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Merrilee Proffitt - Learning Resources

Merrilee Profitt
Senior Program Officer in OCLC Research
Interviewed 5/16/2012

Merrillee Proffitt discusses her role as the Director of Digital Library Development at UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library; the importance of strong curatorial direction; and the advantages and benefits of working on large multi-institutional projects such as the California Heritage Project and the Making of America II Project.

“Stop trying to perfect the data and the metadata that we’re putting into the system because there’s going to be so many unanticipated uses downstream that we can’t possibly think of them all.”

Initial vision
Merrillee Proffitt shares what inspired her about electronic texts: “The idea of putting those things online so that people could discover them and it would help enable their research was really very powerful to me and still kind of gives me chills. You know, the idea of taking little things that are in these collections and making them more accessible to researchers.” Many of the projects discussed by the Digital Pioneers began with one, two or a few people with a shared vision. It was often a vision of creating improved access.

Say “Yes!” to projects
You never know where different project roles might lead. You’ll learn a lot and gain invaluable experience.

Librarians can be the mediator in the Digital Humanities
Librarians that can speak the languages of both programmers and the humanities can be the link between the two worlds and become mediators for the Digital Humanities.

“Selection is expensive”
It is very difficult to select only 35,000 photos out of an inventory of millions of great photos. It would be impractical to look through the collection image by image. If you can, avoid selection by digitizing everything in some sense. Or have very clear curatorial direction and be very clear about what you choose for digitization. For example, select an entire series or the entire collection for important photo collections. Know what your goals are for the collection. Do you want it to serve the broadest range of interests? Or to serve the specific needs of the campus community?

Don’t encode everything and don’t worry about encoding perfectly
Make documents available as PDFs and let Google take care of the first level discovery.

Take advantage of opportunities to work with and at other institutions
Work on multi-institutional projects so that you can see how things are done differently at other institutions. It is invaluable experience to work with other people outside of your own institution. It will give you perspective into how things are not perfect at any institution and give you the opportunity to bring back best practices to your own institution and try them out.

“Question previous practices” – Merrilee Proffitt
“Librarians are excellent at learning how to do things well and then doing them over and over again. And then we teach each other to do things well and do them over and over again and do them really consistently. And that is such a great thing. But it also doesn’t lead to us questioning how to do things differently.”
We need to ask the difficult, big picture, and fundamental questions. We cannot narrowly focus on how to incrementally improve the tools or techniques that we are currently using.

Merrillee Proffitt recommends Think Like A Startup by Brian Matthews on how can libraries have more of a start-up mentality. Brian Matthews is Associate Dean at Virginia Tech and blogs at The Ubiquitous Librarian:

Mathews, B. (2012). Think Like A Startup: a white paper to inspire library entrepreneurialism. Retrieved from

Abstract: This document is intended to inspire transformative thinking using insight into startup culture and innovation methodologies. It’s a collection of talking points intended to stir the entrepreneurial spirit in library leaders at every level.
Description: Facing the Future -- We don’t just need change, we need breakthrough, paradigm-shifting, transformative, disruptive ideas.

Cultural problems within the LIS community that prevent us from moving forward
Librarians are too protective of the ways we currently do things. It is unrealistic to hope that all researchers will “magically learn the importance of information literacy” and “eschew Google when appropriate.” Proffitt recommends that we:
•“Look at where the rest of the world is going in terms of discovery and seeing if we can get there.”
•“Stop trying to perfect the data and the metadata that we’re putting into the system because there’s going to be so many unanticipated uses downstream that we can’t possibly think of them all.”
•“Constantly ask ourselves the question, is the work that we’re putting into this going to be worth it for the long term?”