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October 6, 2017

Espy Project Fall Update

It's well past time for an update on the Espy Project. We've done a lot over the past 6 months, working to make the stories of the over 15,000 people executed by the state accessible to the public. There is still plenty to do, but we're off to a great start. Here is what we've completed so far.

We've successfully digitized almost 33,000 sides of index cards and started on the over 115,000 pages of reference material. Working with an outside vendor, we shipped off 21 boxes of index cards and 46 record boxes out for scanning. All of the index cards have been completed and reviewed, as well as 3 of the 46 boxes of reference material. This gives us enough to start moving along, creating metadata, and making everything available to the public.

In the past, once we receive the digital images back from the vendor, we would list and link them in a finding aid, or upload everything into a digital asset management system. In this case, we think these records have the potential to be used in many different ways and we aim to make them available through a modern web application and also expose the raw data through an open API. Expediting this process required some rethinking of how we digitize special collections material.

Some of the index cards documented one individual on only one side, while others used the backside or even multiple cards to show all of the information Espy was able to find. Since digitization required someone to manually handle each card, it made the most sense to distinguish how many card-sides documented each person during the scanning process. Since the scanning was done by an outside vendor, we had to work with them to develop a system where this information could be documented in the filenames for the images. We developed an "a, b, c" numbering system that was simple enough for the vendor, but also sufficiently told us which image files described which people.

All of these records have connections to the Watt Espy papers finding aid, so we used the ArchivesSpace API to extract the unique IDs for the records' parents so we can maintain these links. We wrote preprocessing scripts using open source tools like ImageMagick and Tesseract-OCR to make CSV files for all the data that can be seeded into a database. We then had a CSV for each series of material that lists the filenames for each individual, OCR text, a state abbreviation, and the ArchivesSpace parent ID. Each CSV has now become a database table. These scripts are available in the Espy Project Github repository.

We've partnered with ICPSR to use the Espy File data. The Watt Espy papers were the subject of a University of Alabama study in the 1980s that encoded Espy's records and created a dataset that's now managed by ICPSR. Since there was already detailed metadata, and ICPSR was gracious enough to give us permission to use it, we will be able to provide much more extensive information than we wrote in the original CLIR grant. After consulting with the National Death Penalty Archive Advisory Board, we think there is some possibility of improving the accuracy of the original dataset. We are also hoping the addition of the reference material will provide more meaningful context than lines in a spreadsheet. We are including the ICPSR identifiers in our metadata as well, so it should be easy for researchers to make connections. After the project is complete we will also offer our data back to ICPSR, which will hopefully broaden its use even more.

We've gained institutional skills to support open source web applications. We have some awesome tools here at UAlbany, namely a virtualized data center that can spin up servers for us. However, it's often challenging to get the time and expertise necessary to implement complex tools. These skills can be very costly for academic libraries. We are also a Windows campus which means our authentication and security network uses Windows tools and our Library Systems staff is primarily Windows-trained.

All this poses some large barriers to managing open source projects, which require both skills and labor time. Still, we feel that we get tremendous value from open source communities. They share a lot of the same priorities and values we have as libraries and archives. The transparency of open source helps us maintain provenance, and contributing to a community aligns well with our research and service obligations. The flexibility of open source tools is also important, since the information architecture of archives can be quite complex and there's no single service that can do everything for us. Most importantly, we feel that the capability to fully understand and actively engage with our tools empowers us, and gives us the agency to make technology work for our human needs, rather than passively adjusting our work to more generic systems. We feel that increased capacity to implement and maintain open source tools here at the University Libraries is one of the key benefits to this project.

We've developed a web application for rapidly creating detailed metadata records. We quickly discovered that it was going to be a big challenge to connect up to six different information sources into complete and useful metadata records in a way that didn't rely on large amounts of human labor doing repetitive tasks. To meet our transparency goals, we also needed to document where all the information in our final records came from. The record for William Kemmler, for example, will have front and back images for a small (3x5) index card, a larger (4x6) index card, a large stack of reference material, data from the Espy File, and relationships with both Series 1 and Series 2 in the Watt Espy papers finding aid.

