Category Archives: Archives

Come & Hear My Genealogical Quilt Story on Jan. 29

"Tracing a Stitch through Time" with Lisa Rickey, Jan. 29, at 1:25 (click to enlarge)

“Tracing a Stitch through Time” with Lisa Rickey, Jan. 29, at 1:25 (click to enlarge)

Do you have an heirloom or antique item and wish you knew more about its creator or owner?  If the item is signed and dated, or if you at least know the name of the person rumored to be associated with it, you may be able to find out more—and an archives can help you!

I will be sharing my experience of one such research adventure this coming Friday, January 29, at the Wright State University Women, Gender, & Sexuality Studies’ 3rd Annual Quilt Show Celebrating Quilt Stories.

In my presentation “Ida Grady’s Sunburst Quilt: Tracing a Stitch through Time,” I will describe how I researched the creator of an heirloom quilt. Given just a few original clues at the beginning — a name and date on the quilt itself, along with a vague sense that the quilter may have been a relative — I used local history and genealogy research to discover how the mysterious Ida Grady was connected to her family.

I will talk about some of the different types of historical records that were helpful and how the information contained in each one was applied to solving different pieces of the puzzle.

The antique quilt that started it all – “Sunburst” (1934) by Ida Grady – will be on display throughout the quilt show, as well as on hand during the presentation.

The presentation takes place on Friday, January 29, from 1:25 to 2:20 p.m. in 156C Student Union, Wright State University. The event is free, and the public is welcome. Visitor parking is available just outside the Student Union. To view the full schedule of speakers and activities for the multi-day quilt show & for more information, please visit the quilt show’s event page.

I hope to see you there!

(This post was modified slightly from the original post – also written by me – published January 22, 2016, on the Wright State University Special Collections & Archives “Out of the Box” blog.)

Awkward Adventures in Digital Forensics

So, this happened at work yesterday:

Awkward Seal meets Digital Forensics

Awkward Seal meets Digital Forensics

Yep, that happened.

I should probably back up:

Libraries and archives have been long familiar with all manner of ways to handle, preserve, provide access to, and generally “deal with” paper- (and film-) based materials (letters, diaries, newspapers, photographs, microfilm, etc.)—-you know, the stuff you can hold IN YOUR HANDS and see what it is—-and even, to a reasonable extent stuff you can’t see what it is just by looking at it (audio/video tapes?).

And then there’s all this “new” digital stuff. I say “new” in quotation marks because, hey, it’s really not THAT new. But it’s a lot newer than, say, paper. But it’s new enough. New enough that for many years, archivists have been sort of…shall we just say, not dealing with it quite to the extent that one might have hoped?

Digital stuff — floppy disks, CDs, DVDs, USB flash drives, hard drives, etc. (not to mention your online life, like webmail and social media) — actually takes a lot more coddling than the paper stuff. Did you ever go up to your grandmother’s attic or your father’s garage and stumble onto a box of neat paper stuff from like 50+ years ago? And you rummaged through it, awed by all the neat things you either never saw before or had completely forgotten about?  Who hasn’t done that, right?

Well, if in 50 years, you stumble onto a box of today’s records, you might be out of luck because there’s a good chance those records will be stored on some type of digital media. Yep, imagine you just found a box of CDs, or better yet floppy disks. Imagine a box of floppy disks in 50 years. You have enough trouble finding the drive you need to read those NOW, am I right?

USB floppy disk drive

USB floppy disk drives are about $15 on Amazon – if you have floppies, get one and start your migration now, while you still can!

OK, so digital media present a variety of challenges to archivists. It’s actually pretty fragile (keep away from light, heat, and in some cases magnets); it’s dependent on technology/hardware to read it (not just your eyes or a magnifying glass); and it can’t survive by accident like a box of papers could. And those are just some of the problems of keeping the data “alive.” Not to mention figuring out how to arrange and describe the files or to provide access to them.

(Here’s a tip: Writing the equivalent of “oh there’s also 1 floppy disk” somewhere in your finding aid probably isn’t going to be super helpful. What’s on it? Do you even know? Can you trust the label—if there even is one? And if it’s on floppy disk, how are you going to let patrons use it? Do you have a floppy disk drive available? And how are you going to make sure that nobody accidentally overwrites the data? Oh and what if the floppy disk spontaneously stops working at some point — or already has — and who hasn’t experienced that?—no comments from those of you too young to even remember floppy disks!— Man those transparent neon ones were the worst for failing at inopportune times—probably due to light damage, I know now!)

