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Merrilee Proffitt - Transcript

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

-- Beginnings --

Right. Okay, well, so—I was an undergraduate at UC-Berkeley and I was studying English and History with a focus on American History and Literature. And I was doing a lot of research at the Bancroft Library. Which is a preeminent rare books and manuscripts library, kind of like the Beinecke or the Ramsey Center, one of those types of places, and I was doing a lot of research there. And I needed a student job, and I thought, I was spending so much time at the Bancroft, I’m going to find a job there. And they had a—part of the Bancroft library was this place, the Regional Oral History Office, which was one of the first oral history programs in the country, I think second only after Columbia. And I was fascinated by the idea of oral history. I thought I wanted to be an oral historian.
So I basically went to the student employment person for the library and I said, I really want to work at the Bancroft Library and I want to work in the oral history office. And she said, you know, can you type? And I lied and I said, oh, of course I can type, I’m an excellent typist. I couldn’t type, I could barely spell—you know, but I just—I knew I wanted to work there. So I basically just came by once a week until finally they said, well, there’s a job. And I got a job kind of as a—in a clerical position there. And this was in 1988. And the office was starting to transition from having Selectric typewriters to do the transcription and editorial stuff to having DOS-based personal computers. And so I think they were—they had the first couple of computers and they were getting more into the office and transitioning the whole—everything from typescript to computers. And they had this giant printer that would—they would let it print all night long because it was so loud—kind of this giant dot-matrix printer that they had.

And I couldn’t type, but it turned out I was pretty good at computers. And the editorial staff in the office was mostly a group of women, probably in their fifties and sixties, and so I was the person who learned how to use WordPerfect in a DOS-based environment and then taught them all how to use it. And so they thought I was like, this computer goddess. And I was just basically like, two steps ahead of them. So, you know, I was responsible for developing—I went from being a clerk in the office to being the person who was kind of responsible for managing all the workflows in the office, all of the technology, responsible for doing all the doc—backups, all of the—all of the—you know when we had to do the virus checking, I would do all the virus checking, and you know, I did all that really basic computer stuff and I told my boss, who was the head of the oral history office at one point, I said, you know, I really want to take a class on DOS. Because I wanted to learn—there’s all this like, you know, asterisk-dot-asterisk-backslash stuff, and I—I knew that underneath all of that there was something that would help me do my work better. And so she said, sure. So she gave me permission to go take a couple of night school classes at the local community college, which I think cost like, five dollars a credit a credit or something like that. And so I took a couple of—I took a DOS class and then I was really the technology goddess. Because I could write these shell scripts in DOS and back up all the computers at once and you know, do stuff like that.

And I basically went from that to the library at Berkeley had this kind of—there weren’t enough computer people in the library so they had this program where they would teach people in departments to be more self-sufficient. And I got kind of integrated into that program and from there it was kind of in another part of the Bancroft Library, in the Technical Services Department. They were just getting started, Daniel Pitti and Tim Hoyer were getting started on what became EAD. And so I had kind of just barely enough technology skills and I understood the, you know, start-dot-star-backslash-emc-dot-emc stuff well enough that—that I got pulled into the group that was learning PEARL and UNIX and—learning text encoding, and got kind of swept into the precursor to EAD which was called the find aid ETD. And started encoding sample finding aids in find aid and later converting those to—to the first version of EAD. So that’s kind of how I got into digital library stuff, was kind of I worked my way up from the mailroom, so to speak. I was just kind of perceived as being somebody who was fairly good with technology and—I think I had a lot of confidence, maybe too much confidence, I kind of weighed into things and just get involved in them.

