Not on Google? It Doesn’t Exist: Findability and Search Engine Optimization for Archives (and Libraries and Museums)

August 14th, 2010 No comments

On Saturday at the SAA 2010 Conference Session 502, I joined Jeanne Kramer-Smyth and Mark Matienzo in a session “Not on Google? It Doesn’t Exist: Findability and Search Engine Optimization for Archives.”

We’ve posted our presentations:

Teaching primary sources: Secondary in, Primary out, Flip it, Repeat

July 29th, 2010 3 comments

I was thinking of using this for high school students, but this exercise would also work well for undergrads.  Two main goals and two smaller goals:

  1. Construct a narrative history of some person, event, topic, etc. using primary and secondary sources.
  2. Explore what it means to have a written history of something — what are the biases that go into creating a history.
  3. (Exposure to working with primary source materials.)
  4. (General archives outreach and instruction.)

In the first part of the exercise, you use a secondary source’s source material to explore how the author(s) constructed a history:

  1. Find a book that has includes tons of citations, many of which are from a single repository (see example below).
  2. Identify an interesting 1-2 page passage from the book and retrieve all of the primary and secondary sources that the author used to build that history.
  3. Students read the passage first, then they work together to identify where the author found all the information by going through the body of records, books, and other materials you’ve pulled.  You could create a worksheet to guide the students through identifying each cited concept or quote.
  4. Discuss what the students found and where they found it.  Also talk about what else was in the source material that the author chose to not include — what do these extra details add to the story?
  5. Optional: It would be nice to also pull a couple documents that extend the story beyond the written passage.  The book should be helpful in identifying such material.  You can discuss what these other materials add to the story.

The second part of the exercise has students building histories from from scratch.

  1. Using a different passage in the book, again pull all the cited source material.
  2. Without showing the students the passage, have them use the materials to build a 1-3 paragraph history of the topic you’ve laid out for them.  This might be more effective if students are broken into manageable-sized groups.
  3. At the end, have the groups present their histories.  Optional: Create a more complete history using all groups’ histories.
  4. Give the students the author’s passage and discuss the differences.  Use this as a jumping off point to discuss things like:
    • What details had more focus in the book than in the students work?
    • How does background and point of view affect one’s understanding?
    • How can one person’s understanding of history differ from another person’s and why?
    • Who determine’s what is history? How do different types of biases play a role?
    • Are primary sources reliable and how do they related to secondary sources?
    • What if sources disagree with each other?
    • Is history the truth?


  • This exercise would also work online or as a packet of reproduced materials, which would also allow for cross-repository source material.  I think it would it have more impact and get students more engaged if they were dealing with the original documents in-house, but that means the expense of a field trip.
  • This would be a good National History Day small-group exercise.
  • When writing the grant proposal to support such a program, don’t forget to use phrases such as “introduce historiographical methods” and “interrogate sources.”
  • Transcriptions of tricky handwritten documents would help.
  • An example of a book that has includes tons of citations from a single repository is A New and Untried Course, Steven Peitzman’s book about the history of Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania (1850-1998) which draws heavily from the collections at the Drexel University College of Medicine Legacy Center Archives.

This falls into “positive it’s been done before category” — I assume a number of teachers are using this approach.  So, as usual, I’d love to hear about any archivists, educators, whoever who have been doing this sort of thing at a repository or has struck up standing teacher-school-repository partnerships.

Heritage Philadelphia Program: 8 Sites, 1 Bus, 100s of Stories

June 16th, 2010 No comments

Heritage Philadelphia Program – 8 Sites, 1 Bus, 100s of Stories
Virginia Trip June 9-11, 2010
Matt Herbison’s Raw Notes

