Interview with Hannah Frost, Manager of the Stanford Media Preservation Lab & Services Manager for the Digital Repository, Stanford University Libraries

Sarah Resnick:This is Sarah Resnick [and] I’m speaking with Hannah Frost via Skype. Today is February 4th, 2011 and we are recording this interview for the IMLS Moving Image Specialists in Libraries in the Moving Image Preservation program at NYU. Thank you Hannah, for agreeing to do the interview.

So, to get started, it’d be great to hear your job title and where you work.

Hannah Frost: I work at Stanford University Libraries. I’ve been here for just over ten years. My title is not totally satisfactory in my opinion, but it’s nobody’s fault but mine—I’m the one that made it up. I have two titles actually, because in some ways I have two jobs. [The first title is] Manager of the Stanford Media Preservation Lab. And then, [for] the other half of my job, I’ve titled myself Services Manager for the Stanford Digital Repository. Presumably I’ll be focusing more on what I’m doing for the Stanford Media Preservation Lab for the purposes of this interview. If it would be useful, I can explain why I don’t think [it’s] a totally satisfactory title.

SR: Yeah, absolutely. That would be very useful.

HF: Well, actually for many years, my title was Media Preservation Librarian, which I was comfortable with because it was sufficiently generic in the sense [that] it described the aspect of the field that I work on, but without being too prescriptive about what tasks I do, if that makes sense.

SR: Right.

HF: Then, as our organization has evolved and [there’s been a] physical division of people in terms of divisions and organizational structure, and as the nature of my work evolved, I decided that it was actually very inaccurate. As we developed this in-house lab for reformatting and otherwise treating media materials, it [made sense] to associate myself as running the lab and all of the operations that go on here. But the reason that [the title] still feels somewhat inadequate is that it doesn’t necessarily speak to the role I have in developing the larger programmatic effort that we’re engaged in here. It may just sound like I manage the lab and make sure that the cabinets are stocked with supplies, but there’s more to it than that.

SR: Actually, I forgot to ask you at the beginning if you’re appointment is full-time. I imagine so based on your ...

HF: It is, yes. Full-time, continuing position.

SR: Okay, great. And are you in the library’s preservation department or is it a specialized digital preservation department?

HF: I used to be in the preservation department when I was [first] hired. And then, about five or six years ago now, a new division formed in the library called Digital Library Systems and Services. And all the people who were dispersed through the various units—including the preservation unit and special collections and things like that—anybody who was really engaged with digital technology in terms of building the “Digital Library,” capital D, capital L, we all got pulled into this new division. I am no longer in the preservation department though I coordinate with them. I’m actually physically located near them which is useful and we interact on occasion, but I’m really engaged digital library technologies, which are pretty distinct from, say, the book repair unit.

SR: Right. [Laughter] I think perhaps many libraries don’t have the resources to make that distinction yet, but....

Okay, so maybe you could talk a little bit about what kinds of collections you work with. What are the materials that you work with?

HF: Sure. Anything that is sound or moving image content in any form, whether it’s born digital or analog. And we have two main repositories for content in those formats. As part of the music library we have a special collections called the Archive of Recorded Sound, and they have all formats: audio and many moving image [formats] as well. Of course, they concentrate on audio materials. And then our Department of Special Collections, which includes the manuscripts division as well as the Stanford University Archives, has a great deal of film. In terms of volume, [we have less film than any other format]. We do have some, [and the quantity is] growing, but it’s not the predominating [format]. We have a lot of video in all formats—from the earliest to the most recent—and audio as well.

SR: Do you have any idea of the quantity of moving image materials [in your collection]? That might be a hard question given the number of collections you work with.

HF: This is something we’ve really struggled with over the years because of the variances in the ways that the collections have come in. For a long time, the processing staff in, say, the Department of Special Collections, weren’t able to quantify the number of physical media materials in a very consistent and reliable way. Sometimes it was difficult for them to identify formats, so they didn’t know whether it was audio or video.

SR: Right.

HF: And this is something I’ve been struck by for years. A gap like that—just being able to identify formats—sets you up for a lot of [ongoing] management issues over time. We’re getting better at that fortunately, but [if] you go back to some of the early documentation for our collections received several decades ago, it’s very sparse in terms of how many media materials may be in there. But of course, that’s only one useful metric: duration, or number of hours of media content, is often how the professional media archives quantify their holdings. And we’re not even close to being in a position to do that. The way I’m approaching it now is to try to quantify as we reformat materials and digitize them for preservation—to start keeping count of the hours of things that we’ve preserved and try to get a sense of the total hours [from there].

