Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Cry Havoc and Loose the 7th-Graders of War!

(Yeah, one person in the entire universe will get why I chose that particular title. Considering there are all of about 6 people who actually read this blog, though, I am not yet terribly worried about an abundance of in-jokes. So it goes.)

Yesterday, the UWM Archives played host to a veritable horde of 7th graders from a local Milwaukee middle school, as a way of helping said horde with their National History Day projects. Let's get this out of the way right now: God I'm old. These kids, with a couple of exceptions, seemed so YOUNG, even though most of them were probably 12 or 13 (which, at the top end, is still almost 13 years younger than me). Don't believe the hype about kids growing up faster these days, because it's a damn dirty lie. I know that as archivists go I am a mere sprout myself, but yikes. Somebody get me my walker.

That said, it was a pleasure to open up the archives to these students, whose behavior ran counter to what I have come to expect from children that age. For the most part, these students came in with interesting and well-fleshed out topics, and they were very attentive regarding the Archives staff's mini-Bibliographic Instruction and respectful of the materials. Our reference archivist was wished a mass "Merry Christmas" (I didn't think kids still did that at that age), and all of my students were very respectful and even thanked me on their way out (I REALLY didn't think kids did that! Though perhaps working in a public library for a time has biased me). It was, overall, a lot less frightening than I thought it was going to be, and makes me think there may yet be hope for the future of humanity. (I reserve final judgment, however, until I see what these kids are like WITHOUT their teacher hovering in the next room.)

Overall, I think it's a great idea to get kids interested in archives this early. Everybody knows what a library is, but I had no idea what an archive was for until COLLEGE, and I didn't seriously consider it as a profession until the second half of that. Getting kids into the archives, or at the very least using archival material, is a great way, from my perspective, of increasing the exposure of both individual archives and the profession as a whole. Early exposure to archives makes it more likely that the student will become interested in the collections, use them or other archives later in life, tell other people about this cool rare stuff tucked away in the library, etc. etc. "Give me a child until the seventh grade, and I will give you the man," as the saying goes. Or something like that.

On the other hand, getting students that young to use archives EFFECTIVELY can be a challenge for archives who are used to serving more seasoned researchers. I had to send a couple of my students back out to the library because they did not have adequate background on their topic to use their collections correctly. More needed guidance on how to do research more efficiently-- he was using a scrapbook and reading all of the articles contained within cover to cover, rather than skimming the headlines for useful articles first. And I think all of the students needed some guidance regarding using the documentation not only for informational value, but also for evidential value (I pointed out to one group, for example, that child labor permits, by the nature of the fields it contained, told the researcher a lot about what educational expectations were at that time, and they were amazed). These issues are not the fault of the students, but merely stem from an understandable lack of experience.

I think there's a lot of opportunity in getting younger researchers into the archives, but I also think that there's a lot more preparation involved on the part of the archives and its archivists. What follows, then, is a brief list of observations and/or suggestions on some ways of doing this effectively, based on my experience here and at other institutions.

1) Familiarize them with primary documents before bringing them to the archives. This is something that the teacher can do either independently or with the help of the archives he intends to have his students use. There are a ton of published primary sources out there, and before the younger researcher steps foot in the archives he/she should have at least a rudimentary grasp of what a primary document is and what it can or can't tell them. (Particularly important to impress upon students at this point is that EVERYBODY has a point of view, and just because it's a primary source doesn't make it gospel truth.) Alternately, individual repositories can pull together documents on a topic of particular interest and make copies of those documents available to the class in question. For example, the Truman Presidential Library has produced a number of Student Research Files, which are artificial collections pulled together by archivists on certain broad topics, such as the decision to drop the atomic bomb or the Marshall Plan, that allow students to "get their hands dirty" and play with the files, but allow the students to skip the often tedious process of combing collections to find relevant documents.

2a) Encourage preliminary research on the part of the students. This, I think, is something we could have done better here. If students have picked their own research topics, as was the case with the students we hosted yesterday, they are going to get a lot more out of the archival documentation if they have the background to contextualize it. During our arrangement with the teacher(s), we as archivists should encourage them to require students to do at least a little library research on their topic before coming to the archives. After all, this is going to be an expectation if students decide to do research in the archives later in their academic careers; why should we encourage bad habits early on?

2b) Provide background information for the provided material. In the cases where archivists pick out specific collections for students to browse for an assignment, it seems similarly incumbent upon us to give the students enough information to use the collections effectively. The finding aid header notes, including scope/content and biographical/administrative history notes, should be the bare minimum for this purpose. Ideally, archivists making specific collections available to students should write a much extended history note for the students to use in determining what in the documents at which they are looking is important.

