A Sisyphean* Task, An Unending Passion: “A Life’s Work” and Its Connection to the BGMRP

Records of America’s gospel heritage

Back in 2010, a crew of professional documentary filmmakers visited the Digitization Projects Group. They were on a mission: to interview and film the team of professionals working on the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project (BGMRP), a project brought to life through the vision of Baylor University journalism professor Robert Darden. David Licata and his crew spent a day shooting on-camera interviews with Professor Darden and hours of b-roll footage featuring our team working to clean, digitize, catalog and scan materials from the collection.

The footage Licata and his crew captured is being included in his documentary film, A Life’s Work. Described on his website as a “documentary about people engaged with projects they may not complete in their lifetime,” the film chronicles the stories of men and women who know their passionate pursuits will not be realized before they pass on to the next great adventure, and how that knowledge shapes their approach.

In addition to a segment on the BGMRP, Licata’s film will examine an architect and his “urban laboratory” in the Arizona desert; the director of the Center for SETI Research; and a father-son team of tree farmers who are trying to clone old-growth trees for long-term reforestation projects.

Prof. Darden’s attempts to save America’s black gospel musical tradition – especially materials from its “Golden Age” from 1945-1975 – have been documented on NPR’s Fresh Air, in the pages of major newspapers across the country, and through Darden’s own relentless drive to present about the project in front of audiences across the country. He knows the odds are stacked against him in terms of finding and saving the majority of the existing gospel recordings. In fact, by Darden’s own estimate, more than 75% of these recordings have already been lost.

But through hard-nosed tenacity and the generosity of some major donors, we at the DPG have managed to digitize and preserve thousands of black gospel songs thanks to a combination of technology and staff expertise. From the efforts of our original audio engineer, Tony Tadey, to the ongoing work being done by audio-visual digitization specialist Stephen Bolech – along with contributions by every member of the DPG team – our group has seen the importance of Darden’s work and are fully invested in helping him realize his dream.

One Step Closer to the Big Screen

This week we received an email from Licata telling us he’d added a new sequence of footage from his time at Baylor to the blog for A Life’s Work, and we wanted to pass it along to you, our blog readers. There are actually two clips at the link, and both feature interviews with Darden and a look at Tadey’s work in the audio booth. Licata’s blog post is full of excellent detail on the thought process behind how he creates the sequences for his documentary.

View the clip at YouTube

One update for our readers regarding Darden’s concerns about keeping someone in the position of audio engineer is worth noting here. Since the interview with Darden was conducted in 2010, the Electronic Library has added a full time staff member – Stephen Bolech – to work with audio-visual materials, including materials from the BGMRP. In addition, we are contracting with Tony to continue his work digitizing materials from a major collector in the Chicago area (where Tony now lives and works). To answer Darden’s quote from the clip, “I need more faith,” we can respond with a hearty “praise the Lord and pass the reins to Stephen” – the BGMRP will go on, and Darden’s fears of the project languishing can be laid aside.

Stephen Bolech at work in the audio booth

We are eagerly awaiting the release of A Life’s Work and will pass along details to you as they become available. In the meantime, we encourage you to visit Licata’s website, read his blog, and support the people in your life whom you know to be on a quixotic quest to do something that seems impossible. Without their efforts, we may truly lose irreplaceable pieces of our shared human experience, and that’s the gospel truth.

To Learn More about A Life’s Work

View the trailer for A Life’s Work

Visit the website for A Life’s Work

Follow Licata’s blog

* For you non-Greek myth buffs, Sisyphus was a king who was forced to roll a huge boulder up a hill for all eternity. The worst part? Every time he got it to the top, it rolled back down again and the cycle continued anew. Now, his name is an adjective meaning “endless and unavailing, as labor or a task.”

Feeding Our Nostalgia: A Sampling of Waco’s Favorite Former Restaurants, Via the BU Libraries Athletics Archive

Although the temperatures outside our offices here on campus don’t reflect it yet, the calendar says we’ve officially entered fall. And with its arrival come the requisite things we love about autumn like changing leaves, cooler days, and a tidal wave of foods flavored with pumpkin and cinnamon.

But nothing says “fall” on a university campus like the return of college football, and as our Baylor Bears are riding a 3-game winning streak this week, we thought it fitting to turn our attention to our Baylor University Libraries Athletics Archive (BULAA) for inspiration for this week’s post.

