This is What I Do

NOTE! This post was true at the time I wrote it, but I resigned my position at UVa Library in Dec 2011, so this post is outdated.

The other day I wrote up a “it’s June 1st, sounds like a good time for a quick status update” email for my bosses, and in doing so stepped back for a second and said “holy crap—we’re really doing a lot.” It’s true, we are. “We” in this case is the Online Library Environment group at University of Virginia Library. Seven super people (three senior engineers, a senior programmer, two programmer/analyst/DBAs, and a librarian/project manager) report to me, and I report to a director who reports to the Deputy University Librarian. Like I said in my post about an internal presentation I gave on the development lifecycle, my group is responsible for many of the public-facing web services that the Library provides plus the technologies that sit behind those interfaces. Almost every project we take on is driven by stakeholders outside of our department who have their own highly valued areas of expertise (e.g. librarians, archivists, media specialists, etc.)

The reason I thought about writing this blog post was because this morning I had the opportunity to see some of the folks at the NINES / NEH Summer Institutes for Evaluating Digital Scholarship…not because I was participating in the institute in any way, but because I was on my way downstairs to get coffee and the participants were all working in the beautiful, wonderful, comfortable Scholars’ Lab. I was able to talk for a few moments with some scholars I like and respect very much, and one of them (Amy Earhart, if you’re playing along at home, who—to reiterate—is pretty great!) asked me what project I’m working on right now.

Project, singular.

I sort of chuckled…I mean, ok, I might have chuckled a lot…because I immediately recalled the e-mail I just wrote to my bosses. There are at least 10 different projects that my team and I are driving forward concurrently, and all of them are fun and interesting and intellectually stimulating. More importantly, we’re a development group (I’m including the superawesome Joe Gilbert because although he’s not in my group we work together on almost all of these projects. He’s a hired gun.) that approaches every detail of our projects in a systematic, thoughtful, and critical way. That’s not unique to us, by the way. I know there are people out there (not the author of this post, of course) who are a little unclear on how deeply humanistic basic systems engineering and software development actually is, but groups similar to mine, inside and outside libraries, know what we do, and we know how and why our work affects those it does.

I’m happy to leave the conversations about the evaluation of digital scholarship to others, so I can manage the group that’s building or extending many of the fundamental architectures upon which that scholarship might get built.

Here’s what we do: stuff like the technology described in this nifty poster (“TwoStore : An Akubra-based extensible storage architecture for Fedora”). Ok, that’s a little esoteric, but there’s also the library catalog and everything that entails with regards to ongoing maintenance and improvements (including some cool Library-managed digital collections of rare books, but also integration of discovery services, and also Hathi Trust materials, etc), the open access institutional repository (oh, and here’s a little presentation about that), working with catalogers on a bibliographic metadata editor, coming up with ways to collaborate and solve problems with the folks in Arts & Media regarding their unique needs, and then there’s the matter of this little Hydra Partnership thing, and the multi-institutional Hypatia project for accessioning, arrangement/description, delivery and long term preservation of born digital collections.

So that’s what we do. That’s why I’m not so talkative on the Twitters anymore; many of the conversations I would see every day fell squarely (and incessantly) in the “eternal september” realm, and I don’t find that particularly productive. All of this work? Keeps me busy. Helps others. And believe you me, there’s a subset of people on the Twitters who I do listen to every day, even if I’m not saying anything—librarians, archivists, and a few hardcore groups of engineers and developers who may or may not be “in” the digital humanities but most certainly are “of” the digital humanities. Whether they know it or not, or perform it or not, they practice it, as do we. For some value of “it”, of course.

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