When the word “alien” is used to classify an individual, it is inaccurate, silly, and downright disrespectful. On one hand, it brings to mind science fiction fodder from the 1950—bulbous heads with tubular arms bearing “We come in peace” banners. It’s disrespectful, obviously, because it reduces a human being, no better than you or I, to this cheap, cartoon visual.
The history of the term begins unexpectedly. This now-offensive term was once used to supplant a much more offensive one.
In the 70s, “a group of Chicano UCLA students […] suggest[ed] the [LA Times] use the term illegal alien. They were responding to an editorial in the publication whose title referred to people who’d crossed illegally from Mexico as wetbacks.” So for a period, the term was a politically correct answer to what now seems like an archaic and particularly nasty slur (that reputable newspapers would publish without a thought)
So in the 80’s, when politicians like Ronald Reagan were using the term, it didn’t strike people as offensive as it does now. According to NPR, it wasn’t until the 90’s that the phrase started becoming associated with bigotry. Despite this current understanding that the term is outdated, it is prominently linked to political, right-wing rhetoric.
Politicians like Ted Cruz and Donald Trump coupling the words “illegal alien” with the word “criminal,” (NPR) as an antecedent or vice-versa. They are essentially labeling a voiceless people in a way that the people themselves don’t determine.
The current political climate in which the term “illegal alien” has an insidious relevancy is interesting when compared to the Peet article. It describes the avenues and roadblocks a Dartmouth student navigated in her quest to remove “illegal alien” as a subject heading with the Library of Congress. While researching, the student noticed that many inflammatory readings about non-citizens were found under the heading “illegal alien.”
The student took her concerns with the heading to a rights group for the undocumented students at Dartmouth. From there, the bipartisan group took the student’s concerns to librarians at Dartmouth. The librarians advised that the group would have to take it up with the Library of Congress directly. What follows was a description that, frankly, painted the Library of Congress as an impenetrable and hierarchical force at best. On the more extreme side, an absolute, perhaps harsher interpretation might cast LC as sometimes-protector of the hegemony.
After six grueling months of waiting, the Library of Congress finally got back to Dartmouth students, denying the change. The LC memo stated that the terms “illegal alien” and “undocumented immigrant” were not interchangeable. In their eyes, the connotation for each phrase was different.
Then, after what seems like relatively small pressure from ALA and civil rights groups, the Library of Congress relented. They changed the heading to “non-citizen”…for three months, at least. After that short span, Republicans (specifically) tried to stop this.
One Republican senator from Tennessee (neighbor to my own home state, Alabama) even went so far as to say the name-change would cost taxpayers frivolously, and therefore would not have been worth pursuing. As if using more thoughtful words wouldn’t lead to a more uniform, thoughtful community benefiting everyone…
The bill was ultimately passed, then denied, and is now currently up in limbo. The end of the Library Journal article is optimistic. It highlights the enterprising Dartmouth student, a former undocumented individual who is now a modern incarnation of civil rights hero. The article champions individuals like her, and as readers we are implicitly encouraged to follow suit.
Despite the bill not passing by the time of the article’s publication, the work done by the students was still necessary. The publicity generated by their efforts makes “illegal alien” seem even more antediluvian and backwards, further discourages thoughtful people (most of us, in my opinion) from using it. Any publicity, if it encourages less usage of this word, will paint researchers who use this tag as insensitive, pressuring everyone to use it less in every capacity, unless trying to incite (like insensitive, topical politicians of the day). In short, I don’t think anyone who matters is going to be using this term.
Both words in the label “illegal alien” are propaganda. “Illegal” implies criminal activity even when none occured. “Alien” is a particularly cartoonish way of saying an object doesn’t belong. It is not just propaganda, but it is immoral propaganda.
This reminded me of the struggles for more apt representation (or representation at all) in the Library of Congress subject headings outlined in the Drabinski readings. “Lesbian” finally got validation from LC as a subject heading in 1976. The dynamics of power, of literally waiting for the hegemony to realize that a disrespect is taking place, and then waiting on them to care enough to change it, is relevant in the Dartmouth case as well. When a dominant class is put in charge of defining a less-influential other, they are only going to approach this task with the limited understanding they bring to the table.
