University of Virginia’s Alderman Library has begun its efforts to preserve the card catalogs. The people behind this process consist of student volunteers and led by two PhD students, Neal Curtis and Samuel Lemley. Student volunteers help pack the cards into a proper box and place them away in storage. The library has about 40 million cards that span over 65 cabinets and 4,000 drawers from 1938 to 1989. In 1989, UVA began to use the electronic catalog system, Virgo, to keep track of records and soon the card catalogs became a research tool of the past. The only content that was scanned and transferred to the electronic system was the information on the front of the card. This left out information that was written on the back of cards.
This project hopes to archive the history that was not captured when the information was first transferred, honor the work that librarians (who were primarily women) did to create the catalog and offer a glimpse of how UVA curated its knowledge to folks. The card catalogs offers information about if books were lost or stolen, or if professors used them in their classrooms or if a book had a significant to the UVA’s history. As of now, there are no funds given to the volunteers to support the online cataloging process of preserving the cards, but volunteers have begun fundraising. They hope in the future they are able to find a cost-effective way to properly preserve the cards.
Following Verizon’s acquisition of Yahoo in 2017, the telecom giant began cutting costs to their hemorrhaging subsidy. Among the more recent triage measures was the decision announced back in October that Yahoo Groups – one of the largest (in terms of both user base and volume) online message boards on the internet, first launched in early 2001 – would be permanently shut down. The announcement stipulated that on December 14, just a few days from now, Yahoo Groups would be discontinued and all the content posted to the forum would be deleted along with it.
The decision was received catastrophically by Yahoo Groups’ shrinking but committed user base – they had only 58 days to back up and archive over 18 years of content. Although Verizon displayed clemency in agreeing to extend the deadline to January 30, 2020, the forbearance was also accompanied by a mass banning of 128 volunteer accounts that had been engaged in downloading and storing the content of Yahoo Groups. Verizon cited that it was against the end user licensing agreement to download content that did not belong to the user or to use third-party software for batch processing. Whether or not Verizon will respond to the accusation that their decision has consigned millions of pages of content to deletion without any hope of retrieval is uncertain, but it seems unlikely at this point that they will renege on the EULA, even in the interest of allowing volunteers to archive their own website. Not only does this foreclose on the possibility that the material might be saved, it removes a resource for displaced online communities to discover new digital meeting places or access old address books.
The frantic activity surrounding attempts to preserve nearly two decades of born-digital content on one of the internet’s oldest message boards reminds me of an axiom presented in the introduction of Trevor Owens’ The Theory and Craft of Digital Preservation, one of our first readings: “It’s long past the time to start taking action”. The owners and administrators of online servers are not always going to be interested in facilitating archiving and preservation, especially if it comes at financial cost or legal risk. There’s a lot of complacency rooted in the idea that once something is on the internet, it’s out there forever – in reality, those vast repositories of information are only a few clicks away from being lost forever. Anyone committed to preservation and access to content that has never existed anywhere besides outside internet is exposing themselves to being blindsided by the same death warrant: seven weeks to manually compile an entire generation’s worth of art, news, culture, and discussion.
University of Pittsburgh published an article detailing the history of Fred Rogers’ archives located at the Archives and Special Collection Department. Fred Rogers, who was a Pennsylvania native, was the host and creator of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.
The collection spans from 1970s through the 1990s and is composed of television episodes, production notes, scripts, pamphlets, folders, photographs and press kits. Friends of Fred Rogers (who were librarians) began to collect items then donate to the university. Rogers was later convinced to donated his personal items to the collection.
The cataloging process began in 1983, when the former Information Sciences program received a 2-year grant to complete the project. Once the funds ran out the University of Pittsburgh stepped in and continued the Fred Roger’s archives project. The project was completed in 2003. The process was thoroughly watched over and name authorities were given “for every person mentioned in a catalog.” However, name authorities were not given to the popular make-believe puppets, such as Daniel Stripped Tiger or Malcolm Apricot Dinko. They are searchable by full-text searches as they were meticulously described due to their popularity.
The collection is available to view by request according the librarians. Folks who would originally viewed the collection were often families who wanted to see their family members on television. Now its incorporated in classroom education for students who are studying cultural studies or education.
In October 2018, a group of 300 volunteers spent 11 days combing Central Park for squirrels. They were doing this on behalf of the “Central Park Squirrel Census.”
