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.

May 14, 2010

University at Albany’s 137th Annual Commencement, May 24, 1981

This is video footage of distinguished author Isaac Bashevis Singer’s speech at the University at Albany’s 137th Annual Commencement held on May 24, 1981 at University Field. The master video is part of the University Archives and it was digitally reformatted for your viewing pleasure. Singer was a Polish-born Jewish American author and one of the leading figures in the Yiddish literary movement who received the 1978 Nobel Prize in literature. The footage is of Singer’s Commencement speech as his acceptance of an honorary degree from the University. President, Vincent O'Leary introduces the Nobel Laureate.

University at Albany’s 137th Annual Commencement program:


April 10, 2009

Student Newspaper Available Online From 1916-1985

The M.E. Grenander Department of Special Collections and Archives is pleased to announce the online availability of the University at Albany’s student newspaper from 1916-1985. You can browse each issue from the State College News, 1916-1963, State University News, 1963-1964, and the Albany Student Press (ASP), 1964-1985. The ASP , 1986 - 2009, and The Echo, 1892-1916, are available in hard copy at the Special Collections' Marcia Brown Reading Room. Issues are available at:

Support for this digital project came from the Friends of the Libraries and would not have been possible without their assistance. In collaboration with the Library Systems Department, we are developing a full text database of the newspaper that will allow searching across multiple issues, years, or decades. In addition, the Department of Special Collections will develop a plan to digitize the ASP,1986 -2009, and The Echo, 1892-1916, a student news and literary magazine.

September 10, 2008

Hugo Bedau Papers

The Department of Special Collections announces the completion of the finding aid for the Hugo A. Bedau Papers which are part of the National Death Penalty Archive. Bedau is a commentator, scholar, and activist for the abolition of capital punishment. This collection reflects Bedau’s commitment as an activist who has challenged the fundamental legality of the death penalty and as a prominent spokesperson known for his scholarship and writing concerning the death penalty.

In 1966, Bedau was hired as Professor of Philosophy at Tufts University where spent the next thirty-three years as he helped found the Center for the Study of Decision Making. Among his other scholarly work, Bedau is the black law journal copy.jpg
author of: The Death Penalty in America: An Anthology (1962), that is currently in its 4th edition; co-editor, Capital Punishment in the United States (1976); Courts, the Constitution and Capital Punishment (1977); Death is Different (1987); editor, Civil Disobedience in Focus (1991); co-author, In Spite of Innocence (1992); Current Issues and Enduring Questions (4th edition, 1996); and a contributor to many other volumes.

In addition to his scholarship, Bedau has been active in the capital punishment abolition movement for many decades. He was the chairman of the board for the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (NCADP) and a board member for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Massachusetts, the American League to Abolish Capital Punishment and several other organizations. Both aspects of Bedau’s work as academic and an activist are strongly reflected in his papers. This collection a valuable resource for scholars, students and historians studying the controversial and politically volatile subject of capital punishment from 1955 -2002 through the words and actions of Bedau. The entire collection, totaling nearly 37 cubic feet, contains Bedau’s drafts, reprints, correspondence, writings and unpublished work, conference materials, newsletters, organizational records, and capital punishment case files.
witness to a persecution 1983Crop_Fade2 copy.jpg

See the Hugo A. Bedau Papers finding aid.

For more information, please see our Manuscript and Collections Pages or contact Brian Keough, Head of Special Collections and Archives, (518) 437-3931 or

May 22, 2008

New Finding Aids Available Online

The M.E. Grenander Department of Special Collections and Archives has added the following online finding aids to its Web site. Additional information about each collection is available through the appropriate links.

Congressman James J. Delaney Papers
Elected as a Democrat to the Seventy-ninth United States Congress in November 1944, Delaney was an unsuccessful candidate for reelection in 1946. Delaney’s hiatus from politics was short-lived as he was elected again in November 1948 and remained in Congress until his retirement in December 1978. The James Joseph Delaney Papers cover the years 1950-1978, and document Delaney’s extensive tenure in Congress. Delaney served as Congressman from Queens, New York and his three decades in Washington are distinguished by consecutive elections to chairman of the House Rules Committee and the addition of the Delaney Clause to the 1938 Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. The Papers contain 12 cubic feet of legislative files, correspondence, reports, speeches, statements, press releases, and news clippings.

New York Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides (NYCAP), Records
In 1989, Tracy Frisch, an etymologist who had suffered from pesticide poisoning, formed a non-profit citizens' organization committed to reducing hazardous chemical pesticides use through education and advocacy called the New York Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides (NYCAP). This collection documents the activities of the New York Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides (NYCAP) from its creation in 1989 through 2002. The organization was formed as a not-for-profit group devoted to educating the public about pesticide and other environmental dangers. The organization was able to spread their message through conferences, workshops, mail order catalogs, information requests, school programs, and policy-making. This collection also documents the professional career of Tracy Frisch in the decade before her founding of NYCAP. Material from her career as a New York State Legislature lobbyist and staff member is included in this collection as well as materials from her research on environmental pests and pollution from the early 1980s.

