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Sayeed Choudhury - Transcript

Sayeed Choudhury
Associate Dean, Library Digital Programs, Johns Hopkins University
Interviewed 11/4/2009

-- Beginnings --

[Can you tell us what it was like for someone who has an engineering background to come into the world of libraries?]

Yeah—I have to be honest, it’s had its challenges at moments, but it’s been overall a very rich experience, a very rewarding one. So when I came into the library, I naively assumed that all libraries had an R&D group. So I was basically asked to start up an R&D group within our library. And I thought that sounds like a great idea. But when I went other libraries and I said how do you run tour R&D group, and they all went, what R&D group? So we were really out there in many ways. And a lot of the things that I had learned from my professional training, which just seemed very natural to me, I learned very quickly that that was not necessarily the way that libraries thought about these particular problems or particular projects, and it was not at all familiar. So there was in some sense a culture clash, quite frankly. I think that happens any time you bring any two disciplines together. What was unusual about this was our library director at the time, Jameel Lepton, made the very clear—indication that he wanted this kind of different perspective or new viewpoint embedded in the library. You can do that administratively and financially and all those other kinds of ways, but it takes time, quite frankly, for people to start to recognize how they interact with each other.

I did get—a fair amount of questions early on in terms of well, you don’t have a library degree, or, you don’t have formal library training. And my response was always the same, which was, so what? What is it about that training that you think is important? And then let me learn about that so I can come at it in that perspective. It’s not just that I have the degree, right? I think if you fast forward to today, I think what’s happened is libraries now have lots of different kinds of perspectives in their organizations so I’m not sure how many engineers there are, but I’m sure there’s more than one. There are people with business degrees working in libraries, there are people with JDs working in libraries. I think it’s a recognition in the community that the kind of expertise and the perspective that we need has to be broader. But we were pretty early in the mix. This was many years ago and I think the vast majority of people working in the library had very standard, if you will, traditional kinds of library backgrounds. So it was just a bit of a shock to the system, I think. [Top] [Back to Interview Breakdown]

-- Challenges --

[What were some of the challenges working with the technology that you had at the time?]

Yeah, at the time the technology was not mature in any way; it didn’t fit together—in—in any seamless kind of way—so we had pieces—they didn’t necessarily—the output of one software didn’t necessarily seamlessly become the input of another. For example—and just—the large amount of material—we started thinking a lot about automated scanning. So just as an example, the kinds of things and how they move early on we had a project where we were looking at automated page turning. And we got some of the robotics researcher at Hopkins involved. And I think basically what happened over time was other people look in as the community starts to learn and realize that, yeah, we’re going to handle large amounts of material. We need to have automated—hardware that does this. Now you can buy such a system, you can go to a company and ask them for a page turner. So what was a research project, quite frankly, at the very beginning, today you can’t consider it a research activity, it’s become a commercial system. Now, having said that, one of the things I’ve learned about technology is that there’s always the next big technical challenge, so even if you’re thinking about turning pages, yes, there are commercial systems that do that. Do they handle special collections materials?
Or do they handle, you know, certain kinds of lighting? All those kinds of questions are still out there. So we keep pushing forward with what the technology can do, but we certainly haven’t run out of new challenges. [Top] [Back to Interview Breakdown]

-- Hindsight --

[What would you have done differently?]

What could I do differently if I could go back in time? (Laughs.) There are lots of different things that come to mind. But I think the most important one would be to try and engage the scholars earlier on in the process. I think we underestimated how much scholars actually may have been thinking about these kinds of things; I think if we had identified faculty champions earlier in the process, some of the things might have gone a bit easier, and quite frankly I think it would have made some of the proposals to the funding agencies even stronger. So that’s from the outside perspective, I think, one of the things we wish we had done was get the faculty involved while we were there.

From an inside perspective, from the library’s viewpoint, I think one of the things that I wish we had done was think about the organization issue right up front. And that’s a little difficult to do because as I said, no one had a model for an R&D group in the library, but I think we basically let those things sit on the sidelines while we kept working and doing things and there’s some—some value in that approach. But eventually it also led to some ambiguity about roles and about where funding would come from and so on. By the time we finally got to those things, a lot of progress had been made, but there were a lot of very serious questions about is this something we want to continue to do. When we had a change of leadership_____ Jameel Lepton, Winston Tabby, obviously one of the very first things he had to think about was what—what will I do with this group? How do I deal with this? I think Jim basically launched it and that was really important and very helpful, and I think Winston came along and basically said we need to operationalize this. But that’s not an easy thing to do at any time, but I think that libraries are thinking about doing this kind of thing now, trying to address those organizational questions up front. [Top] [Back to Interview Breakdown]

-- Advice --

[For people entering the field or considering the field what do you see as potential and future hot topics
that we need to think about?]

For professionals who are coming up through the ranks, we’ve been using a term lately called Data Scientist, or you can think of Data Humanist if you wish. It’s someone who has expertise in a particular scholarly discipline so they can speak with the scholars themselves directly but also understand the data management of the information science, or the library science aspects of it so they can speak with someone like me. One of the projects we have at Hopkins is—is the Roman de la Rose Digital Library. And a couple of years ago we were fortunate to hire—a post-doc through Claire’s program in the humanities named Ted Stinson and he’s now a faculty member at NC State. When he was with us, he worked on the Rose project and what happened basically was he would go to meetings with the medievalists and meetings with us, and he became a human interface between those two communities. Just as there are these technology interfaces that exist between what scholars do and what we do, there are human interfaces that are really important. He started understanding things that the scholars were saying that I never in a million years would recognize. And as he learned more about the technology, he was able to say, can’t we do this, it will meet this particular need. So I think that’s a really important area for people to think about. [Top] [Back to Interview Breakdown]

June 2012

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