Why academic conference posters suck

I’ve been to dozens of conference poster sessions, but I struggle to think of a single thing I’ve learned from them. I don’t think I’m alone, considering the antipathy toward academic posters I’ve noticed among colleagues and librarians.

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The City of Vancouver’s maps, from archives to internet

In anticipation of International Map Year (August 2015–December 2016), the City of Vancouver Archives (CVA) has been digitizing its cartographic collection and making it available online, with the help of a grant from the BC History Digitization Program. In a talk at a fundraising event for the archives, digital conservator Sue Bigelow gave us a peek into the digitization process, and digital archivist Sharon Walz talked about the cartographic material they keep at the archives.

Map digitization at CVA

To digitize CVA’s map collection, Bigelow uses a rolling scanner that can accommodate material 54 inches wide. Before feeding the maps into the scanner face-up, she cleans the maps, repairs tears that might catch on the scanner, and flattens out folds as much as possible. She will sometimes use a plastic sleeve for especially delicate documents, but she showed us examples of scanning artifacts that can come from light reflecting off the sleeve and told us that “scanning is best done naked.”

A major milestone in this digitization project was the scanning of the 1912 Goad’s Atlas of the City of Vancouver and Surrounding Municipalities—a fire insurance plan that codes properties by their fire risk. “Digitization produces only an image,” said Bigelow, but researchers often need more. CVA, partnering with a geographic information system (GIS) company, stitched all 98 pages of the atlas together into a mosaic and rectified it so that the components all used the same geo-coordinate system. The Goad’s Atlas, along with other maps in the public domain or under City of Vancouver copyright, is available for viewing using VanMap, which provides hundreds of layers of detail, including zoning information and the location of sewer and water mains. The Goad’s files are also available in the city’s Open Data catalogue.

After the Goad’s Atlas was completed in May, the BC Developers’ Exchange helped convert the files into the Web Map Service standard so that it could be uploaded onto the Open Historical Map project, which aims to offer a publicly accessible history of the world via maps.

In November 2014, CVA was the only archives—and the only Canadians—to attend the international Moving Historical Geodata to the Web meeting. (Bigelow wrote about the meeting on the CVA blog.) That meeting showcased the potential of Map Warper, an web-based application the public can use to rectify and share maps. CVA will provide access to Map Warper; in exchange, researchers will do the work of rectifying, and the results will be made freely available. This arrangement is mutually beneficial, as the City of Vancouver doesn’t usually need rectified images.

For more information about the project, see Bigelow’s blog post about the digitization process and John Mackie’s article about the digitized Goad’s Atlas in the Vancouver Sun.

Cartographic holdings at CVA

The cartographic material at CVA, said Walz, is a mix of city records (~60%) and non-city records (~40%). Most of the maps are non-published manuscript maps—not like the maps you’d find at a map library. City-created cartographic records come from such departments as engineering or community services, and non-city records come from several different industries, including tourism, mapmaking, and resource extraction. Although CVA is now more selective and accepts only cartographic material about Vancouver, its holdings include a lot of maps from surrounding municipalities, because the city’s first archivist, Major J.S. Matthews, accepted a lot of non-Vancouver maps.

CVA’s cartographic holdings include more than just maps. They also include profiles, such as those produced in surveys, and aerial photographs (especially those on which map information has been overlain). Walz showed us the myriad functions maps can have—in promotional material or as business documents. People would often take existing printed maps and repurpose them to depict zoning, say, or electoral boundaries, and these maps, said Walz, “are fundamentally different from the base map.” CVA may have thousands of maps called “City of Vancouver,” but they all depict different things.

On the rhetorical power of the map, Walz explained that when looking at maps, we have to remember “the fourth dimension: the intention of the person who made it.” She quoted Mark Monmonier, author of How to Lie with Maps, saying, “Every map is a lie.” As projections of three-dimensional reality onto a two-dimensional surface, all maps distort reality in some way. Mapmakers will also impose their perspectives onto their maps, and many historical maps depict plans or aspirations that never came to fruition. But because they look scientific, people assume what’s on the map is (or was) what’s on the ground. “We try to take information from historical maps, but it’s not necessarily the information the map was trying to depict,” said Walz.

