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The A&A Section seeks guest writers to submit short pieces for our blog. Our “Repository Updates” series allows you to share your recent adventures in appraisal and acquisition. Content could include but is not limited to: experiences tackling a new acquisition, reviewing collections for deaccessioning, donor relations, and concerns, challenges or positive appraisal decisions. So tell us your A&A stories!

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Acquiring and Appraising Born-Digital Material at the Minnesota Historical Society

Sarah Barsness

Sarah Barsness

Sarah Barsness is a Digital Collections Assistant at the Minnesota Historical Society (MNHS), where she works to process, store, preserve, and provide access to MNHS’s born-digital collections. Sarah holds a BA in Anthropology and German as well as an MA in Library and Information Studies with an Archival Science focus, both from the University of Wisconsin – Madison. When she’s not at work, odds are pretty good that you can find her at the local comic book store or craft shop.

The following is an interview by the Acquisitions and Appraisal Section with Sarah on her work at the MNHS acquiring and appraising born-digital material.

Tell us about your current position at the Minnesota Historical Society.

SB: My job is focused specifically on digital preservation, but in that role I also advise and work with other staff on digital collections from the point of acquisition to providing public access. I also help with the ongoing work of maintaining digital infrastructure for our collections (including space management on our network or creating backups). My time is balanced between working directly with collections, policy/procedure development, and keeping abreast of developments and best practices in the field.

How are you involved in acquisitions and appraisal work in that position?

SB: At MNHS acquisitions are brought in by curators, who traditionally are responsible for all the appraisal work. When it comes to digital collections, I work with the curators on appraisal, processing, providing access, and planning for preservation; I am able to provide technical expertise to help the curators consider non-content-related appraisal issues, such as file format, media condition, size, and the like.

Can you walk us through a “typical day” in your job appraising digital content?

SB: When a curator has a new collection with a digital component that they think is worth accepting, we generally sit down and take a look at the content and format together. We discuss how the digital content fits with the rest of the collection, any restrictions that might inhibit online access, and any potential preservation issues. If there are preservation concerns, such as an unusual filetype or an unstable storage medium, we take a look at our options and weigh the required resources against the value of the materials. Together, we make an appraisal decision and develop a processing and preservation plan for the materials.

What are some unique considerations when appraising born-digital content vs. other formats?

SB: I’ve found that the fundamentals of analog appraisal hold true for digital appraisal as well, but there are some differences of degree and emphasis. Each digital file you accession will likely require a greater commitment of time and money than a similar physical object, for example, so we’ve found that it’s very important to carefully consider the resource implications of a digital accession at the point of appraisal, probably more so than with analog collections. We’re working on developing and implementing a tiered preservation scheme so that we can commit more resources to our most important materials and fewer resources to less valuable ones.

Describe one of the biggest challenges you encountered appraising born-digital content, and how did you approach it?

SB: One of the biggest challenges we face is that of working with digital materials at a large scale. Appraising large and heterogeneous collections can be very difficult; they can have layers upon layers of organizational structure that are difficult to penetrate, and file navigation systems (like Windows Explorer) aren’t built to allow you to view everything at once. To help us get a handle on these large collections, we often use characterization and de-duplication software to help us get a better understanding of the size, nature, and arrangement of the accession.

Is appraisal of born-digital materials ever collaborative? If so, how do you work with colleagues to determine appraisal criteria and appraise content?

SB: Collaboration is a huge part of born-digital appraisal for us! The curators who bring in digital materials are experts on the content of the materials, and I contribute information about the technical aspects of the digital objects; together, we are able to balance resource requirements and preservation issues with the content of the collection and how it fits in our collecting policy. The curators also have a better understanding of materials related to the digital components of a collection, such as accompanying analog materials or previous accessions from the same donor.

Are there guidelines that can help us develop our own appraisal criteria, or develop best practices?

SB: There are lots of great resources out there, and many institutions are trying to work together to tackle some of these issues; groups like the National Digital Stewardship Alliance and websites like the DigiPres Commons have been doing a lot of great work to pool knowledge and set some best practices for the field. Digital Preservation Coalition has a wonderful section on acquisition and appraisal in it’s newly revised Digital Preservation Handbook, which is a must-read resource for anybody working with born-digital materials. I also regularly refer to the Library of Congress’ Sustainability of Digital Formats webpage, which offers a lot of helpful information about preservation concerns and preferences for various kinds of digital materials.

