The platform is largely written off as something frivolous, but I’m routinely impressed by how people are using looping audio and video and green screen tools to create genuinely engaging stuff and thought provoking media.
As I was compulsively refreshing various online dashboard/election maps last week to see how the election was playing out, I was also switching over to TikTok a lot.
On TikTok, users were playing with those maps too, and I started thinking that by sequencing those videos you could see a bit of the emotional rollercoaster of the election playing out.
Below is the result of selecting and sequencing some of these. I included the text and hashtags that go along with each video to offer some context. I think it hangs together as a short documentary film about the election, data visualization, and storytelling on TikTok.
Looking at these reminds me a bit of some of the ideas that Dragan Espenschied was putting out in Big Data, Tiny Narration. That is, as we all kept refreshing these maps which pull together real time data, a whole cast of folks was sorting through what that data meant and doing creative storytelling about what it meant to them.
This is a new course for me. Over the last five years I’ve taught five other graduate seminars for the iSchool, but those were all digital curation, preservation, and policy courses.
My section of the course was originally intended to be a face to face course, so in transitioning it to an online course I ended up playing around with approaches to make sure that there is a lot of flexibility in the course design. I sent out a questionnaire to students in advance of the semester which confirmed my sense that there would be some anxiety about both a desire for synchronous interactions from some students and concerns about how to make synchronous interactions work for everyones schedules during the ongoing pandemic. I’m hopeful that I’ve figured out some ways to build a lot of flexibility in on the course but it will be curious to see how it all plays out. I should note that a lot of my approach to the design of this course is anchored in a fantastic education leadership seminar I took in my Ph.D program with David Brazer.
Reading on How Orgs work and how to work Orgs
I’ve largely developed the course around Bolman and Deal’s Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice, and Leadership which I’ve written about before. I like how they approach work in organization in terms of competing frames; structural, human resources, political, and symbolic. I also really appreciate that their book is more about organizational theory than it is about leaders and leadership. In large part, I think the cult of leadership books on what leaders do misses out on how things really get done in the complex systems that are organizations. I’ve paired that book with some sections from Evans & Greenwell’s Management Basics for Information Professionals, which is great at being more directly focused on issues in libraries and archives but I think less strong as an overarching toolkit for understanding organizations.
Reflection, Introspection, and Engagement through Assignments
I spent a lot of time trying to think of what the right kinds of assignments are for a course like this. I think this kind of course really needs to support students in working to process and synthesize their own notions of how organizations work. To that end, I decided that a core part of the course would involve weekly journaling about course readings.
At the same time, I wanted to make sure that there were opportunities for students to connect with each other. This was originally intended to be a face to face course. Beyond that, there are actually two sections of this course this semester and the other one was an online course from the start. So functionally this section of the course is all students that had explicitly opted to take a face to face version of the course. It’s great that the course can work well as an online course, but I fully realize that this isn’t what students had signed up for. Beyond that it’s a seminar with 30 students, which presents challenges for having everyone do anything together in any situation. In light of that, I worked out a process where students are going to have peer learning partners that they set up time to check in with each week and who they will read and comment on each others journals. Over the course of the semester the partners are going to rotate four times, so everyone will have a few weeks with a different partner. My hope is that this helps scaffold everyone into some rich discussions and explorations of the issues that we get into over the course of the semester.
The last major set of assignments are focused on having each student do an interview with someone working in a leadership/management role in a library or archives who they will then write an essay about that connects that persons ideas about leadership with readings from the course. My current concept is that for all the students that opt in, I will go ahead and put out an open access book of all these essays on LISSA. My hope with this assignment is that it provides a chance for everyone in the class to do some networking and meet folks working in the field while also giving us a chance to make something together that everyone can point to after the semester as an outcome from the course. I’ll be curious to see how it goes!
I’ve been kicking around the idea of working up a proposal for a book about digital history for a few years. At this point I’ve taught digital history grad seminars for a decade. Through teaching that course I think I’ve developed a particular take on the subject. That said, every time I’ve started to sketch out ideas about it I end up running out of steam.
When I went back to review a lot of work that I’ve published about digital history as part of my most recent attempt to explore this idea I ended up deciding that the set of articles and blog posts I’ve written really cover what I want to cover and say at this point. So instead of continuing to think about developing a book proposal on this I thought I would instead just share something that works as an index to a lot of the writing I’ve done on the subject.
Engaging Audiences and Users around Digital Collections
The web presents new ways for historians to engage with audiences and communities. I wrote Digital Cultural Heritage and the Crowd as a piece to work out a series of frames for thinking about inviting user participation with digital collections through crowdsourcing.
Toward the end of my time at the Center for History and New Media I was working on a project to explore various text mining and computational data analysis tools for historical research with Fred Gibbs. The results of that work turned into a series of essays that came out in 2012 and 2013. In Building Better Digital Humanities Tools: Toward Broader Audiences and User-Centered Designs Fred and I reported out on a range of issues that illustrated a lack of user centered design approaches to many digital humanities tools.
I’ve been surprised to see how often historical topics or themes come up in TikToks. So I went ahead and pulled together this listicle of 22 history TikToks. Some of them are pretty funny. Some of them have gotten quite a few views. I think it’s interesting to see the way that young people are fitting historical info into the rhetorical forms that play out on TikTok.
One of them is not like the other. Can you spot the difference?
