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Content Matters: An Interview with Staff from the National Park Service

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This is a guest post by Abbie Grotke, the Library of Congress Web Archiving Team Lead and Co-Chair of the National Digital Stewardship Alliance Content Working Group.

In this installment of the Content Matters series of the National Digital Stewardship Alliance Content Working Group we’re featuring an interview with staff from the U.S. National Park Service. CWG member Chris Dietrich, Digital Information Services Program Manager in the Resource Information Services Division, responded, with contributions from Kenneth Chandler (Mary McLeod Bethune Council House NHS/National Archives for Black Women’s History); Christina Boehle (Panoramic Lookout Tower Photos); Gerald (Jerry) Fabris (Thomas Edison National Historical Park); Heather Hernandez (San Francisco Maritime/Union Iron Works Employee ID Cards); and Damon Joyce (Natural Sounds Program).

Abbie: Most people think of green space and nature when they think of the National Park Service. What is the NPS doing in terms of digital collections and digital preservation?

Chris Dietrich
Chris Dietrich

Chris: The National Park Service preserves not only great outdoor spaces, but also historic buildings and museum collections, as well as digital media including photos, historic audio recordings, geospatial data, oral histories, digitized documents, 3D museum objects and so much more.

Because the Park Service is decentralized geographically and administratively, many digital preservation efforts are locally initiated and managed. We are now beginning to connect digital preservationists operating independently around the country and are developing standards and practices for use throughout the Park Service.

Abbie: What sparked the NPS to join the NDSA?

Chris: There is no overarching authority in the NPS that is responsible for mandating digital information management standards across all program areas. When I say program areas, the range includes natural resources, cultural resources, visitor services, law enforcement, regulatory compliance, budget, public relations and communication, just to name a few. At the same time, nearly all program areas have some need for digitization, digital asset management and digital preservation. We saw involvement with the NDSA as a way for those with an interest in promoting Servicewide standards and best practices to be engaged with other agencies so we can make authoritative recommendations even if we don’t have the authority to mandate specific standards or processes. We also hope to inform other NDSA members about the challenges that an organization with such a broad scope has in managing digital information.

Abbie: Who at the Park Service is involved in building digital collections and thinking about digital preservation issues?

Chris: A lot of folks working in the Museum Program nationally and at museum centers in the NPS Regions are involved with digital preservation. There are also digital preservationists in parks and programs of all sizes, and of course the Resource Information Services Division where I work provides digital preservation support for everyone in the Park Service. We recently formed the NPS Digital Information Services Council to better coordinate, collaborate, and communicate about digital preservation and management efforts and requirements. The DISC is composed of digital information stakeholders from a spectrum of program areas and administrative units. It’s organized by subject area (Systems Coordination, Digitization, Digital Still Images, Digital Audio, etc.) with the idea that the folks on each of the work groups has subject matter expertise and is passionate about (or at least regularly involved with) a particular aspect of digital information management. That way DISC tasks overlap considerably with a person’s program goals, and participation is less a matter of extra work than of dovetailing daily activities with DISC efforts.

An example of this is the Digital Audio Subcommittee chaired by Jerry Fabris at Thomas Edison National Historical Park. Jerry got involved with DISC because he wants to improve metadata and management of the park’s digital audio collection. The subcommittee is now reviewing industry metadata standards and developing a recommendation that can be used not only by Jerry, but throughout the NPS.

Abbie: What are some of the biggest digital preservation challenges you face at NPS?

Chris: Probably the biggest challenge at the moment is an artifact of the decentralized nature of the organization. When the NPS was founded nearly 100 years ago, it was vital for parks to be independent and able to solve problems with local solutions and resources. After all, one might be a long way from the nearest train stop or telegraph office, so help could be a long time in coming. In the 21st Century, data management is a daily activity for many employees and communication and data transfer is almost instantaneous. It no longer makes as much sense for everyone to always operate independently. If we can share knowledge and experience, we can do a better job of managing digital resources at all parks and programs, not just a few.

Another problem is the lack of staff trained for and dedicated to managing digital information. Digital preservation can be very technical. In the Park Service, most digital content creators and preservationists are not digital curation experts. There are also issues of law involved: the Federal Records Act, Copyright, Privacy Act…. Dealing with these issues requires expertise, but also directions that all content creators can understand and follow. We are striving to bridge the gap with standards, guidance, and easy-to-use software so folks can do a good job without needing to become digital librarians and archivists.

Abbie: Could you give us examples of some of the kinds of things the National Park Service has collected?

