LLILAS Benson Latin American Studies and Collections is pleased to announce that Jennifer Isasi, PhD, will join the staff as CLIR Fellow for Data Curation in Latin American and Latina/o Studies. Isasi will work with Digital Scholarship Coordinator Albert A. Palacios to contribute to “collections as data” efforts, educational resources, and digital scholarship initiatives at LLILAS Benson. She will hold her position from July 29 through June 2020.
In her role as CLIR fellow, Isasi will have the opportunity to alter the way in which students, researchers, and affiliated communities access and engage with the digitized historical record.
According to CLIR (the Council on Library and Information Resources) the CLIR postdoctoral position “offers recent PhD graduates the chance to develop research tools, resources, and services while exploring new career opportunities. . . . Fellows work on projects that forge and strengthen connections among library collections, educational technologies, and current research.”
In addition to her work with Palacios, Isasi will work closely with the current CLIR fellow Hannah Alpert-Abrams as well as University of Texas Libraries academic engagement staff and LLILAS affiliated faculty to develop curated data sets, curricula, and workshops centered on digital assets and tools, and open-access resources that support scholarly and public engagement with digital materials.
Isasi will also work closely with the post-custodial archival team and partners in the United States and Latin America to inform the development of forthcoming digital collections and facilitate their use in digital research and pedagogy. As such, she will have the opportunity to alter the way in which students, researchers, and affiliated communities access and engage with the digitized historical record.
Jennifer Isasi holds a PhD in Hispanic Studies with a specialization in Digital Humanities from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Her dissertation, “Data Mining Possibilities for the Analysis of the Literary Character in the Spanish Novel: The Case of Galdós and the ‘Episodios nacionales’” (written in Spanish) establishes a computational reading methodology to extract, analyze, and visualize literary character-systems or social networks, noting how they reflect novel genres and degrees of historicity that replicate close readings of the novels. Currently, she is a lecturer of Spanish at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, where she teaches Spanish, Commercial Spanish, and Foundations of Literacy.
The Archive of Indigenous Languages of Latin America (AILLA) has received a pilot grant from the Humanities Collections and Reference Resources program of the National Endowment for the Humanities. This grant will improve access to some of the archive’s thousands of audio recordings in indigenous languages by supporting pilot efforts to crowdsource the creation of digital texts for manuscript transcriptions and translations that accompany recordings already in AILLA’s collections. Specifically, the grant will support the transcription of materials in the Mixtec languages of Mexico that are included in the MesoAmerican Languages Collection of Kathryn Josserand. These materials include a very broad survey of the grammar and vocabulary of the Mixtec languages spoken in over 100 towns and villages of southern Mexico.
Digital transcriptions will improve users’ access to these materials and will also facilitate their reuse for humanistic and especially linguistic research studying the dialectology of the Mixtec languages, which, decades after these materials were collected, is still not completely understood. They will also contribute to research on the prehistory of the Mixtec-speaking people, who today number almost a half-million in Mexico. One component of the project will be the development of educational modules that will use the transcription task to teach lessons on linguistic transcription, language description, and historical linguistics. This pilot project will also allow AILLA to develop transcription workflows that can be applied to other significant collections of handwritten documents in the archive’s collections.
Pilot project will improve access to a collection of Mixtec audio recordings.
The project’s principal investigator is Professor Virginia Garrard, director of LLILAS Benson Latin American Studies and Collections. The project manager is Ryan Sullivant, AILLA language data curator.
The National Endowment for the Humanities, created in 1965 as an independent federal agency, supports research and learning in history, literature, philosophy, and other areas of the humanities by funding selected, peer-reviewed proposals from around the nation. Additional information about the National Endowment for the Humanities and its grant programs is available at www.neh.gov.
For more information on the AILLA transcription project, contact Ryan Sullivant.
