Archivy etc.

opinions, occasional rants, and sometimes things that have nothing to do with archives at all. Nothing here should be assumed to be reflective of my employer's opinion(s) nor should it be assumed that at anytime afterward, this is what I still think.

Friday, November 21, 2014

A flock of memories

A few years ago, I started noticing that my memory, a source of pride for me, had some weird gaps in it. Some old, some new, some more than happy to lose. But also really scary--the fright of Alzheimer's always looms large these days, doesn't it?

It's tough to know what to do about that kind of thing, but I figured exercising the memory couldn't hurt. And one of the things I'd been doing on a rather casual basis was birding, so I decided maybe I should work a little harder at it. Try and get better at identifications. See what I could see. Learn what I could learn, about behavior, habitat, calls, and identifying plumage. Plus, getting out into nature, especially when you live in a place like Alaska, isn't such a bad thing either.

I'm really very lucky to have several friends and colleagues who are excellent birders who teach me, drag me to events where I can learn more, who will laugh with me when I do a happy dance at seeing a common eider for the first time, and who will tell me that yes, that yellowlegs that called from the top of a tree above my head for about 45 minutes in late summer in Cordova until I was ready to start screaming "shut up, shut up, shut up" was indeed probably doing so to gather around him or her a group of shorebirds with whom to migrate south after the breeding season was over. And I'm even luckier that I have a job that I love, with decent leave time, that pays me well enough that just occasionally I can run away somewhere interesting for a few days to see what I can see. (And by interesting, I mean like Nome or Monterey. Not Peru or the Lake District. I don't get paid that well.) By the way, go to Monterey. Even in November. Even if you're not into birds, the scenery is spectacular if you like the rugged coastal thing and there's always the whales and otters.
There's always otters!
Despite the best efforts of my friends and colleagues, and despite some dedicated birdwatching trips this year, I'm still a pretty bad birder. It's hard to feel like I'm any good when I have to pull out the guide every time I see a loon. Or a warbler. (I think I might have finally got to the point where I can ID a song sparrow on sight.) I don't mind that, really. Tonight I finished reading Kingbird Highway by Kenn Kaufmann, which among other things, was a bit of a cautionary tale about getting too focused on numbers instead of enjoying the learning process. I don't find it hard not to get lost in the numbers, I seem to be missing whatever the genetic component for competition might be, but I do like to keep track of what and where I've seen birds for the first time.
I may not be competitive about bird counts, but I appear to have developed some compulsions regarding the acquisition of bird guides.
That's where it gets kind of surreal, actually. See, I didn't start tracking the birds I was seeing until I was in my late 30s, early 40s. I was living in Alaska by then and at least once a year taking a wildlife viewing trip out of Seward. So some of my earliest life-list birds are ones that other birders do once-in-a-lifetime trips to see. Parakeet auklets. Thick-billed murres. Kittlitz's murrelets. Seriously. I can't tell you how many crows I'd seen--and ignored because hey, it's just a crow--in Seward before I ran into somebody who was nearly frothing at the mouth at seeing and hearing one because we have Northwestern crows, not American crows like most of the lower 48. (I still couldn't swear to the difference.)

So my life list is somewhat unique. I didn't add in an American crow until 2011. My record of the Northwestern crow pre-dates that by seven years, the very first year I started writing down when and where I was seeing them. A friend from the intermountain west took me birding at the Bear River Refuge in Utah in spring 2012 and kindly concealed her utter shock at my not knowing what a western meadowlark looked like.
This is what a western meadowlark looks like. And that's a redwinged blackbird partially hidden behind the no parking sign.
Anyway, that was all a very long intro to my list of this year's birds. Again, I'm not so much with the concept of a Big Year--I'm just not that competitive, but I thought it would be an interesting look at what I'd seen in one year which, with a few exceptions, I hadn't made major efforts to go birding. I had a few trips where I didn't do any birding at all. I also didn't take my annual boat tour out of Seward this year, so some typical-for-me Alaskan birds aren't represented. But not all my lifelist additions represented here are boring-for-you birds. A short weekend trip to Kodiak this spring to celebrate a friend and colleague's achievement resulted in the addition of the Emperor goose. Take a few seconds to go check out that range map. There's a flock of them that winter every year just south of the Coast Guard base about 15 minutes by road south of Kodiak. By the hundreds. Crazy, right? And I've seen them. Gorgeous birds.

