Monday, June 30, 2008

A Surprise Bequest

Librarian's life story has rich twist at the end from the Columbus Dispatch:

Before her death at age 57, Carol Sue Snowden lived in a condominium on the East Side and drove a used Chevrolet.

She worked for 30 years in the Whitehall branch of the Columbus Metropolitan Library, rarely indulging in anything except her passion for books.

The daughter of parents who survived the Depression, Snowden -- who never married or had children -- was the picture of frugalness.

That's why 50 friends and library colleagues who gathered late last month for her memorial were so stunned to learn that she was a millionaire.

And Snowden, who died of ovarian cancer in January, left her money to the libraries she loved.

She willed $530,000 to the Whitehall branch and $70,000 each to the libraries of seven Columbus-area schools -- for a combined gift exceeding $1 million.

"You should have heard the gasp in the room," recalled Kim Snell, spokeswoman for the Columbus Metropolitan Library. "And then to follow it up with seven announcements of $70,000 for seven schools in the community -- it was just unbelievable."

The donation is the largest in recent memory for the Columbus Metropolitan Library, Snell said, and by far the largest given to the Whitehall branch.

"It's not like we're paid huge amounts of money, so it was quite a shock," said Deborah Replogle, the branch manager. "It was an incredibly generous gift."

Snowden amassed her fortune through thriftiness and wise investments, one of her three sisters said. Still, even her parents and siblings were shocked at the money she'd amassed.

"It's just a testimony to how you can save if you just do it every day," said Susan Snowden, 52, of Chicago.

Before her death, the reserved Carol Sue Snowden had asked for her family's blessing in leaving her money to the libraries.

"We think it's wonderful -- it's a legacy," Susan Snowden said. "Just imagine the children and parents ... how many people it will benefit for years to come."

Her sister earmarked the Whitehall branch money for a teen and children's activity center whenever a new library is eventually constructed. (Library officials are researching what to do about future facilities for all branches, Snell said, so a new building could be possible but is not yet planned.)

The seven schools that received money are places where Snowden had read: Etna Road Elementary, Kae Avenue Elementary and Beechwood Elementary in the Whitehall district; Broadleigh Elementary and Fairmoor Elementary in the Columbus district; and Holy Spirit and St. Catharine in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Columbus.

She asked that 90 percent of the money be used to enhance print collections and 10 percent to buy computer-related material.

Snowden also left money to the libraries she used growing up in Peoria, Ill., including $10,000 to her grade-school library, $10,000 to her high-school library and $10,000 to her local library.

In addition, she left $10,000 to a colleague to pursue a master's degree in library sciences.

Her family presented giant checks to each library during the memorial, relishing the excitement that Snowden knew she wouldn't get to see. Susan Snowden wonders whether her humble sister would have liked such an event, but she wanted to celebrate what her sister had done, she said.

Replogle -- and her young readers -- will inevitably celebrate for years to come.

"It's a very low-income community," the Whitehall branch manager said. "She had worked here for so many years. She knew the teachers. She knew the people who walked in here every day. ... She just felt there was something she could do to help."

And she did, in true librarian fashion: quietly.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Correctional Photo Archives

While surfing for interesting photo archives online, I discovered the Correctional Photo Archives. From the site:

The American Prison Society Photographic Archive records collection was acquired by the Eastern Kentucky University Archives in 1984 through the auspices of Dr. Bruce Wolford of Eastern's College of Law Enforcement. Dr. Wolford received the photographs in 1979 from William Bain, instructor at the Kentucky Bureau of Training. In the 1960s Mr. Bain, a former staff member of the American Correctional Association, conceived the idea of a pictorial history of the American prison. With the aid of David A. Kimberling, a prison inmate and photographer, Bain had photographs copied from the American Correctional Association archives plus ones he received from various federal and state correctional facilities throughout the United States. In addition to the copies, which comprise the negative part of the collection, he acquired many original black and white photographic prints. Finally in 1978 through the work of Anthony P. Travisono, executive director of the American Correctional Association, Bain's dream, The American Prison: from the Beginning. A Pictorial History, was published.

The photographic collection is rich in its depiction of early twentieth century prison life and conditions. The collection covers numerous subjects such as prison living conditions, recreational activities, industries, hospital care, corporal punishment, work gangs on the farm and quarries, vocational activities, weapons confiscated, prison architecture, and the death house. A few of the images are of prison officials, primarily in the federal penitentiary system.

