La MaMa + Wikipedia

In fall of 2017, La MaMa’s Archives received a $100,000 grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission to digitize and expand access to our collection of half-inch open reel videos. The collection documents over 150 productions that represent the enormous diversity of work being made at La MaMa during the 1970s. We have partnered with the Bay Area Video Coalition in San Francisco, where the videos are being digitized, and the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research, where the digital preservation masters are being preserved in perpetuity. At the conclusion of the project, researchers will be able to view access copies of these videos at both La MaMa and WCFTR. The project will enable the public to gain unprecedented access to information about the early Off-Off-Broadway movement through an audiovisual record of work by artists ranging from John Vaccaro and the Playhouse of the Ridiculous to Hanay Geiogamah and the Native American Theatre Ensemble.

In addition to digitizing and preserving these audiovisual materials, the project aims to expand access to these materials through multiple portals. Each of the productions documented on these reels is already described on La MaMa Archives’ digital collections site, but La MaMa’s catalog is not as heavily trafficked as other websites. In order to increase the discoverability of these materials, the project is supporting shared metadata across several platforms. We are augmenting the metadata about these materials on La MaMa’s digital catalog, and then porting this metadata to the Digital Public Library of America; we are also sharing this metadata with the staff at WCFTR, who are creating a detailed finding aid that will be accessible through the University of Wisconsin’s OPAC as well as WorldCat.  Additionally, we are editing Wikipedia, creating links to La MaMa’s digital catalog from Wikipedia articles about the artists and works represented on these half-inch open reel tapes. By linking from relevant Wikipedia articles to La MaMa’s digital collections site, we intend to simultaneously enhance the information available on Wikipedia about the early Off-Off-Broadway movement, increase access to La MaMa’s materials, and improve researchers’ ability to discover and learn about the artists whose work is documented by this collection – many of whom are underrepresented in the historical record and online.

MoMA

Screenshot of MoMA’s event page for the edit-a-thon (https://www.moma.org/calendar/events/3941)

As the metadata/access intern for this project, one key part of my job is to develop workflows and best practices for linking the collection to relevant Wikipedia articles. Before joining this project, I’d had very little experience editing Wikipedia. This project has given me the opportunity to learn about the best practices for Wikipedia editing that have been developed by librarians, archivists, artists, activists, and others in the GLAM (Galleries, Libraries, Archives, and Museums) community. A number of GLAM-based groups are working to enhance visibility and discoverability of underrepresented people and communities on Wikipedia. One group that’s been working for several years to develop and share best practices for Wikipedia editing, in an effort to diversify the content on Wikipedia, is Art+Feminism. The group hosts Wikipedia edit-a-thons focused on improving Wikipedia’s representation of cis and trans women, feminism, and the arts. Art+Feminism’s fifth annual edit-a-thon was held at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan on March 3rd of this year, which was, fortuitously, one month after I joined the project at La MaMa. I attended the MoMa edit-a-thon with Rachel Mattson, the project’s Principal Investigator, and Alice Griffin, La MaMa Archives’ metadata/digitization assistant.

Having spent the month of February familiarizing myself with the collection by creating metadata and records in La MaMa’s digital collections catalog, I came to the edit-a-thon with ideas of several articles I wanted to edit. I’d been keeping a running list of the “notable” people represented in the videos and whether each had an existing Wikipedia article. Many, if not most, did not. The first production I researched when I joined the project was “Shekhina,” which was directed by Israeli theater artist Rina Yerushalmi at La MaMa in December 1971. “Shekhina” was Leon Katz’s adaptation of “The Dybbuk, or Between Two Worlds,” a Russian/Yiddish-language play written in 1914 by S. Ansky. Katz, an American playwright and scholar, had a brief Wikipedia article. Yerushalmi did not. I arrived at the edit-a-thon with the intention of creating a article for Yerushalmi.

The daylong event began with a panel discussion “about the relationship between structures of inequality and structures of the Internet, the affective labor of Internet activism, and creating inclusive online communities,” as listed on MoMA’s website. This discussion was followed by a training on Wikipedia editing led by Siân Evans, a founder of Art+Feminism and an Information Literacy and Instructional Design Librarian at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore. For me, as a beginner, this hour-long training was enormously helpful.

