A challenge: Can you find stories related to one day, December 28, 1986?

Friends, colleagues, researchers, and anyone else who this post can reach, I am here to forward to you a challenge.

We often say that one of the most important reasons we preserve archives is for the stories they tell about “ordinary” people. Well here is your chance to share some of those stories. Below is a challenge from noted author Gene Weingarten (multiple Pulitizers, people!), who has asked me to help him get his message out to the archival community. And I am happy to do that, and to communities of historians, librarians, genealogists, and people who keep their own archives that document themselves and their own families. I know we can help him find the material for this book. So, please:

  1. Read his eloquent request. 
  2. Dig into the collections you know about.
  3. Send him whatever you find that might fit the bill. (Caveat: I’ve confirmed that he’s only looking for US-based stories. So if you’re outside the US, but your story or documents relate to Americans, please get in touch with him.) 
  4. Pass this request along to your family, friends, and colleagues if you think they can help.

I feel like I should have my Rosie the Riveter “We Can Do It!” picture here. I actually don’t know if we can do it, but I know that this is a perfect opportunity to demonstrate the value of archives. So, please: read, dig, forward!

Dec 28 1986


 Is There Such a Thing as An Ordinary Day? 

(A challenge/plea from Gene Weingarten, The Washington Post)

 I am writing a book about a single day in American history, a date I chose at random by drawing numbers out of a hat. My working thesis is that life is an endless, fascinating drama, and that if one digs deeply enough into any single day – the basic, irreducible unit of human existence – one will come up with a rich and textured story with interlacing, universal themes.   The publisher is Penguin, and the book (tentatively titled “One Day”) is scheduled for release in 2016.

That’s my random day, above. It’s the Sunday between Christmas and New Years in the year of Challenger and Chernobyl.  To help build this book, I’m hoping to borrow your skills, your experience, your resources, your intuition . . . and your generosity.

So far, I’ve found many interesting, dramatic events from December 28th, 1986: lurid murders, celebrity deaths (John D. MacDonald, for example), devastating accidents, advances in technology, and so forth.  But mostly these have been matters that somehow found their way into the news or other easily searchable public records, or turns up in a Google hit when searching the date.  What I am seeking now are more elusive stories, harder-to-find events and anecdotes from private lives that had intense meaning or resonance within those lives, or were portentous of larger events to come.   Or other sorts of events – within the business world, or in the military, for example – that didn’t make the news.

So, what, in particular, would be of value?  Someone celebrating her 12th birthday on that day would be of no particular interest to me.  But someone who celebrated her 12th birthday on that day, got her first microscope as a present, and would go on to become a successful cancer researcher  ….  very possibly.  The book will be anchored on The Day, but will have the advantage of being able to be contextualized, by looking forward (and backward) in time.  One of the best stories I have so far – and one of the few that takes place on a very private scale – involves a mid-30s couple who met on that day, while on dates with other people.   The following day, they had their first date.  The day after that, they announced to a room full of people that they were engaged.  The day after that, they moved in together.  A stunning, stupid tale of impetuosity …. except they’re still married and adorably in love.

I am asking you for help in finding good stories, in whatever way you can.  In return, I can offer you public gratitude: acknowledgement of your efforts in my book, and publicity for the good work you do.

Please communicate with me (all correspondence will be treated as private and privileged) at gene.weingarten@washpost.com, or by phone at 240-994-2362.

A simple request, and yet not so simple. How many of our collections have material that recent? How many can be accessed by date? Do we know enough about our subjects to be able to put together the kind of stories Mr. Weingarten is looking for? That’s why I suspect people examining their own personal documentation may end up being more successful than the custodians of other people’s collections. But I’m interested in what you can find. So keep me posted in the comments about your progress, but more importantly share your stories with our illustrious friend.


Posted in Fun stuff | 8 Comments

Metadata is a foreign concept? Whaaaat?!? (Part Two) – A guest post by Greg Bak

[This is the second guest post by Greg Bak, Archival Studies, Department of History, University of Manitoba.]