And so it was that while perusing football programs from the 1930s-1980s, I stumbled upon a recurring theme: the ads for restaurants that don’t exist in Waco anymore. Be they beloved staples mourned to the present or mere one-time wonders barely remembered by anyone, they still took the time to invest in advertising space in programs for Baylor home football games, so their impact on our university was easily measure in terms of ad revenue and column inches – if only for a season.

We thought it might be fun to showcase a few of those ads and, as a bonus, add their locations to a custom Google map so you can see exactly where they were located “back in the day.” Longtime Wacoans may well remember dining at some of these establishments; likewise, newer residents (or those just passing through town) can gain a better understanding for our fair city’s historic culinary offerings.

Leslie’s Chicken Shack (from November 24, 1934 game vs. SMU)

Jack’s Café (from October 23, 1948 game vs. Texas A&M University)

Pat Rutherford’s (from November 11, 1950 game vs. University of Texas)

Taco Patio and Mr. Chuc Wagun (from November 12, 1977 game vs. Rice University)

The Water Works (from November 22, 1980 game vs. University of Texas)

This is just a sampling from the smorgasbord (sorry!) of eatery ads to be found in the football programs of the BULAA. We hope you’ll take time to look through the programs for your favorite Waco restaurants, and take a minute to leave us a comment on your fondest food memories. Bon appetit!

The DPG Team: An Essential Primer

The Team (from left): Darryl Stuhr, Allyson Riley, Eric Ames, Austin Schneider and Stephen Bolech

After one of our previous posts went viral, exposing us to a much larger audience, we decided it would be a good time to formally introduce our team to the world. So, without further ado, meet the folks who scan, curate, digitize, import, outreach, and generally save the world, one scan at a time.

  1. When did you join the DPG? The day it was created.
  2.  What degree(s) do you hold? From where? Bachelors of Music from Florida International University and Masters in Music Composition from Baylor University
  3. Where were you born? Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
  4. In five words or less, describe what you do at the DPG: Manage Digitization projects and infrastructure.
  5. Coolest/strangest/most unique item you’ve worked with at the DPG: A 1948 aluminum-core radio transcription disc in excellent condition.
  6. Why do you think the work we do is important? Because we share Baylor’s unique materials with the world, provide access for researchers to digitized original source materials, and work to preserve the digital objects in perpetuity.
  7. If you could spend the day with anyone, alive or dead, who would it be and why? Carl Sagan, there are billions and billions of reasons.
  8. Favorite bands: Foo Fighters, Mumford & Sons, Taking Back Sunday
  9. What do you do when you’re not at work? Spend time with wife and three kids doing fun kid stuff.
  10. Your favorite random fact? Hard to say this is my favorite but it is definitely random, Seinfeld (not Friends) became the first television series to get more than a million dollars/minute for advertising.

  1. When did you join the DPG? November 2005
  2. What degree(s) do you hold? From where? BA in Public Relations from Texas Tech University and MA in Museum Studies from Baylor University
  3. Where were you born? Borger, Texas
  4. In five words or less, describe what you do at the DPG: Curate. Research. Outreach. Media. Materials.
  5. Coolest/strangest/most unique item you’ve worked with at the DPG: Digitizing a 13th c. hymnal, hand-illustrated on vellum
  6. Why do you think the work we do is important? I have a full slate of anecdotal stories about why what we do is important, but it boils down to this: We make the previously semi-accessible instantaneous, which leads to new insight, new scholarship, and new understandings.
  7. If you could spend the day with anyone, alive or dead, who would it be and why? Chicago architect – and planner of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition – Daniel Hudson Burnham. If that answer confuses/intrigues you, please see Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City. I think you’ll understand why pretty quickly after that.
  8. Favorite bands: The Old 97’s, Foo Fighters, Led Zeppelin
  9. What do you do when you’re not at work? Read, eat, spend time with my wife Amy and 2-year-old daughter Sophia
  10. Your favorite random fact? Lincoln Logs were invented by Frank Lloyd Wright’s son.