So here's this year's list. I'm putting it up in mid-November because I don't have any other out-of-state travel planned and there's nothing missing here typical to Anchorage winters, short of a Bohemian waxwing or 50. (I probably saw some in February and just forgot to write them down. That's the more innocuous non-worrying part of my memory loss. When something is so common that you know you've probably seen it a bunch of times and just didn't make a point of remembering it.) In the meantime, I've learned a few things. With the help of some amazing people along the way. Having problems recognizing surfbirds from amongst the huge numbers of similar looking shorebirds out there? They tend to prefer rocky shores to sandy/silty/muddy ones, the black markings on their tails are pretty unique, and after the one guy in Homer said "they look like the hockey players of the shorebirds" I think I may just have them figured out. Maybe. We'll see, come next spring and the shorebird migration north. 172 birds total for 2014, 49 additions to the life list--those are in italics.

Not a bad year. And you know what? I still remember where I saw most of them. That's not bad at all.
  1. Avocet, American
  2. Albatross, Black-footed
  3. Auklet, Cassin's
  4. Auklet, Rhinocerous
  5. Blackbird, Brewer's
  6. Blackbird, Redwinged (also bicolored variant)
  7. Bluebird, Western
  8. Brant
  9. Buffleheads
  10. Bushtit
  11. Canvasback
  12. Cardinal, Northern
  13. Chickadee, Blackcapped
  14. Chickadee, Boreal
  15. Chickadee, Chestnut-Backed
  16. Chickadee, Mountain
  17. Coot, American
  18. Cormorant, Brandt's
  19. Cormorant, Doublecrested
  20. Cormorant, Pelagic
  21. Cranes, Sandhill
  22. Creeper, Brown
  23. Crow, American
  24. Crow, Northwestern
  25. Curlew, Long-Billed
  26. Doves, Rock
  27. Dowitcher, Longbilled
  28. Dowitcher, Shortbilled
  29. Duck, Harlequin
  30. Duck, Longtailed
  31. Duck, Ringnecked
  32. Duck, Ruddy
  33. Duck, Wood
  34. Dunlin
  35. Eagle, Bald
  36. Eagle, Golden
  37. Egret, Great
  38. Egret, Snowy
  39. Falcon, Peregrine
  40. Finch, House
  41. Flicker, Northern (yellow and red-shafted)
  42. Flycatcher, Alder (heard)
  43. Gadwall
  44. Geese, Emperor
  45. Geese, Greater white-fronted
  46. Geese, Dusky Canada
  47. Geese, Lesser Canada
  48. Godwit, Hudsonian
  49. Godwit, Marbled
  50. Goldeneye, Barrow's
  51. Goldeneye, Common
  52. Goldfinch, Lesser
  53. Grackle, Common
  54. Grackle, Great-tailed
  55. Grebe, Eared
  56. Grebe, Horned
  57. Grebe, Pied-billed
  58. Grebe, Rednecked
  59. Grosbeak, Pine
  60. Guillemots, Pigeon
  61. Gull, Glaucous-winged
  62. Gull, Heermann's
  63. Gull, Herring
  64. Gull, Mew
  65. Gull, Western
  66. Harrier, Northern
  67. Hawk, Harlan's/Redtailed
  68. Hawk, Rough-legged
  69. Heron, Great Blue
  70. Hummingbird, Anna's
  71. Hummingbird, Blackchinned
  72. Ibis, White-faced
  73. Jaeger, Parasitic
  74. Jaeger, Pomarine
  75. Jay, Steller's
  76. Junco, Darkeyed (OR subspecies, slaty)
  77. Jay, Steller's
  78. Jay, Western Scrub
  79. Kestrel, American
  80. Killdeer
  81. Kingfisher, Belted
  82. Kinglet, Goldencrowned (heard)
  83. Kinglet, Rubycrowned
  84. Kite, White-tailed
  85. Kittiwake, Blacklegged
  86. Loon, Arctic
  87. Loon, Common
  88. Loon, Pacific
  89. Magpie, Blackbilled
  90. Mallards
  91. Meadowlark, Western
  92. Merganser, Common
  93. Merlin
  94. Mockingbird, Northern
