Oral History of Museum Computing: Martha Mahard
This oral history of museum computing is provided by Martha Mahard, and was recorded on the 26th of February, 2021, by Paul Marty and Kathy Jones. It is shared under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license (CC-BY), which allows for unrestricted reuse provided that appropriate credit is given to the original source. For the recording of this oral history, please see https://youtu.be/ZQHSvKU3woM.
We were talking about how much of the history of all of this computing has been lost, and what unnerves me when I think about that is that there are still major places that are digitizing like crazy and have millions of images and have not made a plan for digital preservation. I mean, I… when… the last book I worked on was this collaboration with Michèle Cloonan and Peter Botticelli, and we went to a lot of different sites and places where they had… put money into CDs, you know, photo CDs, and they had all their collections on photo CDs. Kathy probably remembers the video discs that they did at the Peabody, you know, that had to be completely thrown out because the technology didn’t last and, and what do you do? You start over again and there’s been way too much of that, and I think the sad part was at the beginning of this, we had no idea what we were doing and we, we really couldn’t foresee that the changes would happen as fast as they did, or as… I mean, I can remember spending months with a colleague who shall remain nameless, but Kathy will know who I’m talking about, who had to look at every single possibility of how, of how many pixels and how many bytes and bits were going to go into the image we were going to capture. And in the end, it didn’t matter.
You know, I mean, we were trying to figure out a budget based on bit size. I mean, really? That… No! You’re going to charge us per kilobyte? Now, I don’t think that’s going to work either. So, those, you know, those days seem so remote, and you know, the mistakes we made have affected us as a result, you know, because we couldn’t, first of all, we couldn’t afford to store a lot, you know, a three-megabyte image, and then we couldn’t afford not to, and so you know the stuff that we saved is no good, so we have all this sort of debris behind us. My colleague, Diane Vogt-O’Connor, used to talk, and she may not have invented this, but she used to talk about the “digital mortgage” that came with, with digitization and how, when you digitize one thing, you are making a lifetime commitment to that digital object.
And you know there’s been too many lessons learned the hard way: When things got digitized and the originals got tossed out, or destroyed in the process of being digitized and there’s… unfortunately I don’t think the museums may have gotten into that in the same way that libraries and historical societies did, but, it… there’s a downside to a lot of these, these early efforts. And I don’t really want to go off on that because it’s not my area of expertise so much.
Kathy and I got to know each other by collaborating on, on a big project at Harvard because we wanted to make a catalog for visual resources. Harvard was incredibly rich in visual resources and had made no attempt to describe them in a consistent way, make them available across the university, across the tubs [as individual schools are called at Harvard, “every tub on its own bottom” is the phrase used, budgetarily]. And, and Kathy and I, you know sort of collided, by chance. Wasn’t it at a VRA meeting where you were speaking? And Kathy was giving a talk, and Anne Whiteside and I are standing at the back of the room going, “We need to work with this woman!”
And, and that’s that really literally led to a really intense collaboration that was fantastic, and Kathy and I managed to convince the library administration to take on this project and to support it, which would bring in the museums as well as library collections and try to create a, an online catalog of image collections.
Now right at the beginning, we hit the problem of the… this is what, 1996? It… no, no standards, no standard descriptions! Everybody called what they had something different! And you can’t do that in the catalog. You know and librarians are used to standardizing things. Museums are, are, “Well! Our stuff is unique, so why would we have to have your standards, right?” Yeah! [scoffs] Now, don’t get me started. I got so tired of that attitude.
And I’m still tired of it, but the fact is they’ve come… museums came a long way. And, and, and you know, they were they were leading in, in things that the libraries were not. Librarians were ahead in standards, in and trying to get that codified. What the museums were doing other things and trying to set up systems to deal with their particular collections. But they caught on to the systems idea eventually. I think that was, you know, one thing that did happen. So, the result of our efforts was something called VIA, what did we call it? “Visual Image Access,” I think we called it.
[Jones]: Visual Information Access.
“Visual Information Access.” It was a great acronym. It is now dead, unfortunately, I think it lasted about 10 years before it…. didn’t it? No?
[Jones]: Longer than that, I think.
