I remember about 6 or 7 yrs ago, the president of the university where I obtained my undergraduate degree told me that my chosen profession (librarian in Rare Books/Archives/Special Collections) was a dead-end career and that I had made a huge mistake in choosing this part of librarianship. I was sitting next to him at an awards dinner when he gave me this unsolicited advice. He proceeded to inform me that books were no longer needed and that he would be selling off the university’s special collections because “everything is online and what is needed is money for library databases.” Oh, and a new roof for the business school which he could pay for by selling some of the very valuable paintings found in special collections.Lucky for me, I already had heard about his plan to cannibalize my alma mater’s special collections and had such a low opinion of his management of things that I quickly disregarded this doomsday proclamation.
Still, as young people rely more and more on information they find online, you do sort of wonder about the allure special collections might have to these future students. Will they get super excited about seeing a plain, paper print out of an email from President Obama like they do now when they see a letter from President Abraham Lincoln? When I present them with a born-digital surrogate of some seminal government report will it resonate with them on a deeper level like it does when they see the original government report from Lewis & Clark’s expedition? I’m curious about how our future students will respond to the born-digital gems we are collecting and how I, as a special collections librarian, can present them with the same enthusiasm that I currently have when showing real, physical items.
The article below makes me think that we are a ways off from encountering a generation that will be impressed by a print out of an email. If they are still enjoying the physical book over an ebook then I surmise that our physical collections will still be in high demand for a while to come and that our born digital materials will pale in comparison (not in content of course, but in presentation).
Looks like that university president sold off some of his physical treasures a bit too soon.
The Women Who Mapped the Universe And Still Couldn’t Get Any Respect
In 1881, Edward Charles Pickering, director of the Harvard Observatory, had a problem: the volume of data coming into his observatory was exceeding his staff’s ability to analyze it. He also had doubts about his staff’s competence–especially that of his assistant, who Pickering dubbed inefficient at cataloging. So he did what any scientist of the latter 19th century would have done: he fired his male assistant and replaced him with his maid, Williamina Fleming. Fleming proved so adept at computing and copying that she would work at Harvard for 34 years–eventually managing a large staff of assistants.
So began an era in Harvard Observatory history where women—more than 80 during Pickering’s tenure, from 1877 to his death in 1919— worked for the director, computing and cataloging data. Some of these women would produce significant work on their own; some would even earn a certain level of fame among followers of female scientists. But the majority are remembered not individually but collectively, by the moniker Pickering’s Harem.
Women in STEM.
WHEN I TRY TO CONVINCE FRIENDS TO VISIT MY LIBRARY
Totally but instead of friends it’s undergraduates.
Elvis Presley listening to his portable record player in 1956.
A beautiful man doing a beautiful thing in the same year my car was made.
At the end of August, my AUL for Public Services wrote a blog post about owning and embracing a self-described “queer feminist agenda for libraries.” The paragraph that struck me the most was this one:
"Feminist theory and queer theory provide the tools to critically examine the practices and norms of librarianship by encouraging us to look for the silences, the failures, and the taken-for-granted definitions of our work as a way to expose exclusions, marginalizations and biases. Taking up these tools is a political act. Of course, not taking up these tools, and deciding not to critically examine collection development policies, cataloging practices, digitization and preservation priorities, and the whole slew of services libraries offer is also a political act.”
And it is that last sentence that has me a bit apprehensive at the moment as I’m wondering if I should propose a session to critically examine our silences in a more formal forum at the library. How do you do this without offending a selector or putting them on the defensive? Is there a way to have a frank conversation without people taking it personally? I’m just not sure. I mean, by having this discussion, it will come to light what subjects have holes right?
As a trained historian-turned-archivist-turned-special collections librarian, the thing that worries me most is the silences that exist in the archives (aside: I’m sure curators worry about this too come to think of it). Granted, archives by their very definition are not supposed to contain everything and anything. The archival principals of appraisal, selection, sampling, and collection development dance haphazardly with an institution’s space constraints and mission.
That said, I “hear” these silences whenever I teach a class and a student approaches me at the end to ask if we have anything on [insert student topic here]. When the topic is very specific, I’m not surprised that we have very little in the collections addressing it. However, when the topic is “I am looking for women in the development of Silicon Valley” or “I hope to research the effect Silicon Valley has on Bangalore and globalization” or “I’m from Sunnyvale and want to talk about the Vietnamese/ Filipino/Indian population there that works in the tech industry “ then those silences turn into a roar.
Because of our University’s geographical location and history, our students reasonably assume that we, who helped spawn the growth of the Valley into what it is today, would have collected women’s involvement as part of that history; would have collected materials documenting people from India as part of that continued story; would have documented the tech industries’ recent movement towards outsourcing their operations and the impact that has had on emerging societies.
I have asked if we had collections like this and I’ve heard a variety of interesting answers: well, there just weren’t women really in tech back then. Or: well, if you want to see women in Silicon Valley, they are pictured in this company’s newsletters and in these papers [insert numerous collections of Silicon Valley giants that are all men]. And once again as an historian, I am reminded that if you want to find the history of women, people of color, fringe groups, etc, you still have to try to cobble together their stories from the scraps you find in the papers of white MEN. (By the way, there WAS a women CEO in the Valley who is still alive and even got her degree from our university. Oh, and there WERE lots of women working at hardware companies in the Valley as their “gentle touch” was deemed ideal for the delicate and precise work required to make a silicon chip. What was their daily work life like???).
