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Interview with Rose Falanga, Manager of the Learning Commons, Exploratorium: Museum of science, art and human perception

Interview with Rose Falanga

Pamela Vadakan: I’m Pamela Vadakan here with Rose Falanga … is that how you pronounce it?

Rose Falanga: [Fa-lawn-ga] works fine; [Fa-layn-ga] is the correct pronunciation.

PV: Okay. And today is Friday, September 23rd, 2011. Thank you so much for joining us. We’ll start with an easy one: What is your job title?

RF: My current job title is Manager of the Learning Commons.

PV: And what kind of appointment do you have? Is it full-time?

RF: I guess I could be full-time if I wanted to be full-time. I’ve been there for twenty-six years and we have a lot of leeway right now. Let me see—It’s September, so I’m about to go up to .85.

PV: So how many days a week is that?

RF: .8 is four days a week. So .85 is four days and a little bit more.

PV: And you started how many years ago?

RF: I started in 1985, so this will be my twenty-sixth year.

PV: And what department within the library do you work in?

RF: Well, in 1985 I started in the library. It was a complicated situation: I was involved in another project that wanted a library, [and it was] supposed to be just for teachers, but I kind of expanded it. And in the expansion, I did an informational interview of the whole place. It turned out that another function missing from the list was archiving. So even from the very beginning I began to get these odd boxes. Not that I had a lot of time to deal with them, but it was built into what I did. And when we had more money—we had a state grant for years, and a staff of about six—that was a large part of what I was doing, including the Internet and other kinds of functions. I was doing what was known as information infrastructure. Then I split off in 2000 and just did archiving and didn’t do much at the library until this year when we began to merge the library back with a much stronger archiving department. Now archiving is a sub-project of the Learning Commons, and the Learning Commons is the new name for the library. And I manage both.

PV: How many people do you work with?

RF: Right now with two full-time people. So we’re 2.85.

PV: Is there anyone who specializes in moving image and audio archiving?

RF: I’m sorry—there’s a fourth person too. He comes in at ten percent time. I would say he’s our specialist in moving images. But there’s a whole moving images department; [we’re] very strong in terms of content creation of content. But in terms of the preservation of the content, that is my job.

PV: Maybe it would be helpful to talk a little bit about the collections, and how the archives correspond with the production [side].

RF: The Exploratorium was started in 1969, and almost from the beginning there was interest in documenting what was happening. Earlier I was talking about corporate culture. On the one hand everyone is aware that they’re in a museum, that they’re in an institution that has made historical changes in the way science education is presented and even thought of. And [they’re aware], even, that it’s not just science. We call ourselves a museum of science, art, and human perception. So that was different too. We’re very aware that we’re doing things that are worthy of being preserved historically. But we don’t have time to do it. And we don’t have an interest in doing it. The corporate culture is to be in the moment, do the best job you can, and the second it’s over move on to the next project. And what happens to those images, what happens to that sound—certainly before the Internet—[is and was never] much of a concern. And so there are very early videotapes, and very early audiotapes, that were not well preserved, but [they contain] the most amazing content, and [comprise a] diverse collection of formats. When I came in ’85, there was already a huge collection of video formats, and tapes, and cassettes, and on the whole, they were made and then left behind. People moved on. Does that answer your question?

PV: When you were hired, you were hired to head the library?

RF: Okay, I can tell you specifically. There was a program called the Teacher Institute. It was a middle school and high school teacher professional development program. They took people in the summer, and they brought them in… I used to think of it as a mobile army surgical hospital unit, a MASH unit in the battlefield. We took in battle-scarred teachers, sometimes librarians. And we treated them, bound their wounds, gave them some more survival skills, fed them. We used to feed them a lot. We still do actually; that program is still in existence.

At some point we realized that we were on the floor working with these interactive exhibits but the teachers’ knowledge of the scientific phenomena and even educational pedagogy was not as strong as it might be. And they had questions that were answered by the instructors. But there were other ways of learning too and [they suggested] a book collection, and that program brought me in. I think the first year we had ten titles, maybe three copies of each of the ten titles. I remember one of them was physics for poets. I was charged with serving the informational needs of these teachers, both through books, through video. [through books, video, online bibliographic research, magazines, journals]

Also, I would go over to Cal and I would do research [on their behalves]. I would interview [the teachers], see what they were interested in working on, and what really puzzled them in the world of science, and I would kind of get their educational level, and I would go over to Cal and get materials for them. If they wanted the physics of toys [for instance], I would get things on toys. And I would bring shopping bags of books back to the library and they would sit and read and talk and have coffee and do stuff. And then I would maintain a relationship with them over the course of the years. So I was more of a serviceperson, a consultant to them, than [I was] a curator of materials. Because we didn’t have very much in the way of materials at the beginning. So that’s how the program started.

