What is your role at Columbia University Libraries, and what is your day-to-day work like?
I'm the head of the Developer Infrastructure and Applications group, a team that builds and administers the software behind our online exhibitions, institutional repository, e-journal publications, and digital preservation applications. There's a variety of responsibilities in that role, including coordinating work under grants, mentoring team members, representing the Libraries in collaborative software efforts, editing specifications, developing practical standards for our group, and broadly speaking, filling gaps whenever we need an extra set of hands on a project. A typical day is a mix of project meetings or conference calls, informal consultations, and a bit of programming or data migration.
What would surprise library users about the "behind the scenes" work of libraries?
The scope! There's always so much going on in the Libraries, for such a broad array of audiences, that I think it must be hard for a member of any given one of those constituencies to follow it all. I have so much sympathy for the project managers.
What most excites you about your role within the Columbia Libraries system (and libraries, more generally) in a time of rapid change on the technology side?
I grew up among the oil refineries on the Houston ship channel, and spent my weekends at the Houston museums. I thought I'd work in a chemical lab, and never imagined that I'd work for a cultural institution like the Columbia Libraries. Just being in a position to work towards greater public access to the rich collections and immense expertise of the Libraries staff is tremendously exciting.
But I have to admit that I'm most excited to see where our organization takes these efforts. My team is a remarkable blend of talent and collegiality and it's hard not to gush about their work. Carla Galarza's work on the institutional repository and Eric O'Hanlon's on cultural heritage description and publication have put those initiatives on a different plateau of capability. Fred Duby's work to integrate the flow of data through those platforms has us looking at entirely new possibilities in tying together digitization processes, research deposit, and the creation of online exhibitions. Jack Donovan is transforming our ability to support e-journal publication and re-leveraging our experience in institutional repositories out to a huge audience via the Modern Language Association's Humanities Commons at the same time. Marii Nyröp managed to find a way to stitch the Minimal Computing research that Digital Scholarship Coordinator Alex Gil leads here together with a radical reconsideration of "boutique" database projects - and she's only been here a few months!
What was your path - both personally and professionally - to your current position?
It was a circuitous one: I dropped out of a Ph.D. program in anthropology at the University of Texas (UT) and found myself in a kind of apprenticeship for mainframe business programming at UT. After several years on mainframe systems, I was on a team that led the effort to migrate business applications to Java. That project included developing Java training materials for the developer pool and resulted in my first open source software contributions. Five or six years into that role, my domestic partner was offered a tenure-track position at Hofstra on Long Island and I followed her to New York. We were incredibly fortunate that Columbia had a place for me; it's a rarity that academic couples can escape the "two body problem"!
The next decade is a blur of project kick-off meetings and Wiki pages, but I think a professional turning point for me was when my supervisor, Stephen Davis, and (former) Associate University Librarian Patricia Renfro asked me to begin investigating a migration of our online institutional repository, Academic Commons, to a new platform. Over the years that work has culminated in our membership in the Samvera open source software community and the infrastructure for two publicly accessible portals maintained by the Libraries: Academic Commons, Columbia’s repository where faculty, students, and staff can deposit the results of their scholarly work and research; and Digital Library Collections, a portal of digital reproductions and descriptions of photographs, posters, drawings, objects, ephemera, and manuscripts Columbia's rare and special collections.
What kind of partnerships with peer institutions and other library systems do you see as crucial to the sustainability of libraries?
I think this may be the least specifically technical question in this piece - finding ways to share the results of our work and the supporting processes in service of research and learning is our mission, right? We have a tremendously beneficial reciprocal relationship with our software development partners in DuraSpace (for Fedora) and Samvera (for Blacklight and much else). I think, however, that the communities of library practice might be the most critical partnerships to sustaining the mission: the inter-institutional communities like Samvera, which organizes substantial non-software efforts as well, Metropolitan New York Library Council (METRO), and also the intra-institutional research and working groups that allow us to collaborate with researchers on campus, and the scholarly networks that we support and participate in.
What is your favorite little-known fact or story about Columbia Libraries?
I love the way that any scrap of paper in the archives is attached to some kind of story if you tug on the thread of it a little. Working on the Digital Libraries Collections, I’ve encountered many such stories. Bear with me: sometime around 1850, a Swiss child named John Walthart Latcher immigrated to New York with his father; he was 13 in the 1850 census. He grew up to be a machinist and inventor who was granted patents in a range of applications, several of which were still cited in automobile manufacture patents into the late 1970s. He stopped filing patents in the 1910s! In 1870, Latcher and his father-in-law, Arad Copeland, opened a blacksmith and carriage shop, powered by a water-driven turbine, in the town of Edinburg, NY. This seems to have been a successful endeavor; Latcher was the town supervisor in 1874 and expanded the shop's capacity with a larger turbine - possibly of his own design - in 1889. In 1882, while he was running the shop, engaging in some amateur geology in the Hudson Valley, and what have you, Latcher requested a price list from Jones & Laughlin's American Iron Works in Pittsburgh. The note thanking him for the inquiry, printed on the company's stationery, is in the Biggert Collection; you can find it in the Digital Libraries Collections by searching for "ave_biggert_01461" - and the whole story unfolds from that one little note.
What do you enjoy doing in your free time?
I know it's a mundane thing for a Libraries employee, but I like to read, recently Claudia Rankine's Citizen and Alison Kinney's Hood. I have some side projects indirectly related to my work in the Libraries around graph data stores and early modern print transcriptions. And I guess I should meekly include that I'm making an effort (my third, the first two entirely unsuccessful) to learn an instrument. That all sounds like I'm trying to avoid having free time, doesn't it?
To reach Ben, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.