This is the latest entry in our Archives + Audiences series, which features the perspectives of archival audiences – scholars, journalists, filmmakers, artists, activists, and more – for whom archives have been an important part of their life and work. In this post, COPA Career Member Kristi Chanda interviews Susan Smith. Dr. Smith, Winton M. Blount Research Chair for the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum, discusses the museum’s archival holdings and her role in supporting research in postal history.
KBC: What is the overall mission of your institution?
SNS: The mission of the Smithsonian is “the increase and diffusion of knowledge.” Within this framework, the role of the National Postal Museum is to preserve, study and present postal history and philately. More specifically, the museum’s mission states that “Through the preservation and interpretation of our postal and philatelic collections, the Smithsonian National Postal Museum educates, challenges, and inspires its audiences on the breadth of American experiences.”
KBC: What are your current goals and how will hiring an archivist help achieve these goals?
SNS: My job as the Winton M. Blount Research Chair is to enable and support research in the fields of philately and postal history. This involves research conducted by the staff of the National Postal Museum and the Smithsonian as well as by researchers from around the world. In order to more effectively promote the scholarship related to the museum’s mission, I am working to make the museum’s archival holdings more accessible while expanding their depth and breadth. Although I am not an archivist, I am a historian with a tremendous appreciation of archives born of my own experiences as a researcher. Moreover, and more importantly, discussions with staff and external researchers have made evident the ways in which we could improve how we support the development of the philatelic and historical fields. The materials held by the museum are varied in type and include personal papers, citizens’ letters to postal officials, interviews, logbooks, airmail contract cards, print and digital photographs, postal forms, postal registers and ledgers, blueprints, and stamp production designs. These and other materials are housed in several different spaces. Museum staff continue to be offered intriguing potential donations but have been reluctant to accept them for the lack of an established space and system of categorization.
The challenges we face limit access to materials that would enable historians to examine broad and diverse topics. These range from philately as a very popular hobby to the state-sponsored design and iconography of stamps from around the world; cultures of letter-writing; the development of domestic and international business ties and practices; America’s expansion, with new post offices marking the arrival of the federal government and potential markets for industries that built upon as well as supplied the postal system; the role of the Postal Service in creating and breaking employment barriers based on race and gender; and the bureaucratic, labor and business practices and problems in an organization which, at its peak in 1999, had nearly 800,000 employees spread throughout the United States and its territories. There is potential to create and communicate knowledge about these subjects, but we have to unlock the sources by locating, acquiring, preserving, and organizing the material to be searchable and findable. And we haven’t forgotten that we must also do these things as we begin to collect the born-digital material that will enable us to document the operations and innovations of the modern Postal Service, stamp design, and mailing industries. The museum is working to hire an archivist who will help us define the intellectual framework that will both improve access and respond to trends in the fields that intersect with philately and postal history.
KBC: In what ways are you advocating for archiving in your institution?
SNS: Smithsonian staff are fortunate to be able to compete for funds from the Smithsonian’s Women’s Committee to undertake projects that provide greater access to Smithsonian collections. I successfully applied for funds to hire an archival contractor to survey the materials and establish the scale of the work to be done. My colleagues in the curatorial and collections departments and the librarian shared their extensive institutional knowledge with the contractor, and archivists in other units shared insights. When pandemic protocol finally allowed limited access to collections, the contractor was able to examine some of the materials. She provided a blueprint for steps to be taken to realize intellectual and organizational frameworks and to create the policies necessary for an accessible archive, producing an excellent starting point for the museum’s future archivist.
KBC: What lessons can be learned from your experience?
SNS: I have loved working in archives, but not every person who works at, interacts with, or is a stakeholder in the museum has had the same experiences. In advocating for the development of a formal archive at the museum, I have had to learn how to speak with internal and external stakeholders about the differences between museum and archival practices and functions. The response has been overwhelmingly favorable because of the shared goals to improve and advance access and use of the materials for all. I imagine that the lesson that can be learned from my experience is a common and essential one: keep in mind the people who must be involved to make an archive possible, accessible, and successful, and work with them early and consistently.
This is the latest post in our series Archival Innovators, which aims to raise awareness of individuals, institutions, and collaborations that are helping to boldly chart the future of the archives profession and set new precedents for the role of archivists in society. In this installment, COPA member Kristi Chanda interviews Julie Rockwell, archivist and “lone arranger” from Pennsylvania’s East Broad Top Railroad.
KC: What are your responsibilities at East Broad Top Railroad?
JR: First, I’m a Lone Arranger. I was hired in April of last year to herald the East Broad Top Railroad’s new Archives and Special Collections program, and I’m pretty much heralding everything from the beginning – from scratch. I’m actually building the program. The East Broadtop Railroad National Historic landmark was in operation during its Common Carrier Era, as we call it, from its developments in 1856 to its closing in 1956. There was a little lag time in operations where it then went into tourist railroad operations, which basically stopped in 2011. The actual historic site was dormant until a new foundation, the EBT Foundation, purchased the railroad. There’s 33 miles of property that encompasses the National Historic Landmark, and they hired an archivist to tackle the inestimable amount of paper materials. bound volumes, ephemera, physical objects that encompass what we would call, either museum collections or typical organizational records and archives. I basically walked into a passenger station, which was built in 1906. In the station are 3 fireproof brick vaults, each between 950 and 1,400 cubic feet, and all of them 12 to 14 feet high. The vaults are filled with materials that have basically never been touched since the Common Carrier Era. Also, the headquarters of East Broad Top was in Philadelphia so all of those materials, when the railroad closed down, came to the Orbisonia passenger station. All of what we call the tourist excursion era, all of those documentation and recordings of office and records management stayed in the vault. We’re also starting to collect this new revitalization and restoration documentation of the railroad, which is to become a steam excursion railroad once again. I came in with an overwhelming, daunting task. I can’t thank the Johns Hopkins dual Museum Studies and Digital Curation Program, from which I graduated in December of 2020, for offering, and really preparing me for these foundational skills. I was able to take the courses in the foundations of archives, digital preservation and curation, and collections and catalog management, and really see archives from a bigger picture lens of what preservation means, and how much it takes to advocate for preservation purposes. For the EBT, I started to understand what materials we have, the conditions they are in, and what I can do to better secure and better environmentally protect the materials that are basically in a station that was built in the early twentieth century, considerations that have never been addressed before. I knew I had to build a mission statement, a scope of collections, a collections management policy, access and use policy, and all of the policies that are under that umbrella of preservation.
I also knew I needed help. I reached out to the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts in Philadelphia. I was familiar with the Conservation Center. I had attended many online seminars and was also able to meet contacts there through PA Museums and the American Association of State and Local History (AASLH).
I called my contact up, and I said guess what i’m doing, and I know that we need a third party assessment. This was the only way that we could leverage big picture funding, and to have that deeper lens into what exactly we need from a conservation and preservation professional viewpoint and perspective. The Conservation Center experts were able to meet me and various advocates on the Foundation Board, as well as their sister organization, an all volunteer organization (and both of these are non-profit), the Friends of the East Broad Top. I had these particular constituents come together, meet with Dyani Feige and her preservation team, along with the director of the Conservation Center. After a couple of months, we were able to set up the ability to have an archival preservation needs assessment conducted. The greatest thing about this is that we have incredible donors who were able to fund this assessment.
Our mission, protecting, preserving, and providing access, not only to the historic site and to the railroad, could now address this deeper lens and the beauty of what we can find in the contextual layers of all of these archival materials. This mission is something that keeps me thinking about the archives every day, every night, and gets me up every morning.
KC: How did you prioritize your collections?
JR: It was first to really get an idea of the scope of what we have. I was fortunate last summer to have an intern from one of the local colleges, and the first priority was to do a spot inventory. We were able to go into every area that we could find,what we would call archival materials,identify them by giving a general title, location, and noting the condition of the materials. Some items that need triaging would definitely be maps and drawings that the railroad operations actually need to help restore: track engines, box cars, different rolling stock, etc. Inventory pretty much took all summer and I’m actually still in the process of doing it. Almost every day I find something, and or someone has texted me that has another box of stuff on my desk. So it’s really an inestimable amount of linear feet but I’ve estimated between 3500 and 5000 ft of linear materials. The other triage that I focused on were the bound volumes. I do have bound volumes that are pretty depreciating, regarding conditions in terms of the bindings. However, all of the material inside, the documentation, is quite intact, which is fabulous. But just to make sure that they’re not handled, we have stored them separately. I did store them in bins. Unfortunately they’re not acid-free. I’m doing everything on a shoestring budget. I am doing the “good enough” practices that I know that when I reach the next level, once I get a line item, funding, and a storage facility/repository, then I will be able to go to the next levels of preservation and conservation and have the materials reviewed by a conservator. For now they’re wrapped in acid-free paper, and they’re put away.
KC: What projects are you in the process of working on and what ones have you completed?
JR: Most important for me, I think as a Lone Arranger, is to know that there can be someone there to assist. I have 2 volunteers from the Friends, one is Scarlett Wirt. She worked with collections with the National Park Service, and she has organizational record experience. We also have, who we call the primary EBT scholar and historian, Dr. Lee Rainey, who knows everything you could imagine about the East Broad Top Railroad. They have been what we call our worker bees. The new archives task force appointed the 3 of us to work together closely. We have met almost every Tuesday on Zoom since last August, after I completed my initial report. We are building the program together. We are still developing policy and procedures. We know we can’t move forward unless we have many policies and procedures in place. Having the mission statement, having our goals and a strategic plan for at least the first 2 years, and then moving into the access and use policy, the scope of collections and all of those that will fall under environmental conditions is a priority. The second component of that is my experience with digital curation and what I learned in school and applying this knowledge for the born digital records that are coming out of the Foundation, which is very important. We’re understanding that many grants will really want you to already have a collection online and public access in place. We don’t have an accessible reading room and we haven’t formally processed collections yet. Also, looking at the next step of digitization is making sure we have the right hardware and digital storage. We just purchased our computer workstation. So, making sure that all of my digital content is going to be safe, secure, and that the integrity of the digital objects and data are going to be in long-term, sustainable condition is a priority. Then there’s the digitization policy and making sure that the selected collections are doable, and that there’s a balance between that selection and also of what the public would like to see. For example, I just documented the workflow of how to protect a map with mylar and that might seem very simple to many of us who are experienced in archives, but when I’m bringing on volunteers and interns, I want them to learn the right way. So it’s building all of these different layers, so we can actually, yes, scan our first small collection, which was a donation that we received last year and actually take it through the entire archival processing methodology, from the appraisal, the arrangement, the description, and then finally producing a finding aid, plus having the collections digitized and then accessible online. I’m kind of doing everything, well, all at once.
KC: What are some of the obstacles you have encountered and how did you overcome them?
JR: Last summer, Sammy, my intern, and I mostly worked on the second floor of the passenger station, and we would have a designated space for one day, but maybe that space would have to change. So we’d have to move our work for the day to another area.
We would have maps splayed out to try to conduct our inventory on these small little tables.
We didn’t have a space to call ours. I basically said that I don’t know what else I can do unless I have a designated space, that is, for the archives. I need tables to lay out materials, and I need shelves to at least start putting bins of materials on so they’re kept off the floor, and also to create my computer workstation. Having that space and advocating for that space was really critical, and having the necessary, organizational support from the management.
The other challenge to overcome is having people believe in the archives. Unfortunately, creating a formal archive was not, at first, a priority. I imagine the conversation starting with, “Oh, by the way, what are we going to do with all of these paper materials?” Many inherently understood the value of them, but they didn’t necessarily see the bigger picture of hiring someone to actually do that type of work. So I think that the biggest challenge right now is that I’m funded by donations, and I’m only funded part-time. Advocating for my role as the archivist is kind of like singing for my supper, and that can be very exhausting. There’s a balance between showing them what we can do, and I say “we,” because I think that we have a community of passionate people that are working for the EBT and I’m the leader heralding the archives work, but also helping the public understand that they need to support the archives. Together, through the organization and the public, there’s more advocacy coming from all points of the spectrum. The public desires to see the materials. The Foundation and the Friends need to make sure that the archives continue with their organizational legacies and with their mission statements, which align with ours – to protect, preserve, and provide this access, and also allows for me to continue doing this work. Or, it just falls apart. So it’s a balance of doing the work and advocating for the work.
KC: What goals do you have moving forward?
