For the Record’s “Meet the Staff” feature is an opportunity for our archivists to connect directly with the community which we serve.
Name: Charles Johnson
Title: Collections Archivist
Specialties: Digital Processing and Preservation, Relational Database Systems, Web Technologies and Data Formats
How did you end up working at the Alabama Department of Archives and History?
It’s been a long, strange trip. I spent 10 years working in technology, mostly in open-source web development, and along the way I got interested in digitization, open access and online research tools for working with historical documents and primary source materials. During this odyssey, I became deeply interested in historical research and archival materials. This meant that when I returned to college in 2013 to study within the History and Classics programs, I was naturally predisposed to an Archives foundations class. As part of this coursework, I undertook digitization internships with the Auburn University Library and the Tuskegee University Archives, which in turn led to a student employee job here at the ADAH working on databases and digital processing. I officially came on board as a Professional Trainee in October 2018 and took on additional roles promoting digital preservation, working with database records like the Governor’s Office Intranet Quorum data, consulting with other sections on technology-related questions, and troubleshooting for projects involving database records, web technologies, or other materials living in a digital world.
What is your role?
I take care of a number of digital systems in the building, especially the inventory database systems, our distributed digital preservation through ADPNet, and the integration of our in-house databases with third-party cataloging and preservation systems. When the ADAH receives electronic records on legacy media or in obsolete or exotic formats, I handle processing these into preservation formats and migrating them into stable repositories for preservation. Among my non-electronic duties, I get to set eyes on actual cardboard and paper in the Archive’s collection storage in the course of preparing checklists once a year for the big Inventory Week shelf-read, and I handle the assignment of new call numbers and barcodes to incoming containers which requires printing out the stickers and putting them on the boxes. I also spend a lot of time sharing information, troubleshooting, or writing small scripts to help out with tech problems that ADAH employees run into.
What is something you enjoy about working in the Collections Section?
I really enjoy working with people and adapting ADAH electronic systems to help us meet new challenges every day. I also enjoy how much the ADAH has embraced collaboration across our different sections. Collections, Appraisal, and Reference have had great success coordinating the management of the whole life cycle of the records we manage.
What do you view as the biggest challenge facing the profession today?
The obvious but true thing to say here is “electronic records;” in particular, I think that archivists are getting increasingly comfortable with electronic collections, and increasingly sophisticated in collecting and preserving them, but scaling up our processes for processing records and providing access are a huge challenge – especially under the real-world constraints of money, time and staff. Unfortunately, frameworks for thinking about process and product based on the distinctive features of paper records often prove awkward or actively counterproductive with electronic records and digital formats: there are many cases where less process also means less product. Transformation of underlying datasets and formats, usually through some carefully programmed automated processing, are essential parts of making electronic records useful and accessible going forward.
What is your superpower?
Writing shell scripts. Some judicious incantations of #!/bin/bash can summon lots of automata that do the repetitive parts of your work for you, and make lots of seemingly intractable problems tractable, or turn open-ended years-long processing projects into a few hours of concentration and prep time followed by hours or a day or two of execution.
What are your hobbies when you are not at work?
My wife and I do a lot more gardening than you might think you’d be able to with a relatively small apartment. This Spring we are putting in squash, peppers, tomatoes, okra, broccoli and collards. We hike in the woods and try to explore new cities and small towns whenever we can. I read a lot and tend to fall down rabbit-holes, right now about Texas history and the histories of world cities. I am trying to learn to be able to read some French, and I do some tutoring (right now, trying to keep up with my Latin and help a cousin in the IB program through some Ovid).