Transitions, Career Paths, and the Lessons of Community Building

By Rachel Frick posted

This past week, I have taken time to reflect on the four-plus years I have dedicated to the Digital Library Federation program and the community it serves. It has been an exciting, transformational time in which I have grown professionally, tested my skills and abilities, and—most rewardingly—deepened friendships and forged new relationships with an amazing group of dedicated professionals. It is a bittersweet moment, looking back, as I make a slight pivot turn toward a new adventure.

This time of transition reminds me of conversations about librarianship in general, and my career path, specifically. When I started library school that summer long ago in Chapel Hill, I did not have the slightest inclination that I would be moving toward a position at a national digital library organization, much less as a business development director. If my SILS advisor Dr. Elfreda Chatman were still on this earth, she would shake her head in disbelief. Or maybe not.

How did I get here? It was a long a winding road, starting with a position as a sales person for a serials company. I then became an outreach circuit librarian for the North Carolina AHEC system and held a few positions as an academic librarian, which led me to IMLS then DLF. But there was a common thread in these experiences: a challenge and a risk to take. The serials vendor sales position was interesting because not many librarians were working in the sales force at the time, and we needed more understanding about libraries at the start of the “serials crisis” inside the vendor world.

Moving from working a ten-state territory in the southeast to five counties in coastal North Carolina was a bit of a jump, but I felt I needed to get back to librarianship. Leveraging what I learned in sales, I was able to manage my route, delivering resources to rural medical professionals and supporting their information needs. The challenge here was providing the best information at the time of need, without robust Internet, when fax was the go-to technology. The library was instrumental in helping support learning and skill development in a remote area with limited information resources.

The academic positions that followed were focused on managing electronic resources, from the early days of e-journals to the beginnings of digitizing primary resources. The challenge was how to provide access in the most intuitive way, and how to promote the flow of information and lessen the friction. Friction, I learned, could be in the form of restrictive licenses, disparate interfaces, or even prescriptive interpretations of materials we digitized, making the user come to our websites, encountering resources through our digital exhibits, pinning the items, like butterflies on a board, only to be viewed in one way in one space. We were all building our own digital repositories and digital libraries, and setting up local instances of digital collections, as that is how we did it with our physical collections. Why would we do it differently?

Because of the network. Because the network changes everything. In the past four years, when asked to speak, I’ve always mentioned the network concept and have recommended reading Networked: the new social operating system, by Harrison Rainie and Barry Wellman; and a blog post by Lorcan Dempsey, now conveniently pulled together in a recently published book, The Network Reshapes the Library.

Our biggest challenge as librarians is truly understanding how a networked world fundamentally changes the way we work, our organizations, our relationships, and the communities we serve. It changes how we define basic concepts like “collections” and how we describe items to enable discovery—not just in local systems, but also in larger aggregated pools of data. Our internal committees have evolved into inter-institutional workgroups. Instead of building local instances of new technology, we are increasingly investing in community-based, shared infrastructure, moving toward true convergence and seeking some sort of coherence at networked scale.

But for all of this networked, inter-institutional, net-scale stuff to work, it is crucial that we don’t forget about the people: the individuals who contribute, the community that sustains. Those who actively participate in building our future often have to balance local priorities and identities with their distributed, networked lives and community responsibilities. How can we provide support—a framework to these activities and communities? To sustain distributed efforts, there must be a mechanism to connect and provide context—a service that brings together and unites, but at the same time allows for expansion and reinterpretation, providing a place to document and record, in order to provide the right environment and the tools, skills, and ability to hack and create.

This is the key role of the Digital Library Federation program. The DLF provides a platform: a scaffold for others to connect, meet, organize, and come together. It provides a large, open tent that allows cross-community conversations and enables collaboration. Most importantly, once a year at the Forum, it creates the opportunity for our community to come together and actively share, solve problems, and sharpen skills.

In the past four years, the Forum has grown from a standalone event to one that welcomes aligned organizations to co-locate and leverage the opportunity. Taiga Forum continues to meet, but also now contributes to the main DLF program.

Software and service developers seek out the Forum to offer “deep dives” into technical platforms, such as Hydra, Avalon, and Kuali OLE, or sponsor hackathons to advance product development.

In addition to the Forum, the DLF has also provided support to enhance meetings throughout the year, meetings that contribute to the health and wellness of the overall digital library ecology, such as the LODLAM Summit, Code4Lib, ER&L, AMIA, Open Repositories, and ARCS.

You could say that in the past four years, the DLF has also changed to reflect its networked environment, by being a hub and a central place to meet, and also by being present at other places in the network, and providing assistance and support.

Personally, it has been very rewarding to watch the DLF program and its community grow, take on more challenges, and test its mettle. It has been rewarding to work with each of the Forum Program Planning Committees, the LTG Summit advisory group, the guys of CURATEcamp, Taiga, and others who I have had the pleasure of conspiring with in my time at CLIR/DLF. I have learned so much from so many, but I feel now is the right time to step away and open up the opportunity for someone else to try their hand. It is kind of a Mary Poppins moment. All is good here and it is onward to the next challenge, a new test, secure in the knowledge that there is a community to call home and a strong network of colleagues and friends to rely upon.