The mission of UT Libraries is to “advance teaching, fuel research and energize learning through expansive collections and digital content, innovative services, programs and partnerships to develop critical thinkers and global citizens that transforms lives.” In recent years, our mission is fulfilled through a number of ongoing thematic “Purposeful Pathways” and short-term focused “Current Priorities.” In this blogpost, I would like to highlight how my recent efforts in Pakistan demonstrate the realization of a number of our pathways and priorities, namely those related to collections of distinction, collaborative collection development programs, and visibility and impact in the global knowledge ecosystem.
While in Lahore, I partnered with my colleague from Cornell University Libraries, Dr. Bronwen Bledsoe, to co-lead a workshop for librarians. The 2-day workshop was sponsored by the Lahore University of Management Sciences (most commonly known as ‘LUMS’) and by the American Institute of Pakistan Studies (known as ‘AIPS,’). Entitled “Exploring Library Cooperation,” the workshop focused on themes of how to identify opportunities for and strategies to work across institutions to improve access to resources and services.
Approximately 30 librarians from across Lahore attended, including those from LUMS, Punjab University, Government College University, Kinnaird College for Women, and the Government of Punjab Research Wing. While our opportunities for collaboration here in the U.S. are deeply embedded in our ongoing work (not only efforts such as the South Asia Cooperative Collection Development Workshops noted above but also structural support such as our robust InterLibrary Services), it was clear from our workshop that our colleagues in Lahore are also interested in working together. For example, they shared details of their work to more fully describe and digitize their collections, to collectively petition funding agencies to advance their missions, and to continue developing professional networks and strategies for the common good. I was impressed and inspired by their commitment and enthusiasm and am looking forward to growing these newly formed professional relationships long into the future.
UTL’s Director, Lorraine Haricombe, often cites this maxim: “Working alone, I can go fast, but working together, we can go farther.” I am excited and committed to continuing to work in cooperative ways and have already seen how far it can take us—at least halfway around the world!
With the generous support of the Center for Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies and the Center for European Studies I was recently able to travel to Frankfurt and Prague to attend the Frankfurt Book Fair and purchase books for the UT Libraries’ collections. In addition to meeting with vendors and participating in the international community of librarians, booksellers, and publishers at the book fair, I collected materials that continued to grow the UT Libraries’ collection of European zines and artists’ books.
The Frankfurt Book Fair is the world’s largest book fair, and has been held for more than 500 years. The fair consistently has over 7,000 publishers represented, and attracts visitors from all over the world. Each year a country is chosen as the fair’s guest of honor; this year’s guest was France. As such, there was a particularly strong focus on French culture, writers, and publishers, with the aim of highlighting and promoting France’s literary culture to the world.
The book fair offered many opportunities to learn about and participate in the international library and publishing communities. I was able to participate in meet-ups of other librarians, visit with vendors, and view lectures on new technologies on the vanguard of the library and publishing worlds. In addition to attending the book fair itself, I was able to participate in the New Directions for Libraries, Scholars, and Partnerships Symposium organized by the Center for Research Libraries (CRL), in part due to a competitive stipend I received from the funds of the Collaborative Initiative for French Language Collections (CIFNAL) and the German-North American Resources Partnership (GNARP). The symposium was held at the Deutsche Nationalbibliothek, or German National Library, also in Frankfurt.
The symposium further allowed me to meet with and forge relationships with an international community of librarians, scholars, and publishers. Presenters at the symposium included librarians and researchers from Harvard, the Newberry Library, various German universities, and the Bibliotheque Nationale de France, as well as representatives from prominent European publishers. As the European Studies Librarian in PCL, being able to hear presentations from such a broad swath of perspectives was very informative and relevant to my subject areas, and I look forward to continuing to foster a sense of community and collaboration with these colleagues.
In Prague, I visited bookstores and acquired materials with the aim of improving our collection of European artists’ books and zines. The materials I bought will be made available in the Fine Arts Library special collections, and complement similar materials I acquired in Russia while on an acquisitions trip last year. Many of these books are unique to UT Austin’s holdings, meaning they are not available in any other academic libraries.
