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That’s a wrap! 2020 Staff Innovator detail comes to a close

The 2020 Staff Innovator project brought together two different parts of the Library of Congress—the Library Collections and Services Group (LCSG) and the Office of the Chief Information Officer (OCIO).  LCSG sponsored a 120-day detail that temporarily placed a staff member from LCSG in my team, LC Labs to work together on a problem that met the goals of the Digital Strategy and a challenge or opportunity facing LCSG. LC Labs supports the goals laid out in the Library’s Digital Strategy to throw open the treasure chest, connect, and invest in the future through experimentation, research, and collaboration. The Staff Innovator detail is a great example of how we work to cultivate an innovation culture at the Library by sighting opportunities for cross-agency knowledge exchange and collaboration. In this view, the Digital Strategy is as much about new tools, technologies, and approaches as it is about creating space for staff to try out their ideas.

We received many compelling applications for collaborative projects that showcased both the breadth and depth of experience held by staff all across our organization. The top-ranked proposal, selected for its ambitious yet realistic scope and connection to the goals outlined in the Digital Strategy as well as the goals of their department, was Born Digital Access Now! As Kathleen and Chad have shared in previous guests posts on the Signal, their Staff Innovator project focused on sharing their expertise about the born-digital materials held by the Manuscript Division. They explored existing tools and access pathways that could make this material more available and useful to more people. In the coming months, Kathleen and Chad will share more updates on their project —subscribe to LC Labs’ monthly newsletter to make sure you get the latest information.

This post, however, is a reflection from my perspective as a team member of LC Labs on this successful collaboration. It is shared in the hopes that some of the lessons we learned from this cross-institutional partnership may be applicable to other institutions and interesting to our readers!

We were lucky to host Kathleen and Chad for four months from July until the end of October 2020. During their tenure, we did our best to support their project needs as they emerged from discovery and consultation.  At the very start of the detail, I led us through a series of exercises (check out the Sociotechnical Sustainability Roadmap and Yale’s DH Lab Toolkit for ideas) designed to establish consensus around the goals and scope of the project; the core team’s roles and responsibilities; and identify other stakeholders for various technical parts of the project. In weekly meetings, Kathleen, Chad, and LC Labs team members would talk through the plans for the week, possible challenges, and delegate tasks. Our check ins allowed us to iterate and adapt based on how the project progressed. They led the way with their extremely thorough project plan and our role was to give them the space and support to help them along the way. One key method was developing project management and scaffolding for collaborative problem-solving, such as ideation sessions, documentation, and spotting connections with staff and ongoing work. Other examples include feedback at critical decision points, refining deliverables in an editing process, and providing administrative support. Given that their project touched on the areas of expertise from many parts of the Library (including legal, technical, and communications), LC Labs was also there to investigate the unknowns –if ever there were questions around who to ask, what came next, or what we may not have initially considered, we helped them clarify next steps and connect them with critical stakeholders.

This cross-functional team-based approach was intentionally designed to enhance Kathleen and Chad’s ability to accomplish an ambitious workplan in a relatively short amount of time. During the span of only four months, we learned a great deal together and wanted to share some of the lessons we uncovered while working to increase born digital access to collections held by the world’s largest library.

Paradoxically, failure is sometimes a successful outcome

Kathleen and Chad’s project had a lot of ambitious goals. Two of them were to document all existing access pathways at the Library of Congress for born-digital content and to analyze all the file formats contained in the Manuscript Division’s born-digital holdings. This required extensive primary research, deep subject matter expertise, a lot of preparation and prior work as well as informational interviews and intensive data analysis. As she discussed in this blog post, Kathleen’s methodology for file format analysis took a different shape than she had initially expected. Rather than seeing this shift in methodology as a failure, however, we learned to view it as a learning opportunity to document the constraints of the reporting features available to her. When you’re seeking to uncover new information or testing a new approach, sometimes the answer that it doesn’t work or is not possible is in fact the answer you’re seeking.

Communication is key (and the key to communication is complicated)

In our final meeting, Kathleen and Chad shared that they had hosted or attended over 85 meetings during their tenure as Staff Innovators! Kathleen and Chad cite this as having only been possible due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which shifted many Library of Congress staff to working remotely. In any case, this tremendous tally of meetings is a testament not only to the many multi-faceted and interconnected aspects of their project but also a reflection of how actively they sought the expertise of peers at the Library of Congress and at other institutions facing similar challenges around serving born digital materials to researchers. Another key audience was you—readers of the Signal! It was vital to the project from the start that we regularly shared out about project progress and highlighted items from the Manuscript Division’s collections with the public.

As you can imagine, managing communication with so many internal and external groups can be complicated—but it’s also vital to the project’s success. Born digital access at any institution requires the expertise of processing archivists, lawyers, IT specialists, reference librarians, users, and more! Therefore, even though sharing information and making decisions among such a large group of people may seem arduous, it’s absolutely necessary for innovation to take place.

