Imagine What We’ll Know This Time Next Week: An Interview with Bailey Smith and Anne Wootton of Pop Up Archive
The following is a guest post byJefferson Bailey, Strategic Initiatives Manager at Metropolitan New York Library Council, National Digital Stewardship Alliance Innovation Working Group co-chair and a former Fellow in the Library of Congress’s Office of Strategic Initiatives.
In this installment of the Insights Interviews series, a project of the Innovation Working Group of the National Digital Stewardship Alliance Innovation Working Group, I am excited to talk to Bailey Smith and Anne Wootton, two of the co-founders of Pop Up Archive.
For those readers unfamiliar with Pop Up Archive, tell us about the project, how it came about, and what specific needs you see it addressing?
We started Pop Up Archive after surveying the public media ecosystem and realizing how much valuable digital audio content is currently unfindable and in danger of being lost forever. While larger institutions have the resources to tackle this issue, many oral historians and producers are neither archivists nor technologists, and lack the resources to hire support.
Whether archival oral history material or the hours of raw audio that are edited down to mere minutes for a produced piece, we set out to provide a straightforward, scalable system of organization and vocabulary for broadcast audio and related material. We help producers share digital audio content in ways that are meaningful and useful, through training and information management consulting with open-source software solutions.
The Pop Up Archive system provides a well-documented method for independent producers to store and access content: media files are seamlessly uploaded to the Internet Archive for permanent preservation with the option of social sharing through SoundCloud. The initial phase of Pop Up Archive resulted in software plug-ins scheduled for fall 2012 release through Omeka, an open-source web publishing platform. Phase two of the project focuses on data standards across organizations and web service needs.
Tell us how your preliminary research informed the development of the Pop Up Archive. How did your review of technologies and archival literature, as well as interviews with content creators, help you identify solutions, establish goals, and plan and manage the project’s growth? Also, what role did your individual personal or professional backgrounds play in creating Pop Up Archive?
We both came from backgrounds in journalism and the humanities, and met at the UC-Berkeley School of Information, where we joined the Master’s program in 2010. The I School provided us with the training to better understand how technology can be used to organize, display, and reuse media. In the past, Anne managed a newspaper digitization project at Brown University, and Bailey produced a radio documentary. You could say that we melded our interests — and when The Kitchen Sisters, independent radio producers based in San Francisco, came to us for help with 30 years worth of archival audio content, Pop Up Archive was born.
Our preliminary research focused on independent radio producers in particular, but it also entailed conversations with oral history archivists and public media organizations like the Public Radio Exchange. Since then, we’ve expanded our focus to include almost anyone, whether a person or an organization, wondering what to do with archival audio. When we begin our research for Pop Up Archive, we identified three main types of comparable services for independent radio producers: digital asset management systems, archival systems, and radio distribution services. However, each of these services addresses only certain segments of the comprehensive environment that we aimed to create for producers. Our goal was to find the sweet spot at the intersection of these systems and to help our users implement a solution that meets their needs: ease of use, secure storage, archival rigor, content management, and access to a multitude of publishing avenues. We set out to build an alpha version of the solution using open source software and focusing on The Kitchen Sisters as a use case. We set a six month timeline, aiming to finish the alpha version by our graduation from the Berkeley iSchool in May 2012.
There is often a DIY ethos at the heart of innovation. The tinkerer in the garage is a popular motif, but it is important to remember that frequently the pieces of technology necessary to solve a problem already exist — innovation can be a matter of assemblage and building the crucial, and sometimes invisible, pieces linking existing technologies together. As you mentioned, Pop Up Archive builds on pre-existing tools like Omeka, Internet Archive, and SoundCloud. How did you approach working with existing technologies and what challenges did you face building interoperability and creating a seamless workflow for users?
Our priority was to ensure that we were meeting the needs of the community, and it quickly became clear to us that there were great tools out there that we could leverage and build upon. The question then became: which tools should we use? Omeka, while not expressly designed as an archival solution, impressed us with its user friendly interface, configurability through lightweight plug-ins, and ability to export various XML outputs.
