Object Management

Let’s Start with a Box: Special Collections & Object Management

This blog post was originally published by me in NYPL’s SpecialCollections.txt channel on July 6, 2017.


A box.

If you work in a cultural heritage institution, especially one that handles archival materials, it is helpful—even necessary—to have a system in place that tracks and monitors objects.  This concept sounds deceptively simple, yet it is not.  This became especially apparent when the NYPL’s Special Collections Department was created in 2015, bringing together several units charged with the description, management, and preservation of the Library’s special collections.  At a Library-wide scale, tracking, monitoring and performing assessments of objects becomes complicated without a system that sufficiently understands all objects’ relationships with themselves (more about this later) and the spaces they inhabit over the short- and long-term.

In an effort to address this issue, key staff of Special Collections came together to form the Object Data Model Group.  Over a series of months we thought conceptually about what we wanted an ideal system for object management to accomplish.

Physical Objects and Their Relationships

 archival objects are contained in container objects.

Basic conception: archival objects are contained in container objects.

One of the first questions we asked ourselves was: What is a special collections object? Answering this was an important first step, because we wanted to have a basic conception of what we wanted our ideal system to track. What we determined was that objects can be divided up into two general groups: the first being something that contains something, but has no intrinsic historical or archival value in of itself, like a box or folder; the second being a collection object, like a letter, video, print, book, photograph, or map. Sounds simple enough: however, things started to get complicated when we began to map out their relationships to one another. For example, our conservation department will often repair items from NYPL’s special collections in preparation for exhibition, digitization, or to halt degradation. To a conservator, an object usually starts off as a single map or an album of photographs, depending on the project.


A piece of correspondence includes a rare stamp on an envelope made brittle over time, a letter, and an accompanying photograph, all of which may take different journeys throughout NYPL’s Special Collections units and storage spaces.

A piece of correspondence includes a rare stamp on an envelope made brittle over time, a letter, and an accompanying photograph, all of which may take different journeys throughout NYPL’s Special Collections units and storage spaces.


Let’s say that a conservator receives a photo album whose backing is acidic and therefore harmful to the photographs adhered to it.  They decide that the best course of action is to separate the photographs from the offending material.  So, something that starts off as a single photo album may, at the end of treatment, turn into 20 single photographs.  What this demonstrates is that, in terms of a record for an object, you cannot assume that it will always refer to one and only one thing: depending on its needs over time, it can potentially transform into more things via common library procedures.  Our ideal system, then, would be able to create nested relationships between objects in the event of a procedure, like a conservation treatment.

Digital Relationships

When you start to think about how an object relates to its digital surrogates—which we also conceive of as a type of object—things start to get even more tricky.

For example, a technician who works at NYPL’s Preservation of Audio and Moving Image (PAMI) lab may conceive of an object as a single reel-to-reel tape.  However, upon transferring the reel-to-reel into a broadcast-quality digital audio file, they may discover that the tape, labelled “Recorded Stuff”, contains a variety of recordings the creator made at various points of their life in a variety of recording speeds, both slow and fast, and on a variety of topics: an outdoor concert on one part of a tape, a recording of an interview off their television set on another.  The PAMI technician performing the transfer may then have to create more than one digital file, since they will have to stop the transfer upon the change in tape speed, recalibrate their transfer machines, and then start another transfer session.  This obviously differs from, say, a scan of a paper document: generally speaking, a photograph will produce 1 digital surrogate, or have a 1:1 relationship.  Of course, there are always exceptions to this: a Digital Imaging Unit lab tech recently told me about the process of photographing a 12th-century Japanese scroll, which required a series of photographs to be taken.  Either way, it is safe to assume that, with digitization procedures, a single object can yield many digital surrogates.

The Right System

In the midst of all Special Collections operations (mainly: inventorying, processing, description, transferring, conserving, and assessing/monitoring), items are being physically moved from and to a variety of places, both physical and virtual. Objects are likely to be moved from at least once from one part of the library’s network of research libraries throughout Manhattan, to the Library Services Center in Long Island City, Queens for processing and then to a long-term storage facility in Princeton.  Digital preservation masters are placed in repositories, and service copies are stored in the cloud.  In addition to this, items may get shipped to a vendor to be digitized, be loaned out to institutions for exhibition, or [insert movement here].  And, most importantly, they are being requested for research purposes by our patrons and visiting scholars, and will be called up and moved to be serviced out in a reading room or other research area.