JR: My goal is to just keep doing the work strategically and carefully. I’ve been really mindful and open to understanding my limitations. I think the Foundation knows my general manager has been really happy to find someone who is adaptable and flexible, and not perhaps expected in a more established archives. I guess you could say that I understand that there’s limited resources. When you see where we started from last April to what we see now, we’ve done a heck of a lot to have a formal preservation needs assessment report in our hands, to have a great space where I can work, a designated space assigned in January specifically for the archives, to have the funding to keep me going for at least this year, having Sammy return after he graduates this spring as an assistant, and also to have another college intern work on a specific project funded by a grant. We applied for a grant from the National Railroad Historical Society for our maps and drawings project so we can purchase a wide format scanner, and actually start processing the inestimable amount of these materials. With hopefully getting this first grant, we hope we can garner more funding. We can advocate for more permanent funding also make sure that we have our T’s crossed and our I’s dotted to to leverage grant funding and become more prepared to be competitive. I think that the goal is just to keep doing the work and know that it’s time-consuming, it’s tedious, but I can’t imagine doing anything else right now,
KC: What lessons have you learned and what tools/skills have you developed as a result of your experience?
JR: More leadership skills in the archives and trusting that it’s not what I’m always physically doing, but mentally knowing what work needs to be done. I credit a lot of this understanding from the Society of American Archivists (SAA). This will be my third year that I’ve been a member, and I feel that the organization’s inclusivity to archivists at all stages of the field is encouraging. I don’t necessarily like using the word ‘emerging’ because I think we all start from somewhere, and we build upon all of the different experiences that we have at different times in our careers. We’re always ‘emerging’. This is my fourth career, so I come from a long history of project management, being a director in the theater, teaching culinary arts and teaching American history. I come to this work from different perspectives and different career sets and skill sets, which makes me believe that archivists can have many talents and many different roadmaps to lead them to this point. I think that SAA has really connected me with amazing archivists that are mentors. I can even learn something from them just by following them on Twitter. Also really understanding that resources are out there. Especially for all archivists is to understand that we’re all in this together. There are different SAA section groups such as Preservation, Lone Arrangers, Collections Management, and Museum Archives, and you know somebody is gonna be in that group who will be very willing to talk to you and answer a question and provide you with additional resources. So I think that it’s knowing how to network, knowing how to ask the right questions, and not being afraid to ask those questions. For example, reaching out to the Conservation Center was an epiphany that I had in the middle of the night. I’m so glad that I trusted my instincts to know that I can’t do this alone, and if I have to be a Lone Arranger, then at least I’m gonna have a posse behind me to help lead me on.
This is the latest post in our series Archival Innovators, which aims to raise awareness of individuals, institutions, and collaborations that are helping to boldly chart the future of the archives profession and set new precedents for the role of archivists in society. In this installment, COPA member Claudia Willett interviews four members of SAA’s newest committee, the Committee on Research, Data and Assessment (CORDA), who provide an update on the Committee and one of its newest initiatives, the Facts+Figures website. Jennifer King and Erin Passehl Stoddart are co-chairs of CORDA and Dennis Meissner and Chris Marino serve on the Facts+Figures team that led the redesign of the website.
What is CORDA?
The mission of the Committee on Research, Data and Assessment (CORDA) is to elevate awareness of archives by making central the role that research, data and assessment play in our ability as archivists to tell the story and show the impact of archives. There are many ways to increase awareness of archives – and one of the most powerful ways is to reveal trends and increase awareness through understanding data. How does CORDA elevate the importance of research and innovation, you might ask? CORDA provides access to significant and useful data and research about SAA, American archives, and their users that evidence the value of archives for society and help us improve our services to SAA members and to our consumers. The Committee supports research and creates, gathers, and preserves data by directing and engaging in these areas of activity:
● Providing SAA members with standardized tools for gathering and analyzing data;
● Providing a repository or portal for data and other research outputs;
● Providing training on gathering, analyzing, interpreting, and using data; and
● Providing up-to-date and reliable basic facts and figures about archives and archivists
Rounding out our charge is the task of asserting a research agenda to help guide research, assessment and data going forward.
Since establishment in 2019, CORDA has established and manages the SAA Dataverse; the SAA Facts and Figures website; training for archivists to conduct research; and an inclusively developed research and innovation roadmap to frame the profession’s work going forward. Accomplishing the above in a fairly short period of time has been made possible through the exceptional work of our committee.
Tell us about the Facts+Figures [F+F] microsite.
Facts+Figures (F&F) is designed to provide users with quick and simple access to information resources important to archivists or their constituencies. The resources on the site share the common quality of being derived from data – data compiled or created by archivists as a result of their research, data about archivists and archives from external agencies, and tools to enhance archival practice resulting from research data.
The newly redesigned F+F site is divided into three content channels: SAA Data Repository (SAA Dataverse), Evaluation + Assessment, and Tools + Resources. The Data Repository supports the deposit and reuse of datasets for purposes of fostering knowledge, insights, and a deeper understanding of archives and archivists. The page contains a search bar that enables users to search across the Dataverse and learn about the submission procedures and collection development policy. The Evaluation + Assessment channel may include at-a-glance dashboards, charts, graphs, reports, fact sheets and quick guides that support advocacy, explain archives and archivists to external entities, and provide insight into the functions of archivists and their repositories. The Tools + Resources channel may include software recommendations to perform tasks, how-to instructions and guidelines, checklists, best-practice guides, and self-assessment tools to employ data in support of advocacy efforts and in assessing archival impact.
Unlike the Facts and Figures page that preceded it, the reimagined F+F will be actively curated by CORDA and is a dynamic resource that will be augmented with new content items on a continuing basis. It will be a resource for archivists to turn to for quick information to aid them in advocacy efforts, to help them benchmark their performance against peers, and to adopt or adapt tools to make their work easier or conform better to best practices.
Do you see a role for data as an archival advocacy and awareness tool?
Yes! It is hard to imagine a more powerful storytelling tool than data. In fact, it is that desire that drove the creation of CORDA. In his SAA presidential address, “Bare Necessities,” Dennis Meissner argued that SAA must “concentrate on gathering, evaluating, and presenting the real quantitative and qualitative evidence that supports all the compelling narratives and theoretical arguments about the value of archives. We need this evidence because we have struggled for many years with the challenge of demonstrating the ‘value’ of archives via anything resembling objective measures.” He proposed that SAA form a Committee on Research and Evaluation (CORE), with a goal “to provide access to compelling data about American archives and their users that speak to the value of archives for society and that also help us improve our services to our consumers.”
In addition to archivists, who might benefit from these resources?
Funding, policies, and cultural heritage priorities are better informed when decision-makers have access to regular and reliable research, data and assessment. Future-thinking, forecasting and change initiatives grounded in facts and figures will best ensure that society values archives, and plans for the ongoing protections required to promote archival stewardship.
Research, data and assessment is also critical for auditing our efforts as repositories. Efforts like A*CENSUS I and II, and RepoData are more meaningful when data is gathered regularly and enables longitudinal analysis. Social reform is often made possible when decision-makers are confronted with incontrovertible data. As archivists, collections and records serve an evidentiary role and can impact decision making and analysis.
Management of archival resources requires short-term and long-range planning, and both always benefit from access to data. The need for data to underpin short-term and long-range planning is intensified during times of political instability, climate change, and interrogation of the racialization of memory work. Archivists, along with other professions in the cultural heritage fields, need centralized infrastructure for their assessment, data and research efforts, as well as an idea of how those efforts might be complementary efforts in a broader research framework. CORDA hopes that archivists will be inspired to see resources aggregated into a more coherent whole and inspired to help address gaps and all demand factual accounting of archival efforts.
What are the next steps for F+F?
Continue to build out and organize content for quick and simple access! Every archivist has their “go-to” resources that aid them in explaining their value, promoting themselves and their missions, and understanding their impacts and potential. We want to harness that knowledge and share it with the wider community. To contribute content to F+F, visit our microsite and click “suggest new content.”
 CORDA committee members, past and present: Nancy Beaumont (SAA Executive Director) Mary Biddle, Sarah Buchanan, Paul Conway (Chair), Julia Corrin (Education Committee Liaison), Courtney Dean, Jasmine Jones (Council Liaison), Jennifer King (Chair), Amanda Hawk, Cristina Horak, Gwendolyn Higgins, Carli Lowe, Chris Marino, Sarah Pratt Martin, Dennis Meissner, Nance McGovern (Ex Officio), Jacqualine Price Osafo (SAA Executive Director), Ricky Punzalan (Council Liaison), Erin Passehl Stoddart (Chair), Jennifer Wachtel (Education Committee Liaison).
This post is the 11th in the series “Federal Funding Impact Stories,” as published on the ArchivesAWARE blog. As archivists, librarians, and museum professionals, we know how our collections, institutions, and local communities have benefited from grant funding from federal agencies, such as: Institute of Museum and Library Services, National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, and National Historical Publications and Records Commission. Personal impact is powerful. Submitted stories will be posted to the ArchivesAWARE blog by the SAA Committee on Public Awareness, and promoted by the Society of American Archivists through their website and social media channels. All posts will be tagged #ImpactStories, along with tags for the funding agency and the state where the home institution is located. We hope to gather stories representing all types of archival repositories, and in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, so please consider sharing your story–no impact is too small when it comes to advocating for federal support for the arts and humanities!
This Federal Funding Impact Story comes to us from Astoria Public Library, located in Astoria, Oregon. Astoria is a port city situated at the junction of the Columbia River and Pacific Ocean. It was named after John Jacob Astor, an investor from New York City whose American Fur Company founded Fort Astoria in 1811. Astoria holds the distinction of being the first, permanent, non-Native American settlement on the Pacific coast. The collection holds nearly 70,500 physical items, including historical materials unique to Astoria and the Pacific Northwest region. The City of Astoria’s earliest records are general ledgers, lien documents, general warrants, planning maps, and settler-era cemetery records. In addition, there are materials documenting Astoria’s growth specific to logging, salmon, cannery industries, and additional port-related activities.
Congressional District: Oregon’s 1st Congressional District
Grant Period: June 2019-August 2021; COVID-19 extension
Award Amount: $50,000
This archive initiative began when Jimmy Pearson became the Library Director at Astoria Public Library in October 2016. For decades, archive materials dated from the present to before the founding of Astoria (1811) collected in the library basement. A previous lack of interest and resources meant the collections remained dormant and unidentified until recently: 2018. With an Oregon Heritage grant ($21,700), Director Pearson engaged a consulting historian and archivist, and put together a plan for approximately 1200 linear feet of historical materials. Under Pearson’s leadership, a team of experts and library volunteers worked to complete a collection assessment that identified needs and recommendations. Training for handling and processing archival collections was delivered and an amazing cadre of volunteers have since processed approximately half of the collection. With an assessment performed and actionable activities identified, the next phase for the library was to find a sustainable yet effective method of publishing collections online for the community to access freely.
A note on the critical role local grants play.
It’s important to note that the Oregon Heritage grant was the first grant the library received for work on the basement archives, and it allowed the library to bring in additional expertise to help guide necessary foundation work. Upon successfully completing the grant, Director Pearson was able to seek out and secure both an Oregon Cultural Trust and an Institute for Museum and Library Services grants for FY2020 and FY2021. The work completed during the Oregon Heritage grant provided an essential underpinning to the application requests. Information gathered during the collection assessment, the adoption of a clear collection plan, and an existing base of trained volunteers helped create a compelling case for further funding. For organizations that are just starting out or are newer to grant writing, applying for local grants is a necessary first step and should be included in their funding strategy.
In March 2022, APL received a Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA) grant to digitize The Astoria Toveri. The Toveri was a newspaper produced by the Finnish community in Astoria in the early-20th century. The grant will be used to support a partnership with the University of Oregon Libraries’ Oregon Digital Newspaper Program. Digitization efforts will begin between July 1, 2022 and June 30, 2023
Specific to the IMLS grant, what was the need for the grant?
The archive collection was locked in the basement, unprocessed, and forgotten—for decades. No one knew what was down there, the community couldn’t access the materials, and the items remained largely unused in any regional history work. Two previous grants helped to facilitate assessment, identification, and description of the collections, but nothing was online. It was impossible to find the treasure trove of historical materials unless you knew about the basement in Astoria’s public library. The next step for the library was to shift to digital, but digitization, description creation, and cataloging projects are a massive undertaking—especially for a small, rural library. Additionally, a platform needed to be selected to facilitate the storage and presentation of the digitized collection.
