Wisdom is Learned: An Interview with Application Developer Ashley Blewer

 

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This post originally appeared on The Signal on December 1st, 2016.

Ashley Blewer is an archivist, moving image specialist and developer who works at the New York Public Library. In her spare time she helps develop open source AV file conformance and QC software as well as standards such as Matroska and FFV1. Shes a three time Association of American Moving Image Archivists’ AV Hack Day hackathon winner and a prolific blogger and presenter who is committed to demystifying tech and empowering her peers in the library profession.

Describe what you do as an applications developer at the New York Public Library.

We have a lot of different applications here but I work specifically on the repository team and our priority right now is digital preservation and automated media ingest. So my day to day involves working on several different applications. We run different applications that run into each other — sets of microservice suites. I’m the monitor of these pipelines, getting images that have been digitized or video that has been digitized through to long-term digital preservation as well as enabling access on our various endpoints such as digitalcollections.nypl.org and archives.nypl.org. This involves communicating with other stakeholders, communicating with developers on my team and writing code for each of those applications, doing code review and pushing that live to the different applications… It’s very much a full stack position.

The job is more unique on my team because we work on such a broad array of applications. What I find exciting about this job is that I get to touch a lot of different types of code in my day job and I’m not just working on one application. Right now I’m working on dealing with a couple bugs related to associating URIs to subject headings in our metadata management system. Sometimes the application doesn’t work as it should so I do bug fixes in that regard. Some things that I will be working on this week are integrating a connection between our archives portal displaying video live within it rather than linking out to a different website, automating audio transcoding from preservation assets, and contributing some core functionality upgrades to our Digital Collections site. Recently something that I did that was more access-based was we migrated our display of video assets from a proprietary closed-source system to an open-source rendering system.

We follow loosely an agile planning system. Right now we meet weekly because our priorities are very vast and they’re changing pretty quickly, so every Monday we meet with stakeholders and we talk about all the things we need to tackle over the week and what needs to be done and then we get to work. There’s around 16 total developers at NYPL but my team has three.

I was playing with some of the apps youve made, and Im fascinated with the Barthes Tarot and the Portable Auroratone. Could you walk me through your creative process for these?

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These are good examples because they’re different in the sense that with the Barthes Tarot I was reading Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse and thinking about how I could potentially use that in a randomized way to do fortune telling for myself. This is almost embarrassing, right, but maybe someone [would want to use it] to try to solve a romance-based problem, like getting their fortune told. I originally wanted to map it to I Ching, which was something that Barthes and other philosophers were interested in, but it ended up being too technically difficult, so I got lazy and downgraded it to tarot. And then I knew I could put this together by doing a random draw of the data and just pull that out. Technically it ended up not being too difficult of a problem to solve because I made it easier.

The Portable Auroratone is the opposite in that I found a [software] library that automatically generated really interesting colors and I wondered how I could use it in some sort of way. I thought about the Auroratone I had seen at some symposium [ Orphan Film Symposium 8, 2013 ] six years ago and I thought “Oh, ok, it kind of looked like that,” and I turned it into that. So one of these apps was me having a philosophical dilemma and the other one was me having a technical library that I wanted to integrate into something and I had to mesh an idea with that.

I get a lot of compliments on Twitter bots like @nypl_cats and @nypl_dogs which I also just made very quickly as a one off. I did that while I was finalizing my paperwork to work here, actually. I thought if I’m going to get this job I might as well learn how to use their API. The API is something else that I work on now so I was familiarizing myself with this tool that I will eventually push code to support.

You constantly share what youre learning and advocate for continued learning in our profession through your blog, presentations, etc.  How do you find the time to share so prolifically and why do you think its important to do so?

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Yeah, I just came back from AMIA and I do really remember when at conferences why I do these things. As far as the first part of where I find the time, I don’t know, but I have been reflecting on how I’m maybe naturally introverted and this is something that I do to ramp up my own energy again, by working on something productive. Where other people might need to be out drinking with friends in order to chill, I need to be alone to chill, so it gives me more time to spend building different applications.

How do I summarize why I think this is important? I think about the positions I’ve been at and how I’ve thought about how I get to where I want to be and if those resources don’t exist then someone needs to build them. It’s so crucial to have a mentor figure in place to help you get to where you want to be and allowing people to discover that, especially related to technical issues. People just assume that the work I do in my day job now is much harder than it actually is, so if I can lower that barrier we can have more people learning to do it and more people can be more efficient in their jobs. Overall I think educating and empowering people helps the field much more substantially than if people are doing it alone in silos.

