Path of Least Resistance: Mirroring Organizational Patterns in Artists’ Archives

FOR MY ORIGINAL POST, see the blog for the Learning from Artists’ Archives initiative.

Prior to becoming 2nd year fellows of the Artists’ Archives initiative, our application of knowledge was largely general.  We led workshop sessions for groups of artists and presented at library conferences, but rarely did we provide in depth, tailored consultations with individual artists who had particular needs.  Starting this year, however, my class of fellows has filled that gap by digging into the second internship required by the initiative: consulting with a North Carolina artist to establish their studio archive.

Tailoring the artists’ archives knowledge to a specific artist’s needs has clarified my understanding of the power of organization on an artist’s practice.  It has also brought to the fore what is required of an artist-archivist team before even touching the materials to start the archive.  First, we have to get at the underlying psychology behind why and how someone naturally organizes.  For my artist, Durham letterpress artist Brian Allen, this meant digging down to (1) how he prioritizes, categorizes and uses his materials currently, (2) how he intends to use them in the future and (3) how he naturally arranges this materials.

Establishing existing priorities, categories and uses for studio materials is an essential first step for two main reasons, one being the archival principal of ‘original order’ and the other the long term viability of maintaining the archive.  Archivists prioritize keeping materials or a collection in original order where it makes sense for the collection’s internal logic and intended audience.  The principle of original order becomes particularly vital when an archive will be actively used by the original creator of the collection.  To drive the point home, here’s a more mundane example of the impact of original order on making a grouping of items searchable.  Have you ever had a family member or friend who decided to  ‘help’ you by reorganizing your kitchen, closet or desk?  Remember how you couldn’t find anything for days (possibly weeks, maybe never again) after?  That’s because the priorities and categories they assigned to your materials didn’t align with yours or your patterns of use. In archival terms, they abandoned the original order – the internal logic – of your materials. Like with home organization, the usefulness of an archive only stretches as far as it is navigable from a user standpoint.  Understanding current use and workflows regarding studio materials allows archivists to replicate them as appropriate going forward.  That way the archives works for and with the artist for which it was constructed.

The appropriateness of maintaining original order is determined, in part, by intended future use of the materials, as well.  For Brian, his intended future use of his artistic production as a legacy collection for donation takes a backseat to just having it immediately arranged so that he’s aware of and can find all that he has and so that he can identify where projects overlap and relate.  However, his extensive reference library is another story.  Brian expressed an interest in having his extensive catalogue updated, but not for his current, personal use.  Instead, he envisions his library as a community resource that would be just one aspect of opening his studio up to the community as a gallery and learning space.  These attitudes towards use of his studio materials and reference collection drove the decisions we made regarding arrangement and how much to alter or maintain his pre-established arrangement, priorities and categories.

Determining natural organization practices represents the final step in pre-action preparation for establishing a studio archive. As our physical storage handout outlines, most people fall into three categories: (1) piler, (2) filer and (3) spring cleaner (see image below).  Brian—like myself—tends to be a combination of piler and spring cleaner.  To make any organizational strategy functional in the long run, the structure needs to follow the path of least resistance.  As anyone with failed New Year’s resolutions can attest, maintaining new behaviors that don’t work with natural inclinations or ingrained patterns requires too much effort and too many habit alterations to be sustainable.  For Brian’s studio archive, this meant maintaining the categories he’d already assigned his materials, both consciously and unconsciously, in clear plastic boxes that allow him to see both the label and the contents.  The boxes are also highly portable and maintained on shelves that also move.  His space tends to fluctuate in purpose, so ensuring that his storage accommodated this was essential.  Even his oversized materials that require flat file storage are in units with casters and labelled according to their categorized contents.  By working with Brian’s natural inclinations and making maintaining the organization as simple as possible, the hope is that maintenance will feel intuitive and thus not require Brian to employ someone to manage his materials after I finish up my term with him.


Project REVEAL: A Harry Ransom Center Open Access Digital Endeavour

This past Fall, I took Denise Anthony’s Intro to Archives course.  One of her assignments included following the coverage of archives in the news.  I chose to present on the Harry Ransom Center’s new Project REVEAL

The Harry Ransom Center of the University of Texas at Austin is one of the premier archival institutions in the United States. It contains materials on the humanities, covering areas of study from African Studies to the History of Science to Women’s Studies. To fulfill its guiding mission to engage “the broadest possible audience” by providing access to “its diverse and internationally renown collections,”[1] the Harry Ransom Center launched Project REVEAL (Read and View English and American Literature) this June. Project REVEAL brings together twenty-five of the center’s English and American literature collections from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—including famous writers such as Henry James, Sara Teasdale and Jack London—comprising nearly 25,000 records digitized, 22,739 of which are available without restrictions or fees to all with an internet connection.[2]

The goals of the yearlong project, headed by the digital collections librarian Liz Gushee, dictated three priorities: increasing access, enhancing user experience and creating workflows for future large-scale digitizing initiatives. Increased access performs the most obvious function; by selecting authors whose materials are primarily in the public domain and for whom the center had created finding aids down to the item level, then making the entirety of those collections and finding aids available online, the project drastically increased public access to those collections.