Among the most important things I learned was that there are established best practices for editing Wikipedia, and that adherence to these practices improves the strength of a article and decreases the likelihood of its being deleted. This knowledge has proved very valuable to me in my Wikipedia editing; because many of the artists in La MaMa’s collection are so sparsely documented, their articles are especially vulnerable. That being the case, it is crucial to adhere to the following practices as closely as possible. Art+Feminism summarizes the core best practices for editing Wikipedia as:

  • stay neutral
  • maintain verifiability
  • no originality
  • don’t be messy
  • use reliable sources
  • test notability, and
  • know your stub (a Wikipedia article that is too short and needs to be expanded).

Of these, I was most concerned with maintaining verifiability, using reliable sources, and testing notability. (For more on rules of editing, Art+Feminism has a PDF guide on their site.) To maintain verifiability is to attribute each piece of information to a reliable source. Wikipedia defines reliable sources as books, journals, magazines, and newspapers published by mainstream presses. This definition is reasonable, though there is a useful point to be made about the absence of underrepresented people and communities in mainstream sources and the way in which this definition of reliability can reproduce and further this underrepresentation (both on Wikipedia and elsewhere). Notability also mandates that secondary sources must be available to be cited within the article. This practice guides Wikipedians to determine whether a given person, for example, merits their own article. (Wikipedia offers more on guidelines and policies for editing here).

Yerushalmi

Screenshot of Yerushalmi’s Wikipedia article (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rina_Yerushalmi)

I’d noticed, as I compiled my list of people and productions represented in La MaMa’s half-inch open reel video collection, that many did not have an existing Wikipedia article. Of those people without articles, some were notable by Wikipedia’s definition, and others were not. After Siân’s training, I began looking for secondary sources to determine whether Rina Yerushalmi would be considered notable. I did find a number of sources, primarily newspaper articles and websites, about her life and work. I spent the rest of the day creating Yerushalmi’s article. (Even after several hours of editing, the article remains far from complete, and I hope others will contribute.)

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Screenshot of references and external links on Yerushalmi’s Wikipedia article (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rina_Yerushalmi)

Since the edit-a-thon, I have edited several existing Wikipedia articles for artists whose work is documented by La MaMa’s half-inch open reel video collection, including Ed Bullins, Candy Darling, Paul Foster, Tom Eyen, Hanay Geiogamah, Geraldine Keams, Elizabeth Swados, the Playhouse of the Ridiculous, Basil Anthony Wallace, and Ahmed Yacoubi. In so doing, I’ve developed a strategy that I believe maximizes the impact of my edits and citations to increase the discoverability of La MaMa’s archival collections and to support researchers’ efforts to learn about the artists represented in this collection. I make minor edits to the text of the article itself (where necessary) and link out to La MaMa’s catalog records as references for either new or existing information on the article. When editing an individual’s article, I also link out to their artist article on La MaMa’s catalog, placing this link in the “external links” section that’s often included at the end of a Wikipedia article. For example, on Rina Yerushalmi’s Wikipedia article, I linked out to “Yerushalmi’s article on La MaMa Archives Digital Collections”.

La MaMa

Screenshot of Yerushalmi’s page on La MaMa Archives Digital Collections (http://catalog.lamama.org/index.php/Detail/Entity/Show/entity_id/2817)

Additionally, because Wikipedia’s power as an encyclopedia is partially due to the links that editors create between articles, I’ve made sure to enhance inter-textual linking between the articles I’m editing. For example, I linked Rina Yerushalmi to Leon Katz, as well as to “The Dybbuk” and to S. Ansky. I linked playwright Ed Bullins to actor Basil Wallace, who performed in a production of Bullins one-acts at La MaMa in February/March 1972. I also linked playwright Ahmed Yacoubi to White Barn Theatre, where La MaMa produced his play “The Night Before Thinking” in July 1974, and through White Barn Theatre linked Yacoubi to Lucille Lortel, who founded the theater space in a horse barn on her Connecticut property in 1947. Through these and other links between Wikipedia articles, we hope to create more opportunities for artists and researchers to discover and access the videos in this collection and to learn about the diversity of experimental theater that was being made at La MaMa during the 1970s.

