Sustainability and digital technology: Interview with Nancy Maron

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Nancy Maron has over 20 years of experience working at the nexus of publishing, higher education and technology. Her work with the not-for-profit organization Ithaka S+R helped to advance the need for digital initiatives to adopt business practice in order to become sustainable.  Today, Nancy works with publishers, librarians and other innovative project leaders to define, test and refine assumptions about new and existing programs and products.

While at Ithaka S+R, Nancy’s team developed provocative and insightful studies on funding models and sustainability strategies for digital initiatives, including dozens of case studies in sustainability, spanning US, Canada, UK and beyond. Her consulting clients have included academic libraries, publishers, library leaders of digital initiatives and digital preservation services.  Looking for a way to more widely share these important analytical tools, Nancy and her colleagues developed the acclaimed course Sustaining Digital Resources, an immersive experience that offers business strategy training to leaders of digital initiatives.

Nancy serves as President of the Board of Trustees of the Yonkers Public Library, a three-branch system serving a city of 200,000. She holds a BA cum laude from Yale University and an MA in French Studies from NYU where she was a McCracken Fellow.

NP: How would you describe the nature of your work?

Maron: The type of sustainability I focused on while at Ithaka S+R, and still do, is not about “green” policies and the natural environment, but rather about making sure that the digital assets we create are created and managed in such a way that they are around for a long time to come.  For example, in the early days, people, including librarians and publishers and even digital technologists, were so involved in the creation side of things – eBooks! Digital collections! Digital humanities projects! – That there was often not enough time spent considering what would happen to the new works once they were created.

Today, I work with leaders at universities, colleges and cultural organizations to help them develop robust business plans for their new or existing programs and projects.

NP: What is your philosophical approach to digital sustainability? And, what are some of the primary challenges encountered and the replies to those challenges?

Maron: My take on sustainability is that when it comes to major investments in new digital works, there are some basic technology approaches to take – in terms of using commonly adopted software, industry standards, and so forth.  But the fundamental challenge is something more basic: making sure that for significant new digital works, we are always asking: who are we building this (website, database, portal, etc.) for? Who do we think will use it? How will we know if it is successful? Without a clear sense of the ultimate impact we want a digital initiative to have, and the needs of the people it was supposedly created for, the risk is pretty great that the project will flounder.

NP:  What are trends (and implications of those trends) do you anticipate in digital sustainability of library and cultural resources?

Maron: The trends today? In academic libraries and heritage organizations, there is a clear movement to using more scalable solutions when it comes to digital creation; making sure professors and students and librarians first consider building using tools that already exist, so that we can minimize the problem of having a whole lot of “one-off” websites sitting around. This is a good thing! With so many people participating in creating digital assets of many types, no institution is able to re-invent the wheel each time.

The other broad trend is just the democratization of the tools of digital creation! Thanks in part to public libraries and “maker spaces” we are living in a time when citizens can have access to 3-D printers and visualization technologies that used to be reserved for a handful of researchers. This is an amazing thing.

 NP: Do you see various levels of tolerance, understanding and overlapping relationships between human awareness and our digital technologies and an appreciation of how our future will be affected by sustainable digital technologies?

Maron: I am not sure if I understand this question fully, but I can say that digital social technologies like Twitter, Facebook and the rest have certainly accelerated certain types of human awareness and interaction. Just think of any of the recent examples of violence, civil unrest, natural disaster, and the speed with which information and connections were fostered through social media. That said, the medium here is really just the medium; we have ample evidence that technology is just the means to carry the message, whether it is a message of tolerance or of bigotry.