutions
Erin Passehl-Stoddart and Jodi Allison-Bunnell

13) “Make a New Plan, Stan”: Useful and Painless Strategic Planning
Mark Greene, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming

You can access more information on this book and the others in the series and read some enthusiastic early reviews from Michael Kurtz and David Carmichael on the Rowman & Littlefield site:

Thanks to all the wonderful contributors and I’m looking forward to seeing all the books in print in May!

Innovative Practices in Archives & Special Collections: Description – Table of Contents now available

As many of you may know, I’m editing a series of books on “Innovative Practices in Archives & Special Collections” for Rowman & Littlefield. The first four books are scheduled to be available this May, and I’m pleased to be able to share the list of case studies and contributors for the book on Description:

1) “The Hive”: Crowdsourcing the Description of Collections
Zoё D’Arcy, National Archives of Australia

2) More Than a <biogHist> Note: Early Experiences with Implementing EAC-CPF
Erin Faulder, Veronica Martzahl, and Eliot Wilczek, Tufts University

3) Creating Access and Establishing Control: Conducting a Comprehensive Survey to Reveal a Hidden Repository
Matthew B. Gorham and Chela Scott Weber, Brooklyn Historical Society

4) Step by Step, Stage by Stage: Getting a Diverse Backlog of Legacy Finding Aids Online
Eira Tansey, Tulane University

5) You Got Your Archives in My Cataloging: A Collaborative Standards-Based Approach to Creating Item-Level Metadata for Digitized Archival Materials
Kelcy Shepherd and Kate Gerrity, Amherst College

6) A Long Road: Creating Policies and Procedures for Mandatory Arrangement and Description by Records Creators
Kristjana Kristinsdóttir, National Archives of Iceland

7) Collaboration in Cataloging: Sourcing Knowledge from Near and Far for a Challenging Collection
Evyn Kropf, University of Michigan

8) Where there’s a Will There’s a Way: Using LibGuides to Rescue Paper Ephemera from the Bibliographic Underbrush
Sharon Farnel, Robert Cole, Robert Desmarais, Spencer Holizki, and Jeff Papineau, University of Alberta

9) Describing Records, People, Organizations and Functions: The Empowering the User Project’s Flexible Archival Catalogue
Clare Paterson, University of Glasgow

10) Business as Usual: Integrating Born-Digital Materials into Regular Workflows
Jackie Dean and Meg Tuomala, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

11) Opening the Black File Cabinets: Describing Single Items for Discovery and Access
James Gerencser, Dickinson College

You can access more information on this book and the others in the series and read some enthusiastic early reviews from Kathleen Roe and Bill Landis on the Rowman & Littlefield site:

Thanks to all the wonderful contributors and I’m looking forward to seeing all the books in print in May!


My talk from #AHA14: A Distinction worth Exploring: “Archives” and “Digital Historical Representations”

A few weeks ago I was part of the panel, “Digital Historiography and the Archives” at the 2014 meeting of the American Historical Association. [UPDATE: All papers from this session are now available online here.] As with my previous foray into a historical conference, it was an interesting experience and an informative one. Viewing how historians describe or refer to our resources, practices, and profession when talking to audiences of their peers is fascinating. The AHA is in New York in 2015, and I highly recommend that more archivists try to get on panels and attend.

When presented with the topic of this session, I was uncertain what response to take in the limited time (about 15-20 minutes, I think), so I was fortunate, as I mention in my remarks, that I procrastinated and waited until I saw the other speakers’ notes before I decided on my approach. I’m still not sure it was the most effective one possible, but it seemed to fill what I perceived as a genuine need to ensure that the necessity to “unpack” and question digital resources was explored. And since my preference is always for practical rather than theoretical discussions, I took a practical approach. The full text of the other speakers’ talks will hopefully be up soon on the AHA site, and when it is I’ll link to it so you can see the full context of my remarks. It was an interesting panel and I look forward to more discussion, both here and hopefully on the AHA site about how historians and archivists can work together to best support “digital historiography.”

I spoke without slides, and this is an only slightly modified version of the text from which I spoke. I’ve added links to the sites I reference and other sources that might be useful.

In approaching this session and this topic, I had trepidations, as I often do, about how the other speakers and the audience would be framing their conception of “archives.” In preparing my talk I read an article Josh [Sternfeld] had written for an archival journal in 2011 [“Archival Theory and Digital Historiography: Selection, Search, and Metadata as Archival Processes for Assessing Historical Contextualization,” American Archivist Fall/Winter 2011] and was pleased to see his careful usage of the phrase “digital historical representations” as an umbrella term covering some of the products created by archives, as well as a range of products created by other sources.

