Oral History of Museum Computing: Rob Weisberg

This Oral History of Museum Computing is provided by Rob Weisberg, and was recorded on the 23rd of April, 2021, by Paul Marty and Kathy Jones. It is shared under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license (CC-BY), which allows for unrestricted reuse provided that appropriate credit is given to the original source. For the recording of this oral history, please see https://youtu.be/Ya8OAVYv0a0.

I’ve been at the Met for almost 27 years. All of it in the publications department, which is now called Publications and Editorial. All of it in the same office, which I’m not in right now. But I think I’ve had four different titles in that time, seven or eight different informal job descriptions. I was hired as a computer specialist, then I was a desktop publishing manager, then I was an assistant managing editor, even though I was not an assistant, I was not a manager, and I was not an editor. Now I’m Senior Project Manager, and I’ve had that title for about seven or eight years.

So, they brought me in in 1994 to bring in-house desktop publishing to our publications process. We’ve consistently made about 30 to 35 books a year at the Met, so that’s probably the largest in-house museum publications department anywhere in the world. And they wanted to take a process that had always been outsourced to outside vendors, or to the printer — doing the typesetting and all of the text corrections. We still use outside color separators for our images, but they wanted some control over that process in-house.

And even though I did not have an art background, I did not have a museum background, I did go to a school that had a good art reputation, so that helped, but really, they were just looking for a person who had done a lot of desktop publishing, and I guess just sort of fit their idea of the process they wanted. Fortunately, for me, they didn’t really have a good idea about what that process was going to be, so I had a lot of room to grow into the position, but they also needed what we would now call a technologist, but back then just meant the computer person. And since the Met, back then, did not even support Macs, I was also the person who would come in and load all the software on to the Macs in the office, who would maintain our server, because back then the server was a Mac Performa on a shelf in my office, and the backups which were the little tapes that would… that you would sort of plug into the server, and do it that way.

So back then, they told me when I was first brought on, that I would work on the smaller books, on our quarterly bulletins, our annual report because they had no idea that the desktop publishing would work for our larger books. And back then, we were doing books that were 600 pages. We would do one of those every year or two. And I would get files on three and a half inch floppy disks, and I would be doing all the printouts when the books would go to the printer, but the hardest part for me when I first got there was convincing the editors that this was going to work. We have very high editorial standards. The editors were used to having a lot of personal stake in the production process. They would walk around the office with X-Acto knives so they could go to the galleys that were down on the flats, and if they didn’t like the kerning, they could cut two letters out of the flat, and move them apart ever so slightly, or move them together ever so slightly. So, I had to win them over because I wasn’t their manager or anything. I had to make them feel that this process was going to bring them the quality that they expected. So, I had a few things in my favor. I knew proofreading marks. I knew sort of good editorial work, and we were kind of starting from nothing, so the expectations were low [i.e., the editorial standards were high, but the process standards were low]. I also didn’t have anyone looking over my shoulder. There was no one who did that exact work, so I didn’t have somebody saying, “This is our process. You have to do it our way.”

So, on the first time where I set galleys for our quarterly Bulletin, all of the italics fell out of the galleys when I set them. The editor had given me a disk in probably WordStar at that point, and, when they saw the galleys, they said, “Well, I’m not sure this desktop publishing thing is going to work out.” So, I was able to spend the weekend reading on the floor of a bookstore, on how to handle this. I got a book that had a floppy disk in a plastic packet, and it had a utility on it, a tiny utility that stripped out all the formatting from the Word or the WordPerfect or the Nota Bene files, and Nota Bene was a scholarly version of XyWrite. And it would spit out plain text with Quark tags and voila! — problem solved — it was mostly my ability to make shortcuts like that, and also figure out what seemed like these genius moments, which really were just always solving my sort of most idiot moments.