As I said, I also got these other odd boxes. The reason I got them—I came in May of ’85, but Frank Oppenheimer, who was the founding director, died in February of ‘85. And so when they began to clean out his office, they cleaned out his office my way. They just assumed I was a librarian and so I would know what to do with this stuff. So all this stuff started coming in my way and piling up in the corner. That was the first archive.

PV: I see. And then from there the collection just grew?

RF: [8:31] Well, it ebbed and flowed in my direction. I did what I could with it in the time that I had, and [with] the staff that I had. I was always concerned about it, especially concerned about the videos, and talked about them all the time, because some of them were being stored outdoors pretty much, in this leaky place. And it was of great concern. So they took a little more effort to preserve, not a lot, but as much as they could.

Things did not really heat up until we had this misunderstanding with the Bancroft Library. Apparently the next director had really wanted to clean things out. And he shipped a whole bunch of stuff to the Bancroft Library. I started getting little notes from them: “We want you to come down and talk to us.” And things like that. I thought they were archiving Frank Oppenheimer because they also would archive his [brother] Robert [Oppenheimer]. But, it was just a misunderstanding. I showed up there one day to discover that they were archiving us as an institution. They’d gotten a grant to do something like that, and they decided those materials [shipped by the new director] were institutional materials. He’d shipped out board minutes; he’d shipped out budgets. They thought, “This is cool; the Exploratorium is really important in the history of science and the West.” And that was their grant.

I thought this was a great idea and I had some help among the senior staff and we took it to the board and got a formal agreement. So it all happened kind of backwards, and that’s when I became the archivist. I think that happened around 2000. It really took a while for that to be formalized within the institution. (It might have been a couple years before that, I don’t recall.) I thought, okay, now I have to go ahead and really look at what’s most important. And what was most important was preservation, especially of the videos. We had paper issues, because paper was being stored in that leaky rotunda. But it seemed to me that the videos [were of highest priority]. The papers could be copied, and though I know that’s not exactly what should happen, at least the content would be preserved. In the year 2000, [the videos] were old and the real concern. So I started raising some money here and there to transfer them.

PV: And you have a formal deposit agreement now with the Bancroft?

RF: We’ve had it for a long time, at least a decade.

PV: And what type of moving image media do you have. You mentioned video—all formats?

RF: Well, let’s start with the oldest. I believe the oldest is Portapak [1/2-inch open reel]. Did you ever see anyone use a Portapak [camera]? It’s the funniest thing in the world. Someone should make a documentary…. I used to use a Portapak. In the 1970s I belonged to a hotline in New York City and we’d gotten a grant to use videotape in the training of the peer counselors. And Portapak is all we had. You can imagine somebody with a reel-to-reel videotape recorder strapped to their back, and somebody else with a battery strapped to their back, and everybody with cables. You know, trying to move, inch their way…. It wasn’t very portable. At any rate, they’d gotten a Portapak at some point and they did what I now call the “Give a fool a camera series” on video. Everybody got their hands on that. Every aspect of what was happening in the museum was documented. It’s a cross-section and it’s fabulous—really stupid, really funny, kind of poignant [material]. And we haven’t even … we did stabilize them.

First we found someone who could actually play them. And at one point they’d gotten the heads mixed up on the player, but we preserved the original player, and we found someone who could deal with that. And he transferred the reels to DV-CAM, so at least we knew that [the content] wasn’t going anywhere right away. And now we’re digitizing the DV-CAM, slowly but surely. We’re able to pull the content out and there are some real gems in there. [For instance], there’s an interview with Frank Oppenheimer no one knew existed. He’s talking about the origination of the Explainer program, which is our teenage docent program and something we’re famous for. And I don’t have that content anywhere else, in any other format. And just his affect… there are so many things about it. It’s wonderful!

What I love about the video collections is [discovering] not what was intended to be preserved, but what did get preserved. In the mid-80s, the [Exploratorium produced] a series called the “Video Documentation Series” where they went to the most famous exhibits and interviewed the exhibition’s creator, while demonstrating the exhibition itself. They also interviewed the primary maintainer of the exhibit—if it was a different person—as he or she showed off the exhibit off from the maintenance point of view. Some really invaluable stuff! [And funny, too!]

PV: That’s a great way to document the installation too.

RF: Absolutely. It’s right there, right there on the floor. In one of my favorite episodes, this guy talks about how the exhibit came to be, and how many times it didn’t work. It needed a thick liquid in it to work, and he’d tried all these different liquids and none of them worked—they would leak all over the floor. He was just delighted at each failure; you could just see. And this is the institutional culture: prototyping on the floor, making mistakes, reveling in our mistakes, learning from our mistakes. So that got captured you see, not just the exhibit and how it works and what it shows and how to build it and how not to have it leak—but all [the institutional culture stuff] was preserved too.