We were also informed by the directives set by many funding agencies when they evaluate digitization proposals from media collections. Preservation and access were two major concerns — while national libraries and universities might be able to store media securely and share it with their wide networks, independent producers and small archives lack the resources to do so. Also, media collections of all stripes are increasingly trying to experiment with social media. We’re lucky that the Internet Archive is based in San Francisco, since we’ve spent a good amount of time there in the past year — it’s an incredible organization with a noble mission and tireless dedication to safeguarding content in formats that are continually updated for the eventualities of the web. Similarly, we’ve benefited from SoundCloud’s presence in San Francisco, not to mention their active community (over 40 million users), robust API, and increasingly ubiquitous waveform player, which enables timed comments and provides producers and archivists with an entirely new venue for their work.
Similarly, what are some of the challenges and solutions to building a technology tool geared towards non-technical users? Have there been any unforeseen hurdles in the creation or adoption of the Pop Up Archive?
Most producers focus their time and energy on creation, and it’s hard to clear the initial hurdle of hunkering down and dedicating time to back catalogs. Oral history archivists often have more of a focus on cataloging, but might be using legacy systems or are reluctant to try new, untested methods. And everyone is trying to figure out how best to manage and distribute content on the web. You can lose an entire afternoon packaging and re-packaging content for a variety of web services (PRX, SoundCloud, Stitcher, Slacker, etc.), not to mention whatever internal organizational system is in place, if any.
However, nearly everyone we’ve spoken to yearns to make access to their content easier, and not just for the public: they want easier access for themselves as well. We’ve spoken to organizations that currently find archival material by pulling CDs off a shelf and reading the cover notes until they find the right one. It’s not an efficient use of time. Our experience has been that when producers realize that a small initial investment will save valuable time in the long run, they’re excited to get started.
Due to the short lifespan of storage media, digital preservation often requires engaging with creator communities long before they might consider their material endangered or archival. What lessons have you learned about how smaller radio programs and independent media creators approach digital preservation and their personal archiving?
The bald fact is that smaller radio programs and independent media creators often don’t approach digital preservation or personal archiving at all. They’re focused on creation and production, as well they should be. The Kitchen Sisters, for instance, coined the term “accidental archive” to describe the material they’ve accumulated over the course of their 30-year career, but their dedication to creating new content has generally trumped the need for archiving. And, of course, the archival task only became more daunting as their archive grew. Fortunately, it’s never too late. We’re working with The Kitchen Sisters and with others to get their archives up to speed and make sure that going forward, all new work will seamlessly join the archive.
This means that with today’s proliferation of digital media, archiving and production are (or need to be) synonymous. That’s why ease-of-use is so important to us, because our system won’t work if it isn’t streamlined with existing workflows. If it’s not clear to content producers that Pop Up Archive will ultimately save them time, they have no reason to use it. We’re talking about saving time in two ways: integrating archiving seamlessly into the production process, and compiling records across organizations so that searching for oral history and public media content is a more rewarding experience.
A maxim of the preservation and cultural heritage community is that collaboration is essential to the success and sustainability of projects. Tell us about some of the community partnerships that Pop Up Archive has formed and how you see them enhancing and extending the project.
We were fortunate to work with The Kitchen Sisters as our initial “clients.” They were appropriately willing — enthusiastic, even! — to address the archival issues surrounding their collection. They’ve been working in their field for decades and are connected to a great network of producers, oral historians, and others in the public media ecosystem — not to mention that their collection is incredible and made much of our initial work a rewarding process of unearthing archival gems, which only solidified our commitment to this type of material and those in possession of it.
