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.

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.  


May You Live in Interesting Times: Responding to Administrative Change at the University of Louisville

Graw & Oval Entrance
Grawemeyer Hall, University of Louisville, 2014. Image courtesy University of Louisville.

By Carrie Daniels

Over the past year, the University of Louisville has experienced an unprecedented level of administrative turnover in the presidency, the board of trustees, and the leadership of the University of Louisville Foundation (ULF), the charitable organization that helps support the activities of the University. The unfolding events added urgency to the development and clarification of some of the University Archives’ policies: issues we had been “working on” for years – including email preservation – could no longer be considered a theoretical problem.

While it is difficult to identify the true “beginning” of the turmoil, by March 2016, the Board of Trustees and Faculty Senate were discussing votes of no confidence in the president. There were also concerns about the president’s dual role as head of both the university and the ULF. We wanted to preserve a record of the events, of course, but we also wanted to capture the impact it had on attitudes and opinions within our larger community. We had a longstanding tradition of supplementing the official university record with clippings from newspapers, magazines, and (more recently) blogs, and we continued collecting these materials. However, the colleague who had been responsible for this activity for decades found himself newly concerned: what if the president’s office learned we had several file folders’ worth of newspaper clippings containing comments critical of him? Would the Archives, or the Libraries as a whole, suffer as a result? After a brief discussion at a staff meeting, we agreed we had to continue “clipping” in order to preserve a complete and accurate picture. I offered to take any responsibility for the activity, trusting in the twin shields of our duty to preserve the record as objectively as possible and my status as a tenured faculty member. As it turned out, we were the least of the president’s office’s concerns.

In June 2016, the Republican governor dissolved the existing board and replaced it with a new, smaller board. He also announced that the president would tender his resignation to the new board as soon as it was installed. The Democratic attorney general filed suit, arguing that the governor did not have the authority to dissolve the board; a judge reinstated the old board pending the outcome of the suit. We were unsure who our “real” board of trustees was, but nonetheless, the president negotiated his exit and departed.

While my colleague continued to clip print articles, we also knew there was a lot more going on online. Stories were breaking daily about the president, his exit, the board of trustees (both of them), the governor, and the attorney general. As we had for a special project in 2009, we used a short-term Archive-It account. Our Archivist for Manuscript Collections and I worked from Google alerts to create an individual “seed” for each story. While we still didn’t have the financial resources to use Archive-It on an ongoing basis, we made as much use of it as we could. When we exhausted the remaining space on our Archive-It account, we began preserving web-based stories as PDFs. Given our time and budgetary constraints, this seemed our best alternative: PDF/A is an acceptable preservation format; the vast majority of the stories did not contain relevant links, only links to advertisements; and PDFs are easy to provide access to.

With the president’s exit, I also realized we had come to a major fork in the road: I had to talk to the President’s Office about obtaining his electronic files, particularly his email. This was completely new territory for us. The Archives was at an interesting juncture in other ways, as well: our records manager had recently departed, and I was working with a couple of other colleagues to cover his responsibilities while we searched for a new Archivist for Records Management. In the interviews I did my best to explain our tentative entry into electronic records – as a founding member of the MetaArchive Cooperative, we had plenty of experience with digital preservation, but less with the ingest of digital files from university offices – and hoped we could recruit someone who was interested in developing this program with me. (We did!)

At the same time, I pursued access to the former president’s files. I contacted the interim president, who was now responsible for the records of the Office of the President. He was immediately supportive, but I still had to convince Information Technology (IT) that copies of the files could – in fact, should – be transferred to us. In my initial conversations with IT, I learned that the former president had not saved many files to his assigned network space; the assumption was that his assistants created his documents. But he had plenty of email.