OK so there are all these…problems. And a lot of archives have been sort of sweeping this problem under the rug for a while now. Well, the research about how to deal with these problems seems to have been growing rather exponentially over the past several years, and so a lot of us are finally getting our digital act together and attempting to figure out what to do…including the archives where I work.

My co-worker Toni (as the preservation archivist) and I (as the digital initiatives archivist) have been charged with learning how to handle our collections’ digital preservation needs. We’ve been attending “digital preservation” and “electronic records” workshops (SAA’s Digital Forensics for Archivists 2-day workshop was fantastic); reading up on all sorts of things (highly recommend OCLC’s Demystifying Born Digital Reports as a starting point for anyone interested in this topic- they’re simple & to the point, but great); and downloading & experimenting (on test data sets/disks only) with free & trial software (such as FTK Imager). We have learned about using write-blockers and creating disk images to capture the entire contents of a piece of media without inadvertently changing it or missing anything.

Which brings us to what happened yesterday—and another lesson in digital stuff (and this lesson is for everyone, not just archivists).

So we were experimenting with FTK Imager yesterday afternoon, and we popped in a floppy disk I had brought from home. It had a blank adhesive label on it (on which I later wrote my name once I discovered the contents), and we had used Windows Explorer to drag/drop two boring Microsoft Office documents onto it so we were sure there would be something to image.

Here’s what the contents of that floppy disk looked like to Microsoft Windows (2 files):

Floppy disk contents viewed in Windows Explorer

Floppy disk contents viewed in Windows Explorer

Then, we used FTK Imager to create a disk image, capturing ALLLLLLLL of the contents of that disk——including remnants of any deleted files that were never overwritten. That’s right, I said deleted files.

So when we looked at the disk contents in FTK Imager, here’s what we saw (and that’s about the time my jaw dropped and I started with the nervous “omigod-blast-from-the-past-in-a-bad-way” laughter as Toni looked over my shoulder probably wondering if I had gone mad):

Floppy disk contents viewed in FTK Imager

Floppy disk contents viewed in FTK Imager

Um yeah, that’s more than the 2 files I was expecting. Apparently, this was a disk that I DID use…in 2002…and still had lying around. I recognized (and was immediately mortified by the presence of) a diary entry from an ex-boyfriend, nor was I thrilled about what those chat logs from AOL Instant Messenger (hey remember that?) might contain. I also recognized other innocuous MS Office documents: Excel files containing lists of all my classes & grades, Word documents with translations for Latin class (such as the copy of Tacitus’s Annales you can see selected in the image—notice that you can see the hex as well as the text in the window underneath), and other things that looked like school stuff. (We actually exported and opened some of these files I deemed definitely-not-embarrassing. — Oh, and I have since, in the privacy of my own home, looked at that diary entry and the chat logs—-all totally harmless, but who doesn’t have things from sophomore year of college that they’d rather not revisit in front of co-workers?)

We actually were able to learn some things during this experiment, some of which actually pertained to what we were trying to do, but the most salient of these lessons (for me at least) was this:

The IT folks are not just making things up when they tell you that your files are not really gone simply because you hit delete and you cannot “see” them in your operating system anymore. The data is still there unless it is overwritten.

All you did was delete the pointer to that data, cluing your drive in that it can reuse that space if it wants to. If you tore the index pages out of the back of a book, does the content of the book cease to exist? Nope. Sort of like that. If you are interested in a technical explanation of what’s going on when you delete files and why they’re not really gone, I highly recommend this blog post: How-To Geek Explains: Why Deleted Files Can Be Recovered and How You Can Prevent It.

But the bottom line is that when you delete a file, it’s not really gone. I knew this. I KNEW this. But knowing it on the level of “I read it in a book and I’ve heard knowledgeable people say it also,” and knowing it on the level of “omigod I just saw the proof” are not the same. (This must be why they make you do lab experiments in chem class…)

And omigod I just saw the proof. And that was WAY. TOO. EASY.