But it’s also really cool to have someone going behind the scenes of an exhibit and saying, you know, we have this duct tape here, and you got to do this thing over here because if you do it over there you will get shocked, and all these wires are sticking out, and watch out for the red wire. It was casual and funky. And that got preserved.

PV: And how many half-inch open-reel tapes do you think you have?

RF: How many of the U-matics? Or the Portapaks?

PV: I guess we could just say in general, what’s the quantity of video that you have?

RF: Well, let me think. In our inventory database, which was our first attempt to know what could be known, we have about seven thousand [items]. One of the difficulties—and we had discussed this with Howard [Besser] early on; he was our consultant in the first round of funding—is that they were so old, and they’d been through so much, we didn’t want to play them that much. We didn’t even have the equipment to play [them on]. All we could put in the inventory database was the format, the tape brand, what it said on the label, and what other contexts we thought we had. And maybe we’d have an earlier VHS copy of it or something. Of course we had to keep that too in case the original tape was no good anymore, but we knew from that little bit of what was on the tape. For a lot of tapes we had no idea what was on them, or if they were blank even. So the inventory database just took it as it was.

[Since then] we’ve added a whole bunch of more recent tapes that were not physically challenged. They were kept in better climate conditions, so we’re not worried about them as much. And the videographers wrote more on the label and we’re pretty sure of what’s on them.

PV: And is that mini-DV?

RF: Oh, we have mini-DV. We have DV-CAM. We have Hi-8; the Hi-8s are especially fragile, I’m worried about those. U-Matics held up pretty well. Sometimes the [playback] mechanism would go before the tape would go. And that’s why we had to have BAVC involved, and we have two vendors that handle our tapes, well three with our Portapaks. Yeah, an enormous number of formats. If you want, when I go to work on Monday, I will give you a list of all the formats I have.

PV: Okay. What about film?

RF: There’s some film, but we didn’t make film. I don’t have any film that we made; we just never went [in] that direction. What we have is something that is not on my list for the museum but still needs to be done. We do have a film curator, and she’s gotten film from other places over the years. People have deposited films with her, which have nothing to do with the museum, but that she’s shown in her film program.

PV: This is Liz [Keim], right?

RF: This is Liz. And she has film that is probably nowhere else in the world. And we are trying to help her get that preserved. But because it’s not museum history, it keeps falling off [our list because it is low priority for us]. I keep trying to go ahead and do that and get some help for her. Some day I’m going to just bite it, and put it in my budget and force them to let me just take them and do it.

PV: And this collection is held separately?

RF: These films are held completely separately. Most of the film and videotape she has she’s purchased and she has different issues because she shows them publicly. So she has to deal with the copyright and the use rights. What we’re charged with preserving is museum history.

PV: Okay, got it. And, let’s see. What would you say are your primary job duties and responsibilities?

RF: As far as the archiving goes, I feel like the catcher in the rye again. I’m out there; I’m trying to get as many of these artifacts from falling over the cliff before they disappear from the earth. Sometimes it’s a technical challenge; we had early technical challenges about scanning documents and OCRing them. We don’t have the technical challenge anymore. But now we have other challenges, [like] making sure that people don’t shred things. I’ll give you an example: We have not been successful at educating the museum [staff] yet, [though] we’re getting there. We have a lot of support. I meet with the managers and we talk about this. [When a staff member is leaving a position for instance—and some of staff have been there for decades—] they like to clean out their office before we arrive. And we keep saying, “No dear, just go. Let us do that. Take everything that’s personal to you and go to your party. Because you have no idea what we’re looking for, no idea what would interest us, because that’s our job.” Even if it’s sensitive, that’s our job. We know what the Bancroft doesn’t want, we know what should not be shared, and not without permission—personal records, things like that. Beyond that, [the staff] really don’t see [their] programs and [their] contributions the same way we do. It’s different. And they don’t listen; they just do their thing.

The best example: There was one woman who is head of the volunteer program; she is very important to us. She had these huge vertical files in her office, and when she left, she just left. A new person came in and started using a very small part of [these files]—[the files] about the volunteer program—but was so busy and so time-challenged, that she didn’t have time to do anything else. Then, after ten years, she needed the space [in the vertical files]. And she’d listened to us over the years, and she [asked that we] come take a look at what’s there. And, well, Anne Jennings [the previous volunteer head] had not thrown anything out. She was on many committees, she went to meetings, she collected every scrap of paper: minutes, staff lists, memos—it was fabulous. It’s the Anne Jennings collection—she’s back now, she came back. It was wonderful—this much of it was volunteers [makes a gesture showing small amount], and it was great; but this much of it [makes gesture showing large amount] was a cross-section of the museum at that time, and the decade that she worked there. We don’t have any of that stuff— photographs, and all sorts of things—preserved any other way.