Was it longer than that? Olivia died after 10 years, so… Olivia [OnLine Interface to VIA] was the back end that some of us developed in order to have, do the cataloging that would then be transported into VIA, but others were exporting from their own existing systems. It was, it was really complicated, and the library system’s office generously took it on, and I think with, you know… Some, some just, you know, not, I don’t think they were sure they wanted to do it, partly because I was in charge of the library’s art slides collection and of course poor old Dale Flecker was convinced that everything I had in the collection was illegal because so much of it had been taken, pictures taken out of books. And he didn’t want anything to do with that, and I just kept, you know, kept playing along and you know, finally, I think the law, finally, caught up with the whole problem of… What do they call it? I’ve gone blank…
The faithful copy, that’s not the right word, but you know, the idea that is that you, you can make a copy and not be infringing on the copyright, or creating a new copyright. That was the other thing. People liked to take pictures of paintings and then claim a copyright. That, that really is another whole issue.
And that, you know what, the while I’m thinking about it, copyright is one of the things that has held museums back. They are so goddamned determined to get revenue off of their stuff that they have claimed copyright on things that have been out of — that never ever had a copyright! I mean, you cannot, I’m sorry, you can’t copyright the Mona Lisa! That just doesn’t work! And you can say your copy, or even copyright your digital image of it, but I think that’s a scam, too.
Anyway, I think that that has held back scholarship in some ways. I think that a lot of that’s changed in the last — since I really retired. I’ve seen differences in, in the situations of that. I mean other more and more museums making stuff widely available. You know, you can find a lot of the Met’s holdings on Internet archives now, I mean, it’s bizarre what stuff turns up.
We went around and around. They got Harvard legal, they got the Harvard lawyers involved in it. That was how ridiculous it was, and they hadn’t a clue. This was not up their street. You know, they’re not used to fighting you know unfair employment practices, not nothing to do with copyright.
[Jones]: But Frank Connor did his best to help us out.
Frank Connor was an advocate, he was. I’d forgotten his name. I’m glad you said that.
So anyway, we overcame the difficulties. We persevered because that’s what Kathy and I do, and… or did, and eventually VIA was launched. It had lots of drawbacks. It wasn’t perfect. It wasn’t exactly pretty, but it, it got people there. And you know, I make jokes about the, the terrible cataloguing on the Peabody’s photographs, which would say, “Shard!” You know, that’d be the title. And I’m like, “Well, that’s really helpful.”
You know, but it showed the difficulties crossing disciplines, and going, combining an art-related collection of images with a scientific collection. It just it was so hard. And it, as it was, we didn’t put in it, like the flowers, we didn’t put in pictures of biological specimens, we didn’t put in medical stuff. We were trying to keep it to cultural objects, and, and even so, we had these crazy… Oh, the Arnold Arboretum is another one. “Tree.” Really? You know?
[Jones]: All of the arboretum. And they have some wonderful images from Asia, Paul, when they were collecting plants and seeds. A photographer was there. I think they were glass plate negatives, and the images are stunning.
[Jones]: They’ve gone back to recreate the scenes too, Martha.
Oh, my gosh. How nice! They’ve got, they’ve got more money than God, don’t they? Well, never mind.
The other project that I worked on that’s related to VIA, and I can’t honestly remember which came first. I think when they were sort of simultaneous. Was a Mellon funded project that was based at the University of California San Diego. And I had a colleague there in the slide collection whose name was Vicki, something… and I want to say Vicki Davis [Vicki O’Riordan] but that, I could have made that up. And we, we met in a taxi in Milwaukee going to the airport, and just [shows hand gesture about talking. Chatting excessively about the fact that they] didn’t have standards, standards, standards and she applied for a grant and got one that included Harvard, Princeton [Princeton actually joined the project in the second year of the grant], the Cleveland Museum of Art and the [UC] San Diego Library’s fine art collection, which was very interesting.
They had their slides catalog in MARC format. We had our, we had VIA by then, so that must have been come afterwards. Ours was in a relational database, so there was a totally different structure from MARC, and Cleveland was using something called Renaissance, or I can’t remember, what it was a completely different, so there were three different structured, data structures, and honest to God, I thought the poor guy was going to explode when he was trying to put them together. And, sadly, we got out there… for the first, after the first year of you know, trying to merge all this, this these data sets, and we’re all there and we’re in this computer lab and we’re all sitting at computers, and he turns the things on and, and it completely crashed, so that was a little disappointing. There was clearly more work to be done. And, ultimately, it was a failed project because it came down to two things, I think: The differences in standards, and the difference in data structure.