And here we ran into a surprising roadblock. While the University Archivist is named in the university’s governance document (the “Redbook”) as the custodian of university records, IT was nervous enough to confer with the University Counsel’s office. And while I had anticipated concerns about the speed with which we might make the material available, the Counsel’s office was actually worried about attorney-client privilege. That is, they were concerned that by releasing privileged email to us, they would essentially be sharing them with a third party, and thus nullifying privilege. Like most college presidents, ours had been named in suits against the university, sometimes simply by virtue of being the head of the institution. We ultimately agreed that email between the former president and individuals at specific law firms (identified by the domain name in their email addresses) could be filtered out of the material we received. While this is somewhat less than optimal, we know the files will be maintained by IT pending several “litigation holds” (i.e., they cannot be destroyed until the litigation is resolved), giving us a chance to follow up with them again after the dust has settled.   

Our new Archivist for Records Management worked with IT’s specialist to use Library of Congress’s Bagger application to “bag” the .pst files (in 10 GB “chunks”) and transfer them to the Archives. We still have to face the issues of long-term preservation and access, but at least we have them in our possession.

In January 2017, we learned that our interim president was departing as well. In his case, it was to take the presidency at another institution, so the circumstances were happier. And since we had worked through the technical and organizational issues, the process of transferring his email went off without a hitch. While we certainly expected to cross these bridges under calmer circumstances, I am almost (almost) grateful that we were forced into action. We might do things differently next time, but we were able to develop and act on a reasonable plan in a short period of time. The approaches we worked out under these pressing circumstances are at least a starting point – something concrete we can modify and build on – rather than theoretical musings.

Carrie Daniels is University Archivist and Director of Archives and Special Collections at the University of Louisville. She holds an MSLIS from Simmons College and an EdM from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Faculty Papers: The Records Schedule as an Appraisal Tool

By Ruth Bryan

This post is the fourth in a series designed to provide background and context for a panel presentation about faculty papers scheduled during the College and University Archives’ meeting during the 2017 SAA Annual Meeting.

Cover, Kentucky State University Model Records Retention Schedule

The Kentucky State University Model Records Retention Schedule is a legally mandated appraisal tool created and maintained by the State Archives and Records Commission for university records that are acquired by or transferred to the Special Collections Research Center (SCRC) at the University of Kentucky (UK). This is because UK (in Lexington, KY) is considered a public institution, a body created and funded by the Commonwealth of Kentucky. In Kentucky law, a public record is any item prepared, owned, used, in the possession of, or retained by a public agency; thus, any record created, used, and/or in UK’s possession is a public record.

Based on the KRS definition of a public record, those documents created, acquired, and accumulated by UK faculty in the course of their professional and scholarly life would be considered public records, subject to appraisal for destruction or permanent retention according to the state-wide model university records schedule. The schedule is organized into 21 functional areas (such as general records, fiscal records, personnel/payroll records, bookstore records). Within each functional area, there are series by record type, such as official and general correspondence in general records and university operating budget in fiscal records. Each series has a unique number (Uxxxx), a description of the record type, a retention period, and a disposition requirement once that retention period is met—usually destruction or permanent retention either in the responsible unit or in the archives.

For several years after I was hired as Director of Archives and University Archivist in Special Collections in September 2011, I didn’t give much thought to the selection process for faculty papers. SCRC serves as both the institutional archives for the permanent records of the university and as a collecting repository, acquiring materials in all physical formats documenting the social, cultural, economic, and political history of Kentucky (Boles, 2005). Special Collections has always collected faculty papers (although rarely solicited them) as documentation of the teaching, research, and service functions of the university as well as the history of Kentucky, generally (Mayer, 1992; Laver, 2003). They are almost always donated rather than transferred and have deeds of gift documenting the donation. Archivists have mostly said “yes” to any collection offered, which since the early 1990s, we have been able to do because of the availability of a huge off-site storage space in a cave 30 miles south of Lexington.

