A French librarian graduating from Enssib (the French National Library School), training and interning at Columbia University Libraries for three months, from February to the beginning of May 2015, I was lucky enough to be given the opportunity to join the Developing Librarian Project and to become part of the developing team.
This experience has been very rewarding for a number of reasons and will reverberate on my practices and on the way I see librarianship and the role of libraries and librarians now and in years to come. What facets of the experience proved to be prominent for me? Many aspects are involved in this project, the goal of which is to reskill ourselves to support evolving modes of scholarship in the humanities (see the article published by Nikka Bakkalbasi, Damon Jaggars and Barbara Rockenbach in Library Management (Volume 36, Issue 3), entitled Re-skilling for the digital humanities: measuring skills, engagement, and learning). I would like to focus on the day-to-day experience: what does it feel like to be a developing librarian on a daily basis and to set out on this journey? In this respect, the few aspects of the Developing Librarian Project that especially stand out in my view are a special stance on research and scholarship produced by librarians as a team, the development of technical skills on the go, and the team building experience.
Getting involved in A Digital History of Morningside Heights implies, of course, a fair amount of research and scholarship. I took over from Mary Cargill and chose to deal with the Leake and Watts Orphan House, the remains of which can still be seen appending the Cathedral of St John the Divine. It seemed interesting to focus on various aspects: first, the creation of the house itself, which stemmed from a strange will, the architecture, at the same time typical and strangely unrecognized, the rural feel surrounding the building that was considered as so pleasant, and the welcoming policies and living conditions of the orphan residents.
Focusing on the Leake and Watts Orphan Asylum, which was set up on the Morningside Heights Plateau in 1843, implied turning to 19th century newspapers to retrieve pictures and to understand how the mission of the Orphan House was perceived by the contemporaries. It also meant turning to material like censuses or, strangely enough, travel guides. Finding this material is, of course, a matter of thorough research through the databases. However, working in a team together focusing on different items with different approaches creates a seminal serendipity: going through a database for one’s own research, one stumbles on material that pertains to another item in the project that the team member has not noticed because their sources and approaches are different. Travel guides in the 1850s happen to mention the Leake and Watts Orphan House among other orphanages and along with the Bloomingdale Asylum as places to visit, for instance, an unexpected mention that came up through research but also through exchanges with the other team members using this resource. The bimonthly Morningside Heights meetings enabling every member to present their items are a means of creating a unity in the whole project, while respecting each and every member’s chosen angle: a common object is designed, which is not only the product of a community but which also creates a sense of community just through the way the library staff can appropriate the history of Columbia itself.
Contributing to the digital history of Morningside Heights implies reskilling oneself and developing technical skills that can be learned from online tuition (html, css), but that also have to be practiced and mastered on the go, day after day. If online lessons are useful, progress comes from learning tips from your coworker in workshops targeted at building up the final Omeka website. It all amounts to learning by doing and to appropriating the tool step by step, and, what’s more, to appropriating it together and for a common purpose.
More than from learning from an online learning platform, a sensible use of the tool results from building up the html and the css together, through trial and error. What comes as a surprise is that even the less advanced can contribute to building the final product. Answering questions also enables the respondents in the team to make sure that they master a set aspect of coding. To me, the main asset of this learning process is the way it contributes to building team spirit. Team spirit does not just come from any project carried out together: it stems from the sense of purpose that the learning process eventually acquires in this case.
Becoming a developing librarian for a while also amounted for me to developing into a librarian proper and to contributing to a team intent on rethinking libraries as constantly evolving libraries.