We’ve already mentioned the critical roles that the Internet Archive and SoundCloud play in our work. Similarly, the Omeka developer staff and community at large have been endlessly helpful when it comes to answering all sorts of questions, from basic coding help to brainstorming about the possibilities for our system. We were thrilled to receive funding this year through the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation News Challenge — in addition to much-needed financial support, the Knight Foundation encompasses a wide network of forward thinking media-minded people and organizations, so it’s been rewarding to plug into that community. (The Knight News Challenge aims to accelerate media innovation by funding ideas in news and information. More at newschallenge.org.)
We’ve benefited hugely from the relationships we’ve established, starting with our initial needs analysis and industry review. We’re working with PRX, audio archives and initiatives like the Oral History in the Digital Age project, and numerous other web services, audiovisual preservation communities, and content managers. And this fall, we’re expanding Pop Up Archive to serve more organizations. Our beta testers — which include the Society for American Baseball Research, Canadian college radio station CFRC 101.9, longtime Chicago radio reporter Charlie Meyerson, and the UNC Southern Oral History Program — will help us finalize our Omeka solution and move toward a platform-agnostic repository of oral history and public media records.
The project has just recently started hosting user training webinars as part of a broader outreach and education campaign. How have these events gone and how do you see them evolving in the future?
We’ve been encouraged by the great turnout and diversity of the training workshop participants. The training provides fledgling archivists a jumping off point. When you’ve got a mass of content that’s scattered here and there on hard drives, laptops, thumb drives, etc., it’s easy to get overwhelmed. The training workshops act as a bit of a lesson in orienteering for the archiving landscape. We introduce the foundational concepts of archiving. (Why are standards and controlled vocabularies important for you?). We also have an opportunity to show rather than tell participants how easy it can be to observe sound archival practices in their everyday operation.
I also want to offer a big congrats on your recent selection as one of the Knight News Challenge: Data! One of Knight’s “Six Ways to Scale” is to “Beta test in a native environment” and Pop Up Archive seems to be taking that maxim to heart. How will receiving the Knight grant help support the project’s continued development and rollout?
Thanks! We’re so excited to have the support of the Knight Foundation. The other Knight News Challenge winners are leaders in media innovation, and we’re honored to be in such esteemed company.
As you mentioned, we’ve been hosting online trainings, and we hope to continue that. We’re also expanding our outreach while focusing more closely on a select group of beta testers, mentioned above, who are testing our plug-ins and information management services. We’ll provide guidance on incorporating archiving into the organization’s workflow, selecting and configuring the appropriate server, installing Omeka, reviewing the organization’s collection and analyzing existing media and metadata for consolidation, cleaning up existing metadata, mapping metadata to the PBCore standard, batch importing files and metadata, importing and assigning metadata to individual files, integrating Omeka with the organization’s existing site, and sharing content via SoundCloud and the Internet Archive.
We’ll also be hosting a workshop at SXSW: “Build an Archive and Make it Count.” We’re looking forward to spending hands-on, in-person time with content creators to show them just how easy archiving can be. In fact, we’d like to re-brand archiving entirely to reflect the realities of today’s production workflows.
Lastly, any advice for other innovators out there considering or working on digital preservation projects?
Talk to people. The world of digital preservationists is an encouraging and inclusive community full of people looking for solutions. We can’t even count all of the “informational interviews” that led us to significant discoveries, introduced us to seminal people, or helped push our work forward.
Don’t be intimidated by what you don’t know. Our mantra around the office is “imagine what we’ll know this time next week.” We’ve been amazed by how much we’ve learned. That little saying helps to get us over the hump when obstacles just seem too vast to surmount.
Apply for things. Whether prizes, money, or both, we credit much of our early success to timelines set not by ourselves, but by outside organizations from whom we wanted support. This was certainly true of our Master’s thesis at Berkeley, but also true of the Berkeley Big Ideas competition, which enabled us to pay for some crucial early engineering and feed ourselves while we worked on this project through the summer. And, of course, the Knight Foundation is turning philanthropy on its head by offering funding cycles where big decisions get made relatively quickly. They look for applicants who are quick on their feet, and that skill ultimately translates very well to successful innovation.