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Interview with Ken Varnum

Ken Varnum, editor of Information Technology and Libraries (ITAL), kindly agreed to meet with me last month when he was in Denver for the 2017 LITA forum. We discussed his early exposure to technology, what he reads for fun, and his vision for the future of ITAL. Below is the interview in its entirety and a copy of the transcript can be found here.

Tell me a little about your background. What did you study in school? Have you always been interested in technology?

“Technology has been a thread through my interests since middle school when I learned BASIC and wrote highly simplistic games on my Atari 800. At Grinnell College, I received a dual degree in history and Russian language, with a lot of political science thrown in (probably a minor had Grinnell offered one). My interest was in Cold War relations and arms control. After a few years working in DC in that area, I went to the University of Michigan to get a Master’s in Russian area studies. By that time, the Soviet Union was no more and the U.S. was in a recession, so I went to library school for a second Master’s degree in Library Studies. This was fortuitous because my first year in that program was the year that HTTP and the graphical web browser were born. While I graduated with a concentration in archival studies, it was the Web and digital technologies that seized my interest and steered my career from then on through a series of jobs leading to my current one, coincidentally at the University of Michigan Library.”

Why were you interested in becoming editor of Information Technology and Libraries (ITAL)? What appeals to you about the journal?

“Another running thread through my career has been writing and editing. At my first post-college job I was the production editor of the organization’s quarterly journal. In more recent years, I have written extensively for publication and edited several books, as well as served on several editorial boards (the Code4Lib Journal, a book on discovery systems, and ITAL itself). The opportunity to collaborate with authors to bring together multiple disparate articles or chapters into a cohesive whole is a rare one, and a great deal of fun. When the ITAL editor position became open, it struck me as a fantastic opportunity to marry my avocations interests in editing with my vocational interests in library technology.”

The ALA press release announcing your appointment specifically mentioned your “vision for the future” of ITAL, which resonated with the search committee. Can you share some of your vision with LITA blog readers?

“I view ITAL as an integral part of LITA: it has the potential to showcase the talents and achievements of the library technologists who belong to the organization and provide a platform to highlight the critical importance of technology in library (and cultural memory organizations more broadly). A LITA Task Force created a set of personas to describe LITA’s current and potential membership. ITAL, as a journal, has the potential to provide value to all of those archetypical user groups, while focusing the core readership and authorship. In particular, I am eager to explore areas of overlap between LITA and several closely affiliated ALA divisions — PLA and ACRL in particular, but really all of them. At a time when LITA is looking to expand its reach and influence, ITAL can and should be part of that.

From a more practical standpoint, I would like the editorial board to become an activist one: its members should not only provide the excellent peer review and guidance to authors to maintain the high quality of what we publish, but at the same time can be active representatives of the journal, seeking new content and creating relationships with prospective authors to help them think constructively about writing an article. LITA has a large membership, and the board should help the journal reflect the diversity of our organizational membership and affiliated interests.”

You have written extensively on the intersection of technology and libraries. What is some technology that you think is most helpful or relevant in librarianship today?

“I’m very excited about the triad of virtual, augmented, and mixed reality. I’m honestly not sure exactly what will come of them, in the library setting in particular or in society in general, but I think the possibilities for radical new ways of thinking about the ways libraries provide access to their collections and expertise are incredibly exciting.

I also think we’ve just started to explore what “discovery” can do. Especially in academic campus settings, where the library has the potential to understand a great deal about students, faculty, and their immediate learning/research contexts.”

How do you stay current on new technology?

“Blogs — yes, I still read my RSS feeds in Feedly, though I think that dates me as an Internet dinosaur. Twitter is helpful, as are conferences like LITA Forum. I’m involved in various groups like NISO’s Open Discovery Initiative and Tracking Link Origins, as well as the Summon Product Working Group — those are also helpful for learning what others, both in the U.S. and beyond — are doing.”

Are you working on any research projects right now, or are there any on the horizon?

“For me, research projects and my job have always had significant overlap. My big project at the moment (and it’s been a very long moment, to be honest) is our discovery-to-delivery system. So, over the past few years, my research and thinking has been closely aligned with that. I am also working on and interested in user analytics and the associated concerns.”

In an alternate universe where you did not become a librarian, what would you be?

My first attempt at a career was in U.S.-Soviet relations, diplomacy, and arms control. I was stymied first by the (apparent) end of the Cold War in the early 1990s and a simultaneous recession, where the international relations component be had been temporarily resolved and there was a glut of people on the market with experience and education in the area. So library school — the best place for a liberal arts graduate to land — beckoned. If the Gorbachev years hadn’t happened, and we had a straight line from Andropov to Putin, I imagine I would be in the Foreign Service at this point.

Are you a reader? Fiction or Non-Fiction?

“I am a reader, a mix of fiction and nonfiction, though about 75-25 in favor of fiction at the moment. Science Fiction has always been my favorite, but I also like thrillers and alternative history. In nonfiction, I tend to read Cold War histories and books on cosmology.” 

You are heavily involved on several committees, working groups, and boards. You also write and present extensively- how do you re-charge? Any interesting hobbies?

“Keeping busy with family activities is my main non-professional activity. I have two boys (elementary and middle school), and evenings and weekends are generally busy with their activities. I read, binge-watch (is it bingeing if it’s an episode a night rather than a series a night?) shows on streaming services.”