The first one, the print copy, is the outlier. It has a completely different picture than the latter two. It’s almost the same but not quite. The picture on the cover of the print book was taken by Jermaine Taylor and posted to instagram shortly after I got my floppy disk tattoo in 2017. The second is a photo I took of my arm, when I couldn’t source a higher resolution file of Jermaine’s instagram photo. I emailed both of them to the press as an idea for the cover of the book. I took the second photo because I was concerned that the instagram photo might not be at a high enough resolution to use in print.
The photo I took is, in all the places where book covers appear, the cover of the book. It is also the cover of the eBook version. With that said, all the print copies of the book actually have Jermaine’s photo on their cover. Which in all honesty I think is an objectively better picture. As far as I can ascertain, at some point whoever was actually doing the layout for the print book ended up deciding to use the photo from instagram instead of the photo I took. I think it was a good call.
I proposed that picture of my tattoo as a cover for the book because I thought it spoke to some of the themes in the book. The floppy disk is a medium on which we write digital content. Beyond that it’s now the save icon. Jermaine encoded an instance of that icon with ink in my skin. Much of the book is about how messy and complicated the world of digital content is, in large part, because it’s the result of the accrual of the work of people kludging together things on-top of the work of other people. The fact that there are now these variances in the book cover out in the world itself helps to further demonstrate that point. Online, and in its eBook form there exists one cover based on a photo I took. But based on decisions made in the workflow and process that created the physical copies of my book, the print copies all have Jermaine’s instagram photo on them. The messiness of the digital plays out through the workflows and processes that create digital books. Some of those files get printed out. I interacted with a ton of digital files in getting the book to the publisher and then a range of digital files had lives I don’t know about that resulted in the production of the tangible book.
From the Book.Files report you get a great sense of the handoffs that occur in the production, transmission, tracking and management of books as digital files. From all the handoffs of word files with track changes into processes with Adobe InDesign, through to XML files and or PDFs that become the basis of printing books or creating eBook files.
Below are some quotes I pulled out that I found particularly striking and relevant for thinking about collections for libraries and archives.
“As early as 1999, an article in Publishing Research Quarterly observed that publishing “is coming to mean producing digital content which can subsequently be delivered in different media, rather than producing books or journals””
“there is at least one simple, uncontestable fact that obtains for any book produced with commercial press processes in the last twenty years, and which will continue to obtain for the foreseeable future. That fact is this: a book is a file, which is to say it is a persistent digital asset stored in a digital repository somewhere.“
“A “book” is thus the born-digital potential for a file to become a book first, and a physical, tangible object in our hands only secondarily. Every new book on our shelves has its shadow in a digital file, or more precisely a set of digital files consisting of the various assets needed to bring the book into being. A physical book nowadays is a surrogate for a digital master.”
“Increasingly, this means that the EPUB file becomes the version of record for the book. If the publisher wishes to retain a separate format-independent rendition of the book, any changes or updates in the EPUB must then be back-propagated to the original XML in order to keep versions consistent.”
I think these observations, along with the rest of the report, offer an opportunity for folks that work with collecting, preserving, and providing access to books and records of the history of the book. My sense is that the results this kind of study in nearly any other creative industry would produce similar results. So I think the results here are relevant to anyone interested in the production and circulation of creative works and their histories.
Born Digital is the Norm, Born Analog is the Outlier
The report hits home that cultural heritage institutions interested in collecting and preserving contemporary cultural works need to be centering digital content in their approaches. Increasingly the physical objects that come into collections are themselves the digital surrogates and it’s worth asking when the print surrogate for the digital asset is good enough given that the source for that object is increasingly a digital resource.
History of Creative Industries is Increasingly Born Digital
The report illustrates the ongoing major shifts relevant to the records of cultural production. This has huge implications for special collections work that involves acquiring the archives of creative industries. At this point books are a key case study in this shift, but the same is true for photography, film, the performing arts, music, etc. Creative production has become almost an entirely digital set of workflow process and the future of archives of industries and creators in these media will involve engaging with these increasingly born digital content streams.
Variance Abounds Across Digital Instantiations of Works
The report includes a series of examples of how and where variances enter into the workflows and processes as various stakeholders “touch” book files over the course of their production and the varied output files that are produced. The example of my book cover is in this case not an outlier, it’s another example of kinds of variances that enter into the management of books as digital assets. In that cloud of files, it becomes increasingly difficult to talk about a definitive or authoritative copy of a work. My sense is that this issue of variance is going to become increasingly important for libraries, archives, and museums to figure out. On that front, I think some of Cathy Marshal’s work and Richard Rinehart and Jon Ippolito’s work is relevant for further exploring this issue.
Ultimately, Marshal argues for the need to step back from thinking of their being a canonical instance of a work and to instead embrace that what we are going to end up with is varied copies that instantiate important differences as those copies take on lives of their own. Significantly, this means stepping bak from the notion of “derivatives” to instead see each copy of a work as contributing to a distributed notion of it.
I think Marshal’s observations are relevant for thinking forward about how we likely want to approach all kinds of digital creative workflows; “we will not only want to see copies, but we‘ll also want to harmonize them, to harvest their metadata, to select among them. Instead of relying on a simple notion—the truth is in the cloud, embodied as a single reference copy—we will want to expand our sense of what is entailed by the notion of a reference copy and turn to a distributed, social model.”
In Re-collection: Art, New Media, and Social Memory Richard Rinehart and Jon Ippolito also take a run at the idea of a canonical master file for any given work. They suggest that with digital media, in many cases instead of thinking about a master file it’s more important to be looking for what they call “mother files;” the editable files that enable a wide range of outputs. You can see more on their thinking in the pull quote from the book below.
