Wisdom is Learned: An Interview with Application Developer Ashley Blewer

 

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This post originally appeared on The Signal on December 1st, 2016.

Ashley Blewer is an archivist, moving image specialist and developer who works at the New York Public Library. In her spare time she helps develop open source AV file conformance and QC software as well as standards such as Matroska and FFV1. Shes a three time Association of American Moving Image Archivists’ AV Hack Day hackathon winner and a prolific blogger and presenter who is committed to demystifying tech and empowering her peers in the library profession.

Describe what you do as an applications developer at the New York Public Library.

We have a lot of different applications here but I work specifically on the repository team and our priority right now is digital preservation and automated media ingest. So my day to day involves working on several different applications. We run different applications that run into each other — sets of microservice suites. I’m the monitor of these pipelines, getting images that have been digitized or video that has been digitized through to long-term digital preservation as well as enabling access on our various endpoints such as digitalcollections.nypl.org and archives.nypl.org. This involves communicating with other stakeholders, communicating with developers on my team and writing code for each of those applications, doing code review and pushing that live to the different applications… It’s very much a full stack position.

The job is more unique on my team because we work on such a broad array of applications. What I find exciting about this job is that I get to touch a lot of different types of code in my day job and I’m not just working on one application. Right now I’m working on dealing with a couple bugs related to associating URIs to subject headings in our metadata management system. Sometimes the application doesn’t work as it should so I do bug fixes in that regard. Some things that I will be working on this week are integrating a connection between our archives portal displaying video live within it rather than linking out to a different website, automating audio transcoding from preservation assets, and contributing some core functionality upgrades to our Digital Collections site. Recently something that I did that was more access-based was we migrated our display of video assets from a proprietary closed-source system to an open-source rendering system.

We follow loosely an agile planning system. Right now we meet weekly because our priorities are very vast and they’re changing pretty quickly, so every Monday we meet with stakeholders and we talk about all the things we need to tackle over the week and what needs to be done and then we get to work. There’s around 16 total developers at NYPL but my team has three.

I was playing with some of the apps youve made, and Im fascinated with the Barthes Tarot and the Portable Auroratone. Could you walk me through your creative process for these?

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These are good examples because they’re different in the sense that with the Barthes Tarot I was reading Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse and thinking about how I could potentially use that in a randomized way to do fortune telling for myself. This is almost embarrassing, right, but maybe someone [would want to use it] to try to solve a romance-based problem, like getting their fortune told. I originally wanted to map it to I Ching, which was something that Barthes and other philosophers were interested in, but it ended up being too technically difficult, so I got lazy and downgraded it to tarot. And then I knew I could put this together by doing a random draw of the data and just pull that out. Technically it ended up not being too difficult of a problem to solve because I made it easier.

The Portable Auroratone is the opposite in that I found a [software] library that automatically generated really interesting colors and I wondered how I could use it in some sort of way. I thought about the Auroratone I had seen at some symposium [ Orphan Film Symposium 8, 2013 ] six years ago and I thought “Oh, ok, it kind of looked like that,” and I turned it into that. So one of these apps was me having a philosophical dilemma and the other one was me having a technical library that I wanted to integrate into something and I had to mesh an idea with that.

I get a lot of compliments on Twitter bots like @nypl_cats and @nypl_dogs which I also just made very quickly as a one off. I did that while I was finalizing my paperwork to work here, actually. I thought if I’m going to get this job I might as well learn how to use their API. The API is something else that I work on now so I was familiarizing myself with this tool that I will eventually push code to support.

You constantly share what youre learning and advocate for continued learning in our profession through your blog, presentations, etc.  How do you find the time to share so prolifically and why do you think its important to do so?

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Yeah, I just came back from AMIA and I do really remember when at conferences why I do these things. As far as the first part of where I find the time, I don’t know, but I have been reflecting on how I’m maybe naturally introverted and this is something that I do to ramp up my own energy again, by working on something productive. Where other people might need to be out drinking with friends in order to chill, I need to be alone to chill, so it gives me more time to spend building different applications.

How do I summarize why I think this is important? I think about the positions I’ve been at and how I’ve thought about how I get to where I want to be and if those resources don’t exist then someone needs to build them. It’s so crucial to have a mentor figure in place to help you get to where you want to be and allowing people to discover that, especially related to technical issues. People just assume that the work I do in my day job now is much harder than it actually is, so if I can lower that barrier we can have more people learning to do it and more people can be more efficient in their jobs. Overall I think educating and empowering people helps the field much more substantially than if people are doing it alone in silos.

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Can you talk about your career path to becoming a web applications developer?

I went to undergrad not really knowing what I wanted to do. I went to a state school because it was almost free and graphic design was the most practical of the art degrees you could get, and in a lot of ways librarianship is a practical advanced degree that people get as well. Coming to the point that I am now which is in a very technical role at a library I sort of see what I was doing as a response to the gendered feedback that I’d grown up with. I wrote an article about this before – where I didn’t necessarily feel comfortable studying something like computer science but then graphic design was still very computer- focused, technically-focused that was maybe more “appropriate” for me to do. I was encouraged to do that as opposed to being discouraged from doing something that I was already good at, which would have been something like computer science.

What skills do digital librarians and archivists need? Is learning to code necessary?

A lot of people are getting on board with learning to code and how everybody has to do that and I don’t necessarily feel that’s true, that’s not everyone’s interest and skill set, but I do think having an understanding of how systems work and what is possible is one hundred percent required. Light skills in that regard help people go a long way. I think that – and this is echoed by people similar to me – once you realize how powerful writing a script can be and automating dull aspects of your job, the more that you’re inclined to want to do it. And like what I said earlier – the more efficient we can be the better we are as archivists.

