02/26/19

What Should We Make of Obama’s Library Plans?

Last week former President Barack Obama signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) which articulated plans to digitize and provide online access to all of the declassified records from his administration. I’ll get to that MOU in a minute once we recap how we got here. In 2017, Obama announced that his foundation would not be building a Presidential Library like every one of his predecessors dating back to Herbert Hoover, and instead construct a “Presidential Center” that will include a museum telling the story of his administration but no onsite research library. This plan is outlined in a New York Times article from last week that further explains some of the reasons why Obama has chosen to break with precedent in this way, including significant fundraising requirements for the federal portion of the library and a bevy of issues across the existing presidential libraries.

So why am I writing this post? Unlike (I suspect) most of the readers of the Times article, when I saw a link to NARA’s MOU announcement I clicked through and was eager to see what it contained. What I discovered was a ten page document that gave the outline of a plan to solicit bids from vendors to conduct this digitization work in the upcoming months and years. The general plan seems to make sense. NARA will retain custody of the records and has not changed its perspective on the Presidential Records Act. This plan may save money because NARA will not be responsible for maintaining another large facility in a new location. NARA will have to approve the vendor before the start of digitization work. However, I was left feeling skeptical due to my experience studying public-private partnerships in archives as well as my knowledge of NARA’s track record with electronic records.

My dissertation examined digitization agreements between state archives in the US and organizations like Ancestry.com. I’ll keep it brief but one key finding from my project was that the negotiation and contract writing phase of these project are extraordinarily important because they govern not just the digitization work, but the future of access to state records for years to come. When I read the Obama-NARA MOU, I was looking for some specifics to reassure me that the bids coming in to digitize these 30 million or so pages of paper records would conform to some standards and best practices in the digitization and digital preservation communities. Unfortunately, the MOU contained no such comfort. The bids will all need to reference metadata specifications, technical details, and information security measures, but nothing in the MOU referred to NARA’s Digitization Guidelines from 2004 or made it clear what other standards compliance would be required from a winning bid. The Obama Foundation is going to select a vendor and seek approval from NARA for their choice, based on these agreed upon criteria. I read this MOU as full of good intention but short on the sorts of details that would convince me of the likelihood that this plan will be executed on time and budget.

Another important thing I learned while working on my dissertation was how the importance of enforcement and public sector vigilance in these partnerships. In order to produce a positive outcome, the representatives of the public sector need to do everything in their power to write a strong contract and then enforce its terms. The public sector needs to be asking the right questions in order to ensure that they are protecting the rights of the American people, in whose name these records were produced in the first place. For example, will the vendor produce the minimum required metadata to comply with NARA standards or strive to generate more? What types of access are expected with the proposed system and will that enable enough people to find and engage with the records they want to read from the Obama Presidency? What will the access system for these records actually look like? I’m concerned that their control over this digitization process is giving the Obama Foundation too much control over the former president’s records during a critical phase of their lifecycle, which is the reason why the Presidential Records Act exists. The foundation is preparing the RFP which will hopefully include more specifics and the answers to the above questions plus more.

One thing I emphasize to my students is that digital preservation is fundamentally about trust. When we create digital surrogates of paper records, or when we provide access to large collections of born-digital materials, we as archivists ask for the trust of our users that what we’re serving them over the internet is worthy of their trust. Dissertations, family histories, court cases, and other work of users are based on these digital documents and we must do everything we can to build their trust in our holdings. What I’ve seen in this MOU does not provide enough detail to indicate whether or not any vendor selected to digitize Obama’s records will be held to a high enough standard to build trust into the access system for these presidential records that will not have a permanent home which includes a public reading room. This makes the building of that trust all the more critical. For now, I take the good intentions of NARA and the foundation at face value and look forward to picking apart the RFP when it is released.