I should say that in parallel to working in EAD, I got quite interested in working with TEI because I had been working in the oral history office and what we were producing were transcripts of the interviews that were being done with prominent or preeminent Calif—people in California and western history and those would wind up as text-based things. And I remembered looking at—kind of the pre-web, looking at Gopher and thinking, wouldn’t be so cool if these were electronic texts and we could get them online, so to speak. If we could have them and you could use Veronica or Jughead to be able to search—Denise is laughing because she knows exactly what I’m talking about—look in kind of the pre-web—way of searching and you know, gosh, anybody in the world would be able to—to use these oral history transcripts if only we could get them into electronic form. They were in electronic form on a floppy disc, but they weren’t in electronic form in a way that they could be uploaded to the web.

So I think that that was the first thing that really inspired me to think about electronic texts, was, thinking about—on, you know, the one hand, the finding aids, which, I remember the first time I went to the Bancroft Library as a researcher and somebody handed me a finding aid and said, here, this is the key to the Sierra Plunk papers. Or here is the key to this water project that you’re really interested in. here’s—here’s the correspondence that kind of unlocked the door to me for this giant collection of boxes. And I just thought, wow, that’s so amazing that somebody took the time to create this inventory. And 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. I think when I started working at the library I wanted to go and get my PhD in History. And as my friends kind of went on to get their PhDs and then kind of started trying to write their way back to civilization and you know, get a job working as a professor, the idea of working in libraries appealed to me more and more as kind of—less of a fallback position and more of a—a job that had its own rewards. So really, just enabling other people to do their research is the thing that got me kind of going and excited about the work that I did.

Well, again, it was—it was more me being—probably just, as I said earlier, a little—maybe overconfident. I just kept getting put into positions of—you know, people said, hey, maybe you’d like to help organize this project, or maybe you’d like to organize this seminar, or we have a grant project and we think that you would be a good person to be on the team. And I just kept getting put into kind of positions of more and more authority and was never prudent enough to say no to anything. So—and—and my boss at the Bancroft Library, Tim Hoyer, who was the head of technical services and who had done a lot of the grant writing and stuff had me as a project manager.

So I went from kind of clerk to pseudo-programmer to programmer to project manager and then I kind of lost all of my programming and real kind of technology skills and became more of a kind of project manager. And when he retired I became the Director of Digital Library Development. Which was interesting because Tim was head of Technology Services and he was filling that role of HEad of Digital Library Development and Head of Technical Services. When he retired, they had to create two positions. And then I think when I left and the person who took Tim’s position left, they created two more positions. So he was basically doing four people’s jobs.

So, you know, my job was basically born out of him leaving and the hole that he left in being able to direct those projects, write the grants, do the project management, all—all of that stuff. So—but yeah, I would say it was a combination of me being—just a pretty, you know, basic— having basic project management skills and a real passion and affinity for the stuff. And I’ll also say I grew up with my mom as a Humanities person and my dad as a kind of math and later computer science person, so I think I kind of learned to speak both languages. So I could talk to the curators at the Bancroft and understand what they were saying. At the same time I could talk to the programmers and understand what they were saying. And there were a lot of times when I was in meetings, and I would say, oh no, no, no, you think she’s saying that, but actually she’s saying this other thing, and you are saying this about the collections and she’s misinterpreting what you’re saying about that because she speaks programming language and you’re a curator. I would kind of get in the middle and help to hear both sides in their natural language and then to explain and interpret to other people, and that was really fun too. To kind of be able to—to be able to kind of make things work, I always enjoyed that.
Sure, so I was involved in the, Making of America II project there was a Making of America project that was done between Cornell and University of Michigan that had to do with digitizing, digitizing books and putting them online. And so we had been digitizing a lot of single images and the Making of America II project was basically a way to deal to page turned objects or devising a way to deal with page turned objects because we could we had a lot of experience with digitizing photographs or digitizing an oral history transcript and putting it up into the I or digitizing a letter and then here's the second page of the letter but there is no way to kind of knit those two together. So the purpose of the Making of America II project was to deal with complex digital objects primarily page turned objects but then it turned into you know, how do you deal with time based materials? How do you connect those things together? The Making of America II turned into METS later on so and METS is wrapper technology that allows you to link digital objects together or simply handle one, what you would call a "complex digital object". So that project kind of grew naturally out of our progression I think at a number different institutions in Berkley was one of them to be able to deal with things beyond just a single photograph. Which is kind of simplistic, even photographs when we surveyed scholars about what they wanted, they always to see what was on the back of a photo and that was something that we I think hadn't thought about when, its just the back of the photo, yeah but I don't know what's on the back the photo unless you show me what's on the back of the photo, I am not going to take your word that there is nothing on the back of the photo I want to see the other side of the photo. So even our single image was never really a single image it should have been the front and back and those two images should have been tied together. [Top] [Back to Interview Breakdown]

