For thirty years the Library of Congress has offered undergraduate and graduate students from across the country the opportunity to work on projects focused on expanding access to and use of the Library’s collections. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Junior Fellows program continued to be entirely virtual in 2021. The Digital Content Management Section was thrilled to have Emmeline Kaser, a graduate student from the University of Michigan’s School of Information, and Alex Reese, a graduate student from the University of Texas at Austin’s iSchool, working on a digital content management project focused on improving access to the Library’s rights restricted collections. In this interview, Alex shares about his work and experience as a Junior Fellow with Andrew Cassidy-Amstutz, Assistant Head of the Digital Content Management Section.
Andrew: Howdy, Alex! It’s great to have this conversation with you. Could you share out a bit about the project you have been working on?
Alex: This summer I’ve been focusing on supporting the acquisition of openly-available e-Serials – a collaborative project between DCM (Digital Content Management Section) and ABA (Acquisitions and Bibliographic Access Directorate). I specifically worked with serial titles from the Library’s Duplicate Materials Exchange Program or DMEP. DMEP is an acquisition stream established by the Library in 2002 whereby the Library exchanges its duplicate books (primarily new American imprints that have been received through Copyright and Cataloging in Publication) for physical collections materials sent to the Library by partners around the world. The Library has over 3500 exchange partners in 115 countries, spanning non-governmental organizations, academic institutions, and corporate bodies. As these organizations have steadily shifted from print to electronic communication, the Library has received fewer materials through DMEP. However, many of these organizations have made their now-digital publications freely-available online, giving the Library the opportunity to continue acquiring them through web archiving.
To support this method of acquisition, I reviewed a list of titles that the Library had previously acquired in print through DMEP and collected information to facilitate their web archiving. I received spreadsheets containing 668 titles that ABA staff members had determined to be openly available online. I then worked to verify or establish a working URL to the online title’s webpage, determine the title’s license where possible, record the country of publication, and find the creator or publisher’s point of contact for notices and permissions. I supplemented this core information with the details of the Library’s current holdings for each title, as well as the title’s language and the extent of its availability online to support web archiving decisions and bibliographic description for the acquired content.
Over the course of the summer, I was able to collect information for over 300 of these 668 openly available titles which represent serials in 14 languages from 41 different countries. As a final deliverable, I identified and prioritized a sample of 100 previously acquired titles to begin acquiring through web harvesting. In making my prioritization decisions, I focused on establishing diversity in subject matter and scope, language, and geographic origin to match the diversity of the Library’s collections.
Andrew: What are some of the main things you have learned from participating in the Junior Fellows program and as part of the Digital Content Management Section?
Alex: Beyond an initiation into the world of gray literature, web archiving, e-serial acquisitions, and content licensing and permissions that my project work entailed, I’ve learned an incredible amount about the skillful collaboration and coordination required by DCM’s work specifically and digital content management more broadly. Acquiring, ingesting, describing, serving, and preserving digital content relies on so many people’s diverse expertise and input – from within and without the Section. I’ve learned how DCM works with Catalogers and Recommending Officers across divisions in the Acquisitions & Bibliographic Access Directorate (ABA) and the General and International Collections Directorate (GIC), how they depend on technical contributions from the Office of the Chief Information Officer (OCIO), inputs from the Preservation Services Division (PSD) and Digitization Services Section (DS) as well as guidance from the Integrated Library System Program Office (ILSPO) and the Office of General Council (OGC). Just learning all of these acronyms and the complex organizational structure of the Library has also been a rewarding and challenging learning opportunity in itself!
I’ve also learned about the strategies and tools DCM uses to manage this coordination – the SCRUM work methodology, the use of Confluence to produce project documentation, the use of GitLab to manage their code. I’ve learned that effective digital content management is also about iteration, flexibility, and a willingness to fail and try again – how important it is to start with research, experiment with pilot projects, and re-evaluate constantly – ideas which are explicitly stated in DCM’s core values.
Andrew: Could you tell us a bit about how the work you have been doing connects with your career goals? Along with that, has this experience helped you further develop or refine your career goals?
Alex: Working this summer to support the acquisition and preservation of openly-available online content connects strongly with my desire to connect the public to information and resources, to make content both available and accessible. Whether I find work in government, academic, or public libraries, I am excited to continue working on the technical side of content acquisition, access, and preservation as I have this summer with DCM. Talking with the DCM staff members about their work has also reaffirmed my love of working with descriptive metadata and the truly fascinating challenges it poses at scale. Job titles are always so varied and confusing, but working with DCM has helped me better understand the role I can play in digital library efforts, and I hope to be part of a team no less talented, mutually-supportive, and enthusiastic about their work.
Andrew: Now that you have been working with the team over the course of the summer, are there things about working as part of the Digital Content Management Section or Library of Congress that you found unexpected?
Alex: I have been genuinely surprised at just how many concurrent projects can be managed by the DCM team – which I attribute to their individual skills, their talented leadership, and their effective use of the SCRUM work methodology and thorough project documentation. I have generally been in awe at the level of effective collaboration that occurs both within and beyond the DCM team.
As I have steadily met nearly every single member of the DCM team over the course of the summer to learn about their work and professional trajectories, I have also been surprised by their diverse professional and educational backgrounds. People have arrived at the Library from such different and unexpected angles, which I find both interesting and inspiring. It has made me much more comfortable with my own seemingly odd path to librarianship through landscape architecture, plant science, and then religious studies and has encouraged me to look forward to the vast amount of technical learning and professional development there is to come in my career.
Andrew: What of your graduate coursework has been the most directly useful for your work on the team?
Alex: I was lucky enough to take a course my very first semester at UT called “Digital Libraries” that introduced me to the wide world of digital content management in libraries, which really helped me understand DCM’s work and role in the Library and contextualize my project within it. I can say it was the perfect primer for work at DCM, but working on this team has driven home just how much more there is to learn.
Given that my project also involved working with and producing structured data for serial titles, I’m grateful to have taken courses on data wrangling and data visualization, which introduced me to data best practices and reinforced my comfort with Excel. These courses also taught me some scripting, which always comes in handy when working with large amounts of content and has helped me understand the processes by which DCM automates and streamlines much of their work.
Andrew: You are halfway through your graduate program at this point, based on your experience as a Junior Fellow are there any things you are going to focus on getting out of the remainder of your program? That is, has this experience shaped your ideas about the remainder of your graduate program?
Alex: As I move into my second and last year at UT’s iSchool, I will absolutely continue to focus on digital libraries and investigate digital methods for librarianship. To this end, I want to expand my scripting and programming skillset so I can effectively work with content and metadata at scale. After hearing from ABA staff working with BIBFRAME – the Library’s linked data model for bibliographic description – I also plan on taking a course on linked data and the semantic web this coming semester. I have heard again and again that descriptive metadata is steadily moving in that direction, and I want to be prepared!
Generally, my experience working with DCM has also reinforced just how important project work is – classroom education can only go so far. So much learning happens on the job, so I won’t put so much pressure on myself to have it all figured out in graduate school, but I will continue to seek opportunities in and around my program to contribute to real projects led by working professionals.