Reading through this agreement and the plethora of #hottakes that have accompanied it, I will play the role of a consummate academic and keep asking questions while observing closely. I agree that the presidential libraries model was/is in serious trouble, but am not yet convinced that this new path forward will yield better results for the nation and for users of archival records. There has already been a great deal of digital ink spilled on this topic. For more, here are some links to resources I’ve been reading as I formulated my thoughts on this situation. While I’d like to remain optimistic, I am waiting for more detail before I feel confident that Obama’s declassified records will be made available online once the five year window following his presidency has elapsed.


07/2/18

Kazakhstan

Earlier this month I visited Kazakhstan to give a series of lectures at the Presidential Archives as part of the Second Annual Summer School for Young Archivists, as well as in Shymkent at the Regional Archives. I had an amazing trip and really enjoyed meeting new colleagues, sharing my experiences working here in the US, and traveling around a new country and region of the world I’d not been to before. Here are links to my slides from each of the presentations I made:

The author holding a falcon, wearing Kazakh robe and fur hat.

Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi

I want to extend many thanks to my hosts from the US Embassy in Kazakhstan, especially Elina Akhtiyarova for inviting me on this trip and coordinating everything. Thanks are also due to the Director of the Kazakhstan Presidential Archives, Boris Japarov and Bastar Eskarayev, the Head of Archives in the South Kazakhstan Region who both hosted me at their institutions. Thank you so much! Рақмет!

07/4/16

Web Archiving #Brexit

Like many of us around the world, I’ve been following the news out of the United Kingdom after the country voted to leave the EU late last month. In the aftermath of the vote, many Britons were shocked to discover that some of the “Leave” campaign’s promises related to the money paid to the E.U. by the United Kingdom were not going to come to fruition. These are documented across the web, but this succinct Boing Boing post highlights the attempts by these politicians to erase their old campaign website from the internet. Thanks to the Internet Archive, it continues its life as a cached copy, documenting the change to the website which removed content relating to increasing funding for the National Health Service, among other social programs. I was struck by the power of web archiving to document political movements as they are represented online, and how they make it more difficult for politicians to eliminate potentially embarrassing content from the internet.

This article reminded me of another excellent example of the power of web archiving, from the New Yorker article “The Cobweb” by Jill Leopore. She explained that the internet archive also preserved a copy of a website maintained by Ukrainian separatists which appears to show that this group was responsible for downing the Malaysia Airlines flight which went down over Ukraine on July 17, 2014. Why was this particular site was crawled by Internet Archive bots? Well, because:

Anatol Shmelev, the curator of the Russia and Eurasia collection at the Hoover Institution, at Stanford, had submitted to the Internet Archive, a nonprofit library in California, a list of Ukrainian and Russian Web sites and blogs that ought to be recorded as part of the archive’s Ukraine Conflict collection.

I recognize that these two events are not particularly related, other than the fact that web archiving figures in our attempts to understand current events and monitor how people represent themselves and their politics online. As more of our collective lives as humans are lived out in digital spaces, resources like the Internet Archive will only become more valuable as a way of piecing the past together. If you haven’t explored the Wayback Machine, give it a shot! I guarantee you’ll find some really interesting/fun/terrible/amazing old websites on there, just punch in a few domains and have fun…

(P.S. Jill Lepore is the best. Her first book, The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity was a major inspiration for my senior honors thesis in History. Read it! Or, at least read more of her articles in the New Yorker, they are awesome.)

12/2/15

Rosa Parks, Historical Memory and Public Space

Yesterday, as I boarded a bus in front of the University of Maryland Student Stamp Student Union (itself named after an influential figure in on campus who served as the “Dean of Women” and increased the presence of women in College Park), I noticed something on the front seat of the bus. At first I thought it was a large check, similar to those ceremonially given to winners of Publishers Clearing House sweepstakes. As I focused on it, I realized what it actually was: a sign acknowledging the actions of Rosa Parks on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama 60 years ago on December 1. She famously refused to give up her seat to a white, male rider of the bus and was arrested. This led to the Montgomery But Boycott, which lasted for more than a year before city buses were desegregated.

