Computing Cultural Heritage in the Cloud: An Interview with Alice Goldfarb
We’re thrilled to share that Alice Goldfarb has joined the LC Labs team as an Innovation Specialist! Alice will be working on the Computing Cultural Heritage in the Cloud (CCHC) initiative at the Library.
The CCHC initiative is supported by a generous grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Centered in LC Labs, the project aims to explore how the Library can deliver its digital collections at scale, using a cloud computing environment. For decades, the Library has collected and digitized images, audio and video recordings, web sites, texts, and structured metadata. With CCHC, Alice will help us explore the service models and technical infrastructure that would support researchers’ connection with this digital content in novel ways.
I interviewed Alice about her background, experience, and interests, and what she’ll be doing to help the Library provide enhanced access to digital collections as data.
Leah: Welcome, Alice! We’re so excited that you’ve joined the CCHC team. Could you tell us a little bit about your professional background?
Alice: My professional background is a bit eclectic. Before joining the Library, I led the COVID Racial Data Tracker, the part of the COVID Tracking Project dedicated to collecting and analyzing publicly available race and ethnicity COVID-19 data. Previously, I worked up the road at NPR Labs, doing technology research and development to support NPR and its member stations. Before that, I taught high school and was a flight instructor.
Leah: What is your role with Computing Cultural Heritage in the Cloud?
Alice: I’m an Innovation Specialist working with the CCHC researchers, the CCHC project team, and our colleagues throughout the Library to figure out what would be required in a service model for supporting cloud computing digital humanities research. More specifically, I am helping the initial cohort of three digital humanities researchers find the answers and data they need, documenting their work and our processes, and considering what we might build to support this sort of research in the future. We’re trying to learn as much as we can, and this initiative gives us an opportunity to start conversations with people throughout the Library, people working on similar questions at other institutions, as well as digital humanities researchers, artists, and anyone else who might explore the Library with expanded digital access.
Leah: What did you find interesting about this initiative?
Alice: This initiative is a fantastic opportunity for us to explore the systems and practices that are already in place within the Library and to consider changes that will make the collections available to more people in more ways. While we’re starting with several researchers who are approaching the collections in similar ways, we want to make sure we’re setting this up for people doing all types of work, with different backgrounds and types of expertise.
Leah: What sorts of opportunities does technology afford that you’re most excited about in this context?
Alice: If we are thoughtful and creative about how we make the collections available to researchers, we have the opportunity to make the Library a resource for many more people, and make collections data available to use in different ways. I’m interested in the possibilities that iterative work and replicable methods provide, letting people’s projects build on and contribute to the work other people are doing.
Leah: What role do you see for the Library, and libraries in general, in doing this sort of work?
Alice: Because of the scale of the Library’s collections, what we do to make the collections available for cloud computing will be useful in myriad ways. Many people are hard at work thinking about what to do with different types of information and the approaches and considerations that we should foreground. Sometimes, work with data is done without sufficient considerations about design choices and the repercussions of the work. I think that libraries are ideally situated to support machine learning research, for example, because of the ways that people within libraries think about providing other types of support. As institutions that think about how to tend, comprehend, and share information with the pubic, libraries already consider the ethics of this type of work, and we want to make sure to extend this approach to digital work.
Leah: What is one challenge involving research and information systems that you think your work on the CCHC initiative can help overcome?
Alice: While we are exploring technologies and systems during this initiative, this work is reliant on our fantastic colleagues within the Library, to help us understand what is currently available and make changes to make the collections more available in the future. One of the challenges is documenting all the things that someone knows in a comprehensive, accessible way. Part of the Library’s digital strategy is to throw open the treasure chest – we are working on drawing the treasure map so people will know what to find.
Leah: How will your approach to analyzing and reporting on data influence your work on this project?
Alice: I am very interested in the ways that we understand and convey what is missing in data. Part of the work of this project is helping researchers understand what they aren’t finding, along with what they are, since the reasons for some things being excluded or unavailable are important to understanding the collections they’re working with.
Leah: Is there anything in the Library’s collections that you’re particularly excited about working with?
Alice: I hope to have an opportunity to work with some of the materials from the Geography and Maps Division. So much of what we can read from a map comes from its materiality, how it was made, and how it may have been used in the past. Along with generally wanting to spend time marveling at the maps in the collection, I am fascinated by thinking about how to support digital exploration of the maps as well as what we can learn from which maps people chose to make.
Leah: What are you hoping to learn, or what skills are you hoping to develop, in your work here?
Alice: In previous projects, I have thought a lot about how we assemble data and how we present it once assembled. What’s missing, who has access, who is included in this dataset, who gets to make decisions about it, how can we see it being used? I’m excited to be with colleagues at an institution where these questions are central to the work. I want to learn from people who have thought about how libraries should serve, whether what we’re making available is data or books or tools. I am hoping to learn ways to steward and share data in systematic ways, which people in libraries do all the time. Libraries, in my starry-eyed understanding, are public spaces that serve the community by making resources available in myriad ways. I am so excited to learn from people who have vast knowledge and experience about understanding who the community is, how to serve them, and how to do this work well, and be able to enact these principles while sharing the Library’s collections digitally.
Leah: What else are you passionate about? Do you have hobbies or interests you would like to share?
Alice: I believe fiercely in the postal service, for reasons similar to why I’m fond of libraries. I’m a pilot, and while I don’t get to fly very often, I’m always happy to talk about planes. I also love travelling by bike, ferry, or train. There’s a bike path from DC to Pittsburgh, and one day I’d like to ride there and take the train back. One of the things I miss most during the pandemic is getting to cook dinner for a bunch of friends.
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