How Trevor Owens Does History

Editor’s note: This is the fourteenth entry in a series on how historians—especially contingent historians and those employed outside of tenure-track academia—do the work of history. If you know of someone we should interview, or would like to be interviewed yourself, send an email with the subject line HOW I DO HISTORY to pitches@contingentmag.org.


Trevor Owens (@tjowens on Twitter) is the Head of Digital Content Management at the United States Library of Congress. Here’s how he does history.

What are your current positions? 

I’m the first Head of Digital Content Management at the United States Library of Congress. I have been in this role for about four years, but I have worked for the federal government for more than a decade. I originally worked as a Digital Archivist at the Library of Congress. After that I led digital library programs at the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services. In 2017 I came back to the Library of Congress for this role.

I’m also concurrently a Public Historian in Residence at American University, where I’ve been teaching digital history graduate seminars since 2011 and a Lecturer for the University of Maryland’s College of Information Studies, where I teach graduate courses on digital curation and archives.

Trevor’s office at the Library of Congress in March 2018.

You’re the first head of digital content management at the Library of Congress. Okay, so what does that mean and what does this new unit of the LoC do?

The Digital Content Management (DCM) section has a few different functions. We are custodians for general digital collections, we set policy for digital collections management, we serve as product owners for many of the digital collections systems, and we also provide services to support engagement with the collections. This Library of Congress blog post I wrote shortly after the section started up in 2018 gives a good overview. Along with that, I recently put up a post reflecting on the first three years of our work.

In our custodial role, folks on the teams I support work to ensure enduring access to a wide range of different kinds of digital collections. Everything from millions of images of digitized phonebooks, to rare Chinese books, to Audre Lorde reading her poems and Jorge Luis Borges reading his works, and meme images produced by the U.S. Consumer Protection Agency. DCM is also home to the Library of Congress Web Archiving Program, which preserves and provides access to everything from the websites of composers, to sites like the Urban Dictionary and Boing Boing that document digital culture, to archives of U.S. election websites, and government websites of U.S Executive Branch Agencies.

DCM staff manage that content and make sure that we can get it, preserve it, and make it available. We also develop and maintain policy for how digital collections are managed and as a result of that end up serving in roles as product owners for many of the IT systems that support managing digital collections. Lastly, we run the By the People Program which invites people from all over the world to virtually volunteer to transcribe digitized handwritten documents to both learn about history and help make those materials more accessible and usable through full text search.

With all of that noted, it’s worth underscoring the range of things that we don’t do. We don’t choose what should be added to the collections. Subject matter experts who serve as Recommending Officers do that. We also don’t acquire or catalog material. Expert librarians in cataloging and acquisition do that. We also don’t do reference support for these collections. Subject matter experts that work in the organization’s many reading rooms do that. We also don’t design and build software systems, experts in our IT units do that. We also generally don’t manage content for the special collections divisions in the organization, like the Manuscript Division, or Prints and Photographs, the American Folklife Center, or the National Audio Visual Conservation Center. Lastly, we don’t digitize materials. There is a Digitization Services section that does and coordinates most of that.

While working as a Digital Archivist at the Library of Congress I served as a co-chair for the National Digital Stewardship Alliance’s (NDSA) infrastructure working group. I also put together the visual design for some of the NDSA’s working groups. Here are prototypes of buttons we made for each of the working groups.

Tell our readers what a typical day of work is like for you. For starters, is there such a thing as a typical day for you?

 A typical day for me generally involves a nearly unceasing flow of emails and anywhere from 5-7 hours of meetings, which for me, in the work-from-home realities of the last year as a result of COVID-19, has meant meetings on Skype, Zoom, and WebEx.

Those meetings vary widely. Some are 1-1 check-ins with staff I supervise focused on making sure they have what they need to be successful in their work and that I am up to speed on what I need to be communicating about their work. Some meetings involve participating in working groups, some of which I chair and other’s which I’m a participant in, which are focused on working through issues to figure out how to either improve our work or practices or plan for future work.