Lately, though, I’ve been thinking more about the pros and cons of relying on the model schedule to appraise faculty papers. Faculty operate both inside and parallel to university administration, in a shared governance arrangement that is unique among other state agencies and organizations public and private, for- and non-profit. Faculty are responsible for graduate and unit-specific academic/educational policy. As one of the UK Governing Regulations states, “…faculty bodies and administrators will reciprocally solicit and utilize the expertise of the other as each makes decisions in their respective areas of policy-making authority.” This balance of power is necessary to move forward the mission of higher education, which relies both on individuals’ teaching and research and on shared institutional resources.  On the ground, however (and potentially documented in records), shared governance often means that at a minimum, faculty activities and functions are quite different from administration, and at a maximum, that faculty are (often properly) at odds with administrators and university trustees.

Faculty may thus be creating and using both similar and different types of records than administrators; may need to refer to them for both similar and different periods of time than administrators; and their papers may have both similar and different historical value from the records transferred to University Archives from administrative/business units. Thus, while the model schedule is (properly) concerned with managing the university’s current and non-current records for efficiency in retrieval and new record creation, legal compliance, resource management, and protection of vital records (Diamond, 1995), as an appraisal tool used for records and information management, it serves as an “internal regulator” focused on its parent organization (Harries, 2011). As a method for deciding what documents to retain in a particular faculty person’s papers and for deciding which collections to accept, there are ways in which the model schedule falls short.

For example, course syllabi (series U0415) are scheduled for retention for “five years from the date last offered by the department, then destroyed unless an accreditation board requires a longer retention period” (p. 21). It probably does make sense for a department secretary or the Canvas course management system to destroy/delete old copies of non-current syllabi. Yet, syllabi are documents that individual faculty might prefer to retain longer or permanently as references for other courses. And, I generally believe syllabi have historical value and should be kept, both in faculty papers as well as in department and center records.

Portrait, UK Choral Activities Director Sara Holroyd, 1980. Courtesy University of Kentucky Special Collections Research Center.

Another example: In 1966, UK Choral Activities Director Sara Holroyd was denied tenure, first with no reason given and then, the reason given was because she didn’t have a Ph.D. This had not been a requirement in granting tenure in the Department of Music up to that point. She instituted a grievance procedure and eventually obtained tenure. In her papers are her personal copies of correspondence, reports, and memoranda relating to the grievance, which, when combined with Board of Trustees meeting minutes and student newspaper editorials, provide multiple viewpoints on the actions of individual faculty and administrators. According to the schedule, grievance files (series U0644) should be retained for three years after the case is resolved and then destroyed, which I would argue is appropriate for the “official copies” held in the Office of Faculty Advancement. However, when individual faculty keep documents relating to their own grievance actions, they can prove to be of significant historical value in documenting the actions of faculty activists both within the university and in communities outside the institution (which can often look like insubordination or improper behavior at the time) and the responses of administrators (from which the university as a whole can learn).

It seems to me that college and university archivists that collect faculty papers at public institutions in states with public record laws need to have the flexibility to appraise individual faculty papers using both the legally approved records schedule as well as other criteria. So far, I have used three concurrent approaches in my own appraisal. First, in Kentucky, the model records schedule doesn’t include series for “traditional products of scholarly activity.” According to an existing UK administrative regulation about intellectual property produced by UK faculty, staff, or students using university resources, scholarly products include publications, articles, reviews, works of art, and course materials. In this regulation, the university claims ownership and control over all intellectual property, but makes an exception for scholarly products. I take this to mean that individual faculty can dispose of their writings, artwork, and course material as they choose.

Second, in Kentucky, while records must be retained for the retention period outlined in the schedule, disposition isn’t mandatory. There are no legal penalties for not destroying records, but, of course, there are other risks, primarily of having to produce records for legal discovery.