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Can you talk about your career path to becoming a web applications developer?

I went to undergrad not really knowing what I wanted to do. I went to a state school because it was almost free and graphic design was the most practical of the art degrees you could get, and in a lot of ways librarianship is a practical advanced degree that people get as well. Coming to the point that I am now which is in a very technical role at a library I sort of see what I was doing as a response to the gendered feedback that I’d grown up with. I wrote an article about this before – where I didn’t necessarily feel comfortable studying something like computer science but then graphic design was still very computer- focused, technically-focused that was maybe more “appropriate” for me to do. I was encouraged to do that as opposed to being discouraged from doing something that I was already good at, which would have been something like computer science.

What skills do digital librarians and archivists need? Is learning to code necessary?

A lot of people are getting on board with learning to code and how everybody has to do that and I don’t necessarily feel that’s true, that’s not everyone’s interest and skill set, but I do think having an understanding of how systems work and what is possible is one hundred percent required. Light skills in that regard help people go a long way. I think that – and this is echoed by people similar to me – once you realize how powerful writing a script can be and automating dull aspects of your job, the more that you’re inclined to want to do it. And like what I said earlier – the more efficient we can be the better we are as archivists.

You do so much to contribute to the profession outside of your work at NYPL as well- contributing to open source formats and workflows, sharing resources, building apps. How do you find time for it all and what else do you want to do?

I feel like I waste a lot of time in my down time. I feel that I’m not doing enough and people are like “How do you do so much?” But there’s so much work to be done! As far as what I want to do,  I don’t know, everything I’m doing right now. Maybe I’m like a child that’s still feasting on an endless amount of candy. Now I have these opportunities that I’ve wanted to have and I’m taking them all and saying yes to everything.

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A lot of what I do may be considered homework. As a developer, the way to get better at developing is purely just to solve more development problems. Making small applications is the only way to boost your own skills. It’s not necessarily like reading OAIS and understanding it in the same way you might if you were an archivist doing archivist homework. [Referencing graphic design background] The first design you do is not going to be good so you just do it again and you do it again and it’s the same thing with programming. One of the things I try to articulate to archivists is that programming kind of hurts all the time. It takes a really long time to overcome, because yeah, in school, you read a book or you write a paper and you’re expected to produce this result that has to be an A. With programming you try something and that doesn’t work and you try it again and you try it again and you think “Oh I’m so stupid I don’t know what I’m doing,” and that’s normal. I know this about myself and I think that’s the hardest thing to overcome when you are trying to learn these skills. It’s refreshing that even the smartest senior developers that I work with who are just incredible at their jobs all the time, still will pound the desk and be like “I’m so stupid, I don’t get this!” Knowing that’s a normal part of how things get done is the hardest thing to learn.

I’m happy to constantly be failing because I feel like I’m always fumbling towards something. I do think librarians and archivists tend to be people that had very good grades without too much effort, moving forward in life and so as soon as they hit a wall in which they aren’t necessarily inherently good at something that’s when the learning cuts off and that’s when I try to scoop people up and say “Here’s a resource where it’s ok to be dumb.” Because you’re not dumb, you just don’t have as much knowledge as someone else.

What do you want to do next?

Closed captioning is one of the big problems I’m excited about solving next within NYPL or outside of NYPL, whichever. If you don’t have it and you have 200,000 video items and they all need closed captioning to be accessible how do you deal with that problem?


What are five sources of inspiration for you right now? 

Recompiler: Especially the podcast since I listen to it on my commute, it’s such a warm introduction to technical topics.

Halt & Catch Fire: Trying to find another thing to watch when I am sleepy but I really just only want to watch this show. The emphasis on women’s complex narratives and struggles/growth within this show is unlike any other show I’ve ever watched.

Shishito Peppers: Dude, one in every ten are hot! I thought this was a menu trying to trick me but turns out its true! I like the surprise element of snacking on these.

Godel, Escher, Bach: I feel like this is the programmer’s equivalent of Infinite Jest. Everyone says they’ll read it one day but never get around to it. It’s such a sprawling, complex book that ties together patterns in the humanities and technology. Anyway, I am trudging through it.

AA NDSR Blog: So inspiring to read about the work of emerging professionals in the field of a/v digital preservation!

