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TL v60n3: Planning Warehouse 13: Sharing Resources and Information to Develop an Educational Website
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Tennessee Libraries 

Volume 60 Number 3
 

 2010

 

 Planning Warehouse 13: Sharing Resources and Information to Develop an Educational Website

 by

Kay Cunningham
Plough Memorial Library
Christian Brothers Univeristy

and 

Deborah Brackstone
Art Museum
University of Memphis


 

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Presented at the 2010 TLA Annual Conference:  AMUM, the University of Memphis' Art Museum, created an educational website devoted to the life and work of African-American architect Paul Revere Williams, the "architect to the stars." With the assistance of libraries and archives from across the country, AMUM assembled a comprehensive bibliography, verified and collected images of Williams' works, and enhanced the images with background text to create a research tool useful for K-12 students, college architecture majors, researchers, or the general public. The presenters described the development of the project, giving particular attention to details of the work involved and the collaboration between art historians, archivists, and librarians.


The Paul Revere Williams Project website (http://www.paulrwilliamsproject.org/) grew out of a grant-driven project (National Endowment for the Arts, Graham Foundation, Institute of Museum and Libraries Services, and First Tennessee Foundation) of the Art Museum of the University of Memphis. The project had its origins in early 2006. The 150th anniversary of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) was approaching, and the Memphis Chapter wanted to honor the event in some form or other. One idea was to create an exhibition recognizing the architectural work of Paul R. Williams, the first African American member of the AIA as well as its first African American AIA Fellow. In addition, Williams had Memphis and Tennessee connections, despite conducting the majority of his career in California.

The first connection was familial. Williams’ parents, Chester Stanley Williams, Sr. and Lila A. Wright Williams, as well as his elder brother, were Memphians. His father had worked at the Peabody Hotel before moving the family to Los Angeles in the early 1890s to take advantage of that city’s open economy and temperate climate. Paul Revere Williams grew up in Los Angeles, graduating from Polytechnic High School, and attending the Society of Beaux-Arts Architects, Los Angeles Architectural Club. He took a number of architecture classes at the University of Southern California. In 1913, Williams began his professional career working for landscape architect Wilbur D. Cook. From 1914 through 1924, Williams worked as draftsman for many of the most important architects of that era learning his craft. As head draftsman for John C. Austin, he worked on the plans for many of Los Angeles’ iconic early 20th century buildings. 

As a young African-American man growing up in the ethnic mix of early Los Angeles, Williams did not realize the prejudice he would be facing in the profession he hoped to master. A teacher advised him against studying architecture because of his race, predicting that there would not be enough commissions to support himself in the African American community and that whites would be unwilling to hire him. Believing in himself, he called every architectural firm listed in the LA telephone book until he found one willing to give him a job. At the same time, he entered many local and national architectural competitions and was a frequent winner. The judges, important architects in Southern California, were impressed with his design ideas. By 1922, after passing the state architecture examination and with several large commissions from wealthy white and African American clients, Williams opened his own practice. In 1923, he was admitted to the California Chapter of the American Institute of Architects and then the national AIA.

The 1920s and 1930s earned Paul Williams the title, “Architect to the Stars,” as he met great success in designing homes for both the famous, and infamous members of Los Angeles established society and film industry. Listening to his newly wealthy and often insecure clients describe their ideal home, Williams was a master at translating their aspirations into material reality. While residential design built his fame, as his work extended beyond Southern California, he earned significant commercial and institutional commissions as well, such as the Roosevelt Naval Base in Long Beach and buildings at Howard University. Ultimately, in his five-decades-long career, he designed roughly 3000 buildings. In addition to his designs, he was active in political and social organizations and served on government commissions at all levels; and in 1957, he was made a Fellow of the AIA. Not long after that Williams’ second Memphis connection came about. In 1960, he donated the design for the first St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital to be built in Memphis by his friend Danny Thomas.
 
It was to honor the memory of and expand public knowledge of “this American architect, whose extraordinary accomplishment was achieved against a background of pervasive racism in a particularly exclusionary profession” (http://www.paulrwilliamsproject.org/about/) that most motivated the Paul R. Williams Project committee.

