SAA 2014: Archives, Activism, and a Whole Lot of Twitter

Oh, the most wonderful time of the year: conference season! When professionals the whole world over experience the joy of free continental breakfast, standing-room-only panel discussions, and odd luggage necessary to safely transport misshapen posters and displays through the TSA gauntlet. For me, the beginning and end of my conference whirlwind consisted of the Society of American Archivists 2014 meeting. Luckily, this year’s host city was Washington, DC. In lieu of a boarding pass, I grabbed my SmarTrip card and hoped down to Woodley Park for days filled with archival fun.

Full disclosure: I am not, per se, an archivist. I am a graduate student specializing in cultural heritage information management with a focus on rare books, manuscripts, and medieval material culture. However, if my coursework has taught me anything, it is that the ongoing convergence of library, archives, and museum professionals — coupled with the ever-increasing technological synergy between these disparate institutions — means that it is incumbent upon us as information professionals to being engaged on several scholarly fronts. With this in mind, I felt that my participation in the SAA conference would not only help me in my own interdisciplinary efforts, but would also add a unique voice to the archival conversation that would occur at the conference.

As writing about the chaos of conference life in some semblance of linear fashion is a herculean task, I will segment my comments by events, panels, discussions, or other relevant dimensions.

  • Before the official kick-off of SAA, a pre-conference workshop was held that explored the use of open-access applications for optical character recognition of non-standard texts. Led by Matthew Christy of the Early Modern OCR Project from Texas A&M, this workshop provided extremely helpful insight into the workflow for training Tesseract to identify and convert early modern print types into computer-usable text. On a personal note, this was a whirlwind of new information to the uninitiated OCRer (i.e. me). However, knowing what I do now, I think that this was an excellent professional development experience that will be useful on future projects.
  • FOIA and Access: The plenary discussion featured a lively discussion on the importance of FOIA to the realm of investigative journalism. A fantastic – and timely – discussion that highlighted the importance of archivists as both holders of information and conduits of access.
  • Integrating Digital Objects and Finding Aids: As with all panels focusing on digital materials, this panel was packed.  This panel, focusing on the Northwest Digital Archives, presented great ideas on approaches to ensuring object-collection hierarchy maintenance; use of publicly available resources as service hubs for private collections; and approaches to user testing.
  • SNAC: Representatives from the SNAC project led a great discussion on the development of linked EAC-CPF records to help unify entity identification in distributed record holding institutions. Again, another jam-paced session due to the digital orientation of the topic. Still, a great opportunity to learn about ongoing initiatives.
  • HIV/AIDS Archives: In this panel, a fascinating conversation occurred in which the difficulties associated with archiving an ongoing social phenomenon were illuminated. In particular, the NYPL archivist of the AIDS/HIV Collection recounted conflicts between their collection and the ACT UP activist organization due to the public perception of the historiographic activities of archivists. The difficulty arises from convincing the public that archives are not only collections of things that ‘have occurred’, but are rather ongoing records of individual, organizational, and societal events, continually being reappraised, reassessed, and reinterpreted. The quotable takeaway is the ongoing conversation between the competing concepts of “AIDS History” and “AIDS is History.”
  • Poster Session:
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    36″x40″ of glory!

    The poster session was an excellent opportunity to meet a variety of scholars and professionals and to give them an introduction to my work on Project Andvari. A lot of very fruitful conversations occurred. A couple even led to possible partnerships for future collaboration and data sharing (and a possible job opportunity, but let’s not get too hopeful). All-in-all, it was a great chance to practice my presenting skills and to get my face out there as a participating member of the larger scholarly community.

Conferences are always hectic (and exhausting). There is always far too much for one person to experience, but the net effect is one of great professional development and scholarly sharing. This year’s SAA conference was no exception. I walked away from this experience enlivened with a renewed energy for my professional field. While I couldn’t attend more sessions, I was extremely grateful to my fellow conference attendees and their dogged upkeep of the #saa14 thread, allowing me to follow the numerous concurrent sessions that I could not attend.  As I near the end of my graduate coursework, I am excited to more fully enter in to my chosen profession, knowing that the field is populated with such energetic and innovative professionals.

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Webwise 2014: Reflections on the convergence of education and information science

by Alyse Minter

Webwise is an annual conference hosted by the Institute of Museum and Library Science (IMLS). This year, February 10-12, it was held in Baltimore, Maryland. Webwise allows library, archives, and museum (LAM) professionals to come together and learn, network, and discuss trends and issues connected to operating digital platforms. The focus this year was Anchoring Communities. It enabled LAMs to think about programs and their impact on users, as well as utilizing current spaces and programs in innovative ways to connect with and impact communities, such as the MakerSpace movement. Twitter conversations around Webwise 2014 can be found at #WebWise2014.

The conference opened on Monday morning with a keynote address from Nick Poole, Chief Excutive Officer of Collections Trust in the UK. Poole spoke about the importance of creating ownership between communities and organizations. Many times, LAM professionals tend to view institutions as an “our,” effectively making institutions restrictive to the staff, rather than inclusive of the user community. Services, platforms, and programming should be geared towards what individuals need, want, and love. This will go a long way towards public support of institutions, as people tend to stand up for what they love. Curating institutions towards user needs also ensures the public will be more likely to fund necessary support, versus if the public is not kept informed and only those on the inside are in the know. In terms of innovation, Poole gave the example of using a hammer responsibly and “smartly”. The hammer in this analogy represents digital tools and resources available to institutions. Instead of just gleefully banging the hammer around because we can, LAM professionals should seek the best way to utilize tools, rather than embracing the new in-thing and not utilizing it the fullest potential. (The hammer was a favorite analogy among attendees.) When it comes to planning for institutions, collaboration is the key. Rather than shutting oneself away and engaging in the “silo of the LAM,” professionals should learn to work together and effectively problem solve and create solutions. The long range goal in any institution is to impact its users for the better, whether through education, research, or relationships. In order to achieve this goal, institutions must learn to be transparent, flexible, and passionate. Be open about developments and ideas. Change is okay; not everything can or should stay the same. The way things were done in 1975 most likely will not work in 2014. The mission and goals of the institution should be accessible and broadly known. People are the most important indicators of success and institutions should work towards cultivating relationships.

Speaking of change, one of the things that struck me was the repeated discussion surrounding pedagogy as it relates to information and user services. As an education major in undergrad, it was interesting to hear the terminology with which I was so familiar being tossed around as this new, grand approach to information science. For example, creating community ownership is about creating learner driven processes in which the user takes ownership for his/her creativity and innovation in research or exploration. This includes the aforementioned inclusive language and programming to distill the mystery surrounding LAMs. Just as the push in information literacy is to equip and empower users to make informed choices about information needs and results, the focus is less on the LAM or LAM professional and more on the individual or community. It’s less of a librarian as the great authority model and more of a networking, collaborative model. This was particularly obvious in the session on MakerSpaces. Because of the heavy emphasis on creativity, invention, and innovation, MakerSpaces provide for a very close relationship between information science and education. The focus is more on working together and working through the process, providing a safe space in which “failure” allows individuals to problem solve and come up with new ways to arrive at workable solutions. I think this concept is applicable to any area education, scholarship, and outreach. I personally count myself lucky to have received a strong foundation in pedagogy and student-centered learning. I’m excited to see this approach begin to intersect with the library field and am excited to see what future developments hold, particularly in the area of LAM collaboration and educational/information building for community support.