reflections on #MCN2016 in the election aftermath

I received a Kress Foundation / Digital Library Federation “cross-pollinator” fellowship to attend this year’s Museum Computer Network conference, which was held in New Orleans a week before the presidential election. Here are my reflections on the conference and related thoughts on digital collections. Re-posted from the original on the DLF blog.

In her keynote address at MCN, mere days before the presidential election, Catherine Bracy projected an image of Donald Trump on the giant ballroom screen. “Trust in institutions…is as low as it’s ever been,” she said. Bracy’s words set the stage for what was, for me, a reflective conference, as I gained new ideas from an adjacent field as well as fresh perspectives on my current one. And the questions I pondered over the course of the meeting, especially regarding the role of digital collections in the 21st century, have taken on even more significance in the weeks since the election.

MCN presented a decidedly more audience-centric perspective than the conferences I usually attend. Sessions about social media, crowdsourcing, virtual reality, and other tech topics engaged with this year’s theme, “the people-centered museum,” by wrestling with the value of these ventures rather than focusing on the processes undertaken to deliver them. A number of sessions also confronted issues of diversity and inclusion, in terms of both staffing an institution and welcoming visitors to it.

I was particularly inspired by initiatives that have invited users to participate in the construction of digital collections. For example, the Coyote project at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago provides an administrative interface for crowdsourcing descriptions of artworks, to make them more accessible to users with visual impairments. Europeana 1914-1918 solicits contributions to its virtual collection from everyday citizens, offering to digitize World War I relics scattered in attics across the continent.

Although crowdsourcing is nothing new, these projects achieve a deep level of engagement that most digital libraries—especially those at academic institutions—have only dabbled in. They challenge the very notion of who can create a digital collection and who, in turn, that collection can serve. Is digitizing our holdings enough, or is the real significance in user-contributed content? Is there perhaps more meaning in the process—if the process engages our users—than there is in the product?

These are concepts I’ve considered throughout my career, but at MCN and in the weeks since, they have come into sharper focus for me. I was pleased to hear that themes of community and cultural assessment likewise ran through the DLF conference. Now more than ever, we need to democratize digital collections.

Thank you to DLF, the Kress Foundation, and the Museum Computer Network for the support.

upstream digital collecting at SAA’16


I’m fresh from the Society of American Archives annual conference, where, besides attending my usual meetings and updates, when it came to the sessions I tried to branch out into new areas beyond my wheelhouse. Interestingly enough, a common theme emerged which helped me reflect on my own service: “upstream” digital collecting, i.e. collaborating directly with end-users to collect and provide access to personal collections.

Below, some rough notes on the projects and the concepts that struck me.


Collecting and Preserving LGBTQ Materials

Two projects featured in this session captured my attention:

The first was the LGBT+ Archives Project of Louisiana, which is a volunteer initiative that looks to preserve the personal collections of LGBT people in the state. These collections are not always well cared for. Why? Well, sometimes people don’t know they’re valuable; other times they are reluctant to share their records when, unfortunately, homophobia persists. These records often end up on the street and in the garbage. The LGBT+ Archives Project does three things to help save these documents: community education; access to the collections, via a directory; and fundraising. The project doesn’t do the collecting itself – it’s more of a “matchmaker” for repositories. I thought this was a brilliant model for community collecting, as did many in the audience.

I was also intrigued by the XFR (“transfer”) Collective, based in New York. This project reaches out to LGBT people, with the goal of having them bring their magnetic media in person to a lab; then it’s digitized on the spot. It’s true that “we are in a magnetic media crisis,” and a lot of these records exist in that format (especially from the 80s and 90s). This is a great way to hone in on both an at-risk format and a subject area / community.


Collecting and Providing Access to Social Media Content

It quickly became clear to me from this session that the collection of social media content poses far fewer problems than the access. No one here, at least, had an access platform for social media archiving. “It’s not that we don’t want to provide public access to social media content, it’s just that we don’t want to build a special website for it.” This seems in keeping with the “collections as data” movement, but it also poses a real problem: what’s really the point of collecting the data if we’re not providing a way for users to see it? That got me thinking: is there an opportunity here–or even a responsibility–for consortial sites like ours?

