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Roy Tennant - Transcript

Roy Tennant
Senior Program Officer, Research Division of OCLC
Interviewed 05/09/2012

-- Beginnings --

[Please tell us about one of your first projects.]

My sense of it was that you want to talk about a digitization project. Is that true?

[Yes.]

Because my—automation experience goes way back into others areas, which we won’t go into. So let me just set the stage very briefly about the project I want to talk about, and it goes back to the mid-90’s—in 1995. When I was at UC-Berkeley. We became what was called a SunSITE, and this was Sun Microsystems would give a computer—a large computer—to a university to be a site to download software and—and various other things. We were the first “digital library” SunSITE. And basically, all that meant was we were supposed to do some interesting things with that server and then UC-Berkeley got a free machine. And so I was put in charge of that and so therefore I kind of brought on board some things I already had going on and then also used that as a launching pad to do some new things. And it’s one of those new things I want to talk about.

Just one historical note, though, I went back and pulled this handout which we created at the launch event in 1995. And I was rather shocked to discover that we were touting that had actually 60 gigabytes of storage. Which, at the time was absolutely huge. And now of course I’ve got more than that on my iPad. So it’s just ridiculous—what’s happened in just the last, you know, 17 years, I guess.

So, when I got to SunSITE there were a number of things that I wanted to do with it. I won’t go into those, but one of the things that we wanted to do was to build digital collections. And UC Berkeley of course has the Bancroft library, which is a world-renowned historical collection archive, and so forth. And they have quite a collection of materials, first editions, related to Jack London, the author. And so, I happened to be living in Sonoma and I’ve lived there for 25 years now, and in Sonoma Valley we have a state park that is the Jack London State Park because that’s where he lived, he had a ranch there, he built his house there, which of course burned down before he’d ever moved into it. So there’s a lot of history around Jack London within, you know, nearby where I lived, and—both perhaps to their credit and perhaps not, they gave me my head with it. In other words, I could basically do what I wanted.

The good side of that I think we did some really awesome things—the bad side is that it was a little too disconnected from the rest of the library in the sense that we ended up being this little backwater in a sense that the other lib—the rest of the library didn’t really pay a lot of attention to. And eventually that came back to bite me because then they really didn’t care. Even though I made a number of efforts to make it a part of regular processes. So for example, we had—I developed a collection development policy, or I should say, more like a collection retention policy. Because I was eager to say which things we would stand behind and which we would not, and I wanted to be explicit about those decisions, but there really wasn’t any traction with that within the library, they really weren’t ready to think about those things yet. So to some degree I think we were ahead of our time.

We ended up, you know, creating a brochure of the site. You know, we showed some of what we had up on the site in terms of photographs and text and things like that. We had Jack London’s application to UC Berkeley, for example, which was one of my favorite things, and that kind of thing. So it was—it kind of spanned a variety of types of materials, although we didn’t have any audio or video. So that’s kind of the project in a nutshell is to keep that stuff around. And that’s what they didn’t have, what I had to eventually supply myself. For example, one of the things I was able to do and one of the things I ended up being the proudest of was, way back in the mid-nineties, and it may be hard to realize the—for you young people, what it was like back then. When it was still this wild, moly place that there really wasn’t much out there, that search engines—I became aware of a public librarian at Berkeley Public Library who had put together her own set of bookmarks which had been organized by topic. And for awhile they just resided basically on her computer and some, you know, public computers within Berkeley Public Library. And I got wind of that and I offered to help her bring that onto the web, bring that fully onto the web, as a subject guide to the internet. And that project became the Librarian’s Index to the Internet, which had its own life for many years within California and was funded by for example LSTA money from State of California, and then eventually found its way to the University of Michigan where it was merged with some other projects, Internet Public Library. I basically wrote the software behind that so that you had a web-based input form, and indexing of the links and the descriptions and things like that did the UI coding and that kind of thing. In other words, that was a way I felt that I could provide an infrastructure and capability and technical ability to take that project to the next big step.

