Reference Rookie

Last week, as I keep working on processing the Pachuco Oral History Collection, I got the chance to help with a reference request that came from a researcher via our online reference system, LibAnswers. The researcher was looking for a particular letter related to border security.  I love working on reference requests because I have the opportunity to look through our collections and become just a little bit more familiar with them. Plus, it’s like a professional scavenger hunt. 


When I received the request, one of our staff had already tried looking in two different sets of locations that the researcher gave us. Given what I was looking for, and given the other spots that had already been checked, by looking through the finding aid using a variety of keywords, I made a new set of places in this collection to look.

After looking in a few different boxes, I found a copy of the letter that was published in a newspaper in April 1999. There was a note at the and of the letter that read: “This letter was sent to President Clinton and other U.S. and state officials as well as other daily newspapers and TV stations.” I made a list of Arizona representatives that were in office in 1999, but we only had two collections pertaining to representatives from that time, and the original letter with signatures was not in either.


When I came to the conclusion that we didn’t have the original letter, I was slightly dispirited that I could not make the researcher happy by granting them the resource they needed. 

GIPHY (3)However, when I spoke with my supervisor, Erika, to get some advice, she reassured me that even though it can be discouraging to not be able to fulfill the request, it also gives us information about where we have gaps in the collection, which is a good thing. I also learned that doing reference can be an indirect way of doing collection management.



GIPHY (4).gifIn the end, I contacted the researcher and let them know that I had found a copy of the letter, but not the original one with signatures that they were looking for. I sent along a scan of the newspaper clipping and the list of Arizona incumbent representatives in 1999, and suggested that they look in other Arizona repositories, such as Special Collections at ASU, with congressional collections that could possibly contain the letter.


Space: Is your library running out of it?

One of the most iconic scenes in film occurs when the Beast allows Belle to enter his extensive library, where of course she is mesmerized. 1bbAs a young bibliophile I was amazed as well and, of course, desired to have a similar set-up in the future. Perhaps this is part of the reason that I wound up in a Special Collections Library. Just like the Belle, I love books, and just like the Beast, I have a deep desire to preserve them. But what this iconic scene fails to mention is: maintaining a large library is more work than one often bargains for. More importantly–what happens when you run out of shelving space?!

Running out of space is something that most consumers of modern technology have come across. For example, your iTunes library can become cluttered. You can download 2too many games onto your XBox. I myself once saved too many photos on my phone and had to delete photos before I could save more. Similarly, libraries and archives alike only have so much space to work with, and at some point begin to wonder how much space they really have left.

When public libraries run out of space, they turn to their catalog for help. Older books, or books that have not been checked out in over a specific amount of time (it depends on the library, but is usually a year or longer), often find themselves in the dreaded discard pile. Jamaica Library in Queens, New York, is one of many libraries that had to discard hundreds of books in 2017 in order to make room on the shelves for newer selections, resulting in the following (heartbreaking) photo:

Over the past few weeks, Special Collections has been undergoing a project to clear up space in their ever-growing archive. Due to the nature of the materials held in Special Collections, we do not send items to the discard pile. Clearing up space means moving boxes from one area to another, consolidating space, and sometimes re-organizing entire collections. This involves a great deal of manual labor, which I have found both enjoyable (free workout!) and tedious (some of these boxes are heavy!). Yet even a shift does not “create” new space in the four corners of the defined library space.

Special Collections still has space within its walls, but I now have a new appreciation for just how much work goes into collection management. Acquiring, processing, and housing materials is just a piece of a much larger puzzle. You also have to make sure that there is a spot on the shelf for these items. It is a delicate shifting game, one that is extremely fun to participate in, but it is also eye-opening and leaves a bit of a worry in the back of my mind: what happens when all the space is gone?

Preserving CD-Rs, and Other Topics from 2004

Last week, a number of blogs broke the news that Hot Topic would be selling a Rugrats themed eye-shadow palette in the shape of a “VHS cassette.” In comments sections and on social media, however, many expressed horror – “That’s not a VHS cassette – it’s an audio cassette!”

Image via Hot Topic.

While this gaffe might startle those of us who remember the reigns of VHS and audio cassette, it’s an undeniable fact that media become obsolete – or at least less-favored – over time. The CD, successor to the audio cassette, is a great example.