This lesson holds true even beyond the topic of born-digital access. Through this staff exchange, we all learned more about the Library of Congress and its workings. As a result, our divisions were able to sow connections between their projects and other ongoing work at the Library such as the work being undertaken by the Digital Content Management Section. Kathleen and Chad specifically felt like they were given opportunities to learn about other projects that they may not have encountered during the course of their normal work duties.

Working in such a manner also had the benefit of exponentially multiplying the impact of Kathleen and Chad’s work. Other divisions at the Library of Congress including the Special and General Collections face similar challenges to providing access to their born-digital content. Since outreach and discussions about this topic were built into the project from the start, all of these units are now positioned to benefit from Kathleen and Chad’s findings.

The definition of “access” is hard to pin down 

I really admire Kathleen and Chad’s continual focus on the Library’s users—at its core, their mission is to put more content in the hands of more people. In this case, their focus is specifically on increasing access to born-digital material in the Manuscript Division. However, as the very existence of this project proves, defining and providing “access” is challenging. It’s technically challenging due to complex file formats and obsolete software; it’s legally challenging because of the many different types of rights restrictions and copyright licenses; and it’s philosophically challenge to decide what counts as “accessible”—is it having access to the file, to the original software? Is it viewing or downloading or manipulating content? These and more questions swirled constantly in our minds and conversations as we worked through this project. In the end, we realized that no single solution existed for access but that instead a medley of pathways and services were necessary depending on the use case.

Nevertheless, it was extremely heartening for me to witness firsthand the passion of our collections stewards for expanding all forms of access. So, if you’re reading this, check out the Manuscript Division’s collections and reach out through the Ask a Librarian service if you want to learn more about them.

Embracing a growth mindset

Once Born Digital Access Now! had been selected, I realized that although I was the project lead for the Staff Innovator program, I had little to no knowledge of “born digital” collections. My background is in digital humanities and in teaching, not in archiving. I understood digital collections and processes of digitization—but had a lot to learn about the appraising, processing, and serving of born-digital materials, which were created as digital media. They never existed in an analog form, like physical pieces of paper, hence they are “born” digital. I did a lot of reading to get up to speed and incessantly asked Kathleen and Chad questions to check my own understanding. Given their generosity and brilliance, I learned an immense amount –about file formats, signatures, and extensions; about emulation and legacy software; and about designing workflows—and am proud to say that I definitely know enough now to talk intelligently about the topic if it ever came up at a post-pandemic dinner party.

However, my role on the project was not to be the expert on born digital access and archiving. In fact, if everyone on every single LC Labs experiment was expected to be an expert on everything, we probably wouldn’t get half as much done! Kathleen encouraged me to include this lesson in the blog post because she wanted readers to know that it is possible to support a project without having experience or expertise in its subject matter. In fact, when working in teams, there are many roles besides subject matter expert that are equally as vital to the project’s success. In this case, I was most valuable to Kathleen and Chad by reading their work and responding to them deeply, asking them questions about their assumptions and decisions, and then using what I had learned from previous projects to brainstorm possible solutions to problems or next steps. Depending on your field and project, these roles may have different responsibilities and go by different names but at the end of the day, no successful team is monolithic.

Why is this a valuable lesson? Well, it’s both a peek behind the curtain and an acknowledgement that staff with any level of experience or knowledge have infinite capacity to learn. It’s a great example of how many different team members contribute to a project’s success. Lastly, it’s an invitation to readers to inquire, explore, and find out more about what interests them without being intimidated by a lack of previous knowledge. Specifically, to any Library of Congress staff reading this who may be interested in applying to be a Staff Innovator, it’s about daring to trust that, even if you don’t know everything, you probably know enough to get started.

Even though the Staff Innovator detail has come to a close, this is not the end of the Born Digital Access Now! project—Kathleen and Chad will be back as guest authors on the Signal blog to share more about what they’ve accomplished since being the 2020 Staff Innovators.

However, one final lesson is worth restating. Kathleen, Chad, and the staff of the Digital Strategy Directorate, which includes LC Labs, ended our final meeting with a round of “Born Digital Bingo.” While this wasn’t actually one of the Bingo cards, I’ll leave you with one final question: what is “the key to any ambitious, technically and logistically complex project”?

Answer: teamwork.

screen capture of several people's videos in WebEx next to an image of an orange bingo board

Members of the Digital Strategy Directorate and 2020 Staff Innovators played virtual born-digital bingo to wrap up their collaboration.

Stay tuned on the Signal and through our monthly newsletter for updates directly from Kathleen and Chad about Born Digital Access Now and into the future! In the meantime, you can browse to explore other active projects that seek to foster innovation within and outside the Library of Congress such as Computing Cultural Heritage in the Cloud, Humans in the Loop, and Experimental Access.

To learn more about the Staff Innovator detail itself, you can contact LC Labs at [email protected].

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