Who Is Emma Boettcher? Jeopardy!'s New Champ, an Academic Librarian, Talks to LJ

When Emma Boettcher, user experience resident librarian at the University of Chicago (UChicago) Library, won the episode of Jeopardy! that aired on Monday, June 3, she unseated reigning champion James Holzhauer, ending his 32-game winning streak. LJ caught up with her following her win to find out more about her background and what librarianship and Jeopardy! have in common—as well as what they don’t.

Emma Boettcher and Alex Trebek
Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek and Emma Boettcher
Photo courtesy of Jeopardy!

When Emma Boettcher, user experience resident librarian at the University of Chicago (UChicago) Library, won the episode of Jeopardy! that aired on Monday, June 3, she unseated reigning champion James Holzhauer, ending his 32-game winning streak. Boettcher has worked at the UChicago Library since 2016, coordinating user research to support the library’s website, intranet, and discovery tools. Her ambition to compete on Jeopardy!, however, had been a goal since high school. In addition to taking the online test multiple times and auditioning in person four times, Boettcher’s capstone paper for her master’s degree in information science at the University of North Carolina (UNC)–Chapel Hill in 2016, titled “Predicting the Difficulty of Trivia Questions Using Text Features,” used text mining to analyze the difficulty of thousands of Jeopardy! clues based on word length and syntax.

LJ caught up with her following her win to find out more about her background and what librarianship and Jeopardy! have in common—as well as what they don’t.

LJ : How did you get interested in libraries, and user experience?

Emma Boettcher: I was working in libraries throughout my undergrad [years] at Princeton, in circulation and rare books, but it wasn't until my senior year that I began talking with someone outside the library profession, an information architect, and started realizing how big this world of information and library science was—the impact of well-organized information—and that there was this entire field called user experience dedicated to making sure information was organized logically, matching people’s mental models. I found that really fascinating.

When I went to UNC Chapel Hill to pursue my master’s in information science, I wasn't even necessarily thinking about becoming a librarian. But during my second year I had a field experience at Duke University libraries in their assessment and user experience department. That's where I realized that I wanted to pursue user experience in higher education, and in libraries in particular.

The University of Chicago was just starting to ramp up its library resident program, particularly targeted at early career librarians and newly emerging areas of libraries, and it seemed like a really good fit.

Appearing on Jeopardy! was on your radar for years. How did you go about it?

It was absolutely a deliberate process. The show runs online tests a couple of times a year as a screener to decide who they'll invite for in-person auditions. I don't know how many times I took the online test, but I was invited to in-person auditions four times—twice for college [ Jeopardy!], twice for regular play once I'd aged out of college. When I was taking the online test and auditioning I was having a lot of fun, but I definitely had the goal. It probably wasn't until my last audition, in August 2017 in Chicago, that I really thought, “Oh, I think that went well for once.” After that I did a bit more intense prep work than I had been doing previously. But even so, it took about a year and a half to be called. They tell you if you haven't gotten the call to be on the show after a year and a half, you should probably think about trying out again, so I was already gearing up to take an online test the next time it was offered when I got the call to be on the show.

How did you prepare for the show itself?

I'd been keeping track of my score in notebooks to figure out what categories I'm weak or strong in over time, and also the different rows of the board—how likely am I to get a few thousand dollar clue right versus a $400 clue, and the same for the Jeopardy! round. When it came to studying, I was looking at previous shows to get a feel for how the clues are written, what are the things that Jeopardy! tends to ask about, and are there any go-to phrases that they use.

In terms of books and other resources, I was a really big fan of a series called Big Ideas Simply Explained (DK), which is a wonderful series of nonfiction books about a lot of general topics—art, astronomy, history, literature. And I think that Brainiac (Villard) by [ Jeopardy! winning streak record-holder] Ken Jennings is probably required reading for anyone who want to get on the show or is just interested in writing trivia.

Did what you learned from writing your thesis inform your game strategy? Are you generally a risk taker?

