This latest installment of our series of interviews with Scholarly Commons experts and affiliates features Helenmary Sheridan, the Repository Services Coordinator at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Library. Helenmary manages the Illinois Digital Environment for Access to Learning and Scholarship (IDEALS), a digital archive of scholarship produced by researchers, students, and staff at Illinois. She also conducts outreach with scholars interested in using Illinois’ other public repository, the Illinois Data Bank.
What is your background and work experience?
I graduated with a Master’s Degree in Library and Information Science from the iSchool at Illinois in 2015. I earned my degree through the LEEP program and worked at Northwestern University as a metadata and digital curation assistant while I was in school, which was a wonderful experience. Before that, I worked in visual resources, primarily with the digital collections at Northwestern and prior to that at the University of Chicago where I did my undergrad. At U Chicago, I majored in art history and took significant coursework in geophysics, which was originally my major.
What led you to this field?
I came into this role primarily from a strong interest in metadata. I was creating metadata for digital objects at Northwestern. I had been working with an art historian, and the role developed into project management, working with software developers to build a repository. So I got into working with software developers, and my interest in metadata led me to being a sort of translator between librarians and developers. This led to my being interested in technical infrastructure, without being a programmer myself. But I do have some programming experience, which allows me to communicate more easily about what I’m doing.
What is your research agenda?
In general I’m interested in service management. I’m presenting at DLF (Digital Library Federation) in a couple of months on what it means to be a service manager in a library, museum, or archive setting when a lot of management systems are built for an IT environment. We often have people coming into service manager roles from something else, and I’m interested in seeing how this gets done practically.
I’m also interested in interfaces and how designers of technical systems conceptualize our users and how, through technology, it’s really easy to abuse users.
Do you have any favorite work-related duties?
I do! I love communicating with people and patrons outside of the university. At many academic libraries, you think of your patrons as being just part of the university. Running IDEALS, I communicate with lots of people all over the world, which is really satisfying. That is, both helping people here, and communicating with all sorts of people to spread Illinois scholarship worldwide.
What are some of your favorite underutilized resources that you would recommend to researchers?
I think that a lot of people don’t look outside of their disciplines, which makes a lot of sense. As a researcher, you develop your most efficient ways to find information. But as a student, it can be really productive to go to sources outside of your own discipline. When I was an art history major as an undergrad, I wrote my thesis on scientific illustration and scientific representation through art. Can you trust an artist who has no scientific knowledge to represent what they see? I was consulting lots of scientific work and lots of technology studies stuff, as well as lots of art image databases.
The way these resources are organized is totally different. It broadened my horizons to see what a wealth of resources is out there. Stuff that isn’t necessarily in the libguide for art history, or science and technology studies.
That’s another satisfying part of my work. A diversity of stuff comes into IDEALS, so when I can’t help a patron directly, I can help them find a related resource that might be useful to them.
If you could recommend one book to beginning researchers in your field, what would you recommend?
Something I was thinking about the other day is Clifford Lynch’s 2003-2004 papers and talks on institutional repositories, about how they are going to help solve the crisis of scholarly communication. He suggested that they would become tools to provide researchers with alternative sources for dissemination of their work, or even a platform for new forms of scholarly communication, and he imagines this future where there’s a robust system of interconnected repositories that can all communicate with one another.
Contrast those with his 2016 updates, in which he addresses a trend of saying that the institutional repository has failed. He thinks it’s true that institutional repositories and the places that run them haven’t fulfilled all of these promises and that it might not be worth an institution’s time to develop a repository. But you can use repositories in different ways, and different ways of using them have emerged. He rejects the claim that IRs have proven to be a failure. So instead of seeing institutional repositories and other repositories as a solution that failed to solve a problem, Lynch’s work helped me think of them as solutions to problems that weren’t foreseen.
For instance, you’ll have family members who are looking up their great aunt’s thesis to have something to remember her by. This problem falls outside the traditional scope of academia, but institutional repositories prove very beneficial for people in these sorts of ways. This helps me think about digital libraries in general. We’re not just trying to solve a problem, but to help people. We should be user focused, rather than problem focused.
Helenmary Sheridan can be reached at email@example.com.