Facilitation & Data Operations in Academic Libraries

Many thanks to Christina Harlow for sharing her story!

“Get your hands dirty. Go to conferences; sign up for workshops; propose the sessions and meetings you think are missing wherever you can, even if you don’t entirely understand what you want to know…”

For this particular interview, I want to draw attention to library work that involves facilitation, the ability to communicate and liaise across the knowledge boundaries of different roles within a library to bring system-wide improvements to a library’s operations and make life easier for both end users and library workers. Christina Harlow is a facilitator in this way, and one of the best that I know of. At the time of this interview, she was transitioning between jobs as acting digital repository architect within the Stanford University Libraries, to the role of infrastructure engineer for Temple University Libraries. To find out more about what that means, and get some good advice from one of the smartest people I know, see below!

Interview Q&A with Christina Harlow:

Q: What do you actually do at your job?

A: As a digital repository architect, I design system architectures and data structures, and collaborate on implementation plans for a variety of the technical systems that support our digital library. This includes projects like re-architecting our 10 year old digital repository system from our various deposit applications to our discovery and preservation services; to designing a server-client prototype for native-RDF bibliographic cataloging done by my metadata colleagues; to planning related data pipeline and aggregation projects around digital repository resources or academic output analytics. In my new position at Temple as an infrastructure engineer, I will be taking on many of the same roles, but from more of an implementation viewpoint instead of a design viewpoint. I’ll be involved in actually building out the servers, operational resources, and processes that get our services into production (i.e. into live use with real data for our colleagues and users).

In both cases, I’ve made a transition from being a more traditional cataloging & metadata librarian to being on the software and operations technical side of the house, with a focus on data systems across the jobs.

Q: What do you like most about your job?

A: I enjoy the opportunity to think about all of our library data functions across traditional work silos (i.e. software development, metadata & cataloging work, systems administration & operations development, digital repository management, etc.). For example, I have the opportunity to think about, design, and work on data processes that are shared between our ILS, our digital repository, and our discovery systems. I think we come up with really useful ideas and approaches when we think holistically about where our services as an academic library map to functions, and then how those interact with our data representation and technical infrastructure. I really appreciate working on where our data modeling hits our databases and pipelines which then serve so many of the core needs of our software and systems. I feel very passionate about designing and building systems where it is easier for my library colleagues to change, manage, see, and run reports on our data – metadata, binaries, etc. I know when I started out in metadata work in particular, it was bewildering to see the divergence between what we were modeling, what was stored, and what we could change (and how). This is a gap I really enjoy trying to close.

Q: What aspects of your job are the most challenging?

A: A lot of my current and future work (I imagine) is working on systems that are often shaped by decades of status quo expectations – think about something like an ILS.  I prefer trying to think about what we need functionally and then what systems match that, as opposed to what systems have “always existed” and building from that pattern, to reflect real changes in work approaches and even culture. While I find this exciting, it is well beyond the scope of just daily technical work – it’s culture change at core. And culture change is just hard.

Q: Is there anything that you have learned in the “real world” that you wish you had learned in library school?

A: When I attended library school, I had already been working for a few years in an academic library, so I found a lot of the curriculum pretty lacking in light of my “real world” work, especially around cataloging & metadata work, and non-existent for technical or systems work. I really wish we had better data, metadata, systems, and technical coursework, for example, how do you actually work with data in common library systems that will then map to the modeling work many librarians think about and work on. Let’s move beyond getting stuck on something like RDA in MARC or BIBBFRAME 2, and learn how to work with real world data and data systems that then reflect back the utility (or not) of such data models. This is something I think is lacking not just in my own library school experience (the metadata and cataloging courses were woefully out of touch), but could be one of the sources of possibly needed culture change I mentioned above. I flirted with the idea of trying to run some courses or internships of my own around this idea of metadata operations and emerging library technologies, but they haven’t really panned out yet. There are a fair number of introduction to coding courses I’m seeing recommended or taken to supplement library school, but I feel like that is just a band aid on a broken drain pipe – a mismatch in needs and tooling. On the flip side, and not exactly relevant to library school lacunae, but I wish when software developers and operations engineers begin working within a library or other cultural heritage institution, they would be given a library data/metadata & systems course as part of on-boarding.

Q: Do you have any advice for current and future library school students?

A: Get your hands dirty. Go to conferences; sign up for workshops; propose the sessions and meetings you think are missing wherever you can, even if you don’t entirely understand what you want to know (and if the conference or community is weird or patronizing about letting anyone propose sessions or new working groups, find a more open and flexible community). Organize your own informal meetings and bring people together on the topics you want to work on. I learned the most from working as a “paraprofessional” in an academic library for a few years (and I put the word paraprofessional in air quotes because I think it’s antiquated and we should rethink that whole wording and dynamic, but that’s a different question and interview) then getting myself to places like Code4Lib, LITA Forum, and NYC regional events. This directly led to partnering with people smarter than me on prototyping ideas with any “real” data I could get my hands on or build out myself. In my experience, library school was mostly just getting the paper needed for moving up in my own career, not the place I really learned all that guides my daily work today. And look beyond traditional journals or scholarly resources to see what library technologists are up to; places like GitHub or various chatting channels.

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