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Helen Tibbo - Transcript

Helen Tibbo
Alumni Distinguished Professor at the School of Information and Library Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Interviewed 5/30/2012 Digital Pioneers


[When did you first realize that digitization would impact archives?]

Okay. So. Because life is organic, I can’t exactly remember when that might have been, but sometime—so I was associate dean from 1996 to 2000, which meant that—my life was just totally consumed with administrative activities. And when I was stepping down in 2000, I was looking around for—you know, kind of what had changed, where it was going, where the field was going—where I was going to find my niche in this because I was—out of touch for a few years. It’s amazing how quickly that happens. And I went to a conference at Rice University that was—Rice was hosting it, and it was the folks from the Humanities Advanced Technology Information Institute at Glasgow where they’ re talking about digitization. It was Seamus Ross and his—some of his staff had come. And I think that was the transformative moment for me, was that workshop.

So it was a workshop for professionals—in dealing with digital cultural heritage. And I came home and I turned that into a semester-long class, essentially, a lot of the same content, added to it, and developed a semester-long class in 2000. So I think that I was one of the first to teach a class like that—in an LIS program. 2002 to 2004, we hosted it here, I was the host and Seamus and his folks came here, and we did week-long institutes for about 32 people each year. So I haven’t worked in the practitioner realm—with projects doing all of this, but I certainly have worked in the realm of teaching practitioners, both—proto-practitioners in the terms of students but also in continuing education programs. And we have just finished last week the DigCCurr Professional Institute.

So the ones in 2002-2004 really were all kind of self-funded from the fees and—there wasn’t any other backing. The Dig-Seeker projects have been IMLS backed. And—we just finished our fourth year of doing workshops where we have folks come in. They read a little bit before they come, they stay a week and become indoctrinated, and go home and work on projects. They have six-month reports and then they come back in January and report on that to each other and hopefully stay in the network with each other.

That’s kind of where the origin was. The development of this along the way for the archives profession, per se—because the people that come to all of these workshops—some of them are archivists, probably—probably 40—35-40% are archivists and the rest are in the library world. Lots of people doing institutional repository kind of things. So I would say the issues of digital preservation—are the same—kind of regardless of the content, the locale, whatever. The issues are really the same underneath that. And we have come to believe that strongly enough here at SILS that the introductory archives course now assumes a digital world. And we refer back to paper. When I first started teaching that 20 years ago, of course it was quite different. And even 10 years ago it was quite different. So it has been in the last decade that that change has been made.

[What was going on at the time to prompt the workshops at Rice?]

Okay. So that workshop was on digitization itself for cultural heritage professionals, so again it was lots of librarians and archivists, and some museum people who were there learning how to do digitization. Which—was still kind of a mystery to a lot of people in 2000 how to do it well. It really hadn’t—at that point established true best practices yet, so—the NINCH guide that came out in best practices for digitization was a little bit after that and—many of the things we take for granted now.

So, when you’re looking at funding from IMLS or wherever, just saying I’m going to digitize something probably won’t get you money today. Unless it’s very—important materials or whatnot. It’s—it was at one point, you were trying to figure out what was the best practice. So that’s where we kind of were at—in 2000. And some of those very first grants from the Library of Congress and Ameritech were ’95 and’96 so—and the folks at Cornell that did so much moving theory into practice book and whatnot and their workshop started about ’96. So there was a great need among practitioners to know how to digitize content to be able to make that more available. But it wasn’t something we knew how to do very well.

[How did you come up with digital curation?]

So I’m not sure I’m the one that came up with any of that, but—the notion of digital curation is—is not just digital preservation where you have content coming into the archives over that archival threshold—Luciano Duranti talks about that so much, that it’s the—the archivist’s role is in the repository, they never get out. That’s it, they’re in there, in the box. And maybe that worked with papers it certainly doesn’t work in the light of documentation strategies. And when you need to go after and get content, but maybe it works if stuff is coming in to you.

But in the digital world, what we know is that—decisions made about the creation of content, the early curation by the content creator, the early management of that content, will vastly influence whether or not we are ever able to preserve it. So is it made in—the standard format, a supported format? Is it made in some only three people in the world use this funky cad-cam software but I’m going to do it because this is—I think it’s cool, or something like that? Always a bad choice. You know, rogue software is not a good thing for preservation.

So we’ve learned that the likelihood that we are ever able to preserve something is increased if the archivist—and the preserver works with the content creator. So there are lots of different digital curation lifecycle models, but if you look at the one from the Digital Curation Centre in the UK, it has all the right facets. And I’m not crazy about circular models and all the stuff in the middle, but the outside part has—it’s a little busy. The outside part—well, I really like the colors. (Laughs.) But the outside has all the functions and when you look at—you know, from the notion of the inception of the digital object, so that the curator could actually work with people to advise on file formats and things like that, all the way around to—metadata creation and reuse and—not just—not just something going into the archive, somebody uses it and it goes back as the same piece of paper.

