Teaching with Primary Sources: The Charlotte Lederer Story

By Carrie Schwier

This blog post is drawn from one case study shared during a talk given at the 2017 SAA annual conference during Session 106 Active Learning for Archival Institutions: From Theory to Practice. Coincidently, as it relates to immigration it also ties in nicely to the last post Meet Your Vice-Chair: Ellen Engseth.

While I’ve been a full-time staff member of the IU Archives for almost 10 years now, in the summer of 2015 I moved into the new position of Outreach and Public Services Archivist and was tasked with developing our instruction program. This year our program served over 1,100 students in 70 separate sessions in 21 departments.

Like most archivists, I received no formal training on instruction during library school. Admittedly, looking back at my very early forays in instruction around 2011 I am a little embarrassed. These were often very passive sessions for the students, with me lecturing and leaving them little opportunity to interact with our collections. Over the years my teaching has been heavily influenced by a couple of professional development opportunities including the 2012 Midwest Archives Conference Symposium – Engaging Students and Teachers: Integrating Primary Sources in Curricula (in particular a session on Primary Sources in the College Classroom with Peter Carini, Dartmouth College), and in 2016 the first Librarians Active Learning Institute for Archives and Special Collections (LALI-ASC) at Dartmouth College. Both emphasized the importance of integrating active-learning techniques into the classroom, and the power that a strong story can have as our brains are built to process information as narrative. Furthermore, learning is enhanced when that story is authentic and relatable to the learners’ life.

COLL-S103 – Becoming “American”: Immigration and American Literature
Immediately following my return from LALI-ASC, a relatively new faculty member who was teaching an Intensive Freshman Seminar (IFS) course at Indiana University contacted me.  IFS classes are two-week 3-credit classes intended to introduce “freshman to the rigors of college life” two weeks prior to the start of fall semester. IFS classes typically enroll about 20 students. While planning the instruction session the professor noted that he anticipated the course would attract a large percentage of international students, and this may be their first time in the United States. Ultimately, we choose to target three learning objectives from the ACRL RBMS – SAA Joint Task Forces – Guidelines for Primary Source Literacy:

  • that students understand that they can “draw on primary sources to generate and refine research questions.” (I. Conceptualize; C.)
  • that students “recognize and understand the policies and procedures that affect access to primary sources” specifically in regards to handling and necessity for usage in a secure reading room (II. Find and Access; E. )
  • that students can “identify and communicate information found in primary sources, including summarizing the content of the source and identifying and reporting key components such as how it was created, by whom, when, and what it is.” (III. Read, Understand, Summarize; B.)

 

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Page 1 of letter used in classroom discussion. Image courtesy the author.

Using a flipped classroom model to free up in-class time at the archives for active-learning activities, prior to their visit to the IU Archives the students were assigned to read this letter written in September 1940, by then IU student Charlotte (Lotte) Lederer, a Viennese Jewish refugee to the IU President and Board of Trustees. In the letter, she thanks the Trustees for supporting her studies, talks about her upbringing and about how her parents wanted an education for her equal to that of her brother, the start of the war, and her father’s support of the ill-fated Austrian government. She also goes on to mention that she recently applied for her first citizenship papers and hopes to always live in Indiana. Today’s readers are left with a LOT of hanging questions, which are perfect for demonstrating the above learning objectives. Prior to class, the students are simply asked to come prepared with a list of questions they have about the letter.

During their 90-minute session at the archives, as a group we first compile a list of questions: Did she graduate? Was she Jewish? What happened to her family? Based upon inflation, what would the cost of tuition be compared to that of today? Etc. I use this letter with multiple classes, and based upon their backgrounds the students ask different things and always add questions that I have yet to consider. I use this as an opportunity to share with students the number of directions that a single primary source can take them.

The students are then divided into 6 groups for a think-pair-share activity featuring other documents that fill in details of Ms. Lederer’s life and answer some of the questions they have generated. Included are a New York passenger ship log found through Ancestry.com, a dormitory scrapbook, newspaper clippings about a student refugee committee on campus, a wedding announcement found in the President’s office records, and a letter to the Alumni Association written while she was working as a classification analyst at the Pentagon. Students are then asked to fill out a simple worksheet answering questions such as What is it? When was it made? Where was it made? Who made it and why? What part of Lotte’s story does your item fill in? And does it raise any new questions? Then as a group, I ask the students to report back in a certain order on their documents so as to continue the suspense of the narrative for a while longer.

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Students examine a scrapbook during an archives session. Image courtesy the author.

For the second half of the session, in order to reinforce these new skills I pull out another group of items from our collection that are completely unrelated to the Lederer story. For example, oral history interviews from Indiana immigrant communities, records from the Cosmopolitan Club, an early student group formed to support international students, examples of Polish ethnic jokes from the Folklore Institute student papers, and photos and notebooks from our Charles Cushman collection of a Polish Independence Day parade in Chicago in the 1940s. Again in pairs the students work through a similar set of questions as with the Lederer activity (What is it? Who made it? And finally – what’s one question that you have?). The students then come back together as a group to share their findings with their classmates. I also remind them that now they have each generated a research question that they could further develop into a project.