The option of keeping records past the retention period makes possible the third approach: considering faculty to be “capstone officials,” a selection process developed by the National Archives and Records Administration in 2016. Each governmental unit goes through an approval process to determine which of their senior officials are capstone. These officials are generally responsible for agency and program policy- and mission-related actions. Once each official is approved, the National Archives will accept transfer of all the individual’s e-mail, rather than attempt to review it for various record types with differing retention periods. The “capstone officials” concept responds to a 2011 Presidential directive to manage email in an accessible, electronic format by 2016 while also balancing the sheer volume of email records; the risks of keeping temporary records too long and inappropriately discarding permanent records; and the significant records management support and training required to manage e-mail across an institution or agency. I believe that faculty meet the criteria of “senior officials,” because they set educational policy within individual departments and units, while the University (faculty) Senate as a group establishes academic policies for the university. The “faculty as capstone officials” concept allows varying and/or permanent retention of individual faculty papers by considering each individual’s role rather that the record types represented in the collection.

One final piece I’m thinking about: Since a reason for collecting faculty papers is to clarify, expand, and/or fill in gaps in the university’s official records (Mayer, 1992; Laver, 2003), faculty papers could even be solicited based in the extent to which individual faculty have been involved in protests, activism, community outreach/service, and social justice—actions that often get people in trouble with administrators and resource allocators and which are often not documented. Thus, expanding appraisal beyond the schedule and broadening selection criteria is one way in which college and university archivists can also be archival activists.

But, expanding beyond the legally mandated schedule can be risky, too, and, I haven’t pushed very hard on this myself, yet. What do you think? Questions for discussion at the section meeting:

  • Do you have a records schedule? If so, how have you applied it/do you think a records schedule could be applied to faculty papers?
  • Is the nature of the faculty role and the governance structure of the college and university fundamentally different from other organizations that also use records schedules as management and selection tools?
  • Are faculty “capstone officials?”
  • What are the risks and benefits to the college or university, to the archives, to the archivist, and to the faculty person in encouraging faculty to keep certain records longer than their retention periods?

Ruth Bryan, CA, is University Archivist in the Special Collections Research Center, a division of the University of Kentucky Libraries. She holds an MA in cultural anthropology from The New School for Social Research and MA in public history from North Carolina State University.

Section Elections

Election official changing the results on a large scoreboard in front of the Daily Reflector building. Courtesy Joyner Library, Eastern Carolina University.

Later this month, all active section members (as of June 30) will receive a ballot to vote on a number of section-related issues. First and foremost amongst these is the election of our section leadership. Two candidates are vying for Vice-Chair/Chair-Elect: Greg Bailey and Ellen Engseth. Steering Committee candidates are: Elizabeth Beckman, Randall Bowman, Christy Fic, Tracy Jackson, Noah Lasley, Chloe Pascual, Karen Trivette, Bryan Whitledge, and Eric Willey. Candidate biographies and statements are available on the section’s website.

The section will also be voting to amend our Standing Rules. The proposed changes account for:

  • the Section’s movement to a blog from a newsletter;
  • a three-year trajectory for the leadership position – one year each as vice-chair, chair, and past chair – to ensure continuity of effort; and
  • changes mandated by SAA’s effort to standardize documents across all sections.

Please take a few minutes to participate in the election and to help set the direction for the section. Results will close July 10-12 (due to staggered balloting) and results will be available by July 14. Kudos to Nominating Committee members Benn Joseph and Carrie Daniels for putting together this excellent slate, and a big thank you to all who have agreed to run.

Conference Report: Society of Southwest Archivists

By Mary Heady 

Beautiful weather highlighted the 2017 conference of the Society of Southwest Archivists in Fayetteville, Arkansas, located in the scenic Ozark mountain range. The conference was held from May 24 to 27, 2017 in the recently remodeled Chancellor Hotel in downtown Fayetteville.

The Ozarks. Photo courtesy National Park Service.

The plenary address by Stacy Leeds, Dean and Professor of Law at the University of Arkansas School of Law, discussed the importance of archives in establishing and maintaining the rule of law for the Cherokee tribe. Leeds is the only American Indian woman to serve as dean of a law school in the United States. 