Really what we’re looking at with a lot of data in archives today, and particularly scientific data, is that NSF gives me a bunch of money, I create a bunch of data, and hopefully, they don’t’ have to give the next person that same pot of money to do the same thing. They’re going to give him money to now analyze the data I created in some other way. So that is very, very different than—I’m Historian A and I go into the archive, I read the papers, I write my book, the book goes in the library, but there’s no data that goes back into the repository. And then Historian B comes and uses those same archival materials and writes his book. That’s a different act than Scientist A creating content that goes into the repository and Scientist B actually uses that scientific data.

So this whole issue of—of design of the content, metadata, file formats, all of that, all the way around to—how are you going to make it useful and re—for reuse. So what type of metadata or codebooks for social science data or whatnot do you need? What types of standardized file formats? How do you actually have that interoperability factor? Which was not true with paper. Paper, you had to read the language, have some light bulbs on—or stand by the window in the daylight, right? That was about it.

[Can you explain why the term “curation” was chosen?]

Yeah. You know, well—so the word curation actually came in a call—a JISC, Joint Information Systems Committee funding call in the UK, to build the Digital Curation Centre. So that’s the origin of it. In—2003. Maybe that document was 2002 and then the funding came out in 2003.

The notion is that—preservation isn’t a broad enough word to cover it, and it’s also the notion—and when you start looking at—work like institutional repositories and funding for other digital repositories that the balance between preservation and access. And you often see the term preservation—not by itself, but with access, at least in the digital world. Because many, many people talk about—oh, it’s not preservation, and I would agree, it’s not preservation for preservation’s sake, but in order to have that preservation of access over time, you have to have the preservation component as well as the access.

But a lot of people think the preservation stuff is old and not so exciting and all those sorts of things. And maybe they’re thinking about the analog part. And I don’t mean archivists. I mean outside the field—the funders of projects. And when you’re looking at a university, if you’re trying to sell something like a repository, you really need to sell the—who are the users of this content going to be, and what’s the exciting content, who’s going to have access to it?

So you have the term preservation and access, which is kind of an unwieldy term. And still, the whole preservation word makes people think “old stuff.” So I think curation is really—the word was—and I don’t know, this may not have been what the Brits were thinking of, but I think it has been useful in that it makes a distinction that’s a little different and it doesn’t use the word preservation. Because although we may love the word preservation, other people just think of it as old stuff. [Top] [Back to Interview Breakdown]


[What were some of the challenges that you faced?]

So in our school it certainly was popular with our faculty. I would say even to this day we still get a fairly large number of students who come to the field because they like the materials of the field. And by that I mean the—the tactical, physical objects. I think that’s—changing. I mean, I’ve had people cry in my office that they did—weren’t going to get a job curating medieval manuscripts. And it’s kind of like that video that’s on YouTube that—well, no, you’re not, because how many medieval manuscripts are you and do you have a PhD in which language and which culture and whatever. So, realistically, all the content we create today is digital. So yes, we do have—legacy content, certainly that we need to know how to take care of, but going forward all of our new content is probably going to be digital but we have to be able to deal with that.

So I think it’s been a bit of a slog with students, actually. I think that is changing. Some of that may be that it’s—the folks we attract, but I think it’s—it’s hard to reach out to a digital audience to attract them to an LIS program. Anyway. I think that is changing, but it’s only very recently changing. And we started out when I came here in—oh. This will date me. 1989. We had one archives course that I taught every—two years—it’s a two year program here. And it was—an elective course, so we only taught that one, like, every two years. And we now teach a section of the intro—no, it was only one course. And we now teach a section of the intro to about 30 students each semester. And—in 1989 it was one course every two years to 15 students about each time. So our—our student population has grown as well. That’s part of the story.

I would say a good 20% of our students are archives students here now. We have a—a concentration in ARM and we now have a certificate that sits on top of the Master’s degree, so you have to take extra coursework—for—digital curation on top of that. So challenges from students a bit, challenges not so much from the faculty or the curriculum.

I think a lot of people—even today, but at least up to a couple years ago—decided they wanted to work in the archives so they could actually—hold and—and look at the materials, as part of that work. And quite frankly, that’s what has long attracted people to collections, is the collection materials themselves. You can have great material in a digital format, but somehow there’s a different relationship we have with it, perhaps.

[How do you keep to date as an instructor?]

Through going through meetings and—I’m working on lots of different projects that—I’m working on DataNet project here. We have—we are looking at—this first part of it—how hydrologists and ocean scientists and engineers are using data and how they’re—how they’re—what they use. I’m looking at the user needs, Cal [Lee] and I are, and—how they—use multiple data sources and things like that. So in the process of writing papers, going to conferences, listening to people and whatnot—that’s—it’s a good overlap. And then you change that syllabus every year.

