Why This Blog?
These posts are from continuing education scholarship recipients and explore the topics and content learned during their training funded by RIHRAB through the NHPRC State Grants program.
- Goals of the RIHRAB Professional Development Funding Program included:
- Enable the keepers of historic/archival records in Rhode Island to gain the professional skills needed along with expertise to carry out the duties related to best archival practices and the preservation;
- Provide the opportunity to identify best practice in maintaining and processing these records;
- To educate institutions and their staff on basic and advanced archival theory and practices.
Archival Inspiration by Stephanie Ovoian
A Few Takeaways from a Week of Rare Book School
It is hard to narrow down my favorite part of working as a reference and special collections librarian. Some days, it is the creativity of working on exhibits; others, the camaraderie of connecting with researchers and students or the thrill of falling down a research rabbit-hole. But if pressed to give just one answer to that question, I’d have to say it is the anticipation of learning something new in every interaction, be it with a book or person. This past July, I was bursting with said anticipation as I gathered my notebook, pencil, laptop, and copy of Arranging and Describing Archives and Manuscripts to prepare for an exciting professional development opportunity.
I work at the Providence Athenæum where I often get to handle items from the library’s archives collection. This collection contains materials and institutional records tracing the library’s history back to the mid-18th century, when one of our progenitor libraries was founded. Two of us on staff are responsible for the care of this collection, and we currently have a volunteer (a retired archivist) helping us get our paper finding aids into accurate digital formats for inclusion in Rhode Island Archival and Manuscript Collections Online (RIAMCO). I’ve learned a lot about the institution through working with the archives, as well as the basics of managing archives from working alongside our volunteer. To better enable myself to continue our volunteer’s work in the future, I decided to pursue some formal archival education.
With the help of the RIHRAB 2021 Continuing Education Scholarship, I was able to attend the course L-60: Archives for Special Collections Librarians, Booksellers, and Collectors offered through the University of Virginia’s Rare Book School. This weeklong virtual course was taught by Bill Landis, Associate Director for Public Services in Manuscripts & Archives at Yale University, and Lisa Conathan, Head of Special Collections at Williams College. I was one of 18 students enrolled in the course, which was made up of an even mix of special collections librarians, booksellers, and independent scholars located throughout North America. This provided an excellent forum for class discussions: listening to my classmates and understanding archives through the lenses of these different, yet adjacent, professions was an ideal learning experience.
As L-60 took place over five days, I present to you my biggest takeaway from each day of class:
Day 1: Terminology
One of my main goals in taking this course was to become better versed with archival terminology. One discussion that I found particularly interesting was about the term “appraisal”. I learned that archival appraisal techniques are implemented to assess the value of an item’s content as it relates to the accessioning institution’s mission. In my work as a special collections librarian, assessing the value of an item’s content is part of the collection development process; when I hear the term appraisal, my mind goes straight toward the assignment of monetary value. The booksellers in the class shared that the process of an item’s monetary valuation is informed by and reliant on the item’s content. This discussion helped me better understand the nuance inherent within one term, and how context can affect meaning.
Day 2: DACS
I’ll be honest – I didn’t realize the true complexity of archival description before this day! Working together in groups, the class explored the concepts of arrangement and description through immersive practice exercises. Each student then created some practice entries in ArchivesSpace. This helped familiarize me with the elements of DACS and highlighted the fact that archival description relies on the professional judgement of the archivist, with the focus being to create descriptive elements that will best facilitate access and use of the archival collection.
Day 3: Permanence
A robust discussion of born-digital content led to an examination of some of its inherent challenges: that content is often located in different or multiple places; records are often created in collaborative environments; ownership and control of data generally lies with a third party; devices can save data without our knowledge; and the general expectation that born-digital content is permanent once created.
At the conclusion of each class, we were asked to submit 2 questions that arose from the day’s content. That last challenge of born-digital materials really stuck with me: my thoughts veered way too existential, and I nearly submitted the question IS ANYTHING PERMANENT?!? I stopped myself, but this idea of permanence really made me consider the reasoning behind the work archivists and librarians do toward achieving such a goal, even if it can never be fully guaranteed.