Matt’s main topics for follow-up meeting June 28

-If HPP’s goal is to ask people to think beyond the obvious when it comes to public history, to develop meaningful engagement strategies in the 21st century, it is naive to not discuss online engagement and how to tie it to in-house/onsite interpretation
–How does an institution/site/museum engage and interpret in an online environment?
–Is online approach standalone, an alternative, an extension, a primer, or a carrot to come to the site?
–It is a mistake to not incorporate a online interpretive plan into overall (see DUCOM planning grant)…but not unexpected since tech incorporation is unfamiliar, all over the map, and expensive
–Will sites be in trouble if they can’t start creating a tighter connection between online and on-site offerings (especially as money for field trips is shrinking). Is it possible to move the initial engagement to an online setting?
–What are the digital humanities trends that can be applied to historic sites and institutions?
–Would be a good exercise to assess each site’s website (see links in site-specific notes later in doc)
–Conferences like AAM online conference “Technology, Interpretation, and Education 2010” June 22-24, 2010 —

-Hard to discuss what works in engaging people with history without establishing the “engagement setting” and the priority of “engagement goals,” since completely different approaches may be needed depending on the combination

Engagement Setting
1 – Guided school groups (or other kids’ groups)
2 – Guided groups of adults and kids who don’t know each other
3 – Walk-in or self-guided individuals or small groupings
(4 – Preparing teachers to take our interpretive content back to students)

Engagement Goals (how to organize these?)
1a – Inspiration
1b – Knowledge
2a – Conversation
2b – Information
2c – Critical thinking skills
3a – Relevance
3b – Novelty/Coolness/Quaintness (?)

These two variables (ES & EG) form a matrix that could help drive the designs of interpreted engagement opportunities — see draft table below.
…these goals and settings are often at odds with each other, e.g.:
-Conversation works best with people who know each other or have fairly focused interests (e.g., a K12 class where teacher knows who doesn’t speak up versus Tenement Museum discussions where very little discussion happens)
-Inspiration is hard to predict, especially in self-guided settings
-Relevance works better when interpretation is tweaked to match the audience (e.g., Monticello house guide talking about several Philadelphia connections)

Museum Engagement Settings and Goals

(regarding this matrix)
I feel pretty good about the row-items, but the column ones need a lot more refining.

As it is, it has started to help me think about:
(1) for a particular interpretation approach, what audiences and purposes does it fit (“fitting into”)
(2) before designing your interpretation approach, figuring out what audiences and purposes you want to meet (“getting out of”)

-Considering the different requirements of combinations of Engagement Setting and Engagement Goals, how do you then deal with the inconsistent experiences of visitors?
–Even guided tours and packages can end up being quite different in focus (e.g., Bill A’s women-centric Monticello tour in 2009 versus our 2010 tour)
–Value of having a baseline-setting experience, like a 10 minute introductory movie

-What are the interpretive and engagement values of authenticity of objects and place? (A variation on one of Seth B’s questions)
–Thought and research questions:
—-What if Frederick Douglass House was 100% reproductions instead of 70% original — what if you could sit in his spot at the table? What would be gained and what would be lost?
—-What proportion of visiting audience experience a gut reaction to authentic objects? My only time has been with bits of Lincoln’s skull at National Museum of Health and Medicine (at Walter Reed) but what proportion of people get this feeling touching original documents and artifacts AND is it worth actively acquiring them (like the $50K china pieces bought by Montpelier)
—-Photocopy historical newspapers then throw out originals; photocopy 20th century typescripts then throw out; photocopy 19th century manuscripts and throw out; …what is the point it stops being OK? …and what is the original of a digital object that you print out?
–If a guide/interpreter doesn’t actually use the place, they are missing out on having a anchor to tell the stories, doing teaching not interpreting, and wasting the visitor’s time in coming to that location (E.g., the Mount Vernon slave tour didn’t use place well but the Monticello one was better; our house tours did a better job of using each room as the focus of the story/description)
–There is an assumption that individuals or groups visiting your institution are getting an experience that they can’t get from home, school, television, or the Internet. (Unless you are providing companion material on your website, but that is a separate discussion.) If you are giving them something that would work just as well if they were not visiting, why not save them the money and go to them? Read more…

Categories: Uncategorized Tags:

Can you skip learning EAD and go right to Archivists’ Toolkit or Archon?

May 11th, 2010 2 comments

I tweeted out a question last Friday:
What’s a compelling reason for an archivist who doesn’t know EAD to take a workshop, rather than just skipping the XML & learning AT/Archon?