Altogether I think the report makes for a great read and I think it helps to draw out some major issues facing libraries and archives for the future. More and more of the material of culture is digital from the start. The issues faced by the proliferation of variance and copies still something that we have a long way to go to fully understand and integrate into how we think about our work.
I’m curious for thoughts any and all of you have about the questions the report brings out.
I’m increasingly convinced that parsimony and elegance are key values for the socio-technical systems that enable long term access to information. This post is me starting to try and articulate what I mean by that and connecting that back to a few ongoing strands of work and thinking I’m engaged in.
Now that the book as been circulating around a bit, I’ve been able to both reflect on it and get to have a lot of great conversations with people about it. Along with that, I’ve been participating (or at least trying to participate when my calendar allows) in some ongoing conversations about the role of maintenance, capacity, care, and repair in library work.
The specific prompt for this post was one conversation where I ended up saying something I’ve said a few times before. Something like; “If you can do it with an Access database then don’t gather requirements for a software engineering project.” Furthermore, “If you can do it with a spreadsheet, don’t build an Access database.” Beyond that, “If you can do it with a text file, then don’t set up a spreadsheet.” The general point in each of these situations is that you want to use the least possible tool for the job and then when the complexity of the work demands it, you justify the added complexity of the next thing.
If when you get to the point where you need something more complex you are going to know a lot about what you really need. Sneakerneting your way through a workflow end to end is going to enable you to figure out what the process really involves and needs. The last thing you want to do is spend three years in meetings gathering requirements based on what you think you might need.
I often recall some smart stuff that the 37 Signals crew have avowed, namely that “Until you’ve actually thrown the ball at the wall, you don’t know how it’ll bounce back.” It seems to be true for software, for workflows, for procedures, for org structures. You name it.
Parsimony and Elegance
I’m becoming increasingly convinced that concepts of parsimony, elegance, and simplicity have a core place as anchors in the work of digital preservation and curation.
For some context, here I intend the definition of parsimony as;
“Using a minimal number of assumptions, steps, or conjecture”
The beauty of an idea characterized by minimalism and intuitiveness while preserving exactness and precision
That is, our workflows, processes, and systems are parsimonious to the extent that they use “minimal number of assumptions or steps.” They are elegant to the extent that they are characterized by “minimalism and intuitiveness while preserving exactness and precision.” This isn’t to say that this infrastructure won’t become complex, but to say that it should only be as complex as it absolutely needs to be.
All Unnecessary Added Complexity is a Sustainability Threat
One of the core activities of digital curation and preservation work is imagining what happens when particularly things might go wrong. “What if this thing broke?” Or, “What if so-and-so took a different job, you know the one who built this really complicated piece of software?” Or ,”What if the the other organizations investing developer time in this complex application we are using shifted to invest their time in something else? Or, “What would happen if this company we are paying to provide this platform or service changed their business model?” In all of these cases, the more dependent you are on something the more risk you expose yourself to.
Significantly, you must expose yourself to risks. You’ve got to be dependent on a bunch of things, you just want to be deliberate about what you are being dependent on. You need exit strategies for your exit strategies. But in all of that you can take heart that the less complex the platforms, tools, services, processes you use are the easier it will be to move on to whatever the next thing of those is going to be. Believe me, the next thing is always coming. Whatever tools, processes, systems, methods you use today are just the things you use today. The shiny new thing of today will be the old crummy thing that you want nothing to do with tomorrow.
Below are the axioms from my book that I think are most relevant/imply some of the points I’ve tried to make about parsimony and elegance.
1. A repository is not a piece of software. Software cannot preserve anything. Software cannot be a repository in itself. A repository is the sum of financial resources, hardware, staff time, and ongoing implementation of policies and planning to ensure long-term access to content. Any software system you use to enable you preserving and providing access to digital content is by necessity temporary. You need to be able to get your stuff out of it because it likely will not last forever. Similarly, there is no software that “does” digital preservation.
3. Tools can get in the way just as much as they can help. Specialized digital preservation tools and software are just as likely to get in the way of solving your digital preservation problems as they are to help. In many cases, it’s much more straightforward to start small and implement simple and discrete tools and practices to keep track of your digital information using nothing more than the file system you happen to be working in. It’s better to start simple and then introduce tools that help you improve your process then to simply buy into some complex system without having gotten your house in order first.
4. Nothing has been preserved, there are only things being preserved. Preservation is the result of ongoing work of people and commitments of resources. The work is never finished. This is true of all forms of preservation; it’s just that the timescales for digital preservation actions are significantly shorter than they tend to be with the conservation of things like books or oil paintings. Try to avoid talking about what has been preserved; there is only what we are preserving. This has significant ramifications for how we think about staffing and resourcing preservation work. If you want to evaluate how serious an organization is about digital preservation don’t start by looking at their code, their storage architecture, or talking to their developers. Start by talking to their finance people. See where digital preservation shows up in the budget. If an organization is serious about digital preservation it should be evident from how they spend their money. Preservation is ongoing work. It is not something that can be thought of as a one time cost.
9. Digital preservation is about making the best use of your resources to mitigate the most pressing preservation threats and risks. You are never done with digital preservation. It is not something that can be accomplished or finished. Digital preservation is a continual process of understanding the risks you face for losing content or losing the ability to render and interact with it and making use of whatever resources you have to mitigate those risks.
12.Highly technical definitions of digital preservation are complicit in silencing the past. Much of the language and specifications of digital preservation have developed into complex sets of requirements that obfuscate many of the practical things anyone and any organization can do to increase the likelihood of access to content in the future. As such, a highly technical framing of digital preservation has resulted in many smaller and less resource rich institutions feeling like they just can’t do digital preservation, or that they need to hire consultants to tell them about complex preservation metadata standards when what they need to do first is make a copy of their files.
