Larry’s summary of the 2008 Society of American Archivists meeting

The 2008 Society of American Archivists meeting was held in San Francisco on August 27-31 at the Hilton San Francisco. Elizabeth Nielsen and I took an early morning flight from PDX to SFO, and arrived in downtown San Francisco mid morning. The concurrent sessions I attended focused on three areas — Native American archival collections (specifically the Native American Protocols developed by SAA and tribal archivists), digitization and digital collections, and electronic records.

I wanted to catch a Wednesday morning forum on SAA’s Protocols for Native American Archival Materials, which are guidelines pertaining to how archives and library special collections acquire, manage, use, make available and exhibit Native American related materials, particularly those that may be culturally sensitive. The forum was disappointing — more an update on where the discussion of the protocols was administratively than discussion on the substance of the protocols. Fortunately one of the regular meeting sessions was devoted to this (more later). After lunch at a great Thai restaurant with an old friend and colleague now at Northern Arizona University, I attended the Native American Archives roundtable. (SAA’s roundtables are semi-formal groups pertaining to specific areas of interest.) I then ventured to the San Remo, the hotel in the North Beach area where Elizabeth, Tiah, and I were staying. It is an easy 15 minute cable car ride from downtown.

Day two began early with a 7:30 breakfast and informal gathering of representatives of various EAD and digital collections consortia. Jodi Allison-Bunnell and I represented NWDA; also at the table were representatives from the Online Archive of California, the Rhode Island Archival and Manuscript Collections Online (a new consortium based largely on the NWDA), North Carolina’s Expanding Cultural Heritage Online (ECHO), and a consortium of Philadelphia area special collections. Each group shared information about current activities, concerns, and future plans. Sustainability was a common theme for several of the consortia. This was one of the better informal group meetings that I attended. Unfortunately it ran well into the first round of concurrent sessions, and I only caught the Q&A portion of “YourSpace, MySpace, Dspace? Finding a Place for Institutional E-Records.” Fortunately Elizabeth Nielsen also attended this session; please see her section of this report.

After grabbing a quick (and overpriced) sandwich from the Starbucks in the hotel lobby, I attended a brown bag lunch session for State Historical Records Advisory Board members and staff (I am on Oregon’s SHRAB). The gist of the session were two appeals. The first was from the director of the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (the National Archives’ grants division) with that agency’s annual appeal for lobbying for funding. The current administration has zeroed out the agency’s budget, and it relies on Congress to restore it each year. The director of the NHPRC asked me specifically for the name of someone who could lobby David Wu (Oregon 1st District U.S. Rep.), who is her neighbor in D.C. I suggested George Vogt, executive director of the Oregon Historical Society, since George is well connected and OHS is in Wu’s district. The second appeal came from both NHPRC and COSA, the Council of State Archivists; it was for lobbying congressional members (particularly Republicans in western states) to support the “Preserving the American Historical Record” Act. This act would provide a consistent, annual level of funding to each state to be re-granted to governments, archives and historical societies — similar to the LSTA funds distributed by IMLS. The act calls for an annual appropriation of $50 million; Oregon’s share would be $684,672, and the grants would likely be done through the SHRAB. The session was informative, but I was hoping to come away with some ideas on how Oregon’s SHRAB could be re-energized.

Thursday afternoon’s session was “Native American Archives Protocols — Different Perspectives.” This was the discussion that I had hoped for on Wednesday morning. Four speakers made presentations — all of them had been involved in drafting the protocols. Karen Underhill of Northern Arizona University spoke on implementing the protocols. Her basic premise was that the protocols help establish relationships of trust through consultations, joint projects and shared stewardship with tribes. Richard Pearce-Moses of the Arizona State Archives began by stating that recognizing culturally sensitive materials is not easy, and that the definition of cultural sensitivity varies from tribe to tribe. He presented several ideas for consideration —

  1. We should consider the subject of a photograph as a co-creator
  2. When Native American materials were acquired, were they acquired with informed consent?
  3. In working with Native American communities, we should take the approach of consult-ask-listen, and that consultation goes far in addressing the issues raised in the protocols
  4. Take culturally offensive language out of titles in catalog records

David George-Shongo’s (Seneca Nation) brief, but direct, presentation was a plea for conversation and respect when working with Native American archival materials. Sheree Bonaparte of the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe made a very eloquent presentation that focused on two primary points — spirituality is a major consideration of Native American materials, and that consultation (a word she does not particularly care for) is really collaboration and negotiation.

