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The Radcliffe Workshop on Technology & Archival Processing

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This is a guest post from Julia Kim, archivist in the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.

Photo of keynote speaker Michael Connelly at podium.
Professor Michael Connelly delivering keynote. Photo by Radcliffe Workshop on Technology and Archival Processing.

The annual meeting of the Radcliffe Technology Workshop (April 4th – April 5th, #radtech16) brought together historians, (digital) humanists and archivists for an intensive discussion of the “digital turn” and its effect on our work. The result was a focused and highly participatory meeting among professionals working across disciplinary lines with regards to our respective methodologies and codes of conduct. The talks and panels served as springboards for rich conversations addressing many of the big picture questions in our fields. Added to this was the use of round-table small group discussions after panel presentations, something that I wish was more a norm at professional events. This post covers only a small portion of the two days.

Matthew Connelly (Columbia University) asked “Will the coming of Big Data mean the end of history as we know it?” The answer was a resounding “yes.” Based on his years as a researcher at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), Connelly surveyed the history of government secrets, its inefficiencies, and the minuscule sample rate determining record retention and the resultant losses to the historical record of major world events. Part of his work as a researcher involved making use of these efforts to initiate the largest searchable collection of now de-classified government records with “The Declassification Engine” and the History Lab. In amassing and analyzing the largest data collection of declassified and unredacted records, their work uncovers secrets via systematic omission, for example. (Read more at Wired magazine.)

The next panel, “Connections and Context: A Moderated Conversation about Archival Processing for the Digital Humanities Generation,” was organized around archival processing challenges and included Meredith Evans (Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum), Cristina Pattuelli (Pratt Institute), and Dorothy Waugh (Emory University).

  • Meredith Evans (Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum) of “Documenting Ferguson,” discussed her work “Documenting the Now” and her efforts to push archivists outside of their comfort zone and into the community to collect documentation as events unfolded.
  • Cristina Pattuelli (Pratt Institute) presented on the Linked Jazz linked data pilot project, which pulls together tools into a single platform to create connections with jazz-musician data. The initial data, digitized oral history transcripts, is further enriched and mashed with other types of data sets, like discography information from Carnegie Hall. (Read the overview published on EDUCAUSE.)
  • Dorothy Waugh (Emory University) spoke to the researcher aspect — or more aptly, the lack of researchers — of born-digital collections. (I wrote a related story titled “Researcher Interactions with Born-Digital”.) Her work underlines the need to cultivate not only donors but also the researchers we hope will one day want to investigate time-date stamps and disk images, for example. While few collections are available for research, the lack of researchers using born-digital collections is also a problem. Researchers are unaware of collections and do not, in a sense, know how to approach using these collections. She is in the process of developing a pilot project with undergraduate students to remedy this.
  • Benjamin Moser, the authorized biographer of Susan Sontag, spoke of his own discomfort, at times, with a researcher’s abilities to exploit privileged knowledge in email. To Moser, email increased the responsibilities of both the archive and the researcher to work in a manner that is “tasteful” and underlined the need to define and educate others in what that may mean. (Read his story published in The New Yorker.)
Conference - Mary O'Connell Murphy introducing "Collections and Context: A Moderated Conversations about Archival Processing for the Digital Humanities Generation.”
Mary O’Connell Murphy introducing “Collections and Context” panel. Photo by Radcliffe Workshop on Technology and Archival Processing.

There were a number of questions and concerns that we discussed, such as: What course of action is necessary or right when community activists feel discomfort with their submissions? How can we make sure that these collections aren’t misused? How can we protect individuals from legal prosecution? What are our duties to donors, to the law, and to our professions, and how do individuals navigate the conflicts among their competing claims? How can we, across disciplines, develop a way of discussing these issues? If the archives are defined as an associated set of values and practices, how can we address the lack of consensus on how to (re)interpret them, in light of the challenges of digital collections?

