Contributing Editor Interview

Featured Researcher: Spotlight on Kate Dohe

Kate Dohe shares her thoughts on critical theory and sustainable spaces in digital libraries.

Kate Dohe

Kate Dohe is the Manager of the Digital Programs & Initiatives department in the University of Maryland Libraries. Her department facilitates the creation, acquisition, discovery, and preservation of digital assets in support of the mission of the Libraries. Kate’s team oversees day-to-day activities related to digital repository management, digital preservation activities, research data services, and electronic publishing. Prior to joining UMD, she was the Digital Services Librarian at Georgetown University, and the digital librarian for an academic textbook publisher in California. Over the course of her career, she has created and managed digital repositories on multiple platforms with an eye to scalable, transparent, and sustainable operations in support of the research mission of the institution. She earned her MLISc. from the University of Hawai’i, and also holds a BSEd. in Speech and Theater from Missouri State University.

Select publications include “Care, Code, and Digital Libraries: Embracing Critical Practice in Digital Library Communities” (In the Library with the Lead Pipe), “Lessons from the Field: What Improv Teaches Us About Collaboration” (with Erin Pappas, Library Leadership & Management), “The Cost of Keeping It: Towards Effective Cost-Modeling for Digital Preservation at the University of Maryland” (with David Durden, iPres 2018 Conference Proceedings), and “Girls to the Front: What Riot Grrrl Tells Us About Women in Library IT” (in We Can Do I.T.: Women in Library Information Technology).


Can you please describe your research interests? Are there any key theories, methodologies, or paradigms that guide your research?

The kick that I have been on most recently is focusing on the ways that library cultures impact open source technologies. Especially in my space, I’m a digital librarian by trade and in my current position I manage a lot of these projects and applications. Over the course of several years managing institutional repositories and digital collections at multiple universities, I started thinking about whether we are actually meeting our objectives here. If the answer is no, we need to interrogate why the projects are challenging for people to get involved in and why the technical barriers to entry seem to be growing higher. Because I have been on the inside as a creator, a manager, and a steward, I’m interested in interrogating ways that local cultures are complicit in creating these environments. Theories and paradigms that guide my research include the ethics of care, especially as that has become increasingly important in critical librarianship practice, but hasn’t yet fully matriculated into the library technology practice. So I’m really thinking about the ways those intersect – that’s what I’ve been working on recently and what I intend to develop in the future.

It’s hard for me to say if I have a preference for theory or practice because I feel they both inform each other. Almost everything that I’ve written is inspired by my personal experience doing the work and understanding how the labor gets done.

You have published both research based in theory and grounded in practice. How do these two types of research fit into your research agenda?

While I think that case studies are really valuable for me to pick up new tools and new tips and see how other people tackle problems, that’s not the kind of work I’ve ever been interested in writing for myself. I don’t know if that is a combination of imposter syndrome, where it’s like, “you know, who cares how I’d fix this problem,” or if it’s  feeling a little constrained by simply repeating your process in a case study. I have always been much more interested in thinking through the mechanisms and environments under which the work gets done and that’s where theory tends to really inform a lot of my understanding of the world. So before I became a librarian, I was a speech and theater instructor in high school and even then I was very influenced by critical theory, in particular. Paulo Freire and Augusto Boal are big influences for me and encouraged me to question how power and pedagogy intersect and how power and communication come into play. I’ve always tended to view critical theory as a lens for interpreting things in my world. It’s hard for me to say if I have a preference for theory or practice because I feel they both inform each other. Almost everything that I’ve written is inspired by my personal experience doing the work and understanding how the labor gets done.

What are barriers that you see for underrepresented groups in digital librarianship? How can we ensure that diverse voices are included in infrastructure decisions?

I can speak to my experience as a white woman in this space. When it comes to underrepresented groups, there is an assumption that this is a problem that will be solved through the pipeline. There are people that can speak better on this work and the intrinsic problems with the ways a largely white profession has tried to address these issues, like April Hathcock. My general point is that we can’t lower barriers to access if we continue to raise technological barriers. When it comes to library IT, it’s an odd culture, because it’s a masculinized culture that exists within a feminized workspace. Even as we start grappling with the question of equity and representation across our profession at large, I think there’s still this secondary barrier where IT is its own world. That’s really what I wanted to address in my In the Library with the Lead Pipe article and others have addressed this as well, like Askey and Askey in their article “One Library, Two Cultures.” Their piece suggests that there is this subculture within the academic library. Even here at UMD, our library technology division is physically separated in the basement, it’s a secluded group.

When it comes to library IT, it’s an odd culture, because it’s a masculinized culture that exists within a feminized workspace. Even as we start grappling with the question of equity and representation across our profession at large, I think there’s still this secondary barrier where IT is its own world.