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NDSR Capstone Event

The NDSR Capstone Event was held at the Library of Congress on June 1st, 2016- marking the end of the residency year. The following is the resident reflection I gave-

Slide1

Hi everyone, and thanks for coming and supporting our cohort today. Thank you to IMLS and the Library of Congress for this residency opportunity.

My name is Jaime Mears and I’m just one of the 5 amazingly talented and employable residents worked with a DC host institution this year on a digital preservation project. I’ve been asked to give a brief resident reflection to give you some insight as to what this year has been like from our side.

7,720 miles.This is how far we traveled collectively to DC for this opportunity. (I only contributed about 2 miles to this number. Pretty sure Valerie coming from Eagle River, Alaska made a lot of this possible). It’s a little over the distance from here to Nairobi, and I think it’s important to remember that in these miles we left family, friends, partners, even job offers. Why?

Slide3

Perhaps we wanted to solve a problem for a prestigious institution, or create a body of work to call our own. I know Nicole has mentioned she wanted the luxury of time to do a digital preservation project without the competing priorities of multiple jobs or coursework.

I can say with confidence that we all wanted to DO. Not study, not listen to a lecture, but to physically tackle this mysterious, amorphous, slightly intimidating thing called digital preservation.

So the question I had as I thought about this residency reflection is- were we successful at doing? What does that look like?

To answer this question, I found the slides from our panel presentation at the Mid Atlantic Regional Archive Conference this spring. In one part of the presentation, we each had listed the educational and professional skills and experience we had brought with us to NDSR, and what we’ve learned this year. I compiled our lists pre and post NDSR into a word cloud generator to see what’s changed after a year of DOING, or at least- how we talk about it.

preNDSRwordcloud

Here we have what we listed as Before NDSR – experience or education in different types of management, customer service, instruction, research, theory, preservation, data.

Now let’s look at what we gained during NDSR.

NDSRwordcloud

Management is still the biggest reported skill gained. But surprisingly,  ‘Preservation’ as a term is actually missing from our residency word cloud, as are metadata, copyright, repository, or any of those buzzwords from Library school curriculum that appears before NDSR. We dealt with them this year, for sure, heck, we audited, implemented, or educated people about all of these terms- but they’ve been rendered invisible by the processes and tools it takes to deal with them.

I think what you’re seeing here is that DOING preservation has been translated into a succession of actions- planning, design, outreach, testing, budgeting, requests, blogging, workflows, software, systems, programs, etc.

Lastly I see an awareness of our context as working professionals- we’re using words like national, glam, public, and Washington’s favorite adjective ‘federal’- to describe the scope of ourselves, our peers, our audience.

So how did this play out daily? Well, no shocker here, I’ll use my own project as an example to illustrate some of these terms. I worked with the DC Public Library system to educate staff and DC community members about personal archiving – be it physical or digital- and created free resources, replicate classes, and a public facing transfer lab that is now called the Memory Lab. Another important aspect of my project was to serve as a national model for other public library systems facing this issue.

DESIGN. Design really began with the zine, which was a collaboration with a special collections librarian who had illustrated one the year before. How do you design something to make it fun? Accessible? Sustainable? User-friendly? This zine was an attempt at an answer.

 

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For one, you have to appeal to the nostalgia of another time to get people interested. So we chose an 80s theme, a decade rife with magnetic media and DIVO.

You can’t use the word metadata, and you also can’t be too specific in your recommendations because it might not exist next year.

This is the Memory Lab website I built using the library’s libguides platform. This was not a part of the originally scope of the project, but it soon became apparent we need a public facing site to centralize lab directions, preservation best practices and resources, and information on how to build a transfer station was necessary for the project’s success.  I dedicated more hours to this guide than installing the lab equipment. Way more. I learned that design is limited by what you have to use and takes an unbelievable amount of time.

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But good design can take something scary- such as wiring an a/v rack – and turn it into something inviting, something playful. The framing is essential to provoke its use.

OUTREACH. I learned that outreach is really difficult if your audience is ‘the public’. I needed to pinpoint specific audiences, and hold fun, accessible events with partners who could help me reach new community members. For example, I partnered with the National Museum of African American History and Culture and playbackthetape to do a Home Movie Day to reach cinephiles and SW community members with film.

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I partnered with the Hamiltonian Gallery on U street and fellow resident Nicole Contaxis to connect artists with local preservationists.