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“Eccentricity, inconsistency, and downright subversion”: embracing the constraints of a digitization project in the La MaMa Archives

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.

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The inspiration for this post and a reminderPresentation slide.

 

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)”).

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The La MaMa Archives holds a range of photographs from its productionsPresentation slide.

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?

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Object record for production photographs from the 1967 production of “Tom Paine” [OBJ.1967.0243] as viewed on La MaMa’s digital collections website.

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.”

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The promotional photographs for “Shiro” identify who is depicted on the back of the photograph [OBJ.1981.0233]. Presentation slide. 

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.

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Object record for a production photograph from the 1965 production of “The Sand Castle” [OBJ.1967.0345] as viewed on La MaMa’s digital collections website.

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.

 

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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

La MaMa’s Archives Receives a Major Grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission

For immediate use

The Archives of La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club receives $100,000 from the National Historic Records and Publications Commission

Grant will preserve and enhance access to a collection of videos documenting 1970s-era Off-Off Broadway theatre

(New York, NY.— September 7, 2017) – The Archives of La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club has received $100,000 from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission to support a collaborative project that will result in expanded access to a rare collection of videos that document theatrical work performed on La MaMa’s stages in the 1970s. La MaMa will work with Bay Area Video Coalition (BAVC) to digitize the collection of half-inch open reel videos, and will partner with the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research (WCFTR) to store and digitally preserve these files in perpetuity. Newly created digital video materials will subsequently be made freely available to researchers, students, artists, and the interested public.

Activities for the two-year grant, “Expanding Access to the Videotaped Record of 1970s-Era Experimental Theatre,” begin in September 2017.

“We’re thrilled to have the opportunity to preserve and expand access to this rare and valuable collection,” said Mia Yoo, La MaMa’s Artistic Director. “We’re excited to partner with BAVC and the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research on a project that will make it possible for future generations to learn about the pioneering theatrical work that found a home at La MaMa in the 1970s.”

The most complete audiovisual record of early Off-Off-Broadway experiments in existence, the collection includes 261 unique videos which document approximately 170 Off-Off-Broadway performances (1972-1978) and the work of a diversity of ground-breaking artists, including: Mary Alice, Lamar Alford, Peter Bartlett, Julie Bovasso, Ed Bullins, Tisa Chang and the Pan Asian Repertory Theatre Company, Candy Darling, Johnny Dodd, William Duffy, Hanay Geiogamah and the Native American Theatre Ensemble, Adrienne Kennedy, Wilford Leach, John Braswell, and the ETC Company, Tom Eyen, Harvey Fierstein, Mike Figgis and the People Show, Paul Foster, Grand Union, Nancy Heiken, Yutaka Higashi and the Tokyo Kid Brothers, H.M. Koutoukas, Diane Lane, Agosto Machado, Jun Maeda, Manuel Martin, Magaly Alabau and the Duo Theater, Leonard Melfi, Tom O’Horgan, Rochelle Owens, Ron Perlman, Lazaro Perez, Robert Patrick, Ozzie Rodriguez, Kikuo Saito, Andre Serban, Elizabeth Swados and the Great Jones Repertory Company, Sam Shepard, Harvey Tavel, Cecil Taylor, Mavis Taylor, the Third World Institute of Theatre Arts Studies, Winston Tong, Tad Truesdale, the original Trockadero Gloxinia Ballet Company, John Vaccaro and the Playhouse of the Ridiculous, Jeff Weiss, James Wigfall, Ahmad Yacoubi, Ching Yeh, Cal Yeomans, Rina Yerushalmi, Duk-Hyung Yoo, Joel Zwick and the La MaMa Plexus Company, and many others.

“This collection documents the impact of La MaMa’s open-door policy on aspiring artists caught in the revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s eager to explore our brave new world,” said Ozzie Rodriguez, the Director of La MaMa’s Archives. “We expect that expanded access to this video collection will inspire similarly daring creative experiments in the years to come.”

As a whole, the collection offers a glimpse into the kinds of conversations that La MaMa has nurtured since its founding in 1961 – and a window onto the diversity of artists’ responses to pressing social issues of the 1970s. Productions documented in this collection include:

A 1972 production of “Body Indian” – one of several plays written by Hanay Geigogamah (a member of the Kiowah-Delaware nation of Oklahoma) and performed at La MaMa by the Native American Theatre Ensemble in the aftermath of confrontations between the American Indian Movement and the US government.