We organize much of our work through scrum. Scrum grew out of the agile software development movement, and is an approach to iteratively planning and running projects and programs in short sprints. In that context, a lot of meetings for teams I support are tied into the scrum events and ceremonies for various teams. That includes work to manage and review potential future work, and coordinating the start close out of projects, and retrospectives on work completed. Scrum lets us do collaborative decision making about what the most pressing issues are for our systems, processes, and projects.

In these contexts, a lot of my role is about communication between teams and other parts of the organization. I also participate in a range of external groups where I collaborate with colleagues in other organizations that work on the same kinds of problems to iron out how we can all work better together. Lastly, we’ve done a lot of hiring, so a fair amount of that time is interviewing candidates for jobs and supporting training for staff across the teams. Beyond meetings and email, I also do a ton of reading and writing. Drafting reports on projects, drafting budgets, drafting plans, and then reviewing and revising those same kinds of documents.

Was there ever a moment where you knew you wanted to study history?

History was always one of my favorite classes and subjects. I loved the process of thinking through sequences of events and working to understand the past from primary sources. In middle and high school I started taking a lot more history classes and friends of mine would often ask me for help on their homework.

I took AP European history in high school as a sophomore. It was really the first time I was able to take an elective history class. At West Allis Central High School, this was a small class. I think there were seven or eight of us. In that class it started to become clear that I was a specific kind of nerd that just couldn’t get enough history.

A lot of history classes I’d taken tried to do all kinds of things to make history fun. But I remember Heather Bain, or Ms. Bain as we would have called her then, starting the year off saying something like “My sense is that the students that elect to take this class are up for and interested in this in a pretty uncut form.” So we went over immense and unceasing detail of historical fact and context.

I remember spending a few days where we all worked to try memorizing the House of Habsburg and the Hapsburg Succession. It was immensely useful. Memorization and names and dates kind of history often gets a bad wrap but it’s really crucial to have that kind of foundational framework to work from.

Trevor lining up to receive his Master’s degree in history at George Mason University on May 9th, 2009.

Tell us about your undergraduate and graduate school experiences. Was history your main area of study? Did you complete an MA and PhD?

As I geared up to go to college at the University of Wisconsin, I just couldn’t believe how many different history courses there were. Growing up in Wisconsin I had visited Madison a number of times and was thrilled to be accepted there for undergrad. I spent hours and hours pouring over the course catalog imagining how much fun it would be to be able to take any and all of these courses that were all so in depth. But then when I went into the freshmen SOAR program (Student Orientation, Advising, and Registration) I was crushed. The university had held open seats in some of the intro history courses for incoming freshmen but the 12 AP credits I had meant that I effectively wouldn’t get credit for any of those courses if I took them. All the advanced history courses were already full. Thank goodness I had an amazing senior student advisor who was there to coach me and help me out. He showed me the Integrated Liberal Studies (ILS) Program, a really fascinating small college sort of experience within the broader university. That program ran sections of History of Science courses that were not only fascinating but you could also get science credits for taking them. So I signed up for ILS 201: Western Culture: Science, Technology, and Philosophy where David Lindberg lectured and we read his book, The Beginnings of Western Science. I was captivated. I think three weeks in I declared History of Science as my major and also the ILS minor.

Brent Ruswick was my TA for that course and he had this amazing way of helping us all understand the breadth and depth of what Lindberg was presenting. I worked harder on my first course paper for that class than I had on any bit of writing in high school. I was devastated to get a C on that paper from Brent. That said, his feedback was so detailed and helpful, and he was willing to meet with me to talk through how I needed to argue and source a history paper. So, when I went in to work on the next paper I knew how to approach it and ended up getting an A on it. I think that was probably one of the most important turnarounds and teaching moments I ever had and it was really transformative for getting me to do the core work of argumentation supported by sources that is the heart of scholarship.

