A Story of Mentorship and Community Among People Behind the Databases and Metadata at University Presses

2019 BiblioU attendees

“ In writing this post and reading about Mark Saunders and these testimonials, I’ve realized how lucky and proud I am to work in university press community. The support of my mentors, advisers, and cheerleaders has come in many forms, and I am thankful to each and every one of them.

~ Maritza I. Herrera-Diaz, metadata and social media manager, Columbia University Press

Our AUP blog tour, honoring the collaborative and creative spirit of university presses in memory of Mark Saunders, continues today with a post by Maritza I. Herrera-Diaz, who shares her story about collaboration and mentorship throughout her career in university publishing and specifically speaks to the collaborative nature of the technical people in our industry who make everyone’s work possible.

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I stumbled into a career in academic publishing in the fall of 2005. I was twenty-five years old and had been bouncing around between the nonprofit and private sectors for four years, figuring out the right fit for my interests, skills, and personality. The only thing I knew for sure was that I was passionate about the communications fields and academia, preferred working with nonprofits, and cringed at the thought of working on repetitive projects day-in and day-out. I needed to do something creative and challenging in an encouraging and collaborative environment. And I needed to start my career. I didn’t know it then, but the University of Utah Press would be that starting point and Jinni Fontana, currently a production coordinator at the Pilgrim Press, and Jeff Grathwohl, then director of the University of Utah Press (the U) would be the mentors to launch my career.

When I think back at my first few months at the U, I sometimes wonder what management there saw in me. I had no idea what the purpose of a university press was, I sometimes made costly mistakes, I had no website experience, and my ability to write catalog copy was . . . well, let’s just say it’s never been my strength. I spent hours pouring over old catalogs, trying to figure out how to write appropriate copy, training myself on the technical aspects of the job (like how to run a website), and figuring out how to automate character and paragraph styles in QuarkExpress, but I still had a lot to learn. I would have failed miserably had it not been for Jinni.

When I think back at my first few months at the U, I sometimes wonder what management there saw in me.

I did not report to Jinni. She was the production editor, art director, and designer—and my go-to person for all things related to layout and design. I knew the bare basics of design, but my job involved creating print ads, direct-mail pieces, booth giveaways, and seasonal and subject catalogs, which also included negotiating rates with print houses and designing to their specs. I was in over my head, but Jinni was not about to let me fail. She mentored me through the process during my first season and was quick to share her insight when whenever I was setting myself up to make a mistake. I’ll never forget the day she looked over at my computer screen and firmly said, “Do not change the color of the logo.” To which I responded, “But I was asked to.” “By whom?” she demanded, then launched into a speech about the value of branding and why consistent use of logos, fonts, and color schemes was critical to brand recognition. It was the first of many lessons I would learn from her.

Jinni influenced the technical aspects of my career, but Jeff was the one to launch it. As the director, he was a very busy man, and my interaction with him mostly revolved around staff meetings or marketing requests. I had no idea how he felt about me as an employee until the day he handed me a postcard and said,

“I want you to apply for this. I think you belong in this industry, and I think this will help you get to where you’re going.”

“What is this?” I asked as I read the card.

“A summer publishing course at NYU. I think you should apply.” I must’ve given him a confused look because he continued, “The last person I encouraged to apply got in and is now working for some trade house in New York City.” Then he gave me that look that seemed to say, “Don’t you think that’s where you belong too?”

I applied, got in, and spent the summer submerged in a publishing crash course, making lifelong friends, and setting up the stepping stones to my career. To my colleagues’ surprise, I returned at the end of the summer.

“Why did you come back?” they demanded.

I was stunned at their response. The thought of staying in New York had never occurred to me.

“Why wouldn’t I come back? The university partially paid for me to go. I thought I was supposed to come back.”

“You were in New York City, the center of publishing. No one would have blamed you if you’d had stayed.”

“Huh?” I mumbled.

“We expected you to look for a job and stay there.”

I was speechless. It was my first experience working with a group that wanted me to succeed so much that they were investing in and pushing me toward my future.

I moved to New York City a year later after securing a position as the exhibits and awards coordinator at NYU Press. Since then, I’ve followed a nontraditional career path filled with mentors, collaborators, cheerleaders, and, most importantly, friends. And the value of collaboration has been most strongly demonstrated during my time at Georgetown University Press, Columbia University Press, and in working with the database, metadata, and website folk across our industry.

The value of collaboration has been most strongly demonstrated during my time at Georgetown University Press, Columbia University Press, and in working with the database, metadata, and website folk across our industry.

After taking a slight detour in academia while working toward my graduate degree, I decided to restart my career in publishing at Georgetown UP. The position was unlike any I’d ever seen. On the one hand, I’d be working on exhibits, which I was a pro at by then; on the other hand, I had to learn to use Filemaker and this mysterious thing called “ONIX.” To make matters worse, my boss was away at the Frankfurt Book Fair during my first week, so my introductions to both were a bunch of Lynda.com videos and one-on-one training with Hope LeGro, assistant director of the press. (Tell me that’s not intimidating. Who gets trained by the higher-ups for an entry-level position—ever?) Hope turned out to be an excellent teacher and mentor, but I needed a more thorough education. Enter the sometimes sarcastic, dry-humored, dad-joke-filled Bob Oeste into my life.

