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Thornton Staples - Transcript

Thornton Staples
Director Community Strategy & Alliance Duraspace Inc.
Interviewed 1/28/2010

-- Beginnings --

See…My professional background—began I guess in academic computing at the university of Virginia when I was working with—whenever there was a humanities computing job to be done, we did application programming in the—academic computing for faculty. And whenever there was a humanities thing to be done I was always at the head of the line, making sure I got to do it. I did a database for the Art department and we did the first digital image study project for the art department so that kids could come and study on the computer screen without having to go and—check out slide sets and all that kind of stuff. It was back in the late eighties I guess. So it’s sort of where I got started. And then—I made sure when this program called the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities was being hatched, I made sure I was employee zero. (Laughs). I was the very first employee before there was an institute.

The IF started up in response to a—it was a very interesting story actually—a response to an IBM grant. IBM—the—the development people at the University of Virginia had a lead with IBM and they, you know, worked it to the point where IBM says, yes, we’re gonna give you three hundred million dollars—I mean, three, sorry, three million dollars worth of stuff basically. Some money, some people’s time, but mostly stuff.

But they offered the university that, and said, so what would you do, we’re offering you three million dollars, here’s the parameters, tell us what you’re gonna do with it, and we’ll tell you if we’re gonna give it to you. And so at the time there was a lot of interest in—in using digital technology in the classroom.

There was a committee of faculty at the UVA who were sort of the people who got together to respond to this. The university decided that they were known for their humanities so it should be something to do with the humanities, and the humanities are always chronically underfunded (laughs) in any—any kind of—of funding situation. So—the two—a history faculty person, Ed Airs, who was well-known in his field, Civil War History, Southern History was his field, Jerome McGann, who was a textual scholar who was a textual critic as well as a theorist of text and the analysis of text—the two of them were interested and the head of academic computing, who was my boss—was interested and Kenan Stubbs, who was the deputy librarian, and another guy, Dick Saundburgh from the provost’s office, who was an associate provost. The five of them, I think that’s five, got together, and hatched a plan for what they would propose. And their notion was that if you hooked the faculty on using digital information in their work—in their research—they’ll take it to the classroom, and to spend a lot of money and a lot of time trying to inject this directly into classroom situations was a non-starter, and other people were trying it in other places. So it started that way—

Alongside IF starting up in 1992, the University of Virginia started up the electronic tech center, which was a center in the library to work with faculty to digitize texts and make them available to them more generally. Not for these really specific projects we were doing in IF but there was a relationship between the two, we were all housed in the library. And pretty quickly by the time I left the university, the library had, like, seven different centers. Digital images, GIS, all these different centers that were offering support services, so they were digitizing at the same time a lot of digital collections—by—all forms, all forms. Datasets, social science datasets, GIS datasets, art images, text, special collections, all the stuff.

And so—anyway, at the—when I was leaving the museum to come back, the university said, we’ve got all—we’ve got, like, seven websites with no order, it looks good on the web but there’s nothing behind it—they’d been shopping for a system, couldn’t find one, and so I was talking to my old boss from my academic computing days, who’s now the AUL at the library, and she hired me back. I set up a research and development department in the library in 1999 and then—within about—I told her I needed about six months to do research and figure out—because they—basically we gave up on buying something, we were gonna build something, and I found the FEDORA paper, the Flexible Extensible Digital Object Repository Architecture system, which was a research project done at—Cornell. And they developed some software to prove some points and nothing much was happening with it, and we—I found their paper and had actually found the contact we had in common and got in touch with them and they gave us their software and we started playing with it and really liked the information architecture.

But—excuse me—it had never been—it had never been optimized for real use. I mean, we put four thousand objects into their repository and it wouldn’t move. (Laughs.) They had done this—it was a brilliant demonstration of interoperability, really interesting interoperability kinds of things for digital libraries. But, you know, it wasn’t in their research to say I’m gonna put a hundred thousand objects in here. So we knew we needed millions. So we did a new interpretation of their—of their architecture using one SQL database and one Java servelet and demonstrated all the principles would work and put thirty millions objects by doubling—like, copying objects and changing the identifiers until we had, like, forty thousand real objects and we kept duplicating them to get thirty million, and the system was still working. And so at that point, we were pretty much—we started looking for partner in the library systems world and there’s a company that we were—the Circe company, which is who did our library systems and we had a relationship with them anyway. We went to them and we told them about our work with FEDORA and the digital library and all the—we were—University of Virginia was pretty much ahead of the curve on digital libraries at the time, had been digitizing stuff like I said starting in 1992 and by 1999 had huge collections of all kinds of stuff—no way to manage them.

So, went to—we had our FEDORA demonstrated—repository system and we took it to Circe and they were very interested, and we had talks, flew down there. So they came back to us with a proposal, they wanted us to pay them $360,000. And they wanted all of our work. They were going to charge us $60,000 to train us. On our own system. Hello?! And so my boss said, no that’s not what I had in mind. And so the guy, the head guy says, so how much did you have in mind? And she says, zero. We’re—we want to be partners. And they just, they walked away completely.

