March 16, 2018

Q&A with Trevor Owens, LC Head of Digital Content Management

Trevor Owens
Photo by Shawn Miller

In August, Trevor Owens became the first head of digital content management in library services at the Library of Congress (LC). The role at LC represents something of a full circle for Owens; before serving in various roles at the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) from 2015–17, most recently as acting associate deputy director for libraries, Owens was a digital archivist at LC’s Office of Strategic Initiatives since 2010. The position, on the other hand, is brand new—both to Owens and to LC.

Library Journal caught up with Owens to find out more about how his career path brought him back to LC and his plans for the library’s new division.

LJ: What does the head of digital content management do?

Trevor Owens: The main thing I’m doing right now is building the team and refining plans for the first year of the digital content management section. The section is functionally a startup, so that means I’m working on bringing on new people to do digital content management to build out the capability in this space. [That’s] the first thing…and then a lot of meetings with people to figure out exactly what the needs are and how we’re going to go about addressing them. In the next year we are going to do a lot to support the [LC] Digital Collecting Plan, to start taking on that custodial role for a sizable portion of the institution’s digital content, and also start a project to coordinate and codify practices across the institution for digital content management. Along with that, I’m catching up and working to support the Web Archiving Program, which is one of the biggest successes in developing core general digital collecting here.

It’s a pretty historic thing. The plan is for this section to become the custodial division for digital general collections materials, or digital materials that are not under the custody of any other special collection parts of the library. It seems like the last times [LC] made a new custodial division were 1978 and 1976 with the Folklife Center and [the] Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound [Division].

There’s a part of [LC] called CALM (Collections Management and Loan) that does general collections management, managing the stacks. This is like a digital instantiation of that impetus, to [create] a group of librarians who work specifically on digital collection management…and the web archiving program is a part of that. Subject matter experts identify things they want to get, and then cataloging and acquisitions can get them and describe them. And we…help think through and figure out how we manage and set up the policies, and enable access to that material, now and into the future.

Can you talk about your trajectory from LC to IMLS to LC again? How have the roles informed one another?

When I came to [LC] for the National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program [NDIIPP], it was a really exciting moment to be involved in all that work on issues around digital preservation and long term access to information. In a lot of ways, the NDIIPP work wasn’t really for the core collecting mission of the library—it was in the national reach, engaging the stakeholder community’s part. So from that perspective, I knew a lot of the stakeholders working on these issues around the country, and had worked with them on standards and practices. It was a great learning experience.

Then the IMLS thing came along, and what was really exciting about it was the chance to be able to do a lot of things we were trying to do, or were involved in doing, in NDIIPP, but through grant-making operations. It was also a neat moment in that Maura Marx [former deputy director, Office of Library Services, IMLS] was basically trying to establish the national digital platform vision. So it was this [chance] to come over and help shape and frame that.

But at the same time, there’s a lot of administrative work. I know far too much about 2 CFR 200 Subpart E cost principles for federal grants, like when you have a tractor left over at the end of your grant, what were the disposition processes for that. I definitely loved doing the big picture stuff, but at the same time I missed being a little bit closer to the work. I was a program officer to begin with, and then I moved into being supervisor. By the time I left IMLS, I was actually the acting associate deputy director for discretionary grants for libraries. While the bureaucratic administrative part of that was one thing, I really enjoyed coaching and mentoring staff, which was a role that I had moved into—managing program officers.

When I saw this [position] come up, I had been following all the changes that were going on at [LC], and sort of feeling like I was missing out on that a bit, having been there and knowing all these folks who were moving into these roles to take the institution to new and exciting places. Knowing that this had come through, it felt like an opportunity where I could take all of what I had learned about how places across the country are doing things, or different tools and services that are being set up, to bring that back into [LC] after having pretty good inside knowledge of the institution from the first four years I spent here.

How have you had to shift gears in the move from one organization to the other?

This [position at LC] is closer to providing access and working within a library, as opposed to funding people who work on projects at libraries. The best things about being at IMLS, and the most challenging, were the opposite of [LC]—IMLS is so tiny that it’s very easy to know everyone, and to have a conversation with five people at a different end of the hall and figure out a plan for something. But at the same time, everyone does literally everything, because it’s such a small team.

The other thing that was interesting about being a funder was that it had an effect on all of your professional relationships with people, because all of a sudden you’re in this weird zone…of influence. It has complicated effects on your relationships. So I’m excited to not be in that space as much anymore.

I feel like there’s a little more time to think and to look at how to make longer term plans in this role, since I’m building this whole unit. Being at a grant-funding agency is so intensely calendar-driven by the existence of statutory grant programs. Part of the IMLS job was being out there and being everywhere, so that people could connect with you. This is going to be a lot more being inside, our users being other parts of [LC]. That’s a shift for me, but it’s one that I’m game for. I’m not flying around all the time.