And that was the progress over the first few years that I was there. I was in between the production managers and the editors, so I was always able to have some influence over the workflow. If the editor wanted more time to do corrections, and the production manager needed to get pages and files out to the printer to get them started on making bluelines, I was always able to negotiate from one side to the other. I used to joke that my job was 5 percent desktop publishing and 95 percent unlicensed psychotherapy. I told that at a conference I think 15 years later, and it still got a laugh, so I think it’s still true of this kind of position. A lot of my work was convincing colleagues that the process would work, whether it was making galleys where all the formatting stayed in, or doing corrections really quickly and accurately for a lot of a lot of pages. And winning them over made me a victim of my own success, so the editors now could always walk down the hall and make another round of corrections. I think just that and not being a problem, not being a diva about it, not lording the technology over anybody, not giving them technobabble when things would happen, like when suddenly random small caps characters in our printouts would turn into numbers because of unexpected postscript errors because the files might be too large.

I tried not to make any of that the problem of the people who needed me to get the work done. Whatever the technology role of my job was, it was really a human role. It was about being collegial, and I don’t think that that’s ever changed, even as all the technologies have changed. Obviously, we can do a lot more. Every few years, there were advances in what the fonts could do. We could start working with more foreign language characters. I was able to bring curators into my office, and we would hunt for that one archaic Korean character out of thousands that were buried in the glyphs panel of the font. And that kind of work always wins people over, when you are in a department that’s often referred to as a support department. A lot of the job is not just meeting crazy deadlines, but actually seeming to do the impossible. Suddenly you can put archaic characters on a computer screen in front of a curator, or you can make Tibetan fonts work even when all of the accents are shifting over a few lines.

That’s always been the most enjoyable part of the job; winning people over to the process, even if it’s infuriating when you have to build that trust, or when people miss deadlines, and you’re expected to make those up because you can do the work more quickly. Even as my job description has changed, and even as the technology changed from floppy disks to XyQuest disks to Zip disks to CDs and DVDs to FTPs and now We Transfer, the human element has always been the fun part of the job. And it’s been the part of the job that I’ve really wanted to excel in, even if the technology is what’s in the job description, it’s what they think I’m being paid for. Being a human scale colleague that’s always been the part that I’ve really enjoyed. And for somebody who doesn’t have an art background or museum background, but had a publishing background, working with all of these people with so much expertise and so much knowledge, and not just in curatorial, but my all of my editorial colleagues, whose knowledge of the material was just so incredible, being able to meet them where technology meets people, helped me get over the nonstop imposter syndrome of working in an art museum.

That was my first entree to the job in the first couple of years of working there: establishing the basic skill sets. Then, a couple of years in, there was a lot of turnover in the department, and I suddenly went from being kind of the new person to having sort of the most experience in the production department. I found myself doing a lot more workflow management and mediating the schedules. I didn’t have authority over the editors, but I had influence on what they should be working on, and that started building my obsession with what we now call organizational design or organizational culture, but that, back then, was just workflow and trying to be organized. I established the process more and more, and after a while, as it started to become an established process, I found that I was able to broaden my horizons from just being the computer person alone in my office, getting disks or files in and bringing out galleys or printouts. I was able to start working with different teams in my department, and then starting to work with other people around the museum, digging my nose into project management in the museum, which meant going around and introducing myself to people in other departments and winning them over, because, like a lot of museums, we’re a very siloed operation, so people would always be a little nervous when I would come from a different department and want to talk to them about project management or whatever software they were using for scheduling.

Building those kinds of internal networks was always something that really excited me. And I remember, I was in a leadership program, and this is even about 12 or 13 years after I had been at the museum already, but I really got to meet people in all different areas of the museum. And that really made me want to know more about museums as workplaces, and what my ability might be to influence that in a positive way. I always felt that those sort of early days of mediating between technology, which can always be about new processes or secret processes, and then, using that to demystify other parts of the museum. The technology is not something that I ever wanted to hoard. I never wanted to be the only person who knew how Quark worked, even though when I first got there, I was the only person whose computer was powerful enough to be able to use it. I always wanted more people to know how to do the work because, as a workflow person, it’s awful to have a workflow that depends completely on one singular expert, but also because, why shouldn’t more people know how to use it? If more people are able to do that work in Quark or InDesign, it means that I can start experimenting with digital publishing or things like that. Or, I can start working on some of the really gnarly problems about working with foreign languages, or helping to reboot our label program. About seven or eight years ago, so after I had been working on books for almost 20 years, I started to work more on the label process and helped reboot what was then a toxic workflow with a few different departments involved, and kind of no real accountability, and very personalized, idiosyncratic workflows.

