“A Natural Symbiosis”: An Interview with Ashley Sanders

Chelcie Juliet Rowell, Digital Initiatives Librarian at Wake Forest University, interviews Ashley Sanders, the Digital Scholarship Librarian for the Claremont Colleges. After meeting at the 2015 Digital Library Federation Forum in Vancouver, BC, Ashley and Chelcie are glad to have identified each other as fellow learners in a digital humanities, libraries, and liberal arts community of practice. More conversations and collaborations to come!

Chelcie: What is your digital humanities and librarianship origin story?

Ashley: My academic background is actually a little unusual. I have a bachelor’s degree in both math and history secondary education and a Ph.D. in history. After completing my undergraduate degree, I taught high school history for one semester and high school math for two years before entering the Ph.D. program at Michigan State University. During my time at MSU, my interest in DH developed organically through conversations with other grad students. The more I understood about it, the more I realized that it provided a way to link my background in math, logic, and some basic programming with my work in history. As I got closer to completing my degree, I realized how many interesting paths were available because of the digital skills I developed during grad school. One of the most appealing options was working in an academic library because of my service-orientation, desire to continue teaching, and experience with new modes of scholarship. Moreover, the library offered the opportunity to work in a more human-centric academic environment. Much of my work depends on building strong relationships and collaborative efforts with colleagues, both in and outside the library.

Chelcie: How does your discipline (history) shape your view of your role as a librarian?

Ashley: There is a natural symbiosis between historians, librarians, and archivists. For example, my research on the history of Native communities in the United States and Algerians’ parallel experience of colonization made me very conscious of whose stories are told, by whom, and for whom, issues that are central to the critical practice of librarianship. Libraries and archives do not build themselves; the decisions that librarians and archivists make about what items to collect, as well as how to describe and organize them, have important consequences for discoverability and the ease with which scholars can identify connections among sources. The composition of collections and the accessibility of materials shape what and how questions are asked and answered.  Furthermore, my experience as a historian has given me strong research skills with which to learn a new field — librarianship — and influences my approach to teaching, commitment to preserving the historical record, and advocacy for open access whenever possible. Finally, having survived a Ph.D. program, as well as having my own research and publication agenda, provides common ground on which to build relationships with faculty and administrators from the various Claremont Colleges.

Chelcie: What do you most want to accomplish in your work? Not necessarily the responsibilities in your position description, but the goals you hold personally?

Ashley: First and foremost, I want to help my colleagues create a warm, welcoming, and safe environment for our entire seven-college community, and I want to begin with my office. I want my office to be a place where faculty, students, and other librarians feel comfortable sharing the challenges they face in their research and digital projects and can walk out, empowered with a clear sense of direction.

I also want my information literacy and digital humanities instruction sessions and courses to be impactful, timely, and relevant for undergraduates, grad students, faculty, and librarians. As part of my work building a DH community of practice, I want to help my colleagues in the library deepen their expertise in the areas of digital humanities and broader digital scholarship issues, such as open access, intellectual property rights, as well as digital literacy, citizenship, and security.

Somehow, in the midst of these broader goals, I want to continue my own historical research and publish in both history and library science to contribute what I’ve learned to these scholarly conversations.

Chelcie: Do you have anyone who deeply influenced who you are and what you’re committed to in your work? Tell me about them.

Ashley: My work in an inner city high school in Michigan and my historical research have both deeply influenced who I am as a person and the focus of my work. At the high school I taught history and math with a strong commitment to social justice and advocacy. The challenges that faced the diverse, talented students with whom I had the privilege to work strengthened that commitment. That experience also instilled a new commitment to opening access to scholarship and knowledge to K–12 teachers, students, and under-served communities in the United States. My research on the Middle East and North Africa extended the scope of my desire to open access for students and scholars around the world.

Chelcie: Tell me about a specific project — something you worked on in the past or something you’re working on right now that excites you or makes you proud.

Ashley: I am really excited about the community of practice that is developing around DH at the Claremont Colleges — in part because it is a diverse group that includes faculty from the various campuses, graduate students, staff, and librarians. We’re working together to tackle big questions, such as how best to preserve, maintain and provide access to the digital scholarly projects that faculty and students build, as well as how to foster digitally infused courses and critical digital pedagogy.

The library is also in the midst of revamping its physical spaces to meet the needs of this and future generations of students and scholars. As project manager of one of these initiatives, I am guiding our library and campus to re-imagine our GIS lab as a more inclusive, accessible, and technology-rich space. It will still include GIS software and expertise but will also become a multi-media production site as well as a data analysis and visualization space. We’re calling it our “Digital Tool Shed,” and it will serve as an exploratory space where members of the Claremont Colleges community can come to learn new technology. The hope is that it will serve as an incubator for new and innovative digital scholarship. One of the best parts of this process has been incorporating our students into the design phase. We have been working closely with the Rick and Susan Sontag Center for Collaborative Creativity (the Hive), which launched its first design thinking pop-up course. The participating students interviewed potential users of the Digital Tool Shed, listened carefully to their concerns and wishes for this space and then developed, prototyped, and tested creative solutions. Our student advisory board, BOSS, has also been involved and given helpful feedback. Now it’s time to put all of those ideas together and remodel and equip our space!

Chelcie: What’s the next area of knowledge that you want to add to your repertoire as you continue to settle into your new role as Digital Scholarship Librarian at the Claremont Colleges Library? Or more broadly, what’s next for you? What are you looking forward to?

Ashley: This question might take all day to answer! I’m an intensely curious person — about everything. So, I am returning to my roots in mathematics, brushing up on and then extending my knowledge of graph theory to understand how humanities scholars can, do, and might apply the methodology of network analysis in their own research. I, too, have some networks I am anxious to analyze and understand in new and different ways.

I am also in the middle of teaching a DH course for librarians at the Claremont Colleges Library, which will lay the groundwork for a series of professional development workshops I’m launching this next semester on digital scholarship issues, such as digital identity and security, open access, and IP. This coming summer, our librarians will also have the opportunity to participate in a DH maker week focused on our Special Collections and data visualization of our collections, acquisitions, usage, web page analytics, and other assessment metrics for both internal and external audiences.

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