Telecommuting History

Archives, like nearly all fields, are being forced to do more with less.  Coupled with the denizens of the internet growing desire for more content at a more rapid pace and we have quite the dilemma.  Luckily, there are still a few tricks about that can help to lessen both of these trials plaguing cultural institutions.  The most recent of which I was able to experiment with was the usage of long-distance interns.

This past spring semester I worked with professor Jeff Cohen of Bryn Mawr’s Growth and Structure of Cities program and two of his students, Ariel Rosenstock and Cindy Spalding, on a project utilizing HSP’s David J. Kennedy Watercolors collection and our recently launched digital library.  The idea behind the project was to have Ariel and Cindy further describe Kennedy’s watercolors based on their digital surrogates, which were digitized in toto as part of the Digital Center for American project, and add in georeferencing information so patrons of the digital library could compare the view and surrounding location Kennedy painted to that of contemporary times.  You can see an example of this completed work in the item level record for “Friends Meetinghouse after Breton;” one of several records that Ariel and Cindy were able to update for this project.

One of the enhanced record from this project

Traditionally such a task could only have been completed by having the interns work on site.  Now, however, the internet and tools that run either on the web or that connect to a centralized database make the necessity of coming into the archives to do your work a thing of the past!  When the Kennedy watercolors were digitized they were added to our digital library with only a minimal amount of description; title, artist, call and collection numbers, and dates.  Once the materials were digitized and online I was able to work with Ariel and Cindy to train them in using our digital asset management system, Collective Access, and start filling in additional information and corrections; inscriptions, attributions, controlled subject terms, wikipedia linking and the geo-locating information to name a few.

One of the screens our distance-interns saw while enhancing records

Though the project was a success, it was not without its hiccups.  Cindy notes some of the issues she experienced:

…We encountered problems due to ongoing work on the database and programming of the software and security, which at times prevented our being able to login, to sort the images according to call #, and at one point we lost the ability to see the inscriptions that had been transcribed from the images…We were also slowed by the research to geo-locate the 19th century images, which in many cases did not correspond easily to a 21st century map. To do this research we used 19th century maps on the website. I also utilized other online tools, such as historic Philadelphia directories available from and other sources…These searches helped me to pin down locations that were sometimes erroneously located by Kennedy, or were nebulously described in the inscriptions…

Additionally, the work we had anticipated as the most time consuming for  Ariel and Cindy was not nearly as lengthy as other aspects of the project :

Initially, we were concerned that the subject tagging would take extra time to add, but that proved not to be the case…The geo-locating and other research were the most time-consuming aspects of the project. I spent on average 15 to 20 minutes to complete the work on one image, but in a few instances, it took up to 1 hour.

Overall, however, we were all pleased with the results and the experience:

Cindy: I think the pay-off was a high level of correctness and completeness of information for each image, and it was this work that was the most rewarding part of the project… On the whole, I think this was a rewarding project that helped us to hone our research skills, and also let us be involved in the process of bringing an important part of Philadelphia history to online researchers.

Ariel: The internship has been a wonderful learning experience— providing an opportunity for me to implement and expand my academic knowledge, while gaining a critical introduction to the “digital humanities”.  In particular, it exposed me to the digital technology methods that have become crucial today in capturing, cataloguing, and sharing our historical, cultural, and artistic memory. The flexibility in having a remote internship was convenient and unique.

There are refinements to be made to distance internships just as there are with any new workflow or methodology.  However, I feel the potential pay off with such work to be great.  Both for the students in the many online-only archives programs who need experience, and the archival institutions who would love to enhance their collections through improved metadata and error correction.   Hopefully, following the creation of some video tutorials to make training easier, I will be able to continue projects such as the one with Ariel, Cindy and Professor Cohen and eventually expand it to other software we use, such as Archivists’ Toolkit, which could also be worked with in such a manner.