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Anne Kenney - Transcript

Anne Kenney
Carl A. Krotch University Librarian, Cornell University
Interviewed 08/1/2012

-- Beginnings --

[How did you get started in digital imaging?]

First of all thank you very much for including me in this. I think it’s a pretty interesting project that you are all involved with and congratulations on securing IMLS support for doing this. Actually my involvement with digital imaging began 1988 when I was heavily involved in some preservation microfilming projects through the great collections microfilming, Brittle Books Program, that NEH was supporting. There was at that time the Vice President of Information Technology at Cornell, Stuart Lynn, was on the advisory board for the Xerox Corporation and they had just developed this high speed and high res printer called XDot and they also developed a high speed and high resolution scanning device to help feed that printer system. Although they were primarily –sorry the printer was called DocuTech and the scanning system was call XDot—He had heard me talk about the Brittle Books crisis and he started putting the two possibilities together. Saying that maybe we could create high resolution digital images instead of microfilming. I was a little jaded about that. I had paid some attention to fax quality imaging and it’s not very good. I was also very familiar with the preservation standards in microfilming and those are kind of hard to beat. So giving it the old college try I was interested in finding out more. I was pretty clueless in what digital imaging is all about --- you know, what is this? I was confusing it with optical character recognition and with text and coding. This was all sort of over the cloak of secrecy that we were given a couple of prototypes to work with in the library. We had one room where the windows had to be papered over. We had to have our own trash take out and delivery so no one else would come in there and we signed all sorts of non-disclosure clauses. Not that I knew anything - to give away any secrets, and I started looking at the type of quality that came out. Ironically when we were using digital imaging I was comparing the quality with the paper print out to what could either be preserving microfilm or preservation photocopy. Which were two fairly acceptable standards for replacing Brittle Books. We had a lot of fun for about a year doing an in depth analysis of scanning a lot of material. I did a very careful study of 19th century printing techniques and the various fonts used. Which was at right at the heart of the Brittle Books program, but was based on lead type which has a tendency to easily spread with multiple printings and the kinds of fonts and level of detail they would produce in it and kind of a wonderful discovery was made with the 600 dots per inch capability. The XDot - we were able to create a paper facsimile that was a very strong rival to preservation photocopy. That then led us into some work looking at taking digital imaging and putting them out to computer output microfilm using a very fine system for the Com production. It was an electron beam recorder then again we saw the kinds of quality being obtained by that kind of transfer as being an analysis to preservation microfilming. I developed some standards for benchmarking digital imaging really translating the kind of criteria for preservation microfilming with line pairs per millimeter and that sort of thing to digital equivalencies. Through my analysis of the 19th century fonts, if you could capture a 1mm high character you capture about a 95-98% of anything that would be produced in those texts. So we used the Bodoni italic which is a very difficult font to create. It’s on a slant or imaging like grid- it is serif, so there is thickness and thinness to those lines. If you can capture the Bodoni italic 6 point you can capture everything else. With that kind of analysis we established some kind of standards for digitizing text base materials which has been adopted by libraries around the world. They were adopted by JSTOR and Google actually has used those standards in their massive digitization projects. So it was fun heady days doing this kind of work, being very much influenced by the rivaling analog capabilities and producing print based or film based products.

[Who was your original audience and how has that changed?]

We did this series of investigations really from about 88 to 93-94 with Xerox and also funding from the Commission on Preservation and Access which was later morphed into the Caslon Library and Information Resources, we got funds from New York State and we got funds from the Culpepper Foundation, and ultimately a large grant from the Mellon Foundation to begin the Making of American Project in tandem with the University of Michigan. Our initial focus was on creating paper facsimiles to replace deteriorating books here at Cornell. We did both production and research grants. We got a big grand from the National Endowments of Humanities to look at the computer output microfilm as an alternative for producing microfilm. It seems really funny these days to think about such a heavy focus on microfilm, but those Brittle Book days and the rhetoric around how we were losing our national and international heritage and the only thing we could do to save it was to produce microfilm. It very much influenced the conversation and the way funding was going. So in that was a breakthrough for the NEH to fund two complementary projects the one at Cornell with computer output microfilming and the one at Yale Project Open Book which was to take film and then scan film to produce digital files. Very much focused in a preservation perspective initially. I wrote a number of reports talking about interim preservation strategy until we could really get going and interact together to get digital preservation. Of course we were just kicking the ball down stream in terms of digital files that were created or a byproduct of another thing we are going after, but in fact the valuable product of that whole process. So that flipped us into looking at access and the power of digital images for accessing materials it really starting in that sort of 93-94 periods.