Normally we wouldn't create a custom web application for every digitization project, but creating the Espy Metadata Tool allowed us to ramp up our skills with Ruby on Rails and web applications in general. Now we almost understand how Samvera and Hyrax works, and we have the skills necessary to implement a Hyrax-based repository for our special collections storage, and adapt it to our local needs and workflows. The Espy Metadata Tool has some features that saves a lot of time, most notably a Redis-based autocomplete that lets us quickly link a random newspaper article with a record by the individual's name or date of execution.

It was also really easy to make things like keyboard shortcuts. Here we really got to see the value of using common open source tools. For essentially everything we wanted there was already an existing library or a great example with some awesome documentation. Although these features were really cool and fun to work on, the real benefit is that it save us a lot of repetitive tasks. Now the computer does all of the tedious work, saving our labor for the still really challenging and intellectual processes that are requires to make metadata records.

We learned a lot about linked data and data modeling in general. Since the Samvera system we plan to implement alongside this project uses native linked data triples, we looked at how we could expose all the data created over the course of the project using linked data standards. The benefit here is that the data itself would be self-describing so that computers could understand the data's context and relationships.

In practice, this posed some difficult challenges. Our first attempt to use the Portland Common Data Model (PCDM) to model all of this data resulted in a model that was much more complex than useful. Once we started working on the metadata application and putting the model into practice it became very obvious how much of it was unnecessary and how a much simpler model was easier to work with in general. The model we're currently using with the metadata application might not also be our final version. While it contains all of the information and makes sense for linking all that information together, it is very unintuitive as a final record. We have to export the data to use to manipulate the master image files at the end for things like image rotations, so we decided to rework the model a bit later in the process once we have more experience working with the data. Since we're envisioning that researchers will work with the data directly, making the model clean and intuitive is a usability concern.

We spent lots of time talking about metadata fields, what is useful to document and how we would present them. There are many cases when the data in the Espy File implicitly demonstrated the priorities, values, and mental framing of the original researchers. Some of the decisions we made are both complex and imperfect, and we will make another update soon that talks about the metadata we're capturing and not capturing and our process of making these decisions.

We've decided not to use linked data vocabularies to encode descriptive metadata. When we started to look at linked data vocabularies for our descriptive metadata, it quickly became clear how problematic they are to describe this type of detailed metadata that requires really precise meaning. Overall, most of the vocabularies outside of those most commonly-used are poorly documented in general, and vocabularies are often fudged or used imperfectly. This failed to provide the nuance we require for this project. A practical example is that crime was encoded as "Crime Committed" in the Espy File, yet we feel that it's much more appropriate to call that field "Crime Convicted of." Yet, there does not appear to be any existing vocabulary that effectively describes the legal terms associated with capital punishment. We concluded that to effectively encode this the descriptive metadata as linked data would require us to create, document, promote, and maintain our own custom vocabulary.

Now there is a case to be made that this is exactly what we should have done. We have a strong institutional commitment to the National Death Penalty Archive here at UAlbany, and some great access to experts on our advisory board and in the School of Criminal Justice. If there is a real need for a linked data vocabulary to describe the legal terms associated with capital punishment, we are strongly situated to create one.

We actually found that developing a linked data vocabulary posed some interesting conflicts with our mission as archivists. Rather than just digitizing, describing, and providing access to information, we would be attempting to create an empirical set of information from our more limited archives. Not only would this be a much higher standard to meet, it would be without precedent for us. We would be going beyond our mission as an archives and on to something new. In itself, this wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing, but it was a commitment we really were not prepared to make.