This trip allowed me the opportunity to represent UT Austin internationally to a diverse group of colleagues and industries, and I’m grateful that I was able to serve in such a capacity. I look forward to continuing to build both our distinctive holdings and our relationships with colleagues in the library and publishing worlds.
How can we process 80 million pages of historical documents?
The question is a philosophical one, about the ability of our minds to conceive of such a large number of documents. The Archivo Histórico de la Policía Nacional (Guatemalan National Police Historical Archive, AHPN) in Guatemala City contains about eighty million documents, or about 135 years of records from the National Police of Guatemala.
The question is also a technical one, about the difficulty of gathering, organizing, and providing access to an inconceivably large collection. For over a decade, archivists at the AHPN have been racing to clean, organize, and catalogue these historical records. In 2010, the University of Texas at Austin partnered with the AHPN to build an online portal to a digital version of the archive.
As the CLIR Postdoctoral Fellow in data curation and Latin American studies at LLILAS Benson, I have been tasked with the challenge of figuring out how best to support this ongoing partnership.
I visited the AHPN last November, just before Guatemala celebrated the twenty-first anniversary of the signing of the peace accords that ended the country’s decades-long armed conflict (1960–1996). Together with Theresa Polk, the post-custodial archivist at LLILAS Benson, I went to Guatemala to learn about the digitization efforts at the AHPN, and to celebrate a major milestone: when we arrived, the archive had just finished digitizing 21 million documents.
Digital Access to Historical Memory
The AHPN hard drives may fit in a carry-on, but hosting and providing access to the 21 million digital documents they contain is not a trivial task. When the University of Texas launched the digital portal to the archive in 2011, it was a bare-bones service with minimal browsing or search capabilities. Since then, the collection has doubled in size and grown exponentially in complexity. Our challenge—and the reason we were in Guatemala City—is to figure out how to represent that complexity online.
According to the web analytics, the majority of visitors to the website are based in Guatemala. These users are largely looking for two kinds of information. Some are members of human rights organizations conducting research related to police violence spanning over three decades of internal conflict in Guatemala. The rest are people trying to find out what happened to their loved ones, victims of violence during that same period. That’s why the anniversary of the peace accords matters to the collection. Organizing these records and making them available to the public has been one of the many ways that Guatemalans are reckoning with their country’s past.
There is an urgency to serving these research communities, and our top priority is to provide easy access to information. Easy searching of the archive, however, remains elusive. The archival documents are organized according to the baroque structure of the police bureaucracy. To find documents requires an intimate knowledge of that organizational structure.
Searching would be easier with richer descriptive metadata. If we could extract names, locations, and dates from the archival materials, it would make it easier for a person to search for their loved one, or a researcher to learn about specific neighborhoods or historical events. But extracting information from 21 million documents is a resource-intensive task, and the technologies for automating those processes remain imperfect.
Search is not our only priority, however. As I learned firsthand, to visit the AHPN is to be immersed in the context of its construction and its size. The dark, narrow corridors, concrete walls, and grated windows are a testament to the building’s history as a police prison. The violence of the archive is always close at hand, despite the hope it represents. One of our challenges is to recreate that experience for users of the digital archive.
Furthermore, as I learned from talking to the head of the Access to Information unit, the process of searching for information at the AHPN has been designed in a way that allows the archivists to bear witness to the memories of the researchers. Each visit begins with a question: Tell us what happened to your loved one.
The question has a practical purpose. It allows the archivists to glean the information that will make it possible to locate the necessary records from among the millions of files. But in answering this question, families are also sharing an intimate story with an archivist, an act of strength and also, often, of courage. Can a digital archive create similar opportunities for those who are unable to make the visit in person?
Imagining Digital Futures
The partnership between the University of Texas and the AHPN is an extraordinary opportunity for our institution to create new paths to historical research, and to support the international preservation of historical records. It allows us to honor and support the vital work of the archivists at the AHPN, while working at the forefront of digital collecting.