  95. Murre, Common
  96. Murrelets, Kittlitz's
  97. Night-heron, Black-crowned
  98. Nuthatch, Redbreasted
  99. Owl, Short eared
  100. Oystercatcher, Black
  101. Pelican, American White
  102. Pelican, Brown
  103. Petrels, Fork-tailed Storm
  104. Phalarope, Rednecked
  105. Phoebe, Black
  106. Phoebe, Says
  107. Pipit, American
  108. Pintails, Northern
  109. Plover, Black-bellied
  110. Plover, Semipalmated
  111. Puffins, Horned
  112. Raven, Common
  113. Redpoll. Common
  114. Robin, American
  115. Sanderling
  116. Sandpiper, Least
  117. Sandpiper, Pectoral
  118. Sandpiper, Spotted
  119. Sandpiper, Western
  120. Scaup, Greater
  121. Scaup, Lesser
  122. Scoter, Black
  123. Scoter, Surf
  124. Shearwater, Black-vented
  125. Shearwater, Pink-footed
  126. Shearwater, Sooty
  127. Shoveler, Northern
  128. Shrike, Northern
  129. Siskin, Pine
  130. Snipe, Wilson's
  131. Sparrow, Goldencrowned
  132. Sparrow, House
  133. Sparrow, Lincoln's
  134. Sparrow, Rufous-crowned
  135. Sparrow, Savannah
  136. Sparrow, Song
  137. Sparrow, White-crowned
  138. Starlings, European
  139. Stilt, Black-necked
  140. Surfbird
  141. Swallow, Tree
  142. Swan, Mute
  143. Swan, Trumpeter
  144. Teal, Greenwinged
  145. Tern, Aleutian
  146. Tern, Arctic
  147. Tern, Caspian
  148. Tern, Elegant
  149. Thrush, Hermit
  150. Thrush, Varied
  151. Titmouse, Oak
  152. Towhee, California
  153. Towhee, Spotted
  154. Turnstones, Black
  155. Vireo, Hutton's
  156. Vulture, Turkey
  157. Warbler, Orange-crowned
  158. Warbler, Townsend's
  159. Warbler, Wilson's
  160. Warbler, Yellow-rumped
  161. Whimbrel
  162. Wigeon, American
  163. Willet
  164. Woodpecker, Acorn
  165. Woodpecker, Downy
  166. Woodpecker, Hairy
  167. Woodpecker, Nuttall's
  168. Wren, Bewick's
  169. Wren, House
  170. Wren, Pacific (heard)
  171. Yellowlegs, Greater
  172. Yellowlegs, Lesser

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Long overdue bibliography

I'm nearly at two decades since I began some "serious" research into the way archives and archivists are portrayed in fiction. This research thus far has resulted in three relatively complete products: a masters thesis, an American Archivist article based on my masters thesis (though substantially cut), and a presentation at SAA-Austin.

And by relatively complete I don't mean they're the last word on the topic. At least once a year I'm approached by a grad student doing some variant on the subject and though I like to think I've had some really good ideas over the years, I know I haven't drained the well dry. Mostly I mean those are standalone products not subject to my going back and revising them. Am I likely to produce some thing new? I doubt it. My thinking has changed a lot over the years, matured I'd hope, but I don't have any current plans to go in and add something new to the discussion. At least not anything new that would require I concentrate on research and writing for more than oh, say, however long it takes me to read a novel.

That doesn't mean I've stopped reading, though. And it really doesn't mean I've stopped keeping track of what fiction I read that has archival content. What you may not know is that I have a list. Of books I've read with archival content and books I've been told have archival content. Currently the full list is comprised of 854 titles. 568 of which I've confirmed have archival content.

