Conducted by Kara Van Malssen on November 7, 2009 at the Association of Moving Image Archivists Conference in the Millennium Hotel St. Louis, MOM
Kara Van Malssen (KVM): This is Kara Van Malssen. I’m here at the Millennium Hotel in St Louis with Melissa Dollman, conducting and interview for the MISL project, Moving Image Specialists in Libraries, funded by IMLS. And the date is November 7, 2009. And then we’ll get started!
Thanks for agreeing to participate in this interview. I’m just going to start with some basic, straightforward, factual questions about you and your job. So, can you just tell us, what is your job title?
Melissa Dollman (MD): Audiovisual Cataloger.
KVM: And where do you work?
MD: I work at the Schlesinger Library, which is part of the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard University.
KVM: And can you just tell us a little bit about the collection there that you have?
MD: Yes, it’s a women’s social history library. And it was initially the building and its original purpose was to be the library for Radcliffe, the women’s college. And then over the years it became more of an archive as well. We have a large culinary collection, we have Amelia Earhart to Julia Child to suffragettes to June Jordan, and to union workers, trades people.
KVM: Ok. That’s really interesting. Before we get more into the collection and the Library, I’m just going to ask you some background questions and questions about your job particularly. And your appointment is that full-time?
MD: It is.
KVM: And permanent?
MD: It was originally a 5-year contract and then as, with budget constraints, I wasn’t laid off but my 5-year contract is now renewed yearly, and I only have a guaranteed position through next July. So they're doing grant funding and looking for other sources. But I am the only the person who does what I do there [full time], so that works to my advantage a little bit.
KVM: Right. Ok. And when did you start that position?
MD: April of year and a half ago. Like April of 2008.
KVM: So, how does it work within your…How do you explain the background. Can you just explain the organizational structure a little bit? About how you fit into the larger Library?
MD: I’m part of the manuscript team, basically. There’s the Head of Collections and then there’s the woman who used to be the only photography/AV cataloger . So she was the only one doing that. And then as they got more money to work on the backlog there’s now someone doing specifically photography, specifically AV. And we’re under the manuscripts, we’re on the manuscripts team. We actively pursue manuscript papers from people and with those papers come AV collections, and then we draw those out, and then I work on those.
KVM: Ok. That makes a lot of sense. So you personally work exclusively with moving image, or audiovisual material?
KVM: So you’re not dealing with the paper and things like that?
MD: Ephemera – no. In fact I usually follow, not completely but usually, the paper collection is processed and then I soon thereafter will do the AV. You know, we also have a great oral history collection and so some things really do only come in as AV. We’d rather complete a whole manuscript collection that includes AV and photographs.
KVM: So you work jointly with you colleagues working on other types of materials to process an entire collection, and then it’s kind of reassembled after the different people have done their part?
MD: Well in fact there are two different finding aids. Three actually. So if there’s…there’ll be the paper collection. And then if there’s a sizable audio collection, and a sizable video collection then that person will have, just for the sake that they found that it’s the fastest way to process a collection, there’ll be a paper finding aid, the audio finding aid, and the video finding aid. And I do the audio and the video. And then for those things that don’t have a paper collection, I will just do a finding aid for that. What happens is, if I follow the manuscript collection process that they will have already written the biography, and I can piggyback on them. It kind of saves me work. And then if I’m doing something that’s from scratch then I’ll write the biography and the history. It just streamlines the workflow.
KVM: Ok. It’s interesting because I did another one of these interviews where the situation was very similar, the way they acquire audiovisual, and they do it differently. So I’m like, huh, you guys do…
MD: People do say, “Why do you do that?” And we just found that workflow-wise it’s the fastest way to get stuff done.
KVM: OK, that’s great. So, I’m going to ask a little bit more about your background. And what prepared you to work moving [image] collections? What kind of training did you do to prepare you for this field?
MD: I went through UCLA’s Moving Image Archive Studies program. And prior to that I volunteered at the Pacific Film Archive, just to really make sure that it was a field I wanted to be in. So when I first started volunteering there I was really, I worked actually in the library aspect of it, in the research center part of it. And I worked on paper collections, and then, just ephemera and stuff. And then eventually [Nancy Goldman] said, “Hey, we need a projectionist.” So then I actually got to learn to handle film and project on the 16mm projector booth they had for researchers. So that was volunteer and then in the process of doing that I decided I definitely want to apply to this program and go into that field.
