Your archives needs a mascot!

24 Jun

Meet Harold Hatty Hat.

Harold Hatty Hat hard at work

Harold Hatty Hat, hard at work

I met Harold my first day on the job. As sometimes happens in an archives, Harold was left anonymously by someone who didn’t want to care for him anymore. All he had was his hat. Poor sad Harold. I gave Harold a t-shirt and bow tie (and my name tag), and KABLAM! he took on a new life as the Gilman Archives mascot. The kids love him- after a visit by the third grade class, several of the kids took it on themselves to make sure that they said goodbye to Harold on their way out in the evening.

And that last bit? That’s why your archives needs a mascot. Maybe not Wally the Green Monster or anything, but a mascot of some sort.

A few weeks ago, I gave a talk on outreach ideas for archives, and I kept coming back to this idea of archives becoming “beloved”. This isn’t a term often associated with our profession. We are serious primary resource providers, and our public presence often reflects that. Beyond our projections, public perception of archives does not exactly skew towards “love”. Thing is, I truly believe this puts us at a huge disadvantage in resource battles.

So what can we do? Build on mutually beneficial relationships, of course. But also, we need to show our lighter side. Make public our bad puns, write silly blog posts, and yes, show off our mascots. Mascots are an immediately recognizable, visual touchpoint for our stakeholders, something we often lack. I mean, who would forget Archive the Archival Box? Or Gravitas the Lobster? It shows we’re human, it breaks down some of the barriers between archivist and user, and most importantly it’s just plain fun.

So. Does your archives have a mascot? Tell me more! If not, why not?

The Hard Skills of a Job Hunter

5 Nov

math-and-frustrationI’ve been on the job hunt for a while now, stretching back to before I graduated in May. It’s not been easy, in fact it’s been a slog. But as I was shipping off a few more resumes this morning, I got to thinking about the skills I’ve gathered during this time. Few would advocate for having a section on your resume titled “Job Hunting (date-date)” with these items listed underneath, but there are some real benefits. I call these “hard skills”, not in the traditional hard/soft skill dichotomoy, but more because they’re really hard earned. For example:

-Ability to successfully navigate poorly designed systems.

Now, you don’t want to tell an employer that their application system is deeply flawed, but most are. Most of the time it’s not explicitly the fault of the employer- maybe they had an intern do it in-house, or they’ve bought into an inexpensive package that they had little input in designing. Whatever the situation may be, only the most nimble of job hunter can navigate the murky language, unclear instructions and tricky required items of the system. It takes practice!

-Ascertain the difference between employer needs and employer wish list.

Every job hunter has come across a mile-long laundry list of skills an employer “requires” or “prefers”. With time, we learn that  A.) our skill sets are in fact plenty for most employers and B.) that no single individual has the entire list of skills listed, except perhaps for the person leaving the job being advertised.

-Self-starter able to maintain positive attitude during the darkest of days.

I have yet to meet a job hunter who hasn’t occasionally slumped into a chair, declared everything a failure and spent the day binge-watching that show they won’t admit they love. The truly talented job hunter is able to bounce back and get right back to it the next day. There’s no shame in self-care.

-Doggedly persistent in seemingly futile causes.

People with jobs often tell job hunters “Don’t give up! The market is hard, but something will work out.” To job hunters, this sounds exactly like Charlie Brown’s teacher. The market (especially for archivists *cough*) is bloody awful, and we have no reason to believe that today will be our lucky day. Yet we get up again, turn on the computer, tweak our resumes, craft beautiful cover letters and send them off. If that’s not a marketable skill, I don’t know what is.

What did I miss? What’s a skill that you would add?

Tangent: Remembering the power of Twitter

22 Sep

In working on a side project, I was reminded of just how cool and powerful the tweet can be.

See, if it weren’t for Twitter, I might not have taken the archives track. While working on a group project during my undergrad time at UMBC, I visited the library trying to find some items about the history of the school. A trip to the reference desk yielded directions to the university archives and special collections (not easily found!). In one short hour, the history of the university was spread before me and I couldn’t contain my excitement:



The next day, fate (or the excellent Lindsey Loeper) intervened and Special Collections became my home for the next two years:

Tweet3A few years later, I was struggling to find a field study to wrap up my masters program. An opportunity I was really excited about had fallen through, so I reached out into the ether and was rewarded:



To be fair, I already worked in the same building as Cassie, but it was still a fascinating moment of coincidence.

So without Twitter, I wouldn’t have built on my interest in archives and spent hours upon hours on comics books or ArchivesSpace.

It’s a funny thing, these old tweets. Remember this the next time someone tries to downplay the power of 140 characters. They might just shape your future.