The first such project was the “Inman Park Squirrel Census” in Atlanta in 2013. Launched by local writer Jamie Allen, the project “exploit[ed] the elements of artistic activities and academic research in order to attract attention to the coexistence of people and nature in one of the districts in Atlanta” (Brzozowska, 2014, p. 309). The participants were amateur researchers, including writers, designers, and a programmer, who lived Inman or in the vicinity. It was essentially a way of crowdsourcing scientific data, which was then presented to the community during an event called the “Squirrel Census Data & Spectacle.” Afterwards, a crowdfunding campaign finances the printing of posters depicting a graphic record of the collected data.
The 2018 “Central Park Squirrel Census” was based upon that early success in Atlanta. Allen decided to tackle Central Park for the “sheer challenge of it,” but also because “determining the squirrel density of a park is a way to understand the health of that green space” (Cohen, 2019). There was also a GIS aspect, because once the census was done, the project’s chief cartographer created a multimedia, interactive map of Central Park.
Unfortunately, it turns out that I can’t see the exact metadata scheme used by the researchers, because the official census is pay-walled (for $75!) on their website. However, based on reading the news articles about it, I am able to tell that they definitely recorded: squirrel color (including fur coloration patterns), location, and behavior. They also collected information about the environment, including if there were dogs around. Mental Floss reports: “they recorded how the squirrels looked, vocalized, behaved, and reacted to humans.” Some of these fields, especially the behavioral ones, were open fields where people wrote in in natural language, something that a typical census wouldn’t allow. This allowed for some cute and quirky entries, such as someone noting that a squirrel was hanging in a tree “like an acrobat, hanging onto branch by its legs upside down.” While this would be a hassle for trying to standardize the data, it worked well for this purpose.
Ultimately, the volunteers tallied 3,023 squirrel sightings. In order to account for double-counting and squirrels that were so hidden that no one was able to find them, the data was run through the wildlife counting formula popularized by mid-century Danish-American squirrel biologist, Vaughn Fleeger (Mars, 2019). Of these, 2,472 were gray squirrels, 393 were mostly cinnamon-colored, and 103 were black. Like so many types of knowledge organization, though, the beauty of the Census goes beyond “a head count – as journalist Michelle Cohen says, “it allows visitors to experience the park differently than you would if you were simply jogging through. Primarly, though, it’s a way of telling a story about Central Park and one of its many citizens” (Cohen, 2019).
Note: I did not come up with this post’s punny title on my own — I got it from the podcast 99 Percent Invisible’s episode on the squirrel census.
Brzozowska, B. (2014). Crowdfunding and crowdsourcing: new challenges for the visual documentation of city cultures. DOI: 10.4467/20843860PK.13.030.2082.
Vice recently published an article about how archivists are currently cataloging the largest collection of UFO research. It is so large that it could take 19 years to complete. The collection is a mix of papers and items that were written and collected by Stanton T. Friedman. Friedman was a Canadian scholar, who began his research on UFOs in the 1970’s, passed away early 2019. Archivist from the Provincial Archives, located in New Brunswick, Canada, convinced Friedman (before his passing) to donate his papers. The whole collection filled 5 vans to travel to its final destination.
The most challenging part of the cataloging the collection is that none of it is organized in any particular way. This was a surprise to archivists because of how well presented and organized his lectures were. Papers that seem to belong together are scattered in different areas. Beyond the collection being large, this is another hurdle archivist are worried may extend the time for it be fully completed.
Since his death, there has been a demand for all of his papers to be viewed in public. However, due to funding and prior priorities archivist cannot dedicate the necessary time to cataloging the collection. They hope to hire two full time archivists for this project in the future, but as of right now Fridays at the Provincial Archives are known as “Friedman Fridays.” Staff members spend the whole day working on the collection and listen to space-related music. As of right now, 25 boxes are available for the public to view.
The Medieval Animal Data-Network (MAD) is a database covering the visual and textual depictions of animals in medieval European sources. Created at the Central European University in Budapest by Medieval Studies professor and bioarchaeologist Alice Choyke and Medieval Studies professor and historian Gerhard Jaritz, MAD focuses on real and fictional animals in Europe and the Near East and incorporates an image database produced by the Institute for Medieval Daily Life at the University of Salzburg. MAD categories include texts, images, archaeological topographic data, artifacts, and archaeological evidence. Records are consistently updated and vetted by CEU professors. MAD also maintains a blog where readers can search entries by animals, geographic areas, and medieval source types.