Studying the history of science meant, in short order, I ended up participating more like a grad student than an undergrad in courses in the department. The program was small enough that there were basically 300 level “meets with” listings for grad seminars that you could enroll in. The department was generally excited to get undergrads in on those so that there would be at least the 8 students necessary for the course to run. I received thoughtful advising from historians like Michael Shenk, and my thesis advisor Richard Staley. Richard met with me weekly as I worked on my study of children’s books about Einstein and Curie. I feel like the level of feedback and guidance I got from Richard had to be unprecedented for an undergraduate. I was really lucky to get that kind of mentorship. He was so generous and supportive in helping me develop my ability to make arguments, to write more clearly, and to engage with historiography.

After undergrad, I got an M.A. in Applied American History at George Mason University (GMU) where I also worked full time for the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media. I greatly benefited from the staff of the center but also from the guidance of historians like Zach Schrag, Dan Cohen, and Chirstopher Hammner. With the job prospects as they were for history PhDs, and my interest in the applications of history in learning and in social science research methods, I ended up deciding to do my PhD in GMU’s college of education. In that program, I wrote my doctoral thesis on the development of tools and systems that support online communities and how those different tools shape how historians should approach records of online communities as primary sources.

Trevor’s desk, in 2010, at the Center for History and New Media.

What were your research interests in graduate school?

I started out interested in studying the history of video games and learning in online communities. I wrote an essay on arguments about the history of science and technology online forums for the video game Civilization. In the doctoral program I was really lucky to be mentored by Kim Sheridan, who has this fascinating background in studying studio art practice, social science research methods, and educational psychology. We initially connected because she was doing some work on video games and had done research on arguments about taste between film fans in online forums. I ended up pitching in on some really fascinating work she was doing studying learning in makerspaces.

Under Kim’s guidance, I ended up wanting to explore how systems that support online communities are developed and understand what it means to approach records of online communities as primary sources. That became my dissertation work and my second book. If anyone is particularly curious, the College of Education at GMU has this great process where you develop three different research portfolios over time representing your research interests and all of those are still up on my website.

2006 picture of Trevor and his girlfriend (now wife), posing with the Albert Einstein Memorial statue outside the National Academy of Sciences. He would later write a paper about this statue and the way that people shared photos and responses to it on social media.

So far, what are some of the research projects you’ve worked on that you are the most proud of?

My research has been a bit eclectic, but broadly my work focuses on how historical methods can and should change given the possibilities of digital tools and how historical storytelling and communication can change because of digital media.

So I’ve written about reading Tripadvisor and Yelp reviews of the Einstein Memorial as primary sources to understand how audiences interact with it. I’ve conducted user studies of digital history research tools. I’ve worked on issues relating to how computational methods fit within the hermunitic framework of historical research, how videogames model and represent colonialism, about digital folklore and archived websites, and about general issues in source criticism for digital archives.

My biggest project to date is my third book, the Theory and Craft of Digital Preservation, which presents a comprehensive and accessible framework for understanding and approaching collecting, preserving, and providing access to digital sources.

Sticky notes from a 2016 summit on preserving government information.

How well did your particular history training prepare you for your position at the Library of Congress?

I’ve been lucky to have a lot of very hands-on historian mentors and coaches. Richard Staley, my undergraduate advisor, helped me develop the ability to step outside my own way of seeing and thinking about the world and using primary sources. Good historical thinking and scholarship requires you to use evidence to develop mental models of how and why different people in different times would have done what they did. I see this as one of the most important kinds of historical thinking and it’s also essential to doing good work in a big organization. I’m constantly applying and refining that skill as I try to better connect and engage with colleagues in other parts of the organization that see the world and a given problem differently, often from a different professional or technical perspective.

A second set of skills I refined and defined through history grad school was reading with intention and with different methods and approaches to source analysis. Reading a book a week every week for at times 3 different grad seminars while working full-time requires one to stress test your ability to read. I remember a professor of mine, Christopher Hamner, in a seminar talking about the importance of approaching reading like a set of golf clubs. I don’t play golf, but the metaphor still works. Sometimes you need the putter to do very delicate and fine work, like close reading. Sometimes you have 9 historical monographs to read in a week and you need to break out the driver to cover some serious ground. In the same vein, Zach Schrag has these fantastic resources on his website, like How to Read a History Book. I use that set of deliberate reading strategies every day. Sometimes I need to closely parse part of a document about a funding request or a presentation from a key stakeholder. Other times I need to be skimming, sifting, and CTRL+Fing, through really massive sets of potentially relevant documents and texts to see if I need to spend more time with them. Whenever I start reading something I start at it by setting an intention and I learned that from historians.

