In A Time Of Uncertainty, The Pursuit of Permanence Reinforced

The aftermath of an explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, April 17, 2013. (Photo via BusinessInsider.com)

At the time of this writing, the campus of Baylor University is quiet, subdued under a twin burden thanks to the dismal weather (due to a cold front/rainstorm combo) and an event that occurred just twenty short miles up the road in West. As reports roll in documenting the destruction – physical, emotional, communal – wrought by an explosion at a fertilizer plant on the north side of town, the Baylor community is responding with a prayer vigil, offers of donations of materials and financial gifts, and the use of our collective expertise in helping the citizens of West find new hope in the rubble of last night’s wreckage.

As we try to come to grips with the scope of devastation, it comes at a time when the national mood is already unsettled due to the bombings at the Boston Marathon on Monday. Add into the mix the fact that this, the third week in April, has seen traumatic national events in the past two decades (the Columbine High School massacre, the Oklahoma City bombing and the Branch Davidian standoff, chiefly) and you have a general sense of discomfort, a time of unwanted reflection on the darker side of human nature.

All of this may seen like a strange topic for a blog post focused on digital collections, but it reinforces an absolutely inarguable point: life is uncertain. We can build legal structures, steel-studded concrete walls, social norms and inner rationalizations to protect us from the things beyond our control, but they can only take us so far. For all of us will face an event in our lives that we cannot control, that is beyond our power to influence. And in the midst of that uncertainty, it helps to have reminders that our daily work to preserve the documented history of our campus, our community, our world is one way we can provide the tumultuous present with a concrete anchor to the past.

“The Preservers of History”

Chiseled into the stonework of the façade of Pat Neff Hall, Baylor’s main administration building, is a quote from former Baylor president (and two-term Texas governor) Pat Morris Neff. It reads, “The preservers of history are as heroic as its makers,” and I believe this sums up our role in the Digital Projects Group in a simple, profound way that paragraphs of explanatory text cannot. We are the preservers of history, yes, by the nature of our work to digitize physical history and preserve its digital surrogate for access by the future. But more important than simply scanning and archiving data, we are preserving the stories contained within those documents and we are ensuring that those stories will be accessible and available to people many years from now. On days like today, it seems particularly important to preserve the stories happening all around us, even if they aren’t as newsworthy as an explosion, a natural disaster, or a terrorist attack.

This is not a responsibility we take lightly, of course. For every artifact, archival resource, photograph, map or other item that comes through our doors, we know we are handling the “real stuff” of history and it is our job to take that one unique thing and give it a new life, a greater usefulness in the realm of academic scholarship and worldwide access. In a sense, we serve not so much as the preservers of history but as its spokesmen, the professional communicators tasked with taking something out of its phase box, Mylar sleeve or acid-free folder and putting it on an international stage via the Internet so its unique story can reach people on our campus, on our continent, on the other side of the world.

The Way of All Flesh (and Data)

We are given only a short time on this Earth to do the work we were created to do. There will come a time when the words of this blog will be seen as a record of what one group of people thought was important in the early decades of the 21st century. They will read of a fertilizer plant explosion in a small, Czech community in central Texas and want to know more about how it spurred a library staff member at Baylor University to write about its relation to digital preservation.

To those future researchers –and to my 2013 contemporaries reading this post today – I can only say that as this week’s unexpected events have unfolded on the East coast and a half-hour drive from my front door, it drives home to me the frailty of life, the knowledge that the things we create today are not promised to exist tomorrow, and that the challenge for our field is to try to find some permanence in the world, to promise our grandchildren’s grandchildren that they will have access to the world we are living in today. And, more importantly than all of this, that they will have access to our stories.

If you would like to assist the people of West in their recovery and rebuilding efforts, please visit Baylor’s “Response for the City of West” web age or contact the Central Texas Red Cross. Photo from REUTERS photographer Mike Stone via Business Insider (www.businessinsider.com)    

A Dispatch From the Ivory Tower: An MST/DPG Graduate Course Update

Bright-eyed, busy-tailed, scanner-friendly: the students of MST 5327: Technology and Outreach in Museums

Long-time readers of our blog may remember this post, wherein we unveiled a new venture for the Digital Projects Group: implementing, hosting and teaching a graduate course on technology and outreach for museums, archives and libraries. We’re now heading into the final three weeks of the course, and we thought an update was in order.