CDs, compact discs, have been in use since 1982, with ‘writeable’ formats like the CD-R being on the market since 1990. More than an audio medium, CD-Rs were considered an excellent way to store and share computer files throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. Compared to size-limited floppy disks and not-so-portable hard drives, CD-Rs filled an important niche. So when I asked to see some Special Collections files from the early 2000s, it was no surprise to find said files stored on 700 megabyte CD-Rs. As I browsed the files (after taking ~30 seconds to remember how to open a CD drive), I wondered: How do CDs work? How stable are CD-Rs? How can we best preserve files like these?

Most mass-produced audio or software CDs are made of layers of polycarbonate with molded ‘pits’ and ‘lands’ – not entirely unlike a vinyl record. The polycarbonate is covered with aluminum or silver, then sealed with a clear lacquer on the top of the disc. CD drives read the disc by focusing a low-intensity laser on the disc and reading the textural pattern of the polycarbonate.

Image via Science ABC.

CD-Rs aren’t so different, except that instead of having the data molded into the polycarbonate, they contain a layer of heat-sensitive pigments. A CD-R drive uses a high-intensity laser to alter the molecular structure of the layer and destroy the transparency in certain areas of the layer – thus mimicking the pits and lands. When the low-intensity laser is used to read the disc, the pigmented sections provide the illusion of texture. CD-RWs (the kind you can write and erase over and over) work much the same, but the pigments are replaced with a metal alloy and the pigmentation be undone and re-done.

Image via

So, how stable is this medium for storage? On one hand, CD-Rs are not quite as susceptible to water damage as a hard drive, and they can handle magnetism and x-rays much better than hard drives or camera film. On the other hand, the chemical dyes within CD-Rs are subject to degradation which can be sped-up by environmental factors. CDs of all kinds owe their lightweight portability to their polycarbonate ‘skeleton’ which is both flexible and heat-sensitive. Given these factors, how can you best preserve digital files stored on CDs? Here are some tips:

  1. Prioritize CD-Rs and CD-RWs. Mass-produced CDs (think Encarta Encyclopedia) have their data physically molded into the structure, so there’s no risk of dyes failing you. However, they are prone to warping and scratching.
  2. Speaking of warping and scratching, always store CDs ‘book style’ – with the spine vertical. Vertical storage helps stave-off warping if the CD is exposed to high heat. Whenever possible, store CDs in plastic jewel cases. These prevent scratching as well as moisture damage.
  3. Since the exterior of CDs is plastic, many people assume that moisture isn’t a concern. However, if the lacquer of a CD is sufficiently scratched, moisture can reach the reflective aluminum or silver layer and cause damage, eventually rendering the CD unreadable.
  4. Avoid solvent cleaners like acetone and solvent-based permanent markers. Solvents can disrupt the lacquer, again raising the risk of moisture damage, or even damage the polycarbonate itself, making the CD unreadable.
  5. Don’t use adhesive labels. These labels can attract and trap moisture against the CDs surface. If they begin to detach, they can also disrupt playback in a CD drive.
  6. Keep CDs away from direct sunlight and heat. Remember that data is encoded on a CD-R using the heat energy of a laser to modify a layer of dye. Over time, sunlight and heat can impact the dye in much the same way. One study by Slattery et al. suggested that just a few weeks of direct sun exposure could damage some CD-Rs considerably. Even mass-produced CDs should be kept away from heat to prevent warping.
  7. Clean moisture off a CD with a soft, dry cloth. Wipe from the center of  the CD toward the edge – never in a circle. Scratches which are concentric to the CD’s edge can result in large patches of unreadable data.
  8. Finally – make a backup copy of the CD! Slattery et al. suggest that CD-Rs with a phthalocyanine dye and a silver and gold alloy reflective layer may offer the best long-term storage. Store the backups as described above.

Even after you’ve backed up your CDs, keep in mind that data and software also become obsolete. For instance, one CD I recently used contained files in a now-obsolete format from an antiquated version of a proprietary computer program. Thankfully, the program was created by a large company which is still in operation, and which provides information on ‘upgrading’ the files – but this isn’t always the case. Some filetypes may only be accessible via a specific program, and that program might require obsolete hardware or software. For very important files, consider making copies in a format indicated for long-term storage. The Digital Preservation Coalition’s handbook is a good place to start.

