Episode 2: Kimberly Silk, Data Librarian

Mars Discovery Building - Feb 2012 Client : Kim Silk Librarians - Executive Portrait Session

On episode two of Beyond the Stacks, we hear from Kimberly Silk, the special projects officer for the Integrated Digital Scholarship Ecosystem Project at the Canadian Research Knowledge Network. Join us as we discuss data librarianship, integrating librarians into research teams, and hosting group conversations with the Mars rover.

Length – 22:16

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Episode 3, on library futurism, will be released on the first of November!

See below the fold for a full transcript of the interview.


Derek: Hello and welcome to Beyond the Stacks: Innovative Careers in Library and Information Science. My name is Derek Murphy, and today I will be talking with Kimberly Silk.

Kimberly is the special projects officer for the Integrated Digital Scholarship Ecosystem Project at the Canadian Research Knowledge Network, otherwise known as CRKN. CRKN is a partnership of Canadian universities dedicated to expanding digital content for the academic research enterprise in Canada. Previous to CRKN, in April 2015 Kim was the Data Librarian at the Martin Prosperity Institute, at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto. She supported their research process by managing their research and data collection and applying social media principles to knowledge management. She is the co-author of So Much More: The Economic Impact of the Toronto Public Library on the City of Toronto, published in 2013 and the first economic impact study of its kind in Canada. In 2014 she was elected as chapter cabinet chair elect for SLA, a global association of librarians working in specialized and corporate information. Hi Kim!

Kimberly: Hi Derek!

Derek: Could you tell us a bit about your educational background, including your advanced degree?

Kimberly: Sure. When I decided, well, rather when my parents strongly encouraged me to attend University, I was first in the family to do such a thing. My mom and dad didn’t have any university education, which was typical at the time. They just wanted me to go and do something that was something I enjoyed, and also something that would get me a job. And I think that’s something that all parents want to encourage their kids to do.

So what I ended up doing is I attended the University of Waterloo, which is a great university here in Ontario, Canada, which really has a focus on computer science and engineering, as well as having arts programs. So I ended up taking an English Literature Degree, but I supplemented it with Computer Science courses, to the point where I actually just about got a minor in computer science by the time I was finished. One of the things that I really liked about attending Waterloo was that it gave me access to the arts and humanities side of thinking, and also the computer science side of thinking. It’s sort of a unique environment. So I ended up having a very good experience there.

And then I decided to pursue my Library Science degree, and I attended the University of Toronto and did it there. I wasn’t able to afford to go to library school full time without working, so what I ended up doing was attending library school part time while I worked full time. And it took me five years to finish a two-year, full time degree, but it was completely worth it. While I was working, I really saw the relevance of my education coming through.

Derek: Absolutely. I’m in a similar boat myself doing the part-time degree. Did you have particular career goals that you were developing over the course of the degree, and how did you envision the degree getting you there?

Kimberly: No, I had no set plan. [Laughs] At all. I guess I really focused on doing things that I found interesting, so… Being at Waterloo exposed me to Internet technology early on, even before we were calling it the Internet. We were using email there, and we were using gofers, and listservs, which there are certain number of people out there who have no idea what I’m talking about. These are, sort of, old-fashioned networked information before the World Wide Web. And because I had exposure to those things, I had an interest in how information was being made globally available in an electronic form. That was very, very different from traditional print-based library collections. So I felt like I was more sifting through what I didn’t want to do, as opposed to having a clear goal about what I did want to do.

Derek: Absolutely, I feel that way right now too. I think that’s a good way to approach it, kind of narrowing things down as you go. So, did things work out the way you expected with the degree, or were you kind of surprised by where it took you later on?

Kimberly: I’m constantly surprised where this degree is taking me. I’m so thrilled at the way that librarianship in all sorts of different information environments is evolving. I mean, if you look at academic librarianship alone, there’s tons and tons of new areas that we’re discovering and we’re finding that we have a lot of expertise in. Everything from user experience to copyright, scholarly communication, information dissemination, impact assessment, I mean, that’s really exciting stuff. I find that attitude actually means the most. When you’re coming at your career with a positive attitude and a natural sense of curiosity it’s actually going to take you much, much further than you’d ever imagine.

Derek: Totally. A mentor of mine told me that her main strategy in her career was to just say “yes” as often as humanly possible, whenever someone asks for help with a project or whatever.

Kimberly: I would agree, and in fact it’s interesting, when I left my last job at the University of Toronto, one of the cards a friend of mine gave me is a quote from Tina Fey, and it says “Just say yes, and figure it out afterwards.” That is absolutely my philosophy.

Derek: That’s a good way of putting it too!

Kimberly: Yeah. [laughs]

Derek: So, you’re involved, and you’ve been involved in, data librarianship a good deal. I’m interested in what brought you to data librarianship, and what appeals to you about it.

