January 29, 2007


"It is a sad fact of human history that so many efforts to record the milestones of human endeavors have failed over the centuries, but the enduring wonder is that so much has survived the long haul."

Nicholas Basbane
A Splendor of Letters

"The Rock and Roll History Museum is an impenetrable fortress!"

Ben Stiller as Guitar Store Guy
Tenacious D: The Pick of Destiny

January 27, 2007

Research Tip: Custom Search Engines

In my last entry, I promised to share some of my favorite research tips. Today I'm going to share a brand new tip I just learned the other day.

I've been a Google addict ever since I typed in "metropolitan museum of art" and clicked the "I feel lucky button" some time in either 1998 or 99. Was the result a list of links? Nope. Clicking that button took me directly to the Met's homepage. I was bedazzled.

But the geeky research fun just never stops with Google. One of the newest tricks to come out of Google Labs is custom search engines. I used this tool to create my Preservation Answer Machine. It takes the guesswork out of finding reliable preservation information online. You can create your very own if you are so inclined. Here's how.

But even if you don't want to create your own custom search engine, there's good news. Now you can search for other custom engines on any topic you can dream up. All you have to do is type your keyword plus this:

inurl:cse inurl:coop site:google.com

I put those Google commands on a separate line so you can just double click it, copy it, and paste it into Google. Easy peasy.

I tried this hack with the keyword "GENEALOGY" and got eight results:

Genealogy Search Engine
Genealogy Blog Finder
Genealogy Search
Family Matters Search Engine
Genealogy Blog Finder
Thrall Local History & Genealogy Guide Search
UTGenWeb - counties

So go have fun with Google -- and if you find something remarkable please use the comments section to share it. If it's helpful to you, it's probably helpful to someone else, too.

I found this great Google Hack via Research Goddess Tara Calashain's not-to-be-missed Research Buzz.

January 25, 2007

5 Things You Don't Know About Me

Denise over at Family Matters tagged me as part of a genealogy bloggers "get acquainted" exercise.

Here's my five things about myself that you probably don't know:

  1. I never wanted to be an archivist when I grew up. When I applied to the University of Wisconsin - Madison as a high school senior, I was forced to declare a major. So I chose "Journalism" because (a) I was really into photography and (b) I loved rock and roll. I figured a+b = Annie Liebowitz, so J-school it was.* This is what happens when you ask an 18 year old what they want to be when they grow up. Especially one who subscribed to Rolling Stone at the tender age of 14.

    *If you aren't familiar with Annie Liebowitz's photography, let me just explain that this was an utterly impossible dream. Sort of like deciding to become the next Michael Jordan. Not long after I arrived in Madison, I gleefully abandoned photojournalism in favor of history and archives management. A career path that landed me in the Library of Congress Prints and Photos Division...where I was able to view prints in the Masters Collection that Ms. Liebowitz exposed and developed herself.

  2. I'm an information geek. I've always loved research. When I'm tracking down something I get in that zone where there's no such thing as time. My love of research is what led me to become an archivist, actually. Future posts will include my favorite research tips. Some that I picked up in library school, as well as ones that I learned by doing when I was the historical image researcher at American Girl.

  3. I'm not a genealogist...yet. That day will come, I promise you, but for now I'm holding off. I know myself well enough to realize that once I start this project it will consume me and I will never be able to stop.

  4. I tell people it's OK to throw out photographs. If you're a regular reader of this blog, you know that already. But if a genealogy link is what brought you here, I feel like we need to get this out in the open right away. In my workshops, it's the genealogists who have the hardest time with reducing the size of their photo collections. Before you totally freak out, let me point out that I'm not talking about your ancestor photos, or your favorite photographs. I'm talking about the fact that ever since about 1970, you've taken too many snapshots and you don't have to keep them all. Keep the ones that are good enough to go in a photo album, find another home for the others or use them to make something cool like a birthday card. Intrigued? Here's a blog entry from earlier this month that goes into more detail.