KVM: And you specifically did the volunteering because you thought you were interested in the field and wanted to see if it was a good fit for you?
MD: Yes. I was really lucky at the time because I had been laid off from another job, around 2000 in San Francisco when everybody was getting laid off. And so I had a little big of extra time. I was temping and doing that and the flexibility I might have never had, a lot people don’t have. So I got to actually go spend some time there and see if I wanted to work. Because I knew that I wanted to go to grad school. I didn’t think I wanted to be a straight up librarian, because it didn’t really seem like a good fit for me. I knew I wanted to work with either moving images or photographs, but I was really leaning toward moving images. And then I was basically abroad in an internet café, and was just sort of looking around and I stumbled upon UCLA’s program. And I applied to NYU and UCLA, and got into both, but at the time – and UT [University of Texas] actually I got into that as well – but I thought UCLA was the best fit.
KVM: And was that because you were interested in working in libraries in some way? Or was that just, was that a kind of separate thing. You said libraries didn’t seem like a perfect fit for you, but did you have an interest in work with moving images in libraries necessarily?
MD: I knew I wanted to work with the materials, I didn’t really care where I worked.
MD: Yeah, it just happens to be that I have found…I think that I’ve always been more interested in the content, than the physical materials themselves. You know, in some ways, libraries are a better fit for me because I get to go back and use my knowledge of history and stuff.
KVM: Yeah. So what was it about the UCLA program that you felt made it the right fit for you?
MD: Some of it was, you know, logistical and pragmatic reasons. I mean, I was married at the time, so I had to consider sort of two households. NYU wanted to pay for my first year, you know? But it still meant moving across country, not guaranteeing any money the second year. My husband couldn’t necessarily get work there but in LA he found his dream job. And Texas was always our third choice, but we would have gone. So some of it was that. Some of it was that I was already in California, I had friends in LA. And, but truth be told, once I got into the program, I was really happy we were associated so heavily with, that a third of our courses were in the library school because that has gotten me work. That and my knowledge of materials. I can do a MARC record, you know, that was important.
KVM: So that, and I’m not as familiar with the structure of their program but, a large percentage of the classes are in the Library School?
MD: A third were moving image archiving specific, so we’d have people from the field in to teach us. And one third was in library school learning archival principles -- because it was less the library track and more the archiving track within the library school -- but cataloging and basic archival theory and provenance and all that stuff. And then a third in the film critical studies department.
KVM: Yeah. Ok, that’s interesting. The NYU program is a lot different, which is what I went through so…
MD: Yeah, and you guys, and what we were always jealous about the NYU program is how hands on your program is from the very beginning. And we weren’t allowed to do an internship for year, until after our first academic year. So we were all just jonesing to get in there and we really couldn’t.
KVM: I think there’s advantages and disadvantages to both way, but that’s neither here nor there. I mean it is here nor there but it’s another topic. Ok, so also, about your training, do you continue your professional development now? I mean obviously we’re here at the Association of Moving Image Archivists conference in St. Louis, so clearly you’re continuing to be involved in the field. Do you do other things to continue your professional development?
MD: I do. I volunteer in my workplace to run the film series that we have. So I’m chair of that committee for a couple years which why I’ve been slacking on my duties for AMIA because I’ve been so busy working on that. But that’s a ship sailed and I don’t have to babysit it as much anymore. So I do that. I volunteer at Home Movie Day every year doing either film prep or projection.
KVM: And you’re very active in AMIA, aren’t you a chair of a committee here?
MD: Yeah. And also I’ve been able to express my artistic side a little bit more here, both, yeah. Which is nice. It’s a good fit for that too because people can get to know you other ways.
KVM: Right, personally. Do you, are you a member of other types (excuse me) other associations? ALA [American Library Association] or things like that?
MD: The SAA [Society of American Archivists]. I have let my, for financial reasons I have let my membership slack a little bit, so I owe them some money.
KVM: Ok, great. Moving along. You’ve already… We’re going to switch back to your library and the working environment. You’ve talked about the different kinds of media that comes in to the … Can you talk a little more specifically about the range of media materials that you have and range of formats that you have?
