Visiting the Bruce Springsteen Special Collection and Archive

By alchomet

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“He just went right over to that picture of him and Diane and smiled.” Eileen Chapman, Associate Director of the Arts at Monmouth University, explained to me what it was like when Bruce Springsteen himself came to visit the archive of his fan materials at the Bruce Springsteen Special Collection at Monmouth University. “He mostly wanted to just look around, but he didn’t request anything.” Still, she seemed pleased with the memory. “I can’t believe I forgot to ask him to sign the guest book!”  Eileen acts as director of the archive, assisted by Alana, a social work student at Monmouth. Together with another student assistant, they have tackled the work of tracking, arranging, and housing the collection, corresponding with patrons, providing reference, and serving the reading room.

There are no professional archivists on the staff, and none have ever worked there, but the Bruce Springsteen Special Collection is not a typical archive in a lot of ways. Most notably, the collection has nothing to do with Monmouth University’s library system, although it is housed on the Monmouth campus–the collection is not in the library, the librarians do not work on it, and the library system, for now, is not in the process of acquiring it. The archive is a single house located on Monmouth’s campus across the street from the student center, and adjacent to the performing arts building. It still looks a lot like a house–until the Springsteen collection moved in, it had been a living space for Monmouth students.

Eileen explained that the collection had been kept at the Asbury Park Public Library until 2011, when she suggested that the Friends of the Bruce Springsteen Special Collection (the group of fans who support and act as a kind of Board of Directors for the collection) move it to Monmouth University, only a few miles north of Asbury Park. She said that the public library really didn’t have space to house the quickly-growing collection, nor did they especially have the tools to provide access to its wide range of audio-visual formats. Various parts of the collection were being in stored closets and other strange spaces in the library, she explained, and library staff and directors began to disagree with the Friends over the treatment of the collection. Eileen was eventually able to convince Monmouth to take it on, although it took years. She told me that it had been a hard sell to the University to agree to house the collection–the library director did not agree that it would be relevant to the school’s library, and it remains apart from it today. The archive house only gets a few visitors a week–maybe 4 or 5, according to Eileen, and none of the University faculty have incorporated the collection into their coursework.

There are other subtle downsides to the archive’s move: unlike the public library, the house is open from 9 AM to 5 PM on weekdays only, rendering it inaccessible to most with a full time job. Its location–set back from an arterial street of the campus–is not exactly easy to find, even with a GPS. I had in fact taken a cab from a New Jersey transit station in order to get there, but then had to wander a bit before I saw the little unmarked house. Further, moving it even a little way outside Asbury Park makes it a harder stop for Springsteen tourists to make (although all visitors need to make an appointment with Eileen before coming in).

The archive house still retains some of the cozy feeling of a home, although much of the actual living spaces are occupied by steel shelving and Hollinger boxes, housing around 20,000 items of Springsteen fan material. The front living room of the house operates as the collection’s reading room. There is a large circular table for researchers to review material, and a reference desk across from the front door. There is a TV equipped with VHS and DVD players, as well as stereo equipment for playing records, CDs and cassettes. The kitchen has a few PCs, a microfilm reader, a flatbed scanner, a copy machine, and some arranging space on the counters. The rest of the house is the collection: the downstairs bedroom-like space holds newspapers and printed out internet-published articles, while bedroom spaces upstairs house academic papers, A/V materials, fan ‘zines, printed books, posters, t-shirts, and more. Decorating the living/reading room are beautiful, rare photos by Barry Schiener, a rock photographer, of Bruce in the ’70s and ’80s.

I love the idea of the archive house. Springsteen himself writes frequently of houses in his songs–the bedroom as personal space, the threshold, the porch, the yard, all hold immense weight in the universe of his lyrics. Only cars get more airplay in his lyrics than houses. It should go without saying, too, that his work glorifies the lives of working class Americans perhaps better than any other artist’s does–what better space to honor that vision than a simple home? Still, the collection might be even slightly more accessible if there were some signage by the road.