The second goal of enhancing user experience ties back to the criteria for selecting the authors’ collections: minimal copyright restrictions and item-level finding aids. Because of open access and the quantity of metadata, the project could create a close connection between the physical records and its digital copy.[3] The Project REVEAL team did this by translating all of the metadata into the Dublin Core Schema and then visibly attaching those descriptions to each online record.[4] The project also established a close relationship not just between the physical and digital copies of individual items, but also between the entireties of each collection. This was accomplished by digitizing each collection in the original order established by the processing archivist, presenting the materials box by box, folder by folder, item by item.[5] Respet de fonds belongs not just in the physical realm of archives; it is making the move to the digital world of archives, as well.[6]

The third goal of the project establishes workflows for future digitizing initiatives. The project’s new workflow standards begin well before any item is digitized. Firstly, the criteria for scope must be established. In this case, scope included time period, geographic region, prestige of the author and time period of the project. Secondly, a sufficient level of metadata, mined from the finding aids, must be present for each collection, preferably to the item level. Thirdly, the collections needs to be as open access as possible, with minimal copyright restrictions that might limit use by requiring permissions. After assessing their collections using these criteria, the Project REVEAL team narrowed down its choices to the collections of twenty-five authors.[7] Once the collections were selected, the team initiated a page count for each, flagging materials required conservation attention or would be challenging to digitize. This allowed for an estimated timeline for completion of the project.[8] Beyond these workflows, the team also developed workflows to facilitate the previous two goals of greater access and enhanced user experience, including the “conversion of finding aid metadata into Dublin Core compliant records, the creation of a scalable file naming convention that correlated to the Box/Folder/Item arrangement of archival collections, and the development of a scalable method for researching and identifying manuscript content believed to be in the public domain.”[9]

The third goal of internal workflows extends beyond just the Ransom Center, modeling new best practices for the archival discipline in general. The Ransom Center’s visibility and prestige lends it the power to influence institutions both in the United States and abroad. Current archival standards for digitization efforts feature making only the highlights of a collection available, since the manpower and cost of digitizing and maintaining an entire collection can be restrictive. Project REVEAL attempts to establish new best practices for the discipline by encouraging the processing of a whole collection. This dramatically increases the amount of content available to users, eliminating the financial and temporal restrictions that may keep them from visiting the repository in person.[10]Perhaps even more importantly, by digitizing an entire collection, archives can allow the users to construct the narrative, rather than dictating the scope of the narrative from within the institution. In her interview with WABE 90.1 FM, Atlanta’s NPR station, Liz Gushee shared a response from one of Project REVEALS users, the “editor of the Robert Louis Stevenson editorial blog.”[11]While he and other Stevenson scholars knew of the existence of some of the materials now digitized, they were unaware of the documents’ geographic location. Learning this and being able to access the material online, as well as having access to the metadata revealing the provenance tracking the receipt of the individual materials, will prove hugely helpful in shaping their future scholarship.

If more institutions follow in the center’s footsteps, scholarship will see a dramatic increase in making archival information accessible and useful. A common complaint in the archives discipline is that the public—including scholars—are unaware of how to use archives at all, let alone to their fullest. As David Bearman points on in his chapter on “Recorded Memory and Cultural Continuity,” this is largely the fault of archivists for not focusing on presenting archives in a way accessible or intuitive to potential users. He writes, “[i]t is telling that none of the twelve priority goals established by the recent SAA Task Force on Goals and Priorities addresses the interpretation of archival holdings, public programs to make users aware of archival materials, or reference services for users of archives.”[12] Thanks to the growth of digital literacy in the United States and the dominance of digital information’s immediacy and accessibility, archivists now have the power to become an active contributor to general discourse, using the Internet as a tool to promote accessibility to their institutions’ holdings. Project REVEAL embodies the ideal best practice for this sort of outreach. In the same radio interview with Liz Gushee, she describes the online response to the Ransom Center’s blog post and it’s spread on social media. Gushee says, “[w]ithin the first twenty-four hours, the blog post about it [Project REVEAL] got over 1,950 hits…it’s over 3,000 [hits] now. It went out to Twitter and Facebook and was very widely distributed and we got just a lot of really enthusiastic comments.”[13] Online accessibility efforts, especially through open access digitization, will change what it means for users to understand and to use archives because it will operate within a medium with which most have familiarity and at least a modicum of comfort.