SR: Actually, just to go back for a second....How long have you been in this position and how long has Stanford been addressing digital preservation?

HF: I started October 1st, 2001, so it’s been a little over ten years. [Stanford Library] established the media preservation unit very early. I mean, I think it was kind of innovative at the time...it was in the late 90s. But it was really focused on surveying collections and at that point it included microfilm as part of its mandate. But that’s no longer the case. Is your question how long have we been digitally reformatting analog materials?

SR: Yes, yes....

HF: We started that actively basically in 2002/2003. And that wasn’t in-house. We weren’t doing in-house reformatting until 2007, so it depends where you want to start counting. In 2007 we started doing more in-house [reformatting].

SR: And how did that decision come about? I mean, both the decision to start reformatting in-house and the decision to start reformatting more generally?

HF: Well, I think our university librarian is very committed to the “Digital Library” as this notion of moving libraries forward in this age. He [was an] early advocate for using digital technology for preservation or for enhanced access. So we’ve had support from on high since the early days. We never really had to make a case for it in that sense. And then it was always just a matter of time before we could pull together the necessary resources to purchase equipment [and] allocate some physical space to setting up a lab. And that came within the last five years or so through special funding that we got through the provost of the university.

SR: Wow. So there’s broad institutional support?

HF: Yes, there is.

SR: Okay, so maybe you can just—I mean, you kind of glossed over this a little bit—talk about your primary job duties and responsibilities, what a typical day or week in your job would look like.

HF: Well, setting aside the stuff that I do with digital preservation systems and projects along those lines...hmm...I hesitate because it’s evolving. I literally just hired two people in the last three months and at the moment I’m doing a lot of training and trying to turn stuff over to them, which feels great. [Laughter] In general, we work on collections systematically at the lab, which is to say that we’ll identify a collection that we feel has a lot of preservation needs and high research value or other motivations for why we should prioritize it for reformatting. Daily activities around that [include working] with the archivists that actually manage the collection in the repository—like at the Archive of Recorded Sound for example—and they will send us the materials and we’ll check it into our work system, start planning out what tasks will be involved, [and determine] whether there’s physical treatments or repairs to be done, or whether it just needs to be batched into units of work for the engineers to start working on.

HF: …. I feel like I’m just describing what the lab does generally as opposed to what I do, because at this point I’m in more of a project planning role. I help figure out what’s coming next and how a collection [might] fit in with the work of another collection, so that we can schedule them and be efficient in how we are going about things. Right now we are looking closely at our processes—everything from labeling materials to naming files to running checksums on digital files that we’ve made. So, we’re doing a lot of workflow planning and that sort of thing. And metadata is also a component of work that we’ll address in any given project; [for instance,] to what extent does metadata exist and are we in a position to supplement it as we’re working with the materials. And every collection is different and you have to ask these questions every time you look at a collection to figure out how you are going to approach it.

SR: You said you just hired two additional staff members. So how many staff members are there in your department all together?

HF: At the moment we have three. We have an audio engineer who’s been here half-time for two years. And I just hired a video engineer—he started back in September. Most recently we hired a production coordinator. He has library degree and he’s got a lot of background in audio and moving image for that matter, though more on the audio side. And so, he’s helping to manage projects and do quality control. [Right now] I’m still working on getting him up to speed, but he’ll be doing web stuff and getting everything ready for our streaming server…essentially, the downstream and upstream tasks that happen before and after digitization.

SR: Well, maybe you can talk a little bit about your additional roles in the library aside from your primary duties.

HF: I’m part of a group of three other project managers, and in many respects, I’m a project manager. In a way, you could see the media lab as one of the projects that I manage. When you step back and look at my position from that point of view, I’m involved in planning tools and systems that will help the digital library generally—some of which [are for] special collections materials, but [not exclusively so]—with a focus on preservation. For example, I’m a member of the Stanford Digital Repository team. Our digital repository is an instance of Fedora [an open source architecture for storing, managing, and accessing digital content], which we use to preserve digital objects that we’ve created or acquired. But [I] also [work on] developing the system interfaces for people to deposit items into the repository. And that’s a fairly new thing for us; we’ve had a repository for about five years, but it was very much a backend system [in that] it didn’t have an interface that anybody could use to see what’s there or add things to it. And now we’re building more and more on top of [the original architecture] so that [it has a] a public interface, and people around the university [can] deposit materials into it. So it’s really an institutional repository in that sense. And that’s really where [I fit into] the digital preservation program more broadly.