The Drabinski article was about how people are limited by their biases, whether they realize it or not. Even when the defenders of these inaccurate subject headings are in the wrong, they often don’t seem to realize or spend too much time defending instead of just realizing the new for something new and more respectful. If harmful language can exist in libraries, those hallowed places idealized by Madison and Jefferson, then what hope is there for the drastically more-chaotic spaces outside of it?
Above all else, we just have to ask people and understand what they feel comfortable being called. Why is that so hard?
Drabinski, E. (2013). Queering the Catalog: Queer Theory and the Politics of Correction. The Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy, 83(2), 94-111. Retrieved February 20, 2017, from https://lms.pratt.edu/
Greene, D. (2015, August 19). The Evolution Of The Immigration Term: Alien. Retrieved February 20, 2017, from http://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/
Peet, L. (2016). LC Drops “Illegal Alien” Subject Heading. Library Journal, 141(11), 12-13.
Last month, I had the pleasure of attending the first day of the Avant Museology Symposium at the Brooklyn Museum. It was an experience my wife and I went into with little foreknowledge of the contents. We knew that the general subject matter would relate to the future of curation and exhibition design. I knew that the most inscrutable (least scrutable?) Art History department lecturer from my undergrad alma mater would be in attendance, and I knew there would be some famous curators there. All fuzzy notions. The event happened to fall three days after the United States unexpectedly elected Donald Trump as its next President, and the firmly liberal or left wing audience and speakers at the symposium had not recovered from the initial shock of that upset. In his opening remarks, artist and founder of e-flux (the organization responsible for the symposium) Anton Vidokle quipped that his friends were “depressed and catatonic.” There was indeed a feeling of catatonia or paralysis in the air.
A lecture by critic Boris Groys provided a retreat into the high-minded world of modern art theory, considering the question of whether museums provide art with too much protection or too little, calling up in the process the ghosts of Kasimir Malevich, Martin Heidegger, Immanuel Kant, and perhaps most of all Walter Benjamin.
Then the Americans took the stage. Or rather, two Americans and one Briton, though the effect of sudden westernization after two thoroughly Russian speakers was jarring. Brooklyn Museum Director Anne Pasternak and Chief Curator Nancy Spector sat on either side of artist Liam Gillick and discussed the (by their admission) confounding results of a 2008 group show at the Guggenheim Museum curated by Spector and featuring Gillick. The show, titled theanyspacewhatever, was a bold decision on Spector’s part to give over the space of the Guggenheim entirely to a group of ten critically acclaimed contemporary artists, with the idea that they collectively would transform the space in ways that challenge the dictates of the institution. Flipping through a slideshow of installation pieces, Gillick and Spector conceded that the exhibition lapsed into a collection of individual works rather than the grand collaborative statement originally intended. There was a wistful, unmoored feeling in the air as these three very established art world figures discussed further curatorial adventures, all the while projecting the feeling that they wanted to burst the bubble of their status and do something. The preview for the panel in the symposium program does indeed use the words “outreach” and “progressive,” but the three speakers, clad all in black and seated onstage on chic modern chairs, appeared comically distant from the America that had a few days earlier so startled and dismayed them. Between them and me lay three rows of mostly unclaimed reserved chairs. The audience, of course, appeared uniformly academic and/or artistic, skewed heavily toward age groups under 30 and over 50. The conversation lurched closer to the present political situation when the panelists called for questions from the audience. I almost spoke up, but held my tongue, cowed by the presence of my inscrutable old Modern Art professor and the knowledge of my own plainspokenness amidst all this abstraction.
The alien atmosphere reasserted itself with the ascent of famed Swiss curator Hans-Ulrich Obrist to the podium. Rail thin, the smartest dressed of all, he delivered his prewritten lecture at high speed with head bowed and a thick, not-quite-German accent.
I left the symposium stimulated and happy, but with the firm conviction that the star curators and critics I’d seen on stage could not be further removed from the benighted America they wished to reach out to. They might indeed be actively repellant. It made me sad to realize this, that for all their intellect this critical upper crust could not reach into the center, that they must in fact recuse themselves.
I thought of the election, the moral failure of the liberal elite, the wealthy centrists to blame, and the wealthy people I encounter every day at my fancy restaurant job. Then I realized a directive for the intellectual, artistic class.
