An informal presentation for the Center for Railroad Photography and Art as well as interested Faculty from Lake Forest College (April, 2015)
What I learned
The important of metadata in special collections
One thing I learned is that when creating metadata you have to think about two horizons – very small and very large. There is a sense that the descriptions need to be precise and specific to the collection and intended audience. For example, I transcribed things like mile post numbers, railroad markings, and “Whyte Notations.” Over the course of the project, I learned that Whyte notion is a system devised to classify wheel arrangement on steam locomotives. So, on one hand, this project involved creating very specific metadata that is geared toward a very particular audience.
On the other hand, I also had to consider how the metadata I was creating would fit into the larger information universe. For example, the metadata contains standard metadata for every single image that identifies it as a “black and white image” from the “Springer Collection.” Within the confines my work, this metadata is basically useless because it is self-evident. But, obviously, recording this information anticipates a larger context where that information is important. Similarly, I’ve taken care to be consistent in areas like railroad reporting mark and location names. Holding the collection to these standards ensures that (1) users can find the information they needs (2) that it can be mixed with other collections and (3) that computerized systems will be able to process these collection in the future. So, on the one hand the descriptions are geared toward a very small and specizlied audience and, on the other hand, the metadata was carefully created to be opened to a much larger horizon of use both now and in the future.
A sidenote: while processing this collection I listened to the popular podcast Serial. Serial was a true-crime story that recounted the story of a murder and investigation. Without giving anything away, at one point the question about whether there was a payphone outside of a Best Buy becomes very important. Turns out, everyone had a very hard time proving or disproving the existence of this payphone. But, when I was processing this collection, I imagined that perhaps someday the picture of a particular train depot on a particular day could be used to solve a crime! It’s a crazy fantasy, but somehow represents the larger and ultimately unknowable future uses of these images.
I learned that effective processing requires both conceptional abilities and technical abilities and that there really isn’t much difference between the two. That is, entering metadata required technical mastery over the scanner, Excel, and other programs. It was also clear that the technical components – how fast the scanner scanned, what the photo editing abilities were, etc. – had a profound impact on the project. Additionally, five minutes investigating keyboard shortcuts paid continual dividends. Effective processing requires advanced technical knowledge.
Lastly, I think effective processing also required a fair amount of self-reflection and evaluation. Is this process working? Is that scan good enough? How should I transcribe this description. There were lots of very small judgment calls throughout the process.
The art of managing a small project
I don’t have a strong sense of what I will take away from this project, but I’ve been thinking that how projects are managed and structured is quite important. For example, for this project, Lake Forest student workers did most of the scanning before I arrived so I inherited a large digital collection that I didn’t have any control over. This effectively divided the scanning of the images from the metadata creation part of the process and I think this approach had advantages and disadvantages. The advantages of the divided approach included more quality control and the fact that doing it all at once created a very large and complex workflow. The disadvantages included lack of coordination between the two processes as well as duplicate labor.
I’m actually not at a point where I’m willing to say that one approach is preferable to another – I’m just at a point where I realize that how projects are managed and structured have profound implications. I’m also aware that Anne is managing my project, Jim’s project, and all the other projects within the archives. I’m learning that managing different projects and people – especially with limited resources and time – is an important and essential skill.
More Product, Less Process
Lastly, this project gave me context to think about the “More Product, Less Process” philosophy that has been defining archives over the last decade. Essentially, this philosophy argues that we shouldn’t hold all collections to the same “golden standard” because we don’t have the time or resources to do that. Essentially, it argues that adequate processing is totally adequate – don’t think of it as “cutting corners.”
In my estimation, we followed the MPLP model in processing this collection. The digital scans are decent but were not done at the highest possible resolution. The metadata we created was good but wasn’t comprehensive (I didn’t research locations or train information if that information wasn’t provided). However, given the nature, size, and resource, these level of processing was totally adequate and appropriate. How could we justify a “more process less product” approach to this collection?
However, despite knowing this and believing firmly in the MPLP philosophy, I did feel a little guilty it a scan was slighty off-center and that we didn’t re-house the material in archival specific binders. I had to confront the tension in knowing that the level of processing and care was totally appropriate to this collection while I still longed for “the gold standard.”
These lessons in metadata creation, effective processing, project management, and the “more product, less process” philosophy have made this internship a really rich experience for me.