Meet Your Vice-Chair: Benn Joseph

This post is the first in a series highlighting our recently-elected section leadership.

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Benn Joseph, Head of Archival Processing, Northwestern University Libraries.

Benn Joseph is the Head of Archival Processing at Northwestern University Libraries. The Archival Processing unit provides centralized archival description and collection management services for each of the Libraries’ Distinctive Collections, which include University Archives, the McCormick Library of Special Collections, Herskovits Library of African Studies, and the Transportation and Music Libraries. Previously, he worked as Head of University Archives & Special Collections at Illinois Institute of Technology, and in positions at Chicago History Museum and Benedictine University.

Why or how did you find your way to becoming an archivist?
This was after taking an intro to archives course in the MLS program at University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill. Some of our assignments involved actually going to the Southern Historical Collection and using the materials there. I was hooked! It was way more interesting to me than what we were doing in cataloging, collection development, etc. I ended up with an internship at the Southern Folklife Collection, and a part-time job digitizing slides at the Duke University Medical Center Archives — upon finishing the program it just made sense to keep going!

Can you share a success you have had in your repository of late?
Earlier this year we hired a Digital Archivist, who is based in the Archival Processing unit. This took a number of years to accomplish, and was such a dire need for us that we’re hoping not to overwhelm Kelsey with things to do! Prior to her arrival, we had been required to take more of a DIY approach to born-digital materials in collections, and although that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, we’re very happy to have been able to really formalize this aspect of our work over the past year.

What project are you most excited about in your archives?
Recently the Archival Processing unit was tasked with centralizing the archival accessions function for all of Distinctive Collections (5 separate collecting units, including the Northwestern University Archives and the Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections), something that has up until now been done in myriad ways over the course of many years. It might not sound that exiting, but good recordkeeping is its own reward!

What are some of the challenges you face as Head of Archival Processing?
Most challenges I perceive are connected in some way with the creation of this new unit, Archival Processing, and our efforts to define our unit’s role in the department where none existed before. To me it’s all about the streamlining and formalizing arrangement and description, but what does that mean exactly?

For one, I think striking a balance between volume and detail in processing is one of our more common challenges. Also, keeping on top of what we’re doing between each of the five repositories. We know well the wonders of MPLP, but the curators who bring in collections might not always share our enthusiasm with it in practice. Plus, even though we in Archival Processing work to determine a collection’s research value through the process of archival appraisal while we process, our appraisal and that of the donor and curator might not always match up. Sometimes the resulting recommendation winds up being item-level description for an acquisition that may only need a collection-level record.

And what about public services? In a department called Archival Processing you can imagine there may not be many opportunities to work with researchers, teach a class, etc. But, after spending months processing a collection, it is the processing archivist that is now the expert in this area … How can we bring this expertise to bear in a way that makes sense and is a good use of everyone’s time?

Lastly, the process of prioritization. For instance, as collections are ranked in priority for descriptive work, we usually assign higher priority to those in need of digitization, or ones that will be used for a class. Sometimes there are circumstances involving donors that require us to work quickly. As we do this, we also want to make sure we’re prioritizing, appraising, and describing in a way that ensures diverse voices are heard. And it’s a balancing act — we don’t want any jobs to seem rushed.

What strategies are you using to manage and process digital records in your repository?
With the Archival Processing unit having taken on the management of born-digital collections materials that come into Distinctive Collections, we’re trying to approach things as being format-agnostic. It’s all here to be used, regardless of format! Still, there’s a very different looking workflow that born-digital materials get shuttled through before being made available via the finding aid (or otherwise), and keeping track of all that really keeps us on our toes. The first phase involves migrating data for preservation and forensically analyzing it to prepare it for processing. We use a dedicated digital archives workstation that we call “Fred” (even though it’s not actually a FRED) to acquire, quarantine, ingest, and bag born-digital collection materials into the Fedora repository used by the library. Once these activities are complete, it can enter a more traditional queue for processing, where the processor analyzes the content itself, its metadata, and makes determinations about how to describe and arrange the material. All files that can be are copied and converted to open formats for access and further determinations are made about accessing proprietary formats that cannot be converted easily on a case-by-case basis.

What projects do you envision the section undertaking under your leadership?
I don’t have any particular agenda — for now, just continue with the work on this year’s initiative led by section chair Ellen Engseth. The steering group has done some brainstorming as to what might be a good project to undertake, and as the group works to expand on those ideas I think some ideas will take shape and carry over to the next year — these are topics like student workers in the archives (led by immediate past chair Rebecca Goldman), accessibility, documenting tragedies, and others. And of course I’m very interested to hear from anyone who wants to explore new ideas! 

Meet Your Steering Committee: Tracy Jackson

This post is the first in a series highlighting our newly-elected section leadership.

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Tracy Jackson, Head, Center Manuscript Processing Section, at Duke University’s David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library.

