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Nancy Allen - Transcript

Nancy Allen
Penrose Library, DU
Interviewed 11/30/2009

-- Beginnings --

Well, I got started -— my part of the story in digitization -— I started way back in 1998. There was a retreat of the Colorado regional library system directors, and this retreat was convened to do some planning. The planning was all centered around LSTA, and the priorities needed to be set by the state library for LSTA funds for that year. And —- I was on the -— the library development committee, the steering committee, so I was able to join the retreat.

The retreat was held way up in the mountains at Mount Princeton Hot Springs Resort, which is a beautiful location, and very inspiring for strategic planning, I’m sure. But the strategic planning went by and I hardly remember any of it. What I do remember is that Nancy Bolt, then the state librarian, and I, were sitting on a rock, in the sun, during a break, having a chat. And what we were chatting about was the fabulous work being done at that time by the Denver Public Library in its early digitization program. They had wonderful collections, the Western History collections, and they were digitizing those, even in the early ages.

Nancy and I were talking about how it was too bad that there was no state infrastructure to share the knowledge that they had gained organizationally about digitization. And there was no way in the state to support a collaborative approach. There was nothing there to allow what Denver Public Library knew to be adopted by others. There was no system for adapting what they had developed. So that great idea was launched in an LSTA grant, because after all, that’s what we were all there for, and that LSTA grant started what was then called the Colorado Digitization Project. The Colorado Digitization Project or the CDP began with that first LSTA grant, and it began in order to do just what Nancy Bolt and I chatted about there on the rock, it was designed to figure out how we could work on this fascinating new idea of digitization together. Not just one institution at a time, but approaching the whole thing together, so from the very outset, the idea was to focus on collaboration, not just the technology. [Top] [Back to Interview Breakdown]

-- Challenges --

Well, there were more challenges than anything. There were way more challenges than money; there were more challenges than collaborators…challenges you could list a lot. So let’s see —- there were no standards —- we didn’t have -- in the late nineties, we didn’t have standards -— there were metadata standards in the library world but Dublin Core was the new big thing, and Dublin Core and the way cultural heritage organizations might adopt Dublin Core metadata -— there weren’t any standards -— there weren’t even best practices. So the CDP created that. And they created that with groups of experts from all four cultural heritage institution types. So we were pretty sure that if we could do it, anyone could do it. And that was the whole idea. So that was a big challenge.

The other big challenge was there was no common workflow. There weren’t even common understandings about the purpose of the work. So if you didn’t have the same basis -— the same -— operational purpose, you would run into trouble sooner or later. And I can -— you know, the classic example that I often give here has to do with -— the catalogue. The library’s catalog is a public good, it’s there to help people find their collections, in a museum, the catalog is only for staff, and the collections are certainly never public. They’re never to be handled. You don’t even want to put a location indicator in your catalog because someone could come in and burglarize your collection. It’s—it’s all about security and control and safety and preservation in a museum. In the library it’s all about use, come in, and handle it, find it, we want you to find it. So these big differences between museums and libraries needed to be bridged, and we needed to find common ground, and we needed to find—ways to discuss finding aids that would work well in both professional environments, with both sets of professional understandings.

So yes, there were challenges in collaboration, there were challenges in standards, there were challenges in technology. I mean, at that time -— you know, we had -— you know, very little commercially available in the way of Dublin Core-based metadata finding aids. So we were making something work that -— that was available commercially, and it worked well, but there weren’t very may choices. So yeah, there were challenges in every arena. The technical challenges, the collaborative challenges, the -— standards and best practices challenges -— there really weren’t best practices even for scanning, and what you wanted in the—the most ideal possible image for preservation and digital access purposes. So, yes, challenges like crazy. Remember what year was (laughs). It was a really long time ago. [Top] [Back to Interview Breakdown]

-- Hindsight --

I’d say that the biggest problem that we had, that -— that we didn’t really tackle very well, is -— is a problem that most of the digitization collaborative had, and that was the problem of sustainability. You really cannot plan on always getting your grants. This is kind of no-brainer. Everyone would know that. But we’d been so successful over time in the CDP. We got well over 2.6 million dollars over the time that the CDP was based at the University of Denver. That’s an awful lot of money for the humanities. And it was very high impact, and it made a national model. But it wasn’t a sustainability model. And so we had to start thinking hard about how we might keep going over time. And that was a real challenge. And I think we might have been better off if we’d thought about that from the very beginning. Coming up with more diverse revenue streams and -- and being more creative about how to raise money for the infrastructure. For getting new upgrades and coming up with new policies and—and you know, travel funding for all the people working on the working groups -- there’s a lot of different ways a collaborative could spend money. And we really just didn’t quite have enough funding. And we didn’t figure out a way for the CDP to raise that kind of money in a sustainable way.

We also had issues with leadership sustainability. I mean, sooner or later, Liz was gonna leave. She was gonna find another opportunity. And she did; we hired a wonderful new executive director named Jill Koelling, and she did a terrific job with the CDP -— the board really appreciated her ideas, a breath of fresh air, great new thinking, different areas of expertise, in fact. Her expertise was in imaging; Liz’s expertise was in metadata. A wonderful combination of -— of experts to lead the CDP. But every time we would have leadership turnover, or staff turnover, we would kind of be -— struggling a little bit in order to keep things going, to keep grants going, to keep commitments going to the members. Because we were both grant funded and membership funded, so we were trying to work on sustainability, we just didn’t quite get there. So I think that was a big issue, not unusual to this particular program, but certainly an issue that we’ve dealt with over time, in fact, Liz and I wrote a book for—a booklet for Clear, talking about some research we did in the area of cultural heritage, the collaborative digitization sustainability—looking at what worked and what didn’t work. And we found it very difficult to follow our own advice. (Laughs.) [Top] [Back to Interview Breakdown]

-- Advice --

I think that -— that now, in the -— the contemporary era of cloud computing and moving digital content to the network level and thinking about finding aids and metadata very differently than we thought about them in the very early days -— all that new theory of um — information flow rather than archival management needs to be ported out to the cultural heritage world. It’s something that we in libraries are talking about a lot, especially in academic libraries. It’s not something that’s necessary a point of conversation in museums and historical societies in archives where the focus is still much more on that classic archival approach of managing stuff rather than switching to that view that it’s really the cloud, it’s the information layer, it’s the movement of information, the flow from repositories to users that we need to pay attention to. So I think that concept of information flow in a collaborative world, a world of collaboration with cultural heritage organizations, is something that I haven’t seen too much discussion of and I think that’s going to be a significant issue.

But we can’t not address all those issues related to archival content management -— digital content management. So I think another really important big issue is digital content preservation, and I know that there are many successful projects underway and programs -— some of which are really collaborative like Locks, to deal with that. But I think, again, we need to -— remember that we need a systematic way of bridging that knowledge gap from the developers in library land or in archives out to other cultural heritage organizations that need to use those solutions. So I think again we -— we’re doing great work in the area of digital preservation, but we need to remember collaboration, and we need to remember cultural heritage partnerships. [Top] [Back to Interview Breakdown]

June 2012