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Interview: John Howard

For the Countway Library of Medicine, John Howard is the Associate Director for Technology Development and Services-a post that he took up in mid-September. Previously, Howard served for three years as Librarian for Information Technology in the Harvard College Library (HCL). In the prior eighteen years, he held a series of positions in HCL's Eda Kuhn Loeb Music Library. His roots in Harvard's music program are evidenced by his continuing status as an Associate of the Department of Music. Library Notes interviewed Howard on October 16.

LN

Many people in the library community have a strong connection with music.

JH
I spent my first 18 years at Harvard in six different jobs in the Music Library, so I have a certain history there. I also held the position of Senior Lecturer in Music. My background is in music and I consider myself a musician.

LN
As a musician, what's your area?

JH
As a performer, I'm a double bass player. As a musicologist, my interests would probably be characterized as conservative, traditional, but diverse. I have special interests in church music in the early Lutheran Church, French classicism in music, and history of music theory.

LN
Is there a relationship between musical and technological proficiencies?

JH
I know a lot of musicians who have gone into science and technology; I know a few who completed graduate programs in musicology and have gone on to work in technology. But I also know musicians who have become lawyers or physicians. It's really a question for cognitive scientists.

LN
What tipped the balance? What engendered your transition from music librarian to technology professional?

JH
I've long had an interest in technology. My first involvement with computing technologies came in my freshman year, when I became involved in a psychology lab that was controlling real-time data collection using DEC PDP-8 class computers. I got training in DEC Assembler and started doing programming to control experiments, something I did off and on for the next seven or eight years.

As a Librarian, I became involved early on as Principal Investigator on an NEH-funded project whose goal was to inventory all pre-1825 music manuscripts in the United States. (This was part of a larger international project, the Répertoire International des Sources Musicales, or RISM.) This is a vast repertory in general, so we knew it had to be handled as a database, rather than as a conventional printed catalog of sources. But we also knew that the repertory of musical works transmitted in manuscript had certain difficulties that computing technology could help us address. Above all these difficulties concern questions of musical identity.

When we ask, "What is the identity of this piece of music," we think in terms of author and title. But the identity of a piece of music is actually what's apparent in the music. For our manuscripts inventory, it was necessary to think about capturing musical information in systems that would assist with identification. By comparing manuscripts we proposed to identify many pieces whose authorship was unknown. However, we also discovered something more interesting to a historian: that many pieces that are musically almost identical carry conflicting composer attributions; in many cases, they even have different texts and titles.

Some repertories transmitted in manu-scripts are also tune-oriented; that is, their identity is associated with a melodic structure rather than a complete multi-voiced musical setting. The pieces in these repertories can appear with many variants in musical structure (key, rhythmic structure, etc.), yet we still perceive them to be the same piece of music. Therefore we have also had to think about the question of what constitutes musical similarity and develop computational algorithms that recognize melodic similarity in a way congruous with human perception.

I worked on this project over the course of sixteen years. Not working in isolation, but with a small group of people worldwide who were interested in these same data representational problems. By the time the project came to an end, I had become a vocal proponent of technology's place in the College Library, and was ready for a transition to something new. When a new position for a Librarian for Information Technology was established in HCL, I was ready to make the move.

LN
What do you consider your major accomplishments at HCL?

JH
I tried to look at the universe of computing and digital information needs among the HCL's constituents and place those needs first in planning and implementing the Library's technology programs. Realizing this goal was an uphill battle. At the time HCL had only five full-time staff in the IT Department, and the general computing infrastructure was aging and had many vulnerabilities. The most visible problem was in the public-access computing infrastructure. 50% of the Library's public-access computing devices were old IBM dumb terminals, and many of these did not work. Remember, this was only three years ago.

It was clear to me—and to many of my HCL colleagues—that the needs of library users were not being addressed. And it was also clear that those needs were diverse: they involved the need to access the library's catalogue and information resources; to do research with data that the Library makes available; and to communicate and do productive work.