Offered again this fall, a second iteration of this course was expanded into a full sixteen-week course. With each, the professor shared that many of the students expressed that the Charlotte Lederer activity really resonated with them, in particular because she was a college student at Indiana University such as themselves. There is something quite powerful when you can use historical documents which refer to places and spaces intimately familiar to students.

To conclude, I will admit that it took a good amount of time (multiple hours) to develop this activity, most of the time going towards doing the research to find the pieces of Charlotte’s story that were present in our collection. This process actually proves helpful during the instruction session however, as I can share with the students my own research hurdles in an authentic way.

Furthermore, I certainly can’t create a new exercise like this for every instruction session that I teach. This one exercise is quite adaptable for a range of learning objectives and subjects. I use this letter for classes in the History department, Gender Studies, and even recently a School of Education Social Studies for Elementary Schools class. The key is finding an engaging document, which raises a TON of questions. Perhaps it relates to a local mystery, or scandal, or simply something that will draw an emotional response – every archive has that!

Are you wondering how to find engaging documents for use in instruction? Just keep an eye out for ideas while providing reference services, processing new collections, or looking for social media content. My position involves doing a ton of reference so when I run across something interesting that makes me ask questions, I make a quick photocopy and add it to my file of instruction ideas.

If you would like to know more about Charlotte Lederer’s story, see this post at the IU Archives’ Blogging Hoosier History.


Carrie Schwier is the Outreach and Public Services Archivist at the Indiana University Archives. In addition to instruction, she also manages public services, oversees exhibits and outreach initiatives, and supervises lots of graduate students. She holds an M.A. in Art History and M.L.S. with Archives Specialization from Indiana University, and a B.A. from Hanover College.

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Documenting Student Activities and Activism on Campus: Bringing Activist Alumni into the Fold

By Bryan Whitledge

AAblog-04CMU Stop Hate Walkout, November 15, 2016. Image courtesy of Steve Jessmore, Central Michigan University.

Activism is nothing new among the students on college campuses. As the cycle goes at colleges and universities, those activists will hopefully become degree-holding alumni. With this constant turnover, one hurdle that pops up for archivists is how to document campus activism as people leave for the next chapter in their lives. In the attempt to capture today’s activist movements, there are some benefits to be had by working with other campus activists, even decades after they left the institution. At Central Michigan University (CMU), a fruitful relationship with alumni who participated in a variety of groups and movements during the Vietnam War-era not only helped the archives round out the information about that time of activism at CMU, but has been of use to build a relationship with today’s activist students.

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Freedom Hall at Central Michigan University, ca. May 6, 1970. Image courtesy of the Clarke Historical Library.

In 2016, some members of the robust activist community that existed in and around Central Michigan University in the late 1960s and early 1970s decided to get together in what they deemed a “No-Class Reunion.” This was perfect opportunity for the Clarke Historical Library to get involved. While the Clarke has relatively complete holdings of “official” records from that era, documents from the activist movement are far from complete. This No-Class Reunion gave the archivists a chance to speak to the publishers of the underground papers, the organizers of the marches, and those who pushed through the doors to occupy the ROTC building and deem it Freedom Hall.

 

Out of the 180 or so “No-Classers,” about 20 took the Clarke up on the offer to visit the archives. These alumni were impressed and excited to see the vast amount of materials already collected about their activism, and they were delighted to think of how they could contribute more to the holdings. Some of them also agreed to participate in a recorded discussion about their experiences, which would be added to the historical documents.

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“No-Class Reunion” participants, 2016. Image courtesy of the Clarke Historical Library.

Before turning this relationship into a positive tool for connecting with current activist students, staff at the Clarke learned some interesting facts about the activist alumni that could be true beyond the Mount Pleasant campus. First, the No-Classers did not have much contact with the university in the traditional ways other alumni do. This could possibly be explained though their student life experiences, which did not include what are normally deemed traditional activities like Greek life, athletics, clubs, and such. Regardless, the No-Classers did not arrange the event with the Alumni Association, but they did reach out to the archives. It seems that the archives and, more likely, the chance for activists to document the history of the change-making in which they were involved, may be the best link a University has with activist students.

The second bit of information learned from the No-Class Reunion is about building trust and forming bonds between activists and an official university entity, like the archives. For the No Class-ers, the trust was built easily, most likely because their age and geographic distribution meant there were few to no negative consequences to be had for contributing to the historic record. On the one hand, time and distance make trust-building come easy. On the other, the strong bonds formed with the No-Class-ers gave the archives credibility with some current activist students. The Clarke has since been working with a few very active students to add historic context to their documentary project exploring activism at CMU.

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Central Michigan University students during an anti-Vietnam War Rally, ca. 1969. Image courtesy of the Clarke Historical Library.

In an effort to have as complete a record of campus activism as possible, the Clarke found that working with alumni from decades passed payed off. The benefits were not only found in adding to the historical record and helping forge bonds with today’s activists. There were also lessons learned including the fact that the opportunity to document change-making could make the archives the best point of contact activist students will have with institution as alumni. Even so, it may take time – nearly five decades for the No-Class-ers – before activist alumni are ready to share their stories and part with their records.