What did the IMLS-funded project do to help meet this need?
With the IMLS grant, the library was able to thoughtfully research and select a platform that incorporates the following:
Digital preservation best practices
Archival descriptive standards
Easy to use for all user types
Facilitates online collection access
Once a platform was in place, the team was able to move forward with describing, cataloging, and publishing 500 collection items to be available online.
Where we found best practices meets sustainability.
Permanent.org meets a majority of the library’s identified needs for an online collection platform. In choosing Permanent.org, the library was able to use the IMLS award to cover the 1x cost for joining. (There is no annual cost). This fiscal advantage means Director Pearson doesn’t have to worry about finding money annually to cover the cost. Additionally, as Permanent.org is cloud-based with a supportive team and community, the library can benefit from Permanent.org-provided support—keeping the cost of outside technical support down. For the library, Permanent.org offered the best balance of: easy to use, meets digital preservation best practices, and is financially sustainable. In other words, it’s permanent.
To offer a balanced perspective, it is important to note that Permanent.org wasn’t originally created for archives, and doesn’t host the usual data fields we’ve come to expect. Currently, to meet basic requirements for Describing Archives: A Content Standard (DACS), missing data fields like “Creator” or “Identifier” have to use the tag field to capture the information. For example: “Creator:John Smith”. On a technical level this appears to meet DACS, though not in the traditional way we are used to.
For more on Permanent.org, please check out this webinar.
For more information on how Astoria Public Library is using Permanent.org, check out the Family Archiving with Permanent.org and Rachael Woody webinar that originally aired on September 20, 2021.
Abstract: Amberly Russell, Preservation Services Manager at Permanent hosts this informative talk about Preservation Services and what it is like working to create lasting legacies online. In this webinar we speak to Professional Archivist Consultant Rachael Cristine Woody about her experiences creating digital archives online for family and organizations.
Without volunteers, this project would not have been possible. No, seriously.
The COVID-19 pandemic altered our ability to do the project as originally envisioned. A squad of the library’s volunteers had received updated training and were meant to facilitate digitization and description work. This was no longer possible due to pandemic-related closures and limitations. Fortunately, the IMLS grant included budget lines for a consulting archivist and historian who now needed to perform the bulk of the descriptive work. But even this work wouldn’t have been possible without the thousands of volunteer hours invested prior to this project. For example, digital archivist volunteer, Eric Williams spent more than five years scanning items in the collection. When it was clear the IMLS project would need to be altered and mostly remote, the project was able to pull from the hundreds of items that had already been digitized, helpfully labeled, and available via Dropbox—thanks to Mr. Williams. Additionally, prior to the pandemic, Clatsop Community College students contributed to collection care, management, and identification while under John Goodenberger’s supervision. Their work provided insight into multiple facets of the collection and were the basis for descriptive work. Director Pearson notes that 1200 volunteer hours were contributed during this project thanks to Ove and Barbara Rasmussen, and Eric Williams.
In April 2022, Eric Williams was named an Oregon Heritage Commission Standout Heritage Volunteer as part of the Oregon Heritage Excellence Awards. Please join us in congratulation Eric on this well-deserved acknowledgement!
COVID-19 forced a reimagining of community outreach.
Available federal funding has a natural focus on how the award will benefit the community. Originally, the outreach the library intended to do involved onsite collection tours and a traveling lecture series. Neither of these were possible during 2020 and 2021. However, Director Pearson and the consultants were able to reimagine the in-person events into virtual events and recordings. There is now a YouTube playlist of collection features, an Ask Me Anything event, and showcasing the collections online. Below is a link to the playlist and a few example videos.
The Astoria Public Library Archive Collections are Online, published October 28, 2021.
Abstract: This video announces the completion of an Institute of Museum and Library Services grant to digitize, describe, and publish 500 historical artifacts online via Permanent.org. Jimmy Pearson (Library Director) introduces the recorded announcement followed by Rachael Woody (archivist) and John Goodenberger (historian) who discuss the IMLS project, explain how they adapted their work due to COVID-19, and showcase the final product with Goodenberger highlighting several of the items and their interconnection. The collections can be viewed on Permanent.org here: https://https://www.permanent.org/p/archive/03pw-0000.
Ask Me Anything: Astoria Public Library’s Historical Collections, published December 17, 2020.
Abstract: This is an Ask Me Anything (AMA) session where City of Astoria historian John Goodenberger and consulting archivist Rachael Woody team up to answer questions related to the history of Astoria and the treasure trove of historical artifacts found in the basement of the Astoria Public Library. This webinar was made possible thanks to the Astor Library Friends Association and the Oregon Cultural Trust.
Featuring the August Hildebrand Collection from Astoria Public Library, published November 14, 2020.
Abstract: This video features items from the August Hildebrand collection. Listen in as city historian John Goodenberger shares highlights from the collection with consulting archivist, Rachael Woody. This project was made possible thanks to the Oregon Cultural Trust.
The historical collections at Astoria Public Library are now online via Permanent.org! The immediate and obvious impact is the library was able to acquire a critically necessary tool for broader access to the historical materials. The IMLS award made it possible for the library to implement Permanent.org and upload more than 500 digitized and described collection items. Thanks to the IMLS award and previous volunteer work, the library could continue making progress on the archive in an adjusted form. Finally, reimagined outreach in the form of videos has already attracted attention and use by Astorians, historians, the Preservation Artisans Guild of Portland (OR), and the great-granddaughter of August Hildebrand (the creator of one of our featured collections)!
APL would like to thank John Goodenberger and Eric Williams for their extensive contributions toward chronicling the history of Astoria, Oregon. This project was made possible in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services Grant: LG-27-19-0187-19.
About the Author: Rachael Cristine Woody is the owner of Rachael Cristine Consulting, a firm that provides services to archives, museums, and cultural heritage organizations. Rachael holds an MSLIS with a concentration in archives management, and more than 15 years of experience in history organizations — including the Smithsonian Institution and the Oregon Wine History Archive.
This is the newest post in ourThere’s an Archivist for That! series. In this post, Harold Housley, Archivist for Architecture, Arts and Design at Arizona State University Library, describes the uniqueness and challenges of Design and Architecture Collections and offers his interpretation of the International Design Day theme, Suspended in Transition. This interview was conducted by Committee on Public Awareness (COPA) member Claudia Willett.
Claudia Willett: Let’s start with a brief introduction of yourself to the readers.
Harold Housley: I’ve worked for Arizona State University (ASU) Library since 2007, currently as Archivist for Architecture, Arts and Design. My previous experience includes working as an archivist for the National Park Service. I am a member of the Academy of Certified Archivists and SAA. I earned a Master of Arts in History from Arizona State University and a Bachelor of Arts in History from the University of Arkansas-Little Rock.
CW: Can you talk about your role as Archivist for Architecture, Arts and Design?
HH: I am responsible for overall management of Design and the Arts Special Collections, which is primarily an architectural archives and manuscript repository. The collection developed in the 1970s and 1980s out of interest by School of Architecture faculty members in collecting primary and secondary sources on two prominent architects important in Arizona history, Paolo Soleri and Frank Lloyd Wright. The opening of a new building for the College of Architecture and Environmental Design in 1989 created the space to develop and expand the collection to include architectural drawings and files from prominent architects such as Victor Olgyay, a pioneer in climate-responsive architecture, and Blaine Drake, a former Frank Lloyd Wright apprentice and key figure in post-World War II modernism in Arizona.
The collection has evolved over the years to include textual records, architectural drawings, presentation boards, and project files that document desert-sensitive design and the development and evolution of mid-century and modern architecture in the Southwest. The greater Phoenix area has a rich history of significant mid-century modern architecture and the presence of the architectural school at ASU has helped the library to acquire the drawings and papers of architects such as Alfred Newman Beadle and Will Bruder.
CW: Can you describe your organization and the collections?
CW: International Design Day is April 27 and the theme is ‘Suspended in Transition’. How does this theme apply to your work or experience with design collections?
HH: I find this theme very relevant to my work as an archivist and probably many other archivists would agree that traditional ways of acquiring and managing collections are in transition and need to evolve to meet the challenges of the present and future. I think other aspects of the theme are also relevant to archivists, such as that the pandemic has fostered the proliferation of new methods of collaboration and communication and created an opportunity to explore alternative ways of doing our work.
CW: Can you talk about some challenges unique to your collections?
HH: The large number of oversize items usually found in architectural collections definitely creates storage challenges. The variety of records found in architectural/design collections means you need to have both traditional archival shelving to accommodate paper records and photographs but also lots of flat filing cabinets for drawings.
Reference also presents some interesting challenges beyond dealing with large-format materials. For example, the access point for many researchers looking at a specific building is the address, which is often not listed in a finding aid. So I have found it useful to have separate drawings inventories that provide those item-level details that help in reference but may not be included in a collection finding aid.
CW: What is something you wish more people knew about Architecture and Design collections?
HH: There are some real “hidden treasures” in architecture and design collections. Examples include designs for buildings that, for one reason or other, were never built. It is fascinating to imagine what a completed building may have looked like. I also really enjoy looking at houses that architects design for themselves. Residential design projects usually involve the architect and client working closely together to bring a design into reality. But when the architect does not need to cater to the wishes of the client, I think there is more freedom to explore a particular theme or experiment in a style without having to answer to an outside client.
Architecture and design collections, because of their strong visual appeal, have the ability to connect with everyone. Most architectural collections found in archives are a blend of personal papers and business or professional records, so you have documents, such as correspondence, that are typically found in other types of manuscript collections. But you also have lots of very eye-catching materials that are works of art, such as full-color architectural renderings. So even if someone has no prior knowledge of or experience using archives, they can appreciate the value of what they are looking at.
This is the latest post in our series Archival Innovators, which aims to raise awareness of individuals, institutions, and collaborations that are helping to boldly chart the future of the archives profession and set new precedents for the role of archivists in society. In this installment, COPA member Angie Piccolo interviews Julia Rosenzweig, Minda Matz and Nora Waters about their work on the Lesbian Elders Oral Herstory Project (LEOHP), a project of the the Lesbian Herstory Archives.
AP: Please describe the Lesbian Elders Oral Herstory Project.
Julia, Minda and Nora: The Lesbian Elders Oral Herstory Project is a project of the Lesbian Herstory Archives, a repository committed to collecting and sharing Lesbian stories. Through instructional workshops and interview guides, LEOHP facilitates intergenerational conversations that illuminate the experiences of the interviewees—their joys, challenges, and daily lives—resulting in vibrant oral history interviews. We hope that these Lesbian Elder Oral Herstories will offer experiential insight into the history of Lesbian culture and activism; complementing LHA’s already rich collection. For the purposes of our project Elders includes those 60 and up and, in addition to their life histories, we ask our interviewees to share their experiences or connection with the Lesbian Herstory Archives. This connection to LHA is the unifying theme of the Project, and could mean that they have material in the collection, have visited the space, have volunteered at LHA, they are a part of the herstory, or have used LHA materials in research, art, or writing.
The Project launched in January 2021 and is supported by a Mellon Foundation Community Archives Grant. As of the end of March 2022 we have had around 100 folks join in conversation with our Informational Sessions and there have been 25 interviews recorded so far.
AP: Where did the Lesbian Herstory Archives get the idea and what inspired them?
Julia, Minda and Nora: The Lesbian Herstory Archives was founded in the early 1970’s with the mission of preserving the records and activities of lesbian lives, and the goal of providing community access. Since its inception the Archives has been supported by a vibrant community of volunteers. With the support of donations the Archives was able to open its current home in a Brooklyn brownstone in 1994.
During the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in June 2020, the doors to the brownstone were closed to volunteers and visitors. The idea of an oral history project that could continue the Archives’ mission of collecting the experiences of lesbians while weathering the pandemic—especially the stories of our Elders, who were and continue to be at risk—was a driving force. With the support of the Mellon Grant we were able to focus the concept and goals of the project beyond the tangible outcomes (an oral history interview and transcript) to what we were seeking; which was to replicate the intangible outcomes that LHA supports: community, connections, and knowledge sharing. Through facilitating informational sessions that bring together both prospective volunteer interviewees and interviewers, we create the space to foster these intangible outcomes right at the start of the interview process.
AP: What challenges or obstacles has your team faced putting this project together?