Do you have any final thoughts you’d like to share about appraising born-digital material?

SB: It’s easy to feel overwhelmed and unsure of yourself when it comes to appraising digital material, regardless of your level of computer proficiency. There are just so many unknowns when it comes to digital material and how (or even if) it can be saved for decades to come. Don’t let that uncertainty keep you from acquiring amazing collections that happen to be digital, because we’ll never be able to preserve the things we don’t try to save.

Managing Acquisitions and Appraisal in a Music Archive

Adriana Cuervo has served as Associate Director of The Institute of Jazz Studies (IJS) at Rutgers University – Newark since 2013. Before coming to New Jersey she worked at the Sousa Archives and Center for American Music at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Cuervo spoke with Section social media intern Lily Troia this past fall about her background, managing music and cultural heritage collections, and the nuances of appraisal and acquisition activity at the world’s foremost jazz archives and research library. Cuervo highlights strategies around copyright, the value of taking good notes, and the necessity of strong collection inventories. She also discusses acquisitions goals in relation to Rutgers’ on-going diversity initiatives and the Institute’s position within the New Jersey and broader jazz community.

Adriana Cuervo in the stacks the IJS

Adriana Cuervo in the stacks the IJS

Can you share a bit about the path that brought you to IJS?

I started as the Assistant Archivist for Music and Fine Arts at the Sousa Archives and Center for American Music at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. I worked there for eight years. My role was collections work, arrangement, description, finding aids, and exhibits—a little bit of everything. The Sousa Archive is a small shop in a big university, so we did everything. Everyone did everything. It was not as though you only do preservation, or you only do arrangement and description. We did everything, and there were only two full-time people. We had graduate students and undergrads working with us, but the director and myself did the bulk of the work. It was a really interesting—I learned everything I know by just doing things . . . No one prepares you for things you are going to find when you open boxes: “Oh, what is that?? It’s moving!”

I came to the IJS in 2013. I was not looking for a job, but I saw the opening. It was in a music archives, and I thought, “Oh gosh, this is very rare, very random.” I had assumed whenever I left Illinois it would be to go to an archives with a broader collection scope, more traditional university archives/special collections. Since this was a music archives and a management position, I thought, “If this is not it, I don’t know what is.” It was a really appealing job because of the stature of the IJS within the jazz community, and because there is a lot of work to be done. The archives was built and sustained for over 30 years by very talented, well-known people who brought in amazing collections. That is the reason we are here today. However, once things came in the door, they moved onto the next big thing because big things were happening. We have a lot of collections work to do. We need to straighten out our holdings, and put them at a level with which I am comfortable, in terms of preservation and access.

In terms of my role in the IJS, I have four areas: I oversee the archives, and all archival operation is under my purview. I handle marketing and communications for the institute, which we are managing more strategically, focusing on engagement. Obviously the more time you have to put into things like social media, the more benefits you get, but I think for the amount of time I am able to put in, things are going well and improving. I identify, design, and oversee digital projects with our collections, and frequently partner with other departments, like our digital humanities librarian, Krista White. We are applying for a couple of grants to digitize different collections, and are putting our oral histories online. She does the technical side and we provide the jazz expertise, and the content to go online. We have also identified pockets of materials that are good candidates for digitization, taking into consideration fragility of the medium. We have a lot of tapes that smell like vinegar, and sound recording collections on obsolete media that are good candidates.

The fourth area, I work with Ed Berger, Special Projects Consultant, in the programs we offer—the jazz fellowships, the archival fellowships, and the research fellowships. I am getting to learn the administrative ropes of those programs with the understanding that I will take them over upon Ed’s retirement.

What role do you play in terms of acquisitions and appraisal at the IJS?

