Future Steward on Stewardship’s Future: An Interview with Emily Reynolds

Emily Reynolds, Winner of 2014 Future Steward NDSA Innovation Award.

Emily Reynolds, Winner of 2014 Future Steward NDSA Innovation Award.

Each year, the NDSA Innovation Working Group reviews nominations from members and non-members alike for the Innovation Awards. Most of those awards are focused on recognizing individuals, projects and organizations that are at the top of their game.

The Future Steward award is a little different. It’s focused on emerging leaders, and while the recipients of the future steward award have all made significant accomplishments and achievements, they have done so as students, learners and professionals in the early stages of their careers. Mat Kelly’s work on WARCreate, Martin Gengebach’s work on forensic workflows and now Emily Reynolds work in a range of organizations on digital preservation exemplify how some of the most vital work in digital preservation is being taken on and accomplished by some of the newest members of our workforce.

I’m thrilled to be able to talk with Emily, who picked up this year’s Future Steward award yesterday during the Digital Preservation 2014 meeting, about the range of her work and her thoughts on the future of the field. Emily was recognized for the quality of her work in a range of internships and student positions with the Interuniversity Consortium for Political and Social Research, the University of Michigan Libraries, the Library of Congress, Brooklyn Historical Society, StoryCorps, and, in particular, her recent work on the World Bank’s eArchives project.

Screenshot of the Arab American National Museum's web archive collections.

Screenshot of the Arab American National Museum’s web archive collections.

Trevor: You have a bit of experience working with web archives at different institutions; scoping web archive projects with the Arab American National Museum, putting together use cases for the Library of Congress and in your coursework at the University of Michigan. Across these experiences, what are your reflections and thoughts on the state of web archiving for cultural heritage organizations?

Emily: It seems to me that many cultural heritage organizations are still uncertain as to where their web archive collections fit within the broader collections of their organization. Maureen McCormick Harlow, a fellow National Digital Stewardship Resident, often spoke about this dynamic; the collections that she created have been included in the National Library of Medicine’s general catalog. But for many organizations, web collections are still a novelty or a fringe part of the collections, and aren’t as discoverable. Because we’re not sure how the collections will be used, it’s difficult to provide access in a way that will make them useful.

I also think that there’s a bit of a skills gap, in terms of the challenges that web archiving can present, as compared to the in-house technical skills at many small organizations. Tools like Archive-It definitely lower the barrier to entry, but still require a certain amount of expertise for troubleshooting and understanding how the tool works. Even as the tools get stronger, the web becomes more and more complex and difficult to capture, so I can’t imagine that it will ever be a totally painless process.

Trevor: You have worked on some very different born-digital collections, processing born-digital materials for StoryCorps in New York and on a TRAC self-audit at ICPSR, one of the most significant holders of social science data sets. While very different kinds of materials, I imagine there are some similarities there too. Could you tell us a bit about what you did and what you learned working for each of these institutions? Further, I would be curious to hear what kinds of parallels or similarities you can draw from the work.

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Image of a StoryCorps exhibit at the New Museum which Emily participate in.

Emily: At StoryCorps, I did a lot of hands-on work with incoming interviews and data, so I saw first-hand the amount of effort that goes into making such complex collections discoverable. Their full interviews are not currently available online, but need to be accessible to internal staff. At ICPSR, I was more on the policy side of things, getting an overview of their preservation activities and documenting compliance with the TRAC standard.

StoryCorps and ICPSR are an interesting pair of organizations to compare because there are some striking similarities in the challenges they face in terms of access. The complexity and variety of research data held by ICPSR requires specialized tools and standards for curation, discovery and reuse. Similarly, oral history interviews can be difficult to discover and use without extensive metadata (including, ideally, full transcripts). They’re specialized types of content, and both organizations have to be innovative in figuring out how to preserve and provide access to their collections.

ICPSR has a strong infrastructure and systems for normalizing and documenting the data they ingest, but this work still requires a great deal of human input and quality control. Similarly, metadata for StoryCorps interviews is input manually by staff. I think both organizations have done great work towards finding solutions that work for their individual context, although the tools for providing access to research data seem to have developed faster than those for oral history. I’m hopeful that with tools like Pop Up Archive that will change.