Medieval animals might sound like a niche topic, but Choyke was prompted to start the database after noting that many of her students’ dissertations referenced animals in various ways. Sometimes, students simply wanted to include interesting but off-topic discoveries they had made while doing research and threw these items in the footnotes. Choyke realized that a database could collect and preserve these findings, make them accessible for other scholars, and promote interdisciplinary research. As MAD acquires more data, perhaps historians and archaeologists will discern new information about the ways that animals fit into the physical, emotional, and spiritual facets of human medieval life.
Currently, users can take advantage of MAD’s texts and images to learn more about the symbolism that different animals had in different geographic and social contexts. For example, the medieval church often portrayed cats as demonic, but other sources show that they were kept as pets and valued for hunting rats. Apes went through a gradual image evolution: they were shown as tricksters in the 10th century, had become sinners by the 12th century, and served as parodies of humans throughout the 13th to the 16th centuries. The more we learn about how humans have related to animals in the past, the more informed we can be about the way that we treat animals today.
Though I’ve been researching unusual archival collections for a few weeks now with my group for our final project, it turns out I did not need to look too far from home. My own roommate’s undergraduate academic advisor, Louise Harpman, is the custodian of what is supposedly the largest collection of coffee lids in the world. Harpman and her business parter, Scott Specht, have been collecting the plastic disposable lids since they were students at Yale in the 1980s. Currently, the collection of over 550 lids is housed under Harpman’s bed, in double-walled, UV-protected, climate-controlled archival boxes.
Harpman and Specht see the disposable coffee lid as a distinctly American invention, emphasizing the “on-the-go” attitude that defines much of modern life. Coffee becomes a tool for optimization; to be able to drink a latte on your walk to work or class means more time for productive activity, rather than leisurely consumption. Though the coffee lid is fairly ubiquitous throughout the world nowadays, it still speaks to this mindset that has proliferated due to a focus on productivity and creation of capital. To illustrate, Harpman shares a humorous anecdote of a graduate student of hers who attempted to find a French-style to-go lid while visiting Paris. She asked for her coffee “à emporter,” and the waitress handed her a porcelain cup, saying indifferently to bring the cup back when finished.
The collection functions not only as an example of the evolution of optimal capitalism but also as a direct questioning of the “valuable” archival object. As Harpman says, “When you put something in a museum, you say, ‘Oh, I’ve got to put a value on this,’ but nobody knows how to value this collection I’ve got, and it’s not for sale…there is another kind of value I’m talking about, which is understanding that you are seeing part of a culture that would otherwise go into the landfill.”
Harpman and Specht published a book in 2018, Coffee Lids: Peel, Pinch, Pucker, Puncture, which details the some of the collection through these four means of categorization (the categories refer to the lid’s “means of access”). Pieces of their collection have been part of museum exhibits, like the National Museum of American History’s “FOOD: Transforming the American Table 1950-2000,” in 2012. The Smithsonian has also acquired a selection – but only of the lids that Harpman and Specht have duplicates. It is an interesting exercise in the value of everyday objects, and with mainstream awareness of sustainability and the harm of disposable products growing every year, it will be interesting to see how the coffee lid collection changes alongside coffee lid culture.
If you visit Harvard University’s Fogg Art Museum, walk up to the fourth floor, and glance across a courtyard, you might be surprised to see a wall stacked with glass jars and tubes filled with colored powders. This eye-catching wall represents the Forbes Pigment Collection, a library where art and science converge in the form of over 2,500 unique specimens of pigment color. Started by Edward Forbes, a historian and art enthusiast, and now maintained by Narayan Khandekar, a conservator, the FPC collects, researches, and catalogs the world’s colors.
What inspired Forbes’ quest for pigments? After graduating from Harvard in 1895, Forbes set off for Europe to admire and purchase his beloved early Italian paintings. While there, he encountered European art dealers who viewed American art collectors as dilettantes they could trick into buying restorations and forgeries that they passed off as originals. Despite his expertise, Forbes fell prey to one of these schemes and decided that something had to be done to protect himself and his fellow American art collectors. He started by traveling the world and meeting with professional paintmakers called colormen to collect pigments, dyes, minerals, and other artists’ materials. As director of the Fogg from 1909 to 1944, Forbes founded the Department of Conservation and Technical Research in 1928, where he analyzed his pigment collection with the help of chemist Rutherford John Gettens. These pigment analyses have helped to authenticate paintings and led to discoveries about artists’ working methods and paint materials. Over the years, FPC researchers have also identified the chemical responses that lead to color loss, which has helped artists pick out stable materials that are less likely to fade with time.
