Humans of LIBER Interview – Steven Claeyssens, Curator of Digital Collections at the KB, the National Library of the Netherlands
This interview is part of the Humans of LIBER campaign 2022 — which draws upon the pillars of the upcoming LIBER Strategy 2023 – 2027. We feature real people working at research libraries who make up the LIBER community. We believe that by highlighting our community in a more humane manner, we can create genuine connections within and outside of our network. We hope to see our community inspired by each of these personal stories of working at research libraries.
[This article is a seven-minute read.]
We interviewed Steven on the 6th of January 2022 at the National Library of the Netherlands (Koninklijke Bibliotheek, hereafter referred to as the ‘KB’). It was great to be able to interview Steven in person in an almost empty library building because of the pandemic. Steven told us about his work as the curator of digital collections at the KB, how he misses conferences, and raising a toddler in the times of Covid-19. Now, over to Steven:
“I studied Linguistics and Literature at Ghent University, and then I went to Leiden University. The idea was to study book history at Leiden for one year — a programme called Book and Digital Media Studies nowadays. Then I was invited to do a Ph.D. there, so I stayed a bit longer, and I ended up living in the Netherlands permanently with a partner. I did not finish my Ph.D. within the set period (although I did get it later), but my love of books brought me to the University Library of Leiden, where I was involved in some projects. From there, I joined a large team in the KB working on the Short-Title Catalogue Netherlands. Back then, I found out that it was possible to do some coding in the catalogue, which could help my colleagues with their work. I did not know that at the time, but that was how they noticed me because a book historian who studied linguistics and literature and who is also able to do some coding was interesting. So, I ended up in another job within the collections department at the KB. At that time, quite a few people working there were almost retired, and they needed somebody who was able to relate to them, yet also someone who understood the digital world. A few years later, I became the first curator of digital collections at the KB, and that has been my position for five years now.”
Understanding and curating digital collections
“As a curator of digital collections, I have always tried to find – I am still trying to find – a middle way between the traditional curation of physical and digital objects, and everything that is happening within digital humanities, etc. But that is difficult for me since my main responsibility is the digitised collections, and I do not select what we digitise or not, so that is a part of curatorship I am unable to develop. What I can do is try to explain what has been selected and the consequences it has for researchers, for instance.
In a way, I believe we do not fully understand digital technology, or a lot of us do not fully understand it. I am not sure if I understand it fully either. But I do believe that some of the problems and challenges we are facing are consequences of that. When we started digitising our collections, we first started just digitising single objects, whereas the online digital world is much more granular, and there are many more layers. That is how we should approach digital collections. It is a collection of single objects, but it is also a collection of data, and I do think all of us should learn to see this in both ways. Also, every technique is a combination of existing techniques or recombination of techniques, but since we are turning everything into digital techniques, what happens is that many more combinations are possible. In the physical world, you would not start combining techniques from chemistry with techniques from literature. In the digital world, that could be interesting, simply because it is all codes, which means that we can recombine almost everything. That is the exciting part but that is also the difficult part. That is what is happening in computational linguistics, digital humanities, digital scholarships, etc. We still have some work to do to fully understand what this means. As an example — I know there are people within the Europeana Foundation and the Europeana Network Association who are really interested in the ecological footprint of everything digital. In fact, the Europeana climate action manifesto states that the organisation will bring eco-thinking to every step or every decision they make. For instance, all this machine learning, all the computing it takes, is no doubt incredible. But this also brings in another urgent international issue — and that is our responsibility towards climate change.
As far as Covid-19 is concerned, I find myself really missing conferences in my field. I used to go to quite a few of them. I had to be in touch, and I miss talking at conferences, talking with researchers, talking with colleagues. Probably because now, that is gone, I realise how much I need that for inspiration, for innovative ideas, for knowing what is going on. A lot of what I learnt about how people want to use the digital collections is really from attending conferences, listening to researchers, talking to them.”
LIBER’s Upcoming 2023 – 2027 Strategy
“We are used to having interfaces giving people the possibility to interact with a piece of digital or mechanical technology. What we see now with the digital world, especially having everything online and all the algorithms watching us, is that we are giving companies or even algorithms an interface to what we are doing. We think we are given interfaces to interact with data and collections, but at the same time, libraries, and publishers (this brings us to open science as well) are given an interface to what we search or use, or what patrons are doing with these collections.
And that is an interesting notion because this brings us to one of the pillars of the upcoming LIBER Strategy (2023 – 2027) ‘trusted hubs’. At present, we are conducting experiments at the KB trying to build better recommendation systems of ‘if you’ve read this book, you will probably like this one’, but it is not based on what other people read but based on the content and using stylometry and other algorithms. That is a fine example because you, as a library, would like to be able to say that when you read a book in a library, you can be sure that the book will not spy on you.
Why not have a standard slogan in libraries that says: ‘the book won’t spy on you!’ That it is a trusted place. It also means that we as a library must think very carefully about how to implement machine learning algorithms and things like that. These topics are exciting, but we must be careful to make sure that we are still this ‘trusted hub’. And this importantly has to do with values. People are more understanding of what is going on with big tech companies, which consequently creates a need for more public spaces where the books or people, machines, or humans, are not spying on us.”
Outside of work
“Life outside of work used to be things like reading or working with my hands, so I’ve been rebuilding my house over the past ten years. I became a father just a few months before the Covid-19 crisis started, and that has changed a lot of things. Nowadays it is playing and walking around with a toddler. When we were both working from home, only one of us could do any work, and the other one had to be there for him. So, we have just alternated having a working day and a day taking care of him, and the other half of the time we are also home-schooling two other children. I have grown grey hair in two years!
I think you have also noticed there were not any lights on in the KB. That is because I am the only one working here on this floor because we do not have a real office space at home. The KB is wonderful in this respect. They have always said that, if necessary, come over here and you can work here during the pandemic, but work is not the most important thing. Family is first, then work.”
If you feel connected to this interview, please tweet about it by clicking on the tweet below (and using #HumansofLIBER)!
The LIBER communications team visits different member institutions to conduct interviews. In light of the current Covid-19 restrictions, we are interviewing member institutions in the Netherlands initially, but we aim to expand the campaign to include our European member institutions once that is possible. If you are interested in being featured, please email us at email@example.com.
Interviewer and author: Sasha Lam
Photographer and editor: Elizabeth Joss-Bethlehem