[Can you tell us about your collaboration with others especially in the DigCCur Project?

Well, not—not too much. I’m presently kind of—I don’t know what my role is—consultant maybe to the Dig Cur Project in—it’s a European Commission funded project but it’s primarily based in the UK. That’s looking at models of—provision of digital curation education—continuing education. So they’ve come—they’ve kind of come up with a nice model that takes a bit of what we did at—takes our DigCCur matrix model, which has also been used by SAA as the basis of their—digital archiving certificate—specialist certificate. And some of the material from the digital preservation outreach and education group at the Library of Congress and—and some of the research information network stuff from the UK and blended that together in their model. So I am involved in that project at the moment.

And I have worked—some of the folks at Glasgow have been on some of my projects here. It’s hard—it’s hard to get—it’s hard to have collaborative projects really across international lines because you frequently can’t fund people from another country, with, at least, federal funding, in our country or other places. But you can have them on your advisory boards and things like that. And invite them to come and visit and speak and things.

[Do you see the United States starting a project to promote digital curation?]

NSF is puting money into the—into the DataNet projects, there will be four DataNet projects—five, one—one has passed, but there’ll be four, at the moment. And that’s looking at science data and particularly interoperability and—and cyber infrastructure for—for big data science.

IMLS has put a lot of money into education for digital curation. I don’t know how much longer they’re going to have that wad of money, but they have had that, which has been nice. And I think—I think IMLS has also supported libraries and archives fairly well. Funding is always the problem. [Top] [Back to Interview Breakdown]


[Looking back is there anything you would have done differently in your projects involving digital curation?]

So my projects have not been so much—my projects have been more in the education realm and—training people for this field as opposed to actually doing that kind of work because I haven’t been in a repository setting. I don’t know. I always want to have more time to write and produce more stuff and—whatnot, I think you always have those kinds of wishes after something’s over, but—otherwise probably not so much.

[Which was your favorite project?]

I think the first—Dig-Seeker project where we came up with the matrix was really—probably our golden moment, if there is a golden moment. I think the current workshop—which I’m leaving on Friday to—we’re doing it in Copenhagen, for—at the request of the Royal Library in Copenhagen, we’re putting on the same workshop we put on last week, so I think that’s a success.

I think—I had funding from NHPRC in the early 2000’s to—it was called the NHPRC Electronic Records Research Fellowships where—it was a committee of us and we selected people and mentored them through little projects—they were working professionals—we mentored them with little projects and they got, like, $5,000 for the course of a year and they did a small project. And many of those had published results in American Archivist and whatnot. That was really quite rewarding, and the people came here and put on a little—symposium and things like that.

I think the other one that—I’m presently doing that—see, I like everything I’m doing, actually. I’m involved with a project called ESOPI, Educating Students of Public Information and that one—we’re doing that with the School of Government here, where people get a dual degree—between—our degree and the Masters of Public Administration, and some of the internships we’ve been able to get from the state archives, NARA and a few other places are just—have just been wonderful. And there’s such a need—if there’s a need in archives and—academic settings in general, the need in—government repository settings is even more, it’s just incredible. So that when you’re looking at local and county and state and federal levels.

So we’re hoping to create—we are creating, not hoping—we are creating folks who are going off and—working in that bridge between policy development, public administration, and—IT and digital curation. So that’s pretty exciting. We’ve just had one person go off to the—Geospatial Mapping Defense Agency. Something like that, those initials. And—you know, it’s kind of the geospatial side of the CIA I think. So, that was our first student, our first success.

And the last one I’m working on, which I think I’ve woefully neglected but, it’s coming along now is that Closing the Digital Curation Gap, where we’re trying to put together tools, a bit like the NINCH guides in the early 2000’s, non-digitization but on—you know, where do you begin? What do you do for small to medium sized repositories and digital curation. And my challenge there is simply to find the time to do it. I shouldn’t say that on tape. [Top] [Back to Interview Breakdown]


[Do you think the focus should be on born-digital materials or how to better digitize materials?]

Well, I don’t think—I think you can pretty much learn how to do it [digitize] by reading a bit. So I don’t think there’s any mystery to how to do it well anymore. Once something is digital, it’s digital. It doesn’t make any difference. The bits are the bits. So—to me a digitized item and a born-digital item are the same thing once—once the work becomes digital. And increasingly, all of the content we create is created in the digital format. We may at some point print it out, but originally it starts in a digital format. So, certainly born-digital will become much more important. I really don’t think there’s—there’s particularly much need to make that distinction anymore.

[How do you maintain digital project over time?]