SR: And what kinds of materials will you collect from around the university? Who will be able to deposit [content] and what are the protocol for that?

HF: At this point, the idea is for pretty much anybody to be able to use it. Previously [we accepted] collections built by curators or librarians in the library, and now we’re opening it up to, [for instance], the faculty, who are creating data sets as part of research projects. One of our coordinate libraries—the library associated with our professional school of business—has been doing oral history projects for years and they would like a place to preserve and provide access to the audio recordings and transcripts. And student publications coming out of the law school and things like that. So it really runs the gamut.

SR: In terms of user access, user discovery, is there a different system for that…?

HF: Yeah, we’re building out that part right now. Before you had to contact us, and somebody on the team would pull it out on the back end.

SR: Okay, so now maybe we can talk a little bit about your background and what type of training prepared you to work with these types of collections.

HF: Well, I did get a library degree from the University of Texas at Austin in 2001. At that point UT Austin had a very strong archives program for archival administration as well as a preservation and conservation track. It was really the only program in the nation that focused on the conservation of library materials. I followed the preservation administration track and the archives administration track, doing a dual concentration if you will. And it gave me a lot of training in archival processing and theory and practice and that sort of thing, as well as conservation ethics and approaches to dealing with collections at a high level—like environmental controls and disaster response—in addition to some hands-on treatment work. There was no concentration in media materials—the focus was really book and paper.

I went into library school thinking I would be a photo archivist: I had studied the history of art and the history of photography in undergraduate and worked for photographers. I still love photography, but when I got to library school I recognized that sound and moving image preservation was a totally untapped area. There was scads of work to be done and lots of new possibilities given [changing] technologies. So, I decided to pick that and run with it. And it worked out well for me at the time, partly because I was one of the few people doing it. I was given a lot of encouragement to go for it and explore what it would mean to be a preservation librarian who focused on media as opposed to books and paper. While I was in library school, I had an internship at the Harry Ransom Center, a special collections library at UT Austin. That was absolutely fundamental to wrapping my head around what it meant to….Well, it was just a wonderful place to work anyway. The collections are so great. And I was given a lot of space and room to help them figure out what they should do with their media materials. Not that they hadn’t spent.… I mean, they certainly had some good people working on that before, but it was clear they needed a larger programmatic look as opposed to just one-off [projects]. I like to think I helped them start that. There was just so much opportunity there, which was great. The reason I bring this up is that with a graduate program like MIAP—or any [program] where people are working with the preservation of cultural materials—having the ability to be working in a collection at the same time is so fundamental to being successful in your training.

SR: Yeah, absolutely.

HF: I know Howard knows that. But let’s be sure to tell IMLS that.

SR: Okay, so while you were at school there was never any training within the program itself devoted to moving image collections…. This was a skill that you acquired through internships and practicums, but not…. Or was there?

HF: Well, it was just emerging. Sarah Ziebell-Mann— [a former] adjunct at MIAP—was one year ahead of me at UT Austin and of course she [was focused on] film archives as soon as she got there. And she actually attracted someone who came and taught a course on moving image preservation…I forget the guy’s name. He came from East Anglia.

SR: Okay.

HF: I took his class—I think it was the first time [anything like it] was offered at UT. So there was one course in moving image preservation. I think it was actually called Moving Image Archives. And then, they also started an audio preservation course in the preservation/conservation track. And it just so happened that [a librarian in the Art] in the art library who managed a collection of historic audio materials knew a fair amount about the issues, and reformatting and preservation. So they were able to tap him and build a course around learning what he knew. And then after my time there, it developed into a more formal curriculum.

SR: So, between graduating and Stanford, were you working anywhere else? Or was Stanford your first job?

HF: It was my first job out of library school and I never thought I would still be here. At the time, I thought, “Well, we’ll see how long this lasts.” But here I am. It’s been a really great place to work because there’s a lot of stuff going on and a lot of support for what I’m doing—so it makes it easy to stay.

SR: I would imagine. And when you arrived, did the position already exist, or was it a newly created position?

HF: It existed, but it was a paraprofessional position and the fellow who held the position had expertise in digital imaging, still imaging. And he picked up some skills as he went along with respect to surveying audio collections and that sort of thing. I think he [developed those skills] organically when needed, if that makes sense. And then he had to leave the job and so they posted it and it sounded just perfect, right up my alley. And, when I applied, and [Stanford] said, “Wow, it looks like your resume was written to match our job description.” It was a very good fit. But I did ask them to make it a professional position when they offered it to me, which they did. So in that sense, it was the first time it was a librarian position.