MD: We do have film, although generally speaking we, it comes in, we check it for what state it’s in and then we really just do can it and stick it in the vault. We have a really great vault actually. So we have a climate controlled vault, it’s in Radcliffe College’s old swimming pool, so it’s really neat. And so they are very conscious of that. So the film is well protected and when I need to, I can take it over to the Harvard Film Archive and sort of look through it there if we want to – like we recently got some stuff transferred. Then we have ¼” audio, a lot of which they…well, we have 1/4'” audio to keep going on. And then we have a lot of regular 1/8” cassette tapes. A lot of those. And then we have a lot of your basic formats. What we can view in house is VHS and U-Matic. Anything that else that we find we really have to see (oh and DVDs of course), we have a media processing resource center on campus if we really…
KVM: So you’re acquiring those formats that you don’t actually have the equipment for but you have to work with other departments to do additional work sometimes?
KVM: And it sounds like your job is – you said Audiovisual Cataloger is your title – but it sounds like you’re doing a lot more.
MD: I’m actually an archivist there as well but we don’t really use that. I could. I could put Archival Processor, but it just becomes a lengthy signature. So I just say Cataloger. It’s a little self-deprecating but… I actually process whole AV collections and everything, but, yeah. So it really is, my other duties are as an archivist.
KVM: Ok. Archival Processing. And back to the media again, what quantity would you say you have? Do you have any estimates in your head about the number of items or hours or things like that?
MD: I do. In fact I might have it written down here. No, I don’t. I think that… We have a database for the backlog, and the backlog was something like 5,000 items that was just in the backlog that the goal was for me to knock out that 5,000. Of course we keep acquiring. I do collection level. I item level and collection level, but mainly collection level. So I’ll process a collection and then I’ll do a collection level finding aid online and then a collection level bib[liographic] record for it. So it all gets processed.
KVM: Ok. So that’s probably increased access to media in your archive quite a lot.
MD: Yeah! It’s really exciting to finish June Jordan. I was pretty excited about doing her. And as soon as that stuff gets processed people start requesting it.
KVM: So that’s how you reach people, through the website, the finding aids online? And do you do anything like a press release to tell people that a collection is available?
MD: We do it…no. To the academic community, that’s exactly what I would love to happen, but they don’t. The communications department is – I was just saying that in the Access Committee, actually I was just talking about different modes of access and that Radcliffe, the communications department locks down all communication so we really couldn’t do that kind of stuff.
KVM: You’d have to go through them.
MD: I’d have to go through them.
KVM: Ok. Yeah, I know big bureaucracies at big universities can get hard to navigate. Ok, you’ve already talked a little bit about the other types of collections that can be found in the archive that you’re in. So it’s mostly paper, photographs, manuscripts…
MD: And rare books.
KVM: And rare books? Ok.
MD: Yeah. And we have a great culinary collection, so they will…Oh and we have a pop culture collection, we also archive blogs and we collect feminist graphic zines. Feminist zines and romance novels written by women. So we do try to…We definitely don’t want to get pigeon holed as either that place that has the really great culinary collection or the suffragette library. You know, we definitely are broadening our scope.
KVM: And do you, in the larger university library system, are there a lot of other media collections, and do you interact with them?
MD: No. They’re trying to do, right now, they’re doing a survey of AV collections across the board. We, the thing about Harvard is, they even have little a kind of term for it -- but every bucket in it’s own…every library is it’s own bucket. There’s some little phrase to it. Anyway, so each library, even though we have the umbrella of Harvard sort of facilitating and offering benefits and all that, there’s the Harvard Library system and the Harvard Film Archive is under that. So things are just kind of run all under the auspices of Harvard but all done very differently. And so we’re hoping that they’ll do a really great survey of collections that people, you know we can share resources or…But it’s really all pretty spread out.
KVM: Ok, you’re really an autonomous group.
MD: I mean I chat with the Harvard Film Archive people because, you know, I have friends that work there. So for us, we’ll invite each other to things. But we don’t share collections.
KVM: Ok, that’s interesting. Go ahead.
MD: And we pay when we take things to the media resource center, we pay. It’s not cheap. So I definitely am selective sometimes about [that]. And also Harvard has a central digital repository. And so right now they really are focusing on audio and photographs, and manuscripts and stuff but we’re trying to get them to start doing audiovisual. And then they will migrate for us. So it’s this amazing resource that we have. Like we wouldn’t have to worry about the migration and the cost of migration, you do kind of subscribe to the repository, and they will…
KVM: It’s part of the service agreement with them that they can do full migration.