I’m excited to kick off 2018 teaching my digital history course for American University again.
I’ve been increasingly interested in the methodological aspects of digital history (the how not the what of history). Given that this course is on the books as a tool of research course for AMU history grad students it seemed to make sense to go ahead and slightly reframe it to focus explicitly on methods.
Like my previous courses, this course will run largely through a student written publication on the dighist blog. I’m always excited to have folks outside the class join in on our learning community. So please consider following along on the course blog and commenting if/when things pique your interest.
For some context, I’ve provided a rundown of the topics students will be blogging about below. I’ve also provided a full copy of the syllabus. Most of the readings are open access and the books are relatively inexpensive, so feel free to directly join in and follow along as we go.
Weekly Course Topics
Becoming digital public historians (Jan 17th): This is our first class; we will introduce ourselves to each other and spend a lot of time reviewing the syllabus. I will make sure everyone leaves with an understanding of how to register, post and work with the course blog. By the end of class everyone will have signed up for the weeks they are blogging/presenting on. We will then take a bit of time to quickly read short posts about blogging as an academic practice.
Defining digital history (Jan 24th): This week is largely about developing a perspective on what people mean when they say “digital history” and more broadly “digital humanities.” It’s also about what the stakes in all this are. Across all of the readings consider both the arguments and the genre of writing they are being presented in. Format and genre are critical components of our work this semester and the differences between blogging, books and articles are as much on the table for discussion as the points in these pieces. PhillaPlace is an example of the kind of projects folks are creating in digital history and Wordle is here as a kind of toy for starting to think about visualizing texts and the possibility of visualization as a mode of history communication.
The Web: Participatory? Collaborative? Exploitive? (Jan 31): In history we work to connect audiences and publics with the past. In this vein, the participatory and collaborative rhetoric that surrounds the web fits many of the values of public historians like a glove. This weeks readings explore issues around crowdsourcing and public participation in history on the web. This includes both the potential to connect with the missions and values of cultural heritage institutions and opens questions about what constitutes participation and what becomes exploitive.
Digital analysis: Distant reading, text analysis, visualization (Feb 7th); One of the most active strands of digital history and the digital humanities more broadly focuses on computational analysis of texts and the interpretations of abstractions of those texts. For the most part, “texts” has meant words, but we starting to get into computational modes of engaging with images and audio too. This week is about all of that, in particular, under the heading of distant reading. Throughout this week’s readings think both about the subject (visualization) and about the formats of the readings (blog posts, books, open review publications, etc.)
“Project” as scholarly genre: Designing digital projects: (Feb 14th): It’s likely that many of you don’t have experience with planning and developing projects, in particular digital projects. So, this week is about planning projects and drafting the documents involved in making a digital project, in particular a web project, happen. Brown’s book is our main text, providing a roadmap for what decisions get made when. The NEH guidelines contextualize the format for a project proposal in a humanities context. The section from Digital_Humanities offers consideration of “project” as a unit of scholarship. Kirshenbaum’s piece get’s at the vexing issue of sustainability. Scheinfeldt’s explores differences between common digital collection platforms.
Proposal pitch week (Feb 21st): Everyone in class is going to give the elevator pitch for the project that they intend to finish. No slides or anything. Just stand up, and in three minutes present the elevator pitch. Answer what you are going to do? Why it’s worth doing? You’ll explain how it is like things before, but also how it’s different. It’s important to be able to give the “MTV Cops” level explanation of your work. So work on that. After discussing the proposals, we will use remaining time in this session to check in on how the course is going. Think of it as a formative evaluation of the content and process of the course. It is great to get this kind of information in the middle so that it is still possible to tweak parts of the course going forward.
Digital archives: What are & aren’t they? (Feb 28th ): Public historians and other humanists have been exuberant about the possibility of providing broad public access to primary source documents and the contents of archives. In this context, the use of the term “digital archive” has become a bit fraught. With that said, there is some valuable productive friction in that fraughtness. Something useful is emerging in the blending of sources, analysis, and intrepretations. This week we figure out what different folks mean by the term in different situations and explore some exemplars of different notions of digital archives and their potential as modes of scholarly output.
Understanding Digital Content: Media, materiality & format (March 7); To really do digital history, we need a very solid understanding of what exactly digital stuff is. This week we try to figure out more about what digital things are. We likely all have a sense of what things like documents, spreadsheets and digital photos and videos are, but it is essential that we go beyond their appearance on the screen to understand a bit about what bits, bytes, files, and file formats are.
Digital exhibition, hypermedia narrative & bots (March 21): What does it mean to collect and exhibit/present/interpret digital objects? This week we explore this issue across new media art, source code and digitized materials. Along with thinking through issues of presenting digital objects we also explore the potential of turning our interpretations and exhibitions over to the machines themselves.
Digital audio: Oral history and sound studies (March 28): A huge area of work in history is oral history and at this point that is basically entirely a digital affair. This week we explore what it means to do oral history in the digital age. Aside from the great work tied up in that particular program, we need to think about how computational approaches to working with audio can change what it is that we do in this space (bring in some pop-up archive links). Similarly, it’s critical to remember that all formats and media have histories and politics, hence why we are using this as an opportunity to better understand that through the introduction to Sterne’s MP3: The Meaning of a Format.