The hardest nut to crack is this notion of diverse voices in the infrastructure decisions. A point I also made in my Lead Pipe piece, is that it’s difficult to negotiate in a practical way. I’ve participated in user group testing and it has always really bothered me that there is little opportunity for folks outside of digital librarianship and software development to easily participate and be involved in these communities to give feedback. For example, I would ask my friends who are liaison librarians about a new technology and if they’d be interested in using it, and the answer was almost always no. They weren’t interested, their faculty weren’t interested. I think infrastructure decisions for these technologies were shaped by people that weren’t well informed, through no fault of their own, about their end users or their needs. There’s a flip side to that, which is that it’s pretty crummy to ask people to do additional labor outside of their department for a tool that might have nothing to do with them. So I don’t really have an answer to this, but the best that I try to do here is to shape that locally. I try to be as open as possible about why we are making the implementation decisions, but often times it is hard when those are inevitably really technical conversations.

You bring up in a couple of your pieces the tension in digital libraries between making information widely accessible and ethically sustaining the tools and workforce to make that possible. What are some of the challenges in sustaining open source software and tools?

If an institution wants to participate in any of the predominant open source digital library applications, whether that is Fedora or DSpace, or participate in other open source communities, such as Omeka, it’s really hard to do without dedicated IT people. DSpace is often marketed as a turnkey solution where you can just install it and run it, and to an extent it is, but digital library culture within this country is really locally focused which can require customization like incorporating branding and hosting unique collections. Customization work is often what needs to be done by the developers. It’s easily $100,000 a year to employ one software developer, and it can be much more. Saying that applications like DSpace are a turnkey solution without acknowledging all those requirements for customization is a little disingenuous.

The other piece of it are requirements around digital curation and our values about preservation, open data, and interoperability. These things are important values, but they do create more complicated software. It’s more difficult when you’re already operating under the assumption that developers that come to higher education are going to get paid considerably less than they would be in private industry. Once you throw in an increasingly difficult barrier to entry, I think that it can create basically a very small community. So the big challenge in sustaining open software and tools is that consequently you end up with a handful of institutions that can afford to pay developer talent, who then end up driving direction for all of these products. Institutions that can’t afford that labor investment, which I think is the overwhelming majority of universities and community colleges in the United States, aren’t able to participate in those communities at the same level. My general point is that we can’t lower barriers to access if we continue to raise technological barriers.

What is next for you? What projects are you working on now?

I’ve always had an interest in student publishing. At the institutions I’ve worked at, there are very robust student scholarly publishing communities and it’s students that run the publications, that produce most of the content, and they do exceptional work. I believe this is worth preserving and showcasing in institutional repositories and supporting as a vital part of our scholarly community. I tend to think about what this student work means for the institutional repository. It’s always been in the back of my mind to survey this landscape in a meaningful way and question ways that we can support this community. That comes back to critical theory. My specialization is often perceived as back of house, I don’t have a lot of interaction with students. I get this drive to work with students from my teaching experience.

My general point is that we can’t lower barriers to access if we continue to raise technological barriers.

I think we missed an opportunity as a country on not creating a centralized digital repository. We can look to successes in Latin America which has a robust set of national level repositories. There’s little literature published in US scholarly publications that look at open access and scholarly publishing that address the Latin American culture of institutional repositories and open access. I am working with a former colleague of mine who is a Latin American Studies librarian to navigate that. We’re looking at doing a short piece for Inside Higher Ed right now, and then I think we’re also talking about a longer peer-reviewed article that would address these things.

I also recently submitted a proposal to the Maintainers Conference with some colleagues on organizational sabotage. In 1944, the precursor to the CIA released a guide for citizen saboteurs, and it was declassified about 4-5 years ago. It’s intended for citizens in World War II living abroad to do very simple, subtle acts of everyday sabotage. Like, “Here are great ways to start fires in your factory,” but there are also ideas on how to create just a really crummy workplace. There’s a lot of like, “Refer everything to committees,” “Create more committees as often as possible,” “Give long speeches,” “Poorly articulate your position,” etc. Our premise is that libraries are uniquely susceptible to these things because we have the culture of hierarchies, class systems, and structures that we get from our higher education space, conflated with a lot of values of librarianship around egalitarian decision making and collaboration. The values that drive our operations aren’t intrinsically bad, but I think they can be easily exploited. We can think of ways that has happened locally, so we wanted to interrogate what this means when you have someone who is an active saboteur and the ways that these systems can be exploited. We submitted a short paper and we’re also thinking of working on a longer paper.


Featured image [CC0], via Pexels


Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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