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Interview with Claire Stewart, Head of Digital Collections, Northwestern University Library

SE: Hello everyone, my name is Stefan Elnabli, and I am sitting here with Claire Stewart at Northwestern University Library and the date today is June 28, 2011. We’re here for the Institute of Museum and Library Services Moving Image Specialists in Libraries Project, spearheaded by the Moving Image Archiving and Preservation Program at New York University. Hi Claire!

CS: Hi!

SE: So I wanted to start off today to talk a little bit about Northwestern University library, your job title, and what you do here. [Would you] share your job title and where you work?


CS: Sure, my official title right now is head of Digital Collections, which is a department in the Division of Special Libraries at the Northwestern University Library, which is the official name of the main campus library here in Evanston, Illinois.

SE: And how long have you been working here?

CS: I’ve worked here since 1993, I started as a temp in library personnel, and I’ve actually had a whole sequence of jobs over the time that I’ve been here. Worked as a temp for a while, while I was in library school. And then was fortunate to move on to do other things.

SE: And so I’m assuming your appointment now is full-time?

CS: It is full-time, yes.

SE: And did you start in a full-time position here?

CS: No—do you want the full history?

SE: Sure.

CS: I can give you the full history of everything. So let me see…. I was in library personnel for the first year I was in library school because I was going to school full-time at Dominican University, which was Rosary College at the time. And I did go right into library school out of undergrad. I finished my BA at St. Mary’s College in English literature and then went right into library school. My first year here was as a temp, then I got a job working full-time as a library assistant in the reserve department and my job was to set up the electronic reserve program. This was one of the first programs in the country, [and] one of the first libraries in the country to start offering electronic reserve services. That was in 1994.

I did that for a year, finished my MLS in 1995 and then moved into a new professional position that had just been created, which was a half-time reserve librarian, half-time multimedia services librarian. So I became the supervisor of my [previous] supervisor in reserves, which was an interesting experience. Half of my job was supervising reserves and then the other half was setting up a new lab in the media center called the multimedia development lab, which was at the time a high-end media computing center for faculty and students. I did that for a couple years, then I moved into a slightly different split position where I was working half-time in [what’s now called] Academic & Research Technologies—that’s part of campus IT—and still doing half-time working in the media center. In that capacity, I was head of the New Media Center, which was just sort of an umbrella role where I was supposed to be working on developing multimedia services for faculty and students and working on special projects.

So I did that up until—and I may lose track of timing—eventually I came back to work full-time in the library, just one job, which was to be Head of Digital Media Services. And that was when we moved into our new location here in 2 East and we had the chance to renovate our new facility and set up a slightly larger area for media production, both for staff and for drop-in use by faculty. We changed our mission slightly so we were focused on faculty and graduate students, and that was also the year we started offering drop-off digitization services, which was an idea I had based on what we were seeing actually happening. We kept getting into these situations where we’d work on projects with faculty, but all we could offer was the space for them to do their own work. And we would inevitably get to a point where they’d say, “Well, can’t someone do this for me?” So this was [the germ of] an idea to start offering [digitization] as a service. That started in 2001.

Then in about 2006, I took on an additional responsibility as the coordinator of all the library’s special digitization projects, and in 2007 the library reorganized, and created our current department, Digital Collections, from the old unit, Digital Media Services, plus what used to be the Digital Preservation Unit of the Preservation Department in the library, plus what used to be the Art History Slide Library in Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. Plus we got a bunch of new money from the provost to expand our digital media services to the entire campus. And so that’s what I’ve been doing since 2007.

SE: So the Digital Collections department is a separate department from Preservation?

CS: Yes it is. And that was a deliberate decision made during the reorganization so the collections digital reformatting happens in Digital Collections. Preservation is more focused on conservation and physical collections treatment and housing, and condition management and all that.

SE: What does a typical day or week look like from your experience as head of Digital Collections?

