Archives: Byting off more than they can chew?

October 30, 2006

So now we come to the aspect of the historiographic experience with which I am most familiar: the interface of archives and the people who use them. Sixteen years of working on the “front lines” and behind the scenes (in special media – photographs – and in “traditional” paper records) have shown how excruciating it can be for institutions to play “catch up” with technology.

In 1993 I assisted with the digitization of selected images across many formats and media, in order to ascertain the optimum resolution, file size, and compression quality for several prospective projects highlighting the holdings of the Archives’ Still Picture Branch. We used a Kodak scanning unit (with Nikon 35mm camera lens), a bulletproof copy stand, and a Kodak military-grade dye-sub printer. This setup was a monster ! And balky as the day is long…

This small-scale initiative was emblamatic of what was happening throughout the National Archives at the time: optical disk exploration (the short-lived ODISS project), the Electronic Access Project (EAP), and the National Archives Information Locator (NAIL) database, culminating in the present Archival Research Catalog (ARC) familiar to users of the NARA web site.

 Current digital initiatives of the National Archives include the Access to Archival Databases  (AAD) system, and certainly the fothcoming Electronic Records Archives (ERA), which is well on its way to development.  And you can imagine that each of these projects has had its share of “What do we include? What do we leave out?, How do we present it?” clashes among staff who work with the records, and the people who design the  systems.

 The National Archives has had to play catch-up with regard to developing standards for digital creation and storage issues with Federal records, and it is only now developing a fee schedule for digital reproductions of its archival holdings.  But one can see how this experience is playing out across all public and private institutions.

The big issue for the National Archives now is: How much do we put on the Web? Right now, we’re in the midst of a budget shortfall, and staff resources have shifted to the processing of a serious backlog of retired records. Of course, no none knows how long either of these conditions will last.

Its amusing for me in my capacity as a reference archivist when a researcher will ask if an entire series of 400 boxes is available online (it happens about as often as you’d think !) Or when a law firm would ask me to fax over an 800 page NSF grant file (yes, that has happened too.)

Expectations are always destined to exceed abilities… 

 I have trick or treat duty on Tuesday nite, but my colleague Billy Wade (my former colleague in Still Pictures) can certainly share some anecdotes of digital life at NARA…

Project Proposal

October 9, 2006

Last winter, as part of the National Archives’ “Know Your Records” lecture series, I put together a presentation about the Robert E. Peary Family Collection. This collection of donated materials includes the personal papers of Peary, his wife Josephine, his children, and other family members pertaining chiefly to all of Peary’s arctic expeditions from 1886 to 1909. Included are Peary’s diaries; correspondence; photographs; copies of articles he published; preparatory materials for all of his expeditions; and artifacts.  I created a PowerPoint presentation using resources from the collection, as well as an illustrated handout and a display of items for attendees to peruse.

My proposal is to migrate all of these components into a portal on the National Archives’ web site (www.archives.com) which can link to descriptions of the records in the Archival Research Catalog (ARC) as well as to other web sites relating to Peary and polar exploration of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

At one time the National Archives maintained a Center for Polar Archives, which housed the donated collections of over 100 individuals and organizations involved in polar exploration. While the Center no longer exists, the records are still in the custody of the National Archives. Included are collections of such individuals as Bernt Balchen, Lincoln Ellsworth, Paul Siple, and Vilhjalmur Stefansson. Descriptions of these collections could also be linked to the Peary portal.

It might also be worthwhile to incorporate a contributory feature to the site, where people could send in their own polar exploration tidbits, or “my brush with history” anecdotes, things of that nature.  

Now, how to begin? I suppose I need to learn some basic web site design utilizing DreamWeaver or some such. I have the PowerPoint presentation saved on a CD, including all of the jpegs of the images. I don’t know where HTML skill would come into play in this project; I learned HomeSite 4.5 several years ago, and did put together a small document, but I’ll have to relearn the process.  And what about flash, pdfs, rss, etc.?

 I’d appreciate any comments or suggestions ! Thanks.

Readings for 9/26

September 25, 2006

Ok, there was a lot of data to mine for class this week: Cohen’s piece on data mining “From Babel to Knowledge” discusses his adventures with an Application Programming Interface (API) he developed to test the power of such tools in searching through large databases and pulling together relevant results. He would conclude that it is best to tap into all sources when developing such tools; quantity being actually better than quality, since algorithms can be developed to weed out the junk.

 “30 Search Tips in 40 Minutes” is oriented to the professional researcher, maximizing time-for-dollar value for the client. I like tip number 30; sometimes you can’t use the web for your search. Its good to remind people that not everything is online. (yet)

 Turkel’s articles proved a refreshing break from some of the acronym- and techno-laced readings. Comforting to hear that he feels we need archivists, librarians, and curators now more than ever (“Methodology for the Infinite Archive”), while encouraging us to build our skills in order to use this new environment effectively. He envisions more of a partnership, rather than the cart (gee-whiz technology) driving the horse (us historo-folks).

 Turkel’s discussion of “spidering” (in “Teaching Young Historians to Search, Spider, and Scrape”) touches on what I said in an earlier post about moving forward. Spidering is arguably not a “linear” process,  since it is randomized by how the entries are arrayed in the piece, but it does move the viewer forward toward the desired clarity (“I’m not interested in that, but I am interested in this”).  

