Alexandra Carruthers is the Digital Public Spaces Librarian at Edmonton Public Library (EPL). She holds an MA in English and an MLIS from the University of Alberta. She recently published a case study of EPL’s International Open Data Day Hackathon in Partnership: the Canadian Journal of Library and Information Practice Research and her co-edited issue of Progressive Librarian, which shares the proceedings of the PLG Edmonton Symposium on the Commodification of Information and Library Services is forthcoming this winter. Alex kindly agreed to answer a few of our questions over email about her experience at EPL…
Alexandra, what experiences or aspects of your background led you to where you are today?
As the Digital Public Spaces Librarian at Edmonton Public Library, I am working to build a digital environment defined by the best things about public library spaces: accessibility; space for collaboration, learning, and community engagement; and free access to resources without digital rights restrictions. I believe that many of my personal experiences influence how I fill out this role and chart its development. There is a lot I could point to, but since InfoNexus is a McGill conference I’ll write a little about how the time I spent in Montréal has shaped how I think of my current digital public space project, Capital City Records: Edmonton Local Music.
I moved to Montréal in the early 2000s and helped some friends to set up a concert venue and practice space in Little Italy. Before I joined a band and practiced and played there, I was a background figure: literally building the walls and working the door. Being part of that community in any way I could meant a lot to me and definitely showed me that a thriving music scene includes more than just musicians. From that practical experience, I grew really interested in how individuals are shaped by the communities they are a part of and I pursued that interest through an MA in English and an MLIS at the University of Alberta.
When EPL posted a Digital Public Spaces Internship it seemed to me like an opportunity to continue exploring these ideas and also to return to the really rewarding work of building infrastructure that supports communities. The project proposal that came out of the internship was for Capital City Records, which will be the home of an online collection of Edmonton local music and a kind of living digital archive of local music history. The energy and commitment of the Edmonton music scene made it an exciting community to engage with. My experience in Montréal is the root of my confidence that a digital public space for local music will be meaningful not only to musicians but to the communities that love and support their work.
How do you stay on top of trends and technologies that have the potential of benefiting digital public spaces?
I try and follow awesome librarians and innovative non-profits on Twitter. I also learn about lots of cool new things through the local Code4Lib chapter and at Open Edmonton meetings, a group invested in civic hacking and open access to information.
How do you reconcile your personal creative vision for a digital public space project with the information needs of the library patrons?
Meeting the needs of EPL’ s customers is a really essential part of the initial vision for our first digital public space. One aspect of the project that I’m most passionate about is coming up with a method of developing the site as collaboratively and responsively as possible. For example, once we decided to focus our efforts on building a site to celebrate our local music community, we went and invited them to an ‘unconference’. The project we’re building now is inspired by the conversations that members of the local music community had with each other and recorded on that day.
Once the site is launched we’re hoping it will grow through the collaborative effort of the community as well and we’re developing many opportunities for this to happen. We’re hoping to crowdsource the contents of a local music archive; we’re inviting site users to take part in a project to transcribe a digital collection of local concert posters; and we’ll make the underlying database of local music history open for further development through an API.
If these opportunities for collaboration don’t meet the information needs of our community on a more practical level, hopefully we’ll catch that and be able to respond to it through user experience testing and other assessment efforts.
Does Edmonton Public Library embrace change and innovation?
Absolutely. When EPL won the Gale/Library Journal ‘Library of the Year’ award for 2014 the Journal credited EPL for “taking risks, innovating, and embracing change.” I’m proud to work for such a forward-thinking institution.
What services, programs, or materials do you find are in most demand at Edmonton Public Library?
I work in the Digital Literacy Initiatives department so I am most aware of the popularity of our resources and programming focused on technology. For example, a 12-week class on how to develop video games recently filled up in a few hours and we can sometimes get 30 kids coming in to our Lego robotics programs. But I think that all of our resources from books to online courses are in pretty high demand.
How do Edmonton Public Library staff members share their expertise with each other?
Staff learning is a real priority for EPL, and learning from each other is one of our major strategies. We have a staff intranet that connects staff at all branches and helps us share what we learn in a central place. In October 2014 we closed all the branches for a day and had our first staff professional development day. There were dozens of sessions run by guest speakers and staff members. I took classes on how socio-economic factors impact literacy rates and how to keep fit at my desk, and I also presented a session on the open data movement. It was really great to have the whole staff under one roof.
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