Scary thing? I'm well aware it's not comprehensive. For example, it contains only the first Ballantine/Morris Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences novel, and as near as I can tell, there's bunches more to go. And I haven't kept up with my James Axler reading in the past couple of years, though I have a lot of travel booked for this year and those are always great airplane reads, so maybe I will get that series caught up.

At any rate, last week yet another individual contacted me about this topic. Technically the request was for an e version of my thesis (which doesn't exist anymore) but it got me thinking about the various things I've created over the years on this topic. Especially my book list which I've pretty much been keeping confidential. And what I was or wasn't planning to do with it. And okay, the list isn't pretty, it's not comprehensive, it's not well-crafted, and I had a dozen other self-protective (ego-protective) reasons to just keep it mine.

But eventually common sense comes along and gives me a swift kick. Common sense that says: what are you saving this for? (Ans: nothing in particular.) Are you ever planning on doing another project? (Ans: yeah, but no, but yeah, but no, but yeah, but likelihood low). What's with the possessiveness? (Ans: But I spent a lot of time researching it! Me! My time! Why should I give it away? Plus it's been a private list since 2006! It's tradition now!) What happened to your alleged attitude about information accessibility? (Ans: Uh...)

And I realized I was channeling General Buck Turgidson a little too closely. "I mean, he'll see everything, he'll... he'll see the Big Board!" Yeah, I'm a little embarrassed to admit I've read some of this stuff. Then again, at least I can point to them and say "Research Project!" when somebody shakes their head over the fact that I've read Dan Brown not once, but twice. Or whatever other author, book, or series on there makes you raise an eyebrow. 

So what the heck. The product of way too many hours of work and somehow, yet, still not done and never will be, either. About an hour ago, I logged into my account on LibraryThing and hit the switch. The switch that's been set to private since I first set up my account on LibraryThing in 2006. My perpetually-in-progress archives in fiction bib is now public.

By the way, if you somehow missed it, that product I mentioned that I did for the Austin SAA? It's NSFW. No joke. And the bib contains records for the books that were the source of the content for the presentation. Plus some of the books in this list are awful. Badly written, boring, etc. Just, you know, be careful. Read at your own risk. As I suppose we always do, huh?

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Feedback loops

The first time I ever heard the term feedback, it referred to that teeth-aching, ear-shattering, hair-standing-on-end sound you get coming out of a speaker when the microphone moves into the wrong space.

Sometimes I think we forget that definition even when it's the most accurate of all of the possible definitions.

Periodically, I get asked for feedback on interviews by job candidates.

You can ask. Chances are almost no one will be able to give you that feedback. HR departments tend to be fairly rabid about this. And most of us regard the survival odds of crossing our HR reps as equivalent to our survival odds if we were facing down a few Kodiak bears while wearing a raw steak parka.

But here's why I won't tell you anyhow.

Nearly all of the time, there will be absolutely no way that feedback can help you.

How could it?

An interview, with me anyway, isn't an algebra test with a pre-determined right answer to each question. It's an opportunity for the interviewer(s) and interviewee to get to know each other. Learn something about what's most important to each, figure out if there's a good match there. And to give us a basis of comparison between candidates to find the best match at the time given the candidate pool available. If you'll forgive me the romance novel metaphor, it's not about Mr. (Ms.) Right, it's about Mr. Right Now At This Speed-Dating Event.

That goes both ways, by the way. You should be interviewing the people and the position at the same time they're interviewing you, to see if it's a good enough match for you, too. (Uh-oh. Maybe that speed-dating thing is a more accurate metaphor than I'd guessed.)

Our questions and our combination of questions and even the makeup of the committee are designed for our particular position, for our particular needs, at this particular time. Even if I ask the same question in two different recruitments, I may not be looking for the same answer. And sometimes it isn't even about the answer, it's about the candidate's approach to the question, what they think the question meant. And sometimes it's about the answer. And sometimes it's about the answer to question #3 combined with the answer to #5 and contrasted with the answer to #8 and all that put up against the answers to questions 2 and 4 as answered by candidate C.