We also just simply did things where, for example, I kind of looked around at the time and there was this index to library websites called LibWeb that Thomas Dowling put together. He was at the University of Washington and that’s where it was hosted. And so I just contacted him and said, hey, Thomas, why don’t you just bring it over here? You know and—so I was trying to pull in existing things as well as create new things and build enough of a presence so that people would actually come and use a variety of different things.

I should also mention that kind of an outgrowth of this, as specifically an outgrowth of projects like the Jack London collection was that we felt like we were getting some level of expertise in a variety of different technical areas. So not just imaging, not just digitization itself, but also things like structured encoding of texts, you know, HTML, Photoshop—kind of a variety of technologies around the digitization process and then putting that information on the web. And so we applied for and received a grant from a government agency to do a five-day bootcamp for librarians on—on all these various technologies that we felt were important to put information up on the web. And that happened in 1997. And we ran two of them. We had people apply to come, we chose who was going to come, and we did two separate weeks—you know, one cohort came in and we spent a solid week with them, and then another cohort came in and we spent a solid week with them. And that was a very interesting project that I think also enabled some librarians to get kind of boot-strapped on what it would take to do this kind of work.

A year before SunSITE started, I created the Web for Live Discussion List. So that was like, one primary method to get the word out about what we were doing because obviously we were trying to work around digital libraries. So—our tagline—what was our tagline? Now it’s been so long. Our tagline was basically, “Library of digital texts, images and other digital content as well as a support service for digital library, museum, and archive developers worldwide.” So it was that kind of focus on—we’re trying to help other people do this kind of focus that was a natural marriage to sending information out on a discussion list like Web for Live. Eventually we started XML for Live—and we also had Current Sites going. Current Sites has been going—by that time had been going for five years, so that just was a natural part of it as well. So I’d say mailing lists was a big part of it really, getting the word out.

I also had an early article in Ariadne Magazine, which was a famous digital library newsletter in the UK, but information like digitization information, I don’t think anyone’s touching it. So I think it’s probably out of date, but that was definitely a part of it. So in fact—you know, you probably can’t see this very well, but this was actually the banner for the site, and so along the bottom there’s various sections, and I’ll read these to you: Collections and Catalogs was right up there; this was more for, you know, potentially for an end user, but then it goes to Tools. So we had a section of the server that was, okay, here’s digital library tools, and that’s really for librarians, right? So it might be software that they might want to use, that kind of thing. Information, Research and Development, and Help Search.

One of the things actually that made me think about this is the Tools part of the site—you know, I quickly realized when I started getting involved in the web in the early nineties was that the ability to search a website was going to be important, and so I kinda cast around for software that could index a website. At the time I landed on something called Swish. And it was really just a C++ program that had been written and worked with a simple configuration file and was fairly simple to use and seemed pretty effective in searching websites. So I started using that, and then I realized that it was an OpenSource project that had been basically abandoned by the person who had started it, and said, hey can I take this over, and he said sure, because he had moved onto something else. And so UC Berkeley actually took on, for awhile, the maintenance and upgrading of that software package.

So that indexing software began to underlie almost everything we did. So it ran the search engine for Librarian’s Index to the Internet, it ran—well, it ran website search engine, UC Berkeley’s probably still using it to index their website. It eventually became Swish-e, Swish dash e for Swish Enhanced and eventually went off into its own OpenSource community, so Berkeley’s not so involved. But we basically rescued that from being moribund and actually used it as a tool within our arsenal in various ways. I actually still use it to this day, I pretty much underline all my sites.

I’ve always straddled the line between public service and technology. And so I—even though I began my life as a library assistant fully in public service, by the time I actually decided I wanted to go to college and get my degree in librarianship, I was in my 20s and I had a lot of library experience. I had no BA at that point. This was in the mid eighties. It was absolutely clear to me that if we—that they were going to be huge in libraries because libraries are about information—I just saw that it was going that way. So I decided to minor in computer science. I couldn’t stomach a major at that point because all the computer science classes and homework were all done in the basement. So I actually majored in Geography and minored in Computers.