I also had to reach DCPL librarians, so I worked within an established incentive within the DC government system- yearly professional development smart goals- to teach staff about personal archiving so that they could in turn begin programming at their own branches.

Slide16

TESTING. Testing things- equipment, software, workflows- then watching users in the space was by far the most satisfying and frustrating aspect of this new type of doing. We started with this- a glass cubicle in the back corner of our digital commons lab.

Resident Reflection (5)

I could see this as a graduate school exercise- you’ve got this footprint in the main branch of a public library. What would you design to help people with personal archiving? Write a report. Go!

But what happens when you actually have to do it looks more like this – 12 feet of table space lined with the obsolete equipment, micro failure after micro failure, scavenging list servs, calling friends for help, having your co-workers donate their home movies and mix tapes to you.

Resident Reflection (6)

Then the space opens, and things come to light with people in the space that you could never have imagined. Like the fact that some people find it easier to follow paper instructions, that the air canister for cleaning slides runs out really quickly, that people want everything to go FASTER. Great things happen too.

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This is Alex. He and his siblings are digitizing negatives and photos of a father they can’t remember who traveled around the world.  There was also the former New Yorkian with the Yiddish pirate radio broadcast, or a father who has amazing hip hop videos his daughter did in the 90s. 

I want to end this reflection on another word that appeared only during this experience- COHORT. Because you don’t do digital preservation alone. You need peers to teach you and challenge you, to get pizza or other things when the going gets rough. So I just want to say THANK YOU to Nicole, John, Jessica, and Valerie.  And to the national NDSR cohort for cross-promoting our work, answering our questions, and to Morgan and Julia, who both came to our symposium.

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And just as the word ‘preservation’ was rendered invisible by its ubiquitous,there’s another seemingly invisible yet critical component to our group’s success- our mentors.

Thank you all for your guidance and support, your trust in our ability, and for continuing to be a part of our professional networks as we enter this new phase of our careers.

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Class: Digital Estate Planning

The Case

The user group most in need of personal digital archiving resources at the moment are retirees as they plan for end of life. Many that I’ve spoken with only include physical objects in their estate plans, and the idea that they must also think about their ‘digital estate’ is alarming.

You might think that retirees don’t have many digital assets, but according to a 2015 article in The Wall Street Journal called “How Technology Will Transform Retirement”,  those 55 and up were the highest percentage of mobile smart phone app users (although they tend to use the smallest variety of apps).

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From my experience teaching digital estate programs this year, retirees are most interested in the future of the photos on their phone, their email, personal computer, and Facebook. What differs from other age groups is the greater concern for privacy and the wish to delete these assets so that they do not linger after death. As one attendee told me, the idea of a memorial Facebook profile was “creepy.”

In summary, this is an important program for public libraries to run, and to encourage librarians to do so, I’ve put together a packet that includes slides, a review of one of my programs, examples of how they’ve been marketed, and class handouts.

The Class

I taught this class 5 times in the District this year – 4 at library branches and once at a senior center.

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Capital Hill Village Senior Center Ad for my class.

The majority of the resources for this class come from John Romano and Evan Carroll’s fantastic website thedigitalbeyond.com . I can’t rep this resource enough. It aggregates resources and news related to digital estate planning under archival, cultural, technical, and legal themes. Some of my favorite resources include:

90 minute class outline:

  • Begin by making a case for digital estate planning. I discussed this from the perspective of an archivist, but you could also take a legacy or privacy angle in this intro.
  • Review the current legal landscape with the introduction of the FADAA, and emphasize that at this point in time (in DC) nothing about the future of your digital assets can be taken for granted and it really comes down to communicating with loved ones and writing explicit directions in a will.
  • Define a digital asset vs. a digital account, emphasizing that assets are yours but accounts can be trickier due to Terms of Service agreements
  • Review the digital asset management checklist
  • Discuss how to help facilitate the transfer of digital assets and accounts using three examples: Facebook, personal computer, smart phone
  • Review sample statements provided by Romano and Carroll (who are both attorneys) that could be used in a will
  • Discuss available resources
  • Have a 20 minute Q and A

Tips from teaching these classes:

  • Emphasize at the beginning and end of class that you are not a lawyer and are not giving legal advice. You are sharing resources created by attorneys.
  • Demoing how to change the legacy settings of a Facebook profile is very popular
  • Working on the inventory together is a great activity to gauge how well people are understanding what digital assets and accounts are
  • Encourage retirees and their loved ones to take the class together and discuss the check list with each other
  • Assume that tech knowledge will be varied
  • Connect with a local senior center or retirement group to come to the class or go to them

Class Materials

 

Interested in personal archiving programming? Check out my workshop lesson on Personal Archiving with Facebook!

