Learning, Liaising, and Leading: A Librarian Finds Her Way

Article by Patricia Hswe

Digital Content Strategist and Head, ScholarSphere User Services, and co-lead, Department of Publishing and Curation Services, at Penn State University Libraries

When I entered the MSLIS program at GSLIS in 2005, I was a second-year Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) postdoctoral fellow, based in the former Slavic and East European Library in Main Library. In my first year as a postdoc, having been introduced to text encoding, GIS software, relational databases, and digitization operations, I was pretty much blown away by how much technology was changing the nature and products of scholarly research. My experience as a doctoral student, lo so many years previous to the postdoc gig, was highly traditional, in that it involved none of the methods I was learning about. In becoming a library student, I was eager to catch up and understand much more the impact of these and other related digital humanities methods, as well as to get a programmatic understanding of the discipline of LIS. I pursued a digital library concentration at GSLIS, with particular attention to use and users of digital resources and a growing interest in data curation for the humanities. I held graduate assistantships in Grainger Engineering Library and in the Mathematics Library, where I did regular hours at the reference desk, acquired some programming skills, and carried out special assignments (such as a website usability study) and consulted with students on their research projects. I also served as a research assistant on a set of digital preservation projects funded by the Library of Congress under the National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program (NDIIPP). I learned about repository services, interoperability, RDF and the Semantic Web, and project management. And it was as a research assistant that I got my first publication opportunity. Through these paraprofessional experiences, I realized that the so-called “back-end” work of software development, metadata creation, and repository service infrastructure rarely gets the visibility and appreciation it deserves as work that impacts “front-end,” or public, services – and, most crucial of all, our end users. I learned that what happens behind the scenes is as significant as what happens in the scenes themselves, and that the folks, including end users, in the two areas should always be talking. In other words, technology in the library is a public service.

With a concentration in digital libraries, a passion for prioritizing user needs and working directly with researchers, an interest in metadata issues, and a commitment to working in an academic library environment, what kind of positions was I headed for, ultimately? At the time I graduated, in 2008, it seemed that to do the work I wanted to do meant being either an institutional repository manager, or a metadata librarian, or a digital something. My first job out of GSLIS was as program manager for the five NDIIPP projects that the library school was collaborating on with various institutions. I loved this work, especially the challenge of keeping organizationally distributed projects on track, but I also missed being more fully part of a library.

Enter the next job – the digital something. In 2010 I took a position as digital collections curator at the Penn State University Libraries and found what has become my dream gig. I collaborate closely with colleagues in Information Technology Services (ITS), which has given me an understanding of technical infrastructure I would otherwise not have. Together, we run a repository service, ScholarSphere, which leverages Hydra architecture and thus open-source, community-developed software. A self-deposit service, ScholarSphere enables access, sharing, management, and preservation for research data and content produced by Penn State faculty, students, and staff. I also have also partnered with liaison librarians in providing data management services; in fall 2014 we will launch an online tutorial, geared largely toward graduate students, on data management planning. In addition, I engage in strategic thinking and planning around user and content issues that are central to decisions regarding technology implementations for curating our digital collections – as well as expanding the definition and scope of them.

With the beta release of ScholarSphere in 2012, my title changed to Digital Content Strategist and head of ScholarSphere User Services. I also became co-lead of a new department, Publishing and Curation Services (PCS), which merged Scholarly Communication Services and Digital Curation Services into a single unit. Through PCS we are setting up a framework that helps researchers put into practice a lifecycle management approach to the enterprise of scholarly inquiry. Our areas of focus for this framework are data curation services, scholarly publishing services, and digital scholarship services (e.g., support for the digital humanities). Running a department, particularly a unit as hybrid in its mission and operations as PCS, continues to be one of the most valuable learning experiences I have ever had as a librarian. Service models, staffing models, strategic and tactical planning for the department, budgets, position descriptions, process management, and expanded supervisory duties – all of these activities present opportunities to grow in my librarianship and as a leader. At the same time, I appreciate deeply the parts of my role, such as addressing user needs for ScholarSphere, that still allow me to be “hands on” and help shape and inform our libraries’ research service offerings.

It will be ten years ago this summer that I started my career in academic libraries, first as a postdoc in the library and now as a digital content strategist. At Penn State, I enjoy strong working relationships with smart, generous colleagues in the University Libraries, ITS, and various colleges, academic departments, and research institutes. I am learning how to co-lead, productively and efficiently, a trailblazing department – one that is transforming the notion of public services in libraries and redefining what it means to liaise with researchers. In short, I couldn’t have conjured a more substantive, endlessly fascinating gig even if I’d tried.

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