Ethical Internships: Mentoring the Leaders We Need

I gave this talk last Friday to the Arizona Archives Association annual symposium — many thanks to that group for their excellent ideas and discussion, and for their strong sense of mission and values.


I wanted to start by explaining how excited I am to be here with you, and what it means to me to be an archivist speaking to a room of Arizona archivists. I grew up in Arizona, in Maricopa county in an area called Ahwatukee, which is a neighborhood on the south side of South Mountain, misnamed by the original white landowners for the Crow phrase for “land in the next valley.” Obviously the Crow people never lived anywhere near Arizona. The Crow are a northern plains tribe who lived in Wyoming and were forcibly moved to Montana. And so it is especially strange to me that the area was given a Crow name when we consider that Ahwatukee is bounded to the south by the Gila River Indian Community.

Crow (Apsaroke) Indians of Montana --

Crow (Apsaroke) Indians of Montana — “Holds the Enemy” by Edward Curtis. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

What does it tell us of Dr. and Mrs. Ames’, the landowners who named the area, regard for their American Indian neighbors that they used the language of a group far enough away to be largely irrelevant to their lives instead of their immediate neighbors? I have to assume that they were caught up in popular romantic notions of American Indians, possibly best represented in the photographs of Edward Curtis, who aestheticized and fictionalized American Indians at precisely the moment when it was clear that there would be no more Indian wars and that the United States government’s program of forced removal had successfully met its intended ends.

This founding vignette resonates with me, because I see reverberations of it in my experience growing up in Ahwatukee. My middle school was named for the Akimel O’odham, the Pima people, who reside in Arizona, and our school donned bright turquoise and copper, vaguely pan-Indian pictographs. This was all done with a sharp lack of specificity; it gave the impression that American Indian culture is a stylistic flourish instead of a tradition, culture and worldview. Looking at it now, this divide between seeing American Indians as a people and seeing them as a trace on the now white-occupied land is especially cruel when you consider the persistent inequities that American Indians in Arizona encounter today. Indeed, during the last census there were only 738 American Indian-identified people living in Ahwatukee, which has the wealthiest and one of the whitest school districts in Arizona. I was surrounded by empty gestures to Indians but had no real contact with first Arizonans in my life. The land was empty of traces and traditions of people who had lived there, considered a tabula rasa onto which developers could build tract houses.

And so, growing up, I made the mistake that I think is pretty common among some Arizonans of assuming that there’s no history to be found here. I was participating in an act of mass forgetting. Continue reading

Advertisements

article quest

Looking at my Twitter stream one morning I noticed that Seth van Hooland was promoting a paper he had written with Seb Chan and some other folks about APIs and their issues. Awesome, I want to read this.

Click on that link and bam, paywall. Well, that is okay I work for an Ivy League university who surely subscribes to this journal, I’ll just get it from them.

After landing on library’s main page, my first instinct is to try to identify whether the library subscribes to this journal. How do I do that?

After looking through all 32 menu items

options

I settle on “Find eJournals by Title” (BTW, is what I’m looking for an eJournal? How would I know? What is the difference between a journal and an eJournal?). My goal now is to determine whether Yale subscribes to the serial “Journal of Documentation”. I have the name of the publication and the ISSN. This should be pretty straightforward, either they subscribe or they do not.

After running a search I am presented with two (seemingly) relevant results.

op4a

The first item appears to be what I want because I immediately recognize the ISSN number (0022-0418), however, this is a nice coincidence. If I didn’t know how to recognize the ISSN number, how would I know what that number was? If I start clicking on links I am taken away from yale.edu to a site which confirms this is the serial I am looking for.

op4b

But I still don’t know if Yale subscribes. If you look at the second line of the first search result you may notice a date range.

4c

What does that mean? Do they not have the most recent articles? Do they not have the articles from 80% of this journals issues (it began publishing in 1945). Things are not looking good but I work with metadata so maybe a cataloger didn’t update the MARC record for this serial. Who knows?

Lets try that link which suggests that I can find articles from this journal.