A 1976 production of “Godsong”– a gospel-rock song and dance revival of James Weldon Johnson’s Harlem Renaissance-era masterpiece “God’s Trombones.”

A 1974 production of “Ghosts and Goddesses” – a Chinese-American reworking of folktales written by Tisa Chang and performed by the pioneering ensemble that later evolved into the Pan Asian Repertory Theatre company.

A 1974 production of “Standard Safety”– a satire written and directed by the inimitable Julie Bovasso, about office work, bureaucracy, gender relations, and corporate culture in 1970s America.

A 1976 performance by Ekathrina Sobechanskaya and the original Trockadero Gloxinia Ballet Company – an all-male troupe, costumed as prima ballerinas, performing a high camp savage satire of classical Russian ballet.

A 1976 performance of “Who Chooses the Choices We Choose” – a play that was originally developed as part of a drama workshop by prisoners of the Taconic State Prison in upstate New York.

A landmark 1976 production of Fernando Arrabal’s “The Architect and Emperor of Assyria,” directed by Tom O’Horgan (director of HAIR on Broadway) and performed by Ron Perlman and Lazaro Perez.

As part of the grant project, staff at La MaMa and the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research will enhance the public’s ability to discover these rare materials by linking collection and item descriptions from La MaMa’s digital collections website (catalog.lamama.org) to Wikipedia and the Digital Public Library of America. Information about the collection will also be discoverable through WorldCat. Over the course of the project, La MaMa and its partners will also create a short web-friendly video about the project, and will host three public screenings featuring highlights from the collection (in San Francisco, CA; Madison, WI, and New York, NY).

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About the project partners:

La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club is dedicated to the artist and all aspects of the theatre. The organization has a worldwide reputation for producing daring performance works that defy form and transcend barriers of ethnic and cultural identity. Founded in 1961 by theatre pioneer Ellen Stewart (recipient of a 1985 MacArthur Foundation Fellowship), La MaMa has presented more than 5,000 productions by 150,000 artists from more than 70 nations. A recipient of more than 30 Obie Awards and dozens of Drama Desk, Critic’s Circle, American Theatre Wing, and Bessie Awards, La MaMa has helped launch the careers of countless artists, many of whom have made and continue to make important contributions to American and international arts milieus. Tony award-winning playwright and actor Harvey Fierstein once said that “80% of what is now considered American theater originated at La MaMa.”

La MaMa’s Archives documents the work of La MaMa and promotes inquiry into the history of Off-Off-Broadway theatre. Conserved by people immersed in the theatre, La MaMa’s collections offer an intimate perspective on major social, aesthetic and political events of the past five decades. Its collections include posters, programs, flyers, correspondence, books, scripts, photographic materials, costumes, puppets, and film and video materials. Scholars and educators look to La MaMa’s Archives as an essential resource for information about the history of the American theatre and 20th century history. Among these, critic and scholar Alisa Solomon has called La MaMa’s archival collections “crucial” for anyone who wishes to understand the history of “American theatre [or] New York City.”

Bay Area Video Coalition (BAVC) is a leader in the audiovisual preservation community. Established in 1994, BAVC’s preservation program has allowed museums, artists and cultural institutions around the world to re-master, transfer, and archive seminal works on video and audio tape. BAVC’s preservation program has received support from the NEA, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Andy Warhol Foundation. BAVC has also developed high quality preservation standards and practices, served cultural organizations nationally, and spearheaded research and development projects related to archival moving image and video preservation

Wisconsin Center for Film and Theatre Research (WCFTR) is one of the world’s major archives of research materials relating to the entertainment industry. It maintains more than 300 collections from outstanding playwrights, television and motion picture writers, producers, actors, designers, directors, and companies. Housed in the Wisconsin Historical Society’s Library-Archives and administered by the Communication Arts department of the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW), the WCFTR is one of the world’s most accessible archives, and is regularly visited by researchers from around the world.  Research undertaken in its collections has revolutionized the scholarship of American cinema, theatre, and television.