Julia, Minda and Nora: The LEOHP was originally conceived as facilitating both remote and, eventually, in-person interviews. We have pivoted to fully remote due to the ongoing nature of the COVID pandemic. However, this has been a positive as it has allowed us to expand beyond traditional geographic limitations when scheduling interviews. We have had interviewers and interviewees connect and share stories from Mexico, Canada, the UK, and across the United States!
Thanks to a large number of enthusiastic volunteers we do currently have more interviewers than interviewees signed up, which limits participation and we are still seeking more Lesbian Elders to join the Project.
AP: A few of the interviews have been posted on the website. Can you describe what the initial reaction has been so far from both the public and those involved in the project?
Julia, Minda and Nora: The initial reaction from the volunteers has been positive! We are honored to be providing the space for Elders to share their herstories, and to be facilitating the intergenerational relationships that have been formed during the interview process.
Both interviewers and interviewees have expressed gratitude at the opportunity to share their stories and contribute to the collective memory of Lesbians. These interviews can become quite intimate, and the emotional labor required to share these stories have been expressed as both cathartic and taxing. We are thankful for the openness, time, and emotional energy that this requires. It is an aspect that we consider of great importance, and is the genesis of our ethos of an on-going consent approach to the interviews, as well as the participatory transcript reviews.
Despite our public-facing website showcasing the interviews, we have not yet had any direct feedback from the public.
We are implementing a strategy to promote awareness and more wide-spread dissemination of the interviews. We plan to hold a Community Listening event at the close of the project (the end of 2022). Depending on the mandates and health advisories, we would love to host a hybrid in-person/remote event at the Archives. This event would neatly close out the project by continuing our ethos of encouraging intergenerational dialogue and fostering community, as well as to celebrate the voices that have generously dedicated their time and Herstories to this project.
AP: Are there any plans to continue the project?
Julia, Minda and Nora: As of now the interview portion of the project is currently scheduled to wind down at the end of the two year grant period in 2022, but we are hopeful that the grant will be extended so that more voices can be included. Any interviews that are collected will become a permanent part of the LHA collection allowing the Project to live on. In addition to the interviews available on the website there will be a viewing/listening station at the Archives where visitors can immerse themselves in the interviews while being surrounded by the books, ephemera, images, and voices of those that have come before.
This is the latest entry in our Archives + Audiences series, which features the perspectives of archival audiences – scholars, journalists, filmmakers, artists, activists, and more – for whom archives have been an important part of their life and work. In this post, Tiffany Warmowski, the Chair of the History and Museum Committee with the MacMurray Foundation & Alumni Association discusses the MacMurray Archives and its new home at the Jacksonville Area Museum. MacMurray College located in Jacksonville, Illinois closed in March of 2020.
AP: Can you provide a brief history of the MacMurray College Archives, its connection with the Jacksonville Area Museum and your role as Chair of the Committee?
TW: The MacMurray College board of trustees announced the closure of the 174-year-old institution in March 2020. Within a month, a few trustees began the paperwork to form a foundation with three goals: provide scholarships, continue to engage Alumni relations and preserve the history of the college.
When I was asked in late spring 2020 to volunteer on the foundation board, I asked to help with the archives. I was one of the only local-to-Jacksonville people on the board, so they were happy to agree to that. In addition to the processed archives of the college, many staff members, while cleaning out their offices, brought items to the basement of the library to be added to the archives, even though there was no longer an archivist. I entered the scene and was met with file cabinets, boxes and spreadsheets of processed archives, and a large collection of documents and artifacts that were not yet processed (and are still not yet processed). In October of 2020, all of that was moved to the Jacksonville Area Museum, which hadn’t opened to the public yet, after an agreement was signed between the City (the museum is a city entity) and the MacMurray Foundation. The museum opened September 2021.
Before the archives were moved, I went building-to-building with another volunteer and looked for items that we felt should be added to the MacMurray Collection. We found student records from approx. 1900-1968. I quickly learned these files are federally protected. The foundation contacted the Illinois State Archives and learned best practices to protect the academic, medical and other sensitive information in these files. With the blessing of an Institutional Review Board at Illinois College, these student files are being studied by a sociology class, following best practices for protecting PII.
Besides the student records, there are board of trustee minutes going back to the very first meeting that established the college, committee meeting minutes for dozens of faculties, student and other committees, department self-studies, the entire public relations archives (press releases, photo prints, slides, negatives), yearbooks, archives specific to each college president, several college professors and scrapbooks for dozens of student organizations as well as personal student scrapbooks.
In addition, there is a Lincoln Collection of over 400 books, dozens of magazines and pamphlets, statues, framed art and other Lincoln-related items. This entire collection was donated by Rev. Lester Schriver (a college trustee) in the early 1940s.
AP: You mentioned that you weren’t originally asked to work with the archives. What prompted you to work with them?
TW: I wasn’t remotely interested in the history of MacMurray College when I was a student there from 1994 to 1998. But through the lens of its closing and the possibility of losing these amazing buildings, I realized how very interested I was. I had the opportunity to be on the board and I joined to preserve the history because there were some pretty neat things in the archives that I just didn’t want to go away.
AP: Who have you turned to for assistance?
TW: I don’t have a public history, archiving or curating background, but I do know people that have those things. One of my mentors, Dr. Claire Jerry, was a professor at MacMurray. She taught our humanities classes, and she became a good friend of mine. Now she works at the Smithsonian in DC. She has been a great resource for us.
Additionally, Samantha Sauer, the archivist and curator for Illinois College just down the street from MacMurray College, has been an amazing resource. Her student, McKenna Servis, was the Museum intern last summer and now she is the museum’s part-time manager. She’s really taught me how to discern what’s important and how to tell stories.
AP: What have been some of the challenges/barriers the project has faced?
TW: The museum is in a former Post Office that was built about 1900. Except for our most valuable and fragile items, the bulk of the archives are housed in a basement and a large main-floor room, and neither are climate controlled (although they are dry.) It’s difficult to work there right now because it’s very cold. We do most of our work in the temperature-controlled areas of the museum, but that limits what we can do because what needs to be done right now is organizing and moving and boxing things and that can only be done in the large, cold rooms. We face the challenge of not having an archivist on staff. The museum has a part-time museum manager. That person is tasked with running the museum and spending 1/2 of her time on MacMurray-related work, since the salary is split between the two organizations. We also need additional archival boxes and other materials needed to maintain the collection.
Additionally, I think this town is good at volunteering, and we have a lot of opportunities for volunteerism in our town. To be asking for yet another way for people to volunteer, I feel like people are already kind of stretched thin, especially right now.
AP: How has the Jacksonville community responded to the MacMurray College archives finding a new home?
The response has been overwhelmingly positive. People are very glad to know the history of the college is being preserved. There has been a lot of sadness and grieving for those related to the college and I believe the knowledge that not everything is lost is helpful for them.
AP: What is the most interesting part of the archival collection you have worked with?
TW: I mentioned the student records, which are protected because of the information that’s in them. We discovered from these records that MacMurray was part of a federal program that educated Japanese women who were either incarcerated during the Japanese internment tragedy or were headed there. We don’t know exactly which Japanese students came through the program or who just came at the same time during World War II, but we have some records from students who are in that program. There was a woman who entered the internment camp in Idaho with her family, and she was able to come to MacMurray to finish her education. I know that she’s not the only one, and I was happy to see that MacMurray was a shining light at that time. There’s also an article in the local newspaper about a Japanese student and a Chinese student who were roommates at MacMurray during World War II. Their countries were adversaries during the war and they got along and were able to have a peaceful friendship on campus that was recognized by the local paper and by the community.
AP: What are the plans for the MacMurray College archives after the 10 year agreement ends?
TW: I believe the plan currently is to evaluate things when the time gets closer and to perhaps do another 10 years or something longer. I would also love to find some grants for hiring somebody to digitize what we have to make it digitally available. McKenna and the volunteers are where we have to start for right now and although we don’t have a plan for getting an archivist, I absolutely see the need for one.
For now, the Museum has a MacMurray Hall that’s dedicated to the college which is full of exhibits. We’re having a gathering in lieu of what people would call homecoming this June. The people that are going to be visiting the Museum are going to be people from the 1970s through the 1990s and I would really like to have some exhibits specifically for them to see. Right now, we have the history of the College starting in 1846 until about 1975 and we have a lot of artifacts mostly from the early 1900’s. I’d like to have more current, relatable exhibits.
AP: Is there anything else you would like to mention?
TW: The MacMurray foundation is really grateful for our partnership with the city and the Jacksonville Area Museum. The Jacksonville Area Museum board has been very supportive of MacMurray and the physical space that they’ve given us. We’ve kind of taken over and we’re just grateful for the support of both the MacMurray community and the broader Jacksonville community.
Sometimes I look at these old pictures and read the histories of the Presidents and their wives who gave every ounce of energy and money that they had to help this College succeed. I feel like we failed them sometimes, but also this is just a natural progression of life. Things start, things are great, things are hard, and then things end sometimes. I’m trying to remember that their efforts weren’t in vain because they educated thousands of women first and then people, including me. I know a lot of people are much better off because of MacMurray.
This interview is part of the Archives + Audiences series on the ArchivesAWARE blog. The Archives + Audiences series features the perspectives of archival audiences – scholars, journalists, filmmakers, artists, activists, and more – for whom archives have been an important part of their life and work.
The ArchivesAWARE blog is ran by the Committee on Public Awareness (COPA), under the auspices of the Society of American Archivists. In this installment, Archivist and COPA Member, Rachael Cristine Woody, interviews Alexandra Horowitz and her experiences using oral histories and related archival materials as a writer, filmmaker, and producer.
Alexandra Horowitz is a writer, director, and producer based in the Washington, DC area. She founded Voices Storytelling & Media as a way to harness the power of archival material — such as oral histories, interviews, diaries, letters, and photos — to personalize history and current events. Alexandra has produced films for the Jewish Museum of Maryland, the Capital Jewish Museum in Washington DC, the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society, and Washington DC’s Theatre Lab. Her documentary short Reawakening was selected to screen at Jewish film festivals across the country and has been been featured in public programs at Jewish museums and organizations. A former Senior Producer at CNN International, Alexandra spent nearly ten years covering business and economics for CNN and its various networks from bureaus in New York, Washington, London, and Hong Kong. During that time, she produced full shows and individual stories, hard news and features, live and recorded broadcasts. Her writing has appeared in the Washington Post. Alexandra holds degrees from Brown University and the University of Michigan.
Alexandra thank you for being here today. Would you please take a moment to introduce yourself.
Sure, thank you so much for having me. It’s really a pleasure to be here. My name is Alexandra Horowitz, and I am the founder and executive producer of a small media content producer called Voices Storytelling and Media. I started it during the pandemic My background is as an independent filmmaker, and a television news producer.
Excellent, and I’m really looking forward to having this conversation with you. The series we’re doing this interview for us the archives and audiences. And part of what the Committee on Public Awareness is so interested in is how archives are actually used, how archivists help participate and between the archivists and collections, how they can be used in new creative ways, even if they’re not new ways like non-traditional academic ways so I’m really looking forward to hearing your answers. And my first question for you is you’ve researched written and filmed and produced media using oral histories and archival materials. So can you tell us a little bit more about your process and what goes into creating those works.
Absolutely, I’d be happy to. And I just want to say, in terms of using archives in creative ways. I love that. I mean that’s what I do and that’s what I’m trying to do with Voices Storytelling and Media is look at different ways that archives can be used creatively whether it’s podcasts or digital exhibits or film audio educational materials; I just think there’s so much potential out there. What I have done until this point has been using archives for film and I have based them on oral histories. Sometimes on one oral history, Where we’re profiling, a person, either for an event where the person is doing a public program, for example, and going through the person’s oral history and taking this hour and a half or two hour oral history, and finding, you know, sort of a five minute story in there that is relevant to whatever the story is you’re trying to tell. Right? If it’s an exhibit, what is the exhibit trying to say? If it’s a public program, what is the purpose of the person being here? Just to pull out from that long, oral history, the sort of the core story that is relevant to the event or the exhibit. And so that is one way by profiling one person. The other way I’ve done it, is to take an oral history, a collection of oral histories and find one theme through that collection so I did a film called Reawakening, which was about the Charlottesville Jewish community’s response to the unite the right rally is in August of 2017 and the oral history was not about the unite the right rallies, it was just a profile of the Jewish community of Charlottesville. So each person and I used about eight or 10 oral histories, each person had an oral history of about an hour and a half to two hours talking about their whole background – their Jewish upbringing and what brought them to Charlottesville and how they practiced and their involvement with the Jewish community and what they did professionally I mean it had 99.5% of each interview had nothing to do with the unite the right rallies, but because the unite the right rallies happened everybody spoke about it in the interview. And so, I was able working with the professor who conducted the oral history. I was able to pull out sound bites from each person and put them together in a film that looked at the response of the community to this event. So, I guess that’s the first point I want to make is that the, the oral history, don’t have to be about the specific theme that you want in the final product. Right. So, so, with both of those ways of doing it, either with looking at one oral history in depth, or looking at a theme through a collection. After that the process is kind of the same, like, I go through. I listen to them, I go through the transcripts, I find the most powerful sound bites the ones that really speak to the subject and are heartfelt and compelling. And I literally just take a highlighter and highlight all of those. And then I put them together, I look at what I have in my yellow highlights, and I put them together in a story form like what story are all of these individual soundbites telling and what kind of narrative arc can you develop from them and there usually is one, thankfully.
