It Takes a Campus – Episode One with Dena Strong

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For the transcript, click on “Continue reading” below.


[00:00:02]   Have you ever thought about what really goes into supporting digital scholarship? Well, some may say it takes a village, but here at the University of Illinois, it’s bigger than that. It takes a campus. The Scholarly Commons will be interviewing experts across campus about all the new and exciting things that are happening to support digital scholarship. We will sit down with specialists to learn about what they do, how they do it, and why they got started working in their field. Hear what we mean when we say it takes a campus to do what we do.


[00:00:38] Billy Tringali: Hello and welcome to the Scholarly Commons podcast. My name is Billy Tringali and I am here with Dena Strong. Dena, would you care to introduce yourself?
Dena Strong: Sure, my name’s Dena Strong. I’m one of the Senior Information Design Specialists at Technology Services on campus and Technology Services is a little bit different than Tech Services which I believe is Technical Services, possibly, in the library context and so I’m often explaining to folks exactly where it is I report and who I talk to.
[00:01:06] Billy: Can you tell us a little bit about information design?
Dena: Sure. At the University of Illinois, specifically, in Tech Services, information design is kind of a large umbrella. The history of where that title came from was that we used to be a group called User Experience Design and we had a lot of usability testing, we had accessibility, we had quality assessment, we had several other groups under that same umbrella, as well as, some developers and it was all sort of clustered around running the campus IT website and information like that.
Billy: Yeah.
[00:01:44] Dena: And then they decided that rather than have that be one united group, they’d rather take our skill sets and embed us within other units.
Billy: Wow.
Dena: So, I’m part of Web and Collaborative Services and another one of the Senior Information Design Specialists is part of QAA and another one is a part of the Interface Development team. And so we’ve kind of gone from a centralized model to being more embedded with the folks we work with.
[00:02:07] Billy: That’s very cool. So, what is, currently, either here at the University Library or just in the field in general, what is happening in information design?
Dena: Information design, in my world, it’s where you get people talking to computers, people talking to people, computers talking to computers, databases interchanging information, APIs exposing things to other systems that they aren’t necessarily connected to, accessibility, findability, reproducibility, adaptation, flexibility, transformation. It’s a pile of potential colors on a palette that you get to play with and mash up and paint all over the IT canvas.
[00:02:50] Billy: Wow! I love that. That’s very cool.
Dena: Thank you.
Billy: Would you care to go into greater detail about any of those? This is all, this is all very fascinating.
[00:03:00] Dena: Yeah, okay. So, the way that I got into being called an Information Design Specialist was that I’d started out as a technical writer. And so that looked at, specifically, the content layer but as time went by they were having fewer and fewer technical writers employed and I’m, and I was, you know, around the time of the last big drop in the economy when the state was not hiring people and laying people off and they were talking about cutting the benefit that allowed people to get their degrees if they were employees here and so I’d been debating whether or not I wanted to go back and get a master’s degree for a while and I’m like, okay, this is got to be the time to do it because if I can come out with a degree and without, like, thousands of dollars in debt, I need to do this thing now.
Billy: Yeah, that’s pretty ideal!
[00:03:48] Dena: So, around 2012 I joined the Library and Information Science School here and I loved doing that. I really wish, though, that knowing what I know now, that I’d waited 3 more years because the degrees that they have now are the degrees I actually wanted to get. They just didn’t quite have them at the time. I felt like I had to jump it. But, like information management and user interaction, and things like that.
[00:04:11] Billy: Yeah. What is it a day in the life of an Information Design Specialist because you list so many different things and what kind of problems do you encounter, what do you, what do you deal with?
Dena: Okay. So, I do a lot of one-on-one consulting with people who have technology problems or information connection problems. I do a lot of group consulting. Basically, if people are scratching their heads about how do we make this better for people, I am one of the people whose shoulders they tap on.
Billy: Wow.
[00:04:43] Dena: I kind of like that role. Like, for example, some of the projects that I’m currently, simultaneously working on, there’s the Research IT Portal. They are designing that from scratch as sort of a, there’s a slice of campus wide technology catalog involved in there and so what I’m bringing to that part of that is I’ve got the usability background, I’ve got, I’ve worked on the Tech Services Service Catalog which we’re going to be doing that plus five more things with the Research IT Portal. And so I was the only person on the team who’d been part of that project so I am bringing that background in. I’m bringing in connections with researchers all over campus. So, one of my favorite parts about my job, one of the reasons I’m so happy to be where I am right now, is that they let me do things like be a partner four hours a week with the Research Data Service here at the library. So, I come over here and I find out what Research Data Service folks are doing. It started out a couple years back when they were first developing the Illinois Data Bank and I was looking for a practicum because I was just finishing up my library science degree and I really, really wanted to work with the RDS and so I knocked on the door and said, “Hi, here’s a bunch of things that I could potentially do for you” and Heidi said “Hmmm, we could use some usability testing on this thing,” and so that was what I did for them for the first semester and they found, they found me a useful person to have around.