 

Creating Metadata by Hand: Musings on the Limits of Automation in Archives

This post was written by Alice Griffin, who has worked in La MaMa’s Archives since November as the Metadata/Digitization Assistant. She’s leaving La MaMa at the end of July to pursue a Master’s degree at the Pratt Institute’s School of Information. We asked her to offer some reflections about her time at La MaMa. (We will miss her terribly and wish her all the best in her next adventure.)

“But… a computer could just do your job.” The first time I heard this remark it made me pause, seriously question the future of my career, and turn to my professional mentors for reassurance. Now, after being in this position for seven months, I feel confident that my position is not so easily automated away.

In the La MaMa Archives/Ellen Stewart Private Collection, I am the metadata/digitization assistant. My job is to add digital media to corresponding catalog records on the fantastically vast La MaMa Archives Digital Collections site, created by several catalogers and Project Manager, Rachel Mattson, over the past three years. As a result of this project, researchers all over the world can now see the photographs and programs that were initially just minimally described. This project of digitization requires a scanner, some metadata know-how, creativity, patience, and lots of time. The La MaMa Archives does have a lovely professional scanner, my metadata knowledge continues to grow, and I do have a considerable amount of patience. However, time is running short as the grant I was hired on comes to an end. I have added hundreds of digital objects to the digital collections since November 2016, but it feels as though my job has just started.

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Alice Griffin, a human, at her desk in the La MaMa Archives.

So, why can’t a computer just do my job? A computer is already helping me with many aspects of this task. The scanner I use to digitize photographs, programs, flyers, postcards, and other objects is connected directly to my computer and once I choose settings and file name, there’s not much more to do except click “scan.” Once I have my preservation (TIFF) files and access (JPEG) files created in Photoshop, it’s just a matter of an easy drag and drop to initiate Secure File Transfer Protocol (SFTP) through Cyberduck to store them on the La MaMa Archives server or upload them to our digital collections site through a CollectiveAccess-powered backend. I also manually add metadata: a paragraph describing the material at hand, links to Library of Congress Naming Authorities and Subject Headings, information about the storage location and preservation needs of the object, and other bits to make it as complete a record as possible. But in the era of self-driving cars, why do we need a human to do this work? Even though I don’t think anyone would accuse a surgeon of obsolescence because of the rise of robotics in the operating room, I think this is a fair question and I would like to attempt a response.

Simply put, a computer does not yet exist that automates all aspects of my workflow; human labor and expertise are always involved. The labs page of the Stanford Libraries website lists the equipment that used for digitization projects and the rate of digitization. The robotic-book scanner can scan 4 times the number of pages in an hour as someone operating the manual book scanner. So, why even continue to pay student workers to do that manual work? The Stanford Libraries’ robotic-book scanners are not safe for fragile bound materials, and therefore careful human hands are necessary. Of course, book scanners are being engineered to have that gentle touch. In her article “The Hidden Faces of Automation,” Lily Irani mentions a “patented machine” engineered to turn the pages of rare books for digitization. But even this kind of machine was not fully automated; it “housed a worker who flipped the pages in time to a rhythm-regulated soundtrack” (34).

In 2006, the System for the Automated Migration of Media Assets (SAMMA), a system of robotics, hardware, and software, began being sold as a way for institutions to transfer media from obsolete formats to digital files in a streamlined and cost-effective manner. Three factors make SAMMA unusable for my project. First, I am not working with or digitizing La MaMa’s audiovisual materials (for some information about La MaMa’s awesome audiovisual materials, see Rachel Mattson’s blog post here). Second, SAMMA does not create metadata about the content of the materials, such as who or what is depicted. And third, SAMMA’s cost-effectiveness is relative; the costs for a community archives, such as La MaMa, to use tools like SAMMA or the book scanners mentioned above would be prohibitive.

