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DPOE Interview: Jacob Nadal of ReCAP

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The following is a guest post by Barrie Howard, IT Project Manager at the Library of Congress.

Jacob Nadal

This post is part of a series about digital preservation training inspired by the Library’s Digital Preservation Outreach & Education (DPOE) Program. Today I’ll focus on an exceptional individual, Jacob Nadal, who among other things is one of the core instructors for the DPOE Train-the-Trainer Workshop and subject matter expert on digital preservation curricula. Jacob is executive director of The Research Collections and Preservation Consortium, which is a partnership among Columbia University, The New York Public Library and Princeton University. ReCAP manages over 12 million items in a highly optimized preservation environment and delivers materials to hundreds of thousands of researchers each year, in print and digital formats.

Barrie: You have been working with DPOE for three or four years now, and have been a core instructor at three DPOE Train-the-Trainer Workshops. Can you recount a little about your experiences and what you value the most about your time with the program?

Jacob: I got involved with DPOE through the residency program (NDSR), actually. I was on the curriculum development panel for the inaugural residency and that led to serving as a DPOE instructor. Both programs appeal to me because they focus on the people and institutions that are responsible for information and then build bridges for them to get ongoing expert guidance about how to improve their preservation efforts. It has been really exciting to see the variety of different backgrounds people bring to the whole project of preservation and how they can all pitch in to accomplish something.

Barrie: You’re engaged in digital preservation education in other ways. Can you tell the readers about the Digital Preservation & Curation class you teach at the Pratt Institute School of Library and Information Science?

Jacob: The Pratt course has its roots in a class I taught at California Rare Book School. There was some interest in an offering about digital collections, but we weren’t sure how to do that for the Rare Book School audience and in that particular context. So the clever plan was to just teach digital preservation the same way I would have taught an analog preservation course (something I’d taught at Indiana University and at Pratt). We started by learning the history of computers (What are these things? Who made them? How do they work?) and used that as a foundation for learning about preservation.

That approach has a very curatorial angle, and since Pratt trains so many people for careers in museums and special collections, it was a natural fit to bring that same approach to teaching digital preservation in their graduate program. I think this approach has worked well for library science because so many of our students have a strong humanities background, and this is a way to build on the training they already have. We read books like “The Information,” “Soul of a New Machine,” and “Where Wizards Stay up Late,” for example. LIS students tend to be good readers and good critical thinkers. I think this approach helps build confidence and instill some genuine interest in computers, making it easier and more enticing to get into the details of the technology and logic of computers.

Barrie: You’ve been deeply involved in revising the DPOE Baseline Curriculum, as well as writing syllabi for your classes and leading various working group efforts. Have you noticed any significant changes to digital preservation practice and theory since 2010?

Jacob: DPOE really solved a problem for me as a teacher. It’s very easy to go through a whole semester talking about clever technologies and deep logical structures, and never get students ready with practical skills they’ll need day one, job one. We use DPOE and a few other frameworks to anchor the class (the OAIS, of course, and TRAC and the NDSA levels of preservation (pdf) are our go-tos). The class project for my Pratt course has evolved around DPOE, and the students have three steps to take–two presentations and a short paper–that are intended to teach skills and processes that will help them out as early-career professionals:

  1. Present on a digital preservation problem, the more concrete the better, and tell what area of DPOE you think it relates to, and receive feedback. A lot of students tackle specific issues from jobs or internships, and incidentally, learn how to prepare for an interest group or discussion group session at a conference, or a departmental meeting.
  2. Develop a presentation to explain the next set of activities you want to take to make some progress on that problem, and receive feedback. I often use the NDSA levels as a way to make that progress measurable.
  3. Write up a proposal, in no more than a page or two–just about the length of a memo to a boss, or précis to a potential funder. By this time any NDSA and DPOE jargon is gone, and they’re left with a concise, measurable proposal, perfect for getting done in time for an annual review.

Using DPOE as a guide has helped students get from theory to practice, and I know of a few who have used this to decide what to do next in their jobs. It’s really gratifying to see this turn to the grassroots, and I think that’s been the big, positive development in the field the last few years. I’m a big fan of the POWRR project, for example, and I think that DPOE, POWRR, NDSA, and the NDSR all share a useful focus on picking something that can be improved, and getting that work started. (POWRR is another resource my students use often to decide if there’s a genuine tool or technology to bring into play, or if a problem is just going to the “check back; maybe solve it next year” file.)

Barrie: From the perspective of an educator, could you compare the strengths and challenges of traditional in-person learning environments to distance learning options?

Jacob: I find distance learning hard, as both an educator and student, but also very useful. I’ve had some good experiences with fundamentals courses, where you get exposed to the received wisdom, the current state of things, and the sort of rote basics. Sometimes, just blocking off the hours to load up the webinar is a good way to force myself (or oneself) to take the time, even if there’s a book or article that could cover the information just as well.

But all that said, I think that working in person helps to build genuine understanding. As an instructor, the chance to read people’s expressions, to try three or four different examples or metaphors, that’s necessary to be sure that the ideas really “clicked.” You also get the helpful surprises in person, the student who has the perfect example, or the unexpected question that propels everyone to a new level of understanding. I can say with complete confidence that staying involved with teaching and learning has been the single most consistent ingredient in making me a useful employee. Being involved in education means that I get access to the brainpower of the whole profession and I have to stay up to date (or really embarrass myself).

Barrie: What’s missing in digital preservation education today?

Jacob: I think about digital preservation in a couple layers. One is technology: core IT, programming, engineering, and I think that’s what the digital curation course at Pratt is mostly about. Not that I teach any of those skills, or prepare students for careers in those areas, but that I try to get them immersed in the history of that work, the culture of those professions, and the problems they’re wrestling with, so that as librarians, we can be smart, sensitive colleagues to the technologist we work with. I think this is tremendously important, and often neglected.

Also, I think the theory-to-practice bridge is still being built.  I love theory and frameworks and models. I can’t think of a day in my life as a librarian that I haven’t reflected on some sort of “big idea” to figure out if the practical things I was doing were worthwhile. But, we have some really durable and intelligent models for digital preservation, and not enough of a framework to help people move their institutions towards implementation. DPOE, NDSR, and the NDSA are great tools for doing that, and I have a feeling that a few years from now, we’ll all be hard-pressed to remember how we got anything done before the POWRR project. I feel so lucky to have been introduced to these efforts and to have the chance to participate. For me, they really filled a vacancy in our professional development and showed how to get from the theory to the practice.

Barrie: You’re preparing to present the DPOE Workshop in Australia late this spring. In your preparations, have you noticed any substantial differences in the frameworks for digital preservation activities between Australia and the United States?

Jacob: Actually, the big, pleasant surprise is how international the digital preservation community is. There are, of course, some regional and national programs for funding or certain types of support, but the models of how to do the work really travel well. I’ve seen instances of this in working with Native and Tribal libraries, as well as working with archives and museums. There are different approaches to authorization and privacy for cultural property than we assume for intellectual property in American research libraries, but it was gratifying to see that our system could adapt to support that, and we weren’t forcing a lot of exclusively American or “capital-L” library ideas into a context where they didn’t fit.

What we did need to learn was a new vocabulary, a new set of examples and metaphors. I think this speaks to the virtues of in-person work, again, because it’s very hard to guess what will be meaningful in a particular place and to particular people. You have to go there, bring your best ideas, and then–and we do this explicitly in DPOE train-the-trainer workshops–you hand over the educational role and find out what your students can teach you, and how your ideas can be reshaped in a different context.

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