We do our appraisal in more of a group effort. We get offers of things on a daily basis. Everyone has the greatest jazz record collection, or all the books of so-and-so they want to donate. For potential archival materials we discuss as a group, and we weigh the pros and cons, asking essential questions like, where are the materials? We try not to acquire things unseen, which is a double-edged sword (or Russian roulette). We talk out all the scenarios, discussing questions of copyright.

How much do copyright concerns impact acquisitions decisions?

Ideally we would like to have the rights come to the institute with the materials, but we realize these are often performing musicians, and there are other people who have an economic interest in their work. It might not be feasible for them to transfer rights to this institute at this point, but we do make sure that the donors are aware that even though the copyright still resides with them, they need to make succession plans for that property. We are being super militant about clearing the rights question, especially since my and Elizabeth Surles’s (IJS archivist) arrival. We need to know who owns the rights to the materials, because people are going to want to make copies, want photographs for publication. There is nothing worse than having someone come in and find exactly what they need, and have to tell them, “Sorry, you can’t take it. You need to find the rights holder; I don’t know who it is. You’re on your own.” That is not how I would like to see us operate. We need to at least keep good files on the collections that we have. Eventually we will reach out to the donors’ heirs to see if they are willing to transfer rights.

For example, there’s a collection of photographs that the donor decided not to transfer copyright to the IJS, but we have a non-exclusive license to use his materials in research. The deed of gift specifies the resolution we can give to researchers, and allows us to use materials to promote the Institute. Anything in large format or high resolution would go through his licensing agency. That is a great model for us.

Since I came on I have been working to organize our collection files. Previously documentation was scattered—different people had different pieces of the acquisitions files. We have been putting them in one central place. We are old-fashioned. Every time we finish an acquisition we print out our emails and notes from phone conversations and put them in the file. You never know. It happened to me actually on the first acquisition I ever worked on!

Tell us about it. 

It was the Eddie Bert papers. He played trombone and died in 2012. He was a very well-known trombonist. He played with everyone and their sisters: Stan Kenton, Benny Goodman, Charles Mingus. He was in high demand. He played live, and also recorded for film scores. We got a call from one of his daughters who was the executor of his estate. She called when they were cleaning out his house and said she knew her father would have wanted his materials to come to the IJS. Bert had a long-standing relationship with our then- director Dan Morgenstern, so we acquired the materials from Connecticut—photographs, his instruments, etc. A deed of gift was signed. Then maybe in 2014, another family member called expressing discontent that Bert’s materials had been given to the IJS. We had been unaware there was any contention with the executor’s decision. It required some delicate negotiations. We got our counsel to weigh in, who determined the executor had acted in accordance to the law. But we wanted to reassure the upset family member, which took several sympathetic conversations, offering an open invitation for their family to come to the Institute whenever they wanted to see the materials, and that we would include them in any concerts or exhibits involving the collection. That was my first acquisition on the job; and, about a week into the job here at IJS. But, I did keep good notes!

So you worked to make the unhappy party a stakeholder in Bert’s donated legacy?

Definitely. You want to help someone come to a decision themselves that hopefully aligns with your goals, but you never want to antagonize them.

The IJS is known as the world’s largest and most comprehensive jazz archive. Considering jazz is such a massive topic, are there currently narrower areas of scope in which you are focusing new acquisitions? 

We are definitely the world’s largest and most comprehensive jazz archives, yes. I wouldn’t say we are narrowing our areas of scope, but what we are really working on is a complete collection inventory as compared to our 2010 list. Then we will assess what we have, and hopefully set up a collections map, breaking down by instrument, time period, musicians, etc. We might realize we don’t have enough, say jazz tuba. We do know that our collection strengths move past the 1950s and into the ‘60s a bit, but then decline. That is a more contemporary collection area we want to pursue, but many of those musicians are still living and performing. Over the years we have acquired various materials, like a huge amount of big band stock arrangements, and now we realize we have twelve collections with stock arrangements, so perhaps we could have steered these donors to go somewhere else? We cannot do that though, unless we know what we have. We are focused on really pinpointing those areas so we know how to fill the voids.

Will you deaccession any duplicates?