So. HTG (How-To Geek) suggests some ways to actually truly erase data if/when you need to. But personally, if I had something I wanted to never see the light of…well, a screen…again EVER, then I would only be satisfied with the physical destruction of the media (better copy anything you actually DO want onto a new drive first though). So, to conclude, for your viewing enjoyment, here are some YouTube videos of people physically destroying data on:

…hard drives (you’re going to need a hammer to bust up the platters inside)…

…floppy disks (some of the videos just crinkled them but I wouldn’t trust anything that doesn’t involve cutting up that magnetic disk)…

…and CDs (oh there are tons for this one—who hasn’t tried the microwave one? the melting one is fun—and of course there’s always just breaking it—but one guy even claims to have 101 ways)…

OK, that’s enough fun for now. Hopefully I was able to turn this slightly embarrassing work story into a teachable moment! And yes, I have taken that disk home with me and it will be getting destroyed…

Carry on, folks, and listen to your IT guys!

Job #1 for Your New Camera: Set the Date

The high school graduation I’m about to show you took place on May 26, 2001:

High school graduation, May 2001

High school graduation, May 2001

But you wouldn’t know it from the date on this photograph taken by my grandfather. That printed date is “12-26-1997”:

Date printed on back of photo: Dec. 26, 1997

Date printed on back of the above photo: Dec. 26, 1997

And yes, I’m absolutely positive that event took place  2001. I was there. That’s me, giving the speech. I have a diploma, yearbook, diary entries, and news clippings—not to mention dozens of other photographs—that prove the date was in fact May 26, 2001.

So what gives?  It can’t be the date that the film was processed, because then wouldn’t that date be May 26, 2001, or later? Not 4 years earlier. Unless my grandpa had a time machine nobody knew about. (Wouldn’t that be a fun thing to see in a will? And to my granddaughter, I leave my time machine… But I digress…)

So the date printed on the back of the photograph must be the internal date that was set on the camera. This was a film camera, but it was one of those Kodak Advantix models, with the weird film canisters—

Kodak Advantix film canister

Kodak Advantix film canister — yes, after processing it’s still in its little canister. As an archivist, I’m like, “Oh great, how the crap am I supposed to store this?” Let alone use the negatives. But that’s a different issue from today’s post.)

—and the weird-sized prints and, apparently, the ability to print the “actual” date that the photo was taken on the back of the prints (and on the index print), not just the date of processing.

That is completely commonplace now, to have the actual photo date printed on the backs of your pictures, because today we all mostly use digital photography, and the date is embedded in the image file’s metadata already, so it’s easy for the computers processing your digital photos to print that info on the back. I’m not sure how the Advantix process worked, but it seems like printing the actual date-taken would have been a relatively sophisticated thing for a film-based system to actually accomplish.

Anyhow… Back to the point, though:   Printing the actual photo date-taken on the back of the prints is all well and good, FANTASTIC EVEN…but only if that date is actually CORRECT.

As an archivist, I almost think I would rather have NO DATE AT ALL on the backs of photographs, than to have a date that is completely wrong. Granted, I suppose having that date there lets me know that this photo was taken no earlier than the date printed on the back, because that’s got to be either the processing date, the date taken, or (in this case) a date that is sometime after the manufacturing date of the camera.

But which is it?

If I didn’t know that photograph was taken in 2001 (because I was there)… If I didn’t recognize the family members (and their approximate ages—especially my younger cousins) in the other photographs shown on the index print (or if you’re lucky, contained in the envelope – but these were all just loose)… If I was completely oblivious to who any of these people were…so, if I were just looking at this pile of photographs like most archivists would do with the masses of piles of photo prints that people seem to have from the 1980s to present…

I might have just slapped them into a folder for 1997 and called it a day, thinking that must be either the processing date or date-taken. But that would have been inaccurate. I know these things happen, but it’s hard to ignore dates printed on photos, even when you KNOW from experience that they can be inaccurate for a variety of reasons (wrong camera date, later reprints from an earlier negative, etc.)

So, here’s my charge to you, and by you, I mean everyone in the world who owns any kind of a camera or anything with a camera in it (cell phone?):

Job #1 when you get that equipment out of the box is to figure out where the thing keeps its time and date settings, and make sure they are set correctly. (If you can’t power the thing up until you insert a charged battery, then charging the battery up may be Job #1….But then this date thing is Job #2!)  Not taking a picture of your dog, your cat, your baby (unless your baby is being born like RIGHT THEN, in that case I give you a pass- but that just means you’ll need to diligently correct all the dates later!), your spouse, your plants, or whatever else is around that you are itching to snap that first photo of. Take the extra 2 minutes and figure out how to set the correct date and time on the camera, and actually do it.