I think that with images, you that you need the, the flexibility that a relational structure gives you. MARC is just a flat file, and you have to do everything over and over and over again, whereas with the relational kind of thing, you are able to, to embed information as you go down.
What I think one of the things that happened after the fact, for us, is that whole idea that FRBR [Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records] that the Library of Congress came out with, which totally makes sense to me: you have an object, you have the original object, and then you have all these other little things hanging off of it. That is how you catalog a picture, because you don’t have the original. Unless you have the original picture, you might have the original picture. You might have the negative. But, I mean look at look at, what’s the – Oh God, my brain — look at the, the art and architecture, no wait. What’s the thing that’s on, the Mellon-funded? Artstor, Artstor, with all the pictures, right? Look at some of the cataloging there. You know, you’ve got a picture of a, of a house built in 1720, and the picture is dated 1720. Well, we know photography wasn’t invented that early, so what is the date? Oh, the date is of the picture? No, the picture is of the house, right? All of these things….
One of the things we found when we were going from the old card catalog into the online environment was we had so many places where there was what we call “assumed cataloging.”
My first job had been at the Harvard Theatre Collection, and we had no, no subject headings for theatre because we’re there, and that’s what it. You know, we didn’t need all those extra cards. There was a collection, one of the special collections at Houghton was the Teddy Roosevelt Collection, and all of the Teddy Roosevelt Collection had sub headings, but it didn’t have anything that said “TR” or “Teddy Roosevelt, slash…” it was just “on a horse”, right? Or “in battle,” and it didn’t, you know… these things were so strange.
And the best one I thought, which I always used as an example, was the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America had no subject headings for women! So, you could go into VIA and do a subject search for “men,” and find a lot of stuff that was at Schlesinger [Library], because they always subject headed, when they had stuff about men, but they never… [laughing] They actually had to go back and, and, and redo like ten thousand records. You could do a global replacement at that point, but you know, this is the stuff people didn’t think of.
You know the, the card catalog, you know, still owned us in in a lot of ways. It owned the way we thought about data, and it’s taken a generation for that to change, I think.
Although I am very proud of the fact that we introduced a concentration for library students [at Simmons University] in cultural heritage informatics and that, that is, I was on a Zoom call with one of my former students, and she introduced herself as a “cultural heritage librarian,” and I’m like “Whoa! We did that!” [cheering]
So that was that was a success, and even, you know, even though the administration tried to kill it, the archives tried to take it over. Don’t get me started on archives and archivists. I mean I’m sure they’re very well-intentioned people, but this woman that used to be one of my colleagues believed that archives should come over cultural heritage, and I keep saying that, no, archives are cultural heritage institutions, this is… you’ve got it… no. Anyway, we won that battle. We outlasted them on that one.
And I think we’re producing some really good students who love, you know, are interested in history, who can take their skills from the library and archives world and take it into curation and other, other aspects in, you know, maybe not at the Met or at the MFA, but there are so many other places out there that need this kind of support.
So, I retired from Simmons. The year I was about set to retire , one of my former students who was then the head of digitization lab at the Boston Public Library contacted me and asked me if I’d be interested in working on a special project to do an assessment of the print collection at the BPL.
And what I didn’t know at the time was that he had, he had been, they had begun digitizing images from the print collection. It is a prints and photographs collection, but it’s called the print collection. They had started on a particular collection of photographs by a news photographer, so that was a pretty straightforward thing, but then they wanted to start doing other things in dribs and drabs. They wanted to be able to send down two Goyas and three Hogarths, and do this stuff, and Tom just said, “Nope. Nope. Nope. I won’t do anything unless it’s cataloged, and I won’t do anything, unless I do the whole thing.”
And so, that’s when they kind of ground to a halt because there was no cataloging in the print department. They thought, they told me that they had “intellectual access.” What they meant was they had a card catalog. That, I had to disillusion them and tell them that card catalog would did not constitute intellectual access because you couldn’t… it wouldn’t actually direct you to where the item was stored.
We went in, now, there were, you know, if you have a double row of shelves that has one shelving facing you and shelving behind, okay, so there’s a double row, 25 of those in this huge room, and then another room they didn’t tell me about ‘til I got there, that had something like 900 boxes of prints also stored, stashed away in a non-air-conditioned room. The main stack area that the staff, the shelving had no numbers on them. Right, so you couldn’t say, “Oh yeah, the Hogarths are in row 9.” They would say to you, “Oh, it’s down there. About two-thirds of the way down.” And I’m like,” Seriously? I mean this isn’t… really this isn’t good enough.”
