A Perfect Pair of Graduate Student Summer Projects

Student workers  join the Special Collections Research Center over the summer to work on focused projects and internships. For the month of August we will be highlighting student work and student research projects from summer 2019. This week, we highlight a pair of graduate students working in our Belfer Audio Archive on digitization and audio preservation projects. 

Image of two graduate students standing in front of audio equipment

Young Yang and Jenny Jian

Two students working this summer in the Belfer Audio Archive have a surprising connection. Jenny Jian and Young Yang have been a couple for 8 years and been married for 6 months. They went to the same high school, the same university for undergraduate study, and now are pursuing their master’s degrees at Syracuse University together.

Jenny Jian, a student in the Audio Arts master’s program (’19 Newhouse & VPA College) is part of a pilot program to have student workers perform digitization work on the Latin American 45 collection.

The Bell Brothers Collection of Latin American and Caribbean Recordings at Syracuse University Libraries contains over 12,000 recordings from North, Central, and South America and the Caribbean. The 45-rpm disc collection includes various types of music such as merengue, bolero, guaracha, chachachá, pachanga, merecumbé, seis fajardeño, bomba, plena, mambo, guaguancó, son montuno, charanga, guajira, música jíbara, danzón, and more.

Max and Joseph Bell, the owners of the Bell Music Box, a New York City record store, were avid collectors of Latin and Caribbean music. Syracuse University acquired the entire inventory of the Bell Music Box store in 1963 and recently began a major digitization project to preserve and make accessible this unique collection.

Image of Jenny Jian seated at a desk, placing the arm of a record player onto a record, with an audio program open on the computer.

Jenny Jian digitizing 45 rpm records.

Using digital audio production skills gained from the SRT program, and following a comprehensive training guide developed at Belfer, Jenny inspects and replays materials from the Latin American 45 collection. She also captures relevant technical metadata which is then embedded in the archival master files.

Jenny’s work is part of a pilot program to incorporate qualified student workers to increase digitization output on the project. So far, the team has digitized over 4,500 of the approximately 12,000 discs in the collection. Adding students to the team has enabled the Belfer staff to tackle this large project at a faster rate.

Image of Young Yang carefully swabbing a 45 rpm record with a cotton swab as part of the cleaning process.

Young Yang cleaning records.

Meanwhile, Young Yang, a student in the Art Video MFA program (’19 VPA College) has been working on disc cleaning and image processing for the same project.

Much of the collection dates from the 1950s and 60s, and may have been stored in less than ideal conditions since then.  Poorly cleaned discs will render audio transfers which are unacceptable for archival preservation. Yang’s work is a vital step in quality assurance on the project.

In summer of 2018, SCRC undertook the Catalyst project in partnership with vendor AVP to photograph the entire LA45 collection and gather label metadata for cataloging. The high resolution images captured will enable researchers to examine not only the labels, but the runout area at the end of the groove where valuable information is etched or stamped during disc manufacture. Yang is cropping and applying filtering as necessary to images, according to the workflow developed at Belfer. These images will serve as visual surrogates for the original materials, reducing the need for handling of fragile and often rare discs.

Together, the couple is helping Belfer preserve audio recordings every step of the way, from cleaning to processing images to digitizing recordings.

The Special Collections Research Center is dedicated to providing opportunities for student learning and research. Stay tuned for more updates from our students throughout the month of August.

The Bell Brothers Collection of Latin American and Caribbean Recordings are part of the Belfer Audio Archive collections. (Belfer Audio Archives, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University). 

July News Wrap Up

In case you missed it, here is the monthly news wrap up with links to all the latest:

  • June 5th-7th. Nicole Westerdahl, Reference and Access Services Librarian, recently completed her year as New York Archives Conference (NYAC) Co-Chair/Local Arrangements Chair for the 2019 conference. The conference was held at St. John Fisher College in Rochester, NY from June 5th-7th and celebrated NYAC’s 50th year. Join us in thanking Nicole for her year of hard work contributing to the profession.
  • June and July in the Special Collections Research Center change pace as many of our staff travel for professional development opportunities. SCRC staff have recently represented Syracuse University at the Association for Recorded Sound Conference, the American Library Association’s Rare Books and Manuscripts Section conference, and The Society of American Archivists conference.

Newly processed collections:

News and Mentions:

  • July 2019 The team in the Belfer Audio Archives digitized a new selection of moon/lunar related tracks that you can hear in this month’s Sound Beat podcast episodes.
  • The Sesquicentennial Exhibit, “150 Years of Tradition at Syracuse University” will have its debut at a reception on September 5, 2019.