Bryan Whitledge is the Archivist for University Digital Records at Central Michigan University. During his time at the Clarke Historical Library, he has worked in multiple reference, access, and outreach capacities.

Exhibiting in the Wake of Tragedy: an Isla Vista Remembrance

By Julia Larson

Putting together exhibits of archival and library material can be fun and a good learning experience for all involved. But what if the topic of the exhibit is tragedy? How do you exhibit materials that affected every member of a campus community? What can you do as staff and faculty to help those who have been affected the most, the students? By working with students, and letting them have a voice in choosing materials and designing some of the exhibition rooms, we tried to create a space for healing and promote compassion.

On May 23, 2014, a young man killed six University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) students and injured 14 others. In the wake of the tragedy, spontaneous memorials sprung up in the seaside college town of Isla Vista, where the rampage took place. A UCSB graduate student, Melissa Barthelemy, was approached by undergraduates who asked her to find a way to save the items so that they would not be discarded. She began taking care of the materials in situ (sleeving paper cards, working with the property managers on removal of dead flowers, leaving notebooks for students and community members to write their thoughts and prayers). Barthelemy, a graduate student in history, then began working with librarians Rebecca Metzger and Annie Platoff to form a committee to deal with the memorial items and work with the Library’s Special Research Collections Department to collect and archive the materials. Their Ad hoc Memorial Preservation Committee worked closely with the university administration and Student Affairs Division, as well as the History Department and property owners to collect and preserve cards, letters, candles, and other ephemera. Barthelemy became the project manager for the entire project, and Platoff was the curator of the collection. They worked with the Public History Department to have undergraduate student interns earn credits to organize and scan hundreds of cards and notes during the fall 2014 quarter. By winter quarter 2015, a plan to exhibit the materials for the one-year anniversary had been decided upon and a history class was offered as an opportunity for students to get hands-on experience handling archive and exhibition materials. The problem was location.

In 2015, the UCSB Library was nearing the final stretch of a 3 year, $80 million renovation and addition, and space was tight in the portions of the library that were not under construction. With so many students affected by the tragedy, the normal library exhibit spaces would not work. The committee did not want students who see the library as a safe and quiet space to study to encounter materials from the tragedy in a hallway exhibit or in the normal Special Collections exhibit areas. The library needed a space that was on campus, public enough to encourage visitation, but private enough for students and family members to visit and grieve in peace. The only space that fit the criteria was overflow office space, where a few library departments had moved temporarily during construction. It was a World War II-era gymnasium building, a holdover from when UCSB was a Marine Air Base, halfway between the History Department and the library, near the center of campus. It consisted of nearly 9000 square feet of office space, with a maze of windowless rooms, a mix of large rooms with long blank walls and smaller rooms, perfect for the university counselors to talk to visitors privately, if needed. The only catch was that library staff were not moving out of their offices until April 30, and the exhibit was to open on May 20, just in time for the one-year anniversary memorial.

A history class, taught by Professors Ann Plane and Randy Bergstrom, divided students up into two main groups: students working on the exhibit, and students working on processing the collection for the archive. Annie Platoff supervised the students processing the items (close to 50 cubic feet, and a couple thousand items) into the collection so that they could be put on display in the exhibit. Melissa Barthelemy supervised the students in the exhibit planning, design, and construction. She recruited me (since I am her spouse) to be the Exhibit Installation Coordinator and work with the students on the layout and construction of the exhibit, since I had worked at a number of museums in the past, though at the time I was working at the UCSB Library. Since this was in addition to my full-time job, I worked with a group of students and volunteers every evening from 7 p.m. until midnight most days during May to construct the exhibit, entitled We Remember Them: Acts of Love and Compassion in Isla Vista.

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We Remember Them room. Photo by Tony Mastres; courtesy UCSB Library.

Many in-kind donations of time and resources flowed in—the UCSB Art Museum donated the use of 16 exhibit cases, the Library donated the use of a large video monitor to display the digital images of the memorial sites, Facilities donated their custodial services staff to clean the exhibit space, Associated Students donated materials to be put on display, Office of Student Life organized volunteers to help staff the exhibit, and Counseling Services brought in counselors for emotional support. And even the students in the class brought their friends and partners along to help with the exhibit installation. A student in the class who was an art major created the image for the publicity materials, a recent graduate who had taken many photos of the spontaneous memorial sites became the project photographer, a graduate student in psychology became the exhibit supervisor, and a few students worked both on processing the collection and installing the exhibit—this gave them the opportunity to pick out the items that would work best for each exhibit case.

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Floor plan of exhibition rooms with suggested path. Image courtesy of Melissa Barthelemy.