CS: Well, there isn’t really a typical day or week, but in general I’m occupied with two main things: First, I still have a fairly deep involvement with specific projects that come up and right now, for instance, we are working on one that is building some core repository services for managing digital productions; and then second, as we have fourteen staff in our department, a good portion of my time in any given week is devoted to meeting with various people—sort of managerial, supervisory stuff. So those are the two core things I consistently devote a lot of time to in any given week.

And then there are also committees and special projects that are outside of that immediate sphere—in any given week that will consume a certain amount of time. I’m on the scholarly communications committees and I chair the repository services operational group. And then I’m also on the digital library coordinating committee and the repository policy committee. So that’s kind of in descending order of meeting frequency. Scholarly communications is fairly active…. Repository services is too, but right now it’s sort of in maintenance mode because everyone’s just focused on this one big project that’s consuming our attention. And then the others don’t meet frequently.

SE: And so after the reorganization, and the creation of digital collections, what became the primary mission of digital collections?

CS: Well, there’s a couple of different key things that we do and actually the mission statement that we have on our website does a pretty good job of distilling that. There are services for faculty, and that’s in the form of digitization services and also training and support for people doing their own projects; collections reformatting; and then the repository. So those are the key components. It’s about getting stuff into digital form, making sure it’s stored somewhere safe, and then building projects on top of the content. And extending those services to faculty so that they can manage their own content in a secure way. And then also doing special projects on top of that, whether it’s reformatting our own collections, or building databases for faculty to use as they’re doing their own original research. We originally tried to keep the focus pretty narrowly on media—audio and video specifically—then we expanded it to include images. We stayed away from texts because a lot of what we were doing was focused on course, providing materials for faculty or course support, and of course there was the reserve unit who does electronic reserve, but gradually as we’ve expanded to offer general digital reformatting services, we also do a lot of text now in the Kirtas book scanning operations part of our department. So we cover a pretty broad range of formats and text with content, and probably data is going to be a big one in the next couple of years, science data in particular.

SE: Well that’s a good segue into another question that I have about the types of collections that you and your staff work with in digital. You mentioned media primarily—moving image and sound—and then text and image, and things like that. Can you speak to the types of collections within the library? And also where most of the work is done?

CS: Yeah, and of course it’s changed a lot now with the Google project, because when we originally started doing book scanning—when [the service] was in the Preservation department—it was primarily Kirtas operations to replace brittle books. But then we’ve been gradually trying to shift the focus over to rare and unique materials, which actually aligns really well with the Google project because the expectation is that most of our collection—the general collections—are going to be digitized by Google. So we don’t really concern ourselves with that kind of content. For that reason, the focus is on printed materials in special collections, university archives— basically any of the special libraries—that are, for one reason or another, not suited to digitization by Google. And that’s typically because the material is either too valuable to leave the library or its format may not be suitable, or it’s oversized. So in the printed material realm, that’s where we focus our attention.

But then as you know, with time-based collections—[and by that I mean] time-based media like audio and video—[there are] just tremendous problems because they’re probably at much greater risk than any of our printed collections. And also because we just have very few in-house capabilities, [not to mention that this type of work] generates enormous files— so it’s pretty challenging on every level. And until you came last year, we really didn’t have anybody on staff that was properly trained to handle this content and really deal with it beyond access reformatting. Which is pretty much what we had been doing since that was all the faculty needed to be able to stream material for courses. So we’re sort of entering a total new era with the media collections. It’s really only the last few years that we’ve been doing special collections reformatting for time-based media. It was pretty much all print material until then.

SE: Speaking of staff, you mentioned earlier that you have fourteen people on staff. What are the division of skills and labor among them?

CS: Well, it’s changed a lot even in just the three or four years since we’ve been in existence, but in general we have a core of about six people who are devoted to digitization and reformatting. That includes Dan Zellner, the supervisor of that group. He occupies a professional non-librarian position, and supervises, I believe, five staff responsible for in-house digitization—image scanning, book scanning, and audio and video digitization for streaming. So that’s a big chunk of the department right there, and people are actually doing stuff in-house. But we’re always looking out for things we really have to do in-house versus things that we should be sending out. That’s kind of my philosophy: do it in-house if you have to, but if it’s something we can afford to send out or if it’s a large project and it’s going to overly consume resources, you should consider sending it out.

