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The Things We Do #2 – Interview with Consultant Kathryn Gronsbell

The second in our “The Things We Do” series highlighting our great team at AVPreserve. In this edition, an interview with taxonomy pro and New Jersey native, Kathryn Gronsbell.

Josh Ranger: So how long have you been at AVPreserve?

Kathryn Gronsbell: I’m coming up on my 1 year anniversary in September of when I started full time. I actually started part time the prior spring while I was still in MIAP, doing inventory work on the New York Public Library inventory with you Josh, if you remember.

JR: Yes, I remember. I remember you ditching me very quickly to support other projects. Why do you hate me?

KG: No, it was fun work, and a good transition out of school. I still remember finding that massive D1 videotape that was bigger than my head.

kgrons_D1
Photo courtesy of Shira Peltzman

JR: So for our readers, what is MIAP.

KG: Oh, yes, the Moving Image Archiving and Preservation program at NYU. You may have heard of it before. You may be familiar with it. I don’t know what to say about MIAP that hasn’t already been said I guess.

JR: Right, we can come back to that. So what exactly do you do at AVPreserve? What’s the general area or projects you work on?

KG: Mostly on the digital preservation side of things. I kind of landed working mostly with Kara and Seth on doing requirements gathering and technology selection. I’ve been doing a lot of digital assessment management configuration, testing, and implementation, which has been a lot of fun and really eye-opening. And I’ve also kind of sprouted into other areas including content modeling, and also recently exploring some metadata cleanup, which is a lot more interesting than it sounds. Just learning my way around that and exploring. And of course there’s taxonomy development and management, which is something I hadn’t been exposed to before I came here and was one of the early projects for me that I’m still working on. It’s been a great learning opportunity and I think it’s a really important part of our field that hasn’t been developed to its full capacity yet, especially in the cultural heritage sector.

JR: That’s a lot of different stuff in there, a lot of different areas. So what’s the DAM implementation exactly?

KG: I’m on two projects working on that. I started out with Facing History and Ourselves, which is a non-profit organization that provides resources for educators who teach atrocities, so teaching anywhere from school age children up through higher education on things like the Holocaust, genocide, bullying, and generally tough to teach topics. What they are doing is they have currently selected a digital asset management system internally for all of their regional offices across the nation, which has been going great and was one of my first projects, too. We’ve been doing a lot of configuration, working with the DAMS vendor, and really just creating the best possible version of what they have. So what works best for their staff, what works best for their content. We’ve been doing a lot of testing, doing a lot of configuration and reconfiguration. It’s been a really great opportunity to kind of see how getting these types of systems in place and useable is often far from what you expect it to be.

JR: You don’t just buy it and install it and go.

KG: No. It’s the opposite of out-of-the-box. You make the box, you rearrange the box, you cut it open and put it back together. Which is great, because it really means you’re making something that is ideal for the situation that you’re in. And that’s also been the case where we’ve been working on configuration of a similar system at Carnegie Hall. We’re going through the initial parts of that now and trying to get our bearings. Very exciting times.

JR: So that involves a lot of working with the client, then, working with the archivists and others.

KG: Yes. I would say I probably talk to people at Facing History more than I talk to my family at this point. Which is great because our contacts are wonderful, and it’s something that surprised me, pleasantly surprised me about the work here, is really the kind of relationships and connections you build with people just because you’re working on their side, and luckily our vendor has been really great, too. They are extremely responsive and helpful. We end up working along side and on behalf of our clients like Facing History or Carnegie Hall. We have to come up with a lot of the answers and a lot of the communication and translation of these higher level concepts into practical configurations and choices about screens and processes, policies, and workflow development. It’s really good for us, too, because we get to learn with every organization we go into. It’s just another opportunity for use to gather more information about how to do this better and see what works for different places and different content.

JR: You also mentioned taxonomy, which may or may not be a newish area for people reading this. What does taxonomy work entail? What exactly is taxonomy?

KG: That is something I had to find out very quickly when I started here. I had heard the word but didn’t have a clear concept of what it was. It’s essentially just an agreed upon structure of terms and term usage. So it’s sets of controlled vocabularies, sometimes arranged in hierarchies depending on the level of complexity, and is really most effective when a lot of people contribute to selecting the terms. A really easy way to describe it is the soda versus pop versus Coke® kind of thing where depending where you are in the country people use different words but they all mean the same thing. It’s just coming to an agreed upon term to represent a concept, and then appropriately using that term in place of other terms so that things can be described and organized in a way that many people can understand them and discover them. So it’s really one of the best mechanisms for having effective and efficient discovery and description in an organization. Of course it goes into the weeds on some stuff, too. You can get super complex and have preferred term and non-preferred term relationships, and go into the ontologies or thesauri. But even the most simple taxonomy is lightyears ahead of where a lot of organizations are now, so anyone interested in that should pursue it, because it makes a much stronger collection management and digital preservation environment. Stronger than you can get with any kind of messy legacy data or just inconsistent terms.

