#RBMS17 Session Notes

Here are my session notes from RBMS 2017. Read my conference recap here. Apologies for the lack of links; I simply do not have time time–but I encourage you to pull any of the threads of interest herein for yourself!

[Please note that I am unable to remove the linked list to previous blog posts from the middle of the text; it is not showing up in the HTML. As a WordPress user for ten years, I am perplexed–any tips appreciated!]

Wednesday, June 21

Scholarship award winners’ breakfast, 7:30-8:30am

RBMS sessions, 8:45am-5:30pm

Plenary I: Narrative

Valerie Hotchkiss, University Librarian at Vanderbilt University

Micaela Blei, doctoral candidate in Educational Theatre at NYU; Senior Manager of Education for The Moth

Moderator: Petrina Jackson, Head of Special Collections and University Archives, Iowa State University

Hotchkiss began with storytelling advice, noting that she would not be talking about DH or integrated library systems, but about anecdotal evidence of “tidbits,” using the term “anecdote” to mean “fun fact,” not hearsay. Hotchkiss argued that “tidbits transform an encounter with fact to an encounter with cultural history” and cited institutional blogs as a way to achieve this, as well as to collect tidbits from other collections’ copies of the items in your own holdings for comparative purposes—leading to the discovery of “copy-specific tidbits.” She noted Stanley Marcus’s encounter with a Gutenberg Bible in George Parker Winship’s course The History of the Printed Book at Harvard, and the lifelong impression it made on the retail mogul, who later became a rare books collector. She encouraged the audience to “take our roles as storytellers and showmen seriously” and to show our enthusiasm. Hotchkiss also contrasted “the prepared visitor,” who arrives with a research interest and known collection requests and thus “creates their own anecdotes” with “the visitor who is not even here”—the virtual visitor. She also discussed crowd-sourced projects, notable the Tate Britain’s notebook transcription project using Zooniverse, and closed with a quote from Kipling: “If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.”

Blei began her portion with an approximately ten minute long, first-person story, in the style of The Moth, about how she bought her high school teacher, “Mr. L,” a complete set of the Yale Shakespeare. She then used this story as an example of the points she wanted to make about storytelling, including conceptualizing a story as an extended metaphor, helping people find and make meaning in their own stories, and listing the common themes of a good story: 1) stakes – understanding what the teller has to win or lose, getting the audience invested; 2) change – the story should change the narrator or protagonist in some way, shift, and/or start in one world and end in another; 3) theme – tell a story that matters to you, and see what themes come up; 4) show, don’t tell – “Mean Mom” and the flower pots story—it is one thing to say “She was a mean mom,” and it is another to tell a story of how she gave her daughter busted pots for Christmas. Why do stories work so well? We love protagonists (and journeys)—Narnia isn’t just “plopped into,” you have to (want to) journey there from England; we love promise and release, so there must be a set-up and a question or something at stake, so that the end produces a unity feeling; we love stakes; we love making meaning, so very rarely over explain or provide a moral or leave the scene; “put it all in.” “Stories are finding the thread of meaning through a collection of memories. Let listeners (or users) pull the thread.”

Seminar B: Future of bibliographic data

Karen Limper-Herz, Incunabula Short Title Catalog (ISTC), British Library

Christina Dondi, University of Oxford

Oliver Duntze, State Library of Berlin
Moderator: Greg Prickman, University of Iowa

Duntze showed us the State Library of Berlin’s online catalog record page for Wynkyn de Worde, The Charter of the Abbey of the Holy Ghost. Abbey of the Holy Ghost, Westminster, ~1496. The page includes some interesting live links, including to an online type database (which elicited oohs and aahs from the audience). His presentation discussed the challenges in writing bibliographies—transcription vs. content description, especially regarding incunabula in multiple languages.

Limper-Herz demonstrated the British Library’s Incunabula Short Title Catalog (ISTC), touching on issues in creating faceted searches (which related to some issues we have discussed at TSLAC regarding Preservica’s searchability). She reported on updates to the ISTC, including the forthcoming ability to download, with various options, as well as an eventual merge with the 15th Century Booktrade database, leading to long term “metasearch” of all incunabula collections.

Dondi introduced the CERL Material Evidence in Incunabula project (which I had previously learned about at a public talk at the British Library on my vacation in the UK in November!). She explained how recording and making available copy-specific descriptions has been increasingly extensive but scattered, and, thus, it has been difficult for scholars to use the data systematically. The new vision and approach is more “bottom up.” MEI is using “informed outreach,” to create actual and virtual partnerships across institutions based on shared collection items. She also demonstrated the VGG Image Annotator, which allows users to find recurrences of individual printing blocks across multiple editions (!); so, you can search for horses, or horses printed in Venice between 1500 and 1550, etc.