A source of contemporary prison photographs is Richard Ross's Architecture of Authority and its online gallery.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Review of Arts, Inc.: How Greed and Neglect Have Destroyed Our Cultural Rights

Arts, Inc.: How Greed and Neglect Have Destroyed Our Cultural Rights

My review of Arts, Inc.: How Greed and Neglect Have Destroyed Our Cultural Rights by Bill Ivey (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2008).
Published in ARLIS/NA Reviews, June 2008.

In Arts, Inc., Bill Ivey, former chair of the National Endowment for the Arts, has written an engaging memoir that merges his personal and professional experiences to evaluate the state of art and culture in America. He argues that copyright extension, the desertion of art and culture as a diplomatic tool, and corporate avarice and negligence have undermined our uniquely American cultural heritage. He devotes a chapter to each aspect of his proposed Cultural Bill of Rights, which encompasses heritage, artists in public life, creative private lives, American artistry abroad, art of lasting value, and robust, reliable institutions.

Ivey explores the rise of corporate art ownership and the fall of cultural institutions designed to enrich public life. He writes, “Most of America’s twentieth-century culture was produced by for-profit arts industries, and much of our cultural heritage has been no better treated than assets such as buildings and furniture” (45). Corporations are wary of preservation because, “by revealing how much has been lost, how much has never been released, and, following decades of mergers and relocations, just how little record, film, and television companies know about what they do or do not own, the truth would produce public outrage” (48). Even worse, “nonprofits are too often careless with historical assets, risk averse, and…drawn to projects that have no real importance beyond an impact on the bottom line” (217).

He calls for the reformation of intellectual property rights in the United States, so that works are properly preserved and do not remain commercial assets in perpetuity. Ivey archly illustrates his view of this issue by including usage fees in his photo captions.

He heralds “citizen artists” and a more creative life for Americans. “Participation is the hallmark of a vibrant cultural scene, not just participation for the trained and well-heeled but participation that’s available to just about everybody” (262). With this populist viewpoint, for example, he asserts that orchestras should mimic NASCAR promotions, making classical music accessible to average Americans.

Ivey envisions a harmonized vision for art and culture, “the birthright of citizens in our enlightened democracy” (xix). A revival of the Arts and Crafts movement, which reacted to the Industrial Revolution with authentic and meaningful styles, may be one solution. Arts, Inc.: How Greed and Neglect Have Destroyed Our Cultural Rights is an important read for information professionals involved in preserving heritage and those interested in the “cultural rights” of all Americans to an expressive life in a post-consumerist age.

Virginia Tech April 16, 2007 Prevail Archives

VT ribbon

My post on the Jonestown and Peoples Temple archives made me think about how we archive tragedies. Alternative Considerations of Jonestown and Peoples Temple captures a slow build-up to violence that happened thirty years ago. What happens when tragedy happens suddenly, now?

The Virginia Tech April 16, 2007 Prevail Archives can offer some answers on how archiving an event can be a community-building effort, as well as a way to preserve the context of the tragedy for others in the future. From their website:

The Prevail Archives is the official site for the university's historical materials related to the tragic events of April 16, 2007. It is guided by the principles of the archival profession to impartially organize, preserve, and make accessible the analog and digital resources documenting the events of that day and subsequently. It also provides access to other relevant university and government resources.

Visit the Virginia Tech April 16, 2007 Prevail Archives

View the Artifact Processing Gallery

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death

The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death

The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death is a book about 18 crime scene dioramas, created in the 1940s, which are still used in forensic training today. The dollhouse death scenes are an unusual, but successful, way to display information, used for professional skill development and, now, morbid entertainment.

Frances Glessner Lee founded Harvard's Department of Legal Medicine in 1936 and was later appointed captain of the New Hampshire police. To assist detectives in developing skills to gather evidence, Lee created the Nutshell Studies. Based on real cases, the scenes could be accidents, suicides, or murders, depending on how the investigators interpreted the clues.

The scenes are fascinating and macabre, with many movable parts and a commendable attention to detail. Lee knit the stockings for one doll corpse with needles the size of straight pins. The dioramas are blandly domestic, until you discover the tiny blood spatters and corpse.