Eileen spends most of her time at the University working at the arts center, so when I visited on a Friday in November, a student assistant, Alana, worked with me. She has been working at the collection for four years, and is now in the middle of getting her Masters degree in social work from Monmouth. She seemed excited that I was studying to be an archivist, but hadn’t decided to go that route herself, although she loves working with the Springsteen collection; for one, Monmouth doesn’t offer a library or archives program.

Unfortunately, the collection barely has an online presence. The archive’s site has inventories of the collection by format, but no functioning OPAC (it remains un-integrated into the University library’s OPAC). Alana uses an excel spreadsheet to manage the archive’s inventory. For now, however, the collection is small enough that with some assistance, it’s not too difficult to assess and retrieve items of interest. When I requested to browse some of the ‘zines, Alana seemed unsurprised, and brought down a few boxes that she knew were popular. I mentioned that I was looking for a ‘zine a friend had made, and she worked with me in the inventory to find it, although there were no author names associated with ‘zine titles. My friend’s ‘zine (probably) wasn’t there–I should mention that almost all of the material in the collection has been donated.

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While there are a myriad of examples I could make of what professional archivists would do differently in the Bruce Springsteen Special Collection, there’s a whole lot that they get right. Would a University library even be the appropriate space to house the fan collections of the man who sings, “We learned more from a three-minute record, baby/than we ever learned in school”? Indeed, professionals are trained to provide better far better access to materials like these, and I am dreaming of the day that the collection gets a detailed online catalog, but absorption into a more sterile academic environment would likely mean losing the comfortable feeling of the archive house. It was a pleasure to talk to Eileen and Alana (Alana and I talked a lot, actually), and our feeling of camradarie was facilitated by the homey environment. It’s harder to just hang out with librarians in a library or archive, not in the least because of . In this sense, I think Alana and Eileen have beaten the burnout blues that plague a lot of University librarians. I felt that I could walk away knowing that the archive was conceived of and run with the rabid love of fans–this seems especially important given Springsteen’s powerful interpretations of alienated work in America.

When it was time to close up, Alana gave me a ride back to the train station (the archive house is located about 2 miles from the Long Branch New Jersey Transit stop on the Shoreline route). I had suggested that I could walk, but she seemed to expect that she would drive me, without us talking about it first. She said she frequently drove visitors to and from the collection. We drove past her old dorms on the way and she pointed them out–brick and square and overlooking the Jersey shore, but we were listening to pop radio in her car, and not The Boss. She assured me that she did indeed love Bruce, but, you know, some of her friends were bigger fans.

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Libraries in the Age of Digital Reproduction

By alchomet

For the past 3 years, I have worked on several digitization projects in two special collections libraries. The two libraries take vastly different approaches to book digitization especially; these differences reflect of course large differences in their projects’ funding, and differences in workplace cultures, but I also believe that they express a difference in the philosophy and purpose of digitization. Beginning with these examples, I’d like to explore them more deeply and apply to them the framework laid out in “W(h)ither Preservation,” an essay by Michele Cloonan.

The first library I worked for wanted books scanned as whole objects–scans were of spreads of pages, blank pages were included, spines were scanned, images were cropped to show a sizable margin around the edge of the book pages. I remember being trained on the book scanner, and my manager expressing her desire for future people who had never seen a book before to be able to understand what they were like from these scans.

The library where I work now scans books with the philosophy of many other libraries, a style best known on Google Books: left and right pages are separated into separate images, spines and blank pages are not scanned, and the scans are cropped close to the text on the page, without showing the edge of the book or much of the page’s margins.

“When is the object part of the information?” asked Michele Cloonan in her essay, “W(h)ither Preservation?” invoking the assumed divide between books content, and the books form. These two libraries different approaches reflect different answers to this question. Neither library displayed digital images with high enough quality for a viewer to deduce the type of paper used, or binding stitch of the book; both also depicted books as flat surfaces (not employing 3D scanning, obviously). What is information to the first library–the structure, wholeness, and look of a book–was not necessarily important enough information to be digitized for the second library.

Still, the choices made by most library staff in book scanning enable books to become text-searchable by Optical Character Recognition (OCR), which reads the printed text on a scanned book and transforms it into searchable text into the copy. OCR cannot currently process handwritten text, nor can it really distinguish between erroneous marks and what is supposed to be text; edges of books, stitching, and other high contrast areas can confuse it, and thus they’re best cropped out when OCR is employed.

