Saturday, July 19, 2014

“He’s one of those people that never seems to have enough money"

Last month, Samuel Loring Morison, a part-time researcher employed by the Naval Historical Foundation, was charged with stealing and attempting to sell papers created by his grandfather, Samuel Eliot Morison, who was a rear admiral in the United States Navy and a distinguished historian. I've held off on posting about this in part because my life has been a bit chaotic as of late and in part because I've been hoping that the federal criminal complaint against Morison would be unsealed. However, the complaint has remained sealed, and I don't want this story to get lost in the shuffle.

The following ought to be of interest to any security-minded archivist:
  • This isn't Morison's first brush with the law: in the mid-1980s, he gave three classified spy satellite photographs to a British magazine and was subsequently convicted of violating the Espionage Act. He was pardoned by President Bill Clinton in 2001, but by that time his career was in tatters.
  • Relatives indicate that Samuel Loring Morison "revered his grandfather" but also has some longstanding shortcomings of character. One cousin told the Washington Post that "I just think he’s always had a slight bent toward doing things that are not quite on the level . . . . He’s one of those people that never seems to have enough money.”
In thinking about this sad episode, I can't help but reflect upon the importance of creating an appropriate operational environment. The Washington Post and other papers that covered Morison's arrest cited a 2011 Office of the Naval Inspector General audit of the Navy History and Heritage Command, which operates the archival facility that holds the papers of Samuel Eliot Morison. The audit report highlighted numerous deficiencies, among them insufficient environmental controls, woefully inadequate resources, and "the disenfranchisement of the professional historian, curator, archivist and librarian workforce due to their marginalization in decision processes and lack of advancement opportunity." The report also emphasized that the individual then serving as the command's security officer lacked the background and security clearances needed in order to perform the job properly, that the security officer had minimal interaction with archivists caring for classified records, and that additional security personnel were needed. The Navy History and Heritage Command says that it has recently upgraded its security protocols and hired additional staff, but Samuel Morison began doing research at the Navy Archives in January 2010 -- and apparently smuggled 34 boxes of material out of the facility.

I am by no means blaming front-line staff -- one of whom noticed that some Samuel Eliot Morison materials were missing and set in motion the investigation that ultimately led to the arrest of Samuel Loring Morrison -- for what happened. Morison, who has evidently signed a statement admitting his misdeeds, is responsible for his own actions.  However, the command-level officials who allowed the Navy Archives to fall into such a state made it easy for Morison to succumb to temptation. If you fail to staff a facility adequately, go out of your way to discourage and demoralize the few people you do have on your payroll, and treat your security program as an afterthought, you might as well hang a big "TAKE OUR STUFF!" sign over the front door.

As noted above, the criminal complaint against Samuel Loring Morison remains sealed as of this date. However, the document outlining the conditions of his pretrial release is publicly accessible, and you'll find it below. You'll be pleased to note that two of the conditions are: "no access to any library or archives without prior approval of [the U.S. Office of Probation and Pretrial Services]" and "no offer for sale or sale of any personal property, including papers."

Friday, June 6, 2014

The New York State Inebriate Asylum building

I have an abiding interest in the history of mental health care. In the mid-1990s, when I was a Ph.D. student in history, I took a short-term research consultancy at the New York State Archives, which was just starting a grant-funded documentation project focusing on mental health, the environmental movement, and the Latino communities of New York State. The State Archives needed someone who could quickly pull together a summary overview of the history mental health treatment and policy in New York State, and I needed a summer job.

The experience changed my life. Over the course of eleven weeks, I researched and wrote an eighty-page report and decided that I really didn't want to write a dissertation that examined the role of male activists in the British women's suffrage movement. I wanted instead to examine the working lives and work culture of the men and women who staffed the wards of the mammoth, custodially oriented institutions that dominated the provision of mental health care from the mid-19th through the mid-20th centuries -- a topic that brought together the history of labor, medicine, gender relations, and public policy in all manner of interesting ways. At the same time, I also started thinking that, dissertation or not, I would be much happier working in an archives than in an academic institution.


For a variety of reasons, I left graduate school a few years after I became an archivist. However, my interest in the history of mental health care remains very much intact. Since my research focused specifically on New York State, my interest has an architectural dimension: five psychiatric facilities in the United States have been designated National Historic Landmarks, and four of them are located in the Empire State. Whenever I get the chance to visit one of these landmarks, I do so.