150 Years of Tradition Showcased at Syracuse University Exhibition

Highlight from July Social Media:

Q&A with SCRC’s New Director Petrina Jackson

1. Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your new role in the Special Collections Research Center?

I am from Cleveland, Ohio, home of Lake Erie and part of the “North Coast” of America. I am a hopeful Cleveland sports fan with a great appreciation for an underdog story.

As the Director of the Special Collections Research Center, I see myself as a leader, coach, and advocate for our amazing staff and our spectacular collections. It is my responsibility to share the importance of our work as a research library and preserver of cultural heritage materials with not only the SU community, but with Central New York, the state of New York, and the World. It is my goal that we continue to build phenomenal collections, including the stories of marginalized communities to create a more accurate picture of history, while connecting with a variety of audiences to work with these collections.

2. What has been most exciting about living in Central New York?

Wegmans! I am kidding. It is great to be back in the Finger Lakes Region for its beauty, rich history, and diversity. I began my special collections and archives career at Cornell University and was taken by Central New York’s centrality to many social movements, including abolitionism and women’s suffrage. I look forward to exploring social movements and the communities and people, who dedicated their time to them, as well as the impact of ordinary and extraordinary people on the development of the region. I look forward to the living and the work ahead.

3. What do you like to do in your spare time?

No one would be surprised to know that I like reading, especially memoirs and biographies. I find people’s lived experiences, decision-making processes, and leaps of faith fascinating. I also like watching movies of all kinds, but have a soft spot for documentaries and action films with women leads. Reality television is my guilty pleasure. I know, I know. And I could spend hours looking at non-competitive food shows. Watching the creative process and care put into making meals is so satisfying, and I love to eat! I enjoy learning about African American history, art, and culture and find drawing and crafting to be relaxing.

4. Why Special Collections? What drew you to the field?

Special Collections and archives is my second career. After earning my MA in English from Iowa State University, I taught English for seven years at a community college in Illinois. While there, I learned a lot about teaching and mentoring students and gained a great appreciation of the mission of community colleges. However, I thought I might die if I had to continue teaching a 5 minimum course load per semester. I went to a career counselor and librarianship surfaced as a career path. I shouldn’t have been surprised since I always visited with the librarians at my community college. I started requesting and conducting informational interviews with all types of librarians (law, reference, etc.) to find out what a typical day was like, what they enjoyed most about their career, and what was most challenging about being a librarian. One day, I was reading the career stacks and came across a book entitled, Alternative Careers for Librarians. In that book, I read the profile of the Simmons College Archivist, and it was then that I knew I wanted to become an archivist. For those less familiar with the term, an archivist is someone who preserves, provides access to, and promotes records of enduring value. In short, you can call us historical records warriors or guardians of cultural heritage. I contacted the Simmons College Archivist and conducted an informational interview with her. The interview confirmed my decision to pursue archives and records management as a career. I took a leave of absence from my job, pursued a Masters in Library and Information Science with a concentration in Archives and Records Management at the University of Pittsburgh, and the rest is history. The Simmons College Archivist who accepted my informational interview request is currently the University Archivist at Harvard University.

5. What collection from SCRC do you think more people need to know about?

If I had to select one collection area that I would like people to know more about it would be our 19th and 20th-century social reform collections. These collections cover abolitionism, women’s rights and suffrage, prison reform, civil rights, Native American rights, and more. In these collections, one can see the roots of current day movements like women’s reproductive rights, prison abolition, the fight against mass incarceration, environmental justice, and civil and human rights. The activists, methods, relationships, fractures, and achievements evidence a lineage that we can learn, grow, and improve from even today.

You can learn more about SCRC’s activism and social reform related collections here: https://library.syr.edu/scrc/collections/areas/activism.php

June News Wrap Up

In case you missed it, here is the monthly news wrap up with links to all the latest:

  • June 3, 2019. Petrina Jackson arrived to serve as the new director of the Special Collections Research Center
  • June 11, 2019. Congratulations to our three SCRC staff members on their promotions!
  • June 23, 2019. Announcing our Faculty Fellows who are in residence this month.

Newly processed collections:

News and Mentions:

Jane Krom Grammer: A Golden-Age Comic Book Artist Finally Receives Credit for Her Work

Highlight from June Social Media:

Syracuse University Archives' graduate student worker bee Nicole Wright is processing the Buildings and Grounds…

Posted by Syracuse University Archives on Friday, June 7, 2019

From Clay Tablet to Cyber Space: A Semester Full of Library and Archives History

By Sebastian Modrow, Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts

Sebastian Monroe teaching a class, turning pages on a book in the center of a semicircle of students.