And then when I was getting my Bachelor’s degree I was working at Humboldt State Library. I was part of the team that—that first automated the circulation function. So I got some real good experience there doing that, and so when—by the time I went to Berkeley to get my graduate degree a couple years later, I parlayed that experience into being the public service library automation person who led the automation circulation within UC Berkeley. That eventually petered out because we did it—I mean we barcoded millions of books, we implemented the in-house circulation system, all that. And so I basically shifted more into a public service technology role, so I was trying to straddle that line between reference librarians and technologists. And that eventually led to—me starting this thing that was called the Library Technology Watch Program. And it was a program whereby we had about half a dozen library staff, either lib—mostly librarians but also library assistants, who would watch specific technologies and write about those technologies, teach other staff about them, so we had brown bag things, brown bag sessions where you could come and learn about, for example, CD-rom technology. So we would bring staff up to speed on various technologies and that kind of thing. It eventually parlayed into an actual unit of the library systems office that we called Information Systems Instruction and Support, or ISIS. And we did all kinds of things, instruction, help desk—we created an 8-5 staffed help desk for the first time that they ever had that, and a variety of other things. And then we kind of morphed into a more of a digital library unit.

And so—I mean—I guess that progression eventually led to when they looked around for someone to hand this off to, I was the logical candidate. So basically they wouldn’t digitize anything they couldn’t get money for, and then EAD, the Encoded Article Description, which came out of Berkeley under Daniel Pitti. I was—since I was at Berkeley the same time Daniel was, and the same time EAD was different path, which was not to negate EAD, but to give it a lower position on the pole. So I wanted to have item-level access to all the digital content. This is at the same time as the Bancroft was embedding those items deep into this EAD structure and was making it almost impossible to find. And so I’ve got papers I can go back to that I wrote like in 1997 and prototype services that I put together at that time which were individual finding tools.

So I created this thing called the Digital Library Catalog where I created individual item records for each of the digital objects and then had a link which would take you to the finding aid in which they were embedded. So they knew about where they should live, but you didn’t have to have the finding aid in your way. So what this enabled users to do then was to do a search like, “horse,” and they might find individual digital photographs from ten different finding aids who had little thumbnails for example.

That went absolutely nowhere. I never really had the time and the staff time to actually make it completely real. So for example, I had another intern at one point who I set to going through the finding aids that had digital content and trying to identify clusters of digital objects where we could take the subjects from the finding aid and assign them to those objects because what the problem we had with embedding digital objects within a finding aid was that the finding aid had to describe the entire collection. So any subjects assigned had to basically work for the whole collection. So if you broke the objects out of the collection, often the subject headings would have no relevance or very little relevance to that actual item. So, as an example, you know, maybe you have a finding aid on Jack London or whatever. But there’s a photo in there of him on a sailing ship The Snark. There’d be no finding aid level subject headings that would really make a whole lot of sense except for his name that you could attach to that object. You might want to have sailing, you might want to have, you know, any number of things attached to that object. But you couldn’t—so there was that problem. So I had set this intern on trying to identify where we could programmatically take subjects headings and attach them to objects. But we never—I never really was able to make that real. And so unfortunately that was another case of being before your time because now we’ve come full circle and now we’re doing exactly that or we’ve done that for a number of years, but back then it just—it just didn’t fly, couldn’t get any staff excited about it. [Top] [Back to Interview Breakdown]

-- Challenges --

The Berkeley Library really wasn’t interested in these projects. So when I left Berkeley and then some of the succeeding years after that, I basically tried to rescue what I thought was worth keeping. So I took on this site [the Jack London site] I moved it to Sonoma State, which seemed to be a logical home for it, where it remains still. So if you go to london.sonoma.edu, you’ll find it. I took another couple projects onto my own server. So I’ve got the Online Medieval Classical Library on my own server; I’ve got the XML discussion list and the Web for Life discussion list on my own server. That—those kinds of things that had been on the SunSITE and needed to live on, I basically just took them on myself. So—you know—that teaches me that the single most important aspect of digital preservation is commitment. Commitment. It’s not what the bits are on, it’s not any of that stuff, it’s simply committing to be there to keep that stuff around. And that’s what they didn’t have and what I had to eventually supply myself.