Another interesting facet of this discussion: the ethical implications of social media content collection. Do we ask users for permission–even if it was public to begin with? Can they delete it later? What about “the right to be forgotten”?


Doing Digital Archives in Public

I loved the marketing approach of this session, which–with the dreaded Saturday AM spot–reached out in advance to various groups to drum up attendance. It even had its own manifesto!

The premise of the session (and/or movement, as it were!) is that the work of digital archivists is closed and opaque to users–and there is inherent value in opening up the process to user engagement and participation. It featured four different projects that are making the work of archives public, in various ways. Two of them struck me as particularly interesting.

  • UC Riverside’s public digital forensics workstation: a room at the library where people bring their floppy discs, etc. in and the library will help them recover their data
  • DC Public Library’s Memory Lab: “Located inside the library, the lab provides equipment for digitizing home movies and scanning photographs and slides.”

In both of these cases, there is no expectation or requirement that the resulting digital files go into the collection. At first I thought that was a little odd for collecting institutions, but then I started to see it another way: digitization as service. In a way, the process of collecting is inherently institution-centric. This provides a different way of thinking about the value the institution provides. I still think it would be worth better integrating the two functions, but this was an important shift in my perspective nonetheless.



In general, I was inspired by these creative approaches to seeing end-users not just as the consumers of collections but also the producers. It sparked a number of ideas for me for Calisphere, like partnering on some kind of community-focused collection development initiative or “digitization day”; getting serious about user-supplied metadata; and involving users in the production of new stories about existing collections (e.g. a more community-centric exhibition series on Native American collections, since the existing information has been supplied by ethnographers and curators). Lots to mull over here.

prison libraries & librarians

“Orange County jail library,” no date, from the collections of the Santa Ana Public Library (via Calisphere)

Did you know that all prisons in California have libraries? And, as you might guess, these libraries have librarians. I have now met a fair number of these librarians, and let me tell you: they are badass.

It all started last November at the California Library Association annual conference. My coworker and I were hosting our usual booth in the exhibit hall, combating exhaustion and sore throats after several hours extolling the virtues of Calisphere to anyone within a twenty-foot radius. We always get a lot of visitors because we offer free posters with beautiful archival images. Just before we closed up shop for the day, a woman approached me with an interesting request: would we consider donating posters to every prison library in California?

Um, yes.

We exchanged details — it turned out she was the Principal Librarian for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, AKA head honcho prison librarian — and when I got back to the office I got a big box, loaded it up with posters, and shipped it to Sacramento. She sent a very nice thank-you email, and then honestly I pretty much forgot about this transaction amid other work demands.

Fast forward to last week. Another CLA conference, another booth. Within five minutes of the exhibit hall opening, we were flooded with — you guessed it — prison librarians. Telling us the posters hang in all of their libraries and bring joy to them and their inmates! Telling us how the inmates ask questions and tell each other stories about the documents depicted in the posters! Telling us how inmates have said things about the posters like, “they’re the only part of the prison that doesn’t feel like a prison”! WHAT! I melted.

I started talking to these librarians, and learning more about prison libraries. These folks do essential work. A large part of the job of a prison librarian is to maintain the law collection. The library is essentially the service in the system that supports an inmate’s right to access the courts. Librarians help these people find the legal resources they need to make appeals and do anything else related to their cases. But they also provide other services around ESL, anger management, literacy, job searching skills, financial skills, the arts, and plain ol’ reading books. This 2013 piece in Library Journal explores the many activities of prison libraries if you’d care to learn more.

A lot of these services are geared towards helping inmates re-enter society after they are released (which, if you’ve watched any John Oliver recently, you know is a huge issue — among so many other huge issues — in the prison-industrial complex). But prison libraries are also about the simple fact that every member of our society deserves free access to information for their education, advancement, and pleasure. The American Library Association makes a concise and compelling argument along these lines in its Prisoner’s Right to Read. I was struck by this passage in particular:

Learning to be free requires access to a wide range of knowledge, and suppression of ideas does not prepare the incarcerated of any age for life in a free society. Even those individuals that a lawful society chooses to imprison permanently deserve access to information, to literature, and to a window on the world. 

