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Digital Strategy Year in Review

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This is a guest post by Leah Weinryb-Grohsgal from the Digital Strategy Directorate. Leah outlines below some of the major milestones reached by the Directorate in 2019.

Looking Back and Looking Forward

Exciting changes are afoot for digital transformation at the Library of Congress!  This post reviews some of the things we did last year to open our digital collections, connect with our users, and encourage digital innovation for the future.

You may have heard that we have a new Digital Strategy, which we adopted in October 2018.  The first ever Library-wide Digital Strategy, it’s intended to be a living, changing document.  In fact, we updated the Digital Strategy in April 2019 based on public and Library staff feedback. We plan to do so again in the future in the spirit of continual change and improvement.

Now, we’re moving forward with implementing the Digital Strategy.  We’re thinking big and thinking small, and looking ahead to the blue sky horizon of all things digital at the Library.  Our plan is to “throw open the treasure chest, connect, and invest in the future.”  LC Labs, launched in 2017 and now part of the Digital Strategy Directorate, continues to be a place for experimentation and provides a friendly interface for our technical side.

Image from A Library of Colors app by Library of Congress Innovator in Residence Jer Thorp
Image from “A Library of Colors,” by Jer Thorp.

Collections in the Cloud

How do we throw open our collections when those collections involve vast amounts of data?  As staff member Laurie Allen explains, for many years libraries have built infrastructure around traditional models of research.  But research using huge amounts of digital information, like the data found in Chronicling America or our Web Archives, requires a different—and unknown—infrastructure.  And each year brings new digitized and born digital materials to our collections.

In 2019, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation awarded the Library of Congress a grant for “Computing Cultural Heritage in the Cloud.”  This project will help us learn about what data people want, how they want to use it, and how we can provide access to collections as data at scale.  We’re underway—and look out for upcoming librarian and researcher opportunities soon!

Innovation Takes up Residence at the Library

Another way we’re trying to throw open the treasure chest is through our new Innovator in Residence program.  Researchers, scientists, artists, and others come to the Library to showcase innovative uses of our collections and encourage us to see our content in completely new ways.  As LC staff member Jaime Mears puts the question: “What is the potential for research, for inspiration, for joy?”

Our very first Innovator in Residence, Jer Thorp, explored serendipity, developed the Library of Color app, and released a podcast.  Two new innovators, Ben Lee and Brian Foo, have just begun their residencies.  Foo is identifying free-to-use audio and moving image collections for use in sample-based hip hop music.  And Ben will extract and caption photos and illustrations from our collections and build an exploratory search interface.

New Communities, New Approaches

Our LC Labs unit within Digital Strategy focuses on experimentation and piloting—even when it comes to finding new ways to connect.  Writing a book in just one week was one such experiment last year, when our very own Abigail Potter attended a “BookSprint” in Doha, Qatar.  “Labbers” from around the globe discussed the value of opening Labs in GLAMs (Galleries, Libraries, Archives, and Museums)—and they finished the book!  It’s called Open a GLAM Lab, and it suggests that labs open to experimentation, risk-taking, iteration, and transformation are critical to the digital shift in cultural heritage organizations.  With no time for extensive research or wordsmithing, Potter thought that the process brought out tacit knowledge—the sorts of things you’d share in a hallway conversation.  And, as Potter reflects, the quick BookSprint process itself puts these values into practice.

Photograph of Santa Fe, New Mexico, Laboratory of Anthropology, 1943
Collier, John Jr., photographer. Santa Fe, New Mexico. Laboratory of Anthropology. United States, 1943.

Machines Learning and Our Collections

Another hot topic in the library innovation world is machine learning.  What is machine learning?  Well, as LC staff member Eileen Jakeway points out, in some ways the term is a misnomer.  Machines don’t learn on their own, but via a great deal of human labor.  Machine learning, Jakeway says, is “training computer algorithms to recognize sets of patterns across large datasets.”

Machine learning tools are useful for dealing with huge amounts of data.  Last year, LC Labs embarked on a “Summer of Machine Learning,” including a ML+L (Machine Learning + Libraries) summit.  We learned that there is major potential for using machine learning in library settings.  Given the size of many cultural heritage collections, Jakeway points out, machine learning may offer a significant advantage for accomplishing identification and organizational tasks like identifying subjects in photographs, connecting records, and removing duplicate images.

Photograph of girl using adding machine, 1930 to 1935
4. Nesmith, photographer. Girl Using Adding Machine. United States. [Between 1930 and 1935?]
Testing Machine Learning Approaches

We undertook to find out how with a 16-week collaboration with researchers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.  Led by LC staff members Meghan Ferriter and Abigail Potter, the group is experimenting with using machine learning and artificial intelligence to extract text and images from collections, classify documents, and perform quality assessment of individual items and pages.  After six weeks on site at the Library and several more months’ remote work, the group produced a prototype and report with recommendations that will be shared with the public in the spring.

Newspaper page image from Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers
The dispatch-news. (Lexington, S.C.), 14 Jan. 1920. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.

Much More in Store

These are just some highlights of our 2019 in digital transformation at the Library of Congress.

There’s also a lot going on with the Library’s By the People crowdsourcing program: new campaigns, new features, and new materials available for tagging and transcription.  There’s so much in store as we step forward implementing our Digital Strategy.  Stay tuned here for 2020 updates.  If anything catches your attention, we’re here at [email protected] or @LC_Labs!

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