At the Center for History and New Media I received a lot of practical hands-on guidance from mentors. From Roy Rozienzwieg I observed how a historian could be a generous and thoughtful leader and coach to a whole community and a profession. For one of my courses I worked with a few other students to write up a short case study about the ways Roy practiced that in his work. From Dan Cohen I learned how to pitch a concept or a project, I heard him at least five times tell the, quite possibly apocryphal tale of the pitch for the T.V. Show Miami Vice which just consisted of the words “MTV + Cops.” The message was to keep it clear, short, and to the point. From Tom Scheinfieldt, I learned the importance of developing and cultivating a sort of personal brand for your scholarship and work online. All of that guidance has been really important in shaping my career.

What is something people don’t know or understand about working in a library or archive?

I think there are two big things. First libraries and archives have a lot of roles and functions and across those roles and functions there are a lot of different identities and cultures. Librarians and archivists specialize in areas like reference, cataloging, collection development, collection management, conservation, preservation, formats like maps or photographs, specific subjects and different languages. Individual librarians and archivists may be experts in any of those different areas, and more, play parts in complex interlocking systems that make a library or an archives run. Beyond that, there are very different kinds of libraries and archives out there and their staff have different kinds of knowledge and expertise. For instance, major research libraries, public libraries, art libraries, state libraries, tribal libraries, all exist under the big tent of libraries but all end up doing very different kinds of work based on the needs of the communities they serve. So whenever you meet a librarian or an archivist, know that there are a lot of different areas of library and archives practice and that they won’t be experts in all of them. Librarianship contains multitudes.

Second, I think it’s important for folks to understand that librarians, archivists, curators, and all manner of cultural heritage institution workers generally are the world’s experts on their specific niche or set of collections. Given that, go to them as peers, not as service providers. Don’t just show up and ask for one specific thing, reach out in advance with a reference request and tell them about what you’re working on. Mention the things you’ve seen that suggest that their collections might be relevant to your work. Ask them for their ideas about what parts of their collection, or related collections in their field, might be most useful in exploring your issue. They have a lot of work to do, so you need to do some homework first from what you can find online but we really love hearing from people who have both 1) done some homework on reaching out to the right orgs and people and 2) come in asking as a peer and a colleague not as someone that is approaching this as a service transaction. It’s both better for the cultural heritage institution workers and it ends up meaning that you get much better input and guidance from the people that work closest with the materials and collections that are potentially relevant to your work.

Showing Bill Nye Carl Sagan’s childhood notebooks at a 2013 Library of Congress event.

What do you find to be the most rewarding part of working at the Library of Congress?

The best part is the people I get to work with. Through work at the Library of Congress I’ve made friends and been mentored by a wide range of people.

I will share a few examples of folks I know and really learn a lot from. Kate Zwaard is a genuine visionary about the potential of digital technologies but she’s also really thoughtful and generous about how to get things done. David Brunton is one of the most creative thinkers I know from whom I’ve learned so much about how systems and digital infrastructure work. He is also my go to person for information on flowers. Joe Puccio’s knowledge about the institution’s collections over time is deep and he’s happy to share it with folks and also very much invested in thinking about how that carries forward into the future. Abbie Grotke has been a leader in the web archiving program since it started but also wrote a book and runs a website about the history of dating advice books which then became an off broadway play. I could go on, but broadly, it’s worth underscoring that there is a depth of knowledge and wisdom in the staff that’s unparalleled. Along with that, it’s a place where people live full well rounded lives outside of work and often pursue fascinating hobbies.

In my job I’ve had the chance to hire on whole new teams of staff into that community and to work with those teams to define values that we use to guide our work. I’m consistently blown away by what this whole new set of amazing folks joining the Library of Congress are doing and I take a lot of pride in the idea of striving to be the kind of mentor that I got from folks who started at the Library of Congress before me.

