Click here to read the first part of the interview with the RickyRenuncia Project.
(AE) You use Scalar as a platform for the website. What were the reasons you chose it? And, in general, terms, what should initiatives and projects have in mind when selecting archiving, access and preservation tools for digital materials?
(JBR) I was working with other colleagues from the University of Puerto Rico, who were working on the Diáspora project. This initiative involved documenting migration in Puerto Rico and the rest of the Antilles within the context of carnival. It was from that project that I came to know about Scalar. It’s a platform developed by a university for digital humanities, digital stewardship and publishing projects. It gives you various alternatives for interactivity and ways of presenting information. It’s not a static website, and I have to say it, it is free.
Because our project was spontaneous and we had no institutional support, we decided to go with Scalar. We saw what the platform had to offer and used the main page as a hub, which could link out to the Twitter web archive. We also used other tools such as timelines and map stories to document the protests happening all over the world. Like every platform, it has its pros and cons. Scalar is a platform for diffusion, not for preservation, so the other thing we had in mind was what to do in order to preserve the content. We’re speaking with the Digital Library of the Caribbean to see if the materials that we are compiling can become part of their collection.
(MR) What is called in english “open-source” has good and bad aspects. The good aspect is the cost, but at the same time you need someone who has the skills to make customizations. It’s like Joel said, the first thing you have to ask yourself is what is the story you want to present, what elements are you able to coordinate, and what is the tool that can help you achieve that. Also, you have to make a lot of decisions before landing on a tool. Because if you start without a purpose, you end up making a mess and people abandon the project. That’s the reason why a lot of projects start and then die, because people don’t plan for the long term. I knew that we would eventually need to move the project from a free user account to one where we had to pay to have more control over the assets and customization. We started using ‘Reclaim Hosting’, which supports universities on digital projects through a subscription process. It was clear from the beginning that we would have to move in that direction and work with someone with the technical skills to adjust and make any necessary changes on the web portal.
(AE) Cataloging of the webpages was done mainly by volunteers, apart from being able to complete tasks more quickly with a larger team, what is the benefit of this type of crowdsourcing?
(MR) It’s an opportunity to gain hands-on experience on a project that has a real impact on society. Especially for students who are in library or archival studies programs. For example, Joel created manuals to instruct people on how to find information and we also credit volunteers as being part of the project ‘s team. This didn’t happen because we’re doing everything, this was a collaboration and it’s also a reflection of what we’re documenting.
(JBR) It creates a community of librarians and archivists who are interested in contributing and collaborating. It creates an important community based on helping each other and being part of a larger documentary process.
(AE) What do you hope will be the reception of this collection in Puerto Rico?
(MR) Until now all the reactions have been through Facebook or Twitter, where people have been getting in touch to donate or to support the initiative. My hope is to keep growing this website as the idea is to collect materials to donate to the University of Florida. The reality is that, as much as we like our Scalar project, these digital projects have a cycle and eventually there will come a time when the site won’t make sense anymore or where we reach the point of achieving what we set out to do.
We’d like for the collection to be a starting point for researchers, so that people may study and reflect on what it meant to be Puerto Rican during this specific time, both on the island and abroad. We’re not trying to be the RickyRenuncia experts, but we’d like to be a model that inspires people to create their own documentation projects.
(IFR) The archives and library community in Puerto Rico have given us a lovely welcome and I’ve received emails from our colleagues in the Diáspora project inviting others to donate materials. I hope these materials are used and for our project to be a tool for researchers and students in other fields and academic communities.
Klaudia M. Zabala y Jaime G. Cabán showing their protest signs. 22 July 2019, San Juan, Puerto Rico.
(JBR) We see this as the conclusion of the first phase. And the second phase is the most important as it’s focused on calling on those who want to donate their photos, videos, and ephemera. I also think the next step is to connect what happened with RickyRenuncia to a wider social context. The RickyRenuncia anniversary came and went without much celebration due to the situation we’re all living in right now. But that doesn’t mean that people will forget, and the fact that we’re still documenting opens up the possibility of that memory being continually activated.
(AE) Is there anything else you’d like to add?
(MR) In relation to the first anniversary of the protests, I went to a conference where we were collectively reflecting on the protests and what they ultimately meant. I announced that we were about to launch this project and the reaction was really positive. Precisely because we will be part of a collective reflection of what it means to be Puerto Rican. How do you define Puerto Rican identity within and outside the island? What is the sense of solidarity between both experiences? I see our project as a part of these greater conversations.
(MR) There are people who ask why we haven’t done a similar initiative with other events such as Hurricane María and the earthquakes. Firstly, there are already other people doing that work and for me, the RickyReuncia protests represent one of the few positive things that have come out of Puerto Rico and that doesn’t portray Puerto Ricans as victims. That has been one of the main narratives by the media in Puerto Rico as in the United States and worldwide. What took place last summer reinforces the idea that we as Puerto Ricans are not victims but survivors. The protests of RickyRenuncia come from the social movements of Vieques, student-led strikes and protests and of la Telefónica. We are heirs to all these protest movements that have not happened in a vacuum, but rather are part of a history we’ve been making since 1898. This is not a spontaneous event but a continuation and it’s important to remind people that we have the capacity to control our own future and continue to move forward. When we started this initiative, we had no idea we would eventually have funds from the University of Connecticut to pay programmers nor that we would be grantees of an IMLS grant. I believe this is the beginning of many new things and we are three Puerto Ricans who know each other from the University of Puerto Rico and spontaneously came together. If we can continue to inspire people to see that in actuality you do not need much money to start a similar project, well here we are.
Header image: List of most popular hashtags collected by TWARC.
On July 13th, 2019 the Center for Investigative Journalism (Centro de Periodismo Investigativo) published 889 pages of leaked Telegram chat logs between the then-governor of Puerto Rico, Ricardo Roselló Nevares, and members of his cabinet. The chat logs contained misgoninistic and homophobic comments as well as corruption schemes. “Don’t we have a cadaver to feed our crows?” wrote a high ranking member of the government in the chat, in reference to the deaths caused by Hurricane María, which struck the island in 2018. It is estimated that 4,600 people died as a result of the hurricane.
As an immediate result of the leaked chats, Puerto Ricans collectively called for the governor’s resignation, a call that was tagged as #RickyRenuncia on social media. After two weeks of massive protests, on July 24th, 2019, Ricardo Rosselló announced his resignation on the official government Facebook page.
The RickyRenuncia Project seeks to preserve digital materials (video, audio, images, news, tweets, amongst others) related to the governor’s resignation. In this interview, Marisol Ramos, Latin American and Iberian Studies Librarian at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Joel Blanco Rivera, professor at the Escuela Nacional de Conservación, Restauración y Museografía in Mexico City, and Irmarie Fraticelli Rodríguez, graduate student in Information Science at the University of Michigan, met with Archivistas en Espanglish to talk about how they tasked themselves with compiling physical and digital materials related to the protest and the importance of documenting events like these through non-traditional methods.
(Archivistas en Espanglish) How did this project and collaboration come about?
Tweet most widely shared during the protests.
(Joel) The project started in the midst of the protests. Marisol posted on Facebook asking if anyone was documenting what was happening. So, I replied because as soon as the protests started I began to collect tweets with the #RickyRenuncia hashtag. From there, it was organic, the conversations began and shortly thereafter Irmarie was integrated into the group.
(Irmarie) Everything was spontaneous. It was all done through comments and conversations on Facebook. From my end, I got the idea of collecting protest signs while at the massive protest at the Luis A. Ferré Highway. People were discarding them because it was raining and they were soaked. Marisol put me in touch with Fernando Acosta, an archivist at the Princeton Library Digital Latin American Archive of Ephemera, where they focus on collecting Puerto Rican materials and so the signs were of great interest to them.
(JBR) So, Irmarie had the protest signs and I was working on Twitter and that’s where the idea to collect web materias, especially news articles, came from. Then I heard that the Internet Archive has a collection called “Spontaneous Events Collection”, which allows groups to build their collections without having to pay a subscription to Archive-It. So we sent the Internet Archive a proposal via email and the next day they had accepted it. Our responsibility was to select the resources that were going to make up a part of the collection and work on metadata. The team at the Internet Archive took care of all the technical aspects.
(AE) Could you talk about your own experiences during the summer of 2019 and how those personal experiences shaped the project, the content curation, access pathways, etc?
(MR) Those of us who live outside of Puerto Rico have witnessed what is happening in Puerto Rico and we also witness what is happening to Puerto Ricans in the diaspora. In the United States, Puerto Ricans were connecting with each other and organizing marches. That touched us. This wasn’t just a thing happening on a little island in the Caribbean. The internet and social media have expanded who views themselves as being part of the boricua identity. I have a friend in Estonia and he would photograph events, being the only Puerto Rican there, he would post them on Facebook and talk about how he felt there and how he wanted to be part of the protests in Puerto Rico, given that he had been involved in the Vieques protests. That was more or less what resonated with me and it made me think about things that we should discuss more often.
(JBR) My experience is similar to Marisol’s, but being in Mexico. On a personal level, I felt solidarity but also nostalgia. I don’t know if nostalgia is the correct word, but I felt I wanted to be there as a Puerto Rican but also as an archivist. That’s why I’ve focused on archiving tweets. I had a dataset of tweets relating to the 2017 University of Puerto Rico strike. During that semester, Irmarie was my student and at that time I was working with my students on archiving tweets using Scalar, and working on themes surrounding the fiscal crisis and budgetary cuts affecting the University. So, when the Rosselló leak happened, I had the interest to continue to collect tweets. Also as an archivist, I know that we can’t wait a year to start compiling materials on social media–mainly because of the technology. But that also can lead to a process where you are just accumulating and that is not what we wanted to do. It was more of a process of selection.
(IFR) At that moment I was on the island and I would have never thought I was going to end up doing archival work because I saw myself as a person in the protests. I too was angry. I too wanted to go to La Fortaleza [governor’s mansion] to protest and I also brought my own protest signs. It wasn’t until I saw what Marisol was posting on Facebook that I realized that I also hold the knowledge to document these events and that I had to use that knowledge. I remember that on that same massive protest, I had asked my sister: “Should I grab the signs? Would you all do that with me?”. And so we all ended up collecting signs while it rained. At that moment, I didn’t use a lot of selection criteria because I knew that I had to approach people, that I had to be quick, and that I had to recognize that others were angry as well. So I took advantage of the situation and picked up signs that people were discarding while quickly interviewing protestors. I could only ask their name and why they were there. I collected 7 audio files of people reading their banners and it’s interesting that you can hear the anger in their voices.
(AE) Why did you decide to start archiving web pages and tweets to document this particular moment in history?
Posters from the protests as they dried. “A low-cost improvised process!”, noted Irmarie humorously.
(MR) One of the reasons is that we wanted to show that Puerto Rico is part of social movements far larger than the island itself. What happened last summer is not an isolated event but a larger response that adopted strategies and social movements happening at a global scale. If you look at what was being shared on social media, you see the merging of feminist, anti-capitalist, anti-corruption, anti-racist, and LGBTQ movements, among others. Communication was happening online by large and there were differences between what was showing up in the media and what was actually happening on the streets. That is why we emphasized on amplifying a variety of perspectives that were not necessarily covered by the main news outlets who instead craft a narrative and control how the story will be represented. Suddenly you have an emphasis on certain celebrities and themes like Ricky Martin, Bad Bunny, el Rey Charlie, and “perreo combativo” and it’s awesome but there were other things happening and other groups of people participating as well. That is why we emphasize the digital. And with their ephemeral quality, not many archives in Puerto Rico nor the US have the flexibility or capacity to preserve this type of medium. Meanwhile, we have worked on this subject for years. We felt that we could push back on existing standards and barriers that exist within web and social media archiving. If we don’t break from tradition, thousands of stories will disappear.
(JBR) Part of what has been documented is only one representation of how the protests took place, particularly the use of social media as the main means of communication. It’s important to point out the fact that social media is ephemeral as is the fact that protests were also happening outside of the capital city of San Juan. The island’s main news outlets prioritized what was taking place in San Juan, specifically Old San Juan. The reality of course is that protests took place all over Puerto Rico and in the United States as well. In our web collection we not only bring focus to the main newspapers in Puerto Rico but also show how regional newspapers covered what was taking place. It was important that we identify these news items as another way of documenting what took place. There will always be an official archive that tells a particular story, but other perspectives of what happened also exist and we believe they are equally as important to preserve and share.
(MR) It is also worth mentioning that the signs used for the protests were created for single use and not intended for preservation purposes. If Irmarie had not been there, aside from other archivists and librarians also doing this work, we would hardly have a record of this aspect of the protests. Even then they only represent a fraction of all the posters created during this period, their only other record is via the photographs of the protests taken by individuals who were present. This is why the physical aspect of collecting is important even if what is left behind is the ephemeral.
(IFR) It was crucial to gather memes. Many of the calls to action in relation to the protests were carried out through memes. These are also images that people create for one day and then they seem to disappear. These announcements show the multiplicity of sectors within our society here and outside the island who participated either as individuals or as organizations. Compiling these digital elements help us reflect on the multiple communities that were part of all the events that took place last summer. Even though it’s said that it was one voice, the reality is that many diverse entities joined on to the protest. And that is of great historical value, to recognize the diversity in the individuals, organizations, and communities that took to the streets.
(MR) Dance and music were used as a tool of resistance and protest. Those moments are also ephemeral, spontaneous, and truly the only evidence that they in fact took place is the video footage that people uploaded on social media. Another good example are the “cacerolazos”. It’s really interesting how people, for example, in New York City would take out their pots and record videos of themselves to be in solidarity with the people in Puerto Rico. There is an element of performance in this type of protest that most often is not captured by the media. That is why we want to call on people to donate their digital artifacts; to truly represent the diversity in voices that would have never joined had it not been for the leaked chats.
(JBR) We also compiled newspapers from other countries. And in the same case as the posters, they only show a fraction of the people who were actually present at the protests. It’s important to reiterate that the RickyRenuncia archive is not meant to be the absolute and sole archive of these protests, which is why we want to emphasize the concept of representation and recognize the limitations, silences, and gaps of the archive.
(AE) The collection will form part of the Internet Archive’s Spontaneous Event Collections. How do you define the word “spontaneous” in this particular context? Do you consider this to be a spontaneous event?
(MR) It’s a conversation that we have had since the beginning of this process. First there is the fact that it’s the word that the Internet Archive uses to describe events like the Black Lives Matter movement and the Arab Spring. The word “spontaneous” is disputed and honestly I am not quite not sure it ‘s the correct one. There are moments that yes, are spontaneous. Like putting a call to action on Facebook or Twitter and it’s at that point that suddenly everyone shows up. What is not spontaneous are the organizations that not only came together last summer but have been protesting for many years, since La Junta [PROMESA], since Hurricane Maria, and since the many other disasters that took place beforehand. It’s spontaneous only in the sense that a sole group did not actually organize everything in advance. There is a difference between that and all the grassroot organizations that had already been organizing and used the chat to galvanize and bring attention to what has been going on in the country for years. That is why it’s a historical event, it surpassed past massive protests such as those around Vieques, la Telefónica, or the workers’ strikes. Those were events that had specific roots within an issue but the leaked chats cut across ideologies and groups because we can all say that we’ve lost someone before or after María due to a lack of response or accountability by the Puerto Rican and United States government. Any human being sees dead people being made fun of…and that will serve as a catalyst.
(JBR) That is a good question for the Internet Archive. But yes, totally in agreement. It ‘s important to make note that this was not only about everyone getting angry about a leaked chat. The chat was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
(MR) Spontaneity also comes from the fact that our project initially comes about from a Facebook post. We as humans have this impulse to organize information and a way to do it is by cataloguing and tagging. Perhaps we should consider another label more appropriate for these types of events.
(IFR) To a certain degree, I had thought about it as the act of us three coming together that week to meet and document as a team. First it was Marisol’s post, then my idea of gathering posters while at the protests on the highway as it rained. I think that also reflects the spontaneous nature of this project. It was also spontaneous how the rest of the programmers and designers joined the team. So perhaps the word spontaneous refers more to us as a team rather than the actual event itself. We were just awarded an IMLS grant and that was quite spontaneous as well.
(MR) Just like the person who takes a photograph which then suddenly becomes viral. The spontaneous is the connection that we are forming through technology that twenty years ago was not available. We no longer are in the realm of professional photographers who are the only ones capable of taking a good photo. Now we are all citizens with the same ability to document, to archive, and to demand justice. It is on us to preserve our own histories, we cannot depend on institutions. If these collections are not part of their collecting mission, especially in the case of minority and marginalized communities, we simply don’t exist. Sometimes it is best to collect records and from there search for the institution or organization that not only has the necessary resources but that truly cares and understands where you are coming from. We are trying to facilitate this. Serving as intermediaries is a way to carry on the archival activism to which we are committed.
Click here to read the second part of the interview.
Featured image: Most popular hashtags, extracted using TWARC.
Here at Archivoz, we had the honor of interviewing Raffaella Vincenti, who since 2016 has filled the post of Office Head at the Vatican Apostolic Library, a posting officially recognized by Pope Francis in June 2020. Raffaella’s has been a brilliant career, from a Bachelor’s degree in the history of Italian (under Luca Serianni) from the Sapienza University in Rome, to Sapienza’s Special School for Archivists and Librarians (Scuola Speciale Archivisti e Bibliotecari), where she graduated with a thesis on information technologies for archives and libraries. She was the first woman appointed to the Vatican’s Library Council, and since 2010, she has taught Bibliography and Reference Service at the Vatican School of Library Science. Because of the attention her official recognition has received, we believe that the opportunity to learn more about an influential member of the library sciences profession will be of great interest to our readers.
