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Ricky Erway - Learning Resources

Ricky Erway
Senior Program Officer in OCLC Research
Interviewed 5/24/2012

Ricky Erway, Senior Program Officer in OCLC Research – Erway discusses being hired by the Library of Congress right out of library school and being involved with the American Memory Project, which she describes as “the crown jewel of the National Digital Library.” Erway challenges us to focus on digitizing for access instead of for preservation.

“Getting people to follow metadata standards is almost impossible, and yet every project you hear about to this day, that’s one of the first things they do.”

Standards “are like toothbrushes, nobody wants to use anybody else’s.”
“We talk too much about it, we focus too much on it. I mean, standards—I heard recently— standards are like toothbrushes, nobody wants to use anybody else’s.”

“Getting people to follow metadata standards is almost impossible”
“Getting people to follow metadata standards is almost impossible, and yet every project you hear about to this day, that’s one of the first things they do.”

With Dublin Core, where you have ten simple elements with very few requirements, the goal is to be able to map it to another metadata schema. However, “in the end, when you’re mapping different metadata schemas, you end up just dumbing it down to the lowest common denominator.”

Archives for local use
Often, even with a well-defined standard like EAD, metadata records do not include the institution’s name since they were intended for local use. The institutional name and unique identifier would have to be supplied. Often, those were the only two dependable elements on a large project.

“Access needs to persevere”
Both the content and how that content is accessed need to be updated. Focus on access to content versus digitization preservation quality.

Free-text searching, search results and access
Focus on access quality and improving full-text access to content.
“For my whole career of working with providing access to digitized collections, I would spend more time thinking about how to provide useful feedback from a free-text search.” – Ricky Erway

Focus on ranking results to improve access.
“When you’ve got all the text in books, when you’ve got great descriptive—great descriptions of archival collections, lots and lots of words, why not let people use those words and then focus on ranking their results, offering faceted browsing through the results, finding ways to extract from all those words, you know extract personal names, extract subjects, we can do all those things now, and I, you know, wish we had thought more about that along the way.”

Special Collections: Digitizing for access
For special collections, digitizing for preservation is “slow, expensive and not very productive.” Focus instead on digitizing for access.

“In special collections, where you’re going to preserve the original collections, maybe we can just start thinking about digitizing for access, making a good enough copy to improve access, and then putting our efforts towards preserving the originals.”

Shifting Gears
In Shifting Gears: Gearing Up to Get Into the Flow, Ricky Erway and Jennifer Schaffner outline eight points describing the shift from preservation quality to digitizing for access for special collections (non-book collections, such as photographs, manuscripts, pamphlets, minerals, insects, or maps):
1. Access vs. preservation—Access wins!
2. Selection has already been done
3. Do it ONCE (then iterate)
4. Programs not projects
5. Describing special collections: Take a page from archivists
6. Quality vs. quantity—Quantity wins!
7. Discovery happens elsewhere
8. Brother can you spare a dime?

Erway, Ricky, and Jennifer Schaffner. 2007. Shifting Gears: Gearing Up to Get Into the Flow. Report produced by OCLC Programs and Research. Published online at:

Google is the aggregator and the portal
Focus on getting materials to where users are looking.
•“Google is the’ve got to plan for that”
•“It’s not about offering a great interface. It’s about getting it into Google.”
•“The Library of Congress and the Smithsonian might be able to create destination sites, but the rest of us should really think about how to get our collections into Google and into, you know, the places that researchers and citizens are likely to look, so this idea of building these handcrafted beautiful portals is really sort of—that time has come and gone.”

Re-digitizing due to change
We assume that materials will only need to be digitized once. However, because standards, user needs and technologies change, materials may need to be re-digitized.

Rapid capture of special collections
Google and Internet Archive are rapidly digitizing books with advanced scanners. What about special collections (non-book collections, such as photographs, manuscripts, pamphlets, minerals, insects, or maps)?

Programs, not projects
If your digitization project is to be sustainable, then digitization has to be what you do, not what your project is. Digitization needs to be part of your institution’s program and the institution needs to commit funding and IT support.

Short-term funding resulting in short-term projects
The reality is, special projects are expected to be done on a tight deadline on top of the normal job load. When the grant funding ceases, then neither time nor labor are allotted to that special project. The result is, what was digitized and made accessible disappears.

Build compelling prototypes that tell compelling stories
A great prototype can be used to great advantage to share the vision of your project and to obtain philanthropic funding. A two-year digitization project will not have much to show in terms of results until close to the end of the two years. Building a compelling prototype with a compelling story will not only help persuade funders, it will help you get through the periods when you do not have results yet.

Outsourcing to experts
“You can’t be expert in everything and that there are experts out in the world and you should take advantage of them.”
Harness the expertise of people at other institutions, of consultants and advisors, and of outsourcing companies. For example, outsource the imaging to a company with the right type of imaging equipment and imaging expertise.

Creative outsourcing
Creative outsourcing is another option. For example, the Library of Congress outsourced to a company that had women in a federal prison key the text of books. This was a cost-effective option since it was a federal program.

Lessons in collaboration
When working on a multi-institutional project, it is difficult “to motivate people to pull together when they all have different timelines, different priorities, different ways of doing things.” On the flip side, it is satisfying “pulling together these great collections on sort of one theme and having them all accessible in one place.”

Advice to students
“Be bold”
•“There aren’t answers to every question, and no one knows all the ones that there are answers to.”
•“Once you’ve been doing it a little bit, you’re the expert, go ahead. And experiment. And accept that you might have to do it over.”

“Distinguish yourself”
Figure out what your niche is, develop that, stick your neck out and distinguish yourself.
“Differentiate yourself in whatever ways you can, stick your neck out, be noticed, be amazing.”

“Make weird decisions”
“One little decision can cause so many other things to happen that you end up some place you just never could have imagined.”