For those who are unfamiliar with the concept, what are the digital humanities? How do you define it and what works (books, articles, exhibits) do you recommend for those interested in learning more about it or becoming practitioners?

On some level, one of the main things the digital humanities involves is defining what the digital humanities are. There is a website, What is Digital Humanities that will refresh with a different person’s definition with every page load. In any event, here goes. Broadly, I take it to be a big tent term for all the myriad ways that digital technology is being explored in support of humanities scholarship broadly conceived. That includes everything from new media studies, explorations of digital content as primary sources, use of computational tools like to analyse sources, and exploration of new kinds of scholarly publishing and communications.

A perpetual challenge for defining digital humanities is that it’s not whatever digital stuff everyone just does as part of their jobs. That is, publishing eJournals was at one point a cutting edge set of digital technology, but at this point eJournals are just the norm. So that’s just normal scholarship now. Similarly, there was a point in time in which writing and doing research using a computer was novel. Now that’s just a thing everyone does. So some parts of the digital humanities shift and change over time as different technologies just become normal, but other things, like computational analytic methods and work with born digital primary sources, end up genuinely requiring new kinds of competencies and literacies to work with and are likely to persist as specializations.

In terms of learning more about digital humanities I would suggest a few specific readings. Matt Kirschenbalm’s Digital Humanities Is/As a Tactical Turn is probably the best explanation of how digital humanities works in institutions. The L.A. Review of Books ran a series of interviews about defining the digital humanities that include some excellent discussion. From that series, I would recommend  Sharon Leon’s interview, she brings in a lot of context on public history and Bethany Nowviskie’s interview, she hits on a lot of great points on relationships between digital scholarship and libraries. I would also recommend Roopika Risam’s New Digital Worlds: Postcolonial Digital Humanities in Theory, Praxis, and Pedagogy.

Along with those kinds of explorations of digital humanities work, I think it’s also crucial for folks to be reading up on how digital archives are and need to change too. In that context I would recommend pieces like Stacie Williams and Jarrett Drake’s essay “Power to the People: Documenting Police Violence in Cleveland” and Bergis Jules “Confronting Our Failure of Care Around the Legacies of Marginalized People in the Archives.” The last set of resources I would recommend is the NEH Office of Digital Humanities (ODH) website. The ODH staff have been hugely important in helping foster and support the digital humanities communities in the U.S. and their funding opportunities have been invaluable.

Trevor lets you know that he takes the floppy disk seriously.

What advice would you share with someone wanting to work in digital preservation or more broadly, the digital humanities?

For someone interested in digital preservation I would strongly encourage them to consider getting an MLIS (Master of Library and Information Sciences); for folks interested in digital humanities it’s worth considering an MLIS or a PhD. With that said, it’s rough out there and it’s hard to get a foothold for jobs and careers at this point. I think everyone needs to be thinking broadly about what kinds of careers they might be interested in. I think it’s useful to think about finding and following folks on Twitter whose careers you are interested in. If you don’t do Twitter, I can’t at this point say I fully recommend doing a lot on it these days, but I will note that it’s been a huge part of my personal networking. So if you are interested in what I do you could look at the three thousand or so folks I follow there for ideas about other people whose careers you think are interesting.

One point I stress in my digital history seminars at American University is that the most important thing isn’t learning a particular technology or tool, it’s about learning how to figure out how to use any novel tool or technology that may come along. In that context, I think understanding things about project management, learning some base level scripting, and getting an understanding of processes for managing work like scrum and agile are really helpful. A few resources I recommend in this context are things like Software Carpentry and the rich set of resources and guides published in the Programing Historian.