(Archivoz) Thank you very much, Doctor Vincenti, for speaking with us. On June 12, 2020, the Vatican released a statement that read: “Pope Francis appointed Dr. Raffaella Vincenti as office head of the Vatican Apostolic Library. Dr. Vincenti had previously served as secretary of the Library.” The news was picked up immediately in the media as a clear signal, preceded by others—such as that offered by the Holy Father in a Mass celebrated on January 1, 2020—indicating the need to involve women more directly in the Church’s decision-making processes.
(Raffaella Vincenti) I must confess that the news has been somewhat exaggerated in the media, since this is really just confirmation of a role assigned to me by Cardinal Parolin in 2016. Several press agencies have perhaps emphasized my nomination because of the simultaneous, and more relevant, addition of Antonella Sciarrone Alibrandi to the managing board of the Vatican’s Financial Information Authority.
Of course, I’m very grateful to the Holy Father for his official recognition of the appointment; Pope Francis is very aware of the work performed by women in the Holy See. However, it is important to remember that those who originally appointed me to Manager of the Department of Acquisitions (in 2007) and then to the post of General Secretary (in 2012) were two Prefects of the Vatican Library, Raffaele Farina (now Cardinal Farina) and the current prefect, Cesare Pasini. This all took place before the appointment of Cardinal Parolin. They, as well as Father Leonard Boyle, Prefect of the Library from 1984 to 1997, who gave me my first job at the Vatican, chose personnel based on ability without reference to gender. It is true that the Library is an organization characterized by a strong female professional presence, but this is also the case in other Vatican institutions.
(Archivoz) How has your career within the Vatican network developed, and what are your actual work responsibilities as General Secretary of the Vatican Apostolic Library?
(RV) As I mentioned before, it was Prefect Farina (later Cardinal Librarian and Archivist of the Holy Roman Church, from 2007-2012) who in 2007 originally appointed me Head of the Aqcuisitions Department, in charge of acquisition of print materials. My academic background is in the humanities, with a Bachelor’s degree in History of the Italian Language, and a further degree from the Special School for Archivists and Librarians (Scuola Speciale Archivisti e Bibliotecari) at the Sapienza in Rome. I completed my training with degrees in Greek paleography and archival sciences and library science from the Vatican’s School of Library Science.
From a professional point of view, and considering my academic background, my interests have always tended toward library and archival work. Following an initial work experience at the Vatican, in the early ‘90s, I had the opportunity to work in a variety of academic settings (British School at Rome, Ecole Française de Rome, Pontificia Università Lateranense, rete URBS – Unione Romana Biblioteche Scientifiche) and in the archives of various Italian institutions, such as RAI, ISTAT, and the Banca di Roma).
Upon returning to the Vatican, and after a few years as head of the Acquisitions Department, Prefect Monsignor Pasini promoted me to Head of Office of the Secretariat in 2012, a post which involves coordination of a variety of activities primarily with the Prefecture. Among these are: general management of the respective secretariats of the Prefecture, Vice-Prefecture and Cardinal’s Office, besides the Department of Admissions, which liaises with researchers and supervises access to the reading rooms; personnel management; direction of work related to the Reproductions and Rights Office; and coordination of activities related to institutional communications, including management of social media accounts (both in Italian and English) and oversight of content published on the Library’s web site.
(Archivoz) What do you personally think about Pope Francis’ openness to the appointment of women to posts traditionally restricted to men?
(RV) In my opinion, this is a much broader question that speaks to professional competencies and knowledge over and above considerations of gender. I’m happy that women are being considered for positions of authority that have traditionally been reserved for men, but we will only be able to celebrate this as a real accomplishment when these announcements are no longer seen as exceptional or out of the ordinary. Only then will it be possible to set aside discussions of gender equality in favor of professional ability more broadly conceived. The Holy Father speaks frequently of the female “genius,” listing the characteristics which make women deserving of more attention and higher levels of professional responsibilities in the workplace, but in the Library, perhaps due to the strong cultural connotations that in many ways set it apart from other Vatican institutions, this balance was already a reality during the pontificate of Benedict XVI, who appointed many of my female colleagues to the high positions they currently occupy. An example of this would be Barbara Jatta, Director of the Vatican Museums.
Actually, it has been case now for a while that women occupy many positions of authority in the Library, with a level of accomplishment such that their work has served to enrich both the organization’s institutional life and its complex of procedures and relations, which in the end translates into better service to our patrons. As an example that focuses a bit on Spanish-speaking countries, I might—with a deal of pride—mention my colleague (and friend) Ángela Nuñez Gaitán, director of the Library’s Preservation Laboratory. She has inherited, from earlier generations of preservation staff, an important mixture of experience and hands-on knowledge, which she has been able to combine flawlessly with her own knowledge of modern preservation theory and, above all, of the technologies that foster an evolution of departmental practice that protects and preserves our materials while at the same time maintaining a healthy respect for their profoundly historical nature.
(Archivoz) In recent years, the Vatican Library has placed great emphasis on digitization of its manuscript holdings. Are there any related projects planned for the near future?
(RV) We are, at the moment, very focused on the process of digitization itself. However, we have at the same time begun work on a series of related “micro-projects” which have allowed to broaden a bit the horizons of the larger project. For example, as part of the digital reproduction process we have taken on other embedded tasks such as metadata enhancement and, thanks to interoperability standards like IIIF (International Image Interoperability Framework), efforts to enhance effectiveness of collaborative research. We are also exploring more adequate visual optimization technologies, in order to ensure greater detail than can be captured by the naked eye, as well as methodologies for handling extremely delicate materials. Furthermore, we are exploring new formats for long-term conservation of digital materials—like FITS (Flexible Image Transport System )—as part of an ongoing movement toward standardization in the field of cultural heritage. A number of internationally known academic institutions are also working on these initiatives, as pilot programs, that may be applicable to our research needs in the near future.
(Archivoz) How has the Vatican Library been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic? It is one of the first institutions in the world to reopen its collections to researchers, with of course all due attention to security and health considerations. What do you think of this gesture, which has been so well received by the scientific community?
(RV) At first, we made an effort to move all ordinary workflows to a telecommuting context, which hasn’t always been easy, but thanks to cooperation between our departments we were able to ensure that work that could no be postponed or delayed could be carried out remotely. Later on, once the emergency began to susbside, we were able to formulate a procedure for reopening the Library, with attention to all security and health safeguards, and return to our normal activities. At the same time, we carried out a survey of our spaces in order to evaluate possible risks and limitations, all with the help of an internal health audit that has generated a list of guidelines to follow.
Once we determined that we could safely return to normal functioning while respecting social distancing and health guidelines, and thus afford our researchers to complete their academic year as planned, we reopened our reading rooms to the public. All this required great determination, but we have been rewarded with the gratitude of our patrons, which is, of course, the goal of everything we do.
(Archivoz) What is the profile of the average user of the Library’s collections? What guidelines do you follow regarding acquisitions of new material?
(RV) The majority of our researchers are academics or specialists in the humanities. According to the wishes of those who, from Nicholas V forward, have succeeded to headship of the Church, we are open to all, regardless of race, religion, or political inclinations. Still, we safeguard a particularly delicate and rich heritage which it is our duty to pass down intact to future generations, so access to our collections is curated according to the objectives and specialization of the projects in question. This is the ultimate determinant of who does and does not receive an access card. Naturally, we all also give access to students who have either recently completed or are completing a degree program, as long as they are able to demonstrate the relevance to their studies of the materials requested. As a general rule, we try to balance the twin missions of access and preservation, so we encourage researchers to consult digital copies first, and then, if deemed necessary, to request access to the original (assuming, of course, that the original is in a condition that permits consultation).
Our manuscript collection, along with special materials like prints, photographs, and numismatic artifacts, are historical collections which, with the exception of donations or special purchases, do not receive new accessions. Conversely, our print collection (along with the corresponding digital materials) are open to new acquisitions and constitute the main thrust of the academic activity hosted by our institution. Therefore, there is a department dedicated especially to this work (of which I was the manager from 2007 to 2012). It is part of the larger Printed Books Department, and is responsible for the acquisition of new materials through purchase, donation, or exchange. Inclusion is based on the relationship of a given item to the disciplines represented within our collections; there are subject experts on staff who advise the department manager as to the selection of new titles. This is often done in cooperation with major vendors, who prepare customized catalogs of available titles aimed at particular libraries in order to streamline the selection process.
(Archivoz) In conclusión, can you share with us some of the projects you plan to undertake at the Library in the near future?
(RV) I’ve already mentioned the smaller side projects being undertaken alongside our digitization work, which will probably determine the focus of our ongoing research and development interests. I would add that each initiative requires a constant fundraising effort in order to cover future budgetary needs; our collaborators, not to mention our research and implementation activities, require funding that guarantees more than just the immediate future. This task falls to the Department of Marketing and Development, the manager of which is also a woman. The Prefecture guides its work, providing a point of contact between that office and the Library’s state of affairs so that it can support our financial needs, in a spirit of justice and openness.
Today, I am speaking with Hannes Dempewolf, Senior Scientist and Head of Global Initiatives at Crop Trust, about the Svalbard Global Seed Vault and the safeguarding of global crop diversity through the creation of a back-up archive of seeds from seed banks around the world.
(Archivoz) Can you give us a brief history of the Vault—its origins and originators, mission, etc.—and perhaps a brief glimpse into its future as well? If the situation develops as envisioned, by 2050—which seems to be a current benchmark for climate considerations—what will the Vault look like, contain, or have accomplished?
(H.D.) They say that success has many parents, and I think there are many people who feel they have been involved in the genesis of the idea, and later on in the construction of the vault, and that’s certainly true. The idea of storing seeds in Svalbard has been around for quite some time. Back in the ‘80s, the Nordic Genetic Resource Center (NordGen), which alongside the Norwegian government still continues to play a big role in managing the vault today, began to store some of their seeds as backups in abandoned mine shafts there. At that time there was, of course, no vault in that sense. A feasibility study was conducted in the early 90s to determine whether it would make sense to make this more international and allow other seed banks around the world to deposit there, but at the time it was decided that it wasn’t feasible, due in part to the nature of current political discourse regarding genetic resources.
Then, in 2004, the International Seed Treaty came along, an FAO plant treaty in which many countries around the world committed to work together to conserve global genetic resources represented by seeds. This provided an important international impetus to look again at the feasibility of building a facility at Svalbard for the purpose of backing up seed collections. This study, commissiones by the Norwegian government and conducted by Cary Fowler, recommended the establishment of the vault. Fowler later on became the first executive director of the Crop Trust.
The vault’s mission is to provide a backup for the all the world’s unique crop diversity housed in gene banks. We think in the world there are about 7 million accessions, or seed samples, housed in about 1700 seed banks around the world. About 2.2 million of those samples are unique. At the moment, in the vault we have just above 1 million seed samples, so you can do the math: we’re a little less than halfway there. By 2050, ideally the vault would store as close as possible to the full complement. There have been recent upgrades to “future-proof” the facility, in the hopes of creating a very stable environment that doesn’t require frequent intervention. While some technical intervention will always be necessary, the facility itself is equipped to withstand up to 2050 and many years beyond that.
(Archivoz) How many parties are represented in the contents of the Seed Vault? In general, what sort of response have you received from potential depositors, and why?
(H.D.) If you’re talking about the countries where the seeds were originally collected, there are 248, more than exist today. When the seeds were originally collected, in the ‘70s and ‘80s, countries existed which have since then either separated or joined together. If you add all these together, there are a huge number of countries represented in the Vault, in terms of original collecting location. However, many of these seeds are stored in seed banks in other countries and several of the depositors are also international seed banks, so the number of countries isn’t necessarily the most useful statistic to look at in terms of deposits. In terms of individual seed banks represented, there are 87 from around the world that have deposits at Svalbard. Several of these are international gene banks that are recognized as global common goods by the FAO Plant Treaty and do not belong to any particular country. This, of course, means that there are still many that do not use our facility.
Generally, the feedback has been very positive. The Vault is opened three or four times a year for new deposits, and each time there are more gene banks that want to make a deposit, which is great. A lot of the unique diversity in the world is held by gene banks in developing nations, and unfortunately they often don’t have the resources to conduct proper regeneration of duplicates, so although important, backups can’t always be a priority. So, there is a great need and opportunity for the Crop Trust to support developing nations in creating backups in the Vault.
There are, and always will be, countries who don’t feel confident enough in the Vault to make deposits. The depositors’ agreement is very clear, that ownership of and exclusive access to the seeds remains with the depositors, and that the agreement is backed by the Norwegian government, which has proven itself a reliable partner. However, for some parties these assurances are not enough, and they choose not to use the facility. Still, it remains open to anyone who wishes to use it.
(Archivoz) How does the sharing of seeds work in practice?
(H.D.) Access to the seeds is never provided by the Vault. It would only be provided by the original depositor. So, if you’re interested in a certain accession, a certain variety, you would go directly to the depositing seed bank and request it from there, and they would be obliged to share it with you. The treaty stipulates that they can charge you a small handling fee, but they cannot profit from the exchange. The seed has to be provided for free for the purpose of research and breeding. There are a few exceptions for direct use, but generally you can’t request large quantities of seeds to plant in your fields. Seed banks are not set up for that purpose; they distribute maybe one hundred seeds at a time, and you have to multiply them and produce a large enough number to actually work with. They are also not set up to provide seeds to home gardeners; if they accepted that sort of request on a regular basis, they would easily be overwhelmed. It’s really meant for research and breeding applications.
(Archivoz) The seed bank at Svalbard has been nicknamed the “Doomsday Vault.” Leaving aside any apocalyptic undertones, what sorts of scenarios for withdrawal/use of genetic deposits do you foresee? Can you share an example with us?
(H.D.) The Crop Trust doesn’t really like the “Doomsday” framing, because that’s not really what the seed vault was set up for. The seed vault was set up to provide active duplication for seed banks around the world. These seed banks face threats all the time, “little Doomsdays,” if you want to call it that. We’ve had electrical fires destroy collections. One of the most prominent and relevant examples is the inability of the seed bank in Aleppo in Syria to continue to operate due to civil unrest. They had to reestablish the bank in Lebanon and Morocco, and to do that they had to withdraw their backup materials from Svalbard. There were so many seeds that they couldn’t withdraw them in one go, because they didn’t have the space to replant them. As soon as the seeds arrive in their new location they have to regrow them in order to accumulate enough material to both create the new seed bank and redeposit them in the Seed Vault. It has been a multiyear process, starting in 2015, and is still ongoing.
(Archivoz) In 2016, the Vault dealt with limited flooding in its access tunnel due to the melting permafrost. As recently as July 25, 2020, record high temperatures were recorded on two consecutive days in Svalbard. Can you share a little about your approach to preservation: given that the threat to agriculture caused by global warming is one of your stated reasons for being, how do you keep the Vault safe from one of the very things against which it is intended as a safeguard?
(H.D.) When the Vault was first constructed, it was done so that the permafrost, which is the top layer of the ground and is permanently frozen, would refreeze upon completion. However, the summers were warmer than anticipated, and this never really happened, at least around the entrance tunnel. In 2016, not only was it quite warm, but there was an unusually heavy rainfall, which caused more extensive water intrusion into the tunnel. Although the seeds themselves were not actually threatened, it was clear that something had to be done. So, the Norwegian government decided to waterproof the entrance tunnel, at a cost of 20 million Euros, much more than the cost of original construction. Now, we’re looking at a facility that is really very secure and guarded against global warming.
It’s important to note that the areas in which the seeds are kept, which are three big chambers about 130 meters inside the mountain, are at a constant temperature of -4 degrees centigrade, and are cooled further to -18 degrees, the optimal storage temperature for seeds, by an artificial cooling system. So, even if the electrical cooling system were to fail, the seeds would remain naturally at -4 degrees at least, which, while not optimal, would keep the seeds frozen and viable for a very, very long time. Given that in the Arctic, there is no sun for several months out of the year, it is highly unlikely that the natural temperature inside the Vault would ever rise above this level, even if summer temperatures in Svalbard continue to increase.
(Archivoz) Licensing of digital content and its implications for open access to information is a source of heated discussion in the library world of late. In the context of global agriculture, the debate over seed patenting is perhaps a close analogue. How does this practice limit access to genetic information, and in what ways does the Global Seed Vault seek to address/overcome this concern?
The seeds deposited in the Vault have to be plant material useful for food and agriculture, and the original collection from which the backups are created has to be accessible for use. Seeds that are proprietary or patented in any way—in other words, seeds that are not provided for free for others to use—are not accepted. The International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, along with other instruments, provides a legal framework for seed sharing. The technical term is access and benefit sharing regimes. There are also some that are open to access without recourse to any legal requirements. The real requirement is that the material be available for further research and breeding. Under the International Treaty, if economic profit results from access to seeds through commercialization, then 0.075 percent of that profit must be paid back into the system via the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
There is also what we call the passport information that ideally goes along with every deposit: who collected it, when, and where; under what conditions; hopefully some sort of georeference data so it can be located on a GIS map. This is very important information; without it, often the seeds are useless, since it is impossible to determine where they come from or what they are. We ask that this information be made publicly available as well, and one of the systems in which it is kept is called Genesys, which is managed by the Crop Trust.
