Episode 7: Eben English on Developing Digital Repositories

EbenEnglish_head-shot_2016-03-29On this month’s episode, we hear from Eben English, librarian and web developer at the Boston Public Library, where he focuses on front-end development for Digital Commonwealth, a digital library featuring collections from libraries, museums, archives, and historical societies across Massachusetts.

Join us as we discuss work-life balance, preservation of audio recorded on metal wire spools, how and when to develop tech skills, and the state of the art in digital repositories.

Length – 43:55

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We hope to see you again on May 1st, when we’ll be featuring a new interview with a librarian, technologist, and inventor!

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. I’m your host Derek Murphy and I’m here at the BPL today with Eben English.

Eben English is a librarian and web developer at the Boston Public Library. His primary focus is front-end development for Digital Commonwealth, a statewide digital library featuring collections from libraries, museums, archives, and historical societies from across Massachusetts. It also serves as a service hub for the Digital Public Library of America. Before this he held positions at Loyola University Chicago, Illinois Institute of Technology, and the Chicago Reader; and served on the Digital Collections Users’ Group for the Consortium of Academic and Research Libraries in Illinois. Eben has a BA in English Literature from Oberlin College and an MLIS from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

Hi Eben!

Eben: Hi!

Derek: So, we are here in your office at BPL, this being the first time that I’ve done an in-person interview, so it’s good to be face to face with you.

Eben: Yeah, thanks for having me.

Derek: I want to start out by talking about your educational background. Could you tell us about the advanced degrees that you’ve attained?

Eben: Sure. It’s sort of a rarity in Boston, but I actually only have one advanced degree. I have a Master’s in Library and Information Science from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

Derek: And why did you choose to get your masters in library information science? What turned you on to the profession?

Eben: Well, it was kind of a combination of a lot of different things. My mom is a librarian, actually. And my grandmother, not on my mom’s side but on my father’s side, was also a librarian. I suppose there was a little bit of DNA involved. Or at least just being exposed to the profession from a young age, growing up in libraries. So it’s always a great place and I definitely spent a lot of time there as a kid. The children’s reading room was sort of a surrogate daycare for me early on so, you know, that always leaves a mark.

I also got interested in library school through the job that I was working at before that. Before I decided to go to library school I was working for the Chicago Reader. My job title was archivist but I wasn’t a capital A Archivist like you would think of in a library school sense or in an archives profession sense.

Basically, what I was doing was scanning back issues of the paper. The Chicago Reader is a free weekly alternative paper similar to The Stranger in Seattle or the Village Voice in New York. So I was scanning back issues, running optical character recognition software to extract the text from the articles and then formatting those articles in this sort of proprietary plain text format they’d come up with and then putting those into an online database. That was a great job, really interesting; I got to learn a lot about the history of Chicago, local politics, culture, arts, music.

At the time that I was doing that I was… When I graduated from college, when I graduated from undergrad, I wanted to be a musician. That was my primary goal. That was my dream, to make a living playing music. So that’s why I moved to Chicago, you know, huge city, incredible music scene, so that was sort of my focus. And I was working a lot of different odd jobs: some retail, some temping, not unlike a lot of artsy undergrad sort of people. You know, it takes a little while to figure out what you want.

Luckily, I was able to get a job at The Reader. I had some friends who worked there so I had a bit of an inside track to get a position there. So that was great but it was sort of a tradeoff of a workplace where you could wear whatever you wanted to work; nobody was keeping an eye on when you come and go as long as you get your work done. So I had a lot of freedom but there wasn’t a lot of room for advancement.

This was the early 2000’s. The web is growing. Things like Craigslist are growing and the writing is kind of on the wall for the alternative weekly paper. Then you started to see a lot of people jumping ship, further reductions, further budget talk in the hall, so…

I was still really committed to playing music but I had never really been able to make any money playing music, to be honest.

Derek: It’s not easy to do.

