Geeking Out

Written by Justine Rothbart


geek out

  1. To enthuse about a specific topic, not realizing that most people listening will fail to understand it.
  2. To do geeky things; to act geeky; to speak of geeky things. [wiktionary]


How many times has this happened to you? You might be talking about something totally cool, and then suddenly realize that others are not as excited. They might be nodding their heads along thinking, “Wow, I’m glad she’s excited” or maybe “When is she going to stop talking?”

If you know me, you might have listened to me totally geek out about something. It might have been about archives, historic preservation, cats…ok, I’ll stop there. Anyways, there’s always something that gets people excited. And isn’t it surprising when it’s not the same thing you’re interested in?

This Saturday I saw the wide range of things people could geek out about. Thousands of book lovers gathered at the Washington, D.C Convention Center for the 14th annual Library of Congress National Book Festival. I listened to Sandra Day O’Connor and her brother talk about wild horses in the west, Eric Cline talk about archaeology and the year civilization collapsed, and Elizabeth Mitchell talk about the sculptor of the Statue of Liberty. While I was totally excited to learn about the diary of the Statue of Liberty’s sculptor, others were having just as good of a time learning about graphic novels or poetry in other sessions.

It’s sometimes refreshing to get out of your comfort zone. You might, like me, gravitate to the things you know you’ll be interested in. But if you try something new, you might step into another world that you didn’t even know existed. And who knows, you might even enjoy it.

This happened to me on Saturday while I was waiting in line with my friend to meet David Sibley. As my friend described him, David Sibley is the “rock star of the bird world.” While I like birds, I am not a bird enthusiast. I was there for my friend. I never knew how much someone could like birds until we met the other people in line. Suddenly I was on the other side of geeking out. I was the one just smiling and nodding along. Although I wasn’t as excited as they were, it gave me a greater appreciation for bird watching. I was happy to see people so passionate about one subject.

I was glad I stood in that line to see that other world, that new perspective. I don’t think I’ll be buying a pair of binoculars anytime soon. But now when I see a bird, I’ll stop and take a few more seconds to think back to David Sibley and the bird enthusiasts we met in line at the National Book Festival.



Check out my blog post from last year’s National Book Festival: Cupcakes are out. Archives are in. 


Go with the Flow (Even if it’s hard for Archivists)

Written by Justine Rothbart


I downloaded the app. I mapped out my day. I planned my schedule. When the day finally came to attend the Society of American Archivists conference, I was prepared. What I wasn’t prepared for was the announcement I heard while waiting on the metro platform, “We are experiencing residual delays from an earlier train malfunction at Farragut West. We regret your inconvenience. We thank you for your patience.”

Doesn’t WMATA know that the Society of American Archivists conference is in town? Don’t they know that I need to go to a session on crowdsourcing?!

Unfortunately, those of us from Washington, D.C. are too familiar with this announcement. We sometimes schedule time for metro delays. But I didn’t schedule time for a two hour commute from my home in Reston, Virginia to the conference. Alas, I did not make it to the crowdsourcing session. When the sessions were too crowded to find a seat, I just decided to wait until the next session.

While meandering through the hallway of the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel, upset that my dreams have been dashed by, yet again, another metro delay (too dramatic?), an unexpected surprise happened. I ran into people I did not expect to see! I ran into my previous supervisor, co-workers, professors, and classmates. That’s when I realized, conferences, like the Society of American Archivists Conference, are not just about attending all the sessions and learning so much new information until your head explodes. It’s about the unexpected surprises. It’s about the serendipitous encounters. It’s about the connections.

Fellow Catholic University graduate students at the Society of American Archivists Conference

Catholic University graduate students at the Society of American Archivists Conference

I know as archivists, it’s difficult for us not to plan and for us not to organize. It’s our job to organize. But maybe we should plan for spontaneity. Maybe we should plan for those unexpected encounters. And who knows, you might even end up having more fun than you planned.

University of Mary Washington Alumni at the Library of Congress for the Society of American Archivists reception

University of Mary Washington Alumni at the Library of Congress for the Society of American Archivists reception


Preservation Practicum and Prototyping Databases: A Review

As part of the stipulations of our grant funding, we are required to complete a practicum project at a cultural heritage information institution here in the Washington, DC area. I opted to complete my project over the summer at the Library of Congress Preservation Research and Testing Division (which is primarily why you have seen next to no blog activity from me during the whole summer). I’ve just completed my project and will summarize some of the larger points of my project.

The project was a portion of the CLASS-D development initiative that is ongoing at the Library of Congress PRTD. CLASS-D, which is n acronym for the Center for the Library’s Analytical Science Samples — Digital, is a tasked with developing a functioning database prototype to provide access to sample and analysis metadata for the materials contained within the PRTD’s CLASS collection.

A little background: The CLASS collection is a small body of diverse materials that have been set aside for preservation laboratory research via both noninvasive and invasive (i.e. destructive) techniques. These materials include books (the Barrow books, acquired from the W.J. Barrow Research Laboratory), standard paper samples, TAPPI fiber samples, magnetic tape, and more. These samples undergo a wide variety of laboratory analysis such as microscopic imaging, environmental scanning electron microscope imaging, pH analysis, spectrometry, accelerated aging, &c. Through this ongoing analysis, these samples have generated a great deal of important information on the physical characteristics and aging profiles of a variety of materials of different ages, periods, and production techniques, providing important information on the preservation of cultural heritage materials.

The problem: Now that PRTD has all of this information, how do we disseminate it?

Initial work on the project was completed by Doug Emery. This work ultimately produced a final report filed with the LOC that makes recommendations for data modeling and DB architecture. Based on the work completed for this report, I was tasked with completing the initial prototyping of the actual database in order to prove 1) the appropriateness of the initial data modeling work and 2) the feasibility of the database itself.

