74. Chelsea M Gunn – University of Pittsburgh School of Computing and Information, PhD Candidate

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“Whatever you’re doing, be sure you’re centering people in your processes: how does what you’re creating serve or impact different individuals and groups? Good technology and good scholarship require empathy.”

Tell us a little bit about what a typical day looks like for you.

As a graduate student, this can change dramatically from one semester to another. Currently I work with my advisor on Sustaining DH, a nationwide sustainability workshop series funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities. When we aren’t traveling to facilitate these workshops, I start my day by going into my advisor’s digital humanities lab on campus, where I take care of a range of project management or communication tasks related to the workshops. These can range from preparing our slide decks to updating our website to working with caterers to holding virtual office hours for participants, and so on.

In the afternoon I quietly chip away at my dissertation, which investigates the preservation of personal records that are created in networked, corporate digital infrastructure. At its best, this is the work that allows me to really grapple with the questions that drew me to this field: how are personal or private records shaped by the technological landscape, and how can archivists effectively work with records created with legacy technologies? I typically do this work at home with my two cats or, if they become too distracting, at a library or coffee shop. While I try not to work too late into the evenings, I usually do try to read some research and news articles related to tech, personal information management, personal data, preservation, etc. to stay up to date on what’s happening in my field.

How do you stay passionate in your career?

Working with other people. If my only job was writing my dissertation in solitude, I’m certain I would have lost steam long ago. Collaboration with others helps me see my work in new and exciting ways on a regular basis. At the moment, in addition to working on the Sustaining DH workshop series, I am co-organizing this year’s Personal Digital Archiving conference, which will be held at the University of Pittsburgh in May. I’ve also been working on an interdisciplinary research project with art historian Rae Di Cicco, and frequently collaborate with fellow information scientist Aisling Quigley. I love the process of thinking through an idea out loud or in writing with another person and seeing it take on a new and unexpected shape.

Did you have a traditional path into tech (i.e.: CS/IT degree transitioned into tech job)?

Not at all. My interest in the digital came about very gradually. While I was an undergraduate studying poetry, I took the aforementioned library job working with microfilm, which I loved. After graduating, I moved to Providence to work at the Rhode Island Foster Parents Association, where part of my job involved data mining old case records in search of resources for teens aging out of state care. It was the combination of those experiences that ultimately led me to pursue a master’s degree in library and information science with a focus on archives. This was where I really started to engage with digital technologies – I can still remember my advisor referring to me as “a computer person,” which up to that point was not a term I would have ever used to describe myself. From there, I ended up working on a number of digital initiatives with cultural heritage institutions. These included large scale digitization projects, building websites and managing collections databases, and working on virtual walking tours. I eventually decided to go back to school for my doctorate in order to devote my attention to born-digital archives and the preservation of emerging technologies. The thread through all of these experiences has really been an interest in people, and how recordkeeping systems and technologies affect their lives, rather than perhaps a pure interest in technology in an of itself.

Are there any apps, software, or tools you cannot live without?

Ironically, a big part of my work is emphasizing the fact that we shouldn’t be overly reliant on specific tools in our work, as reliance on proprietary systems/formats can be a major sustainability risk ;). That said, I definitely have my favorite tools that I hope don’t go away for a long time. I use Asana for project and task management, and it’s become rather essential to all of my projects. I often use Slack for project-based communication and also find it very helpful. I also use a productivity app called Forest that prevents me from touching my phone while I’m working (and generates cute cartoon forests in the process).

To keep track of articles and other resources, I rely on a few different programs. I use Zotero to keep track of citations and to generate bibliographies for publications. I like the Pocket app and browser extension for bookmarking articles across devices. And I use Pinboard to manage links that I want to remember in the longer term.

More in the vein of preservation work, there are so many important tools and they vary depending on the actual task at hand, but here I’ll share two fairly general resources that I love: exiftool and PRONOM. A huge part of digital sustainability is simply knowing what kinds of files you have and what software they require in order to run. Exiftool is a command line application that can be used for many things, including file profiling and exporting metadata to csv. PRONOM is a registry of file formats, including their software requirements and sustainability risks, maintained by the UK National Archives and is such a robust and valuable resource for anyone concerned about sustaining their digital files over time.

What’s your favorite thing about being a woman in tech?

As someone who came to this work somewhat gradually and unexpectedly, I hope I am able to encourage other women to approach technology with less fear and more confidence. I love seeing someone who was afraid to try a new tool or technique get the hang of it and light up. The moment when something ceases to be mystifying is really great.

If applicable, how have you given back to the WIT community?

Along with Aisling Quigley, I’m co-chairing this year’s Personal Digital Archiving conference, which will be held at the University of Pittsburgh May 2-4. I love this event and am very excited to bring it here this spring. We’ve been working hard to ensure that this isn’t an exclusive academic event, and to that end we are organizing some fun evening events related to the conference topic as well as a full day (Saturday, May 4) of workshops, panels, and events that are completely free and open to the public. I hope this will be a way to support individuals and community groups in Pittsburgh who want to gain a better sense of understanding and control over their own personal digital archives, including documents, photos, and social media content.

What is a piece of advice you would give to others wanting to or currently pursuing a career in tech?

Find or build a community of thoughtful, considerate, challenging collaborators. Work with people who do different things, or who do things differently, from you. While my own work is much more about preservation, sustainability, and maintenance of tech, I obviously learn a lot from makers and users of tech. This exchange is critical. Whatever you’re doing, be sure you’re centering people in your processes: how does what you’re creating serve or impact different individuals and groups? Good technology and good scholarship require empathy.

Tell us about a time you felt extremely accomplished in the past year. 

Learning that our Sustaining DH grant was approved by the NEH. Being part of this team is so rewarding, and it’s extremely gratifying to know that others see the value in the work that we’re doing too. And it’s so exciting to go to sites around the country now to learn about the digital scholarship that’s being produce and help researchers develop flexible, personalized sustainability plans to support their work.


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