Of all the iSchool’s focus areas for library science students, I knew the least about our focus on data librarianship. I came to Syracuse with the goal of becoming a public librarian. I didn’t think that courses like IST 659 – Data Administration Concepts and Database Management, IST 676 – Foundations of Digital Data, IST – 681 Metadata, or IST 719 – Information Visualization were for me. To be honest, I was intimidated by the idea of working with data. I wanted to specialize in patron services, not data science.
I soon learned that my definition of ‘data’ was extremely limited and naive. In reality, librarians are integrating data in many different aspects of their work. Some librarians create metadata to describe archival materials and information. Some manage large databases of geospatial or medical data. Through web administration and programming languages, librarians build platforms that can collect, organize, and make sense of data about a library’s collection.
These examples are just a few of many amazing ways librarians use data to make their collections more accessible for their users. They contain valuable skills that are applicable in any type of library.
This week, I decided to reach out to two current MSLIS students, Nura and Patrick, about their respective internship experiences. Nura spent her internship creating and curating metadata for the Smithsonian’s Biodiversity Heritage Library and the Smithsonian’s Archives. Patrick interned at the Baldwinsville Public Library, a public library located outside of Syracuse. There, he helped secure the library’s website database, server, and operating system, among many other duties.
Nura Agzamova ’17
Intern for the Biodiversity Heritage Library and the Smithsonian Field Book Project
Can you tell me more about the Biodiversity Heritage Library does? Is the library accessible to the public?
The Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL) is an international consortium of libraries in the field of natural science. They collaborate with each other on digitization and sharing resources pertaining to natural science history. It all started off with four partners in the beginning. Now, it includes 32 members from all around the globe. Every member contributes something from their region. For example, Australian BHL members would be digitizing a lot of materials about natural history in Australia. Libraries in South America would be doing something about South America, etc. The Smithsonian is the project leader for all of the countries. They work with the Internet Archive to store the data on its servers. Then, the images are offered through the BHL portal by the Smithsonian. It’s accessible to the public as long as you have an internet connection. It’s amazing.
How did you originally find out about the internship?
It was thanks to Jill (Hurst-Wahl, the Director of the MSLIS Program at Syracuse). She announced that the Smithsonian internships were open in class and I thought that I might as well apply. I also applied to ten or fifteen other library internships. At the end, I had to choose between a public, special, or an academic library and asked for advice from Jill. She told me: “You might have the opportunity to work in a public library in Syracuse or intern at Bird Library, but the Smithsonian is only in Washington, D.C.”
What project did you work on?
The Biodiversity & Heritage Library ended up creating the internship project specifically for me. Not only did I focus on metadata and encoding standards for the BHL Library, but for the Smithsonian Archives’ Field Book Project as well. I was able to see how both institutions work with digital assets and how you catalog archival materials. I also got to help translate field notes in Russian, which is one of my native languages. It was pretty neat. They didn’t have anyone on staff who spoke Russian.
What would you say was your favorite part of the experience?
I would say that working with archival materials- especially researcher’s field books- was my favorite. It was interesting to read through the narratives. I wrote a blog post about a volcanologist who worked with the Smithsonian for 30 or 40 years doing geological research in Hawaii. It’s incredible that he didn’t only note and write down the information needed for the research, he also included personal details. He would take his eight-year-old daughter with him to get lava samples. I think it’s just incredible that you can humanize science. It may be something that you think is rigid or dull, but then you realize- he’s just a person like we are.
Another thing you can do through the Smithsonian is transcribe field notes through their Transcription Center. You can find so many cool instances of things happened. Anyone can transcribe it, but the challenge is the handwriting. The more volunteers there are, the better it is.
Were you creating descriptive metadata for the field notes? If so, did you use controlled vocabulary?
Yes, you would have to say ‘includes personal notes.” You know, as much as you wish you could include more context, you had to keep it at a very broad level. As for controlled vocabularies, we were essentially following MODS (Metadata Object Description Schema) standards. For some information, we also used VIAF (Virtual International Authority File).
How did your experience at the Smithsonian change or influence your professional goals?
