Another Response to the Ithaka Report on Historians

I – and what felt like everyone and their mother – have read the Ithaka S & R Report about historians. After reading it, I had some back and forth with librarians and archivists on Twitter as well as a few face to face conversations. The findings were not controversial or surprising to me; I think Sharon Leon put it best when she wrote on her blog that “The report characterizes history as a discipline in transition, and it is-both in human and institutional senses. Historians, graduate students, archivists, and librarians are each in their own way coping with the “problem of abundance” created by the digital turn.” I think that is fair for all parties. Historians are trying to make sense  of how to best utilize a wealth of new digital materials,  and librarians and archivists are trying to make sense of how to make those assets more accessible and what they need to do to provide effective outreach and research support. I am no longer a practicing historian, so I won’t comment on that aspect of the report, but as a librarian who supports historians and as a trained archivist, there are some things I want to say.

  1. Librarians and archivists need to better articulate what types of services they offer. Librarians and archivists have tremendous value far beyond ‘I have access to this cool stuff, come find me.’ Last week, I went to a NISO webinar on Libraries and Start-Up culture. The biggest takeaway for me is that libraries and librarians need to stop thinking about themselves as content collectors, but as agents of content creation and publication. This report is a call to arms to librarians and archivists to move from the model of ‘we have those documents and these books’ to ‘I want to partner with you to publish this open access article’ or ‘Let me circle the wagons so we can create this digital project’ or ‘yeah, I can help you work up a data management plan.’ We understand the research process and we can be really helpful sherpas to our faculty as well as our students. In order to do that, we must shift how we conduct outreach and position ourselves as collaborators as opposed to just support people. Easier said than done, I know, but it’s possible. I live that reality.
  2. Scholarly Communication is changing. This report reinforced to me that librarians are poised to help faculty get from monograph publishing to a new place where digital projects and new types of output reign. Of course, this is easier said than done since the tenure and promotion process is not to the point where DH and alternative forms of publishing reap the same rewards as traditional monograph publication. But as research sherpas, we can help guide the process; librarians can create a new publishing environment, for instance by using collection development money to support open access publishing or creating collaborative creation/hacker/maker spaces in our libraries can push the issue forward.
  3. If we [librarians, archivists] can be replaced by a computer screen, we should be! Cathy Davidson’s blog post frames much of how I think about my work these days. If the work I do can be replaced by a computer, then it should be. It can free me up to do other, new things in my practice to the benefit of my students, colleagues, and faculty. It’s creative destruction, but in 2013, our year of community engagement in libraries, we need to be mindful about how we allocate our valuable human capital in libraries. If we can automate aspects of our work that is better left to computers, then we should. For me, automation frees me up to teach more classes, develop meaningful content for our research education program, provide better service to my school, do technology, and have the headspace to think about what is on the horizon in libraries, archives, and higher education. Not only will this help ensure the survival of academic libraries and librarians, but it also makes us more accountable to our students who pay increasingly steep tuition and fees to attend college in the United States. By leading with the idea that we are going to do more, make decisions to meet our users’ needs then we can be more sure of our success.

Naysayers might suggest that I want to kill off some of the artisanal aspects of librarianship, that my goal is to rise in the ranks to shut the lights off in my colleagues’ offices and usher them out the door. That is not the case. If higher education is going to continue to be meaningful, if we want to see a profession of smart, dedicated librarians in the future, we have to make sure that the work we are doing resonates with the academic curriculums we support. We want to prepare today’s students to earn living wages and hopefully to foster their lifelong learning. My call to my fellow librarians and archivists is not to take everything the Ithaka report suggests and implement it to the letter, but to think of it as a call to action. Let’s make ourselves relevant by working with faculty and researchers to become valuable collaborators in the research process and guides them through a rapidly changing technology environment. Let’s work towards educating our users about data management, open access, and copyright so they can create new types work, as the report advises us to do. Let’s use this opportunity forge a new path for libraries and archives for the twenty-first century. While many people would point to the contrary, I believe our future is bright, if we are courageous enough to carve a new path to get us there.

The Gender of “The Stuff”

In June, I attended the Rare Books and Manuscripts Section Preconference in San Diego, California. It was fantastic few days filled  with informative sessions, an engaging back channel on Twitter, and inspiring face to face conversations.

One such conversation was about “the stuff.” What kind of people should comprise the next generation of special collections librarians? Is it more important to love the “stuff,” or to love sharing the “stuff” with people? Should special collections librarians be teachers or gatekeepers?