You do so much to contribute to the profession outside of your work at NYPL as well- contributing to open source formats and workflows, sharing resources, building apps. How do you find time for it all and what else do you want to do?

I feel like I waste a lot of time in my down time. I feel that I’m not doing enough and people are like “How do you do so much?” But there’s so much work to be done! As far as what I want to do,  I don’t know, everything I’m doing right now. Maybe I’m like a child that’s still feasting on an endless amount of candy. Now I have these opportunities that I’ve wanted to have and I’m taking them all and saying yes to everything.

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A lot of what I do may be considered homework. As a developer, the way to get better at developing is purely just to solve more development problems. Making small applications is the only way to boost your own skills. It’s not necessarily like reading OAIS and understanding it in the same way you might if you were an archivist doing archivist homework. [Referencing graphic design background] The first design you do is not going to be good so you just do it again and you do it again and it’s the same thing with programming. One of the things I try to articulate to archivists is that programming kind of hurts all the time. It takes a really long time to overcome, because yeah, in school, you read a book or you write a paper and you’re expected to produce this result that has to be an A. With programming you try something and that doesn’t work and you try it again and you try it again and you think “Oh I’m so stupid I don’t know what I’m doing,” and that’s normal. I know this about myself and I think that’s the hardest thing to overcome when you are trying to learn these skills. It’s refreshing that even the smartest senior developers that I work with who are just incredible at their jobs all the time, still will pound the desk and be like “I’m so stupid, I don’t get this!” Knowing that’s a normal part of how things get done is the hardest thing to learn.

I’m happy to constantly be failing because I feel like I’m always fumbling towards something. I do think librarians and archivists tend to be people that had very good grades without too much effort, moving forward in life and so as soon as they hit a wall in which they aren’t necessarily inherently good at something that’s when the learning cuts off and that’s when I try to scoop people up and say “Here’s a resource where it’s ok to be dumb.” Because you’re not dumb, you just don’t have as much knowledge as someone else.

What do you want to do next?

Closed captioning is one of the big problems I’m excited about solving next within NYPL or outside of NYPL, whichever. If you don’t have it and you have 200,000 video items and they all need closed captioning to be accessible how do you deal with that problem?


What are five sources of inspiration for you right now? 

Recompiler: Especially the podcast since I listen to it on my commute, it’s such a warm introduction to technical topics.

Halt & Catch Fire: Trying to find another thing to watch when I am sleepy but I really just only want to watch this show. The emphasis on women’s complex narratives and struggles/growth within this show is unlike any other show I’ve ever watched.

Shishito Peppers: Dude, one in every ten are hot! I thought this was a menu trying to trick me but turns out its true! I like the surprise element of snacking on these.

Godel, Escher, Bach: I feel like this is the programmer’s equivalent of Infinite Jest. Everyone says they’ll read it one day but never get around to it. It’s such a sprawling, complex book that ties together patterns in the humanities and technology. Anyway, I am trudging through it.

AA NDSR Blog: So inspiring to read about the work of emerging professionals in the field of a/v digital preservation!

Conference Report: DLF 2016 Forum

This post was originally published on The Signal on November 23, 2016.

The Digital Library Federation (DLF) 2016 Forum was held alongside the DLF Liberal Arts Colleges Pre-Conference and Digital Preservation 2016 this year from November 6-10 at the Pfister Hotel in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Self-described as a  ”meeting place, marketplace, and congress“ of digital librarians from member institutions and the wider community, the conference, under the leadership of Bethany Nowviskie, set a welcome precedent of accessibility and inclusivity this year. As registration began, DLF released a major revision to their Code of Conduct, expanding the statement to include appropriate models of behavior for the event (such as giving the floor to under-represented viewpoints) and detailing what behaviors may qualify as harassment (such as “sustained disruption of talks or other events”).

Other efforts included publishing a guide to creating accessible presentations, encouraging DLF community members to vote on the program, offering the option to list a preferred gender pronoun on conference name tags and sponsoring an Ally Skills Workshop that taught “simple, everyday ways to support women in their workplaces and communities” that took place on November 8th.

This ethical intentionality set the tone of the forum, whose keynotes and panels resonated around a central theme of professional self-critique and care. What are our responsibilities as digital librarians? What can we do better? How do our actions reflect who we care for and who we don’t?

 

Jarret M. Drake, Digital Archivist at Princeton University’s Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library, opened the DLF Liberal Arts Colleges Pre-Conference with his keynote “Documenting Dissent in the Contemporary College Archive: Finding our Function within the Liberal Arts,” in which he argued that college archives should document student protests and activist efforts that are critical of the campus in an effort to stop re-occurring injustices.

Stacie Williams, the Learning Lab Manager at the University of Kentucky’s Special Collections Research Center, gave the DLF Forum keynote titled “All Labor is Local.” Speaking from her experience as a mother of two, Williams highlighted the necessity of care work in making all other types of labor possible. She called for all librarians to evaluate their organizations, tools and systems with a caregiver’s approach- do they meet basic needs, sustain societal functionality and/or alleviate pain? Williams urged libraries to prioritize our impact on local communities, stop unpaid and underpaid digitization labor and exploiting student labor in general. She highlighted Mukurtu, an open-source content management system that empowers indigenous communities to manage their digital heritage on their own terms, as an example of a care-based project that embodied these ideals.

