I’m excited to share this interview with Lauren Algee, one of my colleagues in the Digital Services Directorate here at the Library of Congress. My hope that interviews like this help to spread awareness about the background, experience, and interests of the people that support the Library of Congress. Along with that, I think it’s really valuable to hear from members of our teams about how their thoughts on the work have changed and developed over time.
Trevor: Hi Lauren, could you tell us a bit about what you do in the Digital Services Directorate? How would you explain your job to someone outside the Library of Congress? What do you like most about your job?
Lauren: My official title is Senior Digital Collections Specialist, but more specifically I’m a community manager for By the People, a crowdsourcing program that invites anyone to transcribe digitized documents to enhance discovery and accessibility of those texts. Volunteers can currently transcribe the papers of Walt Whitman, Clara Barton, Theodore Roosevelt, the American Federation of Labor, and more. I’ve been with By the People since 2018 when we began as a LC Labs pilot and transitioned to a permanent program in the Digital Content Management Section.
I like working across so many areas of the Library and librarianship – from liaising with collection curators to managing digital content and metadata, answering volunteer questions, outreach, and user research. I’m also the product owner for Concordia, the open-source transcription software that powers By the People, so I work with our small but mighty development team to scope and prioritize updates and new features.
Trevor: Can you tell us a bit about your professional background and journey. In particular, what professional or educational experiences prepared you for your role?
Lauren: As an undergrad I studied journalism at Indiana University and worked for the local public radio station. I learned about archives through a story assignment and just fell in love! I wasn’t cut out for reporting and applied for library school – but I still use my writing and editing skills almost every day. I attended the University of Texas at Austin iSchool where I earned an M.S. in Information Studies with a focus on archives and preservation administration.
While in grad school I worked in a variety of positions at the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History and following an internship at the National Gallery of Art I moved to DC to work on the Samuel H. Kress Collection Digital Archive. After that I took a position as Digital Curation Librarian at DC Public Library’s The People’s Archive. I hadn’t really thought about the intersection between public libraries and archives fields until I was thrown in the deep end, but I absolutely loved it. In addition to historians, the local history collections were heavily used by average Washingtonians who walked in wanting to learn about the history of their home, family, or neighborhood. I was the first “digital” position in the department, so I got to create digitization and digital preservation workflows and policy from scratch. I also worked with National Digital Stewardship Resident Jaime Mears to establish the DCPL Memory Lab, which later grew into a nation-wide IMLS-funded Memory Lab Network, and was part of the founding DC Punk Archive team. I did some nascent crowdsourcing organizing metadata-a-thons. Overall, I gained a deep love of public history and facilitating personal connection to our past.
Trevor: What part of your work do you find most meaningful or engaging?
Lauren: By the People has opened a new pathway to deep primary source engagement for a curious public who often don’t think of themselves as scholars or researchers. You don’t have to have a specific research question to begin exploring and transcribing. We hear from volunteers who become experts on an area of history they knew nothing about before. Not only have they gained that knowledge and relationship to history, but they contribute it back to library users who will come after them.
Trevor: Your role holds a very unique space within the Digital Services Directorate in that you work directly with Library volunteers. Have those relationships and collaborations changed or shaped any new perspectives on working with digital collections?
Lauren: Our program inherently centers digital collections users so I think we also foreground that for our digital collections colleagues, many of whom don’t ever work directly with the public. That perspective guides our work to improve the user experience of digital collections beyond our own program, but also underscores the impact of their work to our colleagues.
Trevor: What do you think is the biggest thing you’ve learned so far in working at the Library of Congress?
Lauren: The breadth and depth of Library collections and staff knowledge are truly awe inspiring, but working at our scale and within the bureaucracy that governs it can be incredibly slow and complicated. I really appreciate Kate Zwaard’s metaphor of the Library of Congress as a big ship. It’s actually really important for a big ship to move and turn slowly! I’ve gained a respect for the challenges that make us work carefully and incrementally by design.
Trevor: Do you have any advice for people interested in getting into the kind of work you do? Are there any skills or competencies that you think are really important for folks that want to get into this field to develop?
Lauren: My background in digital collections best practices and metadata is really useful, but the skills I employ most are probably project management, writing, design thinking, and facilitation.
Trevor: Aside from work, what sorts of things are you passionate about? Do you have any hobbies or interests that you’re up for sharing out with folks?
Lauren: I love thrift shopping and mending and tailoring clothes. I’m really interested in reducing consumption and maintenance is a big part of that. So if you have any moth holes in your cardigans just drop them at my desk! Such a good feeling to give something with history a new life. I also enjoy biking around town with my family, reading, watching movies, and attempting to become a gardener.