Yesterday, I was in the Binghamton, New York area to attend an Appraisal of Electronic Records workshop offered by the Society of American Archivists -- which I highly recommend. After the workshop ended, I headed to the eastern edge of the city of Binghamton to visit the campus of what is now the Greater Binghamton Health Center to photograph the structure that housed the New York State Inebriate Asylum, the first facility in the United States that treated alcoholism as a disease.

The asylum, which was built between 1857-1866, was designed by Issac G. Perry, who ultimately became the lead architect of the New York State Capitol. Even though the crennellated turrets that once graced its roof were removed in 1954 in a desperate attempt to stop persistent roof leaks, it remains a Gothic Revival masterpiece . . . .

N.Y. Binghamton State Hospital, 1890-1910?. Series A3045, New York State Education Department, Division of Visual Instruction, Instructional Lantern Slides, [ca. 1856-1939], bulk 1911-1939, NYSA_A3045-78_D47_BiH, New York State Archives, Albany, N.Y.

. . . but, oh, how one wishes that the turrets had survived.

The inebriate asylum's treatment methods were unsuccessful, and in 1879 Governor Lucious Robinson asserted that the state's approach to the treatment of alcoholism was a failure. The inebriate asylum became the Binghamton Asylum for the Chronic Insane -- a custodial facility meant to house people who did not respond to the therapeutically-oriented care offered at the state's facility in Utica. Given that Issac Perry, who oversaw the retrofitting of the facility, had based his original design for the inebriate asylum upon the "Kirkbride model" of insane asylum construction, which emphasized the role of formally symmetrical architecture in restoring order to disordered minds, I suspect that the transition from "inebriate asylum" to "insane asylum" was a rather easy one.

The Binghamton Asylum for the Chronic Insane became the Binghamton State Hospital in 1890 and the Binghamton Psychiatric Center in 1977. In the final third of the 20th century, the state constructed a modern facility immediately to the west of the old Inebriate Asylum building, and only a few administrative offices remained within the older building's central transept.

For much of its history, the Inebriate Asylum building was actually t-shaped. The main building survives, but the "service" wing that housed kitchens, laundries, and other essential facilities was torn down at some point in the late 20th century; a parking lot now occupies the space where this wing once stood. However, two small brick structures, one attached to each wing of the main building, have survived. I'm not certain what these structures were used for, but I suspect that they housed activity rooms. As you can see, the materials used to construct the rear facade of the main building were not as fine as those used on its front: monochromatic Syracuse limestone covers the front facade, which for decades was readily visible from downtown Binghamton, but locally quarried stone was used for the rear facade. (Note also the wholly enclosed fire escape.)

Even today, traces of the building's former grandeur remain. For example, a stained glass window still graces the chapel that formerly occupied the third floor of the central transept. A.D. Wheeler, who received permission to enter the structure and photograph its interior, discovered that some of its intricately detailed woodwork, light fixtures, and stained glass has survived.

Wheeler's work also documents the building's interior decay, but one need not go inside in order to see that this structure is in peril. In 1993, a section of the parapet above the front entrance to the south transept collapsed. The few remaining offices within the structure were hastily relocated, and the building has been completely vacant ever since. The state stabilized the facade with concrete and removed the south transept stairs for safekeeping, but it's plain that even the repairs are starting to crumble.

The Inebriate Asylum building was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1997, a fact that is reflected in signs that dot the Greater Binghamton Health Center campus. However, in the late 1990s the State of New York attempted to sell the property on which the building stands -- without making any reference to the fact that a landmarked building stood on it. In 1999, the National Trust for Historic Preservation responded to the state's move by placing the Inebriate Asylum building (and psychiatric facilities in Buffalo, Poughkeepsie, and Utica) on its annual list of the nation's most endangered historic sites.

The State of New York still owns this building and the land on which it stands. Binghamton has fallen on hard times, and there's no shortage of available property in the area. A couple of years ago, it even seemed that the building would be given new life: a determined area legislator and the president of the SUNY Upstate Medical University, which is based in Syracuse but was looking to expand in Binghamton, announced that the Inebriate Asylum building would be completely renovated and turned into a medical education center. Unfortunately, scandal led the president of SUNY Upstate to tender his resignation last November, and its seems that SUNY Upstate's plans for the Inebriate Asylum building have been put on hold. In the meantime, the building quietly continues decaying.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Perverting the historical record

Archives and museum security experts frequently emphasize that the motivations of thieves are varied. Some seek revenge against institutions that, in their view, have done them wrong. Some are convinced that they're rescuing records or artifacts from repositories that aren't providing proper care. Some have a covetous love of history. Some view theft as an easy way to make money. Some do it for the sheer thrill of it. And, of course, some are driven by multiple compulsions.