Analog recordings can yield one or more digital derivatives.

Analog recordings can yield one or more digital derivatives.

The question that those of us meeting in Special Collections have been trying to answer is whether or not there is a system that exists that sees objects not as static items with a lowest common denominator object (a box) as the be-all, end-all of the object, but as dynamic objects.  By dynamic, we mean objects that can have relationships not just with other objects, but with themselves.  In addition to this, they system should also be able to establish relationships between objects and the spaces they occupy over the long- and short- term.  We believe that if these relationships can be expressed in a single system, we may be better poised to better understand our special collections as we digitize, treat, monitor and steward them throughout their long lifespans.

In our investigations, we have found that some existing systems, especially those built to track museum objects, have some, but not all of the desired functionality we would require to track objects within the special collections/archives universe.  We are very curious to hear about how other archives and special collections, especially those dealing with collections on a scale comparable to NYPL’s, track and monitor objects.  What systems do you use?  Do they accomplish what you need to understand your collections, or do you wish they did more?  Some of NYPL Special Collections staff will be travelling to the Society of American Archivists conference in Portland, OR this July, so we hope to also pose these questions in-person.  We would appreciate any and all feedback!

Audio Preservation

Magnetic Croissants, or, I was on the radio!


Michael Grant at the MARMIA installation at the Baltimore Art Museum earlier this year.  Photo by Lorena Ramirez-Lopez.

National Public Radio (NPR) broadcast an All Things Considered piece about XFR Collective.  It was a thrilling experience, to say the least: within 12 hours of being contacted by producer Scott Greenstone, another producer, Angus Chen, showed up to the steps of the Tribeca loft where we perform transfers on Monday nights.  He followed us up 5 flights of stairs, and immediately began recording us as we performed a VHS transfer.  The VHS tape contained home movie footage recorded of a family in the 1980s during a Thanksgiving gathering.

The story, titled Videotapes Are Becoming Unwatchable As Archivists Work To Save Them was accompanied by a blog post on All Tech Considered.  Myself and colleagues Brendan Allen and Michael Grant were interviewed, and clips of us talking through the transfer were featured.

The story focused on VHS tape, likely because it was one of the last popular consumer magnetic formats that most NPR listeners would be able to recognize.  However, it’s good to know that XFR works with a variety of video and audio magnetic media formats.


Andrea Callard being interviewed by NPR during a Monday transfer session.  Picture by me.

Some post-NPR interview thoughts:

If you listen to the interview, you may notice that I talk about having nightmares about the tapes I own in my storage space turning into goo.  It’s a funny, hyperbolic thing to say but frankly, is an inaccurate description of what actually happens to tapes: I kind of wish I had referred to rotting tapes as “magnetic croissants” instead.  Why croissants? Tape, over time, due to a chemical reaction between the chemicals in the tape’s substrate and moisture in the air can inflict a nasty tape sickness called “sticky shed syndrome“.  A tell-tale sign of SSS is a high-pitched squeal while playing a tape on a deck, as well as a flaky residue left behind on tape heads. Hence, le croissant.


Speaking of inaccurate statements: when reading through some of the comments on NPR’s Facebook post, I couldn’t help but notice that some folks were claiming that their memories were “safe” because they had transferred content over to some DVDs.  I have my own pile of sketchy media that I have yet to properly transfer over to my computer, so I don’t want to come off like I’m trying to “transfer shame” anyone: sometimes, a burned DVD will do it for the available time and money we have to devote to our own personal archiving and preservation projects.  But, I am hoping that continued conversations about magnetic and optical media best practices can help change the common attitude that somehow, CDs and DVDs are safe.  In fact, they are not to be trusted, and often fail catastrophically.  At least with a flaky magnetic croissant, you can literally bake it to re-adhere the sticky particles to the tape and get one last transfer off it (see?! the croissant metaphor hits on sooo many levels).  However, media contained on a failed optical media disc may be rendered completely irretrievable.

In any case, I am so glad I got to be on the radio, repping XFR!




Audio Preservation

A Zine Just For Podcasters

Hi everyone,

This week I am headed off to San Francisco for the Personal Digital Archiving Conference, being held at Standford, to teach a workshop on archiving tools and tips for podcasters.