[Did you have specific metadata standards associated with the images?]

Yes, when we went to write the Mellon Grant and the Making of America Project we were outsourcing the effort of the scanning and metadata creation so the RFP that we developed in looking for a vendor had both standards for the imaging process and the quality control, but also the essential metadata. Our work was not so much focused in the metadata arena as it was in image quality and image capture and its use for multiple purposes whether it was print purposes or on screen display or optical character recognition efforts. A lot of parallel efforts were going on in the metadata world. Some of them were associated with how do you provide access and organize these files and others focused on preservation elements and it became a very sick field of work and so I was more interested in what are the objects that we are trying to tell us that we are trying to capture and need to convey in the digital files you want to create rich enough files to support a multiple range of uses you might not be able to go back and scan again. I think in the metadata realm, I was more interested in not how much we could collect but how little we could collect to meet our needs. There were fairly elaborate standards of descriptive metadata that are pristine and beautiful but they probably aren’t going to be implemented because of the overhead associated with them. I became very interested in the image capture to the access on to the real nub of preservation which is what you do with preserving such things as digital images and other files. It was a natural kind of progression of the work that we did from our research and development.

[How did you address sustainability with your early projects?]

The thing that was sustainable that I had to insure it was sustained were the print facsimiles that we produced. The image files were something nice that were nice to have but were a byproduct not the essential element that we were producing. We were in the days before the web and we spent a lot of time focusing on the development of the clients to support MAC’s and IMB PC’s and all of that got blown out once the web came around and the ability to really exchange such information spurred the access issues like nothing else did. It was just as we started to think about sustainability that we were the primacy of those digital images as much more than just producing microfilming facsimile and book-similes that the issues of sustainability came. It was easy to get funds to do imaging projects it’s become obviously tougher over time, but it’s a blessing and a curse to have outside funds to do such work because ultimately the issues of mainstreaming and creating sustainable paths for keeping such materials haunt you.

[What part did you play in the “Making of America” Project?]

Well I wrote the grant and I named it “Making of America”. We interviewed a number of institutions we were interested in partnering with and Michigan came out on top – in those early days it was quite – in looking where Michigan is now in terms of such strong leadership in many areas – they were one of a number of many potential contenders as partners in the MLA. The grant that I secured by the Mellon Foundation (I guess I shouldn’t say this, but I’m going to say it anyway – it took me 2 days to write – those were great days!) For its time it was extremely ambitious to do so many digital images in such a short period of time. Now of course it’s been dwarfed by the work that Google and Microsoft have done in terms of massive production. Looking back on those days it was pretty impressive. I think it was an important effort and a true collaboration between two institutions to make material or complimentary material available although I suggest that the partnership with Michigan is an analogous to two children playing. You know - I’ll be in the same room with you, but don’t touch my marbles and that kind of thing, so we were never able to have a joint platform. The selection was a very different platform. We both did a nod to local history – our focus was on late 19 to early 20th century popular literature that was shaping the opinion and thinking of American, not the scholarly literature which JSOR picked up, but you know Scientific American those kinds of things, Harpers. It was a fun project and it still continued to be used as a very heavily used resource. Another issues around the great technological hand wave we did Making of America we decided that it wouldn’t be that much more of an effort to make it that much more freely available around the world. I remember one of the technology types saying that it will be just noise in terms of providing access to it and that’s true in terms of the technological access to the files, but the amount of services expectation that came with all of these customers and all of these users from around the world was phenomenal. We had to not only provide technically support for them but we also had to provide a lot of reference for support for them. Those external users got kind of uppity when we would change services to the Making of America interface. I remember one woman wrote to two other who were using Making of America, “looks what they’ve done a t Cornell we’re not going to take this”! And I’m going – What? Who are you? But in fact, when you put something out there and you provide it freely accessible it’s naive not to think that you are serving a much broader community. This can have very different needs for what they are doing. Uppity users of the world unite! [Top] [Back to Interview Breakdown]

-- Challenges —-

[Tell us about challenges you faced in your early projects.]