I never thought I would be interested in technical services. I’ve only worked in patron services at the front desk, doing reference, or instruction. I didn’t understand how the catalog worked or how the information retrieval system operated. You know it’s magic, you know it’s there, and you know how to explain to people how you find information, but how information gets there is a completely different thing. I don’t think I understand everything now, but I have a general context of what is actually going on. That is incredibly important. Tomorrow, when I go into a library, I may be able to see why you can’t find a material in the catalog even though it’s there physically. It’s another way to ensuring that your patrons interact with the website and find information quicker.
Do you have any advice for further students?
My piece of advice for those coming into graduate school interested in metadata or metadata curation is to reach out to people in the area. Try to find out about they work with and catalog archival materials, with audiovisual materials, and with books. Talk to them. Set up informational interviews with people. I didn’t really understand that quite well in my first year. The more experience you can get in your two years of your MLIS, the better. You can figure out what works for you.
Patrick Walker ’17
Intern at Baldwinsville Public Library
How did you find your internship?
I saw it on the listserv! I thought, “This looks interesting.” So I applied.
I know that you worked at the Baldwinsville Public Library but I’m not sure about the specifics. What project were you working on? Could you describe the technical process for me?
First, I helped set up a backup LAMP web server. LAMP (Linux, Apache, MySQL, and PHP) is a stack of programs that work together to host a website. Linux is the operating system that the other programs run on (we used Debian, a stable distro of Linux often used for servers). Apache HTTP Server is the web server that the website is hosted on. MySQL stores the website’s database. PHP is the scripting language used for web development.
Next, I installed a program called Omeka on the test server to troubleshoot any problems before we installed a new version of it on the live web server. Omeka is a web-publishing platform (like Word Press), which was designed specifically for digital collections and displays. Once the troubleshooting was done, my Internship supervisor and I made the necessary changes to the live server.
Finally, I joined PDFs of old newspapers and uploaded them to the Baldwinsville’s Public Library website.
On top of all this, since we were working in the computer lab, I got to help patrons when they came in with computer issues as well as help my supervisor when he ran instructional programming.
What was your favorite aspect of the internship?
I was allowed to take chances. I had never done anything related to web administration before, but I helped build a test web server for me and my supervisor to experiment on. That way if anything went wrong, BPL’s actual website wasn’t affected. Sometimes working in the command line was a lot like driving a fast car with bad breaks. One time I accidentally crashed the entire test server while working in the root folder and had to set up the entire thing from scratch. I learned a lot from that experience, even if it was terrifying.
In an ideal world, what’s your dream librarian job?
I have really enjoyed my experience working with the general public a lot, as well as learning about technology (I’m a complete neophyte, so I’ve been trying to get as much hands-on experience as I can during my time at SU). Any position that combines the two would make me ecstatic. Also while I love Syracuse, I wouldn’t hate working somewhere a little warmer during the winters.
Why do you think that data science is important for public libraries?
First, from a librarian’s perspective, collecting data is extremely useful when making key decisions in your library. Data can allow you to identify needs in your community, so you can develop target programs and resources to your patrons more effectively. When it comes to collection development, data can help you determine which items are worth acquiring and which are worth weeding out of your collection.
Second, from a patron’s perspective, understanding how to look critically at data and where it comes from is becoming more and more important. For an example, if a patron was researching buying a car and comparing fuel mileage, it would be really important to know if those mpg tests were done driving in the city, on the highway, or in a wind tunnel.
Last, from a privacy standpoint, understanding how data works can help librarians teach their patrons how to protect their privacy, or at least make better decisions about what information they share. We live in an age where personal data has become a commodity. Every time we click on a user agreement on an app or website, we agree to trade some of our privacy for the service that provides. Every time we buy something at a grocery store and use a discount card, they track our buying habits. Target was able to find out a teen girl was pregnant before her parents. Banks, schools, hospitals all collect data people. By understanding who is collecting what kind of data, librarians can empower their communities to keep that data safe.
Do you have any internship advice for future students?
Take advantage of the fact that you are a student and ask a lot of questions. I’ve worked two internships now (one at the Cortland Free Library) and everyone I’ve worked with was really excited to share their knowledge and experiences with me because I was a student.