Then we have a digital projects librarian, who is responsible for, [in tandem with the respective curators], identifying collections that should be reformatted in their entirety. These are the larger special projects, and she coordinates a lot of her work with the head of production. Some things we do in-house, but a lot of things we send out. But they’re both involved with the RFP [request for proposal] process. And often when we do send things out, when they come back they have to be quality reviewed by our staff, and some production staff typically get involved with that.

There is also a visual resources curator—another professional librarian position—and she supervises two staff who take care of metadata creation, and also inventory creation, and manage inventories for the departmental assets—so our equipment, software, general project intake, and expediting things that come in for production work.

And then there is the faculty-facing support team, [comprised of] a non-librarian professional and a paraprofessional who work on special faculty projects, and work with faculty in the lab, showing them how to use the equipment that we support here. They do a lot of specialized training, and manage all of our seminars and workshops and series and all of that stuff. And then there’s me, and there is you. You’re an example of people who come in and out of this program when we have specialized funding or opportunities to do grant projects.

SE: In terms of digitization, do you have a rough idea of the percentage of stuff that gets done in-house versus outside vendors? Do you have an idea of what types of things have to go out to vendors versus what we are capable of doing in here?

CS: I don’t know if I could say percentage wise—I’d guess it’s probably roughly fifty-fifty, if you are gonna to calculate on a pure item volume basis. [We send out those] items for which we lack [transfer] equipment, and that includes a lot of the media collections. We just don’t have the lab set-up and equipment to do that stuff in-house. Other than that, there’s not really a bright line around what we do in-house and what we send out. It’s more a matter of trying to conserve very expensive in-house staff resources for things we need to turn around quickly or that we are really concerned about sending out to a vendor. So very rare items from special collections—those we try to do in-house. Things that are a little less rare, a little less fragile, we will send out to a vendor.

SE: In terms of the history of digital reformatting at Northwestern University, how did the decision come about to do digital reformatting here and was there broad institutional support? Also: Did the digital reformatting come about with the hopes of providing access or preservation, or both?

CS: Initially it was about access and I think that is still true to a certain extent. The exception, of course, would be the time-based collections because we are very aware that, especially with the magnetic materials, the originals are very endangered. We started doing reformatting back in about 1995; that was the first of the large-scale collections reformatting, and it was really just an access project at low-resolution. Of course, that was state-of-the-art photo CD technology that we used back then. So really it was about supporting people who wanted to use these special and rare collections or interact with them in some way, but couldn’t afford to travel here or would have a very different experience using the material physically versus online where they could search and access a lot of metadata at once versus going through things individually. It’s shifted over time and now much of the reason we digitize is that people expect to be able to get anything the library has in digital format. So it’s very different reasoning.

SE: When a curator or archivist or faculty member or patron is interested in having something digitized for classes or [some other] purpose, what’s the protocol that takes place when you get that kind of request?

CS: Well I follow two paths. If it’s a large project—if we’re reformatting, say, an entire collection in one swoop—it typically goes to the digital projects subcommittee, a library committee that receives requests or proposals and then evaluates them on a rather subjective basis, [ranking them] high, medium, or low priority in terms of the value of having the collection reformatted. So that’s the formal full collections reformatting approach. Then if it’s a smaller project or something we can do in-house—or for whatever reason it doesn’t require evaluation by a broader committee—typically it just comes into our department and then we assign resources to it. Like digitizing a couple hundred slides or something similar—the things we can just do.

But it’s always been a challenge [to draw] the dividing line between those two things. And then over time things tend to come in under the door and over the transom and [when they] pop up we have to react to them very quickly because there’s money attached to them, [or] there’s a donor, or for some other reason we don’t have time to let it wait in line behind a bunch of other things that were proposed earlier. So it’s sort of an idiosyncratic process, and that’s when we realized it’s really nice to have the digital products librarian dedicated to that kind of thing because she’s constantly looking out for things that need to be acted on quickly, and readjusting our priorities. And since we do almost all of the feasibility studies in-house, she can assign an inventory to someone else in the department, that way she has time to work on something else that’s just come up. So there’s just a lot of constant reshuffling.