The students of MST 5327: Technology and Outreach in Museums have come a long way from the group of fifteen technology neophytes that started class in January. On their initial surveys, I found a wide range of attitudes regarding technology, but most admitted they were somewhere on the “afraid of it, don’t trust it” end of the spectrum. Several brought significant experience with technology with them into the course, and all expressed an interest in enhancing technological skills that they felt would be critical to their success in the museum field.

The first few weeks of class focused on lectures and background information on the idea of technology in museums. Topics covered included the types of technology utilized by museums (from exhibit display to collections databases), the theory behind the use of technology in museums, and the promise and perils of using technology to engage visitors. Lively discussions on technology’s ability to both enhance and derail the visitor experience were held each week, and students were encouraged to seek out examples of how museums are using high- and low-tech solutions to visitor engagement.

From the beginning of the course, students were introduced to the use of several free, Web-based tools that will aid in their development as museum professionals. Services like Evernote, Google Drive, Prezi and WordPress were all introduced very early on in the course, giving the students a chance to explore how museums of any size can take advantage of free (or almost-free) software solutions to make their museums run smoother. The course blog (available for all to read here) became a place for students to respond to focused readings, begin conversations among their colleagues, and post reactions to current events in the museological field. All of these techniques are expected to give them a firm footing on some of the developments in Web-based tools available to them upon their graduation in the coming weeks and months.

After a full session of training and orientation to the scanners and software of the Riley Digitization Center, the students were assigned into teams and turned loose to explore the materials gathered for the course. Focused on the general theme of World War I, the teams were each given a specific focal point and told to curate items for a digital collection that explored one of three themes:

Team Churchill: the impact of the war on religion

Team Foch: the impact of the war on popular culture

Team Pershing: the impact of the war on Waco as embodied by the U.S. military

Each team was given access to a number of archival collections drawn from special collections on campus, and they spent several sessions poring over the assorted archival papers, piles of sheet music, and 1917-1918 Waco newspapers looking for materials to support their theses. Scanning commenced in the following weeks, as did the addition of materials into a special digital collection that will be made available to the public at the close of the semester.

A guest lecture on the always-engaging topic of copyright was delivered by Billie Peterson-Lugo, the Baylor Libraries’ resident expert. Billie’s presentation introduced the students to the challenges of presenting archival materials that go beyond the year 1923 – when materials are considered to be in the public domain – and how to make decisions that place materials into categories of risk (low, medium and high) with regard to copyright status. The students’ eyes were opened to the inherent difficulties of working with the overlapping, byzantine layers of federal and state copyright standards, but they did learn the simplest answer regarding copyright questions: “It depends.”

Spring break and a trip to the Texas Association of Museums’ annual conference in Beaumont took two weeks out of the mid-semester, and a two-week discussion of the basics of marketing in the year 2013 were added into the mix as well. Students discussed the nature of public relations in the Twitter era, why the basics of marketing still matter, and how to keep people’s attention in a world where advertising messages are plastered on almost every conceivable surface.

And now, as the teams complete their scanning and metadata entry, the semester is coming to a rapid close as they prepare for their final presentations. These professional presentations (which are open to the public) will be held on May 1 at 1:00 in the Armstrong Browning Library’s theater, followed by a reception in the Cox Reception Hall. The presentations will focus on each team’s marketing/outreach plan they created to promote their digital collections to a specific target audience. I will also provide an overview of the course, the items digitized by the students, and what this course has meant in terms of their development as burgeoning museum professionals.

When we started the discussions about this course more than a year ago, Dean of University Libraries Pattie Orr was excited, supportive and encouraging of a new opportunity to train Baylor University graduate students for service in a field that impacts the lives and spirits of millions of Americans each year. From an instructor’s viewpoint, I can say that the energy, skills, passion and drive exhibited by these students this semester have been a joy to behold, and if their performance in this course is any indication of the future state of American museums, we are all in terrific hands.

In closing, I encourage anyone in the Waco area to stop by the final presentations on May 1st. It will be an excellent opportunity to see new scholarship, excited young professionals, and a beautiful special collection library all at once.