In our latest 2015 In-Depth Interview with Library Journal Movers & Shakers from academic libraries, sponsored by SAGE, we spoke with Salwa Ismail, head of library information technology at Georgetown University. Ismail leads, directs, and manages every aspect of the library’s technological operations. One of her primary projects has been DigitalGeorgetown, which hosts the university’s institutional repository (IR) and contains more than 210,000 digital items in over 200 collections. Ismail has also been instrumental in the library’s participation in Georgetown’s Initiative on Technology Enhanced Learning (ITEL), including the development of massive open online courses (MOOCs) in partnership with edX, and works with students and faculty on Georgetown’s international campuses in Fiesole, Italy, and the School of Foreign Service in Doha, Qatar, on open access initiatives.
LJ: What do you do as head of library IT at Georgetown?
SI: My portfolio’s pretty diverse. Anything that even remotely touches [the library’s] technologies: developmental, servers, network, applications, web services, or computing support—something as simple as speakers on someone’s computer not working or something as complex as developing an application that will streamline how the library’s digital collections are actually discoverable using schema.org and other discoverability tools. My department handles web services, digital collections, networking and server support, application support and development—anything that’s library related—and computing infrastructure support, [even] something very basic like computers and desktops.
In this interview series, sponsored by SAGE, LJ goes in depth with the 2015 Movers & Shakers from academic libraries, delving into just how and why they pulled off the projects that brought them recognition as innovators, change agents, and more. For a deeper dive into what made our 2014 Academic Movers so exceptional, download our 20-page collection of insightful interviews.
What was your career path like? Have you always worked in libraries?
I started off as a student [at Florida Atlantic University]. My background is in computer engineering, but I had friends who were working at the library so I started working in the libraries and special collections. I have to give a lot of kudos to the university archivist and special collections librarian, who took me under their wings—this 17-year-old person who had no clue what libraries were. They helped me understand how things worked. I found a home—I belonged to a sorority, and that never felt like as much of a home as the library did.
When I graduated and I started my MBA, my first masters, [the library] offered me a graduate assistantship and asked me to stay on to handle their digital library program because their digital librarian had just quit. They wanted me to handle that program and work with other staff members, and I did that. In two years, we developed the digital library program [so that] the associate dean at that point spun off a whole new department. As soon as I graduated, they asked me if I wanted to come in as the manager for the department—I couldn’t be a department head because I didn’t have an MLS—and I agreed. I want to say I fell into it, but it just seemed so natural, [like] it was a part of me all along.
I was a manager of that department for about three years, until I got my MLS, and then I became the head of the digital library department. Soon after, I got this opportunity at Georgetown to move up and expand my career.
I want to thank my current supervisor, the associate university librarian, and my university librarian, for all the support I get. Also, I’m also very thankful to the associate dean and the retired university archivist at FAU for getting me on this path. These are four people I really owe a lot to.
What skills do you feel were responsible for your being able to move up so quickly?
There were definitely soft and hard skills. I had an engineering background, so I was very comfortable with computers. It didn’t scare me to go in and do something and figure things out, which at that point—2002, 2003, when digital libraries were just up and coming and people were still putting their feelers out—for me was pretty natural: “Oh, this is a solution. Oh, we can automate this, let me write up a script to do this.” That definitely helped.
I’m not shy. I speak my mind. I ask questions. I’m friendly. I can engage people at different levels. And I do want to say that [helped] them realize that I had these skills. I believe in promoting our skills—as librarians, on a whole, we are so used to providing services and not promoting ourselves until it comes down to the wire.
DigitalGeorgetown is a big project with a lot of moving parts. How were you able to get buy-in from the university?
DigitalGeorgetown was something that the university librarian at Georgetown wanted to implement for a while. There had been discussions, but there just wasn’t a pushing factor—someone to come in, take charge, [say], “This is how we’re going to get it done.” And it wasn’t just a matter of taking charge; it was also a matter of knowing how to get it done. Having come from a university where I had already instituted all this and set it up, I was fortunate to come in here having those skills.
My supervisor, the associate university librarian, who’s excessively supportive of any new initiative, gave me all the support I needed, and we implemented DigitalGeorgetown. Up until that point it was just an idea that existed on some static pages, and we made it happen in terms of getting a digital repository, doing our image conversions, getting everything out and together. Then I worked on getting developers and sysadmins and digital librarians to continue to enhance it and make it better. Now we’re actually embedded within curriculum and course mashups through our LMS [learning management system], which is Blackboard.
How do you work with various constituencies within the university? How about internationally? Does your message stay the same, or do you vary it depending on who you want to reach?
I change it up based on the constituency. The underlying message is the same: information wants to be free and accessible, and how do we, as libraries, promote this very noble cause? But [for different constituents] the message has to be different—it has to be packaged differently—and I try to do that. For faculty, what I [ask myself] is: What are their needs? What is their reward system? Why would they want to contribute to something open access? They’re really busy getting their tenure. They’re really busy doing their research. Yes, it’s a noble cause, and it’s fabulous, but there’s no reward for them. So I have to package it in a way where I can tie it in with things that might be beneficial to them: it will help you in your research, it will help your coworkers in their research, and it will help you get your name out as a champion of open access.
With students, it’s a different message. You have to package it in a way that makes the most sense to them so they feel they have a reason to commit. Noble ideas are great, but unless you can relate to them, the commitment’s always going to be at a very low level. When you can get people to relate to it and see that they have a stake in it, they’ll be able to commit more easily.
You cover a lot of bases, including systems administration, the IR, and MOOCs. What do you think is the most important computing issue libraries are facing right now?
I think the most important computing issue we’re facing is sustainability as we develop very specialized library applications. If I have a specific need and I go ahead and develop something very specific to meet my need with the one developer I have, how do I go forward and sustain it? Number two, how do I make sure that another library does not spend its resources developing the same thing? A good example is Google. Most companies don’t even bother investing in developing a search engine—they know it’s not going to be worth it. Why? Google’s done the job fabulously. At libraries, we’re so enmeshed in our own internal processes that we can fail to see the bigger picture.
What are you working on now?
Right now we’re exploring digital publishing—how we can work with faculty publishing online, open journal systems, things like that. And discoverability—we have all these discovery layers, but how do we really get to our patrons? How do we make sure everything is discovered—just by putting in a search box like Summon or Primo, or are there other ways? We’re constantly exploring new ways to enhance discoverability.
However, while all this is going on we still have continuous, everyday commitment to ensuring that we’re maintaining a very robust backend infrastructure. While nobody sees it, that is the backbone that runs all the technologies that libraries operate on.
If you had to give three tips to someone in an academic library who’s interested in tech, who has ideas, and who wants to lead, what would you tell them?
- Market, market, market. Market your services. Talk about it. Don’t hide it. Don’t be humble. The more you can talk about how you can help your constituencies, the more support you will get from your administration.
- Always have clear goals and accountability for those goals: who’s responsible for what deliverable, and who’s accountable.
- Don’t stress about things that are outside of your realm of control. We all work in very hierarchical institutions, with different things we can have influence over and on. Don’t stress out. [When you’re] a leader, your people want to see you in good control of the situation. And the best way to do that is to think, if you can’t control things, it’s OK. Something else will solve the problem.