Capturing Common Ground

by Leslie Matthaei

This is the first post in the BloggERS Embedded Series.

Every Tuesday I am asked the same question: “T Coast today?” T Coast, or Tortilla Coast, is the preferred lunch location for some of the photographers that occupy the Photography Branch, in the Curator Division, of the federal agency Architect of the Capitol. The agency oversees the maintenance of building and landscapes on Capitol Hill to include the Library of Congress buildings, Supreme Court, United States Botanic Gardens, House and Senate Office Buildings, Capitol Power Plant, and, of course, the United States Capitol. I have joined the professional photographers at T Coast for more than a dozen lunches now. I am here for the Taco Salad and comradery but mostly I am here to listen. And to ask questions. I am an embedded archivist.

The Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building
United States Capital Building
United States Botanic Garden – Bartholdi Park

I use my time at the T Coast lunch table to get to know the photographers and for them to get to know me. I discovered very quickly that the photographers and I have a lot in common. For example, the photographers are often assigned to shoot a long-term project (Collection) which may have multiple phases (Series), and for each phase, they go out on specific days to shoot (File Units). They cull excess and/or duplicate photographs. And they generally have a tried workflow for ingesting their born-digital objects to edit in Adobe Lightroom then upload them to an in-house Digital Asset Management system known as PhotoLightbox. Within PhotoLightbox, they are responsible for defining the security status of an individual image or group of images and providing the descriptive metadata. Tapping into parallel duties has allowed me to bridge potential knowledge gaps in explaining what roles and functions I can provide the branch as a whole.

One rather large knowledge gap is descriptive metadata. To be sure, the photographers in our agency are incredibly busy and in high demand. And they are professionally trained photographers. They see the world through aesthetics. It is not necessarily their job to use PhotoLightbox to help a researcher find images of the East Front extension that occurred in the 1950s, for example. That is my role, and when I query PhotoLightbox, the East Front extension project is represented in multiple ways: EFX, East Front (Plaza) Extension, East Extension, Capitol East Front Extension. You may see where this is going: there is no controlled vocabulary. When, in a staff meeting, I pitched the idea of utilizing controlled vocabularies, they immediately understood the need. Following their lead, the conversation turned to having me develop a data entry template for each of their shoots.

An example of the data entry template.

I admit now that my first spin through PhotoLightbox revealed a pressing need for controlled vocabularies, among other concerns the database presented. I am the type of person that when I see a problem, I want to fix it immediately. Yet I knew that if my first professional introduction to the photographers was a critique of how unworkable their data entry was and had been over time, I might turn them off immediately. Instead, I went to lunch. I credit the results produced by this particular staff meeting to the time that I put in getting to know the photographers, getting to understand each of their respective workflows, and understanding a little bit about the historic function and purpose of the office within the agency.

I have another half dozen lunches to go before I begin to talk to the photographers about the need for digital preservation of born-digital images over the long-term and both of our roles in the surrounding concepts and responsibilities. I have a few more lunches after that to get their assistance in codifying the decision we are making together into branch policies. I feel confident, however, that I have their complete buy-in for the work that I have been tasked to do in the branch. Instead of seeing me as another staff member making them do something they do not want, I am seen as someone who can help them gain control of and manage their assets in a way that has yet to be done in the branch. I cannot do it alone, I need their help. And some chips and salsa every once in a while.

Leslie Matthaei

Leslie Matthaei is an Archivist in the Photography Branch, Curator Division, Architect of the Capitol. She holds an MLIS from the University of Arizona, and an MA and BA in Media Arts from the University of Arizona.

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