My restaurant is owned by a charismatic, creative semi-celebrity chef, married to an artist and friends with the likes of Laurie Anderson and Paloma Picasso. Yesterday, Camille Pissarro’s great-grandson tipped me $10 for fetching his coat. The balance of the customer base, those who aren’t members of the creative elite, is made up of financiers, dentists, and attorneys. They don’t perform academic or creative work, but they are all too glad to express their appreciation of creative and unusual cooking. If they can claim a friendship with the aforementioned chef, even better. My realization is that these people, the plutocrats who so disproportionately dictate society’s course, rely upon the creative elite for validation. They desperately need the friendship, approval, or at least output of the creatively blessed to give their lives texture and meaning. They need to know that when they left this or that Ivy to pursue a JD or MBA, they did not somehow lose out to their friends and classmates who got MFAs instead. They must beat back the encroaching darkness of intellectual oblivion and moral bankruptcy. My recommendation to their more enlightened validators, then, is simply to wield that influence. Withhold validation. Nudge your moneyed acquaintances left, or let them suffer.
On the way home from the symposium, I found my confidence growing, wishing I had spoken up earlier. I decided to take my notes home and send an encouraging, clarifying email to Spector, Pasternak, and Gillick. Then I found that none of their email addresses are publicly available. The end.
On Friday, December 9th, I joined associate archivist, Julie Sager, and observed her work at the New York Federal Reserve’s. I spent a few hours in the afternoon with Miss Sager, observing the work she does and discussing current issues in archiving. The day was as exciting, as it was interesting. Simply entering the building was awe-inspiring as you can’t help but imagine you’re walking into a castle. A tower adorns one corner of the stone structure and huge arched ceilings mark an era of grandeur in New York construction.
First we stopped up in the library, a bustling room of cubicles and chatty voices. Miss Sager described the work she does on most days, starting with email and research in the mornings. Some afternoons consist of status meetings or a recent committee to re-establish the access and retention policies for records stored on-site. However, most afternoons are spent researching in the archives for queries and FOIA requests.
Most information requested through FOIA is already available through public record but many people think a FOIA request is required. When information is sealed, a FOIA request does not guarantee access. Access is determined by the law department. Other times, the requester want to see the steps taken during research by the archivist, as required by FOIA requests. Miss Sager helped to develop the reporting system used to track the workflow of research using a program called sharepoint. The library and archivist team is able to track all research because the program allows for reproducible searches and reduces research time for similar or multiple inquiries on the same info.
Next, we walked through the archives and records rooms as she discussed a recent problem. We pulled a few boxes in archives to search through later. The archives and records are stored in old cash and coin vaults. They are sealed behind huge metal doors with complex locking mechanisms (picture gringotts in Harry Potter.) Recently, Miss Sager has been following the trail of some missing records. Lending to banks was typically recorded in the meeting minutes by members of the federal reserve; however, during WWI lending practices reported through a different method. Miss Sager was able to determine why the records are missing from archived meeting minutes but has not been able to find the missing information. Interestly, Miss Sager is now responding to the 3rd of 4th request from different parties in the last year for the same missing info.
Records are created by outside parties, such as banks and businesses, and are stored on-site for a predetermined amount of time. Miss Sager has recently been involved in the research and decision to change the time a record is kept in storage at the federal reserve. Based on information she has found at other institutions, she suggests they keep records for 20 years before removing or archiving them. When a record is removed, it is either returned to the creator or destroyed. I asked how Miss Sager feels her career may be affected by the move toward digitization in archives and libraries. She says that her career will be secure for at least the 10-20 years left in current records. She and her boss also plan to find classes based on archiving born-digital documents. She says, “There aren’t as many solutions to born-digital [records] yet… I have records now that are printed emails because they didn’t know how to save them at the time.”
The idea of printing emails to save them is laughable but during a time when servers couldn’t host, save, or archive important emails, printing was the best solution. Digital preservation comes with the challenge of fragility. Born-digital objects do not fade in sections or lose only portions of information as a book or printed object would. Rather, they become unusable with time due to file corruption and most often because hardware has upgraded. (1) Most often in preserving born-digital materials, we rely on printed emails, screenshots, and other second hand methods of retention. The original will never be captured fully, although snapshots may convey the intention. This method of preservation may be the only solutions we have currently but in the overwhelming amount of information created in today’s digital age, new options will need to be explored.
