In Observation of the Archive: A Specific Place with Specific Needs

By musing_lis

It all starts at the Georgia Institute of Technology Archive. I was fortunate enough to get an observation with Jody Lloyd Thompson, Dept. Head of Archives and Records Management at the Georgia Tech Library. The Archive department consists of 4 ladies, 2 of which are certified Archivists and the other 2 have an MLIS.

During the first hour of my observation, Jody Lloyd Thompson took me on a tour of the Archive and the Special Collections of Rare Books. As we walked down the compact shelves, I learned that the archive is organized by format – paper (manuscripts and photographs), film, and architectural drawings. With the school’s enormous focus on Architecture, it comes as no surprise that the library acquires 200-400 linear feet of architectural collections yearly. The librarians brought this to my attention, due to the fact that all of the architectural materials require flat and horizontal storage cabinets. During the tour I was made aware of the elaborate climate control system that in the event of fire, locks the doors and eliminates oxygen from the room.

When it came time to explore the Rare Book Collection, we put on archive gloves and went straight for Georgia Tech’s most prized book. The university’s rare book collection began in the 1950’s with the acquisition of Sir Isaac Newton’s Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematicaenglish title: Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy – published in 1687. The library owns a copy of each of the first three editions of the Principia Mathematica (1687, 1713, and 1726), all published during Newton’s lifetime. I was privileged to hold such an influential first edition rare book, and paid special attention to the publishers note by Edmund Halley (scientist / astronomer who discovered Halley’s Comet). I had the oportunity to handle all of Newton’s works featured in the university’s rare book archive. In addition to Principia, we thumbed through the first edition of Opticks: A Treatise of the Reflexions, Refractions, Inflexions, and Colours of Light (London, 1704), and A Treatise of Arithmetical Composition and Resolution (London, 1720). It makes sense that a university such as the Georgia Institute of Technology would be interested in the history of science and technology. As told from the archivist, the Institution has a “special strength in Newtoniana”. We briefly viewed other Newtoniana include works by such contemporaries of Newton as John Keill, Henry Pemberton, and Colin MacLaurin. Additionally we viewed the archives other treasures such as the nine-volume Dutch language edition of Joan Blaeu’s Grooten Atlas (or Grand Atlas), published in the 1660s.

During my three hour observation, the department head invited me into the Archive weekly meeting. The meeting agenda:

  1. Introductions
  2. Student Assistants
  3. Spring Semester Classes
  4. Annual Reviews
  5. GT Design Archives
  6. ArchivesSpace
  7. Interview Questions for Users (BrightSpot)
  8. LSC/Renewal (Library Service Center)
  9. Weekly Reports

I was introduced to the three other ladies working in the Archive: Christine De Cantanzaro (MLIS, Certified Archivist, PhD Music History), Mandi Johnson (Visual Materials Archivist, M.A. Public History), Wendy Hagenmaier (Digital Archives Specialist, MLIS). The renovation, expected finish in 2016, poses mostly issues in Preservation. The archivists are concerned with storage short-term and temporary, especially with their high valued Rare Books

and providing proper climate control. The proposed temporary storage at the Georgia (Atlanta) Archive brings additional problems to the university. It was proposed that they store the most valuable collections with the city of Atlanta, making them only available by appointment (off-campus), bringing transportation issues with insurance riders on automobiles. Throughout the weekly reports, ongoing projects were discussed with major “highlights” and updates. Currently, the Archivists are working in the Voyageur System to update barcodes on their Science Fiction collection. Georgia Tech has an extensive collection of Science Fiction, from valuable first editions to almost rare “unknowns”. The collection includes 10,000 science fiction and fantasy novels, over 1,000 periodical issues, all dates ranging from the 1950s up to the 1990s. I was told that the collection was started by a Georgia Tech professor and later donated to the university Archive.

Overall, my observation was an enormous learning experience and am grateful to have been invited to observe the Archivists in such a highly regarded institution. The Archive at Georgia Tech has come a long way since the department was reorganized in the early 2000s. I heard many stories the librarians shared with me. Before the re-org, the dean of the university Library “banished” anyone in the library she didn’t favor to the library. For decades, the Archive was operated by Librarians who were “punished” and unqualified. Unfortunately, many documents were lost because of the messy system. When Christine De Cantanzaro arrived over ten years ago, her and Jody Lloyd Thompson, created a plan that shut down the Archive for more than two months to organize the mess. Now, they have outgrown their basement Archive and will be moving into a bigger and better space – big happy news for the Archivists. At the end of the meeting, Christine De Cantanzaro said this;

The Archive is simply just a specific place with specific needs.