So my main job is preservation. I’ve created an oversight group called Digital Archiving for Preservation and Access—I made that up one day while I was commuting. We’re not doing the archiving for the sake of archiving; we really have a reason for doing it. Our primary reason is preservation and as we are able to we will give access. The access is very important, but it comes second. You can’t have access if you don’t preserve it. That’s our job.

PV: And then you also do fundraising as well?

RF: Well, we have a development department, a wonderful department, [although they do] not always see what we do as a priority. Lately they have been seeing it [as such], partially because the world out there is shifting; the world is beginning to see it as a priority. I don’t think it was an important part of IMLS, or even the agency before IMLS (they focused mostly on museums). And I can see why. Because again, museums are serving the public and [don’t necessarily] see themselves as having this historical part of their identity and all; they just want to serve the public more, and serve the public more, and they don’t see where the history comes in.

As our digital collections grew, we saw that many of our efforts were different and richer in some ways, than those in other countries. I’m not saying all the time, but I’m saying that in many cases we have a very interesting and different approach to things, as we saw that digital preservation could lead to repurposing. I think that the federal agencies got much more interested in this stuff, and so our development department got more interested.

PV: And do you have any other job duties or responsibilities?

RF: Well, the three of us do two things. We run the media archiving function in the museum, and we run the library function. We hope to get more staff before we move to the Piers; that’s the plan, because in our mind it’s never just been a library. As long as I’ve been there, it’s never been just a collection of books and materials. It’s always been a center for new media—because I’m interested in new media. And at the Exploratorium—[and this is] one of the reasons I’ve been there for twenty-six years—what you’re interested in is what happens. There’s a lot of room for that. When I came in 1985 I brought the first computer that the staff actually got to use. There were two other computers in 1985: Ron, who now officially works with us, had a CompuPro; and then there was a Tandem Mainframe. And I brought the third computer, which was an Osbourne and that really bumped up our computer ability. I also brought my Texas Instrument dumb terminal. So there we were: that was computers in 1985 at the Exploratorium. And ten book titles.

But the computers were very important. I used dBaseII, [an early relational database] for the first library catalog. And we started a registrar function with the exhibits, which [until then did not exist]. And as I archive videos about the exhibit and documents about the exhibit and audio about the exhibitions, I’m also trying to translate that to data in a database. Which is now in FileMaker and we just wrote a grant to bring it into more open-source availability. That will bring all of the media together, so you can see the video…. And that’s another excitement about digitization; it all flows now, and can be connected.

So, yes: My new concept of Learning Commons—or our new concept of the Learning Commons, because we function more or less as a team—is something that has physical resources. But more than that, it trains and encourages and supports people to get in the middle of the digital world and create webinars, create content, do their own digitization, and to understand what digitization is all about.

I’ll give you a perfect example of a project that the Commons is supporting right now. We have a public information office, they have press releases, they also had a clipping service, they probably still do. The clipping service would clip articles in newspapers [about the Exploratorium] and send it to them. Then at some point they decided to scan them; that worked for the interim level. Now we’re training them to go on the web, find these articles, download them in PDF form, and load them into their own separate catalog using our digital asset management software, Cumulus. [We are also providing them with the equipment to do this. ] That’s a whole transition; it’s a hard transition. You have to think about things you never thought about before. What is a PDF? What is OCR? What is searching? What is metadata? How is it there? What are the fields we want to search in and how do we want to do that? And the fact that we can now search the whole content of an article, does that change the fixed fields we can use? And this is all without knowing what a field is, or a database, or anything else.

Even before this, one of the huge changes in the Public Information Office concerned our photography department. We’ve always had a wonderful photography department. We work with these unbelievably beautiful pictures. Some of them are more in the documentation realm, and some of them are more in the art realm, really. Unbelievable things, and all these were mostly slides; some prints and negatives, but mostly slides. And the Public Information Office would go in and find what they wanted and mail it to the reporters, and sometimes they would copy it. But which was the original and which the copy--it didn’t really matter [to them at the time]. It’s not that they did anything wrong, they did what they had to do to get that information out in a timely manner, to do their function. It didn’t work historically for the institution. And so gradually, it was our first IMLS grant, we really focused on the photography archives. And we [scanned] 10, 000 images [and added them] to the Cumulus database. Then we still had to talk to that department and say, you could send a JPEG or you could send a TIFF and here’s the difference and what resolution are we talking about.

