New Archives Intern: Elizabeth Popiel

Today’s post is an introduction from Elizabeth Popiel, our newest intern here in the Archives who will be working on piloting and testing some of the key pieces of our digital forensics lab and workstations.


Portrait of Elizabeth Popiel.

Elizabeth Popiel

Hello out there readers! My name is Elizabeth Popiel and I’ll be interning at the UCSF Archives & Special Collections working with some of the early born-digital collections here in the Library this summer. I’m a second year graduate student in the School of Information at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, with a concentration in Digital Curation, Archives and Human Computer Interaction.  I’ve always the loved exploration and discovery part of any research project and I hope to do a little of that here this summer as well.

I’m enjoying being back in the Bay Area before heading back to the Midwest for my last year of school. I love road tripping along the coast and seeing everything out there from the Redwoods to the Historic Forts, museums and interesting locations. I was born in Canada and have traveled extensively from places such as Bern to Tasmania, Singapore to Beijing and back again. It’s great to get to see and learn perspectives that differ from your own and to learn to appreciate them when you approach your work, especially when trying to figure out a puzzle or sort through a collection

In my past I taught English overseas, worked in broadcasting, and I have experience working in both hardware and software in Silicon Valley. I’m an old-school gamer and I still love text-adventures, joystick-based and SCUMM Engine games. Figuring out how to make them work on newer machines is always a challenge!

I like the challenge of working in research and preservation for born-digital archival collections, and at UCSF I’m hoping to be able to gain practical experience in this area. I’ll assist in getting their Digital Forensics lab up and running for collections capture, processing, and use as well as test processing some of the collections. It’s my hope that I can better understand how to work with active collections and how digital archival models can be adapted to different and unique libraries and archives such as UCSF.

In Archives, my passion in work and learning lies in the archival challenges that lay ahead in digital curation, forensic work, and audiovisual materials. One of the reasons working with UCSF Special Collections interests me is because there are so many collection pieces that need attention in order for them to remain usable for future generations. Everything from floppy disks with key scientific notes, to spreadsheets containing experiment setup in ontological medicine, or information or email communications that represent negotiations and crucial strategies during the height of the San Francisco AIDS epidemic – these all represent important parts of the history of UCSF and its legacy and I’m excited to contribute to preserving that legacy.

Reproducible Research and the problems of preserving computer code and software

We collect and preserve a lot of the documentary evidence of science happening at UCSF — everything from lab notebooks to lab websites detailing research processes. We even hold tons and tons of data in our collections, mostly in physical form, as patient surveys or health records, or even raw data as it was initially recorded by hand in the lab.

But what about the products of contemporary science, where key digital elements such as computer code or software might be crucial to an understanding of the research? This is already presenting problems for research reproducibility. Think, for example, of a set of results which were obtained using a computer script written in the Python computer programming language. If you want to verify these results, are you able to view the source code which produced them? Are you able to execute that code on your own computer? Can you tell what each piece of the code does? Does the code rely on access to an external data set to work correctly, and can you access and/or assess that data set to test the code?

As we work more closely with our Data Science Initiative team on these issues, it becomes clear that these are preservation questions as well. A critical understanding of the scientific past and present requires access to the primary source documentation of that research, including computer code and software. Being able to understand and interpret that computer code involves many of the same questions mentioned above — executions of code, documentation of each process in the code, access to necessary data, etc.

To begin to address this, we are working with the Data Science team to assess researcher coding practices as a first step in understanding how the library can encourage better documentation and preservation of code in the service of reproducible research and the persistence of the scientific scholarly record. And if you’re a researcher who codes for your work, then we want feedback from you! Please consider attending one of our lunchtime listening sessions in the coming weeks — 4/20 from 12-1:30 pm at Mission Bay, and 4/27 from 12-1:30 pm at Parnassus. We will have an informal chat about research coding practices and will discuss some of the issues we encounter as information professionals, as well as talking about what the library can do to aid in these areas.

Join us as we make some in-roads on this challenging information problem.