The first session I attended was titled “Reaching Out to the Community: I Did it, So Can You.” The speakers gave lightning talks highlighting ten different projects promoting outreach on a specific aspect of their holdings. One speaker discussed leveraging a relationship with a local stamp collecting group, encouraging the group to hold meetings in the archives meeting room so that the members could look through the archives’ collection of covers.

The second session was “We Need to Talk: Creating and Implementing Digital Preservation Workflows in Small and Medium Sized Institutions.” One of the most significant takeaways from this presentation was the 3-2-1 rule: preserving electronic records by having 3 copies, 2 formats, and 1 offsite.

The third event for the day was repository tours.  I attended the tour of Special Collections at the University of Arkansas. The Arkansas Collection is comprised of over 68,000 Arkansas-related print titles, rare books, photographs, and manuscript collections. The tour was led by Geoffrey Stark and other special collections staff.  The special collections staff donated their time throughout the conference, manning the registration desk, assisting with the repository tours, and managing the overall arrangements. 

Friday began with a session on “Film Identification and Preservation” by Alexis Peregoy of the Center for Creative Photography.  The session covered identifying cellulose nitrate, cellulose acetate and polyester based materials. The best conditions for film preservation are cold and dry. If possible, refrigeration is a good option. Items in cold storage must have time to acclimate to warmer temperatures. Deteriorating film should be isolated from other film. 

The second session I attended was “Teaching with Archival Documents.”  Engaged learning was the theme of this session. One speaker demonstrated engaging students by asking questions about photographs and newspaper advertisements. For example, why was this image created? What surprises you about it? The materials were copied from archival originals. Another hands-on approach got students involved through researching the history of their home county or their favorite county in Arkansas. 

The third session was titled, “Digital Archiving DIY.”  This session described homegrown ways to create finding aids efficiently. The day ended with a magnificent reception in the beautiful Walton Room at the University of Arkansas Mullins Library

Saturday began with a business meeting and the raffle SLOTTO.  The final session I attended was titled “The James D. Bales Papers:  A Case Study of MPLP Applied to a Grant-funded Project.” The opportunity to network with my colleagues in the Society of Southwest Archivists was invaluable and the University of Arkansas Fayetteville Libraries provided a warm welcome and a beautiful site to have the conference.

Mary Heady is the Special Collections and Reference Librarian at the University of Arkansas at Monticello Taylor Library.  She is a Certified Archivist and holds the M. L. S. from the University of Missouri at Columbia.

Metadata Matters: Digital Humanities and Digital Collections at Bowdoin

By Kat Stefko

In a January 4, 2016, special report on Digital Humanities in Libraries, published in American Libraries Magazine, Stewart Varner and Patricia Hswe posited that Stripping digital collections down to core components could render everything old new again in terms of what libraries might offer to the humanities research community.”  Taking this approach to heart, the George J. Mitchell Department of Special Collections & Archives at Bowdoin College Library has been exploring new ways of leveraging metadata about our digital and physical collections to support a burgeoning interest in the digital humanities and computational studies across the College’s curriculum.

Historically at Bowdoin, perhaps like all libraries, we have regarded metadata first and foremost as a functional tool — the description necessary to assist researchers in their inquiries and librarians in their management of collections.  Digital humanities, data curation, and new technologies, such as open source data visualization software, prompt us, though, to consider our metadata in a new light.  Metadata, considered more abstractly, is one of our most valuable and important collections. Our metadata reflects decades of work by dedicated staff and volunteers, who applied their energy and expertise to analyze, synthesize, and interpret our physical and, more recently, our digital materials.

Over the past year, Special Collections & Archives staff have been integrating metadata in our teaching and outreach efforts. Along with promoting our rich collections of rare books, manuscript and archival holdings, we are actively looking for opportunities to suggest and support the integration of our metadata in faculty teaching and research.

These efforts have coincided with and been expedited by the largest digitization project yet undertaken by Bowdoin—the Howard Digitization Project. Funded by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, this project allowed us to digitize the entire archive of General Oliver Otis Howard and his two brothers, Charles and Rowland, all of whom graduated from Bowdoin and served in the Civil War.  The project produced some 180,000 digital images representing more than 80,000 physical items. Another key aspect of the project was the modernization of metadata about the collection.

