The Digital Underground: Michele Combs

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May 26, 2021, 8:59 a.m.
An interview conducted with Michele Combs in July 2020
Michele Combs and Brittany Bertazon

by Brittany Bertazon, Graduate Assistant for Digital Library Program

Adapting Archival Practices in Times of Crisis, Michele Combs Discusses Crowdsourcing during COVID-19

This post expands on the two work-from-home (WFH) digital projects developed for students and staff to enhance digital object records during COVID-19 quarantine spring 2020. These projects were a joint effort of the Special Collections Research Center (SCRC) and the Digital Library Program (DLP). The Marcel Breuer transcription project used documents and correspondence from the Marcel Breuer Digital Archive in which participants created transcripts of digitized handwritten documents.  The Dime Novel description project used images of covers of early 20th-century books that comprise the Street & Smith Dime Novel Collection; participants created augmented, culturally-sensitive, accessible narrative descriptions for these visual objects. [Note: The transcripts and descriptions will be added to the records when they are migrated to the Libraries’ new digital asset management system, Quartex.] These projects were led by Michele Combs, Lead Archivist for Syracuse University Libraries Special Collections Research Center, and initiated with the help of Deirdre Joyce, Head of the Digital Library Program. In an interview conducted in July 2020, Michele Combs talks about her untraditional path to become an archivist at an academic institution, SCRC’s first experience crowdsourcing projects with SU staff outside of SCRC, and how Covid-19 presented a rare opportunity to alter the archival status quo for greater inclusion. 

Brittany: Tell me a little bit about your background and education. How did you get to the role you are in now?

Michele: This is my third career. I initially was a preschool teacher, although I had always been interested in technology. In college, I started out as a computer science major and then switched to history. When I graduated, I got certified to teach and then ended up moving. In America you have to be certified in each state, so I was no longer certified to teach when I moved. So, I took a temp job working on technical manuals for the US Navy. The subcontract team revised technical manuals and created illustrations using a desktop publishing program called Interleaf.

The woman who ran that team was from Syracuse, where General Electric [which operated the subcontract team] had a plant.  She asked if I would come back with her and start up a similar team here, which I did. At the same time, the Navy was beginning to move all of their technical documentation from a paper format to an electronic format, Extensible Markup Language, otherwise known as XML. I gained a lot of experience with data conversion and manipulating XML.

After nine years in military industrial work, I was ready to move into something else. Library school had always been in the back of mind since my mom worked at a library. In 2004, I started library school at SU. In my last semester I did an internship in SCRC, which at the time was looking into converting all of their finding aids from paper to electronic format using Encoded Archival Description (EAD).  EAD is the XML standard for encoding archival finding aids. So, I was like “I can do that for you!”

It was a really amazing convergence of the technical background that I obtained while working at Lockheed Martin [GE Aerospace was sold to Martin Marietta, which later merged with Lockheed] with my library science degree. I was hired by SCRC in a temporary donor-funded position to work initially on the adult education collections, which turned into a permanent role. That’s when I got to focus on the finding aid conversion. When Kathleen Manwaring, who had been my supervisor and the Head of Manuscripts, retired, I became Lead Archivist.

Brittany: What is your role?

Michele: My responsibility is all of the processing of the collections. That’s everything from accessioning the material when it comes in, to the initial rehousing to make sure it’s stable, to prioritizing what collections to process. In addition, I supervise the processing by training interns, student employees, and new staff. I make sure we have the supplies to do the processing, create and code the finding aids, then publish the finding aids online. It’s basically from the point the curators make the decision to accept something to getting it ready for researchers. At that point, it becomes the responsibility of the curators again or patrons who want to use it.

Brittany: What does the typical day look like for you during usual circumstances when unaffected by Covid-19?

Michele: A large chunk of it is usually spent doing processing. I really enjoy the actual hands-on work. There is always a portion of my day that is devoted to one-on-one meetings or answering questions from my staff. This could be talking with them about what they are going to do next or what they’re working on now, or any questions they may have.

There are always a certain number of meetings because the processing unit also has the responsibility for descriptive metadata for our digital materials. As a result, there are meetings with the Digital Library Program people for discussions about new metadata projects that are coming up or the status of current ones. I monitor the supplies we have and whether we need to order more, because we never want to run out or people would have to stop processing. We always want to make sure we have enough of the basic supplies—the folders, the boxes, etc.

Since I’m also responsible for publishing the finding aids, usually once a week there’s a little bit of work on uploading those to the server, letting Information Technology (IT) know that we need them re-indexed, and doing a little bit of quality assurance to make sure they’re following our guidelines. We have documented guidelines for how the EAD finding aids should be written and encoded. I’m the final quality check for finding aids before they go online.

Brittany: Is the greatest involvement with the DLP within your position through descriptive metadata?

Michele: Right now, yes. Mike Dermody is the technical side of the metadata production. He manages the digitization, works with the vendors, and provides the technical metadata. Then, IT manages the front-end for our users to access materials and search our collections. Our involvement is inputting the metadata so that it is discoverable and accessible.