Bergis Jules,  the University and Political Papers Archivist at the University of California, Riverside library, opened Digital Preservation 2016 with his keynote “Confronting Our Failure of Care Around the Legacies of Marginalized People in Archives,” in which he pointed to a library profession, its archives and funding agencies dominated by white perspectives that have failed to care for the legacies of marginalized groups and who share responsibility for the eradication and/or distortion of these groups. He praised community archive projects such as the Digital Transgender Archive, A People’s Archive of Police Violence in Cleveland, and The South Asian American Digital Archive as models we should look to as we evaluate how our own collections represent or silence marginalized groups.

National Digital Initiatives is interested in approaches to computational use of library collections, and we were pleased to see a large representation of digital scholarship themed panels at the forum. Much like the Collections as Data symposium we hosted earlier this year, practitioners focused on people over tools in their presentations. At #t2d: Managing Scope and Scale: Applying the Incubator Model to Digital Scholarship panel, librarians from UCLA, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, University of Michigan and Florida State described their efforts to build digital scholarship communities on campus and facilitate research projects. Programs such as Florida State University’s Project Enhancement Network and Incubator (PEN & Inc.) and UCLA’s Digital Research Start-Up Partnerships for Graduate Students (DREsSUP) programs enroll faculty, librarians and graduate students in collaborative projects that encourage mutual skill-building and perpetuated mentorship. Representatives from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, who have graduated three cohorts from their Digital Scholarship Incubator program to date, also discussed the shared challenge of balancing the need for iterative, responsive support for fellows with a set curriculum.

Paige Morgan, Digital Humanities Librarian at the University of Miami, and Helene Williams, Senior Lecturer at the University of Washington Information School, presented the results of their quantitative investigation of the role of digital humanities (DH) & digital scholarship (DS) during the #t5b: DH panel. Studying job ads from 2009 to 2016, they found skills for these types of positions have changed and expanded significantly over time, from an emphasis on digitization and databases (2010) to data management, analysis, project management and understanding the scholarly communication process (2016). Skills associated with copyright and rights management consistently increased over the period.

morganwilliamsfindingMorgan’s tweet featuring the tableau visualization of DH/DS competencies by Morgan and Williams. For the full worksheet, click here.

Later in this session, Matt Burton and Aaron Brenner from the University of Pittsburgh used adult learning theory to ground their talk “Avoiding techno-service-solutionism. Organizations who want to cultivate DH culture among staff, they argued, should shift their thinking towards one of mutual inquiry and a provision of differences, moving from a bounded set, or “in” and “out”, model of thinking to a centered set that assumes everyone is on a vector heading towards a DH future.

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See their slide deck and accompanying references here.

This visualization of membership models  struck me as representative of the forum as a whole. Many attendees at DLF pushed back against a static, inherently exclusive definition of librarianship, illustrating instead either literally or by example a dynamic definition that recognizes we are all on the same vector and must use our work to facilitate meaning-making and care with each other and our communities.

To see NDI’s presentation at Digital Preservation 2016, see this Signal post.

The next DLF forum will be held from October 23-25 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

National Digital Initiatives – FY16 Report

This post originally appeared on The Signal on November 23rd, 2016.

Initiatives at the Library of Congress (Digital Preservation 2016 Talk)

Here’s the text of the presentation I gave during the Initiatives panel at Digital Preservation 2016, held in collaboration with the DLF Forum on November 10, 2016. This presentation is about what the National Digital Initiatives division has been up to in FY16 and what’s coming up in FY17. For a report on the DLF Forum, see this Signal post.

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Hello! I’m Jaime Mears and I am from the Library of Congress, with National Digital Initiatives, a division of National and International Outreach.

Among our goals, we are looking for strategic partnerships that help increase access, awareness and engagement with our collections. So, as I present what we’ve done and what we plan to do, please think about whether there may be any synergies with efforts at your own institution.

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National Digital Initiatives is a small and agile team created in 2015 to maximize the benefit of the Library of Congress’ digital collections. Kate Zwaard, our chief, previously managed the Digital Repository Development team and led efforts to ingest three petabytes of digital collections. You may have come across some of Mike Ashenfelder’s communication work with the Library from The Signal, and Abbey Potter was formerly an NDSA organizer and a program officer for NDIIPP. I’m the newest member of the group and I was hired fresh off of my time as a National Digital Stewardship Resident, where I built a lab for personal digital archiving.

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I’m not new to the Library though. Back in 2012, I worked as intern for about eight months in the Manuscript Division, where I had the privilege of helping process the Charles and Ray Eames collection. The Eames’s are makers of the Eames chair and various modern works of art across formats like film, graphic design and architecture.

In an effort to impose order at Ray’s office at their design studio in California, Ray’s team used to clear her desk periodically, put everything in a shopping bag, large envelope, basket, silk scarf or whatever was handy, and slap a piece of masking tape on it with the date. In processing the collection at the Library, the decision was made to preserve these bundles as Andy Warhol-esque time capsules.

It was my job to go through these  bags and essentially help make them accessible for researchers. The strategy was to  group together provocative pieces and pieces that were indicative of the color palettes or design themes she was collecting at the time into arrangements to entice someone to investigate the rest. Sort of like a visual index into the capsules.

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Four years, three library jobs and one MLS degree later, I’m back at the Library of Congress and I recognize that even in this new role I’m still doing something very similar with the National Digital Initiatives team: provoking  exploration, getting users to engage with the Library’s material and staff and surfacing important work that often goes unseen.

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We try to highlight digital projects happening across the Library. For example, here is the debut of the Library’s new homepage, the first of many roll outs of a massive site redesign.