“Knowing why a map was made helps us understand the contents,” she said. “Knowing how a map was made can tell you if you should believe it.”

Plain language and the historical rain shadow

“I have a theory about the Internet,” said John Maxwell.

“Oh?” I took a sip of my coffee and sat back. “Go on…”

“See, everything before, say, 1970 is old enough to be interesting history, so people have posted that information online. And everything after 1995 is already on the Internet. But there’s this rain shadow of about two and half decades that there isn’t all that much information about. I think there’s a huge opportunity for people to fill in that history.”

John was referring to his research project about Coach House Books (see my summary of an Alcuin Society talk of his on the subject here), but his rain shadow applies just as well to the modern plain language movement, which got its legs in the 1970s, when First National City Bank (now Citibank) revamped its mortgage documents and governments began to recognize the need for plain language communications. The Wikipedia page about plain language offers some history, but most of it is U.S. focused, and it’s far from exhaustive.

Plain Language Association INternational (PLAIN) co-founder and tireless plain language advocate Cheryl Stephens asked me to put together a display table of the organization’s history to celebrate PLAIN’s twentieth anniversary at last October’s PLAIN 2013 conference. Drawing from three boxes of archives, including copies of PLAIN’s old newsletter, Rapport, I made a poster showing some of the major international plain language milestones of the past two decades.

Of course, there’s only so much I could fit on a poster. The archives are replete with important, fascinating historical tidbits that deserve to be documented somewhere. But where?

The need for a plain language repository

At PLAIN 2013, what became clear to me was that the plain language community could really use a repository for:

  • Clear communication research: Is active voice easier to understand than passive? Is it better to use serif or sans serif body type? I’d love to be able to visit one site to find the latest evidence supporting plain language and clear communication principles. Not only would this research inform my own work, but it would support my efforts to persuade prospective clients and decision makers about the merits of plain language. The Plain Language Advocates group on LinkedIn is fertile ground for sharing links and discussing new research, but the links to the original articles aren’t centrally archived in a useful way.
  • Case studies: Having a handy set of before-and-after examples, as well as documentation of a plain language campaign’s impacts (particularly on efficiency and the bottom line), would be enormously useful for explaining what we do and why.
  • Plain language history: Our past—seeing our gains, our losses—lights the way forward. Acknowledging the contributions of the pioneers who have dedicated countless hours to this cause is an important reminder of what we need to do to keep going.

A wiki for clear communication

I’ve sung the praises of wikis in the past: their ease of editing makes them democratic and participatory. So, I’ve set up the Clear Communication Wiki on Wikia, and I encourage everyone from the plain language community to contribute to it. Over the next several months (or, more likely, years) I plan to populate the history section with what I gleaned from my historical project for PLAIN 2013, including what I couldn’t fit onto the poster. Anyone else with relevant historical sources is welcome to fill in the details as well.

I didn’t mean to be unilateral about establishing this wiki—mostly I needed a neutral place to post the Plain Language: Clear and Simple guides I rebuilt, and I figured the wiki could serve many purposes. If there’s already an active international hub for plain language information, I’d be happy to migrate my data there.

I can see the archive of research links eventually creating the need for a full-fledged searchable database of the articles themselves, but for now, I think a wiki is a good first step.


Many of the modern plain language movement’s most vocal advocates are either gone or are retiring. The community lost Robert Eagleson in 2013, and Annetta Cheek retired from the Center for Plain Language earlier this year. I don’t know if others are feeling a sense of urgency, but I am. Let’s talk to these pioneers about their experiences, their triumphs and setbacks, and get this history down while we can.

Preservation Week at the UBC Library—Part II

Meet the microbe: why water and books don’t mix

Karen Bartlett is a professor in UBC’s School of Public and Population Health, and her Preservation Week talk gave us a glimpse into the role of fungi in the deterioration of our books and archives, as well as the health risks to people who have to work with and around mouldy books.