I was able to work with a new design team, and build new templates, and new InDesign lessons for all of our graphic designers, and that has been a regular process of teaching people not just how to use the program, not just what are best practices are, but how to develop best practices, and but how for them not to be so strict that people don’t have any room to be themselves and to learn new things themselves. As long as you teach other people what you know, I’m always thrilled when people correct me, or build upon the work that I’ve done.

I think the exciting part for me has always been what are kind of the human implications of bringing technology into a workplace or an institution that is defined by analog? And this goes back to when we’re talking about Museum Computer Network, we had a Digital Department come in probably in the early aughts, and started building the museum’s website. And the Digital department, as we think of it now, probably didn’t start till maybe even like 2010 or so, though there had been a website before that. It was being maintained by one person or another. So, when our Digital Department did start to form from a few different departments, my editorial department is not part of the digital team, even though we’re both sort of in the content area of the museum. So, the digital department started bringing a lot of people who have a lot of expertise, not really in desktop publishing, but a lot of higher end applications. So, I went from kind of being the technology expert in the institution to really being in the middle… it’s probably on the low end of the technical knowledge, compared to people in the digital department, but I could speak the language for people in analog, in print, or in other departments, and also, when you think about Museum Computer Network, my first time I was invited to MCN was to give a talk as part of a panel called “Print Meets Digital,” and I joked that I was kind of the unfrozen caveman and I didn’t know all of this terminology, and I do admit at my first MCN, I probably didn’t know the subject matter of half of the panels. It was a lot of acronyms I didn’t really know. But I found the community so welcoming, and so excited to have somebody from the print side of things who wanted to have these conversations and who wanted to learn. And I found that was pretty consistent. I would go to conferences like Digital Book World or Tools of Change, back in the early teens, and when I would show up at Digital Book World with my lanyard that said Metropolitan Museum of Art, the first thing people said was, “Oh, is the is the Met going to stop making exhibition catalogs, because I love those?” I was like, “No, no. I’m just here to find out what’s going on with digital publishing for art books.”

Back then, the answer was not a lot, and, but people would say, “Oh. No, we have a lot of things to show you,” and then they would show me children’s books or cookbooks, which were sort of always the vanguard of digital publishing. And while there has been a lot of digital publishing pilots for art books now, there’s still no established format in the way you have for print books. There’s still no established functionality. So, we do some experiments with digital publishing, but fortunately, we’re still… our 700 year old UX of print, printed books, still very popular, and the Met still does it very well. We still make money for the institution with printed books. So, I guess we’ve sort of had the luxury of trying to figure out what the next type of publishing might want to be, and what would actually work for our readers, or our users, or whatever you want to say.

In the early aughts, I got involved in our first sort of signature digital project in the editorial department, which was our digital backlist, which is called MetPublications, and it’s still going now. And almost every book going back to 1964 has an entry on Met Publications, so I was in charge of getting hundreds of books sent out to be scanned and getting them set up, and helping set up a print on demand project which we sunsetted a little while ago. And I’m still feeding 30 books a year into MetPubs. It really represents kind of a slice in time of our publications program.

And so now, between the labels that I work on and MetPubs, still being a department technologist, my job is still this weird mix of analog and print, but just as it did 27 years ago, it’s still about building relationships with people. It’s still about figuring out what is the process and, what is the culture and keeping it humanist. I was invited to give a talk in Germany the summer before the pandemic about agile workflows in the cultural sector. And I said, “I’d love to come and talk. What exactly does that mean?” And the answer was, like a lot of things with agile, with a lowercase “A,” it was meant about being a learning process, and being an iterative process, and books are generally not very agile, because the time frames are pretty long. And when you work in a museum, the workflows might be hard to repeat because influential curators tend to impose workflows, rather than have them imposed upon them, but the key to it, as I said in my talk, was not getting so hung up on the parts of agile that impose themselves on other people. Like having sprints, and like having hard deadlines, instead to look at what are the priorities? What are we all trying to accomplish? How do we win people over to the importance of having particular deadlines? How do we win people over to having best practices? Or learning or teaching each other? And even now, as I’m looking at bringing sort of more people into the ability to typeset labels, it’s exciting for me, because it’s a learning and a teaching opportunity. And I think that, for me, was always the most exciting part was: what can I learn, and then, what can I teach to other people?

