Alice Griffin is the Metadata/Digitization Assistant in the La MaMa Archives. She wrote this post in conjunction with an ASIS&T Student Speakeasy presentation she gave at Pratt Institute School of Information in March 2018.
Since 2014, the La MaMa Archives has been working on a large-scale cataloging and digitization project (read this post by Project Manager, Rachel Mattson, which initially announced the project and launched the La MaMa Archives Blog in 2014). It started as a cataloging project, describing photographs files and show files from 1962 to 1985 using the CollectiveAccess (CA) platform, an open-source collection management system designed for museums and archives. The public-facing version of the catalog/digital collections website, catalog.lamama.org, has been accessible online since spring 2016 and continues to be an important resource for researchers, artists, and La MaMa staff. We are now in the midst of cataloging and digitizing materials from 1985 to 2000; we also edit records as needed, or when La MaMa artists past and present drop us a line to tell us more about a production, event, or person from La MaMa’s history. But while our database of works, productions, entities, and objects grows, our CollectiveAccess-powered platform remains essentially the same. Why is this? Simply put, we don’t have the funds to update to newer versions of the software or hire a developer to fix lingering bugs, integrate new features, or make the catalog more user-friendly. Despite this, our catalog is a useful project that is both practical for our use and exciting. And I think that the customized version of CollectiveAccess that we have is serving us just fine because we are acknowledging and working within our constraints.
I have to admit that the seeds for this blog post were planted by a complete misunderstanding of one of Don Norman’s “Seven Principles for Transforming Difficult Tasks into Simple Ones.” These principles, outlined in Norman’s seminal work The Design of Everyday Things (1988), explain how to design a human-centered, user-friendly product; they include things like visibility, good mapping, and simplicity. But I got hung up on principle #5: “Exploit the power of constraints, both natural and artificial” (p. 189). Here, Norman means that good design should “use constraints so that the user feels as if there is only one possible thing to do—the right thing” (p. 199). This makes sense in the realm of design and user experience, of course, but when I read this principle I simply assumed Norman meant one should acknowledge and work within – or even exploit – the constraints, or limitations, of a project, whether those constraints be financial, physical, or digital. This seems to be an excellent optimistic mantra for any archives: take those constraints and flip them on their head; use them to your advantage!
Indeed, my misinterpretation of Don Norman’s constraints principle feels more useful to me in my role as the Metadata/Digitization Assistant in the La MaMa Archives than the original meaning. I have also been keeping this quote from Schwartz and Cook’s article “Archives, Records, and Power” (2002) in mind: “the history of making and keeping records is as littered with chaos, eccentricity, inconsistency, and downright subversion, as much as it is characterized by jointly agreed order, sequence, and conformity” (p. 14). It might be too much of an exaggeration to say that I have used constraints to my advantage, but I have recognized and tried to embrace the eccentricities, inconsistencies, and challenges of a low-budget digitization project. In this way, I hope to have added to the usability of La MaMa’s incredibly rich, if a bit wonky, digital collections site.
Embracing the constraints of a project does not have to be heroic. In this post I would like to focus on a couple of methods I have been using to work around one limitation of our CollectiveAccess platform – namely, how difficult can be to identify exactly who is who in a photograph. A quick note about catalog.lamama.org: it is a digital collections website, but it is also our only public-facing catalog. So, what does this double-duty mean? In part, this means that while some of the records on the catalog refer to a single object (such as a show program or a video), many others refer to a folder or group of materials. Most records describing photographs refer to a folder of photographs relating to a common production or theatre troupe, taken by the same photographer. Instead of creating individual records for each photograph, I catalog and digitize the photographs together. In this way, the catalog is navigable for the archives staff or a remote researcher to easily locate and look through all of the photographs related to a certain production by a certain photographer.
And photographs are a strong point of the La MaMa Archives collection. La MaMa photographers James D. Gossage, Conrad Ward, Amnon Ben Nomis, and Jerry Vezzuso documented many of La MaMa’s productions from 1961 through the 1980s. The photographs we have range from production photographs to promotional photographs to candid photographs of actors off-stage (like these photos from “God! It’s Too Late! (1979)”).