Chris: Here are a few projects that we’re currently working on:

Panoramic Photographs from NPS Fire Lookouts. Original historic photo prints of NPS lookouts and potential lookouts (locations where a lookout was considered, but was never built), from the 1930s and the 2010s, are being digitized and will be used with modern, born-digital retakes to visualize landscape changes over time. The purpose of the project is to promote citizen science through access to panoramic photographs from National Park Service lookouts and potential lookouts (locations where a lookout was considered, but was never built) from the 1930s and the 2010s.This project is related to a larger one in which the National Park Service has partnered with GigaPan® to host panoramic photographs taken in the 1930s and present. An example is the Grand Canyon Gigapan photo.

Edison Laboratory Music Room, 1905. NPS Photo.
Edison Laboratory Music Room, 1905. NPS Photo.

Historic Recordings at Thomas Edison NHP. NPS is digitizing historic sound recordings at the Thomas Edison National Historical Park in West Orange, New Jersey. Thomas Edison invented the phonograph in 1877 and manufactured phonograph records from 1888 to 1929. The NPS preserves 48,800 cylinder and disc phonograph records at Edison’s West Orange Laboratory. Sounds recovered via recent digitization efforts have attracted international news coverage, including the only voice recording of German Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck, as well as the earliest known commercial recording. A collaborative project is underway for the National Park Service to contribute several thousand Edison disc recordings of popular music from the 1910s and 1920s to the Library of Congress’s National Jukebox, an online digital audio library. For links to Edison recordings and information about the park’s sound archive, visit the Thomas Edison National Historical Park website.

Union Iron Works Historic Employee ID Cards. NPS is also scanning and making available historic employee identification cards from the Union Iron Works shipbuilding facility in San Francisco, and entering the data into a database to enhance historical, genealogical, and economic research. By digitizing and creating metadata to make each individual card searchable, researchers can locate information on the employee by name, address, occupation, and sometimes even country of origin and age–information valuable to genealogists, building and neighborhood historians, and labor and economic historians. By entering this information in a database, researchers will eventually be able to create resources showing the geographic distribution of an entire workforce, look at immigration patterns of this workforce, or even their age ranges. The virtual exploration of an entire shipbuilding workforce speaks to the experience of everyday Americans in a way not possible before the digitization of this collection, while allowing access to the cards in a way that preserves the original hard-copies for posterity. There is a presentation available online with more information.

Natural sounds recordings. The NPS has remote acoustical monitoring stations in parks that record the natural “soundscape.” The continuous audio recordings are used to identify sound sources at a site, estimate baseline sound levels, and detect change over time. Changes could be a result of increased human activity, or from management actions such as redistributing overhead flight routes. Preserving these recordings for future analysis will be very important to future managers and researchers, just like the historic panoramic photos taken from fire lookout towers mentioned earlier are being used now.

Oral histories. NPS is digitizing historic audio and video recordings from the 1960s and 1970s. These recordings mostly document the activities of the National Council of Negro Women, and most were recorded during the events. There are also some oral history interviews. After digitizing, we are continuing the preservation process by creating accurate transcripts of the 200-plus hours of audio.

Abbie: Interesting! What kinds of stories do you think these collections tell us? Are there some trends and changes over time in the collections that you could tell us about?

Kenneth: The stories they tell are as broad as the responsibilities and mission of the National Park Service. They tell us of the nature and histories of our national parks over time, and the history of our nation as historic places become recognized as important and are brought into the care of the Park Service. As our collective understanding of what is historically important has evolved, so has the nature of the sites and the material in the collections.

One example is the history of technology. Lowell National Historical Park, Edison National Historical Park, Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site and Steamtown National Historic Site and their collections all tell part of the story of technological America. The recognition of the importance of the stories of non-dominant cultures in America has led to many new culturally diverse sites to be recognized as important, such as Manzanar and Minidoka National Historic Sites, Women’s Rights National Historical Park, Stonewall Inn National Historic Landmark, Mary McLeod Bethune Council House National Historic Site, Carter G. Woodson Home National Historic Site and Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial, just to name a few. Changing views have even renamed and repurposed sites, such as Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument (as opposed to its former name of Custer Battlefield National Monument).

Before and After: During the NABWH recordings digitization process, tapes were transferred onto professional-quality metal reels and stored in inert plastic cases. On the left are the original enclosures in which the reel-to-reel tapes were found; the right shows how the storage was upgraded. NPS Photos.
Before and After: During the NABWH recordings digitization process, tapes were transferred onto professional-quality metal reels and stored in inert plastic cases. On the left are the original enclosures in which the reel-to-reel tapes were found; the right shows how the storage was upgraded. NPS Photos.

Abbie: What are some of the most popular pieces in the collections? Could you tell us a little bit about them?