So, the first thing I did was put numbers on the stacks. And then the next thing we did was number all shelves, so we had a stack, row, a bay of shelves, and then a shelf, so it was three numbers for each box. Can you believe that? And by the time we were finished, I mean my, my first report, which was done at the end of April 2015, it took me a year to do, and that one really sort of identified the problems: the lack of intellectual access, the lack of control, but the need for to get some physical control over the collection, as well as intellectual control and, and other problems, just standardizing their, their descriptions. They had no — they were they weren’t using any standards. They said they were using “museum standards,” but every time I said, “Which ones?” They couldn’t actually tell me which ones, so that didn’t fly.
When I finished, when I was just about finished that report, I hadn’t finished writing it, I happened to say to somebody in the administration, “You know, they can’t find a Dürer and a Rembrandt print. Did you know about that?” And that was when the shit literally hit the fans, because she went, “WHAT?” And I’m like, “Yeah, you know, Susan knows about it. Kathy knows about it, but they haven’t been able to track this down, and they’re not doing anything about it. Well, the story went up through the, the administration up into the Mayor’s office, and pretty soon we’re on the front page of The Boston Herald and other papers, and it was a shitstorm and, and deservedly so. I mean, I wish I’d kept my mouth shut. On the other hand, it gave me four and a half years of employment that I didn’t expect to have.
It was awful, and heads rolled. The, the woman who was in charge of rare books, which prints and photographs came under the rare books department, she lost her job. She was put on administrative leave immediately and ultimately lost her job, and I don’t, I don’t think I’ll get in trouble for saying that. The curator who probably put the prints where they ultimately were discovered, did not suffer any consequences, and part, that’s largely for as far as I could tell, because of the union. They, the professional staff had a very strong union, and this person happened to be the union shop steward, so she was pretty much untouchable.
We did find the, the prints after a couple of weeks, and I think it was the day that the head of… oh, so the Head of the Rare Books Library off, off immediately. The next thing that happens is the Head of the Library, this is Boston Public Library was, had to resign.
Now, there was all kinds of politics involved, people said, “Oh, Marty Walsh [Mayor] wanted to get rid of her anyway, and blah blah blah…” and people felt bad about it, but she had to take the fall for this, even though it wasn’t remotely her, her fault. The bad management, the woman from the Rare Books Library that had, had to go, I blame her a lot. She certainly had no, no control over what was going on in the print department.
The print department hadn’t had a senior manager in 10 years. And before that, they had a curator who had been there for 43 years. He had been hired in 1961, and he didn’t retire until 43 years later, whenever that is. And, as a result, they missed, they completely missed, the, you know, working on that automate… that we’re going to digitize things. They missed the 1980s, when they could have been using, you know, the MARC, the visual materials format to describe things. They missed all of that stuff because this guy was just an old boy doing the old-boy network thing, and building the collection. He did build the collection. He focused on building up holdings in Boston printmakers, which are now extraordinary, but he was building on a collection that was one of the best in the country when it was given to the library in the 1940s.
So we have, so BPL has an incredible museum-quality collection of prints and photographs in this little known, now little known — it was very well known from you know the ‘40s on. But it really fell out of sight because it wasn’t properly promoted and, and it’s not on the Internet anywhere. It wasn’t on the Internet anywhere.
So, with, with all of the resulting furor over the Dürer and the Rembrandt… and, of course, when we found them there was also another, an American print that I forgot. Who’s the guy that does those wonderful prizefights [George Bellows]? It’ll come to me. It doesn’t matter. So that it wasn’t just the Dürer and the Rembrandt that we’re missing, there were other things that were just… The principle of how they put things away is, “Oh, here’s an empty shelf. Let’s put it here.”
Because they didn’t have, because there were no numbers, you couldn’t say, “Where does this go?” Because when they took it out, they didn’t remember where they took it from. I have never seen anything like this in my entire career and I, at that point, had been working for almost 50 years in this business, so it was pretty, it was pretty bad.
When they asked me, would I come in and do an inventory of the collection to solve this problem, I said, “Oh sure.” Not a clue how I was going to do this! I mean, I think I must have had an idea how it could be done, but I knew it was going to have to have, I was going to have to throw an army of people at it and, and, and that was something I didn’t think the library was going to want to do. They basically said, “Tell us what you need.”
