Interview with Robert Chavez, Instructor for Introduction to XML and Introduction to the Semantic Web

Robert Chavez is the instructor for two upcoming courses for Library Juice Academy: Introduction to XML and Introduction to the Semantic Web. Robert is currently a Content Applications Architect for the New England Journal of Medicine, and has worked as an electronic text specialist at Indiana University Bloomington and at Tufts University. He has graciously agreed to be interviewed for Library Juice Academy, so that you can have a better idea of what you can expect from his classes, and also simply who he is.

To start off, I wonder if you could give kind of a summary of your CV, so that we know about your expertise in teaching these classes.

Sure, I’ve been working in the digital library/humanities field since about 1996. Back then in graduate school at Indiana University I worked in the Library Electronic Resource Service (LETRS). At that time LETRS was both a lab for e-text databases and also an SGML text markup center for the Victorian Women Writers Project (VWWP), we were helping library staff and patrons use databases and text analysis tools and also writing code in Perl to help markup and make accessible VWWP texts. After grad school I moved on to Tufts University where I worked for about 10 years at the Perseus Project and the library’s Digital Collections and Archives (DCA) department. At Perseus I continued my work with programming, encoding electronic texts (XML), and building metadata sets while helping to build the Perseus Digital Library. Later at the DCA I was the manager for the university’s digital repository project where we worked with faculty, staff, librarians, and archivists to create, build, and host digital projects for their courses. We also worked on digital content preservation for the University Archives. After Tufts I moved on to the New England Journal of Medicine where I manage the Journal’s XML content repository and the content (XML or otherwise) that makes up the weekly
digital edition of the Journal.

Thank you, that is impressive. Now, about your two courses, Introduction to XML and Introduction to the Semantic Web. How would you explain the content of these courses to a hypothetical librarian who has only a vague notion of what XML and the semantic web are? What are XML and the semantic web, and how do they relate to libraries?

I tend to think of these courses as a logical pair, the XML course lays a foundation that we can build on in the Semantic Web course. In the Introduction to XML course we’ll learn the basics about XML as a markup language (fundamental XML principles, how to work with XML, why and how libraries, academic projects, publishers, etc. use XML). In addition, we’ll explore some of the XML standards (e.g. TEI, NLM, METS) that are commonly used by libraries, publishers, etc. The course does not require any previous knowledge of XML or XML standards. In the Introduction to the Semantic Web we’ll go one step further and explore how to we can use semantics to enable computer systems to find, share, and combine information on the web for library patrons. Participants will learn the basics of how to semantically encode relationships between digital things (e.g. A is a part of C, etc.) and properties of those things (e.g. Length, width, height, etc.). We’ll learn how to express these relationships and properties using the XML RDF standard, RDFa (a way to express RDF in HTML documents). We’ll also look at how RDF is used in the library and information science community using MADS/RDF, which supports the description of cultural and bibliographic resources and can be used to record MARC records in RDF.

If you could teach any class that you wanted to for Library Juice Academy, what would it be?

I think it’s important for librarians and information scientists to get some programing experience and get hands on with the tools that manipulate the data they (or their patrons) create. It’s the best way to understand all the possibilities and potential for using and interacting with this data — as opposed to just accepting what library system vendors provide and it’s also a good way to explore new ways to present that data to patrons and users. In addition, it’s good preparation for working/getting involved with faculty on their data producing digital projects. So, with that in mind, I’d love to teach a class on XML databases where people can learn how to write simple programs to query and display catalogue or e-text data and build simple apps (web and mobile) that allows an end user to interact with that data.

That sounds like something worth talking about further. To switch gears a bit, what do you do when you’re not working with content architecture for NEJM?

I do volunteer work for a variety of digital humanities projects, mostly programing and assembling data. I also like to spend time learning about cutting edge and mobile technologies to figure out new and useful ways for getting data into the hands of people who can use it.

Thanks. In light of all of this, where do you think librarianship is headed, and what work needs to be done by librarians and information scientists to get there?

My sense is that librarianship is heading in a similar direction as the growing digital humanities field, where humanists are learning, devising, and creating digital tools that are relevant to their field and in doing so create new datasets that sit alongside traditional print publications. Librarians and information scientists will need to adapt to work with this new data, which in part means learning the tools used to create the data, and also take a less passive role in the dissemination, preservation, and maintenance of this new data, even creating new tools and data themselves in the process. In many cases I see librarians and information scientists working side beside with digital humanists on their digital projects. There are opportunities here for librarians and information scientists to provide skills and knowledge that academics might not possess when working on such projects. In order for librarians and information scientists to get to this point they’ll need to develop some level of technical skills, in addition to their more traditional skills. This means learning some forms of coding (for example, R, Python, XML) and even toolsets (for example, XML databases, triple stores, NoSQL/big data database technologies such as MongoDB). Again, academics are diving into these and other technologies now, and it’s a big leap for many of them and I think the library sciences are starting to do the same.

Thanks, that’s very interesting, and I agree, at least for a lot of what will be happening in the field. Incidentally, I am going to be a student in your classes on XML and the semantic web, because I want to get an introduction to those topics and your classes looks like a good way to start. Thanks very much for the interview.

You’re welcome, Rory, it’s been a pleasure.

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