This, however, does not provide much information as to the characteristics of the seeds. As you can imagine, you can grow these seeds into plants and sequence their DNA. Seeds can also be described in terms of drought tolerance, disease resistance, and that sort of thing. This is also very valuable information, since someone who wants to use a particular seed to breed a strain resistant to certain diseases, for example, can know that a variety has been tested for that in the past and is in the seed bank ready for use. While this information is often also made public, there are discussions within the context of the Plant Treaty at the moment regarding its use. The question is whether the scope of a given treaty extends beyond the physical seed to the DNA itself. It would be inappropriate for the Crop Trust to engage in these discussions; as an element of the treaties themselves, we simply follow them as laid out.
(Archivoz) Cary Fowler, in the 2013 documentary Seed Battles, spoke of the vault as containing the history of agriculture, an idea which by definition includes the history of the people behind the practices. I’m intrigued by this intersection between genetic and cultural heritage: how do the contents of the vault reflect and define who we are as a species?
(H.D.) The Vault doesn’t really look at what information comes with the seeds; the facility is there to back up the material. The question is what kind of information is attached to the original collection in its original seed bank and whether they are keeping it. I would venture to say that the vast majority of seed banks around the world don’t have systems set up to capture traditional knowledge or this sort of cultural value. That has to do with the fact that a lot of those materials were collected in the ‘70s and ‘80s, when people just didn’t think to record that sort of thing.
However, that is an incredibly interesting area of thought. These seeds, especially for indigenous communities, often play important cultural roles. The varieties are often named: in Quechua culture in Peru, for example, they are referred to as family members. There’s been one really moving deposit of potato seeds to the Vault by a Quechua community. When they came to the Vault, they held a ceremony honoring the deposit, and it was a very emotional moment not only for them, but for us as well, seeing how much cultural value was attached. There is another example just this year of a deposit by an indigenous community, the Cherokee Nation. Their deposit, including beans with reference to the Trail of Tears, of course carries very deeply emotional connections that are of great meaning to them.
This often gets lost in our daily work, since we’re mainly natural science-driven, looking more at the breeding value of accessions, so the cultural value isn’t nearly as well documented as it should be in many cases. Unfortunately, a lot of the information around the cultural value and importance of seeds to particular communities is lost, because it wasn’t collected at the time they were deposited. Going forward, I think it’s important to make sure that indigenous communities that still have these traditions know that the Vault is also open to them.
(Archivoz) In a nutshell, why is what you are doing important?
(H.D.) To me, this is all about understanding the value and importance of diversity to building more resilient food systems. The conservation of the seeds we’ve been talking about is only useful if they are put to use—if they are utilized as part of more diverse agricultural production systems, if they are used to breed more resilient crops, and if they are used in the context of cultural applications and traditions. There’s so much value in that diversity that justifies its conservation. I think it is moving to think about that, but is also an important survival mechanism for us as a species to make sure that this diversity that we ourselves created over thousands of years continues to be preserved and used. Diversity for resilience is what it all comes down to.
Today we are speaking with Stephanie Kitchen, Managing Editor at the International African Institute in London, England, about their African Digital Research Repositories project, why digital institutional repositories are important, and how they can effect change in a continent with an increasing focus on sustainable social and economic development.
(Archivoz) Can you give us a brief history of the International African Institute and its mission? How does the African Digital Research Repositories project contribute to this mission?
(S.K.) The International African Institute (IAI) was founded in London in 1926. It is best known for its journal Africa published since 1928 (now in volume 90). Its programmes and agendas have varied through the decades, but the IAI has been concerned consistently with promoting research and knowledge dissemination on the African continent. It was involved in foundational work, for example, on the codification of African languages and linguistic study. It is also known as a founding institution in what is still a central discipline in African studies – anthropology/ethnography. Since the 1980s, its work has largely focused on publishing and dissemination of information, as well as organizing and supporting conferences and seminars. The IAI publishes the journals Africa, Journal of African Cultural Studies, Africa Bibliography as well as several book series.
The African Digital Research Repositories grew from this work – notably the compiling of the annual, now digital, Africa Bibliography – along with growing interest in Open Access resources and online archival research. We were aware, for example, that a great deal of useful research in Africa is – and will likely will remain – unpublished in formal channels (book series and journals), but that increasingly institutions and libraries in the continent were making it available via repositories (often hosted in university libraries). Masters’ and PhD theses done in Africa contain a great deal of important research, often on ‘neglected’ topics. The idea of our modest – entirely internally funded – project was to research and begin to bring some of these repositories together in a way that might be useful to researchers throughout the world, and especially across the African continent. Initially we compiled lists of known repositories by country. It soon became clear that whilst some countries had quite advanced resources–in the North of the continent, in Ethiopia, latterly in Kenya, and in South Africa (including a large institutional repository at UNISA, the country’s long-distance learning university)–around 20 African countries had no known digital repositories.
Number of repositories per African country and percentages. “Other” countries entail those with 0-3 repositories present.
(Archivoz) In what areas is the most important research in Africa being done right now in terms of global impact? How do digital repositories support this work?
(S.K.) I am not sure I am qualified to answer the first part of this question! But African researchers and researchers from across the world working in the continent are contributing to research ranging from macro-economics and international relations, to public health and ecosystems research. Just now, as the IAI along with others in the African continent are trying to highlight via our blog African Arguments – Debating Ideas, social and biomedical research in Africa on responses to the Covid-19 crisis, as well as on earlier pandemics, notably HIV/AIDS and Ebola, is critical to local, regional and international understanding.
Open access electronic resources play a part in today’s research ecosystem, and African repositories are part of this, particularly in areas where local and contextual knowledge is important. Institutional repositories, such as databases developed by the UN Economic Commission for Africa or the African Union or the Repository of the Central Bank of Nigeria, may be key sources for economic, financial and political research.
(Archivoz) What level of participation or buy-in do you see across institutions on the part of faculty and/or students in the development of repositories? How is this participation encouraged/enforced?
(S.K.) Our 2016 study indicated that management of repositories in African universities falls largely upon libraries, where professional staffing generally is modest or lacking, as is training in the interface of repository work with more traditional librarianship. Our 2019 follow-up indicated an expansion of repositories, 48 additional repositories across the continent, in line with our finding that these were being encouraged at the highest level of universities, as well as wider Open Access mandates. We also found that at least 80 per cent of the repositories we surveyed in 2016 had a requirement in place for Master’s and PhD candidates to deposit their theses. In many cases, such deposit is required for degree completion.
Faculty involvement is more difficult to assess. As is the case elsewhere – in Europe and North America, I am unsure about Latin America – repositories are mainly considered the domain of librarians, or library publishing units. That said, faculty in Africa, in subjects such as history, for example, may be engaged in repositories and archives in ways that go beyond their Northern counterparts, since assisting with assembling such resources is essential to the present and future of their disciplines. There are doubtless many examples, but one I experienced personally was at the repository of the Université Cheikh Anta Diop in Dakar, where historians and anthropologists were themselves involved in compiling and digitizing theses and memoirs deposited at the University since its founding in 1957, as well as research articles, university publications and rare and valuable works. This involved academics scanning from their own private libraries as well as contacting colleagues around the world to locate missing copies of older studies.
(Archivoz) In an article from December 2016, Robert Molteno states that through the establishment of digital repositories across Africa, “[t]he continent, from being largely only the object of investigation, would henceforth become the primary author of its own understanding.”1 He also states that it will allow African scholars to share their research with “a global audience.” In your mind, does either of these foci—internal vs. external—take precedence? Do they compete with or complement one another?
(S.K.) In a world of mobility, connectivity and expectations that research conform with ‘international’ standards it is of course difficult, if not impossible, to separate ‘internal vs external’ foci. As our Institute has tried to emphasize, African research has always been part of ‘global’ research in many domains, as illustrated through its long-term contribution to knowledge of infectious, or ‘tropical’, disease and public health. Equally, leading African postcolonial intellectuals – Claude Ake, Okot p’Bitek and Ngugi wa Thiong’o, among many others – have prioritized research and knowledge production in their own societies. Following Molteno, scholars such as Francis Nyamnjoh would argue that this is done through, for example, African authors and researchers ‘publishing in Africa’. Development of publishing – including repositories and academic journals – infrastructure in the continent does remain a major task, one that is perennially challenged by often unhelpful or adverse schemes or policies, usually developed outside the continent in ignorance of specific contexts, that may undermine an already fragile and fragmented system. The European Union-driven Plan S, self-evidently Eurocentric and with scant regard for knowledge production systems outside the global North or ‘global science’, is a good (bad!) example of this.
(Archivoz) One element of the African Union’s Agenda 2063 is promotion of a pan-African cultural renaissance. Some African cultural institutions, such as the National Gallery of Zimbabwe at Bulawayo, make an explicit connection between heritage and development, suggesting an archival model that should be as much about access to cultural as to intellectual/academic production. Do you see potential for this sort of “collecting” in the repositories you have studied?
(Archivoz) On your website, you mention hopes of at some point creating a greater degree of inter-searchability among the existing African repositories. Given that UN Sustainable Development Goal 17 represents an explicit call for enhanced global partnerships, how important is it that these connections between individual institutions, and between these institutions and the rest of the world, be strengthened?
(S.K.) A recent project, done together with AfricArXiv, developed an interactive map of African digital research repositories. This extended earlier work to include organizational and governmental repositories. It also maps interactions between research repositories, and is aimed at promoting their use and connectivity with digital scholarly search engines and research. I would also draw attention to the recently published research of the LIBENSE network.
Overview of the visual map of African digital repositories. Nodes represent countries with their connections to various types of repositories as distinguished by color code.
One of the striking observations of the African repository landscape even five years ago was its fragmentation, so we hope these initiatives represent some advance. But compare them with the Latin American REDIB repository which lists over 1,100 institutions, 3,000 plus journals and over a million documents. The IAI’s efforts are intended to consolidate and promote known repositories in the continent (including in global search engines) as a service to African studies research resources. This work, we know, has been appreciated by librarians as well as by the repositories themselves, that appreciate the exposure, and new repositories write to us from time to time requesting to be listed. That said, political will and thus resources for trans-continental, or ‘Pan-African’, publishing projects are lacking or difficult to access within the African continent, and in Europe or North America, ignorance of what is needed is often a problem – despite the UN goal you cite.
(Archivoz) At this point, what do you think is the biggest challenge facing African institutions that wish to establish digital repositories of their own?
(S.K.) Impediments should not be technological (as our report showed). Open Access platforms are available, when there is political will and support from heads of institutions. There is also an established and growing consensus of the value of Open Access research resources as a public good throughout the world. Now added to that is the pressure on all institutions to improve online resources (and eventually teaching and research) in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. That said, we observed pressures around resources for IT, staffing, skills, training and lack of networking beyond single institutions. It is hard to see immediate significant improvements in these areas given the effects in Africa of the coming global recession.
We had the pleasure of speaking with Maggie Schreiner, Manager of Archives and Special Collections at the Brooklyn Historical Society and volunteer at the Interference Archives. Read on to learn how she focuses on supporting movements for racial and economic justice through liberatory memory work, and documenting community history through collaborative and post-custodial approaches.
(Archivoz) You have a background related to activism and social justice organizing. Can you talk about how this led you to becoming an archivist?
Before moving to New York, I was living in Montréal where I was a community organizer and very active in the anarchist scene there. The direct connection to archives started while I was an undergrad at McGill and volunteering at Midnight Kitchen, which was an all-volunteer community kitchen. We did a lot of work to contextualize food security issues within the context of how food distribution happens under capitalism and the ways in which different kinds of access to resources impact people’s ability to have secure food. We were also doing a lot of work related to the campus administration in relation to food production and the privatization of food. The administration at McGill was trying to move away from having independent small vendors to having a conglomerate food service provider, who had significant ties to the military and prison industrial complexes. We knew that in the late 90s there had been a big campaign against Coca-Cola on campus but we knew nothing about it. That’s sort of where my interest in doing memory work around social justice organizing first came up. I did a lot of research and wrote a feature article for the campus newspaper and did teach-ins about the connections between food and the history of our campus organizing. I became the person who was documenting this movement and that led me to realize that the way that I wanted to contribute to social justice organizing was doing this memory work (although at that time I don’t think I even knew that being an archivist was something that one could be). I then moved to New York and entered the New York University (NYU) Archives and Public History Program. I was actually doing the Public History track but then I got a job at Tamiment Library & Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, which was obviously a great fit for me in terms of documenting left-wing and radical organizing. That’s when I really realized that I wanted to work in archives.
(Archivoz) Speaking of left-wing and radical organizing records, can you tell us about the Interference Archive and your role there?
(MS) The Interference Archive is an all-volunteer archive that documents the cultural production of social movements. We collect posters, newsletter, zines, flyers… really anything that’s created by or for social justice organizing. We consider ourselves to be a cross-movement space and try to be a place where community organizers intersect and learn from each other. I got involved around 2012 in a low-key way by helping out in events once in a while. We do about three to four exhibits a year that focus on different aspects of social justice movements. In 2014 I organized an exhibition titled “We Won’t Move” around the history of tenant organizing in New York City from the 1940s to the present. Essentially, the exhibition tried to contextualize current campaigns for housing rights within historical multi-decade events with a focus on racial and economic justice. That’s how I became deeply involved with Interference. I had a great group of volunteers who did research and worked with about a dozen community organizations across the city so we could articulate their campaign goals in their own words. The exhibition built on my capstone project at NYU, where I worked with the Metropolitan Housing Council, which is the oldest tenant organization in New York City, to research and create an online exhibition about their history. I built out that project to look at the city more broadly and put the work in a physical form.
Interference Archive, photo by Ryan Buckley.
When that project finished I realized that I had to find a new way to remain involved with Interference so I became the volunteer coordinator. But after several years I started to feel like I was burning out on doing that and realized I wanted to transition out of a more administrative role and create more space to be involved in a creative way. So, I worked again with other volunteers on an exhibition that was in partnership with the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board, which supports residents of low-income cooperative housing. It’s one of the biggest permanent affordable housing programs in New York City. We worked with them to tell the history organization and the history of the cooperative housing movement in New York.
We Won’t Move poster, Interference Archive, 2015.
(Archivoz) Are the volunteers mostly people that work in archives or have some sort of archives education?
(MS) It’s a total mix of people. I would say there are people who are archivists or working in some sort of archives-adjacent field and definitely a lot of students. But because Interference has a graphic arts focus, we get a lot of artists and also people who are coming from all different kinds of social movement work. We’re working with really beautiful and engaging materials so Interference is also an obvious point of entry for people who are new to organizing.
(Archivoz) How do you feel about non-archivists doing archives work? Do you think there’s a benefit to that?
(MS) I think that the answer to this looks different for every institution. I definitely come from a place where I would rather engage with people who are non-archivists than be proprietary with the profession. We have aspects of our professional best practices that aren’t applicable across the board, not just for community archives but also for other smaller institutions like the Brooklyn Historical Society. I think that we can learn in both directions and of course there are parts of professional best practices that I would be quite upset if we left aside at any community archive. But, I also think that our practice at Interference has been strengthened by having insights from a variety of places.
(Archivoz) What are some ways in which Interference doesn’t follow so-called best practices for archival materials?
(MS) The most obvious way is that we don’t organize our materials by donor or by a strict understanding of provenance. We organize material by topic and by format because, as a movement organization, we are trying to decenter the individual. Many items in our collections are the result of collaborative creative work so we try to really emphasize the connected nature of these movements.
I also think that we are an incredibly accessible archive. Not so long ago I went to an event and there was a group of teenagers looking at zines. We don’t have a lot of table space at Interference and they were sitting on the floor looking through boxes of zines. In some ways this would be a nightmare for an archivist but I was thinking this was incredible– there was an event happening on one corner, there are teens over in the other corner, and they are stoked about archival material. And that’s why I’m in it.
(Archivoz) On the other hand, the Brooklyn Historical Society (BHS) seems like a more traditional institution that’s housed in a landmarked building and that really looks like the epitome of a traditional library reserved for serious study. This may be an intimidating or uninviting space for somebody that’s not in academia. Is this perception correct?
(MS) BHS is a very traditional archive, more traditional that I would have guessed before I worked there. BHS has a public-facing component that does great historical work and they are committed to, and I think do a good job at, telling the histories of Brooklynites who are normally excluded from the historical record. So I was surprised when I got to the archives and saw that it was pretty much like a traditional academic archive and certainly in a building that can be uninviting to the general public. But I do think that there are some ways in which that is not the whole truth. There’s definitely a commitment to figuring out how to make BHS as an institution more welcoming. Then there is the fact that our user body, while not completely representative of Brooklyn as a whole, is not just composed of academic researchers and that’s really interesting to me. There are tons of people that are coming in to do research about their neighborhoods and buildings and we get a lot of students, not PhD students, but highschoolers and middle schoolers and we also get class visits from local schools. I have found it really interesting to think about being an archivist in terms of serving a non-traditionally academic audience and I really enjoy that.
(Archivoz) How does your activism and community archives experience inform your work as Manager of Archives and Special Collections at BHS?
