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Digital Preservation Pioneer: Anne Van Camp

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Listen to the podcast interview.

Anne Van Camp, director of the Smithsonian Institution Archives, radiates exuberance about her work. You would think she won the lottery.

Anne Van Camp

Van Camp is a historian by training and an archivist by circumstance. She began her career at Chase Manhattan Bank as an archives manager, went on to Stanford’s Hoover Institution as a director of archives, then to the Research Library Group as an archivist and finally to the Smithsonian.

Early on, she appreciated the power of technology to both transmit and record historical events in real time. When the Berlin wall fell in 1989, she was at the Hoover Institution – which was known for documenting contemporary war and revolution – and helped archive it on video. Van Camp said, “It struck me that part of why things happened so quickly and bloodlessly was because of the technology of information.”

During the Tiananmen Square protests, Van Camp helped the Hoover Institution archive emails from China but she also experienced the unique limitations of the then-current technology. “There was an instantaneous flood of email from China,” Van Camp said. “And not that many people had e-mail at the time. We had a couple of people trying to collect all of this stuff but what they did was print it all out…stacks and stacks of paper. It was the best that we knew to do. People didn’t think about how we were going to actually preserve online data and information like that.”

RLG was a transformative experience for Van Camp, in part because she was at the center of the commercial Internet’s Big Bang in Silicon Valley. “Everything changed so quickly from 1996 to the mid-2000s when I left RLG,” she said. “We went full bore on the Internet, putting web pages out and collecting information in all kinds of new ways, dramatically enhancing access to research resources wherever they were, linking up collections that were dispersed. And then people got the idea to digitize all collection materials and put those out…not just descriptions of things but real things and images of real things.”

When Van Camp became director of the Smithsonian archives in 2007, her task was to continue documenting the Smithsonian’s history, from its inception to its current activities. Though she brought with her a decade of Silicon Valley technological experience, the institutional challenge and scope she faced at the Smithsonian was enormous. “The Smithsonian Institution has 19 museums, nine major research centers located in various places around the world,” Van Camp said. “We have a library system that includes 20 libraries. We have a lot of research scientists all over the world collecting information of sorts.”

Van Camp said that the Smithsonian archives in 2007 were in good technological shape but they were ready for improvement. “They have been documenting stuff here since the beginning of time and we had some really good people in place,” she said. “The IT archivist was already engaged in a collaborative project to deal with electronic mail and they were thinking about some future projects. But they were also a little bit behind the curve in terms of using technology to best highlight the collections. And they weren’t doing any social media or anything like that and they hadn’t really embraced EAD as a way to describe the finding aids and get them out online. But those are really easy things to implement once people were given the resources and were encouraged to do it.”

Now, five years later, all of the Smithsonian’s finding aids are online, they have new websites and a proliferation of blogs. She noted, with well-deserved pride, that Boing Boing and Wired recently picked up a story that her department posted on its blog.

“We are really turning things around in terms of making the archives much more exciting and out there and really pushing our information out in new and different ways,” Van Camp said. “Just the other day we realized that we have well over well over 300 social media sites.” She archives them all.

Van Camp includes crowdsourcing in her digital archives strategies. Like the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian posts photos on Flickr and they’ve come to appreciate the help they get from the general public in identifying people, places and events displayed in the Smithsonian archives photo collections, photos that the Smithsonian archives often doesn’t have enough information about.

“It’s amazing how many people out there love this stuff,” Van Camp said. “For example, we put a big set of photographs on Flickr, portraits of scientists, and we thought ‘Oh my God, this is so boring. No one’s going to pay attention to it.’ But within two days, someone had taken almost all of those portraits and copied them into the corresponding Wikipedia biographies of the scientists. The beauty of this is that you can’t possibly anticipate how people are going to use these things or what they’re going be interested in.”

One upcoming crowdsourcing project that Van Camp is planning is the Field Book Project. Van Camp said, “We have thousands of field notebooks from explorers and expeditions and scientists who did their work in the field and took notes on what they were collecting. We want to put the notes online so people can help us transcribe them. A lot of them are handwritten notes that were taken very hastily in the field. There are so many avid naturalists out there, people who could help us in every subject that we have.”

Van Camp was part of the Blue Ribbon Task Force on Sustainable Digital Preservation and Access, which conducted an exhaustive investigation into the economics of institutional digital access and preservation. One result of the task force’s work, Van Camp said, was that the National Science Foundation realized the necessity of writing digital preservation into their research grant guidelines. From a given project’s inception, grantees must have a plan for preservation of their data before they receive a cent in grant money.

“It’s never been stated overtly before,” Van Camp said. “And it’s making everybody think about digital preservation from a project’s outset. An additional possibility would be to embed an archivist in a production who will say from the get-go, ‘OK, you are going to be creating these kind of things. This is how we are going to preserve them.'”

Van Camp is fervent about not only preserving the Smithsonian digital archives but also about making the collections widely accessible to the public. She said, “The Smithsonian is in a wonderful place right now, largely because the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, Dr. Wayne Clough, is a huge supporter of digitizing everything and making it all publicly available.

“So we are responsible for not only holding this stuff and making sure that we take care of it but also for getting it out there to the most people. We’re really here to serve the world of learners, from the beginning of their early childhood through their lives. We have things to give and offer and help people learn about new and different things and it is just a very exciting place to be right now.

“So keep watching our site for newer and better things.”

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