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This is Natalie Buda Smith, the supervisor of our User Experience team that is working on this redesign. I had the pleasure of interviewing her for the Signal last month and we discussed what it’s like to do a redesign like this for the Library of Congress, which has had a website for over 20 years. Because the Library of Congress was such an early implementer of digital collections, the growing pains of refreshing the interface and making the collection easily accessible can’t be understated. One of her goals is bringing a sense of joy of discovery to the user, and part of her team’s strategies for the homepage was to tell a story as a way of showing that we are more than just our holdings.

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So what other strategies does NDI use to tell stories, to provoke, to invite? How do we show that the Library is more than just a collection of things in specific subjects?

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There are multiple strategies; I can’t call them buckets because they’re not mutually exclusive. In fact they tend to build on one another, bleed together and most importantly all depend on multiple stakeholders both in and outside of the Library to be successful.

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We host events, we highlight collections, we highlight our efforts and those of our colleagues internally and externally, we develop programs, we facilitate experimentation and investigation (usually the final product is a report or example project) of our digital collections and we partner with outside GLAM practitioners. In time, we hope to include data journalists, artists, local community organizations and lifelong learners. Our team is dedicated to a “ rising tide lifts all boats” philosophy.

I will discuss six initiatives that we did this year and then — at the end — layout our game plan for FY17.

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We began with a basic question – “Who out there was using our collections?” Traditionally, most units have done this through monthly web metrics reports but we wanted profiles that were more detailed, to give us some direction in our outreach. We partnered with our communications office and Library Services, and came up with three priority areas we wanted profiled: two about types of audiences (undergraduate and graduate students, writers and creative professionals) and one about content (who was using our public domain and rights-cleared content).

We hired a marketing firm to build profiles of these priority areas and we learned  important user behavior trends and ways that we could target these groups. We will use the information from the audience analysis to help design and execute a digital-outreach campaign for existing and upcoming LC digital collections.

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To facilitate experimentation and investigation of some of our dark archives, we partnered with the Library of Congress Web Services and the Law Library, and the non-profit Archives Unleashed (Ian Milligan, Matthew Weber and Jimmy Lin). Together we hosted the Library’s first hackathon.

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Scholars came from around the world and had two and a half days to partner up, form a query, choose data sets to investigate and present their findings. You can read about this event on The Signal.

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This was the first time some of our web archives had ever been used by researchers. Here you see a word cloud that one team generated of Supreme Court nominations. We discovered that there was a Justice Roberts and a Senator Roberts, which threw off our text-mining efforts. Law Librarian Andrew Weber was on this team and gave context to the researchers about why they were seeing skewed results in the word cloud. That was a great example of engaging curators with the researchers.

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We co-hosted DPLA fest in 2016 with the National Archives and Records Administration and the Smithsonian Institution.

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We hosted a summit in September called Collections as Data. You may have seen it on Twitter as the hasthag #AsData. We invited leaders and experts from organizations that are collecting, preserving, using and providing researchers access to digital collections that are used as data. We asked them to share best practices and lessons learned. The event featured speakers such as data artist Jer Thorp of the Office for Creative Research, data curator Thomas Padilla at UC Santa Barbara, Maciej Ceglowski of Pinboard and Marisa Parham, director of the Five College Digital Humanities Project.

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Data humanism surfaced as a uniting theme of the day’s talks. Although data is a human invention, and one that is often very personal, it can be used to:

  • dehumanize people through data collection without consent or collaboration
  • create biased metadata and technical barriers for entry
  • produce design that is falsely interpreted as neutral.

Solutions suggested during the day included collecting and describing data sets with creators, cultivating diverse user communities to benefit from the data, and being transparent about decisions taken by libraries as they make these sets available.

So far the archived streamed video has been viewed over 8000 times, so we feel that the conference registered with a lot of people who are thinking about how to support data scholarship.

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The day after the conference, we brought together 30 Library of Congress staff members and 30 invited guests to discuss how the Library could improve data scholarship. We are currently working on some of those recommendations and looking into partnerships. We will publish a report on the conference next month by Thomas Padilla, as well as a series of visualizations by Oliver Bendorf.

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We opened an internal call for staff to apply to experiment with Library of Congress digital collections on a part-time, temporary assignment.

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We had a number of colleagues apply, and chose Tong Wang, a repository developer and Chris Adams, a developer from the World Digital Library, to be our inaugural fellows.

Seeing our developers use the privilege of time to explore the collections and play with them was a really joyous part of this year for us. We hope to expand the program to a wider, external pool of applicants next round.

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We asked two outside experts to do a proof-of-concept for a digital scholars lab in partnership with the Library’s John W. Kluge Center. The Kluge Center hosts a number of senior scholars and post-doctoral fellows, including most recently Dame Wendy Hall. Our goal in this pilot is to demonstrate what a lightweight implementation of using collections as data could look like. There will be a workflow to demo with some of our web archives.

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If you’ve seen a theme rise out of these initiatives to increase engagement with our collections, you wouldn’t be wrong. Our focus right now is enabling computational use of our digital collections, although we foresee year to year these themes changing depending upon what’s happening in the GLAM community at large or internally at the Library where we could best be helpful.

So what’s happening now, coming up?

Library Innovation Fellowship: As you heard before, we opened this up internally last year, but we  are currently investigating funding approaches and hope to complete the fellowship this year.

Digital Scholars Lab Implementation with the Kluge Center: Final report and pilot for the Digital Scholars Lab will be done by the end of December, and we will leverage those recommendations to begin piloting enhanced support for digital scholarship in the Kluge Center.

Lab Site Visits: We visited MITH, DCIC and the University of Richmond’s Digital Scholarship Lab, and we will continue to visit labs in libraries, archives, museums and media through the year along the east coast to learn how they are serving collections as data and engaging their communities.