A component of our presentation will be centered around a zine I made just for the occasion titled “How to Start Archiving Your Podcast Files”.ZineCover

How to Start Archiving Your Podcast Files [Digital version]

I was inspired to create this zine for a few reasons.  1.) Jaime Mears’ zine she created for the DC Public Library Memory Lab called “Maximum Preservation 2: Electronic Boogaloo”, which you can look at and print here. 2.) My work as a member/volunteer with XFR Collective, a non-profit organization based in New York that performs low-cost video transfers.  We are always striving to provide tools that help demystify archiving and preservation concepts and theories, and overall make these things not-scary.

An important note: if you have a Twitter, feel free to post comments/questions/thoughts/praises about this zine, or about podcast archiving in general, with the hashtag #archivemypodcast.

If you want a physical copy of my zine, please go here.

Thanks for reading! ~(˘▾˘~)


if ( you want to see our SAA poster ) { you = “can in this blog post”; }

Poster Presentation SAA 2016 - Vertical

Click here for a high(er)-quality PDF.

Some NDSR-NY alum (Dinah Handel, Morgan McKeehan and myself) presented a poster at the Society of American Archivists (SAA) Conference in Atlanta.  The poster was meant to present three “real-life” scenarios where archivists with a range of experience in programming/scripting (from beginning to moderate) implemented their new coding skills into their NDSR projects.  We wanted to demonstrate that yes, you can be a beginner coder and implement some pretty cool/impactful things, but it does require some time and effort, especially if you’re starting from scratch.

Here are three of my most memorable questions/discussions I discussed with some of our poster’s visitors:

  • If I have never programmed before, how do I even begin to learn?
  • Even if I’ve learned some programming, how do I begin to apply what I have learned practically to a project/workflow at my institution/organization?
  • It seems like most job positions in archives would benefit from a little bit of programming know-how, yet my MLS/archives program did not offer programming courses.

Here are some entry points that I found useful learning programming fundamentals:

  • Foundations of Programming with Simon Allardice (Lynda.com course) – This is a great course that starts off assuming you have no understand of what programming is (which is where I was at the beginning of NDSR), building your knowledge from the ground up. At the end, you will have written a JavaScript application, illustrating how programming can be practically applied to something we are all familiar with (a webpage).  Lynda is not free; however, some major library systems like the NYPL offer free subscriptions to their patrons.  Lynda has tons of other programming courses available, so it’s probably worth checking out if your local library system grants free access to it.
  • Code Academy – A free suite of online courses teaching beginning to intermediate programming.  There are courses in things like the basics of the command line to how to run SQL queries.  The interface is easy for new users, since the commands/scripts you run do not require that you set up a server on your end: instead, you can run your code off their server and they will correct your syntax as you go.

If you have found any useful resources beginning your path towards learning programming, let me know!


ARSC 50th Anniversary Conference in Bloomington

Hello readers,

This year, I was one of four recipients of an Association for Recorded Sound Collections (ARSC) conference travel grant, supplied by the Morton J. and Lila Savada family, which enabled me to spend a week in Bloomington, IN for a week of hands-on training and panels.  ARSC is an association whose membership consists mainly of private collectors and professionals in the field of librarianship, archiving and sound engineering.  I was happy to be there representing both NDSR and NYPR, and ended up meeting a lot of great people doing some amazing work and research.  This blog post will mainly feature photos and comments about the 2-day pre-conference workshops.

Bloomington is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been to in my life!  It is an idyllic college town with rolling hills, lots of trees, and a super convenient bike path I used to zip to and from the conference and my Airbnb house.  The first day there I spent walking around the Indiana University’s (IU) lush campus filled with meandering paths, streams, bunny rabbits, squirrels, chipmunks and jurassic-sized tulip poplars, like this one I found here:


The following day, I attended the first day of the pre-conference workshops at IU’s Innovation Center, home of the Media Digitization & Preservation Initiative (MDPI) and Memnon-Sony, who are working as partners to digitize the entire IU a/v legacy.  From what I gathered, the MDPI takes care of more selective projects, while Memnon-Sony takes care of more large-scale digitization projects, outputting nearly 9TB worth of material every single day, which is staggering.

First, we got a tour of both the MDPI and Memnon-Sony arms of the building, whose reps showed us how items are processed from the moment they are received in the truck docking bay, to their initial barcode assignment/scan into the system, and through various quality control stations.  Below is a photograph of their extensive a/v transfer decks and monitors.