For more information, please see our Manuscript and Collections Pages or contact Brian Keough, Head of Special Collections and Archives, (518) 437-3931 or

July 3, 2007

New Finding Aids Online

The M.E. Grenander Department of Special Collections and Archives' has added the following online finding aids to its Web site. Additional information about each collection is available through the appropriate links.

Lou Ismay Papers
The papers of Lou Ismay, environmentalist, labor activist, and educator include material related to the struggle over environmental issues facing the Capital Region and upstate New York. The collection material document University at Albany programs and groups including Environmental Studies Program, the Environmental Forum, and Protect Your Environment Club (PYE).

Karl Pribram Papers
The collection includes include diaries, documents, correspondence, manuscripts, notes and publications of Karl Pribram, an Austrian-born economist who escaped the Nazi regime in 1934 and later worked at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., the U.S. Social Security Board and the U.S. Tariff Commission. The bulk of the collection consists of Pribram’s writings, both in manuscript and published form, on labor, housing, unemployment and the history of economic thought.

Eugen(e) Spiro Papers
Eugen(e) Spiro, portrait and landscape painter, graphic artist and illustrator, is best known for his portraits of Thomas Mann, Richard Strauss, and perhaps his most well-known portrait is his 1941 rendering of the émigré physicist Albert Einstein. His paintings hang in many museums worldwide including the National Galerie in Berlin, the Musée Nationale d’Art Moderne in Paris, the Bezelle Museum in Jerusalem and the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. The papers include correspondence related to Spiro’s artwork, including letters from many of the individuals he sketched.

Geof Huth Papers,
Geof Huth, MLS ’89, artist and archivist, has been active in the international visual poetry field since 1985, and has produced a wide variety of language-based art since that time, including poetry, visual poetry, fiction, essays, and creative dictionaries. Huth is a well known authority on visual poetry and has spent years writing visual poetry criticism and theory, most of it published to his weblog, dbqp: visualizing poetics. Huth is an active micropublisher, releasing small publications in small editions, first through his micropress dbqp, which publishes language, visual, and conceptual poetry, comics, prose, and other artistic and usually minimalist works.

December 18, 2006

Student Projects Using the Department and Collections

Every year hundreds of students from the University at Albany and other institutions from around the world use the Department of Special Collections and Archives' collections. Most of these uses are thought of as fairly traditional-theses, dissertations, papers, oral history interviews, an occasional exhibit, etc. A couple graduate students happened to send me links to their projects over the weekend that used the Department or its collections in some way this semester and I thought I would share them here.

"The Journey of a Curious Doll" was created by Jenn Russell as part of her IST 659: Digital Imaging & Web course. (It isn't displaying properly for me using Mozilla Firefox, so take a look using IE or another browser.) Jenn's project used the Department exhibit "The Secret Lives of Toys and Their Friends," as well as the entire Main Campus, as its setting and you will note that a few of the books from the exhibit are featured. Please note that I will not be letting every doll that asks spend time in our exhibit cases.

One of Charles Schlesinger's postings at his blog includes images from equipment and collections in the Department of Special Collections and Archives as well as our neighbor here on the third floor of the Science Library, the Preservation Department.

December 15, 2006

Subject Guides: Athletics and Sports and New York State Modern Political Archive

Subject guides for manuscript collections and record groups related to Athletics and Sports and for the New York State Modern Political Archive are now available. The Grenander Department's Subject Guides bring together collections from each of the distinctive manuscript and archival collections - the Archives of Public Affairs and Policy, Business, Literary, and Miscellany Collection, German and Jewish Intellectual Émigré Collection, and University Archives.

Over thirty Subject Guides are available on the Department's Website with more added on an ongoing basis. If you are interested in collections related to a topic not listed on the Subject Guide page, contact a member of the Department's staff for assistance.

Continue reading "Subject Guides: Athletics and Sports and New York State Modern Political Archive" »

November 1, 2006

Subject Guides: Schenectady and Rensselaer

Subject guides for manuscript collections and record groups related to Schenectady, New York and Rensselaer County, New York are now available. The Grenander Department's Subject Guides bring together collections from each of the distinctive manuscript and archival collections - the Archives of Public Affairs and Policy, Business, Literary, and Miscellany Collection, German and Jewish Intellectual Émigré Collection, and University Archives.

Over thirty Subject Guides are available on the Department's Website with more added on an ongoing basis. If you are interested in collections related to a topic not listed on the Subject Guide page, contact a member of the Department's staff for assistance.