There are a few things you should know about Bob. The first is that EVERYONE seems to know Bob; the second is that he’s brilliant; and the third is that he works at John Hopkins University Press but seems to be the go-to person for all things AllBooks and all things Filemaker for our industry. Bob always makes the time to help people when they’re stuck—even when it’s outside the scope of his role. Bob is everything a mentor should be. He encourages owning up to and learning from one’s mistakes. He has the rare ability to communicate technical issues and ideas in everyday language. He has the patience to teach people about the web of relationships and logic that constitute the database and, most importantly, how to understand the problem and ask the right questions to get at the solution. But my network of mentors and collaborators in the industry did not end with Bob.

Bob [Oeste] is everything a mentor should be.

While at Georgetown UP, I researched a website redesign. I didn’t know where to start. Hope reached out to the AUP listserv, and Richard Brown, then the director of Georgetown UP, reached out to his vast network of connections. Before the week was over, I had phone appointments scheduled with people at university presses across the nation. I met with Claire McCabe Tamberion (associate marketing director at Johns Hopkins University Press), Dean Smith (then director at Cornell UP), Ellen Bush (digital initiatives and database director at University of North Carolina Press), Jana Faust (manager, digital assets and IT at University of Nebraska Press), Stephanie Willams (then marketing manager at University of Missouri Press), Amy Harris (then director of marketing and sales at University of Kentucky Press), Deb Nastika (systems development manager at University of California Press), and finally Lowell Frye (then metadata coordinator) and Greg Lara (IT director) at Columbia University Press.

What struck me most was how thirty-minute calls quickly turned into hour-long discussions about shared challenges and solutions. I found it fascinating that the database, metadata, and website gurus varied by department and experience levels throughout the university press community. One day I’d be speaking with the director of a press; the next, with a marketing or publicity manager; the next, with an IT or digital asset manager; and the next, with a marketing manager or an editorial assistant. And what I found most touching was that EVERY person I spoke with was open about the mistakes they’d made, the lessons they’d learned, the challenges they still faced, and their willingness to continue to help me during the redesign process. Suddenly, I was no longer a one-woman shop. I was part of a large and diverse supportive community.

The people behind the scenes vary in age, gender, and experience but share a passion for figuring out puzzles and helping their teams to develop efficient workflows. And these people often go uncelebrated

This sense of community has grown stronger since my arrival at Columbia UP. Working with the Biblio Database and being one of the organizers of BiblioU has opened my eyes to the background characters (many whom are listed in the testimonials below) who form the nervous system of publishing. The metadata and database managers are the only people who are required to work with and understand each department’s workflow. They consistently have to think strategically about the evolution of the industry—what that means for ONIX, SEO, digital assets, open source, and all the other grand ideas floating around. They have to be aware of the overall title-management workflow and how any changes can affect other departments. The people behind the scenes vary in age, gender, and experience but share a passion for figuring out puzzles and helping their teams to develop efficient workflows. They are consistently consulting and advising each other about best practices and future developments that will help our industry. And these people often go uncelebrated. To remedy this situation, I reached out to members of the university press community and asked them to submit shout-outs for the tech people at their presses who work behind the scenes to ensure that the work of the rest of the press goes without a hitch. Here’s what they had to say.

I don’t normally respond to a call for action like this, but Jake Furbush of HUP is too good to let this opportunity go without singing his praises. Being the Biblio guru at the Press is a brutal, thankless job, but he handles everyone’s questions and concerns with an unfailing kindness and sense of humor. His willingness and desire to improve the Press’s workflows in and around Biblio show his investment not only in the Press and in Biblio but in his colleagues as well. Biblio isn’t a flawless product, but Jake promotes its strengths while tirelessly working to minimize its weaknesses so we continue to achieve success as a publishing house. He’s an integral part of HUP. He is intelligent, generous, hilarious, and truly one of a kind.

—Abby Mumford, assistant director of production, Harvard University Press

Lee Willoughby-Harris has done just about every job in books marketing during her many years at Duke University Press. In her latest position we call her the ‘Metadata Queen.’ She can track every odd special character, missing image, or mysterious contributor back through our systems to figure out how they erroneously appeared on our website and fix the problem. She keeps meticulous records and notes to assure continuity of data. And I love the gleam she gets in her eye when she tackles a particularly tricky problem: she genuinely enjoys being deep in the sea of metadata and recognizes just how important it is to our business. Three cheers to her and all the other university press staffers laboring to make sure the bibliographic data that underlies publishing is complete and accurate.

—Laura Sell, publicity and advertising manager, Duke University Press

Over the years, Michael Boudreau, the electronic publishing technology manager at the University of Chicago Press, has been one of the most helpful respondents on the AUP’s technology list, answering questions and offering advice on everything from Unicode to EPUB standards to XSLT.