After our tours, we split off into various workshops.  My goal was to attend as many hands-on workshops as possible.  First, I attended a workshop to learn about MDPI’s a/v digitization workflow, where I offered myself up as a guinea pig to plug/patch in a video signal from an NTSC tape and take the steps that a transfer expert would all the way to when a series of ffmpeg commands associate metadata from IU’s library catalog with the final digitized file and access copy.


A/V transfers are assessed using a digital color scope, like the one you see here.


The video I digitized! And no, this is not anti-aliasing gone wrong: it’s 1990s motion graphics!

Next, I attended a cable soldering workshop! I kid you not.  I was super excited about this one, because I have absolutely no experience using soldering equipment, or have any real background in electronics.  First, we learned the basics of the composition of a cable wire (basically, cables have a negative wire, a positive wire and a grounding wire surrounded by a layer of mesh and then a plastic outer sleeve) and then used wire strippers to take a practice cable apart.  We then learned how to “tin” the tip of our solder: basically, this means adding a little bit of solder to get the heat flowing.  Then, we learned how to de-solder contact points (here I learned that you apply solder to remove solder!) and finished off by applying brand new solder and attaching each of the three wires to contact points.  It was an incredible experience to have in under 2 hours, and I am no longer afraid of 400 degree Fahrenheit tips!


After lunch, I attended a workshop where I learned how to use a reference tone reel in order to properly adjust the azimuth on a Studer reel-to-reel playback machine.  The azimuth basically refers to the angle of the playback/recording head.  If the azimuth was “off” during a particular recording (which is so often the case), the transfer specialist has to adjust the azimuth of the playback machine to reflect its original angle in order to get as much as the signal read back during a digital transfer.


As you can see here, if the azimuth is off, over time, the tape can actually erode the recording head’s surface!


The machine whose azimuth I adjusted with a teeny tiny screwdriver.

So, a couple more highlights.  Later on in the week, the Women in Recorded Sound group (@WomenRecSound) got together at a bar.  I was super excited for this, as it allowed me to come face-to-face with women working as engineers, archivists, librarians, or just have a general interest in working with and sharing ideas with women in the largely male-dominated field of sound collecting/archiving.  I can’t wait to see what they do next. If you are a woman in recorded sound, get involved! They have a very active Twitter account and Facebook page.  I hope to contribute to Women in Recorded Sound by bringing their goals and mission locally to New York City, and hope to provide an update about that very soon.


My second highlight was getting a personal tour of the Hoagy Carmichael Archive housed in IU’s Archives for Traditional Music (ATM), arranged by Susie Cummings (@cususie), former NPR intern and fellow ARSC travel grant recipient, who brought along Andrew Weaver (@Private_Zero) who coincidentally happens to be a recently chosen NDSR fellow at CUNY-Television!  The archive is centered around a beautifully decorated period-room with all sorts of interesting ephemera.  Hoagy is famous for writing standards like “Stardust” and “Heart and Soul”.  I especially enjoyed photographing this beautiful, hand-embroidered chair made by Hoagy’s mother:


That is all for my highlights.  A Storify of the conference in Tweets can be found here, in case you missed our social media surge during the conference.  My time in Bloomington was a very fulfilling trip, and the perfect way to spend the last few weeks as NDSR (sniffle).  Next: an update of where I am off to next, and some other projects I have become involved with these past few months (namely, becoming a member of the XFR Collective).  Thanks for reading!


Conferences, Back-to-Back and All Up The East Coast


A beautiful witch hazel tree I found blooming at the Church of Saint Lucas’ public garden on Hudson Street during a walk.

Happy Spring, everyone!

These past few weeks have been such a blur.  I spent 1 week each in Washington DC and Philadelphia for two very major, inspiring conferences here on the East Coast within a span of 3 weeks.  Going to conferences is a requirement of the residency, and have been in some ways one of my greatest professional challenges to date.

Conferences are a very new experience for me.  During my time as a MLS student, I was also working full-time at JSTOR and interning nights/weekends.  Needless to say, I did not have much of an opportunity (opportunity = time + money) to travel and network.  However, I have found that talking to strangers about NDSR is pretty easy because I’m excited about what I am doing: in some ways my project has become the ultimate ice breaker.  I even made some new friends from faraway places! Although, I do have to schedule in some downtime to practice self-care and get much-needed rest. Conferences require an almost superhuman amount of strength for introverts like me to get through, so I try to be mindful of making sure I get some quiet time each day I’m away from home.

