New Year’s resolutions

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With the beginning of 2014 mere days away, I find myself considering drawing up some resolutions that I hope to accomplish in the new year.  I have an ambivalent attitude toward New Year’s resolutions, but I definitely see the value in pondering my goals and determining my priorities.

In researching New Year’s resolutions, I found some interesting evidence to explain why most resolutions are not successful.  Jonah Lehrer wrote a piece for the Wall Street Journal in 2009 that suggests that the largest factor in failed resolutions is the fact that we try to change too much at once.  He explained that the prefrontal cortex of our brains is responsible for willpower, and it can get overtaxed (but he also indicated some possible remedies for waning self-control).  John Tierney followed on this theme in a 2012 article for the New York Times, in which he listed some basic strategies that can help one be more successful with resolutions:

  1. “set a clear single goal”
  2. “precommit” (i.e., plan actions that will further your goal)
  3. “outsource” (i.e., use others to evaluate your progress)
  4. “keep track”
  5. “don’t overreact to a lapse”
  6. “tomorrow is another taste” (i.e., delayed gratification can be a powerful motivator)
  7. “reward often”

Oliver Burkeman took a more pessimistic view of New Year’s resolutions in a 2012 piece for Newsweek, arguing that such efforts embrace the self-help, motivational speaker tactic of forgetting the past in order to have a fresh start.  But he also suggested that setting small goals can be more effective, as can establishing “process goals” which focus on the behavior necessary for success rather than establishing an arbitrary measure of that success.

Like many organizations, archives often engage in strategic planning, and in so doing, fall prey to many of the same pitfalls that plague individuals.  But rather than looking at this from the viewpoint of mission statements and five-year plans, I wonder if there is a way that archives can harness people’s interest in self-improvement around the start of each year.  Here are my initial thoughts of things an archives could do in January:

  • begin a lecture series that will give people the opportunity to learn something new and exciting
  • unveil a new exhibit that highlights some goal-setting documents found in the collection (e.g., Woody Guthrie produced an interesting list of “rulin’s”)
  • host a family movie day where people can bring in family movies to be digitized
  • sponsor a workshop on personal information management

[For a survey that shows common resolutions, see this list from the Journal of Clinical Psychology that informed my suggestions above.]

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Crowdsourcing preservation

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1990 letter

1990 letter

I was recently organizing some of my papers from high school, and I set out to find a letter that had been sent to me by one of my English teachers.  I remembered that she had given a speech at an awards ceremony and later mailed me a copy.  I’ve always been fairly organized in my recordkeeping, so I was able to quickly find this letter.  But I was distressed to find it had been copied on thermal paper and is almost illegible (see scan at right).  By holding the paper up to natural light and using inference to discern a few words that could not be read at all, I was able to reconstruct this letter with some degree of accuracy.  But had I waited another few years, it likely would have been lost entirely.

This type of paper was frequently used in copiers and fax machines in the 1980s and 1990s, and it is still quite common for store receipts.  I can’t find any reliable “life expectancy” for this sort of paper, and obviously environmental factors will play some role, but I know from personal experience that store receipts that use this paper become unreadable in a matter of years.

As an archivist, this concerns me when I consider collections that are processed according to MPLP.  Obviously, the point that Mark Greene and Dennis Meissner made in their 2005 article for The American Archivist is that too many collections sit unprocessed and, therefore, inaccessible to researchers, so it behooves us to carry out some minimal processing for the purpose of providing greater access to archival materials.  This makes a lot of sense to me, but my concern is that this approach may create a greater likelihood that the preservation needs of a collection may not immediately be recognized — and, therefore, may not be recognized until it is too late.

So here’s my latest thought.  There’s been a lot of talk in recent years about the potential of crowdsourcing, and even institutions such as NARA use volunteers to help transcribe documents and identify photographs (see the Citizen Archivist Dashboard at http://www.archives.gov/citizen-archivist/).  So why can’t we crowdsource preservation?  MPLP is based on the premise that researchers would rather have full access to minimally processed collections within a shorter period of time instead of fully processed collections after a long period of wait.  If researchers do indeed have a vested interest in these collections, then why can’t we provide them with some minimal training so they can identify preservation concerns for any of the documents that they peruse?  It seems that this could be accomplished fairly easily with the confines of a normal reference interview, and the potential for identifying preservation priorities before the window of opportunity to save them closes would be a win for everyone involved.  Feel free to share if you know of any repositories that are pursuing this idea.

