Monday, August 25, 2008

Pay your library fines or go to jail

Heidi Dalibor
Heidi Dalibor's booking photo from The Smoking Gun

The Smoking Gun reported on the arrest of Heidi Dalibor, a 20-year-old Wisconsin woman who failed to respond to letters and phone calls about two overdue books. While I understand that libraries have the right to retrieve their materials or be compensated for their replacement, stories like this fuel stereotypes that libraries are old-fashioned, overzealous, and punitive. It doesn't help that the fines were $30, but the cost of bailing her out of jail was around $170.

It reminds me of the Seinfeld episode with Mr. Bookman, the Library Detective:

Read more about the arrest at The Smoking Gun

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

At Wal-Mart, copyright lasts forever

In a followup to my post about a digital slider for copyright, a post on BoingBoing linked to a Flickr discussion about Wal-Mart not letting a customer scan family photos, some a hundred years old, because the employees believe that studio photography is under copyright forever.

tstamps says:

"Has anyone else run into this?

Several times I have heard of people attempting to get (family) photos copied at Wal-Mart and refused because they were "copyrighted" - because they were made by a photograph studio. Even if the person who OWNS the copyright were to ask a Wal-Mart photo manager to copy it, they would refuse. They misinterpret the word "copyright" to mean "copywrong," That is to say: Copy?..... wrong!...

A cousin just informed me that a one-of-a-kind rare photo of my grandfather and grandparents was in his collection, and is over 100 years old. Unfortunately he only had time to stop at Wal-Mart and will be on vacation for the next two or three weeks.

He was informed by the Wal-Mart "genius" that since the photo was taken by a studio, it was "copyrighted" which "meant it was not allowed to be copied" by anyone, at any time, period."

Read more, followed by lively commenting.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Review of Film Preservation: Competing Definitions of Value, Use, and Practice

Film Preservation: Competing Definitions of Value, Use, and Practice

My review of Film Preservation: Competing Definitions of Value, Use, and Practice by Karen F. Gracy. (Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 2007).
Published in Metropolitan Archivist, Summer 2008.

In Film Preservation: Competing Definitions of Value, Use, and Practice, film historian and academic Karen F. Gracy presents a robust ethnographic survey of American individuals and organizations that conserve moving images. In response to the paucity of research in the field, Gracy analyzes “film preservation in action,” which she delineates as the historic, economic, and theoretical frameworks within the film archiving and preservation community, examining it as a sociocultural phenomenon, a “separate social universe, with its own structure, dynamics, and conventions.”

Over the last thirty years, film has increasingly been recognized as a valuable cultural heritage object. Films are “signifiers with multiple referents whose multiplicity of value [can be] historical, cultural, social, aesthetic, educational, economic, or entertainment…” However, moving images face inimitable preservation challenges. Decomposition, due to film’s delicate nature, is the foremost problem. Studios and production companies own copyright to the material and must be consulted before use—even preservation; historically, owners have been reluctant to release their rights. Limited funding also challenges archives: one film can easily cost tens of thousands of dollars. The definition of preservation itself has become “multi-layered and supersaturated” with meaning, transitioning from simple activities like copying a film to a more stable format to theoretical issues of values and policies debated among archivists.

Film Preservation is influenced by social theorist Pierre Bourdieu’s work on “the field of cultural production,” whereas institutions “consecrate a certain type of work” by the authority to define and control what is worth protecting. Film archives work inversely, often ceding their authority over selection, preservation, and access to studios that hold intellectual property rights. Film archives also differ from other cultural heritage institutions because of their interest with mostly popular, rather than high, arts.

These issues contribute to the instability of film archives within the hierarchy of cultural institutions. The text’s crux is, “Without the exclusive authority to control the work of film preservation and restoration, what are the ultimate consequences for the cultural imperatives of preservation and access to moving images?” This concern pertains to other archival areas because cultural institutions may relinquish their authority due to copyright law issues and technological advances in the future.

Film Preservation is especially valuable because of the author’s ethnographic fieldwork conducted within the archival environment. Gracy documents the decision-making process of film preservation in a series of flowcharts, illustrating selection, fund raising, inspection and inventory, laboratory preparation, duplication, storage, cataloging, and access. Although the text emphasizes social activities over techniques, the charts provide a meaningful assessment of information about the film preservation process, which is often not as extensively documented as it should be.

Archivists, of both film and other mediums, will be interested in this text, as it balances theory with practical advice. Film Preservation teases out the challenges of archiving and preserving moving images with a sense of optimism for the future, providing a solid foundation of subsequent ethnographic work in this field.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Nonprofits and Cultural Heritage

Arts, Inc.

While reading Bill Ivey's Arts, Inc.: How Greed and Neglect Have Destroyed Our Cultural Rights for ARLIS/NA Reviews, I was particularly stuck by this passage (pp. 45-47):

“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. But what about the network of orchestras, dance companies, theaters, and opera companies—organizations that grew up on the nonprofit side of America’s cultural playing field? And what about libraries, archives, and personal collections—have they managed to serve the public interest by preserving intangible heritage and making it available to citizens? When it comes to preserving work they create, nonprofits haven’t done very well, and our underfunded public and private archives have struggled to keep up with expanding collections, expensive technologies, and an increasingly burdensome intellectual property environment.

As record executive Dan Sheehy notes, tapes and films are “much more ephemeral than most other broad categories of human achievement,” and, although operating under public service charters, most nonprofit cultural organizations have simply never had the resources required to adequately manage historical materials generated by their own work. Often boxed in by restrictive union regulations, orchestras, opera companies, and nonprofit theatrical production companies have often found it difficult or impossible to legally memorialize their own work. Even when recordings of productions are generated, it’s far too costly for the typical nonprofit to maintain archives of those film or tape recordings that can be authorized. Consider that the New York Philharmonic generates fifteen hours of new recordings each week; multiply that total by the two hundred or so orchestras that archive their own work, and add the fields of dance and theater, and the scope of the ongoing preservation challenge emerges.