  5. I often get the Doris Day Parking Spot. I have an uncanny ability to find the perfect parking spot at the perfect moment. My buddy Martin is the one who taught me the nickname, since this is precisely what happens in every Doris Day movie. I have no idea how or why I obtained this ability, but I try not to question it too much. OK, I realize it's not a super power like invisibility or laser eyes, but golly it sure comes in handy every now and again.
Now it's my turn to do the tagging and invite five others to participate. Apologies to anyone who has been tagged already:

The Photo Detective (a.k.a. Photo Goddess Maureen Taylor)
Dead Fred (Joe Bott)
Tracing the Tribe
Dick Eastman

Photo credit: Bob Dylan by Annie Liebowitz.

January 24, 2007

Photo Organizing Tips: Presentation is Only the Icing

Scrapbooking is a very popular hobby here in the United States. Surely you've seen stunning examples in your own family or group of friends. And who wouldn't appreciate a personalized scrapbook made for them by someone they love? What a beautiful, thoughtful gift! Scrapbookers are creative artists who have collectively raised the bar on what we consider a quality photo album.

But there's a dark side to this -- and it doesn't have anything to do with preservation...

I consulted with a client late last year who was sort of beating herself up about scrapbooking. She had made a vow to herself to deal with her photographs before the end of 2006. Here's what she said to me: "I feel like I'll be judged a bad mom if I don't transform all these photos into beautiful scrapbooks."

How on earth did this happen?

Please understand: I've got nothing against scrapbooking. For many people, it's a beloved hobby. For me, it's a nightmare. If there's such a thing as a"crafty gene" I can assure you that mine is damaged or missing entirely. And while I can recognize and appreciate good design, I can't seem to create it, much to my dismay. Add to that the fact that I can't seem to trim a photo correctly or set one down on a page without it coming out crooked, and you can see why I don't go on weekend-long scrapbooking retreats.

We owe scrapbookers a huge dept of gratitude for making so many presentation options available. Especially photo-safe options. The scrapbooking industry has literally held manufacturer's feet to the fire and demanded acid free materials. But no one should feel guilty if they prefer to use slip-in pages and plain 3-ring binders rather than a 12 color layout with embossed letters and a lovely translucent overlay. Presentation matters, yes. But don't let other people's elaborate designs prevent you from organizing, archiving and sharing your photos. At the end of the day it's the photos and the stories behind them that matter.

The Practical Archivists's Suggestions for NON-Scrapbookers:

  • Remind yourself before you start that the presentation is the icing, not the cake itself.
  • Choose the photos you love the most. The ones that stop you in your tracks. That make you grin, or cry. Whatever. The ones that really MEAN something to you.
  • Write down the stories behind your photos - the stories that will disappear after you are no longer here to tell them. I use Denis LeDoux's Photo Scribe method, which is designed specifically for people who are intimidated by writing. It's one of the 3 books I recommend to every family historian, see column on the left.
  • Regardless of your personal style, be sure to use only PAT-passed materials. See this article for details about what is and what is not safe to use.
  • Start with one album that chronicles you and your partner's lives together. If you have kids, start with an album about your lives together before kids.
  • Next, you can create one for each of your kids. Skip the baby pictures if you already have an elaborate baby book with pictures.
  • After that's done, make the "extra" scrapbooks for individual vacations, etc.

Two final thoughts:


Perfection Is the Enemy of the Good


January 18, 2007

Bad blogger, no donut.

Yesterday I goofed. I forgot to credit the blog where I learned about that nifty procrastination formula. I should have included this line at the end of my entry:

Link via Wil Wheaton.

Gazillions of people have heard of Wil because of this sci-fi TV show he used to be on, but I remember him as Gordie in Stand By Me. That movie was based on a Stephen King novella called The Body. At the time the movie came out, The Body was my favorite Stephen King story. ("The most important things are the hardest things to say...")

I stumbled on Wil's blog by accident, but I keep visiting because (1) he is an unabashed geek who is hip to stuff like the procrastination formula (2) he is funny, funny, funny and (3) he is a very talented writer...especially when he writes about his own life. Check out this brief excerpt from the first entry I ever read, then go visit Wil's blog and read the whole thing:

As we drive down Aunt Val's street, it hits me: this is it. I've been asked to help my dad move furniture, but I'm really here to say goodbye to this house that's been part of my life since I was a child.

A tremendous sadness washes over me as we back into the driveway.