And while you’re looking at the manual (if you’re looking at the manual), see if it mentions whether you will need to re-set the date when you replace the batteries. Digital cameras today don’t seem to have that problem; they must have a little ROM chip or something; but I think this may have been the case with some film cameras (like this one my Grandpa had). So just take a few seconds and double-check that.

And while we’re on the subject of dates: I don’t recommend letting the camera print the date on the corner (especially if it’s not correct, oh god! but you’re going to be good and set the date so you won’t have that problem, right?). As someone who loves photos, I think it ruins the picture a bit. I used to love this back when I had a regular film camera, because the date didn’t print on the back; printing it on the front was the only way to have it printed on your picture. But there’s no excuse for that now, since like I said the date-taken is in the digital photo metadata and usually is printed on the back automatically by various photo printing companies (e.g., Shutterfly does this, I know).

Okay, enough scolding. But please, please, set the date on your camera as soon as you get it out of the box. I know it’s an exciting time, and your first thought is probably not the boring task of setting the date but instead to start snapping pictures. But trust me, if you take that extra 2 minutes immediately to set the date and time, you will thank me later. And so will your children, your grandchildren, and your friendly neighborhood archivist.

Tech in the archives- what should I teach them?

Don’t get too excited. I’m not teaching a whole course. That didn’t happen. Yet. (Though I get the impression it may eventually be eminent…)

But I have been invited to speak to a graduate level Intro to Archives class about “Technology in the Archives” in November. The course instructor is basically giving me free reign to talk to the students about any and all tech-related stuff that I think they should know before going off to work in an archives today. Well, “any and all” that will fit into an approximately 2-hour discussion.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that technology has permeated practically every aspect of our lives these days, and yes, it’s made its way into the archives world as well, of course. So I’m trying to organize my thoughts as to what areas I would like to try to cover and how to arrange that discussion.

Right now, I think I’m going to start with some broad categories and go from there. Those categories are:

  • Access tools (technology-based ways of getting the “stuff” to the people)
  • Outreach/promotional tools (mostly social media since that’s a lot of what I was hired to do)
  • Organization tools (the behind-the-scenes ways of using tech to keep yourself from going completely insane as you attempt to manage, locate, preserve, etc. the beloved “stuff”)

I have plenty of ideas about what to talk about- web development, social media (SO MANY IDEAS), databases, digitization, digital asset management systems, metadata, digital preservation… And there’s always trolling the recent job posts to see what’s listed in those, tech-wise, under the required/desired skills.

But I thought I’d post an open forum to see what any of the rest of you might like to suggest to help me help the students. So I ask you, fellow archivists:

What “tech stuff” do you think is critical for future archivists (or heck, current archivists) to learn these days?

And when I say “critical,” let’s take that with a grain of salt and ride the line of generality- pretend this archivist is suppose to be a jack of all trades or perhaps a “Lone Arranger.” Obviously, there’s going to be some kind of continuum spanning from All-Things-Digital-Archivist to I-Only-Handle-Historic-Manuscripts-and-Have-Nothing-to-do-with-their-Digitization-Archivist. But even in the case of the latter, they probably still have a computer at their desk and the occasional (electronic) finding aid or database to contend with! But let’s aim for somewhere in the middle, because I only have 2 hours!

I also plan to sneak in some tech-related snippets of career advice. OK, so since I’m publishing that statement for all to see at the moment, it probably can’t really be considered “sneaking” at this point…but anyway.

So what do you think, folks? What tech stuff could you not live without? Or what tech knowledge (yours or others’) do you use frequently in your work as an archivist? Or what tech stuff do you wish they’d taught you (or at least warned you about!) in your formal library/archives training?

My talk is on November 6th, but I plan to have this PowerPoint geared up and ready quite a while before then, although it’s already a work in progress.

Sure it’s genealogy; it’s just not mine!

I don’t know what it’s been about the past few weeks, but I’ve been somewhat inundated with emails stemming from this blog recently. Now, when I say “inundated,” okay, it’s still only been about one a week or so. (I think there have been 4 or 5 separate reach-out emails in the past month.) But that still seems like “a lot” when sometimes it’s weeks or months in between receiving those kind of communications.

