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New Face: Thomas Padilla
Thomas Padilla of University Libraries is involved in projects both on and off campus that he hopes will increase University Libraries’ ability to support emerging scholarship.
UNLV is a great place to be. The student body is among the most diverse in the country, the Top Tier initiative is inspiring, and the library leads nationally with aspirations to grow in new and innovative directions. It is exciting to be a part of realizing that growth.
What about UNLV strikes you as different from other places you have worked or where you went to school?
UNLV is more geographically isolated than other institutions that I’ve worked at — Library of Congress, Michigan State University, and the University of California Santa Barbara. With that said, I think the isolation can be seen as a strength insofar as it allows for cultivating an independent and creative disposition to identifying and solving interesting problems. UNLV is further differentiated by the diversity of the student body. I really love the range of perspectives and life experiences I encounter here.
What is your job title and what are a few of your duties?
My current title is visiting digital research services librarian. I spend a good deal of my time chairing something called the Digital Research Services Task Force. The task force is comprised of various library leaders that oversee services that touch upon digital research in one way or another. The task force has a pretty extensive scope of things it is trying to accomplish, but if you were to boil it down to one thing it would probably be to develop a strategy for how the University Libraries supports faculty and student research in our digital environment. I really enjoy this work as it provides a great opportunity to learn about UNLV, the experience and perspectives of my peers, and the potential of the work that we can accomplish together.
What is the Collections as Data project?
I serve as principal investigator of Always Already Computational: Collections as Data, a national digital platform project funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services. I work on this project with talented librarians from the University of Pennsylvania, Stanford University, Emory University, and Texas A&M University. The primary goal of the project is to help libraries, archives, and museums around the country develop and provide access to collections that are optimized for emerging scholarship. In short, we want to make it easier for researchers and students to apply methods like text mining, data mining, network analysis, data visualization, and machine learning to cultural heritage collections.
What impact will this project have on students and researchers at UNLV?
As the lead on this project I am actively seeking ways to translate what I have learned to our campus. In collaboration with colleagues in the library and beyond I am hoping to increase our ability to support emerging scholarship. Ideally, the library can be a sandbox as well as a catalyst for emerging scholarship. I would also like to use this work to bolster our ability to forge partnerships on campus and across Las Vegas, Nevada, the Southwest, the nation, and hopefully the international community.
Where did you grow up and what was that like? What do you miss about it?
I grew up in Fremont, California. Fremont is a suburb located between Oakland and San Jose. Its prior claim to fame was being the end of the BART line, but that ended with the recent extension further south. Fremont is a suburb and most suburbs are the same, with the exception that it really was a pretty diverse place to grow up. That was great, though I didn’t realize how great until I saw more of the country. If there is a specific thing I miss about Fremont it is probably the location in the middle of the Bay Area. It is a really beautiful place.
What inspired you to get into your field?
It was kind of roundabout to be honest. I was walking through a subway station in Seoul talking with a friend about how difficult it was going to be for historians of the future to make sense of contemporary culture because so much of it was digital and seemingly ephemeral. Fairly soon after that I was on my way to graduate school to study history in San Francisco. Mid-way through my graduate program, I thought it would be neat to combine my interest in the digital record with my historical training, so I pursued internships at the National Archives and the Library of Congress. Eventually the internship turned into a full-time position. At the Library of Congress I was introduced to the practice of digital preservation and later to the digital humanities from my good friend and colleague Trevor Owens. Once digital preservation and digital humanities came together, my path was set. The route has changed a bit — for example my explicit tie to the digital humanities has broadened to digital scholarship with data curation and scholarly communication thrown in for good measure.
What is the biggest challenge in your field?
One of the more interesting challenges I see right now relates to cultivating broad fluency with data and data-driven methods. So much of the information we consume and the systems that mediate our access to that information are predicated on an understanding of data. Without broadly shared understanding of a theory and practice for working with data, academic research and general participation in the democratic process is severely weakened.
Finish this sentence, "If I couldn't work in my current field, I would like to..."
Sit on a log staring at a fog-enveloped coast adjacent to a mist-shrouded, moss-encrusted forest. It would perpetually be just after a rain. Book in hand, black coffee nearby, sourdough bread with delicious cheese at the ready. Warm cardigan.
Tell us about a time in your life when you have been daring.
I tried that in the desert once. In August at mid-day. Learned to not do it again.
Tell us about an object in your office that has significance for you and why it is significant.
I have a Star Trek: The Next Generation Data mug. It anchors me to a specific time and place. Reminds me of the distances I’ve traveled to get to where I am. It grounds me.
What is something people would be surprised to learn about you?
I played varsity football in high school. Unsurprisingly, I was very bad at it. I was on the varsity track and field team, too — shot put and discus. Also bad at that, but very fun to throw moderately heavy metal objects around.
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