I don't know that it really informed my game strategy so much. It obviously made me very comfortable with the game and the clues, but the strategy itself I had more picked up on from watching the show rather than writing about it. As for whether or not I'm a risk taker, I felt like I needed the data to know whether or not I was confident ringing in on a clue. Even having that data, I still made a lot of conservative bets. Sometimes I was able to really take a risk but sometimes I just didn't have the nerve. So maybe I’m not so much a risk taker by nature.

Did you get any new insights from being on the show that you would add to your paper if you could?

One of the things that being on the show brought home for me is the fact that there's a lot of information in the clue that's not necessarily directly relevant to solving it. I think doing more careful analysis of the meat of the clue, focusing on what specifically it's asking for and trying to separate out the extraneous information—that's something that if I had all the time in the world I'd like to go back and look at.

Have you checked to see if your win has driven downloads of the paper?

I did since you asked! Not surprisingly, up until June 3 it had gotten zero, and now it's gotten quite a few.

Are there library resources or any tips you'd suggest for people who want to get better at trivia or try out for Jeopardy!?

Watch the show, and take the data-driven approach that I keep harping on, figuring out not just what you feel you're good or bad at, but what you actually are. I think the biggest tip I can give anyone who is trying to learn anything is just to talk to a librarian. Looking for information doesn't have to be this lonely solo quest. It can actually be really helpful to bring in other people, and especially to have a librarian in your corner, as you're looking.

If you could write any question and get it on the show, what would it be?

I do a little trivia writing, for [UChicago] staff day a couple of years ago and for the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia. When I was writing questions for that I found the amazing fact that Philadelphia's hometown hero, Benjamin Franklin, taught Eliza Hamilton how to play backgammon, according to a recent biography of her. So on Jeopardy! that probably translates to something like, "This Philadelphian taught Eliza Hamilton how to play backgammon," or "When stopping at Philip Schuyler's house, Benjamin Franklin taught this woman how to play backgammon." Or it would give you both Benjamin and Eliza but it doesn't give you backgammon. You can take the same fact and remove pieces of it at a time to figure out what parts of this can I obscure temporarily in order to make it more difficult for someone else to solve.

Do you have any favorite library trivia to share?

I don't know that I do. What fascinates me about trivia is not necessarily getting really deep into any particular topic, even though I love libraries, but about how many approaches can you take to the same fact, and how many different ways can you look at it, and if you adjust and tweak how you word or phrase it, does that make something an easier or harder question? That's what I wrote my thesis about. I'm not necessarily drawn to any particular discipline of trivia so much as I am how interdisciplinary it can be.

Has the win changed your interactions with faculty, students, or colleagues at work?

Not especially. People at work have been so supportive, and even though I think not a lot of other people around me are Jeopardy! fans, they've been really excited and it's been nice to see. I've had a couple of people I don't know on campus that have been kind enough to reach out and say “congratulations, I'm so proud of you,” and that's been fun as well. It hasn't happened too often, so it's not as if I'm getting stopped all the time. But it's been nice.

What is the power of trivia?

In both competitive settings like Jeopardy! and outside of [them], I think trivia legitimizes knowledge that's usually considered not important—it's the idea of valuing something even if it's not relevant to you specifically. I think that's still a much better attitude than being dismissive of someone else's interests, having that kind of trivia mindset of, "This is really important to someone else—maybe not to me, but this informs their life." I think that mindset is something that librarians in particular excel at just because they're working with so many different kinds of [people] who are interested in so many different kinds of things.

Librarians and Jeopardy!—are they a perfect fit?

As natural as libraries and Jeopardy! seem to be, to me the more I think about it seems a little bit funny, because as a librarian you're not necessarily trying to be the absolute smartest person in the room. You're trying to empower the people around you to learn more and go deeper with their own knowledge. So I love trivia and I love being a little bit competitive with it, but as a librarian I'm equally happy to see other people learning things as well.

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Lisa Peet

lpeet@mediasourceinc.com

Lisa Peet is News Editor, News for Library Journal.

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