While robotics, hardware, and software are useful, there is still always human skill and precision involved. Before even beginning to scan I must make decisions about whether each object is appropriate for digitization – are there privacy or rights concerns? And if there are duplicates of an object, I must choose the best copy to digitize. When scanning begins it is not just a matter of sticking a stack of papers into the automatic feed on a photocopier, or placing a book or videotape into a robotic scanner. Materials I work with must be handled carefully so that they do not tear or crinkle. Additionally, in order to fully describe an object I am digitizing, I must fill in several fields to physically characterize the object or objects: how big is the object? How many duplicates are there? Is it color or black and white? Throughout this work, the materials must be handled with care, one page/photograph/poster at a time. We want these originals to last because while digital files generally allow for easier access, they do not necessarily stand the test of time. Original photographic prints, negatives, and papers cannot just go in the trash once you have a digital surrogate.

CottonClubGala

Object record for production photographs from the 1985 production of The Cotton Club Gala [OBJ.1985.0307] as viewed on La MaMa’s digital collections website.

Adding metadata also requires a human mind. The description field, in particular, even requires some creativity because, as a cataloger, I have to think about how different people will use the catalog. How will La MaMa archives staff search the catalog versus the La MaMa marketing or development staff? How does an academic researcher use the catalog versus an artist that has performed at La MaMa before? A human cataloger can take advantage of these nuances of use to create a more robust, user-oriented catalog in a way that a rigid computer program simply can’t. To give an example, I asked myself these questions while cataloging photographs from the 1985 production of “Cotton Club Gala,” directed by Ellen Stewart with music by Aaron Bell and choreography by Larl Becham. The description field is a beautiful thing because it allows you to tell the researcher in full sentences about the object: what production it’s from, who is depicted, anything of note about the object, or even if you’re not sure of the date. So, in the case of the Cotton Club Gala photographs, I made sure to address all these users in the description:

This folder contains eight photographic prints, five of which are duplicates, from “Cotton Club Gala,” directed by Ellen Stewart and produced at La MaMa in 1985. This folder also includes a typewritten letter on Vogue letterhead from assistant to Amy Gross, David DeNicolo, to La MaMa archivist Doris Pettijohn thanking her for letting them look at the photographs.

Valois Mickens is depicted in the third image.

The description is not long nor is it complicated, but it provides information in a readable format. There is information about prints and duplicates for archives staff; it identifies the production as directed by Ellen Stewart, which means it could be an important production for marketing use; for an academic researcher the whole description, including the letter from Vogue, because it gives context for the objects; an artist searching the catalog might also appreciate the whole description, or they might find information about who worked on the production and who is depicted more interesting. The description field is different for every object record, and therefore requires flexibility, creativity, and brevity to produce a paragraph that contextualizes the object without overwhelming the user.

The La MaMa Archives holds many one-of-a-kind materials; for some productions, the programs, photographs, or posters here may be the only remaining evidence that they took place. In this way, the La MaMa catalog does not just hold information gleaned from other sources, but it is a producer of information itself. When a researcher or an archives staff member notices a mistake in the catalog we usually need to consult our own material to solve the problem, a Google search will not help us. For example, when digitizing photographic prints for the 1965 and 1967 productions of The Sand Castle, written by Lanford Wilson and directed by Marshall W. Mason, I noticed that the performers depicted in the photographs weren’t matching up with the production dates that were handwritten on the back of the photographs. The La MaMa catalog was the only source I could turn to fix the confusion. I cross-referenced performers listed in the programs with who was depicted in the image and compared sets and costumes for both productions. In this way the La MaMa catalog functions as repository and generator of the history of off off-Broadway.

1965_TheSandCastle_a004

Production photograph from the 1967 production of The Sand Castle [OBJ.1965.0216]. (This item was originally cataloged, in error, as documenting the 1965 production.)

While my position may appear to be a solitary one, it does require person-to-person interaction at a level that a computer cannot do. I am in regular contact with James D. Gossage, a photographer who documented many of La MaMa’s early shows. His own files and memories have corrected and enriched the catalog and in March 2017, Gossage donated programs, a poster, and some photographs that the Archives did not have before. He gave us the rights to three of the photographs [OBJ.1967.0349], which depict Tom Eyen, a playwright and director of many La MaMa shows and probably best known for writing Dreamgirls. These are beautiful portraits with dramatic light and shadow and the La MaMa Archives is excited to have them. It’s possible that Gossage felt comfortable passing along these prints into our care because, despite some errors in the catalog, he could see the work that we put into describing these materials to the best of our knowledge and ability. The humanity (and therefore error) present in the La MaMa Digital Collections website, reflects the deep humanity in the artists and their productions that the photographs, programs, correspondence, and posters document.