(MS) I definitely try to think about the collections in a holistic way and really understand where those hidden stories might be. I look at collections that are already processed and think of how we can enhance them to allow access to the stories that are hidden within them. One of my first projects has been trying to get a handle on our audiovisual collection, which for the most part wasn’t digitized. We participated in a program by the Metropolitan New York Library Council called the Studio Internship Project where they funded an intern who worked with their audio-visual digitization equipment. Through that program we achieved intellectual and physical control of our AV materials, which then allowed me to discover that our institutional collections held incredible documentation of activist exhibitions from the 80s and 90s. We were able to digitize video documenting an exhibition on AIDS in Brooklyn from 1993, community housing movements from the early 80s, and one hour of b roll footage from Sunset Park’s Chinese community in the 90s. We’ve also been advocating for use of local subject headings to describe our collections as opposed to solely using Library of Congress Subject Headings. I couldn’t really describe people in our collections without local subject headings. For example we have the Muslims in Brooklyn Oral History Project, which made it clear that Library of Congress is profoundly inadequate when describing Muslim communities. We had a donor who’s collection documented Brooklyn for Peace, an activist group that does a lot of advocacy around Israel-Palestine, so that also made the case for us to adopt local subject headings.
We’re now working with collections that in varying degrees include documentation of indigenous communities in Brooklyn. We’re looking at every collection that makes reference to indigenous materials in order to get a granular understanding of who is represented in each collection in order to create descriptive records that include more detailed information around indigenous communities. I see that as a first step and my dream would be to move forward and seek funding to have a more in-depth partnership with organizations like the Lenape Center to really understand how to ethically store and provide access to these records. We don’t want to approach a community with the state of the records now and say “here’s a hundred things that we think might be relevant but we really don’t know”. Knowing what our collections hold is the first step in seeking more collaborative and informed partnerships with different communities.
Today, we talk with Jocelyn Arem, founder of the Arbo Radiko archival storytelling studio, about leveraging the past to redefine the future and how she uses hidden archival materials to retell stories that otherwise might remain unheard.
(Archivoz) What is archival storytelling?
(J.A.) Archival storytelling is the creative practice of resurfacing hidden, untapped and untold historical treasures and reimagining that content in various storytelling presentations that speak to modern day audiences.
(Archivoz) Tell us a little about your studio, Arbo Radiko. What do you do, and what inspires you most about your work?
(J.A.) In the age of technology, we have a greater ability to share content than ever before. Content is currency; it has the potential to connect us, deepen our understanding of our world, create visibility and empathy, and spur activism to make our world better. Yet we often amass years of valuable but hidden content – the stories in our archives – which, when unearthed and presented thoughtfully, can be utilized to create new marketing, fundraising, brandraising, and personal value, reaffirm our identities, and connect us more deeply to each other.
Arbo Radiko (“Tree Root”) is the only GRAMMY Award-nominated archival storytelling studio that helps visionary creative organizations, legacy artist estates, brands, media companies, record labels, publishing houses, museums, arts and cultural institutions, celebrity figures and pioneers in music, film, dance, theater, literature, culinary and visual art repurpose and curate hidden material into valuable, inspirational modern day content. We create radical reimaginings, reinventions, and transhistorical fusions across print and digital platforms that build value from existing content. Our passion is remixing archival material in today’s context with modern multimedia storytelling tools to rediscover the past and inspire the future.
As an artist, producer, storyteller and educator (I teach classes and workshops at the School of the New York Times), I have always been passionate about the power of creativity and culture to uplift and connect us as human beings. Repurposing and remixing the past is the root of all creativity. The music, film, food, dance, stories we experience today are only branches on a generational tree rooted in the stories of those who came before us. We always consciously or unconsciously reference the past in our creative work. Archival storytelling brings to light that inherent creative connection and exposes the power of stories to teach us about the uniqueness of our lives while rooting us in a shared human experience. Bringing these connections to life and sharing them with others can illuminate and inspire the future of creativity on a global scale.
(Archivoz) Arbo Radiko’s philosophy expresses two complementary ideas: bringing “new voices to bear on the past,” and using the results to “inspire the future.” What does that sort of dialogue entail?
(J.A.) Arbo Radiko collaborates with today’s creatives to curate, remix and produce multimedia content, connecting untapped work with today’s diverse audiences. Our studio is made up of a global collective of diverse creative leaders across audio-visual content creation, archival science, arts, and activism. We have seen this approach impact the future of creative work. For example, as a result of the multiplatform, collaborative Caffè Lena History Project that engaged visual, performance and digital artists in its presentation, we were invited to present a 3-part lecture as part of the MDOCS Documentary Studies program at Skidmore College, where the project is now being used as a model for the students’ own projects. It’s extremely satisfying to know that this intergenerational dialogue is happening and that the work – and the creative tree – continues to grow!
(Archivoz) You also mention “culturally responsive storytelling.” Can you unpack that idea for us?
(J.A.) Culturally responsive storytelling is a critical approach to storytelling that engages our capacity to listen, learn from and relate respectfully to people from our own and other cultures. It focuses on the storyteller and an implicit commitment to create for others and ourselves space, representation, and agency over the telling of our own stories. We want to create a world of storytellers working towards diversity, inclusion and representation of the complete human experience in the stories we hear, tell and share.
(Archivoz) Caffè Lena and The Complete Concert by the Sea: what attracts you to projects like these?
(J.A.) All our projects are opportunities to give back to the wider creative community through a deep examination of influential spaces and artists who enhanced artistic genres and social movements, broke social and political barriers, and shaped culture. They are rooted in a spirit of collaboration, innovation, and social responsibility. The results (ASCAP and NAACP Award-winning multimedia presentations featured in the New York Times, People Magazine, Rolling Stone, NPR) served to enhance the value of these cultural institutions and to inspire younger generations through outreach programs with colleges and universities and unique partnerships with cultural organizations like the Library of Congress and the New Orleans Jazz Festival.
(Archivoz) In relation to your Caffè Lena project, you’ve referred to the importance of the small and the local in today’s world of “bigness” (once in the introduction to your book, Caffè Lena: Inside America’s Legendary Folk Music Coffeehouse, and again quoting David Amram in a presentation at the Library of Congress). Why is this important? Do you seek to bring this sensibility to all your work?
(J.A.) It is our mission to shine a light on and increase visibility for underrepresented creative voices. To quote in Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, “the capacity for delight is the gift of paying attention.” In a fast-paced world filled with the ever-booming noise of nonstop media content, marginalized stories are often overshadowed. We pay attention to those stories, exploring their meaning and bringing them to the masses. Value exists in unassuming places, and we should not take for granted the smaller moments (and materials) that make up our lives and connect us. By tapping into hidden archives—including simple but impactful letters, photographs, oral histories, and other memorabilia—the multimedia presentation we produced for Caffé Lena supported the venue in raising $2 million for its capital campaign and reach people around the world. Understanding the importance of all narrative elements helps us to unearth the small, simple truths that allow a story to resonate with as many people as possible.
(Archivoz) You were nominated for a Grammy (Best Historical Album) in 2015 for your work on Erroll Garner’s The Complete Concert by the Sea. How did you approach this project? What story/history were you trying to tell?
(J.A.) This was a joint effort between the Erroll Garner Jazz Project, the Magic Shop Studio, the University of Pittsburgh, famed jazz pianist and educator Geri Allen, and Sony Legacy. It reexamined the life and legacy of Erroll Garner and his impact on both cultural and social justice history. It was an honor to work alongside this team of collaborators to uncover and organize Erroll’s hidden archives, create a long-term preservation strategy, and, with contemporary artists like Geri Allen, reimagine his most famous recording in a creative presentation (3-CD box set, LP, website, live performances and educational panels) for today’s audiences.
(Archivoz) How does point of view play into the process of archival storytelling? Can you adequately tell a story without to some extent adopting it as your own?
(J.A.) This is an important question that all storytellers in all mediums should be asking themselves and one that we are constantly examining: WHO is telling stories, and how does the teller’s point of view impact a story’s outcome? Our choice to engage with a story undeniably begins to shape the telling from our vantage point, which demands great sensitivity and awareness to potential institutional and generational social impacts. It is our responsibility to reflect critically on ways to open up space for a variety of perspectives in the telling of stories, so that we are as inclusive, culturally responsible, and socially conscious as possible.
We also actively and continually work to deepen our cultural awareness and sensitivity by engaging with a diverse community of archival storytellers in the field to gain new perspectives and skills. I am proud to be the Consulting Producer on an exciting new Open Archive Initiative for the Alliance for Media Arts + Culture that is creating space to explore this and other issues in our field. The Open Archive Initiative is a global, united ecosystem of thought leaders that will collaboratively address the need for collective voices to strategize best practices for creating impactful community-based preservation and access solutions. Participants include MacArthur, Guggenheim, GRAMMY, EMMY, ASCAP Deems Taylor, and Library of Congress Award-winning archival preservation and storytelling experts from independent, institutional and community-based content creators, cultural organizations, curators, technologists, archivists and documentary producers, to representatives from larger institutional media companies, archives and university libraries.
(Archivoz) Is it possible to tell someone else’s story to/for them, or do you seek to inspire others to tell their own stories for themselves?
(J.A.) There is a global history of those with greatest privilege and access using their power to tell other people’s stories in ways that negatively impact cultural understanding. Taking it as our mission to enhance access to stories and creativity for everyone, we help our clients tell their stories in a way designed to empower and uplift their vision. When representing creative individuals and organizations who are unable to tell their own stories, we utilize a deeply ethnographic, polyvocal approach, researching and integrating stories from community members and contemporary artists, and incorporating educational partnerships to create dialogue. We are inspired by organizations like Museum Detox, a network of BAME museum and heritage professionals at major cultural heritage institutions in the UK. This organization and others like it—such as Museum Hue in the United States—are working to empower diverse curators and storytellers to not only bring hidden stories to light but also to enable ALL voices to engage with and tell those stories, bringing about a more inclusive storytelling culture.
(Archivoz) If you could choose to tell any story in the world, what would it be and why?
(J.A.) I am interested in exploring the stories of creative artists and organizations worldwide. I would love the opportunity to pursue archival storytelling work in countries outside of the United States, to collaborate with international partners and share resources from my own work. If you know of artists or organizations that could benefit from our support, please send me an email at jocelyn(at)arboradiko.com. You can learn more about our work at Arbo Radiko at www.arboradiko.com.
Header image: Photo by Leslie Kahan (Used by permission of Jocelyn Arem)
Image 1: Photo by Sophie Brill (Used by permission of Jocelyn Arem)
Image 2: Composite: Denise Jans (https://unsplash.com/photos/Lq6rcifGjOU); Josh Woo (https://www.imdb.com/name/nm8243746/mediaviewer/rm2673030144); betafuture (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fOxl5WuYhBI)
We are speaking with Damilare Oyedele, co-founder of Library Aid Africa, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to championing the need for school and community libraries in Africa as a vehicle for sustainable development and a better quality of life for all.
(Archivoz) What was your inspiration for Library Aid Africa?
(D.O.) As a young boy in my community, I did not have access to a library as the schools I attended never had one. As a matter of fact, I never knew anything called “library.” This denied me access to literature, the ability to use information independently, my reading culture was poor and I could not communicate fluently. This presented me with numerous challenges as I failed the national examination twice consecutively due to my poor reading skills.
My first real encounter with a library came upon my admission into an institution of higher learning to study Library and Information Science. I soon cultivated the habit of studying in the confines of a library, and I began to explore the merits a library had to offer. It was an amazing experience for me because, for the first time in my life, I had independent access to information and other intellectual property. This inspired me to create a platform that would facilitate equitable access to information for all.
My journey began at the age of 19, when I was still in school. I took it as my personal responsibility to do something about the dearth of libraries in Nigeria, with a view to expanding this vision to other African countries. I started by writing articles for various Nigerian daily newspapers, and after that I went into broadcasting with the same vision to use television to educate people about the importance of libraries. Fortunately for me, I was granted an audience via a television series named “Library and You.” It featured documentaries and interviews with authors, librarians, and publishers discussing feasible solutions for resuscitation of libraries. This series lasted for three consecutive quarters in 2016.
I came to realize that the problems Africa faces have to do with the lack of or inadequate access to information. Information and knowledge empowers the mind of every individual. I realised that community engagement and initiatives are sacrosanct. This led to the establishment of Library Aid Africa (formerly known as ‘Library and You’), a not-for-profit organization with the mission to revamp libraries in Africa to increase their societal impact. The organization focuses on access to information through pragmatic initiatives, designed to create awareness and resuscitate libraries in schools and communities.
(Archivoz) How many countries participate in Library Aid Africa, and which ones are they?
(D.O.) Library Aid Africa operates from Nigeria, with partners and volunteer presence in over 10 African countries: Ghana, Namibia, Uganda, South Africa, Tanzania, Kenya, Togo, Republic of Benin, Mali, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Liberia, and Rwanda. Over the years, we have been able to build committed partners and volunteers in various African regions who share the same vision with us. Our vision is to resuscitate libraries in schools and communities.
(Archivoz) You have underlined the importance of a grassroots effort. Why is this so important?
(D.O.) We realised that grassroots efforts in rural areas and within communities are essential, as these communities needs development in many dimensions: literacy development, quality education, zero hunger, good health and wellbeing, sustainable cities and communities, and gender equality, among many others. To achieve these, informed literate citizens are essential. Why? An informed mind is empowered, with the knowledge and skills to make informed choices that improve quality of life and contribute meaningfully to the decision-making processes of government. We also seek to mobilize citizens to drive advocacy for library development in their local communities, targeting community integration and promotion of local content and thereby realizing access to information for all.
(Archivoz) Tell us about some of your current and ongoing projects. What is topmost on your action list right now?
(D.O.) One of our topmost concerns is how libraries drive progress across the SDGs and AU Agenda 2063. These sustainable development plans are essential for Africa’s development, and access to information must play an important role if we are to achieve their targets. To this end, we are working with our partners across Africa to drive advocacy, projects and initiatives that will facilitate equitable access to information for all. These projects center on creating local impacts through library set-up and management in African communities. An informed literate mind is empowered to contribute to the attainment of these sustainable development plans. Libraries are eminent beyond comparison in achieving this because they create platforms that provides equitable access to information for all in print and electronic media.
In the past, we have partnered with the National Library of Nigeria to organize a Social Media Library Advocacy Awareness Program, an online sensitization that focused on educating the online community on how libraries drive progress across the SDGs.
More recently, Worldreader, in collaboration with Library Aid Africa, launched its Inspire Us Collection, a collection of digital books leveraging mobile technology and literature to redefine gender stereotypes and boost women’s and girls’ empowerment and assertiveness. The collection, encompassing fiction and non-fiction, include stories that clearly articulate women as protagonists, change agents, and leaders of the future.
Of course I must also mention our #libraryselfie series. This is an online initiative designed to create awareness about the importance of libraries as spaces for reading and learning. We had #libraryselfie2018 last year in Nigeria and we just concluded #libraryselfie2019 across six African countries: Nigeria, Ghana, Namibia, Kenya, Tanzania, and South Africa. We have 18 winners across those six countries, who we will engage as library champions who will drive advocacy for improved library development and usage in their local communities.
(Archivoz) How many public libraries are there in Nigeria right now? How many would you like to see, if all goes according to your vision?
(D.O.) According to the IFLA World Library Map, there are 290 public libraries in Nigeria. A country with a population of over 200 million people! It is apparent that the number of public libraries in Nigeria is quite low, and the numbers are similar across other African countries where we operate. As an organisation, our top priority is to ensure citizens’ access to information. Part of our strategy is to engage relevant stakeholders in the educational and library sectors. Also, through citizen engagement, we plan to set up community centres that will serve as platforms where community members can study, access information both in print and electronic formats, and share experience and knowledge.
(Archivoz) The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals are a big part of the work you are doing, as is the African Union Agenda 2063. In what ways can the creation of school and public libraries forward these goals?
(D.O.) The Sustainable Development Goals and Agenda 2063 were designed to make the world we live in a better place for the current generation and generations to come. It is our collective responsibility as citizens to commit ourselves to achieving their targets. The role of libraries in achieving these goals cannot be overemphasized, be they school libraries or public. Why? It’s all about access to information.
For us to achieve the SDGs and Agenda 2063, we must commit to developing informed literate citizens. Libraries by nature carry the responsibility to provide equitable access to information for all. This information empowers people with the skills and knowledge needed to function and participate in creating a sustainable society, to drive progress towards achieving sustainable development, and to co-create sustainable solutions.
Partnerships and collaboration are two of our major thrusts. We work with credible partners across Africa towards achieving these goals. For example, we have the Library Impact Project. This project seeks to facilitate access to information in support of the Sustainable Development Goals and African Union Agenda 2063. It is scheduled for implementation in eight African countries, with the view to achieving 16 outputs in each. The project has three major focuses: access to information, increased skills and capacity building, and advocacy.
(Archivoz) Of all the SDGs, which ones do you most wish to address through the Library Aid Africa initiative?
(D.O.) As an organisation that focuses on equitable access to information for all, our work addresses all the SDGs and Agenda 2063. Access to information is imperative across all the goals. Quality education requires access to relevant information resources for learning and research. Zero poverty requires access to information that equips people with skills that enable productivity. Zero hunger requires access to information to educate farmers and citizens on crop types, seasons, weather forecasting, and new farming techniques and mechanisms. Gender equality demands access to information to empower young girls and women. Access to information is the heart of any sustainable development effort, and it is therefore imperative that relevant stakeholders invest more in library development in African communities.
(Archivoz) Where can our readers learn more about what you are doing?
The inter-institutional project SODA (Social Sciences Data Archive) aims to develop a prototype for a data archive as Belgian representative in the Consortium of European Social Science Data Archives (CESSDA) and beyond.