Initially, the Museum’s idea to create a multi-media traveling exhibition hit road bumps. The audience for any exhibition is always limited to those who can physically come to view the installation. A “show” might travel to different locations and a published catalogue can also expand the audience. The Committee and the AMUM staff believed a traditional approach was too limiting and would not have the impact they wanted. It was ultimately decided to create a website devoted to Williams, his life, and his work-- one that could be utilized by users of all sorts and ages: elementary and high school students, college architecture majors, researchers, and the general public. In short, AMUM wanted a resource that would be useful to as broad an audience as possible following the NEA directives for a wide–not narrow–approach to a topic: a collection as well as a dissemination point for all known information about Paul Revere Williams. In addition, the site was to incorporate new technologies, but not in so complex a way that easy navigation was impossible. The site was expected to:

•    be accessible for all levels
•    be interesting, both in its content and its visual appearance
•    be attractive with a professional design
•    be easy to navigate with professional technical support
•    achieve high rankings in search results
•    have accurate content that was verifiable and research-based
•    include a comprehensive list of works about Williams and his work
•    feature an image gallery of Williams’ work
•    communicate new information through moderated postings
•    serve as a point for people to ask questions

Collaboration often begins on the personal level as the example of the Paul Revere Williams Project illustrates.

Deborah Brackstone, project bibliographer and the primary research archivist for digital imagery for the project, also had thirty years experience working in Memphis-area libraries. Believing that images of Williams’ most famous work in Memphis—St. Jude Childrens’ Research Hospital—would undoubtedly reside in Memphis area historical collections, she started the long process of identifying, finding, and acquiring Williams-related images at the reference desk of the Mississippi River Valley Collection of the Special Collections Department at the University Libraries of the University of Memphis. Brackstone’s working relationship with Edwin Frank, head of Special Collections, illustrates her advice to non-librarians on how best to work with institutions on projects of this sort. You are going to need help, and lots of it, from many people working throughout libraries, museums, and archives. Knowing how to communicate with them, speaking their language enables you to make connections with those who can most help you. While the PRW Project director wanted to go directly ”to the top,” Brackstone’s recommended approach is first to identify the specialist at the institution; routing a request through a library’s director can waste time if not derail a request altogether. An important converse lesson should also be evident here to librarians: potential users most often lack knowledge of “library-speak” and may approach a library from a variety of directions, phrasing their questions in a variety of ways. Because of its nature, special collections’ reference requires more personal knowledge and personalized service than is available at the typical reference desk. Be sure, all your staff can direct people to wherever they need to be.
The shared knowledge of archivist/special collections librarian can lead users from one collection to other existing collections. Before the project neared completion, many different libraries and archives had been approached and drawn into the PRW Project’s research circle. The staffs at these libraries and museums were always interested, helpful, and provided the names and email addresses of new research contacts. The list of research sites eventually included the Library of Congress; Memphis Public Library and Information Center; the Los Angeles Public Library; the Getty Library; the University of Southern California Libraries; OAC: the Online Archive of California; the University of California at Los Angeles; the State Library of California with its picture catalog; the Office of Historic Resources of the City of Los Angeles; the Neon Museum of Las Vegas; Special Collections at the University of California Berkley;the California Historic Society; Fisk University’s Special Collections and Archives; the Historic Society of Long Beach; the Huntingdon Library; Howard University’s manuscripts division; and the Pomona Public Library. (For a list with links to each of these libraries, museums, and archives, see http://www.paulrwilliamsproject.org/resources/archives/.)

Before working on the site itself, Brackstone and Lisa Abitz (AMUM Assistant Director) discussed what method should be used to collect and manage the information collected from a variety of sources. While the web site itself would be the guide to images of Williams’ works, they wanted to create a master bibliography of verified materials about Williams, his architectural projects as well as references about relevant social, historical and architectural events. This bibliography would eventually grow to almost 2000 entries and would include books, newspaper articles, journal and magazine articles, pamphlets and brochures. The main question became how to organize everything in a user friendly way that both researchers and the general public would be able to access.

Again, Brackstone turned to someone she had worked with, Kay Cunningham, Electronic Resources Librarian at the University of Memphis, for help with citation management software. Citation management products allow for the collection of bibliographic references from any number of external sources into a single database from which a researcher can work and generate bibliographies in various output styles. Styles include the usual suspects: APA, MLA, and Turabian, plus the styles of thousands of professional journals. The manager provided by the University of Memphis is RefWorks. After determining that RefWorks would indeed deliver what was needed, the project staff utilized the Electronic Resources Librarian for assistance and advice in using the product, as well as for training staff and student assistants as they rolled on and off the project.

After the selection of RefWorks as the citation manager, the long process of identifying, verifying, ordering, and inputting material began. The next problem Brackstone faced was finding materials and articles related to Paul Revere Williams. Many of the publications that covered him had never been indexed—not even in print, let alone online. She needed an easy editing form that could be used for the manual entry of references as she found them, which RefWorks also provided.

A master bibliography was only the first thing the PRW Project wanted to generate using RefWorks. Although there were not many references at the beginning of the project, it was anticipated that the bibliography could grow. Mini-bibliographies, devoted to more specific aspects of Williams’ work were also desired. RefWorks’ folder making function served in this instance. Folders can be created and used to sort references into categories. Before proceeding with that, however, names for the folders had to be chosen carefully in order to find a common denominator of language, simple enough to understand but refined enough for some precision. Folder names essentially became subject headings: Aesthetics, Aesthetics—social aspects, African American—intellectual life, Architecture, Architecture and Society, Architecture—aesthetics, Architecture—California, Architecture—commercial and industrial, Architecture—decoration and ornament, and so on. As single references could be tagged for inclusion in any number of folders, it was easy to ensure that references with multiple subjects would be accessible under each subject.

Once the data was entered and references sorted into their subject folders, the full bibliography, along with the subject specific bibliographies, could then be generated from RefWorks—with just a few mouse clicks—and saved as Word, Word for MAC, RTF, OpenOffice, or HTML documents. The ease of creating bibliographies meant that making revisions and updating the web site (done quarterly) was a simple process; new bibliographies could be generated to replace existing ones with less work than it would take to edit HTML. With her library background, Brackstone verifies all citations before adding them to RefWorks making it easy for others to use them. By inviting scholars and others to use and recommend citations, the Paul Revere Williams Project hopes that the bibliography will continue to grow.

In designing the Paul R. Williams web site Brackstone believed there should be an electronic equivalent of a traditional library Reference Desk, a place where users might ask questions and get answers within a reasonable length of time. This electronic desk is the site’s “Contact Us” section. Some of the most interesting ideas for research, tips on forgotten buildings and lengthy conversations with readers of the web site have been generated from this interactive questionnaire. (At 2:10 a.m. web users are not shy about pointing out errors in essays or asking advice on how to verify information about their own homes.) As the moderator of the “Contact Us” section, Brackstone often passes their suggestions to other project researchers and often incorporates the users’ knowledge and ideas into her own work. She suggests accepting the public’s comments as a compliment and verification that “someone out there is looking at the darn thing!”

While having an attractive looking web site is important, making decisions ahead of time on how the web site would work, the audience it would serve, and how the information would be organized has paid great dividends for the project. Both the general public and architectural historians now recognize the Paul Revere Williams Project web site as a source for accurate information about this forgotten architect. Groups in California and Nevada use the essays and bibliography in their preservation petitions and the “News” section on the site in turn helps promote their preservation efforts. Architectural journals and magazines regularly ask for information and images about particular Williams’ projects and they are referred to other experts “collected” along the way.

In the development of the site, it came as a bit of a shock to learn that cultural literacy is all but dead and common knowledge is a thing of the past. When creating educational sites devoted to any sort of history, remember that explaining everything—whether with your own descriptions or by external links—is a requirement. The names of many stars of the past have become unrecognizable today—even in an age when “everything” is on Google. Paul Revere Williams’ clients included Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball, Lon Chaney, Al Jolson, Barbara Stanwyck, Harry Houdini, Jennifer Jones, Zasu Pitts, Tyrone Power, and Rudolph Valentino. As photos were loaded, it became evident that simply saying that a particular house belonged to a particular person was insufficient. Adding content to give context was a necessary activity that grew into a large portion of the work of creating the website.

To conclude, what can librarians learn from a project of this sort? And how can a library involve itself on the front-end?

Begin by remembering that library tools--not traditional resources, but rather the tools and skills of librarians themselves--can have application outside the library doors. Be imaginative enough to help non-librarians understand these skills and make their own uses of them. The traditional skills of indexing and print search as well as those related to the whiz-bang e-stuff are necessary. Bibliographies still have to be correct; citations still have to be verified. Preparing material for K-12 is no less rigorous than that for post-grads. Be willing to train. Go to where your connections are; don’t always expect them come to you. So--

•    Expand your horizons
•    Get out of your comfort zone
•    Understand the changing needs of potential clients
•    Think of new applications for old tools
•    Be able to explain your technologies
•    Be open to meeting with people
•    Be willing to be a hand-holder
•    Make connections

And never forget that being approachable makes friends for the research process as well as for the library.
 


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