5

After loading this page it is not immediately clear to me whether I am running a new search or searching within a particular journal. After looking closely I notice that the Journal and ISSN numbers have been prepopulated. Why both?

Okay so this search should tell me whether Yale has the article I am looking for. Either I’ll get some articles which contain the word “API” in the title or none. I run my search.

6

At no point on this page does it tell me that it could not find any results. Just suggestions about the “providers coverage range” which ends with some ambiguous date of “1 year ago”. What does this all mean? Can I not get the article from Yale? Also, one year ago from when? Today? Is there a one year blackout period? This was a dead end but it looks like they are giving me three options to continue my quest to get this journal article.

  • I can then search their other catalogues “ORBIS” and “MORRIS” but I’m not entirely sure why they would have it and not this “eJournals” section. I’m probably not going to try these options unless I have no other choice.
  • I can request it for a service called “Get It @ Yale” but that seems like a scanning service and this is probably an electronic publication. Scan a PDF? I think not.
  • I can use Google Scholar. I probably should have started here but the paywall at the beginning made me assume that it wouldn’t be available for free.

Which of these three options am I most likely to try at this point? Having run two different searches, gained little information as to Yale’s actual holdings or subscriptions I am now running for warm familiarity and simplicity of Google.

I click on Google Scholar, search for the entire title, and the first result is a link to the pre-print version of the article.

http://freeyourmetadata.org/publications/rest.pdf

I’m sure that I sound like a grumpy luddite and that I am saying “why can’t you just be more like Google” but I’m not. I am keenly aware of the difficulty of building effective discovery tools for cultural heritage institutions. This is often difficult, thankless work.  I don’t expect a library to be Google but there is a middle ground between “I know what you want before you do” and result pages where the user is left guessing about what they are reading and why. Compare the time and energy spent trying to navigate a library catalog against this one search in Google Scholar or this interaction on Twitter to get the same resource.

7

I could also go into all the other strategies I tried within the library system, ORBIS, Quicksearch BETA, Articles+ but none of these worked. Yes, I was eventually able to find an entry for the article in Articles+ and to export a citation for it but I still could not get the thing I actually wanted.

Argh.

 

/vent

 

Happy New Year!

As we finish our first week back at work in 2015, we thought it might be nice to reflect on what we accomplished in 2014 and what our resolutions are for this year.

Looking Back

Carrie

As I type this I am sitting in a living room piled high with boxes and strewn with bubble wrap and packing tape.  I finished my six and a half year run at Columbia on Friday and will be starting a new position at Emory University’s Manuscript, Archives, & Rare Book Library at the beginning of next month.

This past year was full of professional changes.  I got a new director, moved offices, our library annexed another unit which landed under my supervision, and our University Librarian retired at the end of the year.  Amidst all of this, though, my team and I managed to hit some pretty major milestones in the middle of the chaos and change-related-anxiety.  We completed a comprehensive collection survey that resulted in DACS compliant collection level records for all of our holdings, we published our 1000th EAD finding aid, and kept up with the 3000 plus feet of accessions that came through our doors.

Cassie

Last year I spent a lot of time learning how to work with data more effectively (in part thanks to this blog!) I used OpenRefine and regular expressions to clean up accessions data. Did lots of ArchivesSpace planning, mapping, and draft policy work. Supervised an awesome field study. Participated in our Aeon implementation. Began rolling out changes to how we create metadata for archival collections and workflows for re-purposing the data. I also focused more than I ever have before on advocating for myself and the functions I oversee. This included a host of activities, including charting strategic directions, but mainly comprised lots of small conversations with colleagues and administrators about the importance of our work and the necessity to make programmatic changes. I also did a ton of UMD committee work. Oh, and got married! That was pretty happy and exciting.

Maureen

2014 was my sixth year working as a professional archivist, and continued my streak (which has finally ended, I swear) of being a serial short-timer. Through June of last year, I worked with a devoted team of archives warriors at the Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives. There, we were committed to digging ourselves out of the hole of un-described resources, poor collection control, and an inconsistent research experience. Hence, my need for this blog and coterie of smart problem solvers. I also gave a talk at the Radcliffe Workshop on Technology and Archival Processing in April, which was an archives nerd’s dream — a chance to daydream, argue, and pontificate with archivists way smarter than I am.