New options for data storage are routinely marketed to consumers and professionals alike, but enduring forms like the book are a rarity. Projects like The Museum of Obsolete Media demonstrate how quickly the devices which store our memories and artifacts become lost to time. Obsolescence always brings us back to an interlocking set of questions that trail collectors of all kinds: What should I keep? Why? How? Answers to these questions remain contentious even among archivists, but in the rush to preserve or the calm of letting something slip away I think we learn something interesting about ourselves and the historical moments we live in.


Byers, Fred R. Care and Handling of CDs and DVDs – A Guide for Librarians and Archivists (National Institute of Standards and Technology and Council on Library and Information Resources, 2003).

Harvey, Ross, Martha R. Mahard, Preservation Management Handbook (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2014), <> ( 31 January 2018)

Slattery, O., Lu, R., Zheng, J., Byers, F., & Tang, X. (2004). Stability comparison of recordable optical discs-A study of error rates in harsh conditions. Journal of Research of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, 109(5), 517-524. Retrieved from

Chafee Exhibit Opens

Last week, on Monday, we finally opened the Judith Chafee exhibit. The next evening, we held an event to commemorate the opening titled Judith Chafee – Geographical Powers where one of Chafee’s ex-students, collaborators, and current UA Architecture Professor Christopher Domin contextualized the exhibit with a lecture about her work and life. I was so excited to learn about Chafee from an outside perspective, as I feel that I developed my own (possibly warped) perspective about her from her archives. The event was a major success, and over 200 people attended!

The exhibit itself will be displayed in the Special Collections gallery until July, and features a variety of materials from the archival collection. Curator Bob Diaz organized the materials around different parts of her life and featured some of the main houses that Chafee designed.I didn’t know until the very last day, but an anonymous donor also let us borrow the original model of the Ramada House, which is exciting to see, after only seeing pictures of it.



Model of the Ramada House.

After the lecture by Professor Domin, the attendees were able to walk through the exhibit and look at the various items from the collection. Multiple people asked if the collection was available to the public, and I was so glad to be able to see first-hand the interest that people had in Chafee’s collection. Processing this collection has been a real treat, as someone who is interested in space and design, and I’m happy that it’s now open for people to admire and peruse on their own.

In case you missed the lecture, there will be another one about Judith Chafee and her career on March 13, 2018. More information can be found here.



My name is Kristen Cook and I am in my fourth and final semester in the Master of Library and Information Science program at the University of Arizona.

Originally from Redondo Beach, California, I attended the University of Colorado at Boulder where I received my degree in English Literature and a minor in History. It was only recently I discovered my passion for old books and archival material, which has thus lead me to Tucson and pursue my master’s degree!

I have been working at the Special Collections Library on campus since the beginning of 2017, as a student page. More recently, I received a “Senior Support Staff” position, which has allowed me to work more hands on with the materials and assist the archivists and librarians in various tasks. I absolutely love my job here at Special Collections. Every day, I learn something new or find an item that fascinates and captures my attention.

One of the requirements of the Master’s program at Arizona, is a capstone internship. I could not think of a better place to serve my internship than at the Special Collections Library, my home away from home. During this internship I will be processing smaller collections, arranging and organizing items into a collection format. I am very excited to begin my internship and acquire more knowledge and experience with arranging and describing archival materials!

Sticky-shed syndrome in Audiotapes

In a recent post, I discussed audio cassette tapes and their recent re-appearance on the market with popular movie franchises like Guardians of the Galaxy. I’m certain that plenty of people will be receiving a copy of this cassette tape during the holiday season. Many will likely begin digging through old boxes in the garage to find more tapes to play, suddenly nostalgic for their golden years. But before you begin sticking old tapes that have been in storage into your boom-box, let’s talk about the elephant in the room: sticky-shed syndrome. 

