Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The heretofore undiscovered link between surveying and hoboing

Is there any word in the English language more amusingly evocative than "hobo"? (And, by logical conclusion, is "hoboing" English's funniest gerund?)

Lest you think this an idle query with no survey content, let me tell you what prompted this train of thought. On Friday we surveyed a collection of notebooks from an amateur ornithologist who was active from the 1920s to the 1980s. This, in itself, is not unusual, since the archives of the Academy of Natural Sciences are replete with birding documentation, ranging from daily checklists of birds seen to highly detailed species and location descriptions to anatomically correct drawings to tens of thousands of photographs and slides.

What was unusual about this collection was that, along with the checklists and the decades worth of notebooks chronicling sightings throughout the United States, Europe, South America, and Africa, were journal entries in which the author chronicled his "hoboing" adventures -- hitching rides with strangers, making camp with wizened oldtimers, getting rounded up by the police -- all undertaken in pursuit of his birding passion. This presented a whole different face to hoboing and, probably needless to say, prompted a weekend's worth of hobo-related google searches.

Speaking of faces and hoboing, here's a link to a wonderfully diverting site where you can browse through visual depictions of "the" 700 Hobo Names, as authoritatively declared by John Hodgman in his book The Areas of My Expertise.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

An update from the depths of the Academy of Natural Sciences archives

We've been surveying at the Academy for just over a week, and the work is humming right along. Because we're focusing on unprocessed materials in this project, we're not going through the collections of the most famous of the scientists and explorers represented in the archives (those have been processed). Still, it's been an interesting visit so far. We had the opportunity to talk to some of the collection curators about how they use the archives, and we were given a glimpse of the bird, fossil, and insect specimens at the Academy. (Three million bugs! Chills run up my spine just thinking of it!) We saw birds collected by John James Audubon (including Carolina Parakeets) and by John Gould (including Fairy Wrens).

As for the paper collections, they're not too bad either. We've just finished surveying a collection of papers by and about Edgar T. Wherry (1885-1982), who was a botanist and mineralogist. The papers at the Academy mostly deal with his extensive study of the phlox family, but we ran across an interesting PACSCL nexus:

  • Wherry took courses and later taught mineralogy at the Wagner Free Institute of Science;
  • a set of Wherry's hand-colored glass slides were reproduced and indexed by Marnie and Bill Flook;
  • the University of Delaware has a collection of miniature books donated by Marnie Flook, and we surveyed a set of documents related to Flook's microbibliomania;
  • an article about Wherry's slides was authored by the Flooks and published in Green Scene, a magazine published by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (of which Wherry was also a member)

There is such a broad range of institutions taking part in the PACSCL survey that it's surprising to see so many of them turn up in one collection. But as we progress through the survey, I'm finding that Philadelphia is smaller than it seems.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Rate me, equate me, any way you want me

One of the stated goals of this project is to develop a common "assessment culture" among PACSCL institutions when it comes to unprocessed collections. This will help institutions across the consortium generate ideas for collaborative projects, as well as give them a common language and methodology for prioritizing the collections in their backlogs going forward. To do this, we’re applying the same survey method and rating system to all the collections in this project, regardless of their format and regardless of their institutional context. As you might imagine, this isn’t easy – not when one week you’re evaluating an order book from a 19th century wigmaker in a university special collections and the next you’re poring over a prominent 20th century ornithologist’s research materials in one of the nation’s oldest scientific research museums – but we’ve worked hard with the participating institutions to smooth out all those little idiosyncrasies that often get in the way of coordinated planning for special collections materials.

The direct predecessor to our project is a comprehensive survey project at The Historical Society of Pennsylvania that took place from 2000-2002 – in fact, the general methodology we’re using, albeit with some modifications, is sometimes referred to as "The Historical Society of Pennsylvania protocols." Other institutions, like Columbia University and the University of Virginia, have adapted this model for their own use, and have some interesting resources online. Their resources don't appear to be online yet, but also using a similar model are institutions as diverse as WGBH public radio and television in Boston and the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Of course, the assessment model we’re using is one among many. I was interested to read this article in ARL’s bimonthly newsletter about UNCAP, a project at the University of Chicago in which faculty and graduate students identify, assess and process collections. There are a range of models for preservation surveys, including this one developed at Washington State University that was detailed in an article in the last issue of the American Archivist. And various archival appraisal models, particularly the Minnesota Method, developed by Mark Greene and Todd Daniels-Howell, could easily be adapted to the assessment of collections for processing, not just for acquisition.

I’m curious to hear about other assessment models people have applied to their collections, for either processing or preservation. When faced with a backlog of unprocessed material, how do you decide what to tackle next?