1967_TomEyen_a003.jpg

Portrait of Tom Eyen by James D. Gossage, circa 1967. [OBJ.1967.0349]

No, my position cannot be simply automated away, but I’m sure I will continue to field questions about my position’s relevance. And while not receiving proper recognition for my work is mostly an inconvenience or a blow to my ego, it does reveal a widespread misunderstanding, or even misrecognition, of the mechanisms behind automation and making information available on the Internet. I am glad to see that there is growing scholarship on how obscuring the connection between human beings and automation deeply affects individuals and communities economically and emotionally. There is too much to delve into here in this blog post, but I would like to suggest some further reading. First, Safiya Umoja Noble’s article “Google Search: Hyper-visibility as a Means of Rendering Black Women and Girls Invisible,” examines how Google search results are not separate from human influence, but are in fact embedded in racist and sexist stereotypes that benefit advertisers. This aspect of Google is mostly ignored or glossed over. Noble reminds us that “the results that surface on the web in commercial spaces like Google are not neutral processes—they are linked to human experiences, decision-making, and culture.” Another article that reveals the human influence behind a process commonly thought of as automated is Sarah Roberts’ “Commercial Content Moderation: Digital Laborers’ Dirty Work.” Roberts exposes the human labor behind the moderation of user-generated content and how these workers impact the content they screen while that content also takes a toll on their well-being.

The third article I want to recommend here Lily Irani’s short piece “The Hidden Faces of Automation.” In it, Irani explains how the “data janitors” behind “cultural data work,” such as “transcribing small audio clips, putting unstructured text into structured database fields, and ‘content-moderating’…user-generated content” (37), are so easily and consistently undervalued and underpaid. Irani then asks two very important questions that I would like to highlight here: “What would computer science look like if it did not see human-algorithmic partnerships as an embarrassment, but rather as an ethical project where the humans were as, or even more, important than the algorithms? What would it look like if artificial intelligence and human-computer interaction put the human care and feeding of computing at the center rather than hiding it in the shadows?” I think Irani brings up a remarkable point in these questions. Even though technology fields are booming, computers continue to be limited by the limitations of humans; limitations of technical knowledge, sure, but also limitations of empathy for human workers. Perhaps technologists need to embrace this level of social responsibility in their work. It is not a failure to admit we still need to do things by hand; rather, this honesty allows light to be shed on a previously concealed issue.

Suggestions for further reading:

Digital Collections Treasure Hunt

Maybe you’re thinking: I want to search La MaMa’s new digital collections site, but I don’t know where to begin. Or maybe you’re a history buff dying for some clues to the fascinating secrets of downtown New York’s past. Or maybe you just like a good challenge. Whatever your needs, we got you covered – with our new Digital Collections Treasure Hunt! And its a pretty rewarding challenge: there are hundreds of amazing, little-known stories buried in La MaMa’s archives.

So far, no one–even La MaMa’s most knowledgeable insiders–have been able to answer all of these questions without turning at least once to a keyword search in our Digital Collections.

Email rachel [at] lamama [dot] org for the answer key.

1. How many times did La MaMa move between 1961 and 1969?   

  • Never
  • Once a year
  • 4 times

2. Which playwright dedicated a 1969 La MaMa production of his work to the Stonewall Rebellion?

3. Which member of the Black Panthers staged several plays at La MaMa in the 1970s?

4. Why did the American Indian Theatre Company change its name to the Native American Theatre Ensemble? (Hint: the answer is in a program for a 1973 La MaMa production)

5. Who performed alongside “The Mell-o White Boys” at La MaMa in 1984?

6. What was the first La MaMa show to feature Nicky Paraiso (Programming Director/Curator for the Club and La MaMa Moves!) as a performer?

7. Which of the following was not one of the plays that the Great Jones Rep performed?

  • “The Iliad”
  • “As You Like It”
  • “Medea”

8. Name two Japanese theater makers whose work appeared on La MaMa’s stages before 1985.

9. Which actor from La MaMa’s 1969 production of Adrienne Kennedy’s a “Rats Mass” (directed by Seth Allen) went on win a Tony Award?