In June I came to Yale — a vibrant, smart, driven environment where I work with people who have seen and done it all. And I got to do a lot of fun work where I learned more about technology, data, and archival description to solve problems. And I wrote a loooot of blog posts about how to get data in and out of systems.

Meghan

It kind of feels like I did nothing this past year, other than have a baby and then learn how to live like a person who has a baby. 2014 was exhausting and wonderful. I still feel like I have a lot of tricks to learn about parenting; for example, how to get things done when there is a tiny person crawling around my floor looking for things to eat.

Revisiting my Outlook calendar reminds me that even with maternity leave, I had some exciting professional opportunities. I proposed, chaired, and spoke at a panel on acquisition, arrangement, and access for sexually explicit materials at the RBMS Conference in Las Vegas, and also presented a poster on HistoryPin at the SAA Conference in Washington, D.C. Duke’s Technical Services department continues to grow, so I served on a number of search committees, and chaired two of them. I continue to collaborate with colleagues to develop policies and guidelines for a wide range of issues, including archival housing, restrictions, description, and ingest. And we are *this close* to implementing ArchivesSpace, which is exciting.

Looking Forward

Carrie

I have so much to look forward to this year!  I’m looking forward to learning a new city, to my first foray into the somewhat dubious joys of homeownership, and to being within easy walking distance of  Jeni’s ice cream shop.  And that’s all before I even think about my professional life.  My new position oversees not only archival processing, but also cataloging and description of MARBL’s print collections so I will be spending a lot of time learning about about rare book cataloging and thinking hard about how to streamline resource description across all formats.

Changing jobs is energizing and disruptive in the best possible way so my goal for the year is to settle in well and to learn as much much as possible– from my new colleagues, from my old friends, and from experts and interested parties across the profession.

Cassie

I am super excited to be starting at the Orbis Cascade Alliance as a Program Manager in February. I’ll be heading up the new Collaborative Workforce Program covering the areas of shared human resources, workflow, policy, documentation, and training. The Alliance just completed migrating all 37 member institutions to a shared ILS. This is big stuff and a fantastic foundation to analyze areas for collaborative work.

While I can’t speak to specific goals yet, I know I will be spending a lot of time listening and learning. Implementing and refining a model for shared collaborative work is a big challenge, but has huge potential on so many fronts. I’m looking forward to learning from so many experts in areas of librarianship outside of my experiences/background. I’m also thrilled to be heading back to the PNW and hoping to bring a little balance back to life with time in the mountains and at the beach.

Maureen

I have a short list of professional resolutions this year. Projects, tasks and a constant stream of email has a way of overshadowing what’s really important — I’ll count on my fellow bloggers to remind me of these priorities!

  • All ArchivesSpace, all the time. Check out the ArchivesSpace @ Yale blog for more information about this process.
  • I want to create opportunities for myself for meaningful direct interaction with researchers so that their points of view can help inform the decisions we make in the repository. This may mean that I take more time at the reference desk, do more teaching in classes, or find ways to reach out and understand how I can be of better service.
  • I want to develop an understanding of what the potential is for archival data in a linked data environment. I want to develop a vision of how we can best deploy this potential for our researchers.
  • I have colleagues here at Yale who are true experts at collection development — I want to learn more about practices, tips, tricks, pitfalls, and lessons learned.

Meghan

I have a few concrete professional goals for the coming year:

  • I want to embrace ArchivesSpace and learn to use it like an expert.
  • I will finish my SPLC guide — the print cataloging is finished, so as soon as I get a chance I will get back to this project.
  • I have requested a regular desk shift so that I can stay more connected to the researchers using the collections we work so hard to describe.
  • I am working more closely with our curators and collectors on acquisitions and accessioning, including more travel.
  • My library is finishing a years-long renovation process, so this summer I will be involved with move-related projects (and celebrations). Hopefully there will be lots of cake for me in 2015.

