The Process is the Thing: Lessons from Serendip-o-matic 5

Meghan Frazer, Digital Resources Curator at the Knowlton School of Architecture at the Ohio State University, recently served as co-project manager for Serendip-o-matic, a search tool built in just one week. In this post, she shares her primary takeaways from the experience.


Serendip-o-matic is a tool that connects a researcher’s sources to digital materials located in libraries, museums, and archives around the world. By first examining a user’s research interests, and then identifying related content in locations such as the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA), Europeana, and Flickr Commons, the serendipity engine helps users discover photographs, documents, maps, and other primary sources. Library users may find it helpful to discover previously unknown artifacts relating to their research, or they may just find it fun. This tool is unique because it leverages multiple APIs to return results from disparate platforms in a fun engaging way and it encourages researchers to think outside the current boundary of their project. Also, we built it in just one week. Serendip-o-matic is the product of One Week | One Tool, an open-source software-development institute sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities and hosted by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media (RRCHNM) at George Mason University. You can learn more about the tool on the Serendip-o-matic About page.

I am classified most easily as a digital librarian. In my regular job, I provide traditional library services such as reference and cataloging, but I am also responsible for the development and maintenance of our online image repository. In some ways, I am a digital library mechanic—fixing and tweaking and trying to make things run as smoothly as possible—in a shop where I’m the only one working on my particular machine.

For Serendip-o-matic, I took on the role of co-project manager alongside Brian Croxall, Digital Humanities Strategist at Emory University. I wrote in my application letter that “One Week One Tool is an incredibly exciting opportunity for me to work with others in the field in a focused environment, where the drains of the regular workday are not distracting from the development work.” I wanted to step into an alternate reality, or a timeout, and see if twelve people really could see something from inception to delivery in just one week. The experience delivered on this ideal, and my role as co-project manager gave me valuable insight into the structures and processes that made the project successful.

I found project managing challenging and very different from my day-to-day duties (for many more details on this, see my blog entry at ACRL TechConnect), but also that much of my librarian experience proved helpful. For example, in order to create a tool that would be used, we listened to the scholars on the team who are active researchers. The requirements gathering process is similar to answering a complex reference question. We asked lots of questions (What is your end goal? What have you tried that didn’t work?) and listened to the answers. Then, we needed to act…quickly.

[pullquote]I found project managing challenging, but also that much of my librarian experience proved helpful.[/pullquote]

On our first day, RRCHNM’s Sheila Brennan said, “being willing to make concrete decisions is the only way you’re going to get through this week.” While I was listening, I jotted down that one could replace “this week” with “any project.” Projects frequently get stalled at decision points as we wait for input or agonize over whether we have made the right choice. Personally, I know I have delayed the release of digital collections while waiting for the librarian’s unicorn: perfect metadata.

The one week timeframe forces you to push past these traps. Tasks are completed only after committing to a direction and there isn’t time to be perfect. The same thing is true back in my office—there are a million reasons to put off making a decision but it is the willingness to make a choice that drives a project forward. Now, as the main session is over, the team is revisiting some of those choices and making tweaks as time allows to improve the project. But Serendip-o-matic is proof that you can make something great in a short time frame if you have the skill and willingness to make concrete decisions.

[pullquote]Tasks are completed only after committing to a direction and there isn’t time to be perfect.[/pullquote]

In the month since I returned from Virginia, I have reflected on the process, which we can roughly divide into five steps:

  1. identify the issue to address and brainstorm solutions

  2. discuss the feasibility of and commitment to suggested solutions and then, choose one.

  3. identify and assign the tasks which need to be completed to build the solution

  4. build version 1 of the solution

  5. promote and use the solution

I wonder if these steps are replicable outside a self-contained short time frame.  For example, what if regular libraries could set aside a week of time to tackle a problem? The problem, of course, is justifying the resources required to sequester a staff for a week. And while there are five steps, they do not necessarily equate to one day each; step 4 will occupy a large percentage of time.

But, thinking about the solution to a problem in the context of those steps is an interesting exercise. In my own work, I can envision a month where twice a week I set aside a morning or afternoon and focus on this process for an outstanding issue in the digital library. Or, in a larger office, a librarian and a developer could pair up and work on it together.

Scheduling the time is key. Serendip-o-matic happened because everyone in the room blocked out the time. But, as long as the time is dedicated and focused, five consecutive days may not be a requirement.

The team experienced a great deal in just five days and many of us wrote on lessons learned in the days following the release. I am always challenged to extrapolate the lessons from a conference back into my daily routine, outside of fun new tools. In the case of building Serendip-o-matic, I returned with the fun new tool, but also with the process components that will help me address problems without the luxury of a timeout.

Meghan Frazer

Meghan Frazer is the Digital Resources Curator at the Knowlton School of Architecture at the Ohio State University. Send tweets in her direction with @meghanfrazer.

5 thoughts on “The Process is the Thing: Lessons from Serendip-o-matic

  1. @Readex Sep 4,2013 11:26 am

    The Process is the Thing: Lessons from Serendip-o-matic ← dh lib

  2. Amanda French Sep 4,2013 2:24 pm

    Nice post, Meghan. You’re so right that the mere willingness to block out time for staff to focus on one thing is something that is in itself powerful. I recently facilitated a terrific two-week digital humanities summer workshop at Northwestern, and I was so, so grateful (and honestly a bit surprised) that the DH librarian and several other Northwestern staff members from various IT & learning units were allowed to spend all day every day at the workshop working with five faculty to realize their digital projects. Such a great, deep experience — just like One Week, I hear.

  3. @sirmies Sep 4,2013 9:02 pm

    The Process is the Thing: Lessons from Serendip-o-matic » good read via @feedly

  4. Meghan Frazer Sep 5,2013 8:43 am

    Thanks, Amanda. I know that merely getting out of the office and into another space can facilitate that dedication of time, but your comment reminded me of all the RRCHNM folks that were able to assist us as well.

    Maybe it’s not always the location, but also assigning importance to the block of time. It’s an event! We’re going to build this thing!

    Thanks for the comment and for sharing the workshop syllabus – it looks really interesting.

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