Saturday, April 27, 2013

Preservation Week @MSMC, Part 6

Logs of research requests, each query a learning experience.

WE'VE BEEN LOOKING THIS WEEK at how preservation "happens" at the Mount, the entirely ordinary, prosaic techniques that archivists everywhere use to try to ensure their collections stick around as far as possible into the future. Cool, dry, acid-free, boxed, sleeved, digitized: these just about cover the gamut of options.

There's one more essential technique that has nothing to do with environment or equipment. It's called usage. Archives in most cases are meant to be used, to be referred to, to be cross-checked against other evidence. The archives that aren't used won't be preserved. 

Usage also means that the stuff has to be accessible. Creating what's known as intellectual access is just as important as keeping things cool and dry. Users have to be able to find what they're looking for without having to dig through (in our case) about three dozen four-drawer filing cabinets plus a couple hundred feet of shelf space, not to mention all those 1s and 0s in the Cloud. Creating access is a gradual process, and it often comes about as the result of a search for a tidbit of information. 

The College Archives averages at least one request for information a week, or over 50 a year. Some can be resolved quickly, while others take days or even weeks. But every foray into the "backfiles" turns up some additional knowledge about the whereabouts of certain documents, pictures or other historic material. This is added to the inventories, lists, finding aids and other descriptive material, and the requests themselves are logged, because some questions get asked more than once.

(Here's a test. What is the most frequently asked question in the College Archives? Answer: When were men admitted to the Mount? Here's another test. When were men first admitted? Answer: Fall 1960, to the Music program.)

Archives truly  have a life of their own. They're static and yet dynamic, historic and yet new – depending on what you're looking for. But the important thing is to be always looking. This is especially true with digital archives. Just think about that old laptop in the garage that hasn't been powered up in 10 years.

As soon as archives were invented (in Sumeria, not long after writing was invented about 3500 B.C.), someone came along and asked, "Do we really need that stuff?" Preservation has been a challenge ever since.

We're not arguing for a spot on "Hoarders," but if you're not careful history will end up in the dumpster. We're here to make sure that doesn't happen. Happy Preservation Week, 2013.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Preservation Week @MSMC, Part 5

If you think it looks a little
insubstantial, you're correct.
IT'S THE END OF THE SEMESTER, and from the look of them a lot of the students' heads are in the clouds. The seniors are just a few days from Cloud 9. And these days, all of us with pads, pods, desktops and smartphones are in the Cloud constantly, whether we know it or not.

We hear about it everywhere: Cloud computing, Cloud storage, in the Cloud. It refers to the vast tracts of cyberspace where our digital lives live and move and have their being (to paraphrase St. Luke). The applications we interact with on our smartphones, our online picture collections, games, communications and even historic archives are kept in the Cloud. (This blog is written in the Cloud and you're reading it from there... where ever "there" is.)

Without inducing glazed eyes, we should explain that the Cloud merely represents a whole bunch of interconnected computers all over the world with extra computing capacity that would otherwise go to waste. Amazon started the movement around 2000 by leasing this unused capacity to companies and individuals, and now all kinds of third parties offer Cloud-based storage and applications. 

Not much better, but you can at least hold it in your hand.
This holds 750 gigabytes of Mount Archives data.
The problem with digital documents and pictures and audio and video is that they're all really only teeny on-and-off switches (the 1s and 0s, respectively), and "preserving" them means a whole lot more than sliding them into a polyester sleeve and putting them in an acid-free folder. CDs, DVDs, flash drives and external hard disks like this one are quickly going the way of the floppy disk, so it's only appropriate to speak of JPEGs in terms of maybe 15 or 20 years (5 to 7 if you're not careful), not 100 or more like plain paper or a good black and white print.

The Cloud actually helps with this because it gets around one serious problem, the rapid obsolescence of storage media. But the Cloud then raises a raft of preservation issues of special concern to archivists, like, oh, where is it, who owns it, how do you know it's the real thing, and will you ever get it back of the Cloud provider goes under – "it" being any digital item you happen to stick in the Cloud. Remember, "it" is just a bunch of 1s and 0s. 

In spite of these problems, we're forward-looking at the Mount – and do we ever have a lot of stuff in the Cloud these days. If you want to create access for users (tomorrow's blog!), it has to go somewhere digital – and somewhere is that vast network in the sky. If you haven't seen them, take a look at the Mount's collections in the Cloud, thousands upon thousands of individual blobs of nicely arranged 1s and 0s. 