 

Rehousing is Not Processing

This post has been stewing around since last July, but builds nicely on our Extensible Processing book reviews and Maureen’s post on containers.

In supervising processing projects I’ve come across some wacky decisions made over the years. While I’ve started projects from the beginning, a large portion of projects I’ve supervised have been already in progress, started under someone else (or multiple others).

One reoccurring issue I’ve noticed is how often people say processing when they mean something else or they mean a very small part of processing. Rehousing is a common culprit, but other activities fall into this too. Here’s two examples of “processing projects” that mostly aren’t at all:

1. Collection was processed in the 1970s. A paper finding exists with notes, series descriptions, and a folder (or item) level container list. Materials are in acidic boxes and acidic folders, but labeled. Actions taken during the project: Rehoused all materials into acid-free folders and acid-free boxes, including creating additional, smaller folders. Changed the series arrangement and physically re-arranged materials. Excel container list was created by retyping (retyping!) the content of the paper finding aid  and adding in the newly created folders for conversion to EAD.

So many times I came across similar ongoing processing projects with a justification that the materials needed better housing. Often, other tasks got tacked on such as redoing the series outline (even if there were no additional materials to add and no evidence that the current series outline had issues.)

2. Preliminary inventory in Word exists at the folder level using creator created titles for a large volume of organizational records. Finding aid existed with summary notes and linked out to a PDF of the preliminary inventory. Actions taken during project:

  • Collection was rehoused into acid-free folders, staples removed, some preservation photocopying done, oversize materials removed and rehoused separately (separation sheets completed)
  • Materials were reviewed on an item level and marked as restricted. Some redaction might have happened. Sometimes the restricted materials were removed to a new folder with the same title and marked as restricted (using separation sheets in the original folder). Sometimes the restricted materials were left in place and the whole folder was labeled restricted.
  • Excel container list was created by retyping (retyping!) the exact information on the folder (aka the exact information already in the preliminary Word list) as materials were re-foldered. Largely, the creator titles were kept with some additions. Dates for folders were added or edited. Excel list will be converted to EAD.
  • Folders were physically grouped by letter of alphabet based on the folder title. Ex: All the folders starting with “A” are physically together in “A” boxes, but not in actual alphabetical order yet. (Currently, those folders are being arranged in alphabetical order in acid-free boxes. Look for an update on how long/how expensive just this one phase takes!)

Both of these examples were large projects that occurred over many years (often with pauses due to turn over and lack of resources). Looking back, what value did we add? The collections are in more stable housing than before and in one case we know more about restricted material. But, otherwise, what have we gained for our users that we didn’t already have?

Essentially, these were called processing projects but are really rehousing and restriction review projects. Not projects to create access to materials or bring intellectual or physical order to the materials. After all, they both already had a documented intellectual and physical order that should have been described in our finding aid notes (at whatever level.)

What we should do instead:

  • Put resources towards creating access to materials over rehousing materials.
  • Develop a baseline housing standard that you can live with. It might be that all materials are in acid-free boxes. Or maybe it’s just that your boxes aren’t falling apart.
  • Get over the idea that all collections need to be physically arranged and re-housed during processing (or re-processing). Rehousing a collection into acid-free folders and/or acid-free boxes is not the main goal processing. The task does not create access to collections or describe the materials. It’s housekeeping. It’s not necessary to include in a processing project.
  • Specifically state what rehousing tasks will occur in the processing plan and at what level. Justify spending processing resources on this. Don’t include it just because you’re used to including this task during processing.
  • Prioritize materials, at a repository level, that risk severe damage or information loss due to current housing based on importance. Develop a specific budget/set of resources for this type of work. Tap into the resources of your preservation/conservation department when available.

When facing resistance to not including rehousing in a processing project numbers are your friend. “Do we want to rehouse this collection that’s already pretty stable or do we want to take those resources and create access to more collections?” is often too abstract for people. Attaching actual costs to rehousing work (labor AND supplies) can help to push people resistant or nervous about dropping rehousing to focus on activities that create access. Treating rehousing work as separate from processing can also help to decouple the idea that your intellectual and physical order must always match.