Week 40: My NDSR Enrichment Session on Education and Advocacy

The following is a post I wrote for the Library of Congress’s The Signal blog.

 

Digital Curation and the Public: Strategies for Education and Advocacy

This is a guest post by Jaime Mears.

Photo of computers in the memory lab.

On March 4th, 2016, the Washington DC Public Library hostedDigital Curation and the Public: Strategies for Education and Advocacy at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library. It was what the National Digital Stewardship Residents program calls an “enrichment session” and the audience was composed of NDSR colleagues and mentors.

Over breakfast I gave informal tours of the Memory Lab, a public-facing digitization lab I created as a part of my residency work. It felt like the project’s capstone, debuting the space to our group and receiving comments and questions from those that have supported me throughout its development.

Yvonne Ng, senior archivist at WITNESS and a member ofXFR Collective, led a workshop exploring methods of promoting digital curation to the public. The presentation began with a powerful case study of Kianga Mwamba, a Baltimore resident arrested in March 2014 for using her phone to video record an instance of police brutality. When she was released on bail the next day her phone was returned but the video was no longer on it. Luckily for Mwamba, it had automatically backed up to her Google account. It was introduced as evidence in a civil suit with the Baltimore Police Department.

WITNESS reaches their activist audience by creating targeted promotional and educational material about digital preservation. Case studies like Mwamba’s are incredibly effective, though they can be difficult to find, especially when the absence of a digital record proves why it should have been preserved. Other methods WITNESS employs include involving local “influencers” in train-the-trainer programs as a way of disseminating information to their communities, and creating engaging educational resources in multiple languages. One of these resources, the Activist’s Guide to Archiving Video, received the Society of American Archivist’s Preservation Publication Award in 2014.

Photo of room with computers.

Ng said that sometimes no matter what you do, it’s effectiveness is a matter of timing. WITNESS tries to avoid reaching people before they’ve amassed enough material to care about preservation. And WITNESS folds preservation education into larger training sessions that address other video activists’ needs, such as video-as-evidence training and post-production work.

After the lecture, Ng asked residents and mentors to identify four or five communities we wanted to support, and to identify the challenges and strategies to working with that community. Although my NDSR project is the most obviously public-facing, the exercise revealed that all NDS residents have had to advocate and educate within their host institutions to successfully meet their goals.

From Senate staff to scientists at the National Institute of Health, digital content creators have to be appealed to. It is a necessary part of effective life-cycle management. Ng reminded us that, besides ensuring that valuable material is preserved in each of our institutions, there are other benefits to such advocacy, including raising awareness about the long-term value of content and educating creators about what archivists actually do.

After the discussion activity, I escorted the group upstairs to our Washingtoniana Room where DCPL Special Collections librarian Jerry McCoy discussed the history of the library’s community archive and the significance of ourMies Van Der Rohe building, slated for a large scale renovation project later this year.

We ended our session with a tour of our Studio and Fabrication Labs. Labs manager MaryAnn James-Daley, connecting back to WITNESS’s strategy of using “influencers,”  discussed how essential a teen volunteer has been in a recent campaign to get more teens into these spaces.

Vancouver Public Library’s Inspiration Lab

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again- the greatest advantage and challenge of my project is its uniqueness. After  researching and interviewing librarians and archivists who manage all kinds of public-facing capture staions or personal archiving outreach, I’ve yet to find something similar to the Memory Lab’s ambitious one-stop-shop for personal archiving.

But a couple months ago, I found something close.

In May 2015, Vancouver Public Library opened its Inspiration Lab, “a free place dedicated to digital creativity, collaboration, and storytelling.” In many ways it’s analogous to the Labs at DC Public Libraries- its got a sound studio like our Studio Lab, computers with robust production software like our creative computers in the Digital Commons, and collaboration spaces similar to our Dream Lab. Last but not least, they have analog-to-digital conversion stations!!!!!