MD: So it’s amazing, it’s just not really up to speed.
KVM: And so they’re not really up to…are they ready to handle video or not yet?
MD: No. Audio, they’re just now doing audio.
KVM: Yeah, it seems like digital library people are kind of afraid of video, and open that bucket of worms, I guess.
MD: Yeah, because we watermark all of our photographs, but it would also, it would have to do that.
KVM: And we take up so much storage.
MD: I think that’s the big thing, the storage aspect.
KVM: So it’s interesting that that’s starting to happen, but I can understand that it’s slow. So given that you are kind of autonomous and that things are not as integrated as, I don’t know, maybe some other libraries that are smaller. I think Harvard’s probably huge.
KVM: So how was the job created before you came? Do you know the story of how that position ended up being created and how they found you?
MD: Yeah. Well, it’s funny how they found me, but really I’m part of the backlog project. When they were putting the word out to fill those positions, they actually couldn’t find, they weren’t finding anybody. And my friend Amy who works at the Harvard Film Archive… “Did you see that?” She said, “That’s perfect for you!” Because I had a little bit of women’s studies too in my undergrad. And I was like, “I know.” So I just got on it and sent in my application sort of around Thanksgiving and then January rolls around and I hadn’t heard back, and I was like, it is Harvard, they probably got flooded [with applications]. And she had lunch with one of the small community of people who actually interviewed me and she said, “Diana said they didn’t even get your application. They’ve never seen it. And they’re still looking because they don’t have any applicants that they are happy with.”
KVM: I can’t believe it!
MD: I know. And so she went back to HR and they called me the next day, and I had an interview a week later, and I got the job.
KVM: Wow. What were they looking for? What were the qualifications they were looking for?
MD: Somebody who knows how to deal with the material.. Somebody who has an interest in the subject matter. But also cataloging skills, it was really important that they have cataloging skills. And Joanne, my supervisor, she knows Snowden [Becker], she’s been to AMIA conferences before, and she knew about our program. So that already is what got my foot in the door. So I think my internships got my job, the job for me. My references were huge. And they’re teaching me, which has been great. So even if my job does end, you know, I will have gotten this really great experience from someone who’s really… You can copy-catalog published material, unpublished is a very different experience.
KVM: Yeah, you’re doing it from scratch. Everything your doing has to be cataloged in its entirety.
MD: They still look at every single MARC record I do.
KVM: Precise. Yeah, that’s the real big challenge with MARC that I actually haven’t had the experience of having to create the records, and I’m very intimidated.
MD: Yeah, once you get it down… It was real frustrating the going back and forth at first, because I didn’t realize, I thought they were just, I thought I just wasn’t doing it right. And then I realized, you don’t quite know what you want so we’re working through this together.
KVM: Ok, and just to clarify, you were the first person in this position? Did they have any one before?
MD: Joanne, who is now my supervisor was doing all AV and photography.
KVM: Ok, so it was more to off load for her.
MD: I work on the backlog project specifically, yeah.
KVM: And the lines of authority at your archive – you’re reporting to one person, basically?
MD: Well, day-to-day discussions about things, I report to my immediate supervisor.
KVM: Ok, so, you mentioned that you have gone through a lot of that backlog that you were hired to take on. Would you say that that is your main accomplishment at the job so far or is there other things that you feel like you’ve really made an impact on?
MD: I think, one that I worked… I think working on the Discovery… I worked for Discovery Communications, which is, I worked in the library that dealt with Animal Planet, Discovery, TLC and all that, that were under the same umbrella. And we had to work very quickly. And so I think that I brought to them… So yeah, I’ve gotten a lot done there. And I also think that I’m just an AV cheerleader there, and I think that helps people. I really want them to really wrap…My one goal before I go is for them to wrap their heads around the fact that it’s not just like watching movies, you know. I didn’t just come from studio-land, and just like to watch movies. Now they’re documents.
KVM: Yeah, so kind of increasing the profile of the AV materials and that they are valuable as manuscripts might be.
MD: Yeah, yeah. Especially, I mean we have a huge oral history tradition there. And we have a really great collection of these luncheons that we used to do in the late 70s through mid-80s that had these really – women’s whose papers we had – really amazing women would come in. Including Julia Child would come in doing the funniest things I’ve ever heard, just her talk, you know. And even in meetings I said, “Oh my god, you guys have to just come to my desk and grab one of these for an hour and listen to them, they’re amazing!” And nobody took me up on it.