I think demystifying the process has always been what I’ve been trying to accomplish. And I think, as now that younger staff are coming in, and I’m no longer the new tech person, I think being ready to teach people and, if not about technologies, because they probably know it better than I do, but being about what are the unwritten rules in the institution? And what is the culture like, and what parts of the culture are we trying to change? And seeing everyone as a part of making those changes. That, for me, has been I think the technology journey that I’ve seen in the institution.

So I’m going to tell one story which isn’t the highest technology story, but when people ask me “What do you think your enduring legacy will be in the department?” I just say immediately, “It’s the spreadsheet.”

Where the story comes from is one of the things I started noticing when I’d worked on all of the books for a few years, because I was the only person who had a role in all of the books. What I found was that I seemed to be the person who knew that we were going to be sending three books out to the printer on the same day. The challenge for me was that I was also responsible for printing out multiple copies of all of the pages in the book that were going to the printer [for the printer, the indexer, the bibliographer the editor, and a backup copy]. And that might mean if three books are going to the printer on the same day, I might be responsible for printing 2,000 pages, and we didn’t have enough printers in the office that could print on tabloid size pages to do that kind of output, so I would start calling to people’s attention that. “Oh. Well, we have three books going out in three days?” or “Do you really want to send four books out on four consecutive Fridays?” or “You realize that this is the Friday before Memorial Day, or Thanksgiving, and no one’s going to be around, so ….” You know, back then, we didn’t have, there wasn’t a lot of organizational scheduling software, so I sort of made a whiteboard in my office with construction paper and tape and colored markers to make my own Gantt chart. And that was fine for me, because it would help me flag when there were potential conflicts, but it obviously wasn’t shareable and so I started suggesting to people that we make our schedules shareable, at least within the department. And since I had some sort of influence over the workflow, I went through a process of just trying to bring people together, and Excel was the only program that everyone had in common and felt comfortable using, even if it was just as a grid, and not for any of its formulas. I started trying to convince people, like, “We need to have like a regular status meeting, and we need to have kind of a document that’s a core for this, and that document should list all of our schedules and information for all of the books in one place, and we should just sort of go through it now.” And now, it seems like the last thing people want to have as a big status meeting.

So, there was a bit of a fear of sharing the information too widely, of writing things down, because what if curator misses a deadline, and then we say, “but here’s the schedule that you agreed to”? Well, it’s not going to change, whether they missed the deadline or not. You know the schedules are for us, so that we can be more informed, not necessarily to impose things on other people. So, getting individual people to say this spreadsheet is a good idea was not a problem, but trying to get 12 people or so to work with a new kind of a document, and go to a new kind of a meeting was just not trying to order a pizza for 12 people, but also like get everyone to agree on a recipe, and get everyone to agree where we were going to eat. It wasn’t easy. I was spending a lot of time talking people down from freaking out about all the other people who would be there, and “What if this person is not going to agree to it? What if this person is going to be a diva about it?” And I just thought, after weeks and months and even years, I thought, like, “Am I actually going to have to leave because I couldn’t get the spreadsheet and a status meeting together?”

But, over time, more people, younger people started to come into the department who were more organizationally minded, and who also had understood the importance of trying to win people over, or managing up. It was a case of “Don’t let The Matrix tell you who you are.” Don’t let The Matrix tell you that it’s too difficult to launch something and. Back then, it was almost like a Design Thinking process, trying to think what are the empathetic steps I need to win people over and to keep them from feeling threatened?

