Workshop on Scientific Archives

On August 13, 2018, I will be presenting a paper written by myself and Kate Thornhill (Digital Projects Librarian at the University of Oregon) at the Second Workshop on Scientific Archives. The paper focuses on management of an OHSU digitization and data transcription project. For the sake of brevity, only the abstract is posted here along with links to the full paper and the presentation slides. We plan to work this into a more thorough case study and present it for publication in the future, but for now, this information may come in handy for archivists planning similar projects or struggling with a major change in the middle of a project.


Oregon Health & Science University’s Historical Collections & Archives holds extensive 19th and 20th century collections, consisting of unique archival materials, that document public health in Oregon. These collections provide early research data, which frequently documents under-served populations, that remain largely inaccessible to the data-driven health sciences researchers whose predecessors created them. This is a regional example of the global problem of legacy data – valuable research information that is difficult to use due to format or access system. Inaccessible legacy data hinders scientific discovery, and generates redundancies and inefficiencies in the research enterprise. Additionally, fears over violating the regulations of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) often keep archivists and other information professionals from creating access to these sorts of records.

Public Health in Oregon: Accessing Historical Data for Scientific Discovery,” a Library Services and Technology Act grant-funded project, completed in the Spring of 2017, sought to rectify some of these problems through digitizing records, redacting protected health information (PHI), and transcribing data into a more usable and accessible format. This paper will focus on issues encountered and solutions devised around selecting data for digitization and transcription, redacting data according to HIPAA Safe Harbor methodology, creating accessible versions of the resulting digital files, and documenting the choices made during the project.


Paper (PDF)
Slides (PDF)

Indian Schools and Historical Othering

This post first appeared on the Society of American Archivists Issues & Advocacy Section’s blog.

For our last official News Monitoring Team post of the season, I thought I would step out of my role as the Coordinator of the News Team and talk a bit about something from a story that popped up last month. The article, turned up by one of the News Team members, focuses on the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, an “Indian” boarding school in Carlisle, PA that operated from 1879 to 1918.

This struck a chord with me as issues around America’s indigenous peoples and archives and cultural artifacts have been on my mind frequently in my career, ever since my first full-time position with the National Park Service in Alaska and lasting through to today as I work in the Pacific Northwest and hear about projects and programs around the historical mistreatment of these communities (not to mention the similar information coming from Canada). But I had also just read Kate Theimer’s recent post on the Carlisle Indian School and the text of her talk, “Archiving Against the Apocalypse,” for the Canadian-American Archives Conference. I also spent a good chunk of my life living in Philadelphia and Allentown, PA, so a confluence of things held this story in my mind.

While curating an exhibit on public health in the early 20th century last year, I stumbled upon the theory of eugenics, which I’ll admit I hadn’t really ever heard of (and I’ve spent a lot of my life in school). Turns out the U.S., during the later parts of the 1800s and early parts of the 1900s, was really into the idea of creating a purer race of people. Sound familiar? Yeah, American eugenics actually inspired Hitler and that whole Nazi race-purifying thing. Doctors, government workers, and regular Joes alike were all into the idea of weeding out “defective” and “undesirable” traits through controlling who got to reproduce through court-ordered sterilization and segregation, and with “child guidance” clinics that remind me of more recent gay conversion institutions. This didn’t end all that long ago; Oregon’s eugenics board lasted until 1983, having carried out its last sterilization in 1981.

Indian schools were a slightly earlier version of population control. White, European-Americans of the 1800s wanted to assimilate indigenous people into their culture. They thought if they removed youths from their families, language, culture, and traditions, and trained and educated them in European style, they could eventually breed out the “savage” aspects of their people. It was a way of exterminating the indigenous people of their new country that was considered more civil and socially acceptable than all out murder or war. Though, as you can see from recent reports, beatings, illness, and death were all common outcomes for these students.

The Carlisle school was America’s first, off-reservation boarding school, but it wasn’t the last. Twenty six boarding schools were established across the country, along with hundreds of private religious schools. Over 10,000 children attended the Carlisle school alone, with estimates of over 100,000 children total throughout the system. Canada’s similar system, the Residential Schools, lasted into the 1970s and had over 150,000 “students.” (Canada’s system was also more heavily documented and the government has been a lot more public about speaking out about it, most likely due to the unprecedented class-action lawsuit survivors brought against the government.)

So, first eugenics got stuck in my mind, and now I keep learning about more and more ways in which atrocious acts have been committed, for this reason or that (have you listened to the Seeing White podcast series?), which all really boil down to othering certain groups to keep the white people on top – assimilation, cleansing, separation, racial purity, etc. And I think, damn, we humans are really horrible (this, itself, is not really a revelation for me, but more of an expansion).

But humans can also manage to do some good here and there. So, and here I relate it back to archives, it’s painful to learn of this history, but it’s refreshing (in a way) to read stories of how archival records and cultural history are being used to return remains, artifacts, memory, and culture to people who have been wronged by our country (and others) – and perhaps even provide some healing to the wronged. These acts of restitution provide some concrete examples that can be used to influence archival ethics and practices today and perhaps encourage people to look up and out from their lives and small worlds, to see far afield and take in the big picture of all of us on this planet and what we’re doing to each other.

My goal here isn’t so much to bring about change through this short post, but more to add another voice to the education on happenings such as this and to help make connections between what we do in our daily work that could potentially have a huge benefit. Also I want to urge people with these types of historical records (or even more contemporary records), to not hide from the past. Face it and work to better the future.

Resources and additional information:

Listed chronologically, starting with the most recent

Decolonizing Archives and Research

This post first appeared on the Society of American Archivists Human Rights Archives Section’s blog and reviews a session from the Northwest Archivists annual meeting in Warm Springs, OR in April of 2018.