  

Thoughts on Class Discussion 9/19

September 21, 2006

As we were discussing the book vs. the web and the idea of hypertext, I formulated the thought that a book generally has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Literally. Regardless of where you open the book. The footnotes provide more content and context, but they all point backward, to earlier works.

 On the web, hypertext points the viewer many times to concurrent information and sources. So its not so much linear vs. nonlinear, as its about moving laterally or forward.

Does this make the web more useful? Depends on the quality and veracity of that concurrent info, but it certainly can lead you through more keyholes. And the idea that hypertext is only as valuable or relevant as the person who initiates it: valid. But, if we’re writing history for the web, there are rules to follow as you would for a book or article; document your sources, flesh out the discussion with notes, etc. All are ripe hypertext moments. And that’s just the foundation; after those bases are covered, indulge in all of the wonderful multimedia and hypertext you can stand !  

Now, a request: can we limit the big words, i.e. teliogical, diachronous, etc.? Makes my brain hurt, and I don’t want to appear to be an idiot if I stop the discussion to ask what it means…  Thank you. 

Thoughts on “Wikipedia and the Future of the Past”

September 12, 2006

I had heard of Wikipedia as a “write-it-yourself” kind of online encyclopedia, but had never visited it or frankly, given it another thought until hearing the term “wiki” being tossed about on the night of our first class. What’s a wiki? I felt so out of it…  Okay, so now I know a bit more about this online phenomenon called Wikipedia, and Roy Rosensweig’s deconstruction and analysis of it has filled another gap in my ever-evolving knowledge about all things cyber.

Rosensweig’s is a call for the historical community to sit up and take notice of this site and others of its ilk, wherein virtual communities are populating the Internet with knowledge (along with bias, ignorance, and venom) which has the potential to reach and influence how people regard their world and how things came to be.

 Acknowledging the difficulty historians have in contributing on the web (the “trolls” inhabiting Wikiland, for example), Rosensweig nevertheless exhorts academics to find ways to present history online such that it does not invalidate the contributions of amateurs and non-historians, but amplifies and clarifies the historical record. To this end, historical societies, archives and associations must seriously reconsider their long-standing practice of “charging admission” to their online resources. Such practices seem to say “If you want the facts, you have to pay for them. If you want it free, then you get what you pay for.”

What the free online encyclopedias need to do is to remind the reader that an encyclopedia entry is but the first step in one’s research; for the student doing a term paper, the entry should have sufficient references to primary and secondary works. And in the case of secondary works, these should be as recent as possible. By its very nature, this is where the professional historian can make an entry more useful and relevant.

The example of Wikipedia shows that the Internet is blooming with more and more resources, and while the tending of these blooms requires time and money, the result can be breathtaking.  

Thus endeth this post. Unfortunately, I’ll miss class tonight, so by my absence you will probably figure out who I am !   

Evaluation of Reginald Fessenden Site

September 7, 2006

1906 marks the 100th anniversary of Reginald Fessenden’s voice radio transmission across the Atlantic, the first voice transmission by radio (Marconi only sent Morse code). He sent his message from Brant Rock, Massachusetts (my wife’s hometown), which will be having a gala celebration and reenactment of the moment in December. 

To that end, I thought it fitting to explore some web sites devoted to Fessenden and his achievements as a radio pioneer. I looked at http://www.radiocom.net/Fessenden/, “Reginald Aubrey Fessenden web page”, created by “ raf.nesco, Box 686
Brant Rock, Massachusetts  02020
.
 

This is a good example of an enthusiast web site, put together by an amateur historian.  It is replete with links to other sites (whether for a single picture or passage, or more in-depth information). It does offer an encapsulated account of Fessenden’s life, with occasional links embeddeed in the text. There is no “multimedia” aspect to the site, in terms of animations, sound files, etc. There are many color images of vintage postcards, along with black and white photos which enlarge when you click on them.  

As far as layout, there is no real order to things; this is one of those sites where you just “jump in.” As you scroll down, you come across segments of links to other sites, then the narrative of Fessenden’s life, then a cluster of more links.  

Viewing the source code doesn’t seem to indicate that a CSS was used; there are the standard /p tags, along with dropped-in URLs. As far as a database backend, I don’t know how to look for that. The code indicates that Microsoft FrontPage 4.0 and Meta Tag Builder were used.  

All in all, this is not a sophisticated site, but is chock-full of useful links and images, and serves capably as a gateway for further online exploration of Fessenden’s life.

Thoughts on the Web Sites We Visited 8/29

August 31, 2006

National Geographic Pearl Harbor: Left me cold; too many ads, no real narrative linkage to events and people who endured that day, and the lack of monitoring of the memory book is appalling.

 The Valley Project: Visually uncluttered, the “floor plan” navigation tool is clever and useful, and its chock full of information that lends itself to serendipitous browsing.

 Smithsonian’s HotWire site: A neat collection of stuff; if you have the time and inclination, you can figure out the confusing display and be rewarded with a fantastic amalgamation of objects. With NMAH closing for a few years, here’s a chance to “visit”. One wonders, though, if the “new” NMAH will be organized like this site; with no narrative or thematic flow.

 French Revolution imagery: An interesting collaborative site, soliciting commentary from scholars about discrete images. A good example of “community building”.

Pepys diary: Tailor made for Pepys-17th Centrury English wonks. Talk about “fleshing out” history ! The community adds to the corpus, and its self-sustaining.

Hello world!

August 31, 2006

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