-- Challenges --

You know, it was not a lot of—I will say that—so from—from text encoding we got into digitizing things to attached—to those descriptions—or attached to those—so we start—we went from encoding finding aids to digitizing photos and then it was trying to attach those to the descriptions. And one of the things that—and the early projects that we did were photo collections. So you’d have a big, huge group of photos and we got this grant for—I don’t know, umpty-ump hundreds of thousands of dollars from, you know, NEH, to digitize, I think it was 35,000 photos. It was the California Heritage Project. And we were going to digitize 35,000 photos, which was this huge number of photos at the time.

And—we had kind of on the curatorial side, I think, not really a good plan for how we were going to do it, and selecting 35,000 of anything is really hard. The Bancroft Library has millions of photos. So how do you select out of those? And great—millions of great photos. But how do you select out of those the ones that are going to serve kind of the broadest range of interests, are going to serve the needs of the campus community, are going to not drive the curators nuts by getting a curator involved, selecting one by one, you know, the images from the collection. So, our—in some cases, our success was really one of our great challenges, and selecting materials, I remember, was—was a huge challenge. We had, you know, these great pictorial collections to start out with, but where do you start? If you start going through image by image you’re not going to do anything.

So we wound up selecting—small but important photo collections where we could do the entire collection from end to end and also series—archival series—within those collections that were—we thought were important. But in a lot of ways we were really acting I think reactively to having been so successful in our grants and saying, okay, how can we get to 35,000 with broad coverage and—and trying to do it in a—in a way that makes sense.

Later on we got grants for—we continued to be quite successful and got grants for—the Japanese American Relocation Digitization Project and a Chinese in California project. And both of those included not only images, but also text. And there it got to be really challenging, you know, what do you—what do you choose out of your collections. And the Japanese American Relocation Archives at the Bancroft Library are, you know, undoubtedly one of the most important collections that the Bancroft has. It was microfilmed years ago because it’s such a heavily used collection. And just selecting things from out of that collection it would be representative of the collection but would also—you know, it was a large enough grant that we weren’t selecting high points of the collection. We needed to really get into depth. But how do you do that without digitizing the entire collection? So selection is expensive. And I think that that was—that is still something that—that sticks with me, is that if you can—avoid selection by digitizing everything in some sense, that is a great way to go, or if you can be very clear about what—what you need to digitize before you get into the weeds—that is also—to have a very kind of clear curatorial direction. [Top] [Back to Interview Breakdown]

-- Hindsight --

Oh gosh, there’s probably a ton of things I would have done differently knowing what I know now. I would have said, you know, don’t bother encoding everything, just put them in PDF and let the web take care of everything else, and that’s kind of heretical to say even now, but you know, we could spend a ton of time encoding things, or we could put them up and, you know, have that first level of discovery kind of taken care of. So I would tell my younger self to sweat the, you know, the small details like encoding—you know, make sure that you have your paragraph encoding in TEI absolutely perfectly. You know, how do you encode the name of a ship? Is it better to encode it as a—you know, I remember having these passionate arguments with people about the best way to encode something like the name of a ship in TEI because then it would be the most “discoverable.” And in reality, you put that stuff on the web, somebody’s going to type in the name of the ship and it’s going to come up. They’re not going to say, I want that when it’s tagged as the name of the ship.