Panel: Defining the Archive

Athena Jackson, Penn State University

Arthur Fournier, Arthur Fournier Fine and Rare

William Stingone, New York Public Library

Stingone discussed the tendency of information professionals to bristle at the corruption of the terms “archives” and “archiving,” advising, on the whole, that we should realize these words now point to two different concept, one colloquial (and, hey, at least people are thinking about preservation!), one professional. He also pushed for the idea that, in order to avoid relegating most of our collections to “backlog limbo,” we should ask, “How archival is it?” and view appraisal decisions as a spectrum rather than a yes/no.

Fournier, a book and manuscript dealer, played around with the idea of a collection vs. archives, defining the latter as “a form of evidence that has provenance, is complete, is singular,” whereas otherwise what you are dealing with is a dealer-assembled collection. “Sometimes I think the more prosaic word is less fraught.” He tries to think about how he is applying the terms set, group, and collection to the manuscripts he acquires. He discussed at length how archives might leverage social media’s ability to, in a roundabout way, spotlight archival holdings, noting especially the viral success of Atlas Obscura, which, while written by and for non-professionals, is nevertheless comparatively serious and thorough in its approach. He also made a plea for paying for archives, noting that there are major issues of representation, diversity, and legitimization at play, such as the fact that many minority artists have little means of receiving remuneration for their life’s work, other than the value inherent in their papers, etc. “Old white men’s interests dictate market valuations.” And Fournier is looking for ways to change that.

Jackson gave a rousing presentation so jam-packed with gems I was unable to properly record any of them (!). She focused especially on the difference between having your history recorded for you vis a vis Native Americans’ and Mexican-Americans’ archives and history being recorded by you.

During the Q&A, there was much discussion between the panelists and audience members of finding aids as narratives themselves, and how we might, in light of this, de-contextualize and reconstitute the finding aid in concept and practice.

Panel: Materialia lumina: The Contemporary Book in its Historical Context: Philosophical Musings of three Master Printers

Book artists:

Gaylord Schanilec

Russell Maret

Peter Rutledge Koch

Moderator: Danelle Moon, University of California, Santa Barbara

Photograph of a panel discussion taking place inside a formal room

Koch opened with inspo shout-outs to Ruskin’s The Seven Lamps of Architecture and Wagner’s concept of the total work of art in opera before showing slides of his recent work, The Lost Journals of Sacajawea, a collaborative project with Missoula Native writer Debra Magpie Earling in which they explore the history of contact between Native and European cultures and the conquest of the West by Europeans. He described his work as “postcards from the future to the past,” and was especially interested in the symbolism of “the last buffalo” in 19th century America and contemporary representation. Koch describes his Diogenes project as a “text transmission object,” and a book as a multi-voiced object, “the creator speaking to readers, the book speaking to other books, text/context speaking infinitely.”

Maret showed a slideshow of many of his works, focusing on more recent ones, such as Æthelwold Etc, The Book of Jonah, and Linear A to Linear Z, discussing the influence of varied sources including the Kelmscott Chaucer, Dover Press, Ashendene Press, and Euclid. He also reminisced about a callback to collaborating with his own history, after he founds his first print—from 1989—in his parents’ basement. His description of the moment he decided to be a typographer was breathtaking: “It was November 30, 1996, and I was at an exhibit. I saw a Rudolph Koch typeface and knew I was a typographer. I couldn’t sleep; I was awake planning a typeface all night. I woke up the next morning convinced I was a typeface designer despite having no training whatsoever.” I didn’t take many notes, because I was so gobsmacked by the images. Maret’s archive is at the Library of Congress.

Schanilec discussed New York Revisited, an art book he created for the Grolier Club’s anniversary, as well as his series of fish portraits, and steel engravings based on paintings by Seth Eastman; there were echoes of Jackson’s earlier panel talk regarding Dakota place names and variations and the artist’s frustration that “the only way to get a Native perspective is through European eyes.” He is currently working on a children’s book about the history of Minneapolis, focusing on the St. Anthony Falls, which have moved 10 miles over 12,000 years and are now in central Minneapolis. The book is being produced using local materials, including pieces of driftwood purposed as printing blocks to create the wavy water patterns representing the falls. He also touched on his time working in Wales on several separate occasions, including a slide of Gregynog Hall, home of Gwasg Gregynog (Gregynog Press, in Llanymynech) and remarking, “Having grown up in northeast North Dakota, I thought I knew cold… until I moved to Wales.”

