I’m excited to share this interview with Thomas Crowley, one of my colleagues in the Digital Services Directorate here at the Library of Congress. My hope with this interview, and the others that we publish here, help 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 Thomas, 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?
Thomas: Hello! As a Digital Collections Technician, I like to say that I act as a pair of human eyes on the bulk work we do for the larger Digital Collections Management & Services Division. We can automate a lot of our processes, but that automation is never perfect, so a lot of my work involves working with the other sections and performing quality assurance, as well as manual processing of digital materials not covered by our bulk processes for upload onto loc.gov or Stacks. For example, I was brought onto the eDeposit project in order to manually describe serial issue PDFs, marking down volume and issue enumeration as well as other defining characteristics. We’re able to do some description in bulk, but problems arose when we discovered that the using the file names would not function with our existing workflows, because the file names had inconsistent naming conventions and sometimes just incorrect information included. We would also receive a lot of files that weren’t actual issues. By going through and manually describing the items, we’re able to weed out the chaff files as well as enrich the metadata and display options available to the items when they eventually go live. Projects like that seem small, but they make a big difference in ensuring our output is as robust and discoverable as it can possibly be.
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?
Thomas: It’s been a bit of an odyssey, to be honest. I graduated from SUNY New Paltz in 2019 with a BA in English while simultaneously working in a small public library as a clerk. Due to low staff (there were a grand total of six of us), we all had to pitch in to make sure that the library was functioning. I was comfortable with teaching computer basics and fielding questions to patrons, and my director saw that as an opportunity: she started sending me to trainings on MARC and our ILS (Sierra), and she would also let me tag along with her to local library science conferences. Soon, I was helping to manage our eBook collections, generating lists in Sierra using standard MARC and local fields to manage our physical collection, acting as a liaison to our IT people, and running my own weekly tech help program and related blog. It was a huge departure from what I thought library science could be, and the first time in my professional life that I felt confident in what I was providing to people. Following my director’s advice, I decided to pursue an MLIS, coming down here to DC in August of 2019, with the intent to take a few months to acclimate before applying in the spring of 2020 to start in the Spring of 2021.
And then COVID happened.
Rather than start a Masters degree in the midst of a raging pandemic, I continued on with the work I was doing as a manager at Kramerbooks (now Kramers). Running a storefront in person was, perhaps, not the best place to be, considering the global circumstances, but it taught me a lot about crisis management, and it showed how flexible learning library science skills could be. While there, I managed our inventory, including our ONIX information, creating workflows to manage new arrivals and keep track of requests, comparing them against our previous orders as well as our suppliers’ inventories in order to create a clearer picture of our ability to obtain books, and getting a firmer grasp on the insights solid metadata and reporting can provide.
I did eventually start my MLIS, and only a semester later than expected, at the University of Maryland in the Fall of 2021. While there, I began working as an intern for ProQuest, where I would review and reformat articles to ensure that they would display effectively on ProQuest’s SIRS Issues Researcher and SIRS Discoverer platforms, giving me my first real taste of the digital landscape. Once that internship ended, I began contracting at the Library of Congress for the New Acquisitions Processing Division, looking over newly created bibliographic records to ensure accuracy, before coming over to DCMS in the Fall of 2022. Once I started at the library, I went part-time with school, but I’m currently in my final semester, so if all goes well, I’ll have a fresh and sparkling new degree at the start of the new year!
Trevor: What part of your work do you find most meaningful or engaging?
Thomas: I know it’s rote to mention this, but I’ve honestly found the collaborative nature of the department to be hugely meaningful. I love the diversity of projects available and content I’m able to get my hands on, and the work itself is making a meaningful difference in creating continual access to various types of information that otherwise wouldn’t see the light of day, but the process of getting that content online and supporting the work of others in the library doing the same wouldn’t be possible without the people who have already laid the groundwork and the work they do on a daily basis. All three sections of DCMS have their own work styles, and each person and project bring different perspectives and workflows to the table, so it’s very exciting as a member of the Digital Content Processing Section to be able to work with all three sections and learn from a multiplicity of experiences I’d never be able to witness on my own or in a different work environment. I’ve also been fortunate enough to work with the Collections Discovery and Metadata Services Division (huge shoutout to everyone there!) while they work on the transition to FOLIO as part of my MLIS program’s field study, due in large part to the good relationship between the divisions built up over years of working collaboratively. Each project I’ve been a part of has been an opportunity for me to learn and grow as a professional through the work itself as well as through the work and generosity of my colleagues throughout the library, and I can’t imagine that being a reality if we weren’t all coming together toward a common goal. I’m immensely grateful for it.
Trevor: What do you think is the biggest thing you’ve learned so far in working at the Library of Congress?
Thomas: I think the biggest thing I’ve learned (and am continuing to learn) is to not be afraid to ask questions and reach out. It’s okay to not know everything, it’s okay to not immediately be an expert in every project, and it’s okay to ask for help if things don’t seem right or if a concept is initially over your head. It’s important to remember that we’re not in competition with each other and that, while we all have our own goals and perspectives, we’re ultimately all here to ensure that we are providing enduring access to information. Under that umbrella, the worst problems to face are the ones you make yourself. If you’re working off an incomplete map, you’re almost certainly going to get lost. Almost anything we do wrong can be fixed, but to fix it, and avoid the problem in the first place, you need as clear a picture of the issue as you can get, and you’ll never be able to get that picture in a vacuum. Ultimately, we can’t ensure access to information we don’t have!
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?
Thomas: Jump in! The cool thing about the area of work we’re in is that it’s hard to fall into it accidentally, so the people that are already here are overwhelmingly people passionate about what they do and excited to share their experience. If you want to learn about metadata, or want to learn about digital preservation practices, there’s no shortage of work to be done in the area, and anyone involved (at least in my experience) has been equal parts grateful for the help and generous with their expertise. You can start small; almost any institution with digital holdings could use some extra hands with it, and any experience you can get with the digital lifecycle is invaluable.
As for specific skills and competencies, I’d say it’s important to learn about the objects you’re intending to preserve and provide access to. Continuing on with using the eDeposit project as an example, learning about not just the serials involved but the context in which they are stored and displayed in Stacks as well as the larger context of the eDeposit program in general have been invaluable. The more you know about an object, the more easily you can contextualize your work, fit it to the malleable nature of digital materials, and apply it to other projects. Digital preservation skills build on and run into each other in all sorts of unexpected ways, so if you don’t have a job yet and you want to know where to start, the best way to figure things out is to take a deep dive in something you’re interested in! Why doesn’t my CD work anymore? How are MP3s different from WAVs? What’s compression? What’s a bitstream? Let your curiosity take you where you need to go, and you’ll inevitably end up where you need to be.
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?
Thomas: My first love is media theory! I love to think about and create things in all sorts of formats: I read and write short stories, I design and play videogames (I am, in the most technical sense possible, a national award-winning game designer), and I love photography, with a particular bent for cyanotypes. I can’t make music, but I find it soothing to do video and sound design/editing. Beyond that, a lot of my hobbies can be described as “looking at cool things;” I love to stargaze and learn about astronomy in general, I love to go birding, I love to go on a hike, I love to get lost in a new city. I’m very good at getting lost!