Celia Caust-Ellenbogen shares her MARAC Philly Experience

Contributed by Celia Caust-Ellenbogen

If you are a DVAG member, there’s a decent chance you attended the Mid-Atlantic Regional Archives Conference (MARAC) Fall 2013 meeting a few weeks ago. It was right here in Philadelphia, and rumor has it that with over 450 attendees, this was the best-attended MARAC meeting ever! DVAG members were well-represented at the conference, including many of us who presented at a session and/or were involved with the local arrangements committee.

I started by attending the extremely useful session S2. Evaluating the User Experience: What to Ask, How to Measure, and What to Learn from Assessment. While acknowledging challenges to quantitative assessments in archives environments, the session speakers demonstrated the need for archives to measure more. They helped frame the purpose of assessments and demonstrated practical procedures with minimum barriers to implementation. Sarah Horowitz spoke about her methodology in developing a feedback questionnaire for students using the special collections at Augustana College; Joyce Chapman shared the process and results of measuring digitization workflows at the State Library of North Carolina; and Alana Miller of Museum of Modern Art walked through two procedures for evaluating user experience on archives’ websites.

A number of interesting sessions were held after lunch. Session S8. Naval History Collections in the Mid-Atlantic Region, was summarized in a recent DVAG Arranger blog post. The session sounds fantastic from Bryan Dickerson’s summary, but I was unable to attend because I was a presenter for session S9. Hidden Collections Initiative for Pennsylvania Small Archival Repositories. My co-presenter Faith Charlton highlighted some of the salient points from our session in a post she wrote for our project blog.

I concluded my day at session S13. Encoded Archival Context-Corporate Bodies, Persons, and Families (EAC-CPF) (http://eac.staatsbibliothek-berlin.de/). Prior to this session, I would have said I was pretty thunderstruck by EAC-CPF: convinced that it is a ground-breaking idea that will eventually have widespread applications, but too intimidated by its potential–and unsure of any current uses–to get started with it now. But this session offered a thoughtful discussion of EAC-CPF that got beyond its novelty status and analyzed its critical features to emerge with practical implementations. Krista Ferrante opened the session with a very understandable overview of EAC-CPF, contrasting the full-featured implementation at the Harvard-Yale “Connecting the Dots” project with the simplified approach adopted at Tufts University that resulted in a publicly-available best practices document. The simplification theme was picked up by Regine Heberlein, who explained Princeton University’s philosophy that EAC-CPF records should be access points for resource discovery, not an end in themselves. Princeton includes only minimal biographical information in the EAC-CPF records it creates, concentrating on using EAC-CPF to structure relationships between archives entities. However, it was Ethan Gruber’s demonstration of his xEAC tool that really stole the show. xEAC appears to be a simple, easy-to-use way to write, edit, and display EAC-CPF records. His presentation is already posted online at http://www.slideshare.net/ewg118/marac-2013; it will blow your mind!

The next morning, I attended S17. Enhancing Resource Discovery through Creative Collaboration. Lori Birrell and Marcy Strong shared about a program at the University of Rochester which engaged subject librarians and catalogers to process archival collections. It was not very effective as a strategy to reduce backlog, but it was an interesting outreach experiment. Next, Elizabeth Shepard and Jason Kovari provided an overview of basic technical, copyright, and other considerations inherent in a digitization project while discussing their collaboration to transfer an image database for the Medical Center Archives of NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell. Finally, Malinda Triller Doran spoke about a blog format created at Dickinson College to standardize student-contributed description of archival documents.

I finished up my MARAC experience at session S22. Shhhh! Is it a Secret? Managing Potentially Classified Documents in the Archives. Kate Cruikshank of Indiana University – Bloomington opened the session with a funny story from her own experience that illustrated how not to respond after finding classified documents in an archival collection. Replete with FBI agents, a secret message passed at a party, and document-shredding, this is the story I would pitch if any of my MARAC sessions were going to be turned into a movie. (Shot in the film noir style, of course.) Jodi Boyle from SUNY-Albany was in a similar situation when she encountered classified documents in her archives, but she followed the proper procedures so her experience was more straightforward. The take-away from both speakers was, if you find classified documents in your archival collections: (1) secure the documents, (2) do not tell anyone else about them, and (3) contact Meredith Wagner for further instruction. Meredith Wagner was the third and final speaker in this session, from the Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO) at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). She distinguished the different categories of classified documents–secret, top secret, etc.–and explained what archivists can expect when they bring such items to the government’s attention. All the speakers emphasized that ISOO/NARA is archivists’ ally, prioritizing transparency and trying to de-classify as many documents as quickly as possible. If a document found in an archives is sent to the originating agency instead of NARA, the likelihood that the document will be returned–especially in a timely fashion–declines steeply.

In all, I found MARAC Fall 2013 both interesting and productive. If you were unable to attend, you can look forward to the Spring 2014 MARAC in Rochester. Of course, the cheesesteaks aren’t as good there.

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