Mould (and fungi in general) is usually mentioned in a negative light, but Bartlett remarked that “life would not be worth living without microbial products,” including beer, wine, leavened bread, miso, and soy sauce, among others.

Fungi are nature’s composters, said Bartlett, and to them, a leaf off a tree and a leaf in the book look identical: they are both organic materials that can serve as food sources. Moulds consist of filaments called hyphae, which can be specialized into spore-producing structures known as conidiophores, as well as root-like structures that penetrate the substrate of organic material and secrete enzymes into it, breaking it down. So when moulds colonize a book, they are actively destroying its pages.

Most moulds prefer a temperature range of 4°C to 30°C, which is good in a way, because it means that very few of them thrive at our body temperature of 37.5°C, but it also means that the 20°C at which we keep our homes and libraries is ideal for mould growth. Fortunately, most moulds also need biologically available water to survive, and we can keep mould at bay by keeping our things dry. (Humans had discovered long ago that drying or salting food preserves it by stripping away biologically available water.)

Mould growth happens when these three components come together:

  • spores
  • organic material
  • water

Spores are everywhere, especially in household dust. Organic material is everywhere. The one factor that we can control is the availability of moisture. Most of the time, we have a pretty good handle on humidity; the problem is if we have a flooding event. In very old buildings constructed with lath and plaster, the lime in the plaster does a good job of fending off fungi. Most modern buildings, however, are made with drywall, which, as Bartlett says, “happens to be fungi heaven.” The core is a mix of calcium sulphate and cornstarch, which acts as a water wick. When we have a flood, we may forget that the moisture has gone up the wall well past the flood’s water level.

So what kinds of health effects can moulds have on people?

The structural components of the fungi, including the spores and hyphal fragments, have antigens that can trigger allergic reactions. Fungi also produce immunomodulating beta-glucans. Mixed organic dust, including fungal spores, can cause a condition known as organic dust toxic syndrome, which manifests as flu-like symptoms as your body tries to deal with all of the antigens. Enzymes produced by the moulds can trigger baker’s asthma, an amylase sensitivity.

If moulds are actively growing, they can produce mycotoxins and volatile organic compounds (responsible for the “mouldy smell”), which can cause irritation and may be partly responsible for sick building syndrome.

Because of these risks, people cleaning up moulds in a highly contaminated environment should take precautions, including a Tyvek suit that minimizes dermal contact (some mycotoxins are dermal toxins) with a fitted respirator to protect mucous membranes. In the case of flood, organic materials need to be dried out or freeze-dried within forty-eight hours, which isn’t always possible if the flood has also knocked out electricity. When the material is dry, control the relative humidity to below 40 per cent, increase air exchange rate, and clean materials with a HEPA-filtered vacuum. Bartlett cautioned that even if the microbes are no longer alive, the antigens they had produced may persist.


Inherent vice: internal attributes of objects requiring conservation

External factors, such as temperature, moisture, and mould, can threaten our collections, but another problem is the natural tendency of some materials to self-destruct. Anne Lama, who worked for a decade in preventive conservation at the French National Archives in Paris, is now UBC Library’s conservator, and she spoke about the effects of this inherent vice.

Restoring books is a complex endeavour, explained Lama, because they have so many components: paper, glue, cloth, and sometimes leather or plastic. Most of the book is composed of organic materials, usually long strands of polymers. The longer these polymers are, the strong they are. The polymers tend to fold onto themselves and form covalent bonds, linking one strand to another. Where there are many of these bonds, the fibres have a more crystalline structure, which lends the material strength. Areas with fewer bonds are more amorphous, which gives the material flexibility. However, those amorphous regions are most vulnerable to damage.

For paper, the biggest threat is acidification. Some paper is inherently acidic: newsprint, for example, gets yellow and brittle very quickly. But even paper that starts out neutral can acidify over time as a result of oxidation. Using paper buffered to a pH of 8 or 9 can help counteract those effects. Conservators will sometimes put thin sheets of buffered paper between the pages of a book.