And if you think of MCN now, you think of all of the workplace psychology sessions or empathy sessions at the annual conference; back then I sort of felt like I was sort of trailblazing at my museum and trying to win people over by understanding their objections. In the end, no one quit. We got our meeting, and the spreadsheet became more and more a core document of the department. Other people started to take it over and work with it and add to it, and I don’t even go to that meeting anymore. I started working more with labels, so I brought that that same spreadsheet mentality over and we started a new document shared between multiple departments. It’s kind of exciting that people come in and have no idea that there was a time where we didn’t have something like this, and we didn’t share this kind of information, and we didn’t put it on the server, we didn’t make it easy for multiple people to access.

So when I talked to people in the org culture world, somebody who I interviewed years ago for my website said, “Oh, you have to tell the story of the spreadsheet.” I think it’s kind of the ultimate story because it’s so not about the technology. And we’ve tried to bring in other apps besides Excel. I tried to bring in Basecamp, which didn’t work as well because Basecamp sort of sets up alternate workflows to email. So the spreadsheet itself always ended up being the non-threatening core of our of our shared workflows. And to me, it’s kind of the ultimate expression of people over technology, and people over process, and the simpler the better. Especially if you don’t have like a really high-level mandate to enforce a new workflow or some new application. I think in some weird ways that’s almost my technology secret: the simpler, the better. The more invisible, the better.

I think about the advances that I’ve seen in technology in the time I’ve been at the museum, and I mean, there’s no doubt that we’ve had vast improvements in the technologies that we use to produce our books: improvements in printing, improvements in proofing, improvements in monitors, even if quality control and fidelity on a screen is still a quest for production managers. Editors have many more digital tools that they can use for marking up files. We can send our files all over the world in a few minutes instead of uploading for hours or having to print stuff out and try to get to the last FedEx in Manhattan before the end of the day. But for all of those, I think the real strides that we’ve had have been in trust and collaboration and de-escalating, in empathy and treating people as colleagues and not just deadlines, even if they do miss their deadlines.

And I think that being the person who deals most closely with the technology has had a role in shielding people from what seem like mystical processes. From experience, when a new technology gets proposed to us, or I want to bring in a new technology, the first thing I think about is how is this going to affect the people? How is this going to affect my colleagues, my team, people I don’t know yet who work in the museum? People who work in other museums? And our visitors, whether they’re in the building or outside? So it’s been a technology journey, but it’s also been a humanizing journey, and that for me is the sort of the essence of museum technology… is just letting people do better work and letting people be more human inside of the institution. That’s what I’m proudest about in my 27 years in museum technology.

[Marty]: You know, that is just a brilliant story, I mean it is really… I have just loved it. I loved every, every bit of it. And you know Rob, just to hear the sort of sweep of the processes that you’ve gone through at the Met, and to have this, this philosophical approach that it’s not about the technology, it’s about the people. I mean this certainly connects to a theme that we’ve heard through a lot of these, these histories as well. Oh, and by the way, I should say, wait until we get all these online, you can hear Greg Albers’ memory of building digital catalogues. I mean that the two of your stories mesh together so nicely.

Well, Greg is the person who invited me to MCN, my first MCN. It was his panel, and we sort of ran the continuum from Greg building digital publishing from the ground up at the Getty to people at the Cooper Hewitt and the Harvard Art Museums, who were in the middle of building a new process or in the case of the Cooper Hewitt, I think they both were going through a process of closing their institution and building technology as part of the visitor experience. And that was how it related to publishing; but for me, it was really how do we make technology work for 30 print books a year, because that list wasn’t going to change? So I had to be very careful not to break the process. Because if one of our books didn’t get there for the opening of a show because I was indulging myself in some new software, not only was that going to be bad for me, but it was bad for everyone. The way to respect the people I worked with was to be as careful with the technology, or, if I’m experimenting, be as careful with the experimentation as possible.