Commemorate Rosa Parks Day | December 1

Commemorate Rosa Parks Day | December 1

The sign had a quote, images, and a reminder of the anniversary of Rosa’s action. I loved the simplicity of the action and straightforward way in which the sign forces bus riders to confront a historically significant event. Through the temporary occupation of public space, this sign inserts itself into daily life and brings Rosa Parks into the present day, asking modern commuters like myself to consider the situation in which Rosa found herself in 1955. What would I do if I moved through a world in which a racist status-quo was designed into every aspect of the built environment? As I sat down at an empty seat, I considered the impact of Rosa’s actions and the current state of our country around race relations and justice.

Initially, I did not know who placed the sign but have since figured out that it was the UMD Dept of Transportation Services. Thanks Facebook. The DOTS logo is very small and unobtrusive and the sign is free of other university branding. This aspect of the event also stood out to me. The focus of this sign is on remembering Rosa Parks, not promoting diversity and cultural awareness of the university administration.

Kudos, University of Maryland DOTS. You put signs on the front seat of the university’s bus fleet and got at least one person (myself) thinking about the memory and legacy of the civil right movement. I even went online and read more about Rosa Parks and her longstanding involvement with civil rights organizing and activism in Montgomery leading up to her refusal to move to the back of the bus. If you are interested, here’s a blog post providing more context about the culture of violence and racism in Montomgery before Rosa took action, and here’s a podcast about Claudette Colvin, a teenager who was also arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus.

Any DOTS bus riders out there in internet-land? Did anyone else see temporary Rosa Parks memorials? I’ll be looking for something similar next year!

09/15/15

Hierarchy of Google Products

With all of the recent talk about Google’s updated logo, I thought I’d share an observation I had this week while using two Google products: image search and Google Scholar. Here’s a screenshot, taken today, of images.google.com:

Google Images screenshot

And here’s a screenshot, taken today, of scholar.google.com:

Google Scholar screenshot

As you can see, the Scholar landing page still displays the old logo. Does this signal a shift in Google’s commitment to their scholarly literature search product? I hope not! Scholar is one of my favorite Google projects and a regular part of my research process. Update the logo and show us that Google Scholar is still thriving!

 

11/12/14

Linux in the Wild

One of my first posts on this site was about Linux, and I always love seeing examples of how Open Source software powers so many computing devices which we interact with everyday. On a recent plane trip back from Seattle (where I attended ASIS&T. It was awesome!) I settled into my seat and prepared to watch a movie on the seatback screen when it suddenly went black. Confused, I looked up and noticed that the entire plane had lost their screens as well.  A few seconds later, much to my surprise, this appeared on screen as the software loaded:

Wild Linux

Can you see tux in the upper left corner? That’s right- Delta’s seatback screen are powered by Linux! After another period of intense scrolling text as the system rebooted, I was eventually greeted  by the clean welcome screen:

Delta Welcome

After this snafu, the system remained on for the rest of my flight, and I was able to watch Parks & Recreation while editing some files. I must have looked like a weirdo when I whipped out my phone to take pictures of the software loading on my seatback screen, but I always love witnessing moments like this. The experience of flying a commercial airline is designed to be sleek and streamlined, but remembering that much of this software runs on Linux was a refreshing reminder that the polished face of Delta runs on a complex infrastructure.

I’ve also been thinking about the recent dustup between Groupon and the GNOME project. Groupon used the trademarked name of the popular Open Source desktop environment as the name of their new point-of-sale system, filing trademarks that infringed upon those already in place for decades. I was surprised to see Groupon making this move when my assumption is that some portion of their developers and code is based on Linux. After some confusion, it looks like Groupon is pulling back and will change the name of their product. Score one for the OS lobby!

I wonder how many consumers know how important Linux is to so many aspects of our computational lives? How can we increase awareness of this software, and how would knowing more about Linux change conversations in society about the role and place of computing in everyday life?