Sizing—starch or gelatin—on paper can react with light and lead to yellowing. After the nineteenth century, alum was a common sizing agent, but it is acidic and essentially impossible to stabilize. Inks used on documents are also a consideration: very old inks, made with carbon and gum arabic, are very stable. Iron gall inks, however, which were in standard use between the fifth and the mid-twentieth centuries, are very acidic; in some old books, the inks have chewed through the paper, and you can recognize letters in the text as holes in the page. Dye-based inks replaced iron gall inks about seventy years ago. These inks are not acidic but may be water soluble; even moisture in the air can cause a loss of contrast between the ink and the paper.

Parchment, which gets an alkaline treatment and is stretched on a frame to dry, is quite stable, although it is vulnerable to moisture. Leather gets a tannin treatment, which makes it more resistant to microorganisms but is acidic. Because of its low pH, leather is vulnerable to red rot, which turns the material to powder. That damage is irreversible.

Conservators may dip pages in a water or calcium carbonate bath to remove some of the acidity in paper. The water bath may also help restore some of the covalent bonds in the paper. To patch holes in paper, conservators can use a filling and repair lacuna, which has a suction table to draw pulp to the holes. Powdered resins and erasers are helpful in cleaning dust—not just surface dust but also dust within the pages. Parchment can be stabilized in a humidity dome, which allows the conservator to gradually increase the humidity until it’s at the desired level.

Conservators have to play a delicate balancing act: on one hand, they try to keep as much of the original item as possible. On the other hand, they need to intervene to prevent damage. Their intervention has to be at once discreet and obvious: they should do their best to use similar materials and techniques as the original to repair damage but also make the repair evident so that it’s clear the object has been restored. They have to use judgement in deciding how much of the patina to leave. Patina gives the object historical value, and you don’t necessarily want to get rid of it.

Preservation Week at the UBC Library—Part I

The American Library Association is celebrating its second annual Preservation Week, and UBC Library has been taking part by offering a series of public lectures and webinars. I’ve taken in a couple of them so far, and although they’re only tangentially related to publishing, I thought I’d still share a few of the tidbits I’ve learned.

UBC Library and digitization

Robert Stibravy of UBC Library’s Digitization Centre gave us a tour of some of their digitization equipment.


The TTI is a reprographic copy stand: it has a large surface equipped with a vacuum that can keep documents flat (even those that have been rolled up or folded), along with an overhead 48-megapixel digital camera that can be moved up and down and can accommodate a zoom or telephoto lens, depending on the size of the material. The TTI can image items up to 40 inches by 60 inches, and it can take multiple shots of each pixel, isolating each colour, which allows for excellent colour reproduction. LEDs illuminate the work from an angle, so it’s possible to image a framed work without taking the item out of the frame and without glare from the glass.

The Contex

The Contex looks a bit like a wide-format printer or plotter, but it’s actually a scanner, accommodating material up to 54 inches wide;  it uses a row of light sources and feeds the material through. Whereas the TTI’s single-camera setup means that a very large image can have minute aberrations at its fringes, the Contex has no aberration issues and is ideal for materials such as maps, where the representations must be absolutely accurate.

The Atiz

The Atiz is a cradle (V-shaped) scanner used for bound material such as books. It’s typically used to scan fragile books, because it can capture images from a book without damaging it. You have to turn the page manually to scan each spread, so scanning a rare book with the Atiz is slow process. “But for rare materials,” said Stibravy, “The material always comes first.”

Flatbed scanners

High-end Epson 10000XL flatbed scanners are the stalwarts of the Digitization Centre; they’re used to image more than all other machines combined, and they produce excellent images.

The flexScan

A lot of material to be digitized is in microfilm or microfiche. The flexScan by nextScan is used to scan various sizes of microfiche. Among the Digitization Centre’s projects is the digitization of small-town newspaper microfiche, from the B.C. archives in Victoria. These documents are of enormous historical value, because “back in the day, that was the main vehicle of communication,” said Stibravy.

He also told us about a project launched by Library and Archives Canada in collaboration with Canadiana to digitize microfilm of the Canada Treaty Series and Parliamentary debates. Many of those records are hand-written, and the partner organizations will solicit help to transcribe them once they’ve all been scanned.