The first year, I think I had 20 graduate students working on shifts. So, we set it up, so that we had 9 to 5, five days a week, and we had up to five, I think, maybe up to 6 at one point people at a time in the stacks. We had to buy laptops. Because there wasn’t any electricity outlets in the stacks. I mean, really? There were two actually, but they were not anywhere near where we were working, so that this is huge, we couldn’t and we didn’t have proper lighting, because of the lack of electricity. When we’re off recording, I’ll tell you what I said that actually got the electricity moved in. The last, the last year and a half we did have electricity.
But we started out with an Excel spreadsheet and, as with any project, as we went along we learned, we had to add things we had to jiggle things around, and then we had a problem with the BPL server because we were all on Macs because I’m a Mac person, and I was goddamned if I was going to start on PCs that late in my career, and the server at the BPL, where the backup was going was all Microsoft Word or Microsoft MS-whatever [Windows], and it corrupted our data every time we put the put the spreadsheet in, yeah. Yeah, we’d put in a three-megabyte file and the next day, it would be 126 megabytes! What the fuck happened? Oops, sorry!
So, that was, that was bad. So, the… the luxury of being a contractor, this was good, I just got a Dropbox account, and said, “We’re using Dropbox!” And that’s what we did for the rest of the, of the program. I don’t know whether they ever fixed the thing or not. Really, at that point, I didn’t have time. There was a lot of time pressure on us to prove that what we were doing was going to help. And so, I said, no I’m not dicking around while you try to figure out this server problem. Clearly, it’s, it’s an incompatibility between platforms, so we’re just going to solve this ourselves. And we did.
Eventually, I think I had over, in the period of four and a half years, I had over 50 different students who worked on the project. I had three, I think three who were with me from the beginning. And a fantastic team, and you know, most of them would have worked for nothing. We were fortunately, were able to after the first summer, we were able to pay them at a decent rate for graduate students. I mean, I think we started them out at $15 an hour. Then by, as we got a little further on, I realized I needed shift supervisors, because I couldn’t be in the stacks all the time. So, we had identified three of them and then we added a fourth who were supervisor levels and they got $23 an hour, and so we were paying them decent money for the time.
And you know, of course they kept throwing me things. Once they saw that we were, what we were doing was working, they kept throwing stuff at me. So, after a year, they said, “Well, we’d like, we’ve been given $10,000 to digitize some of the prints.” And I’m like, “Really? Whoa! Super!” And then that’s when I discovered they had no digital preservation plan. And to my knowledge, they still don’t. Although they do now have a Head Conservator, and I every time I see her, I say, “Digital? Digital?” So, she knows that they’re worrying, they should be worrying about it.
So, they had, they got this $10,000. That meant they had a whole other process to develop because now, they’re so super – the person who took over was so super security conscious that now, she practically had to have an armed guard when we took anything out of the collection and took it down to the basement, where the digitization lab was. So, we had to develop elaborate “sign in, sign out, initial here…” all of this stuff just to get stuff upstairs and downstairs. And then of course, the freight elevator would break down, and we were not allowed to use the public elevators. Then, they started a construction project which put the freight elevator off limits, which meant we could only move stuff when the library was closed where nobody was working! I mean… public libraries! There they’re so different from the academic world!
And I have to tell you, I loved it! I loved being in the Boston Public Library after all those years at Harvard, where it was so elite, and so, you know, “nose in the air.” People and kids and the homeless, the whole spectrum of people coming into that building. I loved it! It was the peak experience of my career, I have to say. It couldn’t have been more exciting to be part of that particular project. I got to handle prints that were, you know, original Goyas and Dürers and Toulouse… we found nine huge Toulouse Lautrec folders, um, posters that had been laid on the top of a cabinet and forgotten about! Worth hundreds of thousands of dollars each!
You know, and that the pleasure I would get from this, and then I’d say, “I’m going to spend my day don’t looking at Piranesi’s!” It was fantastic! And I also got a lot of fun doing, researching the history of the collection itself. That was, that’s something I’ve always been interested in is how the collectors found stuff.