The exhibit space was defined as seven interconnected rooms, with auxiliary space left over for a volunteer kitchen, office, exhibit prep room, and two small rooms designated as ‘counseling rooms’ for the counseling staff to use. Long hallways extended around the center rooms, which provided space for the large chalkboards from a spontaneous memorial site (with messages written by community members and sealed for preservation), and new cork boards for visitors to hang notes and messages on. The first portion of the exhibit honored the lives of the victims, and contained biographies approved by their family members. An exhibit case showed items left at the memorial sites that had specific messages for each victim. The next two rooms showed the outpouring of support and condolence materials from the sites of spontaneous memorials. Exhibit cases highlighted each of the spontaneous memorial sites at four of the sites of violence, with cards, mementos, origami cranes, candles, and graduation leis. Photos of the memorial service held in the UCSB stadium which was attended by 23,000 people, a photo panorama of the paddle out (1000 surfers on a calm ocean), the memorial candlelight vigil, and a video message of condolence from Vice President Joseph Biden filled the next rooms. One room also highlighted how those affected had channeled their energy into gun reform, mental health awareness, and a feminist response to violence.  Two more rooms showed how the community has come together, with a Memorial Garden, scholarships in the name of each victim, messages of support for the first responders, and a space for visitors to write their own thoughts in comment books. We chose digital photographs from student photographers, local and university newspapers, and a few images from international news sources for display in the exhibit. A local printing business worked a few late nights as we sent them high resolution images for them to print onto 16×20 foam core, with another piece of foam core attached to the back, so that all we had to do was put nail into the wall and hang the photos from the strip of foam. Another local frame shop devised plexi-glass holders for some of the cards and hand-colored paper hearts from local school children, which allowed for quick, easy, and cost-effective display. The fragile and simple display of materials in frameless plexi emphasized the spontaneous nature of the materials on display. As a flexible overflow space, most of the walls were fairly sturdy drywall, however others were plastic, and still others were cubicle walls that hid various electrical or plumbing features in certain rooms. Two rooms had very old track lighting, but most were the standard office fluorescent lights; some rooms had standard office carpet, but two other rooms and the hallways had the bare, original 1942 basketball floor.

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Come Together/ Continuing events room. Photo by Tony Mastres; courtesy UCSB Library.

A room apart from the main flow of the exhibit was the Reflection Room—it was largely designed by the students and featured comfortable couches, mood lighting, colorful posters, and was designed as a place for them to ‘chill’ and relax. It became the place where families and friends of the victims could sit and talk and grieve together. In total, there was about 6000 square feet of exhibition space, spanning nine rooms. Since the exhibit was dependent upon students and volunteers for staffing, we planned to be open only five hours each day for four weeks, ending just after graduation in late June. After faculty, students with their parents, staff, and even the Chancellor visited the exhibit over graduation weekend, the exhibit was extended another six weeks. In total, over 1800 visitors came through the exhibit, some only once, and some returned multiple times.

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Reflection Room. Photo by Tony Mastres; courtesy of UCSB Library.

There are a few takeaways from this experience. Not all communities grieve in the same way after events like this. While the tragedy did not take place on campus, it was just two blocks away – in the center of the Isla Vista community, where the students go to hang out, eat, work, and where most of them live, in one of the most densely populated unincorporated areas in the western U.S. The students working on the exhibit wanted to reclaim that seaside town through the Reflection Room, they needed to remind themselves of the Isla Vista before the tragedy. And the staff and faculty needed to remind themselves that we are all one community, both town and gown. The effort to get all of the various departments and units to work together and contribute to this exhibit is not to be underestimated; bureaucracy does not disappear, but can sometimes be ignored if necessary.  In the end, the success of the exhibit was not based on numbers of visitors, or length of time it was open. But it was in the ability of the students to come together and create something out of tragedy, to find ways to grieve collectively, and heal as a community.


Julia Larson is the Reference Archivist for the Architecture and Design Collection at the Art, Design & Architecture Museum at the University of California, Santa Barbara. In 2015, she was working at the UCSB Library when she was asked to be the Exhibit Installation Coordinator for the We Remember Them: Acts of Love and Compassion in Isla Vista memorial exhibit. She is currently working on an upcoming exhibit, UCSB Campus Architecture: Design and Social Change, which opens in January 2018.

Archiving the Aftermath of a Tragedy: Preserving Expressions of Condolence and Humanity

by Georgette Mayo

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Card: “Prisoners in Solidarity Are With … Mother Emanuel 9.” Photograph by author.

The horrific tragedy which took the lives of nine Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church (Charleston, South Carolina) parishioners and adversely affected five witness survivors on June 17, 2015 shook the world. Individuals, families, organizations, members of all denominations, and even the incarcerated have reached out to the victims’ families, survivors, and congregants to express their sympathy. Tangible evidence is continuously sent in the form of cards, letters, flowers, posters, paintings, books, art work, quilts, and prayer shawls express an outpouring of love, concern, and sympathy.

Members of the Charleston Archives, Libraries, and Museums (better known as CALM), volunteered their time and archival skills to organize, relocate, and inventory the numerous gifts.    A Memorabilia Subcommittee was established to define a collection policy and processing procedures. CALM’s mission in part is to “preserve the history of the moment for the future, help tell the story to others and through the use of the collection, contribute to building a better, stronger, more united community.”