At the first Northwest Archivists meeting to take place on an Indian reservation, there were a number of presentations and activities centered around the rich history and culture of Native Americans. A session from late on the final day was one of the highlights. “The Northern Paiute History Project: Decolonizing Archives and Research with Tribal Community Members,” presented by Jennifer O’Neal, Kevin Hatfield, and Clara Gorman from the University of Oregon (UO), and Myra Johnson-Orange of the Confederate Tribes of Warm Springs. The session took a close look at a collaborative project between UO’s Honors College and the Northern Paiute communities of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs and the Burns Paiute Tribe.

The session highlighted the history of the Northern Paiute people, a nomadic, desert culture that relocated seasonally but were pushed off their lands through treaties and forced removal at the hands of the U.S. Army. We learned of the “Snake War” (the term “snake” being a derogatory term for the Native people), where the Northern Paiute fought for their land, and about the “Recollections” of Governor George Woods, who expressed in his writings the desire to exterminate the Northern Paiute people.

Additionally, we learned about the UO Honors College Research Colloquium Decolonizing Research: The Northern Paiute History Project. This course, which began in 2013, consists of an annual research colloquium, a field research trip to the Warm Springs Reservation, and sustained engagement between students and tribal elders. Students perform original research, conduct oral history interviews, and create new knowledge and a unique archive for the communities. The project also provides the opportunity for collection of materials from non-tribal repositories and the digital return of tribal knowledge to these communities.

This course approaches archival work as a way of entering into tribal relations. The idea of “entering into relations” implies respect for community values in the search for knowledge. The course methodology is a community based, circular process focused on decolonizing history and making shared decisions. Outcomes include research, the return of printed papers to the community, and adding them to UO’s institutional repository. Those involved are working to develop an Oregon Tribal Archives Portal and are using the knowledge gained from this research to influence and enhance the Oregon K-12 curriculum. The research field trip for the course takes place in the third or fourth week. Students come to the Warm Springs Reservation for two days and meet with elders from the community and tribal partners. They engage with the community to share knowledge and refine their research topics. The trip gives students an opportunity to think critically about what they have learned, and to form relationships that will endure throughout their research and into the future.

For an example of results from the course, student Clare Gorman presented her paper, “Inter-Tribal Dynamics of the Warm Springs and Grand Ronde Reservations: A Historical Legacy of the Discrimination, Prejudice, and Settler-Colonialism.” Her work examines settler-colonialism, the traditional colonial narrative of history, and ways in which we can undo that narrative to reveal Native truth. Myra Johnson-Orange, a tribal elder of the Northern Paiute, Warm Springs Reservation spoke passionately of the history of her family and her people, how the research coming out of this course has helped her connect with her own history and answer long unanswered questions about her family, and how these experiences have helped her to heal some of the wounds she has suffered throughout her life.

All told, this session highlighted an amazing example of bringing historical research together with ideas of decolonizing history and working to diversify the historical record. These initiatives also influence the now by returning history to the communities that were part of it, filling in gaps, allowing people to heal from past abuses, and influencing the teaching of history to current and future students.

Maximizing the Student Work Experience (presentation)

Below are the slides and text of my presentation at the Northwest Archivists annual meeting in Warm Spring, Oregon on April 27, 2018.

slide one, title

slide two, introduction

Here’s all that introductory stuff people tend to spend time on in presentations. If you manage to read it all, it’s meant to be (mostly) humorous.

The crux of this talk is that we can do better by the people who perform entry-level work in our institutions, be that student employees, interns, or volunteers. The next few slides present some concrete ideas to think about adopting at your own institution. I’ll be focusing on student workers who are in a library science degree program, but hopefully these ideas are applicable to other realms.

Slide 3, train

When I started thinking about these issues in a more formal way, I spoke with my student employees about their various work experiences and I was kind of amazed to hear that they frequently didn’t receive much training when starting a new job.

As a manager, you should try to look at these sorts of positions as a mentoring opportunity or a long-form class in archival processing … or whatever it is you’re overseeing the students doing. Teach the students about the tasks you are having them do. Give them readings on appropriate theory and projects, so they can see how things relate and also get a better handle on the style of academic writing.

Create training materials and make them easily accessible. Mine are in LibGuides. They’re easy to navigate, they’re easy to update, it’s a win-win. Through this process, work to train people so they aren’t always asking you questions, but they know when it’s definitely a good idea to ask questions.

A nice by-product of training people how to do good work is that you get better outputs (like intelligent and helpful finding aids and better preserved materials). Don’t blame novice processors for your crappy finding aids or poorly processed collections.

slide four, be flexible

My students, for the most part, don’t have any public service duties. This means I can be flexible with scheduling. But besides flexible scheduling, I also allow students to work from off-site IF I have work that easily translates to that environment. I don’t create projects specifically for working from home; I don’t cater to students’ requests for telework – I just allow for the co-happenings of work that can be done elsewhere and an employee who can’t make it in or has extra hours that could be made up when we’re not open.

slide five, job searching

You may not agree with me, but the main reason for any library science student to work a low-paying, part time job is to hopefully use that experience to get a higher-paying, professional job down the road. As someone who has had a number of jobs in the profession, and someone that feels some major guilt that we pay our student employees less than most retail and food service establishments would, I do a lot to try to help our students find real jobs.

I send them links to job openings I think they should apply for. I review their resumes and cover letters, and offer them tips on interviewing. I invite them to attend our open job interviews so they can see how they go (especially the presentations that faculty-level applicants often have to give). I offer to serve as a reference, and answer any questions they may have or connect them with someone else who can.

I also try to give the students a wide variety of job tasks – processing, cataloging, reference support, digitizing, exhibit planning – so that they have a wide base of skills to pull from in those applications. And, again this is something I learned from talking with the students, this all makes it really comfortable for them to apply for jobs. Many people feel like they have to keep their job search secret from their current employer. My words and actions make it clear that I know they’re going to leave me and if they aren’t looking for real work, they better get on the ball. It creates a comfort zone.