SR: That’s great. And, what kind of activities are you involved in now, or, how do you continue your professional development aside from every day on-the-job learning?

HF: That’s a really good question. I wish I had time to do more. I have youngsters at home, so the last few years have been kind of challenging for doing that extra-curricular stuff. Well, what can I say? I think conferences are a huge way to network [within] the community and learn about what other people are doing. I think that’s kind of an easy way to keep yourself developed.

SR: Which conferences do you attend, if you can?

HF: When I can I go to AMIA [Association of Moving Image Archivists] and the Digital Library Federation. I’ve been to a couple of ARSC [Association for Recorded Sound] conferences, but I don’t do that one so often; it kind of depends where it is. [I attend] SAA [Society of American Archivists] on occasion. Again it just kind of depends on the location and timing. But I’ve also looked into a couple of the courses offered through the Digital Curation Center, or the Conference for Digital Curation. They sometimes have training related to digital preservation and digital curation through the University of North Carolina. But I haven’t actually signed up for [anything] yet.

SR: It seems like you are constantly challenged on the job and learn a lot through trial-and-error and doing….

HF: Now that you mention it, one of the things we’ve been focusing on here generally is project management training—I think this is actually really important. And I’ve heard from other institutions involved in the Digital Library Federation that more and more libraries are engaged in software development. And to do software development right, you really need to follow the paradigm of project management. And there are tons of resources out there that are really useful to approaching the kind of work that’s happening in libraries right now. Our division in the library is trying to [formalize] the use of project management techniques [to accomplish] particular aspects of our work. And I think it’s quite effective actually.

SR: Can you name any of those…?

HR: You mean the project management stuff?

SR: Yeah.

HF: I mean, there’s software development methodologies. That’s one aspect of it. And these days what’s fashionable is agile software development. And if you look it up online there’s tons of resources about it. But just more generally speaking, one of my colleagues got a certificate in project management, so she’s PMI—Project Management International—certified. I have not done that course work, but I’ve learned vicariously through her very formal ways of approaching work. It’s about identifying your goals, the scope of the project, the timelines, and how you are going to report to your stakeholders.

SR: Oh, so it’s project management, but not necessarily within the library community….

HF: Exactly.

SR: Okay.

HF: Just kind of writ large. But I think this is new to libraries; at least it is to ours.

SR: So, you talked a little bit about how things have changed in your program at Austin in the past few years. But do you see any sort of general trends in the field in terms of how things have changed? I guess the project management aspect would be one of them. But just, either attitudes towards moving image materials and preservation, approaches….Obviously Stanford is very supportive of your work, but have you seen any changes in the field more generally?

HF: I have a few things to say: I think in general preservation departments in research libraries are still somewhat slow to take up the moving image preservation and audio preservation mantel, if you will. A lot of important things have brought the issue to the fore and MIAP is one of them. But I’m thinking [too] of the program that CCAHA [Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts] out of Philadelphia , [the Race Against Time symposium], where they had speakers travel all over the country for three years [or so], giving talks about issues in moving image and audio preservation and I think that did a lot to raise awareness. And there are other examples as well.

So, I think there is an increasing awareness of the need, but it’s difficult for library organizations to adapt; and I think preservation departments especially are struggling in a few respects. Digital preservation is a whole new field that’s obviously related at the principles level, but when it comes down to day-to-day operations they’re very different buckets of work, if you will. So, preservation departments are trying to do everything, whether it’s books, or paper, or this. This is true at Stanford, and I’ve seen examples of this in other institutions, where it just doesn’t fit. It seems like digital preservation has to be managed in a separate way. And I think that’s a struggle for preservation departments because it starts splitting out preservation resources and attention. What else do I see? I think MIAP in particular has done a wonderful job of producing people who can do this work; I mean I’ve seen it firsthand because I’ve worked with a couple of the graduates. And it’s very clear if you attend an AMIA conference that there’s renewed energy in the field. Maybe I’m biased because I love Mona and Howard, but I think that there really is this breath of life in the field now that’s coming out of MIAP and I think that’s great. Again, I still think it’s hard for institutions for adapt and pick up these people as quickly as we would like to see them placed and doing the work they were trained to do.

SR: What do you think those barriers are? Because even in libraries that are working with digital preservation and reformatting, mostly it’s with print materials. Do you have any sense of what some of the barriers might be?