When we stepped back to look at the big picture, it was clear that for all this effort, encoding the descriptive metadata as linked data really didn't add that much practical value. While we anticipate computational use for this collection, that need can be filled just by exposing the data and describing it well. Researchers typically want to understand the provenance themselves, and are unlikely to merely trust and rely upon linked data vocabularies for this context. Another practical concern is that researchers are likely to interact with this data using methods that they are already comfortable with. When we consider the common ways researchers work with data right now, we see that almost all of these methods lack the ability to leverage the added value of linked data.

This isn't to say that linked data has no value, just that we found that there is a significant cost if you're doing anything more than just using Dublin Core or MODS. The more complex and precise the data is, the higher that cost is. In our case the value added seems to be more theoretical, task-specific, or far off in the future. Many of the use cases for linked data can be also be met with a little effort just by open and well documented data over an API.

We complained about Fedora. Relenting on using vocabularies for descriptive metadata provides some added technical challenges. In asking around we've heard some opinions on Fedora 4's move to native linked data and the relationship between Fedora and Samvera. Many repositories are struggling with the move, and a few have even reluctantly stuck with Fedora 3. Others seems to think that part of the problem is how Samerva uses Fedora. While replacing the database of a web application with Fedora makes integrating it very easy, Fedora isn't necessarily designed to function in this way. Another issue is that swapping a database with Fedora in itself isn't a preservation plan. Fedora still has some awesome preservation features built-in, but it also doesn't quite merge well with how our university currently manages permanent data, for better or worse.

None of these challenges are insurmountable. Generally, it's always a much better idea to stick with what everyone else is doing rather than branching off alone, particularly with our limited resources and expertise. There is also real value to the Samvera/Fedora stack, even if there are some imperfections. Outside of our descriptive metadata example, it makes managing other metadata in linked data really easy. For example, we can merely deposit content and Fedora manages linked data PREMIS events automatically. We plan on storing our descriptive metadata in Fedora as content, as well as in a regular database using ActiveRecord.

We are now linking together all of complexity of the information we have into detailed, transparent, and effective metadata records. Meanwhile we will continue to test and experiment with Hyrax and work with Library Systems to configure our production servers. We have learned a lot in the past 6 months, and we hope we're on the right track with our thinking. We always welcome feedback, so if you have any useful thoughts, please let us know.

December 23, 2014

First "Hidden Collections" from the National Death Penalty Archives Made Available

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The first two collections processed as part of the Building New Access Tools for the National Death Penalty Archive project are now open and available to researchers. Guides to the Leigh B. Bienen Papers and the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty Records can now be found on the M.E. Grenander Special Collections and Archives webpage. Visitors may now request to see any part of these collections in the Marcia Brown Reading Room on the third floor of the Science Library.

The ongoing project to process and make available 10 collections from the National Death Penalty Archives is funded by the Council on Library and Information Resources as part of its Cataloging Hidden Special Collections and Archives program.

The Leigh B. Bienen Papers contain the records of legal scholar Leigh B. Bienen and her efforts to show how the application of capital punishment in New Jersey and Illinois was inconsistent and discriminatory. Bienen was a member of the New Jersey Department of the Public Advocate in the 1980s where she directed the Public Defender Homicide Study cited in the New Jersey Supreme Court Decision State v. Marshall. In this case, Robert O. Marshall became the state's first death row inmate to have his death sentence confirmed by New Jersey's highest court since capital punishment was reinstated there in 1982. The study led the court to call for the New Jersey Proportionality Review Project where Bienen, along with other legal scholars, argued that the state's administration of the death penalty had significant bias based on the race of the defendant. The death penalty in New Jersey was abolished in 2007.
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Bienen later lectured at Princeton University and Northwestern University and published extensively on the monetary costs of capital punishment and the outsized role of local prosecutors in sentencing defendants to death. In 2006, she was named to the Illinois Capital Punishment Reform Study Committee which influenced the abolition of the death penalty in Illinois in 2011.