[00:06:10] Dena: Because I can also bring in things, like, accessibility testing like, you know, Box, like updates. I think one of the things that I do that might be most helpful at the moment is just physically bridging the gap between Technology Services and the library team to bringing information back and forth, bringing culture back and forth, bringing updates on projects because you know there’s a lot of silos on this campus where, you know, but at the same time there’s an information firehose going on and so you’ve kind of got to, you’ve got to figure out how to get the right information to the right people at the right level.
Billy: Yeah
[00:06:47] Dena: Another thing I find myself doing frequently is if I’ve been to meetings, if I’ve been to conferences, I will do different translated sets of notes for different groups of people so that I’m not wasting high ranked people’s time with too many details but I’m giving them to this is the snippet that I think you’re going to want to know this is the stuff that’s going to be important for you.
Billy: Wow
[00:07:06] Dena: And so one of my previous jobs was in journalism, so I’ve kind of, I kind of lean on that to tune what it is people are wanting to hear to my understanding of where they’re at, what they’re working on, and what else is going on. And another slice of that, I’m also involved with, there’s a weekly thing called Caffeine Breaks. So, all the IT folks get together bring a beverage and talk about the topic of the week. Sometimes, like most recently, one of the big ones was the Spectre virus and well, I don’t know if it’s exactly a virus, it’s a flaw in the, the flaw in the way the chips are designed and so it’s really hard to get around and we’re really dependent on what the big chip manufacturers are going to provide and sometimes it doesn’t play well with Windows or Apple operating systems and so there is dueling patches going on between Intel and Windows and Mac and so having a weekly venue to make that, you know make those conversations better able to be had. I’m proud of being a part of that team and I’m also part of the IT Pro Forum team which is a larger about 250-
[00:08:09]   No, actually, last count was around 400 people, get together twice a year, hold, it’s, if you’ve heard Educause. It’s kind of like Educause for this specific campus for people in IT who wouldn’t ordinarily get the funding to go off to like Brazil or Alaska or Las Vegas or wherever the big conferences are being held. So, this is for us, by us, about what we need to know.
[00:08:34]   That’s another slice of information design in that I spend a lot of energy trying to figure out how… I kind of envy the Webmasters Conference team because they know that everybody is going to their conference is going to be a webmaster, is going to be related to the web. We’ve got the web folks but we’ve also got networking, security, infrastructure, cloud services like a whole broad spectrum of people and I want to make sure there’s something in every time slot that could be interesting to someone.
Billy: Right
[00:09:04] Dena: I want to make it really worth their time. So that, I’ve been doing that for about ten years now.
Billy: Wow
Dena: And that keeps me connected with what’s going on campus. I guess, in a way, I’m, I’m sort of an information hub.
Billy: Yes
Dena: And I really like being an information hub.
[00:09:18] Billy: This seems like such a broad and diverse field, where you have to wear so many different hats. Does that get exhausting?
Dena: Yes, but I love it.
Billy: Oh! That’s very good!
[00:09:29] Dena: I’m also part of the Software Carpentry team, along with Elizabeth Wickes and Neal Davis.
Billy: Can you tell us what that is?
Dena: Software carpentry?
Billy: Yes
[00:09:39] Dena: Okay, so, I found out about software carpentry because Elizabeth, who is now on the International Board of Directors, mentioned it at the Research Data Service. And the way she described it is it’s teaching researchers whose primary focus is something that is not computer science just enough computer science to do what they need to do more efficiently. And I loved that. I loved, I mean, I’ve tried so many times to take computer science programming classes. I know enough programming to speak intelligibly with programmers.
[00:10:11]   But I find, you know, tracking down that last missing semicolon physically painful. So, that’s why I like being on the design side of it and knowing enough to communicate design to implementation but then leaving someone who has the skill set and the tool set and the practice to do the actual implementation.
