Metadata Mamacita

Groupies of this blog might remember that last year in March, Special Collections held a public event called Community Digitization Day where members of the community brought in their treasured archival materials such as photographs and printed documents to be digitized. Attendees were able to take home high-quality scans of their images home on flash drives, which we provided for the event.  We also gave attendees the option of donating the digitized images to Special Collections, so we now have a small collection of over one hundred images from the community showing real life in Tucson and other areas from which community members originate.

Since the event, which I had such a delightful time being a part of, I have been working on organizing the digital collection and preparing it for a digital exhibit. To start with, I did a metadata benchmark, where I looked at how similar digital collections at other institutions were described and organized using Dublin Core. I was then able to come up with the most appropriate DC elements to describe our collection (title, creator, date, etc.), and made a spreadsheet to harvest that metadata from the items themselves.


Metadata for the Community Digitization Day Digital Collection

I hope to make it through all the steps of processing a digital collection. So far, I have been able to cement my understanding of metadata and become familiar with the various platforms for digital exhibits. I hope that the exhibit will be available for the public to see soon, even if I am not able to finish it before I have to leave Special Collections, because the collection is very rich and has opened my eyes to new parts of Tucson history and daily life.


93F on a Red-Letter Day

“30 June 1970 – Tues. Springfield & Washington. A sort of red-letter day, when I got a Distinguished Service Award from The Department of the Interior […]”

Gale Monson’s journal for May 1970 through April 1971.

Each collection I encounter, at Special Collections or in the archive elsewhere, has its own kind of pattern or signature – a certain set of organizational characteristics or tropes that bring the materials together. In the case of the Gale Monson papers, my current focus at Special Collections, it’s the calendar.

Beginning in the 1920s during his pre-teen years, prior to the invention of the category of ‘pre-teen’ in fact, Gale Monson began making daily observations about animals, plants, and environmental conditions. His journals continued into the early 2000s before his death in 2012. He logged monthly average temperatures, the birth dates of pets, the first saguaro bloom of the year, and bird sighting tallies by species and location. The pages of his journal are punctuated with full-color photographs, postage stamps, cut-out illustrations, and ephemera.



While I enjoy his notes on plants, I think Gale Monson’s papers also offer insight into the psychology of record keeping. With journals spanning almost 80 years, his entries include reflections on styles of journaling, what is most important to record, and ideas on how to maintain a daily journal in spite of severe disruptions – including college and World War II. He even outlines the reason he journals: to create a place where can confirm his memories, and to preserve his experiences for “posterity.” (Gale Monson’s journal for 1 May 1947 – 20 October 1947) For Monson, seeing a bird or a wildflower was a moment of truth, but it was also an ephemeral moment which could only be later confirmed if it had been written down, photographed, or mapped out.

Monson accumulated his proof in many forms: journals, photographs, slides, correspondence, newsletters, popular press clipping. Each form is organized by its connection to a date on the calendar. With or without meaning to, he assembled sets of objects which help us imagine his experiences in a multi-sensory way. On 30 June 1970, when Monson received a Distinguished Service Award from The Department of the Interior, we know from his monthly weather log that it was a ‘very hot’ day in the Washington, D.C. area – high of 93F and low of 63F. The wind was light and moved southward. Although the sky was mostly clear, with a few cumulus clouds, the overall atmosphere was hazy.

Being from the East Coast, it’s easy for me to imagine this kind of summer weather: stagnant and heavy. Hot in Washington, D.C. is a sticky hot, and your clothes adhere to your body in a way that never seems flattering or tolerable. On 1 July, Monson snapped a few photos of day lilies in his yard. With the weather in mind, the flowers suggest that those of us with allergies would have felt stuffy, maybe with a headache or itchy eyes.

The calendar is a way that we collectively experience time. Most of us would agree that today is March 19th and that the 19th is different from the 18th or 20th, even though we might stay up late and blend the work of the 19th into the 20th and so on. Although Monson’s journals attend mostly to non-human neighbors, it’s not difficult to imagine how other humans felt moving through the city on his “red-letter day” and I suspect many of them felt less exuberant and celebratory.