—David Sewell, manager of digital initiatives, University of Virginia Press

I immediately thought of Jake Furbush, not only because he is the Biblio wizard at HUP but also because he is a consummate problem solver and natural teacher. He is always willing to help untangle deep technical knots, offer alternative solutions when necessary, and explain in layman’s terms the how/what/why of publishing metadata. Operating a publishing-management system that needs to function for all departments (and all their different requirements) is no easy task—he does it with great humor!

—Paige Clunie, digital sales associate, Harvard University Press

I don’t know if it’s a little strange to call out myself, and I would never call myself a ‘tech’ person. But, we have no ‘tech’ people on staff at the University Press of Mississippi. We just have a metadata and database manager here at UPM, and that’s me! Over the twenty-plus years I’ve worked here, I’ve had to do a lot of behind-the-scenes problem solving and detective work with regards to getting accurate metadata for our books out into the world. And I’ve seen metadata distribution evolve from filling out trading partners’ spreadsheets and print forms to logging into their online databases in order to submit our book information to exporting ONIX files created by third-party vendors to now sending out ONIX files from our own presswide database and trying to decipher what’s actually contained in them (often with the help of my publishing peers and fellow database experts). It’s been a wild ride, but I’m always learning something new and having to roll with the changing tides in our publishing universe!

—Kathy Burgess, data services and course adoptions manager, University Press of Mississippi

As a small independent UP, we do not have tech staff. Our director, Darrin Pratt, is basically our IT person, and he does it all—from handling all aspects of our internet service to creating, maintaining, and constantly improving our database (and everything in between). Our jobs would be much harder without his efforts.

—Beth Svinarich, sales and marketing manager, University Press of Colorado

Bob Repta recently took over management of our internal FileMaker database at UIP and has been completely revolutionizing the system. It’s been nothing short of amazing. He is consistently interested in learning how we do things and finding solutions to make doing your job more efficient. He built me a publicity database from scratch that has been an absolute dream and has made my life and organization so much easier. And he’s funny too!

—Heather Gernenz, publicity manager, University of Illinois Press

Ellen Cross, our web product manager, provides an extraordinary combination of technical and, let’s face it, emotional support for us at MITP. Not only does she have an extraordinary wealth of knowledge regarding our temperamental website but she’s patient with even our most simple and stupid requests and patiently reminds us of best practice with the grace of a saint. Also, she’s one of the only women I’ve worked with in a technical role, and it challenges me that I can’t pretend to ‘not understand computers’ because I’m a girl!

—Katie Stileman, global publicity manager, MIT Press

The work of transitioning one database to another and transitioning staff from old familiar workflows to new ones is thankless. It requires a lot of thought, persuasion, and understanding of people and technology. Lowell Frye and Greg Lara never fail to surprise me with their patience, intellect, and methodical problem solving. They make a point to stop by peoples’ desks and have conversations to get at the root of our team’s concerns, then work with the staff to find viable solutions. They truly are a remarkable team, and I can’t think of anyone I’d rather learn from and work with on website and database problems than them.

—Maritza Herrera-Diaz, metadata and social media manager, Columbia University Press

I’ve had the pleasure of working with Jake Furbush for most of my career in scholarly publishing. I’ve worked with him at Harvard University Press (twice) and at MIT Press. Jake’s commitment to scholarly publishing and his passion for books goes well beyond the technical side of publishing, which is an asset to everyone at Harvard and to the AUPresses community at large. The only thing more impressive than his technical skills is Jake’s ability to help others navigate the constantly changing technologies that surround us.

The technological side of publishing is not glamorous and is often behind the scenes, but it is ever more essential to what we do. What is remarkable about Jake is that he is able to bridge the gap between all departments and technology. Jake got his start in publishing working in sales (and prior to that working in bookstores), so he has a good grasp of the needs of many other departments. He’s able to use this experience to work with virtually all members of HUP as well as the AUPresses community at large. He works with various departments to help create more efficient workflows and developing new tools to fit our changing needs through the use of our publishing management system. Some examples include the creation of new fact/tip sheets, handling the exports for our seasonal catalog, and creating scripts to provide custom ONIX feeds to our major customers, among many other projects he’s involved in.  Additionally, Jake offers group and individual training for HUP staff. He’s happy to share his knowledge about our PMS so that others can become more proficient and use the system efficiently to help with their jobs. He has also been an active participant in Biblio University, a group of presses dedicated to enhancing our publishing management system, Biblio, and he’s participated in numerous sessions and panels at the AUP Annual Meeting, sharing his knowledge widely. I cannot think of someone more deserving to shine in the technology spotlight than Jake.

Colleen Lanick, Publicity, Harvard University Press

These testimonials provide a glimpse of the people and work that happens each day to ensure clean metadata and efficient workflows. In writing this post and reading about Mark Saunders and these testimonials, I’ve realized how lucky and proud I am to work in the university press community. The support of my mentors, advisers, and cheerleaders has come in many forms, and I am thankful to every one of them.

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