Archive for October, 2006

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 ( 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.