Thursday, June 22

RBMS sessions, 8:45am-5:30pm

Panel: The Narrative of Exhibits and Exhibition Practices: Approaches to Design and Execution

Greg Seppi, Brigham Young University

Kris M. Markman, Harvard Library

Beth M. Whittaker, University of Kansas

Francesca Marini, Texas A&M University

Marini summarized the findings from her study of space usage in special collections exhibit spaces, which included nine institutions—a mix of public and private. She was interested in looking at how archives and special collections differ from museums, and questions mostly focused on physical space, which is often comparatively unalterable in libraries’ and archives’ gallery spaces.

Whitaker discussed the University of Kansas’ Spencer Library and Archives, which was established 50 years ago as a one-off memorial donation. Her presentation highlighted architectural issues, including water damage to collections and how the physical space affected visitors’ experience, particularly with the library’s rotating exhibits. Tensions identified were experts vs. casual visitors, selectiveness vs. comprehensiveness, past vs. future, legacy donations vs. new money, the “library way” vs. the “museum way,” and micro-stories (exhibitions) vs. macro stories (importance of primary sources, role as campus partner, openness to everyone).

Markman presented a slideshow summary of the results of her groundbreaking “variable eye tracking” technology study of exhibit visitors at Harvard’s special collections. She compared the UX of two Harvard exhibits using a specially designed set of glasses fitted with a tiny camera that follows the user’s eye movements and records a video. Questions she was trying to answer included, “How do users explore items in individual cases?” and “How much time do visitors spend reading labels?” Each of the 24 study participants wore the glasses for six minutes and completed a short questionnaire; Markman ended up with 23 sets of valid tracking data. The results were surprising: most visitors viewed items in a random order with no discernible pattern, either from case-to-case or visitor-to-visitor; most did read the item labels, many in some considerable depth, based on the amount of time spent and eye movement tracking; and each visitor’s viewing style was unique. Predictably, most were drawn toward illustrations and human faces, but not to the exclusion of textual or other content.

RBMS 2017 InstaMeetUI

At the InstaMeet, I got to view about 30 “greatest hits” items from the University of Iowa Special Collections, along with a group of other social media users. The Special Collections social media manager, Outreach and Engagement Librarian Colleen Theisen (who I did “know” from Instagram and Twitter!) gave a short, casual presentation as we browsed about how items are selected for the institutional Instagram, how captions are written and edited, and how their audience has been built and evolved.

Panel: Documents Abroad: Latin American Materials and Special Collections in the United States;

Christine DeZelar-Tiedman, University of Minnesota

Mary Jo Zeter, Michigan State University

Seonaid Valiant, Newberry Library

Lisa Gardinier, University of Iowa

Gardinier talked about connecting materials across intellectual and physical collection/subject/space separations to get them to users, for example, handmade Argentinean and Uruguayan art books designed for distributing short classics to the working masses during a time of economic depression. She passed examples around among the audience while discussion her decision to make half of Iowa’s collection circulating—“because that’s what they were made to do. Why preserve them, too? Because each one is a unique object.” The largest collection of these books is at the University of Wisconsin; there are 120 at Iowa, of which 70 are deposited in special collections and the remaining 50 circulate. Decisions on circulation are made by looking at holdings at other libraries. She calls the Iowa collection, “medium rare,” with a wink to steaks.

Valiant discussed in detail the fascinating Edward A. Ayer collection at the Newberry. Ayer, a self-taught working class collector, purchased his first items, a full set of multi-volumes in Chicago in 1864 for $17.50—on credit. The Newberry now has his entire library collection, complete with his end notes, and papers, now entirely digitized and online. Many of the items relate to the history of the colonization of Mexico, including the famous Popol Vuh book, for which Valiant participated in an indigenous blessing ceremony in 2011; this provided interesting and useful insights into multicultural preservation strategies, as the tribe’s religious leaders return every four years to “re-bless” the book. Valiant has since published protocols online regarding the handling and use of sacred objects and the role of the library as steward, in partnership with the descendants of the book’s creators.

Zeter presented a case study of her recent exhibit and thus told the story of Latin American comic books as seen through Michigan State’s extensive comics holdings. Most of her presentation was based on showing the physical layout of the exhibit cases, discussing how she chose to organize the titles (almost entirely by country of origin), and looking at the amazing images. She also noted that popular Spanish language comic character Cool Kid first appeared in 1907, in a comic book based on an O. Henry story (which, as an Austinite, caught my attention).