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VANCOUVER: May 05 ,2015. – Peggy Watkins, library technician peruses some digital files as The Vancouver Public Library launches its new digital media hub the Inspiration Lab at the librarys central branch downtown Vancouver on Tuesday, May 5, 2015.VANCOUVER, May 5, 2015. (Jenelle Schneider/PNG staff photo) (for PNGstory by Gillian Shaw). [PNG Merlin Archive]

VPL’s Digitization Stations

There are 8 stations all together- 2 have open hookups so patrons can bring in their own devices to plug and play, and the remaining 6 are outfitted with the following:

  • Epson V700 Flatbed photo/negative/slide scanner station (2)
  • VHS video tape-to-digital conversion station (2)
  • 8mm/Digital 8 analog video casette tape-to-digital conversion station (1)
  • Audiotape-to-digital conversion station (1)

Stations use Elgato converters with CyberLink MediaSuite Software and Audacity Software for their tape-to-digital conversion workflow.

Another characteristic that got me excited was they’d set up the stations to be DIY. A helpful libguide gives step by step instructions with pictures for each kind of transfer, assuming only basic technological skills.

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Interview with Erin Rickbeil, Assistant Manager, Inspiration Lab

The following are notes from my interview with Erin, organized loosely by topic. I wanted to include as much as I could for you readers, not knowing what would be useful (although all of it was useful to me!).

Workflow
-Patrons book the space using the library’s booking system. At first patron’s were sending in emails, but it was determined that an automated system would make it easier for staff to provide faster service to patrons.

-Patrons book for 3 hour spots.

-Patrons log off and on themselves using a library card. They save onto the D: drive, and every morning a staff member wipes all drives to protect patron privacy.

-One staff member floats around the whole lab, so there’s always someone on hand but their time is shared.

-Patrons teach themselves using the libguide, printed handouts, or by attending a once a week “digital drop-in” where they can answer specific questions. Found that the vast majority of people had a specific thing they wanted to digitize, so orientations that covered all formats were not efficient.

-Patrons are moved to editing station for post-production work.

Sustainability
-Haven’t experienced technical problems yet with equipment, but the scanner glass has gotten scratched and they now keep an extra glass pane in stock so that it can be switched out. Scanner cleaning kits are available for patrons to use before and after sessions

-Staff do not screen tapes before they’re put into the machines.

-Not really wedded to particular formats at this point and they are taking ongoing donation requests for equipment.

Usability
-Judging file size and how long it takes to save files/ adequately scoping a 3-hour lab session. Staff are working to educate users on the impact of resolution on file size, and just how long it may take to upload or save large files.

-Patrons do not always bring in storage equipment, so staff now sells 16GB USBs.

-Scanning is the most finicky, although the average use time was only two hours vs. three for a/v.

-Unlike other stations in the Inspiration Lab, the digitization stations attract retirees and those who are not as familiar as other patrons with technology.

-The actual digitization is just a small piece of the process. Many patrons desire to incorporate what they capture into a creative project like creating a slide show, etc and want help with that as well or misjudge
how long it takes do create that.

-Staff desires to teach fair-use and copyright and long-term stewardship classes, educate about these issues or put them more seamlessly into the creative classes that are taught.

-Patrons are not digitization everything they are bringing in.

-Patrons have cried or laughed at the stations- it’s an emotional experience

Popularity
-Very popular. In the first three months, 95 scanner bookings happened and 54 of them were pre-booked.

-VHS and scanning stations are the most popular.

Future Plans
-Next year, they are setting up a smaller version in a neighborhood branch.

-The central library where the Lab currently is sounds similar to our location- Erin is curious about how usage would be different if it’s in a
more neighborhood branch vs. downtown.

How this interview will influence the Memory Lab

It struck me that here at DCPL we were also planning similar workflows with the Memory Lab such as 3-hour lab limits, a libguide to facilitate DIY user behavior, and preventing post-production work in the space. We also had in mind rolling orientations, but VPL’s transition to digital drop-ins is something we will seriously consider.

The open a/v hookup idea is a genius way of broadening the lab’s capabilities without allocating more resources, so I’ll def. be using that idea as well (thanks Erin et al.!)

Most importantly, Erin raised a list of issues that I need to figure out how to prevent. Namely, what can I do to help patrons

  • understand the relationship between resolution and file size?
  • estimate how much memory will be needed?
  • estimate the time required for digitizing and saving?
  • complete their digital project by connecting them to other Lab resources?

Putting Preservation into Digitization

VPL’s Inspiration Lab is an amazingly cohesive space for patrons to work on creative projects from start to finish. That goal of aiding creativity is at the heart of their digitization stations, which are usually the starting place for people’s projects.