In this collection, the collector who formed the basic collection was Alfred Wiggin. He had been the President [Chairman] of Chase Bank before, before the crash of the stock market, and he actually made money on the stock market crash. He was… [laugh] yeah, he and a few other bankers saw what was coming and sold their stocks short. So, you know, I keep thinking of all those sorts of illegal things that they did that weren’t really against the law at that time, but anyway, that was ill-gotten gains that created that collection. Who cares? I mean this was Boston we’re talking about. If you want to talk about ill-gotten gains, we’ve got another long story.
Anyway, I, there were prints in the collection, long before the 1940s that they had been acquiring, books with prints in them and not putting them in special collections, they were in circulation, as were the Piranesi’s were in circulation, not in circulation, but they could be seen in Bates Hall, from 9 to 12 every Friday, so people could come in. And we can tell from the way the, the pages on some of the volumes looked, they actually had to reinforce the corners where people were turning the pages, and you can see the thumbprints of ages, literally, on some of these volumes. So, condition is a big problem for them now, and that was something we didn’t really address, except when we found stuff with mold or with tears.
That I, you know, in the four and a half, almost five years that I spent there, I think we encountered every problem that you could possibly encounter. We found mold; it wasn’t active. We found bugs; they were dead. You know, we found stuff rolled up so tightly that we couldn’t unroll it to try to identify it. We found stuff stored in tin cans. We, you know, we found stuff stored… I mean, I found a Whistler in the same box as a 1950s illustration for “Little Women.” [mind blowing noise] How did this happen?
We had to move those 900 boxes of prints that were in what was called the “cab room,” which was basically an extra storage. It was in the old building, so the main storage for the print collection was in the Johnson Building and it had been there since 1972.
In McKim, the old building, there was this room, back of beyond, that had been secured, so it had a, you know, an alarm and all of that stuff, but it also had a window that was open. It looked out on the courtyard just kind of behind the clock in the, in the courtyard, and you know it was bare brick wall, so there was all this crap coming down. Every conservation problem you can imagine, and we had, and water coming in and mold and dust. I mean, we had to have an industrial cleaner come in and dust the stuff before we could take it into the stacks. And we, because of the work we’ve done in the first two years, in reorganizing and re-shelving things, we were able to place all 900 boxes in the stacks because there was that much wasted space. It was, it was unbelievable.
My report on the project, I think, is probably long since been buried. It was, it was a challenge to, to really write it up and be as politically correct as I probably needed to be. At that point, they were past pointing fingers at anybody, but I have to tell you, because this is about museums and libraries, one of the problems in that collection was the fact that the… of the way it was structured was there was a keeper of prints, and then there was two curators.
So, a curator, one curator was responsible for sort of everything after lithography, so sort of, not the fine prints, but the new popular chromolithography, with that kind of stuff in the 19th century, and other curator who did sort of fine art prints, she had a museum credential, that was her background. She had a Ph.D. She specialized in some 19th Century French printmaker, and… sorry, she couldn’t catalog to save her life. And, and there was no teaching her, she was my age or older, I mean I… She, she clearly had been doing this too long and was not interested in learning how to do something differently.
When I tell you that if she was placed on leave at one point, and they tried to open her computer, all her files were stored on her desktop. I’m not kidding. That’s [laughing], you can’t teach somebody like that, you know, and yet, they needed, they’re trying to make her do the cataloging of the Goya collection, and it was it was unbelievable. She didn’t…. she, and she was the one who kept saying, “We’re using museum standards.” And then yet, couldn’t tell me which museum standards. I mean, I… oh, I feel, another swear word coming. I will spare you that. But that was very frustrating, because it was so obvious that this stuff just needed some standardization.
There were things all over the stacks. There were, you know you, we’d come across four boxes of Whistler prints, and then we’d find two Whistlers in another section that nobody had remembered were in another section. So, one of our things what to do was to get everything sort of physically together, and the idea being that this staff that was there now wasn’t going to be there forever and the next staff was going to have to be able to find things, and so our main point for the inventory, because I, I would love to catalog all that stuff, but basically that wasn’t our mandate. Our mandate was to get this stuff into places where it could be found.