Kenneth: The Mary McLeod Bethune Council House National Historic Site houses the National Archives for Black Women’s History. The NABWH is a scholarly research archive with important collections relating to the history of African American Women. Most of the collection is analog, but has been digitized. The analog originals will likely go into cold storage unless needed for some new technology conversion. The collection is now managed as a digital collection, with all the issues of a digital collection. The collection also includes “born digital” materials, including multiple types of video, digital audio and still images.

The most popular and voluminous part of the archive is the National Council of Negro Women Records, although researchers have made use of most of our 60+ collections. Most used within the NCNW Records is the series of photographs of over 4,000 images. The National Council of Negro Women Records document the work and history of the civil rights organization founded by Mary McLeod Bethune in 1935, and led by Civil Rights icon Dorothy Irene Height from 1957 through the 1960s and into the 21st Century. Much of the work of the Council took place behind the scenes, within the system, and in coordination with other groups, so its work may not be as generally famous as civil rights organizations that used more confrontational tactics and thus made more “news.” This does not mean the NCNW did not play an important role in the Civil Rights Movement, though. On the contrary, their tactics of building bridges of understanding were often highly successful.

Abbie: How does this collection fit in with other collections and areas of research activity at your organization?

Kenneth: The origins of the Mary McLeod Bethune Council House National Historic Site stem from the National Council of Negro Women itself creating a museum and archive to document the history of African Americans and to honor Mary McLeod Bethune. The collections center on the NCNW, and most of them are of organizations or people related to the NCNW. It is the core of the collection, but so diverse that it documents a broad range of topics related to African American and Women’s history.

Abbie: Could you tell us a bit about what you see as the primary value of this kind of collection? Do you think this is a model for other organizations, and if so what do you see as the key features that organizations should be focusing on in developing plans for similar collections?

Kenneth: The primary value of this collection is that it thoroughly documents the history of a key civil rights organization over a period of 60 years. This is 60 years of growth, financial hardship, change in focus and leadership, failures and triumphs — and the information is available nowhere else. Preserving the records of organizations such as this is essential to our understanding of our history. It is often organizations and the collective will and labor of the people who make up those organizations that get things done in our society. Other historical preservation organizations need to seriously consider seeking out their records for preservation and research.

Many of the NABWH recordings were of poor quality, and noise reduction editing to copies of the digital recordings was necessary before sending them to the transcriber. This screenshot shows the horizontal bands of a particularly severe 60Hz hum with harmonics up the frequency scale, from a recording of a March 30, 1978 focus group organized by the NCNW. NPS Image.
Many of the NABWH recordings were of poor quality, and noise reduction editing to copies of the digital recordings was necessary before sending them to the transcriber. This screenshot shows the horizontal bands of a particularly severe 60Hz hum with harmonics up the frequency scale, from a recording of a March 30, 1978 focus group organized by the NCNW. NPS Image.

Abbie: Could you tell us a bit about how the collection is being used? To what extent is it for the general public? To what extent is it for scholars and researchers?

Kenneth: Access to the NABWH is available to researchers and the public by appointment only. The NABWH is used extensively for history and sociological research into the history of women in the civil rights movement and in American society in general. These researchers create dissertations, articles, books, and documentaries. It is most useful to scholars and researchers due to the nature of the material. The general public is welcome to conduct research under the same terms as professional scholars and researchers, but because of the high demand for access, general unfocused browsing is discouraged.

Abbie: How about a few of the most underappreciated pieces in the NPS collections? Do you have a few favorites that you think people should be paying more attention to? What kinds of stories do these works help us tell?

Kenneth: One collection we have that is particularly interesting but seldom used is the National Committee on Household Employment Records. It documents the work of a non-profit corporation dedicated to understanding, documenting, and then upgrading the economic and social status and the quality of employment in household and related services. The full extent and importance of the information in the 220+ hours of digitized audio has also yet to be tapped.

Abbie: Any thoughts about the general challenges of handling digital materials within archival collections?

Kenneth: The most difficult aspect of handling digital materials within archival collections is obtaining and maintaining the technology required to create, access, and preserve the digital materials. A paper document does not require a technological interface for a human to access the information. Digital materials do require such technological interfaces, and these interfaces are a moving target of changing hardware and software, multiple formats, codecs, file wrappers, and technical know-how. There is always the danger of losing digital information due to equipment or software obsolescence, equipment failure, or lack of funds to replace or expand equipment or software.

Abbie: Thank you, Chris and Kenneth, and all of the NPS staff that contributed to this interview! And to our readers: What kind of content matters to you? This is but one case for preserving valuable content for long-term access. If you or your institution would like to share your own story of use and long term value of access to a particular type of born-digital resources, please send us a note at [email protected] and in the subject line mark it to the attention of the Content Working Group. We would love to hear from you!

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