Meet an RC Reseacher- Debra Weiss
Over the course of her career, Debra Weiss has seen technological advances change the way libraries preserve and provide access to materials. After studying math and computer science as an undergraduate, Weiss performed technical systems work for AT&T before being hired by the University of Virginia to support the university library, a job that involved applications and computer programming. There, Weiss discovered a passion for library science. “I loved every piece of it,” Weiss says. “I wanted to get my master’s degree in library science in the most technical place possible, which at the time was the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.” As a graduate student at that institution, Weiss worked in the university library during a major period of technological change. The emergence and growth of the Web allowed libraries to begin making special materials accessible through digitization. “Physical spaces in libraries were also changing,” Weiss says. “They were becoming more technologically enhanced, and that was fun for me, too.” Upon graduating, Weiss was hired by the College of William and Mary and was soon put in charge of the Library IT Department, which manages the library’s computing resources. Her current position, as head of the Library IT Department at the University of Colorado Boulder, involves the same work on a larger scale.
The Digital Initiatives branch of the Library IT Department digitizes materials, makes them available, and oversees their long-term storage and preservation. The digitization process begins with deliberation over which materials to prioritize. “The library’s archives take up two floors,” Weiss explains. “Libraries are all about access, so we want to digitize everything, but we have to prioritize because only so much digital storage is available.” The chosen items are then converted into digital formats. The special materials that the library digitizes include rare books, personal papers, diaries and manuscripts; these materials tend to be delicate, requiring that digitization occur under specific laboratory conditions that are conducive to preservation. After digitization, librarians generate metada to associate titles, author names, genres and other information with digitized materials.
The digitization process ends with storage on the PetaLibrary, a resource that the Research Computing Department manages. The library was part of the National Science Foundation grant through which the university obtained the PetaLibrary, and currently uses it to store approximately 125 terabytes of digitized materials. Research Computing supports the resource and helps Weiss’s department resolve any issues that arise. “We do everything we can to continue the good cause of making digitized materials accessible, and Research Computing has been awesome in helping us do that,” Weiss says. “We’re very grateful, because the rates are great and the people are wonderful.” Through a piece of software called Luna, materials stored on the PetaLibrary are accessible to students and researchers on the library website.
Digitization is improving the library’s ability to provide access to its materials. “It used to be that the only way people had access to these wonderful items would be to travel to the library to see them,” Weiss explains. “The goal of digitization is to open them up to the world. We put them online to give all researchers access to these very special materials.” Although it simplifies access, digitization also presents libraries with new challenges, including the issues that surround long-term digital preservation. “If formats change, you have to change,” Weiss explains. “Paper was a lot easier. If you wanted to look at a page in someone’s diary, all you had to do was provide a physical space. You didn’t have to worry about the fact that in 20 years, that paper might be obsolete, and you might have to copy the words onto another material to preserve them. Digital objects are a little different and more challenging. Hardware fails and technology changes.” In the process of digitization, the library has to choose the file format that is deemed most likely to remain widely used in the future. The library is also in the process of joining a distribution network, which will enable it to store copies of its digital materials in several geographical locations, mitigating the risk of losing materials through damage to the hardware on which the materials are stored. “Digitization is one of the most complicated challenges for libraries everywhere, but it’s also fascinating and wonderful,” Weiss says. “It’s very exciting to be a part of something so complex.”