Mobile media, place & mapping (April 4th): Increasingly, the screens people are turning their attention to are in their hands and their pockets. In this vein, there is tremendous potential for mobile media and mobile media has a direct and clear connection to place and location. There are projects like the Museum from Mainstreet app and the Will to Adorn app that try to enable participatory collecting, projects like Histories of the National Mall that work to situate events in historic sites. This week we look at these, and related projects, and read Mobile Interface Theory: Embodied Space and Locative Media to add a theoretical layer/framework for thinking about this work. We haven’t talked much about maps and place in general yet either, so we will also consider the “spatial turn” as one of the ongoing developments and areas of interest in digital history scholarship.
Playing the Past: Videogames, interactivity & action (April 11): Videogames have rapidly become potent media for communicating ideas about the past. Historians, librarians and archivists have begun creating games and a range of interactive transmedia modes of communicating about the past. At the same time, many very successful commercial games, like Sid Mier’s Civilization, SimCity or Assassin’s Creed have invited a generation of players to enact or replay models of the past. In this session we will spend half of the class discussing Gee’s book, which will help us unpack a range of ways to think about games and learning and how to read games and the other half discussing how ideas are represented and enacted in games that are specifically about the past.
Opening & Expanding Forms of Scholarly Communication (April 18): Digital technology has changed the possibilities for scholarly communication in the history profession. Historians have long produced scholarly works in a range of media. However, monographs and to a lesser extent journal articles and conference papers have largely persisted as the primary forms of scholarship that “count.” This week we will learn a bit about the development and history of scholarly presses and explore a range of novel approaches and technologies for scholarly communications.
Class Conference Poster Presentations (April 25): Bring a poster reporting on the results of either your research project or your digital project. We are going to run the classroom as a conference and I will see if I can get folks from around the
The end of 2016 was hard. I half- wrote that post. I tried to tell an optimistic story about where I’d been and where I was going but it just wasn’t happening. Instead, I ended up recording an album with my own original compositions that was largely about processing the end of 2016. So Before You Remember, will count as the post for last year.
The world is not really a better place today. But I refuse to be overcome by events and I am here to recount some of the good in this life well lived just inside the beltway. Despite the state of the world, Marjee and I, along with Bowser and Zelda have carved out our niches in this mad world and we are loving the lives we are building together.
So to that end, I return to my regularly scheduled programing of sharing out about various and sundry things that have come to pass in the last year of my research, writing, and work.
The three jobs: Niche building inside the beltway
In early 2017 I was hitting my stride as a manager, leading the team of program staff running the National Digital Platform initiative at the Institute of Museum and Library Services. In the middle of the year I found myself as the Acting Associate Deputy Director for Libraries at the Institute of Museum and Library Services. As an aside, “Acting Associate Deputy Director” is such an amazingly federal government name for a job. In particular, such a 2017 federal government title for a job. I loved working at IMLS, but a chance came to return to the Library of Congress that was just too good to pass up.
At some point across those shifting gigs, I may also have done the rounds on the whole job-talk-campus-visit-thing for being the Digital AUL at an ARL library. I haven’t talked about this much and I won’t talk about it further. I will say, it was a great opportunity to see our lives and work through a different lens. To see how we and how others would see us in the academy. We ended up reaffirming our love and commitment to our lives here just inside the capital beltway.
For us, 2017 ended up being a year for finding and building the context that we want to live in, for this world we find ourselves in. I’m feeling like I’ve found a niche that I really love. A place where I can do good things. A place where I can be the kind of person I want to be. A place where I can grow. A place where I can support others in learning and growing. I’m thinking a lot about maintenance, repair, emotional intelligence, and cultivating an ethic of care and I aspire for 2018 to be a year where I bring more and more of that thinking into the practice of both my work and my life outside of work.
The National Digital Platform turns three
I devoted three years of my professional life to helping bring about the National Digital Platform for libraries. Looking back at it, I feel extremely proud of the results. In May, I gave a talk Maura had been slated to give at the Digital Initiatives Symposium in San Diego. That talk, Digital Infrastructures that Embody Library Principles, was a presentation based on a (still) forthcoming chapter in an ACRL book that the NDP team wrote on the role that library values play in the design, development, and implementation of technology in libraries.
By the end of my time at IMLS, I had had a hand in investing more than $33 million in 100+ projects in support of a vision of a National Digital Platform. It is something that I will be forever proud of. The ability to work part of my public service career for the IMLS was truly a gift. It’s an amazing place with an amazing mission and I will treasure that I was able to chart a part of the institution (and the field’s) course. In 2017 we were also able to put out a whole special issue of D-Lib focused on various NDP projects.
Before I left IMLS, I was working on the start of planning NDP@3, a report and summit reflecting on the first three years of the National Digital Platform initiative at IMLS and a look toward to it’s future. I’d left a few months before the summit, which I will note was expertly managed and run by the IMLS NDP team. I was lucky to get the chance to participate in the event. I was able to get my copy of the report signed by the team as pictured to the right.
Visiting the place you were, just for a day, and seeing everyone doing it all without you feels complicated. You miss it all. At the same time, you get to see others step up and take things in their own directions. I was so proud to see the team that I had had a hand in building running with what Maura and I had worked to establish.
Starting in February, I posted drafts of sections of the book. By June, I delivered it to the press. In the fall I got back reader reports, and at this point I’ve sent the revised manuscript back to the press to move into the next phase of the process. I anticipate it will come out late in 2018.