Brittany: What equipment or technology do you use most frequently?

Michele: In general, we use the basic Office Suite. Excel is an important part of what we do because as we are processing a collection, we start to build the inventory of that collection which will eventually become part of the EAD record. We can also use Excel to manipulate and prepare metadata in big batches for ingest.

Then, any XML editor tools (like Oxygen XML Editor or XMetaL) are important for preparing and encoding the finding aids. I have been doing it long enough that a lot of times I will just work in Notepad. But everybody else usually uses an XML editor because it helps to prevent any errors from creeping in.

The other major one would be FileMaker Pro; our entire collection management is done through a FileMaker database. It is a homegrown one which has a lot of the same capabilities as ArchivesSpace or Archon. However, we started this before those were widely available. Maintaining that database is another big part of my responsibility by way of adding to it, upgrading it, testing new functionalities, etc. Everybody in the department accesses that database, from public services staff to processing staff to curators. Right now, I am also using Photoshop because we have a huge number of photos that we took of the American Book Company illustration plates that need to get converted to TIFF and resized.

American Book Company plates

Figure 1 shows four examples of landscape illustrations in the American Book Company plates. During the initial metadata creation process of the digital object records, an intern identified that one of the illustrations (circled in red, top right) was signed by Thomas Moran, an American painter and printmaker of the Hudson River School in New York. Such a discovery further demonstrates the value of digital collections and the impact descriptive metadata can have for researchers. This image is retrieved from a SCRC blog post written by Sebastian Modrow, Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts.

Brittany: Can you tell me more about the American Book Company (ABC) project?

Michele: If you go to the SCRC blog, there’s a great post on the ABC project. It explains how the project came about and when it was done. Essentially, it  was part of a major rehousing project. Since the ABC illustrations are so fragile due to the acidic mounting board, we opted to take photographs of the materials while rehousing. Although it was not initially intended to be a public project, the photos turned out really good, so we decided to make them available publicly which required accompanying metadata. That’s one of the projects people have been working on from home during quarantine.

NOTE: The Special Collections Research Center (SCRC) at Syracuse University Libraries has its own blog in addition to the Libraries’ general blog. It has been active since May of 2019 and is edited by Grace Wagner, Reading Room/Access Services Supervisor at SCRC.

Brittany: Speaking of working from home, how have archival workflows changed in general for you and your staff?

Michele: I think the most notable difference is that by the nature of processing you need access to the actual stuff. So, the biggest change is that the main part of our job, we cannot do right now. As a result, everybody has shifted over to the descriptive metadata projects while working from home. In terms of the Digital Library Program, that’s all we do right now. Everybody is working on some aspect of descriptive metadata.

Brittany: It is my understanding that the work-from-home (WFH) digital projects enhancing metadata description began per Dean Seaman’s request, but ultimately it was you and Deirdre Joyce that were responsible for initiating and launching these projects.

Michele: Originally, we had talked about them as exclusively for SCRC staff. It was partly the Dean’s idea that some of these projects are really big and could be something we open up to the rest of the library staff.

At that point, Deirdre and I said to each other, “Okay we need to talk about this…how is this going to work?” because that meant bringing on board a lot of people who don’t have experience with archival material. We went over how we could make it as easy as possible, so that people could work on a project whenever they needed to without a lot of supervision. In that respect, the implementation of the project was slightly different than we would have done it if it had been more normal. Normally, it would have been a much more monitored project. But having people check each other’s work has actually functioned really well. I’ve gotten emails from people who were excited to have a chance to work on Special Collection projects. One person said: “I feel like I’m a detective!”

Brittany: As the WFH content specialist and project lead, was there anything that immediately stood out as not ideal to go about creating and process testing for it to be fully inclusive and easy to use for non-SCRC staff?

Michele: One of the things that was clear right off the bat is that within the library as a whole we have a huge range of technical comfort levels, experience, and capability. So, there were some parts of the process that we changed to make it simpler and easier. For example, initially we were going to have people claim a particular item to work on and then go to the digital platform and search for that item. Deirdre suggested that we provide a link instead, so people don’t have to search, they can just click. She found a quick and easy way to get working links into the tracking spreadsheet we were using. We continue to enhance the instructions, too, based on the questions we get.

Any time you start a project you make certain assumptions, consciously or unconsciously, about how people will interpret what you say in the instructions or how easy a particular step will be. If it turns out something is not clear, then you revisit it. From that respect, doing everything on Google Drive was fabulous because I could update the instructions and the new version was immediately live. With this many people working from this many places, using Google Drive was really the only way to do it.

Brittany: Were the Marcel Breuer archival materials and the Street & Smith Dime Novel covers digitized prior to the launch of the WFH projects?

Michele: Yes, the dime novels were digitized back in the early 2000s. We got a grant to do that and then Breuer was done between 2008 and 2011.

Marcel Breuer letter

Figure 2 is a letter written by Eberhard Thost to Marcel Breuer, which serves as one example of the different kinds of archival materials with handwriting in need of transcription. This correspondence is a part of the Marcel Breuer Papers at Syracuse University Libraries and is available for closer examination on the digital archive.