Kimberly: I think that most of us who work with data have stumbled into it. Until recently, it’s not been a formalized part of library education, and so most of us have been learning it on the fly, and learning it through associations. So, there’s a fantastic group of social science data researchers and librarians called IASSIST. That is an international community of data scientists and data librarians. It’s been very helpful in helping me develop my learning about these things.

I think that one of the reasons that I like the data librarianship practice so much is because it’s got so much in common with print and regular text-based data, but it’s got its own set of challenges as well. Whereas traditionally, when we look at monographs and serials, these are things that are easy to describe because they’re made up of words anyway. And data’s really tricky, because you can’t tell just by looking at a file what the heck’s going on there. So there’s additional challenges with the need for metadata that are really unique to data.

Data has been a niche for me that allows me to differentiate myself a little bit. And it’s also a great niche for librarians because it brings you into this world that is not typical. It takes you away from the arts world. It takes you closer to more of the sciences and the engineering worlds. It’s still kind of a unique skillset. We’re absolutely well-educated and well-prepared for it.

It’s actually not necessarily about the content of the data, but how we label it. So just the same in that, if you’re managing a collection, you’re not really expected to have read every single thing in that collection, but you know what’s there, you know the landscape of it, and you know how to find it and how to make it discoverable. And the same thing happens with data. There’s a lot of people who don’t feel comfortable with numbers, so it’s a very good niche area to get into, because it’s not that crowded.

Derek: In your professional career, what are some of the coolest experiences that you’ve had that your graduate studies enabled… some of the coolest things you’ve been able to work on?

Kimberly: Well, working at Discovery Channel was very, very cool. I was there between 1996 and 2000. That was the time when the internet was really coming into its own. I mean, you could still visit this site called Yahoo, and there were still a finite number of sites out there. [laughs] But we were doing all sorts of fun things. At Discovery Channel in Canada, we had really good funding that would allow us to experiment a lot. We were doing IRC chats, which is, you know, old-fashioned text chatting. If you remember back then, that’s when NASA and the Canadian Space Agency worked together for the first trip to Mars. And we were able to have an IRC chat between Discovery Channel viewers and the scientists at NASA. And that’s probably right up there with some of the coolest stuff I did. I mean, having an internet chat with Mars? That’s… [laughs] You know, it was really difficult and it broke a lot, but we did get it working now and then, and it was very, very neat.

And it was the same thing with being able to work with streaming video. So, our colleagues at NASA at the Johnson Space Center, they had video, of course, of what the rover, that little car, was doing. Going along the surface of Mars. And we were able to receive that video feed because we were a television station, and then we would crunch it down and stream it on the Internet. So Discovery viewers were actually on our website watching this little car move around on Mars in real time. And for the late 90’s, that was wild!
Derek: Yeah, that’s very ahead of its time.

Kimberly: And again, it broke a lot, but we had that freedom to fail, and to try again. That was one of the most interesting environments that I’ve ever worked in. But I’ve worked in other really neat places too. I’m very fortunate, I’ve had some really nifty jobs.

My job at the University of Toronto was working as a data librarian for an urban studies research institution called the Martin Prosperity Institute, where we studied the nature of cities and how cities are economic drivers in the 21st century.

And that was a solo librarian job. In addition to data, I got to basically try anything that I wanted. Again, it was that wonderful environment that my managers were providing to me. To say, “Hey, you got some crazy idea? Give it a shot!” You know? Even if you didn’t make it work as you envisioned, you still learned something along the way. So I got to really explore different ways of working with a small concentrated research team, and really find a way to integrate the library service that I wanted to provide into the research cycle of the team.

I got to be a part of some really nifty studies. That’s what led to my being able to work with the Toronto public library on their economic impact study. The Toronto Public Library approached the Martin Prosperity Institute because we had some expertise in that area. I actually begged to work on that project and they said yes. So that was my first taste of actually doing academic impact research. As opposed to just supporting the research, I was a co-author on that. So that provided me with an opportunity I would never have guessed that I would have.

Derek: What kinds of interesting things did you learn from those studies?

Kimberly: Probably the most important thing that I learned is that when you’re looking at economic impact, it’s a very narrow, narrow slice of what’s happening with an organization and its impact on its community. And especially when it comes to libraries, there’s a trend to measure economic impact because money is so scarce everywhere, and our municipalities and our states and provinces want to know that their money is being spent well. But when it comes to libraries, the economic slice is just the smallest piece of it. That’s what led me to continue on with this area of research with two colleagues of mine from the University of Ottawa and the University of Western Ontario. In terms of looking at a better model to measure not only economic impact, but social, culture, and educational impact that libraries have on their communities. It’s given me this road to research in addition to being a practitioner.

Derek: So some of the research you’re doing is kind of finding data to back up the value of libraries, am I interpreting that right?