Prison librarians do all that, plus one seemingly little thing: they decorate the walls — often with their own personal funds* — to make their libraries feel like the places of study and the refuges that they are.

What’d I tell you? Badass.


*I am researching whether there is any way to donate to the prison library system for this or other expenses and will update this post as I learn more.

6 steps to better presentations: part 2


This is the second half of my meditation on creating compelling presentations. For steps 1-3, read part 1.

4. Advance elements as you get to them

This is one of those really granular details that ends up making a huge difference. People tend to read anything that is up on on a slide, and they will tend to do so faster than you are able to talk about it. This means that if you have many bullets or a complicated diagram on a slide, your audience will get right to work reading and comprehending the information–often at the loss of actually listening to your explanation. Worse yet, once they’ve caught the gist of your slide, they won’t want to hear you talk about it–suddenly, you’ll be boring them with information they already know!

So pace yourself: advance your elements as you get to them. Think of your slides and your narrative as symbiotic parts of your presentation. The element you show on the screen should be deepening understanding of what you’re saying, or what you’re saying should be explaining the element on the screen. No more, no less.

The gif below shows the way I advanced elements recently to explain a diagram. I only spent about 5-10 seconds on each element, but there was enough substance to each of them that they warranted their own points. If I had showed the whole diagram at once, it would have forced the audience to deconstruct it for themselves–and, it would have spoiled the visual punchline: that as a result of this new workflow, we’d be adding much more content to our website.


5. Plan for half the time allotted

If I had a dollar for every time my presentation started 15 minutes late…

Do yourself a favor and plan for half the time allotted. You’ll be prepared for the unknowns. And you’ll probably have a better presentation too. Duarte maintains that people can really only pay attention for about 25 minutes anyway; in the academic world I’ve seen the fidgeting start at about the 35 minute mark. If you can’t convey your message in that timeframe, you can probably stand to tighten your points and eliminate some detail. (I learned this the hard way when a campus once requested I deliver my typically 40-minute presentation in seven! You know what? It was one of my best.) Boil down your message to the most salient and compelling points.

Cutting certainly isn’t easy. One technique I’ve employed is the slide addendum. These are slides with more detailed information that I tack on to the very end of my PowerPoint. Then I can pull them up in response to particular questions. For example, as we were building our new website I added a number of designs and screenshots to an addendum. I knew I wouldn’t have time to give a whole tour, but I suspected people would have some questions. Indeed, they did–and I was prepared with visuals without taking away from my presentation proper.

6. Let people ask questions before the end


It’s pretty much standard practice to hold questions till the end of the presentation. But I’d like to propose something radical: let your audiences ask questions throughout.

Why? For one, if your listeners miss a key point or simply need a small clarification along the way, they won’t feel comfortable asking all the way at the end–and that means they won’t get your message (and might even tune you out entirely). It also helps to establish a rapport and an instant “feedback loop.” I like to check in every now and then to make sure everyone is on the same page, that my ideas are getting across. Finally, this approach turns passive listeners into active participants. Yes, you will have to work the room a bit, moderating questions to ensure they don’t turn into a full-blown discussion. But an engaged audience is better than a sleeping one!

It’s true that not all situations lend themselves to this approach. As an alternative, sometimes I’ve worked in a short question break. For example, on a recent statewide webinar with 75+ people (obviously not ideal for ongoing conversation) I stopped at the halfway point, showed the slide you see above, and took questions through the chat window for about five minutes. When I again took questions at the end, they were more substantive because we had gotten the small clarifications out of the way.

So what do you think?

I’m always on the lookout for new ways to improve my presentation design and development skills. Please feel free to share your own tips in the comments or by contacting me!