SE: All right, I’d like to shift the line of questioning to your background. You spoke already about getting your BA and then going to library school right after, at Dominican. Did you focus on digital librarianship?

CS: Actually the first year I was there, I thought I wanted to focus on preservation and special collections. I started out with a series of classes that was more about rare books and it wasn’t until I got the job setting up the electronic reserves service that I realized I was really interested in technology. At that point I switched over to more of an IT specialist track, but this was 1994, so it was actually pre-web—our electronic reserves was not even on a web server, it was on a gopher server. Library school was a little bit behind, it was still running DOS, not windows, so a lot of my digital focus or my IT focus, was theoretical. “What is telecommunications? What does it mean to design and normalize a relational database?” That kind of stuff.

So I wouldn’t say I had really in-depth training—a lot of [what I know] came from working on the job. Setting up the electronic reserves with the first scanner in the library for instance—we were one of the first libraries to do that. And by the end of my first year we had actually transferred from Gopher to the web, so we had to set up the library’s first web-server to make that project happen. That was a huge learning experience for me—I got thrown in the deep end and basically had to figure out how all this stuff worked and designed a workflow that could support digitization and then delivery. I’m not saying library school didn’t help [laughing]—but it only takes you so far.

SE: From [there], how did you get interested in media and moving image and sound materials? Can you recall any early projects that you worked on?

CS: Well about a year in, I got my first professional position, which required me to help set up this multimedia development lab. That required me to learn how to set up a VCR, how to hook it up to a computer, how to run digitization software. I started doing that at the same time I was invited to join the faculty program. We used to do something called “Technology learning and teaching.” It was a week-long program where people from the library, IT, and staff from different units on campus would get together with a group of faculty, and we would put them through boot camp. So we would show them how to make a webpage, how to scan, how to work with video and monitor digitization. That was the first time I worked with faculty who were actually using this technology to further their research or support their teaching. It was [during this] time that I became acquainted with Jerry Goldman, a political science professor wanting to work on an archive of the oral arguments before the United States Supreme Court. That eventually became the Oyez project, which is this huge, very well-known, very famous online audio archive, which actually has become an online multimedia project. It was very highly regarded, very successful. So that was probably one of the first projects where all of the threads came together for me. I never really had a big role in the project, but we offered a little bit of support along the way and we always championed this project, so that was a very important one for me.

SE: How do you continue your professional development outside of your work here?

CS: Well, lets see…. I’m active in ALA, so I sit on various committees; I try to contribute as best I can. Some of my learning development comes from attending conferences. And another conference that I go to is Open Repositories—a lot of our work these days is focused on digital preservation and repositories and supporting them. And then a lot of my learning comes from people that I know or have interacted with over the years and it can be one on one or small group work. I’m working on a project with a group from the Video Round Table. And I’m working on project Bamboo, which is a Mellon-funded, multi-institutional digital humanities project. So some of my learning comes from that kind of stuff. Also, I have to do my own reading and keep up on what’s being published and read, the formal literature and special reports. A lot of that is happening now in Ithaka, OCLC—some very interesting reports and research are coming out of those channels. So, there isn’t really one method.

SE: Well it’s very clear you have a very diverse background and know about a lot of topics that are related to work that you’ve done here. I’m curious how that influences the way that you manage projects here.

CS: Over time I’ve tried to focus less on day-to-day management activities in the department as much as I can, although it’s hard to remove yourself from that. As much as I can, I lessen my involvement in direct project activities. We’re using Scrum, which is a [framework for] production support development [and management]. I’m the product owner, but a lot of the work on building that system is actually done by the team. So I’ve started to think of my role as more like trying to pay attention to what’s going at a different levels; what things are developing on campus that we need to know about; how are those things connected to the things at the library; where does the library have skills that can help and support and contribute to things that the university wants to do. I try to take advantage of the fact that we are a department and I am certainly spread rather thin. I try to turn that into an advantage by being a synthesizer, and I try to make connections between people rather than do things directly. At this point, I don’t have time to do that—not with all the other stuff that I’m doing. That takes work: sometimes I’m successful, sometimes not so much. I think increasingly I see connecting people as my role in moving forward.