Brittany: How did you feel about the outcome of the WFH projects?

Michele: I’m all for it, I think it’s great! We’ve gotten an incredible amount done—so much more than I expected. One of the best things about getting the whole library involved is that some of the people who have been the most active are folks that work at the Facility. Working in the warehouse, they don’t normally get a chance to do hands-on work with archival material, and they were fantastic.

It was satisfying to be able to give non-SCRC workers at SU Libraries, especially those whose work was hindered by lack of physical access during this pandemic, a work-from-home experience. The projects are low stress. The work is easy to do, but it is concrete. Each record makes up a little piece of a larger whole. You can visually see the number of works go up, and that you are contributing. Psychologically, I think it had a positive impact for people during a time of crisis.

Brittany: In regard to the DLP, are these the only projects going at this moment or are there any future projects on the horizon?

Michele: I think Special Collections will continue to be an active partner with the DLP just by the nature of our holdings. We want to make our collections available to more people and the metadata will be complicated because it is archival materials, but access is at the forefront of our work. Making these digitized objects accessible to people who use screen readers is an additional challenge because these are not new materials that we’re creating from scratch, like a Word document. When we digitize a letter, it is an image. It’s not accessible to screen readers and it isn’t searchable, because that’s not an option without a lot of extra intervention. So yes, I’m 100% sure there will be many things that we will be proposing as projects for the DLP.

For example, I would love to see the full content of the dime novels scanned and OCR’d (optical character recognition) then made downloadable as text files. Because of the nature of these books and when they were written, they give a vivid picture of the popular culture of the time. The adventure novels tell you so much about how America saw itself at that time. If you had the corpus of texts that you could analyze and pull apart, it would have really rich potential.

As far as transcription within the library or outside it, I would love to see us do some of our abolitionist correspondence. We have letters from Gerritt Smith and Frederick Douglass and all of these amazing people who made big strides in early social justice. Women’s rights, rights for former slaves, anti-slavery, prison reform—we have materials from people who were deeply involved in those battles, and it would be amazing to digitize all that correspondence and have it transcribed.

color drawing of cover of book Jack Harkaway in Chine by Bracebridge Hemyng

Figure 3: Jack Harkaway in China (Round the World Library No. 130) is part of the Street and Smith Publications in Special Collections Research Center’s rare books collection at Syracuse University Libraries.

NOTE: The Dime Novel cover description project was launched to create more accessible descriptions for low/no-vision users and provide rich descriptions for potential digital humanities projects. It incorporated anti-racist description techniques in order to de-center whiteness in the collection. While Street & Smith were committed to “clean and wholesome” adventure stories and serve as a testament to the social culture of the Progressive Era, the content and cover art exhibit dominant narratives of white superiority and examples of Western racial hierarchy during intercultural encounters. Combating racism with descriptive metadata is an imperative and ongoing issue in libraries, archives, and museums and was recently explored in depth at the Association of College and Research Libraries 2021 conference. By providing more inclusive and conscientious descriptions of our resources, we can begin to deconstruct colonial ideology and revitalize collections within the social context of today.

Brittany: Flipping that perspective, are there any past projects that you really enjoyed that the DLP and SCRC worked on together?

Michele: The DLP is still relatively new. I was on the team that helped draft what the DLP would look like (the original white paper) in 2016. But I think it is going to be really valuable. For example, in the early phases of the Breuer project the necessary internal communication channels were not all in place. The DLP connects all areas—information technology, digitization, descriptive metadata, and digital humanities. In the white paper we argued pretty strongly to have a digital humanities person on the DLP core team, because that’s the ultimate goal when you digitize materials and create metadata. What do you do with it? What are some creative or innovative digital humanities projects you could do? I think the DLP will be key to making these sorts of things happen.

Brittany: Do you think SU could (or should) continue to internally crowdsource digital projects post-Covid?

Michele: Absolutely! It’s fun for those of us in Special Collections to have a chance to interact directly with other people in the library on a project. I love that we’ve been able to do it. We had talked within Special Collections about some of these bigger projects and the idea of crowdsourcing, because other institutions have done that kind of thing, but it never occurred to us to crowdsource within the library. It was a really good fit for this particular moment and shows promise for the future.

Brittany: When do you feel most fulfilled in your role?

Michele: When I go through the Reading Room and I see a researcher using a collection that we processed. It’s really satisfying to see that that final step realized—we did all this work, and here’s somebody who wouldn’t be able to do what they’re doing if we hadn’t made that possible. That just feels so good to see somebody using the end product of all your work.

The other part I really enjoy is working with my staff, and our interns and student employees. By the nature of processing, there are certain best practices and certain constants but essentially it’s a big sorting project and everybody approaches it differently. I love watching people figure out how to do it, to see them internalize the key points and then make it their own.

And it’s always fun to hear from our interns and student employees two or three years later, when they’re out in the world and putting that experience to use.

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