In February, I attended the Radio Preservation Task Force conference, which took place in both Washington DC at the Library of Congress and at the University of Maryland at their College Park Campus. The conference was one of the first of its kind to bring together broadcast and media historians with a focus on preservation and archiving an otherwise overlooked aspect of our recorded history.


View from the steps of my Airbnb: The Supreme Court building, right around the corner from the Library of Congress, where the first day of the RPTF conference took place.

To kick things off, I arrived in DC a day earlier and took advantage of tours the RPTF set up for early comers. We had a choice to visit the Library of Congress Packard Campus (where the LOC does the bulk of their audio/visual restoration work) or National Public Radio (NPR).  Because of my work specifically at a radio station archive, I opted to take the NPR tour, which was a fantastic and enlightening experience.  Their operations are housed in a state-of-the-art environmentally sound/energy efficient building, which includes a green roof planted with local grasses and a beehive.


NPR’s green roof, which sports local flora and their broadcast satellite dishes.

We made our way to their news floor (unfortunately, pictures were not allowed in this area) where we got to see NPR staff in action.  We then made our way to their Master Control room and a live recording studio.


At the end, we got to check out their server room, which is, as you can see below, huge, cavernous and organized.  I must say it was very, very satisfying to see the cables laid out flat and grouped by color.


The first official day of the conference started off with a keynote speech by Paddy Scannell, which will apparently air on C-SPAN (!!!) on March 19 here.


Beautifully designed RPTF conference pamphlet.

After the keynote were a variety of panels: one in particular that I enjoyed was the “Public Radio’s Local Heritage” panel, with speakers representing NPR, WGBH and Linfield College in Oregon.

Afterwards, my mentor at NYPR, John, asked if I wanted to step out and pay a visit Smithosonian’s African American Film Archive.  In other words, we played hooky from the conference! But for a pretty good reason: I got to see this beautiful machine:


And these reels of The Body Guard:


Day 2 of the conference, we made our way to College Park on a chartered bus, which started with a plenary session that included the one and only Andy Lanset, Head of the NYPR archives (and my other mentor).  Later, I spoke on the Metadata and Digital Archiving Committee, giving the audience (and respondents) an update on my NDSR project.


View from the Metadata Committee trenches.

Some interesting topics were brought up, ranging from linked data (and how it will save us), the limitations of cataloging categories and PBCore and the need to web archive podcasts. In other words, we could have used more than the allotted 90 minutes to cover all the topics: it felt like a miniature conference in one afternoon.

This is a very quick wrap-up of the RPTF conference.  It was a wonderful coming-together of mainly media and broadcast scholars, archivists, librarians and conservators.  I came back to New York and my project feeling refreshed.

In case you missed the live Tweets, check on the RPTF Storify here.

Next time I write, I will say more on the code4lib conference I attended exactly a week later in Philadelphia.


Playing Catch-up!

Between the time I began this blog and now, a lot has happened! First, I need to say thank you to Rebekah Cuff, professional graphic designer and long-time friend of mine (we were college roommates back in Toronto) who took my love of 1970s/80s typography and background in audio archives and whipped up a sound wave-inspired logo for me:1d10ded7-97cf-432c-96e6-7e5e7c9edf70

This will be a nice thing to have in my pocket when I set out to DC this week for the Radio Preservation Task Force conference, a unique gathering of its kind (as far as I have been told, there has never been a broadcasting history conference held in the United States).  I will be speaking Saturday, 2/27 on the Metadata and Digital Archiving Committee about my NDSR work at NYPR along with my mentor, John Passmore.

Other things that I have been working on/coming up that might be of interest:

  • Code4Lib in Philadelphia is only a couple of weeks away.  I’m especially excited for the pre-conference workshops.  I’m so excited (and not so scared), because as far as the descriptions are concerned, all the topics being covered sound approachable, even to non-programmers like me.
  • I recently posted a blog on the NDSR-NY website about my complex feelings and interactions I have had so far experimenting with CD-R and MiniDisc data extraction in the NYPR archive.  I made sure to make it as gif-laden as humanly possible. Enjoy!
  • Speaking of optical media: my cohort is planning an all-day preservation symposium we are cheekily calling “Let’s Get Digital” in conjunction with the Archivists Roundtable of New York.  I’ll be hosting a workshop on optical media extraction.

I think three updates is enough for now!