A nonprofit archives

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I researched government and business archives while I was pursuing my MSLS degree, so I wanted to look into the archival needs of a nonprofit organization in order to round out my understanding of the various needs for and uses of archives.  Here is some of the knowledge that I have gleaned:

  • As with any business, there are certain legal requirements that affect document retention.  The Charities Review Council provides a suggested Document Retention Policy (http://www.smartgivers.org/uploads/record_retention_policy_HNC.docx).  Harvard University’s Record Management Services also provides access to their retention schedule (http://library.harvard.edu/sites/default/files/CommonRecordsAndTheirRetentionPeriods.pdf), which obviously has more of an education focus.  With an eye toward potential researchers of a nonprofit collection, I would suggest a few modifications when considering what to archive permanently after these legal requirements are met.  (1) I’m not sure that bank statements have permanent value for a nonprofit archive, but I think annual budgets could be revealing of the priorities and activities of the organization.  (2) Correspondence can be an interesting window into the leadership and membership of an organization, so it is probably worth keeping.  In an ideal world, rather than keeping the additional bulk of envelopes, each piece of correspondence would be checked to see that the date and sender is indicated on the interior, and then the envelope could be discarded (but this may not be practical).
  • There is an important and necessary distinction between active and inactive records.  By definition, an archive is the final resting place for inactive records that have permanent value.  Current work efforts should be kept in active files, and there is no need to house them in the archives until the project has been completed.  Making decisions about the most appropriate way to organize records after the completion of projects will generate a more cohesive, consistent, and usable set of records.
  • As for new records being generated – knowing that they are likely to be born digital but most archives still consist primarily of analog records – I recommend several standard practices that will make these printed documents more useful to future researchers.  (1)  Use a header or footer that includes the date and the page number, in case the pages become separated.  (2) Make sure the author of the document (or the group, in the case of minutes) is specified.
  • From a documentation standpoint, here are some things that I think might be interesting to future researchers of a nonprofit organization — and may need to be collected via oral histories from members, if other records that fill in these gaps do not exist somewhere: (1) explanations of the additions and deletions of sponsored events, (2) explanations of any fundamental changes in focus or priorities — anything from a name change of the organization to a different office space to a new organizational structure.  This sort of institutional memory is hardest to capture but can be the most interesting to researchers.  In addition to these considerations, it is important for all workers and volunteers (such as committee leaders) to understand up front what sorts of documentation are desired to be created and preserved for future research.
  • Many organizations keep newspaper clippings that relate to their work or events.  The National Park Service has produced a good 4-page document about How to Preserve Acidic Wood Pulp Paper (http://www.nps.gov/history/museum/publications/conserveogram/19-24.pdf) that explains why it’s not a good idea to keep newspapers with other types of records.  If the articles are of a size that can be easily be copied, the original newsprint version can be replaced with a version printed on archival quality paper.  But newspaper articles frequently are of a size that is not conducive to office printers.  Large face-up scanners are becoming more common in university settings and some public libraries, so that might be an option (though transporting the articles for scanning would be problematic).  Best case scenario would be that the articles could be scanned as an OCRed PDF, a copy printed and filed where the original was found, and the originals housed in a separate location.  If it is not practical to print a copy of every article, then there would need to be a separation form placed in the original folder, directing the researcher to the electronic version (whether on a CD or a hard drive).  A sample separation sheet from the Georgia State University Library can be seen at http://soga.org/resources/Documents/FormsForum/SeparationSheet_GeorgiaState.pdf.  (NOTE: especially if a printed copy of each article is not created, it is imperative to keep the originals.  Electronic copies, especially those saved on CDs, can easily degrade if they are not maintained and frequently migrated to new media, so the only way to ensure continued access to the information is by keeping the original.)  The advantage to scanning the articles into a PDF that has been run through OCR is that the files could then be indexed and searched.  Ideally, using a program like Adobe Acrobat Pro, metadata could also be added about each article (e.g., title, author, date, and keywords based on a controlled vocabulary) – but obviously this will be labor-intensive to generate, so the dirty OCR may have to suffice.  However, if the intention is to allow researchers to search the files, it would be preferable to have them all housed on one disk rather than having to search multiple CDs individually.