I exchange polite hellos with Aunt Val's daughter, who is responsible for the selling of the house, and walk inside.

It's the first time I've been there since her death, and the house feels cold and empty. It's more than just the furniture being gone. It's her warmth and love that are missing.

Most of the furniture has been moved out, but certain things remain untouched: her bookcase, filled to overflowing with pictures of the family and children's artwork...some of it mine...still dominates the side of the living room, the recliners where my great grandparents spent most of the last years of their lives opposite. I remember sitting in my Papa's chair, while Aunt Val sat next to me, watching Love Boat and Fantasy Island, thrilled that I was staying up past my bedtime, watching shows intended for grownups, putting one over on my parents who would often drop my siblings and me off for the weekend.

I loved those weekends. When we spent time with Aunt Val we were loved. We were the center of the Universe, and though she was well into her 70s, she would play with us, walk with us to get snacks, let us stay up late. It was wonderful.

Golly. I wish I could write about my family that way. Fantastic.

Read the entire entry here: http://www.wilwheaton.net/mt/archives/001126.php

Thanks, Wil.


January 17, 2007

Procrastination: U=ExV/(G)xD

Professor Piers Steel has found a way to explain procrastination as a mathematical formula, and it only took him (wait for it....) 10 years to do it! I don't know about you, but I find that number funnier every time I think about it.

Anyhoo. According to this article on news.com, procrastination rates have been climbing in this country, and college students are the biggest procrastinators. Probably no surprise there.

New technologies only increase the number of distractions. The author refers to the Blackberry as "crackberry" and talks about "motivationally toxic environments." Hmm. So much for computers and technology making our lives easier, eh?

Here's what Steel says about trying to get anything done in this environment:

"Imagine trying to diet with a magic floating spoon of ice cream following you around."


For those of you tackling a photo organizing project, here are some tips to fix your procrastination habit:

  • Know yourself. You have to know your procrastination style in order to change your habits. If your problem is being easily distracted by other tasks, see the next few tips.
  • Turn off the TV. Unplug it if you have to. Sometimes if you're stuck the best option is to take your work somewhere else like a library or coffee shop.
  • Turn off your cell phone. Stash it in a locked drawer for the hour or so you plan to get work done.
  • If playtime interferes with your work, remove games from your PC. Stash game cartridges out of reach whenever you're working. If they still beckon to you, ask a neighbor to hold them for a while.
  • A tip for all of us. Turn off your automatic email notification. Lose the ding!
  • If you have no problem getting started but tend to get bogged down by large projects, break everything down into smaller tasks.
  • Perfection is the enemy of the good. Don't let perfectionism prevent you from making real progress. Better is bettter -- even if it's not perfect.
  • If a deadline is the only thing that motivates you, create your own and make yourself publicly accountable. (That's my own tip, fyi.) A deadline you set for yourself won't have any power if no one else knows you've missed it. Tell someone you admire and respect that you've set a deadline for yourself and you'd like their help to keep you on track. Ideally, this person would also be kind and supportive. Another option is to post to an online forum and update folks about your progress. Heck, you can even post your goals in the comments section here on The Practical Archivist blog.
  • Reward yourself. When you make progress, give yourself a nice treat. How you define treat is, of course, up to you. :)

Read the full article here, including an explanation of the formula itself: A Formula for Procrastination, by Stefanie Olsen


January 09, 2007

Photo Organizing Tips: What to Keep?

Contrary to popular belief, archivists do not keep everything. In fact, one of my archival professors used this memorable rhyme: "When in doubt, throw it out!"

When I tell people this I usually get a surprised look.

An archivist? Throwing things out?

Yep. I'd be willing to bet I spent more time learning the art of archival appraisal than any other skill while in grad school. But aren't archivists the keepers of our shared history? Yes, but...

Here is the undeniable reality: If historical societies kept every single item that landed on their doorstep....every cancelled check... every unidentified photograph... every duplicate map… there simply wouldn't be any room left for new collections. And that won’t work in the long run, will it? Hardly.

The same holds true for your family archive, but it's a little different. When a collection stays in the family, the sentimental value is extremely important. I’m a mom myself, so I understand how difficult it can be to part with sentimental treasures like baby pictures, finger paintings, pinch pots and teeny tiny little clothes.

