The Role of Libraries in the Digital Age

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The CNI Interviews Podcast | Season 2, Episode 5

MacKenzie Smith, University Librarian and Vice Provost for Digital Scholarship at UC Davis, discusses her career and her efforts to encourage women to get involved in technology. Smith also talks about the challenges of building a technologically sophisticated, flexible, and equitable library and her frustrations with people's complacency and lack of curiosity about libraries.

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Gerry Bayne: This is Gerry Bayne at the Coalition for Networked Information Spring 2023 Meeting. And I'm here with MacKenzie Smith, University Librarian and Vice Provost for Digital Scholarship at UC Davis. Thanks for being here, MacKenzie.

MacKenzie Smith: Thank you for inviting me, Gerry. It's always a pleasure to be here.

Gerry Bayne: Great. So reflecting back on your career so far, what are some of the most rewarding projects or efforts you've undertaken, and what are some of the most frustrating?

MacKenzie Smith: Well, before I talk about projects, I just want to say that even to this day, there are not a lot of women in technology. CNI is a better than average, I would say, meeting. And if you go to more technology-focused meetings, there are not a lot of us in the room. There are also not a lot of library leaders who have a technology background. So I can think of a handful of other women who are running research libraries that have a technology focus. And so I think it's been something I'm proud of doing, is just representing women in this particular profession at a time when... It's something I want to inspire more women to get into. And I'm happy to say that through things like the ARL Leadership and Career Development Program, I've been able to mentor other women into library technology leadership roles, and especially diverse librarians. So that's something I'm very proud of that has nothing to do with specific projects. [inaudible 00:01:32].

Gerry Bayne: Can I just ask you a side question?

MacKenzie Smith: Sure.

Gerry Bayne: What do you think are some of the ways that we could help encourage women to be more involved? Or what do you think are some of the barriers that we could lift to encourage women to be more involved?

MacKenzie Smith: I think it's a lot of self-induced doubt, so having confidence that you belong is something that it's hard to really inculcate into people, but that's why representation is important and dragging people into it and giving them opportunities. That's something I've really benefited from my whole career, are great opportunities, which I took advantage of. So I try to create opportunities for other women in technology and everyone really to get involved and do cool things because I think this is the future of the profession.

Gerry Bayne: Right. Well, moving on to your career, what are some of the most rewarding ones?

MacKenzie Smith: Like a lot of women in technology, I feel like I'm a pretty creative person. And so one of the things I've done throughout my career is make connections that other people didn't necessarily see. And that started very early on. So way back in the '90s when I was working at Harvard, we got a grant from the Mellon Foundation to work with some publishers on the transition to electronic journals, which wasn't really a thing yet. And I was hanging out with the computing and humanities crowd at Harvard and at Brown University, and they were teaching me all about SGML and what they were doing with the text and coding initiative, which was so cool. And I thought, "Why don't we do that for journals?" So one of the things we did with that project is hire a consulting company who was an expert at SGML, and that eventually led to the journal archiving transfer schema that is the industry standard now. So every article that goes into PubMed Central is in that schema, and it's everywhere.

Gerry Bayne: That's amazing.

MacKenzie Smith: Yeah. I mean, that's just an example of where a spark... You don't even have to be the expert. You just have to know that this applies to that.

Gerry Bayne: Sometimes it helps not to be the expert.

MacKenzie Smith: Right. You don't get scared off. So I've kind of done that sort of thing throughout my career. And then of course, I moved to MIT in the arts and learned all about open. So I was in charge of the DSpace project, open-source software, and that spun into open access and open educational resources. And that place is really inspiring when it comes to thinking non-proprietary about the world and your impact on it. And so that's another thing that I really helped move into the library field. And so I'm very proud of that work, which of course is ongoing.

And then now, I work a lot on organizational development because I'm in charge of a library. So how do you build a library today that is technologically sophisticated, flexible, equitable, all those good things that we want research libraries to be so that they aren't irrelevant and obsolete in fifty years.

Gerry Bayne: It can't be easy.

MacKenzie Smith: There's a lot of resistance, and not just from the people who work in libraries, but from a lot of faculty and administrators who really just put libraries in a box and they have no idea what we really do. So building an organization that will survive the next fifty years is interesting, but that's what I've really been focusing on, and it's gratifying.

Gerry Bayne: Do you want to talk about the frustrations you've had? I mean, I don't want to get off on a negative tip, but if there's something you'd like to talk about.

MacKenzie Smith: I think it is that complacency that people aren't curious about libraries, and it's starting to change. I think people, especially in the current political situation that we find ourselves in, there's been a lot more attention on what's happening with public libraries. And so people are starting to realize that they're not doing what they used to do back in the '60s, '70s, that they've really evolved into a different kind of organization. And that's true for research libraries too. So the frustration is just that so many people don't understand what we do, what we could do, that they shouldn't just pick up the phone and call IT anytime. There's a digital dimension to their question. And I think I've made a lot of progress on that at my university, but all of my colleagues are struggling with that perception that we're still just the books and the stacks, and we don't have a role beyond that.