For those readers left wondering, “the stuff” refers to manuscripts, rare books, letters, and ephemera. It is at the heart of special collections librarianship, and increasingly, the fuel that feeds digital humanities projects. Often, “the stuff” is what inspires people to work in special collection. Working in special collections is an extraordinary  opportunity to work with the old, the special, and the unique. “The stuff” is amazing. “The stuff” inspired me throughout my undergraduate years at Smith College. I still can’t get over how amazing it was that the Sophia Smith Collection (SSC) was there for me to use carte blanche in my undergraduate library. I used primary materials from the Smith College archives in nearly every research paper I wrote as a history major.  I often joke that those history classes, those amazing hours in the reading room pouring over letters, books, and photographs, set me on the path to ruin that I am on today: libarchivism. I love “the stuff.”

But central in my mind, even as an undergraduate, was the question of access and the politics of collecting. Who gets to access “the stuff,” who gets to use “the stuff,” and who gets to be the arbiter of the memory around “the stuff?” Who decides what of “the stuff” is valuable to collect, keep, and preserve? And so began my now decade long love affair with the politics of history and memory.

During one of my history seminars in my junior year (Trauma and History), we read an article in the American Historical Review by Bonnie G. Smith called, “Gender and the practices of scientific history: the seminar and archival research in the nineteenth century.” In it, she talks about the professionalization of  history during the nineteenth century, a movement that saw historians shift from amateurs to professionals, “training [them] in a distinct methodology, endowing them with expert knowledge, and providing them with credentials.” (Smith, 1153) Not only did this change serve to create professional boundaries, it also happened to be one that largely excluded women. Smith writes, “Seminars and archives were spaces reserved mostly for professional men.” (Smith, 1153).

New York Public Library

Smith contexualizes the historical underpinnings of special collections librarianship as guardianship of “the stuff,” an awesome responsibility viewed as one that only a man could take on effectively. Beyond that, the collecting parameters ensured that material worth saving fit into a narrative appropriate for scientific history, one that suggested an objective truth was out there for someone to find among the documents. As Smith suggests, “young professionals set out for the archives, where they hoped to break up the gates of the documentary  “harem,” save the “fairy princesses” residing therein, and find truth in that process.” (Smith, 1153)

In the nineteenth century, the only truth worth remembering was from the public sphere – the man’s world – as opposed to the women’s world of the home. Women’s higher education in the United States has not had the long, storied history that men’s education has. There were real questions about whether women could physically handle the rigors of education. So, while women undertook the similarly rigorous exams during the 19th century to gain admission to Smith that their male counterparts took to enter Harvard or Yale, they did so with firm boundaries, limitations, and caveats. Inherent in Smith’s physical design is the idea that women could be educated, but also continued to be socialized to remain eligible for marriage. You could learn, but  couldn’t wander too far off your preordained path.

So, was the work of women considered valuable? Did the bright men of the historical profession believe that those “truths” were worth seeking? Until the middle of the twentieth century, no, that was not the case. In the academy, writing women’s history did not happen systematically until the 1970s.

The Library of Congress

Which brings us back to “the stuff” and special collections librarianship. For many generations, the only “stuff ” worth preserving was the evidence of the accomplishments of white men, edifices to their  memory, steering historical narratives to their experiences. Danzy Senna’s Where Did you Sleep Last Night? Where Did You Sleep Last Night? clarifies that trend with remarkable stories and insights. Where are the markers of memory for people of color, for queer people, for the working class? How do text and traditional documentation privilege the white, the heterosexual, the individuals who had the privilege to lead public, open lives? Where are those stories?

The State Library & Archives of Florida

Fortunately, institutions like the Sophia Smith Collection, The Centro Library, The Human Sexuality Collection, and others across the country are working to collect materials about the lives people across genders, sexualities, classes, and races to give researches an opportunity to explore new aspects of history.  But it should not be the exclusive work of a handful of institutions to collect materials from traditionally underrepresented individuals and groups. Special collections librarianship needs to broaden the scope of the “stuff,” its formats, its applications, of who uses the “stuff” and whose “stuff” we can and will collect. I hope that this work won’t be confined to reading rooms and to the monograph, but innovative avenues through the digital humanities and through public engagement to preserve and remember the work and lives of many different types of people, not just the great white men.