The Fujitsu fi-6670A

This high-speed document scanner can scan ninety pages per minute duplex and accommodates pages as small as a business card and as large as tabloid newspaper pages. One project that the Digitization Centre uses it for is to digitize a series of laboratory notebooks for the Beaty Biodiversity Museum. These notebooks contain a historical record of fish populations—information that will be essential to managing fisheries.

Other equipment

The Digitization Centre keeps older equipment, such as a ReVox reel-to-reel tape deck, to digitize legacy media. “Old-school” material, as Stibravy calls is, “is in dire need of digitization.”


Almost all of the textual material that the Digitization Centre images is sent through an OCR process. The Digitization Centre’s workflow and excellent OCR software (Abbyy) allow for a high recognition rate (mid- to high 90 percent). After OCR the texts become searchable.


Sarah Romkey, archivist for Rare Books and Special Collections, and Bronwen Sprout, the library’s digital initiatives coordinator, took the stage to explain some of the library’s digital preservation work.

People think digitization is a way of preserving print material, but digital preservation is its own complex beast with a unique set of  preservation challenges. It involves the “active management of digital information over time to ensure its accessibility” including well-thought-out policies that take into account the long-term impact of changes in technology.

UBC Library began developing its current digital strategy in 2011, in conjunction with Artefactual Systems. Their digital preservation tools include archivematica, an “open-source system designed to maintain standards-based long-term access to collections of digital objects,” as well as AtoM, an open-source web-based archival description software that allows people to search through digital archives and find what they need.

Romkey was also involved with developing policies and procedures for born-digital materials—which start life as digital objects and may never become print objects. One of the tenets of archiving is the concept of “original order”: the order of photos in a box or album, for example, offers important context. On storage media like CDs, however, or on legacy media such as floppy disks, original order is harder to pin down, because files can be sorted and stored in any number of configurations. To prevent the machine used to read the digital files from renaming and rearranging them, the digital preservation team has to use a write blocker to preserve their order.

The team also has to grapple with intellectual property issues. The digital rights to the materials has to be confirmed with the copyright holders. Some donors would like the library to provide access to the material but retain copyright, for example. The library has had to develop a donor agreement to deal with digital copyright.

Sprout mentioned also that an ongoing consideration of the digital preservation strategy was to integrate the growing archives into the library’s existing systems, such as the institutional repository, cIRcle.


Low-cost ways to preserve family archives

Karen E. K. Brown, preservation librarian for the University at Albany, SUNY, University Libraries, gave a talk via webinar on preserving family archives.

Preventing damage, she stressed, is far preferable to repairing damage, so it’s important to develop good storage and handling practices.

Family archives matter because they “tell the story of who we are,” said Brown, and give future generations “a record of where they came from.” Family archives can also be an important part of the community’s history.

Family archives—usually a collection of original letters, reports, notes, photographs, etc.—provide historical evidence and data about the person who created them. They may have sentimental value, of course, but some might also have financial value (such as a deed on a parcel of land). They provide proof that an event occurred and might even explain how.

Before storing the archives, Brown said, take some time to organize and document them. On separate pieces of paper, note what you know about each item: for a photograph, who is in the photo, who took it, when and where it was taken; for a letter, who wrote it, who received it, where sender and recipient lived, and when it was sent. Avoid taking notes on the original, if possible; if you absolutely have to, make light, small notes in pencil only. Whenever possible, respect the material’s original order. Diligent organization and labelling can prevent information from getting scattered or misidentified.

The main ways to protect your collections are to:

  • control the environment
  • use the right type of enclosures
  • handle the material as little and as carefully as possible
  • use copies rather than originals

You might also consider how to protect your collections in emergencies.