Case in point: John Mark Tillman, a Nova Scotian who devoted at least fifteen years of his life to stealing manuscripts, paintings, and objects from cultural heritage institutions and antique dealers in Atlantic Canada and, briefly, Russia. His criminal career came to a halt in July 2012, when a police officer who pulled over Tillman's car discovered that Tillman had a 1758 letter written by General James Wolfe and a check for $1500 in his possession. At roughly the same time the authorities determined that the letter had been stolen from Dalhousie University's Killam Library, Tillman's girlfriend accused him of assaulting her and holding her against her will and told the police that, by his own admission, his house was full of stolen materials. A search of Tillman's Halifax-area home yielded 7,000 items that had likely been purloined.

In September 2013, Tillman was sentenced to nine years in prison. He received leniency because he promised that he would help the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) return the items he stole to their rightful owners, and he has been talking. A lot. He's talked about his desire to be connected to historically significant people and events, about the thrill of thievery, about using his now-deceased mother and former girlfriends as knowing decoys, about his aversion to anything resembling a regular job, and about the luxurious lifestyle made possible by his thefts.

He's also told the RMCP officers assigned to his case about how he stole the Wolfe letter. Tillman befriended the former chief archivist of Dalhousie University (which tightened its security procedures in advance of Tillman's capture) and in 1998 surreptitiously obtained and then duplicated the key that secured the archives vault. Tillman and his then-girlfriend, a Russian woman known only as Katya, entered the library, hid out in a restroom until after the nighttime security guard left the building, and then accessed the vault. They found the Wolfe letter and a letter penned by George Washington, and, in Tillman's words, they "became so exuberant" that they, um, celebrated "right in the middle of all these papers and stuff strewn around."

Two thoughts:
  • Dalhousie University colleagues, you have my deepest sympathies. Discovering that a thief has raided one's collections is always painful, and discovering that the thief has violated all kinds of other boundaries must be horrifying and infuriating.
  • If you're ever tempted to make a special accommodation for a friendly and frequent researcher, leave your desk without taking your keys with you, or rush out without checking the restrooms and storage closets before locking up for the night, just remember that there are other John Mark Tillmans out there.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Greetings . . . and groans

In late February, I moved my parents from their condominium in northeastern Ohio to a retirement community in Troy, New York. The experience was intense, chaotic, and at times deeply surreal and hilarious, and it dragged on far longer than anyone thought possible. I made the common mistake of thinking that life would settle down relatively quickly after my parents arrived in Troy, and of course it didn't. My dad and I are still unpacking the last of the boxes, and we're still in the throes of trying to find new doctors, a new lawyer, and all kinds of other new things.

To make a long story short, between getting my parents settled in and getting back up to speed at work after taking repeated leaves of absence, I just haven't had time to deal with this blog or a lot of other things that are important to me. Fortunately, my parents are now feeling comfortable in their new homes and I'm feeling comfortable about stepping away a bit and getting my own life back into some semblance of order.

It's good to be back. For now, however, I'm going to pass on this horrifying tidbit and call it a day. By now, I'm sure most of you have heard of V. Stiviano, the young woman whose audio recording of the racist rantings of Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling recently led to Sterling's lifetime National Basketball Association ban. The news media first reported that Stiviano was Sterling's mistress and some accounts now suggest that she may have been trying to extort him, but Stiviano -- whose educational achievements are apparently rather modest -- insists that she was recording him in her capacity as his "archivist." People, we clearly need to do a better job of letting the world know what archivists do or how one becomes an archivist.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

E-records job: Brigham Young University

If you have the theoretical knowledge and real-world experience needed to work with both paper and digital materials, possess a solid grasp of the history of Utah, the Mountain West, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, relish the challenge of pursuing tenure, are comfortable working in a faith-based environment that has unequivocal expectations regarding student and faculty conduct, and live or would like to live in the Utah Valley, Brigham Young University is seeking to hire a Curator of 21st Century Mormon and Western Manuscripts:
Brigham Young University (BYU), a privately owned and operated university of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints located in Provo, Utah, invites application for the position of Curator of 21st Century Mormon and Western Manuscripts. This is a continuing faculty status track (BYU equivalent of tenure) position. BYU, an equal opportunity employer, requires all faculty to observe the university's honor code and dress and grooming standards. Preference is given to qualified candidates who are members in good standing of the affiliated church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The Harold B. Lee Library, an ARL Library, serves nearly 33,000 students as well as 2,000 full- and part-time faculty. The library employs 66 faculty, 101 FTE staff and professionals, and approximately 200 FTE students. An average of 10,000 patrons per day use the library's services and collections of over nine million items.