The issues that affect nonprofit archives are not significantly different than those for other types of archives.  The relative lack of funding and other resources that are available and the transient nature of the volunteer workers certainly complicate the process.  But having transparent goals in place about the intended uses of the archives of a nonprofit organization — including how the records will be accessed — should facilitate the work.

Reusing data

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I have spent a good portion of the last week rehearsing and performing Handel’s Messiah with the Duke University Chapel Choir, so it’s on my mind for obvious reasons.  During one rehearsal, our director was encouraging us to emphasize the word “glory” and made the assertion that glory is the most frequently used word in Messiah.  Given that my library science studies — and more specifically, a digital humanities class — exposed me to the existence of software programs that facilitate word frequency counts, I decided to verify this assertion.  So I scanned the libretto into Adobe Acrobat Pro, cleaned up the text that came through its OCR process, and plugged it into the Character and Word Counter with Frequency Statistics Calculator.  Below is a link to the results in a PDF file, along with a word cloud generated at Word Cloud Generator.  (NOTE: a libretto is printed to help an audience follow the words that are being sung, but it does not generally include every occurrence of a sung word, as the text might differ slightly from one voice part to another)

Messiah words  Unique words: 483  Total words: 1485

Messiah word cloud

Messiah word cloud

In addition to being an interesting exercise for a performance week, doing a word frequency count on the text of Messiah made me stop to think about the various ways that data can be reused.  Obviously, those creating the program for the concert did not anticipate my doing this exercise, but with a clear copy of a program that could be scanned, I was able to complete this task with relatively little effort.  But what about the items that are housed in archives of various sorts — do archivists have a responsibility to make these items available for reuse?  And is it sufficient for archives to react to requests for use, such as those from the digital humanities community, or should archives be proactive in anticipating and/or suggesting other uses for the records which they house?  (For an example of how digital humanists have presented online items that were originally analog records in an archives, see the William Blake Archive.)  Given that most archives have excessive backlogs that they can’t afford to process, I don’t imagine that archivists will be devoting a lot of time to brainstorming different ways to utilize their records.  But I think it warrants a look by special collections archivists to what scientists and social scientists are doing to preserve and share datasets in data repositories like the Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research (ICPSR), the Odum Institute Dataverse Network, and the Dryad Digital Repository, to name a few.  Encouraging scholarship has always been at the heart of the work of special collections archives, so it’s time to embrace the possibility of new ways to facilitate that scholarship.

Thanksgiving

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The recent holiday prompts me to consider the truth behind our stories.  Many of our assumptions about Thanksgiving are only shades of the truth.  The Plimoth Plantation provides a thorough summary of Thanksgiving food traditions — but suffice it to say that the first celebration among the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag didn’t happen on the fourth Thursday in November and didn’t include most of the foods that we now associate with the holiday.

As for the timing of Thanksgiving, President Washington issued the first Thanksgiving proclamation in 1789, and most subsequent presidents also issued annual proclamations.  It was President Lincoln who established the last Thursday in November as the time for the holiday.  In the midst of the Civil War, he issued a proclamation encouraging all American people to celebrate Thanksgiving as means of starting to heal the wounds of the nation.

During the Great Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt was concerned that businesses would suffer when Thanksgiving occurred late in November because most people did their Christmas shopping after Thanksgiving.  In 1939, Thanksgiving would have been on November 30th, so FDR issued a proclamation moving the holiday to the second to last Thursday of the month.  This action created much uproar — the FDR Library provides a sampling of the letters sent to the President (my favorite has to be the one sent from a calendar representative).  Many states didn’t abide by his proclamation, which obviously generated great confusion, but in 1941 Congress passed a joint resolution making the fourth Thursday in November Thanksgiving.  I wonder what FDR would think about Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, and Cyber Monday!

One question that occurs to me is why war has had such an influence on the celebration of Thanksgiving.  But more importantly, I have to ponder what influence truth has on memory.  Many people have their own versions about the why and when of Thanksgiving, which are more likely to be based on family traditions than on historical artifacts.  While archives can make available to people the records that document the past, but there is no way to force people to adopt one consistent and accurate view of history.