The latest versions of CollectiveAccess (Providence 1.7.5 and Pawtucket2), offer an annotation tool where you can mark just who is who in an image. However, with our version (Providence 1.6.2 and Pawtucket1) we can only record the general fact that a person is depicted in a group of photographs. So, in this instance, the double-duty of the La MaMa catalog makes it hard for us to clearly indicate exactly who is who and in what photo they are. For example, this record of photographs from the 1967 production of Paul Foster’s “Tom Paine” describes 17 photographs of the production – and there are different people in each image. Legacy metadata enabled us to know that two of the people depicted in these photographs are the actors Seth Allen and Kevin O’Connor – but how do we know who and exactly where in the photographs they are?To address this problem, I have come up with a few workarounds that I hope help users of our collection understand what they are seeing, without sacrificing too much precious time. First, some of the photographs, usually the promotional photographs, identify who is depicted in the image on the back of the print. In these cases, I digitize both sides of the photograph and include a note in the record’s free-text description field: “Consult the back of the photograph for information about who is depicted.” For records with one or two photographs, it is easy enough to identify who is depicted and in what photograph in the free-text description field. The record for production photograph from the 1965 production of “The Sand Castle” shows an example of this. The entities are already linked to the record down at the bottom, but this language in the description field identified which person belongs with which name. Sometimes, there are many photographs and many people to identify, so it does not make sense to write out each person in the description field; its too messy and time-consuming. A prolific photographer from La MaMa’s early days, James D. Gossage, has kept in touch with the Archives. He provides us with corrections to the catalog and has recently collaborated with Beth Porter, an original member of the La MaMa Repertory Troupe, to identify photographs from the late 1960s. These identifications come to me as PDFs, which I can then simply add to the media of the record with a note in the description field: “For more information about who is depicted in each photograph, click to see more media and consult the identification document compiled by Beth Porter and James D. Gossage at the end of the record.” So, Jim and Beth’s identifications are accessible to remote researchers, but it does not clutter up the description field with a long list. It is also easier to have the identifications document as a part of the media portion of the record, so the user does not have to toggle back and forth between the media page and the object record page. The two images below show the object record for production photographs by Conrad Ward from the 1967 or 1968 production of “Times Square” [OBJ.1968.0116] and the identifications document that is attached to it as a part of the media.
None of these methods are perfect, and I’ll admit it feels a bit messy, but it is an efficient way to offer researchers detailed information within a catalog record. On the user end, the catalog record should still be fairly easy to navigate – but if a researcher is confused or has a question, we are available for in-person or virtual consultations. The La MaMa Digital Collections does allow researchers and artists the ability to peruse our collections from afar, but it does not erase the role of the archivist or the need for on-site visits to the collection. In fact, the digital site may expand these uses. The more productions, special events, venues, photographs, and programs we describe, the more inquiries and requests for access to the material we will receive.
Overall, I think this quote from a panelist at the fourth forum of the Diversifying the Digital Historical Record series sums up the essence of this digitization project and why it is a valuable endeavor: “the true measure of digitization success must be in terms of the community relationships initiated, created, and maintained.” (I am embarrassed to say that, while I wrote down the words of this panelist, I neglected to write down their name.) But, to the point, this project is not about creating a high-tech database user experience. This project has initiated new connections with scholars and theater artists and has enabled us to maintained relationships that La MaMa has had with artists and researchers for decades. The digital collections site is completely within the spirit of La MaMa, where flexibility and creativity are key. And La MaMa’s digital collections show an incredibly rich and diverse history that continues to grow as La MaMa is in the middle of its 56th season.
Works cited and Further Reading:
Norman, D. A. (2013). The design of everyday things. London: MIT Press.
Schwartz, J. M., & Cook, T. (2002). Archives, records, and power: The making of modern memory. Archival Science, 2, 1-19. https://www.nyu.edu/classes/bkg/methods/schwartz.pdf