The environment

Temperature and relative humidity are the two biggest environmental risks. For every 10 degrees Fahrenheit (5.6 degrees Celsius), the rate of deterioration doubles. If the humidity is too high, you might encourage mould growth; too low, and leathers and adhesives may dry out. In general, avoid extremes; ideal conditions are 60 to 65 degrees Fahrenheit (15.6 to 18 degrees Celsius) and a relative humidity of 30 to 40 per cent. Practically speaking, these conditions are pretty hard to achieve, so just do what you can. Avoid storing your archives in basements, which are prone to flooding and are notorious for humidity, or attics, which can harbour pests and may get very hot in the summer. Store them in the central part of your home in suitable enclosures, and keep your home cool. Measures like sealing cracks in windows and walls and using insulated curtains, as well as dehumidifying damp areas, will not only preserve your archives but also boost the efficiency of your home.

Light is also a major environmental risk; visible and UV light can cause fading and discolouration and can cause materials to become brittle. This damage is permanent and irreversible. Limit your archives’ exposure to light. Display copies if you can, while keeping originals in the dark. Use low-wattage bulbs with dimmers. Incandescent and LED bulbs are preferable to fluorescents, which put out a lot of UV. You can use UV-filtering Plexiglas, but it’s expensive, and the protection doesn’t last forever.

To protect your archives from dirt and dust, which may scratch, be acidic, or act as food sources for pests, regularly dust and vacuum. Vacuums with HEPA filters are best, and heating systems should also be properly filtered.

Storing and handling archives

Never repair items with pressure-sensitive tapes or commercial adhesives, even if they claim to be archival. Segregate acidic items like newspaper clippings or faxes. Remove all paper clips, pins, rubber bands, etc. View your collection items in a clean area, using clean hands.

When caring for books, shelve them fully upright, using bookends if you need to. Oversize books can be shelved spine down (never spine up) or flat. Don’t pull books out from the head cap, and don’t fold over page corners or use Post-It notes. Store books closed.

For documents, hanging files in a filing cabinet are best. Boxes should be sturdy, chemically stable and have snug lids. If using plastic, opt for polyester, polyethylene, or polypropylene and “avoid anything that has a funny smell,” said Brown. Using folders rather than envelopes to store documents minimizes the chances that you’ll damage them when you insert or extract them. Avoid using coloured folders, which can transfer colour to the documents. Any enclosures like envelopes and folders should be acid free and lignin free (lignin is a component of tree bark that can acidify paper and cause discolouration). Buffered paper—which is slightly basic—is also available, but don’t use buffered paper with colour-sensitive documents like blueprints.

For photos, the best enclosures are those that have passed the Photographic Activity Test. Don’t use plastic sleeves if you’re storing photos in high-humidity areas. For albums, use mounting corners, not self-adhesive or magnetic albums. Preserve albums intact whenever possible and store them in boxes.

Oversize collections should be stored flat whenever possible. If you do have to fold, fold items like newspapers along the original centre fold. Stack newspapers in fitted boxes in chronological order. If you have to roll, use the double-tube method: roll it around one tube, secure it with tissue paper and cotton tying tape, then place it into a larger tube capped at both ends, to prevent the item from being crushed.

For AV materials, handle grooved and optical discs by the edges or the centre hole and open reel and magnetic tape by the edges or outer shell. Don’t touch the spools. If it’s deteriorating badly, consult a conservation specialist to get the content copied to new media.

Framing items for home display

People think that framing something is preserving it, but if you’re using adhesives and acidic backing and exposing the item to light, you could be accelerating its deterioration. If you do frame an item, always use 100% cotton mattes and mounting boards. Use a window matte so that the item isn’t in direct contact with the glass. Never use spray adhesives. Don’t fold or cut the item to get it to fit. Keep all original labels. For the best results, consult a conservator for help. When you display your items, hang them in interior rooms, away from heat sources. The mantle may not be the best place to display your family’s treasures.

Prepare for emergencies

When going through your archives, identify ones that are essential:

  • vital records
  • legal records that may help you protect your rights, document your property and financial assets, etc.
  • historically important records.

Make duplicates and store them in a safe place outside of your home. Use a “grab and go” bag to store items that you’d absolutely want to take with you in an emergency. If your archives do suffer damage, items should be air dried or frozen within forty-eight hours to prevent mould growth. Consult a conservator to help salvage damaged items.

Further reading about personal archives


Preservation Week events continue Thursday and Friday, and I’ll give a rundown of those sessions in a few days.