EDA: Connecting to a Past we Never Fully Knew

By musing_lis



Almost everyone is familiar with the poet Emily Dickinson in some way. Dickinson is remembered to be a private poet and is well known for her short poems with themes of isolation. In her lifetime, only a dozen out of roughly eight-hundred of her poems were published. Since she led a life so private, most of her friendships are evident through correspondence.

Today launches the Emily Dickinson Archive, a large scale open-access digital archive containing all of the poets surviving manuscripts. This project was two years in the making, led by Harvard University Press in collaboration with Houghton Library, Amherst College, and the Boston Public Library. “It collects many surviving manuscripts of the slight, shy poet who once called herself — with considerable irony — “the Belle of Amherst.”(The Harvard Gazette).

So what might this 19th-century poet make of the decidedly immodest archive of her poems being released today, bringing to light in one digital place most of her surviving manuscripts?

The compilation of these digital documents sparked great controversy from a feud that has continued for generations. The collaboration between institutes sparked debates over ownership. It has been stated that the site is intended to “facilitate scholarship” and not “make the scholarship”. The two year project required overcoming jealousies in effort to create a “neutral online space for gathering manuscripts”. Some members of the scholarly community disagreed with such claims, stating “archives are not neutral spaces and the presentation of documents is to some degree interpretive”.

Such disagreements connect to the earlier reading of Questioning Library Neutrality, in which the social and political roles of libraries are discussed – the question of how the archive might impact public perception and support. The scholars disagreeing with the claim that EDA is a “neutral online space for gathering manuscripts” likely find contradiction in the assertion that there’s an absence of decided views, expression, or strong feeling.

With the evident controversies surrounding the institutions collaboration with such jealousies over ownership their is evidence that perhaps the debate is concerning the trading of cultural capital and in that “who controls the information, controls power over that society”. That society being the community of scholars interested in the knowledge organized on EDA. Controversies surrounding the archive exceed the topic of information literacy.

The conflicts surrounding the archive’s manuscripts, many of which some scholars consider nonessential, derives from the overarching goal to bring all of Dickinson’s work to light. The institutions collection of works strived to skip on of the age old archival practices; “Archival work is about making fine discriminations to identify what is significant from a mass of data”. Instead, EDA makes available any and all of the poets work, perhaps in effort for scholars to better understand the very private poet and her life of solitude. In that approach, it must have been conceivably easier for the process of archiving these works, documents, and manuscripts. It has been observed in the past, a universal philosophic problem  in the “underpinnings of both library and archival collection and cataloging practices”. In many cases, the difficulties in archiving are rooted in the process of determining how and what to acquire, preserve, and catalog. It is possible that the EDA project portrays a newer approach to scholarly archives. In considering Marlene Manoff’s journal, Theories of the Archive from Across the Disciplines, and the section on Implications for Future Research, perhaps EDA falls under this archival discourse about the changes in knowledge-making practices. One argument from Manoff’s journal is that “open archives are a cornerstone of a free and informed society”.

“What if those manuscripts were the very ones Dickinson hesitated to publish in her own lifetime, or — in bursts of cheerful immodesty — delivered to friends with fresh gingerbread or a bouquet of flowers? What if that archive revealed, in every variant, all of her known poems? And what if it showed the world how her handwriting began to slope and sprawl as she got older, and that she sometimes wrote poems on old bills, paper bags, or the backs of envelopes?”

While we will never have those questions answered from the renowned poet herself, one can hope she might appreciate the role she has played in the modernization of archives.  Emily Dickinson was a reclusive person and a poet that found inspiration from the confines of her home. Things have changed for Dickinson, while she was once isolated from the outside, her work’s now available to the world. The article released by the Harvard Gazette explains, “It’s that enduring drive to know Dickinson better that the EDA is trying to capture.”  In Manoff’s journal“despite their limitations, we cling to archival materials in the hope of somehow connecting to a past we can never fully know” (p. 17).