You have us on the one hand saying it’s better to send the electronic version because they don’t touch the original anymore—that’s our perspective. Their perspective is that they had to keep their reporters happy. And until reporters started accepting it in electronic form, we didn’t get anywhere. And that was right. You have to look at it that way; they had their own needs too. We helped them with that transition, but we’re still working on that one.

PV: That’s great, you’re so proactive about collecting at the moment, or as the work is being done. You’re processing during production.

RF: Do you think we’re doing that?

PV: It sounds like it.

RF: No, no I do not want to create that impression. This is one of the ways we’re weakest.

PV: Oh, okay.

RF: We went back and did the ten thousandth ones and they were the oldest ones, and some of the most beautiful ones, but right now it’s very difficult to find that balance between the new content creation and the new content preservation. For several reasons: One is lack of staff on our part. Second is lack of interest on the staff’s part in preservation, because they do a project and then they go on. A third thing is they are beginning to develop their own little mini-archives, and they again don’t see those archives from our point of view. If it’s on the web, if it’s on YouTube, if it’s on Flickr [they think] it’s preserved—[but no, it’s not].

And so we have to go and talk to people and give them hard drives and take their stuff away and put it in our RAID and such. And it’s hard because they’re overworked and they’re overwhelmed and it’s not our biggest priority, because those things aren’t going away as fast as the old stuff is going away. We still haven’t finished—we have one more year of dealing with the oldest videos. [Now that] we’re now up to the mid-nineties, we’re beginning to relax a little bit. Not that we haven’t lost anything; we lost 25 percent the first year of [the videotapes] we sent out, because they had deteriorated so much. (Not that we lost it that year; we lost it long before.) It broke our heart. Gradually, we’re getting into a place now where most of the stuff we send out comes back [in digital form]. Next year we will start doing our own [digital] migration, because the stuff is new enough. And we have the equipment in-house now to do our own. So we’ll do it, but we’ll also teach people how to do it.

PV: I guess when you start talking about certain… you were giving producers advice about sending particular file formats, I just…

RF: They weren’t producers. The Public Information Office—they’re not content creators. Well, they do create content, they create press releases—which are fabulous historically. It’s a whole other story. But they don’t create the images. It’s a typical non-profit. I don’t know, maybe we’re better than most. But everyone is a little overworked. And archiving is not the first thing they think about.

PV: For most places I don’t think it is.

RF: Except when they need stuff.

PV: Right. What training prepared you to work with mixed collections, just stepping back a little bit?

RF: I got my master’s at Columbia in 1971. I had one computer course in [Fortran]. That taught me what an algorithm was. That was very useful. [And I was trained as an indexer, not as an archivist nor as a digitizer and trained very well. Teddy Hines at Columbia was my teacher and he was a founder of the American Society of Indexers. My first professional job was at H.W. Wilson. ] I’d [also] had undergraduate courses in the philosophy department in modern and classical logic. That got me ready for databases; I knew what Boolean logic was. And I have a good eye for photography, the appreciation of it, and moving images—I’m an image kind of person, [but there’s no] training [for that]. I had a wonderful, wonderful media teacher at Columbia, D. Marie Grieco and she [fueled] my aesthetic interest in moving images. [Back then, we learned] as we went along; we learned it because we had to learn it.

When we got serious, and we got our first grant, I was very careful to put Howard Besser in as a consultant, because I knew what we didn’t know. It was pretty easy to tell. Of course, having a strong videography department and a strong photography department, we have in-house expertise also. When we started, 99 percent of the people were using videotape or film and now I don’t think they use film or videotape at all anymore. So we helped them through that transition.

We belong to SAA. That was and continues to be very helpful. We are not formally certified archivists; we’d love to be. We find a lack in our knowledge and we fill it. That’s how we work. It’s not exactly waiting until the car breaks down. We do preventative maintenance. We know what we don’t know and we try to fill it. That BAVC meeting originally came from an idea, I think it was Howard’s, in 2000 or 2001, when I told him [that we were having a hard time figuring out what format to transfer our videotapes to, and where I should look, and if there was a magazine I should buy.] He told us that the formats change all the time and that maybe we should meet once a year and try to get a feeling for what’s going to become obsolete, and what formats are in danger and should be transferred next. So he planted that idea, and then I planted it with BAVC because we didn’t have time to follow through with it. We’re all kind of in the same boat that way. The world is moving so fast. And we’re [small], as far as this goes, and fairly isolated, and need the help of the other people around us.

PV: It helps to know that you’re not alone with these challenges.

Do you have any other roles within the library?