This partnership has also encouraged us to rethink our assumptions about digital archives. We often imagine a digital archive as a simple reflection of a material collection. But 21 million digital pages have very different infrastructure and support requirements than their material counterparts. The needs and expectations of online users are different, too.
In many ways, in imagining the future of the AHPN portal, we are imagining the future for digital collections at the University of Texas more broadly. The size and complexity of collections like the AHPN push the limits of our understanding of the role of libraries, and librarianship, in the digital age. They draw us into a future where scholarship, community-building, and access to information are inextricably linked.
An ambitious fall semester project in the Department of Mexican American and Latina/o Studies provided the opportunity for cross-campus collaborations that brought together the Harry Ransom Center and the Benson Latin American Collection.
The Department of American Studies Ph.D. candidate Amanda Gray’s course “Latina/o Representation in Media and Popular Culture” took students out of the classroom and into special collections to get a hands-on feel for archival research. The course took advantage of the “Mexico Modern: Art, Commerce, and Cultural Exchange, 1920-1945 exhibition” at the Ransom Center in late September before returning there on October 5th for an instructional session working with collection materials led by Andi Gustavson, Head of Instructional Services. Gustavson’s selected materials featured photographs of Mexican migrant workers from the 1960s, an anthology of early Mexican American literature, and items from the papers of acclaimed Dominican American author Julia Alvarez. However, it was Ernest Lehman’s collection on the film West Side Story that caught the eye of many students who were interested in how Puerto Ricans are represented, especially when many non-Puerto Rican actors played their roles, often in brown face.
On October 10th, the class came to the Benson for another show and tell wherein I focused on archival materials relating to Latina reproductive health, the 1968-1972 Economy Furniture Company strike here in Austin, and the establishment of what has come to be known as the National Chicana Conference. Between the two archival visits, students saw a wide array of Latino representation, whether self-representation or dominant cultural representation, from the 1950s to the present day.
Under the guidance of Latin American Studies Digital Scholarship Coordinator Albert A. Palacios, the students incorporated the show and tell materials, along with their own research, into group digital projects using storytelling tools like StoryMapsJS and TimelineJS. The projects touched on a variety of issues, including class, disability, ethnicity, gender, race, sexuality, and other subjectivities. Scholarly Communications Librarian Colleen Lyon chipped in with a copyright crash course that taught students the best practices for posting academic findings online.
The students showcased their digital projects at one of the PCL Learning Labs on December 15th to the delight of an audience that consisted of UTL and HRC staff as well as faculty from the Department of Mexican American and Latina/o Studies. As for the students, they exclaimed how much they preferred working with these tools in a group setting as opposed to writing a traditional final paper. To that end, Professor Gray’s innovative pedagogical approach represents the possibility for integrating the library into courses going forward and in the process, strengthening relationships across campus.
If you would like to view the final projects, click here.
On November 3rd, the Libraries’ Social Sciences Team conducted its first Graduate Research Showcase, which featured twenty posters with a wide array of topics ranging from the economic impacts of state immigration reform to the role of paternal warmth and maternal stress in child-rearing to sport as part of Great Britain’s colonial enterprise in India. In total, the twenty graduate students came from fifteen different departments across campus, sparking interdisciplinary dialogue, collaboration, and scholarly engagement.
The showcase elevated the library as a platform. It provided an opportunity for the students to explain their research in a low-stress environment replete with refreshments as they received constructive criticism on their work. Students welcomed the idea to practice talking about their research. Katie Bradford, a doctoral student in the Department of Communication Studies noted that “the event was a great opportunity to receive feedback. I was able to take notes and came away with ways to further develop my project.” Similarly, Department of Curriculum & Instruction doctoral student Hye Ryung Won appreciated the cross-department possibilities: “I got a lot of feedback from people and could make some connections with peers from other departments.” The enthusiasm found in these statements resonated throughout the day.
