Interview with Margaret Heller

Margaret Heller is Digital Services Librarian at Loyola University Chicago, where she manages the website and institutional repository. She also volunteers as the Technology Director of the Read/Write Library Chicago. She has presented talks and papers about participatory or social library services at various conferences, including the LITA Forum, Media in Transition, and Code4Lib. She is teaching a class for Library Juice Academy next month, titled Participatory Culture in the Library: Community-driven Collecting, Cataloging, and Curating. Margaret has agreed to do an interview here to give people a better idea of what this class is about and what they will learn from it, as well as a bit about her.

Margaret, thanks for agreeing to do this interview. I’d like to start by asking you about the Read/Write Library Chicago, since I know that your work there is part of the foundation of the class you’ll be teaching.

The Read/Write Library Chicago was founded in 2006 as the Chicago Underground Library, and was meant to bring together disparate artistic communities. The purpose has grown over the years to encompass any work created by a Chicago writer or specifically about Chicago. The collection includes trade paperbacks, zines, art books, exhibition catalogs, and many other materials. The library is completely independent and funded by grants and donations, and has managed to keep going for this many years thanks to the community that supports it both with their time and donations of materials.The library is a non-profit corporation recognized as tax exempt under 501(C)(3), which entails a certain formal management structure on paper. But the library functions more like open source software communities, where people are invited to come and participate at the level that makes sense to them, working on the part of the project which they can best serve.

That is intriguing. Participation by a community sounds like the key concept. How does that work at Read/Write?

The formal structures are a small working board that generally works by consensus with input from all the volunteers, as well as a variety of working groups which work more closely on programming, grant-writing, and cataloging. Programming and Outreach is the most formal working group, and there has always been a Programming Coordinator position since their projects tend to require a lot of on-going management and financial arrangements. There is a monthly general volunteer meeting, where anyone who is interested can come by and help out. Recently we’ve found that a Volunteer Coordinator position is essential, since jobs such as staffing the library’s open hours need someone to actively recruit people. This also helps from losing people who are interested in helping but don’t immediately see where they fit in. Responsibilities and job titles shift over time, but core functions such as programming, staffing, cataloging, and technology have always had one point person for ensuring these happen.

That’s very interesting. So everything that happens in the library happens through this cooperative system. I know a lot of people who would be interested in that as a management model. But that is not exactly the focus of your class, is it? Could you describe the class?

The class looks at various models for participatory culture in libraries, starting with some definitions and theory about participatory culture, with a focus on the past 10-15 years with the rise of participatory online projects such as Wikipedia and the social web. The class also spends some time looking at the darker aspects of participatory culture, or places where we may need to question whether an amateur or DIY approach makes sense. Then students will use this background to create a plan for a participatory project in their own libraries, working together as much as possible and discussing potential approaches.

What are some examples of the kind of participatory projects that people might bring to the class?

A lot of libraries are talking about creating maker spaces, which are most successful when they involve the wider community, and we will look at what makes them work. Even if libraries aren’t quite ready for such a large project, they can start small with something like involving their patrons in making technology or space use decisions.

Has Read/Write experimented with cooperative cataloging?

All the cataloging of the materials so far has been done on a home-grown system by people who come into the library. For better or worse, that means our metadata is not very reusable, though I hope to change that in the future. Even though we haven’t done cooperative cataloging in the traditional sense, we do cooperate at a more local level. We are a member of the Chicago Cultural Alliance, and have worked with them to create a platform for shared cultural materials and consult with other small cultural heritage institutions about best practices for metadata and digitization. We also have an initiative coming up to partner with a large private cultural institution in the city to help them with cataloging their materials and sharing metadata.

This is really fascinating. I wonder if you could say a little bit about what you have learned through the process of working with Read/Write on these local cooperative projects?

A lot of us are out there trying to solve the same problems but coming at it from different ways. Librarians are trained to solve problems such as collection development, cataloging, and preservation in certain ways, and it’s really good to engage with small institutions or hobby projects that people are working on to see how they’ve approached these problems. Not just to give advice, but see new ways of thinking about them. As trained librarians we have a lot to teach our communities, but we can also learn a lot from them. One on-going program at the Read/Write Library is the Self Preservation Workshop series, where we get an expert to teach professional practice to anyone who is interested in the community. Everyone has old newspapers or videos sitting around that they want to preserve. It is sometimes professional archival practice, but we also look at more esoteric areas such as food preservation or other non-traditional activities that bring in non-library experts as well.

Interesting. I seem to remember something about experimenting with having users tag records or contribute to the cataloging somehow.

We do invite comments to any records, though usually these are more explanations of the history of the publication or clearing up inaccuracies in the cataloging. Since most of our collection is fairly obscure or unique, people usually only contribute when they have a personal relationship with the work. Generally we’ve found the most useful tagging is from people who physically come to the library and look at the books, but as we expand the collection there will be more of a role of user generated tags.

Okay, I’d like to talk more about the class you’re teaching next month. Can you give a little bit more detail on it?

Sure. It’s a two week class, and the students will develop background knowledge and a toolkit to bring participatory culture to their own libraries. The course will contain a mix of reading and peer discussions of readings as well as exercises to understand appropriate implementations of participatory culture. It’s important that people understand the positive and negative aspects of potential approaches before going into a project.

That’s interesting. I’m struck by the fact that you have a lot of experience working on participatory library projects. It’s something that interests a lot of librarians, but in most cases people’s ability to experiment with participatory projects is limited at their institutions. It seems like this class could do a lot for people who hope to embark on a participatory project in their library and want to go in knowing more than they do. At Read/Write, the whole institution is about participation. Will your class also get into the unique problems of trying to do something in a participatory way within an institution that is not directly geared for that?

Yes, we will definitely cover how this works in more traditional institutions. The important thing to realize is that the public’s expectations for participation have changed, and this affects all cultural and commercial institutions. It can be hard to change the culture, but starting with one well-thought out project can show that this is something worth pursuing.

Well, I am glad that you’ll be teaching this class on such an interesting topic. To close, I wonder if you could say something about plans for any new directions at Read/Write based on your experience so far?

We have had plans for expanding into coworking and larger scale programming, which were not possible previously due to infrastructure issues. A new opportunity just came up that solves those problems, so we will be moving forward with coworking next year. And that’s a good lesson for any new initiative–sometimes it’s about seizing an opportunity and doing something new. We will see some examples of other institutions doing that in the class.

Sounds good. Thanks for doing this interview.

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