Plenary II: Representation

Janet Weaver, Assistant Curator of the Iowa Women’s Archives, University of Iowa

Angela J. Aguayo, Associate Professor of Cinema and Digital Culture, Southern Illinois University

Moderator: Agnieszka Czeblakow, Rare Books Librarian, University of Texas at San Antonio Libraries

Photograph of Janet Weaver in front of her slide showing the Iowa Women's Archives benefactors Noun and Smith

Weaver’s talk focused on the history (and lack thereof) of women’s archives and in particular on her work at the Iowa Women’s Archives (IWA), founded by Mary Louise Smith and Louise Noun. Noun auctioned Frida Kahlo’s “Self Portrait with Loose Hair” to endow the IWA. We got a whirlwind introduction to the surprisingly (to me) substantial history of Latin American—and Latin American women’s, in particular—political activism in Iowa, including ILHOP, LULAC, Dolores Garcia, and the Mujeres Latina Project, which has an online component, the “Migration is Beautiful” web site, a DH project hosted by the University of Iowa Libraries’ digital studio in partnership with IWA. She also discussed how her work with LULAC had to be done “off the clock,” in her “free time” because of potential conflicts as a state employee [this got me thinking about how we blur the lines between official professional work and women’s largely invisible and always unpaid social and emotional labor—I HAVE THOUGHTS.] Weaver nonetheless considers that work part of her professional work. Key takeaway quotes: “We

are not storytellers by nature.” “These voices proclaim loudly how much we do not yet know about our history.” “Now women’s voices are no longer hidden whispers in archival repositories.” “Librarians and archivists are stealthy individuals.”

Aguayo, a filmmaker, began with this statement: “We are living in a time that is unsure about what facts are, and archives institutionalize what the facts are.” She proceeded to interrogate choices of selection vis a vis representation within a narrative framework and called on us as information professionals—archivists, especially—to “resist where you exist.” Aguayo provided examples in discussing her work with the Rural Civil Rights Project, which produced its first documentary (which she directed), 778 Bullets and let to the formation of the Racial Justice Coalition. She has worked to document the previously undocumented history of the Carbondale (IL) Black Panther Party, including a shoot-out and trial that had been all but forgotten in the community. Aguayo’s work serves to document the presence of radical politics in rural areas. Finally, she ended with a call to “choose reflexivity.” Aguayo’s talk was full of actionable ideas.

The University of Iowa Libraries and Iowa State University Library Reception, 6:30-8:00pm

Friday, June 23

RBMS sessions, 8:45am-12:15pm

Panel: The Stories Institutions Tell

Jillian Cuellar, University of California, Los Angeles

Erika Gorder, Rutgers University Libraries

Lisa Conathan, Williams College

Moderator: Greg Schmidt, Auburn University

Conathan spoke on the symbolic disappearance of indigenous people from Williams College and Williamstown, Massachusetts, with an emphasis on a recent campus building restoration that included a famous 1940s mural depicting white English settlers and Mohawks planning together their strategy for the French and Indian War—a foundational myth of the Williamstown area. Questions Conathan asked included: why Mohawks, when it was Mohicans (a separate tribe) who lived in the area? Why were the indigenous people wearing so few clothes despite the meeting happening in late September, when it would’ve been chilly in Western Massachusetts (see the sculpture featuring Lincoln and enslaved people for a comparison)? What links are there between the founding of institutions, native histories and representation, and foundational collections (the first book purchased/gifted by the founder of Williams College was the Elliott Bible, written in Massachusett)? Do students interact with at all with the native historical narrative and how has that relationship changed over time (for instance, early students staged reenactments wearing “Indian” garb, now seen as offensive and verboten)? Conthan recommended and referred numerous times to Marisa Fuentes’ Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archive, particularly the introduction. Student work written in response to the restoration and reconsideration of this institutional narrative, written for a public audience, is now available (on Islandora).