The first task was the maintenance of the temporary public-initiated memorial outside “Mother Emmanuel.”  CALM members worked on a daily rotation basis to remove gifts of stuffed animals, posters, candle, balloons, Sweetgrass roses, and fresh, and artificial flowers. Days of torrential rain with flooding presented constant challenges in retrieving and preserving items, many of which sustained damage.  The large shrine which spanned the length of the church was discontinued two months later due to upkeep and time constraints.

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Quilt: “A Love Letter from Dallas to Charleston.” Photograph by author.

The second ongoing task was to sort and catalog the countless cards, letters, emails, textiles, and artwork sent in the mail. The City of Charleston provided two rooms at the Saint Julian Devine Community Center, an after-school children’s facility, for provisional storage of the donations. One room, holding cards and letters, along with 400 shawls and quilts, comprised 1,000 feet of space.  Artwork and large memorabilia were contained in the second room.  Prior to inventorying, CALM members researched various collection policies and best practices of sites of massive tragedy, including Sandy Hook Elementary and the Boston Marathon bombing.

Our volunteerism commenced in the evenings after our daily archival positions.  We divided duties with one group processing the correspondence and another working with the shawls and quilts. The abundance of prayer shawls received was mostly made by church “Shawl Ministries.” We indicated the measurements of the piece, fiber content (wool blend or acrylic), design type (knit or crochet), and donor name, if indicated.  The article was photographed and the information was saved on a computer database.  Cards and letters were individually noted on the database with sender and date. The final step was packaging items in archival acid free boxes and labeling for long term storage. When the donations outgrew the Center, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Charleston donated temporary space for the expanded holdings. Considering the future, the Mother Emanuel desires a permanent location with a professional archivist to maintain their collection. Naturally, adequate and ongoing funding will be needed for the Church to fulfill its goals.

Mother Emanuel commemorated the first anniversary in 2016 by displaying a small temporary exhibit of prayer quilts in a City of Charleston building located close to the Church. This year, the Church, with the assistance of Brockington and Associates, a cultural resources consulting firm, installed “The Light of Hope,” an expanded exhibition incorporating memorabilia and various portraits of the Emanuel Nine.

Lessons learned:  It is crucial to understand and provide the family members, parishioners, and members of the clergy time and space to decide how and when they want to handle their donations. In times of grief, it is challenging to make decisions, much less rational ones. If anything, we realized the virtue of patience and sensitivity.

While CALM members organized and inventoried the initial massive amount of Mother Emanuel’s donations with the goal to preserve history, it is ultimately the Church’s decision to do as they want with the materials.   The Avery Research Center, along with numerous and vested repositories in and around Charleston are capturing images and documents from the days, months, and years that followed this tragedy.  One example is the online digital exhibit: “A Tribute to the Mother Emanuel Church,” which highlights the outpouring of expressions of condolences locally and worldwide.

The Emanuel Nine:  DePayne Middleton Doctor, Cynthia Graham Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, Reverend Clementa Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel Simmons Sr., Sharonda Coleman Singleton and Myra Thompson.


Georgette Mayo is currently the Processing Archivist for the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture at the College of Charleston. She received her BA in African American Studies (Phi Beta Kappa) and master’s degrees in Library Science and Public History, with a concentration in Archival Management from the University of South Carolina.

Historically Yours: A Love Letter to Manuscripts as a Podcast from the Archives

By Colleen Theisen

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Microphone, photo by Ernest Duffoo.

With the enormous explosion of podcasts following the breakout success of Serial (2014-2016), many archives and special collections are turning to audio to give the space for extended storytelling and highlighting the work of their archivists, curators, and faculty.

This is not that story.

Iterative Process Creates a Podcast:
Historically Yours, the podcast from Special Collections at the University of Iowa took more than two years to create, as we tested versions of the idea, adapted them, tested them again, and adapted them. The central question guiding the process was: What do we do with manuscripts in social media spaces?

Special Collections at the University of Iowa has had a robust social media presence for more than five years. However, social media feeds inspire a certain type of interaction with content that privileges quick connection to visual material as it scrolls by in a feed leading to a heavier reliance on photography and rare books. Both are visual and have interesting aspects that can be grasped and understood quickly in a feed with minimal description. That fits the format of most social media feeds, and also the staff time required to produce content for the feeds quickly.

Presenting about The University of Iowa Special Collections’ social media outreach at the Midwest Archives Conference in 2014, I was asked an important question in the Q&A: What about manuscripts? In a quick scrolling feed, one manuscript can look like any other manuscript. I did not have an answer at the time: Manuscripts are harder. The compelling and addictive aspects of historic research are contained in the question, the quest, and the connections: The context. Context is something a rapidly scrolling social media feed does not well support. Context takes time to develop and time to deliver.

So I set out to solve that problem: What would be a format that would support just enough context and personality to really bring a historic document to life, but without being so overwhelming that it might be repeatable and sustainable?

My first answer to that question was a pilot video project called “History Out Loud” featuring a miscellaneous manuscript letter collection in Special Collections that I had always wanted to feature in some way. The MsL collection has thousands of individual letters with no collection and no context. Thinking of our fast social media posts, I determined that the equivalent of an Instagram post with a manuscript letter would be a video of a person reading the letter out loud. We piloted this video project with a test run of five short videos.  

