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Joyce Ray - Transcript

Joyce Ray
Associate Deputy Director for Library Services at the US Institute of Museum and Library Services
Interviewed 3/4/2010
Note: Joyce Ray left IMLS in August 2011. She is now Visiting Professor, Information Studies at University College London

-- Beginnings --

So—I actually began as a—special collections librarian and—got into archives very early on in my career and was an archivist. My professional identity was with the Society of American Archivists. I was living in Texas. I worked at the University of Texas Health Sciences Center at San Antonio where I was kind of head of special collections. And we moved to Washington—in—you’ll have to edit this part out because I’m trying to remember the date—was 19—88. I began working at the National Archives. And so I worked there for 10 years in various—jobs there. I was in Policy and Program Analysis, I was in Appraisal, and then I went to the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, and that’s how I got familiar with the grant programs. I was—director of Technological Evaluation and then I was acting director of the—NHPRC, National Historic Publications and Records Commission. And—saw the job posting for IMLS—was actually a very new agency, I hadn’t even heard of it, but they were expanding and starting to hire staff, so I interviewed and got that job there.

And this was—IMLS was created by Congress in 1996. What they did was merge a very small agency that had been called the Institute of Museum Services and I think they had about 15 staff members—that was merged with a program for libraries that was part of the Department of Education. And—the legislation that had authorized the library program was called the Library Services and Construction Act. It was at the Department of Education, and that—statute was expiring, so they replaced it with an act called the Library Services and Technology Act that moved the focus from construction to technology and moved the program—merged it with IMS to become IMLS. So I started there in 1988 and I’ve been there since then. And I was really—I really was given a wonderful opportunity to start on the ground floor of a brand new program. And I think I was the—first person to begin working at IMLS that didn’t—in the library program—that didn’t come from the Department of Education. They had transferred—I believe it was 23 slots from the Department of Education, but a number of people decided to retire or to stay at the Department of Education, they said they would find them other jobs.

So only seven people actually came from Education to the new agency, which gave us a lot of opportunity to hire new staff. We had new—statute and we had—we were developing new guidelines, and the very first year it—you know, it was crazy because we were hiring staff, we were trying to implement this new grant program, we didn’t know what we were doing, and we were just kind of making it up as we went along. We were just—you know, developing forms, using them the next day.

So it was a really exciting time, and I think that was what attracted me—I—I honestly did not know that much about the library community because my identity had all been with archives. But I think because of the digital program and the tremendous interest in digitization and the fact that we really didn’t know how to preserve these materials was—scary, but also real exciting. [Top] [Back to Interview Breakdown]

-- Challenges --

So—IMLS was the first, and I believe it may still be the only, funding agency in Washington that has written into its statute authority to fund digitization. And I think that was really insightful of the people that wrote the legislation, which was not me. But—there was just so much interest in doing that. But there was a real lack of knowledge about how to do it—how to do it right.

And, being an archivist, I was petrified that we were funding this stuff that we really didn’t know how to preserve. And initially we really didn’t even know how to help people—prepare for a digitization project, so that truly was why we started the WebWise Conference, that the people who—got the grants the first couple years were people who had been doing digitization and had already figured out how to express that in a grant proposal.

But we were not giving guidance to people about well, here’s what you can do. I think that our guidelines had about a paragraph for digitization projects, which was basically, tell us what you want to do. And people that knew a little bit were able to say that better than people who were just getting started, so the first WebWise Conference we—it was actually invitational. We invited people who had applied for grants but had not been successful as participants, and then we invited some of the funded projects that we thought were really good models to present to them.

And I think also because—from the very beginning we had this category for library and museum collaboration. And so that brought museums and—as well as libraries and archives all together. So it was people from all different types of museums, all types of libraries—different sizes of institutions, but they were all interested in digitization and technology. And I think at that time, that was—one of the few, certainly, if not the only place, where such a variety of people came together.

