Reflection: A Year in the Life of an Audiovisual Archivist – Part 4

Audiovisual Access

I am not alone in the belief that access is an intrinsic part of preservation. In the past, the RAC — like many institutions — relied upon the creation of optical media discs (DVD or CD) for on-site researcher access. Beyond the person-hours required to create these discs, there were other issues such as retrieval time; the cumbersome process of loading discs into a player; and monitoring discs for on-going damage and wear and tear. My topmost concern, however, remained the long-term stability of these discs and the increasingly difficult-to-find drives necessary for playback. In short, we needed a new solution to the issue of audiovisual access.

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Project Electron October Update

As development of the Project Electron transfer application has continued over the past month, one important aspect of the work has been the creation of user interfaces based on the wireframes we have designed during the design planning process. In this month’s update, I will discuss how both wireframes and the resulting user interfaces (UIs) of the application are important communication tools both internally for the development team, and externally with user groups including Rockefeller Archive Center staff and donors. Continue reading

SHOT 2017: expertise and power

A few weeks ago, I attended the annual meeting of the Society for the History of Technology in Philadelphia. Along with my colleague Eira Tansey, I presented a paper titled “For Good Measure: The Role of Regulatory Records in Environmental Maintenance,” which made the case that environmental regulation relies on the work of recordkeeping. Eira was fresh off of delivering the opening keynote at NDSA’s Digital Preservation 2017: Preservation is Political, a talk which covered many of the same themes.

SHOT was a great conference, one that I’d recommend for archivists or anyone who works with technology. Much like the Maintainers community, which I’ve repped on this blog a few times, SHOT reinvigorated my thinking about what I do on a daily basis and how I go about it. I’d love to see more archivists at conferences like SHOT, not only because we have a ton to learn there, but also because I think we have a lot to contribute.

One of the recurring themes from the conference was the intersection of expertise and power: who has it, where, when and how is it used, and why? In the days and weeks following the conference, I’ve been thinking about how this issue of expertise impacts the work of archivists in general, as well as the implications specifically for us here at the Rockefeller Archive Center.

Typically, expertise is thought to be narrow and deep: an expert is someone who has in-depth knowledge of a specific, narrowly-defined domain. As expertise is developed, it becomes even deeper and more narrower, which means that the most obvious marker of advanced expertise is specificity.

These slices of expert knowledge tend to share boundaries with the shapes of professions. One of the many things that professions do is to promote a the concept of expertise-based identity through field-specific training and jargon. The effect of all of this is that we end up in our own professional silos, where we have great conversations about all the problems we need to overcome. But there are people having conversations about the same problems in the next silo (or conference hotel) over, and yet we’re all separately talking about these problems like we’re the only ones who have ever thought about them.

As I’ve been reflecting on this, I feel like archivists bear a particular responsibility for bridging some of these gaps. Our expertise is, by necessity, one of bridging: we connect people, records, the past, present and future with each other. We have to be multi-disciplinary, since we work with scholars and researchers from many different narrow and deep fields of knowledge. And, I think, our expertise with information management and theoretical understanding of things like boundary objects makes us uniquely qualified to operate in these bridging roles.

Here at the RAC, the D-Team has been thinking about this bridging function a lot over the last two years, and in our recent review of our team values, we talked a lot about how humility is a prerequisite for effective bridging in our context. A lot of that has to do with the power dynamics that come with technical expertise, which are a real barrier to learning and participation. People without technical expertise (or even those who feel they don’t have it even when they do) can easily feel intimidated, less smart or capable than people who are perceived to be more “tech-savvy,” and can often fail to realize that they important, irreplaceable and unique knowledge. Of course, we’re not the only people thinking about this, and our thinking has been highly influenced by the work of others like Shawn Averkamp at the NYPL and Shannon O’Neill and Martha Tenney at the Barnard College Archives, to name just a few.

One way we’ve tried to subvert those power relations at the RAC is to recognize and explicitly articulate both what our colleagues bring to a particular project, as well as what we don’t know. As a newly-added sentence to our values says, we want to approach our work “with empathy and humility: listening before solving, valuing the work of others, and recognizing that we still have room to learn.

Reflection: A Year in the Life of an Audiovisual Archivist – Part 2

Audiovisual Processing

I feel fortunate that the RAC has always gathered and/or maintained some form of documentation for their roughly 13,000 films, video, and audio elements. However, as with any archival institution, this information has been collected by several different individuals, who have sometimes employed different approaches over the course of many “eras” of RAC’s history. Applying consistency to audiovisual description became one of the first goals undertaken.

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Modeling Coworker Engagement with Data

As our work on the transfer application portion of Project Electron nears its completion, I’ve started to think more seriously about modeling our data that we are bringing into our systems. We’ve actually been prepping for this stage of the project for months, going all the way back to the Data Model Bibliography I put together in February 2017. Now that the D-Team was in the thick of data modeling, we thought it was time to bring the rest of the Archive Center on board as well. I’m just a single archivist, and even though I’ve done a lot of reading about data models, I’m no expert on the entirety of our collection or its materials. We knew that we’d need more eyes on our initial data model draft once we made it to make sure we weren’t forgetting an important component of our collections. Continue reading

Project Electron September Update

It has been a busy month for Project Electron as we near the end of the first phase of development, which focused on building an application to enable the secure transfer and validation of digital records and their metadata according to the Rockefeller Archive Center BagIt specification. In addition to the transfer application development, much of our work this month has been about planning for the next phase of the project. In this post I will share a few activities and strategies we undertook to prepare for development and to keep users at the center of the design process. Continue reading

edUI Conference 2017

I recently attended the edUI conference in Charlottesville, VA. It’s a conference for web professionals working in educational institutions, and the speakers come from a variety of professional contexts including design, development, management, content strategy, and UX. For me, this conference was a chance to hear from and connect with folks outside of the archives field who are doing related work. It pushed me to think about familiar problems from a fresh perspective, build conceptual connections, strategize to improve communication across disciplines, and learn some practical approaches and skills that are not often emphasized in archives-specific conferences.

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