On personal archiving labs

Hi, WordPress. It’s been a while.

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So, the Personal Archiving Lab at the Madison Public Library has been up and running for about two months now — and the response has been many things: wonderful, certainly, and overwhelming. (I’ll explain.)

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I staff the Lab, alone, on Wednesdays, for five hours at a time. The Lab is also accessible throughout the week by appointment. Right now, today, our appointments on Wednesdays and throughout the rest of the week are booked solid for the foreseeable future. To meet current demand, the Library would honest-to-God have to hire a full-time librarian and pay them to do nothing but help people use the Lab. And that is, for many reasons, not realistic.

I will expand more upon this later, but: for now, the Lab has no permanent home within the Library. Fortunately, the Madison Public Library — and its new building — are big and open, with plenty of spaces that we can borrow while people use the Lab. Someday soon, the Lab will find its permanent home in the Local History room, but that room is currently in use. Hence the Lab’s by-appointment status. Before the Lab officially launched, I spent a bunch of time creating documentation for each piece of equipment available for use — and included in the documentation are step-by-step manuals that should allow users to work on digitization projects without constant guidance. Each manual contains pictures and text that correspond with every step, and they begin with ‘First, turn the equipment on,’ and end with, ‘Now, turn the equipment off.’ Once the Lab docks permanently in the Local History room, its hours will expand and the Library should be able to accommodate more people over the course of a week, a month, etc.

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I should say: the Lab is tiny. As a professional, I hear the word Lab and think big — and I don’t know why. Media labs, makerspaces, computer labs. This Lab fits on a cart, like this one, and is fully mobile. (In theory.) The only piece of equipment bolted semi-permanently to the actual cart is the Lab’s computer, which is also the Lab’s most expensive piece of equipment.

In addition to a Macbook Air, the Lab contains a flatbed scanner (this one, which can handle poster-sized documents as well as slides and film negatives), a Sony HandyCam (which are reasonably-priced on ebay), a portable miniDV player (here’s one), a tape deck, a combination VHS / DVD player (get ’em while they last), and a floppy disk drive.

Oh, and. The Lab uses Elgato Video capture for everything except the scanner, tape deck, and floppy disk drive.

In a perfect world — or, someday, with the help of a grant — I’d love to see the Lab add a second (or third) computer (more on this later). Maybe something to handle Betamax tapes. A record player, for sure. But, as is, the Lab can currently convert: photographs, film negatives, slides, Hi8 tapes, miniDV tapes, cassette tapes, VHS tapes, and floppy disks. (We do get a lot of questions about 8mm film, which we just can’t do. It’s far too cost prohibitive and the risk of ruining someone’s media is much higher.

Speaking of: each and every time someone uses the Lab to digitize something from home, we absolutely require that they sign a waiver indicating that the Library cannot, and will not, be held responsible for any damage that occurs during the digitization process. Old media is, well, old. And there’s always the risk.)

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In all honesty: the size of the Lab is — often — limiting. Sometimes, when we’re busy, I’ll run to the reference desk and check out a second library-owned computer in an effort to help two patrons at once. This sometimes works, and sometimes it doesn’t.

The Lab’s Air has all the necessary digitization software installed already, while other library-owned computers do not. Library-owned computers work great for patrons only interested in, say, using the scanner, but when two individuals are interested in converting Hi8 tapes, we’re out of luck. It’s one of the many reasons that the Lab is by-appointment only, in small chunks, and one of the many reasons that the Lab has pretty limited hours.

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The Lab came about in January, by the way. And it officially launched, as a service to be used by the public, in June.

In October of last year, I organized a Personal Archiving Day, and held it at Library. A few months later, the Library’s public services manager approached me and asked if I could help turn the personal archiving concept into a more permanent fixture of the Library. We worked backwards, I think: we started with a small pot of money, and prioritized. Essentially: What were patrons already asking the Library for? And how could we meet those needs? The scanner was high priority, as was the ability to handle Hi8 tapes. Third was VHS.

I’m not full-time at the Library, so the project took shape in fragments: ten hours one week, twenty hours the next. The first few months were technical in nature — I spent hours testing equipment, reading (and then writing) manuals, and handling little things, like tracking down extra cords and cables. We were lucky, I think, because all of the equipment we bought worked, problem-free. That’s not always the case.

After the Lab was ready to go, I used it at Library-sponsored events. A few digitization days, which went over well. These events functioned, really, as a preview for the Lab: Oh, if you like this, come to the Central Library, where this equipment lives! I took the Lab to several branch libraries around the community, and, as I did this, we started advertising. Facebook and Nextdoor have been great, for the record. Free, easy advertising. And when I follow up with people and ask how they heard about the Lab, the answer is always ‘online.’

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The day the Lab launched, not a single person showed up. I sat alone, for five hours, in a study room with a bunch of equipment, a charged-up MacBook, and waited. The next week, ten people came — and we had to turn several others away because we were operating at capacity. Since the second week, the Lab has been booked solid, and is almost always in use. And the interest just doesn’t seem to be dwindling, which is great.

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I expect that interest in the Lab will ebb and flow.

I also expect that interest in the Lab depends on how well I do my job as an archivist: if I can continue to develop successful outreach strategies, then people will continue to seek out the Lab and its services. What I’ve found throughout this process is that Library patrons — and potential Library patrons — know that they should be doing something with the media they have at home, they just don’t know what exactly. (Or where. Or how.) And this stuff is so easy to forget about because, you know, where does it end up? The basement, the attic. Out of sight, out of mind.

Part of my job moving forward, then, will be to integrate the Lab in archival outreach efforts. To see it as a partnership, and not a stand alone service. To bring the Lab to people, instead of waiting for people to come to the Lab. Because once the shine wears off — and the shine wears off of all new things — it’s going to be about education.

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Now go forth and digitize.

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