JR: So do you have to start from scratch every time when you’re making these taxonomies?

KG: Hopefully not! That’s not really the ideal. Unfortunately sometimes that’s the case, but starting from scratch is not really starting from scratch when you’re talking about taxonomies. So for example with Carnegie Hall – we talked about this when we presented at the SIBMAS/TLA conference this year – but essentially the largest part of the development process was not generating the list of terms but doing the research and aggregation of existing vocabularies, and talking with staff all over Carnegie Hall – all different kinds of departments with all different kinds of needs about what terms and what concepts they needed in their daily work. It was a lot of looking back at all of the systems and different environments and endless spreadsheets people had full of terms that really didn’t suit their needs anymore. Terms they were using because they were stuck in systems or they had been developed 10 years ago and hadn’t been updated. So starting from scratch really means starting from looking at your own stuff, going back, aggregating information and going through it with fresh eyes so you can say, “Okay, out of these 10,000 terms we actually only use five,” and then selecting those five terms, agreeing on them, and then putting them into a structure that is more useful.

JR: So when do you consider a taxonomy completed? When is it done?

KG: It’s never done! It’s kind of like preservation – it never starts and it never ends. Because, again, you’re never really starting from scratch. Taxonomies kind of bloom out of existing places and, really, an organization’s responsibility is not burning everything to the ground and creating this magical monolithic thing. Taxonomies, like other types of preservation efforts, are really collaborative and as comprehensive as possible, yet flexible. The whole point of a taxonomy is to document agreed upon terms. When things change in the organization – whether the scope of the content, the scope of the mission, or just representative terms for concepts – all of that has to be able to change in the taxonomy. Because of this you have policies that you write when you’re developing the taxonomy about what words and terms and structures can be added, how things get added, how they get removed… So, things like applicability are really important, and also timeliness of things. There are lots of phrases and terms that were widespread many years ago that are completely inappropriate on not applicable right now, and you want it to be flexible enough and adaptable enough to move with the organization, and be inherited into whatever systems the organizations get. And as those systems change over time, the taxonomy should be a more fluid, high-level mechanism for bringing things together and allowing people to communicate across departmental borders or uses.

JR: Do you have some good examples of inappropriate terms?

KG: I do, but I’m not actually allowed to say them.

JR: Ah, we all have those secrets here. Part of the responsibility and the ethics of things. So anyway, that’s a lot of collaboration again, and sounds like a lot of what you do is working with groups of people to work towards a consensus. How do you like that? Do you enjoy that?

KG: Yes, it’s been great. It’s been, again, a lot of pleasant surprises over the past year. Really, I’ve been very lucky in that all of the people and organizations I’ve come in contact with in my inaugural year have been extremely enthusiastic, informed, and really excited to get to work on the projects that we’re working on. So for me the strange part of what I do is that it’s a lot of people management, and it’s not exactly what I thought it would be. I thought it would be the quintessential, you’re stuck in a windowless office typing by yourself, relatively comparable to the whole “archivist in the dusty basement” cliché where you’re really isolated, but it’s the exact opposite of that. You have to know not only how to be a group player, but how to contribute to a group and how to move things forward. Luckily the people that I’m surrounded by and the people that we’re working with are also team players, and definitely move things forward in the group and understand the value of having the diverse viewpoints and opinions. And having multiple eyes on very granular things is always better. It’s been great. And Google Docs is kind of the savior to everything. That’s the crux of all that we do. But, collaboration is really key in all of the projects. There hasn’t been a project I’ve been involved on that would have benefited from having less people, I think. For my projects there are generally one or two key point people, and then they’re representing anywhere from 10 to 100s of staff members. That has worked really well. It’s great to have that level of communication and openness, and willingness to contribute.

JR: So it hasn’t been what you expected. What were you expecting when you were finishing up school? Did you have any idea what type of jobs you would be looking for or what you might be doing?

KG: Well I didn’t think I was a consultant, that much is true. But the diversity of what I get to do, what I get to learn, and how I get to learn it is unmatched. And that was something that was very important to me. As I went through the MIAP program I got exposed to so many different types of people and networks and projects, and it’s something I wanted to continue doing. I’m not exactly the most academic person, but I like being involved in extremely practical and pragmatic things, so to me it was really appealing to have the opportunity to go and meet different organizations and understand where they were coming from, where they were going, and to help them get there. That was one of the most appealing things about the MIAP program, even before I started – just the diversity of what you got to see, and I think that’s unmatched, based on my conversations with people in related programs, but also in library schools and various other disciplines. The crazy amount of work we did with other people was wonderful, and really set the stage for the duration.

JR: So pre-MIAP, where do you come from? What’s your story?