To learn more about SODA, Archivoz’s Llarina González spoke with researchers from the project:
Benjamin Peuch, researcher on information science, manages Dataverse and studies the needs of researchers, archivists and historians for the correct custody and description of digital objects. Freya De Schamphelaere, legal researcher, examines the role of the data archive in the Belgian context and the impact of the Directive on copyright and open data. Jean-Paul Sanderson and Laura Van den Borre, demographers, are the link between SODA and social scientists.
(Archivoz) How does SODA operate in Belgium’s complex institutional landscape?
Since 1970, Belgium has been going through an institutional evolution from a unitary entity to a federal State with three regions and three linguistic (non-corresponding) communities. The competences of the State were redistributed between those six entities. In this context, the State Archives remained part of the federal administration and became a scientific research institution.
SODA therefore combines two approaches: a centralised perspective with a data archive representing Belgium as a whole amid CESSDA; and a decentralised perspective with the data archive of the State Archives catering to both researchers and affiliated institutions at the federal level and to those at the levels of communities and universities, though universities and communities are developing their own institutional repositories.
SODA would thus only be one actor, although an international one as the CESSDA representative, in a network of Belgian repositories. Cooperation between different Belgian actors will be key to make research data findable for researchers from all backgrounds.
(Archivoz) What is the role of the State Archives of Belgium in SODA?
SODA originated in the world of social sciences at the Dutch-speaking Vrije Universiteit Brussel and the French-speaking Université Catholique de Louvain. The State Archives were brought in for their expertise in archival science and eventually became the coordinating institution, with two full-time researchers tasked with creating the deliverables of the project.
The State Archives investigate issues such as possible business models and legal entities of the future data archive, metadata and data quality requirements, transfer agreements with depositors, and so on. Universities link SODA to the research community by surveying the needs and documenting the practices of researchers.
(Archivoz) Can you clarify the concept of ‘data archive’?
Data archives have been around for some time but they are more relevant nowadays than ever. Essentially, data archives are like traditional archive institutions but dedicated to the preservation of research data and to make them available for reuse. Much of scientific research is performed thanks to public funding, therefore the ensuing data belong to the public and must be open for reuse. The nature of research data, the archival precautions they require, and the particular needs of scientists make it necessary to build specific archive facilities: data archives.
(Archivoz) We would like to know more about SODA’s relationship with scientists.
Scientists are our key users: both our main data providers and the prime potential data reusers. Their needs in terms of research data management, both for the phase of data archiving (ingest in OAIS terms) and data reuse (access), must be regularly surveyed and accounted.
But in the future, we will investigate whether other types of users might be interested in accessing social science research data. Could journalists, teachers, genealogists find it interesting to integrate such datasets in their corpuses? This entails a proactive policy to foster new user communities.
(Archivoz) Tell us about standards and formats in SODA.
At first sight, the amount of formats and standards in such a context can be daunting! Data-wise, it’s not so bad because most files produced by researchers either already exist in open formats or can be converted using the data ingest and dissemination software Dataverse.
But in terms of metadata, things get slightly more complicated. Most CESSDA members follow the international standard for documenting datasets in social sciences, the Data Documentation Initiative (DDI). DDI encourages the recording of a wide range of information about datasets, including:
administrative metadata: dataset producers, principal investigators, sponsoring organization(s), repository responsible for providing access, etc.
technical and descriptive metadata specific to the social sciences: methods of data collection, cleaning and control operations, aggregation and analysis, kind(s) of data, the universe of the study, variables, etc.
Incorporating traditional archivists into the project highlighted the lack of historical metadata, which are meant to describe in detail the context of production of datasets with information such as biographies of researchers, descriptions of research centres, contextualisation, etc. These are more long term-focussed metadata compared with DDI, which addresses the immediate needs of social scientists seeking reusable data. Historical metadata will help researchers 10, 20, even 50 or 100 years from now to understand how and why datasets were produced. Such metadata will likely have to be recorded by historians and social scientists with an interest in the history of science.
(Archivoz) What are your thoughts on the new movements for opening research data in all scientific areas?
As Ron Dekker noted in Lisbon in May 2017, private pharmaceutical companies share their data in a sort of “pre-competitive stage” because they know they will all greatly benefit from doing so even though they are commercial rivals. Is the same tendency spreading to all scientific fields? Hopefully, this rather denotes a new spirit of sharing.
From a legal perspective “open data” is not just an invitation anymore. Since the publication of the European directive 2019/1024 on open data and public sector information (the third of the PSI directives) it has become law: publicly-funded research data must be open for reuse by default through an institutional repository in accordance with the “as open as possible, as closed as necessary” rule of thumb and the FAIR principles. It will be very interesting to see in the coming years how this directive can open up more publicly-funded research data, how researchers and data archives will adapt to it, and if it can contribute to new developments toward open science and linked research data.
(Archivoz) What are the main problems you have faced?
We seek to offer tools that fit the needs of our users by customizing the Dataverse software to simplify the deposit procedure and ease the search process for reusable data. This involves reconciling the needs of several stakeholders. We are currently gathering beta-testers among Belgian social science researchers (our key users) to this end.
SODA is part of a European consortium so we must also work for researchers abroad. For example, this entails translating the title and description of our datasets in English. We must also allow the CESSDA Data Catalogue (CDC) to harvest our metadata through an Open Archive Initiative Protocol for Metadata Harvesting (OAI-PMH) and comply with the CESSDA Core Metadata Model, a list of conceptual metadata elements to which CESSDA service providers must map their own metadata so that the metadata harvesting can take place.
Legally speaking the main problem is the unclarity of certain obligations, leading to uncertainty among researchers, who will prefer to “play it safe” and not open up their research data. We are wrapping up our research on legal open data obligations and writing the standard licenses and guidelines that will ensure researchers are aware of the implications — but also and especially the advantages — of making their data “as open as possible.”
(Archivoz) What importance do you consider that research data and projects such as SODA have in the lives of citizens?
It might seem that data archives are only remotely relevant to citizens’ interests since it is such a niche infrastructure with such complex technical needs and purposes. But just like traditional archives, data archives play an essential part in a modern society; the archives of science are vital for scientific and social progress.
Reevaluation and reproducibility are fundamental to the credibility of science. However, they can occur only if documents and data from studies are preserved. For example, the Stanford Experiment, long presented as incontrovertible proof of the evil and corruptibility of humans, was recently reevaluated (1) (2) and its soundness was heavily reconsidered against modern standards for rigorous and ethical scientific experimentation.
(Archivoz) If you had to highlight an element of the project, what would it be?
Legally there are several challenging yet interesting issues, for example how the Belgian Archival Act affects a data archive. According to the Archival Act, archived files can only be accessible after 30 years. Yet this is not what a data archive tends to do. Here the principle is: all data must be open unless there is a good reason (copyright, personal data, other). SODA will work through private deposit agreements for archiving and opening up the data.
(Archivoz) How do you imagine the future of data archives in social sciences in a few years?
Data archives will take on increasingly larger and more complex databases. Such a challenge can be tackled by reinforcing the network of data archives — of which CESSDA is a sterling example — and by sharing experience and know-how. We also think that social science data will become a booming business (if it is not already, all things considered). An extra challenge in this respect will be to keep the focus of our efforts on science and not so much on financial gain.
Today we are speaking with Jessica Hilburn, of Benson Memorial Library, about Titusville’s Heritage Connection, collective memory, and how cataloging death can breathe new life into local history.
(Archivoz) Tell us a little about the Heritage Connection website: who coordinates it, and what is its relationship to Benson Memorial Library and its collections?
(JH) The Heritage Connection came about through conversations between Justin Hoenke, the library’s former director, and Titusville Historical Society member and library science professor Rhonda Clark. We wanted to find a better way to drive traffic to our heritage, genealogy, and history resources. Benson’s collections make up the lion’s share of what is currently available on the website. We have a large, diverse collection of materials suitable for genealogical and historical research about Titusville and its people. Drake Well’s collections focus more on the oil industry, since the first commercial oil well was drilled in Titusville in 1859, and Benson Memorial Library fills in the social historical context.
I designed the website, which went live on June 24, 2019, and created the first featured exhibit, “Cederquist Family.” I also coordinate all new uploads. Members send me their documents or photos and associated metadata and I publish them online. The library and historical society are both administrators on the site. When researchers alert me that they are coming into the area, I now direct them toward the Heritage Connection as the best place to see each organization’s resources, and to learn who to contact for more information.
(Archivoz) You appear to be making an effort to encourage and allow for contributions by private individuals. Is this a regular source of material?
(JH) We are! That is an aspect of the project we are really excited about. Our first exhibit, the Cederquist Exhibit, consists primarily of privately owned materials belonging to a family that immigrated to Titusville from Sweden in 1869 and subsequently spread across the United States. They return here often for reunions and, over time, I have befriended many members via the library. They agreed to have their family and photos featured on the site with commentary provided by the family and library jointly. Allowing private individuals to contribute photos and memories opens up the site as a true community platform and I hope this feature continues in the future.
(Archivoz) Why is it important to include the entire community in local history projects? What ways have you found to do that?
(JH) I think it is crucial for the local community to have a stake in large projects like this one. Local history is our history: our collective past, our collective memory, our collective culture. Bringing in community voices, perspectives, and memories adds value to any local history project. In addition, including the entire community gives members a vested interest in the success and future of these types of programs and projects. The library, in particular, is not an island. We are a community center and a nucleus for community involvement. That should absolutely extend to our local history work.
I try to encourage community participation and comments whenever possible. My “local history at the library” website, NWPA Stories, shares all its posts via social media, and people are encouraged to contribute how they personally connect with the topic. I also am very present both in person at the library and online to help people with any local history questions or requests they may have. It has really established us as the point of contact for local history information.
(Archivoz) What is your intended audience? Do you find that local history captures mainly local interest, or are you attempting/have you been able to reach a wider audience? How do you go about making the local more broadly appealing?
(JH) My intended audience changes depending on the platform. With the stories on the website, I target both the local community and people who have moved away but are still interested in reminiscing. Collective remembering benefits greatly from technology like Facebook and other social media sites. My target audience for the Heritage Connection, on the other hand, is anyone who has anything from a serious to a fleeting interest in Titusville, its people, and its history. The list of resources may appeal more to the serious researcher or genealogist whereas the featured exhibits are oriented more toward general interest.
Local history captures a great deal of homegrown interest, but the more I have been able to tie local events to the national zeitgeist, the broader interest I’ve been able to garner on our channels. For example, in January I wrote about the Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918-1919. The focus was its impact on Titusville within the wider context of global epidemic. That article created widespread interest and attention. I partially credit the topic (it’s so interesting!) and partially credit the story’s universal relevance.
Particularly with the local history stories, I have broadened the idea of local more into regional. When I pull from nearby communities, readership and interest swells accordingly. Then, those people keep coming back for more.
(Archivoz) Why obituaries? How many have you collected/entered? What is your vision for a completed project? The spreadsheet says it is a living document; do you plan on updating with current obituaries?
(JH) At Benson Memorial, we have been compiling obituaries on index cards at for decades. When I arrived in 2015, we created a database on Google Sheets where all the data could be viewed and searched digitally. We chose this medium because we run on Google at the library and this free, easy tool is simple for both staff to utilize and patrons to navigate. We painstakingly transcribed all of the cards into the database over the next four years and continue to update it daily with new obituaries. As of today (September 19, 2019), we have indexed almost 18,400 Titusville obituaries from 1865 to the present, admittedly with some gaps. The database can be viewed here.
Obituaries are a treasure trove of information about those who have passed. Especially in genealogical research, an obituary helps the researcher create a road map for the various avenues they want to explore: birth and death dates and places, family members, relationships, marriages, interment, and so on. The obituary index gives genealogy-seekers the keys to the car; they just have to decide where to drive it.
My vision for the completed project is an index that includes every death notice from The Titusville Herald from its inception in 1865 to the present day. We still need to tackle the bigger project of going through each issue to fill in the gaps. 150+ years is a lot of obituaries, but I hope we get there one day!
(Archivoz) Why are local history projects important? Are there things they can capture that more generalized historical research cannot?
(JH) Local history puts names and faces to seemingly untouchable historical events. So often, history feels distant or abstract; something you know is important yet cannot quite wrap your mind around or put a finger on. By placing events in context with real people, recognizable names, and personal stories, we allow people to connect with what those events mean to their lives. Make the past personal—that is my tagline at this point in my career and I stand by it. When we make the past personal, history comes alive.
Header image: Benson Memorial Library, The Rotograph Company, 1905 (Used with permission from Benson Memorial Library, Cressman Postcard Collection #141).
Additional images: 1) Scene at Mystic Park, Cohn & Oakleaf, Titusville, PA, 1908 (Used with permission from Benson Memorial Library, Cressman Postcard Collection #97); 2) Benson Memorial Library, Cohn & Oakleaf, Titusville, PA, 1909 (Used with permission from Benson Memorial Library, Cressman Postcard Collection #143).
Interview with Mohammed Jasim, former Director of Mosul University Library, and coordinator of the international support for Mosul University Library. Mohammed will give an insight into the current situation at Mosul University Library, and the national and international drive to restore it. Mohammed coordinates these efforts, working with local and international institutions to increase support for the library and build new collections. He liaises with officials in Mosul over the planning and eventual reconstruction of the library.
Archivoz’s Noemi spoke with Mohammed to lean about Musul University Library and the work of reconstructing the Library.
(Archivoz) We would like to know a little bit about you – could you give us an introduction to yourself?
(Mohammed) My name is Mohammed Jasim Aal-Hajiahmed, I am the former director of Mosul University Library and the coordinator of international support for the Library since the destruction and burning caused by ISIS during their occupation of Mosul, in northern Iraq.
(Archivoz) Could you explore Mosul University and its Library, to help us understand its pivotal role for the universities and libraries in Iraq, both before and after the ISIS attack?
(Mohammed) Mosul University is the second university in Iraq after the University of Baghdad. It has 55,000 students with 125 departments across sciences and humanities, 25 colleges and 8 research centers. Built in 1967, the Mosul University Library was one of the largest in Iraq and one of the most important in the Middle East. The place once housed more than one million books – 600,000 Arabic-language materials and 400,000 resources in English and other languages, covering diverse fields of knowledge, as well as 30,000 periodicals, in some cases dating back to 1700 CE. The Library contained 1600 manuscripts, 5000 governmental publications from as far back as the founding of the modern Iraqi state in 1921, and versions of the Holy Qur’an from the 18th century. The Library also had 10,000 reference books. Foreign culture corners gave students and researchers the chance to explore diverse literary traditions and faraway lands.
(Archivoz) After the ISIS attack on 6 June 2014, what happened to the University and the Library? Which books and manuscripts were destroyed and how were they damaged?
(Mohammed) As a house of learning and knowledge at the center of the University, the Library was among the first institutions targeted by ISIS after their occupation of Mosul in 2014. They would later burn it completely, destroying nearly all of its contents and the building’s structure, leaving some 55,000 students and about 11,000 staff, as well as independent researchers from Mosul, nearby cities, and other parts of Iraq without the resources needed to complete their academic projects.
(Archivoz) How did the people react in Mosul? How did people, after the attack, try to save parts of the Library?
(Mohammed) Once the University was liberated by the Iraqi forces, a group of people, young and old, rushed to the Library. While the battle was still continuing on the other side of the city, they were able to save and recover thousands of books from the holes made by the missile attacks. From this, we can imagine the Library’s importance, not only for the students but for the people of Mosul as well.
(Archivoz) How did the rest of the world react? Did Mosul have support? What form did this help take? Were there harmful as well as beneficial aspects?
(Mohammed) After the liberation, we sent an appeal letter to international institutions, universities, and libraries, with help from Angela Boskovitch, asking them to support Mosul University Library as we believe that Iraq has fought on behalf of the international community and now it is time for the international community to help us in rebuilding the University and the Library as well.
We received urgent materials from the Prince Claus Fund in Amsterdam, and other library materials from Charles University in the Czech Republic. We also received books from local and international institutions and universities and even from individuals who wanted to help Mosul University Library. We started sending these books to the relevant colleges and departments. We appreciate all these efforts, however sometimes we receive donations of books that we do not need, or even old materials which burden us and make our task harder as we do not have enough space to store them. We have a good agreement with Book Aid International: they provide us with materials according to exactly what we need, and we have received about 8000 books through that agreement so far.
(Archivoz) How has the University handled the situation? What decisions have been taken since the destruction? What have been the first priorities?
(Mohammed) After the liberation, the University reopened although about 70% of the buildings had been destroyed. Some colleges were destroyed completely, like the Library. At first, the efforts focused on fixing classrooms for the students joining the University and enrolling to study, although the University had never closed as it was running out of the Kurdistan region for those students who were outside the city. The staff and students were working all together to repair and paint the classrooms, using their own funds. After that the UNDP started to restore the buildings, and there was government support to rebuild college buildings. The Library has recently bid for funding and the building will be restored by UNDP.
(Archivoz) How has this event affected students and staff, since the destruction was not just of books or manuscripts, but also of all the infrastructure and physical objects that are needed on a day to day basis.
(Mohammed) It was really hard to start from scratch; the scene was horrible especially when most parts of the city had been leveled to the ground, the University had been destroyed, and the Library burned and bombed. It was a nightmare for us – nobody can imagine that. We started when we didn’t even have chairs to sit in. In the Library we have 135 staff, but they had no place to start working as everything had been destroyed. The students started to come to the University in shifts, as there were not enough classrooms for them. It is really hard to describe that situation, but the good thing is that everybody was committed to make a change, from the students who insisted on coming to the University and resuming their studying, to all staff who were displaced and were commuting to Mosul University every day from Kurdistan. So there is a will to change and start again in spite of the challenges we have all faced.
