Notes from the Field – Rebecca Follman

Today we have our first “Notes from the Field” of the Fall Semester. Each month we’ll bring you a guest post from at least one student where they will describe what they’re doing and learning in their field study. This week we have Rebecca Follman who is conducting her field study work at the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

We’d also like to take a moment to remind you–especially as registration draws near–of the Field Study Database, where you can always go to find interesting opportunities for your field study course work OR to find an internship outside your field study coursework. Remember that postings in the “Additional Opportunities” area are typically for specific positions within an organization and have an application period, and those sites in our “Institution List” are continually seeking iSchool students to work with them–They REALLY LOVE iSchool students.

If you’re interested in writing a guest post for blogMLS, field study-related or otherwise, please contact Lindsay Sarin.

And now Notes from the Field

My field study in the library at the National Institute of Standards and Technology begins each day with a drive north on Interstate 270, lined on the left by a field of apparently stationary cars and on the right by a lot of really big office buildings–along with a couple of actual fields. Like so much about my field study, this makes me feel like a small-town girl, though I promise I’m not. But–who works in all those gigantic office buildings? How could there possibly be enough people to fill them all? And–who’s driving all those cars? Don’t they get tired of that traffic? (You will have noticed what can only be termed hypocrisy in my attitude, since I’m driving too, but I assure you, I would gladly take the train if one were available to me. The MARC station is less than a mile from my field study office, but the trains are all running in the wrong direction. Sigh.)

When I arrive in Gaithersburg, I’m always impressed that I work somewhere that is important enough to get a big green highway sign. Then I remember: people travel here from all over to do research. They need directions. Also, the collection of NIST buildings is called the Gaithersburg campus. From whence does the word campus reach us? You bet–the Latin word for field. No wonder this is where I’m doing my field study.

Once inside the building, I walk through the Hall of Standards, where museum cases display things like The Meter – the one by which all others are measured – or The Kilogram – a squat little thing whose ungraceful profile makes one say ‘no wonder the metric system never caught on here!’ The museum and library are at the end of the Hall of Standards; one walks through the museum (which features some nifty items of significance from the organization’s history, including a rocket called the Bat Missile) to get to the library, where I have a desk in one of the big work rooms.

I mention so many details about the setting because it seems so unusual to me. I was a high school teacher before I started at the i-school, and whatever high schools are to teachers, they are almost never architecturally inspiring. They’re just too grubby, with walls made sticky by so much youthful angst. But the buildings at the NIST campus in Gaithersburg are inspiring, and their contents are too. I make fun of The Kilogram, but it represents important work. NIST was founded in 1901 to promote innovation in industry through the advancement of measurement science, standards, and technology. Originally, men and women at NIST did things like figure out how to measure electricity reliably – where would our grid be without that? Now, NIST researchers work on things like encryption standards for software, the measurement of radiation, and the material used in bullet-proof vests. The library provides reference support for the work researchers are doing, as well as managing many of the publications where that work is reported.

I’m working with the metadata librarian and the digital services librarian on XML for web publishing, sort of figuring it out as I go along, as we work to make the many NIST publications more widely available on line. Though I have a lot of web experience, I’ve never done much with XML. Looking at an XML file, I find, is like one of those dreams where you’re reading along and suddenly you don’t understand the words any more. I feel I should be able to read the file; it’s XML. It’s designed to be readable, right? And yet, it doesn’t make any sense–at all. I have to look up every single tag, and then dig down into all the attributes. And Regina and Andrea, my supervisors–they hear the thump of my head hitting the keyboard in frustration, followed by a beep of protest from the computer, and they just smile kindly.

XML – so tame, so logical in the textbook, but then you get out into the real world, and it’s the difference between the tabby and the tiger.

I guess that’s kind of the whole point of the field study, eh?

Rebecca Follman


Rebecca Follman


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