On Containers

I’m here  to talk about boxes. Get excited.

I’ve been spending a LOT of time lately thinking about containers — fixing them, modelling them, figuring out what they are and aren’t supposed to do. And I’ve basically come to the conclusion that as a whole, we spend too much time futzing with containers because we haven’t spent enough time figuring out what they’re for and what they do.

For instance, I wrote a blog post a couple of months ago about work we’re doing to remediate stuff that should not but is happening with containers — barcodes being assigned to two different containers, two different container types with the same barcode/identifier information, etc. Considering the scale of our collections, the scale of these problems is mercifully slight, but these are the kinds of problems that turn into a crisis if a patron is expecting to find material in the box she ordered and the material simply isn’t there.

I’m also working with my colleagues here at Yale and our ArchivesSpace development vendor Hudson Molonglo to add functionality to ArchivesSpace so that it’s easier to work with containers as containers. I wrote a blog post about it on our ArchivesSpace blog. In short, we want to make it much easier to do stuff like assigning locations, assigning barcodes, indicating that container information has been exported to our ILS, etc. In order to do this, we need to know exactly how we want containers to relate to archival description and how they relate to each other.

As I’ve been doing this thinking about specific container issues, I’ve had some thoughts about containers in general. Here they are, in no particular order.

What are container numbers doing for us?

A container number is just a human-readable barcode, right? Something to uniquely identify a container? In other words, speaking in terms of the data model, isn’t this data that says something different but means the same thing? And is this possibly a point of vulnerability? At the end of the day, isn’t a container number  something that we train users to care about when really they want the content they’ve identified? And we have a much better system for getting barcodes to uniquely identify something than we do with box numbers?

In the days that humans were putting box numbers on a call slip and another human was reading that and using that information to interpret shelf location, it made sense to ask the patron to be explicit about which containers were associated with the actual thing that they want to see. But I think that we’ve been too good at training them (and training ourselves) to think in terms of box numbers (and, internally, locations) instead of creating systems that do all of that on the back end. Information about containers should be uniform, unadorned, reliable, and interact seamlessly with data systems. Boxes should be stored wherever is best for their size and climate, and that should be tracked in a locations database that interacts with the requesting database. And the actual information should be associated seamlessly with containers.

This means that instead of writing down a call number and box number and reading a note about how materials of this type are stored on-site and materials of another type are stored off-site, let’s take a lot of human error out of this. Let’s let them just click on what they want to see. Then, the system says “a-ha! There are so many connections in my database! This record is in box 58704728702861, which is stored in C-29 Row 11, Bay 2, Shelf 2. I’ll send this to the queue that prints a call slip so a page can get that right away!” And instead of storing box numbers and folder numbers in the person’s “shopping cart” of what she’s seen, let’s store unique identifiers for the archival description, so that if that same record get’s re-housed into box 28704728702844 and moved to a different location, the patron doesn’t have to update her citation in any scholarly work she produces. Even if the collection gets re-processed, we could make sure that identifiers for stuff that’s truly the same persists.

Also, don’t tell me that box numbers do a good job of giving cues about order and scale. There are waaaaaayyyyy better ways of doing that than making people infer relationships based on how much material fits into 0.42 linear feet.

We have the concepts. Our practice needs to catch up, and our tools do too.

Darn it, Archivists’ Toolkit, you do some dumb things with containers

Archival management systems are, obviously, a huge step up from managing this kind of information in disparate documents and databases. But I think that we’re still a few years away from our systems meeting their potential. And I really think that folks who do deep thinking about archival description and standards development need to insert themselves into these conversations.

Here’s my favorite example. You know that thing where you’re doing description in AT and you want to associate a container with the records that you just described in a component? You know how it asks you what kind of an instance you want to create? That is not a thing. This is just part of the AT data model — there’s nothing like this in DACS, nothing like it in EAD. Actual archival standards are smart enough to not say very much about boxes because they’re boxes and who cares? When it exports to EAD, it serializes as @label. LABEL. The pinnacle of semantic nothingness!

