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My Encounter with Digital Records at the Clara Thomas Archives and Special Collections

5 May 2022 8:00 AM | Anonymous

Sundus Saba is working towards completing a Bachelor of Commerce degree in Marketing from York University. She has undertaken roles in libraries, archives, and heritage organizations. She is passionate about ensuring the histories of different communities are visible within archival records so they can be preserved for future generations.

Who knew taking a Public History course in my fourth year of undergraduate studies would change the trajectory of my career?  As a marketing major, I was on a very linear business career pathway, but I always had a passion for history.  I had previous experience working with archival material, in the heritage sector and libraries, and took an Islamic Civilization history course as an elective.  Somewhere along the way, the stars aligned and here I am completing a Public History course placement at the York University Libraries (YUL) Clara Thomas Archives and Special Collections (CTASC) as a digital records assistant working on the Mariposa Folk Foundation fonds.  This placement provided me with insights into the importance of diversity in the archival profession and an appreciation for the labour involved in archival description. 

Mariposa Folk Festival 2012 programme booklet. 

The Mariposa Folk Foundation’s mandate is “the promotion and preservation of folk art in Canada through song, story, dance, and craft.” The Mariposa Folk Foundation fulfils its mandate through its annual Mariposa Folk Festival (MFF); it is one of the longest running folk festivals in North America. The festival has hosted notable artists including Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, Gordon Lightfoot, Leonard Cohen, Neil Young, and Bob Dylan. It has also fostered the developing talents of many of Canada’s up-and-coming artists, as well as the vibrant folk and Indigenous performers of North America. In 2007, the Mariposa Folk Foundation donated approximately 300 boxes of historical records which document their annual folk music festival to the CTASC. The “Mariposa: celebrating Canadian folk music exhibit at the CTASC tells the story of the festival’s first two decades and, by extension, the folk music movement of the 1960s and 1970s. In the years since that initial donation, MFF has regularly donated additional material in both analog and born-digital formats including over 500 GB of live performance recordings from 2010 to 2019.  
While working ten hours each week at the CTASC, I processed approximately 100 digital records from the 2012 festival using Excel formulas and functions to reconcile technical and descriptive metadata. In the words of my supervisor, I was living and breathing spreadsheets. My weekly tasks involved reviewing resources, researching MFF performers to create name authority records, and capturing information about the live performances from the 2012 festival program booklet to create archival descriptions in an Excel spreadsheet. An interesting moment during this process was discovering that the renowned Gordon Lightfoot put ona surprise performance which wasn’t scheduled in the program and, as a result, was not in the program booklet. I conducted thorough research using different websites and news articles to verify and describe this surprise performance. Although at times these tasks seemed tedious and repetitive, they were crucial for archival description. Archival descriptions are valuable because they help future archives in explaining the context around a specific record.  

Name Authorities Excel spreadsheet of Mariposa Folk Festival. Photo credit: Sundus Saba.  

Of the many tasks that I undertook during my placement, I found working with OpenRefine the most rewarding. Dealing with messy and non-standard data in archival description, file lists, and other metadata operations can be a massive headache. Manually adjusting lines of data can take hours of time. However, thanks to OpenRefine (an open-source desktop application for data cleanup and transformation to other formats) I was able to code formulas into GREL (General Refine Expression Language) to expedite data transformation, cleanup, and cross referencing. The image below is a screen shot of approximately 5 pages worth of text to format a column of dates. If I did that manually it could have taken me hours (in fact, this was the case during the first half of my placement) but with OpenRefine, I am able to do it in a minute. With this information, the CTASC provides greater access to the MFF fonds and enables these records to be more easily discovered through online databases.  
The mariposaAtoM project in the OpenRefine software database. Photo Credit: Sundus Saba.
My supervisor, archivist Katrina Cohen-Palacios, was an influential figure during my placement. By genuinely caring about my experience and excitement about my work, she encouraged me to explore different aspects of archives, which I found very valuable in the early stages of my career exploration. She also introduced me to the Archives Association Ontario’s (AAO) “Safe Spaces for BIPOC Archivists” session. These virtual sessions are safe spaces set aside and reserved for archives workers and records managers, including students, emerging, and established professionals, from historically excluded groups in the profession to connect with one another in an informal, participant-driven environment. As someone who identifies as a Muslim woman, I immediately felt connected with the group and gained appreciation for the work these individuals are doing to advance diversity in the archival profession. Katrina really took the time to answer my questions and offered advice about graduate school, careers, and my research paper. She encouraged my professional development by suggesting articles to read and different webinars to watch that supported my academic interests.  
One of the highlights of my placement was the many networking opportunities. In one such opportunity, I met with archivist Moska Rokay from the Muslims in Canada Archives (MiCA). As a Muslim, it was encouraging and insightful knowing that there is a platform for the missing Muslim voices in Canada’s historical narrative. MiCA is doing great work to preserve the history and document the heritage of Muslims in Canada. I also met with Marcia Salmon, YUL digital scholarship metadata librarian, who collaborates with CTASC to mint name authorities in the NACO funnel. Coincidentally, I met with her during the time when I was working with name authorities for the Mariposa Folk Festival. She helped me understand the purpose of name authorities, which is to facilitate searching and browsing, and to establish a unique identifier for an entity name record. Lastly, I met with senior archivist Sean Smith from the Archives of Ontario. He spoke to me about the importance of outreach and making the histories of different communities visible. What piqued my interest was the alignment of archival advocacy and outreach with marketing. Sean emphasized that archivists must redefine their professional roles in society to meet the community’s needs. Just as in marketing we are building brand awareness and providing information to the target audience about products through various media channels, archives are shifting to raise public awareness of their special collections, records, and exhibits.  
Despite this being a completely remote placement, I found the experience to be very hands on as I had to primarily rely on the Internet and digital files to complete my work. A big advantage of working remotely was the flexibility to create my own work schedule. As most of my classes were in the evening, I often worked early in the morning and met regularly with Katrina to update her on my progress. Because of the pandemic restrictions, many webinars and training sessions were offered online such as the Black History Wikipedia Edit-A-Thon. I was fortunate to have been able to participate in these unique opportunities from the comfort of my home. My placement experience broadened my understanding of the practice of public history in archives and provided me with opportunities that I will treasure moving forward in my career. 

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