What Is It That We Actually DO?

A ten year-old recently asked what I do for a living.

The response mostly involved explaining that the Library of Congress has digital collections and that I lead a team of people that take care of digital things, including writing software.

 A day at the Library of Congress, Some rights reserved by wlef70 on <a href=" http://www.flickr.com/photos/wlef70/6186183817/ " target="_blank">Flickr</a>

A day at the Library of Congress, Some rights reserved by wlef70 on Flickr.

I have often been asked by family, friends and complete strangers to explain what I do. Here’s an attempt.

Research.  It seems that every day I see notice of a new report, software, tool, or group that relates to some aspect of digital preservation, or that could have an impact on digital preservation.  I cannot possibly read everything, but I certainly do download and skim a lot of reading material. Sometimes I have the time to really delve into some publications.

Follow Social Media.  I follow several hundred accounts now on Twitter.  My time on Twitter is never wasted, as I find so many announcements there. And I don’t just follow digital preservation-specific accounts, but the news organizations, cultural heritage organizations, scholars, technologists, librarians and archivists and curators, and art and technology journalists. One never knows where some relevant tidbit will appear. And as Old School as it may sound, I also still subscribe to some email listservs.

Attend Meetings and Conferences.  I spend a lot of time in meetings about digital preservation. In some cases I am participating in or facilitating discussions that introduce people to digital preservation, or to consider technologies and tools and technology feasibility. And I participate in task forces and panels at other organizations or federal agencies. But other times I am just sitting in a room listening, which is just as valuable, if not more some times.  But one of my favorite events every year where I get to talk for hours at a time is the National Book Festival. I volunteer at the NDIIPP booth and get to talk to hundreds of people over the course of two days about their personal digital archiving and preservation needs. This informs a lot of my thinking about tools we might need and guidance we need to develop.

Present.  I am extremely honored to be invited to speak at many events every year. I give talks at the Library on initiatives we’re working on. I lecture to library and information school classes. I talk at conferences. And I get questions, which helps me refine my message and better understand how what I am doing might be useful or usable for other organizations.

Write.  I draft preservation plans. I write statements of work for contracts for preservation tool development. I write papers and articles on digital preservation and technology topics. I write blog posts…

Build Relationships.  One of the primary mandates in digital preservation is collaboration, as no one organization could or should work alone. I spend some of my time every day reaching out to people I know at other organizations, finding out what they’re working on; responding to messages from colleagues asking if the Library is doing anything that might be of use to them; and meeting new people, sometimes online, sometimes at meetings.

Work With Collections.  Sadly, at this point the thing I do very little is interact with collections. I started out my career on a curatorial/collections management track, and I miss working directly with things. Sometimes I get to roll up my sleeves and do what is needed to make sure we have what is needed to process a collection. Or make sure that files are where they should be. Or audit and report on the status of a collection. Or, on rare occasions, create some metadata.

Write Code.  The thing I actually do the least now is write code. As in not at all. But I get to work every hour of every working day with an amazing group of programmers who are writing code that is vital for the ingest, management, preservation, and access to the Library digital collections, and that we release as open source for the international preservation community. And I often get to sit in a room with them and talk about priorities for tool development based on what I’ve read/heard/learned at meetings with Library staff and people in the community. In many ways I get to see the fruits of all my efforts incorporated into the tools that we build. And that makes me extraordinarily happy.

3 Comments

  1. Yvonne Friese
    August 8, 2013 at 4:13 am

    Thank you Leslie,
    I am asked the same question by friends and family, usually my answer is followed by another question which is “Yes, okay, but what do you actually DO?” because they still do not get it. Then I feel as if I would not really DO something useful.
    Reading your answer, I regocnize my own daily work perfectly well. Maybe a little more working directly with collections, but certainly not writing code on my own, as I am not a programer at all.
    I do not think we have met yet, but our daily working life seems to be quite alike.
    I wish I would actually spend more time really ARCHIVING stuff, but as our workflows are usually automated, this is only a small part of my actual working life.
    Thank you for your blogpost, you made my day.
    Best,
    Yvonne

  2. Leslie Johnston
    August 8, 2013 at 12:32 pm

    Thanks, Yvonne, I appreciate your taking the time to comment on how you do (or don’t) recognize your work in what I described. And for you telling me that I made your day!

    I wish I spent more of my days archiving, too. Such is the burden of being in a management role. I once had someone tell me that I didn’t do any “real” work as a manager. Trust me, talking _is_ real work.

    One of my colleagues commented this morning that I left something out: “Deal with Uncertainty.” I thought that was a given and that I didn’t need to mention it!

  3. Ed Summers
    September 10, 2013 at 11:46 pm

    This sounds more like what “you” do instead of what “we” do. Trust 10 year olds to ask the hard questions 🙂

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