In approaching the subject of archives with historians and other humanities scholars, I often feel somewhat pedantic in my continual emphasis on the meaning of words. But after all, words represent concepts and perceptions of reality, and if those words aren’t clearly communicating what we intend, then it’s hard to achieve meaningful progress. What I’d like to talk about in the time I have, and hopefully as part of the discussion, is to illustrate the points Josh and Katja have made about the importance of questioning, understanding, and articulating the context of creation of digital historical representations by discussing the differences between different types of digital information sources created and used by historians—many if not most of which are often all referred to as “archives.”  In all of these cases the context of the creation of the information sources is critical to understanding the problems that may be inherent in that source and which the researcher should take into consideration. I am not a historian, but I would think that understanding why and how an information resource was created—that is to say, its context—is more valid than ever in digital historiography.

Everyone here is familiar with what for lack of a better term I’ll call “traditional” archives—that is, primarily paper-based (or non-digital) largely unique materials, brought together in repositories in aggregations either created by the originating organization or person, or by a third party, such as a scholar, manuscript dealer, or the repository itself (as in special collections).  Appraisal and selection of such materials is a multi-dimensional process, as you might imagine, with many factors involved, including sometimes political influence, censorship on the part of the creator/collector, resource limitations on the part of the repository, random chance and “acts of God.” How and why the materials on our shelves end up there is not always a straightforward story and one that is usually not captured in detail in the public description of the materials. How the materials were aggregated and for what purpose is usually described at some level in the finding aid, but documentation in this area is sometimes sporadic. I would guess most archivists believe—rightly or wrongly—that fields like “Custodial History,” “Appraisal, Destruction and Scheduling Information,” and “Administrative/Biographical History” (which applies to creators of aggregates) are not valued by most users.   To be honest, I’m not sure how often it’s even of interest to historians, or at least how often they ask the archivist about more information if the finding aid is skimpy in this regard. Anecdotal evidence from my colleagues and user studies indicate that it is not widely valued or used by users.

Again, that’s “traditional” physical archival materials, represented digitally by descriptions in online finding aids, catalog records, etc. For these materials, what has changed for historians in the modern digital age, I think is the increased expectation—and reality—that more descriptive information about materials will be made available online, and also the ability to easily create their own digital copies with digital cameras and smart phones.

Next we have collections of digitized analog historical materials—sometimes called “digital archives.” These may be topically based—assembled from holdings of many repositories, like the William Blake Archive or the Wilson Center Digital Archive, which is focused on documents related to international relations. Or they may be all from one repository—as in the recently launched FRANKLIN site, which provides online access to digitized collections from the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum. These collections may be created by archivists, librarians, historians, passionate amateurs, nonprofit organizations or for-profit companies.  Because these digital historical representations, to use Josh’s term, are created by such a wide range of sources, it’s critical to know about the context of these collections—including who assembled them, what their purpose was, and what criteria they used.

Often when historians are talking about archives, when I probe to see what they mean, it is these kinds of collections they are referring to. Katja’s point that it’s important to know where the individual original materials are located and where they fit in their archival context is a valid one, but it’s also important to understand where they fit in the context of the new digital collection. On what basis were items added to this collection? Why were some items excluded? To what extent is what’s being presented a subset of what’s available? Where does the metadata come from? How was it created and reviewed?  As with online finding aids for physical collections, what you’re accessing in this kind of digital collection is a surrogate—a description of that object or aggregate created by a person to represent it. Even the scan is a surrogate—although hopefully an accurate one.  Descriptions and metadata can be subjective and also subject to errors.

It seems to me as if these kinds of collection—or “digital archives” as they’re commonly called, would raise a host of questions in terms of digital historiography—some similar to those presented by online information for “traditional” archives, but many others that are different.

Yet a different kind of aggregate, also sometimes called “digital archives” are groups of born-digital materials as opposed to the digital surrogates of analog originals I just talked about. These types of aggregates, kept together because they come from a single source or creator, reside primarily within archives and special collections repositories, and consist of records created or received by an organization in the course of business, maintained by them and transferred to their associated archival repository. For example, the electronic records created by the Census Bureau and transferred to the National Archives. You can also have the equivalent of the “papers” of a person or family, such as Salman Rushdie collection at Emory, which contains the contents of his personal computers. For these kinds of aggregates archives have most of the same kinds of issues with selection, appraisal, and custodial history as they do with non-digital materials, but with additional issues raised by their digital format, as Katja noted, related to reliability and authenticity as well as how to provide access.