Job Mission
The mission of this position is to identify, appraise, acquire, catalog, and preserve manuscript materials of enduring historical value related to Utah, the Western U.S., and Mormonism following accepted professional standards and practices.

This position is responsible for Mormon manuscripts from 2000 to the present, Trans-Mississippi West manuscripts from 2000 to the present, non-Mormon and non-literary manuscripts from 2000 to the present, local Utah County history from 2000 to the present, and Southeastern Idaho Mormon materials from 2000 to the present.

This position is also responsible for the professional papers program of Brigham Young University.

Major Accountabilities
University Citizenship
  • Exemplifies honor and integrity; adheres to the standards of personal behavior outlined in the BYU Code of Honor.
  • Supports the Library and University mission, goals, and objectives.
  • Observes Library and University policies.
  • Promotes collegiality and harmony.
  • Mentors, encourages, advises, and collaborates with colleagues.
  • Serves on Library, University, and consortia committees that go beyond assigned responsibilities.
  • Attends department, Library, and University meetings, including devotionals, forums, and convocations.
  • Serves the scholarly/professional community through activities such as:
    • Holding office or performing committee service in relevant associations;
    • Organizing professional meetings and/or panels; 
    • Serving as a referee of scholarship; 
    • Editing newsletters or journals; serving on editorial boards; 
    • Consulting; 
    • or Teaching in academic departments. 
Librarianship: Professional Assignment
Demonstrates effectiveness in specified professional responsibilities within:
  • Technology/Digital Projects
    • Develop and share expertise with the department in the management of born-digital records. 
    • Employ emerging technologies, in cooperation with the Library Information Technology division, as appropriate in the accomplishment of responsibilities attendant to the position.
    • Select appropriate materials from the 21st Century Mormon and Western Manuscripts collecting area for digitization or mounting on the Internet.
    • Select appropriate materials from the Brigham Young University professional papers program for digitization or mounting on the web.
  • Cataloging/Metadata
    • Gather data necessary to prepare finding aids, catalog records, and metadata for digital collections. 
    • Provide training on content standards for finding aids, catalog records, and metadata for digital collections.
  •  Collection Development/Collection Management
    • Represent the university in acquiring collections through accession, donation, or purchase.
    • Negotiate and sign contracts that require the investment of university resources.
    • Establish and maintain good relationships with past, present, and prospective donors.
    • Travel, as necessary, on department business.
    • Create and maintain collection development policies for the 21st Century Western and Mormon Manuscripts collecting area.
    • Create and maintain collection development policies for the Brigham Young University professional papers program.
    • Appraise collections to determine their relevance to the 19th Century Western and Mormon Manuscripts collecting area.
    • Maintain good working relationships with the donors.
    • Create and maintain donor files containing notes, acquisition records, preliminary inventories, correspondence, and contracts.
  • Conservation/Preservation 
    • Arrange collections, both physically and intellectually, according to accepted archival practice. Maintain collection case files containing research notes, inventories, cataloging data, and acquisition records.
    • Properly house and store collections to ensure their long-term preservation.
    • Identify and record physical locations of collections.
  • Faculty Liaison/Promotion
    • Work with faculty members to help them understand how to use the materials held in the 21st Century Western and Mormon Manuscripts collecting area and the Brigham Young University professional papers program as part of their teaching.
    • Promote the value of archival records of faculty, staff, and administrators.
  • Instruction/Information Literacy
    • Prepare and present class presentations on Special Collections as requested.
    • In collaboration with university faculty, develop and present physical and virtual exhibits drawn from collections in the 21st Century Western and Mormon Manuscripts collecting area. 
    • Work with the Faculty Center to present information to Brigham Young University employees on the professional papers program 
  • Reference/Research Support
    • Respond promptly and efficiently to information requests from the administration, faculty, staff, students, and other researchers.