RF: Again, the library at this point has about ten thousand volumes, and we’re going through a major renovation—we’re actually shut down to the staff [and teachers] right now. And we won’t reopen until we’re in the [new building at the Piers], because of major refurbishment within the institution. My main role is preservation, some of my staff work in other areas: diversity, and with the union, and things like that. [With the] Learning Commons, [archiving at the museum has a physical base] for the first time in years. It’s not just about the stuff [we have]; it’s preserving the institution and that means helping the institution preserve itself. We see this new facility that we’re going to be building in the Piers, and we’re prototyping right now as a common meeting ground, where people, at their own pace, and at their own time, and when they need to, will come in to learn what they need to learn to move on to the next step.

[One of the ways that the Commons and Media Archiving functions merge well and promote archiving at the museum, is to run what I call the "infoshop" function. First of all, all of our staff is cross-trained to do media archiving as well as library service, then our team of on-call staff is trained that way, too, and when there is an "information emergency" in other departments, they "hire" one of our on-call to take care of it. We recruit, train and supervise the temporary on-call help but the department that has the data archival need pays for their hours.]

So I would say staff professional development is a huge part of what we do, and people don’t think about that, but it’s there. I’ll give you just a couple of examples. We have PDF panic happening frequently. People don’t have Acrobat Pro on their computers, and all of a sudden, a grant is due, or a report is due, or they have to send something to somebody, and they have no idea how to make a PDF. They don’t know what a PDF is. They’ve probably seen them and read them but they don’t understand that it’s a separate format. And then they want to edit it. And they don’t know how to do that. So, we’re the place they come. IT, again, [is] severely understaffed and challenged, so we’re working on developing a partnership with [them], because they can handle the technical parts of stuff, but they can’t always handle the information part of stuff. So again, someone needs to make a FileMaker database, or they have a FileMaker database and they’ve lost the password because someone has moved on. Or they have no idea what fields are in it because someone has moved on without documentation. We’re the department that people go to for that kind of thing. Again it’s information infrastructure [and] we see the archive as part of that infrastructure. [With] exhibit information [it’s] the same thing.

[One] role that’s missing in the museum that we do not fulfill [but would like to]—and it’s almost tangential to what we do—is historian. And here’s the best example of that. We got a call from the director’s office [asking if we either have or could compile] a list of the all directors we’ve ever had on our board. We don’t have that. Nobody ever made one. Or if they did make one, they never gave it to us. The people who’ve been around that long who remember names and faces are gone. What we have is letterhead, and board minutes, and we have issues of the magazines that list the board, and newsletters that list the board, and [the museum would] need a historian to come in. I mean, I could do it; I could do it, it would be great. I’d have the best time. I’d have the best couple weeks of my life. Compiling an Excel spreadsheet with all the board people and their date of birth and date of death and date of start on the board and date of end on the board. Wow, what a fun thing. We don’t have a chance, a prayer, of having the amount of time to do that. And I think sometimes the institution gets archiving mixed up with being a historian. And we need a historian.

PV: You offer public access to the library, right?

RF: Well, public is a funny word. You know, from the librarian’s point of view, we’re not a public library, because we’re not funded to serve a general public just walking in off the street, you have to pay admission in order to come to the museum. There are certain categories of people, especially historical researchers, who have absolutely free access to us. We have people coming from all over the world wanting to understand more about the history of the Exploratorium, wanting to understand more about exhibiting, and science museums, and science phenomena. As soon as they call me and let me know, then they get totally free access. Teachers who’ve been through our teacher program by and large have free access for the rest of their lives—we’re working on that one. We’re starting to talk about having a new educator membership category that will bring local teachers in, either free, or sponsored (which [would make it free]), or very low cost, or [provide them with a] regular membership so that they can use the materials. We’ve never turned anybody down who’s called and asked to come in and use the materials. Of course if you’re a visitor [you can use it, though] by and large we’ve been discouraging visitors lately because the staff is so small. But when we were open seven days a week and one evening, and I had a staff of six or seven, then anybody could walk in. A nursing mother who wants a corner? That’s fine with us. And we were operating within the scope of our public, which is the 600,000 or so visitors a year. We were operating as a public library through them. It was a small neighborhood; think of it as a small neighborhood with different people every day.

PV: Your example of someone calling up and wanting a history of the board made me think that you must get requests like that all the time.