We made significant strides forward in all areas. We got rid of the dumb terminals and replaced them with PCs in a period of months. Working with colleagues in HCL's Social Science program, we developed "research workstations"—PCs specially configured to support research computing in specific subject areas and library locations; subsequently research workstations have been developed and deployed in most HCL library locations. Helping users do productive work was in some ways a bigger challenge, because administrators often perceive this as outside the Library's service mandate, and computer labs that are designed for this purpose exist, at Harvard, wholly outside of the libraries. We beat the potential politics and turf issues by introducing a laptop loan program, first at Lamont, then at Hilles. These are, in reality, productivity workstations. And they're very popular!

I also need to say that the computing infrastructure in HCL that the public does not see is also not what it was three years ago. We rebuilt the computing infrastructure and introduced new working methods. HCL has a great group of people working in IT—and these days it has grown to 13.6 FTEs.

LN
You've helped eliminate barriers between the library and the classroom.

JH
I hope I made a start that my successors can build on. Harvard is a very decentralized place. Technology offers the University one of its great opportunities. When we introduce new technologies, we can work individually—and possibly end up constructing new barriers. Or we can work together and avoid that pitfall.

LN
What would be an example of that?

JH
Wireless networking poses a wonderful opportunity for us to implement a new technology in such a way so that a Harvard affiliate can move between the Cambridge campus, the Business School, the School of Education, and the Medical Area, and not go through a technology Hell in getting wireless networking to function on their laptop when they pass between administrative boundaries. Making wireless Ethernet work for our community involves coordinated analysis and decision-making. This is a good area to watch.

LN
What drew you to Countway?

JH
Well, I'm a risk-taker and I enjoy new challenges. I think there are very rich opportunities on the Longwood campus. We have there a community that, in Harvard tradition, is diverse and de-centralized. But we also have a commitment to address the issues of systems integration that are so pronounced in communities of that kind. The HMS Dean, Joe Martin, speaks of "building bridges" among communities and technology is one means of doing that. Most important for me, though, is the vision that Countway, under Judy Messerle's [the Countway Librarian] leadership, proposes for the role of the Countway in the world of information, knowledge management, and research in the Harvard health sciences community.

LN
I believe that there is a research unit in your department.

JH
There is a research group-a small group at this point-and they're focusing on a biological image delivery system—the LDI grant project called the Biomedical Image Library. But we have other things cooking as well.

LN
Your user group is very large. You serve the schools of medicine, dentistry, and public health, as well as affiliated institutions and associates of the Boston Medical Library. Does this diversity present any unexpected requirements or challenges?

JH
It does. The complexity of the community, and the need for the Library to broker access to its services to staff with appropriate privileges, translates into a major technological issue. HMS IT under Joe Bruno has tackled these problems head on and made incredible progress in developing campus middleware to help us address the issue, but issues of technology and policy will remain as long as our environment remains dynamic. Being able to recognize our users with robust authentication systems and provide them optimal computing and information services underlies most major systems development in our area.

LN
What's your focus in Year One?

JH
The focus has to be on understanding the information and knowledge management needs of the community, strategizing on the Countway's role in addressing them, and implementing new technologies in support of programs.

Countway is not starting from square one. I'm joining a process well underway. There are services that are clearly part of the first-year agenda: continuing development of the Countway Digital Library [a virtual collection of electronic resources targeted at the Harvard health sciences community]; implementing new electronic document delivery services; instituting an electronic reserves program; and much more.

From a strategic perspective we need to make progress on an array of systems and network integration issues: working to-ward a "single sign-on" infrastructure with HMS and HSPH IT as well as the University Library; developing the capability of integrating Digital Library resources and electronic reserves into instructional course-ware used on the Longwood campus. And we need to work, as part of a larger team effort at the Countway, to better support the curricula of the Faculties we serve. Defining the Countway's role in supporting research in the community is a critical strategic objective. We have the ability to assist in some of the extraordinary data and knowledge management issues that exist in the health sciences area. And we're also well positioned to facilitate locally the realization of a new model of scholarly communications and research publication.

These objectives obviously extend beyond my "year one." For a librarian and technologist, these are very exciting challenges. I expect that working with the Countway's leadership group and colleagues from the medical area will be stimulating and rewarding. I'm looking forward to the coming year, but also to what lies beyond it.

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Last modified on Thursday, April 18, 2002.