    • Develop and maintain expertise in the archival collections related to the 21st Century Western and Mormon Manuscripts collecting area.
    • Develop and maintain expertise in the collections related to the Brigham Young University professional papers program.
    • Sets and accomplishes relevant goals within specified professional assignments.
    • Participates in committees that are a direct outgrowth of assigned professional responsibilities, including the L. Tom Perry Special Collections Board of Curators.
    • Achieves appropriate quantity and quality of work in assigned professional responsibilities.
    • Uses sound judgment in decision-making.
    • Manages personnel and resources effectively.
Librarianship: Professional Development
  • Stays abreast of issues and trends in archives and archival management, born digital archives, Brigham Young University history, Mormon history, and 21st century U. S. history.
  • Stays abreast of scholarship in archives and archival management, born-digital archives, Brigham Young University history, Mormon history, and 21st century U. S. history and other appropriate subject areas of expertise.
  • Takes courses to enhance professional assignment and/or career opportunities.
  • Studies professional literature.
  • Attends appropriate conferences and workshops.
  • Participates in appropriate professional associations. 
Librarianship: Scholarship/Creative Work
  • Collaborates with other faculty in appropriate research endeavours.
  • Presents research or innovative/unique information in the field(s) of archives and archival management, born-digital archives, Brigham Young University history, Mormon history, and 21st century U. S. History at conference, workshops, seminars, and/or other professional meetings.
  • Publishes significant and original contributions relevant to archives and archival management, born-digital archives, Brigham Young University history, Mormon history, and 21st century U. S. History.
  • Curates exhibits that highlight unique library materials with a unified theme and context, providing significant educational opportunities for the campus community.
  • Performs other approved scholarship/creative works. 
Qualifications
  • Master's degree in Library Science from an ALA-accredited institution with two years archival experience or equivalent Master's degree with archival training.
  • Master's or PhD degree in History, preferred.
  • Knowledge of strategies, such as digital forensics, and technology developed or adopted by the archival community for managing born-digital archival and manuscript material.
  • Society of American Archivists' Digital Archives Specialist certification, preferred.
  • Knowledge of legal and ethical issues affecting digital archival and special collections materials.
  • Demonstrated disposition to evaluate the application of emerging technologies to the management of born-digital archival and manuscript material.
  • Familiarity with archival collections management systems or databases.
  • A demonstrated knowledge in Western U.S., Utah, and Mormon History.
  • Demonstrated ability to appraise, arrange, and describe archival collections.
  • Demonstrated ability with archival and library descriptive standards including Describing Archives: A Content Standard (DACS).
  • Ability to supervise students, paraprofessionals, volunteers, and interns.
  • Strong skills in communication (writing, speaking, and document editing).
  • Skills in computer encoding with HTML and EAD.
  • Ability to contribute to the profession through participation in professional organizations and involvement in research.
  • Flexibility in adapting to changing departmental and organizational priorities and to ever-changing technological environments.
  • Active participation in the archival profession through presentations, articles, committee participation and conference participation.
  • Willingness to serve on departmental, library, and university committees.
Review of applications will commence on 21 January 2014, and the successful candidate will likely begin work in August.  Consult the position posting for additional information and detailed application instructions.

Long-time readers of this blog will no doubt realize that my views regarding the moral status and the legal rights of LGBT people -- even the "practicing" ones -- differ fundamentally from those articulated by the leadership of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They may also wonder whether posting this position might be construed as tacit acceptance of employment policies that I find discriminatory.  I've wrestled with this issue for a while, and I've decided to table my objections and allow readers to make their own decisions. At least one reader of this blog is well qualified for this job and might welcome the chance to work for a university that is affiliated with her church, and other readers may also be interested in this position.