Kimberly: Yes, and it’s not just data, it’s a matter of understanding… I mean, when you’re looking at economic impact, the number part is easy, because you can say “well, the library provides this service or this product,” and you can look at what a consumer would have to pay for the same thing if the library weren’t there. So you can sort of see what the economic value is there. But the more interesting piece is really how libraries are changing lives. So it’s a way of looking at library products and services and their impact on human beings, and the impact on the community, whether it’s an outreach program that a public library is doing with the local schools to help kids read earlier, to read through the summer, to get them ready for September. How are all of our programs that teach senior citizens about technology helping their quality of life? How about all of the great programs that libraries offer to help newcomers to Canada integrate into their community in terms of finding work and finding childcare, and learning our language? I mean, there are so many things. So let’s look at these things that are very much qualitative impacts and find a way to quantify them so we can actually measure impact that way. Data is there, but there’s lots of other stuff going on there too.

Derek: Yeah, it’s very important stuff. So, what skills from your degree have proven most helpful in your career?

Kimberly: I would say, a comfort with technology. A high degree of comfort with technology. Knowing that, one: you’re not going to break anything. And two: that you can push the limits of technology in interesting ways. You know, to try different things. I think that the trend now I know at the University of Toronto faculty of information, there’s a lot of students who are tackling programming. They’re learning Python. They’re learning Ruby on Rails. And these are skillsets. And those skillsets are going to change over time, depending on what the flavor of the technology of the day is. I think what it teaches the students is to be curious. And to try things. And don’t fear the technology. And to dive in, and don’t let anything hold you back.

But I think that the other things that library school is teaching us is that librarianship is not a quiet profession. It is a highly interactive profession. It’s not necessarily for people who don’t want to spend time with other people. It’s for people who love to spend time with other people. And to be right in the center of the community. I think the way that the profession has changed over the decades is that perhaps at one time it was considered a quiet profession, but that’s no longer the case. And you can see examples of that change, not only in terms of what I see happening at Simmons, what’s coming out of the University of Syracuse, the iSchool with David Lankes there, what’s coming out of Ann Arbor, what’s coming out of the University of Toronto, it’s this renewed spirit and energy that we can have an impact on how the world works. We’re not stuffed away in a back room.

Derek: Yeah, definitely. And I think that’s a good thing.

Kimberly: Makes it more fun, for sure.

Derek: Definitely. More exciting. So, how do people in your particular unique career niche view librarians and perceive librarianship, and has it affected your career experience?

Kimberly: I think in the academic sphere we’re very lucky, because a lot of researchers and faculties really do understand the value of a librarian. But that said, we need to continue to work with them so that they can expand their perception and their expectations. Because I think that a lot of researchers and faculties are accustomed to working with librarians who are supporting their work, which is very important, but these days we can do more than that. We can actually become integral to their research process and be part of their success in research. So for instance, there’s a lot of librarians who are doing bibliometric work, to actually help researchers and faculty understand their impact on their area of research. And really being deeply involved in putting together research grant proposals and being part of performing that research. It’s far more inclusive now than I think it’s ever been. We’re not just, you know, over in the library away from where the faculty and the researchers are sitting, it’s far more integrated. I guess we use the word “embedded.” I think that, if there are environments that are not accustomed to that, it takes a fair amount of effort to move in that direction, but I think it’s totally worth it. Because, the more that we can be perceived as being part of the success and the solution of an organization, whether it’s a university or a corporation, or even in a public system, we are going to be so much more valued because we are seen as central to the positive outcomes.

I think that the public perception of libraries is sadly behind. I know that my own family, they have a hard time resolving what I do day to day with their idea of a librarian. I think that there is a certain amount of nostalgia and romanticism that goes along with the old fashioned librarian in a public library where it’s sort of a quiet, serious place. Whereas, if you go into most public libraries today, you’ll see them as vibrant, full of activity. Certainly with the Toronto Reference Library here down town, there’s a line up to get in every single day. So it’s very different. We still have these quiet study areas for people who are looking for that type of environment, but there’s way more going on. Maybe it’s better just to focus on being leaders and doing what we do, and modeling how we’ve changed, as opposed to trying to convince people all the time. It can get quite wearying, I think.

Derek: That’s all fantastic and fascinating stuff! Kim, do you have any final thoughts for us, before we go?

Kimberly: I guess the thing that I would say to people who are just starting out in the profession or who are still in school is just, you know, expect more of yourselves. Don’t let yourself get limited by conventional ideas of what librarianship or information management are. I can guarantee you that, very much like the MBA provides graduate students with a business lens with which they view the world, the library degree provides you with an information management lens with which you see the world. And that has a role to play in any environment. So like the library degree, let the information management degree be a lens. But it should not restrict you in any way from working in any given environment. I just came back from the SLA conference in Boston, and we’ve got librarians who are working in every single area you can think of. There’s a colleague of mine and she’s the shoe librarian at Nike. I mean… [laughs] We’ve got librarians at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. We’ve got librarians who work in architecture and engineering and every single kind of business. The sky’s the limit, really. So don’t think that you can’t work somewhere. Your skills actually provide you with what you need in order to work wherever you want to work.

Derek: Well said. Thank you Kim!

Kimberly: You’re welcome

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