(1) Rosenzweig, R. (2003, June). Scarcity or Abundance? Preserving the Past in a Digital Era. The American Historical Review, 108(3), 735-762.
“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.
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.
Since the development of various technologies and progression of the digital age, the electoral process has dramatically changed since 1789 when George Washington was elected. The presidential candidates for the 2016 election are fighting a battle that hasn’t been fought before.
The Past – 1789 to 2000s.
In early America, presidents such as George Washington and James Monroe traveled by horseback or carriage to address crowds in person and published statements in “broadsheets” and early newspapers. Lincoln had the relative advantage of traveling by locomotive or using the telegraph. Telephones appeared in the White House in 1877 while Rutherford B. Hayes was president. Like Harding, President William Taft used the phonograph to distribute recordings of his speeches. However, the most rapid advancement in communication for presidents occurred in the 20th century. 1
Those advancements are found in the introduction of radio, television, and later, the internet. Each technology had the power to change, for better or for worse, a candidate’s campaigns and influence on voters.
One of the most notable, influential presidential campaigns that took advantage of the media occurred in 1960, when Kennedy was running against Nixon. They participated in first ever televised Presidential debates known as “The Great Debates.” The debates were simultaneously broadcasted over the radio. Those listening to the radio declared Nixon the winner of the debate, and those watching the televised broadcast decidedly chose Kennedy as the winner. Why was there such a stark difference of opinion? On the radio, listeners judge the debates through speech and tone. With the introduction of television, there came all kinds of new ways to judge candidates: not just by what was said, but body language, eye contact, charisma, and of course, appearance. When it came to the newly developed judging criteria, Kennedy floored his opponent. Kennedy looked directly into the camera, whereas Nixon shifted his gaze to the side. Kennedy was tanned, and wore make-up; Nixon looked pale and sickly after just recovering from the flu. 2
Polls revealed that more than half of all voters had been influenced by “The Great Debates,” while 6% claimed that the debates alone had decided their choice. Whether or not the debates cost Nixon the presidency, they were a major turning point in the 1960 race—and in the history of media in campaigns. 3
The slightly more recent past.
Social Media. Need I say more? Okay, I guess I do.
Barack Obama, coined the “President of Social Media”, garnered five million supporters on fifteen social networking sites for the 2008 election, with most of the “follower” count being on Facebook and Twitter. Prior to this election, neither of these platforms were used in campaigns. During his 2008 campaign, Obama launched an “Ask Me Anything” thread on popular site, Reddit, which became one of the most popular threads of all time. Obama and his team strategized to use these social media platforms to reach out to the young and minority voters. Upon his victory in the 2008 election, Barack sent a tweet “We just made history. All of this happened because you gave you time, talent and passion. All of this happened because of you. Thanks” – which was retweeted only 157 times. His later 2012 victory tweet (“Four more years.”) became the most shared post in the site’s history, with over 400,000 retweets within a few hours of his posting. 5
This dramatic increase shows the incredible growth of not only users on twitter, but their online interactions in politics. Obama was the first candidate to embrace and effectively utilize social media in his campaign, and throughout his presidency. His strategy was so effective because “the medium wasn’t the message, so to speak; it was the vehicle. It connected with people, with real enthusiasm, in real time, and gave them an easy and accessible way to show their support for change.” 6 Currently Obama has twenty aides that update his social media accounts.
The current campaigns for the 2016 Presidential Election featured the first “official” integration of social media of its kind – with Twitter. Sure, hashtags have been used widely for years – and Obama certainly capitalized on the use of Twitter during his campaign and throughout his presidency. However, this is the first election that Twitter officially partnered with the GOP and Democratic Debates.
