This interview with Lindsay Dumas Wittwer, Digital Archivist at the Center for Puerto Rican studies, is part of an ongoing series of interviews with CollectiveAccess users. Lindsay is currently the Digital Archivist at the Center for Puerto Rican Studies (Centro) Library and Archives where she manages the Digital Projects and Oral History teams, including the administration of CollectiveAccess. Prior to working at the Centro, Lindsay was the Digital Projects Archivist in the Library Innovation Lab at Harvard Law School Library where she oversaw digitization projects for archival collections and rare books and collaborated on the development of tools and websites related to digital collections, including the Caselaw Access Project, Nuremberg Trials Project, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. Digital Suite. She holds a MA in Archives and Public History from New York University.
Q: What is your job title and the institution and department where you work? Do you have a public-facing CA site? If so, what is the front end URL?
A: I am the Digital Archivist at the Center for Puerto Rican Studies Library and Archives. The Center for Puerto Rican Studies (Centro) is a research institute at Hunter College, CUNY that is dedicated to the study and interpretation of the Puerto Rican experience in the United States. The Centro Library and Archives is home to one of the largest collections of material related to the Puerto Rican diaspora in the country. We have a front-facing CollectiveAccess site showcasing our digital collections available in the Archives section of our website at: centropr.hunter.cuny.edu/digitalarchive.
Q: Describe how Collective Access functions at your institution: Why did you decide to use it? What do you use it for? How many staff members interface with it? How does it contribute to the organizational mission?
A: Centro uses CollectiveAccess to manage and display our growing collection of digital assets from our archival collections, Oral History Project, and Art Program. Right now the back end of CollectiveAccess serves as the content management system and primary repository for our digital material (predominantly digital images, sound and video) and we maintain a separate database to manage our physical collections. Like many small repositories, Centro’s digitization program developed as the need arose to digitize material without a clear implementation plan. When I came to Centro a little over a year ago, my position was created in part to get our digital assets in shape and establish standards and procedures for digital projects moving forward. Staff members who had been involved in digitizing material prior to my arrival had amazing institutional knowledge of where material was located and had developed several homegrown systems to track material. They were using several external hard drives, plus their own computers, to store all of Centro’s digital assets, which they realized was unsustainable as the volume of material grew. In 2014 they started looking into content management systems and digital repositories to determine what best fit Centro’s needs long term and decided to go with CollectiveAccess starting in early 2015. A big draw of CollectiveAccess for our team was the front end display capabilities and visualizations available, the fact that it was open source, and the growing user base and support in New York.
Right now three staff members, including myself, work with CollectiveAccess on a regular basis. We are primarily focused on populating the system with our existing digital assets since our site went live on November 1, 2016 (yay!) and there is still a substantial amount of material that is not in the database yet. That said, all Library and Archives staff have been trained on how to use it and as we continue to move from our old systems to CollectiveAccess, more and more staff will be utilizing it to do their work.
Being part of research institute, scholarship, outreach, and education are essential aspects of our organizational mission and the numerous front end display and visualization features Pawtucket can offer are something we really want to harness to connect with students, scholars, and the public in a meaningful way. Looking forward, we want to utilize the material available through the digital collections for public programming and educational endeavors and we see an amazing opportunity to harness the knowledge of Puerto Ricans engaging with our material to add value to it.
Q: Tell us about a time you ran into a problem doing something you wanted to do with CollectiveAccess. What was the problem and how did you solve it?
A: After we initially moved the database from the Whirl-i-gig servers onto our servers we started running into an issue where the site wouldn’t index, so linking entities, storage locations, collections, etc. was impossible, but since we were just getting underway with really actively using CollectiveAccess in a meaningful way, the root of the issue wasn’t obvious to us. We ended up trying to work around it, convinced we were doing something wrong and ultimately created a lot of duplicates and in a few instances, several records of the same collection.
Since the indexing wasn’t working it was impossible to see the full scope of the mess we created over a few days. Finally, we reached out to our web developer who realized it was an indexing issue and with the site fully indexed we saw the minor disaster we had caused. Ultimately, since we had ingested so much media, we decided against reverting the database back to an earlier version and instead mapped out a path to merging duplicates and reestablishing order to our database. To really figure out the extent of our damage, I ended up creating a lot of customized searches and displays to pinpoint the duplicates and we ended up using a mix of merging records and outright deleting duplicates. We did it pretty much all by hand, so it was time consuming, but a benefit ended up being that we got to know CollectiveAccess and what it could do much faster than if we hadn’t messed things up.
Q: What’s one thing you wish you knew how to do or do better with CollectiveAccess?
A: I really need to learn how to create and alter the data mapping information for bulk ingest. I worked closely with Whirl-i-Gig to create some mapping profiles for ingesting based on our metadata right when I arrived at Centro and now, a year later, I have a much better understanding of what our metadata looks like and what the needs really are and I’d really like to make some changes and clean up the mappings to better fit our metadata creation, but I’m kind of intimidated to tackle it alone.
Q: What’s your favorite back-end trick or feature? How has this trick or feature been helpful to your institution?
A: I use sets and the bulk edit features all the time, but I’ve really fallen in love with the edit in spreadsheet mode you can do in 1.7 that was demoed at the METRO CollectiveAccess User Group meeting in September. It has greatly sped up our ability to get records fully cataloged and to clean up metadata to fill in the gaps our mappings leave.
Q: Have you ever used resources or sought advice on CollectiveAccess from other institutions that use it?
A: One of our Library and Archives Advisory Board members, who I was able to meet within my first few weeks starting at Centro, was at an institution that used CollectiveAccess. He had been in a similar position to me in that he had to quickly learn all about CollectiveAccess and make important decisions about the set of it for his institution when he began his position. He gave me a lot of great information and advice that helped me to better understand what I was working with and what I needed to do. Additionally, Centro had been part of a project in conjunction with the New York State Archives in 2008 that brought together archival material about Latinos in New York State called “La Ventana al Pasado/Window to the Past”. Since then, NYS Archives had moved their digital collections into CollectiveAccess, so my predecessors had been looking at NYS Archives as an example of what they thought they wanted the front end to look like. Other than that I looked at the sites of other CollectiveAccess users to see how they used it/what features they had and mined the CollectiveAccess wiki for information.
Q: Have you ever participated in discussions with other members of the CollectiveAccess user community?
A: I’ve tried to attend all the METRO CollectiveAccess user group meetings, because I’ve learned so much from them. I feel that now that I’m a year into using and implementing CollectiveAccess and a year into my position at Centro I am much better poised to be a more active member of the community. I spent most of the last year listening and learning.
Q: What advice do you have for organizations who are considering adopting CollectiveAccess as a cataloging or digital collections platform?
A: CollectiveAccess is ridiculously versatile and has a lot of great features—so to anyone considering adopting it, my biggest suggestion is to be really proactive in thinking about and documenting exactly what you want to get out of CollectiveAccess. What features/functionality do you really want/need? What are your short term needs/how will your existing metadata work with CollectiveAccess? What are your long term goals for your metadata/digital assets in CollectiveAccess? What are the exact fields you want and in what order do you want them? Et cetera.
I think if you have a pretty clear vision going in and share that vision in as concrete of terms as possible, the initial customization of the system will position you well to make good adjustments and changes as you test it and play with it. I’ve also learned a lot from fellow CollectiveAccess users.