And last but not least, you can have assembled collections of born-digital materials—yet another category of what are termed “digital archives.” The September 11 Digital Archive created by the Center for History and New Media is a good example of this type of collection. In this case—and also with the Internet Archive—the collection serves a critical function: acquiring born-digital materials that might not otherwise survive. Many born-digital materials are more fragile than their analog counterparts for various reasons, and so some of these collections are similar in function to special collections libraries, which pull together valuable individual items for preservation. It’s also worth noting that in digital collections, copies of materials can reside in more than one collection. For example, in the September 11 collection there are copies of documents created by the New York City Fire Department (Incident Action Plans). Presumably there are also copies of these born-digital records being transferred to the official repository for the municipal records of New York City.  These kinds of “digital archives” combine the issues related to assembled collections—that is, the necessity of exploring who is creating them, for what purpose and using what methods— and those concerns related to born-digital materials as far as preservation and authenticity.

Coming back to Josh’s use of the term “digital historical representations,” I’m happy to see this broader term being used in discussions about “archives” and digital historiography. For me, many products that come under this term—like databases and sources like Google Books—would be removed one step (or more than one step) too far to be categorized as “archives.” I would consider these as separate intellectual products created from archival sources.  And, indeed, in a way, so are any of the collections in which copies of archival materials are removed from their original context and “re-mixed” to be part of a new creation—a new “digital archives” like Valley of the Shadow, to use a classic example. In fact, in a pre-digital era analogous versions of the scholarly products I’ve talked about here (other than databases) would still have existed, I think, and been called something other than “archives”—they would have taken the form of exhibits, edited volumes of letters or printed collections of documents, assembled and edited by historians or other sources. The question of why the word “archives” has been adopted to refer to collections of materials is one for a different discussion, but I do think it’s worth noting that this co-opting of the word does seem to be a rather recent development.

I hope the efforts being discussed today encouraging more rigorous assessment of digital historical representations will result in a greater understanding and appreciation of what makes archives distinct from these other kinds of products. I often fear that this appreciation and understanding is being lost as fewer historians work with “old-fashioned” physical archival collections, and do most of their work online, where it is easy to think that all digital collections are the same. The value of the collections of materials preserved in archives often lies in the relationship of the records to each other—what’s called the archival bond—which means that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. As a whole, the materials provide evidence about the activities of the creator.

In considering the topic of this session, I’d like all of us to consider this as two way street. It’s heartening to see archival concepts such as appraisal and provenance being discussed at an AHA session and so information flow from the archival literature to this audience, and hopefully this will continue.  On a related topic, I’m always interested in hearing how much historians actually know about either archival theory or practice. Anecdotal evidence provided by many of my archivist colleagues suggests that such knowledge is, shall we say, uneven. So that’s another topic that might be worth discussing—how much do historians know about archives and what more would be helpful or necessary to assist in their work.

But I also want to see information flow the other way, and I hope we can get into this a bit in the discussion that follows. That is, I’m interested in learning what digital historiography, that is the study of the interaction of digital technology with historical practice—what can this new field of study and you as historians tell the archival profession—and me specifically. How has the way you do your work changed?  And how can archives and archivists do things differently to assist in that?

Today’s conversation is about how digital technology has changed the way you do your work as historians, and certainly it has also effected the way archivists do our work as well. Among the most significant of those ways is in the increased workload to create descriptions and digital copies to post online, find ways to collect and preserve digital materials, and of course, actively connect with the public via the ever widening world of digital tools and social media. Digital technology has increased the user base for archival resources, meaning that the connection between our historian users and archivists is more diluted than it was in the past. In prioritizing our work and establishing our practices, archivists are trying to meet the needs of the broadest range of users. In so doing, it’s possible that the more specialized needs of historians—if indeed they are different from other users—are not being met. We need to keep an ongoing dialog between our two professions to ensure that we’re all working together as effectively as possible to support the historical enterprise.

I look forward to discussing both archival theory and practice, and hopefully historical practice as well, in the discussion that follows, and in many subsequent conversations.

Again, update: All papers are now available on Michael J. Kramer’s blog.

Background papers available for Canadian Archives Summit

In case you missed the announcement, this event is taking place this week and several interesting papers from the “Thought Leaders” are available online:

Representatives from l’Association des Archivistes du Quebec (AAQ), the Association of Canadian Archivists (ACA), and the Canadian Council of Archives (CCA) as well as Ian E. Wilson, the former Librarian and Archivist of Canada, have planned a special Canadian Archives Summit: Towards a New Blueprint for Canada’s Recorded Memory at the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto, 8:30 to 5:00, on Friday, January 17, 2014.

The Summit is intended to provide the Canadian archival community an opportunity to consider its future and envision how Canada’s documentary heritage remains a valued part of Canada’s knowledge infrastructure. The Canadian Archives Summit: Towards a New Blueprint for Canada’s Recorded Memory will be a national, interactive discussion.

Just go to event’s main page, scroll down and you can see what’s available online. I was honored to be invited to speak as one of the Agents Provocateurs to give a 7-minute talk on “The Role of Archives in a Digital Society.” I’m writing that talk out and not using PowerPoint, so as soon as the event is over I’ll post my text online, and also point to any other resources that are made available.