In reviewing the footage, what became clear to me was that the visuals were getting in the way. Watching a person, their posture, the set around them, and even their facial expressions were not adding to the experience of hearing the letter, but rather were taking away from it – distracting from it. It was easier to pay attention to the letter as audio alone. The content was telling us that it wanted to be a podcast.

Then came Serial in October of 2014. A podcast entered into American popular culture to such an extent that it garnered a parody sketch on Saturday Night Live in December of that year.

Refinement:
With the recent explosion of interest in podcasts, I started expanding my own listening beyond the few radio-based formats I had traditionally consumed. In particular, recent humanities podcasts have been inventing new storytelling formats. Armed with knowledge, the concept grew and changed. Instead of one reader, inspired by The New Yorker Fiction Podcast, I added a guest to read the letter and took on the role of host. Dear Hank and John provided a format for adding theme music, a quote about letter writing, and a tagline. The project grew from, “Let’s read a historic letter” to being inspired by the question: “What can we learn from just one letter?” It changed from promoting a letter, a single historic document, to being an exploration about letter writing past and present, and the spark of inspiration that makes historic research so compelling, with our staff and guests’ full personalities and passions included. With that shift in focus, the name “History Out Loud” no longer captured its essence and we switched to “Historically Yours.”

With the format set, we were poised to record and discover all the problems and challenges recording in the library.

What you need to know about file storage:
The mass familiarity of sites like YouTube for video makes it seem like it should be possible when making a podcast to simply choose a site, upload files and go. However, unlike YouTube, podcast distribution sites like iTunes do not store files but only make them available via RSS feed from hosting site. The actual files need to be stored somewhere, and most of the file hosting options are not free, or have enticing free options that in the end only allow enough storage and bandwidth for a few episodes to be stored at a time. Archive.org can be used for free (and provides a tutorial). However, paying for a service gives you access to analytics. Historically Yours is hosted on Podbean.com and Podbean also offers step by step explanations of what resolution and formats your image and sound files should be to properly connect with iTunes, which was very helpful. Other options include Soundcloud and Libsyn. Soundcloud and Libsyn both have an entry-level tier with analytics for $7/month. However, Podbean.com had a tier for just $32/year while still including analytics, so I chose Podbean.

It is important to think of these sites like a storage locker. As Dana Gerber-Margie pointed out in her talk at the Midwest Archives Conference in 2017, the files can be deleted and lost the moment you fail to pay. The site does not and will not back up your files so archiving your work needs to happen at your institution.

None of the hosting sites are able to generate an invoice, so working with your institution to find a solution for paying might be a place where the process can stall.

Equipment & Editing:
It took us six months of trying every piece of equipment in every closet and adjusting to come up with the right combination of equipment and location to get good sound and move on with the project.

Needed:

  • Quiet place to record (HVAC hum will also be audible)
  • Recording device (Cell phone, Zoom H4N Recorder, computer)
  • Microphone (Will need omnidirectional microphone if recording with one mic and two people)
  • Computer for editing
  • Program for editing (Audacity or Audition)

 

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Zoom H4N recorder.

In the end, our sound solution was to treat the podcast like an oral history. The Zoom H4N recorder we use for recording oral histories (~$150) doubles as a podcast recorder. We tested many USB microphone solutions and even cell phone microphones, but the Zoom was the best at picking up two voices. We are able to set it in between us, hit record, and go. Other set ups required us to find an omni-directional microphone in order for it to be pointing at two people in two directions. We are not audio engineers! It was tricky to get the sound right. The Zoom solved our audio issues.

 

For editing, we use Audacity, which is free to download. There are great tutorials online, which are needed because the buttons are not clear. I picked it up from tutorials and was editing in 15 minutes, but it did require a tutorial to explain what the minimally marked buttons meant. At first the episodes took an hour to edit, but they get faster each time.

 

Historically Yours
Thumbnail logo for Historically Yours.

Get a designer:
There is an important and obvious step that I missed along the way: You will need a thumbnail and a header image for your podcast. The thumbnail is very important in inspiring people to listen to your podcast, so do not skimp on this step. I started a Twitter, Facebook, and blog for the podcast as well so the thumbnail and header image had to be resized and reformatted for each site. This took a good deal of time and should be factored into the schedule. I did not have access to a designer so our team worked with Canva, the online graphic design software, to create the thumbnail and headers.

 

Sharing the RSS feed:

Screen Shot 2017-07-06 at 9.26.47 AM
View of the Historically Yours feed in iTunes.

Once you have your perfect first episode and design and you have paid for a hosting site, and put it together, there is another step before fully launching your podcast. Once our Podbean site was set, I submitted the feed to iTunes and it took us two days before our RSS feed was approved. If you have announced a specific date that your podcast will launch, this could slow down the process. You may need to upload your files to your hosting site, submit the feed to iTunes, wait for approval, and then fully roll out the advertising for your podcast when it has been approved by the various podcast sites.

 

Results/What We’ve Learned:
So far Historically Yours has five published episodes and is averaging 100 downloads per episode. The highest number of downloads always comes on the first day. That first day download number has increased with each episode, so the podcast is growing a healthy base community.

