Technology aids

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I do not consider myself an early adopter of new technologies.  Part of this is due to my frugal nature, and part of this is because I don’t want to waste my time learning a new system if it’s some fly-by-night outfit that won’t be around very long.  I generally like to make a careful evaluation of the costs and benefits of products before I embrace them.  With that in mind, I want to give an overview of two Internet tools that have no financial costs but do have significant productivity benefits.

Teamwork is the buzzword across the business and education realms, but I have always found that scheduling is one of the more cumbersome elements of teamwork.  Now Doodle can come to the rescue.  You can quickly generate a poll of possible meeting times and send participants an email with a link to the poll where they can all indicate their availability.  Then with a quick glance, you can determine which time suits the schedules of most people.

Trello is an online project management system.  Rather than having a string of email messages that try to determine who will be responsible for what part of a project and that bounce attachments back and forth, you can use Trello to assign tasks, set up checklists, share files, and get input on priorities.  It even keeps track of comments, changes, and additions, thereby preserving the institutional memory of how decisions are reached.

(NOTES: I was introduced to Doodle while working at the Duke Obesity Prevention Program, and I learned about Trello from the processing archivists in the Manuscripts Department of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  One of their applications for Trello is to have the Research and Instructional Services staff create a card when it comes to their attention that a finding aid needs to be revised; the processing archivists can check it off the list once the corrections have been made.)


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Attending the Tri-State Archivists Meeting (combining the annual meetings of the Society of North Carolina Archivists, the Society of Georgia Archivists, and the South Carolina Archival Association) gave me pause to compare the professional development activities common in my new profession of libraries and archives with those to which I was accustomed in my sixteen years of teaching high school social studies.  Although both professions place a premium of continuing education, it seems to me that the desired outcomes of conferences and other such events are quite different.

The impression that public school educators are generally underpaid and overworked is, unfortunately, far too accurate.  Teachers are required to earn continuing education credits to keep a valid teaching license, and these credits are generally accrued by attending workshops or by taking coursework toward an additional degree.  Some workshops and conferences are held during the regular school year (which requires teachers to write lesson plans for and secure payment for a substitute teacher) and many are also conducted during the summer.  Whether it’s in February or July, attendance at conferences requires a substantial investment of time and money for teachers.  When I had to be away from my classes, I generally found that it took me about 3-4 times as long to prepare lesson plans and detailed emergency procedures and everything else that was necessary for a substitute as it did for me to prepare the necessary materials for me to teach my own classes.  So I did not frequently attend conferences that took place during the school year.  But in order to attend workshops during the summer, I was making a substantial investment of my “free” time, because many workshops typically last a week, and the minimal stipends provided by organizations never covered all of the costs that I incurred.  Given these various costs of professional development for teachers, it is easy to understand why my colleagues were not generally fond of sessions that did not provide some practical ideas — preferably in the form of handouts and lesson plans — that could be taken back to one’s own classroom and implemented with little modification.  I was fortunate enough to be selected to participate in two summer seminars sponsored by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, and these were definitely the most intellectually demanding workshops in which I participated, as they were led by university professors and had extensive reading required before arrival.  But even these workshops also built in time for the preparation and sharing of relevant lesson plans during the course of the week.

I have attended two annual meetings of the Society of American Archivists along with the recent Tri-State Conference.  While teachers that come together for training seem much more interested in practical takeaways, archivists seem to place a higher premium on networking.  There are plenty of opportunities to meet with other archivists with similar interests to discuss strategies or to plan grant applications or to hash out articles or monographs to be written.  Section meetings at SAA tend a little more toward the practical; for instance, the Manuscripts Repositories section chose as its focus in 2012-2013 an electronic records initiative called the Jump In Initiative.  And I have to credit OCLC Research for being good about bringing its research to share — in hard-copy format — at SAA meetings.  But I have generally left archival meetings with more notes that make me reflect about the purpose of archival work than I have with practical information about techniques or strategies that can be implemented.  My unofficial sampling of attendees at local and state meetings versus national gatherings indicates that there is a higher preponderance of practitioners at the local and state meetings while there are more academics in attendance at SAA, but the paucity of generalizable solutions afflicts all of these levels.