For over 35 years the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty has been working to educate the public about the arbitrary, discriminatory, and inconsistent use of capital punishment in the United States. The group was founded after the Supreme Court again permitted use of the death penalty in the Gregg v. Georgia decision of 1976. Since then, the NCADP has emerged as the largest national organization exclusively devoted to abolishing the death penalty. The group lobbies against capital punishment through a variety of methods that include organizing protests and increasing public awareness. The NCADP uses a number of non-violent methods to draw attention to, and advance, their campaign at local, state and national levels.

The National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty Records contains the group's internal case files, administrative material, and publications. Here researchers can examine efforts like the international Stop Killing Kids Campaign as well as photographs, audio, and video of the NCADP's annual conference and on-the-ground advocacy campaigns.
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The Building New Access Tools for the National Death Penalty Archive project is well under way. In addition to these two collections, the Victor L. Streib Papers and the records of the death penalty abolition group Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation are also nearing completion and will be made available during the Spring 2015 semester. Work has also started on the arrangement and description of the Bill Pelke Papers and the David C. Baldus Papers which document abolition advocacy campaigns and the statistical analysis of capital charging, sentencing, and jury-decision making in six states and in the US military. Overall the project will result in the processing and opening of over 700 cubic feet of unique manuscript materials.

September 27, 2012

A National Death Penalty Archive Event

A National Death Penalty Archive Event
Friday, October 12, 2012
Standish Room, Science Library, University at Albany
Lecture and Reception at 4:00 pm



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The University at Albany's School of Criminal Justice and the University Libraries are proud to host former Dean and Professor Emeritus Victor Streib, of the Ohio Northern University College of Law, who will offer remarks in connection with the announcement of the addition of his papers to the National Death Penalty Archive (NDPA). Dean Streib is recognized as the country's foremost authority on the capital punishment of juveniles and women. His work has been cited extensively by the United States Supreme Court in its cases addressing the constitutionality of the death penalty for juvenile offenders. His remarks will address "Death to the Women and Children," and will analyze national and international trends regarding the capital punishment of these different populations. Discussion, an opportunity for questions, and a reception will follow. Portions of the materials that Dean Streib has donated to the NDPA will be on display. The program is free and open to the public. For a copy of the latest edition of Dean Streib's research report, Death Penalty for Female Offenders, visit: http://deathpenaltyinfo.org/documents/FemDeathDec2011.pdf

April 11, 2012

Race and the Death Penalty: A Tribute to the Life and Work of David C. Baldus

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The School of Criminal Justice and the University Libraries are pleased to invite the public and the University community to an event to be held on Friday, April 20 at 3:30 in the Standish Room, on the third floor of the Science Library, to announce the addition of the personal papers of the late David C. Baldus, Joseph B. Tye Professor at the University of Iowa College of Law, to the National Death Penalty Archive. David Baldus's research and scholarship on the influence of race in the administration of the death penalty are unparalleled. His study of racial disparities in the application of Georgia's death penalty served as the foundation of the landmark Supreme Court case, McCleskey v. Kemp (1987). In that decision, by vote of 5-4, the justices upheld Georgia's death penalty law against constitutional challenge despite dramatic race-of-victim differences in capital charging and sentencing decisions that were revealed by "the Baldus study." The McCleskey decision was issued a quarter century ago, on April 22, 1987. Speakers at the April 20 event will reflect on the legacy of McCleskey v. Kemp and issues involving race and capital punishment as they recognize David Baldus's enduring commitment to equal justice under law and comment on the significance of including his papers within the National Death Penalty Archive. Speakers will include:

Professor Catherine Grosso, Michigan State College of Law
Dr. Alice Green, Center for Law and Justice
Mr. David Kaczynski, New Yorkers for Alternatives to the Death Penalty
Mr. Brian Keough, M.E. Grenander Department of Special Collections and Archives, University at Albany
Professor James Acker, School of Criminal Justice, University at Albany

Discussion and a question-and-answer session will follow. Refreshments will be available. The event is free and open to the public. For additional information, contact: Brian Keough at bkeough@albany.edu

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CSPAN Coverage of Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on the Death Penalty, with footage to David Baldus testomony

January 3, 2007

New Collections

Below are a few collections recently acquired by the Grenander Department. Complete lists of the Department's collections are available here.