Billy: Wow
Dena: And so, for me, software carpentry gives other people the capacity to do that. It helps them learn to speak the languages of the people they’re going to be collaborating with, it gives them tools that are specifically designed to what it is that they’re needing to do. There are discipline specific versions, particularly, of the data carpentry side where they have like an ecology specific version and a GIS specific version, they have a library specific version and so you go in and you teach to the group of people that you are interacting with. I really want to do an IT Pro specific version, as well, because so many IT Pros have told me, you know, okay this one this this shell thing I could go in and teach that but GIT just is totally confusing or I’ve never experienced R and I’m working with the researchers working with R so I need a quick start way that doesn’t have five layers of prerequisites to go through the entire semester to learn this thing.
Billy: Wow
[00:11:25] Dena: So, that’s, I’m hoping to spin up Software Carpentry LITE for IT Pros and 4-hour workshops, so traditional software carpentry has two whole days of workshop and so you’re going to have Bash, you’re going to have, you’re probably going to have GIT, and then you’re going to have something that is like either Python or R and some sort of data management, either the data cleaning or Sequel or OpenRefine or something like that.
Billy: Wow
Dena: But it’s really hard to get IT Pros two whole days of not doing anything else and they could be coming in already knowing Bash and Python and they may just need GIT or they may just need R.
Billy: Right
[00:12:01] Dena: So I want to provide those chunks on a more regular basis adjusted from the research audience to the IT audience.
Billy: That is amazing!
Dena: Cool!
Billy: This is so much of pairing people with technology.
Dena: Yes, exactly.
Billy: You are, you’re the bridge between these things.
Dena: Yes that’s exactly what I want to be!
Billy: So for those that are interested in information design, for those that are interested in, in hopefully, becoming bridges themselves, do you have any advice for students, for educators, for librarians, for patrons?
[00:12:39] Dena: Okay. I think my first piece of advice would be, be interested in everything.
Billy: Yes!
Dena: I have never met an art form I didn’t like, I’ve never met a book that I didn’t want, -okay I might have met a couple you know if they’re like particularly violent or something but yeah. The second piece is learn to listen. Because so much of what I do involves trying to, trying to get a better grasp on the real nature of the problem that people are encountering.
Billy: Right
Dena: One of the first things that they teach you and I found it over and over in my usability testing experience, is when you ask someone what they want in an interface, they will ask for the moon and the stars and everything but when you actually sit them down in front of the thing and watch them use it, it turns out that what they really need may or may not be something they could even articulate.
[00:13:40] Billy: Wow
Dena: Because they’re just, they’re trying to click on a piece of the interface to get something to happen and you’re watching them click and click and click. One particular example is there was an interface I was helping to do usability testing on and there was a person’s name was up there in the corner from after they log in and Facebook and Google and a lot of places have trained you that you click on your name and you get to your profile.
Billy: Yeah
Dena: Well, they clicked on their name there was nothing there, there was only log out and people would log out of the system thinking that was the way to find the profile. And so nobody would have said that out loud but being able to sit there and watch them and, and understand the nature of their problem helps, helps get the system to be made so much better.
[00:14:21] Billy: Wow, that’s fantastic! So we’ve, we’ve talked a good amount about information design but let’s, let’s talk about Dena.
Dena: Well, okay!
Billy: How did you, you talked a little bit about coming into the iSchool, but how did you find yourself in in this position, how did you get to where you are as the bridge?
Dena: So, I used to think that if I just tried hard enough I could learn all the things that I needed to learn in one lifetime. And then around a couple of years before I decided to go to library school, I’m like, I can’t, there’s too much information out there, the world is too big, it’s moving too fast, I cannot physically fit anything it into my head.  So what I need to do instead is find out who knows the stuff and hang out with people who know the stuff and organize the stuff and make, make it findable because if you can’t find it, it may as well not exist. So that’s everything from how do you mend broken links to how do you track the history of database driven websites to…this is sort of a bit of a tangent but one of my final projects in library school was about what do you do if you’re an independent media creator, if you’re creating your own film and it takes you five to ten years to work on this film.
Billy: Right
Dena: But, in the meantime, your operating system has changed, your software has changed, your codecs have changed, the physical format of the drives that you’re working on have changed.
Billy: Yeah
[00:15:46] Dena: I did interviews with several local media creators and I took that project to Kyoto this past fall.
Billy: Wow, that’s amazing.
Dena: I did like a three year follow up with the same people that I talked to three years earlier and the guesses that they’d made about what they would be doing in the future versus what they were actually doing was really significantly different to it.
Billy: Wow
Dena: So, one of the, one of the things that worries me the most about digital interaction, digital data is how very, very fragile all of this information that we’re generating is.