Lastly here, sometimes you interview someone and think they’d be a good employee, but maybe they aren’t the best fit for you at that time. If other positions become available at your institution or one nearby, and you feel they would be good there, advocate on their behalf. I’ve successfully gotten two students hired in another part of our library merely by recommending them to the hiring manager. Don’t just support the people you’re in charge of, support others who need it when and how you can.

slide six, professional growth

Before archives happened to me, I was a musician and a teacher of small children. This means I’m kind of good at listening to people and I like to keep things interesting. So I like to talk to my student assistants – learn what they’re doing in class, what they hope to do in their careers, things they enjoy socially, hobbies they have – whatever, not too much, but something human. This comes in handy in the case of professional growth.

If students are interested in doing scholarly research or writing, it’s never too early to start and you should be helping them with it. You can suggest ideas for them to research or write about. Ask students to write for a blog. Suggest some professional society roles they might be interested in. Share calls for papers that align with their work or interests.

I allow students a small percentage of their work time for research and writing. When institutional or grant funding is available, I help support students attending and presenting at conferences and trainings. I also stopped the practice of listing them as “student assistants” on finding aids. This is helpful in the job search process as employers often want writing samples and a finding aid can be great for that. It looks better for the applicant not to have the somewhat demeaning “student assistant” label next to their name.

slide seven, involvement

I tend to invite my student employees to a lot of things, and this helps give them a more well-rounded sense of all the aspects of archives management and also helps break up the monotony of the day. Let’s admit it – we all love archives, but sometimes the work can get a bit repetitive – especially if you’re transcribing hundred-year-old medical ledgers or typing up a thousand folder titles in Excel. So, encourage everyone to be involved – to the amount they care to be. No pressure.

slide 8, respect

I like to refer to this slide as the “don’t be a dick” slide. I probably shouldn’t, but I think it’s good general advice for life. Students are often doing professional-level work and hoping to be in the profession soon. They’re probably working multiple jobs and they have classes and social lives and children and illnesses and tiring commutes and so much more. Be respectful of them and their efforts.

Try to create a supportive environment where students feel comfortable asking questions and voicing opinions. This helps them to develop and feel a part of the work being done, but also brings up new thoughts on how to tackle problems. Don’t be afraid to learn from your students – allow your ideas and common practices to be challenged by someone with a fresh view. Build trust with your students and allow them autonomy to learn and grow, but review their work and offer feedback and critique when needed.

A key moment I had when discussing these issues was when one of my student employees said that one of the best things I’d done for them was to be “not condescending.” Apparently they get a lot of condescension in both classroom and job settings. I took it as a huge compliment.

slide 9, summary

So, in summary – train people well, share what you know, invite people to share with you, and, you know, don’t be a dick. I like to think that’s a simple place to start, and the rest can grow from there.

Respect the Student Employee (I&A Steering Share)

This post first appeared on the Society of American Archivists’ Issues & Advocacy Section’s blog.

Steering Shares  provide an opportunity to learn more about the I&A Steering Committee and the issues that the committee members care about. This introduction post comes courtesy of committee member Steve Duckworth, University Archivist at Oregon Health & Science University.

In my last Steering Share, I spoke about my concerns on archival labor. This is an issue that is being discussed more and more, including in Courtney Dean’s recent Steering Share and in Fobazi Ettarh‘s piece, “Vocational Awe and Librarianship.” For this post, I’m going to take this to a slightly more positive place (and prep for a presentation that I’ll be giving on the topic in April!) So…

Let’s talk about ways that archival professionals can maximize student positions and internships for the betterment of the student, while hopefully also getting some benefit out of it for our institutions. Please note, for the purposes of brevity, I use the word “student” as a general stand-in for employees, interns, or volunteers who are enrolled in a degree program and hoping to find a professional position in the library, archives, or museum fields.

My student workers tell me, and I like to believe them, that I’ve been extremely valuable in helping them find full-time employment. Can we all agree that one of the main goals of a student job is to find a professional position? Unfortunately, I feel that’s not how many pros out there view it. Mostly we view student employment, internships, and volunteer work as cheap labor to help us do what we need to get done because we’re all underfunded. But, while ‘getting stuff done’ is important, training and mentoring the doers in the process of the doing is much more valuable.

What I’m talking about is not all that revolutionary, but it does seem to be a little abnormal. Look at these student positions as mentorship opportunities, rather than cheap and temporary labor.  Some of the more concrete ideas you can try out in your own institution are listed below:

  • Train students in archival practices. I was surprised to learn that students were often not trained for other jobs they’d had. Think of the job as a long-form class in archival processing and management, teach skills to help students negotiate complicated decision making and to know when to ask for help.
  • Be flexible when possible. If students don’t have public service duties, allow for flexible scheduling. If you have work that can be done offsite, consider allowing students to work from home from time to time.
  • Aid students in the job search process. Review resumes and cover letters; offer in-person and online interview practice sessions; recommend jobs they should apply for. If your institution has open sessions or presentations for job applicants, invite students to attend – it’s great experience to watch other people interview for jobs.
  • Expose students to a wide variety of job functions: exhibit planning, cataloging, reference support, physical and digital processing, project planning, etc.; the skills will come in handy for applying to a wide variety of jobs.
  • Support professional growth and scholarly output. Get to know students’ goals and interests. If possible, allow some work time for research. Offer financial support for meeting or conference attendance as possible, or help find a roommate, rideshare, or other cost-cutting measures. List students’ names as authors on finding aids; this helps during the job interviewing process. Where possible, instead of describing them as a “Student Assistant,” try “Archives Assistant” or no title at all.
  • Involve students in everything. I’ve learned students love new experiences and also getting away from their desks – the bonus for them is learning more aspects of the profession. Bring them everywhere: donor meetings, records pick-ups, hunting expeditions in the stacks, etc. Encourage students to attend relevant trainings being offered or events on campus. Allow them to serve on committees if they are interested, but don’t pressure them into it.