This condition is one most archivists run across while processing old audio/visual materials, but is very much a threat for anyone that is holding onto audiotape. So what is sticky-shed syndrome? In short, it is a condition created by the deterioration of the binders in a magnetic tape, which hold the iron oxide magnetizable coating to its plastic carrier, or which hold the thinner back-coating on the outside of tape If this sounds confusing, don’t worry. I’ve borrowed an image from Imperial College to help show you what we’re talking about…

Sticky-Shed Syndrome

A closer look at sticky-shed syndrome from Imperial College, UK.

As you can see in the close-up above, the coating of a/v audio often begins to deteriorate over time. The binder (or ‘glue’) that holds the oxide (dark coloration on the tape) on the tape can become damage over time. Soaking up water, including humidity from inside of a garage in the Arizona heat, is one explanation for why this occurs.

If you have any audiotape, it could be at risk. The best thing to do before attempting to play old cassettes or other audio media you’ve been storing is to give the tape a quick inspection. If you see “dust” in a case, it is likely oxide particles that have fallen off, and you likely have a tape with some serious issues. If you don’t see any immediate damage, you can always insert the tape into a player. But, if you hear loud screeching sounds on the tape as you attempt to play or rewind/fast-forward, STOP. This is another sign that there are problems with the tape.


Sticky-shed from attempting to play older tapes.

What are your options if you have a tape that you suspect has sticky-shed syndrome? There is one easy at-home remedy that you can always try: Move the tape to a dryer, lower-humidity climate. Sometimes the tapes can “dry” by themselves, the extra moisture will be gone, and the tape can then be salvaged. If this does work, you should definitely consider migrating the tape to a newer form of technology.

Baking is another semi-risky procedure where you literally bake the tape at low temperatures. There’s not a set procedure for doing this, and different labs/technicians/hobbyists have different methods. At times this will dry the tape out enough so that it can quickly be recorded onto a newer media format. Other times, the tapes have been known to catch fire, so there definitely is a risk involved. Even the best technicians admit that sometimes baking does not help a tape. If most of the oxide coating is gone, no amount of baking will be able to perfect the tape.

Keeping audiotape away from humid temperatures is highly recommended. Whenever possible, store them in air-tight containers. Whenever possible, do convert any tape you have to another form of media to further preserve it. While sticky-shed syndrome is more common in certain stock brands (Ampex/Scotch-3M, etc.) it can occur in any brand. One of the best methods for preservation is migration to a new format.


A critical look at maps

I love maps. In my undergraduate years here at the University of Arizona, I was a geography major, and even though I am in graduate school for library science, my interest for the relationship between people and their environment hasn’t waned. In fact, one of the really cool things about the archives is that you can continue learning about the things you love—but with primary sources. 

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Map of El Presidio by Judith Chafee. What factors could have influenced the designation of El Presidio as historic district? Why are the limits of the district where they are?

As I keep working through the Chafee collection, I have begun to understand that architects are also very interested in the relationship between people and their environments—just in a different way that geographers are. However, in order to plan sites and figure out where to put buildings, a lot of geographic methods are required. Last week, I started processing Chafee’s research files, which are materials she collected when doing research for her architectural projects. Two of the biggest subcategories have turned out to be “Tucson Historic Districts” and “Planning and Zoning.” Inside these folders are a plethora of maps, reports, and analyses detailing the geography of Tucson’s Historic Districts and Barrios. Many of these materials were produced in preparation for the urban renewal projects implemented in Tucson’s downtown area that razed many of Tucson’s oldest Mexican neighborhoods in order to build the Tucson Convention Center and the La Placita complex. 

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This map was produced by the Tucson City Planning and Human and Community Development Departments . What might “perceived neighborhoods” mean? How do these clean shapes represent the space?

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Another map from the same report as above, here you can see the older neighborhoods underneath the community and civic center.

In my opinion, it is extremely important to remain critical and ask questions about what the map is attempting to represent, especially when looking at historical maps. Different layers, boundaries, and zones on a map try to represent real spaces, but the relationship between the map and the real place, and the people who live there can be complicated. Some questions to think of might be, what was going on in this place at this time? what does it mean to draw boundaries on land? what do boundaries on the map mean? do the boundaries mean something to the people that live there? would someone who lives there use the same boundary lines? Can lines be fuzzy? Throwing history in the mix makes things even more complicated because we can ask these questions across time, as well, and in an archive, we know that different places have different value to different people.