Archival Innovators: Helen Selsdon, Archivist, American Foundation for the Blind

This is the latest post in our new series Archival Innovators, which aims to raise awareness of the individuals, institutions, and collaborations that are helping to boldly chart the future of the the archives profession and set new precedents for the role of the archivist in society.

Helen Selsdon. Photo courtesy of the American Foundation for the Blind.

In this installation of Archival Innovators, we bring you an interview with Helen Selsdon, Archivist at the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB), highlighting her work coordinating a National Endowment for the Humanities-funded project to digitize the AFB’s Helen Keller Archive and make the digital collection fully accessible to blind, deaf, hearing impaired, deafblind, sighted, and hearing audiences alike.  This groundbreaking project serves as a model for providing truly inclusive access to digitized collections.

AA: Where did you get your idea and what inspired you?

HS: The American Foundation for the Blind’s Helen Keller Archive is the world’s largest repository of materials relating to Keller’s life and work as a deafblind author and activist who dedicated much of her life to advocating for people with disabilities.  Keller served as an early leader of AFB, beginning in 1924 and continuing to work for the organization for over 40 years, and she has been the main inspiration for our project to digitize the Archive and make it fully accessible online to blind, deaf, hearing impaired, deafblind, sighted and hearing audiences alike.  The project has enabled us to bring Keller’s archive to the very audiences whom she tirelessly served throughout her life. Please visit: www.afb.org/HelenKellerArchive!

As for the original idea for the project itself, I certainly cannot claim credit for that!  The idea was a truly collaborative one developed throughout AFB over the course of several years, and is indeed a natural outgrowth of our mission to promote accessibility, equality, and opportunity for people who are blind or visually impaired.  As the project coordinator, I am simply grateful to be a part of this project and to help make Keller’s extraordinary archive universally accessible online.

AA: What kind of institutional, administrative, or financial support did you have for the project? How did you go about securing that support?

HS: First and foremost, this project would not have been possible without the support of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), which has provided principal funding for the project through a series of four grant awards. In March 2015, AFB received a Humanities Collections and Reference Resources grant for Phase I of the project; two additional, smaller grants were awarded for Phase One of the project which ended in December 2017. In March 2018, an additional Humanities Collections and Reference Resources grant was awarded for Phase II of the project which is projected to end in October 2020. Success is contagious! As the result of securing the NEH funds, other private funders, most notably American Express, have also joined this project to support it financially.

As I mentioned previously, AFB is also completely behind the project and has provided substantial institutional support and resources to see it through.  AFB’s administration understands how highly unusual it is for such an organization to have the opportunity to steward such an invaluable and historically significant collection as the Helen Keller Archive, and they see firsthand how Helen Keller continues to serve as a powerfully inspirational figure for the rising generation of disability advocates.  They are committed to ensuring global online access to the collection for the many audiences – from scholarly researchers to children – who contact us every day wanting to learn more about Helen Keller.

AA: What barriers or challenges did you face?

HS: The technical customization required to ensure full accessibility to the digital collection for the blind, deaf, hearing impaired and deafblind was, and continues to be, a challenge.  A great deal of the NEH funding has gone towards the development of customization tools that can take a standard finding aid hierarchy, which provides the structure for the digital collection, and configure the underlying code in such a way that enables access for people using assistive technologies.  Fortunately, we were able to engage a wonderful group of programmers from Veridian, a management software design company, to develop those tools for us.  It was definitely a learning process, even for the coding experts!  But it is my hope that more experts like Veridian learn how to enable access to digital collections for assistive technologies, this in turn will result in accessibility becoming a standard component of archival digitization projects.

Another challenge concerned optical character recognition (OCR) of digitized handwritten documents in the Helen Keller Archive. While standard OCR software can make written documents text-searchable, this utility is largely restricted to type-written documents.  The standard tools are much less effective when it comes to handwritten documents.  This challenge required us to come up with a solution, which we did! As the result of posting an advert requesting volunteer transcribers on Idealist.org we now have an amazing team of volunteers from around the country who work remotely to transcribe handwritten documents that can then be read by OCR. All these transcribers are trained by Toya Dubin, the president of Hudson Archival, the company entrusted with digitizing the collection. The first phase of this transcription work started in March of 2018, and the first public launch of the project was in June 2018.

AA: Do you have collaborators? If so, how did you find them?

HS: It’s no exaggeration to say that the entire project is one immense collaboration.  At the last count, we had 22 people from all different walks of life and expertise working on this project.