All that said, the economy for knowledge worker jobs, which I would broadly put all the cultural heritage jobs in, is fundamentally broken. There are a lot of amazing people out there. Many of the organizations that should be hiring them aren’t putting resources into creating the kinds of good jobs that people are striving for. At the same time, there are more and more precarious “gig economy” jobs in the field. So, I don’t want any of my advice to come across as “follow these 7 steps and great jobs await.” At this point it’s not the case that if you work hard enough you will get the job of your dreams. On that front I feel pretty strongly that many of our institutions and our society more broadly are largely failing to provide the kinds of opportunities that people deserve. So I just want to make sure that any advice I offer is not taken as something to be used to scold anyone into thinking if they just hustled harder they could have that dream job. We all have a lot of work to do to get our institutions better resourced to offer better jobs to folks that could do amazing work around history and memory.

Lastly, I highly recommend that people interested in digital preservation careers read What’s Wrong with Digital Stewardship: Evaluating the Organization of Digital Preservation Programs from Practitioners’ Perspectives. That essay reflects some very honest and real concerns about the stresses that early career professionals in this field face and I think it’s important to go in with your eyes open. I would similarly recommend everyone read Fobazi Ettarh’s Vocational Awe and Librarianship: The Lies We Tell Ourselves.

What do you think is the biggest misconception people have about what historians do and how they work?

I think the biggest misconception is that historians are university professors or people that write history books. Sure, history professors are great, but it’s a huge loss that over time the conceptualization of who a historian is has narrowed in on that.

There are a lot of people whose profession is about history and I think the more we call them all historians and create opportunities for them all to connect with each other the better off we will be. K-12 history teachers are historians. Folks that do restoration work on buildings and homes are historians. Many librarians and archivists are historians. Historians teach at community colleges. Historians work at historical societies. Historians are also archivists, curators, librarians, and folklorists. Really anyone doing memory work is engaging in historical work.

I think the bigger the tent we can build for historians and the more we can create opportunities for all those folks to see each other as their peers and equals the more that we can really make a difference in helping people understand and engage with the past.

Finished draft of Trevor’s third book manuscript, The Theory and Craft of Digital Preservation.

You are the author of three books, including 2018’s The Theory and Craft of Digital Preservation. Tell us about the book and what it says about digital preservation.

 In popular culture we tend to believe in two simultaneous and inconstant ideas. That what is on the Internet will be around forever. But at the same time, we also fear an impending “digital dark age” which results in total and catastrophic loss of our cultural record. The Theory and Craft of Digital Preservation is my attempt to deflate that digital hyperbole and show that over the last half century archivists and librarians have largely figured out how to do digital preservation and share a bit about the craft of doing that work.

In that context, the book is my attempt to make digital preservation accessible and also to draw out connections between the craft of digital preservation and centuries of knowledge we have about how to ensure enduring access to the cultural record. I set out to write the book because when I was teaching graduate seminars on digital preservation I felt like all of the work I could assign was too technical in nature and didn’t provide the right broad humanistic context necessary to think about how to collect, organize, describe, preserve and make available digital content for access in the future.

I wrote the book with a broad imagined audience of people concerned with cultural memory work: librarians, archivists, folklorists, historians, curators, archeologists, etc. It starts out with an overview of major themes in conservation and preservation over time and then connects those with research from new media studies on the nature of born digital media and formats and then shifts to explore a series of practical examples of how people have been doing digital preservation work in a range of contexts.

I’ve been thrilled with the response it has gotten across all those areas. It won the Outstanding Publication Award of the Association for Library Collections & Technical Services as well as the Waldo Gifford Leland Award from the Society of American Archivists, given annually to a monograph “of superior excellence and usefulness in the field of archival history, theory, or practice.” It’s also been positively reviewed in journals in the range of areas I’d hoped to connect with. If you’re curious you can see reviews of it in American Archivist,  The Journal of Archival Organization, College and Research Libraries, Library Resources and Technical Services,  The Public Historian, RBM: A Journal of Rare Books, Manuscripts, and Cultural Heritage, and The American Historical Review.