Hackathon: We are currently co-organizing a hackathon for the spring that will include an introductory workshop on analytical tools and methods.

Annual Summit: Following on the success of the Collections as Data summit held in September 2016, NDI will host another conference in a similar style. We’d love to hear suggestions about topics.

Architecture Design Environment Summit: We will partner with other Library of Congress divisions to host a symposium next fall exploring preservation and access of Architecture, Design, and Engineering software and file formats.

Partnership Development: Last and most important, we are looking for opportunities to collaborate. Do you have a lab that we could visit? Are you or your colleagues interested in co-hosting a hackathon with us? Are you also looking to enhance access to your digital collections and want to connect? Talk to us. As you’ve seen from some of the things we’ve accomplished, they have all been through collaboration.

You can email us at ndi@loc.gov. You can also check us out on The Signal as we write about our initiatives and other cool digital projects happening at the Library and in the broader GLAM community. Thanks so much.

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User Experience (UX) Design in Libraries: An Interview with Natalie Buda Smith

This interview originally appeared on the Library of Congress’ The Signal on October 27, 2016. 

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Natalie Buda Smith is the User Experience (UX) Team supervisor at the Library of Congress, and most recently worked with NDI to design the beautiful graphic for ourCollections as Data conference. Her team has been busy redesigning Loc.gov, and the new homepage is set to debut Tuesday, Nov.1st.

We caught up over coffee to discuss user experience (UX), storytelling, the importance of design thinking in libraries, and Black Sabbath.

Can you tell me a little about your background and what you do on the User Experience Team?

User Experience is hard to define, but you know it when you see it. It is making things easier for people to use and understand. In our case, loc.gov, congress.gov and a handful of other digital products. It wasn’t called User Experience 20 years ago or even ten years ago, it has been called Graphic Design, Information Architecture, Interaction Design, Web Design and now also Customer Experience.

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The profession has changed dramatically just like Library Science has changed dramatically. I actually have an undergraduate degree in film from UNC Chapel-Hill, so I was very interested in not only design but storytelling and interactivity. You wouldn’t necessarily think of film as a good background for interactive work, but timing is just as important as color, content, and composition. Back when I started out, the most popular type of IT job was in computer networking, and my first job out of film school was designing system diagrams where I described LANs, WANs. I had to learn the difference between a router and a brouter, and started to understand computers and networks. This gave me a good foundation for the technology that is used today.

So then I went to design school at North Carolina State University and got my Master’s in Design, and then I decided I wanted to teach. For six years I taught around the world. The last teaching job I had was in Beirut, which was amazing, because their sense of aesthetics is so different from the Western one taught in school. In Arabic, you read from right to left and the letters are so dramatically differently, it makes you look at the world differently.

What were you teaching people to do?

I was very lucky to be able to teach design thinking, the design process, how to solve a problems through creative approaches. In some schools, User Experience or Graphic Design is treated as a vocation, but there are many schools out there that understand how effective design thinking can be. I was able to put together and teach a curriculum that would break down students’ assumptions about design, aesthetics, problem-solving, and then build it back up to a more creative, systematic way to approach problem solving. And often it could take many forms — print, photography, film, multimedia, the beginnings of the web — but I focused on fundamentals of thinking.

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Beirut was fascinating because my students, between 18 and 23, spent most of their life in civil war, so this was an opportunity for them to be creative, and bring their own storytelling into it, so it was not just about pushing Western aesthetics. Some of these kids spent many years in bomb shelters, a large part of their time underground in basements, so it was an interesting perspective of the world.

Storytelling is so important. It’s one of the reasons I got into this job and I think many archivists and librarians feel the same. Where does design and storytelling come together in the UX field?

To me User Experience is about structuring things so they are more accessible and consumable, but it also about breaking down problems and understanding what are the many ways to approach it. It’s like having a new set of tools. Take any sort of raw material — be it data, be it photographs — and then think ‘how do I assemble this in a way that tells that story? How do I structure it? Maybe I can transform it in some way?’ And then to understand when you do transform, there’s other layers of meaning that’s added on.

When you take a set of photographs and put them in an order, the order tells as much of a story as the individual photographs. That’s fundamental to design thinking. I would not say that only designers do design thinking, not only artists do creative thinking, librarians, engineers and others do a lot of creative thinking too. Design tends to use framework of systems that art doesn’t have to. Art can be a little bit more free from systems, where design typically has to function in some way, whereas art can be aesthetically pleasing just for its own self.

Librarians are systems thinkers, but there’s a need for design thinking skills that you don’t find in a traditional library education. How would it help us?

Good design programs spend a year or two breaking down your perceptions, and that’s really important. Design thinking is not just about empathy- you hear a lot about empathy for your users or customers – but it’s also a skill, and it’s a journey to get there, if you can break something down and remove yourself from it — get to the real problem and not feel that the solution has to conform to what you initially expected. Really good design thinking is when you’re able to remove yourself from the problem and put yourself into the user’s shoes. It’s a bit like acting; a really good actor can transform into someone completely different.

Let’s say you’re on a group project and you have a really interesting problem to solve and you’re working on a solution. People get emotionally invested — ‘this is an expression of myself, this is what I think, this is what I believe!’ — and the good thing about UX is we have tools to bring the user in to confirm or deny how they understand the problem. A really good designer can recognize ‘I’m emotionally invested in this, why? Let me try to remove myself.’ We learn this through constant peer feedback, and in design school, the critique.