(Archivoz) Nowadays, how is it working at the University and Library?
(Mohammed) Right now, the University is running properly. It has 55,000 students with fully functioning institutions. The University has resumed its academic activities like conferences, workshops, lectures, and other scientific events. It has entered a new era after appointing a new president, Prof. Qusay Al-Ahmadi, who started involving the University in Mosul’s social activities. We can now see the University is giving consultancy to other city sectors helping them to flourish again.
Unfortunately, the Library is still running from a substitute site waiting for the restoration of the building because we cannot fully function unless there is a building to house computers and other library departments.
(Archivoz) Mohammed, you coordinate the reconstruction of the Library. How is it working with local and international institutions to increase support for the Library and build new collections? Could you explore how you are doing this work?
(Mohammed) As I mentioned earlier, after the liberation I started sending appeal letters describing the situation to the international community. I managed to get urgent materials for the Library like computers, staff chairs, desks, etc. through the Prince Claus Fund in Amsterdam and from Charles University, and we are grateful to the People in Need NGO for their help in making that happen. In 2018 I also visited the UK and met with people from Book Aid International to outline the agreement of getting books from them based on exactly what we need, and we thank Book Bridge Institution for their coordination. I also met with the director of the Bodleian Library in Oxford, which meant we were able to connect Mosul University with Oxford University Press to get access to some of their e-materials; we owe thanks to the Iraq Britain Business Council for their coordination in making that happen. I also gave a talk at the UNESCO conference held in Paris in September 2018 under UNESCO’s “Revive the Spirit of Mosul” initiative. I addressed international donors attending the conference on the issue of the Library. I should also thank all the local Iraqi universities which donated books to us from the very beginning of the liberation, and universities like Plymouth and Manchester for donating books, as well as the Iraqi and American Reconciliation Project for their efforts in collecting books from different place within the US. Many thanks to Mosul Eye Institution for their efforts in supporting the Library and connecting us with many international institutions and thanks to all the individuals and groups whose names I have not been able to mention for their support.
(Archivoz) What’s next? What are the priorities? Digitalisation plans? Donations? Electronic resources?
(Mohammed) Our priority now is to get the University back to the international status it held before. For the Library, we are focusing on getting e-resources as it is the best and easiest way to help our students and get them access to up to date materials. This is no easy task as it costs so much money but we are doing our best to make it happen. We are also looking for partnerships with international libraries like the British Library, which is one of the leading cultural institutions in the world. Once we have the building, we can start setting up plans for digitization as we believe that if we had digitized our materials the disaster would not have been quite like this. Digitization and training our staff are among our priorities. We are receiving donations of books but again we would like to coordinate with the donors to select what is needed rather than sending us unwanted materials.
(Archivoz) If possible, could you explore your personal experience of this event?
(Mohammed) I am now doing my PhD at UAB in Spain, but I am still committed to coordinating the international support for Mosul University Library as it is my second home. I spent about 18 years working in the Library; each corner represents something for me. Therefore, all the Library staff and I are committed to making the Library function again and rebuilding our collections to be even better than before.
Established in 1984, the National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA) is Australia’s premier audiovisual archive, holding more than 3 million works, including films, sound recordings, television and radio programs in a variety of formats.
Archivoz’s Evanthia Samaras met with Simon Smith, an audiovisual archivist with 20 years’ experience at the NFSA to learn about their broadcast collection.
(Archivoz) To start, can you please describe your role at the NFSA?
Simon Smith (SS) I’m a Senior Curatorial Officer of Television within the Broadcast Team. My main role at present is managing contemporary television deliverables. If you’re wondering what deliverables are… because there’s no legal deposit fulfillment for these materials in Australia… we work with government screen agencies to ensure that when a filmmaker, producer or a production company obtains government funding, upon completion, they have to deliver a master and documentation (press kit, images, scripts, music cue sheet, available behind-the-scenes extras, etc.) of their latest television series production to the NFSA. I’d say, perhaps half of my working week is dealing with television deliverables.
I also liaise with the independent television production company sector, companies like Fremantle Australia, Endemol Shine Australia and Screentime, to negotiate the NFSA acquiring their back catalogue titles. I also deal with reactive requests—such as when a producer is cleaning out their vaults or when collectors and industry want to donate their collections. There are also requirements to research, write blogs, provide input into preservation queues, assist in curating online exhibitions, develop screening events and undertake publicity when we are promoting aspects of our collection.
It’s a diverse role, and with my interest in modern history and in our incredible collection, one I continually enjoy.
(Archivoz) What are the biggest challenges you face in your role?
(SS) So, there’s an ‘Analogue Avalanche’ and then we’ve also got the ‘Digital Deluge’.
For the last five to eight years, there’s been a real push for the production sector to offer us their magnetic tape holdings. Many production company collections have been residing in long term storage, and for some of their backlog titles, decisions are being made as to whether they need be retained. Thankfully, with our existing relationships with the sector, companies will frequently check in with us first as to whether we hold their works before potentially disposing of materials. So, we’ve been receiving lots of analogue collections in recent times.
We are also receiving quite a lot of material now, which is born digital. I think every archive in the world is struggling with the issue of: how do we deal with this digital deluge? There’s just so much coming in. One hard drive could have 1000s of TV episodes. We had an example recently with community broadcaster Channel 31, which sent through one hard drive with 1400 episodes, covering about 40 series. If that had been an analogue collection, it would have been, you know, pallets of material. The rate of change in the digital era is constant and ongoing.
(Archivoz) What would be the characteristics you feel distinguishes Australian broadcasting material from other overseas television content?
(SS) Australia historically has been more aligned with free-to-air television, whereas America has had cable for decades. Cable television allows a bit more niche programming where it targets particular markets, whereas I think free-to-air television in Australia, particularly the commercial networks have always tried to find the biggest audience. They’ve had to be broadest in appeal, broadest in scope. You could say they have to be somewhat risk averse by necessity. Australian commercial television was maybe riskier in the 70s when you had shows like ‘Number 96′ and ‘The Norman Gunston Show’, that sort of pushed the boundaries a bit more.
But with all the new competing media companies and emerging foreign-owned platforms about to enter the Australian market, the idea of a distinguishable Australian broadcasting identity becomes even more difficult to define.
Left: Malcolm Thompson and Suzanne Church in ‘Number 96‘. Source: NFSA. Right: John Farnham performs ‘You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling’ on an episode of ‘The Norman Gunston Show‘ (1979). Source: NFSA.
(Archivoz) Now I’d like to turn to another side of your broadcast collection. Could you please explain your news and current affairs collection? Including how you acquire this material?
(SS) Our News and Current Affairs Program, which we call ‘Newscaf’ celebrated its 30th anniversary last year. Since 1988, the aim has been to acquire news bulletins somewhere in the country every week. The NFSA integrates stations around the country on a roster to ensure even coverage. Where there is a big event in a particular region, we endeavour to roster a local station, so we have a record of the coverage of that event. So, for example, the first week of January, could be Channel 10 Brisbane, then the second week could be Nine News Canberra, and so on. The Newscaf team will reach out to the stations in advance to make sure they are available to deliver material to the archive. Basically, there’s relationship management going on with the networks all the time.
(Archivoz) Could you please explain NFSA’s Deadline 2025 campaign?
(SS) Deadline 2025 was launched in 2015. It’s about raising awareness and funding so that magnetic media formats held in archives are digitised in the near future—before they become lost forever. Film has a lot longer shelf life than magnetic media. Tapes are just not designed to sit on shelves for hundreds of years; the format simply won’t sustain itself like that.
Excerpt from ‘Deadline 2025‘ Discussion Paper (2015). Source: NFSA
(Archivoz) What are your favourite items in the collection?
(SS) My favourite items tend to relate to my particular areas of interest: music, music television and sport. For example, in the last year, I was working with a collector to find an episode of a show called Boomeride. It was an ambitious 1965 music TV show made here in Melbourne, which no one remembers and only ran for 13 episodes. I had heard that Olivia Newton-John was in one of the episodes, though she was not guest-listed in program guides, and of the two episodes we held in the collection, she wasn’t in either. So, I contacted this local collector known to have the Olivia episode, and after some negotiation, he generously provided us with the surviving 16mm tele-recorded film copy. It’s a significant find and a recent favourite, because it’s one of the earliest surviving live performances by Olivia—with songs that no one has ever heard before. Olivia herself was also really happy when she was told about it!
(Archivoz) Is there anything that’s been kind of strange or unusual in the collection that you’ve encountered in your many years here?
(SS) It’s not TV-related, but we’ve got a little flip book from 1897 that has images from the Melbourne Cup. We digitised each tiny individual image and stabilised it into a videoclip, which ran for three seconds. But what we found out, when we compared the flip book footage to our original film of the 1897 Melbourne Cup—they didn’t match! They were different horses! It turns out, the film in our collection we thought was the 1897 Melbourne Cup, was actually a different race!
Stabalised video of the Melbourne Cup Flip Book. Source: NFSA.
Special thanks to Simon for sharing such great insights and archival knowledge with Archivoz and our readers.
For more information about the National Film and Sound Archive, please visit their website. Also see their online articles, of which Simon is a regular contributor.
Margret Aldrich, Media and Program Manager with Little Free Library and author of The Little Free Library Book, speaks with us about book sharing, community building, and why open access isn’t just about the Internet anymore.
(Archivoz) Can you tell us a little of the history behind Little Free Library?
The very first Little Free Library was built by a man named Todd Bol in Hudson, Wisconsin in 2009. Todd built his library as a memorial to his mother, who was a schoolteacher and loved to read. He built this little box for books and constructed it to look like a one-room schoolhouse and put it in his front yard. As he started to see how his neighbors reacted to it—they shared books, they stopped and had conversations with each other—he really wanted to share with the rest of the world the idea that books can bring people together. The Little Free Library nonprofit organization was created in 2012, and now in 2019 we’re celebrating a decade of sharing books. There are more than 90,000 registered Little Free Libraries, in all 50 states in the U.S. and 91 different countries.
(Archivoz) How did you become involved with the Little Free Library movement?
I’ve always been a book person. I worked in publishing for about 10 years as an editor and then I shifted to magazine publishing. I wrote about Little Free Libraries when I first became aware of them back in 2011 and subsequently ended up writing a book about the global movement. Afterwards, the nonprofit organization asked me to join the team. I do media relations. We get a surprising amount of media attention around the world. I work with our partners, like the Children’s Book Council and the New York Times Learning Network. We’ve even done projects with Disney and Sony. I also run a program called the Action Book Club, which combines reading with community service.
(Archivoz) What are your thoughts on calling it a movement? What, in your mind, is the ultimate goal of Little Free Libraries as a movement?
Ultimately, our goal is to increase book access and build community. I do consider it a movement, for a couple of reasons. It’s really people-driven. Every single person who has a Little Free Library is called a Steward and we consider them volunteers for the Little Free Library movement because they’re giving their own time to better their communities. There is something universal about this phenomenon, from New York to Iowa farmland to Pakistan or Australia and Japan: the love of books, the love of reading and the desire to share books with others, and a real need to connect with people and give back to one’s community.
(Archivoz) From my explorations here in Corvallis, it appears that not every little library is a Little Free Library. How does it feel to have so many imitators out there?
When we count our 90,000, those are only the registered libraries. We know that there are many, many more that aren’t registered, and we’re okay with that. We’re all doing the same good thing: everybody’s trying to create greater access, share books with others, and do something good for their communities. We do love it when people register with us, though, and we would implore you to do so because we want to count you, we want you to be part of this global community, we want you to add your Little Library to our world map so that people can find you. We also do a lot with steward services: we help people out when they’re getting started or when they want to learn more about how to engage their community, and we do lots of fun things like book giveaways and author interviews.
(Archivoz) What is the most creative Little Library you’ve come across?
One that I saw this year that was amazing was in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. A woman named Sharalee Armitage Howard had this huge cottonwood tree in her front yard, 110 years old. It was dying, and the city said it had to come down. She ended up leaving a very tall stump, and inside she created a walk-in Little Free Library. It has interior and exterior lighting; it has bookshelves inside. It’s really pretty magical.
(Archivoz) You mention in your book that some people have done more with their Little Libraries than just share books—e.g., seed exchanges, geocaching. Do you have a favorite “extracurricular” use?
It’s interesting to see how a Little Free Library can reflect the personality of a neighborhood or of its steward. I do love when people do seed exchanges in the springtime; it’s an excellent community service. There’s one man who uses his Little Free Library as a record exchange. Instead of books, he shares albums. In one neighborhood it may be about connecting with your neighbors and building community, and in another neighborhood, if there are no libraries or bookstores nearby, it really becomes about public access to books.
(Archivoz) You have written about the movement’s anti-tech appeal. A post on the nonprofit’s Linked In site refers to encountering a Little Free Library as an “analog moment.” Why is this important?
You almost can’t get more analog than a Little Free Library. It is literally a wooden box filled with books: you open the door, look inside, find something you like and take it home with you. In a time when Amazon tells us what we’d like to read and Netflix tells us what we’d like to watch, I think people respond to that very slowed-down, tactile experience. However, as analog as a Little Free Library is, the movement itself has been very driven by technology. We never would have spread to South Korea or Sudan or Iceland without social media. It’s been phenomenal to see how people sharing photos of their Little Free Libraries has helped create the movement. We have a private Facebook page for registered stewards where they can connect with other stewards across the country and around the world. So, you can connect with your community and your neighbors with the Little Free Library itself, but you can also connect to the wider, global Little Free Library community with technology.
(Archivoz) “Open access” is a bit of a catchphrase right now in the library and archives profession, but it tends to be used in reference mainly to academic publishing. At a time when many public library systems face political and budgetary crises, amidst debates about the benefits of late fees, charging for library privileges, etc., in what ways does the Little Free Library speak to the issue?
As a nonprofit organization, we see ourselves as an ally to public libraries. We work with hundreds of public library systems, and often they will use Little Free Libraries as community outreach tools. I know of a library in Florida that puts Little Free Libraries at the beach, and they include information about their programs inside. Also, if you lack the resources to start your Little Free Library, we have the Impact Library Program. It’s a donor-driven program; we supply Little Free Libraries to applicants at no cost. We consider the Little Free Library movement to be very inclusive and we don’t want there to be barriers for anybody who wants to be involved.
(Archivoz) How does one go about becoming a Little Free Library steward?
You can go to Little Free Library.org and find out how to get started there. You can either build a Little Free Library of your own if you have the skills and the ideas, or you can come to our site and get one that’s already constructed. If you purchase one, it’s already registered; you just have to add it to the map once it’s up. If you build your own, we would love for you to register with us and we’ll send you the charter sign to put on your library. We try to keep it as rule-free as possible, so that it’s not only meaningful, but a very fun thing to do as well.
Header Image: Little Free Library, Corvallis, Oregon (photo by editor) Additional images: 1) Little Free Library, Stavelot, Belgium (used by permission of Llarina González Solar); 2) Little Free Library, Soave, Italy (used by permission of Llarina González Solar); 3) Little Free Library, Corvallis, Oregon (photo by editor); 4) Little Free Library, Corvallis, Oregon (photo by editor)
The interview is organised in two parts. The first explores the origins of the project and what it covers. The second considers the future of Qisetna and some archival questions.
(Archivoz) What language barriers does the project face?
(Juan) When we started, our core team agreed that Qisetna would commit to promoting the cultural heritage of Syrians, which included publishing the stories in English and Arabic. As many of the collaborators were ordinary Syrians, the stories were written and told in dialect, and we decided to respect that. Our team of translators, who are spread all over the world, were aware of this, and our editors acknowledge the local accents of the authors. We make a great effort to respect the integrity of the voice, balancing the style and the standard Arabic used. Our aim is to make visible the diversity of accents and dialects across Syria, which we believe should be preserved and documented for Syrians themselves.
(Archivoz) How does this project work in terms of its structure? What do the volunteers do? If somebody would like to volunteer, how can they become involved?
(Juan) Our initiative operates with a horizontal structure, meaning we make decisions as a team. As a creative producer my role is to propose new activities to the editorial team. Our volunteers are a mix of professionals and students, both Syrian and a wide range of other nationalities. We actively encourage Syrians to participate in ways that benefit them, such as meeting other Syrians, or learning skills in creative writing, marketing, social media, etc. Our volunteers contribute to the project as editors and translators; and recently some volunteers have started to produce digital content for our social media.
(Archivoz) Could you explore the future of the project?
(Juan) Qisetna is anchored in the reality of what is happening in Syria and how Syrians are adjusting to the huge demands of the circumstances they are living under. The power structures are establishing a new status quo in the country. We are continuing to contact individuals in the hope of sharing our concern for the preservation of memories that are otherwise in danger of fading away. We are also connecting with the Syrian diaspora across Europe and beyond, as well as talking to universities and the Centre for Migration Studies in Turkey to assist with translation. Turkey is an important place for us as there are many Syrians living and settling there and we want to increase public awareness. Many Turkish people do not come into contact with Syrians and when they do, they often display xenophobia and racism. There is a massive language barrier because a majority of Turkish people don’t speak Arabic, which means they cannot engage with Syrians. We are planning to translate the project into Turkish, to make the stories accessible to Turkish readers both on our website and social media, thereby promoting social integration. We honestly believe this can help tackle the increasing hostility against newcomers. Our aim is to engage Turkish citizens in the translation and encourage dialogue across communities.