Dickinson, Emily. Final harvest: Emily Dickinson’s poems. Boston: Little, Brown, 1961.

Manoff, Marlene. “Theories Of The Archive From Across The Disciplines.”portal: Libraries and the Academy 4, no. 1 (2004): 9-25.



Contemporary Libraries as a Third Place

By musing_lis

Traditionally, libraries have played a role in promoting literacy and knowledge appreciation. More and more, libraries are filling another critical need in our society, by furnishing a sort of refuge for patrons in search of a “communal connection in an ever-more isolated world”. Libraries are widely accepted as community centers and have increasingly conformed to what Ray Oldenburg (urban sociologist) called the Third Place.

A third place can be defined as a community center, separate from the home and workplace, that are “anchors of community life and facilitate broader more creative interaction”. Third places may accommodate the regular, voluntary, &/or informal gatherings of individuals beyond home and work life. Conceptually, these spaces are meant to boost social equality by means of “leveling the status of guests, provide a setting for grassroots politics, create habits of public association, and offer psychological support to individuals and communities”.

As Alison M. Lewis stated in Questioning Library Neutrality, libraries have been one of the places where citizens can be exposed to a variety of viewpoints, including unpopular or minority views, which, in our democratic society, has been held up as a public good. In the article The Professional is Political: Redefining the Social Role of Public Libraries (Questioning Library Neutrality), Durrani and Smallwood stress how important it is for librarians to understand working people’s lives and struggles, be one of them, and then seek ways of creating a relevant library service. Creating a people-oriented library service comes with the challenge to develop a service that is open to all, irrespective of class, race, gender, ability, age, sexual orientation, political beliefs, etc.

The New Republic published an article in March of 2013, titled The Revolution at Your Community Library: New Media, New Community Centers. The article describes several points making contemporary libraries the new community center. It is in these libraries that offer something not found elsewhere in the urban landscape; “heavily used, not-for-profit communal spaces that facilitate many and various kinds of informal social interactions and private uses”. As a third place community center, the library adapts to meet the needs of society and evolves to serve the public:

“The unemployed, under-employed, and self-employed frequent them. Immigrants attend English-as-a-second-language classes there. Homeless people park there. Caretakers and the young charges read, or just escape social isolation without paying for that right at the local mall. Working parents use them as free, safe depositories for untended offspring. Retirees get to the classics they have long deferred, work on their long-dreamed-of-memoirs, dig into their family genealogies. Bootstrap community organizations stage art shows, concerts, performances or lectures.”

To Cossette, the library is a human endeavor. The contemporary library is a center of liberalism, but its function is not to preach it but be liberalism in operation (Humanism in Libraries). In the last pages of Cossette’s dissertation, libraries are defined as being a social institution that exists under the pressures of society as a whole and have the potential to be a “powerful lever for social transformation”. Cossette may have been picturing the ideal library similar to the one imagines in the New Republic article, and certainly within the definition of Oldenburg’s Third Place.

The idealized contemporary library as a community center are abundant on the web, from news sources, blog entries, to scholarly articles. A New York Times article, Libraries Could be Our Shelters From the Storm, imagines urban libraries that can literally serve the public as a community center and provide shelter during potentially threatening disasters. The article points to people’s need for familiarity in times of stress/need, and the public library is exactly that: places that serve us well every day serve us best when disaster strikes. It was during last years Hurricane Sandy, that the potential for libraries as community centers were realized by more than regular patrons. New York Public Libraries became safe haven during the super storm, much more than churches, schools, and malls, thus proving the communities trust in the public library.

Perhaps it is the open-to-all policy, or the institutions neutral characteristics that make the library ideal community centers. Libraries will continue to serve the public, in determining the needs of the community through education, preservation, and information, whether it’s rain or shine. As author Zadie Smith once said, “libraries are the only thing left on the high street that doesn’t want your soul or your wallet”.


Text Sources:

Cossette, A. (2009). Humanism and libraries: an essay on the philosophy of librarianship. Duluth, Minn: Library Juice Press.

Lewis, A. M. (2008). Questioning library neutrality essays from Progressive librarian. Duluth, Minn.: Library Juice Press.

Oldenburg, R. (1989). The great good place: cafés, coffee shops, community centers, beauty parlors, general stores, bars, hangouts, and how they get you through the day. New York: Paragon House.


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