Eben: It’s not easy to do and I wasn’t really interested in doing the kind of music that you could make a living with, you know, wedding bands, cover bands, that kind of thing just wasn’t really what I was into. My wife at the time was really imploring me, she said, “You’re going to have to work forty hours a week doing something. So as long as you have to work doing something, it might as well be something that you love.”

Derek: No doubt.

Eben: It took a long time but finally got through to me that maybe it would be worth investing in grad school, to get a career. I had no notion of a career up to that point. Work was just something I did to pay the rent so that I could do my artistic pursuits. But the idea of a career started to make a lot more sense when you factor in reality and things like that.

Derek: Paying the bills and all, yeah.

Eben: Yeah, and so the University of Illinois, their online program was really picking up steam and I think they were one of the first programs to really dive deep into online education. They had kind of a hybrid campus online program at that point. It really worked for my schedule and I wouldn’t have to move away from Chicago and so it was a great fit. That’s how I ended up doing the library program there.

Derek: Nice. I’m kind of interested, talking about you seeking out work to do while pursuing creative endeavors… I’m a filmmaker myself and one of the things that attracted me to Library Science was a healthy work life balance that allows you time to pursue things like that. Now that you’re pretty far down into your library career, do you find that that’s the case, that the work life balance is enough for you to pursue music?

Eben: Yeah I mean I think it depends on the type of library that you’re going to get involved with, but in general, yeah. It’s really been a great fit for me. I think libraries are filled with creative people generally, and they’re people that understand that you have other passions in your life. They value that in libraries, I’ve always found. There are so many people I’ve worked with that have been involved with theater or music or film or writing or visual arts. So, being surrounded by all those people, I think those people understand that there are other things in the world besides work. In general it’s been pretty easy to have that kind of balance as opposed to some other kinds of professions. You know, you could choose medicine, you could choose law, those being some pretty obvious examples of where it’s very tough to maintain balance. I think libraries definitely, in my experience, it’s been great. I’ve been able to continue to pursue music outside of the 9-5 sort of life.

Derek: Totally. So, when you were pursuing your Master’s in Library and Information Science, what were you envisioning for your career after graduation?

Eben: You know, honestly, I had very little vision for my career when I started library school. Library school’s a pretty short program. Most people generally do it in about two years. I would say it probably wasn’t until about midway through my second year that I started having some conversations with my advisor to be like, “What do you want to do?” I think I was like, “I don’t know! I don’t know what I want to do.” So then my advisor was like, “Well, maybe you should try this Children’s Librarianship class?” and I was like, “OK, well I know that’s actually something I don’t want to do. SO I can start a process of elimination.” So I think that through that process, it really started to become clear that I wanted to do more of the academic research library focus in my career, and definitely more of a digital, something involved with information in digital form and managing information in digital form and providing access to information and trying to catch the wave of interesting developments in making primary source materials available to people in new and interesting ways.

Derek: Yeah, it seems like the timing is right with that. We’re undergoing pretty fast change, and we have been for a while.

Eben: Yeah. And I think one of the interesting things about pursuing the digital side of things is that one thing that you do realize in library school if you haven’t worked in libraries before, is that you can work in a library and not come in contact with a book, very very easily. I did an internship as part of my degree, and I spent a day or two in the cataloguing department and the acquisitions department. It really just didn’t appeal to me. I realized that, the fact that these people are buying books is almost completely irrelevant. They could be widgets or wingnuts or whatever. I was like, “I need to be in a position where I’m still interacting with the materials, because I think that’s what I’m really passionate about, what most people are really passionate about.” It’s actually surprisingly easy to get cut off from the material when you’re in a library.

Derek: So, how do you stay in touch with the material in your position now?

Eben: In my position now, I don’t actually do any sort of scanning or selection of materials to be scanned or digitized. I mostly deal with managing metadata about materials, developing our schema for how we’re going to describe materials, and then ingesting and managing the digital objects inside some kind of repository system. But I also do most of my work on the front end user interaction part. So that’s most of the way that I interact with this stuff, is through the computer screen after the content’s been ingested into our system. I try to make it as user friendly and as fun and interesting as possible for someone to actually interact with all the material that we’ve digitized.