And got some thoughtful answers (for the most part, Rebecca!):

AT Guide and DACS I agree with all of these, but especially the last 4 words of Christine’s response, “at least a little.”  I also completely agree and completely disagree with Mark’s comment — I agree with the points but think need is much too strong a word in practice. (Granted, Mark had to get it across in 140 characters while here I can decree loquaciously.)

But for those archivists and librarians who are simply trying to get finding aids done and get stuff online, this could be done by entering their collection info in AT into fields that look familiar (bio, scope, bulk dates, etc.), spend some time figuring out what child and sibling mean (seems to be a tricky point for a lot of people), and clicking the Report button to spit out a finding aid in html or as a pdf.  (For the purposes of this post, I will just refer to AT instead of AT/Archon — this is actually easier to do in Archon if you would use it as a public interface.)

When I first learned EAD, I was using the UNIX vi editor with SGML EAD.  Similarly, when I first started doing web stuff, you had little choice but to write the raw code.  I still feel more assured working in the xml than in AT, the same way that I often prefer working in the html code view rather than a wysiwyg editor.  In general, knowing what’s going on with the guts means that you are more flexible and much more able to troubleshoot.

But these days, there are lots of lovely and useful webpages that have been built by people who I assume don’t know the first thing about html. They’re using existing tools and services that shift the technology burden to someone else (the nerds), thereby allowing them to skip straight to getting stuff online. I’m using WordPress here because it is dead easy, even if some of its code is a bit off.  I use Archivists’ Toolkit because it is much faster and easier than touching the EAD, even if my output is not ideal (which is more the stylesheet than the EAD itself).

To think about this issue a different way: If learning EAD stands in the way of learning a tool like Archivists’ Toolkit or Archon, that as a big problem.  Yes, the “right way” to do it is to learn EAD, DACS, XML, XSLT, and AT.  But I think if someone skipped straight to AT, perhaps taking a 2 or 3 hour AT workshop for some helpful handholding, they would get to a comfort level where they could go back to the repository and start getting stuff online.

Is it negligent to skip straight to AT?  No, and it doesn’t make someone a bad archivist. It is less than ideal and maybe even a bit risky, but it’s also a very practical approach.  And the more I think about it, the more I realize that this is the most immediate value of a tool like AT/Archon.

I welcome your comments, the more horrified the better. Although I’d love to hear from people who have taken this approach.


1 – If you are at an institution that has either of the following, please disregard this post and get back to submitting your reimbursement receipts for the last conference you went to: A dedicated IT person associated with the library/archives or more than 10 staff members who are some kind of archivist.

2 – This is admittedly a bit disingenuous, using a “skip straight to AT” argument, since the details of installing AT are often beyond the abilities of exactly the type of repositories that would benefit from using it for finding aid production.  I should look into this, but I bet some people are just using the AT Sandbox, exporting the finding aid as html or pdf, and mounting it on their own repository website. After AT and Archon merge, I hope someone offers hosted versions or service subscriptions (like or LibLime).

3 – In the interest of full disclosure, please visit the homely and overly long webpage that contains the finding aids that I have control over: You will find pdfs, html, and more recent AT-output html finding aids.  I use AT at the Seaport Museum solely for the purposes of outputting finding aids to mount online, not in any way as a long-term archives management system.  I hope to go into why I do this in a later post.

Categories: Archives, Lib|Arch|Mus, Uncategorized Tags:

Using Camera Phones to Improve Reference in the Archives and Library

December 7th, 2009 6 comments

Using an iPhone for quick reference request images Today I received an email reference request and over the course of 20 minutes, located four helpful resources (2 printed, 2 microfilm) in the Archives and Library. I took snapshots with my iPhone, emailed the photos to myself, then composed a reply describing the content of the photos and forwarded everything to the researcher.

The image to the right is all the detail I’m looking to provide at this early stage of the researcher/resource conversation.

Beware, this is one of those revelations that is completely obvious once it has happened: Being able to email myself photos from speeds up reference and makes me more likely to send along more resources that I identify.