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Preservation Week @MSMC, Part 4

Teatime at the Mount, a lace-collar event in the Student Lounge. Photo
is from the 1944-45 academic year and includes the Classes of '45 and '46.

THE MOST POPULAR TREASURES in the College Archives – at least in terms of requests to use them – are the historic photographs. They exist in many forms, rich black and white prints, color snapshots, slides, color transparencies and for about the last 10 years, digital pictures in the form of JPEGs. They're a problem, which we'll get to in a minute.

With a little TLC, the black and white prints will last for a really long time. They get the white-glove treatment to prevent fingerprints and a crystal-clear poly envelope that is as close to lasting "forever" as we talk about in the profession.

A 1994 photograph is ready for scanning.
This is Sr. Annette Bower, CSJ, the Mount's
legendary Physical Sciences chair emerita.
Slides, transparencies and other formats get their own special sleeves. If anyone needs to reproduce one of these historic images in a publication or brochure they go onto a scanner. The resulting JPEG can be sent virtually anywhere – with the proper copyright permissions.

Unfortunately, you can't put JPEGs into a sleeve and talk in terms of forever. The best we can do to preserve the JPEGs is upload them our online repository and keep a couple of backup copies on external hard drives.  And if worse comes to worst, we've still got the hard-copy originals to rescan.

Our photo archives sort of come to a stop around 2003, the year College photographers switched from film cameras to digital. There are a few sets of snapshots, but the really good ones – professionally shot and processed - are elsewhere, or nowhere. If they're not in the archives, they can't be archived or preserved. Will we have today's student events to look at 70 years from now, as we do the tea party from 1945? Cross your fingers.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Preservation Week @MSMC, Part 3

Folders come in many dimensions and shapes, but the
standard color for acid-free is a nice, dull tan.
TOOLS OF THE PRESERVATION TRADE are showcased in glossy catalogs from a short list of manufacturers, including Brodart, Gaylord, Hollinger/Metal Edge and University Products. (For consumers, there are Family Archives and Light Impressions, which have the same items but can be purchased in smaller quantities.) For the retail maven, they're like a fabric and crafts store, hardware store and stationery store all rolled into one thick mailer. Shopping is fun.

Archives are expected to keep their contents for a long, long time -- or forever, depending on whom you ask. We are always seeing news tidbits about a fabulous discovery in an attic full of old papers. While much more orderly than an attic, an archives is pretty much the same idea; you file things away carefully and list them on an inventory of some kind, and much, much later someone makes a fabulous discovery and ends up in the news. (We recently made such a find in the Chalon Campus archives pertaining to the Doheny Family. You can read about it here on page 29, "From the Archives.")

But as we mentioned yesterday, old paper can be very brittle and crumbly because of the acids embedded during manufacture and aging. Unfortunately, this will quickly be true of the brand-new paper on which we printed out today's email (yes, email -- but that's another story!).

We can prolong the life of our archival files on paper for hundreds of years if we keep it cool and dry and away from additional acids. Like the book boxes, this is done with special folders similar to the manila variety in size and shape, but made of buffered board with a neutral or slightly alkaline pH. We buy them by the hundreds and have been gradually replacing the old manila folders in the College Archives.

It's sometimes a tedious process, but it's the history of Mount St. Mary's College we're talking about here. It's well worth it -- and we're sure there are many other treasures yet to be discovered.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Preservation Week @MSMC, Part 2

Bryant's Mythology, ca. 1805. Each volume is sadder than the last.
There are many such battered books in libraries everywhere.
A BUNCH OF OTHER LIBRARIES are piling on the blog bandwagon for Preservation Week. We archives and special collections librarians are proud of the service we provide and have lots of company! PresWeek also has its own Facebook page, so you can check out what's going on at institutions big and small.

Yesterday we shared an inexpensive device for measuring the all-important temperature and humidity in the Frank H. Spearman Room here in the Coe Library at Chalon. It works for anyone with treasures they want to hang onto -- cool and dry probably doesn't describe the garage, so keep your good stuff in the house.

A beautiful handmade book of poetry in Spanish,
dated 1866, with its protective box.
Another handy-dandy technique for protecting books are pre-cut boxes made of special cardboard. Not only are they free from harmful chemicals that may further damage brittle paper, but they also filter out gases that may be present wherever there is carpeting, furniture and human beings -- gases that can add acidity to the books and bindings.