Claire Potter (the New School) delivered a keynote entitled “Fibber McGee’s Closet: How Digital Research Transformed the Archive– But Not the History Department,” which underlined these new challenges and the need for history methodologies to shift alongside shifts in archival methodologies. “The Archive, of course, has always represented systems of cognition,” as Potter put it, “but when either the nature of the archive or the way the archive is used changes, we must agree to change with it.” Historians must learn to triage in the face of the increased volume, despite the slow pace at which educational and research models have moved. Potter called for archivists and historians to work together to support our complimentary roles in deriving meaning and use from collections. “The long game will be, historians, I hope, will begin to see archives and information technology as an intellectual and scholarly choice.” The Archives can be a teaching space and research space. (Read the text of her full talk.)

“Why Can’t We Stand Archival Practice on Its Head?” included three case studies experimenting with forms of “digitization as processing”- Larisa Miller (Hoover Institution, Stanford University), Jamie Roth and Erica Boudreau (John F. Kennedy Center Presidential Library and Museum), and Elizabeth Kelly (Loyola University, New Orleans).

  • ­Larisa Miller (Hoover Institution, Stanford University) reviewed the evolution of optical character recognition (OCR) and its use as a processing substitute. In comparing finding aids to these capabilities, she noted that “any access method will produce some winners and some losers.” Miller underscored the resource decisions that every archive must account for: Is this about finding aids or the best way to provide access? By eliminating archival processing, many more materials are digitized and made available to users. Ultimately, what methods maximize resources to get the most materials out to end users? In addition to functional reasons, Miller was critical of some core processing tasks: “The more arrangement we do, the more we violate original order.” (Read her related article published in The American Archivist.)
  • Jamie Roth and Erica Boudreau (John F. Kennedy Center Presidential Library and Museum) implemented multiple modes to test against one another: systematic digitization, digitization “on-demand” and simultaneous digitization while processing. Their talks emphasized impediments to digitization for access, such as their need to comply with legal requirements with restricted material and the lack of reliability with OCR. Roth emphasized that poor description still leads to lack of access or “access in name only.” They also cited researcher’s strong preferences for the analog original, even when given the option to use the digitized version.
  • Elizabeth Kelly (Loyola University, New Orleans) experimented with processing through digitization of Loyola University Photographs. Users found the collection to be easy to use and to navigate, although they also asked for more description (see slide 11 from Kelly’s presentation). Kelly credits Joshua Ranger’s UW Oshkosh project for inspiring Loyola’s workflow, thought the actual workflow and results of Loyola’s project differed from Ranger’s.

A great point from some audience members was that these types of item-level online displays are not viable information for data researchers. Item-level organization seems to be a carryover from the analog world that, once again, serves some and not others with their evaluations.

“Going Beyond the Click: A Moderated Conversation on the Future of Archival Description,” included Jarrett Drake (Princeton), Ann Wooton (PopUp Archive) and Kari Smith (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but I’ll focus on Drake’s work. Drake, Smith, and Wooten all addressed the major insufficiencies in existing descriptive and access practices in different ways. Smith will publish a blog post with more information on MIT’s Engineering the Future of the Past this Friday, May 27.

  • Jarrett Drake (Princeton) spoke from his experiences at Princeton, as well as with “A People’s Archive for Police Violence in Cleveland.” He delivered an impassioned attack of foundational principles — such as provenance, appraisal and respect des fonds — as not only technically insufficient in a landscape of corporatized ownership in the cloud, university ownership of academic work and collaborative work, but also as unethical carryovers of our colonialist and imperialistic past. With this technological shift, however, he emphasized the greater possibility for change: “First, we occupy a moment in history in which the largest percentage of the world’s population ever possesses the power and potential to author and create documentation about their lived experiences.” (Read the full text of his talk.)

While I haven’t done justice to the talks and the ensuing conversation and debate, the Radcliffe Technology Workshop helped me to expand my own thinking by framing problems to include invested practitioners and theorists outside of the digital preservation sphere. To my knowledge it is also the only event of its kind.

Comments (2)

  1. Thank you very much for this intriguing snapshot of new thinking and exploration in the realm of archives-in-digital-form. It was fun to get a sense of the archivists working with digital materials being a leap or two ahead of the researcher-users. Years ago, someone once wrote of building library collections — thinking of book collections — as a matter of making a best guess about what would be wanted in the future. This blog reminded me of that notion. Best from Carl

  2. Thanks for posting all of the supplemental stuff!

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