Well I mentioned the one with technology not being ripe enough in terms of our aspirations for access. Spending several years and I don’t know how many dollars developing work that just went nowhere. I think the issue you brought up with sustainability is a key one. The ownership by these institutions is a tough thing to do. We were doing research and development. We were getting outside money. We were involved with spent works activities. Which is fine and good, but it’s not seen as the bread and butter of what an institution is doing at the time. So once a project is done you’re now holding a project that has not been well integrated into the mission and goals and processes that an institution may have. It’s done in parallel and that is highly problematic. I think another lesson was we were so tempted by continuing to build our image of what digital imaging can do that we kept on mixing research and production grants. So you can both do research and stop to admire what you are doing or change course when you learn more. Or you can do a production grant, where you can - where quality and through put and reliability is the big deal. Mixing and matching the two is problematic. After a while it became clear to me that the research and development - and these smaller kinds of grants - where we are not promising the stars, the sun and the moon in terms of the end products and to really focus in on those production grants on the through put and the quality and the kind of integration into our everyday operations within the library system. Another interesting assumption was that technology will take care of the other problems that are out there. The great technology hand wave is so compelling. So asking such tough questions like – you know – How are we going to get these files out of this proprietary wrapper that Xerox was using? Oh well - you know technology will take care of that! Buying the equipment and then determining what you want to do with it is often a common occurrence. Oh we are going to do rare books so we bought a flatbed scanner. You know - how are you actually going to capture those rare books? Cause you’re not going to just bind them. Oh well, you know…so that is letting the tail wag the dog. So being enamored with technology and similarly being enamored of the readymade is out there rather than thinking through what is critical for my institution moving forward. I can get a grant to do this, now it’s going to be a hard sell back home, but man, there’s a lot of money there that would be cool to have! So resisting those two kinds of devils I think is an early lesson for us.

[Did you face any other challenges in the “Making of America” project?]

I think that issues of the skunk’s works and that issue of being outside of what the library system is doing caused some real problems around the integration. There were certainly champions within the library system for doing this kind of work. It always had to be seen as well this is something we could pull the plug on with if we don’t like what’s going on. It’s not really essential in how we identify and make material available. These were heady days before e-journal literature had really become a critical resource and the tipping point. In 1994, there were probably 200 e-journals that were being made available and here we are focusing on producing a million images. It was a very different kind of environment in the sort of digital imperative of today. Not having it sufficiently paving the way for it to engage the whole staff in what this meant for interesting projects. Could they help us pave the way to become a better research library given the future that is just around the corner? That certainly could have been done better and I would have done much more in terms of engaging staff doing more on publicity and – you know - meeting and that sort of things. [Top] [Back to Interview Breakdown]

-- Hindsight —-

[Knowing what you know now what would you have done differently?]

In the very early days, I would not have tried to do all the development to create access capabilities. I think you don’t want to be on the bloody cutting edge very often. It is much better to be clever adaptive and take things from different places and try to build something than try to be an innovator all the time, because innovation has such a high risk element and usually fail most of the time. Failure, in the digital access world, is quite visible to everybody else and a lot of time effort can be spent in that. We are a research library, but we are also one that is interested in advancing scholarship and ready access to information. By doing so much research you’re doing a different thing than providing this scholarship accessibility to your students and faculty. Beware of gifts; we received a really state of the art huge platter storage capabilities jukebox. The company went belly-up a couple of years ago. It was only after heroic effort that we got it off the huge platters that had been provided, so you’ll often start with something that seems like a really great thing and end up paying over and over and over for those kinds of gifts that come through. I would not give up any kind of research - you know I’ve been an administrator since 2000, and I really enjoyed doing my job. I loved doing this kind of work and I really enjoyed coming into work every day and as I said, it was just heady times – I felt like my knowledge was doubling every couple of weeks. It probably was since I started at such a small level to begin with. It was fun it really was fun to do that work. [Top] [Back to Interview Breakdown]

-- Advice —-

[What do you think is the next “big thing” in digital imaging and digitization?]