No, I think we will just chalk it up as a learning experience. That is one thing this collection-wide survey is helping us realize. There are a lot of photocopies in our archival boxes. People would randomly photocopy things and bring them to the Institute to donate, and they might be already archived in original form at the Library of Congress. We really do not need to be holding on to these in archival form, though they could be moved into the reference section. This survey is yielding those kinds of results, so we will be able to see the bigger picture once it is done to inform future acquisitions decisions.

Rutgers is among the nation’s most diverse universities, with an ongoing commitment to new initiatives aimed at continued improvements in this arena. How do the IJS, and its acquisition goals, fit into this mission?

Diversity is a big theme that runs through Rutgers – Newark and the Rutgers University Libraries. I think the Institute itself was founded in that same spirit: no one thinks jazz is worthy of serious study, so let’s do it. That has always been in the back of our minds. For example, we do not just collect the papers of famous people. That is an area I think is worth thinking about critically—the role of, say, K-12 music educators. These are the people that are at the grassroots of teaching and inspiring kids towards careers in music. These are the first lines where children get acquainted with jazz—wouldn’t it be nice to say we are representing that segment of the population in our jazz collections? That is something that needs more study, and requires us to get to know the players and the people.

We recently got a grant from the New Jersey Historical Commission to arrange and describe collections of four native New Jersey jazz musicians. One of them, Harry Leahy, a guitarist who was very well known in the local area, but was not, by any means, a big, touring name. But he really brought jazz to a lot of people in this state, and taught at Paterson University, Essex County College, and other local spots where a lot of the gigging musicians in the area got their education. He was really meaningful in the local scene, and as I put it in our grant, he is someone that really deserves the recognition, and to have his contributions documented for the future.

So yes, we are always thinking about diversity, always thinking that there are many, many points of view, and that the historical record should reflect all of those points of view.

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Interview conducted and written by Lily Troia, Social Media Intern. 

The Changing Nature of Acquisitions at the Schlesinger Library

The Schlesinger Library at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University is among the most respected special collections archives in the world, and arguably one of the most vital repositories of American women’s history available to researchers. Housed now in what once was the Radcliffe College library, the Schlesinger began collecting suffragist records in the 1940s and became known as the Women’s Archives; it was later renamed in 1965 to honor Harvard University historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr. and his wife Elizabeth Bancroft Schlesinger. Today, in addition to strong collections on feminism, women’s rights, health and sexuality, the Library boasts an impressive zine collection, the papers of Julia Child, and the Black Women Oral History Project Interviews, which features interviews from 1976 to 1981.

IMG_0485 Acquisitions and Appraisal Section Social Media Intern Lily Troia spoke with the Schlesinger’s Curator of Manuscripts, Kathryn Jacob, and Head of Collection Services, Anne Engelhart, about their work at the Library, recent acquisitions of note, and challenges to manuscripts departments in the digital age.

Can you share a bit about your professional path and how it brought you to the Schlesinger? 

Anne: I have been here for nearly 38 years. I started out typing catalog cards, though my background was in early music; and I was very interested in old manuscripts. I worked for the oral history project for a long time, then in manuscripts, and now collections services. It has been inspiring to see how the library has developed and evolved, become better funded and more professional.

Kathy: I have been at the Schlesinger 15 years and have a Ph.D. in History. I lucked into a job as archivist of Johns Hopkins University right when they started their first archive, and have been a historian for the United States Senate and NHPRC. While I am not a traditional library person—and couldn’t catalog a book to save my life– acquisitions is an area in which I make sense, and I like it a lot! I am hoping to grow the collection, meet interesting people, and figure out whose records might best document the lives of women, at a certain time and place, and surrounding certain issues.

Could you describe your approach(es) to acquisitions research?

Kathy: I read the journals when they come in. I read a lot of conference proceedings to see who is speaking and on what subjects.

Anne: We are very interested in what people are researching and topics for which they might need resources.

Kathy: What we seek changes over time, often tied to institutional initiatives. I first started at the Schlesinger after Eva Moseley retired. She had been here for over 27 years; and we have her to thank for some of the most amazing second wave feminist collections at the Library, among many others. She was amazing in the range of whom she brought in and whom she contacted. For a period, she was interested in documenting women-owned farms—boutique farms and farmers in New England. Right now we are very interested in women of color, immigration, issues of women in poverty. We have strong collections on women’s health and reproductive lives; and suffrage and post-WWII feminism are also big fields here.