In "Kitchen," photographed on the cover, a housewife is killed in the middle of her domestic duties. Half-peeled potatoes, a baked cake, and other tasks are in various stages of completion. Was it suicide, as evidenced by the open gas jets and newspaper stuffed around the door? Or murder--who was drinking the glass on the kitchen table?

Read more about the Nutshell Studies here.

Read Harvard Magazine's biography on Frances Glessner Lee.

Visit a Nutshell Studies photo gallery.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Review of Structures of Image Collections: From Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc to Flickr

Structures of Image Collections: From Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc to Flickr

My review of Structures of Image Collections: From Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc to Flickr by
Howard F. Greisdorf and Brian C. O’Connor (Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited, 2008).
Published in American Archivist, 71(2), Fall/Winter 2008.

“What’s the use?” concludes Structures of Image Collections: From Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc to Flickr. Rather than an idiom of anguish, the phrase indicates that the purpose of an image in a structured collection should provide maximum usefulness to the viewer. Concepts for image collection structuring are a rich source of theoretical discourse and debate, state authors Howard F. Greisdorf, Director of Training at UniFocus in Carollton, Texas, and Brian C. O’Connor, a Library and Information Science professor at the University of North Texas. Using interdisciplinary theories and years of experience in image production, consulting, and academic research, Greisdorf and O’Connor outline image characteristics, describe applications, and explore image collection structures, based on cultural methods and historical examples. They argue that language-based image management should be reconceived with other practices to make collections more accessible to diverse users.

The oldest known cave paintings in Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc, France, and the photo-sharing website Flickr serve as the past and present of structured image collections. Both collections are digital, either by fingers across clay or by computer manipulation. The authors assert, “We are at once linked from twenty-first-century digital images to the digital images of our ancestors, reminded that the computer-based use of the term is anchored in our very physical nature and reminded that construction of images is a purposeful act.” Capturing an image is “photocutionary behavior,” a phrase coined by the authors, based on linguistic philosopher J. L. Austin’s illocutionary speech acts. Austin’s work can be summarized by stating, “to say something is to do something.” When our ancestors depicted stallions on cave walls or when we snap pictures with camera phones, each image executes a function. Subsequent photocutionary behaviors by collectors or viewers also purposefully utilize images.

Images are as much perception (how we see) as conception (how we think). Images “induce humans to emit pheromones of meaning,” derived from both the semiotic elements in the image and the personal, etymological, locative, experiential, and emotional perspectives of viewers. Depending on their roles, image creators, collectors, and viewers create a “mental triumvirate” of meaningful words. The creator has a purpose for generating images; the collector seeks images to complete a function; and the viewer has a use for browsing images. These expressions of visual engagement, formed by the duality of perception and conception, structure an image collection. Collectors can gain insight from embracing the perspectives of image creators and viewers, because collection structure will affect the appearances derived from individual viewers.

The authors argue that, “current frameworks … tend to promote a measure of forced conformity that is not necessarily a stable characteristic of visual experience.” Language application can introduce shifting semantic patterns among images. Cognitive psychologist Eleanor Rosch states that when people name an object in an image, they rely on cues from the image to place the object in a basic, subordinate, or superordinate level. This knowledge hierarchy is similar to art historian Erwin Panofsky’s preiconographic, iconographic, and iconology levels and traditional subject-headings like broad term, near term, and related term. When language applications change, image structures and relationships transform. As a result, the use of titles, descriptions, and keywords in image retrieval requires reinterpretation, since language cannot fully encapsulate an image’s meaning. As Greisdorf and O’Connor state, “The efficacy of [evocative] words for achieving efficient and effective image collection structure…resides with the nature of language, not the nature of vision.”

Image collection structure has conventionally been based on the organizing authority of the collector and the cognitive authority of the viewer, which can be incongruent. Most collections are structured around the experience of looking at something, rather than looking for something, which entails greater cognitive effort. Another way to describe this perspective on visual engagement would be the “ofness” and “aboutness” of an image. “Ofness” is what an image objectively represents, as in Rosch’s basic level and Panofsky’s iconographic level, whereas “aboutness” is what it subjectively represents. For example, museums often use “ofness” groupings to organize their collections into categories of art movement, style, or artist rather than ascribed viewer “aboutness” meanings such as landscapes, heroic acts, or the color blue. The authors question whether the visual experience of looking at something is always enhanced by knowing about the image. Given that the purpose of a structured collection is to satisfy user needs, categorizing by “aboutness” can be just as helpful as “ofness:” the inexperienced viewer has as much right to define what they see as the professional viewer.