Trevor: Most recently, you’ve played a leadership role in the development of the World Bank’s eArchives project. Could you tell us about this project a little and suggest some of the biggest things you learned from working on it?

Julia Blase and Emily Reynolds present on “Developing Sustainable Digital Archive Systems.” at ALA 2013 Midwinter Meeting. Photo by Jaime McCurry.

Emily: The eArchives program is an effort to digitize the holdings of the World Bank Group Archives that are of greatest interest to researchers. We don’t view our digitization as a preservation action (only insofar as it reduces physical wear and tear on the records), and are primarily interested in providing broader access to the records for our international user base. We’ve scanned around 1500 folders of records at this point, prioritizing records that have been requested by researchers and cleared for public disclosure through the World Bank’s Access to Information Policy.

The project has also included a component of improving the accessibility of digitized records and archival finding aids. We are in the process of launching a public online finding aid portal, using the open-source Access to Memory (AtoM) platform, which will contain the archives’ ISAD(G) finding aids as well as links to the digitized materials. Previously, the finding aids were contained in static HTML pages that needed to be updated manually; soon, the AtoM database will sync regularly with our internal description database. This is going to be a huge upgrade for the archivists, in terms of reducing duplication of work and making their efforts more visible to the public.

It’s been really interesting to collaborate with the archives staff throughout the process of launching our AtoM instance. I’ve been thinking a lot about how compliance with archival standards can actually make records less accessible to the public, since the practices and language involved in finding aids can be esoteric and confusing to an outsider. It has been an interesting balance to ensure that the archivists are happy with the way the descriptions are presented, while also making the site as user-friendly as possible. Anne-Marie Viola, of Dumbarton Oaks, has written a couple of blog posts about the process of conducting usability testing on their AtoM instance, which have been a great resource for me.

Trevor: As I understand it, you are starting out a new position as a program specialist with the Institute for Museum and Library Services. I realize you haven’t started yet, but could you tell us a bit about what you are going to be doing? Along with that, I would be curious to hear you talk a bit about how you see your experience thus far fitting into working for the federal funding for libraries and museums?

Emily: As a Program Specialist, I’ll be working in IMLS’s Library Discretionary Programs division, which includes grant programs like the Laura Bush 21st Century Librarian Program and the National Leadership Grants for Libraries. Among other things, I will be supporting the grant review process, communicating with grant applicants, and coordinating grant documentation. I’ll also have the opportunity to participate in some of the outreach that IMLS does with potential and existing grant applicants.

Even though I haven’t been in the profession for a very long time, I’ve had the opportunity to work in a lot of different areas, and as a result feel that I have a good understanding of the broad issues impacting all kinds of libraries today. I’m excited that I’ll be able to be involved in a variety of initiatives and areas, and to increase my involvement in the professional community. I’ve also been spoiled by the National Digital Stewardship Residency’s focus on professional development, and am excited to be moving on to a workplace where I can continue to attend conferences and stay up-to-date with the field.

Trevor: Staffing is a big concern for the future of access to digital information. The NDSA staffing survey gets into a lot of these issues. Based on your experience, what words of advice would you offer to others interested in getting into this field? How important do you think particular technical capabilities are? What made some of your internships better or more useful than others? What kinds of courses do you think were particularly useful? At this point you’ve graduated among a whole cohort of students in your program. What kinds of things do you think made the difference for those who had an easier time getting started in their careers?

Emily: I believe that it is not the exact technical skills that are so important, but the ability to feel comfortable learning new ones, and the ability to adapt what one knows to a particular situation. I wouldn’t expect every LIS graduate to be adept at programming, but they should have a basic level of technical literacy. I took classes in GIS, PHP and MySQL, Drupal and Python, and while I would not consider myself an expert in any of these topics, they gave me a solid understanding of the basics, and the ability to understand how these tools can be applied.

I think it’s also important for recent graduates to be flexible about what types of jobs they apply for, rather than only applying for positions with “Librarian” or “Archivist” in the title. The work we do is applicable in so many roles and types of organizations, and I know that recent grads who were more flexible about their search were generally able to find work more quickly. I enjoyed your recent blog post on the subject of digital archivists as strategists and leaders, rather than just people who work with floppy discs instead of manuscripts. Of course this is easy for me to say, as I move to my first job outside of archives – but I think I’ll still be able to support and participate in the field in a meaningful way.

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