Pigments continued to be added to the collection long after Forbes left the Fogg. Chemical and technological advancements and creations of new synthetic materials ensure that there are ever more items to add, in addition to the samples donated by companies and independent collectors. Plus, contemporary artists do not restrict themselves to traditional art materials and will use industrial paints made for other disciplines, like construction. Khandekar, director of the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies at Harvard Art Museums and acting custodian of FPC, has revamped the library to include these modern pigments that are now part of the art world.
So how is a pigment library organized? First, Khandekar and his team use methods like Raman spectroscopy, mass spectroscopy, gas chromatography, and electron microscopy to derive a pigment’s chemical composition and identify it. Then, they determine its origins based on its key compounds. When the pigment is ready, it goes into a glass container, labeled with the pigment, color name, source, and date, which takes its place on the display wall. Khandekar has organized the wall according to the color wheel, from reds to blues, with some purples at each end. Each cabinet along the wall has its own organizational structure: unique color pigments sit on the top shelves, right above their chemical duplicates; the raw materials used to produce the pigments are on the bottom shelves. A separate cabinet stores Gettens’ thousands of slides depicting different colors’ ageing process depending on if the pigments’ were bound with egg yolk, egg whites, whole egg, or oil.
Unfortunately, the FPC is not open to the public. Only trained staff are allowed around its rare, fragile, and sometimes toxic items. Those who want to see old, esoteric pigments like Mummy Brown (made from the gunk of mummies’ bandages until around the 1960s) and Indian Yellow (produced from the urine of cows who consume only mango leaves and water) will have to be content with the view from across the Fogg’s courtyard.
This early 2019 Yale News article describes a project out of Yale, Science Stories. Science Stories is a linked-data, image-based web application that highlights the women in STEM. “Science Stories was conceived by Katherine Thornton, a Council on Library and Information Resources postdoctoral fellow with joint appointments in the Department of Computer Science and the Yale Library’s Digital Preservation Department, who envisioned the application as a way to honor the 50th anniversary of coeducation at Yale, which will be celebrated in 2019.”
Using digitized materials primarily from Yale’s collections, the creators built visually compelling narratives from the material’s metadata. They used archival photographs, notes, correspondence, publications, scientific specimens, and other materials to tell the scientists’ stories. “What we’re doing is taking metadata from different collections, and making it interoperable by transforming it into linked open data… We’re using that metadata to support the images related to these women or their publications, or in the case of certain scientists, like Katharine Jeannette Bush, the biological specimens that they collected and used in their research.”
This project is an excellent example of the way that Linked Open Data can be used beyond cataloging. How can researchers use linked digitized materials to tell cohesive stories that are less-often told? What other kinds of connections can researchers highlight with the help of LOD that would be more difficult without it?
Foreign Affairs recently published a story about the incredible backlog at the National Archives with the process of declassifying historical documents. On top of the backlog, many of the offices that process these records are currently understaffed. This is quite alarming not only because it’s the National Archives, but because the act of declassifying documents is quite important. The ability to view these records allows the public to understand particular events and to research and teach potentially new historical perspectives. Currently there is no set law or requirement for records to be declassified after a specific amount of time. Many believe that after a set period of time records miraculously open up to the public, however most of the time this happens due to a specific and or influential request from the public.
The process of declassification is quite challenging and requires other agencies to agree to the declassification if any of the files involve them. There are other avenues that researchers can go down in order to access the materials, but all and all the process takes a very long time and most often, requests to declassify are denied. This can severely hinder the work of a researcher and in many instances completely stop the work it in its tracks. Knowledge organization goes hand in hand with fair accessibility to information. To completely lose access to countless records is cause for alarm.
The National Archives have shown how overwhelmed and backlogged they truly are when they stated that as of 2022 they will no longer be accepting paper records. This of course poses a problem for any of the paper files that would be submitted in the future. In turn, by denying paper, it halts the work of researchers. The availability of processed collections for research is what the public expects out of archival institutions. Many important components to our history are going to be lost if budgets and manpower continue to be scarce.
Sadly, there is very little that information professionals can do about this as this is ultimately in the hands of Congress. It’s no secret that many institutions are understaffed and underfunded, sitting on years of backlog and unprocessed collections. The scenario becomes even more troubling when its occurring at an institution that is often perceived as holding the most important collections. It is even more concerning because the National Archives are the main repository for our government. It is critical that our government be transparent with its past actions and decisions, because it is one of the main ways that we can hold them accountable going forward.