Tangent: Being there to help

19 Sep

It’s been a bit quiet here for the past month since SAA ended, but not without good reason.  On the Friday after the conference, just past noon, my amazing partner gave birth to our beautiful daughter and a whole new chapter of my life began. Sleep now comes in two-hour blocks, and weekends and weekdays blur together as we fall under the thrall of the most beautiful blue eyes I’ve ever seen. That it’s actually been a month since she entered the world seems utterly inconceivable.

As I’m still doing the post-graduation job hunt, I’ve been on a sort of de facto paternity leave this whole time. I chauffeur to doctor’s appointments, make quick runs to the store, change the diapers, pepper the pediatricians with questions over the phone…

It’s been exhausting.

But I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Because I’m there. Not just for my partner, but for my daughter. I get to learn every nuance of her ever-changing personality and marvel at the incremental development of her body and motor skills.  I work with my partner to try and understand the sleep and feeding whims of a one-month old- a true exercise in frustration. But, cliche as it sounds, there’s no place I’d rather have been for the last month.

I know that really there’s no better time for me to be unemployed so that I can spend this sort of time. But thinking about it that way has gotten me really angry- why can’t every new dad have this level of experience? There’s a quote in this NPR article that sums up the sad truth- “In the U.S., paternity leave is a luxury.” The stigma is strong against dads taking the time, and workplace policy will tend to reflect that. Even for the very rich- think of Daniel Murphy and Wilson Ramos, two well-paid baseball players who took a good amount of flack earlier this year for taking off just a few days from their jobs which consist of playing a game. If a guy whose office is a baseball field takes heat for taking paternity leave, what chance does a cubicle dweller have? How many men are willing to risk the scorn of their boss by taking a month off, even if it’s provided for in their benefits?

There’s a flip side to this of course. As the Times pointed out a few weeks ago, men actually benefit career-wise from having a child, while women pay steep penalties. And again it comes down to perceptions- that men become more focused on providing for family while women become more distracted as caregivers. Which is poppycock.

Lest we think that archives and academia are immune to this sort of thinking, there’s a great post by Meghan Lyon over at Chaos —-> Order that shows we’re perhaps not quite as progressive a profession as we could be in this area.

We need to argue that paid family leave is a vital benefit, not an oddity or radical idea. And if there is an option of paid leave available, men need to take full advantage of it. As with any benefit, if no one uses it, employers will see no reason to continue offering it. And the more men who take paternity leave for that first month, the quicker we start to erase this ridiculous Mad Men era stigma around caring about your kids and your partner. (I use “men” here to match my own experience, but the same should go for any parent, regardless of gender) The fact is, caring for a newborn is hard work- why shouldn’t we be there to help as much as we can?

There’s more I can say here, but my coffee cup is empty. I’m curious to hear from other men in libraries and archives- have your employers offered paid leave? Did you take advantage?

SAA 2014 Poster- ArchivesSpace and the Potential For Institutional Change

18 Aug
My handiwork (click for larger version)

My handiwork (click for larger version)

From August 14-15, I was fortunate enough to present a poster for the second year in a row at the Society of American Archivists Annual meeting. The technical aspect of the poster was substantially the same as the one that I did for my field study, so I won’t go into that here. What I added was a larger discussion of some of the changes possible with an implementation like ArchivesSpace. Specifically, I used three examples: Continue reading

Songza and a victory for human curation?

3 Jul
Of all the services Google could've acquired, why Songza? I think (hope?) it's the human touch.

Of all the services Google could’ve acquired, why Songza? I think (hope?) it’s the human touch.

When I was first introduced to Songza and its concierge feature, I thought it was little more than an admittedly clever gimmick. “It’s Thursday late morning. Play music for: Getting fired up? Saving the world?”

Har, har.

But then you pick one of those “moods”, and a theme like the “Rowdy Indie Rock”, “Heavy Metal Gods” and the true genius of the service is revealed. Playlists like “Skinny Bros Night Out”, or my personal favorite, “A Prince Dance Party“. All curated, according to Songza, by actual people. And you know what? They’re really good! The stations feel cohesive, and make sense, and even tell you how many songs they contain. And that’s it. That’s all this simple little service does. There is no constant wrestling with a Pandora algorithm, or getting stuck in a Spotify loop (I once seeded a Spotify station with Elliot Smith and it gave me an hour of Beck- ugh). Just like the old days of trusting the DJ at your favorite (college) radio station to make you smile, Songza just works, powered by that human touch.

