International Open Access Week

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Today concludes International Open Access Week — the 8th annual observance organized by the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition.  The Open Access organization defines the concept of open access to information as “the free, immediate, online access to the results of scholarly research, and the right to use and re-use those results as you need.”  Looking at the list of planned events, this movement seems to have more support outside of the U.S., but there have been notable steps promoting open access within the U.S.

  • Last year, the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) released a memorandum requiring that “the direct results of federally funded scientific research are made available to and useful for the public, industry, and the scientific community.  Such results include peer-reviewed publications and digital data.”
  • The National Science Foundation is developing a public access system to comply with this OSTP directive.
  • Margaret Heller wrote an interesting post about how libraries can encourage conversations and actions regarding open access.
  • The Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) represents one of the portals encouraging open access; last month, they announced that nearly 150,000 items from the U.S. Government Printing Office are now discoverable through the DPLA.

There are still numerous lingering issues to resolve, including tenure criteria and copyright, but the discussion of open access is here to stay, so it behooves libraries and archives to figure out how to become a part of the solution.


Ask an Archivist

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In honor of Archives Month, I want to call attention to a new interview feature that has been launched by Choice.  This monthly article is called “Ask an Archivist,” and according to the press release distributed by the ALA, its intent is to introduce new users to materials found in digital archives and libraries.  I imagine some of the questions will repeat each month — such as: provide a brief description, indicate the intended audience, and explain how it might be useful to undergraduate students.

This month’s interview is with Edward L. Ayers, who created The Valley of the Shadow, an online archive of materials that reflects the views and ideas of both sides of the Civil War by focusing on a community in Virginia and another in Pennsylvania.  Through a combination of letters, diaries, newspaper accounts, census data, and other related records, the voices of individuals coalesce into a story of the War.  Interestingly, his original intent for this project was to create a boutique book, but his timing coincided with the early development of the World Wide Web.  With initial support from the University of Virginia and IBM, he and his team created a web site that has become a model for digital humanists.  In my opinion, Ayers has been successful in large part because he recognized both the possibilities and the limitations of the Web platform and tailored his project to it.  In his words, “We knew at the outset that a digital archive was really good at some things — outreach, manipulability, search — and really bad at others, such as presenting coherent narrative or long stretches of text.”  If more digital humanities projects can embrace the possibilities of the digital medium without trying to force square pegs into round holes, there undoubtedly can be other digital projects that will also enjoy decades of success.


Electronic Records Day

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The Council of State Archivists (CoSA) declares October 10 to be Electronic Records Day.  This is a day to raise awareness among government agencies, related professional organizations, the general public, and other stakeholders about the crucial role electronic records play in our world.  Here is the list of ten reasons they suggest people should be focusing on electronic records:

  1. Managing electronic records is like caring for a perpetual toddler: they need regular attention and care in order to remain accessible.
  2. Electronic records can become unreadable very quickly.  While records on paper can sometimes be read after thousands of years, digital files can be virtually inaccessible after just a few.
  3. Scanning paper records is not the end of the preservation process: it is the beginning.  Careful planning for ongoing management expenses must be involved as well.
  4. There are no permanent storage media.  Hard drives, CDs, magnetic tape or any other storage formats will need to be tested and replaced on a regular schedule.  Proactive management is required to avoid catastrophic loss of records.
  5. The lack of a “physical” presence can make it very easy to lose track of electronic records.  Special care must be taken to ensure they remain in controlled custody and do not get lost in masses of other data.
  6. It can be easy to create copies of electronic records and share them with others, but this can raise concerns about the authenticity of those records.  Extra security precautions are needed to ensure e-records are not altered inappropriately.
  7. The best time to plan for electronic records preservation is when they are created.  Don’t wait until software is being replaced or a project is ending to think about how records are going to be preserved.
  8. No one system you buy will solve all your e-records problems.  Despite what vendors say, there’s no magic bullet that will manage and preserve your e-records for you.
  9. Electronic records can help ensure the rights of the public through greater accessibility than ever before, but only if creators, managers and users all recognize their importance and contribute resources to their preservation.
  10. While they may seem commonplace now, electronic records will form the backbone of the historical record for researchers of the future.

CoSA has also generated a document called Survival Strategies for Personal Digital Records that provides suggestions for dealing with backups, migration, and other issues for personal files and digital images.

Earlier this week, an article was published entitled “The New Digital Workplace,” and some of its points about the future of work are interesting to consider through the lens of archives and records management.  Some of people’s expectations that I believe could (or should) apply to archives are these:

  • search that works — standards and interoperability and catalogs have been discussed for years, but there’s still much to be improved about how patrons can find and utilize archival collections
  • rich media tools to communicate — many repositories have embraced social media, but I think there are still more ways that the reference experience in particular could be improved (e.g., reference interviews could take place via Skype before a researcher makes a trip to the repository)

While there’s no questioning the allure of mobile apps, I think the general lack of budget and IT support is going to make it hard for most repositories to begin designing their own apps (though perhaps a hack-a-thon could offer its services).  What remains to be seen is how archives will handle things like whether to provide access to digital collections only in the search room, as has been the norm for most paper records, or whether to devise a way to provide more robust service online.  Once this is determined, it will also be interesting to see whether the new emphasis on collaboration that is sweeping the worlds of business and education will impact the realm of archival research.

To cursive or not to cursive

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From the halls of state legislatures to the pages of national newspapers, the debate over whether or not children should be taught how to write in cursive has been raging.  Testing organizations, which have routinely required a handwritten oath to attest that no cheating has occurred, are having to consider how to handle test takers who cannot write this paragraph or sign their names in cursive.

It’s not often that you see the states California, Tennessee, Massachusetts, and South Carolina all on the same page, but these are some of the states that are bucking the trend to jettison cursive handwriting from elementary schools.  An article that ran in Time in June lists five reasons that cursive is good for us:

  1. some American institutions (e.g., post office, board of elections) still require signatures
  2. it’s good for our minds — not only for motor skills but also for developing different parts of our brain
  3. in the words of a New Jersey proposal — “So that students are able to read our most valued historical documents in their original form”
  4. some people who have learning disabilities or have suffered brain injuries have an easier time reading cursive than manuscript print
  5. it looks pretty

While some of these reasons may seem more emotional than scientific, psychologists and neuroscientists have also weighed in on this debate, concluding that “children not only learn to read more quickly when they first learn to write by hand, but they also remain better able to generate ideas and retain information.”  This same June article in the New York Times also reported that brain imaging shows that when “children were asked to come up with ideas for a composition, the ones with better handwriting exhibited greater neural activation in areas associated with working memory — and increased overall activation in the reading and writing networks.”  And in a discovery most troubling to those of us who can type much faster than we can write legibly, there have been studies that show that writing lecture notes by hand rather than typing them “allows the student to process a lecture’s contents and reframe it — a process of reflection and manipulation that can lead to better understanding and memory encoding.”  According to the studies conducted by Princeton psychological scientists, students typing notes are much more likely to produce verbatim while those writing by hand are more likely to summarize the content, thereby creating these differences in learning and memory.

As someone who taught in a public school for many years, I sympathize with the opinion that too many curriculum decisions are being made by legislators rather than trained educators.  In addition, some of the fascination with cursive may just be an avenue for attacking the Common Core curriculum.  But as an archivist, I have to admit that I like the idea that we won’t lose the next generation as potential patrons just because they can’t read the handwriting in our old documents.  Otherwise, we’re really going to have to ramp up our efforts to crowdsource the transcribing of our precious documents before the volunteer labor pool dwindles to nothing!