Well I think Google is going to kind of cover the published literature out there certainly IP rights are a major concern. We’ll look to see what comes out of the Google book suit and the orphan works issue. While we have achieved a level of scale in the digitation of materials we have not created a concomitant scale in terms of the other enabling prerequisites to help us substantially change the way research libraries go about their business. So for instance as more of us move print copies off campus - and because of the laws of physics – because there is only so much room on campus and you want to put the newer stuff on campus, so to use the more heavily used materials. Providing access and developing ways to share the costs of network across research institutions around the preservation of the print. The preservation around the digital heritage creating the merging between the retrospective digitization and perspective material coming to us all of those are very disparate elements within the sort of arsenal of things that research library are grappling with. I think special collections are an area where there will be heavy mining for digitization. We have to be very mindful of privacy rights, donor right and expectations of users and not be so fearful about ascertaining fair use rights. I think that institutions given the pressure from external forces have been relatively timid about supporting risk taking in terms of providing access to materials that the focus has been, for so long now, on avoiding risks of litigation and by doing so we have curtailed. What have been traditional that libraries roles have played in society which is to make material available for new use and knowledge and creative expression and I think we are putting our institutions at risk by being so timid doing that. I say this with fully consciousness that the fact that Cornell is doing in a suit one of the parties in a suit by the authors guild on digitization and the orphan works of the Hathi Trust activities, but I none the less feel that for us to continue to meet our traditional time bound responsibilities. To promote scholarship and learning that we have to grapple with very changing environments and it’s not simply the technology that is a massive force to be reckoned with, but also the intellectual property issues the commercialization if particularly primary source materials the nickel and dimming of each other and putting up of Chinese gates between one institution and another in terms of controlling access we need to be careful of when we work with vendors who understandably need to recover some of their costs in digitizing materials, but then we end up giving away our intellectual heritage to them for much longer than we really should be to them. I worry about building our backbones and building our technical and IP and business sense capabilities for addressing very different challenges. It’s a really hard time to be in libraries and it’s a really fabulous time to be in libraries there’s no end of really interesting things to be working on.

[What advice would you give people who are just starting out?]

Well certainly keep your enthusiasm high be more thoughtful – in some ways the buyer and the sellers’ market changes and libraries need new skill sets, but you want to be careful as you look at options and you develop your portfolios to be attractive for candidates’ positions and that you don’t box yourself and oh yeah, that’s our imaging person - that you have a more holistic understanding of the full scope of what it means to fulfill the mission in a really changing environment and that you understand and not be distracted from first and foremost - Is this good for the institution? Does it support its mission? Is it a priority that means that funds would be diverted from something else? Manna from heaven is not as easily falling from the sky as it once was and I think a lot of this is going to be some painful transitions for cultural institutions in reallocating internally to support these new needs. Again watching the assumptions around what technology can do for you and being very careful not to just – a friend of mine says, “Anne being conceptually strong – I don’t think it’s going to work”. So having those conceptually strong ideas but then a healthy dose of skepticism around what truly can be accomplished and sometimes technology isn’t the worst of it can be entrenched in doing things. It could be users have different expectations that they can bring to the table. We think we know what they want and maybe we are way off base. Being able to watch those assumptions and being able to tie them to the mission and being conscious of the full cycle of what is takes place not just that little piece of it. Sustainability certainly and preservation certainly - how it fits into that much broader context, so broader thinking as well as broader thinking of some areas of specialization, but not so narrowly defining yourself that. You know – you don’t want to be a one trick pony in terms of what the needs are, because within cultural institutions I think most staff at Cornell has different jobs than they did two years ago. Even though it’s a constant cycle of reinventing and relearning and appreciating new things that come down the pike, but don’t lose enthusiasm. You know we have a mentoring program here and my mentor is the woman who does the social media and all I ask is that she doesn’t tell people how stupid I am about Facebook and what it’s all about. We have really good conversation around - Should we go this way? What value is it? We know people use it for this, but are they really going to want the library in that space on what circumstances? Being mentored up and down is absolutely key.

[Is there anything else you would like to share with us?]

The frontier right now is the digital preservation elements and then also the digital curation that sort of broader appreciation for not just that massive data that will be coming down the pike but the born digital content that will come into special collections whether its data or the corpus of work that an individual will or an organization has spent time and energy on. Dealing with a myriad of things that walk and talk and move or walk and talk back and move. understanding that new applications – it’s necessary but insufficient to have a corpus of material and how do you use it in new ways. The ability to partner with researchers and faculty and stop being the handmaidens of history but actually be the partners in new ways of doing fundamental research and not simply in the sciences but in the social sciences and increasingly in the humanities. The world can be your oyster in those areas. [Top] [Back to Interview Breakdown]

July 2012