These are some concrete actions you can take, but more important is the work environment that you cultivate. Try to create a supportive environment where students feel comfortable asking questions and voicing opinions. This helps them develop and feel a part of the work being done, but also empowers students to bring up new thoughts on how to tackle problems. Don’t be afraid to learn from your students! Allow your ideas and common practices to be challenged by someone with a fresh view. Build trust with your workers and allow them autonomy to learn and grow; you should also review their work and offer feedback and critique when needed.

In assembling these ideas, I talked to my student workers and heard from them that one of the best things I’ve done for them was to not be condescending. Apparently they get a lot of condescension in both classroom and job settings. So I recommend that we try being more respectful or deferential, and more approachable and welcoming. I like to think that’s a simple place to start, and the rest can grow from there.

SAA I&A Steering Share

This post first appeared on the Society of American Archivists’ Issues & Advocacy Section’s blog.

Steering Shares  provide an opportunity to learn more about the I&A Steering Committee and the issues that the committee members care about. This introduction post comes courtesy of committee member Steve Duckworth, University Archivist at Oregon Health & Science University.

What is your favorite thing about your job or the archives profession?

My favorite thing about the archives profession, in general, is that within every collection I’ve seen, even the ones that are 95% bland meeting minutes, I manage to find something that intrigues me or makes me laugh (often just at the absurdity of the past). And I think this really informs how I see and deal with the present. I’m a late-comer to the archives profession so perhaps this will wear off someday, but I rather hope not.

The thing I enjoy most about my current job though, is that I get to work with and mentor a couple of library school students. I work in a health and sciences archives (i.e., medical/nursing/dental/etc. school), so we don’t have a library program. However, we do have a bit of money in the budget to hire student workers and since Portland has an MLIS program (at Emporia State University), there is a good pool of library students to hire for these positions. So, even though I don’t officially teach any archives courses, I do get to train and mentor these students in archival practices; help them shape their resumes and cover letters, and navigate the job application process; and guide them as they find their own voices and places within the profession. I get to answer their questions, learn more about what they are being taught in school, and have my choices and assumptions questioned. So, not only are they learning and gaining professional experience, I’m constantly learning from them and reevaluating the work I do.

Having been a music teacher before embarking upon the archivist lifestyle, getting this experience back – of teaching what I know and learning from those I teach – is something I highly value having in my life again.

What made you want to join the I&A Steering Committee?

I had already been involved with I&A – having been on one of the on-call research teams for 2 years. Being still relatively new to the profession, I was finding my niche and really liked what I saw coming out of the I&A Section. I liked how they tackled both issues within the profession itself and within archives, as well as related concerns in current news and events. And I was also drawn to the different forms of blog writings that they had invited anyone to contribute to. To me, it seemed like they were working hard to make anyone feel like they could be a part of the change they wanted to see.

I especially liked (and even once wrote for) the “Archivists on the Issues” series – where the ever ‘neutral’ archivists were finally allowed to have a public opinion. Anyway, after two years of on-call news searching and blogging, the call for Steering Committee members spoke to me … I could have a say in the future of this group and the initiatives they take on for the next two years. So, now I get to manage one of those news teams, write blog entries (such as this), and help shape the direction of I&A.

What is an archival issue that means a lot to you?

One of the thorns in my side with the archives profession how we value our labor – or do not value our labor. We have a lot of unpaid labor happening, and this is something many people have spoken of. We also have a lot of under-paid labor. And a ton of temporary positions. And contract positions. Many of us are aware of these concerns. I was personally lucky enough to move into permanent employment after one project archivist position, but I know plenty of people who bounce around from project position to project position – and not out of the sheer joy of relocating every year or two.

I have a related issue with passion. I truly hope you love your job and enjoy going to work every day. However, if you’re being paid to work 40 hours per week, but end up working 50, 60, or more hours on a regular basis because of your passion (or the tenure-track-inflicted passion you are required to exude), you are also part of the problem. I’m sure this statement will bother a lot of people, but unpaid work in all forms devalues the work archivists do. When we accept lower pay and higher hours, we signal to people that we can get by, that our work isn’t worth that much, that money isn’t a huge concern – because we love what we do. [Editor’s note: Fobazi Ettarh writes eloquently about this in her post “Vocational Awe?”]

This devaluation also hinders access to the profession. If you can afford to be underpaid or potentially unemployed after a 2-year position ends or move to a new city to take one of these jobs where you’ll likely have to pay for your own healthcare and miss out on employer sponsored retirement savings – you probably have some privilege you may not even be aware of. Your privilege may also allow you to work extra hours because you can afford to only have one job or you are single or don’t have children or are coupled and have easier access to child care (there are a lot of ways this can play out; I’m just trying to make a point). This leaves the not-so-privileged trailing behind in the race to find a job – and then the rest of us sit around and try to figure out how to diversify the profession. I don’t mean to rant here, but perhaps this is where my passion has gone. Perhaps working as a struggling freelance musician for over a decade before entering this profession taught me more about the value of work and the joys of employee-sponsored benefits. Perhaps I’m trying to use my own privilege to affect some change. And obviously I don’t have this all figured out yet. But, this is definitely an issue that needs more attention.

Artifacts in the Archives

The following slides and text are from a presentation at the Society of Florida Archivists/Society of Georgia Archivists Joint Annual Meeting in Savannah, GA on October 14, 2016.