Well, I have been involved—yeah. This is another—perhaps European connection, but I’ve been involved with a group that has been looking at—at developing the ISO-standard for Audit and Certification of Trustworthy Repositories. It just came out this winter. And we conducted three—there was a group that conducted three test audits in New York and three in the US [EU] last summer. And really one of the biggest things we found in these repositories—who offered themselves up to—to go through this process, and the three European ones at least were partners in this of ours in an EU funded project, but—they were pretty major repositories who believed they had a preservation mission. But when you looked at their mission statement—so they were funded by a larger body—when you looked at their—their mission statements, their mission statements were really to provide access to content. And the mission statements didn’t mention preservation. So that hasn’t been a problem and maybe it never will. But if the really bad times came and there was money that was needed just for the preservation aspect, migration or whatever, you could see that—that might not be supported. Right? Because it wasn’t their mission. So when you look at the—the TRAC document on this ISO standard, that very first item is what is your mission state—do you have a mission statement that supports preservation? That’s it. Right—right there.

So, that’s the first thing. And it is an institutional commitment. I was really the founding mother of the institutional repository here at Carolina that’s become the Digital—the Carolina Digital Repository, and that goes back to 2005. And we slogged through that, we got money from—we got a big chunk of money from the provost to plan, and bring people in, and we had FEDORA people and D-SPACE people come visit us and we made a wonderful plan. And then we looked around and said, well, you know, we can’t actually do this as a committee because we weren’t programmers and we—that wasn’t our job, right?

So the library did finally step up and say they wanted to do it, and they’re still doing it. But it took years to get the positions and fill the positions and have the right people in the positions. So it’s really only coming to light now, actually, in the last year or so. So that’s a considerable length of time, that’s—we’re seven years beyond that now. So, yes, commitment—and really becoming central to—that role is central to the library or whatever the organization is.

I—I think about—like, shopping. I like to shop a lot. Talbots is one of my favorite stores—Denise [Anthony] is laughing. And—for a while—you know, in the heydays of, you know, 2004, 5, 6, they had menswear, they had children’s. Well, I actually never observed any men in a Talbots, except for the ones on the bench waiting for their wives. So, needless to say, they didn’t make a lot of money selling men’s clothing. And—when they—I think they got a new CEO, and when she looked at it, and the numbers, you really had to go back to your—your core. What was your business line, right? And the business was selling women’s clothing to a particular demographic, right? Which they do very well. And no 18 year olds really want to go into Talbots and nobody really wants to bring their kids in, the whole thing. So when they went back to what their core was, they’ve succeeded again more. And I think if the repository and the preservation is the core of your mission—and it’s relevant to your funder, then there’ll be sustainability. If it’s—if it’s your—you know, your 107th thing that you do on the side, probably not.

[Do you have any advice for students coming out of an LIS program?]

I would say—get as much technology behind you as you can. Because it is a technical—it’s a digital world. And the only thing that I have that is not—that I use that’s not digital is—my planner that I like to have with me just in case I was, you know, in a place where I’m not online. Other than that, I pretty much have—everything I create is digital. Grocery lists, I guess are not. So. Take all of those courses, take a systems analysis course. All of those things.

Secondly, find something you really want to do. Right? Think about what type of job you want to have and how you can go about getting that job. We have—we have—the students here write master’s papers. And I was telling them they should pick out, at least, if not where they want to work, the type of place they want to work and the type of job they want to do and—do some research on that for their paper, because they have to do original research. So that they can actually take those to the—interview - take that to their interview and actually say, these are the issues that are relevant to you and look, I’ve done some exploration and I have some answers for you, which is a pretty nice thing to take to an interview. But I would say, really, you know, it’s been tough for the last few years, but I think more and more jobs are coming now. And—really look for one that—in an area that you want to work in. And if you have those digital skills you will be in demand.

And, even more than that, if you have those digital skills and you have good communication skills so that you can talk to the people who don’t have the digital skills. And you can talk to the content creators and the content users and be that person in the middle. Very few people can pull that off, those—that’s the combination. Having enough technology to be able to bridge between the people who have not enough—people who are going to be the programmers. You’re probably not going to be the programmers, but you have to have enough to be in that middle spot. And there are so few people who can actually do that, you will have a job.

[Do you see digital curators being in demand in the future?]

Yes, exactly, and I think we see a lot more job descriptions even using that term. The hard thing when you’re doing a study of those jobs is that places use lots of different names. But when you start to look at the job descriptions, there are actually quite a few out there now. And—I would say many, many—most, most—of new hires in archives, they’re really looking for somebody with digital skills. And there are a lot of people in those—in the workplace that don’t have those, so. You do have to communicate and not be scary to those people. Right? Come in and intimidate the old people? You know, you got passive aggressive old people you have to work with, that’s never good. [Top] [Back to Interview Breakdown]

June 2012