Moreover, a lot of effort and care went into the crafting of this announcement, and I think that other archivists developing other job postings might find it extremely useful.  I love position descriptions that stress the importance of ongoing professional development, and it's plain that Brigham Young University expects its archivists to keep abreast of and contribute to the development of innovative practices and to remain actively involved in regional and national professional associations. In addition, I find the title of one subsection -- "Librarianship: Scholarship/Creative Work" -- nothing less than delightful. I've always thought of of exhibit development as an educational endeavor, not a creative one, but on second thought I realize that I enjoy developing exhibits because of all of the creative choices available to me. The possibility that the person who takes this job might get to work on "other approved . . . creative works" is also intriguing. Finally, it's barely 2014, but Brigham Young University has the foresight -- and the resources -- needed to hire someone who will specialize exclusively in twenty-first century materials. That's pretty impressive.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

E-records job: State Historical Society of Kansas (application deadline 24 January 2014)

Happy New Year, and apologies for the long silence 'round these parts. I've spent the past few weeks yo-yo'ing between Ohio, where I grew up and where my parents are still living, and upstate New York, where I now live and where my parents will very soon reside. Between trying (and all too often failing) to keep up with work and helping my dad downsize, pack, and plan this move, I've had to let a few things go, and this blog is one of many things that I've pushed aside.  I know that I've let more than a few job postings get past me (among them a Utah State Archives position that closed yesterday), and I'm sorry about that. Given that I'm going to be in Albany for a couple of weeks and that it's too darned cold to do anything except hunker down indoors, I should be able to devote some more time to this blog.

If you've got some solid data gathering and analysis and records management skills, would like to live in a smallish Midwestern city, and relish the prospect of working at a state archives that has been doing interesting things with electronic records, you might be the Kansas State Historical Society's new Policy & Program Analyst (Electronic Records Archivist):
The Kansas State Historical Society seeks to hire a Policy & Program Analyst (Electronic Records Archivist) to support the State Archives Division’s implementation of a trusted digital repository -- the Kansas Enterprise Electronic Preservation (KEEP) digital archives.

The Policy & Program Analyst will:
  • Promote use of the KEEP digital archives by Kansas government agencies.
  • Coordinate the transfer of permanent electronic records to KEEP.
  • Develop and update KEEP digital archives policies and procedures.
  • Identify long-term records impacted by new Kansas state government information technology projects subject to branch Chief Information Technology Officer (CITO) review and approval.
  • Ensure that CITO-reportable project plans include appropriate provisions for managing and preserving long-term records, including the transfer of permanent records to KEEP.
  • Provide records management consulting services to Kansas government agencies.
  • Prepare new and revised records retention and disposition schedules for Kansas State Records Board review.
  • Serve as a subject matter expert in the domains of electronic records management and digital preservation.
Minimum Qualifications
Four years of experience in collecting, evaluating, studying or reporting on statistical, economic, fiscal/budget, legislative or administrative data. Education may be substituted for experience as determined by the agency.  Preferred experience includes:  electronic records and information management; digital preservation; application of automated information management systems to records management, archives, or business environments.

Requires knowledge of:
  • records and information management methods and best practices;
  • standards and best practices related to trusted digital repositories including, but not limited to, the following:
    • Open Archival Information System (OAIS): ISO 14721:2012
    • Audit and Certification of Trustworthy Digital Repositories: ISO 16363:2012
    • Producer-Archive Interface - Methodology Abstract Standard (PAIMAS): ISO 20652:2006 
  • electronic information systems;
  • digital preservation methods and best practices;
  • archival methods and best practices;
  • business process analysis methods and best practices;
  • enterprise architecture methodologies;
  • project management methods and best practices;
  • metadata standards for archives, records management, and digital preservation including, but not limited to, the following:
    • Metadata Encoding Transmission Standard (METS)
    • Dublin Core
    • PREMIS (preservation metadata)
    • Encoded Archival Description (EAD)
  • American history with special emphasis on western and Kansas history;
  • archives and special collections reference techniques and best practices;
  • historical research methods.
Requires ability to:
  • manage projects;
  • negotiate and administer contracts;
  • work with a variety of people and in a team environment;
  • balance multiple projects;
  • meet deadlines;
  • express ideas clearly, orally and in writing, to groups with varying expertise in the relevant subject matter.
Preferred Qualifications
Master’s degree in public or business administration, library or information science with an archival administration concentration, or a related field.
The successful candidate will receive a salary equivalent to an hourly wage of $22.16, health insurance, and retirement benefits. The application deadline is 24 January 2014. Consult the job posting for more information and detailed application instructions.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Best Practices Exchange 2013: digital imaging, data management, and innovation

 The 2013 Best Practices Exchange (BPE) ended last Friday, and I wrote this entry as I was flying from Salt Lake City to Ohio, where I spent a few days tending to some family matters. I've been back in Albany for about 46 hours, but I haven't had the presence of mind needed to move this post off my iPad until just now.