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It’s one of the most stressful things for design students, when you take your work and put it on the wall and you have thirty people staring at it and telling you if it’s good or not good and you have to stand up there and defend it. In design school, this happens weekly, if not daily. By the time you end school, if a project team gives you negative feedback, you don’t feel defeated, you say, ok, let me try again because I didn’t hit all the things I needed to get done. It’s less about my personal expression and more about the solution. I haven’t seen this practice of critique used a lot in other fields.

Yes, there’s a movement in our field to expose our work to critique, to show our failures as well as our successes. It seems that designers have understood this for a while, that that’s how you improve. The Library of Congress is special because they have you and your staff of UX professionals in-house. What kinds of UX designers work best in a library environment?

In the Library, because our projects tend to range in size and type of content, I find that you need UX designers that are really well-rounded. You need someone who has a strong visual aesthetic, who knows how to code, someone who knows user research. The people we have at the Library are more experienced because we need that well rounded skill set. I’ve been doing it for over twenty years, and on average the people on the User Experience team at the Library have been doing it also for fifteen, twenty years. You’re exposed to all of these different facets of UX when you have more years of experience. So if someone said to me, who would I hire internally at a library, I would go with someone who was more well-rounded and knows when something is needed versus being really, really good at one particular flavor of UX.

This is my first internal federal job. I spent the majority of my career in IT consulting. In consulting, we would get really large website redesigns, where for example, defining the user experience could take eight months, two years with a dedicated team of eight user experience professionals dedicated to the one project. Here we juggle a lot of projects at once. We’re going through a major UI update to loc.gov, with a homepage redesign, then we have congress.gov which is has several sophisticated searches, then we have all these other, smaller things like iBooks and the heritage websites which takes a lot of interaction with other government agencies. It’s all these projects, small to large at the same time. It’s amazing how many UX positions are being advertised right now in the federal space, people are starting to understand the value of making products easy and enjoyable to use.

Is there anyone that has made a career out of UX design in libraries that you know of?

There isn’t a guru we could point to, no. There are several people who are solving interesting problems also, like at New York Public Library and other universities, but no one who has built a User Experience career out of it. People at my experience tend to have a lot of e-commerce experience since that was the driver for so many digital products, so as libraries continue to transform, the expertise will grow. Someone who’s coming out of school right now may be that person, but the opportunities haven’t really been there yet, in the way that it’s been there for e-commerce.

How would a librarian make an argument to their administration about hiring a UX designer?

I’m going to start with the technologies. The mobile device. Over 30 percent of our traffic on loc.gov comes through mobile devices. More and more people want to view library content on their mobile devices. One thing that UX can assist with is that you can’t put the entire website on the mobile experience — the former desktop experience does not transfer one to one — the technology needs to be updated, it needs to be made more accessible, and also the experience is very different. The context of how you’re using online content can be just as important as going to the site itself.

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I think of accessibility. A lot of technologies that we use to make content or collections more accessible online also make it more accessible for other technologies. When you make it more accessible you also make it more flexible, more scaleable, so as new technologies come online and people adapt to them, you are able to migrate it.

Then search. Search is more than just a framework, it’s also about knowing how people search, and the context of searches, what do people expect from search. So User Experience professionals can help define how users expect search to work, not just how to make search function.

We have a web metrics team with two people, and they provide a lot of great user behavior data for us, so we know that people want this item or that item, we can see the paths that they’re taking through these websites. Why not take what they want and move it up higher in their path? From a pure Library Science point of view, catalog prioritization may not match what users tend to want, so there’s some reconciliation there that needs to happen sometimes.

One tool set we also have is user research, and that can include older methods such as surveys or ethnographic studies, moderated testing, live site testing, but then it’s also applying metrics. A lot of times the best understanding of users is not just through one method — you have to use multiple tools and build a holistic understanding about users and what their motivations are, what they really want, and then constantly check back because it constantly changes. What people wanted last year is not going to be the same as what they want this year.

Can you talk about Project One, the Library’s effort to redesign its website?

The challenge for the Library is that it was such an early adopter of the web.The Library started early creating websites for people to have access to this wonderful content, but in a way that is now a burden. That’s similar to something I learned in Beirut.

My students were showing up to class and they had beautiful cell phones, I’d never seen state of the art cell phones like the ones they had, but I couldn’t make a landline phone call. What had happened is they had just jumped over several communication technologies. Why would they install landlines in Beirut, just go mobile. It’s sort of the same burden we have at the Library. So much work, so much content was put online early with older technologies, and now we have a lot of re-work to do. We have to pull up those old landlines in order to make them cellular friendly.

Project One is very iterative. It started off as a concept, how do you build a framework that’s optimized for search, breaking down content to the object level. Everything was flattened with metadata to assist search. It sounds simple but it’s not and it wasn’t. The most basic element is the item, but that in itself is complex because what is an item? Is it a book? Is it the page of a book? You need someone to decide that it’s worthy to apply metadata to it. We’re continuously learning and changing. No longer are you browsing web page by web page, and that was the basis of Project One.

Now we’re trying to build other structures on top of that foundation of search because people are wanting to create and consume context for the collection items. They’ll find an item and want the meaning around it, or we want to take this amazing content and package it in different ways for specific audiences.

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So that’s where we are right now. We’re moving to the stage of — how do we do more storytelling? How do we take all of these wonderful elements and start to tell stories in a more engaging way? And the home page is really a great step in that direction, because what we’re trying to tell is that the Library is more than just a collection of things in specific subjects. Let’s start to tell stories about what’s there because that’s the most engaging way to get people interested and understand that this amazing content is a part of the American story. Even if you try your hardest to build the most perfect and graceful system, it’s not going to be simple, because the items we have are not all the same. We’re not making widgets.