This partnership featured live coverage of the events on Twitter. Users simply had to click on the #GOPdebate or #DemDebate links and they would be brought to a live twitter feed of coverage. The feed showed popular tweets using the hashtags, a “top stories” with photos and videos, and a sidebar for related articles to topics being discussed on the debates, provided by organizations such as USA Today, New York Times, and Fox News. (It is worth noting briefly that the organizations that were live tweeting were largely either reiterating the candidates’ claims, or in some cases, to support their own agenda, so to speak. @PlannedParenthood was especially active during the debates, either condemning the views of Republicans or praising those of Democrats. Clearly, the material being promoted on twitter was not bias-free.)
The Democratic Debate on Nov 14th, 2015 aired on the CBS network. Twitter and CBS linked together, and users had the unique opportunity to tweet to CBS using the #DemDebate hashtag. Tweets were pulled from the thousands sent, and some were read to the candidates to respond to – not unlike how reality shows in the same vein as America’s Got Talent and The Voice display live tweets. Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton made a statement early in the debate, and a twitter user tweeted asking her to clarify her response. Hillary addressed the question and cleared up any miscommunication (well, so she hopes).
All of the candidates were tweeting during the debates. Rather, someone on their team was tweeting from their accounts. This gave candidates an extra platform to clarify or expand upon their responses in the debate. Hillary Clinton’s twitter account even tweeted at the start of the debate, “If you’re not watching the #demdebate, we can email you the highlights!” along with a link to sign up for her mailing list. Clever, Hillary. Clever.
Okay, but does social media really make a difference?
Facebook claims to have increased voter turnout by 340,000 votes. And a third of those aged 18-24 indicated that reading something on social media would influence their vote more than televised debates. In the same age group of those online, 41% of users participated in political activity online. 7
In today’s world, not having a digital presence would be more detrimental than having one. Candidates that don’t use social media might come off as if they had something to hide. Erin Lindsay, a principal for digital at Precision Strategies, says social media “forces candidates to show more personality. Authenticity is a big thing in social media. I think the candidates that are the most successful are the ones that are clearly the most comfortable.” 8 Voters want someone genuine, and social media gives a way for the candidates to prove their authenticity.
The political advertisement spending is expected to reach 11.4 billion dollars for the upcoming election. Spending on social media is estimated to account for over half of the one million dollar budget for social media – a 5,000% increase from the 2008 election. 9 With a budget this large, you can definitely expect a flurry of activity from the candidates on the networking platforms.
Facebook and Twitter have been the major sources of social media campaigning. However, this election is the first one in which we can see Instagram becoming an up-and-coming player. In November 2015, Instagram boasted having 400 million monthly users, as opposed to Twitter’s 316 million. 10 The campaigning territory on Instagram is starting to be utilized, but still is not as popular as Facebook and Twitter when it comes to political activity. Imagine the mental anguish that would go into choosing the best photo filter…
From riding on horseback to constructing a (hopefully) carefully thought out tweet, candidates have embraced technology as a part of their campaign.
The Rodgers and Hammerstein Archives of Recorded Sound at the New York Public Library of Performing Arts is the second largest archive of recorded sound in the United States. It is home to a wide range of recordings including but not limited to music in just about every genre, recordings of theater, opera and comedic performances, oral histories, speeches, radio broadcasts and field recordings. The archive holds recordings on every kind of format from wax cylinders to shellac discs, magnetic tape, cassettes and digital audio files.
The collection can be accessed by visiting the third floor of the Library of Performing Arts and making a listening request at the audiovisual desk. Patrons must look up the title, author and class mark, write it down and present a request slip to the library assistant. Everything is classed according to its format for efficient shelving, not according to genre, record label or subject. It is easiest to find a recording if one knows the specific track or artist she is looking for. The online catalog is not designed for browsing like one might do in a record store. Visitors can search via a massive card catalog or the song index that is also housed in card catalogs. The card catalogs, though rarely in visible use, still provide something a little more like a browsing experience for those wishing to stumble upon something unexpected. In addition to the catalogs, one can also peruse finding aides for different collections within the collection. However the finding aides are varied, and some have very little information listed about what a particular title actually contains. Some of the finding aides have handwritten notes or corrections from previous researchers. The sheer volume of material is astounding and somewhat overwhelming. It is truly an amazing and treasure trove of a collection.
After making the listening request, a listener is given a set of headphones and is assigned a seat at a numbered listening station. The listening stations are equipped with computers that have a special software program installed on them. A patron must wait while the requested audio is collected from the vast archive that is located in the basement of the building.
