Data Liberator

“I had no idea what academic librarians do,” says Amanda Whitmire, who once aspired to become a marine biology professor. “It was not a career path I even knew existed.”

Amanda Whitmire, the head librarian and bibliographer at Stanford University’s Harold A. Miller Library at Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove, never set out to become an academic librarian. Yet here she is on a recent weekday, leading a tour through its stacks, which house one of the richest troves of marine science data in the world. She gestures to the 3-D printer and makerspace she created in recent years, where graduate students and researchers can print anything from organism replicas to prototypes for different types of whale tags, to see which is most hydrodynamic, or perhaps a custom box to house electronic equipment used during field research.

She proudly shows off the digitizing station, which she was instrumental in recently creating, and that she uses to scan the library’s research documents that stretch as far back as the 1800s.

Briefly ducking into her office, she notes the view out the window looking across the water toward Lovers Point: “I’m the most spoiled librarian in the world,” she says.

Outside, she leads the way across Hopkins’ six-acre campus, which has some buildings that are about 100 years old (the station was established in 1919), some of which have flowing seawater to use for research.

At a picnic table overlooking the water, Whitmire tells the story of how she ended up here: Growing up in Huntington Beach, she loved nature and was fascinated by plants and animals. When she got to college, she studied aquatic biology and figured she would go to graduate school to become a professor so she could do research and teach. But after getting her PhD at Oregon State University and doing post-doc work there, she realized the professor track wasn’t for her – too much grant writing, too many meetings.

So she applied to a data management specialist position in OSU’s library at their marine station in Newport. After a few years there, she realized she would love a career in the field and inquired about becoming the librarian at the station when the position opened up. But without the library sciences degree, she was told not to apply. Ditto for the open position at Moss Landing Marine Lab.

And then the position at Hopkins opened up in 2015, and she reached out to the librarian, who encouraged her to apply. When she was invited down for a visit, she fell in love with not just the location, but the opportunity presented by so much historical data.

“I was like, ‘I have to work with this data,’” she says. “It was just sitting there, it wasn’t even catalogued. My mind was totally blown. I was like, ‘I have to get this job.’”

Whitmire soon got her wish.

Weekly: What’s important about the work you do here in the Miller Library?

Whitmire: I can take rare and in some cases completely unique materials that we have in our collection and make them available to everybody, which is my mission: to liberate the information and share it with the world. One of the advantages of being located in the same place for 100 years is that we have observations that go back that far. In order to understand how things are changing with climate change, for example, you have to know what they were before. And there aren’t many places that have that kind of benchmark.

You’ve brought a 3-D printer and makerspace into the library since coming here, as well as digitizing equipment. How did that all come about?

If I can dream it up, then they try to make it happen. And that is an amazing opportunity. I have the freedom and the luxury of pursuing almost anything I want, and so I take very seriously the responsibility that I do good with it, that I’m doing things that democratize access to data and information that’ll help advance our understanding of the world.

What’s one of the coolest things you’ve found in the collection?

[Famed marine biologist] Ed Ricketts kept a set of cards that were color-coded, and when he traveled he would note [an animal he saw] with a date and location and put it on a card and file it. We have these cards, and they’re from the ’30s and ’40s, from Mexico and the Central Coast, British Columbia and Alaska. These are observations of animals in a time period where we don’t have many observations. And so it’s like: “I need to digitize these and get them out into the world.”

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