Thanks again to Kate for agreeing to publish my presentation on her blog. In Part One of this guest post I discuss some of the Twitter reaction to my talk; in Part Two I include the slides and speaking notes from my talk.

This second part of my guest post is to set out a bit of the context for my presentation, and to provide the slides and speaking notes, which you can access here: Bak_SAA13_s701.

Update, December 18, 2013: At Greg’s request his slides are no longer accessible as he is expanding on his ideas for a lengthier discussion in a journal article. If you would like a copy of the slides, please contact him at  Greg.Bak@umanitoba.ca.

My presentation was the third of three in SAA 2013 session 701. The session was titled “It’s All About the Items: Digital Objects and Aggregations in Archival Description and Access.” My co-presenters, Kelcy Shepherd of Amherst College and Kat Timms of Library and Archives Canada, had just spoken to the challenges posed by item-level metadata within archival theory and practice.

I chose to build on Kelcy’s and Kat’s talks while providing a different conceptual framework. Following their talks meant that I didn’t have to get into the question of why archives must manage item-level metadata: Kelcy had just discussed this with reference to made-digital records, and Kat had done so with reference to born-digital records.

This is a point that I have addressed in an earlier article (Bak and Armstrong 2008). Digital preservation and digital management require that archives create or capture item-level metadata. My presentation is in no way intended to ignore this basic fact of digital archiving. Instead, I focused on the nature of items and aggregations within archival theory in contrast with bibliographic theory.

The presentation was to take only 20 minutes. It lacks the nuance and depth of evidence that I will include in the manuscript that I submit for peer review.  Additionally, I was not able to build upon the basic foundations laid out in this presentation to examine how reconceptualizing archival data could allow us to reimagine not just the description, discovery and access of archival records, but other archival functions as well, including appraisal, preservation and outreach.  Some of these implications are addressed in a piece I published in Archival Science in 2012, while others emerged in the panel discussion after the talk.

As I revise the presentation for publication I welcome your thoughts and comments about the ideas included here. Please feel free either to comment below this blog post or to contact me by email: greg.bak@umanitoba.ca.


Bak G (2012) Continuous classification: capturing dynamic relationships among digital information resources. Archival Science 12.3:287-318.

Bak G, Armstrong P (2008) Points of convergence: seamless long-term access to digital publications and archival records at Library and Archives Canada. Archival Science 8.4:279-293.


Posted in Archival description & finding aids, Archival theory, Conferences | 3 Comments

Metadata is a foreign concept? Whaaaat?!? (Part One) – A guest post by Greg Bak

[This is a guest post by Greg Bak, Archival Studies, Department of History, University of Manitoba. ]

Thanks to Kate for agreeing to publish my recent SAA presentation on her blog. In Part One of this guest post I discuss some of the Twitter reaction to my talk; in Part Two I include the slides and speaking notes from my talk.

Okay, so I’m paraphrasing here, but the title of this post summarizes reactions on Twitter to my presentation at SAA 2013 session 701. In the course of my talk I suggested that “Metadata is a natural concept for librarians and a foreign concept for archives.” Here are a few tweets that followed:

 Brad Houston:
Hmm. Metadata a foreign concept to archivists? Don’t think I agree with that at all. Used all the time, even if the word isn’t #Saa13 #s701 

Kind of getting annoyed by the assumptions made in this preso. Metadata is implicit in most description we do as archivists #Saa13 #s701 

Geof Huth:
How could say this and use the word “folksonomies” in the same presentation?

 Couldn’t figure out how he came to this conclusion. I mean, finding aids (of any kind) are metadata.

