ILS Innovators: Devan Donaldson, Assistant Professor of Information Science

Devan Donaldson

Devan Donaldson knows the importance of history. He also recognizes that the past is prologue to a brighter future, and that means finding ways to preserve and protect the past while taking it to new horizons.

Donaldson, an assistant professor of Information Science, owns a B.A. in history from the College of William and Mary and has studied at Oxford University, but internships at William and Mary convinced him to pursue a career in Library Science. He headed to the University of North Carolina where he earned his MLS, but he didn’t take the path he expected.

“Given my history background, I thought I would be interested in archives,” Donaldson says. “But when I got to UNC, I worked with professors who were on the cutting edge of digital curation research and digital preservation issues. These are really important issues. Nobody has the answer, so it’s a rich area for long-term research.”

After earning a Ph.D. in Information from the University of Michigan in 2015, Donaldson was intrigued by the prospect of working at IU’s Department of Information and Library Science because the program was unique.

It also provided the kind of collaboration opportunities Donaldson was looking for to continue his research into the concept of trust as a social phenomenon in a digital curation context. For instance, the reputation of the creator of content can affect perceptions of its trustworthiness. If a report is published by an organization with a good reputation, many people may trust the findings or the document regardless of the author. Others who are suspicious of the organization, however, may have a much different perception of the findings or the document.

Donaldson has worked with academic archives and libraries to help build a scale to measure people’s trust in documents – The Digitized Archival Document Trustworthiness Scale (DADTS).

“With the scale I’ve developed, I have done a study where I have people evaluate the scale items in relation to President Barack Obama’s birth certificate,” Donaldson says. “You would expect that Democrats would rate the birth certificate more trustworthy than Republicans. I had Democrats and Republicans take my survey and I ran some statistical tests on the resulting data to see if the scores of Republicans differed from those of Democrats, and it does in the way you might expect. The Republicans who participated in my study perceived (Obama’s birth certificate) as less trustworthy as compared to Democrats. These findings speak to the validity of the scale that I developed for measurement of trustworthiness perception, as it is able to reflect known differences in public opinion. The fact of the matter is that Barack Obama’s birth certificate is no more or less trustworthy than any other Hawaiian’s birth certificate. That’s what the reality is. But we all know that perception is very powerful. It matters what the reality is, but it also doesn’t in a lot of ways. Some archives think that their users will trust what they have just because it’s in an archive. Other archives think that users will trust the content they preserve if somehow the archive can vouch for the content. The results of my study show that it doesn’t necessarily matter what an archive says about its documents. Some may perceive an archive’s documents as less trustworthy than others.”

Donaldson’s ability to present complex ideas in a clear manner thanks to real-world examples has made him a bright young asset for ILS. His focus on collaborating with archives, libraries, and other entities has led to him welcoming a number of speakers to his classes who can present their own real-world experience to engage students.

He has lined up speakers from the Library of Congress, MIT, IU Libraries, and the Monroe County Public Library among others to give students their best look at the world they hope to be a part of down the road.

“Being able to turn the concepts we’re learning in class into real-world examples and problems is key,” Donaldson says. “I have the concepts, but I don’t have the real-world examples. I can’t be a professor and also a practitioner working at the Library of Congress. I think it helps to make the points I’m trying to make and help students understand digital repositories and digital curation as a discipline. I think it makes my points more salient when they can tie it to real-world examples by world-renowned practitioners in the field.”

Donaldson also is tapping the rich resources of IU to help his students see the future of the field.

“I’m welcoming speakers who are heavily involved in the MDPI project (Media Digitization and Preservation Initiative), which is a huge digital curation and digital preservation project that is happening right here on campus,” Donaldson says. “There’s nothing quite like it anywhere else on a university campus that has put so many resources toward a long-term project to preserve time-based media. This is happening here, so I thought it was critical to devote time to that in the class and actively engage with the people who are leading the project.”

Donaldson ultimately is blending the time-honored effort of collaborating with multiple libraries within the digital realm of curation and preservation to not only further his own research, but also build a solid foundation for students.

“No matter what the topic is, making that connection and talking to people who are in our communities and institutions and are doing that work is great,” Donaldson says. “I think it will make everything click for the students.”

Also see other stories in the ILS Innovators Newsletter.

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