In Conversation with Digital Scholarship Librarian Matt Huculak


Interview conducted and edited by: Zehra Abrar, work study student


What is keeping academic librarians up at night?

Too much tea and coffee after 3pm. I don’t think I can speak for all academic librarians, but I can speak for those of us working in Digital Scholarship right now. We’re in fairly new territory as academic libraries respond to, change with, and advise on the shifting nature of research and scholarship. For example, here at the University of Victoria, we’re working much more closely with researchers on the ground—what we refer to as “embedded librarianship.” UVic Libraries was the first library in North America (and perhaps the world) to create and hire a Grants & Awards Librarian (Christine Walde) who would work one-on-one with faculty to offer support in making sure the things we produce as scholars have a long-term preservation plan behind them. Because of this support, I have the opportunity to work with departments across campus giving workshops, advising on projects, and developing new curriculum to respond to specific needs of faculty and students. This means my colleagues and I are spending less time in the book stacks and more time in classrooms and department boardrooms discussing Digital Information Fluency, reaching communities beyond the university, and training folks to the new information environments that are forming everyday around us.

It’s great to be in a place where learners can just have fun without being judged and to have a sense of accomplishment no matter where you happen to be in your journey.

Tell us more about your current project which is focused on the Lending Library in France?

I have a passion for France, and I’m very fortunate to have had the opportunity to live there for a while as a younger lad. I have an adopted “French family” with whom I’m still close in Aix-en-Provence. One aspect of European libraries that was a surprise to me when I was a student over there is that many libraries tend to have “closed stacks”—that is, you have to ask a librarian to go get your book for you and you can’t really “shelf read” while doing research. But, there is an “American Library in Paris” that resembles what you’d expect in a North-American library: open stacks and friendly librarians to help you find information. A lot of my PhD work involved James Joyce and his publisher in Paris, an American named Sylvia Beach. When she died, she left half of her books to the American Library in Paris, which turned my attention to that institution. The library is a fascinating place that was formed by the American Library Association after the First World War when people started asking about all of the English-language books brought over to Europe to be read by soldiers.  Those books provided the core of the first collection, and the American Library became of oasis for expatriates during the roaring twenties as well as model of North-American librarianship. My current project is on the little magazine, Ex Libris, which was published by the library—it published a poem by Gertrude Stein on Ernest Hemingway, and Hemingway himself helped edit a few issues. I was in Seattle for the Modern Language Association conference in January and spent an afternoon at the Seattle Public Library because they just so happen to have a complete run of the short-lived magazine.

You edited the book “Fronts of Modernity” for the library’s publication series. Is there any other publication that you are working on for the library?

Fronts of Modernity was a labour of love and wonderful way to work with some excellent colleagues across campus. I’m very proud of that publication on all fronts—from the design to the essays on our rare holdings. My main focus right now is on the “Narrative Art & Visual Storytelling in Holocaust and Human Rights Education” led by Dr. Charlotte Schaillé in the German and Slavic Studies Department. Schaillé’s vision is to bring survivors, artists, and historians together to produce graphic novels based on the unique experiences of the survivors. It’s been such a deeply moving experience and a rare gift to work with such wonderful colleagues on a project that is so important. The survivors and artists met for the first time and the books are already being drafted. UVic Libraries has not only committed my time for training and collaboration, but we’ll also be archiving the work produced on this project for generations to come.

You lived at Ravensbrück Nazi concentration camp memorial site for a week during your collaboration with the German and Slavic Studies department for the holocaust project. Do you have any memory about that project which you would like to share with us?

That’s a hard question that I think I’ll be struggling with for the rest of my life. Ravensbrück was a camp for women—women who were separated from their children and forced to experience some of the worst atrocities of the war. What struck me was that even in this horrible environment, many people risked their lives to produce art, to document their experiences, and to be creators in the face of utter darkness. One day I was given a tour of the camp by two of the dedicated and marvellous education folks there, and I was brought into the back room of a former fabric’s factory. I was met with rows upon rows of items that continue to be found at the campsite today, including a pile of wooden sandals that prisoners would carve from trees and make with scraps of old rubber tires so they would not be barefoot in winter. I was in a room filled with items of such historical significance but, like many memory sites, there just isn’t enough capacity or time to process everything. It struck me that there is so much more work to be done in these places, and many of them need many, many more resources to safeguard our shared histories. Generations later, we must continue the memory work started by those during and after the war—there is so much more to do.

Apart from libraries and the work you do here, what else intrigues you?

I find the world an inherently intriguing place… sometimes for the good, sometimes for ill. As a new Canadian citizen I’m fascinated by the history of the country, and especially the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. What political, ethical, and economic structures need to be in place for a prosperous and free people? I’m very much looking forward to the translation of Thomas Piketty’s new book Capital and Ideology that is coming out in March.

One thing about the Digital Scholarship Commons (DSC) that people don’t know?

We taught over 700 workshop participants in January—our workshops are attended by faculty, administrators, students, librarians, staff, and community members. I think a lot of professors don’t know that we bring our workshops to their classrooms, as well. We can only seat 25 people comfortably in our workshop space, so we’ve been doing a lot of large lecture hall workshops across campus, and it’s been a blast.

Which is your favourite go to place in Victoria?

I’m not telling. It’s the one really great brunch café without a line. Okay, fine. I’ll tell you. The Heron Rock Bistro in James Bay. Besides a great brunch, on the first Saturday of every month a friend of mine (a professor in Music) plays in a jazz duo there. It’s the closest thing to a Paris bistro evening I’ve found in Victoria (and the chefs have nailed their French lentil dish--delish). I also want to give a shout out to Cenote for their cocktails.

What historical figure would you most like to have dinner with? And why?

I don’t know if I could choose one person. I’ll tell you who my favourite person to have a drink with, and whose words still give me great comfort: Seamus Heaney. I got to spend a few days with him during the Yeats International Summer School in Sligo, Ireland many years ago, and I’ve never met another human being like him. He had these smiling eyes that looked at the world with empathy, curiosity, and concrete truth. I called them “lighthouse eyes” in that they seemed to pierce the darkness of the world with a ray of hope. I return to his poems over and over again and find great peace there.

Finally, what career insight would you give to an aspiring Digital Scholarship Librarian?

The same advice I was given as a small child: be curious and celebrate meaningful, dare I say, playful collaboration. Technology continues to change fast, so you have to be comfortable with that change and the need for constant learning. All of us are learners in this environment, from senior professors to new students, to librarians and archivists. One of things we really try to teach in the Digital Scholarship Commons is to have fun with the new and to take risks. I used to get so frustrated as a student when I didn’t “get” something. A lot of what we do in the DSC is to demystify learning and tech by scaffolding our teaching. We want every person on campus to be able to simply walk into our space and learn something—and the reason we can teach so well is we had to learn it ourselves and then try to explain it. We make a game of failing until we finally get it right. It’s great to be in a place where you can just have fun without being judged and to have a sense of accomplishment no matter where you happen to be in your journey.


Read more about Matt and his library work.