In rereading the draft for this final hand-off to the publisher, I feel like this is the most authentically “me” of anything I’ve ever written. At some moments, pithy, at others fiery. Sometimes completely eschewing “fancy writing” conventions. At points nerding out about wonky aspects of media theory or the structure of digital information. Sometimes saying something smart. Generally at my best when I’m talking about the smart work that other people have done. I see so many of the places and the people that I know, that I’ve learned from, evident in the stories I share in it. It’s still got the semi-breathless run-on-sentence-hedging that is part of conversations where I get caught-up in thoughts and ideas. It’s hard to express how affirming, revealing, and disarming it is to return to a piece of writing that you feel like exposes many of your quirks and vulnerabilities in it, but that you see people responding so positively to.
Building a Digital Content Managment Team
The last quarter of the year has found me back at the Library of Congress. When I started at the end of August I kept running into colleagues in the tunnels that connect the three buildings on capitol hill who would say things like “Hey Trevor, good to see you! It’s been a while. What have you been up to?” To which I would say something like, “Yes, it has! I worked for another federal agency for the last three years.”
The Library of Congress is a big place, the kind of place where you could really have not seen someone for three years. It’s also the kind of place where three years can seem like a blip of time. Library time really is a different kind of time. Being back now there are moments where I feel like I never left. I’m back with many of the same people talking about many of the same things. At the same time so much has changed for the better. I find myself having a chance to help support the development and implementation of a vision for the digital present and future of the institution and it’s extremely exciting.
My first run at all of this has been a really amazing experience. The idea of building out a team of staff for the digital content management section around the web archiving team has been really exciting. Part of my new job involves hiring ten people to round out the new section I’m setting up. In keeping with the nature of the federal hiring process, this ended up involving conducting more than fifty hour long structured interviews from a pool of hundreds of candidates for these positions. It’s a challenging privilege to be present and and supportive for people putting themselves out there in interviews. As the year closes, and this process inches closer to completion I’m excited about the prospect of transitioning from being a planner and hiring manager for this new section to being a coach and a mentor in supporting this team do great work on behalf of the public.
I’ve been on a kick recently to read a lot of work on organizational theory, management, and leadership. What follows here is some of my rough notes on some of the books I’ve been reading. I’m interested/eager to talk with more folks about various takes on how these areas of work connect/don’t connect with libraries.
Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice, and Leadership
Their central concept is that there are four competing frames through which people approach organizations and leadership and that by becoming deliberate about what frame you are working from at any given moment you can make better choices about what an organization needs at any given moment. They identify the four frames as; Structural, Human Resources, political, and symbolic. I’ve included a table from their explanation that I find quite useful below.
I like the concept in this that there aren’t right or wrong organizational frames but that it’s a question of context and that they are all aspects that are present in different organizations given the situation. I also think this is a rather useful tool for approaching others in an organization. My sense is that different people default to different frames and that the best way to work with someone is often to make your case and work with them from their default frame.
With that noted, my default frames tend to be the Human Resource and Symbolic frames and I increasingly see significant connections between those and notions of care and emotional intelligence. In this context, I see those two frames as the heart of work in organizations and the other two (structural and political) as instrumental tools that can help serve the ends that come from the symbolic and human resource frames.
Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education
I’ve been meaning to read up more on notions of care and ethics and it seemed like a good idea to go back to the source on this. So I read Nel Noddings Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education. (Side note: how did anyone let me get out of a grad program in eduction without reading this?) I realize that there is a much larger body of work that has grown up out of this line of thinking and I’m excited to dig into that too, but I thought it made sense to try and read my way up that intellectual lineage by starting back with this.
I’m really liking the direction that the ethic of care takes us in and I think there are some significant connections to resulting work in leadership on ideas about emotional intelligence and resonance, which I’ll get into when I talk about the next two books. Here I think I will just share some of the quotes that have stuck with me and that I have been processing.
Noddings suggests that the central tenant of an ethic of care is to “always act so as to establish, maintain, or enhance caring relations.” (xv) and similarly that our “first and unending obligation is to meet the other as one-caring” (17). Which Noddings unpacks; “To act as one-caring is to act with special regard for the particular person in a concrete situation.” Further that. “When I care… There is more than a feeling; there is also a motivational shift. My motive energy flows toward the other and perhaps… towards his ends” (33). Going back to the Human Resource frame in Bolman and Deal, there seem to be some significant connections there with the notions around family as the organizational metaphor and about the idea that organizations best function when they think about how to meet the needs of their people and support and empower them.
But can institutions care? Noddings suggests no, then can’t. That “in a deep sense, no institution or nation can be ethical. It cannot meet the other as one-caring or as one trying to care.” further “only the individual can be truly called to ethical behavior” (103). In this context, what matters is to design institutions as places that support “conditions that make it possible for caring relations to flourish” (xiv). Further “We have to ask how best to cultivate the moral sentiments and how to develop communities that will support, not destroy, caring relations” (xv). I find Noddings’ notion of chains of caring to be useful here; “Chains of caring in which certain formal links to known cared-fors bind us to the possibility of caring. The construction of such formal chains places us in a state of readiness to care” (17). In this context, a core function for organizational design would be to work toward establishing structures and processes that support and encourage the development of these kinds of chains of caring.
On Emotional Intelligence: HBR’s 10 Must Reads
I’ve mentioned emotional intelligence a few times already. I’ve read a good bit on emotional intelligence in the past, and I’m thinking it’s more and more relevant in a range of contexts . I’m becoming all the more convinced that emotional intelligence is a core set of competencies that we need to be working to develop and cultivate. I found the The Harvard Business Review’s 10 Must Reads on Emotional Intelligence to be a rather useful set of quick reads for trying to piece together what the implications of work on emotional intelligence are for organizations. Below is a quick blurb about the different skills that have been identified as part of emotional intelligence from the intro of the book.
