25 July 2020

Notes from AI4LAM webinar: ethics, data, and artificial intelligence in libraries, archives and museums

Recently I was one of 100+ people who registered for the webinar “In Conversation with Thomas Padilla”. A video from the webinar is now available from University of Adelaide Library YouTube channel. 

Thomas Padilla is the Interim Head, Knowledge Production at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. He is the author of the OCLC Research report Responsible Operations: Data Science, Machine Learning, and AI in Libraries and the lead for significant Mellon Foundation supported work in the US on “collections as data”.

Joining Thomas as organisers and facilitators of the session were:
  • Ingrid Mason, independent consultant on research infrastructure and heritage data collections
  • Alexis Tindall, Manager Digital Innovation, University of Adelaide Library, and
  • Adam Moriarty, Head of Collection Information and Access, Auckland War Memorial Museum
  • Gene Melzack, Data Curator, Student and Scholarly Services, University of Melbourne.
Some recent projects mentioned during the webinar included:
The webinar was full of interesting ideas and it’s very hard to summarise it down to a few key takeaways! But overall the two themes that emerged for me were the need to push for library values and ethics in AI initiatives, and the challenges associated with building the multidisciplinary teams needed for successful AI projects.

Theme 1: Library values and ethics

We need to be aware that data is not just data; data is about lives and can reflect histories of oppression. Increasingly there are concerns about responsible use, particularly of indigenous collections, and these issues are amplified when machine learning is applied. Common frameworks such as FAIR and organisations such as the Research Data Alliance are not adequately addressing these concerns. 
According to the Global Indigenous Data Alliance: 
The current movement toward open data and open science does not fully engage with Indigenous Peoples rights and interests. Existing principles within the open data movement (e.g. FAIR: findable, accessible, interoperable, reusable) primarily focus on characteristics of data that will facilitate increased data sharing among entities while ignoring power differentials and historical contexts. The emphasis on greater data sharing alone creates a tension for Indigenous Peoples who are also asserting greater control over the application and use of Indigenous data and Indigenous Knowledge for collective benefit.
Commercial AI tools also need to be approached with caution, and Thomas warned against being “lured by scale” in ways that compromise our values. An example of this could be re-purposing a tool for cultural heritage use that was originally developed by governments for facial recognition of protestors. Adam also highlighted issues around the hidden labour involved in services like Amazon's Mechanical Turk and noted that just because something seems a cheap and easy option does not meant that it is something that cultural heritage organisations should jump on board with.

Further reading:

Theme 2: Building multidisciplinary teams

Thomas referred to the work being done by Nancy McGovern on radical collaboration in research libraries. According to McGovern:
The concept of radical collaboration means coming together across disparate, but engaged, domains in ways that are often unfamiliar or possibly uncomfortable to member organizations and individuals in order to identify and solve problems together, to achieve more together than we could separately.
Thomas suggested that projects need to be intentional about providing opportunities to draw on the expertise of everyone on a project team. He observed that tech folk often "consult" non-tech contributors at the start of a project but then go off and do their own thing. Participants instead need to design the project to deliberately bring conversations between people to the fore, and to build trust and mutual respect.

Thomas also talked about being "separated by a common language". This occurs when different professional groups use the same words to mean different things (e.g. a humanist will have a different idea of scale from a machine learning specialist). How do we bridge those gaps in language and culture between different professional groups? We need to be explicit about assumptions and agree on terminology as part of setting projects up.

In terms of roles and competencies, Thomas noted that organisations need someone who can be a translator between different groups. But it can't just be that translational person's responsibility, as this is not sustainable. Organisations need to shift more broadly, and this requires leadership and managerial efforts to build a culture of collaboration and innovation. There are also questions around how to retain people who are confident and competent in this emerging area; what can we do to ensure people want to come and work with GLAM institutions rather than applying these skills elsewhere?

There was some discussion about building career paths and skills within institutions, and the pros/cons of outsourcing vs building internal capabilities vs a combination of these. In terms of building internal capabilities, Thomas mentioned at least three strategies:
  • The Carpentries. There is now a strong body of evidence that those pedagogies work and they are also reasonably affordable.
  • Collections as Data: 50 Things You Can Do. A list compiled by the Always Already Computational project, of 50 things staff in cultural organisations can do to “open eyes, stimulate conversation, encourage stepping back, generate ideas, and surface new possibilities” in relation to collections as data.
  • Workplace learning. Thomas gave the example of a staff professional development approach at Michigan State University Library. In consultation with supervisors, any staff member could devote 25% of their time could to shadowing or cross-team projects. This was re-evaluated as part of the annual performance review process but could be ongoing. This led to cross-fertilisation, up-skilling, and was a great way for people new to the profession to try different things.