3) Pick out interesting material ahead of time. In this case, by contrast, our reference archivist did an excellent job. The students we hosted provided us with some general topics, and in almost all cases she was able to find and pull portions of collections that were directly relevant to what they were studying. Eventually, of course, you want to have the students actually learning the entirety of the research process-- the thrill of discovery is often the best part of research, I find-- but the tedium of trudging through the files you don't need is usually the worst part of it. As the idea is to get them hooked on how cool archives can be, it's probably best at this point to eliminate the less-glamorous parts of it.

4) Assist the students with basic research skills. We provided the students with finding aids for their collections in case they wanted to conduct further research on their topics. None of my students had topics in which the UWM archives is particularly deep, but a number of the other archivists' students did, and they were very helpful with showing the students how to use a finding aid, pointing them in the direction of related material, etc. Meanwhile, it is useful to reinforce the tips and tricks that archivists/historians/whoever use to maximize the efficiency of their research, such as skimming, looking for evidential value, selecting pithy and appropriate examples, etc. With luck, the teacher has cooperated on #1 of this list, and this will be review for most students.

4a) Get students in the citing habit. All of the archivists working with the students were (as far as I can tell) extremely conscientious about making sure the collections were cited correctly, which is as it should be. During my term as a teaching assistant for History of Science, by far the most common error students made on their papers was undercitation or incorrect citation of materials. I couldn't do much about it except write little chastising notes on the papers, because you can't fail an entire class! But this is, to my mind, not a matter of malicious intent so much as it is a matter of not knowing when, where, or how to cite properly. If you emphasize the correct manner of citing material-- and especially the correct matter of citing archival material, which has extremely confusing rules by its very nature-- you get them started on the road to having it be second nature by the time they get to college. You're welcome, History TAs of tomorrow.

5) Remember your audience! I definitely used words like "pertinent", "provenance", and "promulgate", to use just the examples that start with P, when briefing the students on the rules of the archives, what it was an archivist did, and how they could best use the collections with which we had provided them. Cut to 10 minutes later, when I happened to glance at the notes of one of my students, which included a reminder to look up the word "pauper." Oops. Fortunately one of the other archivists said later that she did the same thing, so I didn't feel AS bad, but that just drives home the point that you can't talk to 7th graders the same way you talk to academics or undergraduate researchers. It's not a matter of bringing yourself down to their level or a question of oversimplification, but you really have to put in a concerted effort to remember who you're talking to, and then adjust your vocabulary and/or phrasing accordingly.

None of the above, of course, should be taken as gospel, coming as it does from one experience with a class of 7th graders, some work on student research files for the Truman Library, and some reference experience with a surprise class of undergraduates all coming in to do the same assignment. Still, I thought I would share my observations of what could be taken away from the experience in the hopes that someone will find it useful. I, for one, would love to hear other people's experiences with archives use by children and/or young adults. If nothing else, comments on that might be useful to pass back for the next time we have a younger-than-average research group.

I suppose the same principle of getting to 'em while they're young could also apply to records management. Maybe. On the other hand, I kind of doubt 12 and 13 year olds are really going to be all that interested in retention schedules and file management schema...

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Michael Gorman makes me cry

Not strictly archives or RM, but important nonetheless-- anyone reading this blog is no doubt at least passing familiar with the Library of Congress' recent report on the future of bibliographic control, or are at least aware that it exists. I haven't read it, because cataloging is not STRICTLY my job, but it is an interest of mine, particularly as regards value-added finding aids and subject terms in 6xx MARC fields (which, I should note, the UWM archives adds as a matter of course to its HTML and EAD finding aids. Good on us!)

Predictably, Michael Gorman weighs in on the regressive side of the argument (h/t Karen Schneider):

The simplistic idea is that vast numbers of electronic documents can be catalogued effectively by having their creators apply uncontrolled terms in a few simple categories. In other words, that the results achieved by cataloguing using controlled vocabularies and the bibliographic structures of catalogues— complex, labor-intensive, skilled activities—can be achieved on the cheap and without the use of those essential structures. It is as though a school of cuisine—let us call it cuisine dégoŭtante—arose that prescribed only seventeen ingredients used randomly in random proportions mixed by people with no knowledge of cooking using random temperatures.

...Wow. There are no words. We want to talk about simplistic? How about reducing folksonomy to an anarchic, uncontrolled and uncontrollable straw man? I think that everybody's favorite technophobic ex-ALA president is conveniently ignoring the fact that NOBODY IS PROPOSING ELIMINATING CONTROLLED VOCABULARY. Of COURSE folksonomy is less exact than LCSH-- that isn't the point of it. Controlled Vocabulary is amazing for precision purposes, but if you don't KNOW about the terms it's not that helpful. Tagging, by contrast, allows users to determine what about the document is important to THEM, and note it that way. Remember them? The people we're supposed to be serving?