A little known fact is that library staff known as the playback team are waiting in the basement to retrieve and play back audio for patrons. They find the requested material and in the case of vinyl or shellac discs or audio reels, they also operate the playback equipment. The playback equipment in the basement is connected to the computers on the third floor so that listeners can hear the requested sounds without actually handling the sometimes fragile audio carriers. The computer software allows listeners to scroll or fast forward through digital audio files during playback, however if a listener has requested a vinyl LP for example, the listener must indicate which track he or she wants to hear via a messaging service on the computer screen. The playback staff is notified of the listener’s message with a little “beep” and will move the needle to the the desired track on the record. This can sometimes prove a little difficult for staff when patrons ask to hear specific tracks or parts of tracks repeatedly for their research. Many patrons assume the entire system is computerized and do not realize the human labor involved in bringing the sounds to their ears. They do not always understand why it might take a little time to process their request, in these days where messages are sent into space and back in fractions of a second. Some that do understand the situation send humorous messages to the playback team via the messaging system, like “Dear Audio God, please play the next track.”
Listeners can stay for as long as they like during opening hours. Some researchers, having made special trips from other parts of the country or abroad will stay the full day or multiple days, only taking short breaks to have lunch in the library cafe. They are trying to get through hours and hours of material during the short time they have in New York. While video or photos allow one to quickly scan and find points of interest, it does not work the same way for audio, particularly during interviews or field recordings. One must sit and listen in real time, unless the audio has been logged or transcribed. Recent developments in automatic transcription and partnerships with organizations such as Pop Up Archive may prove very useful for researchers in the future.
While the collection holds such a wide array of fascinating recordings and most likely has something of interest to just about anyone, it does not seem that there are many casual listeners or members of the general public who stop in to sample what the archive has to offer. Lack of awareness of the collection and accessibility are two issues that perhaps lead to less enjoyment and use of the RHA holdings.
In his article, “The User Experience,” Aaron Schmidt defines user experience as “arranging the elements of a product or service to optimize how people will interact with it.” Librarians, curators and archivists working with audio collections must think about how people want to interact with the sounds in their collections. Copyright issues, conservation, audio formats and accessibility are all issues to consider when planning out how audio collections will be encountered and experienced by library users. In what ways do people want to listen?
From the user experience perspective, one issue members of the public must face is gaining access to the spaces where they can hear the recordings. To access the listening stations, patrons must first place their belongings with security. Then, as outlined before they must make a request to hear the material, some of which may or may not be immediately available since some recordings must be digitized before playback is allowed. This situation may not be a problem for researchers familiar with library procedures who need access to the recordings in order to carry out their work. However, what about the patron who may not even know the collection exists, considering that it is located in a locked basement doors and difficult to browse online? Audio collections tell fascinating stories through words, sound and music. However, without more focus on user experience, they may go unheard. Listening spaces in libraries are in need of an update. As audio technology becomes less expensive and more widely available, why aren’t library users offered more options for listening? Innovations in audio technology can raise awareness of collections, improve accessibility and offer library patrons new ways of listening. How do you want to listen?
For my observation, I chose to spend three hours examining the New York Public Library Digital Archive. The reason I chose this specific topic is because I have a lot of mixed feelings when it comes to digital archives. Personally, I prefer to examine an object or document first hand. The sensory aspect of coming into contact with a historic document or object is something that can’t be replicated virtually. However, the availability of partial or complete collections is a new aspect of library, museum and archive culture that is something to be admired. Many people don’t even realize the scope of an institution’s resources until they stumble upon it.
The largest pro of the NYPL is the extent of its content. Many of their collections have been digitize. On the homepage is an interactive set of information. Scrolling over some of the stats and the viewer is able to compile comparisons. For example the total sq. footage of the archive is the equivalent of forty-four Empire State Buildings. At the same time they provide the public with a working update of how many pages have been digitized. So far the NYPL archives have digitized 180,777 pages of their collections. While that isn’t much it is still Often researchers, students, or the general public have to make appointments in order to see a specific collection with supervision. With online archives patrons are able to browse collections unsupervised.