This week came the news that Google had acquired Songza for the rumored price of just under $40 million (is that all?). This could mean a lot for Songza and its competitors, or it could mean nothing at all, I’ll admit that. But it feels like something bigger. Like an admission that algorithms aren’t always the best way to go. That there is a great value in the expertise of people who can carefully craft something so seemingly simple as a playlist.

And what does any of this have to do with archives, other than overuse of the word curate? I think it’s a reminder that however many technological solutions we seek and find, we’ve got to remember that the skills and expertise of the archivist will always come into play. We can have the best schema and interface in the world, but if we’re half-assed about description, we will be caught out.

It also speaks to something a number of folks have been discussing on twitter- the need to shine the light on the archivist, and the ways in which doing so can improve the public’s perception of our work and our collections. There is no algorithm that processes collections and finds cool stuff- that’s our job and how we add value.

In the end, Google may just be buying Songza for its user data and the mechanics of its concierge feature. But I’ve got to believe that it’s also because they know that experts beat algorithms every time.

ArchivesSpace Field Study Poster & Notes

14 May
ArchivesSpace poster

The poster I’m presenting at the UMD iSchool Experiential Learning Expo. (click for larger version)

This post is a bit long to be talking points for a poster presentation, but it’s the general gist of what I’ll be saying today at today’s iSchool Experiential Learning Expo.

My field study was part of the larger project of implementing the ArchivesSpace system here at Hornbake.  It was a great chance to apply and build on some of the technical skills I’ve learned, like database organization, XML and EAD.  At the same time, it was a chance to think about some bigger issues around language, and policies, and how we organize information for users.

The existing information management system is known as “The Beast”.  It’s a Microsoft Access database that was built in the early 90’s to facilitate the introduction of Encoded Archival Description for online finding aids.  Twenty years on, while the Beast still works as intended, it has issues.  The database fields take information however it is entered which, combined with inconsistent written data entry policies, has led to extremely messy data. The path from data entry to finding aid is also complicated with the Beast, requiring the data to be fed through a homemade Java conversion program before it can be plugged into the online finding aid template.

The hope is that ArchivesSpace will clean up this process.  It’s an open-source program developed by a community of archivists, with a web interface that prevents the need for messing with Access or other desktop-based software.   With its drop down menus and ability to encode default language, it’s easier to enforce data entry guidelines.  Creating a more streamlined data entry process that also provides consistent data should help to reduce the amount of time it takes to get from accessioning a new collection to having information up on the website about it.

As part of the field study, I worked on three elements of the conversion process.  The first was analyzing the EAD being produced by the Beast and comparing it against best practices from other institutions as well as ArchivesSpace.  From this, I developed a new EAD template.  As functional as our EAD was, it seemed like there were areas where we could be using it to convey more information.  The <physdesc> tag is a good example.  The original version conveyed different information depending on who entered the data.  Most frequently, it provided the linear feet, although sometimes it included box count as well.  The linear feet number is useful to archivists, but is it something that researchers understand? In my revision, I expanded the tag to require linear feet and box count, as well as some more optional information.  This will give both archivists and researchers a better sense of the size of the collection they want to view before they get to the reading room.

My next project was creating a map to show the way in which our existing data would translate (or not) to the ArchivesSpace system. Because of the localized nature of the Beast, a lot of the tags didn’t have a direct translation. On the other end of the equation, the fact that ArchivesSpace is still in development means that not all of the regular EAD tags are accounted for either.  At the same time, the impending release of EAD3 may raise other issues that need to be reconciled.  In the end, policy decisions will need to be made about any data that doesn’t fit into the ArchivesSpace map.

The culmination of this analysis was to start looking at the steps needed for the data cleanup of the resource records.  The chart of <unitdateinclusive> and <unitdatebulk> information is a good example of what we’re up against.  The variety of date formats, combined with inconsistent use of bulk dates, raises questions not only of data normalization, but also of policies.  Here we see multiple bulk dates assigned to collections that include four items.  There’s also bulk dates that were clearly just copied from the inclusive tag.  Given these examples, when should we use bulk dates, and what’s the best way to properly identify what those dates are? While programs like OpenRefine might help with the normalization of the data, these policy issues should be resolved first.

So this is the point where technology and policy intersect.  A software implementation is never just that.  A fresh slate like ArchivesSpace opens up all sorts of questions about processes and policies, and whether we are doing what is in the best interest of our users.  But upending the status quo is a political process.  Stakeholders must be consulted and middle ground sought in order to get everyone on board with the changes.  In the end, changes like those needed to implement ArchivesSpace are in the best interest of users, and therefore the repository.  As hard as that change might be, it’s both a good and necessary thing.


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