For example, one of the things I was able to do, and one of the things I ended up being the proudest of, was way back in the mid-nineties—and the web was still this wild, moly place that there really wasn’t much out there. The search engines all sucked. And so I became aware of a public librarian at Berkeley Public Library who had put together her own set of bookmarks which had been organized by topic, and for awhile they just resided basically on her computer and some public computers within Berkeley Public Library. And I got wind of that and I offered to help her bring that onto the web—bring that fully onto the web as a subject guide to the internet. And that project became the Librarian’s Index to the Internet, which had its own life for many years within California, and was funded by, for example, LSTA money from the State of California. And it eventually found its way to the University of Michigan, where it was kind of merged with some other projects, the Internet Public Library. So I basically wrote the software behind that so you had a web-based input form and indexing of the links and descriptions and things like that, did the UI coding and that kind of thing.

You know and—so I was trying to pull in existing things as well as create new things and build enough of a presence so that people would actually come and use a variety of different things. As well as just experimented and then report back to the community. We were doing things that no one we knew had done before. There were, as I mentioned, Library of Congress. We looked at them a lot. They were promulgating a lot of information out to the community that was very important at the time because that was like the only source of it to a large degree, so that was very important. It was really just trying to figure out not just what to do, but how to do it. We did a lot of just trial and error, and just—probably heavier on the error. There wasn’t—there weren’t many signposts at the time, so if I hadn’t been able to get Kirk Hastings, for example as library school intern, who just worked wonders, the Jack London collection wouldn’t be what it is today. So part of it’s just dumb luck, but it works out really well, for whatever reason.

I was—since I was at Berkeley the same time Daniel was and the same time EAD was being promulgated and being put out as “the way,” I was advocating that—a slightly different path, which was not—not to negate EAD, but to give it a lower position on the pole. So I wanted to have item-level access to all the digital content. This was at the same time as the Bancroft was embedding those items deep into this EAD structure and was making it almost impossible to find. And so I’ve got papers I can go back to that I wrote like in1997 and prototype services that I put together at that time which were individual digital object finding tools. So I created this thing called the Digital Library Catalog where I created individual item records for each of the digital objects, and then had a link which would take you to the finding aid in which they were embedded so they knew about where they should live, but you didn’t have to have the finding aid in your way. So what this enabled users to do then was to do a search like, “horse,” and they might find individual digital photographs from ten different finding aids.

—to have time to make it completely real. So for example, I had another intern at one point, who I set to going through the finding aids that had digital content and trying to identify clusters of digital objects where we could take the subjects from the finding aid and assign them to those objects. Because what—the problem we had with embedding digital objects within a finding aid was that the finding aid had to describe the entire collection, so any subjects assigned had to basically work for the whole collection, so if you broke the objects out of the collection, often the subject headings would have no relevance or very little relevance to that actual item. So, as an example, you know, maybe you have a finding aid on, you know, Jack London, or whatever. But there’s a photo in there of him on his sailing ship, The Snark, but there would be no finding aid level subject headings and it wouldn’t really make a whole lot of sense except for his name that you could attach to that object. You might want to have sailing, you might want to have, you know, any number of things attached to that object, but you couldn’t, you know. So there’s that problem. So I had set this intern on trying to identify where we could programmatically take subject headings and attach them to objects. But we never—I never really was able to make that real. And so unfortunately, that’s another case of being before your time because now we’ve come full circle and now we’re doing exactly that or we’ve done that for a number of years. But back then it just didn’t fly, couldn’t get any staff excited about it.