And after that, and I don’t write any narration, I mean I really want the work I do to be – I mean I called my company Voices — it’s meant to be the voices of the people in the oral histories, it’s not meant to be, you know, my voice kind of linking everything they have to say. And then I go through and once I have the script developed from the sound bites, I look for visual archival material, mostly photographs sometimes video. Sometimes newspaper or other printed material that can be used to illustrate what they’re talking about and sometimes that comes from libraries and collections. Sometimes it comes from the people themselves or other organizations that have been involved in whatever the subject matter is. So, that is largely the process, and it’s a very fulfilling one.
Thank you so much for sharing that. Your approach and your use of the oral histories and equipment, archival materials. In general, indicates to me at least it’s like you knew that these were available and knowing the archives and archivists can sometimes have a hard time getting the messaging out that, hey, we’re here. Please use us. I’m wondering what in your background or experiences, first introduced you to oral histories and archives.
So I will say, kind of being thrown into the fire. I had worked. I mean most of my career I worked for CNN, and when, and I had no experience with archives, but I was doing daily news and when you’re on deadline, and you need video at least, I mean I worked there a while ago, but at least at the time I worked there what you did when you needed video that you weren’t going out and shooting was you call the library and you said what do we have and they made it available to you and then you used it. So, so that was my entire experience I had no… I just didn’t think about archives. I had to do a shoot once at the National Archives, but that was, I don’t even remember the story was it wasn’t relevant to using archives. So then, okay, flash forward, many years, I took some time off stay home with my kids, I started up again as an independent producer, and I did, I produce the film that is linked to this, it’s Marian Ingram, it’s a profile of a woman who is a Holocaust survivor who came to the US in the 1950s and then worked in the civil rights movement. And I have this great oral history and I had the script, and I needed pictures, and I thought, okay, I also had a deadline, where am I going to get these pictures? And I had, I had no idea there was no library to call I was kind of at a loss as to what to do and I, I started Googling and I started hunting around and I went to the Library of Congress website I mean there’s so much online I don’t know what people did before collections were really online but now you can sit at home as we all have been doing for a long period of time and have access to enormous resources around the country and around the world. So, I just started Googling and I found material in large archives like the Library of Congress and I found material in small, you know, smaller towns and libraries and universities, and, and it was, I mean to me personally I, you know, it was just this amazing discovery that there’s so much out there that can be utilized that. That’s just amazing and I wish more people knew about.
Thank you so much for that answer, it’s I think it’s very helpful for us as archivist, to hear how people found us because it usually is, you know, it starts with a Google search or, yeah, asking that question of like this, this should exist where would it live?
Right, right, and it was largely entirely a Google search, but now, you know, now that I’m not so new to it I feel like there’s a whole network of people and there’s probably a listserv where I could say, you know, I need this. Does anyone have it and could I use it?
Thank you so much, that was a great answer, and very informative for us, too, and circling back to the archival materials for your work. You touched on this a little bit but just in case you had more to share. We’re curious about how you choose the videos and archival materials that you incorporate into your work.
Um, I think it, It starts with the stories that organizations want to tell, right? Is there an exhibit? Is there an event? Is there a film that’s being made for a classroom? And then, I think, in terms of the oral histories, the sound bites. It’s what is going to tell the story, the most powerfully, so not just the content, I mean, sometimes you just need a soundbite that says X because you have to get from point A to point B and it doesn’t make any sense if there’s not something that connects it but really what I look for is those that have the most heart, you know, like what is going to make people really feel and see another person’s story or another person’s point of view. And there’s, you know, much of the way that we have told history is now being revisited voices are being included, that have not previously been featured so prominently. And I am sure that there is just a wealth of archival material that that can be used to tell those stories and to help, you know, organizations that are revisiting their narratives and trying to add dimensions to race, gender, for example, that there has to be a wealth of material out there that can be used for that.
Could you share, like either one of your most favorite archival finds or like a fond memory you have working in the archives.
So, my favorite find is something that I thought I wasn’t going to be able to use and it was when I was doing this video, I have Marian Ingram, and she had volunteered and did some organizing for the March on Washington. And I hunting around I found this film that USIA had produced in, you know, in the 1960s afterwards and it had the MLK speech in it, but it also had people arriving and it had buses and it crowds and tents and. And it was just a godsend. And then I tried to get permission to use it and it seemed like a really complicated process and I had a deadline and I didn’t think I was gonna get it in time. So, I you know I put the paperwork in and went through the channels but then I forgot about it really because I didn’t think I was ever going to get to use it and then two days before I was set to edit, I got an email out of the blue. That said, “Yes, of course you can use it. The only thing you can’t use is the Martin Luther King sections because that’s protected by his estate, but anything else is fair game.” So, you know as it’s in the public domain so you can use it, and it was just sort of this waterfall of riches to be able to use it.
That is a great story, I’m so glad to hear that. When you’ve been working with archival materials and within archives and with archivists. Are there some examples of how the archives and those materials have helped to inspire and inform your work?
Um, yeah, they’re, I think it’s encouraged me to want to do more with archives. Because I think history is so important, and I, I just think… I love history. I hated history in school, I took as little of it as possible, but the, the parts of history that are really sort of rich and I think that that can teach the most powerfully, our photographs are hearing people’s stories. Yes, it’s not a collection of facts and sometimes it’s remembered with a point of view that sometimes is the one you want to teach and sometimes maybe isn’t but, but it’s, it’s heartfelt and it’s powerful and it’s, you know, the human experience. And so, I think that all of that is there in the archives in the way that it’s not usually in the history books, and so I just find that really encouraging and the more those archives are able to be accessed and used I think the more creatively we can teach connect to people, you know, whether it’s in museums, whether it’s in film, whether it’s in education and in classrooms. That there’s that connection through archives that there. You know there isn’t in other ways.
I love the word you chose to describe that as connection I think that is a powerful and, but yes, you know, simplistic, in its most awesome form in terms of as archivists, trying to have materials to be used and connect with communities to make sure that they are represented the I mean, so many ways that we could have more meaningful connections.
Yeah, and I think that the more archives, I mean I’ve always done it. You know from the producer and where I’m looking. I don’t know what archivist do proactively but I would say that the more that you can look around in your community, about what’s going on in classrooms and museums and public events, and see if the resources that you have. I think a lot of times people in the communities just aren’t aware of these repositories of material that, you know, that could be being used by the community. So maybe it’s up to the archives and archivists to try to connect with those people, or at least make known that the resources are available.
Yes, I think that is definitely, as, as the field which I can’t speak for everybody but my, my observation and experience has been, this has, has very much been a perpetual issue for us in how to one not only message value of collections but to make sure we’re actually connecting with the community in the way the community wants to be connected with. So, it’s definitely something I think it’s fair to say many of us are aware of and, and we are a very awkward work in progress toward better connections. But yeah, I think you hit the nail on the head with that one.
Yeah, I think, photos in particular you know I’ve gone, sometimes to the Library of Congress website just to look at photos if I needed them on a certain theme, and a photo can just say so much one photo that they can speak volumes about whatever the subject matter is, and, yeah. So, I just think for people in your communities to know what resources you have available is a really powerful thing.
Speaking of resources in use, is there an item or an area of a collection that you would like to use but like haven’t been able to find.
Um, I know you have connections. I’m not at the moment but I am so glad. Now to be in touch with this network of people that you know I certainly will turn to it in the future as needed, when things come up.
Yes, please do. We are here and we’re available so we welcome that. Great, that’s great. So, thinking about access to archives, and I know with COVID-19 obviously all of our realities have gotten a little bit more challenging. Yeah, but, but thinking about your past work, have there been any sort of barriers to access or any challenges specific to trying to reach archives or use the collections?
Um, for the most part, no. I tried to use. I mean in the past I’ve tried to use material that’s in the public domain.
And the times that I have had to get permission. It hasn’t been difficult. In fact, my experience has been more that professionals want their collections used and are very helpful in helping you use them, I had in the the film that I’ve linked there is a, there’s a visual of a burning, cross it towards the end of it, and it just all of a sudden realized I needed a burning cross and I googled it and I found these resources but I needed it soon. And so there were all these pictures online so I picked one and it was from East Carolina University and I emailed the person there and he was very nice and very accommodating and within, you know, I said “Well what do I do need to do to have permission to use this? Can I use it?” and, you know, “Is there a fee and how do I get is? Can I get a digital copy?” and all of this and I think within an hour maybe or two, I had permission I had the digital copy of the fill of the photo, and he couldn’t have been nicer and that has generally been my experience is that people are and especially I think I do. I generally work with nonprofits, and so if people know it’s for a community event. I use some news footage I know it’s not, I guess it’s archival news footage, it wasn’t that old, but for Charlottesville. And I went to the local television stations and at first they were like okay you know it’s this many $1,000 a minute of footage that you want and I said but it’s for, you know, an exhibit at a local historical societies. “Oh, okay well if it’s for that. We’ll send you our reel.” So, I think that when people know it’s, you know, you’re not trying to sell it, you’re not trying to put it on your Facebook page or, you know it’s a community. It’s for public history. Then I’ve generally found people to be very helpful and accommodating.
I’m very glad to hear that, that used to not be the case, way back in the day so I’m very glad that’s been your experience. What’s the one thing you wish the general public knew about archives?
Think I wish that the public just knew how much was there. And, and what an enormous resource it is, you know, I’ve got to think for teachers, for writers, for obviously for any kind of research, but I think people don’t necessarily know like I even working in media, for no more than a decade I, I didn’t have any idea so I think just for people to know what’s there, and how much is contained in them, you know, in one oral history. You know, you find things sometimes like a little piece of an interview that has nothing to do with bigger picture but it is sometimes the most valuable piece of that whole searches for people to realize what what’s out there. You know that, that we don’t normally see but that if you go looking, you might have to look a lot, but maybe with the help of an archivist. That it’s there.
Excellent, thank you so much for that answer, I think that that was such a great way to put it for us in terms of like that is something to focus on making sure that people know when that we exist and to just how much is there, and that we want you to use that kind of thing. Yeah. Excellent. Circling back to your work. And the the projects that you have done, what has been some of the feedback you’ve received, and general reception that kind of thing?
So generally good, but the one thing that has been consistent, is that people are always surprised that you can pull a storyline, like a five minute you can make a five minute film out of, you know, an hour and a half, two hour two and a half hour oral history or out of a collection that’s you know, 15 hours of oral history 20 hours of oral history that you can pull you can, you know, say I’m going to do this theme or I’m going to and you can pull a tight knit. Powerful story compelling story out of that. I think people in my experience tend to think, oh yeah, there’s an oral history on “X” and so it’s going to be everything about X, but when you, when you look for that one specific theme or that one specific subject that you can pull, you can pull a really compelling story that maybe has to do with the greater whole, and maybe doesn’t. But people are always surprised, in my experience to see that, you know, it’s like pulling a rabbit out of a hat.
And speaking of your work and of yourself, where can people find you online and connect with you?
So, my, my website is voicesstorytelling.com, and that has my email address on it it’s got my portfolio on it it’s got my email address on it, and more about my work on it so it’s voicesstorytelling.com.
Thank you for spelling that out and we will try our best. Right. I tracked I think so. I’m expecting it to be that hard to spell it’s not hard to spell when
I type it. But anyway, it’s voicesstorytelling.com, and the company’s Voices Storytelling and Media.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with us or anything? I didn’t ask that you would like to answer?
