On August 12-18th, the Society of American Archivists (SAA) hosted their annual conference in Washington, D.C. With session topics covering everything from accessioning materials to digital preservation to concerns about access, the conference program appealed to a number of staff members here at the Archives. Normally, we only have the ability to send a few people to any given conference because of travel costs, but SAA being held locally this year allowed us to send twelve members of our staff. Upon their return, they were asked to reflect on their experience by answering a few questions about the conference.
What was the most useful thing you learned that can be applied to your job?
Tatiana, Archives Technician: The most useful information was how the changes in technology affect archiving and how important it is to understand the impact to the profession. Mostly how machine learning and artificial intelligence can affect key terms and other information when searching collections.
Mitch, Archivist: The most useful thing I learned at SAA were the different tools/services used by other archives in their pursuit of automatic image recognition. With the quantity of the images in the Archives collections and with the known identities of many Smithsonian employees, it seems it would be easy enough to teach an AI system to automatically identify people in photos in our collections.
What was the most interesting presentation you attended?
Tatiana: The most interesting presentations were the project the National Museum of African American History and Culture is currently working on to build up a collection from the Great Migration by allowing the public to bring in their items to be archived. Also, the importance of collecting data ethically with police body cams, refugees, and other changes in society to build trust and ensure that information is managed appropriately.
Mitch: There were probably two presentations that were the most interesting. The first had to do with celebrating anniversaries using archival materials. One archive used archival material and theatrical readings to bring interest to their annual friends of the archives meeting dinner. However perhaps the coolest thing I saw at the conference was Yale's EaaSI (Emulation as a Service Infrastructure). Still a work in progress, EaaSI would allow users to open old software programs and use them in an emulated operating system.
Alison, Preservation Coordinator: The pop-up session, Digitization IS/NOT Preservation, proved to be the most thought-provoking presentation I attended. Nine speakers from varying backgrounds gave their brief thoughts on digitization as preservation, and, in doing so, displayed the many nuances of this ongoing discussion. For audiovisual digitization, Snowden Becker discussed the idea of transferring analog materials into digital content and the often subsequent loss of original boxes, sleeves, leaders, etc. that could add to that object’s history; not to mention the frequent loss of film edge information, such chemical composition and manufacturer information, that give us clues about the object and its origins. The idea that digitization is preservation for audiovisual materials is a commonly accepted position, but this discussion made me reconsider my own viewpoint on this topic.
Lynda, Electronic Records Archivist: This is Not Skynet (Yet): Why Archivists Should Care about Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning - This panel offered quite a bit of food for thought in the area of artificial intelligence and machine learning. Machines will not be replacing archivists but can assist in processing born-digital archival materials and backlogs that many archives face. These technologies can apply in the areas of copying materials and item and format recognition, as well as assisting in prioritizing some projects. There also is the potential of viewing collections in new ways that humans are unable to do easily. This is an area for archives to keep eye on while realizing it is far from perfect, as one audience member pointed out that an image of a museum collection item of slave shackles was tagged by a software program as being jewelry. Subject matter experts are needed to make sense of what AI/ML tools are telling us.
What is a topic you'd like to see on next year's schedule?
Mitch: I would like to see more user studies. All of this time and resources are going into digitization and access of archival materials, and I would like to see more data on the impact it has had on the use on archives collections and in research.
Alison: I would like to see a presentation on the construction of new collection facilities and how these buildings are being optimized to support all the different functions of a library or archive, such as conservation, imaging, audiovisual digitization, maker-spaces, reading rooms. Many of these functional spaces have been retrofitted into existing buildings, but I would like to see discussions about creating facilities from the ground up and how each one of these spaces can be maximized within a building to increase accessibility, outreach, and preservation goals.