Know Your Librarians: Jordan Fields, Digital Librarian

Jordan Fields likes to teach, but she didn't want to be a full-time teacher. So she became a librarian. Now as the Library's digital projects manager, she is the main architect of two different online repositories of information that, when complete, will educate people about the Kansas City region's past and present.

It all started five years ago, in Miami. After graduating from Indiana University with a degree in comparative literature, Fields took an appointment with Teach for America, teaching English to teenagers from low-income communities in Miami.

While there, she began to see the deleterious effects of information illiteracy, not just in her students, but in their parents, too.

"Their parents didn't understand how to work the systems - mortgages, health care, taxes, applying for colleges," she says. "It was a chronic lack of education."

Public libraries, she realized, were the best hope for people with limited financial means to learn essential life skills.

"I feel passionately that we should have an educated public, and a lot of that is giving people access to information," she says.

It wasn't a straight shot from there to librarianhood, though. After her tenure at Teach for America ended, Fields took six months off, moved to Kansas City, and considered her options.

After consulting with a couple of friends who were librarians, she decided to give volunteering a try, and soon found herself at the Plaza Branch, working under Children's Librarian April Roy.

("I take full credit for her whole career," Roy says, jokingly.)

After just five weeks as a volunteer, Fields became a library technical assistant. In six more months, she was a teen associate. But then, after a year at the Library, she and her husband moved to Thailand to teach English.

Fields found time to pursue her newfound calling by enrolling in the Master's in Library and Information Sciences online learning program at Syracuse University. As a challenge to herself, she chose to focus on digital library services.

"Technology always scared me, and the program sounded really hard," she says. "So I did it."

As her studies molded her into a tech-savvy librarian, Fields began to view her profession in a new light.

"The library is not just a physical space," she says. "We have so much opportunity to move into the digital realm, and so much we can provide in terms of helping our users find what they need."

In July of 2009, Fields returned to the Kansas City Public Library as digital projects manager.

Her biggest projects to manage at the moment are the web portals and The Missouri-Kansas Conflict: Civil War on the Western Border, 1854-1865. Both of these websites will be online repositories of top-quality information about various aspects of the Kansas City area.

KC Research will compile thousands of documents and articles that contain research done on Kansas City, as well as information produced by local nonprofits, government agencies, and universities. The Mid-America Regional Council, the University of Missouri-Kansas City, and the City of Kansas City, Missouri, are among the principal contributors of content for the project, which is being funded by a grant from the Kauffman Foundation.

The idea for KC Research dates back to 2001, when a forum held at the Kauffman Foundation noted that much of the research being conducted about and in Kansas City exists in disparate locations, making it difficult to access. The solution that was proposed was to create a single portal for researchers to share ideas and promote their work -- in turn, showcasing to the public the quality and quantity of research done in Kansas City. The Library was chosen as the fiscal and managing agent representing the partnership.

“The Library was chosen for this role because KC Research fits in so well with what libraries do,” says Library Deputy Director Cheptoo Kositany-Buckner. “It is the focus and specialty of libraries to collect and organize information so that it can be easily accessed by the public.

Much the same mindset is driving the Civil War project. Whereas KC Research unites modern-day organizations, this project looks to the past.

Collecting primary-source materials such as letters, photographs, and documents from 25 different historic preservation institutions, the project will create a comprehensive view of the conflict on the Missouri-Kansas border. The Library is the leader of a group of nine partners in the project, which is funded by a Library Services and Technology Act grant from the Missouri State Library.

The other partners in the Civil War project are Freedom's Frontier National Heritage Area; the Kansas State Historical Society; LaBudde Special Collections, UMKC; Mid-Continent Public Library; the Missouri Valley Special Collections; the National Archives at Kansas City; the Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas; and the Western Historical Manuscript Collection, UMKC.

In addition to providing both sides of our region's Civil War story, the project is anticipated to contain an extra level of commentary written by scholars interpreting the historic materials. (Visit the Library's Flickr page to see a sampling of the materials.)

Fields believe that both of these projects reflect the librarian's mission.

"As librarians, we are guardians of the culture's knowledge. It's our responsibility," she says.

Look for KCResearch to launch in the first half of 2011, and for the Civil War project to arrive around the end of the year.

In the meantime, bone up your digital library knowledge by bookmarking these sites or adding them to your RSS reader. Also, you can follow KCResearch on Twitter (@KCResearch).

Jordan Fields' Top Digital Library Web Resources

  • Code4lib: "General digital library information, focusing on open-source technologies."
  • Metadata Blog: "The official blog of the Metadata Interest Group of the Association for Library Collections and Technical Services."
  • Librarian in Black  and Librarian by Day: "These two are a little easier to read for non-experts, more about the intersection of technology and libraries."
  • Digitization 101: "All aspects of digital libraries, with an emphasis on digitization."
  • Diary of a Repository: "Although there are no new posts, it's still a great resource on digital preservation."