RF: We don’t. Not for that. I mean that’s a complicated request. We’ll get requests; here’s my favorite: A girl walks in, she looks about fifteen. She walks in and looks around and she has tears in her eyes. We get people with tears in their eyes; sometimes they just want to know where the bathroom is, but she had a different agenda. She said, “There’s this exhibit right outside your door and it’s about geotropism.” And I said, “It’s okay, here have a cookie.” We believe in cookies. And she said, “I’m here with my family, and we’re on vacation, and it’s the Easter break and I was supposed to have done a science project on geotropism and I told my parents I did it, but I didn’t. And when I go back I’m going to fail science. [And I saw your exhibit on the floor that was about geotropism and it brought it all back to me.] I sat with her for a while and said, “I think we can work this out. Go get your parents.” And the parents came in, and [I told them] the deal. I said, “It’s not hard for her to work on this. We have resources that will help her. We have little cameras. We have the exhibit here. We have resources on how to do this at home. We can get her started enough so that when she goes back to school she’ll have a really good head start on this. Why don’t you just drop her off here every morning, and she’ll come in and work on her science exhibit until she’s gone a little bit further and then the afternoon the whole family can do stuff together.” And to me that was perfect; to me that was just perfect. Now, we do get requests like that on the phone. [And we get them on the Internet. Some years when we’re well staffed, we help them, and other years when we’re a small staff, we can’t.] Our main function is with teachers rather than students. But that’s typical [of an institution like this.]

PV: That’s great. And, actually I meant to ask you this earlier: What percentage do you estimate you work with moving images? It sounds like it’s a lot.

RF: [Moving images represent about one third of the collection we have digitized so far.] However, right now almost all of our archiving work is with moving images. We’re really pushing it because a couple of years ago we got special funding, and we knew we weren’t going to have it for many years. We got the funding to send the tapes out to vendors, and that takes a lot of work, because they were scattered around. We’d inventoried them, and we had to get them [and] organize them again. And even getting a 2TB hard drive full of DV-25 files and uploading to our RAID and you know. So most of what we’re doing now is with video. When I’m home, remember we talked about my working from home, that’s what I’m doing. Once they’re loaded on the RAID, now with my Ethernet connection—through Comcast I must say, not terrific, but much better than DSL—I can do what I call basic metadata to [make the content ] accessible right away: Who’s on it, what’s it about, when was it made, who did it, basic categories, major areas, and things like that.

Then we have our interns come in and they watch them. We don’t watch [them] in the beginning, we don’t have time. We preserve it, we get it loaded, we get a little Flash preview made, which Cumulus does, and we put in the basic metadata, and we [create] two versions. We do a DV-25, and then we do a little bit of processing—we put on tips and tails—and then we make an H.264 and that’s it. So there are three versions of each piece [including the preview]. We put the metadata in— that’s what we’re focused on—and [later] when we have someone to watch it and do more detailed keyword and little short descriptions and everything, we do that. We have to do other things, because the need is there; and also, we have our own needs and our own priorities.

One of our priorities is digitizing all of our press releases. The press releases are gold, they’re absolutely gold. Because that tells us when something happened. It gives us a linear timeline, what the context is, when it took place, who curated it—it’s fabulous. So we make PDFs, one a year, of all of the press releases.

PV: That’s great. How do you continue your professional development in this area and network with others in the field?

RF: Well, we have hope, we really have hope, for [the BAVC] group. In terms of conferences we attend, again, we’re so short staffed, [so they are few]. When SAA is near us we’ll attend it. The Internet Librarian is a good one to go to in general, when we have the chance. We frequently go to NSTA (National Science Teachers Association)—that deals with the other end of our work, our marketing work, to teachers. I don’t go to ALA, I don’t go to CLA. If we’re looking for something specific, like library Online Public Access Catalog software, then we will hook in to the more traditional library areas. We belong to ARLIS and we love to go to ARLIS and we go when we can, which is not very often. We belong to BayNet, and BayNet has been very useful for us, because they cut across different kinds of libraries, and we feel that our function in it is between different kinds of things there, so that works for us. And sometimes BayNet can respond more quickly to new trends than the others.

PV: What does that stand for?

RF: It’s not an acronym, but it is the multi-type library association for the Bay Area. And I’m a past president and I’m the current administrator, so I’ll put in a plug for BayNet. [Infopeople also] does good workshops.

PV: Have you ever been to the Association of Moving Image Archivists?

RF: I have not.

PV: That might be fun for you. It’s happening in Austin this November. I always learn so much about current practices and all of the work that you’re doing, everyone else is doing it too. [We’re] asking the same questions.

RF: Another way that we learn—we have a lot of interns from San Jose State. Years ago we had to teach them everything. I mean everything. We practically had to teach them how to type. They didn’t know what a database was; they didn’t know anything, really. [But they were] well-meaning, very sweet. And now [our interns] teach us [as much as we teach them]. And it’s one of the reasons we love to have them. They learn a lot in library school. And they have a strong archive thread there. We mostly work through that, and we’re learning from them.

PV: That’s great. And what in your opinion leads to the creation of positions such as yours in libraries and archives?

