Digitize, Visualize, Optimize, An Archivist’s Volunteer Experience

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Skilled Volunteers for Israel placed Mordecai Walfish  as a volunteer archivist with the Mandel Foundation.  Read about his experience sharing his very unique expertise.

For the past three years, I have been working for the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at NYU Wagner (BJPA), first as its content manager, then its Assistant Director, and now as its Director of Special Projects. Like many of my colleagues in the burgeoning field of digital archiving, I don’t have any formal academic training in archive management. My background is in philosophy and literature and in nonprofit management – an idiosyncratic combination that gives me a useful combination of skills for working a field that is constantly evolving and where the theories are always subject to change. This means that my approach to digital archiving has always been from the bottom up. Together with my team, which includes academics and students, a web programmer, a usability consultant, a metadata consultant and a marketing specialist, my work has mainly consisted of building a comprehensive and user-friendly digital archive of Jewish policy materials. As a team, we ask questions and consult users, and think together about the most pragmatic ways to approach this work from the perspective of the administrator, the user, and of course the budget. The knowledge that my team and I have gained has been acquired step-by-step, getting our hands dirty through much experimentation and learning from our errors, which are always instructive.

Three years into this project, we have learned quite a bit. And encouraged by our funders (the Revson and Berman Foundations), and our director (Prof. Steven M. Cohen), the culture in our organization is to share what we have learned with others, so that people can learn from our successes and failures and also to foster a more robust and collaborative community of high-quality Jewish digital archives. This is one reason why I was thrilled to be able to spend the last month working with the Mandel Foundation on their Archive Project, as part of the program Skilled Volunteers for Israel. While at Mandel I have had the chance to help the archive team think through key questions in the long-term planning of its digital archive. For me, it has been a great opportunity to try out the role of a consultant. Because everything I have learned is from my colleagues and my experiences with BJPA, it was very useful for me to figure out what knowledge I have gained that is applicable to other contexts and what is not and how indeed to modify principles that I have developed to a different context.

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There are similarities and differences between BJPA’s project and Mandel’s. Both projects seek to digitize paper materials and make them accessible a winder public, to increase institutional memory and avoid duplication. But the Mandel collection has a broader range of content as well as a different intended audience. While BJPA contains only policy research and analysis from outside organizations, all of Mandel’s material is internally-produced and contains content that is both administrative and policy-relevant. This means that any digital archive system that is built needs to account for different levels of access – from internal and confidential, to simply internal, to accessible to the wider world.

The key questions I have been dealing with at Mandel fall into three categories: digitization, metadata, and visibility.  In terms of digitization, I have been helping Mandel investigate the different considerations involved in scanning historical material – from the product of the scanning to what happens to the material after it is scanned, and to weighing questions of speed and quality. For metadata, I outlined the key considerations in systematizing metadata entry: which fields to choose and how to ensure that the right ones are chosen from the beginning; how to decide which fields are required and which are optional; what to do about multiple values in a certain field; creating an organizational thesaurus (or controlled vocabulary) and ensuring systematic metadata entry once this work spreads beyond the original archive team. In terms of visibility, I presented some ideas for encouraging use of the digital archive once it has been built. My main theory for visibility is that there is no one method that will ensure usage – there needs to be multiple access points. Some methods require personal communication: being in touch with various relevant people and organizations and asking for their help in advertising this tool to their constituents. This can come in the form of including the archive on a list of recommended resources or modeling its use in a classroom. Other methods are more technical and involve utilizing search engine optimization. In any event, it is always necessary to track how much traffic the site is getting through Google Analytics, which helps you analyze what you are doing well and what still needs improvement.

As I near the end of my time at Mandel, I am grateful for the warm hospitality that folks at the Institute and Foundation here inJerusalemhave provided. It has been an enjoyable and productive month!  Thank you to Skilled Volunteers for Israel for providing the opportunity.

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