KG: The dark days! No, I hail from a magical land called New Jersey, which a lot of people think it’s important that I mention that. But, yes, out of New Jersey I went to Temple University in Philadelphia and did what all aspiring 18-year olds do, go into their Film & Media Arts program. I had initially entered on the Cinema Studies track, but then got enchanted by experimental video. After doing that for a while I realized that production was not for me. It was something that I loved to do, and I was involved in lots of student projects and independent projects around Philadelphia, but in terms of what I wanted to do every day, that was not it. By happenstance I was looking for a part-time job on Temple’s campus, and the Urban Archives had an opening. So I started and I was a newspaper filer for about 5 hours, and then the Assistant Archivist was looking for someone to help him with a bunch of un-inventoried newsreel and newsfilms that they had in their warehouse. So because I was in the Film & Media Arts program I was carefully selected to help along with that, and thus began the very rapid descent into the world of AMIA and preservation, and specifically audiovisual preservation. So while my first time ever touching a piece of film was in an archive, I had been calling myself a Film & Media Arts student for three years at that point. It was a real eye-opening experience. I worked with a lot of 16mm, as one does in regional archives. It was wonderful and I got my hands dirty a lot. They were in the early stages of building out their AV preservation practices and policies, so we got to a lot of really interesting work. Of course it being a regional and Philadelphia based archive and school, it was really great to get to dive into the history there, and to get to know the staff. That was also the year that AMIA was in Philadelphia and I got to go for the first time. I remember walking in and I was just like, these are the weirdest, coolest people I have ever seen, and I want to hang out with them every day. So I quickly applied to schools, got in, and chose NYU. Like many people I started out loving 16mm, came into MIAP thinking I would do 16mm re-housing for the rest of my life, but thankfully I was exposed to many different things, and here I am today.

JR: Do you miss getting your hands dirty?

KG: I have wound so many small gauge reels that I think I’m good. I could go back in maybe 10 years and wind some more, but the amount I wound – my one arm is still stronger than the other and I haven’t wound anything in about a year. I’m good for now, but it’s definitely something – it has a sense of nostalgia around it, and I was really lucky. Basically all of my internships had the opportunity to work with film on some level, and while I was in MIAP I was working in the Barbara Goldsmith Preservation Lab at the NYU Library, which in addition to video and audio there was also a decent amount of film to work through there as well.

JR: So if you hadn’t have fallen into that rabbit hole, do you have any idea of what you might be doing instead?

KG: You know, I’m not sure. I can’t really think of anything else.

JR: Born into archives?

KG: Yes, born into archives. I’ve always been painfully organized and enthusiastic, and I think that really lends itself to going into this field.

JR: I’m kind of the exact opposite.

KG: It’s a very strange combination of people who end up here. I often wonder about that, especially with AMIA, it’s such and interesting mix of personalities and quirks. We’re an interesting group, that’s for sure.

JR: Okay, so as a former Cinema Studies student I’ll give you the final question. As you know the BFI does their Top 50 Films list every ten years, which this last time around had some shake ups near the top. So if you look at the top ten — Vertigo, Citizen Kane, Tokyo Story, The Rules of the Game, Sunrise, 2001, The Searchers, Man with a Movie Camera, Passion of Joan of Arc, 8 1/2 – what would you purge from this list and what would you add?

KG: In the spirit of compromise, I will answer your question, but I will change the scope a little bit. I propose that nothing gets purged, but I would extend the list to 11 because 11 is a better number than 10, and I would add La Jetée by Chris Marker. I would bump it up from wherever it sits unfairly on their list [It’s #50 – ed.] into the top 11.

JR: Okay. But just so you know, that’s the wrong answer. 2001 should be purged because it doesn’t belong on the list at all.

KG: Okay, I’ll defer to you on that.

JR: It’s okay, it’s just Kubrick was a hack, so…

KG: Those are fightin’ words. Not for me.

JR: Ah, you’re being too politick, which I guess is one reason you’ve been successful in your work here at AVPreserve.

KG: Oh yes, definitely. Well trained.

JR: So did you have any last parting words to add?

KG: Yes. I wanted to express enthusiasm and interest in all of the great projects and initiatives that are coming out. I know that these have been recognized and honored elsewhere, but I just wanted to give a shout out to XFR Collective, which is a really great initiative led by Andrea Callard, Kristin MacDonough, Rebecca Fraimow, and Julia Kim, some New York-based, very powerful women who are helping to lead the communal spirit of preservation. I’m really excited about the work they are doing. As someone who did her thesis and created an entire ridiculous acronym (O CAAPTAIN) around community advocacy and education for audiovisual preservation, this is something that’s very near and dear to my heart, and I’m very excited that this is happening and moving forward. You can find some more information about them at http://xfrcollective.wordpress.com/, or see a recent interview with the Library of Congress http://blogs.loc.gov/digitalpreservation/2014/07/art-is-long-life-is-short-the-xfr-collective-helps-artists-preserve-magnetic-and-digital-works/