I'm leaving this BPE as I've left past BPE's: excited about the prospect of getting back to work yet so tired that I feel as if I'm surrounded by some sort of distortion field.

The last BPE session featured presentations given by Jason Pierson of FamilySearch and Joshua Harman of Ancestry.com, and I just want to pass along a few interesting tidbits and observations:
  • Both firms view themselves as technology companies that focus on genealogy, not genealogy companies that make intensive use of technology. They work closely with archives and libraries, but their overall mission and orientation are profoundly different from those of cultural heritage institutions. And that's okay.
  • Both firms have opted to encode the preservation masters of their digital surrogates in JPEG2000 format instead of the more popular TIFF format. They've discovered that, if necessary, they can create good TIFF images from JPEG2000 files and that JPEG2000 files are more resistant to bit rot than TIFF files. The loss of a single bit can make a TIFF file completely unrenderable, but JPEG2000 files may be fully renderable even if they're missing several bits. However, the relative robustness of JPEG2000 files can also be problematic: JPEG2000 files that are so badly corrupted that only blurs of color will be displayed may remain technically renderable (i.e., software that can read JPEG2000 files may open and display such files without notifying users that the files are corrupt. One firm discovered well after the fact that it had created tens thousands of completely unusable yet ostensibly readable JPEG2000 files. 
  • Ancestry has developed some really neat algorithms that automatically adjust the contrast on sections of an image. Most contrast corrections lighten or darken entire images, but Ancestry's tool adjusts the contrast only on those sections of an image that are hard to read because they are either too light or too dark. Ancestry has also developed algorithms that automatically enhance images and facilitate optical character recognition (OCR) scanning of image files. As you might imagine, attendees were really interested in making use of these algorithms, and Harmon and other Ancestry staffers present indicated that the company would be willing to share them provided that doing so wouldn't violate any patents. (I share this interest, but I think that archives owe it to researchers to document the use of such tools. Failure to do so can leave the impression that the original document or microfilm image is in much better shape than it is and cause researchers to suspect that the digital surrogate has also been subjected to other, more sinister manipulations.) 
  • FamilySearch and Ancestry may well have the largest corporate data troves in the world. FamilySearch is scanning vast quantities of microfilm and paper documents and generates approximately 40 terabytes (yes, terabytes) of data per day. They're currently using Tessella's Safety Deposit Box to process the files and a mammoth tape library to store all this data. At present, they're trying to determine whether Amazon Glacier is an appropriate storage option; if Glacier doesn't work out, FamilySearch will likely build a mammoth data center somewhere in the Midwest. Ancestry is also scanning mammoth quantities of paper and microfilmed records and currently has approximately 10 petabytes (yes, petabytes) of data in its Utah data center. 
  • After a lot of struggle, Ancestry learned that open source and commercial software work really well for tasks and processes that aren't domain-specific but not so well for unique, highly specialized functions. For example, Ancestry discovered that none of the available tools could handle a high-volume and geographically dispersed scanning operation involving roughly 1,400 discreet types of paper and microfilmed records, so it devoted substantial time and effort to developing its own workflow management system. Archives and libraries typically don't deal with such vast quantities or such varied originals, and I think it makes sense for cultural heritage professionals to focus on developing digitization workflow best practices and standards that are broadly applicable. However, Ancestry's broader point is well-taken; sometimes, building one's own tools makes more sense than trying to make do with someone else's tools. 
  • FamilySearch and Ancestry have a lot more freedom to innovate -- and to cope with the accompanying risk of failure -- than state archives and state libraries. Pierson and Harman both emphasized the importance of taking big risks and treating failure as an opportunity to learn and grow, but, as one attendee pointed out, government entities tend to be profoundly risk-averse. In some respects, this is understandable: a private corporation that missteps has to answer only to its investors or shareholders, but a government agency or office that blunders is accountable to the news media and the tax paying public. However, if we sit around on our hands and wait for other people to solve our problems, we'll never get anywhere. I've long been of the opinion that those of us who work in government repositories and who are charged with preserving digital information need to keep reminding our colleagues and our managers that as far as digital preservation is concerned, we really have only two choices: do something and accept that we might fail, or do nothing and accept that we will fail. I'm now even more convinced that we need to keep doing so.
Image: the Utah State Capitol, as seen from the 12th floor of the Radisson Salt Lake City Downtown, 14 November 2013.