VREPS Member Profile: Kate Thornhill

Kate Thornhill is the Visual Resource Curator at Lesley University College of Art and Design Library in Boston, a position she calls ideal, a mix of her library and art interests. She earned a BFA and a BA in photography and Art History from the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth before attending Simmons for her MLIS. She spent two years as the Senior Digital Assistant at the VRC at UMass Dartmouth, which helped her crystallize her path to a VR career.


My junior year I was playing around with the idea of getting a masters in visual culture studies,” she says. “I saw myself gravitating more towards research instead of focusing on becoming a professional photographer. I am interested in everything, so focusing on one career was really hard for me.” Like many VR professionals, Kate was guided by a mentor, Allison Cywin, Director of the UMass Dartmouth Visual Resource Center. “I met her through the art history program, and when I started asking her what the VRC does, I thought, this is so awesome: It’s art history, photography, and research all in one thing. At the time I had no clue it related to library science and information management.”

At the VRC, Kate quickly realized she liked building digital collections and helping people find images. “I thought, how do I turn this into a job? That’s when Allison said I should really look into an MLIS.” Kate completed a rigorous program at Simmons, including coursework in Digital Libraries, Web Development, Digital Stewardship, and Scientific Research Data Management. “Since completing grad school, all my professional interests have dovetailed,” Kate says, though VR management was not covered in her MLIS program, as is often the case. “I think VR gets lumped into digital humanities, digital initiatives, and digital curation studies.” Even though MLIS programs focus on metadata and digital collections creation and management, few programs specifically address how these disciplines are applicable to VR management.

We revisited a topic that Jasmine and I had discussed, the MLIS as a companion degree: Deciding on a subject specialty and tailoring MLIS curriculum to that field. Kate hopes to take her targeted education further, with plans to earn a graduate computer science degree. “It would make digital assets management more streamlined and flexible, and help digital preservation practices. It would also open a lot of doors for working with open source programs and developing tools for VR,” because using open source software is often impractical without in-house IT staff to manage it.

On a related note, we discussed how tech-savvy VRA members are, and how capable they are with respect to managing digital collections. Kate says, “It makes me wonder how much VR collaborates with ASIS&T and SAA because they do a lot so much with managing/preserving digital collections. I think there should be more collaboration between professional organizations because there are so many special interest groups focusing on DAM,” but many people are intimidated by working with their digital assets. “That’s where professional development should come in,” Kate says. “I’m a strong advocate for continuing professional development and doing research in the library, but it’s hard with limited budgets and finding a balance between work and life,” which is why she thinks professional organization membership is valuable. “I think it’s really important to be actively participating, maybe not necessarily serving on committees, but showing what you are doing and how you are solving problems because there are others trying to figure out the samethings.” Kate described how the VRA listserv helped her recently while working with IRIS. Through the listserv, Kate was able to connect with a Visual Resources Librarian at MIT. “She took time out of her day to sit with me for an hour just to learn some basics about IRIS. It was tremendously helpful!”

Kate and the LUCAD library are currently making plans for a big move, relocating across the river to Cambridge. “The new library is going to be transformational for us,” Kate says, but it requires a massive overhaul of the collection, including a weeding project scheduled for summer 2014, and a deaccession project for the slide collection among other projects to be executed this summer. The slide collection currently consists of 50,000-60,000 slides, though 80% of the slide collection is in ARTstor. “Right now my team (2 student workers) and I are focusing on new media, graphic design, and illustration. We’re finding a lot of slides that aren’t in ARTstor but I have to be mindful of how much of the slide collection is kept because of limited space (for slides) in the new library. But, like many VR Curators, my goal for the future isn’t so much to focus on slides.”

Kate has the opportunity and challenge to build the program from scratch. “I have a number of projects going on: research and instruction-based, DAM-based, and overall VRC vision- and mission-based.” But, as a relatively new curator, her main goal in her first year is to get to know her community. “I started by revamping the VRC’s digital image research LibGuide: http://research.lesley.edu/artimages. It’s going to be a continuous project (forever evolving) but some areas I’ve focused on building include digital image course specific guides and building a “special topics” in image research page. This is for non-art images because a lot of the questions I get from art students about images are not art based. I’ve also built an ARTstor help guide with some homegrown video tutorials along with a page dedicated to copyright and fair use.” This led us to a discussion about who uses the VRC, and Kate’s answer is that “Faculty, students, and staff do. It’s really great. This semester I have been working one-on-one with an instructor and students for a Fashion and Body Adornment class specifically focused on integrating visual and information literacy into studio art practice. Also, I’ve been addressing the elephants in the room: Google Images and Tumblr.

Another project Kate is working on involves the Fenway Libraries Online consortium (a group of small/medium sized academic libraries) and DAM systems. “We are currently working on a Digital Repository Review, not just for VR but for all library and archive digital collections. This is one area I am very excited about because I have a strong interest and developing experience with managing research data and working with institutional repositories. I have a long term goal to start collecting student at LUCAD to deposit into our future IR. It’s going to take a lot of work since ultimately it’s an institutional effort, but I would love to develop arts research data management services for Lesley.”

Kate believes that VR managers can be leaders in data management across disciplines. “We create and manage materials for digitization and similar concepts cross over for born-digital content. We understand the workflows for proper digital curation. For my final internship at Simmons, I ran a study at UMass Medical School with their Repository Librarian to assess biomedical PhD student research data needs. Along with this experience, library school, working in a VRC, and getting a degree in photography bells were ringing that research data management doesn’t only have a place in eScience. I see VR experts in tune with the repository management side and teaching data literacy skills. We are the ones who should support the visual arts community and developing their data management needs.”

This flexibility and interdisciplinary knowledge base comes from the broad skill set that is required of VR managers. With this in mind, I asked Kate for her advice for students who want to get into VR. “Focusing on digital curation is going to be important, and thinking about how to help faculty and students manage their research or non-research digital collections. And look at the job ads! A lot of the classes I took were based on what jobs wanted, for example, hard skills like XML and XSLT.”

And of course there are the internships: “My work experience at UMD, Tufts, Simmons, and UMass Medical School positioned me to have a lot of experience and projects under my belt to start at a job like the one I have now. I pretty much had no life for 2-3 years, haha.” But knowing where she wanted to be, looking at what current VR curators do as well as reading postings for new VR and digital initiatives positions helped her plan a curriculum. “I knew I wanted a job that would be in a field that’s only going to develop more. I think [MLIS education] is what you make of it. That’s the challenge: Knowing where you want to be.”

Kate will be attending SEI this summer, so be sure to say hello!


Marie Elia is the Processing Archivist in the Poetry Collection at the University at Buffalo Libraries. If you would like to participate in the profile series, please get in touch at eliam@buffalo.edu.

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