Ideally, I would be able to register that a digital surrogate exists for some library/archives resource, but that is exactly what tends to slow me down in the first place. It is the extreme quick and dirty approach that makes the whole process work. Doing “proper imaging” of resources bogs me down. The slowdown caused by the initial setup of the scanner or photo staging area lends itself to waiting until a threshold has been reached — say, once I have 20 things to scan (across different researchers), I will set aside time for a scanning session.

The thing that drove me to escape this session-based imaging and changed my mental approach was researchers themselves. At least a 70% of our in-house researchers simply take reference snapshots of materials rather than making photocopies or requesting scans. I decided that if it was OK for them, it was OK for me to give to them. That is when I started taking quickie snapshots of everything with my point-and-shoot digital camera.  But the transferring of photos to the computer also tended to cause a slowdown for me: the former scanning session slowdown morphed into an image transfer session slowdown — a smaller bottle-neck than before, but still a bottle-neck.

My new camera-phone approach has become:

  1. Find a resource
  2. Take snapshots with my phone (including any photos need for citation info)
  3. Email photos to my work email address (low-res is usually fine)
  4. Tweak file names to make sources clear
  5. Email snapshots to researcher

This approach has not only saved me hours of time but also improves the response time and thoroughness of reference requests.

While I do have an iPhone, this would certainly be true of any camera/phone that would allow for emailing or wireless image transfer.  I’m interested in hearing what quick and dirty approaches others use.

[Add-on, March 29, 2010:] Just got this forwarded to me — “Capture and Release: Digital Cameras in the Reading Room” by Lisa Miller, Steven K. Galbraith, and the RLG Partnership Working Group on Streamlining Photography and Scanning:

Using Google Earth to Jog Memories in Oral History Interviews

October 27th, 2009 4 comments

I’ve noticed that when people use Google Earth to fly over places from their past — where they grew up or places they used to live — it seems that their memories are dislodged in a different way than when you have people recall memories based on other techniques.

It is the difference between asking “Where did _______ happen?
and asking “What happened near _______?

I’ve worked with several people who were flying and zooming around in Google Earth and ended up saying things like, “Oh, I remember when this place …” or “That was where I saw …..” Last year, I was using Google Earth with my dad and I heard several stories that I had never before heard from him about growing up outside Cleveland.

There is something about Google Earth’s birds-eye (aka, oblique) views that gets people recollecting in different ways than they do with street map views or even straight-down aerial photos. Skimming over the earth with a 45-degree birds-eye perspective imbues a more narrative sense of the landscape than the straight-down view. It is really about going beyond strict geographic context to convey a larger sense of perspective.

I’m interested in knowing if oral historians have used Google Earth as an “oral history memory motivator.” I know that the PhilaPlace Project is using a mapping component to “feature an interactive map through which visitors can explore both personal stories and historical records mapped to specific locations.” They map stories and eventually may use maps to obtain those stories. Later today I’m heading over to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania to talk with Joan Saverino and Melissa Mandell about the mapping component of PhilaPlace.

This approach would only work for certain types of location-specific recollections and would be difficult to use in a field interview setting (due to reliance on speedy network access). But for certain types of interviews, it may be a good tool. One might even be able to employ the tour-recording-and-narration feature of Google Earth to “easily” record an entirely georeferenced oral history.

If anyone knows of projects using Google Earth to jog people’s memories, I’d love to hear about it.

Elevator pitch for Catablogs

September 25th, 2009 5 comments

I just got a great challenge from my good friend and former boss Megan Fraser (currently at UCLA Special Collections):

If you had to sum up the virtue of catablogs in one or two sentences, what would you say? Sentences consisting entirely of “they are awesome” will be disqualified.

I came up with something kind of long and boring, and I don’t want to besmirch anyone’s wording quite yet.  Please submit your pitch in the comments!

Links for catablogs…please add more to the Catablog page @ the Archives 2.0 Wiki (thanks Kate).

Categories: Access, Archives, Catablogs Tags:

Build from Zero Followers then Alienate Half – A Twitter experiment

August 17th, 2009 1 comment

Twitter Experiment Proposal:
Build up a following from zero then alienate them, dropping to 50% of peak number.