Things didn’t get much better when I went on to suggest that metadata, as a concept, is foreign to social media, too:

 Krystal Thomas:
hmm, also not sure I am buying the idea that metadata is foreign to social media though something to think about #s701 #saa13

 Andrew Berger:
Metadata is foreign to social media? #saa13

 Brad Houston:
Metadata is foreign to social media?” Um, I’ve got a spreadsheet of #Saa13 tweets on Google Drive which says otherwise #s701 

Thankfully, a couple of folks picked up the nuances and saved me from myself:

 Mark Matienzo:
From the looks of Twitter my colleagues are seriously misunderstanding Greg Bak’s presentation #saa13

 Sami Norling:
Metadata is a natural concept for librarians and a foreign concept for archivists (at least at its introduction) #saa13

 Seth Shaw:
“Metadata is foreign to social media”? I don’t buy the argument though I accept the implication: it is all ‘just’ data. #s701 #saa13

Sami Norling perceptively noted the emphasis I put in my oral remarks on archivists’ initial reluctance, in the 1980s and 1990s, to embrace metadata as a concept, while Seth Shaw evaluated my statement in light of the definition of metadata that I used in my paper. Mark Matienzo urged that people not react to my (poor) choice of wording, but take into account the ideas behind the words.

Not that I was using an obscure or idiosyncratic definition of metadata: I defined it as “data about data.” My point was that when defined in this way, the very concept of metadata requires that there be primary data (for example, a digital object or an analog document) and secondary data (data that is outside of, above or apart from the primary data).

My contention is that when the term began to gain currency among archivists in the 1990′s there was an instinctive reaction against it, followed by an attempt to re-frame it into archival terms. Adrian Cunningham, writing in Archival Science in 2001, scoffed that “When most of us first encountered the term metadata, we were probably repelled by yet another debasement of the English language by a bunch of barbarian techno-boffins.”  Cunningham presses on, discussing various definitions of the term before suggesting that “metadata is simply a new term for information that has been around for a very long time, but which now looks a bit different due to the advent of computer technology.” He rounds off his brief discussion with the claim that “archivists are metadata experts – it is just that we tend not to think in those terms,” and lists some examples of what he would consider archival metadata: finding aids, index cards, file covers, file registers and so on.

In my paper I sought to return to the initial wariness of archivists for the concept and re-evaluate this reluctance. What if archival anxiety around “metadata” was triggered not by fear of “debasement of the English language”, but rather from concern for debasement of archival theory?

This is the real issue: in archival theory, the kind of data typically identified as “metadata” is an integral part of the record. It is evidence of relationships among records and records users. It is not “meta” data; it is simply data. It is data that must be acquired and managed as a necessary part of the record. It is the data that makes the difference between a bunch of discrete, solitary items and a fully interrelated set of archival records.

This, moreover, is also how such data is managed within social media applications. Data that describes the use of information resources is not “meta” data, it is simply data: data that enables the weighting of search results, creating tangible differences in rankings, visibility and usefulness.

I am presently writing my SAA presentation for peer-reviewed publication. If you would like to see how I presented these ideas at SAA, my presentation slides and speaking notes will be included in “Part Two” of this post. I welcome any and all feedback, either in this blog’s comments or by sending me an email at greg.bak@umanitoba.ca.


Cunningham A (2001). Six degrees of separation: Australian metadata initiatives and their relationships with international standards. Archival Science 1.3:271-283.


Posted in Archival description & finding aids, Archival theory, Conferences | 6 Comments

Gauging interest in group (formal or informal) for “mid career” archivists

Hey, all. Just a quick note from the SAA Annual Meeting. There has been some informal talk for a while about the need for some kind of group–maybe formal, maybe informal–for “mid-career” archivists to share information and network (and possibly also serve as a resource for others). Since there are quite a few of us here in New Orleans, we’re going to just have an impromptu meeting to start the discussion

If you’re here at #saa13 and can make it, please join us on Friday from 5:45 – 6:45 (drop in any time) in the Fountain Room on the third floor (this is the informal meeting room space). This is the same time slot as the Awards Ceremony, but it’s the best time I could find. We’ll be discussing what needs might be met by a group and how best to meet them.