We also have plans to develop our social media presence. For example, we are planning to create a YouTube channel which will feature interviews with Syrian artists living in the diaspora. We hope that the In Focus platform can promote Syrian artists who want to share their experiences, vision, and artistic practices.
Secondly, we are growing our archive in order to preserve Syrian cultural heritage and this allows us to develop new content. We pride ourselves on being different from other archives because we work with current stories and contemporary oral history. We are what you would call a living breathing archive which is constantly developing.
(Archivoz) We are an archivist journal. We know that you are not an archivist project but your project appreciates the importance of preserving oral history of Syria. Could you explore this aspect?
(Juan) Oral stories are told by living individuals about their own past, or the past of other people. Because those who provide the information are generally older members of the family, both their lives and their memories are at risk of being lost to time. Of particular value are the stories, anecdotes and family traditions, songs, and especially information associated with pictures, documents, and other records. We also understand the importance of connecting stories across generations and want to disseminate content using platforms that are used by young people. We recently started a campaign, Syrian Diaries, in which we asked Syrians to share a photo of an object that is precious to them and a short story attached. Qisetna is actively exploring new ways not only to preserve but also to share and disseminate the stories that land on our desks. Podcasting is a new way to engage with global audiences and we are producing digital content to connect Syrians across borders with contemporary artists through our new project In Focus.
(Archivoz) In 2017 you won an award form ARA (Archive and Records Association UK and Ireland). Was that gratifying? Could you tell us a little bit about what the award consists of?
(Juan) The Community Archives and Heritage Group (CAHG) is a national organisation which aims to support and promote community archives in the UK. Its Community Archive Award celebrates the contribution of community archives within the archive sector and aims to promote and share good practice. Qisetna (Talking Syria) was the overall winner in 2017, and also won the ‘Most Innovative’ category in this year’s awards. In reaching their decision, the judges commented:
Qisetna (Talking Syria) is an extra-ordinary example of an archive both preserving the voices of displaced and fractured communities for the future and acting as an engine of community resilience in the present. This is an archive at its best: raw emotion, portraying real life and its impact on individuals and families, community leadership and involvement, a focus on tomorrow – the younger generation – and an excellent website for outreach and advocacy. This archive will become an outstanding research tool for the future. But it is also – evidently – succeeding in its principal short-term goal of community building. We also commend Qisetna’s website and encourage everyone to take a look. The use of large apps gives a wonderful simplicity and clarity. From the first click, we all felt compelled to keep reading.
(Archivoz) Since the award, has the ARA been in contact with the project? Do you have any archivist volunteers?
(Juan) We are currently seeking an archivist and this is one of our priorities for 2019. As a small team we have so far always been preoccupied with sourcing stories, editing, translating, and mentoring the contributors.
(Archivoz) Do you have any archive systems or an inventory for your project?
(Juan) We don’t have any. With all our content, we rely entirely on our bilingual archive, and disseminate it through our social media. At present we are talking to several academic institutions which we feel could help with building an inventory for Qisetna, becoming a repository for future researchers.
(Archivoz) Are you aware of the issues and problems of digital preservation? Do you ever consider that?
(Juan) It would be unfortunate if one day the web disappeared! For the past seven years we have been producing data and digital content that is available on the web. Although we produce a monthly backup of our archive and are learning how to effectively preserve and make our content accessible, we have had to learn more about how to secure the content from technological failures or errors.
(Archivoz) Many thanks for your time and the opportunity to explore this amazing project.
Today, we have an atypical interview, not with an archivist or anyone related to our sector, but with Juan delGado, a director and founder of a project called Qisetna. Here he explores Qisetna, an online platform aiming to preserve the cultural identity of Syrians living in the diaspora.
The interview is organised in two parts. The first explores the origins of the project and what it covers. The second considers the future of Qisetna and some archival questions.
Archivoz’s Noemi spoke with Juan to learn about the project and explore how it relates to our sector.
(Archivoz) How did this project come about? Can you tell us about its beginnings?
(Juan) In 2011 I was invited by Artschool Palestine in Nablus to develop a project in collaboration with students of Media at An-Najah National University. I spent six weeks researching and learning about how young Palestinians were living. Despite the extremely oppressive conditions of their lives, these young students laughed in a way that I later understood was a form of resistance: “they are colonising our land and they also want to occupy our minds; but laughing is the best way to keep anger away….’ There, I produced my first project in the Middle East entitled, ‘Fluctuations on Time’, in which I started to collect oral stories from young people, their grandparents, and neighbours based in Nablus.
At that time, I realised the tremendous relevance of making visible the experiences of people who until then seemed detached from me and yet, through listening to their stories, had become closer. It was September 2011, and young Syrians had started peacefully demonstrating for change. I learned also that Syria had experienced the worst drought in the country’s modern history. Hundreds of thousands of farming families were reduced to poverty, causing a mass migration of rural people to urban shantytowns, and the civil uprising turned from a predominantly peaceful protest movement into a militarized rebellion. I started to contact Syrians through social media to try to understand the situation on the ground. My motivation was not political; after my experience in the West Bank, I was increasingly interested in learning about these communities that I knew so little about.
(Archivoz) Could you tell us what Qisetna is and what the aims of the project are?
(Juan) In 2013, I initiated this project called Qisetna (Talking Syria), which in Arabic means “our story”. Qisetna is an online platform aiming to preserve the cultural identity of Syrians living in the diaspora. At the time, the massive influx of images coming through mainstream media showed the destruction of cities and bombing of civilians by all sides. Syrians witnessed the transformation of their country into a hellish battlefield, while the rest of the world seemed paralysed and failed to stop the massacre. In the middle of this tragedy, we decided to approach Syrians themselves with a determination to listen. Using social media and based on the trust we had already built through our friends and contributors, in late 2014 our network spread into areas that were physically impossible to access.
We organised a creative writing workshop with a group of children based in Yarmouk, a former refugee camp inside Damascus. This project was a collaboration with Bassam Dawood, a Syrian actor and Hakawati (storyteller) who was living in exile in Berlin, and Jafra, an organisation based in Yarmouk. Using Skype, Bassam connected to the place where the children were and during a six-week period he encouraged them to write a story. It was an extremely challenging project as we first had to establish trust, but the children participated and engaged with writing their stories. This proved for us that social media could be used in a meaningful way to connect with individuals and communities that were impossible to reach physically.
Encouraged by the response from our workshop in Yarmouk, we contacted a young man from Darayya, a city outside Damascus. We had learned that a group of young people had been rescuing books from under the rubble and had built a library of hundreds of books. He apologised for not being able to speak as he had just found out that his father had been killed the previous day. This and other experiences of the young people we were trying to reach, pushed us to moments of tremendous despair, forcing us to reflect on our goals and the consequences of working in such stressful circumstances.
(Archivoz) What is the process leading up to publication?
(Juan) Reaching out to people has been my role since the beginning. I’ve always believed in the power of storytelling. I grew up in a Spanish family whose members carried the trauma of a civil war. Like many who survived the war, my grandparents could not talk directly about what had happened, and it was only later that I came to understand how many people were living with the trauma of those days. Many turned to drink or violence as a coping mechanism to deal with something that they did not know how to address.
Being neither an archivist, nor an academic, I nevertheless learned early on how important it is to preserve memories. This is one of the main reasons I started Qisetna (Talking Syria) in 2013. In collaboration with two young Syrians, including a journalist, we decided to rescue the tradition of the Hakawati, which refers to a poet, actor, comedian, and historian rolled into one: someone who tells stories. Its root is ‘haka’, to tell a story, or ‘hikayah’, a fable or story, and ‘wati’ implies expertise in a popular street-art.
We wanted to draw out the Hakawati from inside every Syrian, and create a safe space for Syrians to tell their stories. We wanted them to re-claim their voices, which in many cases have been taken from them by the war.
From the very beginning, we wanted to publish in both Arabic and English. This required a tremendous effort to translate and edit the stories in both languages. However the most challenging part was to source the stories and access potential writers, most of whom are ordinary Syrians, students, farmers, some with no formal education. For this we used social media and word of mouth to first build trust, explaining that our project had no political agenda. We noticed that many people had become suspicious of other Syrians and felt utterly frustrated that their tragedy, their individual stories, were not fully acknowledged by the media.
So the process of reaching out to people required us to pay attention to their specific background. This required that we understand not only our own purpose in asking them to share, but also that we pay attention to the dramatic situation many were living under. Our requests of “would you write a story?” were met with surprise and disbelief. However, we gently initiated this conversation which allowed many to re-establish themselves in their own context; they told me “my country is under war, all rubble…and you, coming to ask me to write a story, to tell you a story…. has made me realise how detached I have become from my own being… I see now that I have been living in survival mode for all these past years since the war started.” This initial conversation is the first opportunity to start building trust by carefully listening and giving time for the person to come to terms with their feelings. Once the person agrees to write or tell the story, we assist by reading the draft and asking questions that will shape the story. Some stories have taken more than two months to materialise.
The RMIT Design Archives is based at RMIT University in Melbourne Australia. Its collection focuses on post-war Melbourne architecture and design and represents multiple design disciplines—providing a valuable resource to support design research and practice.
Archivoz’s Evanthia Samaras met with the RMIT Design Archives team to learn about their approaches to managing and promoting their unique archive collection.
(Archivoz) To start, can you please describe your roles at the RMIT Design Archives (RDA)?
Harriet Edquist – Director
I’m responsible for the strategic direction of the RDA, collection acquisition and research.
Ann Carew – Curatorial Officer
I assist with the interpretation, development, documentation and promotion of the RDA collections, and I develop public outcomes, such as public programs, and contribute to fundraising initiatives.
Simone Rule – Archives Officer
I’m responsible for ensuring access to the collection both physically and digitally through research requests and digitisation projects and I also manage the RDA’s website.
Rickie-lee Robbie – Collections Coordinator
I manage the RDA’s physical collections, develop procedures and data standards and I administer the RDA’s Collection Management System.
(Archivoz) Can you please describe what makes the RDA different to other archives?
The RDA is unique in both the scope of our collections and our physical setting—a purpose designed and award-winning building. Design archives and museums world-wide are generally of three kinds—they focus on the built environment (architecture and landscape architecture), on product design (industrial design and graphic design) or on fashion and textiles. Occasionally the last two are combined, almost never all three. Since 2007, the RDA has collected across all three spheres, reflecting the inclusive culture of design thinking at RMIT University.
(Archivoz) Who uses the RMIT Design Archives Collection?
Our collection is available to scholars and students, the public, researchers and industry.
Students from RMIT University and the Melbourne School of Design visit us to access collection materials as part of their coursework. Our model for student engagement is practice-based research. Over the last year, for example, students enrolled in Masters’ programs related to communication design, architecture, interior design and industrial design utilised our collections and attended tutorials in the RDA. As a result, students have leveraged our collection to develop design proposals, products and contribute to their research and studies at university and further afield.
Also, central to our mission is the encouragement of a deeper understanding of Melbourne’s modern design history and its agency in design practice today. To this end we host public audience design seminars, talks and exhibitions. Plus, each year we open our doors for the public for events such as Open House Melbourne, Rare Books Week and Melbourne Design Week.
(Archivoz) How do you generally acquire collection material?
We acquire collections through direct donation and through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program.
(Archivoz) How do you go about promoting your collection?
Our goal with promoting the RDA is ensuring that we’re a visible presence in the Australian design and art community, and within the RMIT student and staff community.
We promote our collections and programs internally at RMIT University through Yammer, WorkLife (the employee online newsletter) and we conduct tours and information sessions for new RMIT staff. We also collaborate with other collections and archives of the university.
We also participate in external promotion by attending conferences, talks, seminars and exhibitions, and we coordinate our own events such as journal launches, collection viewings and workshops.
Our collection is also available for loan to other museums and galleries for special projects, industry or cultural events. For example, the collection is currently featured in the Cabinets of Curiosities (The Capitol 2019) and the Melbourne Modern: European Art and Design at RMIT since 1945 (RMIT Gallery 2019).
(Archivoz) Can you please outline any particular research projects you are working on?
Recently we’ve been involved in projects that highlight our strong holdings in the work of émigré architects and designers. Outcomes of this research include the book Bauhaus Diaspora and Beyond (Miegunyah Press 2019) and the exhibition and book Melbourne Modern (RMIT Gallery 2019).
We’re also collaborating with the School of Design and the Melbourne design studio Public Office on a research project around digital archives.
Ongoing is the research associated with our biannual peer-reviewed journal, the RMIT Design Archives Journal, which publishes research from local, interstate and international scholars. The next issue is going to celebrate the centenary of Australian architect Robin Boyd (1919-1971).
(Archivoz) Regarding collection management and preservation, are there any specific challenges that these collections bring as opposed to more traditional paper records-based archives?
Collecting across a number of design disciplines means that there is a huge variety of object types within the collection. As well as paper records we also hold textiles, garments, photographs, drawings, plans, printed ephemera, architectural models and more!
Each object type can have different needs in terms of storage and preservation which can be challenging when housing the archives and also when we are arranging each archive. The collection is quite hybrid and in some ways is managed more like a museum collection than a traditional archive.
Another challenge which comes with the variety, is maintaining consistency in our descriptive lists and in the data standards we use for cataloguing at an object level. When cataloguing single items, we have a minimum field set which ensures that the most important information is being captured, which tends to work across the disciplines.
(Archivoz) Can you describe any stand-out collections or items that you have encountered in the archive?
In each discipline there are stand-out collections and we all have our favourites. The collection is strong in architecture (Edmond & Corrigan, Graeme Gunn); graphic design (David Lancashire; All Australian Graffiti; Alex Stitt; Bruce Weatherhead), fashion (Prue Acton; Thorn & Slorach) and product design (Ian Edgar, Robert Pataki, Centre for Design).
It is possibly unique in Australia due to the focus on automotive design (Philip Zmood) and inclusion of design education material (Gerard Herbst, Victor Vodicka).
Thank you, Harriet, Ann, Simone and Rickie-Lee of the RMIT Design Archives for sharing such great insights, information and images with Archivoz and our readers.
Laurie Bridges is an Instruction and Outreach Librarian at Oregon State University’s Valley Library, where she acts as liaison to International Programs and Liberal Arts. She speaks with us about freedom of access to information and its relation to freedom of expression, and shares some ideas on overcoming language barriers and bias in academic research and publishing.
(Archivoz) You have written a great deal about overcoming language barriers as it relates to access to and participation in the academic research process. How did you become interested in that topic?
I’m going to be honest, I’m not quite sure. I know that people view it as strange, considering that I myself am monolingual. I grew up in a military family and most of my friendships growing up were cross-cultural. Many of my friends had parents who were immigrants and I was always curious to learn how their parents learned English (I recall one of my friends telling me that his dad learned English from comic books). So, the seed for this interest started early, just out of a child’s curiosity. I didn’t have the opportunity to study a second language until the tenth grade, when I was 16. I really struggled in French and quit after two years. Because of this, my admiration for language learners increased ten-fold. Skip ahead to librarianship, and in my current position I am the liaison to international programs at Oregon State University. I work routinely with international students who have not been admitted to the university, but are on track for admittance once they reach a higher level of fluency in English. In addition to the already high cost of attending a university in the United States, these students are paying extra fees to learn the language. Of course, it makes life easier for me, with everyone learning and speaking English, but I am concerned about the burden it places on non-native speakers and language learners. I have an unfair advantage.
(Archivoz) You yourself are no stranger to cross-cultural, cross-linguistic academic cooperation (if I’m not mistaken, you are on sabbatical in Spain as we speak). In what ways has this changed your approach to the information sciences?
I co-developed a short-term study abroad for-credit class with another librarian at my university, Kelly McElroy. Our class is titled, “Information and Global Social Justice” and is open to all students. I’ve taken students to Barcelona twice (2016 and 2018) and I like to meet people when I travel, so I started connecting with librarians immediately. In addition, I am involved with IFLA as a member of the Freedom of Access to Information and Freedom of Expression Advisory Committee. Because of my international connections and involvement, I have adjusted my presentations and articles to address a global audience. It’s one of the best aspects of librarianship—we are all over the world, so we can learn from one another and become better librarians for our communities as a result.
(Archivoz) How is access to information related to global social justice, and how does language play into that?
Information does not flow equally around the world. English has become the lingua franca, especially in science. If a scientist or medical doctor does not speak English, how can they learn about the latest breakthroughs, or speak with their peers at international conferences? We have the great advantage of living in the United States and learning English as our native language. How can scientists here ensure that their research can be read by other scientists who do not read or write in English? I don’t have the answer; it’s a question I’m asking and I wish more people were asking, as well.
(Archivoz) In your mind, what is the connection between freedom of access and freedom of expression?
Freedom of access is the ability to read and learn about whatever it is you want to read and learn about. For example, Wikipedia is blocked in China and Turkey—they cannot access information that the rest of the world can. Another example is the high cost of medical journals: if I do not have the money or access through a library subscription, then I cannot read the journals. What if I have some rare disease and I want to read everything ever written about it? For me, as a librarian in the United States, I know that through hard work and my connections I can probably get everything there is—in English. But what if the key to resolving my health issue lies in a Chinese journal? I do not have access. What if I am a single mother who works two jobs in a rural part of the United States that lacks a library and high-speed internet? Freedom of access can be hindered in many ways, and as librarians we should be working to break down these barriers to access in every way possible. Freedom of expression is the freedom to say and write whatever I want. If I am an author smuggling my book out of North Korea, my freedom is limited. If I am a rapper in Spain who is put in jail because I rapped about the government, my freedom is limited. As an undergraduate student at the University of Nebraska I was very involved in Amnesty International. It was the early 1990s and we spent most of our time writing letters to countries who had imprisoned people, without trial, for many reasons including speaking against the government. This is where my interest in these topics began.