The full data-set can be downloaded here.

slide01So with this transition from the grant-funded project to our regular UF operations, I was tasked with creating a processing plan for what remained unprocessed from the museum collection. This included a large assortment of artifacts and artwork, along with your more standard archival documents and photographs. John and I met with the three members of the Panama grant project team and went over the work they had done so far and tried to gain an understanding of their processes and the work that had been completed. While the ways in which processing had been done over the previous 2 years with the project did not meet with how we would have preferred the work to be completed – and somewhat complicated things from our archival viewpoint – it was decided to continue in the same manner to assure that the entire collection got processed and, while it wasn’t ideal, keeping with the earlier practices would at least create fairly consistent control and description of the collection.

slide02I set out to create the processing plan – what actually was my first ever solo processing plan – by surveying the collection holdings at our off-site storage facility where the majority of the unprocessed items and records were held. The results of the survey showed that we had about 7 linear feet of archival documents; over 200 framed art pieces, maps, and similar works; and almost 4,000 artifacts left to process. Now, I’m well-trained in archival processing and come from a long line of MPLP-style work, having received my early hands-on processing training with one of the PACSCL Hidden Collections projects in Philadelphia. I keep stats on my own processing whether administrators request it or not, and I’ve implemented some of the same processes for metrics tracking at UF. So, I was pretty secure in estimating the needs for processing those 7 linear feet of archival records and photographs.

slide03What I wasn’t sure about was how to estimate processing of the art and artifacts. At PACSCL, we dealt with a small number of artifacts and tended to keep them within the archival collections. I also worked with the National Park Service for about a year, but there, artifacts were removed and processed by someone else. I headed to the web, as you do, to look for information on processing times for artifacts, but didn’t coming up with anything of much use. The Park Service has a lot of information on how to budget money for artifact processing, but doesn’t include information about time in their manuals. There was scant information available from other sources, so I ended up making an educated guess and crossed my fingers (in the end, I guessed a bit too low).

slide04But, this made me question – with our love of stats and assessment – why aren’t some general numbers for artifact processing available somewhere.

slide05I posed this question to John and he agreed. He had looked for this type of data before and found very little. He recalled a few times in the past where archivists or other professionals would pose this question to the SAA listserv and noted that they would generally be met with responses noting the unique nature of artifacts and how one couldn’t possibly generalize processing times for artifacts or artwork. Having learned how archivists used to say this all the time about our own paper collections, but knowing that we somehow managed to move on to the understanding that minimal processing usually takes around 4 hours per linear foot and item-level processing tends to take 8 to 10 hours per foot, I thought, we can do better. And with the advice and encouragement of my dear supervisor … a research project was born.

Along with John, I formed a small but professionally-diverse group of people including Lourdes and Jessica, John’s highly knowledgeable wife Laura Nemmers, and a colleague from the Ringling Museum in Sarasota, Jarred Wilson. We started working on a survey to pose to archivists and museum professionals to try to figure out what data people had and how we could aggregate that into a generalized form that would be useful for budgeting and planning future processing projects. As is the focus of our talk here, this issue is becoming more and more common and we all thought these sorts of metrics would prove useful to others in the future.

slide06In our first meeting we spent a lot of time deciding how to collect the data and also discussing terminology. Having a group with mixed archival and museum backgrounds led to discussions of what exactly each of us meant when we said accessioning, processing, inventorying, and other such terms. Where I say process, Jessica may say accession. Where I say minimal record, she may say inventory entry. Further research and discussions showed that even within one segment of the community, these terms didn’t describe the same tasks for everyone. So, we began to think that we should survey people about terminology before surveying them about data – to make sure we asked the right questions.

When we next met, we went over the survey I had devised to try to get a grip on the terminology questions – but it was still confusing and not actually getting at the point we were after. And we also knew that surveys tend to have a small response rate and we didn’t want to over-burden the people that might participate in this project. So, back to the drawing board we went. We decided instead of asking people what they meant by each term and then asking how much time they spent doing the tasks described, we would cut to the chase and describe the actions we meant and see if they had data they could share or if they would agree to collect some data and send it to us.

slide07I sent out a general email asking for people who might be interested in taking part in a research survey regarding artifact processing within archival settings. From that first request, I received 31 responses from people interested in taking part in or learning more about the project. Then, once we had sorted out exactly what to ask for and how to format the data, I sent another, more specific request to just the people that had initially responded. After sending out that request, a number of people dropped out, and in the end only 6 people submitted data.

slide08But within those 6 institutions (7 when we include UF) were a wide variety of institution- and record-types – including archivists, curators, and managers from academic institutions, museums, federal and city government, and public libraries.

slide09As for the data, we had devised a set of 9 categories of artifacts that grouped different sorts of items together based on size or complexity, and a general idea of how long they would take to describe. Of the institutions who participated, 4 used these categories to collect data, while the other 2 sent in more generalized information from how they normally collect or devise processing times. At UF, we did a bit more processing of the artifacts with these categories in mind since metrics were not collected during the first 2 years of the project and having our own data involved seemed like a good idea.

slide10Here you can see the data parsed out by the categories showing the average amount of time for either minimal or full processing for the assorted 9 categories. The entries marked “null” meant that no data was received in that category for that level of processing. (And you may notice that one outlier in category 3 where each item took almost 3 hours to process. Those were some pretty intense dioramas that skewed the data wildly for that category, but it doesn’t have much of an impact on the final averages.)

slide11 Here you can see the average overall processing times in a few different ways. Processing time for the categorized items comes in at around 8 minutes per item for minimal processing and almost 22 minutes per item for full processing. All of the categorized processing averages out to just over 19 minutes per item. When I couple this data with the numbers from the other 2 institutions that only sent in generalized data, you can see that the final number only goes up by about 20 seconds in the end. So what we have in the end is that, with or without the categories, an artifact can generally be expected to take roughly 20 minutes to process (I had estimated 10 minutes in my processing plan). This is an aggregate, so obviously the processing times of individual items will vary dramatically. But for large collections of objects, knowing that you have, say, 2,000 or so items to process, at roughly 20 minutes per item, allows an institution to at least propose a relatively reliable timeline (5 to 6 months) for project planning and budgeting.

I would like to see a larger data-set to create more useful guidelines for processors going forward, and we’re continuing to collect numbers at UF, but for now, this is what we have. Also, just a quick thanks to everyone who participated in this study.


National Tracing Center of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives

by Steve Ammidown* and Steve Duckworth (original post appeared on the SAA I&A Roundtable “Archivists on the Issues” blog on July 7, 2016; this post updated on September 19, 2016 to include new information and articles)

Let’s talk about guns. And records management. And maybe some advocacy.

