Transforming Survival Mode into Sustaining Mode

MLK Commemoration

Photo by Caro Pinto

During the fall semester, Mount Holyoke College commemorated the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s campus appearance by playing a recording of the 1964 speech. Sitting in the campus amphitheater, I contemplated how King’s vision was as much about the discipline of everyday work as much as it was about dreams. My mind wandered back to a certain text that pushed me in college.

King wrote:

We Negroes have longed reamed of freedom, but still we are confide in an oppressive person of segregation and discrimination. Must we respond with bitterness and cynicism? Certainly not, for this will destroy and poison our personalities…To guard ourselves from bitterness, we need the vision to see in this generation’s ordeals the opportunity to transfigure both ourselves and American society. Our present suffering and our nonviolent struggle to be free may well offer to Western Civilization the kind of spiritual dynamic so desperately needed for survival.

In the book referenced above, Freedom Dreams, Robin D.G. Kelly wonders how social movements can transform the world in the face of challenging circumstances:

How do we produce a vision that enables us to see beyond our immediate ordeals? Who do we transcend bitterness and cynicism and embrace love, hope, and an all-conompassing dream of freedom, especially in these rough times?

Thinking back to Kelly, I thought about how much of a struggle it can be to keep the big picture in mind in the face of “immediate ordeals.” How do we push forward when there are naysayers suggesting the work of higher education isn’t worth it, that there isn’t enough money to do x or enough time to implement y or z is too much effort?

Kelly concludes:

Without new visions we don’t know what to build, only what to knock down. We not only end up confused, rudderless, and cynical, but we forget that making a revolution is not a series of clever maneuvers and tactics but a process that can and must transform us.

An innovative future demands fresh vision. It is easy to get bogged down by the emails clogging our inboxes, the administrivia eating up our time, or the petty office politics sucking our souls. It is easy to get sidetracked and forget why we work in academic libraries and why that work matters. As winter turns to spring, I’m thinking about renewal and how to translate small habits into larger patterns for growth. After all, if we don’t think about ‘go for broke’ dreams, there won’t be an opportunity to transform our work in meaningful ways.

At Long Last, Reflections on Becoming MoHome

Archives & Special Collections, Mount Holyoke College

Archives & Special Collections, Mount Holyoke College

This semester is one of those semesters where I literally cannot believe how fast time is passing. The summer and the start of the semester were extremely busy, but for wonderful reasons. Our merged IT/Library (LITS) overhauled our orientation programming considerably to ‘radically welcome’ new students to Mount Holyoke. A significant part of orientation was also curricular; on the first Saturday of orientation my colleague Leslie Fields and I led the first session of the first year connections course (CUSP). Asked by the organizers to present a session about college history that brought the magic of the archives to about 500 entering students during six concurrent sessions. The question of scale immediately came to mind: how would we think about sharing the wonders of primary sources to so many students during 50 minute sessions?

We decided that the most expedient and perhaps AWESOMEST way of sharing some of Mount Holyoke College’s traditions and history with students was the create an online exhibit using materials from their great-grandmother class of 1917 to compare and contrast their experiences. Above all, we wanted to give the new students a sense that they are part of a larger community, the larger Mount Holyoke Community that thrives and endures beyond graduation and over generations. As the college song refrains, “Mount Holyoke forever shall be.”

So, how to build a site that would both communicate college history, make curricular connections, engage first year students AND look cool?

The four-legged stool of Archives & Special Collections (the goods), RIS (curricular connections), Archives & Special Collections Student Ambassadors (awesome engagement) and Digital Assets & Preservation (technical prowess & keen design sense) decided that we would build an Omeka site collaboratively. DH aficionados love talking about Omeka and there is no shortage of posts talking about its usability and extensibility, but what I wanted to share the link to our site and say some things about the process.

-Students Need Context: Over and over again when I work on digital projects with students, just saying, ‘go do this thing!’ never helps. Providing context, instruction, and measurable goals can help students realize their curation potential. I met fairly regularly with our main student to scaffold the process from idea, to research, to storyboarded exhibit towards a proof of concept before we even talked about Omeka itself.

-Better Together: Omeka’s extensibility really shines when you work with a variety of stakeholders. I alone in Research & Instructional Support could not have created this successful exhibit without the students’ insight/enthusiasm, special collections’ golden content, or Digital Assets & Preservation’s technical know-how & design moxie. With roles for curation, design, and technical support, we were able to do much more than slap some images onto a site. We created a narrative that leveraged plugins downloaded from GitHub and enjoyed a custom designed inspired from our own archival collections.

-Digital Project Outreach Matters: This site was an important step for our team not only in terms of delivering content for a particular class, but also get ourselves better acquainted with a tool that we hope to use more broadly in the curriculum. It’s so easy for successful projects and processes to get lost in the shuffle which is why Sheila Brennan’s post about Digital Project Outreach continues to ring true for me. She writes that “outreach is intentional, is integral to a tools/project’s success…is not only about publicity, the job includes testing and making the tool accessible to targeted audiences; is user advocacy.” We kept our users at the center of this project, not only in terms of the content, but the process, how can we make digital curation scalable to the undergraduate classroom? How can this project be used as model for future projects? We shared our success on social media and found that our community responded with sustained engagement with the site beyond the concurrent sessions during orientation. I also hope that students will also see themselves in the process of creation; that knowing other undergraduates were at the heart of curation will inspire them to ask bold questions and dive into digital scholarship.