Day 4: Archival records VS. bibliographic records
On this day, I learned something that I have already been able to implement in my day-to-day work: the differences between efficient searching in archival records versus in bibliographic records. As a librarian, I am most familiar doing subject and keyword searches when looking for materials. But since finding aids are organized differently than a typical MARC record, I sometimes struggle to find relevant materials when conducting searches within them. Bill and Lisa explained that when searching in archival records, provenance is key, and suggested considering the following when selecting a search term: “Who might have been involved in topic X during time period Y in geographic location Z?”. For me, this has proven to be an important mindset shift.
Day 5: A shared goal
As the week came to an end, Bill and Lisa opened the floor to my classmates and I to pose any lingering questions we had and to share one of our takeaways from the course. The responses covered a wide range of things discussed during the week, and though our answers differed, it was clear that we all shared the same goal: to use what we learned during the week to ensure that the archival collections we work with are easily accessible to all.
Armed with a week’s worth of new knowledge, I now feel better equipped to work with the Providence Athenæum’s archives collection, and I look forward to everything it will teach me!
Building Digital Skills
I used the Rhode Island Historical Records Board Continuing Education Scholarship to enroll in a digital curation certification program running in tandem with my last semester of Master of Library and Information Studies coursework at the University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Library and Information Studies. In my degree program I focused on digital media and visual information, so the digital curation certificate complimented my education and professional goals.
While I was able to get foundational knowledge in digital archivy and preservation at URI, this advanced specialised program has allowed me to dig deeper into the subject matter and gain the theoretical and practical skills necessary to be successful early in my archival practice.
The certificate course work includes six courses that have helped to expand my knowledge working with digital records, covering topics such as fundamentals of digital curation, appraisal and collection development, digital preservation, metadata and description, digital repositories, and ethics and sustainability.
One of the most interesting parts of this program is that my instructors and classmates come from all over the world, and are of different backgrounds and professional levels. Some are students, many are professional librarians or archivists, and others are taking courses for personal or professional development. This community allows me to learn from a globally diverse group of practitioners who have a variety of experiences.
I strongly believe that it was thanks to the RIHRAB Continuing Education Scholarship for this professional credential that I was able to secure a position as a digital archivist working with audiovisual records for a performing arts organization. During my first month at my new job, I have used the knowledge I have gained from this program on a daily basis and I certainly feel professionally prepared.
What Our Collections Tell Us: My Adventures in Collections Management
It really is quite amazing what you can learn in just eight weeks. I found this out firsthand after completing the Collections Management course offered by the American Association for State and Local History thanks in large part to RIHRAB. I took this course as my first requirement to obtain a Small Museum Pro! certificate through AASLH.
Prior to taking this course, I had been serving as the Archivist for the Westerly Historical Society for nearly five years. I had obtained my master’s degree in public history a couple of years prior to taking on this role, so I had a bit of experience in collections management including working as an intern in the Collections Department at the National Building Museum in Washington D.C. As great as internships are, they are simply an entirely different animal from managing an entire collection spanning three centuries of your hometown’s history.
A chance encounter with RIHRAB’s flier for their education scholarship gave me the push I needed to tackle this course head on, and I am very glad I did. While I have had (somewhat limited) experience handling delicate items and properly caring for and storing historical collections, this course increased my knowledge tenfold, if not more.
The attendees of this course were incredibly varied in both background and experience and most of those who participated were doing so as representatives of museums, making me one of the only ones to come from a historical society. Still, I found the information provided to be applicable to my situation.
Because of its limited storage capabilities and budget, the Westerly Historical Society adds to its collection passively, meaning it almost exclusively obtain new artifacts through donations. Consequently, a somewhat slow inflow of new donations affords me the time required to catch up on record keeping and inventorying the Society’s collection, the portion of the course I found the most enlightening.
The final project for this eight week course was to develop a collections policy for your institution. While I had already devised a policy for the Historical Society, I found there was so much I had not considered or accounted for in our initial policy and that updates were certainly needed.
“ The weekly readings and discussions then turned to the ethics of collections management, which raised questions I had never considered such as how funds obtained through the sale of an item are utilized and whether or not collections should be considered assets.“
The course began with the basics of collection management, including defining and identifying the scope of a collection and developing systems for numbering and labeling objects. The weekly readings and discussions then turned to the ethics of collections management, which raised questions I had never considered such as how funds obtained through the sale of an item are utilized and whether or not collections should be considered assets.