Derek: Good, that’s definitely very important. So, going back to your library school experience, what were some of the coolest things that you were able to work on while you were there?

Eben: A couple of things come to mind. Probably the most interesting thing was the Digital Libraries class. It was very hands on and we got to build our own digital library using Greenstone, which is a digital library open source application, I think that comes from a university in New Zealand. So our professor put us all into these little groups and said, “We’re going to set up this software. You guys can do a digital library on whatever you want.”

So some people did cookbooks or recipes, but I took the opportunity to mix my artistic and educational endeavors. I ended up doing a digital library of stuff about my band at the time. I had sound recordings, I had photos, I had newspaper clippings, I had setlists. You know, different formats of material that were related to the band. I put all that together in a digital library sort of searchable format. I got to do the metadata for all these items and then see how they would relate to each other in a search interface and be discoverable and have people interact with it. It was pretty gratifying. Definitely a vanity project (laughs).

Derek: (laughs) Those things are fun! That makes it come alive, you know? To work with your own stuff.

Eben: Yeah. I mean, it was definitely something that I was like, “This is great! This is fun.” And I really enjoyed the results of that. That was probably my favorite part.

Derek: I’ve done something like that too actually. I made a website for my film when I was in the intro tech class at Simmons. Those vanity projects, they’re fun. (laughs)

Eben: (laughs) Yeah, there’s always room for vanity projects. I’m sure there’s a lot of historical stuff, you know… Pyramids: vanity project! (laughs)

Derek: (laughs) That’s the truth!

Eben: There’s nothing wrong with that, you know, in its proper place.

Derek: Yeah. Was there anything else that comes to mind from your Master’s time?

Eben: I also had a Digital Humanities course, which was really interesting. Sort of surveying different techniques and different types of materials that were being digitized by lots of different universities and agencies. We all got to choose a project out in the real world to write a paper on and then everybody reported on their project as part of the class. We really got to see this huge variety of not only materials that were being digitized, but different ways of aggregating those materials and providing different ways for people to search those materials. And also, really interesting stuff with restoration through digital technology of fading manuscripts and things like that. It sort of opened my eyes to the possibilities that were inherent in creating digital access to materials.

Derek: Yeah. It’s amazing some of the stuff that people are doing with that. Getting into your career now, what are some of the things that really stand out in your professional career, as particularly exciting experiences or projects you’ve been able to work on?

Eben: Probably the most interesting collection that I’ve been able to work on so far was at my first job out of library school, the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT). They had a collection of oral histories with Holocaust survivors that were done by a professor at IIT in the 1940’s, pretty much in the immediate aftermath of the war. IIT is mostly a science and engineering school, so someone at the school had invented this thing called the wire recorder, which was sort of a predecessor of magnetic tape recording. So instead of magnetic particles on a plastic tape, these are magnetic particles on a metal wire. They would make these recordings on these spools of wire. This person had invented this portable recorder about the size of a suitcase. It looked a lot like a reel-to-reel recorder. Two spools, one on either side, and the wire passes over a recording head. So basically, this psychology professor had gone to Europe in 1946. This was before the word Holocaust even came into popular… uh,

Derek: Before it was coined.

Eben: Yeah, before it was sort of the lingo of describing that time period. This person traveled to all these displaced persons’ camps, refugee camps, in France mostly, and other places, and recorded interviews with these people who would, a lot of them had been in camps all over Germany and Poland. It was really incredible stuff. Some of the first oral histories ever done, if not the first. I don’t know if the actual claim is being laid down, but…

So, some of those materials had been made available on a project grant funded site that they had built. But they wanted to revamp the site and get a bigger, you know, have a fuller collection of materials. Have the audio materials digitally restored, get transcripts done of all of these. They were done in probably six or seven different languages: French, German, Yiddish, Spanish. And so they wanted to have them all transcribed, translated into English, and then all timecoded so that you could go to this site, listen to the audio, and read the transcript, either in its original language or in its English translation, in a sort of playback player experience.