Start with a new Twitter account, then do whatever is necessary to build from zero followers to some number x followers. Then without using @mentions or DirectMessages, send out tweets that are designed to make people unfollow/block you.  The goal of the experiment is to tweet in such a way that at least 50% of your followers decide to unfollow you.

Twitter experiment - Build from Zero then Alienate Half My gut feeling is that this goal would be unattainable once you build a base of more than 80 followers (x > 80).  Sheer offensiveness becomes its own self-perpetuating draw, so it would be tricky to tweet messages that are individually objectionable but not sensational or titillating to others.  The other main, perhaps primary, factor making this difficult is that people tend to not opt-out of things unless they are repeatedly annoyed (see methodology comment #1 below).

Some comments on experimental methodology.  Each could end up being an additional variable in a larger experimental model — each would lead to a different build-drop trending profile:

  1. Settle on a reasonable tweet-frequency, e.g., 4 tweets per day — it should go without saying that the spirit of the experiment is not honored if, for example, you tweet every 10 seconds after peaking with the goal of driving people off.
  2. Decide whether you are going to be a generalist tweeter or if you will focus on some hashtag-based group, community, or topic.
  3. Decide on if and how you will block spammers and promiscuous/indiscriminate followers.  These people (and robots) typically do not cull friends, so once they are following you, they won’t stop no matter what.  It might be beneficial to decide on a “recipe” for automatically blocking new followers; e.g., auto-block if a follower (1) has over 50 followers but (2) the number of people following them is less than 20% of their number of people they are following; or auto-block if a follower seldomly tweets but is following a large number of people (although this could just as easily be an honest lurker not a robot).  This could be resolved with a generalized method for identifying twitter spammers, robots, and junk tweeters — what approaches already exist?

Fancier automated approaches:

  1. To drive away followers: It would be interesting to create a robot that surveyed the tweets of each of your followers and generated tweets designed to be turn-offs to each one.  Extra points if the robot takes your other followers’ discussions and moods into account and tempers each response to either maximize multiple unfollows or minimize the chance that (for example) Follower #1 is put-off while inadvertently appealing to Follower #2.
  2. For the initial build-up to peak number: Without doing a thorough search, I’m sure there already exist robots designed to create tweets that appeal to lots of people with the hopes that they start following.  If you know of any, please share.

Categories: Social Media Tags: ,

Useless and Boring: The four types of archives collections

August 3rd, 2009 4 comments
Boring and useless

Last summer I had the opportunity to talk to a group of Museum Studies students from the Syracuse University (program link). I wanted to come up with an interesting approach since I knew the group would be arriving with a museum-centric rather than an archives point of view.  As such, they understand the exhibition value of items more than the research value.

For my own part, my default mode of operation is to see archives collections from a research value point of view.  But working in a museum, I am also constantly having to consider exhibition value, which is interesting and enjoyable but very time consuming.

I decided to use these two types of uses — research value vs exhibition value — to characterize how good or bad an archives collection is.

So I broke it down into two factors:
Coolness = Exhibit value
Usefulness = Research value

Generalized Examples

Cool and Useful
Collections of any size where items/groups in the collection provide direct context for the other items/groups in the collection. Bonus if collection comprises multiple genres or types of materials.
Cool and Useless
Small to medium size collections containing disparate or random material, but with items pertaining to well-known people, subjects, or events — especially collections containing pictorial material, ephemera, or objects.
Boring and Useful
Sizable groups of business records and personal papers, pertaining to people, subjects, or events that are not well-known.  Especially typescript material — it isn’t even cool enough to be handwritten on old paper.
Boring and Useless
Small collections of manuscripts that lack significant content, context, or cohesiveness. Looks like “just some old paper.”

Specific Examples

Cool and Useful
Beautiful, comprehensive architectural drawings showing the interior spaces on one of the finest ocean liners built in the 1910s.
Cool and Useless
Non-itemized receipt signed by James Forten, important Philadelphian and African-American sailmaker around 1800.
Boring and Useful
Institutional records of 20th century social welfare organization devoted to serving the needs of merchant sailors.
Boring and Useless
Bundle of legal and financial papers relating to the sale of a steamship in 1890.