I would just say, I’m happy to be a resource or consultant with, if any, you know, if people have archives, archival material that they’re thinking of using, I’m happy to talk to anybody you know, not for any fee or anything, but just to a brainstorming session. Or, if somebody doesn’t have ideas but has this collection and wants to talk about how could they use it. I’m always happy to brainstorm, or do informal consulting to help give some shape and guidance if that’s helpful to anyone. Please feel free to reach out.
Thank you so much for that offer I imagine that would be particularly helpful, and I’m mentioning this for people listening not, not so much yourself, but you know, bringing in grants are seeking donor funding, sometimes connecting with an expert like yourself and even just getting like a one page. Here’s what Alexandra would do if we get the money…
Right, right, well they know I’m absolutely happy to help with that I have written grants myself I’ve received grants myself. And I am happy to give some shape and form to what you could do with your archives, if that’s helpful in anyone’s grant proposal writing.
Absolutely, yes. So, people who are watching slash reading definitely take Alexandra up on this offer. Well thank you so much for your time today, Alexandra. Is there anything else before I formally close our interview?
Um, no, I am really think very highly of archivists and archives and all that you do to preserve our history. And I know I would like to get those voices and get those materials out there. And so that’s, that’s it. I mean, please feel free to call and brainstorm or, you know, anytime I’m happy to do it and I’m so happy to be here today and to have found this connection.
This is the newest post in our There’s an Archivist for That! series, which features examples of archivists working in places you might not expect. In this article, Camri Kohler talks about her job as the Archivist for PBS Utah.
1. How did you get your gig?
While I was in grad school at the University of Utah, I worked part-time as an AV archival project assistant at the Marriott Library, specializing primarily in U-matic tapes. Then once I graduated with my MLIS, AV specialists in the library science field were pretty rare, and I was already familiar with U of U assets. PBS Utah is owned by the university, and they were hiring their first full-time archivist as I was finishing school. The archivists of the Marriott Library and I still work together all the time.
2. Tell us about your organization.
PBS Utah was originally KUED. When Brigham Young University’s PBS station went private, we became the only PBS station in the state, so we changed our name. We’ve been making wonderful nature, music, human interest, local, and historical programming since 1957 and we have wonderful weekly episodic programs like The Hinckley Report, Utah Insight, and This is Utah.
3. Can you describe your collections?
Our collections are both analog and digital, ranging from 1” reels to ProRes digital files and everything in between. We have multiple formats and instantiations for all of our programs, including Figure it Out! which are exercise videos produced in the 70’s along with an on-set pianist, and Family Circle, a panel discussing the pros and cons of women in the workplace. We also have documents, photos, and music preserved as assets to those programs.
4. What are some challenges unique to your collections?
Because Digital and AV archives are still such a new priority, the community is small. I’m not just the only AV archivist in the building, I’m the only archivist. I don’t have anyone to share the workload with, or to plan with, or innovate with. It can be a lot of pressure, particularly because few people in the production environment have a good understanding of what my job entails.
5. What is your favorite part of your job?
I love finding the fun, niche programs we made in the past! They say a lot about the times in which they were created and it’s values and interests. Making those programs accessible digitally, bringing them into the present, is so gratifying!
This interview is part of the Archival Innovators series on the ArchivesAWARE blog. The Archival Innovator series aims to raise awareness of individuals, institutions, and collaborations that are helping to boldly chart the future of the archives profession and set new precedents for the role of archivists in society.
The ArchivesAWARE blog is ran by the Committee on Public Awareness (COPA), under the auspices of the Society of American Archivists. In this installment, Archivist and COPA Member, Rachael Cristine Woody, interviews Brian Pope, Founder and Executive Director of Arc/k Project. Arc/k Project is a nonprofit organization focused on a citizen-science approach to digital cultural heritage preservation.
Rachael: Okay, thank you for joining us. I am Rachel Woody, and I work with Society of American Archivists Committee on Public Awareness, and for today we are doing an Archival Innovator interview, and I am joined by a founder of an organization that is just amazing and I’m really excited to have a conversation with him, Brian, would you please introduce yourself and your organization.
Brain: Hi, sure. A pleasure. Thank you for having us Rachel. I’m Brian Pope, I’m the founder and executive director of Arc/k Project, which is a 501C3, a nonprofit that I started to generate a citizen science approach to digital cultural heritage preservation, specifically using techniques like LiDARr and photogrammetry.
Rachael: So, for Arc/k Project and and I know you got into just a little bit of this, but I would love for you to describe specifically the role that Arc/k project plays in preserving cultural heritage, at, how do you do it, I know there’s a lot to it and so, I mean, please feel free to share and describe as you see fit.
Brian: I think that our primary role, as we’ve defined it since the founding of the organization is disrupter, just difficult obnoxious unorthodox. We try to be literally deliberately, all kidding aside, a kind of disruptor in the sense that at the time that I founded Arc/k Project, I got very much a sense that there are inadvertent gatekeeper paradigms at play in how cultural heritage is archived, how it’s accessed and who gets to be a player in, in, in, archiving, in deciding what gets archived. and I, that hit me on a personal level because I guess I’m a person who tends not to really accept any barrier or boundary that I come across, and I myself have, you know, monolithic tastes I love monolithic architecture and so on, but I cannot, and never have accepted the idea that, that is all of heritage. Heritage is the intimate, heritage is how you personally define it, and I saw a niche that needed to be filled there in terms of how we define cultural heritage, how we archive it, who gets to decide how that heritage is archived and what resources can be brought to bear for it. And whether that is considered valid science and so that’’s actually one of the things that my organization uses as its rallying call, which is the ability to generate what is, you know, casually referred to as citizen science. We absolutely believe that archiving cultural heritage can be democratized and that citizens, the average person is completely capable of both deciding and executing a cultural archive for themselves and for their culture.
Rachael: I love that you described yourself as a disrupter, and, and I very much view it as like a badge of honor that you have definitely earned, and, and just wanted to note that, you know, the series is called Archival Innovators, and I have found in my experiences that you don’t have innovation, unless you are disrupting the status quo.
Brian: Agreed, agreed. You know, we actually employ a full time archivist, Michael Conyers, I think you’re acquainted with him, and he actually inadvertently gave me one of the greatest compliments I’ve been given since we’ve been engaging in our project, he called me and you may want to bleep this, I don’t know, shit disturber. I wear that badge with honor and pride. I think we all do at Arc/k Project. And it’s not that the archival community is in any way, lacking cultural heritage community there are some fantastic people that have given their life’s work for this right, but any organization, any institution, any workflow can almost always benefit, I think, from somebody from the outside, saying, wait a minute, let’s shake this up a little bit, let’s let’s rethink this you know, for better or worse,
Rachael: Mostly for better is what I’m seeing on this.
Brian: Thank you, very gracious Thank you.
Rachael: So, while we’re still on your origin story so to speak, yes, was there a particular catalyst event that the idea came to you to create our project, what inspired it?
Brian: There was, there were a few moments that were sort of offset in time but they played off one another. I was sitting in a cafe in Paris, struggling through the print version of Le Monde, if I recall, when I came across a story about ISIS project and it was one of the earlier reports of how they were basically doing an either cash and carry or destroying strategy toward cultural heritage. Anything that they couldn’t pick up and sell for illicit trafficking on gray and black arts markets, they would blow up. And at that point, the ancient city of Palmyra was being targeted. And the reason I say two parts, then for that catalytic moment was because it reminded me of, I must have been in my early 20s then, when I remember reading about what the Taliban had perpetrated against the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan, and of course obviously as this interview is being recorded that’s incredibly timely. Once again, the Taliban has just within the last week, assumed full control at a staggering speed, that apparently nobody foresaw. No comment. And I remembered an extreme sense of hopelessness. When I had been you know, as a young man, seeing what was done against the Bamiyan Buddhas and then seeing something similar happening with ISIS and Syria, and Palmyra. And I remember simply rejecting that sense of helplessness, that sense of personal hopelessness and. And I also I will credit that moment with the realization that, look, these, these artifacts, whether they are monolithic heritage, or something much more intimate, say the recognition of the way a section of a city might change from one ethnic or demographic background to another. If we don’t track these things, we lose a sense of ourselves, and we lose a sense of both, where we come from yes, but then that makes us more vulnerable to manipulations about ideas of where we are going, and who we are. And because I was, I am a former visual effects artist who had very intimate knowledge of certain technologies that are casually used now in visual effects, I realized before I even found out that there were other organizations who had already begun doing things like this and that, in fact, there were techniques that were part of the cultural heritage community to scan heritage in 3d I realized that this was completely something in my wheelhouse, something that I could engage in, and as I began learning about other organizations that were out there doing it already, I found that there was a badly needed element that was missing, which was democratized activation of people, of citizen scientists of of heritage being recorded at every scale, not just the monolithic, not just the archeological, of, of, arguably dead cultures, but rather, living cultures, equally important, at least as important. And I determined that I would do something about it, I just didn’t want to feel helpless the way I had back when the Taliban destroyed the Bamiyan Buddhas. I didn’t want that feeling again. And in fact, the inaugural project of our project, of Arc/k Project, our very first full scale project was a crowdsourced photogrammetric digital recreation, that’s a mouthful I know, of Palmyra. And so, several of my staff of the newly formed organization, learned how to search in what I call the shutterbug cultures. The Japanese and German of websites. They’re tremendous they’re fabulous for being global tourists– shutter bugging, everything, everything, and of course also searching in Arabic and a few other languages, we cobbled together over 13,000 images of Palmyra, that had been taken over a span of, I think, eight years was the largest time period that our earliest to latest photographs, accessed, and we were able to generate a photogrammetric recreation of Palmyra, that even a scholar at the Metropolitan Museum, specialist in Near Eastern antiquities said, You know, and she had been there herself multiple times, said, this is actually the best restoration I’ve ever seen. And so we took that as our cue that we were doing something right. And, and then figured out later tried to figure out later, how that could fit into the cultural heritage community, and whether it could. And that’s something we’re actually still figuring out today.
Rachael: I still appreciate just not only the natural curiosity and the desire to problem solve, but also knowing that it was not a straight path, and, you know, trial and error and learning how to search in Arabic, like, I mean just the amount of problem solving that you did in order to find a solution that works. I think this leads nicely into my next question which is, when thinking about our project, launching it and continuing to do the work you do today, what are the barriers and challenges that you experienced initially, and maybe some that may still continue?
Brian: There are significant barriers in what we’re doing. There’s no question. Initially, I will admit that I was naive, going into what we are doing, because as a potential disruptor, of course, that means you’re going to ruffle feathers and we’ve ruffled quite a few of them. But I was surprised and and initially I was disheartened by the fact that I think a lot of our work was either sometimes it felt almost as if we had been deliberately misunderstood. There were, there are established professionals, and there are established institutions that had been engaging in cultural heritage preservation for longer than I’ve been alive. And so, here we walk in being technologically empowered, and maybe with a slight sense of naivete and and entitlement, maybe just a little. And, we weren’t always greeted with the kind of open arms that I had hoped. And, as I said naively expected. And so, that that was one barrier, but there is also the simple barrier that these technologies that we are using: LIDAR, photogrammetry, citizen science enabled consumer driven recording technologies you know because a lot of what we teach is that with the right training, even a bloody iPhone can be a recorder of heritage, and in the lack of a 100 megapixel Hasselblad. It’s perfectly it’s so much better to have any archive than none at all, particularly if you have responsible metadata reporting practices, right, so, so we came at this utilizing technologies that had previously been either unavailable to the masses or strictly used in strict ways by professionals who had been trained lifelong in certain forms of institutionally oriented heritage archiving inherited heritage preservation and heritage access which I think is also crucial right. So it’s quite right, that some of these technologies should be created with suspicion because with some data, that’s the genie out of the bottle moment. Once that data is out in the real world, well, you’re never getting that back. And so, I, I, grudgingly acknowledged that some of the suspicion and and reticence that these technologies have been greeted with is in fact appropriate, and we’ve always tried to take the position that while anyone might be engaged in data acquisition in helping to archive their, their heritage, that doesn’t necessarily mean that that data should itself then be freely accessible to anyone. Because these technologies are powerful. And data is powerful. And so we’ve, we’ve wrestled with that a little bit, we’ve wrestled with trying to gain the respect and acceptance of established heritage institutions, while at the same time, having no problem with walking right into the same conferences, right into those same same professional moments and saying, well, we’re here, get used to it, and, and, and trying to engage them in such a way that they, I think over time have grudgingly begun to accept what we do more, and I do credit our organization with being one of those, one of those very few that has pushed the envelope in getting a democratized citizen science concept of cultural heritage archiving to be more accepted, and in fact there are some stodgy organizations that I will not name that have been part of the scene for a long time that had begun sort of altering how they speak about cultural heritage about how they speak of how it can be archived, and where those data sources can originate from and I don’t mind crediting my organization with being the one to have been part of that.