So I was sort of managing that project for a few years while I was there and working with the vendors doing the audio digitization and working with the vendors doing the translation. Coming up with this schema that we used. We used the TEI (Text Encoding Initiative) standard for encoding the documents as XML. I was figuring out, how do we put these raw materials into TEI, how are we going to make the functions of this site work? Working with the web developers and other project managers to actually get the vision for the whole site and then actually launching it and promoting it. Fascinating collection, obviously, very incredible stuff. I was doing everything from editing the actual text to hiring the students workers do to all the timecode matching, reviewing the designs of the graphic designer and stuff like that. Working with local historians to provide commentary and things like that.

Derek: Some context.

Eben: Yeah. The project is called Voices of the Holocaust. It’s at voices.iit.edu. And so that was a really incredible project to work on.

Derek: I’m particularly curious about how they digitized that strange wire-based medium. Do you know about that, how they did it?

Eben: Yeah. That was sort of part of… The project had an element of mystery because the original wire spools, nobody knows where they are right now. They were originally converted to digital audio tape, or DAT tapes, I think by the Library of Congress, maybe in the late 80’s or early 90’s perhaps. And then we had digital versions at Illinois Institute of Technology that were taken from those DAT tapes. But ideally you would probably want to get the original wire spools redigitized because the technology has come so much further in terms of audio forensics and digitization.

But nobody knows where those original spools are. They’re probably somewhere. Copies were made of the spools. They were recorded on these spools originally in Europe in these displaced persons camps, but then the original, the researcher who did this, whose name was Dr. David Boder, when he came back to the US he would basically play the original interview on one spool on one recorder, translate it as he was hearing it onto another spool, another recording, and then I think he had a secretary or someone like that typing out his translation from this other audio spool. So it really went through all these permutations and nobody’s 100% sure where the original originals really are. They might have ended up with… He doesn’t have any surviving relatives. They might have ended up with this person, might have ended up with that person, we don’t really… We made some efforts to track them down and finding all these people, and sort of hunting people down is also part of the excitement of really diving into history here.

Derek: Yeah. Got to do a bit of detective work. That’s nifty. Wow, cool project.

Eben: Yeah. I often joke to myself that I peaked too early, like I’ll probably never work on a project that is quite so historically significant as something like that.

Derek: Well, you never know.

Eben: You never know. But yeah, that was a great project to be involved with.

Derek: Yeah, for sure. That’s neat. So now what kind of stuff are you doing now, today, at the BPL?

Eben: At the BPL, so mostly I do straight up web development. Working on digitalcommonwealth.org, which is the place where everyone can go to find all these materials that are from all these different libraries and historical societies from across the state.

The BPL has a program where we will digitize materials for other libraries for free, and then we will host that material in our digital repository for free. So we have probably over a hundred and 20, hundred and thirty different institutions that we’ve worked with at this point. And it’s always growing.

Derek: Yeah, that’s huge.

Eben: Yeah, so we have about two hundred, two hundred and thirty thousand objects in the repository. Everything from photographs to manuscripts, books… Not a lot of audio and video yet, although we hope to get into that soon. Mostly image-based materials. Photographs, postcards, posters. You know, other things of that nature. Manuscripts, like I said.

So, my job is basically to design and maintain and progressively add functionality to this site that people are interacting with to find all this stuff. So, that involves creating this search index and sort of designing that. So, what pieces of metadata are people going to be able to search in? Can they search by title? Can they search by keyword? Can they search by geographic location? But also, what can they refine their search by? You know, the filters that you see now, the sort of typical library search interface. What pieces of metadata are we going to filter on, how are we going to put that together? What sorts of search result views are you going to have? You know, you have gallery view, list view, what are you going to display?

We have all these different institutions, and each institution has its own collection. We want to be able to provide access to that for institution-specific pages, so that the public library of Medford or Somerville or North Adams can point to their little home on Digital Commonwealth and have their own slightly branded specific instance where you can find materials just from that library.

