Wednesday, June 30, 2010

When is an old book... rare?

Another area in which we're typical, even for a small college, is having an interesting collection of old books. Visitors often gasp in surprise at so many "rare" volumes, but rarity and value are in the eyes of the beholder.

As a Catholic college we have quite a few old and very impressive-looking Bibles, with ornate tooled-leather covers and curlicue clasps. Most of them date from the late 19th Century and aren't nearly as valuable as they look. But we have quite a few pre-1800 books and not a few pre-1700 volumes. Even more interesting are the pre-1600 books and even a handful of incunables. Most of the old stuff isn't catalogued. Some of it is -- like this little 12mo., above, from Jacobus de Voragines, 1483. Someone has helpfully glued in a barcode.

Really rare books are actually expensive to own in terms of heating and air conditioning, protective covers, insurance and suitable (!) cataloguing. So it make sense to know what you own and where to spend scarce preservation dollars. I'm a Lone Arranger archivist, not a rare books librarian, so it's more guesswork than science, but I find the resources of ViaLibri, Worldcat and even Google to be pretty handy. I try to find out who else holds the book, where they've got it (stacks, storage, or special collections) what a copy might be selling for, and whether it has been digitized.

Even if I find a treasure, the best I can do is tie a little cotton tape around it and put it in a buffered box, the pre-cut and -scored kind sold by Hollinger-MetalEdge and Gaylord. Because it's beyond the capacity of our tech services department to catalogue these items -- many of which have been owned by the college for decades -- I've created a list in Worldcat of what I find that looks interesting. Since I haven't mentioned it to anybody, I was surprised today to see that four people have looked at it.

So what are my ad hoc, personal criteria for rarity? What warrants a $3 box?
  • Older than 1800
  • Not held by a lot of other libraries, particularly in California
  • Selling for at least a few hundred bucks via ViaLibri
  • Not totally falling apart
  • In the special collections of an important library (where it might be well catalogued)
You can see my list here.

This Lone Arranger doesn't have too much time for old books -- not with a backlog that just grew by a couple of yards -- but it's a nice break in the routine to pick something off the shelf and see what I can find out in an hour or two. The really nice thing is, it's all win-win; anything I do back there in the shelves is a net benefit. And let's face it -- building boxes and tying neat bows is really a pleasure.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Managing surrogates

Like most institutions of higher ed, we have acquired quite a bit of artwork through donations. The value of the items is wide-ranging, from what we might call "important" to the purely sentimental. We have, for example, a handmade 36-star American flag (ca. 1865) made by a benefactor's grandmother in the 19th Century, a beautiful hand-carved tribal figurine in African blackwood, and a handful of 18th century portraits. We also have a lot of reproductions and a number of framed popular prints of the kind sold by Costco and Ikea.

Separating the wheat from the chaff is important if we're talking about insurance -- which has been an interesting discussion for the past year. We only want to insure what's worth insuring, but we lack any systematic record of what we own (no surprise there in the Lone Arranger world). Fortunately, we have smart student workers so we're in the process of creating a new record.

This means a lot of digital surrogates. My summer student worker, Monica Alvarez, is taking pictures of all the "art" she can find: in frames and unframed, hanging, sitting, leaning up against a wall, piled on top of a cabinet, stacked in a closet. A similar project was begun in 2008 but all we have is photos (surrogates) and no information about them in terms of what, where and when they were taken. Back to the drawing board. This time, we're being systematic and applying Lone Arranger Best Practice, out-of-the-box (okay, off the website) Dublin Core Metadata Elements in a simple Excel file.

We settled on the very basic but pretty functional naming convention approach; you can pack a lot of information in a 24-character string. So "CL4," for example, tells us 4th floor of the Chalon Library. That data goes into the spreadsheet along with descriptive information, and it corresponds to a specific CD-ROM with the JPEGs. It's not foolproof (what if someone moves the item to another floor?). But sometimes -- most of the time -- we Lone Arrangers have to make on-the-fly decisions that will fulfill a short-term need. Lacking a budget and a database, a spreadsheet and CD-ROM is about the only approach we can take. They're just surrogates, remember, and it's easy enough to re-take the pictures. Again. This isn't a "preservation" collection.

What's fun is Monica's enthusiasm for and interest in metadata, a term she hadn't encountered as an art major. She's got fantastic organizational skills and the whole thing really appeals to her. It's exactly that kind of helper that puts the smile on the face of every Lone Arranger.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Oh, those digital assets

By day, I'm a paper archivist. By night, I teach online graduate students about digital preservation. Well do I know the pitfalls of going down the digital imaging road -- the unforeseen costs, the migration issues, the burden that metadata places on an institution, the permanent patient-on-life-support issues.

I am vigilant about keeping the Mount archives on paper as much as possible. To do otherwise would be fiscally risky behavior, since digital costs can go from zero to n times a factor of magnitude with the sky being the limit. (Note: that only applies to stuff we plan to actually keep for a long time, of course. If we don't care, zero remains a nice, round number.)

However, this Lone Arranger also knows that there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of "archival quality" digital photographs of "enduring value" to the college parked on a mishmash of hard disks, servers, and portable media. (How about this photo of our statue of Mary getting boxed up by the crew of "Beverly Hills 90210: The Next Generation"?)

From a preservation standpoint, our digital photography assets are undeniably at risk. Physical media like CDs and DVDs are temporary solutions (< 7-10 years) at the most, so the alternative is a database. Can a Lone Arranger do a COTS (common, off-the-shelf) database? How much technical support do I need? How much time can I reasonably spend on any of it, let alone customizing the software? Who, besides me, will be able to do data entry? My digital asset management colleagues have opinions about Lone Arrangers in this arena, and at this point my own is one of doubt. However, I'm about to find out. We can't just leave those photos running around loose... gotta corral those puppies! I'm about to embark on a side-by-side evaluation of two packages (I hope) and will post my thoughts as I have them. Meanwhile, I have a pile of archival photos to scan.

Friday, June 18, 2010

And people think archives are dull

The fun of being a Lone Arranger is the daily choice of which among 40 different miniature projects to work on. Try to reconcile the contents of 33 four-drawer filing cabinets with their folder lists? Try to get the lists into a searchable database? Tackle the Public Relations, American Studies, or ESL backlogs? Add some metadata to the art inventory?

Or how about the rare books? Take another linear foot of crumbling volumes and see what they are? Each one takes an hour or two and my clothes get dirty. Should I try to stabilize another scrapbook, or put the flat files in some kind of rational order?

Here's a good one... how about the thousands of digital photos that we've accumulated in the last several years that are on a server here, an external drive there, or maybe on a few unmarked CD-ROMs?

You can make a nice career out of any one of these, but what's the fun of that? Lone Arrangers: the utility infielders of the archives profession. I think I'll go straighten up the shelves of yearbooks, and follow them up with some pamphlet-file origami. A fine conclusion to a satisfying week.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Getting out there

The perennial dilemma in paper archives is having a lot of great stuff and no way to find it. Getting Out There, or creating access as we call it in the archives world, is all about helping people find you.

Today I created an intranet portal and posted some policy documents. Want to give me stuff for the archives? Want to volunteer? Are you going to try to drop some disks of JPEGs on me? It's a start. It's fun -- after I jumped through a bunch of technology hoops.

So welcome to the Mount Archives blog. There's always something happening in the archives. Believe me.