This post is a spin-off of our Curators’ Corner series. Every so often we’ll feature a different DCN Advisory or Governance Board member. Get to know the colleagues at the DCN that help keep our operations going!
Jody Gray, Associate University Librarian for Research, University of Minnesota, was interviewed by Mikala Narlock in October 2023.
How did you come to your current position?
Oh, my God, I feel like this could be a novel! I started my career in academic libraries as a subject liaison. I worked with the Department of American Indian Studies and the Department of Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature at the University of Minnesota Libraries. At the same time, I was the Diversity Outreach librarian, which was all very focused on student support, particularly undergraduates, but included helping graduate students and faculty with their research. I did this for 12 years — at which point the diversity piece started to become prominent.
That’s how I ended up at ALA (American Library Association) as the Director of the Office for Diversity, Literacy and Outreach Services. I really focused on organizational structures and how to embed DEI into those structures and into librarianship. After a spell in Chicago, I decided I wanted to move back and be a little bit closer to my family. I ended up, not in the Libraries, but at the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences at the U. While there, I was Director of their Office for Diversity and Inclusion. But I would say that I always called back to my experience as a liaison supporting faculty in the colleges, even as I was now on the other side — in the college, seeing the kinds of things that they were prioritizing and grappling with, and the way that they structured their governance and did their work.
Finally, in spring 2023, I started in my current position at the Libraries as the Associate University Librarian for Research. A return home, in many ways.
Can you tell us a little more about your role?
As the AUL for Research, I oversee many different groups, including subject liaisons, specialized projects (e.g., Mapping Prejudice, or government publications), and our Open Research and Publishing department, which looks at the ways we do digital research (research data services, DCN, publishing). Whereas the Libraries’ Student Success group tends to focus more on undergraduate students and research, our division tends to focus on graduate students and faculty research. These are not firm boundaries, by any means – but in the Research Service Area, we look at the needs of our researchers across the colleges to better understand where people are at and how to get them the tools and services they need to be successful in their research.
My role is focused more on campus partners — connecting with the colleges to get a feel for how the Libraries can support research across campus. I have a fabulous set of directors who report to me that are focused on more internal development and staff management.
You have extensive experience in diversity and inclusion initiatives, at university and collaborative organizations. How do you bring that expertise and knowledge to the DCN and our Advisory Board?
I’m not an academic when it comes to DEI – I’m a practitioner. One thing I did at ALA and CFANS was help groups articulate what DEI work actually looks like — not theoretically, or how we feel about it. What does this really, in practice, look like —taking into consideration policies, hiring laws, etc.? It’s important to understand how your organization actually works; otherwise, you can’t expect to make any real change.
The other piece is you have to also be realistic about the context of the communities that we want to center, like Black, Indigenous, and People of Color, or the LGBTQIA+ community, or disability justice communities. You do have to kind of pick a starting point by examining where your organization is already involved with the communities listed here. Then you have to discuss and identify where you want to be productive and grow. You can’t do everything all at once.
I sat in on the conversation with the DEI subgroup at the All Hands Meeting (AHM). I appreciate the thoughtfulness that the membership brings to this conversation. What I have seen over the years is a strongly held value in DEI across all types of libraries. Putting that value into action is more complicated than most people realize. That was an observation I made in the conversations I had with the group. I think there are ways to bring in diverse voices, but it is an area that may not be the primary priority for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color at this moment. I think holding the space for when it becomes the priority for one of these communities is important. In the meantime, the growth of those actively involved in the membership is a great use of time. Building out education, discussions, and advocacy are never a waste of time in my opinion.
Can you share a little more about your experience of our annual All Hands Meeting? How was it? What were your top three takeaways?
I was so excited to join everyone at the All Hands Meeting this year. I started my role at the University of Minnesota the year before; at that time, I was acting as the interim director for the Open Research and Publishing department on top of my regular job. I was directly spending time with Mikala as she is part of this department. This whole year has been a journey to understand what the Data Curation Network does and how it functions. My main goal is to understand the group’s needs and support the work.