Although some equipment and workflows in the Inspiration Lab are the same, the goal for the Memory Lab is a bit different- instead of creation, our focus is on preservation. We are providing free resources for transfer and access as a method of accessible digital stewardship for non-archivists. Although I am aware that patrons will want to do creative projects with their files- such as making movies or slideshows to share with family and friends- the goal is still preservation. How can we give patrons the freedom to create while also ensuring that their seed material is preserved? The success of our Lab rests on this question.

Home Movie Day DC

Founded by the Center for Home Movies in 2002, Home Movie Day is a global event held every October where people gather to screen their home movies and learn how to preserve them. The event is an effective way of raising personal archiving awareness because it presents examples of obsolescence that everyone can understand. I mean, when was the last time you watched your home movies with your family? Whether it’s because you don’t have the playback equipment or you can’t afford shipping them to a digitization vendor, there’s probably footage you haven’t seen in decades.

Home Movie Day is also a fantastic chance to showcase how cultural artifacts can create synergies across time and communities. We think we’re all so different, but how many us have a home movie of opening Christmas presents in our PJs? At this event, you could even experience what Christmas was like in 1945 right next to the woman who lived it! It’s personal and historical and awesome, and I wanted to do it.

Partners

This city has had several Home Movie Days – in 2006 it was at the Library of Congress, and for the past few years it was held at the National Building Museum. I wanted DC Public Libraries to host it in 2015, and apparently so did the talented AV archives staff at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. But NBD! Home Movie Day is great for collaborating!

Blake McDowell, Walter Forsberg, and Jaime Mears hashin' it out at our venue.

Blake, Walter, and I planning at Southwest Library the day before the event.

It was a perfect partnership- Walter Forsberg and his staff had the experience (they’ve hosted HMDs in NYC in the past), the expertise, and the equipment, and DCPL could provide the venue and assist with community outreach. I also reached out to Jared Earley of playbackthetape, who hosts a monthly free VHS screening in neighborhoods around the city. After going to one of these screenings in Petworth, I saw that Jared was a thoughtful video advocate who really understood the potential that the medium has in bringing communities together over a shared cultural history. Many of these screened videos were recorded by donors from television, and when a commercial for Nesquick comes on and the people start talking about how they haven’t had it in years, or they finds themselves singing along to the jingle for Power Wheels (pow pow powerwheels….), that delightful, buzzy feeling of a collective unconscious happens that I hoped would also appear at Home Movie Day (it did).

Planning

The first thing we had to do was secure a venue and date. We needed someplace really dark for the film projectors, and a date that didn’t conflict with any of the partners’ commitments. We ended up securing Saturday, Oct. 24th (which we learned later is Global Super8 Day- not planned but awesome) in Southwest Neighborhood Library’s basement.

For those of you reading this that aren’t familiar with DC, having the venue in Southwest also speaks to the importance of preserving local amateur films as cultural records. After the Civil War, the neighborhood was settled by European immigrants and freed blacks. In the 1950s and 60s, it went through a massive urban renewal, and the majority of the residential blocks were destroyed and replaced by office buildings, federal buildings, and a large freeway that failed to “revitalize” the area. We even later discovered that on the same day as our event, a meeting was called about the renovation of Greenleaf, a nearby public housing complex, because residents were worried that they would not be able to afford to return.  As an archivist, urging members of threatened communities to preserve stories from their own perspectives is an ethical imperative, and although I don’t know how many of the people that came to Home Movie Day were from the neighborhood, I’m hoping that we were able to make some impact either as a community event or by helping SW neighbors to preserve their films.

After the date and venue was settled, we started on the other necessary event criteria: home movie formats we were taking, publicity copy, outreach targets, equipment, a hashtag, volunteers, and ringer movies we could provide so that we had enough material to last throughout the event if submissions were sparse.

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A 16mm ringer from DC Public Libraries

Out of all of these, outreach was the most time consuming for me. I posted on listservs, gave presentations to DCPL’s Federation of Friends and Adult Services working group, handed out flyers at community centers and various library branches, advertised on Twitter and Facebook, emailed community organizations I thought might be interested, and gave a radio interview. The most effective strategy was getting in the newspaper. The Washington Post’s metro paper the Express did a half page write-up about the event, as did CityPaper.

Our promotional flier, designed for us (for free! thanks!) by DC printing co. Typecase.

Our promotional flier, designed for us (for free! thanks!) by DC printing co. Typecase.