What are you most proud of from your time at IMLS?

What we were able to develop in the national digital platform framework…. More than $30 million in grants and more than 100 projects that really fit with the vision that I feel we developed in dialog with various stakeholder communities, and it grew.

The second thing is the team I was able to build with Maura’s support—they’re all still there. When I came in I was the person who got hired on to set up this national digital platform portfolio, and by the time I left, I left three program officers championing that work—Emily Reynolds, Ashley Sands, and James Neal—who have taken on components of that work. They’re working in the cultural heritage sector in open access communications, digital innovation in the public libraries, and accessibility, ethics, privacy issues.

I feel really good about both the work itself and about what that team has been able to accomplish. I feel proud to have been part of such an amazing institution. I remain blown away by what that team is able to pull off in a pretty complicated environment that has a lot of different ins and outs to it.

Aside from the obvious, what’s different at LC this time around, and what are you most excited about?

There’s a really strong commitment to everyone rolling up their sleeves and figuring out how to do this work the best way possible, and to also try and tackle some of the bigger problems and issues and work those through, as opposed to trying to just line up neat individual projects. I think there’s a really good collaborative desire for people to work together.

What roles are you looking to shape and hire for right now?

We posted three vacancies that are various levels of a job title that’s been created called digital collection specialists, a kind of librarian role. They’re not software engineers, but they are librarians whose focus will be managing digital content. It’s very much in keeping with what I think library schools have been moving more into, getting people who have some significant information management capabilities.

A lot of the work that we’re going to be doing is looking at how to best coordinate workflows and processes and handoffs between all these different units. It’s an interesting thing to think through—the extent to which we’re similar to the collection management work that happens with the physical stacks, where you’ve got book carts running around throughout the halls whenever you’re in the tunnels of [LC]. It’s interesting to think about what that means in an increasingly digital environment, where there are systems that do a lot of that work. But we need to have people who can think about how to make the best use of those systems, establish operating procedures and workflows, and also do a fair amount of work on policy and guidance around things like, how many copies of things do we keep? How to best manage and implement access restrictions? All these kinds of things that become increasingly complex in the digital world.

What are you excited about?

The strategic plan for digital collecting from 2016—that’s actually one of the other things that got me really excited about this role. There’s a plan, and it’s a very smart one. There are six objective areas and I think each of them is really well thought through. Part of the vision is, when we’re doing our job well, a few years from now it will be easy for any subject matter specialist in the library to think about acquiring digital materials in any number of forms in the same way that they would in books and serials and other objects. So the library can really empower this whole network of subject matter specialists and catalogers and acquisitions folks to do everything that they’ve done amazingly well for a really long time with analog material, increasingly, with digital material.

A lot of the amazing work that the library has been able to do in digital collection management is from the various special collecting divisions. Prints and Photographs; Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound; the Manuscript Division; the American Folklife Center—they’re all doing really exciting work. I think the extent to which we can help convene and build a community among all those different groups, and support them in thinking through some of the policy and procedure—I’m excited about the kind of learning community that we might be able to help enable and support.

Your career path has involved originating a number of roles from scratch. What have you done to learn what you needed to learn?

I’ve been really lucky to have great mentors. When I ended up working at the Center for History and New Media [at George Mason University] with Roy Rosenzweig and Dan Cohen, Roy was this force. Every Monday you’d hear him two doors down in the hallway, because he went room by room through the Center, and he would just talk to everyone. He would come in and he’d say, “What are you working on?” You’d tell him something, and then he’d say, “Oh, you should talk to so-and-so, so-and-so, and so-and-so. I’m going to send emails to all three of those people when I get back to my desk.” And then he would.

The whole team there, really, connected from and learned from him in that vein. I think that’s very true of what Dan Cohen does in his work, Sharon Leon does in her work, and what Josh Greenberg over at [the Sloan Foundation] does, and what Tom Scheinfeldt at UConn does. That, I think, was a huge thing.

At [LC] I got to work for Martha Anderson, who ran the NDIIP program, who was similarly really thoughtful, well connected with all sorts of different conversations, and just a great role model. And then Maura at IMLS. Those people networks have been huge.

I went to school forever, and I’ve never stopped going to school. When I went to the Center for History and New Media, I immediately enrolled in a masters program in history and did a lot of neat digital history with folks there, and then the Ph.D. program in their ed school. By the time I was finishing that up, I had actually started teaching digital history courses for American University, and more recently, digital art curation courses for University of Maryland’s iSchool.

In that vein, I feel like I’m just addicted to learning. I’m always trying to pick apart how something works. What’s been great about those mentors is they were looking at every one of the projects; the activity that we were going to engage in was itself a learning activity and an opportunity.

Lisa Peet About Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Associate Editor, News for Library Journal.

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