The authors note the limits of current practices for structuring image collections by lists, indexes, directories, catalogs, thesauri, taxonomies, ontologies, typologies, metadata, templates, or topic maps. Retrieval systems and digital asset management (DAM) software are based on language, particularly keywords, because words are extractable from documents. For images, there is no language to extract, only language to apply. Keywords provide content-based access points to images because they label the objects being photographed. To a lesser extent, they can also be concept-based, detailing an image’s features, attributes, and characteristics. Rather than designing more effective language-based algorithms, retrieval system designers should reinterpret keyword searches based on information-seeking behavior, cognition, and memory. Newer approaches like tagging and algorithmic or heuristic browsing provide more search versatility. Browsing based on both content and concept and on images alone remains on the edge of discovery.

Online collections offer structuring inventiveness because digital images can belong to multiple categories simultaneously, whereas physical images cannot. Collections have evolved from mutually exclusive categories, often arranged in hierarchies, to digital images with any number of labels, allowing collectors to focus on inter-relationships and cognition. Greisdorf and O’Connor should have more fully explored the possibilities of this emerging structure, using Flickr and similar sites as examples. With online collections, folksonomy, or social tagging, allows viewers to apply semantic keywords to images, which could cultivate deeper semantic associations between “ofness” and “aboutness” categories.

The back cover states, “Image collections can no longer be the result of ad hoc processes rooted in antiquated methodologies.” Language-based approaches and analog collections are time-tested if limiting, but not antediluvian. Digital collections offer better access to users with the potential of broadening their visual experiences. However, it is too soon to know digital preservation challenges—what may be an excellent digital collection today can become inaccessible or corrupted tomorrow.

The book covers theories discussed in Jacques Burzun’s The Use and Abuse of Art, James Elkins’ The Object Stares Back, E. H. Gombrich’s The Uses of Images, and John Gilmour’s Picturing the World. However, Greisdorf and O’Connor concentrate on digital-age photographic images, in part because billions are created daily with digital cameras. In 1859, Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote of the daguerreotype: “It has become such an everyday matter with us, that we forget its miraculous nature, as we forget that of the sun itself, to which we owe the creations of our new art.” Today, the ability to create and share photos instantaneously has made it a routine, but under-analyzed process. This ease of construction is demonstrated in the book itself with the authors’ own black and white photos and illustrations that express their concepts elegantly.

Structures of Image Collections: From Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc to Flickr is recommended for information professionals who regularly engage with image collections, as well as those who are creating or restructuring a collection and need a foundation of image management principles. Although many of the concepts are familiar to those with art history backgrounds, na├»ve readers may have intuitively experienced the theories without their explicit expression. Some archivists may be disappointed in how the text expounds on the theoretical problems of language-based structures without offering alternative best practices, only the hope that the future portends for better image management and access.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Wisconsin Death Trip

Wisconsin Death Trip

My first job out of college was in a medium-sized academic library at an arty college. I had picked it not only because it was an entry level job in a profession I wanted to pursue, but the quality and breadth of books now available to me was irresistible. One of the first books I took out was Wisconsin Death Trip, which I had always heard about, but never read.

In the late 1960s, historian Michael Lesy began his work compiling a collection of photographs (from glass plate negatives—truly beautiful historical specimens, enough to make this archivist swoon) and documents from Jackson County, Wisconsin at the end of the 19th century. First published in 1973, the book mostly contains photographs by Charles Van Schaik, taken between 1890 and 1910, around Black River Falls, Wisconsin. Wisconsin Death Trip overwhelms you by the amount of suicide, mental illness, murder, and mischief conducted by grim-faced God-fearing country people. Its strength is that it takes archival material and, by arrangement alone, produces something entertaining, morbid, and engaging. One woman, for instance, is obsessed with breaking shop windows and the reader follows her throughout the book as she is arrested repeatedly.

In 2000, Wisconsin Death Trip was turned into a docudrama. What I saw of it was well done, but I stopped watching after the endless amount of dead babies. The film captured a sense of doom and mortality more than even the book.

The Wisconsin Historical Society has an online collection of images used in the book and a Flickr set.

To find out more about the film, visit Wisconsin Death Trip.