According to their website, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) is

a law enforcement agency … that protects our communities from violent criminals, criminal organizations, the illegal use and trafficking of firearms, the illegal use and storage of explosives, acts of arson and bombings, acts of terrorism, and the illegal diversion of alcohol and tobacco products. [They] partner with communities, industries, law enforcement, and public safety agencies to safeguard the public [they] serve through information sharing, training, research, and use of technology.

That’s a big job. But as we’re about to see, “information sharing” and the “use of technology” are pretty restricted at the ATF.

The National Tracing Center (NTC) is the firearms tracing facility of the ATF. Located in Martinsburg, WV, they are the only facility in the United States that can provide information to law enforcement agencies (local, state, federal, and international) that can be used to trace firearms in criminal investigations, gun trafficking, and other movement of firearms, both domestically and internationally. And they are drowning in records. From recent reports, roughly 1.6 million records arrive at the facility each month. Records usually come from defunct firearms dealers who are required to submit their records when they go out of business. (For dealers still in business, the NTC contacts them after tracing a weapon through its manufacturer.) There appear to be no standards in place for how dealers have to keep or submit these records. There is a form (4473) for the actual gun purchase, but other records can come in on computer media or hand-written documents. They often arrive somewhat damaged, with partially shredded or water-damaged records being frequently cited in news reports. Some people even send theirs in on rolls of toilet paper.

As it is currently illegal to create a registry of firearms in the U.S., the idea of a searchable database is also off the table. This leaves workers at the facility with the task of sifting through these records manually to complete traces. Upwards of 365,000 traces are requested each year, and the number will just keep growing (due in part to the Obama administration’s requirement that every gun involved in a crime be traced). While records are now being digitized to provide some easier access and relief for the physical space needed, the records remain non-searchable and amount to a newer version of microfilmed records. Even these digitization efforts are problematic, as a recent Government Accountability Office report showed. The GAO reported that digital records systems were in violation because, among other things, the records were kept on a single server, and allowed access to too much data.

Some of the problems at the NTC can be traced to the lack of consistent leadership and chronic underfunding. The position of the agency director was unfilled from 2006 to 2013 due to legislation backed by the National Rifle Association (NRA) that requires Senate confirmation to fill the position. In 2013, acting director B. Todd Jones was narrowly confirmed to fill the Director role, but he retired soon after (in 2015) and the position has yet to be filled permanently. Stagnant funding has prevented the ATF from keeping up with demand. In addition to the overwhelmed workers at NTC, the agency has just over 600 inspectors dedicated to inspecting the record-keeping at over 140,000 gun dealers across the country.

The data collected by the NTC is also subject to the NRA’s legislative sway in Washington. As mentioned, they have been successful in heading off any attempts at creating a searchable database, arguing that such a mechanism would be a “registry” in violation of the Second Amendment. Taking it one step further, a set of provisions known as the “Tiahrt Amendments” has been attached to every U.S. Department of Justice appropriations bill since 2003, prohibiting the NTC from releasing information to anyone other than a law enforcement agency or prosecutor in connection with a criminal investigation. The law effectively blocks this data from being used in academic research on criminal gun use or in civil lawsuits against gun sellers or manufacturers. It also prevents the ATF from collecting the inventory information from gun dealers, which would further help identify lost or stolen guns. The Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence argues that these amendments only empower criminals and reckless dealers.

Restrictive laws and a lack of quality management lead to a massive backlog of records and a very limited system of filling the great number of trace requests the NTC receives. The antiquated measures required by the NTC restrict law enforcement’s ability to perform their duties. While public opinion regarding gun sales seems to be turning (unlike Congress’s voting record), the idea of a database seems quite far off. An effective and permanent director at the ATF would be a good starting place, but as of this writing, a nomination doesn’t appear to even be in place (and given the current political climate, it’s not likely to happen anytime soon).

Not unlike the rest of the gun debate, the political debate around the NTC and gun tracing data seems intractable and unlikely to change. Luckily for us, however, we’re archivists and records managers! We offer a unique perspective on this subject when we contact our elected officials on this topic. We’ve been in the dusty stacks (yes, we said it) and dealt with unwieldy access systems when time was of the essence. We should be arguing for the modernization and full funding of the NTC and the repeal of the Tiahrt Amendments, at the least to improve access to government information and at the most to help save lives. So consider this your call to advocacy (as mentioned at the start). If you feel this situation warrants some action, take it and contact your legislators now!

*Steve Ammidown is the Manuscripts and Outreach Archivist for the Browne Popular Culture Library at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio.


Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF),

Government Accountability Office, June 2016 “Report to Congressional Requesters: ATF Did Not Always Comply with the Appropriations Act Restriction and Should Better Adhere to Its Policies” (GAO-16-552),

Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, “Maintaining Records on Gun Sales,”

National Tracing Center (NTC),, (informational brochure:

National Tracing Center via Wikipedia (good general overview),

The White House, “Presidential Memorandum – Tracing of Firearms in Connection with Criminal Investigations,”

News reports:

2016 August 30, GQ, “Inside the Federal Bureau of Way Too Many Guns,”

2016 August 24, The Trace, “The ATF’s Nonsensical Non-Searchable Gun Database, Explained,”

2016 March 24, America’s 1st Freedom [NRA magazine], “Where the ATF Scans Gun Sales Records,”

2016 January 6, The Guardian, “Agency tasked with enforcing Obama’s gun control measures has been gutted,”

2015 October 27, USA Today, “Millions of Firearms Records Languish at National Tracing Center”

2015 March 20, USA Today, “ATF director announces resignation,”

2013 June 11, Media Matters, “How the NRA Hinders the ATF Director Confirmation Process,”

2013 May 20, NPR, “The Low-Tech Way Guns Get Traced,”

2013 March 13, InformationWeek, “ATF’s Gun Tracing System is a Dud,”

2013 February 19, WJLA ABC7 (Washington, D.C.), “ATF National Tracing Center Traces Guns the Old-Fashioned Way,” (YouTube:

2013 January 30, CBS Evening News, “Tracing Guns is Low-tech Operation for ATF,”

2011 November 2, Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, “Federal Law on Tiahrt Amendments,”

2010 October 26, Washington Post, “ATF’s Oversight Limited in Face of Gun Lobby,”

Research Post: Fire at the Cinemateca Brasileira

This post first appeared on the Society of American Archivists’ Issues & Advocacy Roundtable blog.