Further reading:

Radical Collaboration and Research Data Management [special issue]. Research Library Issues, no. 296 (2018).

About AI4LAM

The webinar was the first public event held to gauge the level of interest in establishing an ANZ chapter of AI for Libraries, Archives, and Museums (AI4LAM), “an international, participatory community focused on advancing the use of artificial intelligence in, for and by libraries, archives and museums.” Further information about AI4LAM is available via their website.

The organisers of the local webinar are a small group of professionals interested in the role of computational and curatorial techniques that advance artificial intelligence in cultural heritage practice and allied areas in research (e.g. digital humanities). 

You can register interest in participating in future events and efforts to establish the local chapter via an online form.

09 August 2019

Boundary Spanning Leadership – reflections from a training course

​Along with a number of staff members at my library, I attended a half-day workshop last week on the topic of boundary spanning.

This was the first time the course had been offered at my workplace. It was run by our university HR Staff Development team, who delivered training ​materials licensed from the Center for Creative Leadership at no cost for staff.

CCL have been exploring boundary spanning as a management topic for a few years now, arguing that these skills are urgently required because most complex organisations and issues now require working across teams or organisations or disciplines to get to successful outcomes.​ This is the definitely the case in an Australian university!

The course covered three ways in which leaders, groups and organisation can span boundaries: managing boundaries, forging common ground, and discovering new frontiers. Six practical tactics were associated with these:

Managing boundaries

  • Buffering - defining boundaries to create a space of safety
​Examples: Defining shared values, clarifying roles and responsibilities, establishing explicit ‘rules of engagement’ with other teams, developing team charters, away-days / retreats, rewards and recognition, internal communications, team social events
  • Reflecting – looking across boundaries to foster respect and build an understanding of the similarities and differences between groups
Examples: Extend invitations to other groups to attend meetings and socialise, secondments, sabbaticals, job rotation, ‘decoding’ group jargon for others

Forging common ground

  • Connecting – stepping outside boundaries into a ‘third space’ to link and connect as individuals, forming new networks and deeper relationships 
Examples: Identify ’establish ‘third spaces’, cross-group mentoring and buddy schemes, create diary space for cross-team relationship building, ‘town-hall meetings’ in support of larger scale initiatives   
  • Mobilising - developing a shared space, common purpose, and shared identity across group boundaries (moving from “us” and “them” to “we)
Examples: Cross-functional project teams, working on building a sense of community after mergers/restructures, diversity initiatives, establishing a brand or identity for a cross-group service 

​​Discovering new frontiers​

  • Weaving – establishing a creative space (e.g. to develop innovative ideas or new solutions) in which group identifies remain distinct but are interwoven to add up to a larger whole 
Examples: secondments in different sectors, participating in cross-university consortia (e.g. CAUL, CAUDIT) or external engagement activities (e.g. with a focus on local/regional development), using fresh combinations of staff 
  • Transforming – bringing multiple groups together to reimagine and reinvent, moving beyond the known context and cutting across established norms, practices and identities
Examples: use cross-functional teams to establish ‘alternative futures’, cross-functional work as the norm, continually question legacy boundaries, explore collaboration with those usually thought of of as competitors, knowledge-exchange and partnerships outside your own sector / profession / industry

I found a lot of the course highly relevant to my job and my library's context. My key takeaway was that the tactics above should be addressed in a sequential order. In my own library's context, I understood this to mean that building a strong team identity and understanding of our shared purpose is essential if we are to then go on to successfully work across boundaries with other teams in the universities, other libraries, and other kinds of partners in the community.

Overall, I would highly recommend this training course and the associated material from the CCL website (see below). It provides a lot of practical guidance and options to consider in complex environments where collaboration is essential, but not always easy.

Further reading:  ​​

White Paper: B​oundary Spanning in Action: Tactics for Transforming Today's Borders into Tomorrow's Frontiers. ​

25 April 2019

Libraries, leadership, and overvaluing expertise

I am not usually a big reader of the business self-help books that pop up in airport bookshops. However, I took notice when a colleague recommended How Women Rise, because I respect her and trust her judgement and because her career path is one that represents a possible direction for my own. I've now borrowed this from my public library service twice and recommended it myself to some co-workers, so I thought it would be good to blog some reflections. 