I’ve tried a few digital publishing processes over the years, and they haven’t always worked out. Maybe if we weren’t so committed to keeping print going [because our print books do make a lot of money for the museum, they’ve very successful], maybe we would have gone farther with some of these experiments. Some of these are with things that Greg has worked on, or some of the Online Scholarly Catalog Initiative people have worked on, and that started about 10 years ago. But it’s also been exciting to have other museums ask us, “Well, how are you how are you doing your backlist project? How does MetPublications work for you?” Because if they’ve wanted that kind of record of their publishing program, they’ve often come to us to say, how did you put that together? And I would then turn around and say, “Okay, how are you doing digital publishing? How are you working with your digital department for some kind of new product?”

That’s been an exciting part of the digital evolution, just how much easier it is to have these discussions, and how much easier it is to share processes. Obviously, what the Getty has done is great because it’s open source. It’s packaging free software, and it’s been really influential, but it’s been exciting being parts of these digital discussions when I am the person who comes from this analog background. I’m sort of an emissary from a very print heavy department. Recently, the new head of design at the Met organized an informal symposium of five or six different museum [design departments] [asking]: What’s your label process? What digital tools do you use to get your labels done? And in labels, obviously, it’s all about winning over curatorial, and it’s all about working with the riggers and your facilities colleagues, and it’s all about being ADA compliant, so I learned a lot of good lessons in trying to win over those editors back in the early days of all the italics falling out and saying, “Trust me, these new tools are going to make things easier. They’re not going to jeopardize the quality that’s so important for us.” It’s always been about sort of quietly moving us forward while still bringing everyone along.

And I’m really conscious that people sometimes can feel like “digital have-nots” when there’s a lot of new digital going around. I think because of my own imposter syndrome about working in an art museum, or being the person who was supposed to know all the secret technologies, I’m really sensitive to people feeling that they’re being left behind, and obviously I came in when we still had mechanical artists in the department, so I was really cognizant that technologies can dehumanize people and push them out. How do we make the technology a non-threatening part of people’s work so that they can be “digital haves”? Or that there aren’t any more haves or have-nots, but just everybody sharing some combination of tools and networking to do things for each other, and to do things for our audiences and our communities?

[Marty]: Well, that’s just brilliant. I appreciate it all your insights so much. Kathy, did you have any questions before we wrap up?

[Jones]: No questions. I just also appreciate the humanizing efforts and think that’s wonderful.

[Marty]: Really, really good to hear just the philosophy throughout. I love the workflow examples. Your spreadsheet example, right.

I’ll have to write to the org designer who I talked to and tell them, “Six years on, I’m finally telling the story the spreadsheet!”

[Marty]: Sorry, go ahead.

No, I was just going to say I think it just encapsulates everything that I wanted to accomplish because I want people to not even know there was a time we didn’t use it. It’s that non-threatening a process.

[Marty]: And I was just going to say it reminded me of some… I know I’ve seen some MCN talks. I think like Rob Stein has talked about like dashboards and things like that, and how those internal tools are so useful for getting the staff to rethink their own workflows and their own processes, and, and that’s again it’s speaking to the human side of the technology.

Right. But I know a dashboard can be a little bit threatening because it can make somebody feel like, “Oh, everyone’s going to see that…

[Marty]: …right…

…somebody’s going to see that I only [get through] two of these [projects] a year, or somebody’s going to see that our part of the site doesn’t get you know, as many hits.” Like, actually our part of the site, you know, gets, gets a lot of them, but you still have to win people over and you still have to kind of meet people where they are have these discussions about what the different numbers mean on the dashboard and, “Why does that one project number, why is project number 613 still there when we’re up to 950?”

You still need a lot of good colleagues to make any kind of tool work. And I think that’s been the most important lesson for me, even as my job titles changed every few years and my horizon has changed every few years. Maybe technology has been kind of the entry for that or the golden ticket for me into museums, but at the end of the day, it’s still about the people. When someone leaves the museum that’s what they always say [at their going-away], “I came here for the art, and now I really love the people.” And I feel like for me, I came here and I really loved the people and now I love the art too, but no one ever says that about the technology. So the technology has to come below the people, and it has to come below the subject matter of your institution, why you’re there, which is for your audiences and your communities.