They Can Teach, Too: Archivists Take Over

  1. Where is the academic library going? Barbara Rockenbach, Director of the History and Humanities Library at Columbia University suggests that Digital Humanities is a new service model for libraries, providing an opportunity for librarians and archivists to re-imagine how our resources are used in scholarly communication. Of course, that has instructional implications for how we prepare students to do the work of the digital humanities. 
  2. Share
    Rockenbach: let’s move beyond info lit and move towards context and critical thinking skills for students.
  3. Share
    Rockenbach: #DH at the undergraduate level happens w/ pedagogy as opposed to grad level research projects.
  4. Teach students how to read and evaluate their own digital work. Provide students a roadmap about how to code, but above all, empower them to ask new questions and present their work in new contexts beyond the traditional ten page paper. 
  5. So, what is it about archival practice that makes archivists the new ambassadors to more effective library instruction?
  6. Reduced, Relevant, Reliable. Often times, traditional r & i librarians focus on the number of results in a search rather than focusing on the right results. 
  7. In an age where students freely engage in remix culture and automate bibliographies with Zotero and RefWorks, often, the path of where one idea led to another gets obscured. Archivists live for provenance. We can leverage our culture of understanding where ideas, materials, and donors come from in our teaching with both print and born digital sources. We can help promote a culture of forking ideas, acknowledging where our ideas come from as the bedrock of scholarship. 
  8. Metadata, Description. In order to do successful digital projects like exhibits, students need foundational knowledge in how to describe materials, what a controlled vocabulary is, and why access and discovery is important. 
  9. Share
    Digging all the projects @jenterysayers’s students are doing, sound as an artifact, collaborative work among students, description. #NITE
  10. Share
    “Metadata = interpretative tagging-” @triproftri
  11. Finally, our materials themselves act as the best tool for teaching critical thinking skills and inspiring paper topics in our students. 
  12. Share
    Rockenbach: Situate student w/ primary source, gather search terms and then go find secondary sources. I teach the @yalelibrary way.
  13. However, we can’t underestimate the importance of leveraging technology in our practice to reach multiple learning styles and engage our students apart from straight lecture. 
  14. If instructors can’t provide students with the 3 Rs of instruction, rigor, relevance, and relationship, then perhaps make a screencast and call it a day. 
  15. Share
    Digital pedagogy when done well engages so many different competencies for students from critical thinking to visual literacy. #nitle
  16. Tools: Storify, Omeka, Popplet, Concept Mapping, Apps from NYPL and National Archives 
  17. Special Collections needs a seat the table about how to unlock collections for new uses. Rockenbach talks about the need to empower students to repurpose print resources to meet student needs, and providing access to scanned images from the museum world, but special collections needs step up and provide more digital access to materials. If you put materials online, they will come in your doors. 
  18. Share
    Copyright: it’s the #dh dream killer. #nitle
  19. But there is hope! 
  20. Share
    There is a consensus in academic and research libraries that non consumptive use is #fairuse:… #bcltorphanworks
  21. Share
    !!!! RT: @briancroxall: .@jenterysayers: Librarians are key to the future of publication and we need to partner with them. #nitle #dayofDH
  22. Build new repositories, not new silos. We need to engage open access publishing. As our institutions create more publishing opportunities for faculty, build institutional repositories to store these materials, and capture digital humanities projects, archivists need to lead on the digital preservation front and support our instruction on discovery and access of these new types of collections. 
I Found it in the Archives!

I Found it in the Archives!

“The Good Old Days” revived at Bill’s Gay Nineties-ad from ca. 1940 via the Menden Collection, the Mortimer Rare Book Room, Smith College. The title of this post brazenly repurposed from Smith College’s Archives Concentration’s program flyers seen around their … Continue reading

memory work

“If archivists are no longer commonly depicted as antiquarians stopped over old ledgers in dusty basements, they are not generally acknowledged as people consciously construction social memory to meet or reflect contemporary neds, values, and assumptions-or as the professionals who control the past by deciding which stories and storytellers (i.e., records creators) of that past will be remembered and be retold in the future.”

-Terry Cook, Controlling the Past: Documenting Society and Institutions.

I take memory work very seriously; it’s one of my research interests and something I hope to continue thinking about in my new job, but obviously in a different context. I’ve been studying memory/history  on and off for almost ten years and these questions never get old for me. NEVER. 

Victory is Mine!

Victory is Mine!

Above, my victory lap. I started processing three collections on 1 September 2009, a total of 348 linear feet.They were not minimally processed; this was old-school, maximal processing. I finished processing those collections in June. The finding aids will be published at … Continue reading

In which my iPad saves the day at work (again)

I am in the throws of digitization which right now means putting TIFF files into folders within directories that will be ingested into CONTENTdm. Once in CDM, these files can be made discoverable to patrons through Yale Digital Collections and we create handles, and then link to the finding aid which will in turn link patrons to the digital materials. Which is fantastic. However, the process of accurately transferring TIFF images from one file directory into discrete folders within another manually is long and taxing. Luckily, one of my colleagues sat with me and read from the spreadsheet I saved in Dropbox from my iPad as I worked on the files on my PC. 430 TIFFs and one hour later, we managed to complete the process. Had I been going back and forth between the spreadsheet in Excel AND the two file directories, I surely would have made errors and take twice if not three times as long. Let’s give it up for teamwork and my iPad.