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Craig Simmons leads a team at Serials Solutions focusing on technology for libraries. (Photos by Annie Laurie Malarkey)

Craig Simmons, our latest Geek of the Week, didn’t originally plan to pursue a career in technology. Back in the 1990s, he was studying for his PhD, focusing on 18th Century and Early Modern British literature, when he realized that something needed to be done to make the rare books and manuscripts he was working with more widely accessible.

So he taught himself programming and early web development, and he’s been involved in technology ever since. Today he manages more than 100 members of the technology team at Serials Solutions, a company in Seattle that works to bring libraries into the digital age.

In our questionnaire below, we quiz him about the future of libraries and many other topics. Continue reading for his answers.

Name: Craig Simmons

Job: I’m VP of Technology for Serials Solutions, a Fremont (Seattle) based company that creates software and content for libraries, primarily in the academic, research, and public library space. I manage the entire Technology department, including Development, QA, IT/Ops, Program Management, and Facilities.

I’ve been with the company for a year, and although it may sound cliché, it’s a job where I really feel that I’m helping to make a tangible impact by helping everyday people — students, professors, researchers, and librarians — access the materials they need to further their research, keep the library running efficiently, or simply enjoy a good book.

Hobby and/or other geeky pursuit: I’m a voracious reader and have been on a non-fiction and history kick lately. Currently I’m reading about the Tudors, Sir Francis Walsingham, and 16th century espionage. Those who know me well, also know that I have a profound weakness for vampire and bad horror movies, but please don’t tell anyone because it would ruin my reputation far and wide…

Coolest thing about what you do: I get to work with a group of people who are intensely passionate about libraries and enriching and preserving our collective cultural heritage. They’re also committed to helping make libraries better places to do research and find things that others are passionate about. That’s pretty cool in my book (no pun intended — really) and I’m continually amazed by how much I learn from my peers and colleagues on a daily basis.

What’s the right role for traditional libraries in the digital age, and how are the best libraries adjusting?

Libraries, both academic and public, play a number of different roles: They’re public gathering spaces, places to relax, centers for research, repositories for books and journals that haven’t been digitized, and even keepers of our culture. They also need to function in a world where content of all shapes and sizes is rapidly moving to digital formats.

The biggest challenge for traditional libraries is how to adapt to a world where the fundamental nature of the library’s collection has changed. Digital content can make up 50% -60% or more of a library’s holdings, and consume a proportionate amount of its budget. In addition, library patrons have been heavily influenced by the internet and are used to getting information quickly and painlessly through a simple search interface, instead of stomping around dusty stacks looking for printed books and journals.

Most libraries are already well on their way to integrating digital materials and search/discovery technologies with the rest of their systems, are already learning to co-exist in a world where digital content is king, and are making the necessary changes to accommodate this new landscape. However, there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done and libraries and librarians can sometimes feel as if they are caught between two worlds, and are trying to deal with an influx of digital content and the need to balance their budgets between digital and print materials – while making both readily available to patrons.

Libraries that are visionary realize that digital content and full text resources are only going to become more pervasive, and are looking for ways to more fully integrate those resources into their collections. They also want to provide their patrons with robust search technologies that can locate an obscure journal article or book, and provide the full text in digital format. If that resource isn’t available as part of the library’s current collection, they understand that they’ll need to provide the patron with a way to order or access those materials – digital or print – on the fly. While a lot of progress has been accomplished technologically in this area, there’s still work to be done and libraries sometimes struggle with how to best accomplish this. …

Finally, I also see the most visionary libraries thinking about acquiring (software as a service) based library systems that will help transform the traditional library workflow, accommodate digital content and technologies alongside print materials, and allow patrons a variety of ways to access that information.

How did your early work with rare books and manuscripts influence your career?

A long, long time ago, I actually used to be an academic and was pursuing a PhD in English Literature with a specialty in 18th Century and Early Modern British literature. This was back in the early 1990s and as I was doing some specialized research with rare books, I became frustrated that they weren’t more widely accessible and available to a larger audience.