HF: I think there’s still this general feeling that it’s a lot of technology and it feels like a big burden to take on—not only [looking at] the original technology, which is falling apart in front of you, but figuring out what new technology to use, and then of course the high cost of purchasing equipment and storage. Everybody says digital storage is cheap or practically free, but when you are preserving moving images, that’s not true yet—it’s still a huge barrier. When I get questions from other people looking at digitizing video or film for preservation, I’m always asked, “How do you store it? How do you deal with the storage?” That’s a huge problem for universities; they’re not set up well to be suddenly taking on terabytes of content. And so, it could be a while before we see that they’re set up on that scale. Stanford has been engaged in preservation for so long, and we’ve been involved in the Google Book project, which put us in this position where we just knew we needed to have tons and tons of storage. And so we bought it, and we’re just continually buying storage. And when you’re in that position [with all that storage], preserving uncompressed video is a little easier.

SR: You guys are also involved in the Haa…Hathi Trust?

HF: Hathi.

SR: Hathi, okay.

HF: We are—that’s a relatively new thing for us, actually. We’ve had our eye on it since it came out, because I think…well, it’s a very intriguing notion, what they were setting out to do. And I think actually some of the stuff that they’ll be able to pull off, the value-added things that they’re going to give to the community by aggregating all this content, I think is going to be really great. That’s why we joined. We don’t have any current plans to actually contribute content to the Hathi Trust because we are actively developing our own digital repository. But by becoming members of it, we can benefit from some of the data mining they plan on doing…like I said, the value added the stuff that they are producing through content aggregation.

SR: And is it only print materials that are being aggregated…?

HF: My understanding is that they are starting to play with audio. That’s relatively new, so I don’t know much about the success or the status. Sometime in the last couple months I heard that they were starting to take in the audio content.

SR: Would you share your opinion on what might lead to the creation of positions like yours in libraries? And maybe also what the obstacles are?

HF: That’s a good question and a hard one.

SR: I mean, do you think that the changes need to start with training in library schools, is it more of professional awareness, or a combination?

HF: I do. I do think it’s a combination. I think it’s a bit of a struggle to…well I’m thinking about MIAP and when you come out of MIAP you have a master’s but you don’t have a master’s in library science. And I think that’s a challenge, at least that’s my understanding.

SR: Yes.

HF: There’s two ways of dealing with this issue. We either have to change the expectations of libraries, [such] that they shouldn’t expect an MLS if they want somebody with the right skills to address this need in their institution. I think that’s true in many cases. I think there are aspects of library work that you can learn on the job and you don’t need to go to library school for. Of course, the other way to approach it is how can MIAP actually start issuing MLS degrees to help their graduates? I don’t know if that’s even viable. Or wanted. That’s a whole other question. So I’m not really sure I’m answering your question. Clearly one of the obstacles [is whether] it takes a library degree or not to do this work, and I think [the answer] will depend on the institution. But to some extent, I think institutions need to realize that they don’t need someone with a library degree to handle this type of work. And that leads to the question of where to situate these positions. In Stanford’s case, this position started in the preservation department. And we quickly learned that’s not where I was going to be most effective. And I don’t think that’s a Stanford specific situation. I think that to some extent it depends on how the organization is set up, but if you have somebody in this position, it’s more closely aligned with the people who are managing systems, acquiring technology and knowing how to implement technology and manage files and storage and all of these…the technological aspects of the work. It’s just going to be more efficient if you’re resourced and aligned similarly. Does that make sense?

SR: Yes, yes.

HF: So I think from my experience that’s what’s made all the difference. Being situated with the right people organizationally led to our ability to be where we are today, where we’ve got three people working in the media lab. In other institutions that may not be… you couldn’t pull that off if you will, just working in an archival context. And by that I mean, within the department of special collections, alongside processing archivists and that sort of thing. But in smaller organizations and organizations where the archives unit is well-situated technologically, [it may be less of an issue.]

SR: Right—that does make a lot of sense. Okay, so just as a final question: Can you describe some of your…how you’ve impacted the library where you are working and some of your recent accomplishments?

HF: That’s nice—end with a positive spin. Well, I sort of already said this, but I think the fact that I’ve got three people working for me now on reformatting media. [And not having] to work hard to justify getting new equipment when I need it. I’ve established trust that this [work] is important, that we need to resource it properly, that these collections are as important as any other kind of collection that we have. And I didn’t do that alone, but I think I’ve contributed to establishing that philosophy here. So, I think that’s why I’d say.

SR: Thank you so, so much for participating in this interview.

HF: Oh, my pleasure. I think it’s a great thing what you are doing and I hope it results in something [for MIAP and the broader archives community].

SR: I do too.

HF: Okay.

SR: Okay, bye!

HF: Bye, have a great weekend!

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