SE: I want to shift to some of the issues that are involved with digital reformatting and media services that we do here, and also the moving image and sound preservation issues that come up across research libraries. I’m curious, when you were developing media services here and starting to do reformatting for moving image and sound material, what kind of challenges did you come across?

CS: Well, part of it has to do with the way the library thinks about media in general. I mean if you think about what libraries typically talk about when they talk about their collections, a lot of it is about the books on the shelves, and journals, the numbers of titles we subscribe to, how many volumes we have—and it’s the media stuff that’s often the footnote. I spent about a year, which I forgot to mention earlier [laughing], as the acting head of the media center, which meant I got to do all of the video selection for the year, which is pretty cool because we have a healthy budget for that in the library. And it was only a year or so into the circulating video collection, and it was pretty remarkable because we had about 20,000 items in the media collection, primarily on VHS and DVD at that time. But the circulation for that content was off the charts compared to the print collection. I think statistically everything circulated 150 percent in a given year, which compared to the print collection, is somewhere around twenty percent, I would think...or lower.

So part of the challenge of talking about media collections in research libraries is acknowledging that there has always been sort of a red-headed, step-child thing going on with media. It’s proportionally a much smaller part of the collection, so there are fewer resources devoted to it in terms of staff with expertise to handle it in various ways. And of course in our library, the things that are unique and rare media materials are in departments that have responsibilities for a wide-range of things—archives, special collections—that’s where most of our really rare media materials are. So they’ve accumulated all kinds of things over the years and the format explosion problems you have are really significant, but it’s generally true of archives collections and it’s to be expected—they just have tons of unprocessed material, so having a bunch of media stuff in there doesn’t necessarily stand out as problem until you start to talk seriously about rapid deterioration, and that media is much more at risk than paper even if the paper has acidity problems. I think that it’s sort of a hidden problem.

And from a digital reformatting stance, it’s unmanageable for a lot of libraries because I think there’s always been an understanding that to do digital reformatting right, you have to do it at a high resolution and high bit rate, and that just creates enormous files. Most libraries are not really in the position to dedicate storage—digital storage—and that kind of stuff. So you are sort of cursed at every level: people really don’t know it’s a problem, they don’t have people in-house with special expertise, you’ve got format explosion, and then there’s all the digital stuff. And until quite recently, there weren’t good solutions for large-scale digital reformatting because people just couldn’t afford to do it.

SE: In that answer you touched upon the state of moving image archiving and preservation in libraries across institutions. I’m curious if you had any more comments about the general attitude towards the kind of work that you’ve come across either through tracking other institutions or going to conferences or even within the library here. What’s the general attitude you’ve noticed?

CS: I think it’s dawning on people that they need to move a lot faster than they’re moving. That if we don’t start attending to it more quickly we’re going to have pretty serious collection loss. The other thing that is a factor here—and I don’t know if this has changed necessarily, except for film I guess—is that a lot of these recording have very troubling copyright problems. And I think this has a big impact on willingness to invest because it’s one thing to invest in a dark archive, in dark reformatting projects — things you can’t share—and it’s [another,] much more appealing [option] to be able to invest in things that you know you can actually put up online and let people use. Until we figure out [and] get up the courage to actually start putting those collections up online and be less frightened of some of the copyright issues, I think we’re still gonna have kind of a slog.

But the other thing is acknowledging that it takes special skills to handle media collections and people like me who go to a traditional library program don’t have those skills necessarily. So it’s been great having [someone] here to see what you can do with that kind of training and background. It’s been eye opening because I can see the cautious, careful, methodical approach, but I also see that there are some things we don’t have to be as frightened of. It’s been eye opening because I can see the cautious approach, and the careful and methodical approach, but I also see that there are some things we don’t have to be as frightened of—[previously, for instance] we didn’t let anybody do any in-house playback of things we thought might be unique. It’s been good on both of those levels because we feel more confident about the things that you’re doing because of the training that you have.