You can visit our exhibit here.

DPLA for you & me

Recently, there has been a slew of articles announcing and introducing the Digital Public Library, and its own outreach team has been tweeting out a roundup of the press coverage each week. I’ve been excited to learn more about DPLA and begin a conversation about how the archives and library community can begin to integrate into our work. This post is not meant to cover the ground others have done so well already. Below are links to the three (in my opinion) best pieces providing overviews to the DPLA:

  1. Micah Vandegrift’s article from In the Library in the Lead Pipe where he “concludes that librarians want four things from DPLA: Advocacy, Inclusion, Investment and Clarity.”
  2. DPLA Screencast Overview/Tour Linda Braun for the School Library Journal covers “how [DPLA] works, both good and bad.”

3.Lincoln Mullen’s Introduction to the DPLA on ProfHacker Mullen points to the range of overview pieces about the DPLA from the blogosphere and the mainstream media.

Over the last few months, I’ve spent some time playing with the DPLA by watching the hashtag #dplafinds that the Digital Public Library of America introduced in late April for viewers at home to share their finds. Additionally, one can browse the DPLA and share items of interest to Facebook, Google Plus, and Twitter, but alas, no love for Tumblr and Pinterest, two excellent means of archival outreach (Please see Mount Holyoke Archives & Special Collections Tumblr & Pinterest sites as reference.) I would love for there to be a no-nonsense way for folks to get stuff onto Pinterest and Tumblr so bloggers scrolling through these image focused sites can discover’s treasures.

Outreach has been on my mind lately I prepared to give a presentation about manuscripts, digital tools, and research tools to support a digitization grant in the Five Colleges. In the session, we talked about best practices for description, who we aim to reach with our description, what kind of tone to strike in our writing, and one of the students talked about the struggles undergraduates face when they encounter ‘stiff’ library descriptions, unfamiliar vocabularies not yet accessible to them; why can’t we write for everyone, she asked?
It’s a reasonable question; when describing primary sources we need to serve many masters for provide ready access to the trove of materials in our repositories; the novice undergraduate, the harried graduate student, the experienced scholar, and the enthusiastic hobbyist. How do we serve this spectrum?

In our digital age, we have so many tools at our disposal to welcome a range of users into our materials, especially in terms of social media. In my presentation, I talked about those possibilities, making a joke that one way of building engagement around illuminated manuscripts might be a Tumblr called ‘Thug Manuscripts’ in the spirit of Thug Kitchen



(c) Thug Kitchen

(c) Thug Kitchen

It’s not the simply the tone of Thug Kitchen’s annotated photographs that make it such an effective outreach tool for fresh, healthy cooking, it’s the explanatory paragraphs with recipes and health facts that are accessible to the foodie (Saveur Magazine gave it props!) and the shorter attention span of someone who might not be inclined to cook at all (ahem, me). There are multiple ways into the world of food just as there multiple ways into the world of special collections.

The DPLA coverage points out that this library is as much a platform for transformative uses as it is a portal to many rich cultural resources. To me, outreach, social media, and even fun memes need to factor into that conversation as much as scholarly literature if we truly want to generate interest and build community to a wider cohort of participants. It’s our history, it’s our future, let’s engage with it together.

Edith Irvine, photographer, Lee Library, Brigham Young University

Transition Time

My dear readers, it’s been an intense few months. I traveled to Indianapolis to attend ACRL, I taught classes, I tweaked my slips plan, and, most notably, I accepted a new position at Mount Holyoke College, where I will begin work as a library & instructional technology liaison on 13 May.

In 2009, I started work as a project archivist at Yale University. It was a
collections-focused job, with some outreach and teaching thrown in, too. That experience inspired me to look for positions that were more student-facing, ultimately bringing me to Hampshire in 2011. While at Hampshire, tThe work that I’ve done in digital humanities inspired me to think about positions where I could have a greater hand in the back -end technologies that fuel digital humanities projects. Working in a merged IT/library organization like LITS at Mount Holyoke College will provide me that opportunity.

I don’t have a dream job; I continually seek out positions that challenge me to grow as a librarian, whatever that will mean as the years go by. For me, stasis isn’t an option, because the goal posts keep changing – the landscape in higher education is evolving to meet new demands, and libraries are moving in new directions. I’ve said this before and I will say it again; the job I want in five years doesn’t exist yet , something that is both terrifying and exciting to me.

I remain committed to working in higher education. I love working with students and faculty. College campuses continue to energize me, especially the ebbs and flows of the academic calendar. And I want to be part of the solution to push higher education in new and exciting directions. I am lucky to have worked in the dynamic environments that I have since 2009, with amazing colleagues who support, inspire, and challenge me. I have no doubt that will continue in my new role in South Hadley.

Happy end of the semester!

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.

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. 

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.