The opening plenary session was late Thursday afternoon, and after the usual (and well deserved) kudos to the program and local arrangements committees, the SAA staff and the hotel staff, former Nixon administration general counsel John Dean provided the keynote address. Dean focused his remarks on his prodigious use of archives in the writing of his many books, including his most recent revisionist history of Warren G. Harding’s administration. He was generally very complimentary of the archives he has used and the archivists who have assisted him. The plenary session was followed by the opening of the exhibit hall. In wandering the hall, I was struck by two things — first, Metal Edge, our archival supplies vendor, had recently purchased the Hollinger Corporation, one of the pioneers in archival supplies development. I think this is a good match. The second was an online exhibit featured at the OCLC booth, which was a mashup done by Drake University of a digital collection pertaining to Des Moines, Iowa (in CONTENTdm) with an interactive map. This is very similar to what I would like to create to feature OSU’s historic buildings. Dinner Thursday evening was with a group of other attendees from the Northwest at a downtown Italian eatery. I concluded the day by visiting with some of my University of Texas colleagues and friends, including one of my mentors, David Gracy. Gracy, who is soon to retire from the UT Information School, mentioned that he is writing a history of the Texas State Library and Archives, and had found useful a paper that I wrote more than twenty years ago on the history of the Texas State Archives.

Friday was devoted primarily to section meetings. In the morning I attended the College and University Archives section meeting. The program portion was a presentation by several of the University of California system archivists on their implementation of guidelines pertaining to the collecting of faculty papers. This was an excellent presentation, and the guidelines are thorough and well thought out. The OSU Archives has guidelines, but they are not as well developed as those for the UC university archives. Heather Briston (UofO) and I are going to collaborate on developing similar guidelines for our institutions, and plan to invite Cris Paschild, PSU’s new archivist/head of special collections, to participate. (See the UC guidelines.) One question posed to the presenters was how digitally based collections are handled. The archivist for UC San Francisco indicated that she downloads content from faculty members’ computers onto DVD, but has yet to determine how to provide access. Although I have served on the C&U Archives Section steering team in the past, I volunteered to do so again.

Early Friday afternoon was the Visual Materials Section meeting. I have been a member of the section since my UT days. The presentation portion was a discussion of Flickr Commons, featuring George Oates, one of the developers of Flickr, and Helena Zinkham of LC’s Prints and Photographs Division. The purpose of the Commons is to provide a venue for showing images from the world’s photography archives and to allow for tagging and commenting in order to enrich these resources. Oates provided an overview of the Commons and briefly discussed each of the ten member institutions. She provided statistics on use of the resources in the Commons – the two collections of L.C. photos (4000 total) were viewed 9.3 million times in 8 months. According to Zinkham, some of the user added tags resulted in additional information being added to the catalog records for 500 images, particularly where additional people were identified in the images. This does require frequent monitoring of the site. Images in the Commons are clearly identified as being from a particular institution. Does the newer version of CONTENTdm allow for comments? The VM section will also be developing best practices for digital photographs (storage, access, preservation, etc.); I expressed interest in helping out with this.

Late Friday afternoon was another round of concurrent sessions. I attended one on mass digitization, “Digitizing Entire Collections: Project Planning, Cost, and Collaborations.” Three speakers from very different repositories discussed their mass digitization projects, all funded by the NHPRC. Mark Harvey of the Archives of Michigan spoke about a project to digitize and make available Civil War military records. Kaye Minchew discussed the Troup County (GA) superior court records digitization project. And the most compelling to me was David Null’s presentation on the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s project to digitize the papers of wildlife conservationist Aldo Leopold. The Leopold Papers are very similar in content and datespan to our William L. Finley Papers. We should seriously consider a proposal to NHPRC for digitization of the Finley Papers, which are on the OSU Archives’ top ten list for digitization. I would take this one step further and make it a joint project with the Oregon Historical Society, which has a large collection of Finley’s photographs. All three speakers also addressed how finding aid metadata was used in the digitization process and how the finding aid and digital collection were linked.