Tracy Jackson is the Head, Center Manuscript Processing Section, at Duke University’s David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library. She is the primary processing archivist for the University Archives at Duke and supervises the processing of collections within dedicated collecting centers. She has been at Duke for three years and holds an MSLS from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Why or how did you find your way to becoming an archivist?
I tried out a few jobs before feeling drawn to library school for a combination of reasons: a love of learning and sharing knowledge and a love of organizing things. While in library school I began working in the North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives and realized that archival processing was the right fit for me. Getting to work with the materials was so compelling, and completing a rehoused, labeled, described collection was immensely satisfying. Photographs are still my favorite type of materials to work with, but I’m glad I get to work with a wide variety of materials in the University Archives. I was very lucky to find my way into this work and continue to feel lucky that I have made a career of it.

Can you share a success you have had in your repository of late?
We will soon be adding a Records Manager to our team in the University Archives, thanks to tireless effort on the part of the University Archivist. This is very exciting for us, as we haven’t had a Records Manager in years, and adding this position has been a goal for some time.

What project are you most excited about in your archives?
I am really looking forward to working with our new Records Manager to make sure that university records of long-term research value are properly transferred, preserved, and accessible; we will be establishing brand-new workflows and that will be an interesting challenge. In Technical Services, we are also looking to update documentation of many of our practices, which I find both interesting and intimidating. I think good documentation is crucial to good processing, but it requires regular review and updating, and we have quite a lot to review.

You manage the processing work for the University Archives as well as the technical services staff for two other collecting areas. What strategies do you have for maintaining consistency amongst units as well as for managing projects
Consistency of practice and managing projects is an ongoing challenge. We’re a fairly large shop and all of us are juggling many projects and collections, so there is always a lot happening. In addition to my section, which is three people representing three distinct collecting areas (each tending to collect generally different types of materials), there is a General Manuscript Processing Section and other collecting areas and format specialists in our department. Since this makes for a complex set of projects and priorities, I find it helpful to have regular meetings and informal conversations with my staff as well as my counterpart in General Manuscript Processing and our management team, and to keep current on what is going on all over the department. Ultimately I think my most important role is to ensure clear communication between areas and to provide support to my staff. As mentioned above, good documentation is key to ensuring good practice, and can be difficult to maintain, but that’s something I want to continue to improve.

What strategies are you using to manage and process digital records in your repository?
We have a Digital Records Archivist who is the point person for ingesting and handling digital records, and I have worked with him regularly on born-digital components in collections I’ve processed. Thanks to his work, we’re able to preserve electronic records from media found in collections as well as capture websites, email, and some social media. How to handle the processing of large amounts of digital records, particularly email, is still in flux as we try different methods to find what works (or doesn’t) for each collection.

What would you like to see the section concentrate on during your three-year term?
There are a few issues that I think are of immediate importance for many of us. The first is the scariest: how to deal with the legacy of white supremacy in our archives, and how we as archivists are responsible for dealing with the complex repercussions of that echoing into the work we do to preserve what is happening in the US today. This is an issue of special important to this section because of how often these conversations happen on campus, and because colleges and universities are not only the keepers of so much of our historical record, but also integral players in culture, past and present. A second and related issue is about the environmental impact of our work, an issue I have been pleased to see is starting to get more discussion in the profession. We already think of the very long-term in our work, but we should make sure that thoughtfulness includes considering the impact of our choices beyond the materials themselves. A third topic I would love to think more about is discoverability and accessibility of our description, particularly how we can and should rethink the finding aid as the way we present our description. Not one of these issues has any easy answers, and I think this section can play an important role in finding ways to think about and act on these questions as a profession.

Building a Video Preservation Rack for In-House Digitization AV CLUB | Issue 1

A Common Video Preservation Scenario: A researcher requests a copy of a show held in your special collections. It’s a university production from the 1970s, a unique recording on ¾” tape. This tape is an “at-risk” item, because the inherent vulnerabilities of magnetic based media. What do you do? Do you send it out to a vendor, or do you digitize the tape in-house? Where possible, it’s best to digitize at-risk items in-house. It’s faster, it’s more economical over the long-term, and you can maintain your own quality-control standards.

Source: Building a Video Preservation Rack for In-House Digitization AV CLUB | Issue 1

July Twitter Chat: College & University Archives

We are excited about our upcoming Twitter chat on appraising faculty papers with the Acquisitions and Appraisal Section on Thursday, July 13th – 4:00 pm Pacific/ 5:00 Mountain/ 6:00 Central/ 7:00 Eastern. Follow #AppraiseThis or the Section handles @AppraisalSAA + @AcademArchivist and don’t forget our special series on this topic in preparation for the section meeting later this month.

Assigning Value

On Thursday, July 13th we will be co-hosting a joint Twitter chat with the College & University Archives Section team. The C&UA Section has organized a panel presentation focusing on appraising faculty papers for the SAA Annual Meeting in Portland. Over on their blog, The Academic Archivist, a series of articles on this topic is also part of a lead up to the panel.

The Acquisitions & Appraisal Section is pleased to announce this partnership with C&AU for our next Twitter chat and we look forward to tweeting about appraisal practices in academic archives!

Follow #AppraiseThis or the Section handles @AppraisalSAA + @AcademArchivist

Thursday, July 13th  4:00 pm Pacific/ 5:00 Mountain/ 6:00 Central/ 7:00 Eastern

Chat Questions:

  1. How does the appraisal of faculty papers differ from the appraisal of other types of personal archives?
  2. Does your institution’s academic mission affect your appraisal decisions?
  3. What appraisal criteria…

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