  1. When did you join the DPG? October 2010   
  2. What degree(s) do you hold? From where? BA in Film and Digital Media from Baylor
  3. Where were you born? Austin, Tejas
  4. In five words or less, describe what you do at the DPG: Manage project flow and student workers (I know that’s 6 but I’m not counting “and” as a word =))
  5. Coolest/strangest/most unique item you’ve worked with at the DPG? 1920’s Football Playbook
  6. Why do you think the work we do is important? So people can access these items online and find useful information from them without having to handle the actual materials.
  7. If you could spend the day with anyone, alive or dead, who would it be and why? Will Smith because he is just oh so funny.
  8. Favorite band: The Rocket Summer
  9. What do you do when you’re not at work? Shopping; Get all artsy and start making things.
  10. Your favorite random fact? On Friends, the iconic frame on Monica’s door was originally a mirror but a crew member smashed it.

  1. When did you join the DPG? I joined the DPG in late July 2012.
  2. What degree(s) do you hold? From where? I have a Bachelor of Arts in English from Baylor University.
  3. Where were you born? I was born in Tifton, Georgia [aka the Deep South].
  4. In five words or less, describe what you do at the DPG: Manage projects for Texas Collection.
  5. Coolest/strangest/most unique item you’ve worked with at the DPG: I particularly enjoyed getting to see and read some of the letters between Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning and gaining unique insight into their romance.
  6. Why do you think the work we do is important? Society continues to advance technologically, and as a result, valuable pieces from our past are often disregarded as having little value or are left to fall apart. The DPG works diligently to make sure that the items entrusted to or relating to Baylor University are well preserved in order to benefit future generations.
  7. If you could spend the day with anyone, alive or dead, who would it be and why? It would have to be C.S. Lewis. Not only was he an incredible author, but he was also one of the wisest and funniest theologians of all time.
  8. Favorite band(s): John Mayer, The Civil Wars, Ben Rector
  9. What do you do when you’re not at work? I love to read, shop, and attempt to tackle cool projects I find on Pinterest
  10. 10. Your favorite random fact? The peach was the first fruit to be eaten on the Moon [since I’m from the “peach state”].

  1. When did you join the DPG? Joined full-time in May 2012; split time between here and Crouch [Fine Arts Library] for a year before that.
  2. What degree(s) do you hold? From where? Bachelor of Music from Baylor and Master of Library Science from UNT
  3. Where were you born? Victoria, TX (grew up in Yoakum, TX)
  4. In five words or less, describe what you do at the DPG: Digitize audio and video materials
  5. Coolest/strangest/most unique item you’ve worked with at the DPG: I digitized a bunch of cassettes of David Koresh’s phone conversations with hostage negotiators.
  6. Why do you think the work we do is important? I think that the materials we work with (most of them at least) are an important part of our cultural heritage, and many of them are in danger of being lost because of degradation or obsolescence. 
  7. If you could spend the day with anyone, alive or dead, who would it be and why? President Obama, because I’m really curious what the average day of a US president is like, and he seems really cool.  I don’t want to play basketball though.
  8. Favorite bands: Radiohead and Pearl Jam
  9. What do you do when you’re not at work? Watch TV, cook, or work on recording and mixing music
  10. Your favorite random fact? I once attended a two-day, hands on, European-style hog butchery class.

***
We hope that gives you a better understanding of the people charged with digitizing and making available the unique resources of Baylor University’s special collections, libraries, and institutes. If you have any questions for us, leave them in the comments, or send us an email at digitalcollectionsinfo@baylor.edu!

Photos from the fine folks at Baylor University Marketing and Communications – Photography.

“So We Can Throw These Out Now, Right?”: What We Learned From Microfilming Newspapers and How It Shapes Our Digitization Strategy

Pictured: Scanner Fuel, from the stacks at Baylor University.

Recently, I attended a workshop for a topic mostly unrelated to my work in digital collections. At introduction time, I gave a nutshell view of what I do by saying my group digitizes Baylor’s special collections and makes them available online. Despite the whole thing taking about 15 seconds and being intentionally generic, I’ve done this intro enough times by now to know what was going to happen next.

An older gentleman sitting on the front row got what I can only describe as the “ah-ha!” look on his face, and at the first break, he approached me and asked a question I get more often than not when I talk to people about what we do at the Digitization Projects Group.

“I work at a small museum, and we’re being told to digitize our collections. Once we do, we can just throw those old papers out, right? And is a DVD a good storage solution?”

My answer to him was simple, but it probably wasn’t what he expected to hear.

“Do you remember microfilm?” I asked him. “And when was the last time you used it and thought ‘Gosh, I wish I could get my hands on the original just to compare it to what I’m looking at’ only to find it’s been decades since anyone saw a paper copy? That’s why you can’t just throw things out once they’re scanned.”