We started out with images, like a single image, records, photographs mostly. So that’s a fairly straightforward user interaction. You’re displaying the image on the page so the user can view it, but you want to have, like, a zooming viewer so, getting all that stuff set up. Deciding which application you want to use.

We generally try to use open source software for everything. There’s a low initial cost but a high developer cost.

Derek: Yeah, the maintenance of it.

Eben: Yeah, the maintenance of it, the implementation of it. So that’s a lot of what I deal with. And then as we add different content types, that demands more different functionality. So, if you add a postcard, you’ve got to have a way to view the front and back of that postcard. So now you need a viewer that has two different images. If you’re adding a book, that might have hundreds of pages. Now you need a new way of looking through hundreds of pages of images and navigating to… I just want to go to page 50, or I want to go to page 200. These are all user interactions that you have to be prepared to deal with, or you have to add functionality for. You know, if the book has OCR text, you want to make that searchable. That’s what I’ve been working on a lot lately. Having a nice integration of page level search results within the viewing interface, and then sort of highlighting people’s search terms, things like that.

It’s not necessarily revolutionary stuff that you haven’t seen before in other digital libraries, but it’s not just something you can… you don’t just plug it in and double click on the executable file and then boom, now it’s working. It’s something that takes configuration and customization. And then you also want to integrate that stylistically into the site itself. The look and feel of the site, I also work on that stuff too.

There’s just a two person development team on digitalcommonwealth.org. My colleague works primarily on the ingest and getting the materials into the depository. I primarily work on what happens once they’re already in there. But we also have to do, you know, server maintenance ourselves. Installing all the software. Installing the operating systems on the servers. Making sure that stuff’s up to date. Dealing with security fixes and patches and various other things. Other bugs that come up.

Derek: Troubleshooting.

Eben: Troubleshooting, yeah. So there’s a lot of different things that we get to work on. It’s never a dull moment, really.

Derek: Yeah. So, where did you develop all these tech skills? Did you learn a lot of this in library school? Did you learn some of it on your own?

Eben: Most of it I learned on my own, honestly. And attending library tech conferences like Code4Lib and other things like that. That’s one thing I’ve learned, is that most of the people have actually learned this on their own. We do get people that have degrees in software engineering or computer science. But the majority of people are coming from some other background, like you know, “I got an English Literature degree, or I went to library school.”

But yeah, the tech skills have all come from learning stuff on my own and learning from other people that I’ve worked with. And this is an interesting thing. When I was in library school, I totally felt like, “I’m not learning enough tech skills.” And I was like, “I’m not learning enough hands on skills. When I graduate and I get a job, I’m not gonna know how to do anything!” You know, and I think the thing that you have to realize is that library school should be, in my opinion anyway… Different people are going to have different opinions about this. And there’s a baseline of tech skills that everybody should have, and I don’t know if it’s library school’s job to give people that. My advisor was like, “Don’t go to library school to learn how to do HTML. That’s a waste of library school.” Those were his words. And I tend to agree.

But I did take classes in library school about relational databases, XML, information modeling, first order logic. Not just how you’re going to store a piece of text or a set of information that’s from a spreadsheet in a database, but also, how does the flow of information in a computer system really work? Conditional sort of logical processing. I had a class that talked about some of that, and understanding those concepts on a fundamental level has made a huge difference in my ability to learn programming concepts and markup concepts for things like TEI or database modeling or modeling data in a search index, like we use Solr for Digital Commonwealth. And that’s basically just a key-value store, where it’s a completely flat data structure. You have field 1, value 1, field 2, value 2 and there’s no hierarchy or anything like that, unlike XML and unlike a relational database where you have the primary key of some table is relating to some other key in another table.

So all of these different ways of modeling information. But also understanding some of the programming language concepts of first order logic or predicate logic were really helpful to me.

Derek: So, knowing the abstract kind of theoretical background, and then learning the implementation later on.