Do you ever angle or cater acquisitions to match particular grants or topic-specific funding streams? 

Kathy: More likely we go after collections because colleagues in certain fields tell us that topics or areas are heating up among researchers—for example, women and sports is something on which we have some materials, but are working to expand to meet user needs and requests. I would say we are more research-driven than funding-driven.

As the Schlesinger digitizes and makes more collections available online, have you seen changes or increases in research requests? 

Anne: Definitely—especially our audiovisual collections and audiotapes that have been digitized. The increase in use has just been astronomical. June Jordan’s papers, for example, were lovingly processed, with the audiotapes listed, which people started requesting as well. Now two-thirds of that collection has been digitized, soon to be 100%. That is a testimony to the fact that AV material is not this poor orphan that should not be described as well as everything else.

Kathy: We can see these changes, as we give out grants ourselves–about 40 research grants for dissertations and post-doctoral studies per year. I think three requests this year want to use the June Jordan AV material. It is a case of, ‘if you digitize it they will come.

Anne: We also alert ourselves to upcoming anniversaries such as the Suffrage Centennial. We are working towards having many of our suffrage collections digitized by 2019.

What is the frequency of donors approaching the Library with potential collections, and how has that been impacted by digitization of other materials?

Kathy: Sometimes I am approached more than once a day. Often it is a personal reference or connection to Radcliffe or the Library, though we do not necessarily take everything offered to us. Often attics get cleared when a loved one passes. We got a great collection this past fall of women’s letters from Maine–several file cabinets of material. Sometimes we hear from dealers, and get lots of auction catalogs. We might buy a single item if it seems relevant; I really like women’s diaries. I do purchase diaries [smiles].

Do you have a set budget or goal number for annual acquisitions, or do you make decisions solely case by case?

Kathy: Sometimes it is hard to answer exactly, even to colleagues or other folks in the institution—how many feet of material are you going to bring in, how many collections, or how much are you going to spend? It is very unpredictable. Spring and fall tend to be busier times—people cleaning [laughs], but you never know. Someone contacted us in the past twelve months: in the back of her parents’ closet, what she always thought was a hatbox containing men’s hats, actually had dozens of letters from a girlfriend of her father’s that she never knew existed.

Anne: Kathy alluded to Eva’s inquiries and efforts. Eva would send out letters to potential donors, and plant these little seeds. Very often decades later, Kathy will get a phone call, saying “I am ready to give you my papers,” and they come in! We just got the papers of Elisabeth Owen Burger, who is related to two other collections that are here.

Kathy: When she died, her son was aware of the other papers held here, so he donated his mother’s papers to the Schlesinger.

Anne: All these relationships and connections—it is really fabulous.

Kathy: We also have great relationships with dealers, who often let us know about things before they go into the catalog.

Anne: Like the hairwork album we just obtained! This is a little diary-sized thing with braided hair of a woman’s friends and family. This was apparently a thing women did—collecting hair—and this album dates from 1858-1924, but we did not have one yet in our collection.

Kathy: Sometimes friends or colleagues spot items on eBay. Things can show up in unexpected places, and if you do not act, they will be gone. A couple years ago on eBay there was an amazing set of diaries of the only woman avocado farmer in California in the 20s and 30s. Her husband had died, and she inherited a big avocado grove; and the diaries, from what you could see online, read like Grapes of Wrath. She describes the dustbowl, these jalopies with three generations of a family pulling into the farm, begging for work, begging for food. We bid on it, and we did not get it. I hope that they went to some place that will make them accessible, because this was really vivid material.

I once saw a collection on eBay of a Boston woman’s letters. She went south at the very beginning of the Civil War, as soon as the Sea Islands were under Union control, along with nearly 1,000 women from the North who went down as teachers. She was writing home to her Boston family about conditions on the Sea Islands and domestic relations of the slaves. Whoever owned the letters was selling them one by one.

So heartbreaking!

