Society of American Archivists’ 2014 Annual Meeting

Hawai'i and former Hawai'i archivists outside the Library of Congress: Dainan Skeem, Archives and Manuscripts Department, University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa; Ashley Hartwell, Curator of the Armor Collection at the National Infantry Museum; me; Gina Vergara-Bautista, Archivist, Hawai'i State Archives.
Hawai’i and former Hawai’i archivists outside the Library of Congress: Dainan Skeem, Archives and Manuscripts Department, University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa; Ashley Hartwell, Curator of the Armor Collection at the National Infantry Museum; me; Gina Vergara-Bautista, Archivist, Hawai’i State Archives.

Earlier this month, I was very fortunate to have attended the Society of American Archivists’ annual meeting in Washington, DC. The sessions were great, the weather was atypically pleasant, and it “just happened” to be restaurant week (thanks, SAA organizers!)—all in all, a memorable combination.

Before the conference even began, I attended an Electronic Records and Museum Archives Symposium hosted by SAA’s Museum Archives Sections’ Standards and Best Practices Working Group, of which I am a member. Like archivists in other types of institutions, museum archivists are receiving more and more born-digital material—often times on obsolete media (remember zip disks?) and/or in obsolete formats (Kodak photo CD files—ugh!). Much of this material documents important museum functions, and, as such, merits long-term preservation. But once we figure out how to read the files, how do we provide access to them and ensure that they are not altered?

At the symposium, archivists from a variety of museums shared what they were doing to manage their born-digital records. Strategies ranged from implementing commercial digital repository systems to using in-house expertise to customize open-source implementations to outsourcing to using a variety of free utilities to begin managing e-records. Like these other institutions, Shangri La is also dealing with the challenges of born-digital materials, so it was especially helpful to see the wide range of tools and strategies available to us.

During the conference itself, I attended sessions relating to web archiving, records management, and born digital records. I was especially interested in the web archiving sessions because Shangri La has recently expanded its social media presence, and we want to find ways of preserving and providing access to these records, which document our outreach efforts and what is essentially our “public face.”

Though SAA is a national organization, some sessions addressed issues that were international in scope. Members of the collective Librarians and Archivists with Palestine, for example, reported on their 2013 trip to meet with Palestinians in the West Bank and Israel, and on their formation of a network of information professionals committed to speaking out against the destruction of Palestinian libraries, archives, and other cultural property.

All in all, I learned a ton and left feeling energized by the great work my colleagues are doing. (And the goat cheese cheesecake with blueberry sauce wasn’t too shabby either!)

A Few of Our Favorite Things: Logbook

If anyone were curious about what the thermostatic mixing valve in the Playhouse is made of, who the Mughal Garden fountain spigots were purchased from, or what kind of wood Moroccan artisans used for the living room and foyer ceilings, chances are, we’ve got the answers (white metal-plated copper alloy, Novelty Foundry, and painted cedar, respectively). The Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art is extremely fortunate to have such detailed information about the house and its collections—and we have the Shangri La managers and recordkeepers, from 1936 onward, to thank.

As an archivist, I’m very interested in recordkeeping. In fact, it’s my job to ensure that researchers can not only find information contained in records, but that they can also understand how and why those records were originally created and maintained.

Logbook, 1939–1944. Shangri La Historical Archives, Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai'i.

It should come as no surprise, then, that my favorite thing at Shangri La is an item from the archives. It’s a logbook kept from 1939 to 1944, and it records items received by and sent from Shangri La. The arrival of important collections items—the Syrian mother-of-pearl chests Doris Duke (1912–93) purchased from Asfar & Sarkis (65.46), the Persian tomb cover purchased from Hagop Kevorkian in 1940 (48.348), and the Spanish luster plates purchased from the William Randolph Hearst sales (e.g., 48.114)—are recorded here, along with the arrival of more utilitarian items like books, shoes, and three rubber raincoats for use on Doris Duke’s yacht. The departure of important objects, like the Guanyin statue shipped from Shangri La to Duke Farms in January 1941 to make room for the newly acquired Veramin mihrab (48.327), is recorded here as well.

Logbooks like this one (records such as these were kept intermittently through the 1980s) help us to understand an object’s provenance and acquisition. Historical photographs, dealer invoices and correspondence, and shipping and insurance receipts all offer partial information about how and when objects were purchased. The logbooks, because they confirm the receipt of objects and usually indicate the date and dealer or country of origin, are very important pieces of this puzzle.

The logbook records the receipt of three mother-of-pearl chests from Syria on June 22, 1940. Shangri La Historical Archives, Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai'i.

What’s more, this particular logbook functions as a chronicle of the collection during a very important period of its development—the period following Doris Duke’s 1938 trip to the Middle East. Just about every two weeks, shipments of objects, textiles and furniture from dealers and galleries were received at Shangri La. Collections objects were almost as often leaving Shangri La, to be shipped to one of Doris Duke’s other properties, or to be sent out for repair, fumigation or other conservation treatment.

Since records of Doris Duke articulating her collecting objectives and vision are relatively scarce, we rely on evidence like this to figure out what she may have been thinking. For example, we can trace in archival and curatorial records how Duke’s needs and tastes as a collector changed over time—how she began by collecting practical objects that could be used at Shangri La, then became more discerning, developing concerted interests in Ilkhanid Persian tilework, Qajar Persian art, and late Ottoman Syrian interiors and furnishings, among other subjects.

Keeping good records is also a part of our responsibility as stewards of these objects—indeed, documenting collections is part of the American Association of Museums’ code of ethics. In short, the more information we can gather about the DDFIA collection, the better we can understand and care for them!

 NOTE: This logbook will likely be displayed in the next exhibit case installation in Shangri La’s Damascus Room, the one area onsite where visitors can view such important archival items.

75th Annual Meeting of the Society of American Archivists

As Shangri La’s contract archivist, I flew to Chicago for the Society of American Archivists’ 75th annual meeting. It was a week of nonstop panels, meetings, networking, and workshops—with just enough time left over for hotdogs and cheesecake on a stick!

One thing we’ve been working on here at Shangri La is conceptualizing our institutional archives—an urgent need, especially considering all the documentation we generate every day about events, exhibitions, capital projects, conservation, and scholars and artists in residence. To that end, I gathered as much information as I could about preserving and providing access to “born-digital” materials such as email messages, PDFs, and digital video and image files. I was fortunate to attend April Norris’s one-day workshop, “Preserving Digital Archives: Concepts and Competencies,” which introduced participants to the model of an Open Archival Information System, and to some of the technical, policy, and theoretical issues related to digital archives.

As Shangri La enters the world of social media via our blog, facebook, and vimeo sites, we also need to consider how to capture, preserve, and provide access to this content—not just the content generated by us, but also the content generated by you, our users. Luckily, there were a number of sessions on rights analysis and social media archiving that offered advice on that very topic. Of course, trends, technology, and user agreements change constantly and quickly. This is both maddening and exciting, and it requires archivists to become that much more nimble.

Finally, I was excited to attend the meetings of the Museum Archives Section and Working Group. It was such a great opportunity to talk shop (and eavesdrop on others talking shop!) about issues specific to museum archives, such as accession files and curatorial files.

It was great to spend a week with colleagues, and I returned from Chicago feeling invigorated. We have a lot of work ahead of us here in the Shangri La/DDFIA archives, and I’m excited to be a part of it!