Relatedly, another attempt at revising best practices lies in the Ransom Center’s concurrent release of Project REVEAL with an updated open access policy. This new policy dictates that the center will “forgo permission requirements and fees in order to release a large part of its online manuscript collection [believed to be in the public domain] to the public.”[14] The significance of this can hardly be overstated. Not only can users access blog posts and online news articles describing the project’s digitized material, they can also access all of the material itself without needing to do more than click a link. No need to fill out permission forms and wait in hope for a positive response. No need to pay fees for the use of digitized items. All of the information covered under the open access policy can be used by anyone for any reason. The center also provides high-resolution images of each record, which are available for download so that there’s no need for users to pay for high quality reproduction.[15] Speakers can use the images in recorded and disseminated presentations without worrying about violating copyright. Scholars can publish papers with the images included, again, without needing to pay for the use of the image or worrying about copyright violation. English teachers can provide their students with these digitized images to help them gain a better understanding of these authors’ published works. Those in the digital humanities can “grab content…and make visualizations or to do text mining” using the images and the metadata.[16] All of these actions are potentially interdependent, as well. The student of digital humanities may make a presentation on conclusions they mined from Jack London’s papers, which sparks another London scholar to revise their interpretation of his work and publish a paper, which then enriches a middle school English teacher’s understanding and subsequent teaching of The Call of The Wild. While my example is simplistic in its connections, this process really is how analytical discourse functions. So many disciplines and individuals have the potential to be enriched by a broader open access policy on information, particularly digitized materials. Increased access means increased possibilities for dissemination.

The Harry Ransom Center’s Project REVEAL represents a well-executed effort at increasing exposure of and access to it manuscripts collections, at enhancing user experience and information usefulness and at constructing internal workflow procedures and models for best practices. The project has the potential to influence scholarship on the authors in the digitized collection and to enrich the appreciation and understanding of archives generally. We can only hope that Project REVEAL will act as a beacon for future digitization efforts.


About Us”. Harry Ransom Center. University of Texas at Austin.

Bearman, David. “Recorded Memory and Cultural Continuity.” Chapter 6 inArchival

Methods. Vol. 3, No. 1 (Spring 1989). Pittsburgh, PA: Archives and Museum Informatics Technical Reports: 59-67.

DCMI Home: Dublin Core® Metadata Initiative (DCMI). ASIS&T. 9 September 2015.

Dublin Core“. Wikipedia. WikiMedia.

Kelley, Claire. “The University of Texas Releases 22,000 Literary Images to the Public with Project REVEAL“. Melville House Books. 10 July 2015.

Project REVEAL“, Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin, 2015.

Project REVEAL Unveils The Private Pages Of Famous Writers. Arts & Humanities.

WABE 90.1 FM. 23 July 2015. Radio.

[1]About Us”, Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin.

[2]Project REVEAL“, Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin, 2015.

[3] Ibid.

[4] The Dublin Core Schema was conceived at the 1995 OCLC/NCSA Metadata Workshop in Dublin, Ohio as a means of describing online and physical resources using consistent vocabulary terms. For a broad history and detailed breakdown of the schema, see the Wikipedia and proprietary websites respectively: “Dublin Core“, Wikipedia, WikiMedia; DCMI Home: Dublin Core® Metadata Initiative (DCMI), ASIS&T, 9 September 2015.

[5] “Project REVEAL”, Harry Ransom Center.

[6] Fonds here will be addressed as the entirety of the archive’s collection for an author, not the entirety of the author’s documents.

[7] “Project REVEAL”, Harry Ransom Center; “Project REVEAL Unveils The Private Pages Of Famous Writers, Arts & Humanities,WABE 90.1 FM, 23 July 2015, Radio.

[8] Ibid.

[9] “Project REVEAL”, Harry Ransom Center.

[10] “Project REVEAL Unveils The Private Pages Of Famous Writers” WABE 90.1 FM.

[11] Ibid.

[12] David Bearman, “Recorded Memory and Cultural Continuity”, Ch. 6 inArchival Methods Vol. 3, No. 1 (Pittsburgh, PA: Archives and Museum Informatics Technical Reports, Spring 1989): 59.

[13] “Project REVEAL Unveils The Private Pages Of Famous Writers” WABE 90.1 FM.

[14] Claire Kelley, “The University of Texas Releases 22,000 Literary Images to the Public with Project REVEAL“, Melville House Books, 10 July 2015.

[15] “Project REVEAL Unveils The Private Pages Of Famous Writers” WABE 90.1 FM.

[16] Ibid.

[Originally published on my informal portfolio: Rambling Rambler Press @ WordPress]