Moreover, one lucky student won the vote for best poster: Briana Barber, a doctoral student in the Department of Radio-Television-Film put forth stimulating research on African American voices in podcasts. Titled, “‘The Conversations that Black People Have When White People Aren’t in the Room’: The Podcast as Public Sphere,” the presentation focused on how African Americans continue to carve out spaces in a medium previously dominated by white voices. The best poster contest may have been just for fun, but it had a real impact on Barber, who remarked that “winning the poster competition was just the motivation I needed to know that the work I’m doing is interesting, important and necessary.”
The Social Sciences Team organized the event at the Perry-Castañeda Library’s Scholars Commons, a newly designed space for UTL to foster research initiatives and exhibit space. By all accounts, the Showcase represented a successful shift in the Library’s involvement with research: it attracted over 100 students, staff, and community members while students have called for another poster session to be held the following semester. Indeed, Assistant Director of Digital Scholarship Jenifer Flaxbart commented that “the Scholars Commons has never buzzed and hummed with the cadence of so many voices discussing interesting, broad-ranging research as it did today.” Stay tuned for future events!
The recent succession of weather events provided a rather inauspicious beginning to the new semester, though the main campus and our local branches have been spared all but an abundance of rain. Our family and friends along the coast, however, weren’t so lucky.
For those who attempt to recall the list of branch locations overseen by the UT Libraries, it’s not uncommon to overlook the one library that doesn’t reside in Austin, but rather on a usually pastoral stretch of sand a few blocks from the Gulf of Mexico. The Marine Science Library serves the faculty and researchers at UT’s Marine Science Institute (MSI) in Port Aransas, which is just across the bay from Rockport, Texas — a city that was the focal point for much of the news coverage surrounding the arrival of Hurricane Harvey on Friday, August 25. Port Aransas actually took a direct hit from Harvey and suffered catastrophic damage, which was also visited upon the MSI, including the building where the library is located.
As a matter of course, the Libraries have a Collections Emergency Team composed of relevant administrators, dedicated facility staffers and outstanding preservation experts, who jump to action in the event of a threat to the resources or infrastructure of the libraries. With any storm of Harvey’s magnitude and destructive impact, staff are paying close attention and preparing for potential issues, but in the case of this hurricane and the position of its landfall, most proactive considerations gave way to planning how to react to whatever damage would inevitably be wrought upon the library and its collections.
Immediately in the wake of the storm, the island and the surrounding areas lost power and, subsequently, most communications were sporadic at best. It wasn’t until Sunday that the Libraries became aware of the extent of damage to MSI, but without specific information about the library, so staff began to prepare for the worst possibilities. Liz DeHart, the Libraries’ liaison at MSL, was contending with the personal effects of Harvey and unable to get to the library, and administrators at MSL were prioritizing assessment of the impact on research assets and infrastructure at the campus, which had suffered severe damage. Representatives from the College of Natural Sciences (CNS) in Austin became the conduits for information about the situation on the ground, and eventually an initial assessment was returned suggesting that the damage to the library was hopeful, with wet floors, but dry books — almost miraculous, since the same building that contained the library had extensive roof damage, flooding and blown out windows. But there was also no air conditioning or power, and as one might imagine, paper doesn’t fare well to exposure to the balmy coastal climate of late summer. As much as the team wanted to rush to the coast on a rescue mission, widespread destruction, impassable roads and a moratorium on travel to the island by non-residents made that seem like an impossibility.
By Wednesday, August 30 — the first full day of the fall semester — staff had worked with CNS to obtain permission for a response team to travel to Port Aransas to assess damage and hopefully, recover the most valuable of the close to $9,000,000 worth of collections, but there was a caveat: they had one day to do it.
A team of Geoff Bahre (Manager), Matt McGuire and Bill Gannon from the Facilities & AV unit along with Joey Marez, a library specialist from the Preservation department, immediately began preparations for all contingencies that could be imagined on a first trip into a storm disaster zone: food, water, tools and equipment, supplies for any mechanical trouble. And gas.