At the time the University of Virginia (where I was a graduate student) was becoming a leader in electronic book technologies and digital content, so I began working with a couple groups aligned with the library, including the Electronic Text Center and the Institute for Advanced Technologies in the Humanities on several projects. We were digitizing books and manuscripts, using SGML for semantic markup, and converting them to HTML on the fly with Perl and shell scripts. I was lucky enough to get in on the ground floor, taught myself programming and web design and development, and when I decided that I didn’t really want to finish my dissertation, I was able to transition into technical writing, web development, and eventually technology management.

It’s funny, because I feel my career has come full circle now. … I’m tackling many of the problems and issues that used to frustrate me when I was a graduate student so long ago.

Where would you be today if you hadn’t taught yourself to program?

Who knows where life will lead you? Part of the reason I left academia was because I enjoyed what I was doing technically and had taught myself to program. Programming and technology provided me with opportunities and paths that I had never imagined before. If I hadn’t gone down that road, who knows, I’d probably be teaching obscure 18th century novels and poetry at the college level… or maybe I would have just gone to law school like most of my peers did who left grad school. :)

Geekiest thing(s) you’ve ever done, built, or worn: There are so many examples I could cite here: I’ve been known to make elaborate homemade costumes for Halloween and several people have told me that my “milk carton” costume where I designed a giant milk carton that I wore with a hole for my face and a “Missing: Have you seen this person?” quip was one of my better costumes. There have also been less successful costumes, but I won’t go there here.

Your best tip or trick for managing everyday work and life:

Maybe I’m not the best person to answer this because I tend to blur the line a lot between work and life… That said, I do my best to try to delineate the different aspects of my life and compartmentalize them so I can focus on the moment and whatever I’m doing. I’d definitely be lost without my iPhone’s calendar though….Friends and family say I live and die by it.

Mac, Windows or Linux? All of them. They’re all ubiquitous and each has its place whether it’s in one of my data centers (Linux), on my desktop at work (Windows), or part of my personal computer menagerie (Mostly Mac based). I’m not really theological about this question; for me, each OS is a just a tool that can make different parts of your life easier (usually) and sometime harder….

Kirk, Picard, Janeway or Sisko? Is there even a doubt? – Engage Number 1! Picard all the way for me.

Transporter, Time Machine or Cloak of Invisibility? The Time Machine would be at the top of my list … There are so many historical events and things I’d like to see and experience. And ultimately, I assume I could go forward in time and hopefully get myself a transporter or invisibility device at some point once technology advances far enough, so I’d have the best of all possible worlds.

If someone gave me $1 million to launch a startup, I would … Use the Time Machine I acquired in the above question to launch Facebook two to three years before Zuckerberg and Saverin did and avoid the Winklevoss twins with a passion… Seriously though, I’d probably start a company dealing with the technology behind the digitalization of rare books, manuscripts, and other cultural artifacts. Yes, there are others out there doing this, but I feel with my experience and passion for the subject area, I could find a suitable niche.

I once waited in line for … I hate waiting in lines with a passion, especially at restaurants. I’m very much a go somewhere and do something immediately sort of person. That said, I “might” have once waited in line to meet Gary Gygax (one of the creators of Dungeons and Dragons) at a convention. It was a short line though as he was keeping a low profile.

Your geek role models: My allusion to Gary Gygax wasn’t an accident. He created an addictive and multi-faceted role playing game that many of us played for years (even if we’re unwilling to admit it today…) and developed an entire fantasy dynasty around it that still exists today and widely influences gaming in a variety of formats. That’s an amazing and tremendous achievement. I’d love to do something that has that sort of cultural and societal impact someday.

Greatest Game In History: Settlers of Catan. Or at least it’s my favorite game of all time. I love it but seldom find anyone to play it with me. [Editor’s Note: Craig, we need to get you out to our next GeekWire Game Night!]