So in the meantime we started looking around for funding, and I had a couple of other Mellon grants for some other things. And Don Waters at Mellon had been the head of the Digital Library Federation right before he went to Mellon. And he’s very—he’d always been interested in FEDORA, the architecture. And we were having a drink one night at a conference, talking about another grant, and he says, “What about FEDORA? What are you guys doing with FEDORA?” and so that meant green light, green light, make a proposal, and so Sandra Payette who had done the original work at Cornell had in the meantime contacted me, saying, I’d really, she was basically getting jealous, so—we decided we got—we had a meeting. She came to Charlottesville and we had a meeting and we decided we were gonna join forces and try to get some funding. And Don had already—we’d already had this sort of opening with Mellon, so we put together a proposal. And that was the beginning of the FEDORA project. [Top] [Back to Interview Breakdown]

-- Challenges --

There weren’t any rules; no one knew what we were doing; we were making it all up from scratch. For faculty who wanted to snap their fingers and have it done—that’s not really fair—I had very good people I was working with who—surprisingly good—in fact, we were worried in the very beginning that the—the—these faculty were very well known in their fields and we thought we were going to be treated as the help and we weren’t. We were treated—we were considered peers around the table at IF because they didn’t know what they were doing either. They knew their subject; we knew the technology, but none of us really knew computing and the humanities and what it meant to put these two things together. So they were pretty good about it. But we were worried, because when you work in the university as a technical person, you often get treated like the help. [Top] [Back to Interview Breakdown]

-- Hindsight --

What I would have done differently—at the time. Hard to say because I don’t—I don’t—I really can’t—I mean, hindsight, obviously we know some things maybe we would have tried differently. But the way the process worked I thought worked really well, because we were making stuff up, we—the way IF got set up is the faculty would apply, they had a project that they’d propose, there was a committee of faculty who had to say that that was an interesting enough project, presented interesting technical problems, and the scholarly—value was high enough to make it worthwhile, and then they got a year off teaching. They got office space in the institute and we were—all the technical people, myself and others—were actually housed in the institute, so we were there together for a year. So—I think—that model worked really well. And like I said, originally, the—the committee that put together the original vision had enough vision to say, get the faculty hooked in their own research, and they’ll take it to the classroom. And that was really the driving—and I really don’t—wouldn’t change that. I think it really—it was successful.

I think we were concentrating on problems that would—projects that would bring up new problems in information technology, and I think one thing I would—I would have corrected—I think I would have switched—not in the first year but—over the four years, if we had switched to think more about—thinking of the overall structure and the organization of these projects as being part of the research, I think we would have—we would have shortened—we would have been where we should have been sooner. And I—but—you know, hindsight. It was—it was very much about new technology and not about standardizing the output. And that’s a good thing, but if we had just a little more thinking that standardization is research, I think we would have—we would have put the pieces of the puzzle together better sooner. And I don’t think we’ve put those pieces of the puzzle together yet, really, at all. But I think we were in a unique position. If we had gone down that road in 1994-95, I think a lot of the digital library efforts could have been—could have been—the—all these issues about complex scholarly products and thinking about—these born-digital, complex, web-like structures, and we were doing this before the World Wide Web. Jerry’s project, he anticipated the Web in a really interesting way. But if we had been thinking about that, the dig—we would have arrived at the digital library platting later—with the idea that we’re not just putting—digitizing books and putting them online, that’s part of it, but we’re really—have to prepare ourselves for these complex—webs, graph-like structures of related objects that—that we’re—it’s clearly dealing with now. The Web, scholarly record is clearly becoming like the Web, not like books and articles and journals, you know? And I think we could have short circuited some of that, maybe, I don’t know, hindsight. [Top] [Back to Interview Breakdown]

-- Advice --

So the new frontier is pulling it all together in a way that doesn’t get in the way of the scholars doing their work, but ends up with a durable product that can be in a repository and can be moved from one repository to another as it needs to be but is a stable part of the scholarly record, or I would even say the human record. I think the human record is the Web, and is this digital—sphere that we’re building. And—if we don’t get good at it, I think we’re in for a dark age, this loss, this period of loss here where we’re gonna lose a lot of stuff because people—when I was—the last years I was at UVA we were doing this—sustaining digital scholarships project, trying to work with some of these faculty people like Jerry McGann to help them understand what it would take to sustain their products. They—they worked their butts off and they worked all these graduate students for years to get these really brilliant projects out there, and they’re like built on sand, and they don’t know it. And they all, you would ask them and they would tell you the library’s gonna collect it and save it forever. And you know, the library, we already knew that—we didn’t know how to do that. And—and there’s—I think people still think that the libraries or the archives are just gonna do it for them. The last comment I wanna make is that—going back to the museum side of this, the museum’s archives in libraries, what I see coming out of all this is those three things. There are professional—practices that will go on, but the—the lines between those are completely gray now. Once you’re—once it’s all born digital all the information, the—artifacts you’re working with are born digital, there is no distinction and that’s why I really wanted to bring the museums into the picture because I think—that what we’re on the verge of is a world where all those things have to start working together. Bringing what they’re strengths to the same table so we can put it all together into this digital library, virtual museum, whatever the hell it is— [Top] [Back to Interview Breakdown]

July 2012