The window was tight, so the team left Austin at 3:30 a.m. on Friday, September 1, agreeing to make sure they refilled fuel on the south side of San Antonio, but discovered that the rush on gas stations had already drained supplies when they stopped to refuel. A fortunate encounter with a kind soul at a local pancake house directed the team to a station with adequate fuel supplies, and the team continued its journey to the coast.
Because the ferry wasn’t yet operational, the team had to travel through Corpus Christi and up the length of Mustang Island to reach Port Aransas in the mid-morning hours of Friday.
Upon arrival, an initial assessment verified earlier information about the state of the library — some wet flooring, but the books were dry, and no apparent mold — and even some welcome evidence that local administrators at MSI had taken measures to mitigate environmental threats with the arrival of fans and dehumidifiers that were powered by portable generators.
The environment in the library, nonetheless, wasn’t at an optimum stability, so the team began to identify items that they would return to Austin for temporary safekeeping and care. Thanks to earlier efforts to identify salvage priorities, the team was charged with bringing back 900 special collection items, and due to conservative estimation, were able to also rescue additional theses, dissertations and maps.
By 8 p.m. that evening, the team had returned to Austin with the most valuable resources from the MSL in tow. The following week, MSL staffer Marg Larsen relocated to Austin temporarily due to the storm, and so was available to process and assist in storing the rescued materials in the Collections Deposit Library at UT to await their inevitable return to their home in Port Aransas.
There are currently no firm timelines for recovery and reopening of the Institute or the Library, but as with a Gulf hurricane or other natural and unnatural disasters, we’ll be prepared when the time comes.
It’s easy to imagine that a library is a simple machine where books fall onto a shelf and then into hands before returning to the shelf again, uncomplicated by the affairs and events beyond its doors and walls. But out of sight and mind, there are an army of loyal people working to build, protect, rescue and share our body of collective knowledge, both in the face of an average day or during extraordinary times.
Sunny June weather welcomed a lively group of 126 faculty, graduate students, and information professionals to the University of Texas Austin campus for HILT – Humanities Intensive Learning + Teaching. HILT is an annual week-long Digital Humanities (DH) training institute for researchers, students, early career scholars, and cultural heritage professionals. “HILT is awesome! It’s like nerdy summer camp for adults, and you actually learn things that are useful for your professional life,” one HILT participant in the course Introduction to the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI) for Historical Documentsstates.
In its 5th edition, HILT 2017 offeredeight immersive Digital Humanities training courses on tools and methodologies including Scalar, Python, text analysis, Text Encoding Initiative (TEI), audio machine learning, and crowdsourcing. Courses were led by 11 expert guest instructors, hailing from institutions across the United States, such as University of Delaware, Emory University and the University of Southern California Libraries. Participants each enrolled in one course of their choice and dove in for four intensive days of learning. The PCL Learning Commons and the College of Liberal Arts’ Glickman Conference Center served as classroom space.
“I really like the format of an intensive class,” a participant in HILT’s Text Analysis course reported. “It is different than other conferences I’ve attended where you go to hour-long sessions and someone presents on a project they did. I also found the instructors and participants to be extremely knowledgeable.”
UT Libraries staff partnered with School of Information and Department of English faculty to plan the 2017 institute in collaboration with HILT Co-Directors, Trevor Muñoz and Jennifer Guiliano. Combined with the expert DH knowledge of the course instructors, the team successfully executed the largest HILT institute yet, and participants shared an enthusiastic response.
“HILT helped me learn real skills, make real connections, and plant seeds for a new path in research and teaching,” said one attendee. “It was the most valuable professional development work I’ve done since I filed my dissertation a decade ago, hands down.”
Daily coursework was balanced with additional learning opportunities. Day one of HILT was activated by a keynote address from UT Austin Provost Maurie McInnis. Provost McInnis shared insights on the importance of digital humanities work through her own research experience. Mid-week, HILT participants shared their research insights with each other through lively 5-minute Ignite Talks. To facilitate networking platforms for this diverse group of participants, UT Libraries staff organized evening dine arounds at favorite local restaurants, and the UT Libraries and the Dolph Briscoe Center hosted social receptions. Participants were also invited to engage in UT Austin’s Cultural Campus through organized activities, including sunset viewing of James Turrell’s The Color Inside: A Skyspace, and specialized tours at the Blanton Museum of Art, Harry Ransom Center, and LBJ Presidential Library.
UT Libraries was pleased to sponsor nine staff to attend HILT. Following the institute, a summer series, coordinated by the UT Libraries Digital Scholarship department, provided a venue for staff participants to share insightful overviews of what they learned in their courses.
One summer series session featured UT Libraries staff Beth Dodd, Christina Bleyer, and Susan Kung presenting on their Collaboration for Complex Research: Crowdsourcing in the Humanities HILT course experience. New insights will be applied to projects such as “Digitizing and Crowdsourcing the oversize Garcia Metadata” in the Benson Special Collections. Another session featured Dale Correa, who described TEI challenges with non-English, non-Roman languages as discussed in the Introduction to the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI) for Historical Documents course. The well-attended summer series informed a broader understanding of DH techniques among Libraries staff, fueled momentum for HILT-inspired projects, and generated a desire for additional training.
Among all 2017 HILT participants, 98% say they will recommend HILT to a friend or colleague. With new and similar courses offered each year, many participants plan to return in 2018 and beyond. Next summer HILT will be hosted at the University of Pennsylvania from June 4-8, 2018. For updates on future learning opportunities, follow the HILT Twitter:@HILT_DH.
HILT Participants traveled across the continent to attend the institute. See a Carto map of participant locations here: HILT Participant Map.
More photos from HILT:
Article contributed by Jenifer Flaxbart and Hannah Packard.
We talk much of collections and spaces as the resources of great relevance to our users. But let’s not neglect the incredible expertise represented by our staff, whose skill and talent provide the basis for all of the work libraries do.
Jenifer Flaxbart is the Assistant Director of Digital Scholarship for the University of Texas Libraries. She directs the recently created Digital Scholarship department within the Academic Engagement division. Her portfolio includes Digital Scholarship projects, education and partnerships, Research Data Services, Scholarly Communication and Open Access initiatives and the Scholars Commons, a pilot space and related services designed to support scholars engaged in the research lifecycle.
She received her MILS from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and a BA in English Literature from Hiram College.
Why did you decide to enter the field of library and information science? What motivated you to seek a library degree?
Jenifer Flaxbart: I knew I wanted to become part of a profession that facilitates the sharing of information and creation of new knowledge. My high school Math teacher opened each new chapter with a lecture and one was about the Ancient Library of Alexandria. I realized my goals for my own education and career aligned with the opportunities provided by the field.
How has your relationship with academic scholars changed over the years?
JF: I have been in several roles in which I’ve been the information conduit for students and faculty, connecting them with relevant resources through the collections acquisition, research consultation, online guides and video tutorials, classroom instruction and frontline reference assistance at a service desk or via a virtual chat service.
More recently I’ve worked with scholars through focus groups, steering committee work, and collaboration to inform space renovation initiatives, plans services and events, and work to create partnerships in pursuit of shared objectives.
Right now I’m participating in a series of Town Hall conversations with faculty about the next big research question at UT Austin through a program called Bridging Barriers that’s coordinated by the Office of the Vice President for Research. The UT Libraries submitted a concept paper that was layered into each of the six themes under discussion. We are well-positioned to assist researchers with data management as well as the creation of Open Educational Resources (OERs). OERs communicate research outcomes and impacts in transparent ways that support students in their studies and benefit members of the public.
How have the ways academic scholars research changed over the years and how has that changed your job?
JF: I’ve been an information professional for over two decades. During that time, I have helped others conduct research in many ways, using card catalogs, CD-ROMs, online databases that charge by the use, and databases that charge by the year. I’ve championed and leveraged the technological shift that enables expanded access as we have transitioned from print-based to online searching.