And that’s what people always said from the beginning, that that was what they really liked about it. So that’s been one our kind of guiding principles for the conference is sometimes people have suggested, well, you know, you could let more people into the conference if you had different tracks and break up into smaller groups. But we were afraid to do that because we felt that just automatically the museum people would go to one track, the library people would go to another, and we really wanted people to all be in the same room and hear the same things and share with each other. So we’ve stuck to that. Because I think if something’s worth doing, and it’s worth doing well, you don’t want to have to keep reinventing the wheel. And I also believe that digitization is an important part of a preservation strategy for all types of collections. People think of it primarily for access, and, you know, that’s certainly an important part of it. But there are so many examples where physical collections have been lost—through fires and floods and earthquakes and thefts and—destruction that—knowing that you have a good digital surrogate as a good backup is really an important part of that—that picture. So I do think it’s important to make sure that those digital images are well-organized so you can find them again and also preserved into the future. Initially we funded just a lot of—just good digitization projects that eventually led to some of the guidance that we’ve been involved in developing, like the Framework of Guidance for Building Good Digital Collections. And I think we learned a lot from that, but—because our funding has not increased that much for digitization, our focus has always been on innovative model projects.

So initially, those innovative model projects were just establishing the good criteria for—best practices, workflows—those kinds of things. But as we have turned those early projects into best practices and guidance, the bar’s become a little bit more difficult to maintain a cutting edge. You know, what’s an innovative project? I think that has changed. So there has been—emphasis on state-wide collaboratives, we’ve funded a number of those, we’ve also funded aggregation projects for various types of—you know, metadata harvesting, tool development—and interaction of tools with content. So it has evolved in that sense. [Top] [Back to Interview Breakdown]

-- Hindsight --

Yeah. We have struggled to some extent with how much you can take on in a single project. For one thing, we used to ask people—to talk about who they thought the audience was for this content to try to show that there was a demand for this content. And one of the things we learned from that was that people had no idea. I think our imagination about who’s going to use content has been greatly expanded just by doing it and putting it out there. So—you know, special collections in libraries have just been revolutionized by digitization and making content more accessible. So you have collections that used to only be available to a few, scholars and people had no idea that when they put this stuff online that there would be so much interest from people that they never imagined, like school children, homeschoolers, scholars, you know, around the world. And that’s been very gratifying and eye-opening.

The other thing I think, when you ask about—doing things differently, and I said we tried to do too much, we also tried to—get some concept of use in to those digitization projects—to tie it to some outcome like, you know, learning, and being able to show impact. And I think—sometimes that was trying to do too much in one project. Our project periods are only for up to three years. And just getting the technical issues right and exploring those—in many cases I really think is enough, and trying to carry that into—you know, interacting with an audience and evaluating an actual use—can be very difficult to try to pile that on top of a—just, you know, a really cutting-edge technology project should be enough in itself. [Top] [Back to Interview Breakdown]

-- Advice --

Well, you can’t really tell people how to be innovative, unfortunately. I think—for—a lot of the—for a lot of people it really means getting connected to a community. So that means going to conferences, even if it’s local conferences, and finding out what the state of the art is so they can figure out how they can make a difference in their community. And it’s not always complex technology, sometimes it is more about community building, like working with a new or different community. And bringing different groups of people together. So using the content—can be using the content in innovative ways.

We also have seen—applicants that are not successful the first time they apply for a grant, if they really listen to the reviewers’ comments and take them to heart—I feel that our reviewers are very sensitive and try to give really helpful advice. And we have seen people make very good use of that and come back with a successful project. I think sometimes people get discouraged if they’re not successful the first time they apply. But we hear from even people in big institutions say that, you know, their institution puts in lots of grants and their success rate may only be 50% but that’s actually pretty good. So—you know, I think it also takes some persistence.
I’m optimistic right now that our funding will be maintained. I’d like to say I wish it would be increased because there is still so much demand for funding for digitization and so few dollars. And I do—see that sometimes I think that people think it’s that—well, we can rely on the private sector, when I think there’s some issues with that. Most private sector money goes to—kind of the—you know, cherry picking, the things that there’s a very immediate—demand for. Whereas smaller institutions or things that are not quite as—you know, exciting initially, but may have great value—it can be very hard to get funding for them. And—sometimes it also means that content gets locked up by making an agreement with somebody that will digitize it but then they want to control access, at least for awhile. [Top] [Back to Interview Breakdown]

July 2012