Rain-Soaked, Pit-Smoked, Pretty Stoked: Digital Frontiers 2013 and Digital Collections as Culinary Theory

Last Friday, I was honored to present on a panel at Digital Frontiers 2013, hosted by the good folks at UNT’s Digital Scholarship Co-Operative. I joined Elizabeth Hansen from the Texas Archive of the Moving Image and Liza Talbot of the LBJ Presidential Library for a discussion titled, “Using Social Media to Engage Users with Digital Collections.” I’d presented a previous incarnation of this talk with Elizabeth at the Texas Association of Museums’ annual conference earlier this year, and it was great to reconnect with her and to meet Liza, whose creative use of Tumblr to present the life of President Johnson is an exciting approach to making mid-20th century history relevant to an expansive audience that includes young users who weren’t even alive during his presidency.

With Liza Talbot (center) and Elizabeth Hansen at Digital Frontiers 2013.

Aside from participating on our panel, I was also pleased to develop further connections with folks like Cindy Boeke, Digital Collections Developer at the SMU Norwick Center for Digital Services and form new connections with relative newcomer to the digital collections field Amy Caton, Reference/Metadata Librarian at the Rosenberg Library in Galveston. Cindy’s session exploring the use of data analysis and documenting outcomes for digital collections was eye-opening and I got lots of great ideas for how we can better engage our users and provide relevant, impactful reports to our command structure further “up the chain.”

During the drive from Waco to Denton – which normally takes about 3 hours but, due to torrential rain, took considerably longer this time – I had time to think about the state of our digital collections and, because I was trapped in a car with little else to do, how I could derive a metaphor using our collections and awesome food.

It took a little work, but here’s my Unified Theory of Baylor Digital Collections As They Relate to Food. (I’m working on a more concise title, but this is still a working theory.)

Why Food?

I could certainly compare our collections – and our philosophy, our workflow, our center, etc. – to something else, like a precision Swiss watch, an American muscle car, or a football team (like our currently undefeated Baylor Bears – Sic ‘em!). But food is universal, it’s something everyone can grasp, and when people encounter a meal that hits all the right notes, displaying obvious skill and quality, it can impact us in ways nothing else can. So let’s dive right in, shall we?

  1. Like good ribs, we take time to make our collections right

You can’t rush good ribs. Sure, you can quick-grill some country style ribs and pretend that’s good enough, but for something truly noteworthy, you need hours of smoking over choice wood, attention to the right balance of dry rub vs. sauce, and a finished product that’s the right balance of toothy and spicy, with a glaze that should require copious amounts of napkins to clean up. Like these:

Pecan-smoked pork ribs with Mexican corn and barbecue sauce, Woodshed Smokehouse, Ft. Worth (Apologies for the crummy quality photo; it was all I could do to snap a quick shot before diving in.)

Those beauties came from the Woodshed Smokehouse in Ft. Worth, a Tim Love-owned joint that, quite honestly, serves up the best pork ribs I’ve ever eaten. These things deserve lyrical odes, interpretive dance, a Greek chorus, you name it; nothing will be sufficient to describe their awesomeness.

And that’s what I like to think about our collections – well, minus the hyperbolic praise part – because we take the time to do it right. Our philosophy has always been that our collections should be drawn from excellent sources, sufficiently described to make them findable and useful, and presented in a format that is approachable and rich. Some institutions put their stock in quantity over quality, and that’s certainly one way to do it. But we feel having rich metadata, contextual research and a blend of outreach to make them relevant put our collections in a different category altogether. Are they perfect? Certainly not, and we are always working to improve them. But I’d wager if you sat them down side-by-side with any other digital collection online today, their quality would stack up byte for byte.

2. We don’t lose sight of the benefits of mass appeal

Ribs are awesome. But not everyone likes ribs. That’s okay: how about an amazing hamburger? Behold the Cowboy Murrin, a burger tour-de-force from Rodeo Goat, also in Ft. Worth and also totally worthy of your dining dollars.

The Cowboy Murrin burger, goat chips and chips & queso, Rodeo Goat, Ft. Worth.

Hamburgers are about as American as you can get, and people from all walks of life can approach them and enjoy them because they are comforting, you know what to expect with them, and they can be dressed up to meet any palate. We work to strike a balance in our collections that caters to both the hardcore researcher but also the at-home genealogists, the schoolchild working on his homework and the amateur historian searching for her grandmother in our campus newspaper collection.

We want our collections to be useful to everyone, so we make them findable through a simple Google search or an advanced search of our online library catalog. We identify collections in our partner institutions that appeal to a very narrow research focus and we put out mass-appeal collections like the Baylor Round Ups. We believe that balance puts our collections in a category comprising both depth and approachability, a category I’m going to term depproachability. (All rights reserved.)

3. Want to win friends? Be sweet.

In our final piece of “digital collections as food” theory, you can never underestimate the impact you’ll have if you’re nice to people. Because nothing finishes off a nice meal like something sweet, here’s a shot of a tray of apricot kolaches from the famous Czech Stop in West.

Apricot kolaches, the Czech Stop, West, TX

I am constantly amazed at the number of people who tell me about their horrible experiences dealing with libraries and digital collections that treat their users like criminals-in-waiting, scheming ne-er-do-wells looking to defraud an institution by stealing resources or failing to give sufficient homage. It seems that too many of our peers see their role as less a steward of the public trust than a gatekeeper or roadblock.

With our collections living freely available on the Internet for users around the world to access to their heart’s content (and in their own locales), we embrace a different philosophy. We think it’s important to treat our users as potential partners, people whose passion for their area of interest has led them to our collections in search of new information, better resources or confirmation of something they’ve suspected all along but could never quite prove. And in their search, we do our best to be accommodating and helpful, fulfilling their requests when it’s within our policies and rights to do so, and striving to do so with a smile. Because the old marketing adage applies to digital collections as much as it does to restaurants: “If we did well, tell ten people. If we did not, tell us.”


This year marks the 12th year of digital projects at Baylor University, and next month will mark our fifth year in the Riley Digitization Center. In that timespan, we have grown from a handful of collections to more than 55 publicly-accessible collections comprised of some 250,000+ items. We are humbled by the kudos we receive from researchers around the world and are impressed by the innovative ways they are utilizing the collections to impact scholarship on a local and international level every day. And we continue to be thankful for working with our amazing on-campus partners whose physical collections are the basis of our digital collections. We look forward to augmenting our existing offerings with new content on a regular basis and to finding new ways to connect those resources with our users.

In other words, we’re staying hungry.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *