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Meet Five Leaders of Digital Infrastructure and Initiatives at the Penn Libraries

Posted on by Mary Ellen Burd

As many aspects of education, work, and socializing shifted online during the pandemic, libraries were among the institutions best prepared to make the pivot. Media outlets from the Chronicle of Higher Education to the New York Times described the rapid rate at which both academic and public libraries moved resources and services to a virtual environment, noting that many had already been focused on technological innovation and digital media for years—while pushing for even deeper investment in these areas.

The Penn Libraries is no exception. Even before the pandemic, the Libraries was in the process of drafting a new five-year strategic plan that emphasized the need to streamline access to digital resources and invest in innovative models of technology. “The world has changed dramatically since we began writing our strategic plan in Fall 2019, but we are unwavering in our commitment to deliver collections and services at point of need, anytime, anywhere,” wrote Constantia Constantinou, H. Carton Rogers III Vice Provost & Director of Libraries, when the plan was released in Fall 2020. “Looking ahead … We must sharply increase our efforts to acquire and provide digital content, to digitize pre-existing Penn-owned collections, and to make strategic investments in technology. It is critical that we continue to reimagine our physical spaces and services in increasingly virtual environments.”

As we begin a new school year, we talked with a few of the many Penn Libraries staff leading this charge.

Emily Morton-Owens
Acting Associate University Librarian for Information Technology
Past President, Library and Information Technology Association (2019-20) 

What are some of the most significant changes in library technology in recent years?
Library systems in the past were built to endure and were filled with large volumes of metadata or digital assets—they were big ships and hard to turn. But keeping up with researcher interests and expectations about interfaces means that we have to be agile. One way we do that is by collaborating with other libraries. Some of our primary systems are open-source software developed jointly with other libraries with similar needs. Recently we've been leaders in a data-sharing project called the Platform for Open Data (POD), in which we pool bibliographic data with other Ivy Plus Libraries, with an eventual goal of indexing their millions of collections items alongside our own. Stay tuned!
What has been different about your team's work in the pandemic?
Whenever you make a piece of software, you're making assumptions, consciously and unconsciously. The pandemic came along and broke a lot of assumptions about how libraries worked. Our stacks had to close, library visitors had to reserve seats, and requesting materials required new rules. We had some intense Zoom sessions to make our online services work, and make them work in a way that we could undo later when things return to normal. But we're not just undoing those changes--for example, all that analysis fed into a complete re-imagining of our catalog request workflow, which you're seeing with the new “Get It” button in Fall 2021. 
What challenges will affect your work most in the near future?
One challenge is sustainability for technology. It can be quite difficult to maintain old software when its components no longer get security updates or when it's running on an outdated server. We want to support researchers, and our older sites still represent unique intellectual contributions. But sometimes we need to transform a service into a new, modern, supportable form, instead of just maintaining it. By foregrounding our collections and services instead of the technology platforms, we can make these necessary transitions more seamless.

Jade E. Davis
Director, Educational Technology and Learning Management

You’ve described your team as providing learning and community through critical literacies, technologies, spaces, and courseware support. Could you say more about this work?
We support Canvas for the University, and we provide access and training to various technologies students might not otherwise have access to. This includes training in audio and video production, as well as graphic design, and access to VR equipment, including VR recording equipment, SLR cameras and lenses, and audio recording equipment. We also have flexible spaces, such as Weigle Information Commons, the Education Commons, and Vitale Digital Media Lab. Our team is uniquely positioned to create a sense of community around formal and informal activities that allow the Penn Community across ability and differences to choose their own learning adventure.
What are some major trends you’ve seen in your field recently?
There is a growing recognition of the need to support the whole student, meaning more than access and learning, there is a need to provide extra support where possible, or create opportunities with wellbeing and leisure in mind. The content format growing the most rapidly is gaming. This is reflected in industry. We are also starting to see projects and support requests for students related to gaming, which is very exciting.
Are there changes or innovations caused by the shift to remote teaching and learning that will continue to propel your work as we fully return to campus?
When I’ve spoken with students, there was an appreciation for the shift to interactions being “more human.” As we think through how cold and intimidating technology can be, we are also thinking through how we take a whole-student approach in our work. Zoom fatigue highlighted the need to have a variety of activities and programs that will allow students to engage with our spaces and technology in low-stakes and high-stakes ways and everything along that continuum. We are hoping that technology can be the thing that brings people into the library and gets them engaging with us and with each other in meaningful ways.