Modrow with students examining materials in a class session in SCRC.

The history of libraries or archives could easily fill a whole sequence of courses. During the 2019 spring semester, a group of 12 Library Science students from Syracuse University’s iSchool and their instructor set out (very ambitiously!) to cover the major developments of these two types of information repositories, starting out at the geographic fringes of the Western World (the ancient Near East and ancient Egypt) and moving geographically and chronologically through Europe and North America all the way into the supposed ‘placelessness’ of cyber space. Their quest centered around studying the role and development of libraries and archives in their historical context. The course was called “The History of Libraries and Archives in the Western World.”

While variations of this type of course might address the history of libraries and archives individually, a joint perspective merged into one course has not yet come to my attention. Separate treatment of libraries and archives artificially disentangles a much intertwined history of these two repository types. This entanglement can still be felt today in the collection development of special collections departments, the ongoing struggle for emancipation of archival theory and practice from library management doctrine, as well as the widespread occurrence of employing trained librarians in archivist positions.

Why study library and archives history at all? An obvious benefits of the historical perspective is enabling aspiring librarians, who will engage with the ongoing discussions about the orientation of their professions, to understand the crucial role that libraries and archives play as selective information repositories in a society’s (re)construction of the collective past.  Far from being the once proclaimed pristine and untainted springs of objective information, libraries and archives have come under scrutiny for their ‘curatedness’; that is, for the impact of their collection bias as it relates to the maintenance of power structures over time.  In order to understand “history,” it might not hurt, therefore, to step back for a moment or a semester and – instead of studying Clio’s sources – to study the history of two of her most important source repositories – libraries and archives.

Two students examine rare books in class while Sebastian Monroe looks on.

Examining an original fragment of papyrus and a facsimile, side by side.

During the course, the participants learned that this sometimes confusing relationship goes back all the way to the beginning of textual repositories in ancient Mesopotamia. At the center of the course was a discussion on the centuries-permeating mythology surrounding the Library of Alexandria. Each century, the mythos grew and changed in service of the needs of librarians and historians of the time. For example, it strongly influenced the development of public libraries in the nineteenth century, thereby making the history of libraries and archives into a history of (often very powerful) ideas. The course also traced the relationship between information access and maintenance of power structures from the text repositories of the kings of Assur, democratic Athens, Republican and Imperial Rome, monastic libraries and early modern patrimonial archives all the way to the politics of modern archives and libraries.

A wide view of all of the students in class seated at tables examining materials with their laptops nearby.

The full class working in groups.

Focusing on developments in the Western World was one way to reduce the ground that needed to be covered in this course. The course met at SCRC in order to make ample use of SCRC’s holdings: from cuneiform tablets, a papyrus fragment, medieval manuscripts and early prints to digitized material online. Primary source-based learning brought these future librarians and archivists in (literal) contact with the work of their professional ancestors and allowed a first-hand experience of the physicality and thereby, the organization and preservation demands of bygone information media. When discussing, for example, the content and physical arrangement of Mesopotamian archives, students were able to study original clay tablets aided by secondary literature, archival finding aids, and related metadata from the tablets’ digital surrogates in the database of the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative (CDLI). When discussing medieval and early modern library security, a binding bearing traces of a chain lash exemplified the practice of chaining books to shelves and desks. More recently, a card catalog drawer could help students understand the labor of librarians and researchers of the analog age.

As part of their assignments, students gave a presentation on a selected case study of either an important information repository, such as the Library of Alexandria, the Venetian Archives or the Library of Congress, or influential figure, such as Edward Edwards or Andrew Carnegie. A final research paper brought together the students’ understanding of their future profession’s past. Paper topics ranged from “Aristotle’s Library: On Preservation and Information Control” to “Leibnizian Conceptions of the Ideal Library” to “Queer Archives as Agents of Change and Responses to Oppression.”

Two students examine a cuneiform tablet.

While working with rare books and archival materials, students were frequently asked to research and briefly present on pulled collection items. These group project-based in-class assignments, which involved searching for and researching collection materials online, introduced students to the structure of rare book related catalog records and archival finding aids. Engaging students with primary source research methodology gave occasion to discuss the workings of a special collections department, which ultimately proved to be the ideal setting for teaching a course on library and archives history.