Zoom Out and Be Where You are Needed

By Patricia Hswe posted

The 2014 Digital Library Federation (DLF) Forum was the sixth I’ve attended since entering the LIS profession ten years ago. My first one was when the DLF still had fall and spring fora, and they were members-only gatherings. My predominant memory of that first Forum, in November 2008, besides the wondrous and welcome ubiquity of food, is as a conference mainly about software applications and tool demos relevant to metadata schemas and harvesting, usability, discovery and access, and digital preservation. You can see the archived fall 2008 program here.

In the years since, the conference has changed dramatically. It engages a broader community of professionals, including more archivists, subject specialist librarians, and even teaching faculty. Who attends, how the program develops, and what is presented are only three of the ways in which the Forum differs now, thanks in large measure to the leadership of former DLF Director Rachel Frick. (The ubiquity of food, however, has not diminished. It continues to be wondrous to first-time attendees; phrases like “I had no idea how well the DLF feeds people” mark a recurring sentiment.) 

The following are just a few highlights that come to mind from the most recent Forum—the largest yet, with more than 400 attendees—which took place in Atlanta, GA, October 27-29. If I have only one regret about this year’s Forum, it’s that I did not attend the session about maker culture and programs in libraries! See the community notes for it here.

“Don’t forget the bigger picture.” Anytime that Bethany Nowviskie is on a conference program as a keynote speaker, you go—you don’t miss that keynote. Nowviskie knows how to set the right tone with not only her presentation style, which cannot but elicit close listening from the audience, but also with her words and her genius at finessing a narrative that sets the wheels turning in your mind with questions, ideas, and new resolve. In her keynote Nowviskie addressed the “ends of expertise” in a variety of senses, which I construed in the following ways. The purpose and even meaning of expertise are being challenged, especially if the market for the “extreme specialization” of new PhDs is growing smaller. Subject experts, whether in libraries or in the academy, are trying to “zoom out” beyond the boundaries—the ends—of their specialized knowledge to adopt new skills, technologies, and even roles, as the wants and needs of their constituencies also fluctuate. As the ends of expertise are debated, and as they shift, expertise becomes a more coveted value when balanced with the ability to forge “the bigger picture”—when expertise has a healthy interplay with generalist understandings, and when we are respecting these and other dichotomies sufficiently and satisfactorily. Nowviskie’s inspiring talk was the perfect prelude to the Forum, and to learn more about why, consult the community notes for her keynote, as well as this “Thoughts from the Forum” post by first-time attendee Megan Browndorf.

It’s still a brave new world for digital scholarship. As someone who co-directs a still-evolving digital scholarship services department at the Penn State Libraries, I am deeply invested in learning what others are doing in this space at their institutions and adapting their ideas for the local needs of my organization. I take “digital scholarship” to encompass a wide variety of activities, including, but not limited to, scholarly publishing, data curation, digital humanities projects, and the development of digital collections for research, teaching, and learning. This year’s Forum especially resonated with me because of the number of sessions addressing digital scholarship, both in terms of support and of the kinds of projects discussed. From these panels I gleaned many take-away points, such as these:

1) The importance of building internal relationships with departments such as library IT, digitization, and special collections and subject libraries cannot be underestimated for an evolving digital scholarship services program; performing such “inreach” can be crucial to its success;

2) “Skilling up” to support faculty and students in their digital scholarship activities is becoming less an option than a necessity for librarians across all subject and functional domains, and library administrators should resource such professional development sooner rather than later —this is “inreach,” too;

3) One way to help ensure that researchers can do spiffy things with digital collections is to give them the data underlying those collections and any other mechanisms, such as an API, to facilitate data sharing and interoperability; and

4) When building and evolving applications and services that support aspects of the research lifecycle, such as citation management tools and institutional repositories, we would do well to think more intentionally and actively about connecting them, based on a deep understanding of researchers, their work practices, and the workflows that support such practices; this signifies outreach.

I learned a new phrase - “data philanthropy.” Just as I kicked off my reflections on this Forum with a précis of Nowviskie’s talk, I end this post with thoughts on the Forum’s closing keynote, delivered by Bonnie Tijerina, librarian and founder of Electronic Resources and Libraries. Tijerina, also known for her “community convener” work, such as “Library #ideadrop House” at SXSW Interactive, is currently engaged in a Data & Society fellowship. As a librarian involved in various activities related to data management and data curation, I took to heart what Tijerina said about data and privacy, and how libraries—as much as they promote access to data as a public good—have always been sensitive to issues regarding the protection of patrons’ privacy. Even so, libraries and librarians have much to learn about data privacy, particularly in terms of helping their constituents negotiate issues such as online surveillance and the practice of organizations such as Facebook to amass and analyze user data for business purposes. To help counteract such web-based scrutiny, Tijerina proposed that libraries nurture the development of citizen scientists, “so they can ask questions of data being collected about them [. . .] Essentially, growing the idea of data exploration beyond those who have both the right questions AND the right data analysis skills.” As predatory about user data as some of these organizations are, however, others are intent on practicing “data philanthropy”—that is, figuring out how to apply their data for the good of society. Libraries, without doubt, could also contribute to such efforts. Throughout Tijerina’s talk, I was struck by how much of it resonated with the ideas of “zooming out” and “skilling up,” venturing to where you are needed, “not where you may be comfortably residing.” I came away from Tijerina’s keynote more committed than ever to this notion. We should all be “an unexpected and necessary guest” at the table, whether librarian, archivist, technologist, or postdoc, offering unique yet critical perspectives that shape for the better the discussions at hand and thus the future of our communities and our professions.

Patricia Hswe is Digital Content Strategist and Head of ScholarSphere User Services at Penn State University Libraries. She is a former CLIR Postdoctoral Fellow and serves on the DLF Advisory Committee.