Yes, it's not perfect, and you get a lot of variations on the same term that would be eliminated if you controlled vocabulary. This is why you have professionals, to go through and consolidate stuff like that into terms people can use. Meanwhile, the users who are contributing these terms are looking at these documents from angles that we as professional librarians/archivists may not have even considered, the addition of which brings document recall way up. Precision without recall is not good either!

I am also a big fan of his objections to FRBR:

FRBR may have some merit as a way of looking at the theory of cataloguing—it has little as a foundational document for creating a cataloguing code. Never mind that the structure of bibliographic records set out in AACR2/ISBD is well established, accepted by scholars and other catalogue users for decades, and with minor flaws in concept and expression that could easily be corrected—it works in practice, but does it work in theory?

Because every library user has always been able to find stuff in AACR-compliant catalogs quickly and easily! After all, if a system has been in place for decades, it must be effective, right? It couldn't possibly be because conservatives in the Library world have a vested interest in not seeing it change, because then they would need a new skill set, right? Nah. Couldn't be.

My favorite, favorite complaint of his, however, is the following:

Fourth, the draft RDA is an editorial disaster. Many of its “guidelines” (rules are passé to these people) are incomprehensible, internally inconsistent, and belied by their examples. I read more than 60 pages very carefully and came up with 15 pages of editorial errors.
That would be why it is called a *draft*, rather than a publishable document. Are you really so hard up for ways to attack this document that you need to attack grammatical problems?

I'm sure the document isn't perfect, but ironically Gorman's post only makes me want to read it more and/or endorse it. Roy Tennant, I think, sums it up well:

I no longer believe in the future of bibliographic control. I no longer believe that the term "bibliographic" encompasses the universe in which we should be interested, and I no longer think "control" is either achievable or even desirable. We have entered the age of "descriptive enrichment" and we'd better get bloody well good at it.
Damn skippy. Of course, considering that Mr. Gorman is the mind behind "Revenge of the Blog People", (which has always sounded to me like the title of an awesome B-movie), I don't expect any of the sound and fury on this issue to change his mind, either. Oh well.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Yeah... that went well.

*clears out cobwebs* Hi, folks. I said I was going to actually update this blog, but that did not so much happen. Well, that changes now! Possibly. Maybe.

In any case. Since my introductory post waaaay back in August, I have been hired as Records Archivist for the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, so this blog is going to take a slightly different turn than I originally envisioned. As Records Archivist, I am responsible for maintaining, processing, and providing access to the records produced by the various offices on campus. But wait, there's more! I am also the University Records Officer (The title on my business cards), which in Wisconsin means that I am the representative of the State Archivist on the University and pass along his permission (actually the permission of the Public Records Board) to destroy records according to state law. Furthermore, my OFFICIAL title is Academic Archivist I, which means I ALSO deal with manuscript collections that pertain to the university but aren't actual university records, such as the records of Student Organization. As you can tell, I wear a bunch of different hats in this job. And yes, all of them are silly.

As a result of the above, this blog is going to have a very definite Records Management bias-- I will talk about scheduling, policy development, records surveys, General Records Schedule development, e-records disposition, and training and outreach issues. But, again, because my official title is as an ARCHIVIST, I will also take on archives-specific issues of access systems, appraisal strategies, description and cataloging (I still <3 EAD, even if my job doesn't involve me using it a lot), reference, and fun stuff like format issues and exhibit design. Plus, if all else fails, I'll just talk about what I'm working on right now. Because, I gotta say, guys, this job is pretty great and most of the time that will actually be interesting.

For example: Right now I am doing preliminary appraisal and writing a processing plan for a collection we received from University Relations. This collection is all photographs, which I've had some experience with, but never with anything this extensive-- and it's great. Part of it is publication files from UWM newsletters and such, but most of it is detailed subject files-- campus scenes and important/yearly events and celebrity visits and important people on campus and aerials of Milwaukee. This is a fantastic collection, I don't mind telling you. I kind of envy the student who's going to be working on this collection for her field study-- she's going to be the one who really gets to go in-depth looking at the photos and doing the cool arrangement and description work (although, as her site advisor, presumably I will have something to do with it). It will be interesting to see how she chooses to approach the collection in arranging and describing it, and I'm excited to get this collection ready for the big show (i.e. the Processed Collections page).

So yeah, that's me right now. Doing some appraisal, meeting with some offices, writing some Records Retention and Disposition Authorities for office approval, and, you know, writing the blog. Oh! And doing research on email preservation, more about which later. Right now I should get back to work.