Bridge Line Historical Society (MSS-129) - The Bridge Line Historical Society (BLHS) was founded in 1990 to document the history of the Delaware & Hudson Railway. The collection includes the BLHS's newsletter, The Bulletin, as well as maps, drawings, publications, and related material. The Grenander Department has only just begun to receive records from the BLHS and expects to steadily receive additional material from the organization in the months and years to come.

Business and Professional Women's Club of Schenectady (APAP-218) - The records of the Business and Professional Women's Club of Schenectady joins the records of the Albany and New York State organizations already held by the Grenander Department. The collection includes meeting minutes, news clippings, publications, programs, scrapbooks detailing the club's activities and accomplishments, and photographs from its organization in 1927 through 2006.

David Coplon (APAP-288) - The collection includes material from the Schenectady chapter of Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (SANE); local anti-Vietnam war organizations; Church and Laity United, Schenectady; and groups advocating for Middle East peace. Much of the material dates from the 1970s.

Robert Gross (APAP-291) - The records were created during Gross' work with the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (NCADP), Journey of Hope, Lighting the Torch of Conscience, and other activities in opposition to the death penalty. The NCADP leads and coordinates the movement to end state killing in the United States. Its 120 member organizations include civil and human rights groups, legal advocacy and public interest groups, and virtually every major church or religious denomination in the country. Journey of Hope...from Violence to Healing is an organization that is led by murder victims' family members. It conducts public education speaking tours and addresses alternatives to the death penalty. The collection includes: NCADP state files, programs, and organizations; Journey of Hope...From Violence to Healing administrative files, videotapes, photographs, and press packets related to speaking tours; and material from the Lighting the Torch of Conscience march in 1990.

Geof Huth (MSS-137) - The collection includes artworks produced by Geof Huth (including poetry, fiction, essays, aphorisms, visual poems, dramatic works, and comics), biographical records, extensive correspondence, records of his various micropresses, weblogs, audiovisual recordings of sound poems and presentations given at professional conferences, and a large collection of small and micropress publications focused on visual and experimental poetry. Huth's reflections on donating his papers, including the finding aid he wrote for his collection, are here. After a bit of editing, the Grenander Department will make the finding aid available from here.

Women's Building, Inc. (APAP-292) - The Women's Building, Inc. is the women's community center of the Capital Region located at 79 Central Avenue in Albany, New York and operated by the Holding Our Own foundation. The Women's Building's mission is to create an environment where differences are respected, leadership is shared, all women's strengths are recognized, all women's growth is supported, and a diversity of age, race, education, income, physical and mental ability, sexual orientation, religion, and social background is seen as enriching. The organization's goals are to: provide a resource center and clearinghouse for information of interest to women; a multi-purpose space for cultural, informational, and recreational events of interest to women and children including meeting rooms, office rental for women's organizations, services, commercial, and professional enterprises, and a performance area; and to enhance a sense of community among women throughout the Capital Region. The collection includes records such as meeting minutes, grant applications, material related to the Women's Building's capital campaign, publications, program material, and other administrative material.

October 3, 2006

New Finding Aids for National Death Penalty Archive Collections

In anticipation of the symposium The Next Generation of Death Penalty Research: Priorities, Strategies, and an Agenda presented by the Capital Punishment Research Initiative and the School of Criminal Justice on October 6-7, 2006, the new finding aids highlighted in this posting are from the National Death Penalty Archive.