Why do I find this still very annoying? Because we know better. Like it or not, the PC movement of the early 1990s brought an awareness to the fact that stories of worth, of value to libraries and researchers, are not just found in America’s dominate white, Anglo Saxon, male, protestant voices. So, we know this, but are we actively doing anything about it? Are we able to use our collection development monies to acquire the voices of the famous, and not so famous, women, gay, etc. etc.?
Part of this problem is the antiquarian sellers and dealers. They naturally want to make a living and will acquire materials they know will sell quickly. They don’t want materials sitting on the shelves too long as that is a type of frozen money. Often times, they know our curators’ collecting habits and naturally buy materials they will readily buy. If none of the dealers’ clients are asking for rare books written by or about women or archival papers pertaining to the queer experience in Santa Monica for example, these dealers have no reason to buy or solicit those materials from creators.
From a Spec point of view, I see this call directly applying to: 1) what archival collections to bring in 2) what collections we promote on the webpage 3) what exhibits we put on and who is featured in them 4) what collections get processed and in what timeframe and to what degree (MPLP v. traditional processing).
Anyways, I’m going to take a deep breath, approach my AUL, and hope she can help me craft an event that will allow us to have this frank discussion without people feeling uncomfortable. Who knew collection development was so meaty?? (I’m sure if I had taken that collection development class in library school, I would have known!)
So I’m long overdue in publishing anything and I’ve had so many good things happen with my job: completing the draft of the book I’m co-editing, going to Rare Books school in LA and meeting some awesome people, to name a few. I’ll have to get to it in a future blog as I’m in the thick of student advising & teaching, but in case you ever wondered about the awesomeness of my job, here’s an event that occupied my life for all of September:
Very happy to announce the publication of a new article I co-authored with a colleague:
Roberts, Regina Lee and Mattie Taormina. 2013. “Collaborative Co-Design for Library Workshops.” Behavioral& Social Sciences Librarian 32 (1): 46-56.
Regina is the subject specialist and bibliographer for the social sciences and we team-taught a variety of classes last year. The experience was so rewarding we thought we’d share how we mixed information literacy with archival literacy for undergraduates. Give it a read and see what you think.
One of my all time favorite reads in my undergraduate philosophy classes was Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. I know, dork city, but truly, I loved this book and still reflect on the lessons I learned from it all these years later. Aristotle defined the “virtue of the mean between two extreme states” as neither the excess nor the defect. This definition has come to mind lately as we begin the task of overhauling our webpages. We need to decide how much information is too little and therefore, useless, and how much causes a patron’s eyes to glaze over.
Librarians who work outside of my department noted that our public services pages were information-dense. As the main author of these dense pages, I’m guilty of the charge. Will I repeat this behaviour in the new, shiny, web environment? Most likely yes.
As much as I dislike to put out such dense pages, I know why our pages tend to be text heavy: it is the most reliable way to communicate the information to patrons.
In theory, doing phone reference would help a bit in this regard. We could verbally tell patrons that they will need to bring their photo IDs when they come to register or that they can only bring in single sheets of paper with their laptops, etc. Given our staffing levels we lack the ability to man our phone line for the 6 hours we are open. Thus, all the “dos and don’ts” have to be on one page so that people are prepared (we hope) when they arrive.
Requesting materials is word intensive too. As it is, timing with paging is everything. If our materials were located onsite, it would be just a matter of waiting a few hours if a patron just “showed up” and wanted to see something. Since our materials are located off site, it can take up to 2 days for materials to reach the reading room. Thus, our webpages have to include our paging schedule. Our webpage has to instruct outside scholars (our main users actually) how to use our university-specific-not-very-intuitive paging system. This takes words. And lots of them sadly.
I’m not sure how to skimp on vital information such as this but for the next few months, that’s what I’ll be working on. I’m going to play around with spacing, indenting, bullet points (which some of my pages already have), etc. I hope it helps but I don’t feel like I can take out information either. Trying to keep in mind: neither the excess nor the defect…..
Summer is well underway and now that RBMS is over with, I’ve had a chance to take on some projects I’ve been wanting to get done for some time.
The first project was inspired by the church on campus. It is a beautiful church circa 1906 and frequented by many tourists. Although the church is always full of visitors, there is no official staff—the building is unmanned. Should an earthquake happen while all these visitors are touring, how would they know how to safely get out of the building? Enter the visitor emergency card: the church created laminated emergency cards that stay in the pews, alerting visitors on how to get out of the building safely.
Now, our reading room is staffed at all times and we have procedures in place for what staff are supposed to do if we have to evacuate the reading room. So, we don’t need this right? Logically, that would be correct, but what if staff get injured in the quake (I’m thinking a lamp falls from the roof and hits them)? What if staff gets distracted while trying to clear the room and doesn’t have a chance to tell patrons not to take our materials with them? Since these are real considerations living in Earthquake Country, I created our own Evacuation card. I should note that the card only focuses on evacuation—not fire, or earthquake. Although these events are important, we focused on the fact that patrons should take their laptops with them and leave our materials behind regardless of what the emergency happens to be.
The other project for the summer was to redesign our patron out card. Another archive on campus redesigned theirs and so I modified theirs to fit our needs. Previously, our patrons truly used a normal office “out card” when they pulled folders out of boxes. This caused some minor confusion at times as patrons felt compelled to write their name on the card each time they removed a folder even though it was not necessary. The cards were also the perfect size to fit inside the box (something we didn’t want), so I have no idea how many of these office cards are floating around currently in our archival collections.
Our new cards are much longer so there is no way they can be tucked into a box and include helpful handling instructions that staff verbally tell patrons but sometimes don’t get the chance to if it is busy on the desk. Here’s to summer!