But anyway, that was another case where we were completely out on a limb. And I remember telling my boss at the time—because there were really—initially there were just two of us that led this project. She was the manager and all that and I was the technical piece of it. And I remember telling her, saying, you know, we are completely out on a limb here. At the time, people just weren’t doing this kind of thing, so we were doing, you know, obviously XML, XSLT, HTML, CSS, and then software to tie it all together. And prototypes are worth a million words. I mean I am a huge fan of prototypes. You know, if you want to make your case to someone about, you know, doing something, build it, even if it’s just smoke and mirrors. I mean literally it could be as little as an HTML page, you hit a button which links to another page, you hit a button which leads to another page, and that’s all it is. That could be a prototype. It doesn’t even actually have to work, you just have to be able to tell the story that that is telling you. So a lot of what I did then was to build these things which were basically rattle-trap contraptions that, they move, and they illustrate something and then someone could come along behind me and actually build it in the way it needed to be built. And so eventually with eScholarship what happened was is we got onboard a really crackerjack programmer and he built what’s called XTF, the Extensible Text Framework, and this is software built on top of Lucene, and to this day it powers eScholarship. In fact, it took over not just eScholarship Editions, but it now powers the eScholarship Repository. So that ended up being a project that really had some legs and is actually enabled them to retake control over the infrastructure that powered the eScholarship Repository.

Just briefly, I want to touch on the eScholarship Repository, which was kind of a separate project. It wasn’t about publishing books in XML, it was about being an institutional repository accepting documents coming in from researchers, faculty, whatever, and then making those available. And we had two brilliant inspirations. And we spent a lot of time, Catherine Candee and I, who were the two people at eScholarhisp, eventually added a third person and now they’re much bigger, but back then we spent a lot of time going around talking to faculty. We spent time experimenting with eprints. We set up an eprints repository as an experiment. We tried to get faculty to use it. They would not. I did not blame them. So insanely difficult that I couldn’t imagine anyone actually sitting down and doing it unless they were absolutely forced to do it. So at that point we said, okay, what are we going to do with this?

So we had two—a couple of inspirations. One was—one was we looked around and we saw, right in our own backyard, this faculty member at UC Berkeley had created this journal publishing software platform called Berkeley Electronic Press. He was an economist, and so he had built in kinda these—what do I want to say?—these things which helped to encourage people to deposit as well as had made this—just really simple interface for uploading. I mean, it was a dead simple interface for uploading. We were immediately captivated by that, because it was like, maybe three clicks to upload an article to eprints—I think that they had twelve at that point. So it was much less painless. And so we saw that and we were inspired by him and we said, okay, we love the uploading interface, we don’t actually need right now all that journal publishing infrastructure, we know we’re going to need it later, but how about if we just make them have another path that goes straight from that uploading interface directly into a repository, bypassing all the peer-review structure and all the editing structure that you need for a journal.

And so that’s what we did, we actually paid them to then give us that simple path, upload, go into the repository, and then meanwhile, we had that much more full-featured system behind the scenes that we could turn on like that and allow faculty to publish their journals using that very full-featured infrastructure. So we had married them: basic institutional repository functionality with a full-feature journal publishing platform. That was the first inspiration. The second was even more brilliant. And I can’t take credit for it, I wish I could. But that was, we finally caught up to the fact that faculty would never do this, okay? They would just simply never do it. So who would? Duh. The departmental secretary. So we finally caught up to that fact, so what we did was we focused on them. So we would train them, we would contact them, they were going to be our point of contact. So we could basically get an entire department going by training one person. And that was the insight that we had. Because I’ll tell you, we would not be alive today if we had taken on ourselves all of the uploading activity. And so some libraries to this day, they do the uploading for the faculty because they haven’t quite figured out any other way to get it done. It’s the secretaries. [Top] [Back to Interview Breakdown]