If you cannot attend and you’re interested in the topic, please leave a comment on this Google doc, and share what topics you think are most relevant, etc:


(And, yes, we aren’t defining what “mid-career” means. If you feel like you’re mid-career, participate.)


Posted in Salary & career issues for archivists, Society of American Archivists (SAA) | 1 Comment

Spontaneous Scholarships 2013: 4 weeks (plus a bit), 84 generous people, 38 lucky people

As we close out the Spontaneous Scholarship drive for this year, I’m happy to report that your donations funded even more people than last year: 26 students and 12 regular SAA members will have their registrations for the SAA Annual meeting reimbursed. As the person who gets to see the messages from everyone, the lucky people and the ones who didn’t get selected, I can tell you that the generosity of the donors is truly appreciated, and everyone is grateful for the chance to get some financial assistance.

For those of you who like numbers, 26 out of 46 student applicants were selected and 12 out of 25 regular applicants, so we were able to fund a little more than half the people who applied. It’s great that we were able to fund so many people since overall donations were down a bit: last year we had 103 donors and raised over $8,000 and this year we had 84 donors giving about $7,500. And I should mention that around the mid-point of this year’s campaign, when I was worried that donations were down, someone who has been very generous in every year wrote an additional Big Check to help out. If it weren’t for that individual’s extraordinary generosity, we wouldn’t have been able to break last year’s record for scholarships. I’m not sure why donations might be down, but I’ll have to give some thought to what I might be able to do to combat possible “donor fatigue.”

But, overall the program has been very successful, of course. Over the past three years your generosity has funded 98 people–58 of them students–and helped them attend the SAA Annual meeting. In 2014 SAA will be returning to D.C., which is traditionally a very well attended meeting. I’m sure we’ll have more names in the hat than ever, so I hope you’ll consider making a donation to help them next June. And thanks again to everyone who contributed this year!



Posted in Spontaneous Scholarships | 27 Comments

Call for participation for ART Symposium: Disaster Planning for Archives and their Communities (October 7)

I was asked to help spread the word about this call for participation from the Archivists Round Table of Metropolitan New York for their conference, “Disaster Planning for Archives and their Communities,” to be held on October 7 with a deadline of August 1 for submitting a proposal.

If you’d like to participate as a speaker, here’s their list of possible topics:

Case studies and “lessons learned” from Sandy or other disasters

Protecting personal and family records — providing outreach to the general public

Continuity of operations and logistics — how to get back up and running after a disaster

Navigating FEMA and other disaster relief assistance

Preventative care of collections versus post-disaster recovery

Lone arrangers and small shops — how can small archives band together to help one another

Using a disaster to advocate within your organization — making the archive valuable during a disaster

Archivists as volunteers — fostering a culture of giving and creating a network of archivist volunteers

Disaster planning and recovery on a budget

How archives and cultural institutions fit into the larger emergence response picture, especially post-Katrina.

Keeping up morale, resources and volunteer support weeks and months after a disaster

Disaster planning for born-digital and electronic records

Protecting vital records for both the archive and the larger organization

Archiving disaster — how does a significant event like 9/11 change the normal retention of records? what is the role of the archivist? how are records appraised?

Man-made versus natural disasters — the international perspective, especially in areas subject to armed conflict.

Advocating for archives during larger disaster situations when disaster recovery resources and relief are stretched.

They welcome speakers from outside the NYC region. So if you’d like to participate please go to their site for details. Looks like a great event and I hope many people will be able to attend in October.


Posted in Conferences | Leave a comment

“this is really going to make a very serious difference for me”

As I said on Twitter and Facebook, last night I sent out 32 messages informing people that they’d been awarded Spontaneous Scholarships. But I also told people who hadn’t heard from me yet not to despair–I’m still waiting for some checks to come in the mail and I’m hoping to be able to pull some more names off the waiting list. It’s still not too late to donate if you haven’t already. The Paypal link is still active and if you want to put a check in the mail, just let me know.

