Welcome to the third installment of the “Meet Our Contributors” feature. “Meet Our Contributors” spotlights the individuals who work with us to contribute digital collections from their institutions to PA Digital and the Digital Public Library of America. We want all of our readers to know about the amazing work that they do in their institutions, as well as their insight from experience as contributors to the DPLA. This month, we are pleased to hear from Tristan Dahn, Digital Projects Librarian at the Historical Medical Library of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Check out some of the Historical Medical Library’s collections in the DPLA!
Anastasia Chiu, PA Digital Metadata Team: Can you tell our readers a little about yourself and your role with the Historical Medical Library of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia’s digital collections?
Tristan Dahn, College of Physicians: Hi Anastasia! Thanks for asking me to participate in this Q&A. Getting our content up on the DPLA has been one of my more exciting accomplishments from the last year.
I came to work at the Historical Medical Library of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, and as a librarian, in a slightly roundabout way. I studied Music at Bard College from 2001-2005, and spent close to a decade after living in Philadelphia as part of its performance/art scene. It was during this time that I also discovered a real love of literature, which led to my working at both an independent bookstore and a small publishing company. Through this, and through volunteer work I performed at Books Through Bars, an all-volunteer run not for profit based in West Philadelphia that provides educational and reading materials to incarcerated people, I came to understand better the importance of textual information in constructing one’s worldview and sense of self. This, and the desire to find a more stable career path, led me to pursue a Master’s in Library and Information Science. I did my Master’s work at McGill University in Montreal, and it was through my coursework there, and through an internship at .txtLAB, a digital humanities laboratory at McGill, that I came to learn to work with data, and to love working with data, and it was this skill set that brought me to my current position at the Historical Medical Library.
The Mutter Museum, part of the College of Physicians with the Historical Medical Library, was one of my favorite cultural institutions in Philadelphia while I was living there, so when I saw the posting for the position of Digital Projects Librarian, I was excited to apply, and even more excited to get the job! It has been a fantastic opportunity. The Historical Medical Library has a unique and fascinating collection, and it is a great privilege to be working with these materials, especially so early in my career as a librarian/archivist. My role involves managing digitization and metadata for digital objects, maintaining and customizing our digital library and ArchivesSpace instance, creating digital exhibitions out of our digital content, some simple graphic design, working with the data in our museum and library catalogs to help in the transition to our new linked data catalog we are affectionately calling the “Digital Spine,” as well as a number of small non-digital tasks related to the collaborative nature of our small staff.
AC: Do you have a favorite item or collection that you’re particularly excited about contributing to PA Digital and the DPLA? (It’s ok, we all have favorites!)
TD: My favorite collection at the moment is a collection of photographs from “Old Blockley,” which was the nickname for the Philadelphia General Hospital when it was part of the Philadelphia Almshouse starting in 1731. Largely late 19th Century, the photographs depict daily life, the building and its grounds, patients and pathologies, and many of the doctors and nurses who were on staff at the time. The result is a vibrant portrait of a place, which at the time, was central to the health care of the elderly and indigent. Since many of these photographs are unique to our collection or have not been previously digitized, being able to share them widely via the DPLA is quite exciting.
AC: How did you and your colleagues decide to become part of the PA Digital partnership and the DPLA? What goals or purpose do you hope being part of PA Digital can achieve?
TD: You reached out to us! For which we are very grateful. As a relatively small special collections library that is part of a relatively small institution, our collection has, in the past, been somewhat overlooked. We currently have the largest professional library staff in quite a while, and are working actively to revitalize the collection and promote its use. Hosting images on the DPLA provides us with an opportunity to share some of our unique resources with the curious while also drawing in people who may want to do more rigorous research with our collections in our reading room.
AC: Are there any digitization or preservation projects for your collections, past, present or planned, that you’d like to tell our readers about?
TD: Yes! The Historical Medical Library of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia is a member of a collaborative medical digital library called the Medical Heritage Library (MHL). Over the past couple of years, MHL has been working on a project funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Arcadia Fund, to digitize the extant volumes of medical journals produced by state medical societies during the twentieth century. We have contributed over 750 volumes from our collection of journals, a corpus that in the end will include 117 titles, comprising over 2.5 million pages in 3,579 volumes. The volumes, which document the American medical tradition regionally and nationally, are full-text searchable, and available in a variety of formats, including plain text, which will enable opportunities for digital medical humanities projects. The project will be complete in April 2017, but the majority of volumes are already scanned and available on the Internet Archive here.
AC: Do you collaborate with other organizations to make your content available and/or to create public programming around it?
TD: Our biggest and most consistent collaboration in the digital realm is the Medical Heritage Library, described above. However, we are also a member of the Pennsylvania Area Consortium of Special Collection Libraries (PACSCL), whose members include The Library Company, Chemical Heritage Foundation, the Kislak Center, the American Philosophical Society, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, among many others. We have collaborated with partners from PACSCL in order to partake in symposiums and workshops, provide our materials to accompany speakers at other institutions and even helped organize a skill share day around working with ArchivesSpace, an open source solution for hosting and presenting archival finding aids. A current digitization effort we are involved in through PACSCL is Bibliotheca Philadelphiensis, which is funded through a CLIR grant awarded to Lehigh University, and seeks to digitize and make available online all the Medieval and Early Modern manuscripts in PACSCL collections.
Additionally, we have had classes from UPENN attending the library this past year to learn about our materials and the value of primary source research, we have created student resource guides in conjunction with National History Day, and continue to support the Center for Public Education and Initiatives here at The College of Physicians by providing pop-up exhibits and classroom talks.
That said, we are always looking for further opportunities for collaboration, so please feel free to reach out to us!
AC: You’ve been working with us since summer 2016; how has your experience with PA Digital and the DPLA been? Do you have any feedback for us?
TD: Great! Everyone I’ve worked with at PA Digital has been gracious and willing to work with us to resolve any issue that has arisen. Though I have not yet needed to “attend,” the virtual office hours offered by your team seem like a great resource for those looking to get involved or for partners who are looking to troubleshoot issues or expand their contribution.
AC: As an experienced collaborator with us, what advice do you have for those who are considering bringing their collections to PA Digital and the DPLA?
TD: The main thing I would say is know your data! The main issues we had with exporting metadata from our digital library involved conventions around metadata as established both locally and through our digital library platform, Omeka. Understanding the conventions for specific metadata field usage, both at the DPLA and at your institution, is the first step in understanding how to map the export.
The other issue had to do with the plug-in for Omeka that enables the Open Archives Initiative Protocol for Metadata Harvesting (OAI-PMH). Out of the box, it did not provide the correct image file and exported a few fields that, though accurate in our context, did not fit the accepted use for the DPLA. A basic knowledge of the source code for Omeka and the plug-in, as well as some PHP, made the customization rather simple.
This might sound slightly complicated, but in reality, it was a pretty quick fix, and solving the issue was empowering. I would encourage anyone looking to collaborate to be willing to get their hands a little dirty!
AC: All of this sounds like great advice from my perspective as well. Thanks very much for your time and your insight, Tristan!