Steven Hawkins
Steven Hawkins was the executive director of the National Coalition Against the Death Penalty (now known as the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty) based in Washington, D.C. Hawkins has worked as an advocate for civil and human rights representing persons under a death sentence. The papers contain meeting subject files that include extensive minutes of board meetings, speeches, fundraising and reception notes, and pamphlets and other papers relating to his attendance at board and committee meetings with related organizations, such as the Death Penalty Information Center and Amnesty International. The papers also contain copies of police reports, witness and investigator statements, and defendant testimony regarding the cases of certain high-profile death row inmates.

Death Penalty in New York Testimony Collection
The Death Penalty in New York Testimony Collection includes testimony given to the New York State Assembly Standing Committee on Codes, Assembly Standing Committee on Judiciary, and Assembly Standing Committee on Correction in 2004-2005. The collection includes testimony from 137 witnesses, including officials from grass roots organizations, lawyers, law professors, concerned citizens, religious leaders, former inmates, and families of victims. The collection also includes a copy of the 1965 Committee for the Revision of the Penal and Criminal Legal Code Special Report on Capital Punishment and a booklet from the Capital Punishment Committee of Michigan about the New York hearings, entitled A Guide to the New York Death Penalty Hearings, 2004-2005. This booklet, which lists witness names, was written by Eugene G. Wanger, who also testified.

The National Death Penalty Archive is a partnership between the University at Albany Libraries and the Capital Punishment Research Initiative (CPRI) at the University's School of Criminal Justice. In 1999, researchers at the School of Criminal Justice formally established the CPRI. Its overarching goals were research and education -- initiate capital punishment research activities, facilitate collaboration among researchers, and make findings and information available to legal and criminal justice policymakers, practitioners, and the public. One of the original goals of the CPRI was to establish and maintain a collection of archival materials documenting the important history of capital punishment, and to provide resources for historical scholarship. This growing collection of archival materials is housed in the M.E. Grenander Department of Special Collections and Archives.

September 25, 2006

Recent Acquisitions for the National Death Penalty Archive

The National Death Penalty Archive in the M.E. Grenander Department of Special Collections and Archives continues to expand. Last month, over 80 cubic feet of records from Abe Bonowitz, Bill Pelke, Bill Babbitt, and Michael Mello were transferred to the Department of Special Collections and Archives. Bonowitz of Citizens United for Alternatives to the Death Penalty and New Jerseyans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, Pelke of Journey of Hope...From Violence to Healing, and Charlie Lanier of the Capital Punishment Research Initiative even braved one of the hottest days of the summer in August to bring more records to UAlbany! You can read Abe's account of the trip and his encouragement to others to consider transferring their records to the National Death Penalty Archive here.

August 9, 2006

Capital Punishment Clemency Petitions Digitized

The Capital Punishment Clemency Petitions Collection has been digitized and links to PDF files of the petitions are available from the finding aid for the collection at http://library.albany.edu/speccoll/findaids/apap214.htm.

Unlike judicial proceedings, claims raised in clemency petitions are free of procedural defaults that can mask error, unfairness, or irrationality in a given death sentence. Petitions thus can reveal what the sentencing authority may not have known because of attorney error, prosecutorial misconduct, newly discovered evidence, or other reasons. As part of his work with The Constitution Project, William J. Bowers established the Capital Punishment Clemency Petitions Collection Collection at the National Death Penalty Archive in the M.E. Grenander Department of Special Collections and Archives. This collection comprises approximately 150 clemency petitions in death penalty cases, from almost two dozens jurisdictions. It is the initial installment in a collection that attempts to gather all death penalty clemency petitions filed in the United States during the modern era of capital punishment.

The University Libraries’ M.E. Grenander Department of Special Collections and Archives is collaborating with the Capital Punishment Research Initiative of the School of Criminal Justice to maintain and grow the National Death Penalty Archive (NDPA). Additional information about the NDPA and a complete list of collections is available at http://library.albany.edu/speccoll/ndpa.htm.