-- Hindsight --

One of my lessons from this is that there are going to be times when you have exactly the right idea, but it’s the wrong time or the wrong place or whatever. And you have to let it go and move on, you know. If you can’t make it real within that particular context or that situation, then go be successful in something else.
And I think one of the things that that illustrates for you as students kind of up and coming in some of this is that you have to always be thinking. You have to always be thinking that maybe you’re not doing it right, you know, that there might be a different way to do it. Try to imagine what the way is that is most like what people naturally want to do. So try to match your processes to what they would do in the normal course of their work. And that’s really what we ended up doing, we just tried to figure out how do things work today? And trying to match that. It’s one thing to say you’d do something differently knowing what you know now. But then looking back I saw that there were some situations in which I was trapped that—I don’t know how I would get out of those, even with the new knowledge.

So for example, at California Digital Library, after I did the eScholarship Editions and eScholarship Repository, and those were well-launched, I was basically tasked with doing a metasearch project. And this was again at the time when this whole metasearching thing was extremely difficult. People were just trying to do the best that we could. There were no—no system was any good at all. And so—I had a really good idea that I spent basically several years on, and it all foundered on the fact that I was required to be a team player and use an—infrastructure that CDL itself was kind of building. The problem is that that was so heavyweight and it slowed us way down and so what should have taken, you know, no more than let’s say a year, ended up taking three. And that was long enough to kill the entire thing, because what happened was the technology officer who had been brought in, who started that whole process, left, or was canned and so it just—everything that was based on that just went down the tubes, and my project was part of that. So looking back on it, could I have gone rogue? Well, maybe. I probably should have made a case better than I did, but at the time I didn’t see—I didn’t see it coming, you know? I just didn’t see that it was going to be the kind of thing it ended up being.

Well, first of all I have to say the thing that probably—I have to give voice to what you probably know—if you don’t know it explicitly, you kinda know it internally, and that is, whatever you know now, forget it, you’re not going to use it. The biggest thing you have to realize is that you don’t leave school and stop learning, you leave school and you just keep learning because the world shifts underneath your feet on a daily basis. So when I look back to what I did in library school and what I do today, I mean, there are some things that I still have with me and that I still lean on—the profession, and really probably any profession these days, is just one of constant learning, so what I’d say—the single best bit of advice I’d give you is really try to give some thought and some planning and just some—you know, thought to how you yourself can keep your constant learning going. How you learn best yourself. What are some of the tools you’d actually gravitate to to keep that learning going. You know, try to find people whose work might be a good bell weather to what’s coming down the road who you can kind of watch and see what they’re looking at.

So it’s a variety of different things. It might be anywhere from blogs that you might want to monitor to Twitter feeds to, you know, individuals to, you know, Fast Company Magazine, I mean, whatever it might be that just kind of keeps the juices flowing and keeps your ear to the ground. I’m kind of a fan of kind of a tiered model of current awareness. So, for example, you know, there might be something that’s just—I hear a little bit about and then I go take a look at and then I go, I don’t know if this is going to be important to libraries, but you know, it’s there. And then I’ll go away and I’ll spend time somewhere else and then I’ll hear about it again and I’ll look at it again and I’ll say, has this changed? Is it different? Is it going to be more important to libraries now than I thought it was earlier? And if so, then I’ll spend a little bit more time with it and try to figure it out a little bit more. And so it’s this kind of constant feedback loop, if you will, that—you need to be strategic about your time.

So it’s not like—and you’ve got to be careful about following the crowds. So sometimes all librarians will trundle off and go, okay, wikis, they’re our salvation! And everyone’ll write a wiki and do wiki things. And you should have critical thinking skills so you can look at it and go, yeah, okay, I can see where that’ll be useful, but is it going to be our salvation? No, not even close. And then, just kind of use your own judgment, I guess. And then that’s got to be in—within context of where you are at the time, what your current job duties are, you know, where you think your future might lie as a career, all those kinds of things.