SE: So the creation of the moving image and sound specialists in libraries, you think is a necessary thing?

CS: Yeah, absolutely. No doubt in my mind, I absolutely agree with that. I mean we could probably stand to have at least two of you. The other thing is that I’m really interested in seeing where the Indiana project goes because time-based media collections, moving image collections, audio collections, are not just a problem in the library. Those things are probably squirreled away all over campus and they are as much at risk, if not more so, as the things that we have in our own collection. Then you get into who will pay for it? Who pays for the salaries of moving image specialist? If the library’s paying should it just be about library collections? Should it be a service the library offers to the whole community? Is this one of those things where you scratch the surface and a tidal wave comes over you and just cannot handle the volume? But it’s an interesting way for the library to think about interacting with the broader community. We can support someone like you in the library because we are already talking about doing this with our own collection, we are already planning a repository, we’re already doing the metadata work, we’re already looking into vendors for reformatting and treatment. Probably nobody else on campus is equipped to do that or ever will be. So there’s a nice potential growth area. Indiana’s doing that, I don’t know who else is doing any kind of work like that.

SE: And can you see that there are any obstacles in the creation of these positions across libraries?

CS: Well there are the usual ones—where to put them organizationally and how to pay for them. It’s a bad time to be needing to spend a lot of new money on this problem because libraries, universities—everybody’s having budget problems…but universities especially and libraries within universities in particular. There’s no universal solution for that and it differs from organization to organization, but having you here for a year demonstrating the value has been incredibly useful. We’ve always been very concerned about the media collections—and it’s not just me, but our curators and preservationists too. But it’s now a collective action because they’ve experienced the value directly.

SE: I was wondering if you could describe how you’ve impacted Northwestern University Library and some of your recent accomplishments.

CS: Oh yeah, well I’m great Stefan [laughter]. I don’t know, that’s a good question, I don’t know if I’ll be able to answer that and do that one any justice. I guess it’s been an accomplishment just to get this department set up and to convince the library that it should be offering services like this free of charge to faculty, not on a cost recovery basis. And then the focus on the centrality of the repository and that we need to focus on keeping our stuff safe and the array of services on top of that. I think we’re doing a good job of keeping our focus on that and I feel like I’ve contributed to that at some level. I mean, we’re not going as fast as I would like for us to be going with the repository development in particular—I think that’s true with everybody in the library. Then also with video delivery services for faculty, we were one of the first libraries to do that and a lot of that was because I pushed for us to be able to do that kind of thing and to have those services for free. But also the use of media in blended classrooms, classrooms where there’s both a technical and online component and a face-to-face component.

SE: Which of Northwestern’s projects should the moving image archiving and preservation community in libraries and at large be on the lookout for?

CS: Well, we’re involved with a few digital humanities projects. And what’s been interesting to me is that while the digital humanities have been around for quite a while, most projects are focused on text collections (the creation of a large text corpus), and now text analysis tools. You don’t see as much about either still image or moving image collections. But I think that as you see media becoming more pervasive in society, but also in teaching, people are using it in very interesting different ways. I’ve been watching to see where we’re going to tip the balance with working with large-scale media collections the way the digital humanists worked with large text collections. What’s the media analysis tool of the future and how are we going to be build these huge collections and support them? And how are we going to make it possible to work with these collections; not just for humanists, but starting with them maybe. What’s the Google book equivalent for media collections? Is there one? Rights issues are a horrible problem, but you know, so? [laugh] I’m curious about when we’re going to the creation of a very, very large online media collection. I think that’ll be interesting.

SE: Great. And now for the most important question of all: What is your favorite color?

CS: [laugh] My favorite color is green!

SE: Awesome! All right, so that concludes our interview, and it was a pleasure talking with you! Thank you!

CS: Okay—Thanks, Stefan!

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