Rachael: So I’m gonna go off topic for a minute here Brian and I hope you’ll indulge me. I am familiar with our projects work I have been lucky enough to be able to work with you on some projects and I know on the back end the commitment that Arc/k Project has to the standards in the field, digital preservation standards, I mean, you guys are using cutting edge technology and you’re, you’re sometimes helping people write the standards on using those technologies. But then I also want to acknowledge it and share with the larger audience here that Arc/k Project, compared to some of the other players in the field, places, I think such a great emphasis in giving agency to the culture whose heritage you’re helping to document and that whole question of who owns digital culture I think the Arc/k Project’s been a leader in that I would love to hear your thoughts on that and why you took on that mantle as important for Arc/k Project to do.
Brian: Thank you, thank you for, for seeing that Rachel, I think you’ve always been gracious about your awareness of what we’re trying to do, and you know oftentimes that means asking the hard questions, not necessarily having the answers. We hope to have the answers we hope to evolve them, but we don’t claim to, I think the questions that we’re asking are at least as important as the answers that will ultimately be derived. And, yeah, to that end, democratization was crucial, because, again, as much as I love monolithic architecture and and archeology, it’s a fact that at this point, cultural evolution and cultural change has in fact become far far more rapid and often destructive, and you might think that because we are a digital society, a digital civilization that these things are being archived. As part of that, because we communicate digitally, but that’s not necessarily the case. A tremendous amount of crucial data about how we express ourselves, how we think of ourselves, is in fact considered digital flotsam. t’s not being archived because there’s simply too much of it right. So, when we began engaging in in generating Arc/k Project and trying to figure out how we should position the organization and where we were needed the most, it became clear that there was no place yet for citizen science in digital archiving and in fact it’s still considered a little bit of a gray area. But also, it occurred to me that as much as I adore going to a huge institution, museum or a university collection, these do not represent necessarily the standards and the and the priorities, and the, the sort of most dearly held tenets of cultures, especially cultures that are impoverished, or in states of extremis. And so, two things had to happen: one was, I felt an extreme need to sort of legitimize our practices, which meant that we studied. We already knew photogrammetry from a visual effects standpoint, many of my staff members are actually former visual effects artists who, like myself, wanted to turn our craft towards something a little bit more important than Star Wars Episode One opening weekend, right, and so we, of course took those techniques that I think are some of the best in the entire field. But then we wanted to legitimize them by. So, for example, I made sure that my staff was trained by the absolute best in the academic and archival field of photogrammetry. CHI- cultural heritage imaging in San Francisco and I adore those people, even to this day we credit them all the time with teaching us the very best techniques in photogrammetry. And I think because of where we were coming from, and taught them a few things and so there’s been a beautiful exchange of knowledge there, but that also meant hiring a professional archivist, full time staff member, so that he could advise us on archival techniques that’s Michael Conyers, I don’t know if you know this. He’s the world’s most famous archivist, as he calls himself it’s it’s a running joke. I adore it.So that so that we would be coming from a position of legitimacy, but then it also meant changing things up and that’s where the disruptive part came in, which meant specifically engaging cultures that are in states of extremis. So one of the first examples of that and actually to this day, the most successful example of that, if you can talk a little bit about the Venezuelan campaign. We used to call it Viva Venezuela, and so so we partnered with a fantastic organization called IAM Venezuela, that is largely an expat organization, mostly in and around Miami for Venezuelans who’ve emigrated. And yet they maintain a really really healthy volunteer base in Venezuela, and we developed a round tripping technique and a program by which we trained them on how to shoot for photogrammetry, and how to archive the kind of metadata that we need for an authentic archive. And rather than dictate to them, except in one or two specific cases where there were specific artifacts or sites that we knew were either endangered or have been specifically requested from say museum curators, that they be archived. We allowed our volunteer base themselves to determine what they were interested in recording, and we’re so proud of that because we now, at this point, maintain for what we call the Venezuelan people we maintain for them an archive of over 400 I think we may be close to 500 sites and objects, some of which, due to their intrinsic value in materials– bronze, copper, tin, aluminum, steel– have actually been destroyed. Well, because of our volunteer base, because of the techniques that we perfected in training remotely on how to shoot for photogrammetry, while we continue to do most of the software heavy lifting on our side, we have archived these things to such a high degree of technological acuity and fidelity that at some point, when hopefully there is a more stable period in Venezuela, we will round trip that data back to them and those objects and sites, artifacts, sculptures in some cases that have been destroyed, we will actually be able to repatriate that data back to them. And, please understand, you know it’s not the belief that digital heritage replaces in any way the physical heritage and this has been one of those odd moments when we get these sort of sniping remarks, occasionally from heritage organizations or heritage professionals who seem to think that we are trying to supplant what they do when nothing is further from from the truth. These are overlapping mutually beneficial techniques. But the point in what we do is that the digital helps preserve the memory and the symbolism of an object which then makes it immortal, whereas the physical existence of an object continues its vulnerability. The two together, though, can form an impenetrable shield by which the symbolism and the importance and the cultural memory seeded into an object, whether that’s a physical object now, or a digital object or both. Over time, those things remain intact and that’s what we care about, that’s what’s important. And that’s what we’re trying to teach.So sorry I’m not even entirely sure that answers your question but I get excited about the mission.
Rachael: You know as a fellow business owner and obviously you, you run your organization it’s, you know, it can be tough, and, and it’s a bit of a hustle, sometimes, etc. And so I just want to point out that it is remarkable, I think, and laudable, you know Arc/k Project’s been around for a while now and you are passionate. It’s just, I think it’s a testament to like you’re doing what you were meant to do, because you still have so much passion and, you know, it’s just it is so palatable so like I really appreciated that answer and thank you for letting me sort of go off topic with that question.
Brian: No, not at all. Thank you. Can I also mention that, you know some of this work continues to be very difficult and heartbreaking, in the sense that we’re trying to reach communities that in some cases, let’s talk about Indigenous Indigenous cultures, let’s talk about Native American, Native Canadian cultures First Nations peoples. For example, we believe that within certain constraints, a lot of the work we do can be immensely valuable, but you’re when we try to reach out to Native American bands or tribes. Look, there is a tremendous culture there a tremendous history of trauma of deceit of betrayal and we fully recognize that we have a lot of work to do there, in understanding in not preaching to but rather learning from and we, we are absolutely dedicated regardless of whether we personally do work with these with these tribes and these, these entities that the standards that are developing in the cultural heritage community about how to work with these people is something we absolutely believe we have a clear vision toward. And we want to make sure that as 3d standards and practices and protocols and workflows and industry sometimes entire fields, developing around heritage, are developing, that they are done so with Native American voices as part of that. And with their priorities, their standards held far above anyone else’s. And we think there’s a tremendous amount of work to be done there, but it’s also heartbreaking work. There’s a lot of distrust, there’s but and our young, still young, in some ways, organization, you know has had missteps there too and we continue to, to be just absolutely dedicated to the idea that we can be of assistance in this, and you know we’re, but it’s a, it’s a long path. And we absolutely want to make sure that the digital. I call it a cultural Gold Rush, that’s taking place in some ways, right now in our society and multiple societies, not run over Native Voices, this time. And so anyway, just to say there’s a lot of work to be done there, and we don’t pretend by any means to have all the answers. But, again, I will credit us with being one of the few voices who are asking the questions that need to be asked and I will continue, we will continue that work.
Rachael: Thank you for sharing that. Sure. I know that you shared a bit about the Venezuelan project, and one of my questions was to ask about some of your example partnerships with organizations and cultural communities. Do you have any other projects that you would like to share with us?
Brian: Sure. Oh gosh, so many, but given a limited amount of time. Let’s talk about first, I mean, we’re working with a fantastic group of people, ARTIVE and the work is sort of behind the scenes with them right now. t’s largely about generating more compatible overlapping databases, because there are a lot of different organizations out there that have data which can be immensely important in curtailing illicit trafficking, especially out of the Middle East right now. And I think we’re probably about to see a huge influx of illicit trafficking of antiquities from Afghanistan as well, for reasons that that should be obvious to everyone right now. And so getting databases to be more open, more compatible. And then once compatibility is established, to then get those databases into the hands of not just import export authorities, organizations like that, but rather to generate destruction of plausible deniability right so we’re talking about auction houses, antiques dealers, private collectors. We want to absolutely end plausible deniability in ignorance, that when you are trafficking in an object, don’t know exactly what you’re doing right so the first step of that we believe and ARTIVE has been amazing working with them so far we want to generate that that overlapping database. But at the same time it’s been a long time with COVID, and we’ve just been dying to get back in the field, and, at long last, I think we have an interim project that we can execute outdoors, which we’re very excited about in Miami. And so, a partnership with some of the people who originally were part of IAM Venezuela. Actually, we’re working with them to generate the kind of living map of the murals which are now this incredible journal of the cultural life of Miami. Miami has become one of those cities that has a world culture, people coming from so many places, especially in the Latin world, of course, and murals are one of the beautiful, beautiful canvases by which this culture is literally painted, but because these canvases are the sides of buildings, buildings, the sides of privately owned businesses, there is no framework by which these are necessarily perpetually kept and held dear, and without warning, a given mural can disappear overnight as an, as a new artist paints atop, you know this, given an incredible public canvas. And so the idea is we’ll actually be executing this in the in the next several months, a volunteer base campaign so we will be training once again just like the IAM Venezuela campaign, we will be training people on the ground, how to take the photographic and drone based images, gathering data about the cultural importance of a given mural at a given location, the names of the artists, why they why they painted, hopefully even including interviews of those artists. But accepting the fact that these murals are non permanent, we will be constantly updating this living city map almost to kind of a living palimpsest of culture so that through a digital, let’s say maybe an iPhone or iPad based app or a mobile app, you’ll be able to access at any given moment, years of different murals, at a given location. So, even though the mural itself may cease to exist, the memory, the cultural importance and the lineage, because many of these murals actually bounce off one another right so you end up with a living memory of culture that is digitally held, but physically dispersed, and so it’s both in the physical and in the digital at once, and we just think that’s immensely exciting because culture, then stacks vertically over time and horizontally over over access, and neither destroys the other, I just think it’s going to be a fascinating model for heritage preservation that will actually transcend, just the format of murals. It’s super exciting and we’re using state of the art technology and volunteers and enthusiasts to engage in it and so it just hits all the buttons of what we care about. And so please stay tuned. I hope you’ll have me back actually when we, when we begin executing that project, and also I will mention that we’re not private about these things. Whenever we generate a model for interactivity and volunteer activation that works, we want to talk about that model so that other organizations can copy it as well. It would be nice if we get a credit here and there but yeah, hey, whatever you can do, whatever you can do. But the idea being that we want these models of heritage preservation to be proselytized.
Rachael: Yeah, I have to say and I know you touched on this in some of your answers, the, the way the Arc/k Project, how you created it and how you and your team have chosen to conduct yourselves and make those ethical decisions. I think we’re now sort of belatedly seeing in the historian and archives fields that that, that belated reckoning of the historical record being so incomplete and inaccessible to so many, so I think that’s all to say that, that you saw that early on, and the work that you’re doing, the practices you’re establishing are something that both the archives and historian fields could certainly use at this point.
Brian: Thank you. We actually like to think of our work as dissolving the boundaries between archives and exhibitions, so that they almost become undefinably together fused.
Rachael: Yes that’s my personal opinion, everything should be together. Yeah, no silos. Brian: Exactly, no silos, I love that. I love that. Rachael: Yeah. Wonderful. Well I think my next question for you, I know we’ve touched on a couple examples of this, but in your own words I would love to hear you describe the importance and urgency of capturing the you know the digital tapestry of these different cultural heritage sites.