Even museums and historical societies, nonprofits with stated preservation and public access mandates, have done a far from optimal job of preserving creativity from the past. This is intangible heritage we’re talking about, sounds and images captured on discs, tapes, films, or hard drives that have value only because of their content. Museums and historical societies have had their hands full simply dealing with buildings, artifacts, and monuments—tangible things you can walk up and touch. In 2005 Heritage Preservation (a Washington-based heritage advocacy organization) surveyed 30,000 collections in museums, libraries, and archives and discovered that more than half had suffered damage from water or light and that ‘many institutions lack basic environmental controls that prevent photographs from losing color [and] keep rare books from crumbling to dust.’

Financial pressures have not only prevented museums from protecting collections; they have encouraged museums to continually look to their holdings as potential sources of income. Tight preservation budges mean that sometimes holdings are simply sold, usually after a committee has quietly declared them ‘surplus,’ arguing that the artworks don’t line up with core collection policies of the museum. New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman pummeled the New York Public Library following the deaccessioning (sale) of the Asher B. Durand painting Kindred Spirits. Noting that little public debate had preceded Sotheby’s auction of the piece (which was purchased by the Arkansas-based Walton Family Foundation, of Wall-Mart fame), Kimmelman concluded that today, “in America, celebrity and money are the measuring sticks of cultural value.” Historical assets attached to nonprofits that aren’t in the culture business have fared even worse: witness the dismal handling of speeches, letters, and other documents by the Martin Luther King Jr. estate. After decades of attempting to earn royalties by licensing the civil rights leaders’ words, the King collection was on the verge of being liquidated by, you guessed it, Sotheby’s. (A consortium of Atlanta-based universities stepped in to acquire the King material at the last moment.) Although nonprofit status exists to serve the public interest, financial constraints, union policies, and contractual commitments have made it difficult for tax-exempt institutions to set a standard of preservation and access significantly better than what has evolved in for-profit arts industries."

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

More Product, Less Process


I recently attended the Metro workshop, Archival Processing: Implementing New and Efficient Strategies, presented by Dan Santamaria, Assistant University Archivist at Princeton’s Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library.

A 2005 American Archivist article, “More Product, Less Process: Pragmatically Revamping Traditional Processing Approaches to Deal with Late 20th-Century Collections,” by Mark A. Greene and Dennis Meissner, took the archival world by storm the moment it was published.

The authors found that the rate of processing 20th century collections cannot keep up with the growth of collections, resulting in inaccessible backlogs. Processing practices, developed primarily for 19th century collections, are not sufficient to deal with the size and scope of modern collections. Archivists tend to process at an ideal level, rather than focusing on a “golden minimal” of processing necessary to make collections available. The least amount of work should be done to adequately meet user needs. Arrangement, description, and preservation work should all be done at the same level, which is usually the series level. In other words, accessibility triumphs all.

Some choice quotes from the article:

"Truly, much of what passes for arrangement in processing work is really just overzealous housekeeping, writ large. Our professional fastidiousness, our reluctance to be perceived as sloppy or uncaring by users and others has encouraged a widespread fixation on tasks that do not need to be performed."

"A competent processing archivist ought to be able to arrange and describe large twentieth-century archival materials at an average rate of 4 hours per cubic foot."

"Unprocessed collections should be presumed open to researchers. Period."

"We must get beyond our absurd over-cautiousness that unprocessed collections might harbor embarrassing material not accounted for in deeds of gift, and we must stop fretting over what users might think about us if given a dirty, disorganized collection."

The second half of the workshop was devoted to Princeton case studies where Greene-Meissner was applied.

In my own personal experience, discovering Greene-Meissner early in my archival career was a blessing. I knew that I couldn't be the only one who thought some archival rituals were too time-consuming and took away from easy access. I was able to decrease of a three-year backlog of 50 feet of documents and 10,000 digital photos, prints, and slides in one year applying Greene-Meissner!

Read "More Product, Less Process: Pragmatically Revamping Traditional Processing Approaches to Deal with Late 20th-Century Collections"

Friday, August 1, 2008

Tomes and Talismans Episode 1

How do you teach children to use the library? A post-apocalyptic library education show from the 1980s called Tomes and Talismans, of course!

From Wikipedia:

"In 2123 humanity is evacuating Earth for the White Crystal Solar System, due to an attack carried out by the nefarious Wiper race, a group of aliens that appear to be little more than run-of-the-mill trailer trash. A special group is preparing a complete library of all Human knowledge which is hidden underground. Here, all fiction and non-fiction books are sorted by an alphabetical and numerical ordering system but an important volume is missing. A desperate search for it begins in the library in the outskirts of the city. The library team leader Ms. Bookhart, played by Niki Wood, is stranded in her bookmobile and is suddenly metabolically suspended for 100 years by a being known only as 'The Universal Being.' She awakens in a world under the control of beings known as 'The Wipers' and is discovered by another group of extraterrestrials in the form of four children known as 'The Users.' The children, along with Ms. Bookhart, rediscover the hidden library and in the course of the series she teaches them how to use it. In turn, they discover how to defeat 'The Wipers' and create a communicator to call the Human refugees back to Earth."

Episode 1, Part 1

Episode 1, Part 2

Episode 1, Part 3

On a related note, does anyone remember the school filmstrip about taking care of books with happy and sad books? The scene where the frowning book is left in the rain made me feel awful!