Volunteers had thoroughly indexed the incoming letters to Oliver Otis Howard over the course of several decades. Project staff were able to scan, OCR, normalize, and then augment this information to create a comprehensive dataset about the Howard letters.  Helpful for managing the digital files, this dataset also offers rich opportunities for the application of digital humanities methodologies and tools. The index includes more than 40,000 records with data points such as the letter’s author, recipient, date, and the place where it was written and received.

In their article, Varner and Hswe asserted that the “representation of digital collections in various data formats may lead to creative programs and partnerships for instruction, collection development and strategy….” And, that has indeed been the case at Bowdoin.

Data visualization
Data visualization showing the geographic distribution of letters in the Oliver Otis Howard papers created by students in Clare Bates Congdon’s Interactive Data Visualization class at Bowdoin.  It allows a researcher to select a range of years (slider above) to see how the distribution changes as Howard’s career progressed. Image courtesy Kat Stefko.

The Howard correspondence index has quickly found a place within the College’s curriculum. In Fall 2016, Clare Bates Congdon, Visiting Associate Professor of Computer Science, had students in her Interactive Data Visualization course work with this rich data set. The resulting visualizations, while simple, are compelling. Researchers, for instance, can select a date range to then see a map of Oliver Otis Howard’s correspondence for that time period. By expanding the chronological range, a researcher can quickly see the arc of Oliver Otis Howard’s career as reflected by his correspondents. The visualization shows a clear southward and westward expansion of Howard’s social network as he transitioned from Civil War general to commissioner of the Freedmen’s Bureau and a major figure in Reconstruction to a participant in the Indian Wars.

While learning new technologies and the ingredients for a successful interactive data visualization, the students also were exposed to the biography of a compelling 19th century Bowdoin graduate. According to Congdon, working with Bowdoin-specific data made the exercise more meaningful for the students and encouraged them to engage with the assignment on multiple levels. The exercise also established a collaborative and mutually beneficial relationship that will continue between the Computer Science Department and Special Collections.

The Howard correspondence visualization project, along with other examples of faculty utilizing metadata from Special Collections, was the topic of a recent faculty development lunch and learn. Organized to mark the conclusion of the Howard digitization project, the well-attended event proved highly successful, and several faculty members have subsequently indicated an interest in incorporating metadata from Special Collections into their teaching and research. Current and future projects include visualizing the personal library of one of the College’s founders based on our bibliographic records of his collection, mapping the travels of a nineteenth-century female botanist based on our index of her plant samples, and experimenting with textual analysis to explore transcripts of nineteenth-century Bowdoin student letters to see what this might reveal about what a liberal arts education offered 150 years ago.

Kat Stefko is Director of Special Collections & Archives at Bowdoin College and current chair of the College & University Archives Section of SAA. She has held library and archives positions at Duke and Harvard universities, Bates College, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. 

Faculty Papers: Developing Selection Criteria

By Dainan Skeem and Cory Nimer

This post is the third in a series designed to provide background and context for a panel presentation about faculty papers scheduled during the College and University Archives’ meeting during the 2017 SAA Annual Meeting.

With the resource limitations the L. Tom Perry Special Collections faces, we know we need to collect responsibly. The best way we have found to do this has been creating collection development policies for each collecting area, allowing us to accept gifts with confidence while turning away those that do not fit our scope. The one collection area, however, that had gone without a policy for years had been the faculty papers, which resulted in accepting almost any faculty member’s papers when proffered. With the recent decision to form a Professional Papers Program that would collect the papers of not only faculty, but staff and administrators across campus as well, the need to collect responsibly increased dramatically. We began by looking at what other institutions have done in creating policies and found Frances Margaret Fournier’s advice on appraisal helpful. Tom Hyry, Diane Kaplan and Christine Weideman at Yale University went through the same process in 2002, and decided to apply collecting level guidelines and rely on existing collecting policies when acquiring personal papers of faculty members. We determined to follow a similar approach for most collections, believing that there was an adequate safety net for identifying and acquiring other important materials through consultation with the manuscript curators in the department.