Best Gadget Ever: My car’s integrated GPS system with voice control. I’d never find my way anywhere without it and love that I can talk to my car and go wherever I want.

First computer: I played around extensively with the Apple II (and later the IIe) at school for several years, but the first computer I actually owned was an original 128K Apple Macintosh. I wish I still had that machine, it really was revolutionary. I have a small collection of old Macs that my wife makes me keep in a storage facility and remarkably, they all still work!

Current phone: My primary phone –which I love – is an iPhone 4S (even if Siri can’t ever understand what I’m asking), but I also use an Andoid for work

Favorite app: I’ve been playing around with Evernote on my iPad, iPhone, and various computers. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s a note taking application on steroids and is truly multi-platform and automatically synchronizes your notes, images, and musings across all your devices, in addition to a bunch of other neat features. If you haven’t checked it out, you definitely should.

Favorite hangout: Serials Solutions is right across the street from the Red Door in Fremont and I’ve really become attached to it as somewhere to relax, do work, and even hold the occasional work meeting. The servers are really friendly and there’s a great variety of pub food should you get hungry. It “may” be unofficially called Conference Room North here at Serials, though I won’t confirm or deny that…

Favorite library: Back when I was an academic, I spent a lot of time visiting various libraries, especially rare book libraries. I’ve always had a special place in my heart for Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Beinecke’s architecture and translucent marble walls are extraordinary and its special collections are fabulous. That said, I also love the Huntington Library in Pasadena. If you ever get a chance to go there, make sure to tour the gardens, they’re amazing!

Favorite cause: I’m a huge dog lover and am a big fan of animal rescue shelters like PAWS. My wife and I have two beautiful Australian Shepherds we adopted from the Aussie Shepherd & Placement Hotline (ARPH), so I’m a fan of their mission too.

If you want a technology related cause that I’m particularly fond of, look up Code for America. It’s the brainchild of a friend of mine from college (Jennifer Palkha) and a former roommate (Andrew McLaughlin) is on the board of directors. Check it out.

Most important technology of 2012: Well, this really isn’t exclusively a 2012 technology – in fact it’s been in various working draft stages for years now – but I hope this is the year that HTML5 really starts to take off and receive wide adoption in the development community (even if it still doesn’t have W3C recommendation status yet). I’ve seen various statistics on its adoption rate – depending on the source anywhere from 25-35% of web sites today use some flavor or form of HTML5 – and think this might be its breakout year. It makes mobile development easier, has improved multimedia support, has special features for accessibility, includes native scripting APIs, and offers semantic web and microdata content support. There’s also the super cool web storage feature (think cookies on steroids) that will dramatically help with web app development with its ability to store user data and state.

Most important technology of 2015: IPv6. Again, I’ll be boring as this is also an old technology/protocol, but one that has the capacity to induce a lot of change for everyone. I’m not much for predictions, because who really knows what the next disruptive technology is going to be, but now that the last top level block of IPv4 addresses was assigned last year, I think that many, many companies will have to think seriously about IPv6 by 2015 (if not sooner…) and how they will handle the migration and the upgrades to their older hardware and networking devices. Maybe this won’t be as big a deal as I think it will be since there are ways to blunt or mitigate the impact (eg. tunneling and dual –stack support), but I have a hunch this might cause a lot of heartburn (financially and otherwise) and that more companies than not aren’t ready for it.

Words of advice for your fellow geeks: Life takes strange twists and turns; be willing to follow your curiosity and passions even if you’re not exactly sure where they will take you and what turns you’ll make. 20 years ago, I was locked and loaded on a career in academia and a chance brush with early web technologies completely changed my career path.

Sites: Serials Solutions, LinkedIn

Twitter: @craigasimmons. Fair warning: I don’t tweet as much as I should, but I’m trying to get better. Call it my New Year’s resolution.

Geek of the Week is a regular feature profiling the characters of the Pacific Northwest technology community. See the Geek of the Week archive for more.

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[Geek of the Week photography by Annie Laurie Malarkey,]

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