At the end of the day, in the case of most digital libraries scanning books, one ends up with an a nice, neat, OCR’d PDF that bears little resemblance to the book that has been scanned, but looks tidy and readable (on the high-quality monitor used for image editing). Information in this case means simply text, textual content, and illustrations. There are almost an infinite number of ways that a PDF is not like a book, and cannot reproduce all of the information a book holds.

Walter Benjamin explores the way that photography and film can “put the copy of the original in situations which would be out of reach for the original itself,” in his essay “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”. This is the intrinsic idea of book digitization, of course. Creating text-searchable documents out of standard books that can be sent and shared in the blink of an eye are features that are totally beyond the capabilities of physical books, and that speed and search power is now  the standard by which information is shared.

“By making many reproductions it substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence. And in permitting the reproduction to meet the beholder and listener in his own particular situation, it reactivates the object reproduced. These two processes lead to a tremendous shattering of tradition which is the obverse of the contemporary crisis in the renewal of mankind.” Benjamin’s observations on the analog photography of artworks is just as relevant to the digital photography of books: scanned books no longer look or act like unique physical books. They can be text searchable, and can potentially exist everywhere at once, but contain little reference to their former form (bound paper).

“Digital documents force us to preserve them on their own terms,” writes Cloonan, and we can perhaps begin to see digital preservation as something other than the sequestering of digital files for an imagined future where the original physical books don’t exist. I wonder then if we can begin to think of scanned books in a digital library as a kind of hybrid information form, transforming the content of analog books into a powerfully sharable and searchable digital form. It is perhaps wisest to operate under the assumption that digital files are just as perishable as physical books, if not more, as Cloonan and others point out. It’s too much to assume that these digital files will continue be usable and accessible by the time most books have perished, and be used as the only source of their implicit and explicit information, as my first manager imagined.


 

Cloonan, M. V. (2001). “W(h)ither preservation?” The Library Quarterly 71(2): 231–242.

Benjamin, W. (2005 [1936]). “The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction,” trans. Andy Blunden. https://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/ philosophy/works/ge/benjamin.htm.

Against the Queer Intervention: some thoughts on Drabinski and Berman

By alchomet

The problems with biases in Library of Congress subject headings have been examined for decades, and stir lively conversation whenever they come up. Emily Drabinski, in her essay “Queering the Catalog: queer theory and the politics of correction,” posits that many of these biases, as well as the hegemonic nature of the catalog itself could be “corrected” with what she calls “queer interventions” to the catalog. This would mean that a patron who discovers a problematic LOC subject heading (Drabinski uses the example of LGBTQ information being headed under “Deviant Sexualities”) would enter into a conversation with a librarian on staff, who would then explain to the patron the created nature of the catalog, while revealing that all knowledge organization systems are of course created by those with power.

Drabinski posits her queer intervention against the Library of Congress subject heading revisions and additions made popular by Sanford Berman. Berman, who began petitioning the LOC in the 1970s for additional and revised subject headings, is the most prominent figure in the “radical cataloging” movement. Drabinski argues that while such revisions are fine, they still work to maintain the hegemonic power structure of the catalog. The queer intervention, instead, would work to reveal and dismantle it. [1]

Several problems arise when we think of Drabinki’s queer intervention in practice. I want to point out two assumptions that I believe she operates under when she calls for librarians to perform queer interventions.  First have to assume that this library has a large enough staff to patron ratio to allow any given librarian to spend a large quantity of time in conversation with one patron, in order to explain the catalog’s history and problems. An over-stressed library staff may make both patrons and librarians uncomfortable broaching the subject of the catalog’s problems, as the queer intervention requires a long conversation, challenging historical assumptions of knowledge organization. It seems likely that at most public libraries, not enough resources and time are allocated to reference librarians so that just a few are expected to handle the needs of many patrons at a time. Both the librarian and patron in question would be unable to devote enough time to the conversation at hand. I think it’s also worth pointing out that public libraries, rather than private research or academic libraries, are the spaces where marginalized people are most likely to come into contact with the catalog; they’re also spaces where librarian resources are scarcest.

We should also ask ourselves about the identity and beliefs of the librarian in question performing the intervention. Of course, in order to perform a queer intervention on behalf of the catalog, the librarian that a marginalized youth approaches must believe in the necessity of the intervention itself–if he or she does indeed believe that LGBT topics should be cataloged under “Deviant Sexualities,” or information about Voodoo practices are rightfully found under the heading “Cults,” then obviously this person will not perform the intervention that Drabinski and other progressive librarians desire. The idea of an unchanged catalog maintained by librarians performing queer interventions requires all librarians in all areas of the country to be of one mind about progressive political issues; this seems wholly impossible to me.

Finally, we should examine the position of power that librarians themselves occupy within the queer intervention. While the catalog certainly represents codified power–and a faceless, non-human power at that, further mystifying it–librarianship, and the place behind the reference desk, is also a place of codified power. Librarians as a group are largely white, and the conventions of the profession necessitate that they at least present as middle-class, if not come from middle-class backgrounds in the first place. [2]

When performing the queer intervention, the librarian is already speaking across a gulf of power to a likely marginalized patron; in this relationship, a conversation about the catalog’s history and biases might ring at least slightly hallow, as the information is still largely one-sided and coming from a position of power. The act of the queer intervention also assumes that the patron has not contemplated the not-so-obscure idea that knowledge systems are in fact created by those with power; coming out of the mouth of a person with power, this is likely to sound condescending. [3]

I would like to posit that subject heading revisions made by Sanford Berman and others are a different type of queer intervention in a problematic catalog. While these revisions are perhaps not “queer” in the sense that they call into question or dismantle power structures, petitions to change LOC subject headings do indeed reveal the constructed nature of the catalog, especially if publicized. If it became clear to the public that subject headings exist, but are changeable by petition, then their “word-of-god” appearance would be reveled to be only human construction.  The library catalog exists to at least begin to help the patron in their research; I would like to think that interface with a progressive catalog during a powerful research process would be empowering to many.

Still, it takes a great deal of effort and time to change Library of Congress subject headings. As Berman himself pointed out, it wasn’t until 2006 that the heading “Vietnam Conflict” was changed to “Vietnam War;” he concluded that the change in such a useful heading lagging so far behind the reality of the war “should be a cause for embarrassment.” [4] The great deal of time that it takes to change these headings–sometimes decades–is likely to be extremely off-putting to a library patron who is used to public knowledge changing at the speed of Wikipedia.

Of course a conversation like the queer interventions that Drabinski advocates should always be welcome. I don’t feel comfortable advocating for them as the exclusive way to address a non-progressive catalog, as she does, however, as they rely on many factors outside of the progressive librarian’s control, and only enforce the power imbalance between patron and librarian. A catalog that is constantly under revision, in conjunction with open and honest dialogue with library patrons when possible, are the two complementary, rather than adversarial, ways of addressing the problem of bias in controlled vocabularies.


[1] Drabinski, Emily. “Queering the Catalog: queer theory and the politics of correction.” The Library Quarterly. Volume 83. Number 2 (April 2013): 94-111. Web Access.

[2] LIS 651-1 class discussion 9/17/15

[3] Galvan, Andrea. “Soliciting Performance, Hiding Bias: Whiteness and Librarianship.” In the Library with the Lead Pipe, 6/3/2015. Accessed on the web 9/29/15 <http://www.inthelibrarywiththeleadpipe.org/2015/soliciting-performance-hiding-bias-whiteness-and-librarianship/>

[4] Berman, Sanford. “Introduction: Cataloging Reform, LC, and Me.” Radical Cataloging: Essays that the Front. Edited by K.R. Roberto. North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc, 2008. Accessed on the web 9/29/15 <https://books.google.com/books?id=xoX2BgAAQBAJ&pg=PA99&lpg=PA99&dq=queer+cataloging&source=bl&ots=36vb1XNFgs&sig=gzTBNkhGJ7UWAsN6w2heZPwa8aY&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0CCwQ6AEwAmoVChMIkMy3ufOeyAIVCzo-Ch35FgaK#v=onepage&q=queer%20cataloging&f=false>

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