[00:16:19] Billy: Yeah
Dena: I have an easier time finding information from the year 900 than I do my own undergraduate papers.
Billy: Wow
Dena: Because you know the media has decayed.
Billy: Yeah
Dena: The things that were on paper like, if you just did them in the junky printer with the dot matrix and stuff, they faded out. I’ve lost my own history from less than twenty years ago.
Billy: Wow
Dena: And I work with people who are working on like the Twentieth Anniversary Editions of translations that they’ve done.
Billy: Yeah
Dena: And they have to redo the entire project from scratch because none of the formats are compatible anymore.
Billy: Wow
Dena: So it’s a little bit terrifying.
Billy: Yeah, definitely!
[00:17:04] Dena: I keep an eye towards digital preservation any time that I do a thing. And I mean there’s, there’s best practices and then there’s real world practices. I mean in my, in my, in my best practices world, I would not be using Google Docs as much as I do, I would not be using Box Notes as much as I do, I would not be tying myself into an entirely ethereal online system that is dependent upon the university’s maintenance of a financial contract in a situation where God knows what our financial state is going to be two years from now. But, in the real practical world it’s so much easier and so much faster and it’s accessible from any device, that I have a lot of Google Docs, a lot of Box Notes.
Billy: Yeah
Dena: And then if it’s really urgent to me sometimes I will take the time and convert it off to HTML and I don’t do that as much as I should.
Billy: Right
Dena: So, even being somebody who has the stuff in her head, you know, it is sort in the background, oh my God what about, what about you know the next, the next time we don’t have a budget what happens to our, our contracts then.
[00:18:13]   I know what the answers are but they’re not easy yet.
Billy: Yeah
Dena: And so, at the pace at which everything is moving, we need to make both, I mean, I also see that as an aspect of accessibility. So, I have a certification and it’s called IADP. It’s taught by Tim Offenstein, Keith Hays, Hadi Rangin and Marc Thompson, here on campus. It’s like one of the first certifications in accessibility related issues, I believe in the world. They’ve had 4 or 5 cohorts go through and what they focus on is how do you make information accessible to people with all sorts of different disabilities; visual, audio, tactile, intellectual, any sort of access issue but that also touches on mobile devices, like you know, the physical size of things.
Billy: Yeah
Dena: And that also, in my book, at least,  touches on digital preservation in terms of how do you, how do you,  if it’s, if you can no longer get hold of it, it is no longer accessible. Again, life at the intersections.
[00:19:19]   The things that you find at those corners are not easy problems to solve but I love the challenge.
Billy: That’s fantastic. What do you see the next generation of information design? What do you see people getting into? What you see them exploring? What would you like to see them exploring?
Dena: I want to see them exploring usability. I want interfaces to be completely, as close to completely transparent as you physically can get them.
Billy: That’s very good. That’s very cool.
[00:19:49]   And I know you talked a little bit about this earlier but can we go through just, again, how you, how you found yourself in this, in this field?


Dena: Okay. The story that I tell folks of how I ended up in Champaign was that I graduated from college and I was, I had a double major in English and Technical Theater. And so for a lot of people that was pre-McDonalds and so I was working five part-time jobs simultaneously, hoping for one of them to become permanent and I was talking to my writers group about, “Yikes how do you do this thing,” and one of the folks at my writer’s group said: “Hey, we need a technical writer.” I had no desire to do anything with computers which was really hilarious because here I am now like really, really happy as a computer person. If you had asked like just-graduated-from-college-me about the prospect of like making a life that was all about computers, I would have run screaming but I love it now.
Billy: Wow
Dena: Because what it’s capable of has caught up with what I needed it to be.
Billy: Yeah
[00:20:57] Dena: I needed to not have to write HTML out of my head on the command line in VI but that’s where I started in 1993.
Billy: Wow
Dena: And now there is Dreamweaver, and now there’s drag and drop interfaces, and now there’s WordPress.
Billy: Yeah
Dena: And so I guess I just kind of grew up with the system.
[0:21:15]   And so after I was complaining with my writers group and they said, “Have you looked for a technical writer?” I came over, I worked for Argus Systems Group in Savoy right around the dot com back crash and so as they laid off half of the company and I was packing my boxes to walk out the door, another friend said “Hey they’ve got a technical writer job open at the U of I, go throw your resume at that,” like it literally closed the next day. So, I wrote my resume as fast as I possibly could and then I got hired on, at what was then, CCSO.