It was a variety this time, too:

  • One was thanking me for the Howard Forrer story. (You’re so welcome; thank you for enjoying it!)
  • One was: Can I use your  Bessie Tomlin article in this non-commercial digital history project I’m doing? (Yes you can, thanks for asking first, & your project sounds awesome!)
  • Two were family history related: Do you know anything about my rather noteworthy Dayton relative so-and-so? (No, actually, I don’t, but here are some suggestions of where else to look.)

I love these. You have no idea.

Not just because they make me feel like a rock star for (apparently) writing an interesting story or a well-researched history or bio sketch. But because it’s proof positive that there’s somebody else out there who cares about these people, places, and events.

Sure, hypothetically, I know that such people probably exist out there somewhere. And sure, I see the search terms on my blog statistics page that tell me people are looking for these things (and finding me). But when you sit down to actually take the time and write me an email — even if it seems half selfish because you’re really writing to ask me something — it makes  my day. And I’m happy to help you if I can.

But getting back to the title of this post. Over the past couple of years with the blog, based on the emails and comments I receive, usually with reference to the people I write about, I often have people asking me if these are my relatives. I guess it’s because they can tell that I’ve taken much care to write these lovingly detailed biographical sketches of them. After all, why would anyone do that if it wasn’t their own family?

Well, the short answer is that I did all that research in order to write the the biographical sketch portion of archival manuscript finding aids, and my boss gave me permission to re-post them here, my intention being additional discoverability for the collections. To write these biographical sketches, I used the collections themselves (duh, what better than a primary source right there in my hands?!) as well as genealogy research techniques to fill in the “Wait, who’s Aunt Sarah?”-type gaps. (You can read the longer versions of essentially this same explanation in my posts from May 21, 2012, and Sept. 2, 2011.)

But anyway—again—why would anyone go to such lengths to write these detailed, foot-noted, multi-page biographical sketches? After all–you caught me, fellow archivists–I admit they are probably longer and much more detailed than what was strictly necessary to fulfill my obligation of providing some biographical/historical context for the researcher via the finding aid.

But I can’t help it. I love these people. These wonderful, colorful, real people, who lived in the past, whose papers, whose stories, I’m holding in my hands (unless it’s photos- then in my gloved hands). They suck me in. I want to know them. I want to “get” them. Who are they? How do they fit together- with this “stuff”? with the other people they talk about? with the community where they live? Er, I mean, lived.

Don’t get me wrong, I am a fan of genealogy anyway. My grandma got me started on it, and I’ve been interested in it — oh dear God, I just did the math at this very moment — over half my life. But unfortunately, I couldn’t write such detailed biographical sketches about most of my own ancestors (at least, ones from the same time period as the Bio Sketches I’ve written here), even if I wanted to — and believe me, if I could, I would.

But I just don’t know their stories. And I don’t have the diaries and letters and other documents needed to “fill in the blanks” in between the official records (birth/death records, census, city directory, etc.). The manuscripts I would need just don’t exist. Or, if they do, I haven’t found the relative that’s stowed them away yet.

So, if you’re one of my relatives and you’re holding out on me, now would be a good time to speak up, please. I swear I won’t try to guilt you into giving me the docs; I just want a look. (And probably some photocopies.)

And while we’re at it, same goes for the owner of Sarah (Howard) Forrer‘s diary. It’s mentioned in other sources, but it’s currently “lost to history.” If anyone has it, I’d love to see it.

And there I go again, getting wound up about the history of people who aren’t even my relatives. Which seems to baffle the genealogists who email me, thinking they must have found a distant cousin in this girl who has made such an effort to document the life of their ancestor (or great-uncle or whoever).

Nope. Just doin’ it for the love of history, folks. And for the love of these super-cool people whose “stuff” I’ve been charged with arranging, describing, and preserving.

But don’t worry. I don’t mind if you think I’m a distant cousin. And I promise not to laugh or anything when I have to tell you I’m not. Keep those emails coming. I’m always thrilled to “meet” someone, anyone—genealogist, historian, whoever—who still cares about these long-dead people that I’ve cared about. And if I can help you, I will, and I’m happy to.