Computing Cultural Heritage in the Cloud: An Interview with Olivia Dorsey

Olivia Dorsey, Innovation Specialist at the Library of Congress. Olivia is working on Computing Cultural Heritage in the Cloud (CCHC).

We’re thrilled to share that Olivia Dorsey recently joined the LC Labs team as an Innovation Specialist! Olivia will be working on the Computing Cultural Heritage in the Cloud (CCHC) initiative at the Library.

The CCHC initiative is supported by a generous grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Centered in LC Labs, the project aims to explore how the Library can deliver its digital collections at scale, using a cloud computing environment. For decades, the Library has collected and digitized images, audio and video recordings, web sites, texts, and structured metadata. With CCHC, Olivia will help us explore the service models and technical infrastructure that would support researchers’ connection with this digital content in novel ways.

I interviewed Olivia about her background, experience, and interests, and what she’ll be doing to help the Library provide enhanced access to digital collections as data.

Leah: Welcome, Olivia! We’re so excited that you’ve joined the CCHC team. Could you tell us a little bit about your professional background?

Olivia: Thank you, Leah. I’m happy to be here!

Professionally, I’ve had roles in many different IT areas, including IT support, web development, data analysis, and health informatics. Some projects I’ve worked on have involved training users on project management software, building websites, analyzing data from electronic health records, and creating workflows for medical providers. In each of my positions, I always end up creating documentation or training users, so I’ve had a bunch of experience in that! I enjoy helping users get what they need, whether that’s troubleshooting an issue, writing something in plain English, or translating their needs to get them an appropriate solution.

My first exposure to Digital Humanities work was while I was a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. At that time, I also attended Digital Humanities workshops and worked with Duke University’s Digital Scholarship Lab and UNC Chapel Hill’s Digital Innovation Lab. It was at UNC that I received my BS and MS degrees in Information Science. Information Science encourages one to consider the flow of information. How is information presented and curated? Who has access to it? What are the considerations for this information? I like exploring those kinds of questions in my work.

Leah: What will your role be with Computing Cultural Heritage in the Cloud?

Olivia: For CCHC, I’ll be working as an Innovation Specialist. I’ll be working alongside Senior Innovation Specialist Meghan Ferriter and other Digital Strategy staff, helping design the project and supporting the four research teams in their project work.

I’ll also meet with reference librarians and curators at the Library of Congress to learn more about content access and develop workflows, all in order to provide solutions for those research teams. As the project progresses, I’ll have a hand in project documentation as well.

Leah: What did you find interesting about this initiative?

Olivia: What attracted me to CCHC was the overall idea of making large collection datasets more accessible to users. Folks tend to talk about Big Data as it relates to business or scientific data, but it also has exciting opportunities for the humanities space. If we can successfully enable researchers to process large digital collections responsibly, think of the possible historical insights we can glean! Such analysis could have an impact on how we perceive and teach the history that we thought we already knew.

I was also happy to see that the project was being approached in an ethical way. Since the pandemic has started, I’ve been learning more about ways in which technologies subjugate people of color. As researchers, we have to consider how to make the data we analyze and the systems we build more transparent, how they scale to users, and what potential harm they can cause. I’m looking forward to having these conservations and applying those considerations so the most vulnerable are protected even as we pursue this important work.

Performing analysis on huge digital collections in the cloud hasn’t been done on such a grand scale before and I’m thrilled to be a part of it. It’ll be fun to explore what’s possible and hopefully lay the foundation of how such intensive computing work can be done on these valuable collections.

Leah: What is your approach to being more user centered in your technical work?

Olivia: I always try to make tech less scary. If I’m training someone how to use a new tool, I talk about the tool in plain language and try not to make assumptions about a user’s knowledge. If I need to use technical terminology, I explain what that terminology means using everyday language. I just don’t think it’s necessary to overcomplicate technology. It’s so pervasive in our lives and I feel like everyone has a right to understand it if they are interested.

If I’m developing a tool or producing some other end product, I want to manage user and stakeholder expectations throughout the course of the project. This means providing realistic expectations, communicating any issues that come up, and providing ample opportunity for feedback at various stages in the project. When working with data, I want to ensure that only necessary data points are captured.

All that being said, I think being user centered requires you to be transparent and flexible and to have an open mind for possibilities you might not even have considered! I always try to think about the person behind the tool or the person behind the data. You have to realize that your users are human.

Leah: What are you hoping to learn, or what skills are you hoping to develop, in your work here?

Olivia: I’m hoping to learn more about the possibilities for Digital Humanities projects because I am interested in leveraging technology to help make underrepresented history more accessible. An important part of that learning is being exposed to the experiences, perspectives, and approaches of our research teams. I’m always intrigued in seeing how others approach their digital projects and how those approaches can inform future projects.

I also want to further develop my project management skills, get an in-depth look at the Library’s collections, and learn more about cloud computing in this role! I’m looking forward to improving my understanding of what’s possible with that technology.

Leah: What else are you passionate about? Do you have hobbies or interests?

Olivia: I enjoy doing genealogy research! In my spare time, I’m always thinking of ways to use technology to improve and enhance one’s experiences while researching and sharing family history. That can manifest itself in creating digital resources or helping others via technology tutorials or website assistance.

An example of such a resource is Digital Black History, a searchable directory for finding digital humanities projects that center on the Black experience, regardless of geography. My goal in this work is to make Black history more accessible to everyday people, not just those in academia. I think family history research can be one of the best vehicles for doing this because it can making the history real and relatable. For so long, Black people have been told that their history is nonexistent, so I’m trying to reverse that narrative by amplifying and elevating that history.

As far as other hobbies and interests, I’m a huge foodie and love trying out new restaurants! I also enjoy watching anime and writing poetry.

Through experimentation, research and collaboration, LC Labs works to realize the Library’s vision that “all Americans are connected to the Library of Congress” by enabling the Library’s Digital Strategy. LC Labs is home to the Library of Congress Innovator in Residence Program; has nurtured experiments in machine learning and the use of collections as data; and incubated the Library’s popular crowdsourced transcription program By the People. Learn more here on the Signal blog and by subscribing to the monthly newsletter at labs.loc.gov.

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