Of particular note, ideas around empathy and social skill have some rather direct connections to both the human resource frame and notions of caring. In the intro chapter, Daniel Goleman suggests that “Outstanding coaches and mentors get inside the heads of the people they are helping” (p 18). The whole conception of leaders as coaches and mentors draws from and connects to notions of support and care.
Here are a few more quotes from chapters in the book that I’ve found to be insightful or useful;
“Our limbic system’s open-loop design lets other people change ur very physiology and hence, or emotions” (30). Our emotional states effect each other in rather direct ways, so the result is that that team culture and organizational culture affect the emotional states of all everyone else in the organization. Here again I think the centrality of both the human resource and symbolic frame come into play.
A later chapter stresses the need for organizations to establish “norms that encourage a group to recognize the feelings and needs of other groups” (84). I think this connects well with Noddings notions around getting organizations to establish the conditions for care to happen.
There are a series of tables in a chapter titled Building Norms for three levels or group emotional intelligence (88) that nicely map how issues around emotional intelligence bridge from individuals up and out to teams and groups. Great and detailed table with norms. Starting from “Norms that create awareness of emotions” then “Norms that help regulate emotions.” You can see a copy of that table online here.
The book is built around the idea that resonant leadership is moored in mindfulness, which is related to one’s ability to manage cycles of sacrifice and renewal and a dialog between our ideal selves and our real selves. In this context one needs to set plans in motion to learn and advance your ability to work across each of these areas.
Much of the book focuses on the previously described functions of emotional intelligence and the role it requires for someone to be present and have presence (29). Given the previously mentioned idea that our lymbic systems are open and that other’s emotional states have direct effects on our own it becomes all the more central for people in leadership roles to manage their emotional states (31). For this reason, one of their core idea is that there are aspects of doing the emotional labor of resonant leadership that are draining and that if leaders don’t build in explicit practices to manage that they can end up getting trapped in a sacrifice syndrome. This post has some nice diagrams and explanations of these ideas.
The diagram below from a related article by the authors illustrates how they see cycles of renewal and sacrifice from leaders functioning to maintain resonance.
The take away from their approach is that only by making sure everyone builds in time for cycles of renewal and self care can we manage the continued emotional labor of the work we face.
So those are some running notes on a four books I’ve recently read and or re-read and I’m curious for any and all thoughts you might have about the points in them or other reading that complicates or confirms any of these points. I find it interesting to see such strong connections across work in organizational theory and educational philosophy and psychology. With that noted, there are aspects of the business organizational theory work that connect with extractive work around labor and control that I still haven’t resolved. That is, when are institutions being manipulative? Further, it seems more and more clear that this understanding of how people work is something that can be marshaled and used to just about any ends or mission. So it’s clear that outside of this there are broader ethical questions about what kind of work organizations chose to focus on.
I am overjoyed to announce that I will serve as the first Head of Digital Content Management in Library Services at the Library of Congress.
For the first time in my career I’m going to be an official librarian. In Gov speak, this job is a 1410, I’ve previously been a “information technology specialist (2210) and most recently the most government sounding thing imaginable “miscellaneous administration” (0301). Of the many things I am excited about regarding the position, one is that after more than a decade of working with and supporting libraries I will now be, according to the United States federal government, a practicing librarian.
It’s been hard for me to imagine something that could call me away from the work I get to do at the Institute of Museum and Library Services. But then this came along. This post provides some context on 1) why I’m generally excited to go back 2) why I’m specifically excited to go back and 3) why it’s also so very hard to leave.
A great time to be at the LC
Like librarians around the country, I cheered when Dr. Carla Hayden was nominated to be our Librarian of Congress. I cheered even louder when she was confirmed. I’ve been watching from the sidelines and talking with many of my friends at LC about exciting changes she is bringing to the institution.
It’s clearly a great time to work for the Library of Congress. I’m excited to be a part of that.
I will point out a few top-of-mind examples of exciting work afoot. Kate Zwaard and her team are charting a course for supporting the use and reuse of digital collections. Joe Puccio and his team have established and advanced a smart and bold vision for digital collecting. It’s invigorating to see the Library of Congress so clearly engaging as a partner and a leader in the national community of libraries and librarians. The friendships that came from my previous stint at LC have stuck with me and it is great to see many of those smart, thoughtful, and hardworking friends moving into positions that are enabling them to take the institution to exciting new places.
So that’s some context on general LC things that get me excited, but it’s the particulars of this job that pull me back.
What does being the Head of Digital Content Management entail?
Before getting into this, I should kick off by saying that what follows is 1) my personal reading of 2) public information about 3) a job I’ve yet to start at 4) an organization that has changed a lot since I left it three years ago. Further, as is always the case, things on my blog are a) personal reflections b ) not in any way official in regards to any connection with organizations I am now or have ever been associated with and c) last but not least, in no way statements on behalf of the gov. Back to our regularly scheduled blogging.
For some context on where this new Head of Digital Content Management role comes from, I recommend pages 48-49 of the Library of Congress 2017 budget justification. As a general side note, the hefty budget justification tomes are chock full of great info on the institution.
Given that most readers will likely not be cracking open that particular volume, I’m happy to walk through it a bit. On page 48 you can find a description of a request for resources to meet the need for the “establishment of a new digital content management unit … that will be responsible for collecting and managing content for the Library’s collections in digital formats.” There is a bit more context there about what exactly this entails, “The unit will codify and communicate digital content best practices, provide training to staff throughout the Library, and work with Office of the Chief Information Officer to develop the Library’s technical capacity to collect, preserve, and deliver digital collections.” Furthermore, the division “will focus on expanding the Library’s
acquisition, management, and preservation of digital collections” and “assume responsibility for key born digital acquisitions programs and digital materials not supported elsewhere in the Library, including web archiving.”
