Origin Stories

Loren Scherbak

I have worked in libraries and archives for more than 30 years. I am an artist, librarian, application developer and programmer, database creator and administrator, and project manager. I strive to build non-invasive, and durable, workflow applications that support the collection of metadata that can ultimately be used to illuminate all that we know about the materials we hold. I feel that my artistic insights and analytical talents are revealed when I participate in the creation of truly transformational online experiences.

How did I start? Why did I not quit?

I came to the work that I do out of passionate desires to dream, design, build, and analyze tools that contribute to my search for knowledge. I became a librarian by accident. The law firm, where I worked as a file clerk, purchased Lexis/Nexis for the whole office. Now everyone could do their own searching. In the partners’ minds, the professional law librarian was no longer needed. The lawyers asked me to manage the library as I had the file room. However, I realized quickly that I couldn’t replace the experienced law librarian in searching for information. My searching of Lexis/Nexis wouldn’t give me the results the professional librarian could produce. She had a tacit knowledge that enabled her to analyze the result set, and she knew of the huge set of information that wasn’t represented in that database. I was scared by others’ assumptions that all information could be accessed using this singular tool.

As an artist, it was important for me to understand the strengths and limitations of my tools. I set about learning how to program using various programming languages. I learned how to manipulate data in databases. As I studied, I realized that I needed more formal training in how librarians structure information in order to capture and access it. I took my GRE and found, to my astonishment, that I was gifted in the type of logic best suited for a computer science major. Should I earn a computer science degree instead of one in library science? My advisor made a persuasive argument in favor of using my programming talents in working for libraries. She appealed to my desire to make meaningful tools that would help break down the barriers to information and helped me realize that I could create the world I wanted to live in by making information freely accessible.

I was committed to library science as a course of study, but I had barriers in front of me that would make me question my choice every step of the way. Some of my teachers and colleagues didn’t value my work as a programmer. Being an artist, and a woman, they assumed I couldn’t understand the complexities and abstract principles of computer science. Fortunately, I ignored them and set my goals toward programming library applications, and selected opportunities where I felt I would thrive. Eventually, the Archives of American Art became that place. It is small, open to prototyping and testing new ideas and practices for capturing and delivering our archival assets and metadata digitally. Working with a talented team of librarians, archivists, and programmers, we create tools that support creative exploration and discovery of information.

Why didn’t I quit when I ran into barriers and repeated frustrations? Because I am an artist rooted in making things. I understand that there will be failures, diversions, and delays in the creation of innovative tools and work processes. I understand the need for collegiality in both my artistic and my library work. I enjoy the give and take of solving difficult problems collectively, and I have a lot of patience and curiosity for improving any process that helps make information accessible to all.