Gorder’s talk focused on defining the role of the university librarian and archivist as historian, “historian vs. information professional; historian or custodian? servant or scholar? technocrat or walking encyclopedia? objective observer or social justice warrior?” Her conclusion: we are all of these. The bulk of her talk was describing Rutgers’ 250th anniversary coffee table book, to which she was a contributing author, Rutgers: A 250th Anniversary Portrait. Controversies abounded, she said, especially regarding disagreements about whether to foreground issues of complexity vs a celebratory, representative take, and whether to include more or less short stories vs. long essays. She described the book as, essentially, “a 250-page archivists’ narrative,” but the editors were forced by university administration to use “treasures.” Gorder’s article was on the history of concerts at Rutgers, from DEVO to Bo Diddley, and she is “still chagrined” at how few of her fellow authors actually visited the university archives. There were also issues with choosing which photos of female students to include, with many alumnae of the opinion that so many of the photos were of “women looking silly,” whereas they should be represented as serious and scholarly. However, Gorder maintains that people are more drawn into relatable materials; so student life is historically interesting and important—“dare I say, fun”—student life blow-ups were installed around the library to lead people into the exhibition. The final section of Gorder’s talk focused on the Scarlet and Black Project—an exploration of “the uncovered narrative” of enslaved African-Americans and African American students, staff, and faculty at Rutgers, sprung from the 2015 Committee on Enslaved and Disenfranchised Populations, chaired by Dr. Deborah Grey White, who enlisted Marisa Fuentes and 17 graduate students to delve into the university archives and find the “hidden” history of black Rutgers. Students began to interrogate the “Revolutionary” part of the Rutgers 250 slogan and ended up publishing a book of essays with a corresponding online exhibit, Scarlet and Black, Volume 1: Slavery and Dispossession in Rutgers History.

Cuellar’s talk began much more personally, with a title card that said simply, “On Assimilation.” She shared her family’s story: Mexican-American immigrants to San Antonio around the turn of the 20th century, her grandparents built a house themselves on the edge of town (now in San Antonio proper). Not reflected in official histories, leaving no collection of papers, her family is largely absent from the historical record. “The longer I live outside Texas, the more I think about that house… I look it up on Google Street View and stare at it…” Her talk was very powerful and relatable. She confronted the fact that here is “an inevitable dissonance in representing marginalized communities in ‘our’ institutions” and argued for the idea of a continuum—from family papers to citizenship papers to the U.S. Constitution. Referring to Bethany Nowvitzkie’s idea of “speculative collections,” she argued (as had Beth Whitaker) for “micro-narratives” and even “micro-archives.” This includes not only papers, but ephemera, artifacts, and oral histories. Cuellar further argued for the historian as catalyst, not authority; catalyst, not curator (again, also echoing Weaver and Aguayo’s plenary talks). Again, I was unable to take extensive notes because this presentation was just so engaging and resonated with me so much.

During the Q&A a conversation of course ensued about Confederate monuments and memorializations, particularly on university campuses; because of my personal and academic interest in Texas’ (and The University of Texas’) Confederate monuments, I continued this conversation with other attendees. This was by far my favorite session of the conference; I could’ve lived forever inside this session.

Plenary III: Memory

Frank Salomon, University of Wisconsin-Madison; University of Iowa

Safiya Umoja Noble, University of California, Los Angeles

Salomon’s plenary focused mainly on cultivating an ethic of social justice in a new world of digital information, calling on information professions to “respect and reinforce local archives so that the small, clear voice can be heard above the din of the master narratives.” He also claimed archives as “monuments of diaspora,” highlighting the role of archivists in preserving small histories; “when people migrate, even the best genealogists can lose track of things”—calling for “bottom-up history.” He also argued that ethnographers need unique “but ordinary” historical documents. These paper archives can spark oral social history, where keepsakes are memory—of and for those absent, whether dead or part of a diaspora.

Noble’s talk was a follow-up to her closing plenary at ACRL 2015, which I was lucky enough to attend. Her research lays bare the decidedly non-organic nature of Google, internet search results, and SEO, focusing on how women and girls are represented in search engine results. She continues to argue that Google’s search interface acculturates us (and especially younger people, students, and new users) to expect that answers exist, and now. But knowledge is not “the answer”—it is contestable, complex, changing. Because of Google’s corporate privacy rights, no one actually knows how Google works, and yet, as Noble’s research proves, it has an outsize influence on what we now view as facts and knowledge. All interfaces—even something as nonthreatening and simple as Google’s—are political. Noble argues persuasively for information professionals—librarians, in particular—to think deeply about our roles in curating the open web, reframing away from the “the public should know better” argument, which evades responsibility and is complicit in problematic, corporatized, sexist knowledge systems. She pointed to the UN campaign about sexist Google searches as an example. “Racism and sexism in search results aren’t glitches—they’re inherent in our information systems.” “Bias is not a glitch.” One of the audience members commented, “This is a powerful reminder to those of us who are responsible for content description that metadata can be inherently colonizing.”