The last chapter of the book steps back and focuses on the challenges that we face in the future. Ultimately, digital preservation work requires us to think as futurists. Access and use of digital content in the future will depend on what computers in the future can do, which is important, but it’s also dependent on there being continued funding for libraries, archives, and universities to do the work required to maintain and manage collections. So big picture the funding for cultural heritage institutions is critical for digital preservation and that is somewhat constantly under threat from neoliberalism. It’s also worth underscoring that digital preservation is dependent on a functional power grid. If we take Roy Scranton’s case that “Carbon-fueled capitalism is a zombie system” seriously, then in the next half century we are going to need to figure out a whole new conception of how to support and sustain the records of our collective memory together. I expanded on these ideas recently in Caring for Digital Collections in the Anthropocene.

Speaking on a 2019 panel on preserving eBooks with colleagues from other national libraries at the 16th International Conference on Digital Preservation.

Did you teach this past semester? 

I taught Digital History Methods for American University’s History Department. I teach the course through a public course blog, the same one that I’ve been using for all eight times I’ve taught the course, which means that you can see the various and interesting kinds of projects my students have worked on since I first taught the course a decade ago in 2011. I’ve written about the role that a public course blog like that can play as an explicit form of public scholarship and history pedagogy.

The course is mostly master’s students in the Public History Program. The most rewarding part of teaching this course is the chance to see the creative and fun ideas they come up with for potential projects. Last semester I had students developing and exploring concepts for projects as varied as exploring how historians are engaging with publics on Twitter, TikTok, and YouTube to computational analysis of cook books, and exploration of rhetoric around “American Empire” in google n-gram an exploration of digital folklore/horror urban legends in on sites like reddit.

I have the title Public Historian in Residence, which I think sounds rather fancy, but it’s worth underscoring that all the teaching I do at American University and at the University of Maryland is through course by course adjunct contracts. It’s good to get paid for the work, but it’s fair to say that the pay for that work is a little more like an honorarium than really covering the costs of my work and time. Ultimately I teach for those two universities because it gives me a chance to connect with students that want to break into this field and I feel a really strong compulsion to try and pay forward the generosity I got from the mentors I had who helped me break into this career. I also learn a lot from the students and their projects.

If money, time, and distance were not issues, what’s a dream project you’d love to tackle? Or what’s a class you have always wanted to teach, but just haven’t had the opportunity to?

In all honesty, I have my dream job. I work with brilliant and creative people. I get to refine and hone my skills and understanding of digital technology and collections, and most rewarding, I get to do my best every day to support good jobs for people that really care about collecting, preserving, and providing access to the cultural record.

This job provides this ever engaging mix of supporting a great team and helping them learn and grow, while also getting to collaborate with both really smart IT and software development people and brilliant subject matter experts in a wide range of roles.

I also do that in a context where I have job security as a federal employee and where I know the staff and teams I work with have that job security. Assuming those things stay together, I think the most likely scenario for my career is that I do this job, or whatever this job develops into over time, for the next twenty or thirty years.

To the second question, in 2013 I did write up a blog post about ideas for 6 grad seminars that I’d love to teach on topics like digital source criticism, and digital strategy development for cultural heritage institutions. I think the list still largely stands.

If you weren’t a scholar, what kind of work do you think you’d be doing?

I’m not sure if everyone would say that I am in fact a scholar. I would say I am, but also accept that I’m, a feral librarian, a middle manager, and a formerly reluctant and now enthusiastic bureaucrat.

If I wasn’t all of those things, I think that I would probably be working in urban planning. I’m personally interested in a lot of work on creative placemaking, I follow along and support a lot of cycle advocacy in the region, I’m also a board member for the Anacostia Heritage Trails Association, which focuses a lot on a mix of local history, tourism, and also connecting people to organizations that work on local arts and culture and natural resource conservation. I think I may well have ended up with history because I played and thought about the original Civilization game more than I played and thought about SimCity.

Speaking about his book, The Theory and Craft of Digital Preservation, at an invited lecture at the United Nations office in Geneva, Switzerland.

Contingent Magazine believes that history is for everyone, that every way of doing history is worthwhile, and that historians deserve to be paid for their work. Our writers are adjuncts, grad students, K-12 teachers, public historians, and historians working outside of traditional educational and cultural spaces. They are all paid.