So I’ve been asking myself what teachers and archivists could learn from each other about doing professional development well.  Full disclosure — I was one of the rare K-12 teachers who would register for conferences such as the Organization of American Historians, so I always embraced the idea that developing my intellectual curiosity helped to make me a better teacher — even if no practical lesson plans were gathered — because it made me more passionate about my subject matter.  The routine, mundane tasks of teaching can sometimes be so overwhelming that I think it is valuable for teachers to build in time for intellectual inquiry.  One simple model that could be adapted from SAA was where registrants for the New Orleans meeting were given the opportunity to sign up for a lunch-time discussion of a preprint of an article written by Mark Greene for the upcoming issue of The American Archivist.  Those of us who’d done our homework had a lively discussion in August, and this could easily be done at teachers’ meetings, reading an article about trends in historical inquiry, for example.

Archivists could also learn some things from teachers.  The archival world defines itself on uniqueness, so while it may be quite fascinating to learn what practitioners are doing in other repositories, even if I share some of their problems, their solutions are not likely to be one-size-fits-all.  While teachers are faced with the arduous task of differentiating lessons for dozens of learners in one classroom, they still cultivate a culture of generalization that could be invaluable to the archival profession.  Rather than just hearing a laundry list of accomplishments by different repositories, I would be much more enthusiastic to hear speakers identify the common problems that they have addressed and to specify the solutions that could be implemented in multiple repositories — for example, open source software products or standardized procedures.  I certainly don’t want to obscure the uniqueness that shapes the collections of archival repositories, but at the same time, there certainly are issues — such as handling electronic records — that affect most repositories.  Just as with teaching, archives are never going to suffer from excess resources, so if we can figure out ways to stop reinventing the wheel, everyone can benefit.

Bulk Rename Utility tutorial

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I have had an unresolved records management issue for years.  I began using a Windows computer in the 1980s, so my file names were constrained by the 8.3 file name – a maximum of 8 characters for the base file name and 3 characters for the extension.  In an attempt to make these names more descriptive, I used the extension spaces as part of the naming process; for example, the extension .LET indicated a letter I wrote (with the name of the recipient in the base file name).  This practice applied to both my professional and personal digital records.  As time went on, Windows changed, and not only did the space for a base file name increase, but the extension became the indicator of the software program that was used to create the file.  Although I have done a good job of migrating these files from one computer to another over the years, I have never taken the time to modify the file names of all of these records, instead merely fixing individual files when I found myself in need of using them.  But now I have decided to clean up this recordkeeping fiasco, so I went in search of a utility to help me in this process.

I chose to use a free program called Bulk Rename Utility.  The manual for this is available for download, and there is also an online forum where the syntax of regular expressions is shared.  The following tutorial highlights some of its useful functions.

Bulk Rename Utility tutorial (The built-in PDF viewer in your browser may not play the audio, so you might need to right-click and save the file manually and then open it in Adobe Reader.  In order for this PDF slide show to display properly in Adobe Reader, make sure it is in Full Screen Mode, and if there is a security warning, you should choose to trust this document.  Otherwise, the audio will not play.)

[If you would feel better served by a print tutorial rather than a narrated one, you may find this PDF document useful: Bulk-Rename-Utility-tutorial.]

Utilities such as this can have numerous applications within the archival realm.  Although paper records certainly are not going to disappear, I would surmise that all manuscript collections and special collections repositories will be accessioning born-digital records, if they have not done so already.  Inaccurate file extensions and nonstandardized file naming procedures will render the discovery and access of these records more problematic, so a utility such as this could be very useful in helping to make these files more accessible in a relatively short period of time.  However, born-digital records will also make it more incumbent upon repositories to work closely with donors before accessions occur, in order to resolve any confusion about file naming customs and common software programs that have been utilized.