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Interview: Tom Michalak

In October 2002, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation awarded $1.25 million to the Harvard University Library (HUL) to support the Open Collections Program (OCP). The Harvard-wide program reflects the University's long-term commitment to the creation of comprehensive, subject-based digital resources that link throughout the Harvard library system. Under the leadership of Tom Michalak, the former Executive Director of Baker Library at Harvard Business School, OCP and its first subject-based resource, "Women Working," has taken shape. Tom Michalak was interviewed for Library Notes on March 2.

LN
OCP was created 15 months ago. Whom does the program serve?

TM
The goal of the Open Collections Program is to increase the availability and use of textual and visual historical resources for teaching, learning, and research by selecting resources from the Harvard libraries in broad topic areas, putting them in digital format, and providing access to them through the web and the Harvard library catalogs. The intended audience is teachers and students in four-year colleges and universities—including Harvard—community colleges, and high schools.

LN
The OCP model is new. Rather than digitizing specific collections or print resources, OCP looks across the University and "anthologizes" a multimedia range of subject-specific resources from across the faculties. Has the program unfolded as you expected? Have there been surprises along the way?

TM
We expected to find great resources in the Harvard libraries and we did. But the distribution among the libraries is amazing. Even with the great library resources of Harvard, not every library has everything related to its subject mission. We needed to go to Baker for business materials, Schlesinger for materials on women's rights and managing the home, Widener for social issues, Gutman for education and training, Countway for health, etc. This is how we are building depth as well as breadth to the collection.

The surprises have been in finding little-known materials in Harvard's collections—like the photographs in the Social Ethics collection at the Fogg Museum or the correspondence and clippings of Dr. James Chadwick on the role of women in medicine in the late 19th century. As we continue to dig into these collections, we expect to find additional treasures to bring out.

LN
The first resource is called "Women Working," and the beta site is available at http://ocp.hul.harvard.edu/ww. In what context should we explore the beta site?

TM
Since this is indeed a beta—and not intended to be the web site for teachers and students—I'm looking for ideas as to how this material might be used in teaching and learning, ideas for materials that we haven't identified, dates, people, events, and organizations that could help focus the material. We need to know whether the topic approach to bring materials together works.

LN
How does—or will—the site differ from course-specific web resources created by some of our instructional services librarians?

TM
The OCP site is not dedicated to material covered by a single course. The intention is to gather together digitized materials in a single area and then to allow faculty to integrate these into their course web sites. As digitized materials become more integrated into the library catalog, it may be more useful in the future for teachers to gather these materials right out of HOLLIS. In the meantime, we felt it was necessary to build a place for people—especially those outside of Harvard—to go to find these resources.

LN
Where those instructional services sites serve for a course or a semester or a year, "Women Working" is meant as a permanent resource. Will "Women Working" change with scholarship? If so, how?

TM
"Women Working" will definitely change with scholarship. Just as we expect the site itself to change based on the feedback we receive from those who use it, we expect the collection to grow with the input of scholars. From day one, we intend to build feedback mechanisms into the site to allow people to share their opinions not just on the site but on the collection.

LN
What's the selection process for materials included in "Women Working"?

TM
Once our faculty and librarian committees came to agreement on the general topic of "Women Working," we set about gathering material in very traditional ways. Searching by subject in HOLLIS, identifying authors and reviewing their publications, reviewing pertinent bibliographies in the field, browsing the shelves of the libraries in relevant classifications—in a sense, utilizing all the standard ways librarians and researchers identify materials to build collections. In this case, my own social science background and my experience building collections in a wide range of subjects over the past 35 years came in handy. And being an avid collector myself helps, because in collecting you look for relationships and links among materials.

LN
What's the range of materials likelyto be?

TM
We've focused on books, pamphlets, photographs, and manuscript materials. At this point, we're not doing journal runs, although we have done some off-prints from journals and hope to do a representative sample of women's magazines of the period. There are no current plans to include video or audio until the infrastructure for the creation and storage of these formats is more firmly in place.

LN
In some cases, "Women Working" leads you to web sites of other organizations. Does that fact present any concerns for authenticity, bias, currency, documentation—to use the "ABCD" rule recommended by HCL's instructional services staff?

TM
We've done a very careful review of the web sites we link to, and, for the most part, these sites are located at institutions of higher education or home pages of organizations like the Women's Education and Industrial Union. The Stanford Law School has an incredibly deep and rich site on women lawyers. Cornell has done a great job on the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. We try to use these resources to enrich our own work rather than attempt to duplicate the work of others.

We will be linking to digital documents that complement our work at other sites. Generally, we've not digitized a document if it has been done elsewhere and is of high quality and usable.

We have avoided links to sites, as a matter of policy, that give you those nasty pop-ups that you can't ever seem to get rid of, or web sites that don't provide permanent URLs.

LN
Your OCP progress report is online at http://hul.harvard.edu/ocp/internal/ progress. What's the executive summary?

TM
The executive summary would be that, at this point, we have done what the Hewlett Foundation has asked us to do—set up mechanisms for large-scale digitization within a subject area across the Harvard libraries. The next steps are to test and refine the production mechanisms and to take what we have done and get it used by teachers and students. It is very much an iterative process—getting things in place, allowing people to respond to them, and then incorporating feedback into the program to make it more effective and efficient.

LN
The report presents a great deal of detail about "production mode" issues—and the scalability of the processes involved in digitizing materials for "Women Working." How scalable is "Women Working" as a totality and to what extent does it involve the thought and effort of a custom web site?

TM
The OCP is about building good collections and good digital objects. It is not about building web sites. For this pilot the web site is an essential part of getting the project "out there," and we will have to reassess the viability of creating web sites for every topic. In terms of building the collections and the digital objects themselves, OCP and the workflows that have been established are quite scalable. These processes will undoubtedly evolve as technologies and libraries change, but that is only likely to enhance the flexibility and efficiency of the project.

LN
Are you getting feedback on the beta site?

TM
Yes we are, but we need more, and I'm sure we'll get it as we begin to make the site known.

LN
When do you expect the actual product to launch? And what sort of marketing and outreach will that involve?

TM
By this coming summer, the collection will be sufficiently broad and deep that it could be used by teachers and students. We're compiling a long list of contacts of relevant web sites, reviewers, and educators to whom we will market the availability of "Women Working." My experience with developing HBS Working Knowledge at the Business School and tracking how the material gets disseminated, linked to, etc., demonstrates the viral nature of the web. We are compiling a list of courses in women's history and women's studies from around the country, including Harvard, whom we will contact directly. Eventually we hope to have an e-mail service so we can notify interested individuals as we add new material.

So we'll work very hard to get "Women Working" looked at, and once it gets looked at by enough people, links and referrals will develop. Usage, which we will be tracking, will follow.

LN
After "Women Working," what topics or subject areas will OCP address?

TM
We expect to push "Women Working" back into the early 19th century and explore more manuscript materials to deepen the topic. I am hoping that our next topics would relate closely to undergraduate teaching at Harvard. American history and culture, in which Harvard's collections are very strong, might be a good place to focus. All materials that are digitized in the Open Collections Program go into the Harvard University Library digital repositories and thereby become available to anyone with access to HOLLIS and VIA. Because of this, materials digitized to support specific courses become reusable by others within Harvard and without. There are parallels with the MIT Open Courseware in that, as we provide primary source materials within the Harvard community, we also make them available to the world.

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Last modified on Tuesday, March 16, 2004.