Kathy: I know! We were able to buy three, and her diary; but there were six or seven more that went to different people, so now this collection is split up all over the place, and we do not know where the other letters are.

How long does the process usually take, from first contact to acquisition? 

Kathy: It can be a very long time, especially if we have approached them. However, if the donor has approached us, they are ready to go, and are within a fairly small radius of the Library, the process can be quite quick. Sometimes, within a matter of weeks: if someone calls us, and it sounds good, they might mail the materials, or we may go visit. They will fill out a donor questionnaire, we create a deed of gift—ideally we do not want to bring in a collection until we have a signed deed of gift—but that can take very little time. I visited a house today in Cambridge, and set aside 14 or 15 containers of materials. Since the woman is selling the house, she filled out her questionnaire on site, I will probably do up the deed of gift this afternoon, and the movers will go and pick up the collection one morning next week. We can also promise people that Anne will create a catalog record in HOLLIS (Harvard’s Online Library Catalog) within three or four weeks of the collection arriving. We let potential users know we have a collection even if it is closed, or even if it is not available until processed.

What recent acquisitions are you particularly excited about?

Anne: The Kinnicutt albums: a couple photograph albums from this wealthy woman from upstate New York, who went on this crazy pre-WWI road trip with her chauffeur, friend, and valet. They are traveling on roads that look like trenches, all over the eastern U.S., tons of photographs of them camping.

Kathy: But they are dressed in these fancy clothes, as if they were going to the afternoon symphony!

Does the Schlesinger actively acquire born digital material? 

Kathy: We have very few entirely digital collections, but many of our new collections are hybrid. We have three people who specifically work with digital materials, so we capture websites and make those accessible. For example, CUB (Concerned United Birthparents)—the HOLLIS record will tell you whether we have captured their website, and you can see it, directly from the catalog record. We capture a bunch of blogs, and we talk to people about their email and their discs. We have a donor who just sent her hard drives and a box of old cell phones, and we can take the material off of the devices. Folk singer Holly Near sent us a hard drive of fan mail, which is fantastic. We have the papers and records of this phenomenal photographer, Paula Caplan, who traveled the world and did a lot of work on women in Afghanistan. All her records came as discs.

What are the biggest challenges to working in acquisitions and curation, and have they changed with the advent of digitization? 

Kathy: Digitization has changed the method, perhaps, but not the goal. There are genres of materials that we have collected for more than 60 years and go back for over 200 years–diaries and letters. We have lots and lots of diaries and letters. We are not going to stop collecting diaries and letters just because the medium has changed. Now those letters might be in email; many young women use a blog as a diary. It might not be what we think of as a traditional diary—it is not private writing; but just because the way they keep them has changed does not mean we will stop collecting them. The situation is the same with newsletters. We have long runs of newsletters; now some of them are digital only, so we have to go out and harvest them in that format.

Women’s lives involve every aspect of what everybody does, so how do you keep up with them and decide, when there is so much going on, who are the people to reach out to? What are the organizations to contact? Are they going to save the same sorts of materials? For young women doing mostly digital activism, what are they going to have as their records? We are excellent at working with ‘boxes of stuff’, but these women are not necessarily going to have ‘boxes of stuff.’ It means what they save is different, and what we bring in is different.

Anne: Arrangement will have less of a function, I think. We will still need to determine what items we have, are there privacy issues, and how are we going to describe and deliver them. Those are big challenges—especially the privacy piece. Many donors will say, “Oh, you can open the collection. It’s fine; there is nothing in there,” but when you go through and read the papers, maybe there are student grade sheets or personal family details revealed. People often do not know what they are giving us, and that is going to be especially true with born digital. As more materials come in born digital, it becomes less an issue of arranging and describing, and more of appraising and describing.

Lily Troia serves as the Appraisal and Acquisitions Section Social Media Intern. She is currently pursuing her MLIS at Simmons College in the archives concentration, where she serves as the Dean’s Fellow for Digital Media Outreach. Lily was recently awarded a Rutgers University Institute of Jazz Archives Fellowship. She will begin a internship at the American Archive of Public Broadcasting this summer, and currently directs social media strategy for the Journal of Contemporary Archival Studies.