“Also,” I added, “DVDs are terrible.”

***

Okay, so I wasn’t quite that blunt on the DVD answer, but the effect was the same: a stunned look of disbelief. In some ways, I don’t blame him. There’s a lot of misinformation (and outright falsehoods) out there about digitization, data preservation, and care of digitized materials, and the more channels it has to filter through to reach people at smaller institutions, the more distorted it can get.

If you haven’t done so, I encourage you to check out a book by Nicholson Baker called Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper. Baker’s central premise is that during the microfilming heyday of the 1980s and 1990s, libraries and other institutions put too much faith in the technology of microfilming and weren’t always diligent about properly preserving and storing the newspapers that had been filmed. It is a polemical, biased, uncomfortable book to read, and it is less than popular among librarians. But that was exactly Baker’s point.

Baker wanted to draw attention to the notion that just because a technology had come along that promised better access and a smaller storage footprint didn’t mean professionals could become lax about enforcing good practices of physical archival storage. While much of Baker’s criticism has been ably (and thoroughly) countered by library professionals in the decade since Double Fold’s publication in 2001, it remains a stirring think piece on the dangers of over-reliance on a “silver bullet” solution at the expense of long-term viability.

At the heart of Baker’s issues with microfilm was the prevailing attitude that, once a run of newspapers had been filmed, it was perfectly acceptable for the originals to be tossed, as the filmed versions were thought to be a reasonable substitute that preserved both the look and content of the papers at a fraction of the space required to store them. But what happens if the film is bad and no one noticed until the originals were long gone? Or what if a page was skipped, or an entire volume? Or what if the film falls prey to “vinegarization” – an inherent agent of deterioration wherein the films layers begin to breakdown and disintegrate, producing a distinctive vinegary, “salad dressing” smell – and now cannot be viewed?

If the originals are gone, the answer is clear: there’s nothing you can do.

***

Which brings me back to my fellow workshop attendee’s question: once things are scanned, they’re safe to pitch, right? The problems outlined in Baker’s book could just as easily apply to the process of digitizing archival materials. We believe the technology behind digitization is reliable, replicable, and sustainable, and we’ve learned a great deal about how to approach digitizing materials thanks to the lessons revealed by the great microfilm boom of the last century. As such, we’ve got processes and technologies in place to monitor our digital files, keeping them secure and accessible for decades to come.

But what about the things we can’t predict? What if the next generation of computers is so different from what we’re used to today that the very idea of digital files changes completely? What if a specialized virus destroys every TIFF file in creation? What if the Mayans were right, and civilization as we know it craters at the end of the year, rendering all our painstaking efforts profoundly moot?

The best answer is to do what people have done since 200 BC: go back to the paper versions.

That’s why we counsel our partners to use the process of digitizing materials to serve as a catalyst for rehousing materials in archival storage if they’re not stored that way already. That’s why we urge conservation of fragile materials before they arrive at our center. That’s why we never tell them it’s safe to throw something away just because it’s been scanned, cataloged and placed in a digital collection.

That’s why I told the man from the workshop that the answer to his question is a very simple, “No.”

And the DVD question? Think about this: when was the last time you popped a CD into your car’s stereo that you hadn’t listened to in a while, only to find that your favorite song was skipping like a hyperactive preschooler thanks to a series of almost-imperceptible scratches? It’s happened to all of us, and the same thing can happen to a supposed “100 year, archival” gold DVD.

But for years, digitizers at institutions large and small were told that backing up your files to a DVD and putting it on a shelf was a great example of a reliable backup, to the point where many early digitization outfits didn’t keep any other versions of files around once they were burned to disc. But we found pretty quickly that those discs weren’t reliable enough to be a sole backup source, so now we keep multiple copies on spinning discs, analog tape, and in the cloud both on- and off-site to ensure long term stability of our digital assets.

***

All of this makes good sense, but if professionals at big institutions like the Library of Congress, the National Archives and even Baylor’s own DPG have to keep constant watch on evolving technology trends just to stay up to speed, how can we expect staffers at small to mid-size institutions to keep up?