This is not a thing.

This is not a thing.

Like, WHY? I can see that this could be the moment where AT is asking you “oh, hey, do you want to associate this with a physical container in a physical place or do you want to associate it with a digital object on teh interwebz?” but there’s probably a better way of doing this.

My problem with this is that it has resulted in A LOT of descriptive malpractice. Practitioners who aren’t familiar with how this serializes in EAD think that they’re describing the content (“oh yes! I’ve done the equivalent of assigning a form/genre term and declaring in a meaningful way that these are maps!”) when really they’ve put a label on the container. The container is not the stuff! If you want to describe the stuff, you do that somewhere else!

Oh my gosh, my exclamation point count is pretty high right now. I’ll see if I can pull myself together and soldier on.

Maybe we should be more explicit about container relationships.

Now, pop quiz, if you have something that is in the physical collection and has also been microfilmed, how do you indicate that?

In Archivists’ Toolkit, there’s nothing clear about this. You can associate more than one instance with an archival description, but you can also describe levels of containers that (ostensibly) describe the same stuff, but happen to be a numbered item within a folder, within a box.

Anything can happen here.

Anything can happen here.

So this means that in the scenario I mentioned above, it often happens that someone will put the reel number into container 3, making the database think that the reel is a child of the box.

But even if all of the data entry happens properly, EAD import into Archivists’ Toolkit will take any three <container> tags and instead of making them siblings, brings the three together into parent-child instance relationship like you see above. This helps maintain relationships between boxes and folders, but is a nightmare if you have a reel in there.

EAD has a way of representing these relationships, but the AT EAD export doesn’t really even do that properly.

 <c id="ref10" level="file">
   <did>
     <unittitle>Potter, Hannah</unittitle>
     <unitdate normal="1851/1851">1851</unitdate>
     <container id="cid342284" type="Box" label="Mixed Materials (39002038050457)">1</container>
     <container parent="cid342284" type="Folder">2</container>
   </did>
 </c>

 <c id="ref11" level="file">
   <did>
     <unittitle>Potter, Horace</unittitle>
     <unitdate normal="1824/1824">1824</unitdate>
     <container id="cid342283" type="Box" label="Mixed Materials (39002038050457)">1</container>
     <container parent="cid342283" type="Folder">3</container>
   </did>
 </c>

Here, we see that these box 1’s are the same — they have the same barcode (btw, see previous posts for help working out what to do with this crazy export and barcodes). But the container id makes it seem like these are two different things — they have two different container id’s and their folders refer two two different parents.

What we really want to say is “This box 1 is the same as the other box 1’s. It’s not the same as reel 22. Folder 2 is inside of box 1, and so is folder 3.” Once we get our systems to represent all of this, we can do much better automation, better reporting, and have a much more reliable sense of where our stuff is.

So if we want to be able to work with our containers as they actually are, we need to represent those properly in our technology. What should we be thinking about in our descriptive practice now that we’ve de-centered the box?

“Box” is not a level of description.

In ISAD(G) (explicitly) and DACS (implicitly), archivists are required to explain the level at which they’re describing aggregations of records. There isn’t a vocabulary for this, but traditionally, these levels include “collection”, “record group”, “series”, “file” and “item.” Note that “box” is not on this list or any other reasonable person’s list. I know everyone means well, and I would never discourage someone from processing materials in aggregate, but the term “box-level processing” is like nails on a chalkboard to me. As a concept, it should not be a thing. Now, series-level processing? Consider me on board! File-group processing? Awesome, sounds good! Do you want to break those file groups out into discrete groups of records that are often surrounded by a folder and hopefully are associated with distinctive terms, like proper nouns? Sure, if you think it will help and you don’t have anything better to do.