Of course, these are not the only four options. Each factor is actually a continuous variable, with the stated levels being the extreme values, so each level represents the endpoint of a continuum.

It all comes down to context.
If a collection provides its own context, even on a narrow scale, it tends to be more useful to researchers and exhibit-designers — it can be used in a variety of ways by a variety of people.  Lacking that context, a collection must rely on other resources or contextualizing-work for its values to be realized.

If the goal is to make a collection maximally useful, then a collection with minimal usefulness has to be placed in context and/or somehow pimped out to a specific researcher who already understands that general context.  This is what we try to accomplish by making a finding aid and by generally advocating for our collections.

If the goal is to make a collection maximally cool, then we need to build up the context in such a way that it appeals to a wider variety of people — we’ll call them “the public.”  This may mean pulling in resources from many different places, even if it means that the end product contains a very small proportion of our own collection material.  This is what we try to accomplish by making an exhibit, whether online or in a gallery.

In practice, these ideas and approaches are mixed and balanced to match the needs of the situation. For many museum folks, an exhibition is the best way to use the material. Personally, I often think of archives exhibits as just another outreach tool that essentially functions as an advertisement for a collection. But again, it is a messy situation: often the archivist is the collector, describer, caretaker, exhibit designer, barker, lover, and fighter all at once.

That’s what’s so fun.

So it warms my heart to see all the new ways that archives repositories and archives collections can be publicized and made discoverable, using tools and approaches beyond the finding aid.  This has long — well, Internet-long — been true of online exhibits or mini-exhibits, but also certainly all of the other outreach and exposure approaches going on, like (to be Philly-centric):

Legal and financial papers, mostly relating to the sale of the steamer Twilight to the Upper Delaware River Transportation Company in 1890. Includes several receipts for disbursements from the estate of Catherine S. Russell

Want to play with a Boring and Useless Grid? Download your own poorly sketched copy!

Categories: Archives, Lib|Arch|Mus, Museums Tags:

Endowed internships (and assistants)

July 17th, 2009 1 comment

I have a dream of having an juicy endowment to pay for internships.  Even a small stipend would be nice to consistently be able to offer, but my quickie calculations suggest needing a $150,000-$200,000 gift to fully support even this level.

Alas, my idealized program would require a gift in the neighborhood of $1,000,000* — to support a full-blown, proper internship program, paying a fair hourly wage.

Of course the thing that keeps this from happening is that such a gift would always be used to endow a position such as a department/division head, not to mention that the size of institution that could support this sort of intern workforce is probably already big enough to be assuming some of the cost of having interns in the first place.  And in the end, in a smaller institution that could really benefit from the extra intern help, the money would be better spent hiring an additional regular full-time employee.

My real dream however: When I win the lottery, my plan is to set up endowed assistant archivist positions throughout the area. I would give enough money to pay the salary of assistant archivists & librarians, etc. with the cruel stipulation that to receive the gift, a full time department head would have to be in place and paid for by the institution (or by another endowment I suppose).  This should guarantee that every institution has at least two full-time staff, the minimum you need to really get a lot of things done.  I fully acknowledge that this is a self-reflective pipedream for myself.

Does any institution have atypical endowments anything like these?

The upshot: If anyone wants to set up an internship endowment — or better yet, an assistant endowment — don’t hesitate to contact me.  I’m willing to entertain offers of anywhere from 0.15 to 1.00 million dollars.  And just to sweeten to pot, I’ll allow you to adopt me.

*Internship calculation based on three cohorts of two interns each.  Two cohorts each of 20 weeks at 2 days/wk; 1 cohort of 12 weeks at 4 days/wk (equilavent to 48 weeks of full-time work, just short of being equilavent to a single full-time employee’s worth of hours).  Plus I added oversight coverage at 30% of supervisor’s time. The whole thing assumes a modest 4% yearly return on the invested endowment funds.

Categories: Archives, Lib|Arch|Mus Tags: ,