Monson’s prosaic retelling of the day’s events is often so detailed that I have trouble identifying with him as the ‘main character.’ We don’t have much in common, Gale and I. But his concurrent meteorological notes, maps of Montreal and Washington, D.C., his photographs allow me to imagine bodily experience of living in the same ‘where’ and ‘when’ as Monson – even if we were oblivious to one another, even if his materials could never serve as evidence for my existence.

Additions: when donors and collections keep giving and growing!

A great deal of my work at Special Collections has including processing collections from their infancy. The Jack Sheaffer Photographic Collection was a labor of love that took nearly five years to complete. I was then extremely excited to process the Sam Levitz Photographic Collection. One of my favorite parts of working with Levitz’s photographic material was telling Tucsonans, who know the family for their furniture, about Sam’s interest in photography. After all, it was Levitz who hired and trained Sheaffer, who later became one of the most prominent photographers for the Arizona Daily Star newspaper. I’ve also worked on many smaller collections.

Recently, I’ve been working with additionsI like to think of additions as joyful materials that come to Special Collections with a purpose–they already know which collection they want to be a part of, and they’re not taking ‘no’ for an answer. Additions come in many forms: paper-type documents, ephemera, audio-visual materials, CD/DVDs, etc. In some cases these additions are donated by new donors who, having found a certain collection at Special Collections, realize they have items that would fit perfectly within our existing collection. For example, the below record is a vital addition to the USS Arizona collection and represents music that would otherwise be missing from the discussion and representation of the USS Arizona’s full experience.



Additions can sometimes create unique challenges for an archivist. In many cases, additions can be easily placed within an existing collection. In example, a single black and white photograph will likely fit within an established folder within the collection. When processing a collection, an archivist will leave a little ‘wiggle room’ in each folder and box to (1) make sure the materials are not too cramped and (2) in anticipation of any later additions. My own addition work has included a lot of ‘easy’ additions where materials can be added to existing boxes.

But not all materials are easily added to the collection. I found this to be true when working with some recent Papers of Morris K. Udall additions. While many of these Udall additions were photographs, letters, and other documents that could be added to existing folder and boxes, there were a few unique items that needed a more personal touch. These items include oversized framed photographs that include pens used for legislation signings, a large wooden clock carved in the shape of Arizona, and statues gifted to Morris K. Udall from different individuals and groups.


A statue by Arturo Montoya. Presented to Morris K. Udall in appreciation from the Pascua Yaqui tribe. This is one of the unique additions to the collection. The statue is very fragile and required special housing to make sure it remains in good condition. (MS 325, Box 782)

Due to the nature of many of these items, I had to decide several things about each piece.

  1. How should this item be housed/stored?
  2. Does this item fit anywhere in the existing collection?
  3. If the item needs its own new box, and does not fit within the collection…where should we add it?

Of course, it takes a lot of time to gather similar materials and group them together to try to keep the flow of the collection intact. It then takes a lot of time to determine how to best house/store each item. For some larger framed items it was decided to move them to an oversized item area and leave them framed, outside of boxes, but give them unique identifiers. Items like statues were housed in boxes if they fit well within standard archival boxes, but there is one large saguaro rib statue that remains wrapper in bubble wrap and it is being stored in the oversized materials area. Because of the fragility of the piece, it made the most sense to leave the item securely wrapped.

Despite all of the work, additions are a labor of love. I am able to take items that have been saved, preserved, and donated to our collections and make


them available to the public. And sometimes, you may even get compliments and congratulations about your efforts. Yet my passion comes from finding these hidden treasures and reuniting them with the collections they were born to be added to. Every item is special and unique by itself, but now that I’ve seen the USS Arizona record I cannot imagine the collection without it. Now that the Morris K. Udall collection has statues, tokens of appreciation and gratitude from those he helped while in office, I hope that more objects of this nature come to fill the shelves. Even though I love every minute of processing a collection from beginning to end… there is something magical about making small additions.