Although the Westerly Historical Society has not loaned any items to another institution in the last five years and does not have a display space to exhibit incoming loans, I still found the portion of the course detailing the extensive procedures involved in loaning objects to be incredibly helpful should the Society decide to loan out any objects in the future.
One of the biggest problems I faced when coming in as the Archivist for the Society was deciding how to approach “found in collection” items (objects which do not have any notable or useful documentation and have uncertain origin). I was reassured through my participation in this course that this issue is far more common than I had realized and there are many solutions to this problem.
Personally, I found compiling and completing inventory sheets, acquisition questionnaires, and temporary custody receipts to be the most fascinating part of all the work I did over the span of two months. In many ways, examining objects closely and analyzing them in great detail really brought me closer to the collection and gave me a greater understanding that the objects we collect have so much to tell us and the more information we can obtain from each object, the more we can learn about the past.
NEMA 2021 Highlights
Allison K Meyette
In November 2021 I virtually attended the New England Museum Association’s annual conference thanks to funding from RIHRAB. I had been to a previous NEMA conference, I think it was the 99th one in Cape Cod in 2017; needless to say, my experience this time around was considerably different!
To set the scene: in 2017, I was in my senior year of undergrad, spending the better part of two days mingling (in awe) with Real Live Museum Professionals, drinking a lot of free coffee, and being exposed to my first real discussions of inclusivity and diversity in museums. This time around, I’m a Real Live Museum Professional myself, having begun in my new position as Collections & Community Engagement Manager at New Bedford Fishing Heritage Center barely two weeks prior to the conference. To attend a NEMA conference twice was pleasantly weird because it has marked two very different stages of both my personal and professional growth. Thinking back on what I learned in my first NEMA conference and how I’ve applied it to my work since then, I know for sure that the knowledge I’ve come out of the second conference with will be equally – if not more – useful and applicable in the rising hybrid-based museum world.
Using the virtual platform was easy and immersive, thankfully, and made it a little better to tolerate sitting in front of a computer all day. There were breakout rooms within the session talks, there were social-media-like channels within the platform where you could chat with other attendees about the conference or unrelated topics. I got a few good podcast recommendations as well as saw a number of pretty cool mugs and teacups – which is not just a lighthearted remark intended to bring my voice in through this post; genuinely, the bits of human interaction that were literally built into this virtual conference platform made it feel more like I was chatting with friends online rather than sitting and listening to continuous lectures.
The theme for this conference was “Re/Create, Re/Charge, Re/Imagine.”
It was an apt theme and inspiring outwardly, but I also found myself reflecting on the events of the past year (well, the COVID-19 pandemic up to that point, really) and came out of the last session feeling two ways: grief for the in-person touches that the field has temporarily lost, but amazed and re/charged by the ways in which museum professionals have re/imagined a more virtual museum experience.
Dr. Lisa Wong, a pediatric doctor and musician, was one of the keynote speakers this year. Her speech congregated around interdisciplinary practice – which is of course nothing new – considering the arts and sciences together. There was a lot of discussion about neuroscience and art, which I found fascinating. Interdisciplinary teaching and experience are central to me and my work, so I found Dr. Wong’s speech very insightful and gave me a nice look into both science and music, which aren’t two fields I generally get much exposure to. She was also an engaging and pleasant speaker, which is always a win in my book.
Michael J. Bobbitt was the other keynote speaker, and I found his speech to be more socially and politically relevant. His speech centered on racism and achieving true diversity. Titled “Equity, Governance, and the Future of Culture,” Bobbitt discussed everything from white supremacy, privilege, and antiracism. I wrote down something he said: “It may be difficult to be diverse, but it’s not to be antiracist.” I’m not sure why it resonated with me in the moment, but looking at that statement now just confirms for me how truthful it is: there are many systems in place we must break down in order to truly get to a diverse field, but it doesn’t take nearly as much effort to simply be antiracist and to work towards that total diversity in smaller steps. It’s reinvigorated me, looking at it now!
