ARLIS/NA 2014 Conference



During the first week in May, the Art Libraries Society of North America (ARLIS/NA) held their 42nd Annual Conference in Washington, D.C. over a span of five days.  This year’s Conference addressed the topic of “Art+Politics,” which identified creative intersections of three central themes: fostering creativity; preserving and protecting; and power and agency.  One of the special speakers, Susan Stamberg, special correspondent for National Public Radio (NPR), addressed the large crowd during Convocation at the Library of Congress (LOC) on the concept of “Art Will Save the World.”  In addition to keynote speakers and stimulating debate, the Conference incorporated useful workshops that included, but were not limited to, the following:  book arts, provenance research, timely presentations, publisher exhibitions, and museum tours to the LOC, Dumbarton Oaks, National Gallery of Art (NGA), and the National Archives (NA) among others, highlighting the city’s extensive historical resources.

On May 2nd, I attended a session entitled, “Capitol Projects: Three Washington Image Collections Go Digital.”  The panel included the speakers, Melissa Beck Lemke (Image Specialist for Italian Art, Department of Image Collection, NGA); Shalimar Fojas White (Manager, Image Collections and Field Archives, The Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collections); and Brett Carnell (Acting Head, Technical Services, Prints and Photographs Division, LOC).  The various discussions within the session presented thought provoking arguments that were of great significance to a variety of challenges currently surrounding certain aspects of digital content management.  Collectively, presenters gave their own perspectives on the notion of ‘going digital.’ However, the most unique and insightful discussion was given by Melissa Beck Lemke (NGA) and her presentation on the Samuel H. Kress Photographic Collection, which conveyed the pressing need for innovative research and demonstrated the potential losses to valuable content if the field fails to adapt to modern technologies as quickly as possible.   

Mrs. Lemke explained the challenges her group faced during the complete re-housing and digital preservation of over 5,000 historic negatives from the personal collection of Samuel Kress, a wealthy philanthropist with an extreme passion for specific schools of art.  His combination of negatives, developed photographs, lantern slides, and other pictorial related materials distinctively documented the history of each object.  Towards the end of his life, Kress donated his vast collection to several museums whose own photographers oversaw the various conservation efforts involving his Italian Renaissance paintings.  In 2008, the NGA received a grant from the Kress Foundation to preserve the deteriorating negatives as professionally as possible.  Presently, this rare image series is one of the most comprehensive collections of Italian Renaissance art in the entire world, thus enabling researchers from anywhere to access the holdings.

Personally, one of the best features of the conference was an opportunity to actually network with different vendors, scholars, and professionals in the exhibit hall.  As a first time attendee, an archivist with a Fine Arts background, I felt very much at home browsing through art related images surrounded by art librarians, visual resource professionals, and scholars.  The conference was definitely a worthwhile experience to my own development as aspiring information professional.  It illustrated the communal challenges, enriching experiences, and potential rewards that professionals face every day whether in an archive, museum, or library.

Should I be reading this?

Written by Justine Rothbart


“Won’t you please destroy? You are not always careful with letters, and if you destroy, you won’t need to be careful.” (Harding to Phillips, Jan. 26, 1915, from San Francisco’s Palace Hotel, where Harding died in 1923, regarding their correspondence)

President Warren Harding’s love letters to Carrie Fulton-Phillips (from 1910 to 1920) are now open to the public

Warren Harding requested Carrie Fulton-Phillips to destroy the letters. These letters, written from 1910 to 1920, express details about an affair between the future president and his mistress. Even after Harding’s request, the letters were never destroyed. They were hidden in a box and then later kept in the Library of Congress’ “vault.” One hundred years later, the letters are now available to the public.

With just the click of your mouse, you can now dive into the personal relationship of Harding and Phillips. You can read their secrets. Their hopes. Their fears. You might feel as if you’ve stumbled upon a treasure-trove. It might seem as if you found these letters in a shoe box under someone’s bed. As you discover the shoe box and curl up with a flashlight in hand, you might think to yourself, “Should I be reading this?”

Last month I wrote a blog post about recently discovered personal letters written by Jackie Kennedy (What would Jackie Do?). Eventually, after strong opposition to publicly revealing her personal and private thoughts, the letters were removed from auction. The Kennedy family are now involved in “how to preserve and curate” the letters.

How are Jackie Kennedy’s letters different from President Harding’s? One major difference is time. The Harding letters were written over forty years earlier. They were written during the time of the Titanic sinking and during the time of World War I. Or to put it into further context, they were written between series 1 and 3 of Downton Abbey. 