And to do that, you know, because I had almost entirely staffed by graduate students in library science, they kept look it up the damned names in LC, and doing authority work when I told them not to. But, I mean, there is a lot of that seeped in, and we did work very hard to try to get the names of the artists at least right. But we weren’t cataloging, and we couldn’t. And one of the reasons we sort of lingered on at the end was we had so many things that were either untitled or the artist was unknown that somebody more knowledgeable was certainly be able to identify and that, at that point, we didn’t have anyone with the expertise, and, most of it was in the Boston printmaker stuff which was [mind blowing hands gesture] you know, non-figurative to a large extent, so we couldn’t just say, you know, this is a painting of a tree, it was, “big red thing.” You know, and it’s hard to, hard to know what to do with that stuff.
We did so well with the prints, they asked us to do separately funded project identifying, doing the same thing for the photographs, and we were able to do that in 18 months and wrap that up. We did… one of the things that we pushed them on was they had they had a large collection of negatives, primarily acetate and glass, and some, some nitrate, enough to be worrisome, but not worried this place was going to explode.
But we pressed them on, on the preservation issue of the negatives. Because the thing with, with photographic negatives is, they are not standing still. They are actively deteriorating, as you look at them. And they shouldn’t be handled any more than necessary, and if you don’t do something now, it may be too late, when you get around to it. So, they, they got that. I don’t know how I managed to convince them some, you know, we all worked on convincing them, we got money and they digitized all of the negatives.
Now they had had a start. There was about 30,000 they had done in that very first project, the Leslie Jones stuff, but they took it on, and they went ahead and they were able to digitize their entire — I think there must have been another 30- or 40,000 negatives that they digitized, so this is, that was huge. And you know, they’re now working on getting, finding a way to cope with this stuff like the, the vinegar syndrome. We know they’ve done surveys on, you know, so they know which boxes have problems. They, they know, they know where the negatives that are nitrate are. They’ve isolated them. They’re getting a cold storage unit for that. And you know, I look back and I think in four and a half years, that place completely turned around, completely! You know, yes, it’s not all cataloged, but boy, there is access now.
[Jones]: I wanted to ask what you did with the Excel spreadsheets and also the Dropbox?
I, um, what I did with the Excel spreadsheets: The person who took over as the head of the department after I left wanted to get our stuff out of the Excel spreadsheets and into something fast, and so they are developing something based in Access, I think. I mean they’re… I try not to because I sort of throw up in my mouth when I think about that. But they are definitely working on getting something that will work. We tried to convince them to do the Shared Shelf thing, which would have been an easy fix, but they weren’t… and like Harvard, some things don’t happen fast at the BPL, and you know technology is one.
I would have loved to have gotten everything into Shared Shelf because then I could have stopped worrying about it. How it will go from Excel to Access, I mean it should be a no-brainer, but I don’t know.
And what was the other part of that question? Oh, Dropbox. We just moved everything to a hard drive and then […] transferred it, and closed the account. I think I closed the account. [Laughs] I may still be paying for it, not sure, but, honestly Kathy, I love the fact that, you know, I said, “I need, I need some, some computers, you know, to do this.” And they said, “How many computers do you need?” I said, “Well, you know, six, maybe seven.” And they said, “Get twelve!!” And I got twelve. And honest to God, I worked for Harvard for 35 years, Paul, and I never had anyone say, “Money is no object. Get what you need.” Never, ever heard that at Harvard!
[Marty]: I can imagine! Do you think, I mean, was all of this a reaction to the press, basically? If the Rembrandt hadn’t been lost, people wouldn’t have given you twelve computers out of nowhere, right?
Probably. And, but what they did was they closed the department, and basically funneled all the accessions money which they, the BPL’s print department had a massive acquisitions budget, and so that was pretty much funneled into the project. Plus, we did get some support from the Associates, which is the fundraising arm of the library, for specific pieces of it. I think my position was funded by them for a while, in fact…
[Marty]: Sorry, I was just gonna say that that’s a fantastic example of, I always show my museum informatics students on the first day the little clip at the end of Indiana Jones and the “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” where the Ark of the Covenant is taken into the wall of boxes. Right? And I say to them, “You think this is a movie…”
Let me know if you want illustrations for this. I have some great before and afters.
[Marty]: Well, and there’s you know, there’s great story after story of things that are lost, you know, one of my favorites is there. Shoot, I can’t remember the name of the museum, I’d have to look it up, but a museum in Paris that found a lost Neanderthal baby skeleton that somebody had put in a desk drawer more than a hundred years ago and forgotten about!
Yep, that happens all the time. [Laughs]. You know, and the thing that people don’t understand, that you learn in libraries your first day on the job is if it’s mis-shelved, it’s lost.