Choose your collaborators well! It’s a key step in making sure your project goes smoothly and is a success.  I reached out to the archival community using listservs to find recommendations for a digitization vendor, and I came upon Hudson Archival. I now consider Toya Dubin at Hudson Archival as my “partner-in-crime” on the project. She and her team are as invested in the work as we are. And of course, we work very closely with our software team Veridian, and our army of transcribers. I can’t stress enough how collaboration has been the be-all and end-all of this project!

AA: Have you received media attention for your project? If so, how did you make that happen?

HS: Fortunately, yes!  To promote the project, AFB’s public relations manager contacted Felicia Morton at Morton PR, who helped attract the interest of several media outlets, and we’ve received substantial media coverage of the project as a result.  One of my favorite moments from this entire project was when media outlets showed up at a celebration event we held for visually impaired fifth graders at the New York Institute for Special Education whom we had previously taught to navigate the Helen Keller Archive site using assistive technologies.

AA: Is there anything about the project you would do differently?

HS: To be honest, in the big picture, the entire project has gone exceedingly well, and overall I’m happy to say that I would run the project in much the same way again – with one major exception – metadata! If there’s something important we learned it’s that metadata takes a very long time to create – and certainly far longer than we anticipated. My advice to others is to schedule more time for this aspect of your digitization project and increase your budget accordingly.

AA: Do you have any tips for budding archival innovators?

HS: My first piece of advice, for those who are seeking external funding for their projects through an agency like the NEH, would be to never give up on pursuing grant awards!  I know how difficult it is; we went through ten years of unsuccessful proposals to the NEH before finally receiving our first grant for the project.  I’m convinced that we never would have secured funding if it wasn’t for NEH Program Officer Joel Wurl, who graciously and patiently worked with us to continually improve our proposal and encouraged us to keep applying.  Once we finally received funding, Joel continued to work with us every step of the way, and thanks to his help we were able to secure additional grants to help sustain the project.  None of this would have happened without Joel’s help.

My second piece of advice involves the technical process. Customization of the digital site was an important and complicated task. AFB does not have the staff nor time to undertake this aspect of the project on its own. AFB’s amazing technical team worked hand-in-glove with Veridian to get the job done. Securing the assistance of an outside software company proved essential and I advise others with limited staff and resources to do the same. Everybody wins!

Some other tips I would offer based on my experience are:

  • Don’t panic – know that you’ll need to take things one step at a time and problem-solve as you go. Everything takes a lot of time, usually longer than you think it will.
  • Be inclusive; bring in people who do not think like you.
  • Do a lot of usability testing with diverse user groups who bring different ways of thinking. We’ve had a wonderful group of users– people who are sighted, blind, low vision, deafblind, and who have paraplegia – from various backgrounds, including  scholars and academics, testing and providing feedback on our site throughout the project, and their input has been invaluable.
  • Never, never be afraid to ask for help. If you don’t ask for help, you’ll never get your project off the ground!

Helen Selsdon has served as the archivist for the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) since 2002. She manages the Helen Keller Archive, the Talking Book Archive, the AFB Archive, and the M. C. Migel Rare Book collection. She serves as a grant writer and spokesperson for AFB’s historical collections.

Most recently she was the project director for a National Endowment for the Humanities-funded initiative to digitize and make accessible a large portion of the Helen Keller Archive. Selsdon coordinated the work, including AFB’s efforts to pioneer an online digital archive that can be a model of accessibility for other repositories: the Helen Keller Archive. On the heels of completing this project in December 2017, AFB was awarded a second grant to digitize the press clippings and scrapbooks in Helen Keller’s Archive.

Prior to her work at AFB, Selsdon worked as an archival consultant and created archival collections for organizations as diverse as Pfizer pharmaceutical company, the Chapin School for Girls, and a private family collection in Manhattan. Selsdon first became interested in archival work in 1988 when she worked as an assistant to the archivist at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London in London, England.

Selsdon holds a bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts, Painting, from Camberwell School of Art, London, U.K., and a master’s degree in Medieval History and certificate in Archival Management from New York University.


Do you know an Archival Innovator who should be featured on ArchivesAWARE?  Send us your suggestions at archivesaware@archivists.org!

2 thoughts on “Archival Innovators: Helen Selsdon, Archivist, American Foundation for the Blind

  1. Tamera Coleman says:

    Kudos! to Ms. Selsdon and everyone involved with this project. It is truly a huge accomplishment from an innovative standpoint and specifically for the community this will serve. My grandfather lost his sight in his senior years and my aunt lost hers suddenly at the age of 65 upon her retirement. She relies on cassette tapes she receives regularly from the Blind Association and she really enjoyed Michelle Obama’s audiobook. I transitioned from media to the archives profession about 10 years ago and am enjoying working on diverse archival projects. This one speaks volumes! Thanks for this interview.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s