[00:22:49] Billy: Yeah
Dena: And that’s the job that I’ve had ever since. But it’s, I’ve been redefining the role over the years from technical writer to database designer. I built the first wireless database because I knew that people needed to know where they could get wireless access before it was everywhere.
Billy: Yeah
Dena: So, I went to my boss with a proposal saying “Let me, let me make a database of this; let’s get the data from here, let’s get the data from there, let’s make it searchable, let’s make index-able.” And I mean I look back now at the interface for that and I go: “Oh, that hurts.” But, I can do so much better now but you know, in the meantime, there’s been Google Maps, there have been overlays, there’s been API access yet and so I did the best that I could at the time that it was there and now it’s so much easier. And I can see it continuing to get easier for people to do things for the sake of doing them not just because there’s code there to be wrangled, right?
[00:22:46]   I have a lot of friends for whom chasing down that missing semicolon is a massive motivator and they love it, they love the challenge and will love the debugging.
Billy: Yeah
Dena: And I just want to get this thing done.
  I admired their dedication. I admire their passion. I wish I was wired like that, I’m not. But I speak enough of their language to make that bridge happen for other folks who are out there saying, “I have research, I have scads of data, I don’t know how to get the actual information I need out of it so where do we store it, how do we preserve it, how do we version control it, what do you do when…”– there’s actually a really interesting use case that came up with Amazon Web Services a few months ago. So, there were some scientists at Beckman doing, I believe it was MRI research and they were running a specific version of software analysis on it. And then someone upgraded a server.
[00:23:45]   A piece of software got patched and the analysis that got run after that upgrade were significantly off of the ones that were run before. And so, all the sudden that’s four months of work that are incompatible and they came to Tech Services saying: “Oh my god, what do we do?” And Tony Rimovsky who is the head of our cloud services effort says: “All right, let me crack my fingers. We got you on this.” He took the other version of the software, put it on Amazon Web Services in the cloud and let it scale to the point where they could run that four months of processing in, I believe, it was 3 days.
Billy: Wow
Dena: He spun it up, ran the stuff, shut it down, and on the whole, it saved a ton of money because it was not, they weren’t having to wait for four months for that stuff to render again.
Billy: Right
Dena: And so, I see, the world that I see in the future is one where you can do that not just for researchers but also for my video programmer friends.
Billy: Yeah
[00:24:48] Dena: Because Nina Paley, “Sita Sings the Blues,” she’s a phenomenal artist and her working environment for that series is a MAC from earlier than 2010 because of compatibility issues with everything that is newer, so she like is constantly raiding Ebay for components for that old system.
Billy: Wow
Dena: She’s working on another one about the books, Book of Exodus, it’s also in Flash but if, for her paying jobs, she is working on a much newer system, that is not compatible with Flash, she can’t, she can’t run her old stuff on that new system.
Billy: Yeah
Dena: And so the world that I did not see in 2014 that I see today is the capacity to connect to Amazon and say beep clone this machine. Make it, make this exact machine with this exact license and this exact software, run in the cloud for me.
Billy: Wow
Dena: And then you have your Digital Preservation for, at least, the lifetime of Amazon. And I want this to happen so badly. I don’t know how to get there because Amazon Web Services, right now, is difficult for the non-IT specialist to use and there’s a lot of hurdles and a lot of jumps and even for folks who came through IT with you know, the individual machine world, the way that you think about things, the way you handle things in AWS is significantly different.
[00:25:07] Billy: Wow
Dena: So, the first layer of usability transformation is getting it to the point where it is easy for IT folks to use. The second layer is getting it where it’s easy for everybody to use. We’re going to get there I just know how it’s going to take.
Billy: Dena, that is amazing.
Dena: Cool!
Billy: That is very cool. Thank you so much for being on the program, I’ve had such a wonderful time speaking with you.
Dena: Thank you so much for inviting me.
Billy: Thank you so much for listening to the Scholarly Commons Podcast. We will see you next time.



It Takes a Campus is a podcast brought to you by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Scholarly Commons, located in the Main Library . If you want more from us be sure to check out our blog Commons Knowledge at and follow us on Twitter at ScholCommons. That’s S C H O L Commons.


The opening and closing song is “Tranquility Base” by A.A. Aalto. You can find their album “Bright Colors” in the free music archive by searching for “A. A. Aalto” at


In this episode we had Billy Tringali speaking with Dena Strong from Technology Services. Billy is now the Law Librarian for Outreach at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.



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