In between looking at pictures of people’s pets and knitting projects (kidding!), I attended several of the sessions for the conference each day. With my new job in mind, I tried to stay in the realms of community engagement, working with diverse audiences, and general inclusivity/accessibility. One of my favorite sessions was Carole Ann Penney’s “Throw Out the Linear Path,” which has very little to do with the aforementioned topics and everything to do with the personal development and growth I had mentioned at the beginning of this post. It was workshop-style, meaning we were given short activities to do as Penney lectured, focusing on the concept of a “career road trip” and what that looks like for each individual. A key idea from this I noted was “you take something with you from each destination, not leave them!” with an arrow pointing to: “you’ll end up with a common thread through your jobs.” For me, this really rang true: my career road trip began in undergrad while I was a Collection Assistant in Wheaton College (MA)’s Permanent Collection. The skills I learned (accessioning, cataloging, file-making) brought me to my next stop: Slater Mill, in Pawtucket, where I got to know their collection inside and out over the course of five years. My two final years at Slater Mill were spent inventorying the collection – a difficult task, but led me to my current position at NBFHC where I am… once again inventorying a collection, albeit a much smaller one. Penney’s lecture really brought forward my “thread,” and aided in my self-reflection that wove itself through the course of the conference.
I wanted to attend this conference in the hopes of gaining some insight into how other museums were handling and adapting to COVID – which I did learn, don’t get me wrong – but wound up instead gaining insight into who I am as a person and how I have fit myself into the museum field. For that, I am able to keep pushing and exploring what I want to do in my life and feeling successful with where I am at. I’m grateful for the opportunity to have attended a conference of professionals, but I want to be blatant about my gratitude for the opportunity of personal reflection that this conference provided me.
Furthering Education Through Webinars
Since earning my MLIS from URI I have realized there are gaps in my knowledge. The RIHRAB 2022 Continuing Education Scholarship allowed me to attend webinars from the Society of American Archivists and the Northeast Document Conservation Center to further my education and training in order to help the Old Slater Mill Association preserve their collections.
With nine webinars, additional reading and some exercises, there was a lot to take in. These webinars taught me not just best practices but better and good. I learned so much.
One key preservation takeaway from Caring for Architectural Records is to let the object dictate the storage method.
Scrapbooks and Photo Albums had some unique preservation ideas. I had not heard of a Japanese tissue mend and am curious to learn more about it.
Salvaging Damaged Books, Paper, and AV Collection was interesting to me because this process can be used at home or work. The keyword here is prioritize! Don’t waste time trying to save low-priority or easily replaceable collections. Cleaning up is a stressful task and the archivist needs to remember to take care of people too.
Strategies for Born-Digital Collections covered problems and solutions, general rules of thumb. I learned that there’s no such thing as perfect. Consider your institution’s mission and community first before preserving any files. Checking in with the owner and acquiring rights is always the first task. There are no hard and fast rules about digitization but consistency is key. Also, always make back-ups and don’t destroy the originals.
Metadata for Digital Preservation included a lot of dense informationfor media and print-based materials. First, identify what you need before you even buy a collections management system and get to preservation metadata.
Storing Audiovisual Collections and Digital Preservation of Audio and Video were the most complicated. Storing older a/v collections is more tricky than paper-based items. Temperature and humidity can destroy the items beyond repair. Learning how to handle obsolete media is both interesting and informative. Most of it is common sense.
Appraisal for Arrangement and Description, taught me how appraisal is both a science and an art. Selection criteria is a balance between the value of the content and the cost of keeping something for access. The case studies presented were useful. The OSMA archive has the same kinds of records as the Student Affairs Office case study. I learned to trust my own instincts better. I DO know what I’m doing! While I may not know everything, neither do the instructors. They can provide guidance but ultimately it’s up to me.
Strategies for Oversized Collections covered some of the same territory as some of the other webinars. There is a lot more problem solving involved to determine the best rehousing options for oversized objects than I expected. A hand-out workflow and decision tree chart will be useful for future decision making. The difficulty of handling objects should be considered first. Knowing how to correctly store newspapers, quilts and flags is helpful. As always, there’s more than one solution and rehousing can be done again later if resources allow.
My key takeaway from the webinars was that there is no one size fits all policy when it comes to managing archives. I, as the archivist, have to do what is right for my institution. Archivists must work within their budget and in the space provided and not everyone has access to the most ideal solutions with a big budget. These webinars have given me the confidence boost and I look forward to applying some of what I learned to the OMSA archive.