Continue reading "Subject Guides: Schenectady and Rensselaer" »

Intern Blog: CSEA Intern Devin Lander

The M.E. Grenander Department of Special Collections and Archives is fortunate to have undergraduate and graduate students working on a variety of projects including arranging and describing collections, conducting research related to our collections, and many other initiatives. Here University at Albany graduate student Devin Lander writes about his ongoing project.

My name is Devin Lander and I am a graduate student in the Public History Program at the University at Albany, SUNY. I have been fortunate enough to have been accepted to work with the Civil Service Employees Association (CSEA) collection at the University at Albany's M.E. Grenander Department of Special Collections and Archives. Thus far I have been working on uploading CSEA photographs to the University at Albany Libraries' Digital Collections database, assigning them numbers, and adding all of the pertinent information to allow access to the collection via the web. Some of the interesting photographs that I have worked on so far include a series taken in the wake of the past summer's floods throughout New York State. The CSEA has taken an active role in helping both its members and non-members who were directly affected by the flooding. There are many compelling images of work being done to repair the massive amount of damage that was brought about by the floods. Another interesting series of photos that I have worked on is a collection of 1950s and 60s era photographs from the New York State Office of Mental Hygiene's Annual Reports. This series has several striking images of mental health practices from a time period when the modern idea of psychiatric therapy was in its initial stages. Some of the period captions are especially interesting when compared to the modern terminology that is used to describe the mentally ill. I will also be digitizing much of the CSEA's microfilm collection as well as working with their paper collection. Although I have only just begun to scratch the surface of the work to be done with this collection, I am very excited to be a part of this project.

October 18, 2006

Images now available at Flickr

The Department has created an account over at Flickr for sharing images from current events and programs. All images from the Department's collections that are available in digital form will continue to be available only in the University at Albany Libraries' Digital Collections database, so if you are looking for images from your commencement in 1975 you won't find them at the Flickr page.

August 29, 2006

New online collections from the New York State Archives, Library, and Museum

A great new online resource for anyone interested in New York history is The Digital Collections website. According to the website:
"The Digital Collections provide a gateway to a variety of rich primary source materials held by the State Archives, State Library, and State Museum. Through the collection, you can access photographs, textual materials, artifacts, government documents, manuscripts, and other materials."
The collections available online will be of interest to researchers of environmental, labor, Native American, World War I, and many other subject areas. The collections include Conservation Department Records, Environmental History Collection, Factory Investigating Committee, Fairchild Aerial Surveys, Native American Collection, Harlem Hellfighters Collection, New York Chamber of Commerce Portraits, and New York Lantern Slides Collection.

August 10, 2006

New Labor History Resources Available Online

Over 1,000 publications and 4,000 photographs from the records of the Civil Service Employees Association (CSEA), United University Professions, and IUE-CWA (International Union of Electronic, Electrical, Salaried, Machine and Furniture Workers) Local 301 were recently made available online.

The digitization of the Civil Service Employees Association (CSEA) newsletters was begun with the support of CSEA with issues of The Civil Service Leader from the years 1946-1947 and 1950-1953 currently available in PDF format through the finding aid for the collection, which is available at The digitization of the CSEA’s newsletters is an ongoing project and eventually issues from 1944-1989 of The Civil Service Leader and its successor The Public Sector will be available online. Also, over 700 images documenting labor from the early 20th century to the present from the records of CSEA are also available online. A link to the CSEA images in the University at Albany Libraries’ Digital Collections database is also available at The Civil Service Employees Association, Inc., or CSEA, is the largest public employees' union in New York State with over 260,000 members. CSEA began in Albany, New York, in 1910 as a collective effort by a handful of state employees to earn better wages and working conditions.

Over 4,000 images from the records of United University Professions (UUP) are also available online thanks to the support of UUP. A link to the UUP images in the University at Albany Libraries’ Digital Collections database is available at UUP was created in 1973 and is the union representing more than 32,000 academic and professional faculty on 29 State University of New York campuses, plus System Administration, Empire State College, and the New York State Theatre Institute. UUP’s records in the M.E. Grenander Department of Special Collections and Archives total over 160 cubic feet.

IUE-CWA Local 301's publications for 1939-1962 are now available in PDF format through the finding aid for the collection available at Local 301 has been representing workers at General Electric’s Schenectady facility since 1936. The newspaper is the only consistent source for information prior to the 1960s and provides background for any history of Local 301. Local 301’s publications from 1962-1990 as well as 7 reels of microfilm, 32 audio and video recordings, and over 10 cubic feet of records are available in the M.E. Grenander Department of Special Collections and Archives

A complete list of collections related to Labor is available at while the subject guide for Business and Industry is available at

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

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