Ultimately, it comes down to education and using a common sense approach to digitization projects. Education on the part of large institutions like the Library of Congress, the Texas Historical Commission, and, at a local/regional level, our own staff to educate people at small institutions on the basics of digitization and file management. Workshops, webinars, websites and more can be found that contain basic information about how to scan documents, how to manage the data that results, and what to do to keep it safe, and more access to this kind of information can do great good to counteract some of the old misconceptions that are still out there.

And common sense? That’s something Baker’s Double Fold should give us reason to trust in spades. If something is important enough to scan and put online, isn’t it common sense to think that it’s important enough to preserve physically? If an archival collection was kept safely stored for decades in the right environment, does it make sense to throw it out now that it’s been scanned? And if we know that paper-based items can last for centuries when properly stored, doesn’t it make sense to hold onto them as long as we can, just in case?

***

Is digitization an important undertaking for libraries, museums, and archives of all sizes? Undeniably.

Should we take steps to ensure our cultural heritage – digital and physical – is properly stored, displayed, and accessed? Without a doubt.

Does either of those facts mean it’s safe to discard a decade’s worth of 19th century American newspapers once they’ve been scanned, as happened with microfilmed newspapers in the 1990s?

If anyone’s reading this post in 3012, do me a favor: look me up and let me know.

Everyone’s a Curator!

There was a time in the not so distant past when the word “curator” wasn’t heard much outside the polished marble halls of the world’s museums. People imagined curators as bespectacled, retiring types who, armed with a PhD in art history or some obscure subset of archaeology, would arrange items in a back room until they were ready for display in a museum exhibit, often accompanying their selections with densely-worded labels peppered with phrases in Greek or Latin.

Today, anyone with a Pinterest account can claim the title.

So what happened? Simply put: the advent of new technologies democratized the way in which people select, describe and display materials online. There are almost no limits on how people can choose to express their interests in a “curated” way: in a Flickr photostream, by the types of information they display on Facebook, or in the objects they find on Etsy and then display tastefully in their living rooms. In some senses, if you find it, talk about it, and choose it out from a larger set, you could be said to “curate” a collection.

But not everyone is happy with the sudden broadening of the definition of curation. A viral blog post titled “An Open Letter to Everyone Using the Word ‘Curate’ Incorrectly on the Internet” begins with this rather aggrieved introductory paragraph:

Stop it. Just stop. Do you have a business card? Read it. Does it say “Curator” under your name? No? You are not a curator.

The post, written by someone with “curator” on their business card, neatly encapsulates the borderline rage that fills some of the professional museum/library/archive staff members whose job it is to select, preserve and display the items in their care.

The other side of the argument comes from people like Suse Cairns, whose blog “museum geek” offers fun insights into the world of museums from a young Australian’s perspective. She thinks the widespread use of the word “curator” is just fine, thank you very much.

I think that the liberal use of the term curator makes it stronger and more valuable. Some of our sector’s lingo is making its way beyond the walls of our institutions, and getting picked up by the mainstream in a positive way.

Both of these posts are most worthy of your time, and they give good evidence for both sides of the debate.

So What Does This Have to Do With This Blog?

Pictured: Credence to my argument and the essence of digital curation, in a nutshell

As someone who does have the word “curator” on my business card, and as a person whose livelihood is tied up in the idea of curating assets, I’ve been watching this debate closely for some time now. And for me, it comes down to this: if my job serving as Curator of Digital Collections allows someone the opportunity to access, digest, reinterpret or repost something they found because of my efforts, it’s a win for everyone involved.

The Baylor University Libraries Digital Collections are by their very nature a curated set of material, drawn from Baylor’s unique holding institutions. They are digital objects, offered without charge to anyone in the world who wants to study them and use their contents to better their lives (or the lives of others). That may sound like some pretty highfalutin’ sentiments, but I believe it’s at the heart of what we do. We can’t digitize everything in the collections of our special collections libraries, so we start by choosing the materials people most want access to, are the most interesting or are the rarest. Then, we pledge to take care of those digital files forever and ever (amen) as part of our service to the public trust. It’s curation at its finest.

There will be people who rail against the use of the title “curator” outside its historic limits, and there will be just as many people who embrace it on the most tenuous grounds imaginable. But to my mind, if a Pinterest user gains a sense of what “real” curators do by selecting the things that strike their fancy and then telling others about them, it can only serve to make the jobs of museum and library curators more approachable, more meaningful and more relevant.

Now get out there and get to curating. The world is eager to see what you’ve found.