When the books are as beat-up as the ones pictured above, boxes also add a physical barrier that will protect the contents from getting dented or bent. Throw a length of unbleached cotton tape around the book and the covers (called boards in the biz) won't become separated from the pages (the text block) even if the hinges are already shot.

Figuring out what to do to help a book is as much art as science. To restore old leather bindings costs into the hundreds of dollars per book, so it had better be a pretty special book to begin with if you're going to go to the expense. For those books of lesser or unknown value, a neat row of light-blue boxes is perfectly adequate. With luck we'll get at least a couple hundred more years out of treasures inside. In our next post, we'll look at the same approach for plain old paper.

A row of 18th-century journals, secure and happy in their special homes.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Preservation Week @MSMC, Part 1

A little too warm today -- 74 degrees.
Relative humidity just right at 40%.
THE LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES WORLD is marking Preservation Week, an annual reminder that without a certain amount of tender loving care our books, papers, manuscripts, photographs, yearbooks, magazines and other treasures will gradually disappear.

Preservation Management also happens to be something we teach in the San Jose State University School of Library and Information Science (SJSU-SLIS), so it is a subject near and dear to our archivist's heart.

Keeping the Mount's treasures safe in the Coe Library is an interesting and challenging job.That there are archives and special collections in the library today we owe to our CSJ predecessors, who did what they could in the face of fire and flood, mold and bugs, and everything else that puts our "stuff" (the official archival term) at risk.

We thought we'd observe Preservation Week with a daily look at our favorite tools of the trade. And since it is Earth Day, the topic of the environment is a good starting point. We battle climate change -- right here in the archives. But not the kind that causes sea levels to rise and upsets polar bears. We mean in that cool, dry place where it's safe to keep books and paper.

Stability is the name of the game: a narrow temperature range around 70 or 72 degrees, and relative humidity around 40%.  Too much fluctuation breaks down the chemical bonds in paper and causes them to become brittle. Like most college and university libraries, we have lots and lots of brittle paper.

Above is the little hygrometer we check daily to keep an eye on our first-floor environment. There are more sophisticated models, but this $20 piece of equipment pays big dividends. If we keep the books cool, dry and happy, we don't have to spend money stabilizing them and restoring them later on.

Tomorrow we'll look at another fave tool -- acid-free boxes. If you're on the Chalon Campus this week, stop by and see these goodies in person!

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Off the hill and into 'jail'

Student Body President Vincie
Ginevra, front and center, with other
Class of 1945 members (front) L-R, Helen
Fitzpatrick, Vincie, Phoebe Tours,
Arabella Barnes; (back) Blanche Van
Oort, Mary Albachten and
Margaret Thalken. 
VINCENTIA 'VINCIE' GINEVRA LESKO '45  paid a visit to the Chalon Campus and the College Archives today along with two of her six children, Matt and Stephanie, and Cindy Hizami of the Institutional Advancement office.

We love alumnae visits because we always learn something. Vincie did not disappoint.

A self-described "grumpy old lady" of 93, Mrs. Lesko was anything but. Asked if she could help identify people in photographs from the 1940s, she cheerfully flipped through a stack of pictures while Cindy hastily wrote down names on a sticky note.

Possessed of an impressive memory, Vincie also reminisced about her days at the wartime Mount, when blackout curtains and air raid drills were as much a part of student life as as chapel veils and kitchen raids.

Vincie was student body president her senior year, and like her predecessors during the war years presided over a close-knit class. Stephanie scanned a few of her mother's pictures, including this one of Vincie and a few of her classmates smiling behind bars below a sign reading "Santa Monica Jail." It was just an amusement park, or we're pretty sure they wouldn't look so pleased with themselves.

Slowly but surely, Vincie hiked all the way up the stone steps to Mary Chapel, recalling that it was built while her older sister Beatrice was a Mount student. (She graduated in 1941.) Then we took Vincie to the cafeteria and dined in the same room where she and her classmates ate their meals 70 years ago.

As we were going in, a trio of Mount students looked at us politely but curiously. When it was pointed out to them that Mrs. Lesko used to live in Brady Hall on the third floor near the elevator, they seemed a little shocked.

Yes, this will be you someday, we thought -- and we hope your memories will be as sharp as Vincie's when you look back. And we hope you enjoy your time here as much as she did. Finally, if you wind up in jail we hope it's one at an amusement park.