Kelsey here, coming to you from my kitchen table, a.k.a. my home office. I have good news and bad news for you—I’ll start with the bad news, because it’s always better to rip off the Band-Aid. Sadly, while we’re out of office, our actual “digitizing” (meaning our document photography) has had to be put on pause. I know, I’m as bummed about this as you are (you are bummed, right?) The good news is there’s still work for us to do from home, so we are still hard at work for you! The other good news is that at least at home I can eat at my desk (I type while unwrapping a Hershey’s Kiss).
So what are we working on?
As you might remember from my hammering on this over and over again in previous posts, there is a lot more to digitizing than just scanning (say it with me!). Each of the three series we’re working on in our C-SPAN collection has to be prepped for camera, photographed, and then post-processed. For our Press Releases and Photographs series, this post-processing primarily consists of cropping and combining images. For the Viewer Mail, there’s an additional step—redaction.
What and why are we redacting, you ask? Happy to explain. Our Viewer Mail series is precisely that—physical mail (and occasionally faxes/email) that C-SPAN viewers sent in to comment on programs they saw on C-SPAN. The content of these letters is extremely wide-ranging. Common themes include:
- C-SPAN is obviously biased toward liberals;
- C-SPAN is obviously biased toward conservatives;
- C-SPAN is doing a great job and said viewer watches it all the time;
- C-SPAN is doing a terrible job and said viewer will never watch it again;
- C-SPAN’s featured guests are interesting to watch and seem very well-informed;
- C-SPAN’s featured guests are idiots and how did they ever get that gig?
You get the gist.
In reality, these letters are a really unique glimpse into the mood of the country thirty years ago. They capture the views of different individuals from all over the country on the hot-button issues of the 1990s: the Gulf War, the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” policy, the Clinton impeachment, the dissolution of the USSR, the rise of computer technology, even the cloning of Dolly the sheep (and more!). But the authors aren’t well-known analysts or political leaders; these are people just like you or me, reacting to the current events of their time.
These viewers wanted C-SPAN to know their thoughts, but they likely did not plan on those thoughts being published on the internet. They also probably didn’t want their home addresses, phone numbers, or other personal information visible for everyone with Wi-Fi (or Wired-Fi) to see. One solution to this could be to ask for consent from each sender, but considering that we’re working with tens of thousands of letters sent nearly thirty years ago, that’s not really a feasible option. Instead, we at SCRC felt it was appropriate to redact all personally identifiable information (PII) from the letters before posting them. This way, we can preserve the value of the viewer mail—seeing how everyday people were feeling—while protecting the senders’ privacy.
This protection does mean we are going through every single letter and picking out information which could be used to identify the sender, and that’s no small task! Luckily, we have a solid team plugging away at this.
So, not to worry! You’ll still get the content of the letters (the good, the bad, and the ugly), and you’ll also get to know when the letter was sent and where it was sent from, narrowed down to the ZIP code. That’s already a lot of information that should make for some really interesting study.
I won’t make you read another spiel on metadata (you’re welcome), but we have A LOT of it. However, right now it’s mostly in spreadsheet form, and I’m guessing you don’t want to sort through multiple pages of charts listing information on thousands of items. So, to get it ready, our GMU metadata experts are making sure all of it is sorted and consistent so that it is clear, correct, and easy to use! That way, when the documents go up online, you can find exactly what you’re looking for! This means changing the formats of some information (dates, languages, etc.) to align with established standards, but also categorizing letters with the right subjects so they can be grouped together topically. We are lucky to have the help of our crack library metadata team to guide us!
Isn’t this a better word than meeting? But yes, like you, we have to have meetings! Our C-SPAN project involves a lot more people than just me, so in order to coordinate our efforts, we do the Zoom thing too. 😊 That way, training and planning and problem-solving can still happen!
Learning, growing, getting better:
Digitization and digital archiving are ever-changing fields. New technology and new processes are emerging as more institutions endeavor to put things online. That means there’s a lot to keep up with! It’s fun to follow the progression of exciting new developments like improvements in Handwritten Text Recognition (HTR) and photo editing software, but we also take the time to listen to our colleagues from all over and discuss more and more how to decide what to digitize, how to streamline the workflow, what mistakes to avoid, and how to keep people interested and informed about our work. Within SCRC, we are learning about crowdsourcing, enhancing our existing digital collections, and what new technology can offer. Most importantly, we ask ourselves what we want our future to be, how best to benefit all the people coming to look at our material (in person or online), and our charge as archivists to preserve the past responsibly.
Eventually, this period will end (we’re historians, so we know how it goes 😉) and we are preparing to jump back in even better than before! In the meantime, stay tuned for more C-SPAN updates!
Follow SCRC on Social Media on our Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter accounts. To search the collections held at Special Collections Research Center, go to our website and browse the finding aids by subject or title. You may also e-mail us at email@example.com or call 703-993-2220 if you would like to schedule an appointment, request materials, or if you have questions. Appointments are not necessary to request and view collections.