Brian: I do believe there is. On some days it’s almost difficult not to have a sense of panic about how rapidly some cultures are changing, about how little is being done to archive them, particularly on the intimate, well, you know, it’s, it’s, it’s been a source of bitter irony, sometimes for me when I see how much academics of ancient arguably extinct cultures, will spend on understanding a piece of garbage from say Pompeii, and yet we do so little to archive the personal and the Internet and the small scale and the low brow, or, or simply low finance aspects of human existence. Now, in cultures that, particularly because they are say perhaps poverty stricken, or in states of political and social extremis are rapidly evolving, and those stresses that those cultures are going through, then generate a level of creativity and adaptability, and flexibility that is a real credit to human creativity and human adaptability, and those are the moments that are desperately in need of being archived, and of being valued. And, yeah, some days it’s hard not to have a sense of panic about it. You know, I, if we had the funding I’d be sending cameras and recorders, everywhere, particularly with languages right so due to an involvement with a very good friend of mine Lena Herzog and her fantastic work in what’s called The Last Whispers projects. I gained a new sort of sensitivity to what’s happening with language extinction. And, you know, Arc/k Project can only be spread so thin, but it was interesting to discover through the connections that Lena very graciously made available some fantastic people. A linguistic Institute, running out of, out of London for a while I think now out of Berlin. The idea that much language archiving is actually not done with a physical or visual aspect. And yet, if you’re talking about archiving a language in say a material culture, that is very much, say, a sustenance, culture, a developing culture right, the language and the material expression of that culture are so tightly bound, the idea that you would archive the language and the grammar without archiving the material expression of the culture seems insane to me. And so I don’t know that that’s maybe one of our next disrupter moments, you know, but, but, again, we want to make those tools available, and we’ve begun working with some in the field linguist archivist to try to help generate a material aspect to how they archive the grammar and vocabulary of languages, and there’s so much work to be done, it’s just where do you where do you begin, you know, yes.
Rachael: Yeah, I can, I can very much imagine and empathize with the, the feeling of urgency to the point of panic. And yet, I mean you only have so much time. We have yet to access at least for daily people cloning technology, for yourselves so, right. Yeah, I can only imagine it must be very difficult to have to prioritize.
Brian: It absolutely is. It’s, it’s painful, and it’s, it’s something that we almost refuse to do in the sense that we’re simply all about proselytizing the tools. We’re actually speaking, I think it’s okay to talk about this at a very early stage, an academic model, through which various grad student programs in various colleges might work with say the parks services to generate a data acquisition model to monitor, especially built heritage, out in the field. You know in in parks in areas that can always be policed against vandalism, let alone, natural wear and tear. We want to generate models by which citizens, volunteers, engaged local heritage organizations, even just children, they can be immensely powerful as data acquisition tools. And those are the models that we are working on so that we won’t have to prioritize, and I’ll keep you abreast on any successes.
Rachael: Yes, please do. Related to thinking about Arc/k Project and the evolution of the projects that you’ve done, and the partnerships and the standards and tools that you’re proselytizing, I would love to hear your perspective on when you were thinking about the process of creating Arc/k Project and, and the years since then, there some lessons learned that you could share with us or anything that was surprising to you that came up that, you know, when thinking of fellow innovators what could be helpful for them?
Brian: Oh, so many lessons learned. Yeah, some positive some negative, not to take no for an answer, is a great one to begin with. Also, the use of tools, the choice of tools. I recall very, very clearly, that when the hurricane that decimated Puerto Rico happened, e found it very difficult to bridge between established heritage professionals, very well meaning, and the tools that would be on the ground in Puerto Rico at that time to do emergency heritage archiving, because even, even, actually, many of the museums and larger cultural institutions in Puerto Rico did survive the hurricane itself structurally, but then without power, in the humidity and heat, many structures became unfortunately biohazards due to black mold and things like that, right, and there was, it was shocking it was it was a real lesson learned that there was no immediate way to bridge between the tools that established cultural heritage institutions use and a place like Puerto Rico. There was no common bridge whatsoever, and especially as a young organization which does not have any clearance to be say a first responder or a second responder yet, it was immensely frustrating. We think that those are bridges that desperately still need to be built. And, and we’re always open to try to enter into discussions and so on. Another lesson learned is that in order to do what we do at the level that we insist on doing it, we had to accept that, unlike what many cultural heritage professionals would prefer, we use commercially available software. We have actually, we have zero loyalty to any software package, I will say that, and we migrated from one to the other to the other and finally settled on, we actually currently use Reality Capture, I do, absolutely I can absolutely attest that it is the best software available for photogrammetry. Now whether that will continue to be the case right now we’re, we’re sort of watching and waiting and listening for clues as to what the new owners of that software package plan on on doing with it, and it has been one of the points of criticism and argument between heritage organizations- should we be using open source software for this? And we, the lesson to be learned and the philosophy that we developed from that is simply based on actually some of the original philosophies that CHI helped teach us with, which is the idea that the 3D model that you can access, you can work with, you can directly experience, while incredibly valuable, is not the archive. The archive is the metadata, the archive is the photographic data and those are mature data collection channels, and that’s the archive, that’s what matters. The 3D model is simply how you access that archive right so that was a lesson learned, that frees us up to do to continue to do the work that we hold dear and to do it at a rate and a level of fidelity that nobody else can can equal, and it will continue to be something that we watch very closely, maybe a few years from now. Open source software will be of such a, such a level of fidelity, and speed because sorry but speed does matter, in this case because there’s so much to be done, and the ability to round trip to a given volunteer in a remote location what is missing what is was incorrect or insufficient or incorrectly done for a given 3D archive, that, that ability to rapidly round trip is crucial in developing volunteer techniques. So who knows maybe in a few years open source software will be the way to go but right now we continue to proselytize that commercially available software is the way to go. And in fact, that particular software package may in fact become free as part of the new owners Epic Games and, and what they want to do with it. We would love to hear from them, some, some pronouncements about their commitment to cultural heritage functions for that software and its, its rightful that it might make some heritage professionals, and heritage institutions nervous. The proximity between the software that archives the heritage and the software that puts it in a game. And so that’s a dangerous moment, and, and. So the lesson learned there is simply to be vigilant, and to keep, keep, keep keep watch. But I think we’ve also learned that there are so many overlapping organizations and interests out there that you can’t spend too much effort, you can’t spend too much effort, too much time building bridges with other organizations, because at one point I became impatient. I’ll admit it with cultural heritage gatekeepers who seemed more interested in deliberately misunderstanding and and taking issue with the digital as if the digital were trying to replace the physical, I became really really impatient with philosophies like that and with with knee jerk, frankly silly responses like that. And we had work to do. And I just said, You know what, enough, we’re busy, I don’t need your approval. And I don’t want it anymore, right. So, I think it’s time to start trying to, okay, come around, come full circle and let’s see if now we can speak a little bit less shrill than before about these about these issues and build bridges so that we can keep everybody responsible and accountable, and absolutely cutting edge.
Rachael: I would love to hear from you, why are archives important in your own words?
Brian: Archives are important because, ou know, regardless at how accessible they are, and access is important, it’s crucial, it’s the memory of who we were and I do not believe that if you forget who you were, that you can responsibly, and accountably and safely not who you want to become. I, I look at what’s happening in Venezuela right now and I look at how cultural memory is being erased, not because of, say, religious extremism, as will probably happen and has been happening in parts of the Middle East, with the takeover of Islam, the extremis, created by civil war in Syria and now the Taliban consumption of Afghanistan and what’s about to happen with Sharia law But it doesn’t have to be anything so deliberate, it can be simply the forces of modernity, or, or economy international financeshen I look at what’s happening in Venezuela, and I look at sculptures being cut up overnight statues like monolithic scale statues being vivisected a piece at a time, over a week, and melted down for their constituent medals. I don’t see it as a loss of history, I see it as a loss of direction. And when I look at Venezuela,I think about Chinese development loans, and American oil companies, and international fast foods, and all the things that will seed themselves and redirect Venezuelan culture, the moment that they have that capability, and that I think is what we’re fighting against and that’s why archives and especially making archives, not just having them but making them more accessible, making them more vivid and engaging. That’s not just entertainment. That’s, that’s, that’s getting them into the hearts and minds of people so that they maintain a sense of themselves that can be resistant, that is sufficient to resist the forces of fast foods and quick easy loans, and American oil interests, right. That’s right, that’s so crucial. If you forget who you were, I don’t think you have a chance of deciding who you will become. And, and that’s, that’s what we’re all about. That’s what, that’s what heritage preservation has to be about, as well as its purely scientific validity on, it has to it has to be strong enough to carry both missions at once, I believe.
Rachael: I have just one last question on my part Brian, and that’s what’s next for Arc/k Project.
Brian: Oh wow, okay. So, so many things, so many, so many irons in the fire at any given moment. I did describe the Miami Project, the murals archiving project so that’s in our immediate future. We’re also looking at engaging in some software development applications. It has long occurred to me that a, I don’t know if you’re familiar with, sort of distributed computational platforms, like the way I pronounce it is simply BOINC, B-O-I-N-C. It’s a, it’s a globalized distributed processing framework by which the average computer user can donate spare processor cycles to very worthy projects like SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, which spent decades, analyzing radio data from Arecibo and other radio antennas, as well as more modern functions very much present functions like folding proteins, pharmaceutical design, weather modeling, etc. I would love to see Arc/k’s efforts go toward a distributed software processing platform that would allow all of the world’s spare processor cycles to be engaged in computing 3d solves for endangered heritage. So that’s something we’re always looking at. One other thing that I’m really excited about we just inaugurated is an Advisors Council, within Arc/k Project and two of the first gentlemen to join our advisory council. are ur gentlemen who have been involved in cultural heritage scanning for decades actually, and one of them was even involved in developing the techniques by which the Dead Sea Scrolls were scanned and sort of unfolded digitally. And we’re incredibly proud to have Eric Doehne and Greg Bearman on our advisory council. As we again try to sort of deepen our scientific roots, even as we become more and more unorthodox about how we engage volunteers. And so that’s happening at both ends. Very, very excited about that. And, in fact they are helping us design a program by which we will engage various colleges and graduate programs with using volunteer accessed data from the field to do cultural heritage archiving and translation programs.
Rachael: So, just a couple projects.
Brian: Yeah, just a few things here and there, while still trying to figure out how to fund ourselves. Right now we continue to be entirely privately funded. We have gotten a few small grants. We’re continuing to reach out into the granting world, but we’re also doing that with a certain amount of skepticism. We’ve been well trained by granting professionals, you yourself actually early on in our organization’s genesis, helped us learn how to navigate the kind of landmine minefield of what’s out there so that one can access grants but one has to be careful not to allow one’s mission to be decentralized or deterred. Because grants, while a beautiful source of funding, can also eat your organization if you’re not careful right so we continue to hold granting at somewhat arm’s length, we’re hoping over time, that we’ll develop that as a better arm for funding the organization, but we’ve also not wanted to have too many external influences when it comes to granting. And we’ve been lucky in that we’ve had a few private donors who’ve been extremely generous, that have allowed us to plot our path without having to owe too much to worry about where that money came from. So we’ve continued to be self directing and and self empowering, in that, and I’m incredibly grateful for that.
Rachael: Well Brian, is there anything that I didn’t ask you that I should have or anything that you would like to share with us before I let you go?
Brian: I would just like to share that, I think there is a genesis happening, there’s something new happening in an awareness of what we do. I think it’s an exciting time that we don’t actually have to spend 20 minutes now explaining to the average lay person, the technology that’s behind us. That itself has been amazingly liberating making this a really really exciting time to see how the culture and technology are intertwining to make our job easier and easier in some ways, and I will also say that thanks to people like you and thanks to organizations like SAA, we are finding it easier to get the word out there.e don’t have to fight so hard to have a sense of legitimacy in what we’re doing and I absolutely credit you and the archivist organization in being part of that. It’s getting easier and easier to sell what we do. And now we don’t have to worry so much about basic arguments of legitimacy.ow we can start working on creating synergy and creating ethics and protocols by which everyone should be abiding, to really, really make something stellar happen with the fusion of these technologies and these interests over the next five or 10 years. I think it’s going to be a super exciting time, and we have people and organizations like yours to thank for them.
Rachael: Thank you so much, Brian, I really appreciate your time and, and you sharing so much about our project with us, and we’ll go ahead and conclude the formal recording of this interview.
Brian: Very well, thank you so much for having us.