6 steps to better presentations: part 1

In August 2014, I was staring down the prospect of giving a series of presentations to each of the ten UC campus libraries. Although I felt confident from a public speaking perspective, I didn’t really know where to start in terms of designing the presentation: how could I best inform people about our project? What could I say and show them that would get them excited? Could I make my slides look professional, plus enhance my message? After starting and abandoning several slide decks, I went to the experts: I took an online course from Duarte, bought a couple books (this excellent one and this pretty good one), and put the tips into practice.

Twenty-odd presentations later, I think I’ve hit my stride. I’ve received lots of positive feedback from audience members, and it’s clear from the quality of their questions that they are understanding and engaging with my ideas. Here are the tricks I’ve found most essential for designing effective presentations. This post covers the first three.


1. Create a thesis statement

A presentation is a persuasive performance. Whether formal or casual, five minutes or fifty, a presentation is at heart an appeal for people to take action of some kind: provide authorization or funding, participate in some activity, or advance an idea among others.

And just like a piece of persuasive writing, a presentation needs a thesis statement to be compelling. My favorite presentation guru Nancy Duarte calls it a “big idea,” but the concept is the same: a concise articulation of a vision–something great the audience can achieve by joining your cause. The thesis statement or big idea doesn’t necessarily have to be stated out loud; it could just serve as an internal guide to help you create purposeful slides and messages.

Thesis statements should be tailored to the audience. For example, in my series of presentations to the UC Libraries about our new digital library service, I thought carefully about the unique characteristics of each campus library. Because we expected each campus to use the service a little differently, the thesis statement varied a little bit for each of the presentations. For example, in some cases, I focused on how the new service would help libraries create and manage new digital collections; in other cases, I focused on how it would expand access to collections the libraries already had.

2. Storyboard ideas

I used to start a presentation by – duh – opening Powerpoint. However, it never failed that I’d get sucked into making the perfect title slide, and before I knew it I’d spent hours nudging shapes around and still hadn’t even decided what the presentation was about. Some people recommend creating an outline, but the best technique I’ve found is from Duarte (I told you she was good): use 2-inch mini post-its to draft your slides. Post-its are great because they get you away from the computer but still get you thinking visually. And the small scale forces you to forgo detail. Instead of fussing with colors and shapes at this stage you can focus on the whole of the presentation and arrange the flow of ideas. It also helps keep the slides simple; a good rule of thumb is just a single idea per slide.

3. Ditch the defaults


Presentation software – Powerpoint in particular – gets a bad rap. Sure, there’s the clip art, the corporate colors, the cheesy animations. But I actually find Powerpoint to be an extremely powerful tool for creating clean, professional-looking, and dare I say beautiful presentations. You just have to know how to use it.

Making slides could warrant a whole other blog post on graphic design which I am not qualified to write. But an easy first step I’ve found is to simply ditch the default settings and templates. Focus instead on building custom slides with strong composition, visual language, and supporting images.

  • Compositionwhen I open a new Powerpoint, I immediately change the first slide (and all thereafter) to “blank.” This allows me to start from scratch, for every slide, and think how I can best arrange the slide to convey my point. As you can see above, the result is a lot of different kind of slides that don’t “look like Powerpoint.” Some of my slides have full-page images, others have diagrams, others menus, others screenshots. The important thing is that each slide suits the point I’m trying to make.
  • Visual languageyou can play with fonts and colors to build your own visual language for the presentation. A simple swap is to replace the default Calibri font with classic Helvetica/Arial – or something more custom for your message or tone. Colors make a big difference too. At UC we are lucky to have brand guidelines which include a full color palate. I load these into the Powerpoint so all of the colors I select are on brand.
  • Images: finally, it goes without saying that images can really make a presentation. Not only are they interesting to look at, but they can help your audience take home a point or understand an abstract concept. For example, the slide above with the tools on the pegboard was used as a metaphor for a digital asset management system: a toolkit for building digital collections.

There are lots of resources out there for making beautiful slides. I’d recommend Presentation Zen as a good starting point.

Read more

This post got long, so I split them up. For steps 4-6, jump to better presentations Part 2.