On being a research fellow

By Jenn Phillips-Bacher

A half-year of fellowing

Six months is not a very long time when you’re working with a team whose ambition is to secure a vast digital archive for the next 100 years. That’s only two quarters of a single calendar year; twelve two-week sprints, if you’re counting in agile time. It’s said that it takes around six months to feel competent in a new job. Six months is both no time at all and just enough time to get a grasp of your work environment. 

Now it’s time for me, at the end of these six months, to look back at what I’ve done as the Flickr Foundation’s first Research Fellow. I’d like to share some reflections on my time here: what it was like to be a fellow, what I accomplished, and four crucial work-life lessons. 

How could I be a researcher?

When I joined Flickr Foundation, I was curious but apprehensive about what I could deliver for the organization. I didn’t come to this fellowship with an existing research practice. My last run of ‘proper’ education was at the turn of the century! 

The thing about being the first is that there is no precedent, no blueprint I can follow to be a good fellow. And what flavor of research should I even be doing? I was open to the fellowship taking its own course, and my research and other day-to-day activities were largely led by the team’s 2024 plan. Having an open agenda meant that I could steer myself where I would be most useful, with an emphasis on the Flickr Commons and Content Mobility programs. 

My mode of research followed my experience working in product management: conduct discovery and design research, synthesize it, and then extract and share insights that inform Flickr Foundation’s next steps. I had the freedom to adopt a research approach that clicked for me.

New perspectives, old inclinations

My main motivation in this fellowship was to get fresh perspectives on work I’d been doing for several years; that is, building digital services to help people find and use cultural heritage collections. I’d been doing it first as a librarian, then through managing several projects and products within the GLAM sector.

When working as a Product Manager on a multidisciplinary team within a large company, professional development was tightly tied to my role. When my daily focus was on team dynamic and delivering against a quarterly and annual plan, my self-development was geared toward optimizing those things. I didn’t get much time to look into the more distant future while working to shorter timelines. I relished the idea that I’d get some long-overdue, slow thinking time during my fellowship.

But I’ll be the first to admit that I couldn’t shake the habit of being in delivery mode. I was most drawn to practical, problem-solving work that was well within my comfort zone, like mapping an improved workflow for new members to register for Flickr Commons, or doing a content audit and making recommendations for improvements on flickr.org. 

I stretched myself in other ways, particularly in my writing practice. I won’t claim to be prolific in publishing words to screen, but I wrote several things for Flickr Foundation, including: 

In the midst of all the doing, I read. A lot. (Here’s some of what I covered). Some days it felt like I was spending all day looking at text and video, which is both a luxury and a frustration. I felt an urge to put new knowledge into immediate practice. But when this knowledge is situated in the context of a 100-year plan, ‘immediate’ isn’t necessary. It’s a mindset shift that can challenge anyone’s output-focussed ways of working.

“Aim low, succeed often” and other career lessons 

I want to conclude with four important takeaways from my fellowship. I’m confident they’ll find their way into the next stage of my career. Thank you to George Oates, Alex Chan, Jessamyn West, Ewa Spohn and all of the people I met through the Flickr Foundation for being part of this learning journey.

All technology is about people

Whether being a subject of data, being subjected to a technology, or even being the worker behind the tech, it’s always about people.

Take the Data Lifeboat project as an illustration. If the idea is to decouple Flickr photos from the flickr.com context in order to preserve them for the long term, you have to think about the people in the past who took the photos and their creative rights. What about the people depicted in the photos – did they consent? What would they think about being part of an archive? And what about the institutions who might be a destination for a Data Lifeboat? Guess what, it’s totally made of people who work in complex organizations with legacies, guidelines and policies and strategies of their own (and those governance structures made by people).

To build technology responsibly is a human endeavor, not a mere technical problem. We owe it to each other to do it well.

Slow down, take a longer view

One of the team mottos is “Aim low, succeed often”; meaning, take on only what feels sustainable and take your time to make it achievable. We’re working to build an organization that’s meant to steward our photographic heritage for a century and beyond. We can’t solve everything at once. 