Through quite a bit of on-the-job review of DB design methodology, data wrangling, and ham-handed SQL coding, I was able to produce a functional database architecture model that accommodated the variety of sample metadata for all sample types to be included in the database. While I could go in to the nitty-gritty details of the database architecture (which I totally could, but won’t) I think a more valuable point would be some of the things that I took away from my experience at the PRTD:

Be Your Own Manager & Advocate

For those of you unfamiliar with what summer at the LOC is like, let me set the scene: imagine scores of junior fellows and interns meandering the halls, using laboratory space, needing supervisory assistance, all working on different projects across all departments at the LOC. Sound crazy, right? Within the Preservation department, there were at least a dozen scholars on-site throughout the summer working on a variety of in-depth research projects. While this sort of jam-packed work environment is great for innovation and learning new things, it’s not that great for being able to meet one-on-one with a supervisor. Dr. Fenella France, my most gracious host at the LOC, was pulled a million different ways throughout the summer due to her own professional responsibilities and the overabundance of junior researchers. For me, this was a bit of a wake-up call as my professional background has been in environments in which supervisors exerted close control over the work being done by their underlings. For the first time, I found myself doing a large amount of self-guided work without regular in-depth check-ins from the higher ups. This meant that I had to not only had to consciously guide my own schedules and progress, but that I had to also push to have my work reviewed in order to assure that my work and our overall project goals were in alignment. While this took a bit of schedule wrangling on my part, it did lead me to realize that you have to campaign for yourself and your project so that others will provide you with the proper attention and consideration that is required.

Don’t Expect Non-LIS Professionals to Care as Much as You Do About LIS Topics

The PRTD is largely a laboratory research institution. And while they have made huge strides towards serving their information needs and those of external researchers (i.e. CLASS-D), others within the institution simply are not as conscious of LIS issues as myself. This means that when specific researchers are asked for sample metadata, they aren’t necessarily going to provide it in neat, ordered, standard-compliant formats. This, at first, was extremely frustrating because it meant a great deal of data massaging and manual ingest in order to introduce the pilot data into the prototype. Is there a way to raise awareness on these issues? Yes. Can you use those tactics in every scenario? No. Do you need to understand that part of interdisciplinary system development is going to be dealing with others’ disciplinary focuses? Absolutely. Rather than being standoffish on these topics, think of yourself as a conduit through which data can be organized and provided with usable value. Be willing to communicate openly with others in order to help create the greatest level of user service.
And be prepared for a lot of blank looks over lunch as you try to explain data modeling to chemists…

Check Your Data Model. Check it Again. Putting in Pilot Data? Check it Again.

 So you’ve created your database architecture and your ready to ingest your pilot data? You’ve rigorously designed your data model and all the appropriate queries to automate record creation. So, you get cracking on ingesting ~1,90o sample records with nearly 93,000 associated records for physical characteristics. What’s this? You accidentally combined one of the characteristic fields, thereby invalidating all of the physical characteristics you just ingested for over 900 books? Bad words and exasperated looks ensue…

It may go without saying, but always, always, always double, triple, and quadruple check your model before you begin ingesting actual data. You never know what simple mistake you’ve made that will ultimately require several hours of undoing down the road. Luckily, this mistake only ate about 8 hours of my time. But, I would rather not have to waste time because of simple oversight.

You’ll Never Suspect to Find Interdisciplinary Collaboration… Until You Do.

To be perfectly honest, I did not want to work at the LOC. I do not have a science background and was much more interested in several projects more associated with codicology, rare book cataloging, and the like. However, having accepted the LOC project out of necessity, I later discovered that here — in the field of laboratory science — is fertile ground for collaboration with the LIS discipline. The innovative approaches that our field is bringing to the development of information systems and to the practice of data sharing have found a great deal of support and buy-in from the humanities and social science disciplines. And while there is not a lack of interest from the life sciences, there exists a gap between our professional discourse and our applied exercises. Once I arrived at the PRTD, I found several people who were extremely interested in taking advantage of new approaches to data management and sharing. However, given the disciplinary focus of their institute and their own professional responsibilities, they had not yet been able to seek out partnerships or support from LIS professionals. After talking with several PRTD representatives about the possible implementations of the CLASS-D initiative, I found that they were extremely interested in the benefits that could come from having an open access database and the possibilities of implementing RDF-compliant data modeling to promote innovative reuse of data. Despite coming in to the workspace with my own professional preconceptions, I found the PRTD to be an excellent institution, filled with possibilities for creative collaboration between the laboratory science and LIS disciplines. While we may harbor hopes and dreams for what type of institution we may end up working for, be sure to remain open to unforeseen opportunities that may offer you a chance to dramatically impact the mission of a collection, an institution, or a profession.

There will be more to come from the CLASS-D project. Up next, Nick Schwartz will begin working on modeling for the analysis metadata architecture that will attach to the existing architecture. Keep an eye out for more updates!

If you are interested in learning more about the CLASS-D project, feel free to contact me at

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:



Mark Your Calendars!

Written by Justine Rothbart


It’s almost that time of year again! Back-to-School? Christmas? Nope. It’s almost time for the Library of Congress National Book Festival! This year the festival will be held on August 30th, 2014. It’s the first year to be held indoors at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center. For more information on why you should go, check out my blog post from last year’s festival: Cupcakes are out. Archives are in. Last year I discovered new trends in archives (and maybe some fashion trends). Let’s see what we’ll discover this year!

What: Library of Congress National Book Festival

When: August 30, 2014

Where: Walter E. Washington Convention Center, Washington D.C.


For more information visit: