Mapping our internal catalog to Open Vault

For our “Participatory Cataloging” project, funded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, we are planning to post our entire internal library catalog on Open Vault in the coming months. I have the enviable task of mapping our homegrown Filemaker database to the PBCoredata structure that determines the metadata you see here on Open Vault. With the help of my colleagues in the WGBH Library, Archives and Interactive departments, we are working out exactly which piece of data will end up where on this site, and how to translate years of legacy workflows into something we can reproduce and sustain online.

Media Archives Research SystemOur homegrown database is called “MARS.” As librarians we love our acronyms. “MARS” stands for the “Media Archive Research System” and it is used here at WGBH to manage our physical archives. Productions use MARS to conduct research and to find and retrieve tapes. My department, the Media Library & Archives, home of MARS, uses it as a catalog of our physical collection. In addition, it manages circulation, maintains many of our controlled vocabularies, and relates our rights information to our programs. This is a lot to ask of one system, and a lot to ask of one web interface. This is the challenge of putting MARS online.

An additional issue is the historical inconsistency of the data. Over the years, we’ve had varying levels of description and cataloging coming in from our productions as they archive their materials. We rely wholly on the productions to describe the materials they deposit and, if they don’t describe it well, they can’t find it again. In recent years, as our compliance managers have worked hard to set up procedures and tools for our producers, the data has improved substantially. But what to do with all of the older empty fields?

The empty fields are the main motivation for this project. Once we have our catalog online, we will work with our users to see if they can help us fill in the gaps. For example, a researcher watching a videotape will know more about the contents of the tape than our MARS system records. We plan to work with that researcher to incorporate his or her notes into the catalog and improve the accessibility of that tape’s record.

Admittedly, we have a bit of a chicken and egg issue here: how will the researcher find what they need if the tape is not fully described? Well, it’s possible. As shallow as our catalog sometimes is on the details, it is deep on context – if you know how to read it. Our researchers’ archival sleuthing skills, combined with the knowledge of our reference staff will hopefully land them in the right place until we are able to build out the details.

Despite these challenges, as I work with the fields in MARS, a clear picture is emerging of our core data set. As a working corporate archive with a public mission, we sometimes feel a bit of schizophrenia. We are constantly accessioning new materials, adding new records to MARS, and circulating old materials for re-use and re-versioning. With all of these moving pieces, it is very gratifying to see that the core data set and structure holds strong.

I may eat these words when I move on to mapping our multi-layered, multi-modal digital asset management system… stay tuned!

[Chicken courtesy USDA]



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Archiving Theater – An Ephemeral Art

by Jessica Green

As I watch and catalog the Elliot Norton Reviews as part of my internship in the WGBH Archives, I am constantly reminded of the ephemeral nature of theater. One of the distinguishing aspects of theater, and of the performing arts in general, is its willingness to change and grow every night, as each new audience fills the room.

Elliot Norton. Copyright WGBH Educational Foundation

A performance is in a state of continual flux from the first day of rehearsal through the last curtain call, even if attempts are made to reproduce the exact same show every night. The temperature is different, the lead actor has a cold, the lead actress ad-libs a few lines, the audience is bored, the audience cheers loudly, the country’s president was assassinated the day before… Any number of things can affect the mood in the theater and the experience of the performance for the actors and audience. Some of these changes are intentional and some are beyond our control, but every run of a show is a string of singular experiences; there is no definitive artistic product, no archival record for future generations to experience.

Several of the Elliot Norton Reviews I have come across so far discuss changes that were made to a play between different productions or during the run of the show. Norton valued the ability of the audience to judge a performanceand determine what does and does not work, what is too long, and what is not funny. He encouraged the testing of plays in different cities with different audiences before taking them to Broadway.

In his book, Broadway Down East: An Informal Account of the Players and Playhouses of Boston from Puritan Times to the Present, Norton gives us a dramatic retelling of Boston theater history as it rose to become:

…a city where plays and musicals are tested, prepared, often revised, and made ready, not for us but very often at our expense, for New York.

Respected in the Boston theater world in the 1950s-1980s for his ability to recognize aspects of a show that could be changed to improve its quality, Norton was invited to premieres and his advice was taken into consideration before the producers from New York arrived.

Perhaps the most famous Norton story is when he suggested a pivotal change to Neil Simon’s smash hit, The Odd Couple: the return of the Pigeon sisters in the third act. This revision transformed the initially boring third act and the show became the tremendous success we know so well today (probably through the TV or film version).

In WGBH’s Elliot Norton Reviews programs, Norton discusses his likes, dislikes, and questions about performances he has seen with the actors, director, and other theater makers who produced it. Together, they work through script analysis and give us a glimpse into the creation and reception of theater pieces we know and love today such as The King and I, Richard III, and Annie with such talented actors as Yul Brynner, Al Pacino, and Reid Shelton in Boston theaters between 1958 and 1982.

Since there is no way to preserve each and every performance of a production, especially considering strict Equity rules for production recordings, the Elliot Norton Reviews are an invaluable resource for documenting the evolution of plays. The slippery nature of theater and the performing arts in general discourages its complete preservation in the way we think of archiving film or photography. We cannot archive the actual experience, but we can capture ephemera and recordings that capture aspects of the show.

One group that I am involved with that is attempting to preserve the American theater tradition through archiving theater materials is the American Theatre Archive Project (ATAP), an initiative of the American Society for Theatre Research (ASTR). A collaboration between regional teams spread out all over the US (with New York’s team paving the way), ATAP is working with theaters of all sizes to assess what types of records are being produced, held onto, and used for a variety of purposes ranging from research to marketing. The mission is to assist these theaters in archiving their records through workshops on best practices, in order to make them available to researchers and theater makers, and to preserve their legacy for future generations.

As Co-Chair for the Boston Team of ATAP, making the Elliot Norton Reviews available to the public, first in catalog form and then hopefully as digitized episodes down the line (fingers crossed), is a fun and worthwhile undertaking. They offer incredible insight into the history of Boston theater productions in a dynamic way that cannot be experienced through reviews and photographs. Check out ATAP’s beta site to read about their mission, see what teams in your area are working on, and even get involved!

by Jessica Green


  • Norton, Elliot. Broadway down East: an Informal Account of the Plays, Players, and Playhouses of Boston from Puritan times to the Present: Lectures Delivered for the National Endowment for the Humanities, Boston Public Library Learning Library Program. Boston: Trustees of the Public Library of the City of Boston, 1978. 8. Print.
  • Collier, Jay. “One of the Deans of Theater Criticism, Elliot Norton, Exits the Stage.” WGBH Alumni, Pioneers in Public Media. WGBH, 20 Oct. 2003. Web. 10 June 2011..

40 Years Ago The New York Times Publishes The Pentagon Papers

by Lindsay Whitacre

40 Years ago today, the New York Times began to publish what became known as “The Pentagon Papers,” arguably one of the most important leaks of classified material in American history.  Today the papers will be released in their entirety, including the notorious 11 missing words from the original document.

For the ground-breaking documentary series, “Vietnam: A Television History” WGBH interviewed David Ellsberg he recalls his time as a RAND military analyst helping plan the escalation of the Vietnam War in 1964 and 1965.  He then talks about his rationale for handing over the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times and seventeen other newspapers.  He recalls photocopying the 7,000 pages by hand and his realization that the Vietnam War was not winnable.

Further Reading:

Transcript of WGBH interview of Daniel Ellsberg:

The Official Pentagon Papers:

New York Times reporting on the release of The Pentagon Papers:

43 years ago today: Westmoreland leaves Vietnam

On this day in 1968, General William Westmoreland turned over his command of the U.S. forces in Vietnam to General Creighton Abrams. Watch a 1981 interview with Westmoreland here, part of Open Vault’s Vietnam Collection.

From the time he took command in 1964, General Westmoreland adopted a war strategy of attrition. To do so, he drastically increased troop deployment to Vietnam – ultimately requesting up to 700,000 soldiers. General Westmoreland also pushed for broadening the war to engage the enemy hiding in neighboring countries.

His strategy would later come under criticism from both the public and leaders in Washington. The January 1968 Tet Offensive prompted serious questions about both Westmoreland’s attrition strategy and America’s involvement in Vietnam. His departure was seen as a reaction to these questions.

Watch the interview to hear Westmoreland’s take on the Vietnam War.

– by Jon Rzepala