In short, this involves developing, building out, and supporting a team focused on building capacity for the Library of Congress to collect, manage, and provide access to digital content. It also involves supporting the existing web archiving program, which (IMHO) is a) world class digital collecting program and b) one of the most exciting, dynamic, and growing programs at the Library of Congress.
In short, this is my jam.
This feels like what I have been thinking about and writing about for close to a decade.
Even more information about digital content management!
But wait… there’s more.
The job posting has, in between standard government-job-speak, some thoughtfully crafted info on how this work is being designed. Again, I’m not on the inside yet. I don’t know exactly how the lived experience of these aspects are developing and coming together. With that noted, the way this job (and the resulting organizational structure it implies) are being described and articulated makes a lot of sense me. I’ve pasted the duties below for context. The thing I want to highlight in these is the connections between this new Digital Content Management Section as three different kinds of things;
A custodial unit that manages a set of collecting programs and content;
A platform for increasing capacity for digital collecting in units across the Library; and
A team that can share out what it learns more broadly in LC and with the field.
In my mind, these seem like three concentric circles nested in each other that can facilitate and support change in both the institution and the field. Below is the exact language from the position listing where you can see these different themes weave in and out. I’ve gone ahead and bolded some parts that connect with those three points I’ve mentioned. I like to stick to my sources and my texts, so here we go.
The Head of Digital Content Management…
Coordinates, determines, and manages projects within the section. Serves as a technical expert in the planning, management, and execution of digital collections projects and activities within the scope of the section. Applying broad knowledge of digital libraries and technical solutions provides expert analysis and advice and develops solutions to solve complex issues and problems associated with digital lifecycle management. Identifies and applies new analytical techniques to address situations that are unique or not previously encountered.
Oversees the development of requirements related to the management of digital content under care of the section. Directs studies and testing of digital library best practices and standards. Develops cost estimates and IT investment packages to support digital content acquisition and curation programs. Serves as advisor and liaison to the Chief of Digital Collection Management & Services Division (TBD) on matters pertaining to digital collections lifecycle activities. Establishes and maintains effective working relationships with Library staff at multiple levels and across service unit lines on digital collections management.
Coordinates digital workflow activities with specialists in curatorial units throughout Library Services, the Law Library, and the Office of Chief Information Officer. Provides training and presentations to staff in stakeholder and curatorial units. Communicates orally and in writing to both technical and non-technical staff concerning digital collections activities.
Attends conferences/meetings to make presentations or for professional development to keep abreast of current trends in technology. Works collaboratively inside and outside the section to facilitate and encourage the development and implementation of institution-wide and national best practices and standards.
Performs the administrative and human resource management functions related to the staff supervised. Establishes guidelines and performance expectations for staff, which are clearly communicated through the formal employee performance management system. Responsible for advancing the objectives of equal employment opportunity (EEO) by taking positive steps to adhere to nondiscriminatory employment practices in regard to race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, and disability.
But now… the feels
It is really hard to leave IMLS. I love this place. I love the mission. I love the work. But far and above all of that, I love the people. No one outside the organization can ever really understand what it’s like.
The team I have been able to work with has been a gift. My colleagues and staff in the Office of Library Services are amazing. Each of them is brilliant and talented in different ways and together they are incredibly effective and sharp. It’s also a group of thoughtful and supportive people. I like to think everyone in the team knows that they are respected and they are cared for. At least that is how I know I’ve felt. It’s also something I’ve tried to communicate. So much work goes on behind the scenes with very few people. The small but mighty staff of the Office of Library Services, supported by an assortment of other great tiny offices, are who make all of it happen.
Beyond the direct team, the folks in the Office of Museum Services are a pleasure to work with and the various supporting offices are all filled with dedicated people who work to make rules and regulations designed for federal agencies with thousands of people work for one that has a tiny fraction of a fraction of that. I can honestly say I’ve never worked as hard as I’ve worked at IMLS, but the work has always been deeply rewarding. To my IMLS colleagues, I see the work you do and I understand and appreciate it. I’m going to be less than a mile away and I would love to drop just about anything to get coffee and talk whenever. I hope you’ll all still keep me in the loop re: happy hours.
It’s hard to leave all that. However, as various people have come and gone in my time at IMLS, I’ve been aware of just how temporary and fleeting places and communities like this are. Reflecting on changes in the time I’ve been there I can clearly count a range of different eras and moments. We never walk into the same river twice and part of what makes the stratigraphy of our lives special and poignant in our memories requires a perpetual moving and shifting around. With all of that said, I’m joining the IMLS alumni network: a crew of friends I already know quite well.
I am incredibly proud of the work I’ve been involved in. I count myself lucky to have the chance to develop Maura’s vision in the national digital platform framework. Along with that, I am thrilled that the calls for proposals for FY 2018 continue to support national digital platform projects. I leave in place a team of some of the smartest and most talented people working on these issues in the country. I can’t wait to see all the amazing work that they will support. I also leave with the hope that my understanding of the functions and missions of IMLS and the Library of Congress can support future connections and collaborations between these unique institutions.
I end where I often find myself, humbled and inspired by the opportunities I have been presented with to serve, and hopeful that I can, to whatever extent possible, pay forward what has been given to me by my mentors and colleagues. As we Wisconsinites say, Forward!