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Staff Spotlight with Steve Dast: The Digital Pioneer…The Glue…The Man Who Will Sing the Star-Spangled Banner at the airport?

October 1, 2014
Steven Dast, UW Digital Collections
Steven Dast, UW Digital Collections

Our staff spotlight this month is Steven Dast, Senior Administrative Program Specialist and Digital Assets Librarian with the UW Digital Collections. Dast has witnessed the tremendous transformation of libraries as the digital world progresses. He’s also been on the front lines as a digital pioneer for UW–Madison for nearly three decades–before the current Digital Collections even existed.

How long have you been with the Libraries and how did you get your start?

I started as a student camera operator back in 1988. After graduation, I came back as an LTE microfilm technician and student supervisor. As technology advanced, the microfilm lab had a chance to get our hands on a digital camera in ’95 or ‘96. It was a big, primitive thing. Nothing like what we have now, nor was the quality of images. We couldn’t even share images the way we do now, so we created a CD-ROM that we offered for sale for $60. But the director at the time realized the importance of digital technology and how it was going to change the way we did things in the future. Libraries had great access to resources and the ability to do some imaging, so by 1998, we had a “digital production facility” and created a site on Wisconsin History for the State’s sesquicentennial. It wasn’t obvious what we were going to do next, but my boss was encouraged to keep our little group together because the digital “thing” was going to take off.

Our group continued to work on various projects and eventually the Libraries got a grant in association with the African Studies Program to scan its collection of teaching slides. That was a big project that moved us into new territory. We were suddenly faced with the task of scanning 3,500 slides in less than a year. It required we create a new process in order to handle the workload. We continued to expand our work and projects until the production facility gave way to what we now know as Digital Collections.

How did you become the DC Pioneer?

I like books. I like old photos. I like old materials. I love dealing with the stuff that is hidden down in our archives that so few people see. The physical materials themselves are just interesting. Combine this with my interest in computers and that’s pretty much how I got where I am today. By 10-years-old, I was learning how to do some programing and I just grew up advancing with the technology.

So, what DO you do?

I used to say when I was in the digital production facility, I did whatever nobody else was doing. That’s the best way I can describe it. I provide a lot of day-to-day support for digital collections staff, but I also handle a lot of the advanced work. Early on, I would use apple script to create a process to photo shop files or handle various records keeping. When I started, the Libraries didn’t have a network to save our files to. We had two stand-alone work stations and two external hard drives. We had the scanning station and the back-up station. My job really was, and is, to create and maintain the workflow for everything we digitize. From the volume level metadata to the most detailed level of specific information about an item. I’ve also worked to develop push-button procedures to help simplify and improve the uploading of metadata.

What’s the most interesting part of your job?

I love to solve puzzles. I love looking for solutions to make a process easier, faster, or more accurate. I get to be the person who figures out how we are going to do stuff we haven’t done before – I get to be that pioneer. It is my job to find the tools we need to efficiently get our work done. It’s a job that sees the process of digitization from start to finish – from getting an item ready to “go live” on our site, to the archival process. We have these tools that let me build a process. Then I get to watch it go to work.

How do you see your role evolving?

I’m certain we’ll get new items in that we haven’t tackled for digitization before. Google really did all the books, for the most part, so we are actually left with digitizing really challenging objects. I imagine we are going to focus on audio and video more because there is so much magnetic media sitting on shelves, with very little shelf life left before it becomes damaged by time. We are also moving to a point where the way we archive is going to be different and there are a lot of opportunities to advance that area that we’re not even aware of yet.

What do people often not realize about Digital Collections?

They don’t realize how much stuff is in there! Even I don’t realize it sometimes. We have more than 2 million pages of text. More than 150,000 photos. If you start going through just part of what we have, you can find some pretty amazing items for research projects.

Do you ever get to step away from work for some fun?

Of course. I love playing board games. I’ve even been trying my hand at designing a few. I enjoy traveling around our state. There’s a lovely little spot called Parfrey’s Glen near Devil’s Lake that I enjoy.

Nobody would ever guess that one time I…?

Once while flying on the Fourth of July, I earned an upgrade to first class by singing the “Star Spangled Banner” over the gate’s PA system. Fireworks viewed from the sky are very cool.

Favorite thing about the libraries…GO!

I like the fundamental philosophy of libraries, part of which is that we’re not trying to sell anything or figure out a business model, but rather are acting entirely for the general benefit of the public. Whoever you are, if you need help, all you have to do is ask.