(Archivoz) If a student in your Information and Global Social Justice class were to learn only one thing from the class, what would you want it to be?
That we are all interconnected; we are members of a global society. The issues facing us in the United States are worldwide: poverty, language justice, healthcare inequity, immigration/migration. What we read in the news about other countries and people is not always the whole truth.
(Archivoz) I have seen and heard a lot recently about English as a gatekeeper language in academic publication, especially in terms of scientific research. You mentioned that you benefit from that as a native English speaker. How does this gatekeeper status relate to freedom of access and expression?
I think a first step is to raise awareness about the issue. I don’t think most editors or reviewers are aware that they are language gatekeeping, because it’s a privilege that is invisible to them.
(Archivoz) Archivoz publishes articles in several languages. Do you have any advice for us (and other similar efforts) as we seek to reach and include both readers and writers from a variety of linguistic backgrounds?
In the United States, it is not common to offer abstracts or articles in languages other than English. I have been exploring ways to do this, including talking to publishers. For example, I am currently working on an edited book idea with several colleagues, and we’re trying to decide how we might best offer the book in more than one language. Should we publish the entire book in translation? Allow for crowd-sourced translations? Have people submit translations after the book is published? We’re not sure yet, but we are looking for ideas.
Asa Letourneau is an Online Engagement Officer at Public Record Office Victoria (PROV)—the State Government Archives of Victoria, Australia. He specialises in creatively using technology to encourage user engagement and promote archival collections. Recently, Asa led a project to implement a new map geo-referencing application service called the PROV Map Warper.
Archivoz’s Evanthia Samaras spoke with Asa to learn about the Map Warper service and PROV’s cartographic collections.
(Archivoz) Can you please describe what the PROV Map Warper is, and what map rectification is?
(Asa Letourneau) With Map Warper we can turn pixels into real geographic information by layering our historic maps and plans onto a web mapping tool. This process, called rectification, allows us to visualise how places have evolved over time. Very simply, the user places markers or ‘ground control points’ on the historic map and on corresponding points in the exact same location in a real-world, online map. The open source Map Warper software then assigns latitude and longitude values to those points as well as the x/y position of the pixels in the map image corresponding to those points. The result is an overlay of the historic map image on top of the contemporary world in the correct location.
Rectification using the PROV Map Warper
(Archivoz) Why did you develop the tool? What benefits does it provide to PROV and users?
(AL) The goal was to make it as easy as possible for our users to find maps and parish plans in our collection. One of the major barriers to finding historic maps and plans is that they use historic names no longer known or used in Victoria. Most of our users aren’t historians or archivists. However, if you create metadata that associates the historic name with its contemporary location name—or even better its latitude and longitude co-ordinates—researchers will be able to search for these historic records by using the modern location names they are more familiar with. Plus, now with the Map Warper tool, they can also scroll across a modern-day map to find relevant historical maps and plans in the PROV collection. Importantly, this project also benefits PROV as it is feeding geospatial data back into our systems to enrich our records.
(Archivoz) How did you go about developing the Map Warper platform at PROV? What was the process you undertook?
(AL) The process was tackled in two stages. The first stage involved a team of volunteers compiling geospatial metadata for thousands of parish plans including the key data, contemporary equivalent location names for historic parish names and latitude/longitude co-ordinates for contemporary locations. The second stage involved liaising with Tim Waters, a freelance geospatial developer based in the UK. I worked with Tim to build a PROV version of his own Map Warper site (he also built one for the New York Public Library some years ago). Once the PROV site was built and tested, content was imported and crowd sourcing of rectification began.
(Archivoz) Can you please provide some more information about the specific software used to develop the PROV Map Warper? Can other archives use it too?
(AL) Tim Waters’ open source Map Warper software rectifies and overlays historic maps on a base map of the contemporary world. The base map used is not Google Maps but instead Open Street Map that is non-proprietary and built by a community much like Wikipedia. Libraries and other institutions have used it, including the New York Public Library, National Library of Australia, Harvard, Stanford Universities, Leiden Archives (in The Netherlands), The Department of Education and the National Environment Protection Authority (US Federal Government), and Wikimedia Commons.
(Archivoz) How has the PROV Map Warper been received so far?
(AL) The service was launched on 12 June 2019 via a blog post on the PROV website. As of late July, 2,726 maps have been rectified and 206 user accounts have been created to do this, which is a fantastic result so far.
(Archivoz) What are your future plans for the PROV Map Warper?
(AL) In the future we hope to link historic maps and plans in our archive catalogue straight through to their overlay view in the PROV Map Warper and vice versa. To do this we will replace the current Map Warper unique identifiers for each Map with the PROV unique ‘Record Item’ identifiers (found within the landing page URL for the record in the catalogue). While we are offering thousands of parish plans as our initial content for rectification, we have already drawn up a list of possible future cartographic series. These include the Historic Plans Collection, the Melbourne Metropolitan Board of Works plans and aerial photographs from a number of record series (once the photographs have been digitised). Given that Map Warper comes with an API, it would be useful to explore to what degree it could be used to manage imports and exports of content programmatically. For example, we could provide access to developers and other GLAM institutions. All of this has yet to be determined but these options illustrate the potential and contributions that PROV Map Warper could make in the future.
(Archivoz) Finally, where should people go for more information about Map Warper?
(AL) People can go to the PROV website and read the ‘How to find parish plans’ blog. This blog features a video about how to use Map Warper and information about how to sign up to help us rectify maps and plans in our collection.
Banner image credit: ‘Ballarat East -12 Township Plan, Imperial measure 5031’ in VPRS 16171 Regional Land Office Parish and Township Plans Digitised Reference Set, Public Record Office Victoria.
Welcome to part two of the conversation about GLAM/R (galleries, libraries, archives, museums and recordkeeping institutions) in Australia. For those just joining us, GLAM/R is an acronym which has made its way into the vernacular of professionals from galleries, libraries, archives, museums and even recordkeeping institutions to refer to this collective of cultural centres. In part one we invited professionals from across the Australian GLAM/R sector to share their thoughts on what the term means to them.
Acknowledging that the practical implications of the acronym are not yet fully understood, part two reveals the respondents’ desire and need for the concept of GLAM/R to have a stronger, lasting and more meaningful impact on the communities they serve if it is to survive. Do we, as members of this sector, throw away the myth of neutrality; do we become social activists advocating for diversity, inclusion and “safe” spaces for our staff and the public? Our professionals weigh in on what the future may hold.
Please note, responses have been adjusted or emphasised where necessary to ensure clarity.
Respondents’ views are their own, not those of their institutions.
ARCHIVOZ: What benefits and/or challenges do you see to fostering collaboration between GLAM/R institutions?
GLAMR holds an inherent tension as a concept. Even within each of the professions in the acronym there are divisions between type or sector. Insisting that we are more similar than we are is problematic – but [there] are benefits to working together in terms of lobbying and political clout, but this also can be problematic. For example the Australian War Memorial has received an obscene increase in funding at the same time most other national ‘GLAMR’ institutions are experiencing funding and resources crises due to years of budget cuts. Conceiving ourselves as “all part of one GLAMR family” pressures professional organisations like ALIA [Australian Libraries and Information Organisation] to politely congratulate the government for boosting funding to the sector, rather than expressing dismay (or something stronger) at the way funds are being allocated.
– Member Services manager, Academic Library Cooperative
Sometimes, we have blinders on that make it difficult to see the things we have in common. This may be because of the histories of our institutions, or the histories of our professions. Or, it may be because it’s difficult to share openly when capitalism forces us to compete with each other. We all feel at risk, personally, and on behalf of the funds of our institutions. One less dollar for the gallery may mean one more dollar for the museum.
– Subject Librarian, Academic Library
Some of the benefits I see – knowledge networks, peer learning, establishing new standards and protocols, sharing costs for PD and conferences, bringing bold ideas from each sector together. The challenges come down to prioritisation, the ongoing issue of institutions being driven by different agendas and goals, starkly different understandings of our collections and roles as custodians, uneven budget allocations (museums tend to fare better than libraries for example), expectations placed on Indigenous staff in these sectors tends to increase when we are involved with more peak bodies and inter-institutional meetings.
– Manager of an Indigenous Branch, State Library
The greatest challenge our sector faces at the moment is neoliberalism. We need to get much better at identifying the political-economic ideologies that sit behind current policy decisions that seek to privatise information and public services. What we can identify, we can understand, and from there, we are able to respond meaningfully to [any] calls for change.
– Library Learning and Teaching Coordinator, Academic Library
I think we have a lot to learn from each other in how we approach the processing of our collections. I think linked data is something that could really come into play in a positive way if GLAMR institutions collaborate.
– Library Technician, State Library Victoria
For me the benefits of fostering collaboration between GLAMR institutions are in pooling resources, sharing expertise and making connections between collections, which might not otherwise be made without close working relationships. Challenges I see in collaboration between GLAMR institutions is when ego and territoriality overcome the needs of a project. What I have observed is that people working with collections, for example, sometimes become gatekeepers to the collections they manage, making access to some collections difficult.
– Team Leader, Public Library
There are benefits in connecting up professions and knowledge domains … [b]ut there are also challenges overcoming the fear of some that their roles or professional identities are under threat, and care needs to be taken to ensure our necessary differences are not thrown out along with some of the unnecessary divisions.
– Archivist, Museums Victoria/ Archives and Museums
ARCHIVOZ: What would you like to see in the future for GLAM/R?
I hope in the future, GLAMR institutions will recognise First Nations people as the owners of their own culture and therefore seen as controllers of the cultural heritage in GLAMR collections that pertain to their culture. I hope [they] will allow for historical pluralism in their collections by capturing First Nations perspectives, voices and stories. Also, GLAMR institutions need to respect First Nations stories and present them as the same as collections about First Nations people, culture and history created by Europeans.
– Project officer, Libraries, archives and museums
The GLAMR sector needs to be a lot more diverse and proactively inclusive to create safer spaces for our communities and for staff. In order to do so, it needs to realise that the myth of our neutrality perpetuates the status quo of discrimination and oppression.
– Arts, humanities and social sciences teaching and learning liaison librarian, Academic Libraries/Higher Education
[A] greater focus on, or resources for, local history and language/culture centres in Australia – they are often left out of the big conversations.
– Manager of an Indigenous Branch, State Library
Creative ways of working with mixed collections, the development of more relational ways of working, documenting, and providing access to collections right across GLAMR, and the use of innovative technologies to move away from a focus on digitisation and dissemination of ‘collection items’ toward more networked, interconnected ways of working.
– Archivist, Historian, and Collections Consultant, Academic Research
I think it is important that GLAMR workers make a stand on important political issues. We are not neutral. We can make a difference by supporting important causes within our communities. I would argue that GLAMR workers employed in the public service need more freedom built into their employment contracts to make political statements. I would like to see more political and social activism in the GLAMR sector in the future.
– Archivist, Museums Victoria/ Archives and Museums
I would like to see not trickles, but great flows of people transferring into roles ACROSS our sector. This cross-fertilisation of people in our workforces would build capacity, inject new ideas, and foster greater collaboration. We could make this happen by re-writing position descriptions and overhauling traditional recruitment and selection practices.
– Library Learning and Teaching Coordinator, Academic Library
I would like us to accept shared responsibility of framing our actions and decisions by centering First Nation voices… [and] to stop rehashing the benefits of collaboration in GLAMR and just get to work.
There is a clear intersection and cross over in the work of cultural institutions like galleries, libraries, archives, museums and even recordkeeping institutions. Over the last decade in Australia, an acronym has made its way into the sectors’ vernacular to refer to this collective of cultural centres: GLAM/R. Integrating the use of GLAM/R into practice and publication has occurred alongside the coordination of localised and national efforts to establish regular industry meetings and events to provide networking opportunities. Active groups like newCardigan and GLAM Peak meet in major cities across Australia to encourage this networking and open up conversations about what it may look like in practice for these sectors to work more closely together.
However, the practical implications of the acronym are not yet fully understood – from the way collaboration can aid the different aims of collection institutions in terms of funding or service provision to the risk of failing to interrogate Western collecting practices that exclude the voices and perspectives of First Nations or Indigenous peoples.
On behalf of Archivoz, Kate Monypenny and Leonee Ariel Derr asked professionals from across the sector what GLAM/R is, what it means to them and what they hope for its future. Across two articles we explore their thoughts on these topics.
Please note, responses have been adjusted or emphasised where necessary to ensure clarity. Respondents’ views are their own, not those of their institutions.
ARCHIVOZ: What is your understanding of the origins of GLAM/R in Australia?
I hope there isn’t one understanding of GLAMR, and whatever understandings that do exist have a dynamic quality to them. Our people, processes, and practices are ever-changing – and this is a very good thing.
– Library Learning and Teaching Coordinator, Academic Library
It seems to have gathered steam in the [last decade]. I would guess that its increasing usage relates to the tightening funding environment of these allied professions, and the desire to join forces – strength in numbers.
– Rare Books Curator, State Library of Victoria
[T]he acronym and associated peak bodies and work were intended to bring together museum and archival institutions – recognising the commonality in much of the work of these institutions. It helps us to avoid the silo effect which has in my view led to the deep divide between museums, galleries and archives.
– Manager of an Indigenous Branch, State Library
[Within the acronym] A [and] R to me and for many First Nations people is founded on surveillance… [and is] how we have entered into those spaces and collections…or through intellectual nullius- the act of someone recording [another’s]…language, culture and science to claim discovery and ownership. Same with M, it is conceived for me about creating narratives about First Nations people.
– Project Officer, Libraries, archives and museums
It…reminds us that institutions that may be thought of as having quite different collections, aspirations and modes of operation… share a very fundamental common purpose…to collect, preserve and provide open access to our cultural heritage. Ideally… it’s [also] about providing access in a way that is appealing, democratic, allows for reuse and reinterpretation, and helps us to form and continually re-evaluate our identity as a nation.
– National and State Libraries Australia (NSLA) Executive officer, Library Sector
ARCHIVOZ: What does GLAM/R mean to you?
[It is] a recognition that we all work in the cultural information sector. Galleries, Libraries, Archives, Museums and Records (although sometimes you can use Research here too) are all areas which might be considered cultural repositories or organisations.
– Team Leader, Public Library
GLAMR attempts to find and develop connections, build partnerships, and identify common goals and opportunities between galleries, libraries, archives, museums and Record Keeping professionals and institutions. It is also a handy shorthand for “collecting institutions”, perceived as having separate goals but many common purposes and related practices.
– Member Services manager, Academic Library Cooperative
Separate professionalisation has value, but the process has also caused great damage to collections and collected knowledge. GLAMR can provide a space in which to discuss and think through these things.
– Archivist, Historian, and Collections Consultant, Academic Research
I think I represent what ‘GLAMR’ looks like on an individual level: I’m an historian, curator and librarian with tertiary qualifications in each, and I have worked at the National Gallery of Victoria, State Library Victoria […] various academic libraries […] and worked as a curatorial volunteer at the Melbourne Museum. The fact that one person is drawn to all these fields is evidence that there are indeed meaningful connections between them all.
– Rare Books Curator, State Library Victoria
As a professional in the health sector I feel a bit disconnected from the GLAMR sector as there is not a lot of opportunity to directly collaborate. However, a huge amount of the work we do requires drawing on the resources of other GLAMR organisations – particularly other health Libraries – to be able to support high quality patient care.
– Digital Content Librarian, Austin Health Sciences Library
It’s a great community to be part of with excellent GLAMRous pun potential. It is extremely important to have spaces where we can come together to share, learn from and harness our unique skills and knowledge, acknowledge and reflect on common challenges, collectively workshop possible solutions, and advocate for each other in the large bureaucracies we are so often part of.
– Arts, humanities and social sciences teaching and learning liaison librarian, Academic Libraries/Higher Education
ARCHIVOZ: Have you experienced any personal benefit from your engagement with the GLAM/R sector?
I could not do my job without sharing queries with the museum, archives and records teams at my institution. Where the library ends, the archive begins. Where the art library ends, the museum takes over.
– Subject librarian, Academic Library
[It] has helped build knowledge networks and encouraged staff to move between different institutions. For me these relationships are key to leveraging the work of many of us in telling contested stories and working to decolonise much of our collections, and a bigger picture approach to these issues is the fastest way to overcome them.
– Manager of an Indigenous Branch, State Library
[The] GLAMR sector… led me to the Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives [ALGA]…During challenging political times, I [found] comfort and solidarity in these LGBTIQ+ archives and with ALGA’s community of volunteers. It has been great to be part of a community led by LGBTIQ+ people dedicated to preserving and facilitating access to LGBTIQ+ histories, particularly at times when I’ve struggled to be heard and not felt entirely supported in mainstream GLAMR organisations.
– Arts, humanities and social sciences teaching and learning liaison librarian, Academic Libraries/Higher Education
[GLAM/R benefits us because] [w]ithout history, without memory, what are we? Who are we? Imagining our absence is a powerful way to understand our presence – and the multiplex benefits created from our sustained, collective being.
– Library Learning and Teaching Coordinator, Academic Library
Read part two of our series on Australian GLAMR here.