RF: That’s interesting…. An institution wakes up one day, it’s like waking up from a dream, and realizes they’ve lost half their history. And they’re desperate, absolutely desperate. I can’t tell you the kind of support I’ve been getting the last couple years, because people have been seeing the results of what we’ve done. That initial IMLS grant meant the world to us, because we could get enough of a critical mass of material to get people excited about what we were doing.

Now here’s the interesting thing: A lot of these grants focus on directly reaching external audiences. And that’s the way that original grant was written, and we do distribute materials to teachers, our primary external audience, and researchers; and we [distribute to] historical researchers and our partner museums. Everything we said we’d do, we absolutely did. But we knew our primary audience was staff. It has to be staff. Because it’s the staff that are creating the new things that go out to our primary audiences, external audiences. You have to do that critical mass of stuff so the staff practices change, and the staff attitudes change so they become partners with you. And it doesn’t sound right sometimes when you’re writing a grant to say you’re doing this for staff. In fact one funding agency said, “Well that’s just part of your normal thing, why should we pay for it?” [And it’s] because the product of it goes out to the audiences you want to reach.

This transition from the analog to the digital is fraught with danger and difficulty and questions and all sorts of other things and because we have such a treasure trove of material. It’s not just about our history, because we’re so wonderful, but because as we move through history, we move through time, and we’re like a time capsule, and because we’ve never thought of ourselves as only science. We have a “Speaking of Music” series that we did that we did with Charles Amirkhanian—the most fabulous two hour [radio programs] with John Cage and Keith Jarrett and Pamela Z and incredible artists at their peak, talking about who they are, what they’re doing and then demonstrating it. They’re just absolutely beautiful—it’s totally accidental, by the way, [that we have video.] This was an audio series broadcast though KPFA and Charles gave us copies of the original professional level audiotapes. And our staff was so overwhelmed with all this, they often just grabbed cameras. So sometimes we have hand-held images, but it’s the only image that exists of this moment in time with this artist. It’s just an incredible thing.

PV: So what do you think needs to be changed about the status of moving image preservation specialists in libraries and what is working well? We have about two minutes left [on the tape].

RF: We’re unusual in that our collection is rich but we’re not a moving image institution. I think the main challenge continues to be that—and every librarian has this, every archivist has this—people don’t understand what we do. And we are so busy doing it that we don’t spend enough time in marketing what we do. Then people don’t value it. They only value it after a disaster. We’re a little like disaster prevention. When I go to meetings I say I am tired of running an emergency room for information emergencies. I want to run a prevention clinic, so that we all get our shots, and we’re all protected from the flu season, but we know that we have to have our x-rays, we have to have our mammograms, we have to have whatever we have to have so we don’t have that many emergencies.

[I can list] so many different examples of this. [For instance,] when the photographers first switched over to digital photography, they used to have their film paid for, their processing paid for, and everybody understood film and processing. Nobody understood hard drives; nobody understood that hard drives cost money. Nobody understood that hard drives should not be on your local computer alone—that the content, the ten thousand photographs a year they were now taking, should be backed up somewhere else, and there were disasters. There were entire hard drives that were lost. And when we first introduced the concept of well, we have a RAID you know, and we have a backup RAID, this was a foreign idea. People weren’t getting it. Why should we do that? I have it on my hard drive, I have it right here. What’s your problem? People don’t understand the fragility of digital media—they don’t get it. We have two RAIDs: a RAID and a backup RAID. One’s in the Exploratorium and one’s in Daly City. What connects those two RAIDs besides the Internet? The San Andreas Fault. This is not a good idea. So we were finally able to purchase a tape backup system, and we’re going to be doing a tape backup and taking it over to the Bancroft because at least they’re on a different fault. And they have buildings that have been retrofitted to survive earthquakes.

People don’t understand that these things don’t take care of themselves. They don’t index themselves, they don’t get preserved themselves, they don’t last any more than human bodies last—they need the same kind of care. And people don’t understand context. The other day I overheard a department that had come to us for help and they consistently, consistently use volunteers for indexing. That’s not a good idea. And we [told them] having ten people, who are volunteers, who come and go, index your content, has a real strength, because you’ll have all the different perspectives, and all these different approaches to key words. But it also has real weaknesses: You have no consistency; there’ll be no consistency. There’s no way to get, there’s just no way to get it. You could have a department of ten people indexing if they were there all the time and you could keep going over things with them and showing and sharing. They don’t get it.

PV: So you have to advocate quite a bit.

RF: Advocacy. I think that what’s really missing is this kind of marketing of yourself, and advocacy. And I do it well, I do. It’s one of my strengths. But I don’t have time. I’m talking with myself now, I’m arguing with myself. “You’re not doing enough advocacy.” We need to do it in our sleep.

PV: Great, well this tape will serve as part of that record. Thank you for your time.


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