If you keep everything you'll have an uncontrollable mess on your hands. Your grandkids are not going to want to keep all of your vacation slides. On the other hand, they would probably love to have a handful of photographs of you having fun on vacation. You can choose to leave them everything or you can make some careful selections now.

When teaching folks how to purge a large chaotic photo collection, I like to use a fine wine analogy. You can read the article I wrote on this exact topic on my website.

P.S. If you're thinking about joining us for our half day photo organizing workshop in Madison later this month, you'll want to check out two special offers that are good only through Friday, January 12th. Cheers!

January 03, 2007

Photo Organizing Tips: Set Realistic Goals

Large projects are often dead in the water before they are ever begun. They seem so daunting that just thinking about them is an energy drain. Not good. The key, of course, is to break the project down into smaller (read: do-able) steps.

A goal like "I will organize all of my family photographs by the end of 2007 or die trying" is dramatic but not specific enough. Create goals that are small steps you can accomplish every month or week or day.

Here's what I mean by concrete goals:

  1. I will complete an initial inventory of the photo collection by January 31st.
  2. I will scan the most vulnerable images by March 1st.
  3. I will set aside 6 hours each month to work on this project.
  4. I will find a buddy (or a group of buddies) so we can work on our projects together.
Even your "Big Picture" goal can be worded in more concrete terms:
  1. By the end of 2007, all the damaged and vulnerable photos will be stored in a safe environment (starting with a rescue of all photos in those horrible sticky magnetic albums).
  2. All the remaining prints will be sorted into groups in rough chronological order.
  3. I will complete at least one photo album or tribute book by the end of 2007.

As you complete each goal, relish the satisfaction of crossing it off your list once and for all. If you tend to obsess over the big picture, ask yourself this brief but Very Important Question:
"Is it better?"
If you can say yes, then for goodness sake take a moment to celebrate your accomplishments. Big projects are completed in small steps, and it's important to stay motivated and on track. So go ahead and pat yourself on the back. Write a letter to a dear old friend telling them how lucky you are to have them in your life. You can even enclose a photo of the two of you (I'll talk about extra photos in the next Photo Organizing Tip).

January 01, 2007

Photo Organizing Tips: Finding Expert Advice

In honor of New Year's and the resolutions we make, I'm going to share some of my all-time favorite photo organizing tips with you this month.

Before You Start: Find Expert Advice

The best place to start is to attend a workshop or get your hands on a decent how-to book. Since these are your family treasures and not just any old paper, I strongly recommend you get your advice from someone familiar with photo preservation rather than a professional clutter buster. There are some basic no-no's you need to avoid -- most notably using poor quality boxes and albums. I don't care how adorable the design is, if it smells awful you would be crazy to use it for storing photographs. Although this simple sniff test might not seem scientific, it can keep your photos away from PVCs which will damage them over time. (In other words: If it smells like a cheap shower curtain, run!)

Find Expert Advice Online.

Here are two general articles written specifically for non-archivists:

The Library of Congress: Caring for your Photographic Collections

Northeast Document Conservation Center: Care of Photographs

You can also use my Preservation Answer Machine to find information about caring for specific types of photographs (cased images, tintypes, etc.) or for advice on how to safely label your photos.

Find a How-To Manual.

The book I recommend more often than any other is Maureen Taylor's Preserving Your Family Photographs. Amazon.com has new and used copies for sale. Your public library may also have a copy you can borrow.

I noticed that there's one reviewer on Amazon.com who complains that it's not a good book for beginners. I whole-heartedly disagree, but by the time I discovered this book I had already finished grad school and worked as a professional archivist.

Of course, if I hear from other beginners out there that they also found this book too advanced, I will change my tune. Please feel free to email me or leave a comment here on the blog.

Upcoming Workshop in Madison, Wisconsin.
On Saturday, January 2oth, 2007 I'll be hosting my first-ever Photo Savers / Story Keepers half day workshop in Madison, Wisconsin. The class will start with the "what to keep" and continue on to "how to keep." You'll also learn a wrtiting technique so painless that you will truly enjoy recording the stories behind your photographs. Visit the official website for more details, including how to order a recording if you can't make it in person.