Another pro is the new beta linked data tool that creates connections between different aspects of various collections. This already is an invaluable tool not available at a physical archive. The only person able to make the connections is the archivist who has worked on the collection.
The comment section is really nice pro for the NYPL Digital Collections. Recently, I found out that the comments section was reviewed by staff members and what they found was extraordinary. One commenter stated that his grandfather was the man being lynched in a photo. The commenter wanted to donate other material of his grandfather to provide more depth about his grandfather’s life. Other comments provided supplemental information about other photos such as back story to stores or children in the photos (some of them were the children or lived in the subject places). Since the digital archive is relatively new, I hope that they will take this feature useful in a different department and incorporate it into their own.
The final pro I found particularly interesting is something that is shared between all archives. Online archives allows the public to access material that might be too fragile for physical access. A lot of the documents I examined where old and/ or in terrible condition. In this instance the New York Public Library archives created a sort of balance between the patron and the fragile thing.
The largest con I have against the NYPL archives is how they formatted the way you access the content. Often times I found myself circumvented to other areas I did not want to be in, such as the catalog. The developers assume patrons will be able to understand the layout and navigate it. That is extremely bothersome because online archives are a relatively new aspect and every archive designs their website differently. To assume that the patron will automatically understand places a great strain on the patron. If the patron becomes frustrated with the system, they won’t use it anymore.
Another con is the amount of control a patron has over what they see. With online archives patrons are only given access to what the archivist provides and how they provide them. With physical archives the patron has more access to different aspects of the document. Such as small marks that can not be clearly seen online because the resolution isn’t the best. Physical contact with an object allows the observer to notice details that might be obscured by pixelation. For example I wanted to look closer at some written note on a document on the NYPL archives and could barely read it because the image quality limited from seeing it. This is the example that I am referring too.
The last con I have against digital archives is the difference in experience a person feels when they come into contact with a historical document or object. This is particularly personal because as someone who deeply appreciates history, that experience of working with document or object that is part of a larger historical context has deep meaning for me. To not be able to feel the kind of paper, ridges or bumps or smell the ink, paper or whatever kind of material almost makes it hard for me to fully respect the object for document.
There a lot of aspects of digital archives that I enjoy and certainly the NYPL archives is an excellent example of a digital archive. However, there are certain aspects of traditional research that can’t be replicated in digital form. Throughout the entire observation, I kept in mind, Roy Rosenzweig’s, “Scarcity or Abundance? Preserving the Past in a Digital Era,” where he mentions the historian and their refusal to accept digital archives. While I have some reservations about digital archives and the authenticity of the archived object but I understand how important it is to make connections between works. That is one of the reason I appreciate NYPL archive’s linked data feature.
Historians, in fact, maybe facing a fundamental paradigm shift from a culture of scarcity to a culture of abundance. Not so long ago, we worried about the small numbers of people we could reach, pages of scholarship we could publish, primary sources we could introduce to our students, and documents that had survived from the past. At least potentially, digital technology has removed many of these limits: over the Internet, it costs no more to deliver the AHR two 15 million people than 15,000 people; it costs less for our students to have access to literally millions of primary sources than a handful in a published anthology. And we may be able to both save and quickly search through all of the products of our culture. But will abundance bring better or more thoughtful history? (Rosenzweig, 2013)
In the recent past, information wasn’t as available as it is today. In today’s age we can hardly imagine what it is like to not have constant access to information. The moment we think of something we don’t know the answer to or someone asks us a question we might not know the answer to we can immediately pull out a mere device such as a cellphone to look up the answers practically instantaneously. Information is constantly at our beck and call, and with the tremendous growth in technology we have many ways of accessing it, storing it, and archiving it, whether it be through computers, laptops, phones, tablets, and even glasses. In addition to that, there is still the “old school” method of simply going to a library and finding the text you need, which now is much easier to browse since you can do it from home, have a book placed on hold for you so it’s ready upon your arrival to the library. Insane! But not really, because we are so used to it.