A box is usually just an accident of administravia. I truly believe that archivists’ value is our ability to discern and describe aggregations of records — that box is not a meaningful aggregation, and describing it as such gives a false impression of the importance of one linear foot of material. I’d really love to see a push toward better series-level or file-group-level description, and less file-level mapping, especially for organizations’ records. Often, unless someone is doing a known item search, there’s nothing distinct enough about individual files as evidence (and remember, this is why we do processing — to provide access to and explain records that give evidence of the past) to justify sub-dividing them. I also think that this could help us think past unnecessary sorting and related housekeeping — our job isn’t to make order from chaos*, it’s to explain records and their context of creation of use. If records were created chaotically and kept in a chaotic way, are we really illuminating anything by prescribing artificial order?

This kind of thinking will be increasingly important when our records aren’t tied to physical containers.

In conclusion, let’s leave the robot work to the robots.

If I never had to translate a call number to a shelf location again, it would be too soon (actually, we don’t do that at MSSA, but still). Let’s stop making our patrons care about boxes, and let’s start making our technology work for us.


* This blog’s title, Chaos –> Order, is not about bringing order to a chaotic past — it’s about bringing order to our repositories and to our work habits. In other words, get that beam out of your own eye, sucka, before you get your alphabetization on.

 

Computational Thinking and Archives

Yesterday, I was part of a panel with two brilliant colleagues (and a really great moderator) about computational thinking and problem solving in a library context. The room was packed, and I found the discussion rejuvenating — I’ll do my best to capture some lightening in a bottle.

What am I talking about?

“Computational thinking” is a term to describe a mode of problem solving that we all engage in.

What is computational thinking? It’s not necessarily about learning how to program, but rather how to think strategically so you can solve a problem, reduce or eliminate tediously repetitive tasks, improve accuracy and increase efficiency. Drawing on computer science strategies such as finding the logical structure of a task, modeling data in a more accessible form, and figuring out how to apply iteration and algorithms to break a task into pieces that might be automated, computational thinking is a mindset that anyone can learn and apply.

Everything that you do a find and replace operation, you’re using computational thinking. If you’ve ever wanted to make find and replace more powerful or more exact, and you think you might know the rules for doing so, you’re well on your way to using computational methods.

How did I get here?

All three of us talked about not having formal backgrounds in computer science — Arcadia explicitly considers herself a “humanities person,” but fell in love with methods and tools she had developed to help do work better and more efficiently. Mark mentioned that he has an educational background in astronomy, but that for most of the computational work we do, we really only need pretty basic arithmetic. My master’s degree is in information science, but I did my undergraduate work in history (with particular interest in intellectual history) and I’ve never taken a computer science course in my life. I even weaseled out of the required information theory class in grad school so that I could take a doctoral seminar in the history department.

I didn’t talk about this during the panel, but I definitely have spent a lot of my life with a healthy distrust of “automation” and “efficiency” for their own sake. I poured beaucoup haterade during grad school. I felt sensitized to the obvious gender politics between the “computer” people who would go on to work at Amazon and Microsoft and the “people” people who would go on to work in non-profit libraries and archives. We were paying the same tuition, but we were very obviously not getting equitable access to resources. And I didn’t feel like the economists and computer scientists on the faculty had the same vocabulary I did about critical theory or social justice. I was there to be an archivist because I believed (and believe) that taking a cold, hard look at the past as it really was does a lot to dismantle fantasies of teleology and the inherent naturalness of patriarchy and white supremacy and nationalism and disdain for the poor and the inevitability of late-industrial capitalist society. Societies have been radically different than what they are now, which means that nothing is inevitable. I want to be an archivist because I believe that access to records can result in accountability to actors in the present and can provide leverage for the future.

I’m here to tell you that no one in my workflow analysis class was interested in talking about that. In fact, I sometimes think that technologists’ Utopian scientism — their dogged devotion to technical improvement — makes them susceptible to a Whiggish view of history and less observant of the lived constraints and injustices of others. When you spend your days “developing,” it’s not always easy to see that the world hasn’t gotten better on the whole for everyone. Now imagine a school founded on this worldview. I found this repellent, almost at a visceral level, entirely at odds with my education until then. Looking back, I wish that I had fled less into the embrace of archives, history and anthropology courses, and tried to get enough leverage to take a guerrilla approach to my education. There are gaps in my technical education that I wish I had taken the opportunity to fill.