Beth Picknally Camden
Patricia and Bernard Goldstein Director of Information Processing

Your work is vital to the Libraries, but it is often behind the scenes. Can you describe what you and your team do?
The Patricia and Bernard Goldstein Information Processing Center supports the work of students, faculty and researchers by providing timely and accurate access to library materials. Our work includes the acquisition, cataloging, metadata, and processing of library materials.
Despite disruptions caused by the pandemic, you and your team have been making some remarkable changes in metadata and the library catalog. What were some of those changes?
We enhanced our global collections by adding non-Roman scripts to thousands of older records, which allows users to search for materials written in other alphabets. Languages with increased access include Russian, Arabic, Persian, Hindi, Bengali, Malayalam, and Tamil. Inspired by trends in the library field that recognize that library catalogs include language that is biased, outdated or harmful, we also launched a working group that has begun the work of repairing harmful language in the Franklin catalog, like flipping the subject term from “illegal aliens” to “undocumented immigrants.”
What other challenges and opportunities are on the horizon for your work?
Currently, metadata for cataloging is created in MARC (Machine Readable Cataloging)—a format that was innovative in the 1960s and continues to work in our catalog, but does not interact well in the online world of the internet. Linked data will allow library data to interact in new and different ways with other data sources on the internet. Penn Libraries has been engaged with several projects, working with our peers, nationally and internationally, to move library data into this newer metadata standard.  We have been part of the Linked Data for Production grant, ShareVDE (Virtual Discovery Environment), and the Program for Cooperative Cataloging Wikidata Pilot.  Penn’s leadership and vision has helped to move these projects forward towards a different type of library discovery environment in our future.

Dot Porter
Curator of Digital Research Services

Can you describe what you do and where you’re situated in the Libraries?
I split my time between the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books, and Manuscripts, and the Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies (SIMS). SIMS is a research and development group in Kislak that focuses on the study of premodern manuscripts, physical objects, and their digital versions. Most curators focus their energies on the library’s physical collections, but I’m in a kind of unique position in that I focus on the line between physical and digital. Penn digitizes most of its premodern manuscripts, and I think a lot about the digital/physical dichotomy and how we can present manuscripts digitally--whether through still images, videos, or live video conferencing--in ways that help us understand the physical book, perhaps in ways that would be difficult or even impossible otherwise.
How did your work shift during the pandemic? What did “going remote” look like for you?
At first, I had to figure out how to do my job without having physical access to the collection. I spent months focused on research projects, social media, and experimenting with some different digital tools. But once we had permission to come back to campus one day a week, I was keen to introduce our collection to other people who might be stuck at home. We have a camera installed in the ceiling of the Vitale Media Lab. I’d used it for virtual classroom visits for years, but in January I started a new program, called Coffee With a Codex. Every Monday at noon I show a manuscript from our collections through Zoom. It’s been very popular.
How has your field evolved in recent years?
The growth of the digital has been notable over the 20 or so years I’ve been working in digital humanities and medieval studies. I remember waiting minutes for high-resolution JPEG files of Bodelian’s Junius 11 manuscript to download to my laptop when I was in graduate school, and today I can access similar image files in seconds. And there are so many more collections being digitized, too. We’ve moved on from the question of how to do the digitization, to how best to present the copies we have, and how we can leverage them for research and teaching.

Nicky Agate
Snyder-Granader Assistant University Librarian for Research Data & Digital Scholarship

Your team works with students, faculty, and centers across campus to facilitate digital research and scholarship. What does that entail?
Our work takes three main forms. We provide training and collaborative learning experiences in a range of digital tools and methods, from web scraping, text mining, and geospatial analysis to natural language processing and data visualization. We collaborate on the planning, building, and publication of accessible and engaging digital projects like exhibits, community archives, web publications, and interactive maps. And we provide support for working with data of all kinds (spatial, image, textual, numeric) at all stages of the data lifecycle.
Beyond shifting workshops or other interactions online, how has your team revised its approach to engaging students and faculty during the pandemic?
Towards the end of last year, we began trying to combat Zoom fatigue by offering more innovative programming, such as building Jupyter Notebook environments that allow people to play with digital collections and data in a controlled and stable way; hosting a Mapping and GIS Club and a Data Ethics discussion group that combined readings, practical experimentation, and play; and offering data management games and slideshow karaoke sessions to help people improve their research communication skills. Moving forward, we are hoping to partner across campus to offer disciplinary-specific, bite-sized, engage-anywhere modular sessions on different aspects of digital and data-driven scholarship.
What challenges and opportunities will affect your work most in the near future?
The biggest challenges that we face as a society—systemic racial and social inequities, climate change, huge political divides, this pandemic—are also an opportunity for thinkers and doers, humanists and scientists, to come together to research, dream up, prototype, and implement solutions that really could help us shift course. The ability to gather, work with, manage, interpret, visualize, and communicate data in an equitable way is going to be central to that—and my team, along with our subject-specialist librarian colleagues—are here to help.