I&A Research Teams are groups of dedicated volunteers who monitor breaking news and delve into ongoing topics affecting archives and the archival profession. Under the leadership of the I&A Steering Committee, the Research Teams compile their findings into Research Posts for the I&A blog. Each Research Post offers a summary and coverage of an issue. This Research Post comes from On-Call Research Team #2, which is mobilized to investigate issues as they arise.

Please be aware that the sources cited have not been vetted and do not indicate an official stance of SAA or the Issues and Advocacy Roundtable.

Summary of the Issue

A fire broke out in the film library of the Cinemateca Brasileira in São Paolo on February 3, 2016. The exact cause of the fire was not reported, but the area involved was where nitrate film was stored. This material is known to be volatile and can spontaneously combust due to environmental factors. Sources reported that approximately 1,000 rolls of film burned in the fire. All is not lost, however, as the institution states that all films lost in the fire had been preserved in other media formats (though some of the reports stated that 80% were preserved in other formats). Reports of the fire came out soon after the event occurred, but updates and further information has not been located. While there are many reports, especially reports in Portuguese, almost all of them date from February 3 or 4. They each appear to leave some questions on the table.

The fire occurred in one of the institution’s nitrate film warehouses, which are specially designed to house such film; there is no electric grid and interior walls do not reach the ceilings. Most sources report that it took about 30 minutes to contain the fire. Some video footage of the scene can be found here.

The Cinemateca Brasileira holds some 250,000 film rolls, including features, short films, and newsreels, as well as books, papers, movie posters, and other paper records; this loss represents 0.4% of their film holdings. The history of the Cinemateca can be traced back to 1946 as the Second Film Club of São Paolo (after the First had been closed by the Department of Press and Propaganda in 1941). In 1948, the Club became affiliated with the International Federation of Film Clubs and, in 1949, with the film department of São Paolo’s newly created Museum of Modern Art. In 1964, it was incorporated into the Ministry of Culture, becoming a governmental institution. Previous fires have occurred in 1957, 1969, and 1982, all due to nitrate film. The institute moved into its current facilities, built under the technical guidance of the International Federation of Film Archives (FIAF), in 1998.

The Archivist Rising blog reported that the institution suffered somewhat recent budget cuts due to a large financial crisis. Blogger Aurélio Michiles blames the incident on the previous budget cuts as well, but describes the cuts as more of a punishment towards the administration rather than having to do with an overall financial crisis. Further sources state the number of employees has been reduced from over 100 in 2013 to just over 20 currently, though it remains unclear how many employees are governmental workers and how many are actually employed by the Cinematheque’s Friends Society (Sociedade Amigos da Cinemateca) and whether or not that affects the various numbers reported from different sources. The truth behind this budget controversy is left for further research – and preferably by someone proficient in Portuguese.

bibliography of coverage of the issue:

“Some thousand film rolls burnt in Cinemateca Brasileira fire.” EBC Agencia Brasil. Accessed 2016 March 25. (EBC manages TV Brasil, TV Brasil International, Agência Brasil, Radioagência, and the National Public Broadcast System. Besides the commitment to public communication, their values are characterized by editorial independence, transparency, and participatory management.)

“Cinemateca Brasileira.” Wikipedia. Accessed 2016 March 25.

“Ministério da Cultura não tem plano para evitar novos incêndios na Cinemateca Brasileira.” Estãdo. Accessed 2016 March 25.,ministerio-da-cultura-nao-tem-plano-para-evitar-novos-incendios-na-cinemateca-brasileira,10000014848

“Ministério da Cultura mudará gestão da Cinemateca.” Folha De S. Paolo. Accessed 2016 March 25.

The I&A Steering Committee would like to thank Steve Duckworth for writing this post, and Rachel Seale and Alison Stankrauff for doing key research on the issue.

I&A On-Call Research Team #2 is:

Alison Stankrauff, Leader
Katherine Barbera
Anna Chen
Steven Duckworth
David McAllister
Rachel Seale

If you are aware of an issue that might benefit from a Research Post, please get in touch with us:

Code4Lib2016 Conference Review

This post was written for, and first appeared on, SAA’s SNAP roundtable blog.

Code4Lib 2016 was held in Philadelphia, PA from March 7 to 10 along with a day of pre-conference workshops. The core Code4Lib community consists of “developers and technologists for libraries, museums, and archives who have a strong commitment to open technologies,” but they are quite open and welcoming to any tangentially related person or institution. As a processing archivist whose main experience has been with paper documents, I thought I would feel confused and out of place for the length of this conference, but, while I had my moments, I left feeling more knowledgeable about efforts and innovations within the coding community, giddy with ideas of projects to bring to my own workplace, and incredibly glad that I stepped outside of my archival comfort zone to attend (and present at!) this conference. (And I have to thank our university’s Metadata Librarian, Allison Jai O’Dell, for asking me to present with her. Without her reaching out to me, I likely wouldn’t have gotten involved in the conference to begin with.)