There are probably some things—and I’ve written about this. Some of the skills that I named back then are to this day, good ones. And those are things like knowledge of structured text and how to manipulate those, so for example, XML and XSLT, that’s a solid skill which I don’t see going away anytime soon. Basic programming skills and I’m not saying you need to be a programmer, but at this point I think every librarian needs to understand enough about programming to understand what it does, how it can be useful, to be able to spot a problem that a program won’t solve, and have a rough idea of how long it would take for someone to write that—that’s a key skill. Sometimes I see my colleagues and they’ll be complaining about something that’s a certain way, and I’ll go, heck! I’ll sit down in half an hour and I’ll kick out a program that’ll fix that for you. And they don’t even have the clue that someone could do that. So they can’t go and ask someone and say, hey do you have like, half an hour where you could write me something to do this? So some problems go unsolved without just enough knowledge about what it takes to solve them.

And then other things like—well, I’ve said things like imaging, what it means to digitize something, basic knowledge about just bit depth and pixels per inch and blah blah blah, just some of the basics there. In the old days that would have been basics about cataloging or metadata certainly is important. And you know, I don’t call it cataloging anymore because that just doesn’t cover the territory, so—and I’m a fan of librarians being really able to take metadata in any kind of format whatsoever and do useful work with it. So I don’t care if it’s Onyx from the Pelotian community or Dublin Core or MARC or what have you, we should be able to parse those formats and do, you know, useful work with them. So just knowledge about metadata and controlled vocabularies and general concepts like that, those are all very important, as well as some specific skills as well. Programming XSLT, project management is huge. So many things that happen in libraries on a professional level have to do with managing a project. So knowing about schedules, how to work with other people, how to keep other people on schedule, blah blah blah, all of that is very useful stuff.

I’ve tried to steer completely clear of intellectual property issues—I suggest you do the same. I suggest you find someone who you’d like to have mentor you and attach yourself to them. And by that I mean, you know, ask them. Just come out and say, I’m really interested in your work, I’m a young professional, I could use some help in terms of meeting other people I need to know, some advice just on, you know, career direction, you know, blah blah blah, could we have dinner at ALA some time? You know, do that, because I think there’s plenty of older professionals like me out there who would be perfectly happy to help young professionals get started. I actually have like, half a dozen people I do this with, and for me it’s simply payback for my mentors, because I wouldn’t have gotten where I am without them. And so that’s just an important way to really get some assistance, to get a leg up, to get going, to get out there in a way that is hard to do when you’re first starting out. [Top] [Back to Interview Breakdown]

-- Advice --

[What advice would you give people graduating from library school?]

Okay. Well, first of all I have to say the thing that probably—I have to give voice to what you probably know—if you don’t know it explicitly, you kind of know it internally, and that is, whatever you know now, forget it, you’re not going to need it five years from now. The biggest thing you have to realize is that you don’t leave school and stop learning, you leave school and you just keep learning because the world shifts underneath your feet on a daily basis.
So I mean, when I look back to what I learned in library school and what I do today, I mean, there are some things that I still have with me and that I still lean on, but the vast majority is so anachronistic it’s just stupid. So—you know, it’s—the profession, and really probably any profession these days, is just one of constant learning.

So what I’d say—the single best bit of advice I’d give you is really try to give some thought and some planning and just some—you know, thought to how—how you yourself can keep your constant learning going. How you learn best yourself. What are some of the tools you naturally gravitate to to keep that learning going. You know, try to—find people whose work might be a good bell weather to what’s coming down the road who you can kind of watch and see what they’re looking at.
So it’s a variety of different things. It might be anywhere from blogs that you might want to monitor to Twitter feeds to, you know, individuals to, you know, Fast Company Magazine, I mean, whatever it might be that just kind of keeps the juices flowing and keeps your ear to the ground.

I’m kind of a fan of kind of a tiered model of current awareness. So, for example, you know, there might be something that’s just—I hear a little bit about and then I go take a look at and then I go, I don’t know if this is going to be important to libraries, but you know, it’s there. And I’ll go away and I’ll spend time somewhere else and then I’ll hear about it again and I’ll look at it again and I’ll say, has this changed? Is it different? Is it, you know, going to be more important to libraries now than I thought it was earlier? And if so, then I’ll spend a little bit more time with it and try to figure it out a little bit more. And so it’s this kind of constant feedback loop, if you will, that—you need to be strategic about your time.