In each episode of Historically Yours, we call on our community to help us out with the research. From the very first episode we had a listener inspired to do a bit of historic research about the letter and we received a listener response (via email) about the results of their searching, identifying more information about the theater fire described in the letter. For the next episode, I will read user feedback letters on the air and we expect the user connection and response letters to increase as soon as they are read on the air.

The podcast gives a chance to feature our staff and graduate student as real idiosyncratic passionate people who love research, and seems to be inspiring responses from like-minded passionate history nerds. It seems the perfect method to reduce fear of the institution or the professionals by connecting with and inspiring new users.

The steps to make a podcast are not all that difficult, but like any creative work the end result is improved by testing, critiquing, and changing. If you have the space to invest in the concept in bursts without a tight timeline you can troubleshoot the process along the way, learn from those who have gone before, and create a really meaningful way to connect with our users.

Tips:

  • Finding a quiet place to record was our biggest challenge. Have your recording location identified (and tested) before proceeding far. Between HVAC banging, construction, door slams, and interruptions, many locations may not be feasible.
  • Give your podcast a home on your blog as well. We post a transcription of the letter we are reading each episode to our blog along with an image of the letter.
  • Our followers asked for the RSS feed to be added to: iTunes, Pocket Casts, and Stitcher, as well as its home on Podbean.
  • It might be good to upload three episodes at once to start with, especially for a short podcast – having several episodes to binge at once can build a fan.
  • If you are using a single microphone and one person’s voice is deeper or quieter, put the microphone closer to them.
  • Get multiple memory cards and a card reader.
  • People trying out the podcast will listen to the first episode. Over time, episode one will have the most downloads and will be the most important. It’s your commercial. Do your best to get episode one right.

Historically Yours:
Historically Yours is asking the question: What can you learn from just one letter?

Host: Colleen Theisen
Guests: Staff, graduate students, faculty, and friends.
Theme music: Will Riordan
Editing: Colleen Theisen and Farah Boules

As we say on the podcast – DON’T FORGET TO WRITE!


Colleen Theisen is the Outreach & Engagement Librarian for Special Collections & University Archives at the University of Iowa Libraries, where she coordinates social media, including a Tumblr named “New and Notable” by Tumblr in 2013, the YouTube channel, “Staxpeditions,” and the podcast “Historically Yours.” She started her career as a high school art teacher and completed her Master of Science in Information in 2011 at the University of Michigan School of Information. In 2015 she was named a Library Journal Mover & Shaker. She’s on  Twitter @libralthinking.

Assessing Digital Asset Management Tools at Texas A&M University

By Greg Bailey

In January 2014 I started my position at Texas A&M University with Cushing Memorial Library and Archives, which holds the University Archives and Special Collections at A&M.  Our only digital presence consisted of a Flickr account hosting items from the University Archives and some items from Special Collections that were put into the Institutional Repository (OAK Trust).  Eight months after I started a new Associate Dean of Special Collections and Director of Cushing Library was hired.  The new director and I started to voice our opinion that we needed to increase our presence on the web, but also have a system to handle both digitized and born digital materials. In time the Dean of the Libraries organized a retreat for interested parties and out of that a task force was formed to investigate Digital Asset Management (DAM) tools and to come up with a recommendation for implementation.

In the fall of 2014 the task force was established with the objective of investigating and making recommendations for a solution or solutions that would enable the Texas A&M University Libraries to store, display, and preserve digitized and born digital university records and research.  In the spring of 2015, the charge expanded to include attention to broader campus needs.

After defining an assessment process and expanding our scope to include campus, the task force first worked to conduct a campus needs assessment, to identify and develop use cases, and to distill core requirements. This became the basis of our testing rubrics. We ran multiple stages of assessment to identify and test systems, as well as to analyze the results of those tests. A recommendation was reached on the basis of this analysis and further inquiries.

Our analysis of twenty-six systems allowed us to confidently assert that no one digital asset management product would meet library and campus needs. Broadly, “digital asset management consists of management tasks and decisions surrounding the ingestion, annotation, cataloguing, storage, retrieval, and distribution” of image, multimedia, and text files.[1] These tasks are performed by systems (DAMS) that differ in their approach to functions and range of associated capabilities. Given campus needs, and our experience as a leading developer with DSpace, which the Libraries uses as our IR, the task force was attuned to the particular importance of the data models embedded in these systems, which guide and constrain other functionality.

DAME
Digital Asset Management Ecosystem model. Image created by Jeremy Huff, Senior Software Applications Developer for the TAMU Libraries.

We were convinced that modular solutions to discrete needs for storing, displaying, and preserving digital assets are warranted, and that these solutions are likely to require customization. We recommended building a digital asset management ecosystem (DAME) rather than attempting to meet all needs with a single DAMS.