Cover of How Women Rise by Sally Helgesen and Marshall Goldsmith
I'm not going to review the book as a whole or go through the whole list of self-limiting behaviours that the authors observe through their executive coaching practices as being more prevalent amongst women. It's useful to point out up front that Helgeson and Goldsmith are aware of the many structural barriers to women achieving their full potential in the mostly-corporate environments from which they draw the book's case studies. However, they see themselves addressing a different set of challenges, which they argue are more within women's immediate control. If you can take this approach at face value you will probably find yourself able to get something useful out of this book. For a more #critlib view you will probably want to bypass their sidestepping of these structural issues and read something else entirely!

The one habit (#3) that jumped out at me from my own career and observing others in libraries is overvaluing expertise:
Trying to master every detail of your job in order to become an expert is a great strategy for keeping the job you have.... you put enormous effort into learning every aspect of your job and assuring your work is letter-perfect. This feels proactive, but it can set you up to remain on an endless treadmill, constantly setting a higher bar for yourself as you seek to always go the extra mile.... 
Of course, we're not advocating sloppy performance. And we know that skill and knowledge are required for success. But if you want to rise in your field or your organization, expertise will only take you so far. That's because the top jobs always require managing and leading people who have expertise, not providing expertise yourself. (86)
The authors discuss the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic rewards, and the way that mastery of a work area provides both the satisfaction of knowing you are doing something really well (intrinsic) and a pathway to having your contributions recognised by others (extrinsic). This is good up to a point, but can become a problem for women who want to move into leadership positions for three reasons:
  • Learning every aspect of your job to the highest level uses up mental bandwidth that could be shared across other equally important areas
  • Doing your current job to perfection only demonstrates that you're great at the job you're in now, not the jobs that you may want to move to in future
  • Your expertise makes you indispensable to your boss, who may then have an interest in keeping you where you are. 
Meanwhile, the authors argue, male colleagues are likely to be focused on doing their jobs well enough, while still leaving time to build the relationships and organisational / industry visibility that will help them progress their careers. 

The authors also describe four types of power that we can have within organisations. Expertise is only one of these, the others being connections/relationships, personal authority, and positional power (i.e. where we stand in the organisational hierarchy). These are complementary and ideally would be in balance because "cultivating expertise at the expense of other kinds of power will not position you as a leader" (93). 

(I might digress slightly to say that the word power is a bit fraught for me. I think it has some poor connotations for lots of people, probably because we have all at some point in our careers been on the receiving end of someone else wielding power - probably positional power - over us in a negative way. The authors' definition of power in this book is a bit different. They describe it as "influence potential" and argue that "if you want to influence the world in a positive way... you have to have power" (95). It is hard to summarise this, but I think they see power as the ability to articulate your goals - both for your organisation and yourself - and work purposefully towards them, which is definitely a bit more palatable a concept.)

So, how does the overvaluing of expertise play out in libraries? I have seen this in my own career and in various positions and workplaces in a range of ways, including:
  • Reinforcement of rigid distinctions between 'professional' and 'para-professional' roles, and between different types of professional roles (e.g. front-of-house vs back-of-house)
  • Suspicion of team leaders and managers who have not 'risen through the ranks' by developing a deeper and deeper technical understanding of the area they are responsible for
  • Locating specialist expertise in one role that is essential for the organisation strategically but a dead-end in terms of career progression for the person in it - this is particularly obvious in emerging areas (research data management, I am looking at you) but also seems to apply to other types of roles (e.g. see this blog post about e-resources management)
  • Length of service as a proxy measure for ability - a sense of entitlement to higher positions by virtue of having the most years of experience
  • Pressure on students and early career librarians to specialise in a sub-discipline (cataloguing & acquisitions, liaison, public programming) and/or commit to a sector (schools, public, academic, special)
  • Negative attitudes towards those who 'jump around' (including envy of the career progression that can result for those prepared to take the very real risks associated with these leaps)
  • In recruitment and development, weighting library experience over generic transferable skills such as customer service, communication, teamwork, advocacy, IT skills, and problem solving, even when the generic skills are more important to being successful in the position
  • Lack of awareness that many skills needed for management positions cannot be easily gained alongside mastery of a work area or function, unless specific attention is paid to them as development goals (e.g. recruitment, health and safety, financial management, vendor management)
  • Consolidation and validation of expertise-based silos / team structures at the expense of cross-disciplinary groupings. 
I don't have any firm thoughts right now on what this means for us at a sector or organisational level, but it's definitely made me think about my own views on expertise (my own, as well as that of others). By highlighting this as a potential issue to be aware of, this book has definitely helped me make sense of some challenges I have had transitioning into a more senior role and given me some food for thought about how I can ensure I don't close down opportunities for myself and others in future. 

Further reading

Helgesen, Sally, and Marshall Goldsmith. 2018. How Women Rise: Break the 12 Habits Holding You Back. Penguin Random House.