By the end of the afternoon I was pretty worn out. I decided to skip the SAA presidential address but return for the awards ceremony (where Monique Lloyd received one of the Pinkett Minority Student Awards) and the reception at the SF Public Library. Unfortunately I missed the awards ceremony as the return trip to the conference hotel via cable car took much longer than expected, as the understreet cable stopped about halfway through the ride. I did make it to the reception – the SFPL is a beautiful and spacious facility, with a fabulous rare books and historical collections reading room. The reception food was equally fabulous.

Saturday, my final day in SF, began with a desperate search in the North Beach area for coffee and something to eat before catching the cable car to downtown. Very little was open that early on Saturday, so I reluctantly settled for Starbucks coffee and a pastry.

The first session on Saturday morning (8 am) I attended consisted of two presentations on a prototype system for managing electronic records, developed at the Bush I presidential library. The library contracted with Georgia Tech to develop the system, which is being adopted by other presidential libraries. Although quite complex, the system seems to work well. The downside to this session was that the system cannot be made available to other institutions outside of the federal government until the Army’s general counsel gives its OK – obviously an internal political power struggle. I left feeling that yes, the Feds are doing some good work with electronic records management, but if it cannot be shared, what was the point of the session?

The second Saturday morning session was better – one moderated by NWDA administrator Jodi Allison-Bunnell. “After the Revolution: Unleashing the Power of EAD” consisted of three presentations. The first, by Jeanne Kramer-Smyth of the U. of Maryland, was thought provoking. She discussed ways to leverage EAD, particularly through aggregated data from the finding aids in a system, in order to help archivists (and researchers) determine particularly rich areas in collections, as well as gaps. She also suggested splitting subject headings are removing “stop” words such as “history,” “sources,” etc. The prototype system at the University of Maryland is called ArchivesZ. Maryland will be developing ArchivesZ 2.0 with NEH funding. The second presenter was Max Evans, former director of the NHPRC and currently with the Historical Department of the Mormon Church. Evans called for easy to use tools for creating EAD. He presented several ideas on how finding aids could be made easier to use by our researchers, such as incorporating tag clouds for subjects, providing information on the distribution of a collection by date of the records in the series, incorporating balloon comments for every component that would include contextual information, and incorporating mechanisms for requesting digitization of portions of a collection. Elizabeth Yakel from the University of Michigan School of Information focused on the use of Web 2.0 technology to connect collections and communities in cyberspace. Finding aids connect communities to collections. In the Web 2.0 world this may also mean shared authority, distributed curation, and inserting the archivist in social interactions of the community — a new and different role for archivists.

Saturday lunch was a work meeting James Fox and the consultants who will be working with us on the LSTA funded statewide collection development policy project. Gabriele Carey with History Associates will provide overall management of the project. John Fleckner and Tim Ericson, two nationally respected and now retired members of the archival profession, will be working with the 4-5 focus groups around the state and will compile the final project report.

The last meeting session I attended, “A New Methodology for Surveying Photograph Collections,” was a let down. Photo preservation specialists from Harvard discussed their methodology for surveying the university’s 50 repositories holding photographs. I don’t know what was new about Harvard’s methodology, which focused on the environment, housing, treatment, storage and access, and education. These seem to be the same areas that I identified in the preservation surveys I conducted as part of my graduate coursework at UT Austin 20 years ago. I did find the vast array of collections at Harvard very interesting.

After this session a colleague and I took in a special farmers’ market at City Hall, part of the Slow Foods events happening in SF at the same time as SAA. It was then BART to the airport and the flight back to PDX.

All in all, it was a very good conference. The sessions were generally good, the roundtable meetings worthwhile, and the informal breakfast and lunch meetings productive.

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