Adam Siegel

Career Profile: Bibliographer

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Adam Siegel iProfile Images the Languages and Literatures Bibliographer at the University of California, Davis. And as he told me during our conversation “I was a linguist before I ever set foot in a classroom and I am now long after I have left the classroom”

Linguistics and Libraries

When he goes into classrooms now, it is in the capacity of a librarian, but as it turns out, his engagement with linguistics have been so thoroughly interwoven with his experience with libraries, that the skills and training that he acquired in the one and how those show up professionally in the other are very hard to disambiguate.

His path

Adam was a linguist in the military long before he went to school for linguistics. His work in crytptology helped him to realize that he had a knack for languages, which he continued at the Defense Monterrey institute studying Czech.

He then was a linguistics major at Minnesota and he studied Russian, Serbo-Croatian, and Norwegian. These led him to grad School and a focus on Historical Lx at UC Berkeley. He worked in public libraries all the way through graduate school.

After graduating, Adam started working for dot com startups in 1999 and he spent about 3 years working in tech, where he found his knowledge of semantics (cultivated through linguistic study) and how controlled vocabularies work (cultivated through library work) to be highly coveted. It didn’t hurt that he also was passingly familiar with NLP.

Controlled vocabularies?

I asked for more information about controlled vocabularies. These are sets of terms that have relational structure. For example “linguistics” is the broad category, contained within which is “semantics.” A related term for this idea is “meaning.” This is how the library of congress classification system works, and is the essence of Information science, and is absolutely enhanced by his knowledge of linguistics.

As a side gig, Adam wrote academic abstracts for LLBA (they would give him all the international journals to read and summarize), so after the first dot com bust, he went to library school, and ultimately was hired as the Linguistic librarian at UC Davis.

I asked Adam where he sees the synergies between his professional and academic interests

  • Metadata, content management
  • Cognitive lx / lx classification / prototypes
  • How the brain processes and perceives lg
  • How to predict user behavior based on cognitive lx
  • Historical and Cognitive Lx
  • Assessing and Evaluating scholarship and languages as a research librarian
  • The ability to churn through lots of material quickly

An example?

So say for example that someone donates their personal library to UC Davis’ collection. Someone on the library staff then needs to sort through 70-80 years worth of books to describe the collection. Turns out that Adam is probably the only person in the UC System who could do that. As a historical linguist, he has familiarity with writing systems other than Latin and can transliterate. He knows multiple languages, but he also knows how etymology works, and can use know knowledge of morphological universals to allow him to “fake his way through it” with languages he don’t happen to know. It was in fact this ability to read things that no one else could that made him particularly valuable as an intern before landing the full-time job of librarian. When he arrived he was able to catalogue old Russian wine pamphlets that had been sitting around since the 60’s, which as it turned out, made the folks at the library see how useful his skills were for helping them curate their collection of books on wine.

Linguistics and Wine

As luck would have it, UC Davis is renowned for wine research. Their collection is the most comprehensive in the world. Adam works closely with the wine librarian to track down really difficult to find books from all over the world: former Soviet Republic, Central Asia, North Africa. In some cases, these are books that have only 100 copies, were only meant to be distributed at a winery. But they have a home among the California agriculture commodities collection at the UC Davis Library.

In fact, as he shared with me, going to wine tastings are actually a perk of his job! They are seen as being involved in the community building connection and collaboration. Now that is the kind of service and outreach that I can get behind! (I asked: the wine for the next tasting is from the California foothills).

Thanks Adam for this fascinating look at the intersections of linguistics and library science.