So, before Code4Lib, there was Code4Arc – at least, as a preconference workshop. Code4Arc focused on the specific coding and technology needs of the archivist community and on the need to make Code4Arc an actual thing, rather than just an attachment to Code4Lib. While both communities would have quite a bit of overlap, archivists obviously have their own niche problems, and coders can often help sort those problems out. Also, having a direct line between consumer-with-a-problem and developer-with-a-solution would prove quite beneficial to all parties involved. The day was divided up into a series of informal discussions and more focused breakout groups, along with some updates from developers. The end result mainly boiled down to continuing the discussion about our needs as a community, communicating and sharing knowledge and data more openly, and focusing efforts on specific problems that affect many archives. We’ve formed some ad hoc groups and will likely have more to say in the not-too-distant future.

code-loveAs to the conference proper, I’ll start by noting that a ton of information is available online. The conference site lists presentations, presenter bios, and links to twitter handles and slides where available. Three series of Lightning Talks emerged during the conference; information on those talks can be found on the wiki, which is full of useful information and links. And everything was recorded, so you can watch the presentations from the Code4Lib YouTube channel. The conference presentations were almost a series of lightning talks themselves. Each presentation was allotted 10-20 minutes of time, with 6 groups of presentations given over the course of the conference, along with 2 plenary talks. So, while it was a nice change from the general conference configuration, it did make for a rather exhausting (but engaging) experience. Having said that, I will only specifically mention a few of the presentations that resounded more with me or relate more specifically to archival work (because seriously, I saw over 50 in the course of 2.5 days). But again, I stress, totally worth it! And they feed you. A lot!

So on day one (inserts shameless plug), Allison Jai O’Dell and I presented The Fancy Finding Aid (video | slides). We talked about some front-end design solutions for making finding aids more interactive and attractive. Allison is wicked smart and also offered up a quick lightning talk on day three about the importance of communicating, often informally, with your co-workers (video). Other presentations of note from day one include Shira Peltzman, Alice Sara Prael, and Julie Swierzek speaking about digital preservation in the real world in two separate presentations, “Good Enough” preservation (video | slides) and Preservation 101 (video | slides). Eka Grguric broke down some simple steps anyone can take towards Usability Testing (video | slides) and Katherine Lynch shared great ideas regarding Web Accessibility issues (video | slides). Check out the slides for lots of great links and starting points, like testing out navigability by displacing your mouse or using a screen reader with your monitor off.

Matienzo: Ever to Excel

Later on, Mark Matienzo discussed the ubiquity of the spreadsheet in Ever to Excel (video | slides). The popularity of spreadsheets may come from the hidden framework that shields users from low-level programming, making users feel more empowered. Lightning talks included the programming committee asking for help with diversity in #ProgramSoWhite (video | slides), a focus repeated the following day in a diversity breakout session. Ideas generated from the diversity talks were focused on further outreach with schools and professional organizations, scholarship initiatives for underrepresented populations and newer professionals, and stressing the need for those in the coding community to reach out for collaborators in other areas to bring new voices into the community.

Angela Galvan, in her talk titled “So you’re going to die” (video | related notes), spoke about digital estate management and the need to plan for what happens to digital assets after someone dies. Though humans now post so much of their lives online, we are still relatively silent about death. Yuka Egusa’s talk about how non-coders can contribute to open source software projects was particularly popular (video | slides). She notes that engineers love coding, but generally don’t like writing documentation. Librarians and archivists can write those documents and training manuals, and we can aid with reporting bugs and usability testing. Don’t let lack of coding knowledge keep you from being part of innovative programs that interest you.

Yoose: libtech burnoutDay two: Becky Yoose gave an exhilarating talk about protecting yourself from #libtech burnout (video | slides). In the lightning talks, Greg Wiedeman spoke about his Archives Network Transfer System (video | more info), which is an interesting solution to a problem Code4Arc focused on, but also highlights the need for a simpler way to structure the process of transferring digital materials to the archives.

Andreas Orphanides gave a great talk about the power of design. Architecture is Politics (video | slides) highlighted how, intentionally or not, your web and systems designs are political; likewise politics influence your design. The choices you make in design can control your user, both explicitly and subtly, and politics can influence the choices you make in the same way. Thus, design is a social justice issue and you need to be active in knowing your users, recognizing your own biases, and diversifying your practices. Matt Carruthers talked about Utilizing digital scholarship to foster new research in Special Collections (video | slides). This project at the University of Michigan provides visualization-on-demand customized to a patron’s research question. Though still in the early stages of development, they are extracting data from EAD files they already have to create EAC-CPF connections. This data is then used to visualize the networks, and online access to the visualizations is offered for users. This is the start of a fascinating new way to provide further discovery and access in archives and special collections.

Day three’s lightning talks included Sean Aery from Duke speaking about integration of digital collections and findings aids and some great ways to maintain context while doing so (video | slides); Heidi Tebbe recommended the use of GitHub as a knowledge base, not just a place for code (video | slides); and Steelsen Smith pointed out the various issues that can arise with assorted sign-ons and using single sign-ons to actually open up systems for more users (video | slides).

And lastly, Mike Shallcross discussed a University of Michigan project that I’ve been following closely, the ArchivesSpace-Archivematica-DSpace Workflow Integration (video | slides). They are working to overhaul archival management to bring ArchivesSpace and Archivematica together with a DSpace repository to standardize description and create a “curation ecosystem.” We’re closing in on a similar project where I work and Mike has been making regular (and rather entertaining) blogposts about the Michigan project, so it was good to hear him in person. (If interested in more, check out their blog.)

Orphanides: Architecture is PoliticsOh, the plenary talks. I almost forgot. They were great. The opening talk by Kate Krauss of the Tor project focused on social justice movements in the age of online surveillance (video | slides) and the closing talk by DuckDuckGo founder Gabriel Weinberg (video) similarly focused on privacy and related concerns in online searching.

So, it was a great conference. There were definite themes emerging about creating better access and more privacy for users; trying to get out of your normal routine and envision projects from another perspective; communicating better and more openly within and around our own community; and using all of this to better document and support underrepresented communities around the world. I’ve now said too much. I hate reading long blog posts. But I definitely recommend this conference to anyone in the library and archives fields with any inkling of interest in digital projects. It’s a great way to get new ideas, see that you aren’t alone with your out-of-date systems, and meet some great people who you may not normally get to interact with on a regular basis.