For example, take our wax cylinders, books, and then periodicals, photographs, audio, how do you jam those very different forms of content in the same structure? Just in order to make search work you have to have a framework, but it is challenging since there is also so much context around it that if you start to treat everything as the same, you lose a lot of information, so it is very challenging.

What was a takeaway for you from the Collections as Data conference?

I was excited to see the creativity that was being promoted. It’s one thing to talk about data and the best structures for data, but the majority of the conference was about creativity, and what people were doing with data. There was a variety of people doing different things. At the Library, we promote our collections, but having these outsiders present, you start to see oh, there are other ways that you can use the collections and that was exciting. There may be some people who see the Library more as a literal preserver of things, but the new approach is to see that preservation is in making it more accessible. If you want to preserve something, make it available, and when others make more things out of it, it is preserved in a richer way than if it’s just locked away for no one to see.

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What was the inspiration behind the Collections as Data conference graphics?

When thinking about the essence of the conference — laying down a influential foundation for the discussion of collection data and the creativity of its potential, I was reminded of a Black Sabbath’s album cover for one of the most influential albums in heavy metal music. I distilled the artwork to its most basic elements then created a visualization of its most elemental forms and colors. It thought it only fitting as the National Digital Initiatives team are in their own ways the rock stars of data.

That’s amazing! Thank you! If a library is updating its online presence, what are the top three things they should consider as a part of their design process?

The first thing is authenticity. One of the things we’re continuously working on at the Library is how we make our content accessible for education. We did some user research with that audience, conducted a focus group with elementary students, which was so much fun. It was a three hours long, but we learned a lot. We did a lot of different activities, but the main activity was to have them conduct research online.

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I asked them to pick someone famous like Rosa Parks, and show me how they researched. And the majority of the kids, guess where they went first? Where was their starting point? YouTube. Part of user research is that you step back and you don’t influence, and these kids, they were on laptops, iPads, one was on a desktop, and the majority went to YouTube to research. So one of the most valuable things the Library of Congress can do is say here’s the original, this is authentic, you do what you want to with public domain content, you could draw mustaches on everyone if you want, but you know this is the primary source and you’re seeing it as it originated.

That’s something Libraries can do from a user experience perspective, is make sure that content is presented in a way where users recognize that it is authentic.

Another thing to consider is a robust search, making sure search is easy to use and people understand what they’re getting back in their results. What’s available, what’s not available, and helping them with refining searches. The collections we offer are so complex, but people want things to work like Google.

And the last thing is joy. Helping people enjoy using libraries. I think sometimes we get too focused on the technical aspects, that this has to provide x, y and z. But if you can instill a love of learning and a love of research — to me they’re the same, then you are making the world a better place. So joy is a big part of it, and I don’t hear that goal often enough.

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Sometimes we tend to think of joy in terms of eating ice cream or other types of entertainment, but joy can also be in search results, you might find something and go ‘Wow!’

That sense of accomplishment is joy.

Doing Digital Archives in Public Manifesto

The following manifesto was created for the Society of American Archivists Archives Records 2016 conference session 307 “Doing Digital Archives in Public” by Wendy Hagenmaier, Jaime Mears, Jessica Meyerson and Eric Milenkiewicz.

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Do you have thoughts or comments about doing digital archives in public? Tweet about it with the hashtag #archivesinpublic !

DOWNLOAD THE PDF HERE—->      archivesinpublic.manifesto

Co-Hosting a Datathon at the Library of Congress and what I do now

In early Mary, I finished my NDSR residency project with the Memory Lab and began work at the Library of Congress with the National Digital Initiatives division. I was here before, in 2012, where I did two internship stints in the ISSN Division and Manuscript Division, learning cataloging and archival processing. My time here was what convinced me to get my Library degree.

 

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Buckle up.

It’s different now. The responsibilities are greater, but the impact is as well, and everything seems fat with possibility in a brand spankin’ new division, with a brand spankin’ new lady boss on the way.

One of the first things I got to do in this new position was help host a hackathon called Archives Unleashed 2.0 having (1) never hosted anything at the LoC before and having (2) never been involved in a hackathon. I also got to meet Vint Cerf, but hey, NBD.

You can check out this storify about the event and adjoining Save the Web symposium.

If you’re interested in doing one, check out my post on The Signal, “Co-hosting a Datathon at the Library of Congress”.

What’s next for this nascent?

I think it will be rare, going forward, to have the same, thematically focused posts I’ve had in the past just by the nature of my fellowship ending. I’ve been learning a lot about the digital humanities this past month in preparation for a symposium at the Library of Congress (stay tuned), so I’ll probably be posting on that. I’m also still very interested in personal archiving and continue to follow its development, so that’ll be sprinkled in here as well. Also- as I’m sure you’re aware- the world’s been particularly insane lately, and I’ve been just as preoccupied with topics like racism, sexism, ageism, professionalism, and self-care, to name a few. It seems inevitable that these topics may make their way in  to what I know has been before a strictly professional blog. I will do my best to work out a category and tagging system that will help you navigate around the hodge-podge to what you came here for in the first place.

NDSR Capstone Event

The NDSR Capstone Event was held at the Library of Congress on June 1st, 2016- marking the end of the residency year. The following is the resident reflection I gave-

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Hi everyone, and thanks for coming and supporting our cohort today. Thank you to IMLS and the Library of Congress for this residency opportunity.

My name is Jaime Mears and I’m just one of the 5 amazingly talented and employable residents worked with a DC host institution this year on a digital preservation project. I’ve been asked to give a brief resident reflection to give you some insight as to what this year has been like from our side.