Eben: Yeah. I think people are better served in understanding the more abstract concepts underneath different tools rather than focusing on a specific technology. Certainly some things have become to ubiquitous that it doesn’t hurt to have some training in those in library school. But I think for me, I’m not sure that any programming class I would have taken in library school would have really made a huge difference for me. I’m sure it would have helped, but again, I sort of agree with my advisor in that learning a specific skill related to a specific language or markup language is not always the best use of your time in library school.

Derek: Interesting. Out of curiosity, what kind of programming languages do you tend to use in your position here?

Eben: We use a framework called Ruby on Rails. We use this open source repository application framework called the Hydra Project. It’s a collaboratively developed application for managing digital assets which uses an application called Fedora Commons as the storage layer for the repository. Solr, which I mentioned before, as the indexing layer. Blacklight, which is an open source application… it was originally developed to be a library catalogue sort of OPAC style application. Blacklight is the user interface, and then Hydra is the administrative interface to do your modeling and your ingest and things like that. It’s all completely open source. It’s all very collaboratively developed. Supported by the work of dozens of different people at different universities. DuraSpace is also a big player in supporting that development. So that’s mostly based in Ruby on Rails, this is what we use right now.

I’ve also done other work in PHP for some other projects. PHP is another very, very popular language that’s used by Omeka and Drupal. Omeka being sort of a library-specific digital library exhibit application. Drupal being a more generic content management system. Those are the two primary ones I’ve seen. Python is also a pretty popular language in library applications but I haven’t worked in Python very much.

Derek: Cool cool. Python gets around. I worked in a Cognitive Science lab, and they were using it for all of their experimental design. It’s pretty interesting.

Eben: Yeah, I think Python has a lot of traction in the research world, doing some processing stuff there as well. There’s a huge proliferation of languages that you can learn. Once you learn a programming language, especially a more scripting language like PHP, that can really help you learn something like Python. Or if you learn Python, then going from Python to PHP, it’s… There’s a lot of the same concepts that are used in all these languages.

Derek: You kind of learn how to learn the languages, right?

Eben: Right, yeah. The more you learn another one the easier it’s going to be to pick up the next one or port the concepts over.

Derek: Neat. So now we’ve kind of been getting into it, but what do you feel is the state of the art in digital repository development and management right now?

Eben: I think some of the most exciting developments that you’re seeing right now, or the ones that I find most exciting are the initiatives that everyone’s doing to make all their data available through APIs. You have the DPLA, Digital Public Library of America, all the data they’re aggregating is available through their API. And their API actually has a lot more data available than you can get on their website.

Derek: Really?

Eben: Yeah. If you look at the records on DPLA’s website, there’s a pretty limited set of metadata available, but there’s a lot more metadata that they have for all of these items, but it’s only available through the API.

Derek: Ah, I see.

Eben: So they’ve almost taken an API-first approach to what they’re doing. And New York Public Library, Library of Congress, a lot of these different places are making all of this data available and there’s really this open spirit of, “Here it is! Do whatever you want with it!” I’m sure that people are going to make some great stuff.

And you know, you’re also seeing, I think NYPL and I know New York Times has a sort of data artist in residence, where they’re actually supporting this idea of, “We’re just gonna bring in somebody from outside and let them go to town and see what happens and see what people can do with this.” And I think that that really is an exciting development and that we’re getting out of the silos, we’re pushing it all out, it’s all there for people who want to use it. That’s something that we haven’t done yet at Digital Commonwealth, partly because all of the Digital Commonwealth information is available through the DPLA API. They’ve kind of done the work for us and for a lot of other institutions as well. So it’s been a little bit less of a priority.

Not only the data, but you’re also seeing the objects themselves, a lot more openness of letting people download the files. The New York Public Library just had a huge announcement about that. People can use this stuff. A lot more museums are doing this as well. I’ve seen a lot more very digital-library-esque sites from museums, like Rijksmuseum or the Tate, that have these sites that look exactly like a digital library. You know, there’s the search, there’s a bunch of thumbnails. You can view the objects in more detail. But they’re letting people download these images.