Then I started working. And, as I mentioned on my panel, I really hate doing boring work. I hate feeling like a robot. I hate putting bad data into a filemaker database that’s not accessible on the web and not based on schemata. I hate the waste that comes from data that can’t be re-used. I hate the waste of doing something by hand that isn’t creative or analytic or synthetic.

In archives, we work in bulk, we work with records formed by computers, and discovery happens in a networked environment. It became clear very quickly that if I wanted to be good at my job, if I wanted to deal with information explosion, and I didn’t want to do boring crap anymore, that I should get nimble around a computer.

So for me, at least, finding my way around a computer was necessary so that I could make room for the intellectual work of being an archivist. And I found, to my delight, that applying computational solutions is a creative, intellectual exercise in its own right.

To wrap up, here is the rest of my fortune cookie wisdom about computational thinking and library / archives work:

  • Be uncomfortable with boring work. Let that discomfort point you toward better solutions.
  • Know why you’re doing a task in the first place. This will help you design a better method, and may even help you ditch the task altogether.
  • At first, it may take a lot more time to do something with a script than to do it by hand. But once you’ve done it with a script, you’ve actually learned something. If you do it by hand, you’re stuck in the same learning mode that you were before.
  • Agitate for learning time.
  • If you’re a manager, encourage not just that work gets done, but that it gets done the best way using the best tools for the job.
  • It’s going to be hard to learn this stuff. It’s especially going to be hard if you’re the member of a group that people don’t see as a typical technologist.
  • Haters gonna hate, especially on the internet. Find your supportive group. (It’s why we have this blog!)
  • Learn how to make good back-ups. You may kill your database/computer/whatever a few times. If you have a back-up, it’s no big deal.
  • You’re here for your users. Spend your time on stuff that benefits them, and let the robots do the boring stuff.

Put a strategic plan on it!

People who know me will know I love strategic planning. Or, more accurately, I love good strategic planning and how a strategic plan can assist you in many other activities.

Given that our library’s strategic plan is a few years old and our dean is retiring in the spring, the functional areas of SCUA didn’t want to wait for the whole library process to move forward. Luckily, there’s no rule that says you can’t have a strategic document for levels below the top or division/department.

While we didn’t go through a full blown strategic planning process, we had run many brainstorming, visioning, and planning activities over the last year and a half. Many of the projects in our document were already approved (officially or unofficially) and represented in individual and unit work plans.

Why did we need a plan then? When planning projects or allocating resources we seemed to encounter a few challenges. The biggest (to me) were a lack of understanding about:

  • The difference between work that is strategic to move a program forward v. the prioritization of regular ongoing work/projects
    • ex: processing the so and so papers may be a high priority on the list of collections to process, but this does not necessarily make that specific processing project a strategic priority
  • How the work of different functional areas within SCUA directly relate to one another, supports the work of the entire department, and how each unit/function can participate in meeting shared goals.

We determined three strategic directions across our work:

  1. Optimize the user experience
  2. Increase access to collections
  3. Expand knowledge of our collections to new audiences

Check out the full Strategic Directions for SCUA Functional Areas 2014-2017.

Here’s how I’m hoping to use our strategic directions document:

  • Raising awareness about what we do, why we do it, and its value within SCUA and the Libraries
  • Assist in developing annual work plans, how we spend our time, and evaluating our progress
  • Prioritization of pop up/new projects. Is it really a project that will move us forward? Does it have to happen right now? Can we approach it differently than before? What do we STOP doing from our strategic directions or regular/ongoing work to accommodate it?
  • Use as a tool for updating specific policies, procedures, and workflows highlighting how these changes support the activities and goals outlined in the strategic directions.
  • Advocating for resources at various levels within the library. Our AUL has already said this document will be extremely helpful as the libraries start to discuss priorities for fiscal and human resources for FY16.

Also, a hat tip to UCLA’s Library Special Collections strategic plan! We liked their presentation/formatting, so borrowed that for ours. Don’t reinvent the wheel!