By the day of, I still had no idea how many people were going to come. There was an understanding amongst event veterans that the turn-out would be pretty low, and by reviewing the DC Home Movie Day field report archives provided by the Center for Home Movies, it seemed the highest turn out was in 2006 with 48 attendees.

Home Movie Day Arrives

In the morning, we organized the flow of guests into different stations. If a guest arrived with a home movie, they would first come to the inspection station, where they would fill out a form with their information, sign a liability waiver, and have their home movies inspected. Films that they wanted to show were placed in a large ziploc bag along with their form and a ticket that was used to track their items. A runner would then take the bag and walk it to the the projectionists, where they would communicate any special preferences or point out the guest’s appearance so they could be called on to narrate.

Veteran HMD volunteer Laura Major at the inspection station.

Veteran HMD volunteer Laura Major at the inspection station.

A guest has his formats identified.

A guest has his formats identified.

Because video tapes are so long, we also had a viewing station where guests could view and queue their home movies. This station also came in handy if guests just wanted a private place to watch what they had.

Once inside the theater, a guest could stop at the outreach station, where they could pick up promotional materials and preservation information tip sheets created by Smithsonian staff (one for video and one for film). At the snack station, guests could choose from juice boxes and sealed munchies graciously provided from Whole Foods before taking a seat. (Leftovers were later donated to a DC shelter).

The projection station was apparently the most bangin one any veteran Home Movie volunteer had ever witnessed. Playbackthetape managed and MC’d the videos and DVDs, and Smithsonian staff managed the 8mm, 16mm, and Super8 projectors. Threading the film can be time consuming, so switching between film and video was an effective way of managing the presentation flow…. Unless you’re awesome, and you decide to create an eyegasm  of simultaneously running home movies.

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CANT STOP WONT STOP

This approach was fantastic. Viewers could actually look across time! As my coworker and DCPL Special Collections Manager Kerrie Williams said to me, you began to see influences that you would never have expected.

How it went

With 35 people in the room at all times for the entire 5 1/2 hour run, we estimate about 100 people in attendance including around 15 volunteers. We were hit with several guests right at the start of film drop-off, and we had to play catch-up a bit as we ironed out our workflow. At this awkward beginning stage the ringers were a godsend.

Looking back we were very lucky. The majority of attendees were there to watch, and those who wanted to show their film had amazing material and were eager to narrate. The projectionists did an excellent job of asking questions – “Is that picnic table still there?” “Who is this we’re seeing?” “Tell us more about growing up in Illinois” etc. – and I would recommend this as those seeing their home movies for the first time in years may glaze over or become very emotional.

People brought every format we could play (see our flier above), and some we couldn’t. Some guests misunderstood our capabilities and thought that we could digitize their home movies at the event itself. Almost everyone was initially surprised to learn that it was important to save their film even after it was digitized, but upon seeing their formats projected live alongside digitized formats, the differences were easily recognizable.

Our event was long, and it helps to have injections of activities or change. Running the quadruple screening was one such injection, as was the bingo game (provided for free by The Center for Home Movies). High-interest ringers such as footage of the Selma march provided by NMAAHC or a 90s news report showcasing the stinkiest sneaker in the US from playbackthetape also helped break up the day for those die-hard fans that stay for the full event.

Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Object ID# 2011.176a. Copyright Donna Chalmers, 1965. Used with permission.

Still from the march to Selma. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Object ID# 2011.176a. Copyright Donna Chalmers, 1965. Used with permission.

Highlights

Those that brought in their home movies were fantastic and really made the event a success with their enthusiastic narrations.

Kodachrome film of the Vietnam War

A Veteran brought in his Kodachrome film of the Vietnam War.

It was also nice when members of the audience get curious about all of the whirring machines.

A young cinophile learns how to thread the 16mm projector.

A young audience member learns how to thread the 16mm projector.

Never an event without surprises, the last film shown was an 8mm brought in by David who couldn’t remember what was on it. Shockingly, the first scene opened on his grandfather’s wake and a view of the deceased. Projectionist Jasmyn Castro handled the situation perfectly by covering the projector lens as a method of “fast-forwarding” and all was well.

Summary

I know this was a lengthy post, but I wanted to give you an in-depth look at the event in case you wanted to host it yourself. It’s a lot of work, but completely worth it, and we had MANY attendees ask when we were doing it again.

For more pictures and event coverage, search #homemoviedaydc on twitter!