Believe in yourself. Put yourself forward. Look for good mentors and allies and build your networks.
Tell us about your background and journey to your current role
If someone had told me when I started out on my professional journey that I would be doing the job I am doing now I’m not sure I would have believed them. I still get a real kick out of being Head of Digital Library and Deputy Director of Library and University Collections, but this job didn’t even exist 10 years ago.
I suppose like so many people I’ve taken a very roundabout route to my current role. I almost did Music at University, but instead took Scottish History at Edinburgh University. In particular, meeting the legendary Professor Barrow at an Open Day swung things that way.
I had a great four years at Edinburgh, though at the time there were very few women teaching in the Department. I think the person by whom I was most struck was Prof Stana Nenadic — much later, I had the pleasure of working with her… it’s a small world.
If you do History, everyone assumes you’ll end up in teaching. Instead, I took the Museums Studies postgrad at Leicester. Being a curator combined my love of history — both studying it and getting others enthused about it — with the promise of a lot of variety.
I then spent over 10 years working in three different museums, followed by 12 years at the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS, now part of Historic Environment Scotland (HES)).
A lot of my work was focussed on getting information in and out of databases. I soon realised that curators and their institutions tended to amass a wealth of knowledge about their collections, and that we needed to capture it so others could expand on it, or simply tap it. Back then, different types of information were kept in different databases. What we wanted – or really needed – was to bring it all together. I remember spending quite a bit of time trying to get different databases to talk to each other.
It was at RCAHMS that my career tipped over into digital. I realised that there was a tension because people wanted access to information locally, but the organisation and the collections were in Edinburgh. The more we could make available online in different ways, the more the collections were accessible to a wider group of people.
I worked on a variety of different projects to do just that, from the Sir Basil Spence Archive Project, to Scotland’s Treasured Places. In that last one, we ran an online vote for Scotland’s Favourite Place, developed a way for people to contribute to Canmore the National Record of the Historic Environment, and got the public to co-curate an exhibition at the City Art Centre.
From then on, I found myself increasingly working on developments to get content online and accessible and used digitally, so when the role at the University came up, it felt like just the right next move.
Tell us about a typical day at work – what projects are you working on at the moment?
What I like is that there is no typical day at work, though one thing that is fairly standard is that there are quite a few meetings and committees to attend.
The projects I work on are really varied and cover everything from helping deliver the online library catalogue through ensuring that research data is still accessible in ten years’ time, to looking at how we can work computationally with our digitised Collections. I think it is that last part that I find both the most enjoyable but also the most challenging at the moment. It’s about exploring new approaches and technologies and finding ways to turn our collections into data that can be worked with computationally.
One of the most fun parts of my role is running the uCreate Studio Makerspace where we get to play around with the latest technologies. I love this space! It’s very student focussed and whenever I walk in there are students busy trying out new technologies, 3D printing or putting stuff together for projects, some personal – it’s all about exploring and experimenting. You never quite know what is going to come next or what will be created and I love that. Plus it means I too get a shot at trying out new technologies. At the moment I am completely in love with where VR is going and I’m really keen to see how we can incorporate this and AR into some of our service provision.
What is your vision for data innovation and the DDI programme?
I think for me it’s primarily about looking at our more historic collections and seeing if they can be of use within this programme. However, it is also about exploring new techniques that are being developed as part of the programme – such as text and data mining – and seeing how we can apply these to our collections, which at the end of the day are just data sets. It will be interesting to see what we can get out of them.
What are you particularly passionate about in your work? What do you look forward to in your field?
I am passionate about the Collections that we have at the University of Edinburgh and about getting more people working with them, especially in digital form.
I am looking forward to seeing how the Library develops over the next few years, and I am proud of the way we are proactively shaping this through exploring with students and others what the future can bring, how we can combine new technologies to deliver what students want, and how we can provide access to knowledge.
Do you work with any interesting data sets, technologies or analysis techniques you’re working with?
I think libraries are going through a really interesting transformation at the moment. Many libraries are exploring how to make collections digitally available and then also computationally available.
At Edinburgh we have absolutely fascinating collections which, if we can convert them into digital form and then into a data set, offer whole new areas of research. However, this is not an easy challenge. The path from digitisation to OCR, so that the text is readable, to then wrangling it into a structured format, so that it can be worked with and analysed, is messy and involves many steps. However, once this is achieved, new research questions can be asked of these materials, such as interrogating historic datasets and using these to help answer more contemporary problems.
The University holds many interesting collections, for example the Scottish Studies Archive and the wider University Gaelic collections, or the NHS is the Lothian Health Board Archives. However, at the moment we’re doing exciting things with the Scottish Session Papers, which are the records of the Scottish civil court from 1710-1850. These provide a completely amazing insight into Scottish life at the time, as these contain divorce proceedings, wage disputes, land disputes, and material relating to the slave trade.
What do you think are the biggest challenges for women and girls in your field?
I think I am in an interesting situation in that it is only latterly, as I’ve worked increasingly in tech, that I have been surrounded more and more by men.
In my early career, my work environment was actually female dominated. I worked with some great women who were my mentors, some formally. This helped me develop the skills that have taken me to where I am now. Within the University, I am fortunate to have a very supportive network of women. However, the tech world is still not the easiest environment to be in, and you do sometimes have to work hard to make yourself heard.
Sometimes it’s also hard to get the work life balance right and I have to say I wouldn’t be where I am today without my amazing family and especially my husband. I think one of the best moments came recently as I was leaving to go to a conference when my teenage son turned round and said “don’t worry Mum we’ll be fine and I’m really proud of what you do!”
What would you recommend to women and girls who’d like to do what you’re doing?
Do what you are interested in and care about. I loved studying History but I have also always been interested in technology and was one of the few girls in my school who took Computing. I’ve been able to combine those two subjects in a way I never anticipated. Believe in yourself. Put yourself forward. Look for good mentors and allies and build your networks. Also help others along the way.
Do you have a fun fact about yourself and hero/heroine?
I’m as happy at a Science Fiction convention as I am at a professional conference and have been known to roll dice… with more than six sides. My current hero is Caroline Criado-Perez who wrote “Invisible Women”, a stunning look at how much modern technology and medicine is optimised for the average man, ignoring – sometimes fatally! – The average, or non-average woman. I heard her speak recently and she has changed the way I think and work with data. We need more people like that people who help us see how we can all play our part and change the way things are.