This interview with Liza Harrell-Edge, Manager of Digital Initiatives at the New School Archives and Special Collections, is part of an ongoing series of Interviews with CollectiveAccess users. Previously she worked at the Fales Library and Special Collections at NYU on collections including the Sylvester Manor Archive and the Kathleen Hanna Papers. She received an MA in English from NYU and an MS in Library and Information Science from Long Island University.
Q: Could you give us some background information about your institution? Does your institution have a public-facing CollectiveAccess site?
A: The New School is a university that consists of three main institutions with separate histories prior to the 1970s: Mannes College of Music, founded in 1916; Parsons School of Design, founded in 1896; and the New School for Social Research, a social sciences-focused institution of higher education initially geared towards adult students. I work in the New School Archives and Special Collections, which is a division of the New School Libraries and Archives.
Our public-facing CA site is digitalarchives.library.newschool.edu. The CollectiveAccess site only consists of digital collections, and the archives also has a separate site: library.newschool.edu/archives.
Q: Describe how CollectiveAccess functions at your institution: Why did you decide to use it? How many staff members use it? How does it contribute to the organizational mission?
A: We decided to use CollectiveAccess to catalog and provide access to digital objects around 2012, a time when we were significantly increasing digitization. Prior to adopting CollectiveAccess, we used a system called LUNA to provide access to a collection of digitized publicity scrapbooks plus a small number of images. We also managed files resulting from scan requests using a cumbersome spreadsheet system without public access.
There were a number of reasons we decided to use CollectiveAccess: we wanted a better system to catalog digitized content than the complicated spreadsheets we were using at the time; we wanted to be able to provide broader public access to our digital content; and we wanted a place to manage born-digital content that we anticipated receiving. CollectiveAccess was the only option we found that provided all of the features that we wanted, and we also liked that it is open source. We were hoping that the flexibility it offered would allow us to better integrate our hierarchical archival description and item-level digital object description.
There are three full time archivists at our institution, all of whom interface with the back end of the site. The front end site is used by staff, students, and faculty across the university, as well as outside researchers.
The mission of the New School is to “[prepare] students to understand, contribute to, and succeed in a rapidly changing society, thus making the world a better and more just place.” And further, “We will also lead in generating practical and theoretical knowledge that enables people to better understand our world and improve conditions for local and global communities.” The New School Archives provides many of our students with an introduction to archival research, and can help them contextualize their educational experience in the ongoing history of the school. Staff and the administration are able to access our collections to help understand our institutional history and inform present day decisions. They further serve a global population interested in mining our history for insight. The digital collections site powered by CollectiveAccess exponentially increases access, significantly contributing to the impact the archives can have.
Q: Tell us about a time you ran into a problem with something you wanted to do in CollectiveAccess. What was the problem and how did you solve it?
A: It’s hard to even know where to begin! Our most recent problem was that series-level records were showing up if a user attempted to browse by collection on our front end site, and our series titles don’t make sense without context. In early September, we contacted [lead developer of CollectiveAccess] Seth [Kaufman] without much luck. Then I posted on the user forum, and [another developer] Sophie [Byerley] helped me figure out how to fix our browse configuration file.
Q: What’s one thing you wish you knew how to do (or do better) with CollectiveAccess?
A: I wish I knew how to pull updates from GitHub. When we ended our contract with Whirl-i-Gig, around January 2013, we did not have a plan in place to stay current on updates. I believe at that time Whirl-i-Gig was in relatively early stages of using GitHub and hadn’t yet formalized their process to the extent they have
At this point, I think I understand technically what needs to happen to pull an update, but since we are several years behind, I am concerned with how to troubleshoot issues that are likely to emerge, especially because we don’t have a test environment and so all changes are made on a live server. As with many CollectiveAccess issues, this one is both technical and administrative.
Q: What’s your favorite back-end trick or feature?
A: My favorite feature is probably batch editing.
Q: Have you ever used resources or sought advice on CA from other institutions that use it? If so, what were they? Have you ever participated in discussions with other members of the CA user community?
A: Yes, many times! When we were first starting out, I got a lot of advice from Tara Hart, who was then the archivist at the New Museum. My colleague was also in contact with users at the Brooklyn Academy of Music at that time. Over the years I’ve also been in touch with many other users over the years including Tiffany Nixon at Roundabout, Caridad Bojorquez at the Durst Organization, Anna Gurton-Wachter at the Keith Haring Foundation, Robin Davis at John Jay College, and, of course, Rachel Mattson at La MaMa!
I’ve been to user group meetings at the Noguchi Foundation, Durst Organization, and New Museum, and around 2014 tried to host one myself that was very sparsely attended. I’ve really appreciated the regular user group meetings organized by Robin at METRO [Metropolitan New York Library Council]. Rachel and I also attempted to organize a series of events to share user-created documentation [which led to the creation of collectiveaccesscommunity.org].
Q: What kind of internal IT support do you have for managing CollectiveAccess? Is your department handling the CA server and the software entirely on its own?
A: We had a lot of help from the New School Libraries and Archives’ Director of Digital Library and Technical Services, Allen Jones, and Library Systems Manager, Anthony Dellureficio. They did a lot of the initial installation work and continue to help with server maintenance and other issues as they come up.
Q: What advice do you have for organizations who are considering adopting CollectiveAccess as a cataloging or digital collections platform?
A: Get other users’ input in setting up your installation profile! I think the Whirl-i-Gig team is great in many ways, but there is a level of real talk from other users that I think can be especially helpful. Also, plan for updates from the start! That’s something I definitely wish I had done.
Also, of course, learn to do as much as you can on your own as you can. It can be time consuming, especially at first, but pays off in the long run.