7,720 miles.This is how far we traveled collectively to DC for this opportunity. (I only contributed about 2 miles to this number. Pretty sure Valerie coming from Eagle River, Alaska made a lot of this possible). It’s a little over the distance from here to Nairobi, and I think it’s important to remember that in these miles we left family, friends, partners, even job offers. Why?

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Perhaps we wanted to solve a problem for a prestigious institution, or create a body of work to call our own. I know Nicole has mentioned she wanted the luxury of time to do a digital preservation project without the competing priorities of multiple jobs or coursework.

I can say with confidence that we all wanted to DO. Not study, not listen to a lecture, but to physically tackle this mysterious, amorphous, slightly intimidating thing called digital preservation.

So the question I had as I thought about this residency reflection is- were we successful at doing? What does that look like?

To answer this question, I found the slides from our panel presentation at the Mid Atlantic Regional Archive Conference this spring. In one part of the presentation, we each had listed the educational and professional skills and experience we had brought with us to NDSR, and what we’ve learned this year. I compiled our lists pre and post NDSR into a word cloud generator to see what’s changed after a year of DOING, or at least- how we talk about it.

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Here we have what we listed as Before NDSR – experience or education in different types of management, customer service, instruction, research, theory, preservation, data.

Now let’s look at what we gained during NDSR.

NDSRwordcloud

Management is still the biggest reported skill gained. But surprisingly,  ‘Preservation’ as a term is actually missing from our residency word cloud, as are metadata, copyright, repository, or any of those buzzwords from Library school curriculum that appears before NDSR. We dealt with them this year, for sure, heck, we audited, implemented, or educated people about all of these terms- but they’ve been rendered invisible by the processes and tools it takes to deal with them.

I think what you’re seeing here is that DOING preservation has been translated into a succession of actions- planning, design, outreach, testing, budgeting, requests, blogging, workflows, software, systems, programs, etc.

Lastly I see an awareness of our context as working professionals- we’re using words like national, glam, public, and Washington’s favorite adjective ‘federal’- to describe the scope of ourselves, our peers, our audience.

So how did this play out daily? Well, no shocker here, I’ll use my own project as an example to illustrate some of these terms. I worked with the DC Public Library system to educate staff and DC community members about personal archiving – be it physical or digital- and created free resources, replicate classes, and a public facing transfer lab that is now called the Memory Lab. Another important aspect of my project was to serve as a national model for other public library systems facing this issue.

DESIGN. Design really began with the zine, which was a collaboration with a special collections librarian who had illustrated one the year before. How do you design something to make it fun? Accessible? Sustainable? User-friendly? This zine was an attempt at an answer.

 

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For one, you have to appeal to the nostalgia of another time to get people interested. So we chose an 80s theme, a decade rife with magnetic media and DIVO.

You can’t use the word metadata, and you also can’t be too specific in your recommendations because it might not exist next year.

This is the Memory Lab website I built using the library’s libguides platform. This was not a part of the originally scope of the project, but it soon became apparent we need a public facing site to centralize lab directions, preservation best practices and resources, and information on how to build a transfer station was necessary for the project’s success.  I dedicated more hours to this guide than installing the lab equipment. Way more. I learned that design is limited by what you have to use and takes an unbelievable amount of time.

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But good design can take something scary- such as wiring an a/v rack – and turn it into something inviting, something playful. The framing is essential to provoke its use.

OUTREACH. I learned that outreach is really difficult if your audience is ‘the public’. I needed to pinpoint specific audiences, and hold fun, accessible events with partners who could help me reach new community members. For example, I partnered with the National Museum of African American History and Culture and playbackthetape to do a Home Movie Day to reach cinephiles and SW community members with film.

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I partnered with the Hamiltonian Gallery on U street and fellow resident Nicole Contaxis to connect artists with local preservationists.

I also had to reach DCPL librarians, so I worked within an established incentive within the DC government system- yearly professional development smart goals- to teach staff about personal archiving so that they could in turn begin programming at their own branches.

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TESTING. Testing things- equipment, software, workflows- then watching users in the space was by far the most satisfying and frustrating aspect of this new type of doing. We started with this- a glass cubicle in the back corner of our digital commons lab.

Resident Reflection (5)

I could see this as a graduate school exercise- you’ve got this footprint in the main branch of a public library. What would you design to help people with personal archiving? Write a report. Go!

But what happens when you actually have to do it looks more like this – 12 feet of table space lined with the obsolete equipment, micro failure after micro failure, scavenging list servs, calling friends for help, having your co-workers donate their home movies and mix tapes to you.

Resident Reflection (6)

Then the space opens, and things come to light with people in the space that you could never have imagined. Like the fact that some people find it easier to follow paper instructions, that the air canister for cleaning slides runs out really quickly, that people want everything to go FASTER. Great things happen too.

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This is Alex. He and his siblings are digitizing negatives and photos of a father they can’t remember who traveled around the world.  There was also the former New Yorkian with the Yiddish pirate radio broadcast, or a father who has amazing hip hop videos his daughter did in the 90s. 

I want to end this reflection on another word that appeared only during this experience- COHORT. Because you don’t do digital preservation alone. You need peers to teach you and challenge you, to get pizza or other things when the going gets rough. So I just want to say THANK YOU to Nicole, John, Jessica, and Valerie.  And to the national NDSR cohort for cross-promoting our work, answering our questions, and to Morgan and Julia, who both came to our symposium.

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And just as the word ‘preservation’ was rendered invisible by its ubiquitous,there’s another seemingly invisible yet critical component to our group’s success- our mentors.

Thank you all for your guidance and support, your trust in our ability, and for continuing to be a part of our professional networks as we enter this new phase of our careers.

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