There were times where I wondered if I was completely sane in driving cross-country to attend the RBMS meeting in Iowa City, but I am ever so glad I did. The theme was “The Stories We Tell” as both practice and metaphor in special collections work.

RBMS began with a plenary from Micaela Blei, the Director of Education for The Moth: True Stories Told Live for NPR. After telling the perfect story (laughter, astonishment, sadness), she connected storytelling to the work of special collections & archives. Much of the cultural work archivists and special collections professionals do enables others to tell their own stories, especially in regards to culture and identity.

After being caught in an unexpected rainstorm, I attended the Future of Bibliographic Data, which examined the use of data in the study of incunabula. The British Library shared about their Incunabula Short Title Catalog (ISTC) which will be merging with the 15th Century Booktrade database and also maintains links to other European catalogs. The State Library of Berlin’s Union Catalogue of Incunabula, or Gesamtkatalog was first published in 1925. It is now available online and includes search categories by printer and geographical places of printing. The Consortium of European Research Libraries (CERL) Material Evidence in Incunabula (MEI) project is a “database specifically designed to record and search the material evidence (or copy specific, post-production evidence and provenance information) of 15th-century printed books: ownership, decoration, binding, manuscript annotations, stamps, prices, etc.” The speaker also demonstrated the open-source VGG Image Annotator using the MEI database content, which then allows users to search for like images (such as horses or cats, for example) throughout the wood block illustrations in incunabula. The audience squealed at this demonstration, as did yours truly.

The evening plenary hosted a colleague of mine from the Iowa Women’s Archives, Janet Weaver, and Illinois filmmaker Angela J. Aguayo. Both shared their experiences working with under-documented groups in the Midwest. Janet recently created an award-winning web site Migration is Beautiful,  an accompaniment to IWA’s years-long project, Mujeres Latinas Project which has collected oral histories from throughout Iowa. Auguayo spoke about her documentary 778 Bullets, which focused on a long-forgotten history (and shooting, hence the title) related to the Carbondale (IL) Black Panther Party.

The final plenary hosted two speakers, and both presentations were excellent—stand-alone, and in conjunction with each other. Professor Frank Salomon, an ethnographer specializing in Andean society and culture (Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia) and writing systems, spoke about khipus. Khipus are knotted-cord records which document generations of families and land ownership. He described the very intimate and tactile experience of sharing and handing them down through generations of families, as opposed to traditional state-created records. In comparison, Professor Safiya Umoja Noble spoke about data and how the algorithms that Google and other companies use impact online searches, perpetuating racism and sexism. All this data exists, about us and others, and yet we have no control over how it is presented or viewed. Her book, Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism (forthcoming, NYU Press), will be published in the near future. Having these two presenters together made for a fascinating and thought-provoking session.

I also attended sessions on pop-up exhibits, internal advocacy, and data-driven assessment practices. Although a member of RBMS for 20 years, I have never before attended, but it was well worthwhile and gave me much food for thought.