This brings up the question: “How soon is ‘too soon’?” People often find it respectable to read private information with the passing of a certain amount of time. But the amount of time is debatable. Even if the associated people have passed away, their legacy needs to be taken into consideration. Their privacy needs to be respected. But do we expect all archival institutions to be one giant vault where we lock the door and throw away the key?


Privacy needs to be respected, yes. But as time passes, so does information. As archivists, one of our main ethical pillars is to provide everyone access to information. As news broke about the revealing of these letters, the number of hits on Warren G. Harding’s Wikipedia page  must have skyrocketed. People need to refresh their memories (or learn for the first time) who Warren G. Harding was. I’m sure many people say, “Who is Harding?”  or “Is that Carson from Downton Abbey?” (Ok, that’s my last Downton Abbey reference).

The time the letters spent sitting on a shelf, the memory of President Harding was slipping away. Maybe that’s when we know enough time has passed. Or maybe that’s when we realize it’s too late.

The past few weeks in our Special Collections class, we have had behind-the-scenes tours of several special collections in Washington, D.C. We were lucky enough to have a tour of the Library of Congress’ Manuscript Division where the Harding letters were housed since 1972. (We did not see the letters because they were not available to be seen by the public until today – July 29, 2014). Through our tours, we have learned there’s always a balancing act between privacy and access.

Maybe there’s never a right answer only the best answer. Either way, I hope this starts (or continues) the discussion.

And whether you feel it’s appropriate or not, you can start reading President Harding’s love letters here:


For more information on President Warren Harding’s love letters, here’s today’s news release from the Library of Congress:



Robbins, Illinois: home of black flight


It’s been such a long time since I posted, I know. But, I’m still plugging away at that Master’s degree. This summer I am interning at the Smithsonian Institution Archives, working on some digitization and digital collections projects. Today, while working on the Black Aviators Videohistory collection, I discovered some interesting things about Robbins, IL. Let me preface my discovery by saying that Robbins, IL is connected to my mother’s side of the family. My gg-grandparents were Frank Witcher and Amanda Powers Witcher. Their daughter, Daisy Witcher Aycox, would go on to become  my maternal great-grandmother. Daisy had an older brother, Armstead Witcher, namesake to his grandfather, Armstead Powers.

Armstead Witcher was born around 1881, one of nine Witcher offspring. They were raised in Clarke County, Georgia, in the rural community of Sandy Creek. Like many young African American men of the time and region, Armstead didn’t learn to…

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Primary Sources: K-12

As an intern in the History of Medicine Division of the National Library of Medicine, much of what I do relates to the digitization of analog materials. Digitization increases access when people who are unable travel to the physical item  can see the materials virtually from any computer. This is great news because getting information to researchers is of highest priority.

But the term “researcher” may conjure up a mental image that is not reflective of the demographic I personally consider the most interesting beneficiaries of digitized primary sources – K-12 students. How kids react to and learn from digitized historic materials is fascinating, as are the methods of presentation and usage employed by their teachers.

In late June, I had the opportunity to sit in on a workshop that focused on exactly this. Hosted by the Exhibition Program at the National Library of Medicine, the 2014 Teacher Institute brought together school librarians from throughout the region. The little group was gregarious, taking very seriously their responsibilities of review and commentary on current NLM online resources and the drafting of future NLM online resources for K-12 education.

The information exchange between the school librarians and the exhibitions team was incredible; the discussion was eye opening and candid. I was impressed by the significance of allowing students to interact with primary sources to engage their developing skills of critical thinking, analysis, and synthesis. Although the academic exercises crafted around the materials are carefully constructed for student advancement, the documents themselves were made for entirely different purposes. As students interact with and absorb the information presented by primary sources, they aren’t simply pulling answers from the text – they are reading smudges on the pages, creases to the corners, and notes in the margins.

With my archival background, I comprehend how to organize materials for those seasoned professionals defined by the term “researcher.” This is inadequate mediation for K-12 students. As my understanding of how teachers effectively integrate primary sources into the classroom grew, so did my understanding of the archivist’s role in the process. Because K-12 students cannot synthesize the raw information as seasoned professionals can, primary source materials must be vetted and structured for classroom use. This starts when the repository decides what materials to digitize and develops suggestions for the presentation of and interaction with those materials. It is from these resources that educators facilitate and structure the learning process through activities, lesson plans, and carefully selected primary sources.

Primary sources carry a feeling of “realness” and opportunities for abstract thinking. These experiences are difficult to gain through a textbook and test, but are incredibly enriching to the educational process. Digitized primary source materials serve students just as they serve traditional researchers – the physical materials are unlikely to ever be accessed by any students, but dozens of students can simultaneously access a single document virtually.