Brigham Young Academy faculty, 1891.

Faced with a faculty of over 1,200, we first sought to establish the overall objectives of the program. Generally, we hoped that through the papers of faculty and staff we could document the social, cultural, religious, and intellectual history of the university. This approach had been suggested by Maynard Brichford as early as 1971, with faculty papers supplementing official records or providing alternative sources for administrative actions, faculty relations, or student life. However, we also decided to limit the collecting of teaching and research materials to faculty members associated with some of the more unique aspects of the Brigham Young University experience. This included selective acquisition of teaching materials from the Religious Instruction college, as well as documentation of teaching, research, and professional service from across campus related to Mormonism. While this limited collecting scope reduces our abilities to document the faculty and staff as individuals, we are working closely with other curators within the department to acquire these materials under other collection development policies.

When we created our policy, we needed to make sure it not only covered those situations where faculty were approaching us to accept their papers – reactive collecting – but also provided us with a roadmap to do proactive collecting where we would seek out faculty, staff, and administrators with materials that we would be interested in preserving. A survey done in 2003 by Tara Zachary Laver has given us many great ideas on how to find faculty papers. At this point, we are confident that our policy does provide for both, although proactive collecting is much more time-consuming and is done only when we take the time to do it while the reactive collecting continues to happen spontaneously.

Since implementing the new policy, we have been able to put it to use on several occasions. For example, in a reactive collecting situation, we were approached by the widow of a retired faculty member who was looking to archive her husband’s professional papers. He had been an astronomy professor and had kept raw data on thousands of scientific studies of gravitational and solar experiments. Because this type of scholarly research did not fit the scope of our collection development policy, we agreed to take only his professional correspondence, a selection of materials that were for the university archives, and some personal papers to flesh out who this faculty member was as a person. We then provided the widow with contact information for another institution we thought might be interested in the scientific data. Our policy made it much easier to accept some, but not all, of these materials.

We also use our policy to do some proactive collecting. We attend an annual seminar for faculty who are planning to retire and provide a short presentation on what we accept and how it is transferred. After the meeting, faculty approach us and we use our policy to determine what papers, if any, we will accept. We also began a project of mailing an autobiographical survey to all faculty retired within the past 10 years. This gives us basic information on every faculty member, helping us to document the diversity of our faculty across campus. A few of the questions ask what their teaching focus was and if they have kept their professional papers. We are still receiving replies from the faculty but will begin to compile the data and use our policy to guide us in deciding which faculty to ask for their professional papers.

Our policy is still a work in progress. We have been very pleased on how it has functioned so far but recognize that it can be very restrictive in what we take. This, however, is how we must work in order to responsibly manage our resources. We will continue to monitor its efficiency and know that over time we will need to make changes to make it the tool we wish it to be.

Questions to consider during our conversation at the annual meeting:

  • What is the purpose of a professional papers program? To document the person or the institution? Or both? How do you document an institution without documenting the people that has made the institution? How do you do that without being too broad? How do you do this with limited resources?
  • Proactive collecting versus reactive collecting? How do you ensure that your policy covers both?
  • How does your professional papers program interact with other existing collecting policies?

Dainan Skeem curates the 21st Century Mormon & Western Manuscripts collection at BYU with responsibilities for documenting the current century’s history of the LDS church, Utah, and the West as well as the professional papers of BYU faculty and staff. He obtained master’s degrees in Library & Information Science and Learning Design & Technology from the University of Hawaii at Manoa. 

Cory Nimer is the University Archivist at Brigham Young University, where he collaborates closely with associated curatorial staff on the university’s professional papers program. He holds a M.A. in History from Sonoma State University, and an M.L.I.S. from San José State University.