The choice of the word ecosystem, as opposed to “system” (as with a DAMS) is explained by the DAME’s emphasis on a distributed service architecture. This is an architecture in which the discrete roles of a DAMS are handled not by one application, but instead by a collection of applications, each one suited for the role it plays. The DAME’s structure will certainly vary from institution to institution, and in fact this flexibility is perhaps the DAME’s strongest quality. In general, a DAME’s ecosystem will be divided into the following layers:

  • Management
  • Persistence
  • Presentation
  • Authorization
  • File service
  • Storage
  • Preservation

In the DAME, the management layer is conceived of as a collection of web services that handle record creation, curation, and discovery. It does not, itself, handle the actual assets, but instead records the assets’ location and metadata, and allows for the management and retrieval of this information. The management layer should be comprised of at least two elements, the first being a custom web service and the second a repository with a fully featured application profile interface (API). The repository application can be one of the many popular DAMS solutions that are currently in use, the only requirement being that it exposes all desired functionality through an API.

It may seem that a repository with a fully featured API would be sufficient to satisfy the needs of a management layer, but there are several good reasons for including a custom web service in this layer. The first reason is that this web service will act as an interface for all communication with the management layer, and by so doing, the DAME is repository agnostic. All other applications in the ecosystem will be programmed against the consistent API of the custom service, and the job of interfacing with the repository’s API is left solely to the custom web service. If the decision is made to switch repositories, the only thing that needs to be updated in the DAME will be the custom web service, and the rest of the ecosystem will not realize the change took place. The second reason for this separation is it allows you to employ multiple repository solutions side-by-side, with the web service aggregating responses. Finally, in record retrieval, the  and authentication of the user can be handled by the custom web service, relieving the repository of any need to be compatible with the institution’s authentication and authorization strategy.

This management layer thus communicates with the persistence layer, which is not, by necessity, one of the more complicated portions of the DAME’s architecture. It is simply the data source, or collection of data sources, needed to support the repository. Most repositories that would work well in the DAME are likely to have varied options when it comes to persistence, making the persistence layer one of the more flexible aspects of the DAME. In general this layer will store the assets’ URI, metadata, and possibly even application-specific information needed by the presentation layer.

The preservation layer, which had already been under development would continue and integrated into the new system.  A processing layer would be connected to local redundant storage.  That local storage would be also connected to dark archives storage and rarely accessed.

Every system that we tested consisted of different tools and components, bundled together as a single system. Part of the argument for a DAME over a DAMS is the ability to determine the components in these bundles locally, and to swap them out to meet evolving needs.

With that in mind the task forced recommended the deployment of modular digital asset management components to meet the complex needs of the Texas A&M University Libraries and campus. These include:

  • The deployment of a system to manage and store digital assets and metadata. Our recommended open-source system is Fedora 4, to be coupled with Blacklight and Solr for search and retrieval. Solr indexes content managed by the repository, and Blacklight enables search and retrieval across the indexed content.
  • The development of custom user interfaces as appropriate (likely, public user interface and administrative interfaces).
  • The deployment of a triple store to enable linked data, along with Apache Camel and Fuseki as the basis of connecting Fedora to the triple store and to Solr indexing software.
  • The deployment of an exhibition system.  Our recommended open-source exhibition layer would be Spotlight, which is an extension to Blacklight and will easily integrate into our DAME.
  • The deployment of a preservation system that would consist of Artefactual’s Archivematica that connects to localized redundant storage.  Redundant storage it connected to dark archive of the Digital Preservation Network (DPN) and Amazon’s Glacier via Duracloud.

The development of the ecosystem has started.  The Libraries’ IT team has started working on bringing up Fedora 4, along with the other components recommended by the task force.  As mentioned above the preservation layer had already been in development, and the final kinks are being worked out in that part of the system.  The hope is that the ecosystem will be fully functional within a year.

Overall, the work of the task force was beneficial.  We had input from a number of stakeholders that brought forward desired functionality that one specific group of users might not have considered.  There was a very strong presence on the Task Force representing the Special Collections, but also our preservation unit which had very similar ideas have groups that are regularly working together. The addition of subject/reference librarians and cataloging and the expertise of the Digital Initiatives group (Library IT) brought yet other perspectives. Having some university representatives also gave us an idea what units around Texas A&M require when dealing with digital materials.  The task force had sent out surveys to a number of units on campus and we were able to gather a larger amount of useful info.  At a minimum I now know of some units that have large amounts of electronic files that we will have to prepare for in the near future as we bring up the DAME and continue to develop our digital archiving process at Texas A&M.  In the end this diverse group with expertise in a number of areas allowed us to test a large number of software solutions.  We were able to robustly test the functionality of these solutions and we were able to collect data on strengths and weaknesses of the different softwares.  The solution of a DAME built off of Fedora 4 and bringing in a number of other open source solutions might not work for other institutes as we are heavily reliant on the expertise of our IT to bring all of these components together, but the process of creating a task force for a diverse group (including those outside the library) was beneficial.  We now have buy-in that had not existed before from multiple units in the library and interests from outside the Libraries, specifically in the area of materials related to the University Archives.


Greg Bailey is the University Archivist at Texas A&M University, a position he has help since January 2014.  Prior to that, he served at the University Archivist and Records Manager at Stephen F. Austin State University.  He is currently a member of the College and University Archives Section’s Steering Committee.  

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Digital_asset_management