Rebekah Cummings: IS Alumna Helps Manage Hub for Digital Public Library of America

The assistant director of Mountain West Digital Library stewards access to 164 collecting institutions in Utah and the Mountain states.

Although Rebekah Cummings (’13, MLIS) developed an interest in library studies when she worked at the circulation desk and conducted summer reading programs for the Huntington Beach Public Library, she was destined to take that knowledge more broadly. Today, as assistant director of the Mountain West Digital Library at the University of Utah, Rebekah Cummings develops partnerships with libraries, archives, museums, and other collecting institutions to gain access to their holdings.

“The Mountain West Digital Library is actually a data aggregator,” says Cummings. “We work with collecting institutions in the Mountain West region to pullthe metadata records of photos, documents, and other archival materials into a central search portal. If I know that someone has a digital collection that isn’t currently open for harvest, I might ask to open up their repository so that we can pull their metadata records into MWDL.”

The MWDL alone provides access to 164 libraries, museums, archives, and other curated collections in Utah and the Mountain region. Cummings says that digital access to archival materials is a boon to scholars, researchers, authors, and students around the world.

“In the past, libraries would collect these valuable documents, old photographs, and diaries, and in order to see them and study them, you would have to be able to visit the institution and ask if they are available for you to look at them,” she says. “Now, having them digitized and online opens up scholarship to people who are working around the world, and possibly can’t travel to Brigham Young University or the University of Utah. Another way it helps is the fact that you can search through multiple collections at once. For example, rather than going to one archive and finding what they have on Westward migration – a big topic here – researchers can search different libraries and archives in one place.”

At MWDL, Cummings also leads and facilitates professional development for librarians and archivists, including a fall webinar series on digital topics such as copyright, harvesting metadata, or best practices in metadata assignment. Currently, the Library is holding a series of workshops for Utah’s public librarians through the Public Library Partnerships Project, teaching them how to digitize materials and get their collections online.

“There is so much history that lives in these public libraries,” says Cummings. “The town library is often where local records, stories, and historical objects about the community are kept. Yet many public librarians don’t have the funding or training to make these special collections broadly available online. I want to help get these materials online because it’s difficult to appreciate national history without understanding how it played out at a local level. That’s what these public library collections do; they show how historical events affected everyday lives.”

Cummings’ work to build and perfect digital stewardship reaches far beyond the Rockies. The Mountain West Digital Library acts as a service hub of the Digital Public Library of America for the Mountain states and Hawaii.

“What DPLA does is what we do, but on a national scale,” she says. “We aggregate data from collections in Utah, Nevada, Arizona, Idaho, Montana, and Hawaii, and then DPLA harvests our metadata and combines it with metadata from all over the country. There is a really rich resource in the Digital Public Library of America.”

This summer, Cummings took second-place prize for her work on, “Much Ado About Data: Intellectual Property Issues Surrounding Academic Research Data,” in a data curation research paper competition held this year by The Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research, Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan. Based on a paper that Cummings wrote for a class on copyright while at UCLA, “Much Ado About Data” frames the complex issues surrounding intellectual property and data curation, including the unique nature of data, the motivations behind open data sharing, and the legal landscape that undergirds current data practices. The paper also demonstrates how librarians can use the four factors of fair use: purpose, nature of the work, amount used, and effect on the market, when assessing risk in data reuse.

“There are so many issues with data curation because it is a new field in librarianship,” notes Cummings. “Studies have shown that the most confusing element of data curation for researchers is intellectual property: who owns the data, how can they reuse it, how can they gain permission to use these data sets.”

“Although I’m not doing data curation in my current position, I grapple with intellectual property issues all the time,” she says. “People are always finding photos, diaries, and historical objects, and wondering, ‘Can I use this or not?’ We’re still struggling with issues of infrastructure and description. But slowly, we’re figuring out best practices for data sharing.”

While at UCLA, Cummings worked as a graduate student researcher on Dr. Christine Borgman’s research team, studying the data processes of scientists.

“It was a great experience,” says Cummings. “We would observe scientists collecting data, how they would store it, and share it. We would then use that information to help inform people who are building tools to help scientists manage their data.”

Cummings also interned at the UCLA Social Science Data Archive. She was named the 2013 UCLA Chancellor’s Marshall, and her culminating project at UCLA, “Data Curation in Social Science Research,” was honored as a 2013 Showcase Portfolio.

Cummings grew up in Los Angeles, and earned her bachelor’s degree in Philosophy at California State University, Long Beach. But she always knew that she wanted to attend graduate school at UCLA. She also knew of the world-class reputation of UCLA’s Department of Information Studies, and decided to attend graduate school full-time instead of opting for an online course elsewhere.

“Ultimately, I decided it was better to take a step back from work and invest in the best program I could enter,” says Cummings. “Of course, it helped to have a library science program right in my backyard. But UCLA has a really strong reputation in library studies and archives. I still think it’s the best school in the entire world.”


Photo by Anna Neatrour