Let me give you an example. A few years back, I included the question about "If you had one word to describe yourself, what would it be?" One candidate took over 5 minutes on the question, to finally settle on 3 words (one was "outgoing.") Normally that would fall under the category of "never do this." Here's why it wasn't a candidate-killer answer: in the context of this candidate and the job on offer and the existing interrelationships in the department, well, it still wasn't great but it wasn't bad. The other candidates hadn't been as good matches and this particular candidate was an excellent match in terms of skills and personality. Mostly the committee shrugged, laughed it off, and continued on with what was one of the longest phone interviews I've ever been a party to. The candidate was indeed a great addition to the department, worked out great, and even years after she'd moved on, those that were around during those days still miss having her here and still laugh over that interview.

In that case, the word(s) she chose were important. Individually, they were all "right" answers. The method of delivery left a lot to be desired, but it wasn't enough to close off her candidacy.

It's almost never about the answer to a single question. It may be many answers accrete up to a picture of a candidate that is different than what we're looking for. At this time. In this place. It may be on a side-by-side comparison, this candidate edged out the others. It may be that we messed up the job description and/or requirement statements and we ended up with a pool heavily weighted away from what we were actually seeking and the interview questions were allowing us to bridge that gap. (This possibility keeps me up at night, BTW.) Even if I were to tell you that, what will you be able to do with that information? The next job you apply for will have a very different pool, probably different requirements, most likely a different group of people seeking different traits and skills and prioritizing those traits and skills differently than we do. 

So that's why, HR aside, I won't give you feedback. In short, there's two main reasons. First, If I tell you not to say something because it's not what I wanted to hear, who is to say that will be appropriate for the next interview you have? And second, it's usually not even that simple. It's complex theory, not arithmetic. It's a symphony, not a violin solo or even a string quartet. It's impossible for me to tease out the many variables and would often require I tell you about what other candidates did as well, and remember what I said about HR and the raw steak parka? If I told you what another candidate did, I imagine the results might look something like this.

But since I know you're not going to let the above be the last word, yes, I have heard answers I would classify as "wrong answers." I usually never know what those are going to be until I hear them. I've heard answers so wrong that every committee member appears to have spontaneously forgotten how to breathe. I've seen those moments after we hung up the phone where there's dead silence and suddenly one committee member will blurt out "Did that actually just happen? Did s/he SAY those things?"

First, if you have any misgivings, chances are that wasn't you. Only a tiny percentage of interviews will go that stupendously wrong, where the interviewee introduced us to a whole world of "wow, it never occurred to us that somebody might think that way."

I hesitate to go here, because I'm worried that many of you will read this to mean that it really does come down to there being a wrong answer and a right answer and you just need to know what the right answer is.

Seriously? Okay, then here's why I'm not going to give you the right answer, in that mythical universe where there is any such thing.

Why won't I tell you?

Because maybe, just maybe, your answer to the question matters to me. Your honest answer. The answer you believe, the answer you think, the answer you have to offer. Why on earth would I want you to lie in response to an interview question? What good does that do me?

Really, if you hate working with the public, I need to know that. I don't want you to say "Oh, I love working in teams" if you'd rather stab your eyeballs out than to cooperate with a colleague. I need to know that you want to focus on 10% of the job description and will do almost anything possible to avoid doing the other 90%. Yes--I'm not going to hire you if you can't play well with others. Or if you are going to try and spend all of your time getting out of processing collections. You're absolutely right. But think for a moment: how does it benefit either you or me if you lie, I hire you, and then I find out six months later that somehow none of your ongoing collection description projects show any progress but the reading room chairs suddenly have coordinated slipcovers? What positive outcome can result from that scenario, workload-wise?

So be honest. Listen well to the questions, answer them to the best of your ability and recognize that sometimes, no matter how well or poorly you think you did at that interview, the results will not reflect that performance assessment.

It's not just about you. It's about you and us and everybody else we've talked to. And there's no way you can account for all those variables. The only way to guarantee a specific interview outcome is to not show up to it.

Will somebody please kill that mic?