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Joining By the People: An interview with Abby Shelton

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Abby Shelton, the newest Digital Collections Specialist working as a community manger on the By the People team.

I’m thrilled to share that Abby Shelton has joined the Digital Content Management section as a new Digital Collections Specialist working as a community manager on the By the People Program. To that end, I’m also happy to share this interview as part of our occasional series where we learn more about the background, experience, and interests of the people that support the Library of Congress in providing enduring access to digital collections.

Trevor: Hi Abby, we are so excited to have you on the team! Could you tell us a bit about what you found interesting about the Digital Collections Specialist role with By the People?

Abby: I’m super excited to be working with the By the People team! What initially interested me about the role was the chance to help connect the Library’s collections with the public. By the People is unique in that we invite anyone with an Internet connection and an interest to contribute to the rich materials that the Library stewards. This role also combined my interests in digital collections with public history. It’s already been really fun to interact with our volunteers through email, social media, and History Hub and hear more about what they find interesting from the Library’s collections. It’s fulfilling to know that we are helping to connect our volunteers with content and work that they find meaningful. And I also love that I get to work with spreadsheets, data, and the backend of a digital collections platform to get things done. It’s a great blend of front and back-end work!

Trevor: Can you tell us a bit about your professional background and journey. In particular, what professional or educational experiences prepared you to work with digital collections?

Abby: Sure! I started my professional life thinking that I wanted to be a history professor but in the process of getting a graduate degree in US history discovered that it really was the library world that held my interest. I can remember sitting in the New York State Archives working on my Master’s thesis and looking around me at the archivists in the room, realizing that they got to work with such a wide and diverse group of people and research topics every day. So I finished my Master’s thesis, left the PhD program, and started exploring libraries. I worked for a while in a small public library and a mid-sized academic library to try out the field.

I was lucky enough to land at the American Philosophical Society Library in Philadelphia and while working there, could see the increasing importance of digital skills and literacy for the librarians I met. As a result, I decided to pursue my Library Science degree at a school that prioritized tech courses for its librarians and after graduating, started working on a project at the University of Notre Dame to build a collaborative digital collections platform for materials from the campus libraries and art museum. My time at Notre Dame not only provided real world experience with a digital collection ecosystem but I also had a hand in creating and managing the workflows and policies that make the whole process successful.

And so when I saw the position come up in DCM, I couldn’t believe my luck! Here was a role that combined the skills and knowledge of digital collections infrastructure and project management that I was building at Notre Dame with my interest in connecting people to their histories that had sparked my professional journey at its beginning. If you can’t tell already, I feel pretty fortunate to be working with this team, in the Library of Congress, on this type of work.

Trevor: In 2019 the team worked up a set of nine values that guide our work on Digital Content Management. Do any of those values resonate with you? If so which ones and why?

Abby: First of all, I really appreciate that DCM has such a strong sense of its culture and has set such a healthy foundation for itself in these values! Of all nine, the ones that resonate with me in this moment are care and ingenuity. As a new team member, these two have been huge in terms of feeling supported by the team and feeling free to experiment and make mistakes in learning this new set of responsibilities. The first value-care-rings true to me as someone who is just starting out in a new organization. I have experienced the care of others on the team but also come to see the work I do as first and foremost motivated by maintining and supporting my colleagues, our volunteers, and the collections.

The second-ingenuity-is something that I have come to appreciate while working in tech-adjacent roles, especially working within an agile mindset (see Grace Thomas’ post on the agile framework). The idea that we should hold our work with open hands, open to the input of others and adaptable as new challenges and opportunities arise, can be a difficult, but ultimately liberating value to embrace. When I feel like I have the freedom to fail and learn from those failures alongside my colleagues, I’m able to be more creative as a result.

Trevor: In keeping with that set of values, we are big believers in the importance of ongoing professional learning both as a team and as individuals. Are there any areas that you are hoping to focus on for professional growth in this new role?

Abby: In this role, I’m looking forward to expanding my tech, user research, and project management skills even further! I’m already thinking about some of the scripting languages I can learn and ways I can continue to increase my understanding of the Library’s technology ecosystem. I came into the role with some experience conducting user research activities but look forward to exploring the possibilities for that with By the People. Our program is so public-facing that it’s been great to see how much of a user-centered focus the team already has. And finally, project management was some thing I was introduced to as a formal process at Notre Dame and I’m excited to see how I can improve my skills in this area at the Library. The great thing about DCM is that we’re pretty self-organizing so it seems like there will be lots of opportunities to take on and manage new projects!

I’m also looking forward to continue to invest in the professional groups that I’ve been part of as well as explore some new ones.

Trevor: I realize that you are brand new to the By the People team and that it’s a lot to take in. That said, I’m curious if you have any initial first impressions of the group that you want to share? In what ways is it what you expected or not?

Abby:  My fellow By the People teammates have been incredibly supportive as I’ve made the transition into the group! I have to give a special shout-out to my fellow Community Managers-Lauren Algee and Carlyn Osborn-who have so patient with my many questions and have modelled so many of the core DCM values in helping me make my way through the onboarding process.

Its been great to work on a team where, like I mentioned in an earlier answer, colleagues hold their work openly and flexibly. No one feels territorial about their projects and everyone is willing to share. And this even though everyone is really working at the top of their craft!

Trevor: Aside from working with digital collections, what sorts of things are you passionate about? Do you have any hobbies or interests that you’re up for sharing out with folks?

Abby:  As you can probably tell from my previous answers, I’m really passionate about history! And especially the ways that we can complicate the narrative of the past by including a multitude of voices. So you’ll find me exploring history wherever it can be found-podcasts, books, lectures, visiting historical sites and museums, stopping at every historical marker. Learning about the history of a place usually one of the first things I do when I move so I’m looking forward to learning more about DC in the coming months.

Beyond that, I’m really into puzzles (a pandemic hobby) and board games, travelling whenever I can, eating new foods, getting outdoors, and spending time with people. I can’t wait to resume many of these interests as we get closer to an end to the pandemic!

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