So it’s not like—and you’ve got to be careful about following the crowds. So sometimes all librarians will trundle off and go, okay, wikis, they’re our salvation! And everyone’ll want a wiki and do wiki things. And, you know, you should have critical thinking skills so that you can look at it and go, yeah, okay, I can see where that’ll be useful, but is it going to be our salvation? No, not even close. And then, just kind of use your own judgment, I guess. And then that’s got to be in—within context of where you are at the time, what your current job duties are, you know, where you think your future might lie—as a career, all those kinds of things.
Now, to dive down perhaps to where you really wanted this question—this answer to go, which was more like advice—specific kinds of advice and not the platitudes that I’ve been giving you—that—there are probably some things—and I’ve written about this in my column which—it goes back that far because it was a column before it was a blog and now it’s just a blog and not a column, but—is some of the skills that I named back then are to this day, good ones.

And those are things like knowledge of structured text and how to manipulate those, so for example, XML and XSLT, that’s a solid skill which I don’t see going away anytime soon. Basic programming skills and I’m not saying you need to be a programmer, but at this point I think every librarian needs to understand enough about programming to understand what it does, how it can be useful, to be able to spot a problem that a program will solve, and have a rough idea on how long it would take for someone to write that—that’s a key skill.

Sometimes I see my colleagues and they’ll be complaining about something that’s a certain way, and I’ll go, heck! I’ll sit down, half an hour and I’ll kick out a program that’ll fix that for you. And they don’t even have the clue that someone could do that. So they can’t go and ask someone and say, hey, you know, do you have, like, half an hour where you could write me something to do this? So some problems go unsolved without just enough knowledge about what it takes to solve them.

And then other things like—well, I’ve—I’ve said things like imaging, you know, what it means to digitize something, basic knowledge about just bit depth and pixels per inch and blah blah blah, just some of the basics there. In the old days that would have been basics about cataloging or whatever. Metadata certainly is important.

And you know, I don’t call it cataloging anymore because that just doesn’t cover the territory, so—and I’m a fan of librarians being really able to take metadata in any kind of format whatsoever and do useful work with it. So I don’t care if it’s Onyx from the publishing community or Dublin Core or MARC or what have you, we should be able to parse those formats and do, you know, useful work with them.

So just knowledge about metadata and controlled vocabularies and, you know, general concepts like that, those are all very important. As well as some specific skills as well. Programming XSLT, project management is huge. So many things that happen in libraries on a professional level have to do with managing a project. So knowing about schedules, how to work with other people, how to keep other people on schedule, blah blah blah, all of that is very useful stuff.
I’ve tried to steer completely clear of intellectual property issues—I suggest you do the same. Unless you really want to go down the lawyer track. It’s just a world of hurt.

Those are some of the things that, you know—especially if you want to go more of the technical side, that’s kind of where I skew. Others might have other advice based on kind of the tracks they’ve chosen.

Oh—could I—I’ve got one other thing to say though.

[Sure.]

Coming from someone who has had many mentors in his life, I suggest you try to find someone who you’d like to have mentor you and attach yourself to them. And by that I mean, you know, ask them. Just come out and say, I’m really interested in your work, I’m a young professional, I could use some help in terms of meeting other people I need to know, some advice just on, you know, career direction, you know, blah blah blah, could we have dinner at ALA some time?

You know, do that, because I think there’s plenty of older professionals like me out there who would be perfectly happy to help young professionals get started. I actually have, like, half a dozen people I do this with, and for me it’s simply payback for my mentors, because I wouldn’t have gotten where I am without them. And so that’s just an important way to really get some assistance, to get a leg up, to get going, to get out there in a way that is hard to do when you’re first starting out. [Top] [Back to Interview Breakdown]

 

July 2012

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