To be truly useful for K-12 students, a little extra (and specific) processing is necessary for digitized materials. Yet there is a surprising lack of literature available to archivists on how to do this. The National Library of Medicine is fortunate enough to have an Exhibitions Program with experts in interpretation of cultural heritage materials. But most repositories do not have the resources to support such a program. Although it seems almost unfathomable to add additional responsibilities to already overextended archivists, we as a profession must begin to consider K-12 students as part of our patron base – our researchers. And we must begin developing best practices for how to serve them.


By Kelsey Conway

Zoo(m) – What did we learn?

Yesterday, I went to the zoo. I didn’t have much of a reason – I like the zoo and I wanted to see the nearly grown tiger cubs. On my way to see the tigers I wandered into the elephant house, newly renovated and featuring several colorful interactive elements that no one really looked at. Most people were far too interested in the elephants to learn about the weight of a tusk or the brick elephant house built in 1903. I was too interested in the employee perched on the windowsill, hunched over his clipboard.

After some timid circling I finally asked what he was doing. He explained how he was tracking visitor interaction with the exhibit; a usability study. How long did visitors spend in the exhibit? Were the elephants there? What was their walking path? Where did they go first? All that data would determine if their exhibit was successful. Elements no one connects with won’t be used again.

I wanted to stay and ask all sorts of questions, but the guy was working and I didn’t want to become some outlying data point. So I moved on; but his usability study stuck with me. I was the only person who had spoken to him the whole hour and a half he’d been there. People had eyed him curiously, but no one asked him what he was doing. Or what elephants ate. Or why one wouldn’t put weight on his back leg. No one asked him questions except for me… and I just wanted to talk about museum assessment strategies.


I saw only a few other zoo employees – security guards and retail employees. No zoo keepers. When I finally got to the tigers, I studied them for half an hour; they were beautiful and active. They went swimming, played, napped, and did a lot of sniffing. I didn’t see any zoo employees, but I saw a lot of other zoo visitors – no one stayed long enough to read the info signs.

“Hi Tiger! Hi Tiger!” the little boy next to me called until someone in his group told him to “shut up.” I heard an eight-year-old ask, “Can tigers swim?” he got no answer and repeated the question. His brother snorted “no!” This was wrong, and I said so. I answered his question because his family would not and they were moving so fast that his attention would never be drawn to the info signs that might have answered his question. From across the exhibit I heard gleeful, childish cries that echoed through my heart, “TIGERS! TIGERS! TIGERS!” This was followed by a harsh, “shh!” and quickly replaced by silence. And as I left, a little girl exclaimed to no one interested enough to engage, “Tigers! I really wanted to see this!”

When I answered that little boys question about tigers and told him they can swim, he stared at me. He stared at me as one would stare not when a stranger speaks to you, but when no one has ever actually answered your questions before. He stared, and then he smiled – probably because no one had ever answered his questions before – and it broke my heart.

Zoos are learning institutions that produce exhibitions and public programs and support informal learning. I consider them a special kind of museum with similar but unique challenges. The challenge described above, however, is universal. I am not bashing the National Zoo for not having docents on the grounds any random Tuesday afternoon; resources are tight and sitting in an exhibition for over an hour to have only one person talk to you is certainly an argument to the futility of stationing interpreters at exhibits. But I do wonder about those poor kids nonetheless. My mom took me to the zoo and forced me to listen to every sign no matter how boring the animal. We watched animals for ten, fifteen, twenty minutes. I was encouraged to ask employees the questions she couldn’t answer. And wouldn’t you know it – I’m still doing those things. But the kids around me yesterday, will they never ask? Will they shush away others’ excitement to learn? Maybe, as professionals, we should take a step back from trying to create ways for people to interact with information, and instead figure out a way to teach parents how to help their kids interact with the exhibits we already have.


By Kelsey Conway

Cultural Heritage Information Management Forum Next June!

The Department of Library and Information Science has just announced that it will host the Cultural Heritage Information Management Forum in Washington, DC on June 5, 2015. This forum, which will serve as an arena for CHIM practicum project presentations, addresses the growing body of research and scholarship in the digital cultural heritage discipline.

The Program Planning Committee invites poster proposals on topics related to the forum theme. They include but are not limited to

  • Infrastructure for collection sharing, research, and access
  • Creation of digital collections
  • Access to digital cultural heritage collections
  • Outreach and engagement of users
  • Stewardship of cultural heritage collections
  • Partnerships and collaboration
  • Sustainability and funding models

Submissions will be accepted between February 2, 2015-March 30, 2015 and are open to all researchers, practitioners, and students in the cultural heritage discipline.

Stay tuned for more information about this upcoming forum!