One thing that I took away from the AHM was how it really is a network. The organization’s structure is spread across the country and all the member institutions are actively involved in the DCN. One particularly salient moment, for me, was seeing members in breakout groups, discussing the needs and goals of their special interest groups. I am always interested in seeing how a model like this plays out in real life, so that was really helpful!
I also realized how much the DCN’s work is driving the Data Curation field for librarians and researchers. It is clear this coordination of effort was needed, and it’s great to see it come to fruition. Being at the AHM, I was able to experience the energy of this effort firsthand, and really got the sense that the DCN, and each of our members, is growing. The network is, in some ways, still evolving and learning — which is exciting! — and everybody is willing to try different iterations and move things around. It was great to see the iterative nature of this work, and I’m excited to see how things grow to support data librarians across the US.
A final takeaway is how collaborative the DCN is and how it is always looking for ways to make the organizational structure better. Like I said, you can tell that the network is growing and changing, but the collective ownership was really apparent at the AHM. Everyone had a role to play in the event, making sure catering was on time, or running a session, or making sure the Zoom was working for hybrid attendees. It’s clear that everyone owns the network, and that collective energy was really inspiring to see.
Why is the DCN important to you and your institution?
Well, it’s important to the University of Minnesota for a few reasons. First, because it’s part of our legacy of the work that we have had people do. Lisa Johnston and other Minnesota colleagues helped get the DCN started, and we’re proud to still be the fiscal home of the Network. But the DCN is important because it is work that is emerging and evolving. I don’t think we can talk about supporting research anymore without talking about how we manage the data in this digital world.
We saw this need for data curation coming for a long time, and I don’t see it going away. And I think it requires a lot of coordination to be consistent. And that’s the thing, especially when we’re dealing with research. You want the consistency of the data so that it can be compared over time. And that is what you all, in my opinion, are trying to do in the DCN.
If you could tell members of the DCN one thing from the Advisory Board perspective, what would it be?
We’re here to help, both in the DCN and within the institution. Everyone on the Advisory Board is here for the DCN and the community, but we are also not driving the work. We trust the curators and the governing structure to keep doing great things. But we can also help at our local level. If you learn of new methods or needs that would help us at our institution, let’s talk.
One thing I bring to this role, which I did regularly at ALA, is to remind people: “Why are you here, why are you in the room?” We’re all pulled in many different directions every day, and especially in membership organizations like ALA and the DCN, is not the primary mode of day-to-day work. It seems simplistic, but it is needed, and it’s the nature of this national, cross-institutional work.
In our Curators’ Corner, we often ask a couple of personal questions! So, tell us about your hobbies outside of work?
I love listening to podcasts, taking pictures of my kitties (and getting cuddles from them), and I love going to movies. All types of movies. If you ever need a movie buddy, give me a call.
Do you have any podcast recommendations?
So many! Comedy Bang Bang — a ridiculous podcast with a lot of improv. If you like learning or unlearning — anything Michael Hobbes does, like Maintenance Phase, If Books Could Kill, or early You’re Wrong About. I also love the series Normal Gossip. Basically, anyone can send in a story that’s like, “let me tell you about what’s happening in my apartment complex!” The narrator then tells the story to another person, and they just check in with each other like, what would you do? And oh, my God, it’s so satisfying! It’s like brain candy.
If you hadn’t pursued librarianship, what would you be doing?
This was the hardest question on this list! I tried to think about what 20-year-old me would have said. Then, I wanted to be a professor, or maybe a private eye, or even a writer. But, these are all research-based professions! So I probably would still be in higher education. I love working with students directly and could see my path leading me to student support services.
I definitely ended up on the trajectory I was supposed to end up on — I don’t regret where I’m at!
What’s your top restaurant recommendation for folks traveling to Minneapolis?
I just ate at Gai Noi (Laotian food) and was blown away! I also have to pump up Owamni, a restaurant that is delicious and brings a decolonized indigenous approach to the food. Although, that one is really hard to get into. Definitely recommend making reservations in advance. If you like a food truck, look for Trickster Tacos.