Rosenzweig asks the question as previously quoted, “But will abundance bring better or more thoughtful history?” I like to agree with Jason Silva on this one. Jason Silva is a futurist who puts a positive light on technological advancements and how humans can and will interface with them. In one of his videos on the YouTube channel Shots of Awe, he talks about one facet of how technology is shared, through the Internet, and describes how it actually increases the flow of curiosity and creativity. Many people believe that technology is making us lazy, that the Internet makes us simply look for an answer and then just move on without much thought. However, Jason Silva makes a good point that the Internet actually offloads some of our mental faculties, so that we can focus on even more things. What he means is that by being aided by the Internet to get an abundance of information quickly, we can spend more time on greater things, such as more thought towards what we have learned from it. So I believe that the answer to Rosenzweig’s question is that abundance will indeed bring better and more thoughtful history.
As previously mentioned, technology has made even using the library quicker and more efficient. We wont be saying good-bye to libraries any time soon. But, not only can you access physical items through a library, but also one of the most widely growing areas is digitizing resources. Now we might not always have to set foot into a library if we are looking for a quick e-source such as an e-book, journal article, etc. Most libraries offer access to these things, specifically academic libraries. It’s gotten so far that there are some libraries that might not have a specific physical location for their patrons to come in, but rather they exist online. One such place is the Internet Archive, at https://www.archive.org
The Internet Archive is a non-profit Internet library that started in 1997 with the purpose to “include offering permanent access for researchers, historians, scholars, people with disabilities, and the general public to historical collections that exist in digital format.” Many may already know them for their Way Back Machine that has 439 web pages saved from different periods of time, but they also store formats from texts, video, audio, software, image, concerts, and collections.
The Way Back Machine was fun to explore. It was quite interesting to see websites such as yahoo, and amazon in its early stages. Yahoo, for instance was in no way visually appealing, and worked like a directory with a general list that branched off into more lists until you could narrow it down to the sites that you were looking for. It shows the gradual increase in our interfaces and how the Internet became much more user oriented as time went on, making it easier for humans to interface with it.
I also went ahead and created my own account for their website. The heading of the account creation page states, “Get a Virtual Library Card”. They treat their website as a library of its own, and your account is considered to be your Library Card. Having an account allows you to access other functions of the website. This includes favoriting, reviewing and rating items. The Internet Archive’s collections has a very straight forward browsing tool. When on a collection, each item has its own box which shows the item type, how many times its been viewed, how many times its been favorited, and how many times its been reviewed. This creates a very unique community, because with a physical library a patron doesn’t have any access to how many times an item has been viewed or how many people like it, or what people think about it. With this available to patrons, it can help them browse for popular items or less popular items or read up on what people have to say about it. Having the ability to write a review also allows patrons to leave very helpful tips. Through my observations, I’ve seen patrons give advice as to where to go to find more information on an item, as well as correct an item and informing the Internet Archive team about missing information from an item. At the bottom of each item you can also find what people have found after finding the current item. This creates a trend that can be very helpful for those with similar taste in books or whatever the item type is.
I’ve noticed that not all items are full text, but many are. I’ve even searched for “The Jungle Book” and was able to find the full original movie from 1942 and was able to watch it all for free! https://archive.org/details/JungleBook. There were also some very interesting finds just from browsing, like audio from NASA launches to be listened to in full. There are also tons of images archived on this website, even including your favorite music album covers.
As I browsed the site I was in awe of all the history we are able to store and access because of sites like the Internet Archive. But behind it all was the nagging question of how permanent can all this truly be? Their purpose states that it’s a permanent place, but in actuality all of this is stored on servers, computers probably in different areas and links back to other sources that they might have received it from. It would probably be really difficult to lose all of these files, but I can’t help but think that it is still possible. Technology is always growing and changing, leaving old methods of storage nearly obsolete; such as computers today not having a floppy disc drive to read files stored on a floppy. So, having archival websites like this one is a massive historical tool that can help many people to learn from the past and present. It probably wont be going anywhere for a long time, but I believe efforts should be made to observe ways to store these things in an even more permanent way, so that people in the future will also have access and not just for our time alone. This, too, can have issues with space to store so much information, but the trend seems to be that we are inventing smaller and smaller spaces of storage. Who knows how far we will go.
Internet Archive. https://archive.org. Web. 27 Oct. 2015.
Rosenzweig, R. (2003). Scarcity or abundance? Preserving the past in a digital era. The American Historical Review, 108(3), 735-762.