Travel Grant Awardee SAA Wrap-Up: Ann McShane

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Thank you to the Delaware Valley Archivists Group. Their generosity provided me the opportunity to attend the SAA Annual Meeting, ARCHIVES*RECORDS 2018 in Washington, D.C. This was my first opportunity to attend SAA and it was an absolute delight.

I am the Digital Collections Archivist at the Library Company of Philadelphia. In that role, I manage the Library Company of Philadelphia’s digital repository, coordinate reproductions requests, process digital collections, and continue an endless quest to preserve digital assets. As such, I tend to frame a lot of my work around issues of digital access, as that cuts to the heart of why my job exists at all.

I am fascinated with the relationship between design and access, particularly as it relates to web design. A well-designed website seems effortless and works for a wide variety of use cases and assistive technologies. The Library Company, like many of its peers, has twenty years of online exhibitions, collection inventory webpages, and digitized collections in DAMS. Public-facing digital access systems for archival collections often represent a huge undertaking and initial investment of resources. In the past, we hoped that this initial labor would carry the access system beyond its design. Access, however, is not a one-time deal. The way we plan, execute, and measure success in digital access projects is important to me and more-or-less encompassed my session choices at SAA 2018.

I was lucky enough to arrive a bit early and attend the SAA Research Forum, as well. The sessions are structured around lightning talks, posters, and short presentations. Presenters were doctoral students reporting early findings, grant recipients presenting status updates, and professionals of all stripes. The range of topics was broad and I got a great introduction to the conference ahead.

Paying off the Technical Debt of Early Digital Projects was a panel that excited me well before I knew I would be able to attend it. It’s a way of building projects and maintenance plans that appeal to me. Technical debt can be accrued in all facets of a digital collections project. If we skimp in one area, we eventually have to pay that debt off. Whether in code, metadata, imaging, documentation, etc. we have to consider the goals of the project and the resources allotted. Moving forward, I would love to see a history of project design on the web for cultural memory institutions that helps contextualize our current approaches to technical debt as a field. Technology limitations change how we design and past design influences future designs. Are there affordances of older sensibilities in digital access that remain even as we migrate data and build new tools?

The Progress and Pitfalls of Linked Data Projects was a hopeful, forward-looking panel. Past the obligatory explanation of “what is Linked Open Data and also why,” panelists spoke to their actual ongoing projects as well as their aspirations. There were hopes that Linked Open Data (LOD) would finally bridge the gap to explain relationships to computers, letting them better serve up content that is contextually (instead of just textually) related. Another panelist went one step further, arguing that LOD could help remedy bias in cataloguing and make description more participatory. Overall, the worries about quality control, sustainability, and maintenance for LOD projects temper hopes for the future of digital access.

I really enjoyed Usability Studies in Archives, a panel put together by our local Archive-it Mid-Atlantic Group. They tackled a common oversight in digital access projects with practical advice and a can-do attitude. They asked a prescient question of their Archive-it instance; does this tool actually work for our users? If we build or adopt a tool for digital access, then the users decide whether that tool actually does a good job. The panelists planned and built a user testing script and scenario for several different use cases/users. Working with no budget across multiple institutions, they used tasks performed with think aloud protocol to test which parts of the site are intuitive and usable. Results were collected and reviewed to find trouble spots and lead the team in their plans for future custom development. User testing is a critically important part of designing digital access systems and one that often gets skipped in the sprint to label a project finished after initial launch.

To round out my themed session choices at SAA, I attended Physical & Digital Accessibility in Archives. This session was very practical, with presenters outlining their space planning costs, workflows, and user testing scenarios. This is a session that I really needed to attend as a DAMS administrator. Digital asset management systems almost always have media players built into them that do not work with screen readers and other assistive technology APIs. Even with strong metadata, there are ways that our records may be confusing if not misleading without visual cues (among other things). One presenter found that users needed metadata to be presented from broad-to-narrow to contextualize what they were hearing. User testing is particularly important for this exact reason. This also applied to implementing and mastering alt text. Panelists stressed the importance of alt text that includes strong contextual details. Yet again, the importance of user testing was central to the session.

The SNAP Section Meeting is practically required viewing for an early-career archivist. The panel discussed temporary work in archives, counter-offering for salaries, and mid-career development. I also attended the recently-renamed Diverse Sexuality & Gender Section. There is a lot of exciting work on the horizon this year as DSGS continues pre-development work on a LGBTQ+ collections portal and considers starting a community read.

Both Plenaries, first by Zeynep Tufekci, PhD and the second by Tanya Zanish-Belcher, considered the future of archives. Zanish-Belcher spoke to our values as a professional organization and how we bring those values to the fore with action. If we want to be a diverse and inclusive field, we have to make tools available and invest in communities beyond one-off projects. Further, we have to test and prove that our archival education actually provides the required skills and leads to permanent employment. If the pool of employed professionals (and leaders) is not actually becoming more diverse, then our efforts aren’t making the long-term changes we say they are. If we’re truly focused on training leaders, we need to support mid-career professionals with leadership training and professional development. If we’re concerned with government and broader records practices in the United States now, then we must be allies to archivists abroad and pay attention to the issues that they face. Zanish-Belcher provided a series of challenges for our field rooted in empathy. As such, she summed up her remarks with a simple thesis, “While archivists are about records, what we’re really about is people.”

Once more, I want to offer my sincere gratitude to the Delaware Valley Archivists Group for the opportunity to attend this impactful conference at this stage in my career.

Thank you all,
Ann McShane


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