Derek: Making them fully available, not just like a thumbnail or whatever.

Eben: Yeah. Hi-res images, and making them available. I think that that spirit of openness is really starting to take over the world of digital repositories, where we just want to make things as open as possible. It’s different in the academic library world, you have the institutional repositories for research data and scholarship and published material, and that’s going to take a lot longer, obviously, because of the copyright situation with scholarly publishing being so fraught with peril. But I think the more libraries are doing this, the more it’s going to sort of become this groundswell people aren’t really going to be able to ignore any more.

You also have… there’s an initiative called the International Image Interoperability Framework. This would actually allow users or other institutions to make requests for image files. Let’s say I have an image file for a photograph of Boston on my site. If I make my data available through this, they call it the “Triple I F” (IIIF), if I make my data available through this IIIF API for image requests, someone can build a site and they can show any sized version of my image that they want on their own site. They can even create a viewer that zooms in. And the data still resides… I’m still controlling the objects here in my repository, but the data, the raw binary data, is available to other people outside. And they don’t have to download the object to create these interfaces. And so there’s an API for images, and there’s also an API for… It’s sort of meant to describe the structure of a text, or a series of images basically, a digitized book or something like that.

So I can build a site, or anyone can build a site, to display this medieval manuscript that’s held at Stanford or Yale. I don’t have to download this stuff, if there’s any corrections to the object that happen at the source institution that can be reflected on my end as well. So these types of APIs and ways of sharing are definitely really exciting, and they’re starting to gain a lot of traction.

Derek: So it sounds kind of similar to something like an embed code for a YouTube video or something, what you’re describing, is that accurate?

Eben: Yeah, it’s a very similar idea. Yeah. The object still lives in its home, but you can display it on your site, and it’s as if it was part of your collection or your site. It’s very similar.

Derek: That’s neat. Is that like, if you’re looking at an object in the repository, you might have an option next to the object that’s like, “get your embed code or whatever to put this on your site?”

Eben: Yeah, yeah. And you’re seeing that as well on a lot of digital libraries. I think Stanford has some code. They did a presentation at Code4Lib last year, where they have developed this embed code that you can use on a project that uses Blacklight. So anybody can embed your image on whatever site that they want. Yeah, it’s really great.

Derek: Yeah, that’s useful.

Eben: This Democratic spirit of public access to knowledge, and all those capital letter ideas that we subscribe to. Actually getting to put it into practice is exciting.

Derek: Yeah, definitely. Bring it into the real world.

Eben: Mhm.

Derek: Well, I think that about wraps it up in terms of questions I had. But did you have anything that you wanted to add to the conversation?

Eben: You know, I think that, when it comes to technology and libraries, it’s easier than you think to get a good tech background. Learning a programming language is not something that only geniuses can do. I think there’s this sort of special reverence that we have for “tech people” or developers in the library world, and I’ve seen this from regular librarians all the way to the administrators at the highest levels of huge institutions. They walk into a room of developers and they feel like they’re not smart enough to… And that’s not true. There are some brilliant developers for sure. There’s also some brilliant library administrators and reference librarians. Developers on the whole are not any smarter than any other group of people. They’ve just taken the time to learn these skills. It’s a skill that anybody can absolutely learn. If you sit down and start looking at it, it’s not the arcane black magic thing that you think it is. It’s within your grasp. And most of the people that you meet in technology in libraries are self-taught. It’s a path that a lot of people have gone on.

Derek: I think that’s an important thing to keep in mind. Cool. Well Eben, thanks so much for coming on board this podcast! It’s been great talking with you.

Eben: Thanks for having me, I appreciate it.

One thought on “Episode 7: Eben English on Developing Digital Repositories”

  1. Very much appreciated this article. Between working as a Webmaster and attending U of I along with taking classes in technology and metadata this is really great information. Thank you!

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