Volunteer Profile - Dena Strong

“If you asked me three weeks ago if I could have done the stuff I’ve been doing these past few weeks, I would’ve laughed and said, ‘oh heck no, give me like three years for that’ – and we did it in a month. It’s been amazing, really inspiring so far.”

Dena Strong, Senior Information Design Specialist at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, has her master’s degree in Library and Information Sciences as well as a dual bachelor’s degree in English and Technical Theatre. What’s been most helpful for her involvement in SUCHO so far? “The technical theatre degree has been really valuable here, in many more ways than you would expect – in terms of improvising things on the go, high speed information, figure it out on the fly, go go go,” Strong stated. “I’ve always had this tension living in my head between high speed improv and long-term digital preservation.” Working with SUCHO has been the perfect opportunity for her to balance said tension.

photo of Dena Strong

Figure 1: Dena Strong has worked in Technology Services at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign for twenty years. She began volunteering with SUCHO in early March.

When she received an email call for volunteers in early March, Strong felt empowered to act. Combatting pandemic isolation, she describes her computer as a window to events around the world and realized that her educational background and professional skillset made her uniquely suited to contribute to this project. Strong’s twenty-year career at Technology Services has transferred directly to her SUCHO work: at UIUC, she acts as an intermediary between humans and computers, helping to streamline the usability and accessibility of the university web platforms. There, Strong’s day-to-day involves helping people get from point A to point B via the “path of least resistance,” ensuring that web hosting and content management is as intuitive as possible, for as many users as possible. When she began working with SUCHO, she immediately jumped into a similar position – one which Strong calls a “traffic controller.” She’s worked to simplify the onboarding and data collection processes for over 1200 volunteers in over 20 time zones, collaborating with programmers to ensure that anyone can participate, and help to save the data and heritage that’s at stake. Strong has a clear vision for making data salvation as volunteer-friendly as possible. When teammate Andreas Segerberg developed a Python script for capturing DSpace repositories (used by many libraries to archive scholarly works), she recognized both the power of Andreas’s script and the difficulty of using it, as people needed to have a virtual machine in order to start. She took to Python – a programming language she hadn’t touched in over ten years – to try to create a web interface for Andreas’s script in a world-available platform. The initial PythonAnywhere test case wasn’t financially feasible, but Google Colab worked well. Hours later, programmer Ben Schmidt further streamlined the process so that users can enter an OAI endpoint URL, click Run All, and receive a text file with the results in a few minutes.

The Google Colab interface that developed from this collaboration has allowed volunteers across the globe to gather URLs from hundreds of DSpace repositories for contribution to the Browsertrix and Internet Archive collections. That was just one morning out of two weeks of mostly twelve-hour days; the rest of the time, she was designing and documenting workflows and carrying information across fifteen channels of volunteers. Additionally, Dena devoted much of her time to training people across several continents on processes that may have been invented less than a day earlier, or custom-developed tools that may have had a new release that same day.

image of Ion Mother of God monastery

Figure 2: Throughout her work with SUCHO, Strong discovered the vast number and rich histories of monasteries and convents throughout Ukraine. Pictured above is the Icon of the Mother of God Convent in the Kyiv region.

For Strong, this digital conservation provides an important safeguard for tangible cultural patrimony, well-demonstrated in the reconstruction of Notre Dame based on the 3D scans of an art historian. Perhaps, the web records collected through SUCHO will help with similar preservation efforts across Ukraine. “We have terabytes of records – we don’t know all that we have captured so far, but we must capture it: because what the bombs don’t take out now, unpaid [web] hosting providers may take out next month. And people who are physically there have got much higher concerns than what is happening to their websites – but this is a thing that I can do, from where I am, with what I can physically do – I can take care of this for them, so that they can focus on staying alive and preserving their physical treasures in the museums and their libraries as much as possible.”

Any advice for others, who also want to help from a distance? “I’ve heard some people say ‘Oh I don’t know, I would love to be able to help but I can’t’ – trust me, you can. I can’t even read Cyrillic. Chris [Millson]’s 6-year-old daughter was running Browsertrix Cloud rescues. All you really need is enthusiasm, eyeballs, and a web browser. Really, for anybody who wants to help, we can find something for you to do.”

Learn more about volunteering and become involved in SUCHO on the site’s orientation page.