MD: Yeah, it’s crazy. I was like, I know more about this place now by listening to this set of 36 tapes. It was a total crash course on the history of our collections.
KVM: That’s fantastic. Has that changed? Have people started to say, “Hey, wait, I want to listen to those tapes, now.”
MD: You know, just on Tuesday this week I, I’m in charge of the committee but I also did an evening of travel films with this very lovely PhD student who used to work with Rick Prelinger out in California. And we showed a little bit of narrative stuff in the beginning and then rest of it was like travel footage in home movies from our collections. You know, I could sit and watch other people’s home movies all day. But they just don’t really quite have the same… It is a different world. That’s why I look like a cheerleader because I’m like…
MD: And they’re like: Rare Books! It’s just different.
KVM: But I think there’s still… Would you agree that there’s still more work to be done to raise the profile of the audiovisual materials in libraries?
MD: Yeah. This whole season for, or this academic year, for the film nights, each night I’m pulling stuff out of our collections to show, and I’m hoping that they’ll start to appreciate it more.
KVM: Yeah. That’s great that you’re doing that series. It sounds really fun. I would come if I was nearby [laughing], but I’m in New York, it’s too far. Ok, so then, what in your opinion leads to the creation of a position like this? What do you think it takes within a library to really, for them to say, “We need an audiovisual cataloger and processor”?
MD: Being overwhelmed. And having, and… Bless her, I think my supervisor really has, she came, she worked in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston before she worked at the Schlesinger, and I think that she just has an appreciation. She has an appreciation for why AV materials are important.
KVM: And on the reverse side of that, what do you think are the obstacles to these types of positions being created? Money or some…?
MD: Money to work on the backlog and still burgeoning awareness of why the materials are important. In that kind of manuscript, rare books world, Maybe it is just our nerdy little world who thinks that stuff is interesting, you know. Yeah, and I think there’s just a certain level of lack of film nerdi-ness. A little bit. I do.
KVM: Yeah, well, that’s an interesting perspective. Well, so can you answer this question: What needs to be changed about the status of moving image preservation in libraries? I mean, is there a way that we can change it? Or do you think it’s going to have to take people who really just appreciate it?
MD: Well I think it’s the difference between like access and preservation in that case, because I think they do see the need for access to the materials. They do need that, they do want that stuff accounted for even if they don’t get a chance to listen to it, you know they want people, it to be open to scholars. So that’s different. As far as how much money they have toward insuring the longevity of those materials, I think that really comes down to money.
KVM: Yeah, ok. So in general, do you think that the moving image preservation is supported there in your library? That you would reach that conclusion?
MD: That moving images are supported?
KVM: The preservation of…
MD: Preservation. Yes, I think that, well… In theory and actually in a part of our strategic plan I know that she was reminding me to, I didn’t actually grab it… But when I was interviewed actually in 2007 they drew up the strategic plan, which had to deal with the backlog, which is why we were all hired, and in the strategic plan one of the points was to put money toward preservation. There’s a placeholder for it.
KVM: Ok, so really what you’re doing is really more to provide access to the materials.
MD: And I also, you know, look at what stage these materials are in, yeah.
KVM: Ok, and if it’s good enough condition you do provide access to the originals? Or do you…
MD: No, we never give access to the originals.
KVM: Ok. So at least there’s a level of preservation there.
MD: Yes. If you think about it that way, definitely, most definitely, we don’t let people look at the original.
KVM: So the content’s actually not online, you have finding aid, but not any media on the internet?
MD: No. I mean, the Radcliffe Institute is starting to stream video on their website from seminars and stuff like that but we’re not allowed to do that. But for photographs, they do. Yeah, but not for AV.
KVM: Is that for copyright concerns? Or just lack of…
MD: Bandwidth. Yeah, they do have, there’s plenty of bandwidth but I think that the photographs that they put up, even though we watermark them, those are things that we have rights to. And I think that not all of the stuff that we have that would be super interesting for people to see, we share copyright with.
KVM: Yeah. Ok, well, that’s really my questions, unless you have anything to add.
MD: I don’t think so.
KVM: Ok, well thank you very much.