Every year the people who receive help because of your donations tell me how much they appreciate it. Here’s part of a message I received this morning:

 As someone who is paid $9.00/hr, this is really going to make a very serious difference for me. I think that what you are doing is a really great thing for the archival community, and I’m thrilled to have won.

I’ll post full stats on this year’s campaign after it looks like we’re completely wrapped up, but for now thanks to all the generous donors who have helped make a difference.


Posted in Spontaneous Scholarships | Leave a comment

Donate toward or apply for a Spontaneous Scholarship by June 29

SAA @NOLA 2005 was where I narrowly passed the CA exam, ate beignets for the first time, and . . .

A donor fondly remembered his or her last trip to New Orleans in a lovely note sent in with a check .(I can’t include the funny part as this may give away the identity, but I hope this fate doesn’t befall you if you are visiting New Orleans this year.)

This is the last week.

If you want to throw your name into the hat to have your registration for this year’s SAA Annual Meeting in New Orleans reimbursed (SAA members–regular and student–and student non-members only), the deadline is this Saturday, June 29. If you want to donate, I’ll keep taking your money after the 30th, but it would be great if I could get everything in as soon as possible so I know how much money there is to give out. Again, more information is here if you need it: http://www.archivesnext.com/?p=2775. We have about $3,500 at the moment and 56 names in the hat so far.



Posted in Spontaneous Scholarships | 1 Comment

Dramatic change to NARA’s mission in new strategic plan?

The National Archives and Records Administration has issued a draft of its Strategic Plan for FY 2014-2019 for public comment (comments due June 28, which is not a lot of time).

I’m just reading through it now for the first time and am struck by the change in the description of NARA’s mission from the existing plan to this one:

From the 2009 Strategic Plan:

The National Archives and Records Administration serves American democracy by safeguarding and preserving the records of our Government, ensuring that the people can discover, use, and learn from this documentary heritage.We ensure continuing access to the essential documentation of the rights of American citizens and the actions of their government. We support democracy, promote civic education, and facilitate historical understanding of our national experience

From the current draft:

NARA drives openness, cultivates public participation, and strengthens our nation’s democracy through public access to high-value government records

That’s quite a shift in emphasis, wouldn’t you say? Nothing there about preservation, although perhaps the authors think that’s implied. And “high-value” records? I suppose that’s thought to be an improvement over lengthier descriptions of the qualities of records makes them worthy of preservation, but that seems like a very clumsy way to describe it.

This certainly reflects a shift to try to make the archives appear more action-oriented, rather than a passive custodian, but I think something may have been lost along the way. What about you, any thoughts on the “as-is” and proposed “to-be”?



Posted in National Archives & Records Administration (NARA) | 14 Comments

Spontaneous Scholarship update: applicants steady, donations lagging

I had a feeling that donations haven’t been coming in as generously as they did last year, and this morning I confirmed it. Here’s my post from the half-way point last year. Sorry, no drawings of happy people this year. To sum up, we are halfway through the Spontaneous Scholarship drive for this year and numbers are down. At this point last year 44 people had donated. This year so far 28 people have donated. Last year we had raised $3,538 at the halfway point. This year, only $2,370.

On the other hand, this time last year there were 19 student names in the hat and 24 “regulars.” This year it’s 22 students and 19 regulars. So demand is just about where it was, but funding is lagging.

If there’s anything you can do to help encourage more donations, I would appreciate it. As always, if you can afford it and haven’t donated yet, contact me if you need my address to mail a check or hit the “donate” button on the sidebar.

If you need a scholarship, please don’t let this gloomy message stop you from throwing your name into the hat. We still have money to give away and I’m sure we’ll have more come in before the end of June!

Posted in Spontaneous Scholarships | Leave a comment