Gerry Bayne: Yeah, it's hard to-

MacKenzie Smith: It's very irritating.

Gerry Bayne: ... evolve. Definitely.

MacKenzie Smith: Yeah.

Gerry Bayne: What do you see as some of the most pressing issues facing academic libraries today? I mean, you just mentioned one, obviously. What are some of the issues, and what are some of the opportunities?

MacKenzie Smith: Issues? Yeah. Well, so there is a huge elephant in the room, and that is the fact that in the digital environment, libraries have lost the privileged position they had in the print environment. We don't own any digital content, even things we digitize ourselves. The lawsuit that was just settled against the Internet Archive is a good example of that, that we've given up the idea that we should own what we buy, and now we license it so it's not ours.

And we also haven't really nailed digital preservation of what we do happen to have our hands on. So there won't be any content in the future that we have any control over in the libraries. And we will simply be, if we're lucky, a very expensive licensing operation. And that's a tragedy. There won't be a cultural history in the future if we don't figure out how to get around that. But I've seen no interest in really working on digital preservation. It was in vogue for a while, and now nobody seems to be working on it. A very few people, I should say. And this licensing stuff is really frightening. And if we can't even scan our own books and then use those as surrogates in any scenario, we're hosed.

Gerry Bayne: Oh, it's so scary.

MacKenzie Smith: So there are some opportunities that we have to tackle these issues. An example of that is a project that UC Davis, my current institution, is leading for the University of California system. And that is to really take a look at what the world of research and education would look like if we could digitize all of our books and do something with them. Would there be transformative uses for scholarship if a professor could download 500 books, do a quick text mining exercise on them, and then return them in ten minutes? Or I can think of many examples.

We have a grant now from the Mellon Foundation to work on that problem and really do the background research that we as a profession are going to need to think creatively about the future and what we need to fight back on with these restrictive legal regimes. Because it may be that we can't do what we want to do currently with the current legal system, but that there are some points where we could begin to lobby and advocate and fight for what libraries need to be able to do in the future in the digital world.

Gerry Bayne: What currently emerging technologies do you think are particularly promising and perhaps overlooked?

MacKenzie Smith: I wouldn't say they're overlooked, but there's something that libraries, research libraries aren't spending a lot of their time on, and that is cloud computing. So my library has a rather significant data science program that does a lot of the data science research and teaching around campus. And we're really interested in cloud computing because infrastructure is so expensive for high-performance computing and for all kinds of data-driven research. And our students certainly can't afford that kind of infrastructure themselves, and neither can early career researchers. So the cloud is really going to be incredibly important for the future of research, which is what research libraries support. And I think of data as a first-class object that libraries ought to be collecting, indexing, making available, preserving all of that good stuff.

So I think cloud computing is really important part of our future, but we aren't really advocating for, again, what we need. We're just sort of relying on what Amazon and Google and Microsoft come up with and saying, "Okay, we'll just use that." It's not priced for the academic market. It doesn't really do what we need, so we need to be doing more to leverage that, but it's got a huge great potential for solving our problems.

And then of course, the overhyped is got to be AI. You can't open a magazine now without some article about how AI is going to change everything. And those of us who've been around for a while know that AI is not new. It's just kind of passed a big hurdle with these large language models now, which back things like ChatGPT. So now we have these generative AI models, which are impressing people, but they have their limitations. So they've opened people's eyes, and I think that's great that people are really getting creative now about what this could do and all the bad things it could do, but the reality is that it's still pretty limited. And so I'm kind of tired of hearing about that.

Gerry Bayne: I can understand.

MacKenzie Smith: Yeah.

Gerry Bayne: It's been talked about quite a bit. So what are your future plans?

MacKenzie Smith: That's a good question too, because as I inch toward retirement in the pretty near future, I want to take a sabbatical. I feel like our profession has really changed a lot, and that when you're on the ground working way too much, putting out fires coming out of the pandemic and all of the effort that took to just pivot to online and manage freaked out students and staff and all of that, I've kind of lost touch with what I should be focused on. It's so reactive. So I'm really going to stop and take a sabbatical, which I wish more librarians could do and technologists. Just take a break to really look around you and look at what the big issues are.

We just talked about AI, and I'm tired of hearing about it, but I also think there's a huge amount of potential for that type of technology in digital libraries. And I know a lot of other people are thinking about it, but as I said, sometimes I see connections that other people don't because I've been doing this so long. So I just want to take some time off to think about that and then decide what the next chapter will look like.

Gerry Bayne: Thank you for joining me, MacKenzie. I really appreciate your thoughts.

MacKenzie Smith: Thank you, Gerry. Always a pleasure.

This episode features:

MacKenzie Smith
University Librarian and Vice Provost for Digital Scholarship
UC Davis