This was a much needed departure from the hamster-wheel of agile product delivery and the planning cycles that can accompany it. But it also fits nicely into product-focussed ways of working – in fact, it’s the ideal. Break down the hard stuff into smaller, achievable aims but have that long-term vision in mind. Work sustainably.

A strong metaphor brings people along

How do you describe a thing that doesn’t exist yet? If you want to shape a narrative for a new product or service, a strong metaphor is your friend. Simple everyday concepts that everyone can understand are perfect framing devices for novel work that’s complex and ambiguous. 

The Data Lifeboat project is held afloat with metaphor. We dock, we build a network of Safe Harbors. If you’re a visual kind of person, the metaphor draws its own picture. Metaphor is helping us to navigate something that’s not perfectly defined.

Meeting culture is how you meet

Everyone in almost every office-based workplace complains about all of the meetings. Having spent time in a small office with three other Flickr Foundation staff, I’ve learned that meeting culture is just how you meet. If you sit around a table and have coffee while talking about what you’re working on, that’s a meeting. It’s been a joy to break out of the dominant, pre-scheduled, standing one-hour meeting culture. Let’s go for a walk. Let’s figure out the best way to get stuff done together. 

Flickr Turns 20 London Photowalk
This is me, captured by George at a Flickr Photowalk in London.

Welcome, Jenn!

Meet the Foundation’s first ever Research Fellow!

It is with great pleasure that I introduce you to the Flickr Foundation’s inaugural research fellow, Jenn. In her own words…

Hi I’m Jenn Phillips-Bacher, the Flickr Foundation’s first-ever Research Fellow. I’ve been a Flickr user since 2007 when my first public photos were taken on a point-and-shoot digital camera. Oh, how the quality of photos have improved since then! It’s an absolute marvel to be able to trawl decades worth of (ever-improving) photography, still, in one place.

Before joining Flickr Foundation, I was most recently a Product Manager at Wellcome Collection, working to make its library and archive collections accessible to as many people as possible. I’ve also recently been a content strategist at the UK’s Government Digital Service where I focussed on tagging and taxonomies to help people find stuff. I’ve also been a web editor, project manager, reference librarian and technology trainer, all within the GLAM (that’s galleries, libraries, archives and museums) world.

My modus operandi for the 20+ years of my career has been to 1) find interesting work to do with kind people and 2) labor for the public good. That’s why I am delighted and honored to be part of Flickr Foundation’s efforts to preserve and sustain our digital heritage.

So what does it mean to be a research fellow?

Given my career history, I’d never considered that I could be a Research Fellow. I used to think research fellowships were reserved for academics (“real” researchers), which I resolutely am not. I’m still figuring out what it does mean to be a research fellow, but here’s where I’ve settled for now: a research fellowship allows me to take time out of normal life for learning and thinking while offering a practical benefit to the Flickr Foundation. That means I’ll use my research skills honed as a librarian and product manager to seek out existing knowledge and expertise, connecting the dots along the way, in order to help shape the Flickr Foundation’s work.

As the fellowship progresses, I’ll write more about what it’s like to move from a digital practitioner role into a Research Fellow role.

My research focus

My research is aimed at the Content Mobility program where I’m specifically interested in how we might design a Data Lifeboat. Not only the logistics of creating a portable archive of any facet of Flickr, but also how to plan for a digital collection’s ‘good ending’. I’ve always been interested in the idea of digital weeding—removing digital collections that no longer serve their purpose, as librarians do with physical materials. As we become more aware of the environmental impact of any digital activity, including online access and long-term preservation, we need to be even more intentional with what we save and what we let go.

As a complementary bit of research, I’ll be digging into the carbon costs of digital collections. I’m curious to see whether there’s something useful to do here that would help the GLAM sector make carbon-conscious digital collection decisions. (If you or anyone you know is already doing this work, I’d love to meet you/them!)

What else? When not working, I can be found nosing around galleries and museums and perambulating around cities in search of human-friendly architecture and good cafes. And like anyone who’s ever lived in Chicago, I have Opinions on hot dogs.

Superdawg drive-in

Photo by jordanfischer, CC BY 2.0.