Because technology enables remote access, research can be done almost anywhere. Students and faculty can work at home and in coffee shops or airports as easily as they can in the library. If you watch them in action, they typically use a hybrid approach: several devices, such as a smart phone and a laptop or tablet, as well as a print book or two and some paper notes.
Many who have experienced this migration retain a fondness for the printed object: content that can be cradled, carried, stashed and retrieved at will, without the aid of a computer or device. Yet technology can enhance access to content in many ways. Digital formats can ensure that the content endures beyond the life of the paper on which it’s printed.
Libraries have, in an effort to accommodate group project work as well as the need for silent study, evolved spaces formerly dedicated to the storage of physical formats to compelling, flexible spaces equipped with embedded technology and robust wireless networks. The spaces and added-value services provided attract students and faculty engaging in the modes of research, teaching and learning that define higher education today.
Can you think of an example where access to content has been transformational in your personal life?
JF: Being able to source article or book content from our collections or through our InterLibrary Services unit is one of the privileges of UT affiliation. I’ve leveraged this access in simple ways, like using authoritative reviews to inform major purchases, and in more profound ways that enrich my professional knowledge and my parenting style.
Another fun example of how content can be personally impactful, for my family, is Turner Classic Movies (TCM). The classic film content preserved and shown by TCM provides context for cultural norms and timeless themes, readily available on basic cable. Thanks to TCM, our 8-year-old daughter knows who Marilyn Monroe and Bette Davis were, and her favorite film is the Billy Wilder comedy Some Like It Hot. She and her 13-year-old sister enjoy being scared by Alfred Hitchcock and convulsed by the Marx Brothers. Without vision, technology, and funding, TCM wouldn’t be able to fulfill its mission. It is a credible source of information about and access to an impressive vault of film content.
Likewise, the UT Libraries collect, organize, preserve, and provide access to content. If the content is in digital form, or we can create a digital derivative of it, we can do more with it. We can make it easier to discover and more visible. We can make it available to anyone with an Internet connection on the other side of the globe.
How will libraries mesh the use of print and electronic resources?
JF: This is already happening every day. Content is often available in multiple formats, in print and online, and what’s online can be printed. We make a significant investment in electronic resources, both because some things are only available in that way and because online access extends the reach and impact of these resources. When materials are unrestricted by copyright, we can also digitize and share content worldwide, as with our PCL Map Collection.
What is the academic libraries role in affordability in higher education?
JF: We provide curriculum-aligned research materials, particularly academic journal content that is peer-reviewed, rigorous research, book content and aggregated, proprietary database content, including music, film and special reports that contain proprietary information. This licensed content is subscribed to or purchased by the UT Libraries in support of all students, leveling the playing field in support of student success.
Additionally, we continue to advocate Open Access, to mitigate or eliminate the cost of subscription-based access, given that some of the authors of that content are right here at UT. And we encourage the creation and sharing of Open Educational Resources (OERs) so that faculty and students can access and reuse, revise, remix and redistribute resources that fuel teaching and learning in current and compelling ways.
How do you foresee patrons interacting with libraries in the future?
JF: I think about the Ancient Library of Alexandria and its’ destruction, and draw connections between the past and what’s to come. Physical materials, papyrus and artifacts, are always at risk. Few have direct access to such items and too little is known about the treasures held behind closed cabinet doors.
Technology makes the capture and delivery of irreplaceable content and information about it, what we call metadata, which describe the physical format as well as subject matter, possible in ways unimagined. It enables a scholar in another time zone or on another continent to look at and learn from a digital derivative of a printed pamphlet or text from an earlier era. And the magic of technology extends to ensuring that this captured content is preserved even if the original is lost.
Some argue that artifacts like a scroll or fibula must be experienced in person. When that isn’t possible, technology offers a via alternative, from scanned pages of a calligraphed manuscript to a 3-D printer-generated replica of a metal tool. I would argue that these visual and palpable replicas are vital windows into the past, and that with appropriate funding, staffing and technological resources, libraries are well-positioned to enable and evolve new levels of access to and engagement with content for all forms of scholarly endeavor.