So that kind of thing, but you asked another question, which is what did I find the most enjoyable. And I’d say that the things that I found most enjoyable and that I still find most enjoyable, are working with an incredibly talented and motivated group of peers. And I mean that across—I mean not just at the Bancroft Library, but across—all the institutions that I’ve ever come into contact with. A lot of our projects were multi-institutional, and I feel like I was really lucky in that I got to not only see how we did things at Bancroft and at Berkeley, but got to see how things were done at Columbia, and NYU and NYPL and University of Michigan and, you know, UCLA and California Digital Libraries, that was evolving. And really, I would say that I’m just so incredibly lucky to have worked with an amazing array of smart, talented, and motivated people all along the way.

And also I think that working with a range of institutions, particularly when I was at Berkeley put me in kind of a unique position of being able to see how things were done at other institutions and that gave me—that gave me two different things. For one it gave me an appreciation for how—no institution is perfect, and you may—you know, when you are inside of an institution you feel all of its imperfections very sharply. But working with people at other institutions I could see that our institution was really no worse off than any other institution. And in a lot of ways we were doing things very well.

The other advantage is if people—if something was happening at another institution that was really good, I was in a position of being able to say, hey, they’re doing this over here, couldn’t we, you know, bring that back over here and try it over here? So—I think that being in a position where I got to work and see across institutions was just so incredibly beneficial. And that’s actually one of the reasons that I left my job at Berkeley and went to RLG. In 2001 because—because it was—it afforded me exactly that opportunity to be able to work across institutions.

And—I loved my job at the Bancroft Library. I really loved it. The only reason I left is because when I read this—the posting for the position of Program Officer at RLG, it was like somebody had come inside my head and written the perfect job description for me, without me knowing what the perfect job description was until I read it. I read it and I thought, I have never thought about leaving here, but this is what I want to leave here for. So yeah. I think you might have asked me something else in there too but I don’t remember what it was. [Top] [Back to Interview Breakdown]

-- Advice --

I would say, question previous practices. There—librarians are excellent at—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. So Brian Matthews just wrote this really great paper that I’m not remembering the name of it now. But it’s on—how can—how can libraries have more of a start-up mentality? And you know, the question shouldn’t be, how do you build a better vacuum cleaner, it should be, how do you get cleaner floors? And I think that kind of backing away from what your task at hand is and trying to see what the bigger picture is and seeing what you’re trying to accomplish—so rather than trying to incrementally improve—the tools that you’re using or the techniques that you’re using, to get to where you’re going, from time to time try to stand back and see, okay, is this really about a better vacuum cleaner, or is it about cleaner floors? Because if you ask yourself the question about cleaner floors, then you wind up with something like Roomba instead of, you know, that you’re pushing around. You start thinking, how can I not push that vacuum cleaner around? How can that vacuum cleaner push itself around?

So I think that—that trying to encourage one another to ask the big hard questions and to say things like, do we really need to encode this in EAD? Or would PDF maybe be okay? And to look at where the rest of the world is going in terms of discovery and seeing if we can get there. So if you were Google, you wouldn’t think, oh my gosh, I’m going to approach the web by taking all those web pages and applying some better level of encoding to them. You’d think, how am I going to improve the machine technology to make those really dumb texts more discoverable? And I think that that is—that’s our challenge, is to think about—to think about information in kind of a—to 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. So constantly ask ourselves the question, is the work that we’re putting into this going to be worth it for the long term? So. But the thing that I think we do have going for us is that we care so much about the materials and about the researchers and about the use of the collections. And I think that it’s that passion that’s really going to—that gives me faith, you know, in the profession. So love your collections and love your users, those are the—those are kind of the two things that keep me going.

No. I’m just—I’m so excited to see new people coming into the profession and I think it’s just so fantastic that we still continue to have people that are so excited about—about information and collections and—and services, library services. I think that there’s a lot to be excited about out there. So, yay you! (Laughs.) [Top] [Back to Interview Breakdown]

July 2012