Research Now! Scholars’ Commons Later?

So as a participant and future presenter in the Research Now effort, I’ve been contemplating our collective experiences and what we’re getting out of this that we can use in Scholars’ Commons.  We don’t really know what folks are going to want or need when they come into this new space.  They may not know either.  What we do know is that we want to be prepared to go beyond what we currently offer in reference services.  We want to be able to help people do things instead of just help them find things.  Michael Courtney, Outreach and Engagement Librarian with Teaching & Learning, just presented to our group on the history of reference services and the cycles of questioning the value and purpose of reference through the history of the modern library.  Initially the idea of providing personal help to patrons was controversial, with the idea being that librarians should develop tools that patrons can use to find information for themselves (reference books and physical indexes).  Instructional librarianship and subject librarian specialties developed after that which lend themselves to that idea of personal interaction and being an intermediary between the patron and the resource.  With the introduction of online resources we find ourselves back at the idea of patrons doing it for themselves and librarians are behind the scenes providing tools (online this time).  However, if a person needs help not only to find information for research purposes but also to do something or create something with that research, how do they figure out what to do or where to start?

To me, that is where the Scholars’ Commons fits in.  I imagine this space as a place where you can ask how best to put your research data online just as easily as you ask how to find a book.  You can come in with a research idea and leave with options beyond sources to investigate.  We can help in that mystery space where you wonder, “what can this become?”  The way we can prepare for this is to expose ourselves to the options that are out there: learn about the best ways to communicate and share online, learn how to stay in touch with emerging technologies and how to tell what’s worth using and what isn’t.

A lot of this requires skills that all Reference Librarians already have: knowing how to communicate, ask questions and interview to learn what a person is really trying to figure out (not just the question being asked), and be resourceful in the help provided.  The new skills that come into play are some literal new technologies that haven’t been commonplace things for the reference desk to handle (such as scanning specs for preservation-level digitization, how to start an online blog/website, how to create and advertise an online survey).  This also reinforces the idea of librarians as research partners.  We can help not by doing the research or by pointing to an IU Knowledge Base article on how to use technology, but by being a sounding board and suggesting tools for trying to make something.

We are taking the collective plunge and working on a collection of our own that we want to digitize, preserve, place online, and share with the world.  We are figuring out that we have a story to tell and learning what it takes to share that story online and present that information so that it is still useful in the future.  We are practicing being the researchers we imagine will be the faculty and students in the Scholars’ Commons.  The things we are doing now inform how we can help.  And the more we can help and support research needs at Indiana University, the stronger our academic community will become.

Reflections on Evaluating Digital Projects

It took a little over two months to finally devote a seminar session on the topic of evaluating digital projects.  If you consult our workshop schedule, you will notice it was a topic slotted for coverage on the first day we convened as a group on November 19, 2013.  It attempted to resurface as part of various other seminar sessions, and finally, on January 14, 2014 we gave it the time it deserved.

The seminar started with a brief introduction to a holistic approach to reviewing digital projects with respect to project planning and peer-review.  We concluded the seminar portion of the session with an introduction to Digital History with a shout-out to Nebraska because they are rocking the Digital History.  After the overview, we demonstrated two projects that focused on institutional histories similar to ours, and then it was time for the rest of us to do what we do best – research, review, and critique digital projects.

Evaluation as Part of Project Planning

Before jumping into most research projects, we often conduct literature reviews, environmental scans, or a needs assessment, the latter two especially relevant when seeking grant funding, in order to present a compelling argument, hypothesis, or justification for a given research project.

As we survey the landscape of related digital projects, we will be able to:

  • Distinguish unique components of our collection/project
  • Recognize gaps and ways our digital archive could be strengthened
  • Articulate (innovative) features and functionality, especially in ways that leverage our unique content

But above all, uncovering relevant and intriguing projects, serves as a much-needed form of inspiration as we collectively embark in building a digital archive. This inspiration will help us begin connecting the various parts of the process from collection processing (still in the throes of that) to publishing.

We discussed reviewing digital projects based on a fairly simple, but wide-reaching model:

  • Purpose/Goals of Site
    • Teaching, research, etc.
  • Organization
    • Clear navigational paths, intuitive ordering of content, etc.
  • Content
    • Kind of content, presentation of content, etc.
  • Functionality
    • Discovery mechanisms (i.e., browse/search), image-viewing (i.e., zooming, annotation), etc.

As we segued into the lab part of our workshop, which entailed finding and critiquing digital projects according to set of unruly heuristics (an elaboration of the simple model above), we considered important characteristics for online storytelling:

  • Flow
    • How will our history of the IU Libraries unfold?  Thematically? Chronologically? Both?
  • Narration
    • How do we critically tell our story?  How do we integrate multiple modes of narration: visual, aural, textual?
  • Interaction
    • How do we balance static and dynamic content?  Can we or should we alter views of events as we collect oral histories and anecdotes and juxtapose those stories with documentary evidence?

The Critique Session

After 20-30 minutes of scouring the Web for exemplar or inspirational digital projects, a few of us took the lead in demonstrating and critiquing a particular project of interest.  We discussed projects like:

I was struck by the qualities and characteristics that we seemed to value as a group:

  • Crowdsourcing or user-contributed metadata
  • Robust metadata
  • Scholarly narratives

I was especially tickled (as an author of such content) by the importance given to the customary project information pages that we, or I, anyway, feel is often overlooked when exploring projects online.  As we grapple with eight million things as part of our cross-training initiative, project documentation is certainly one of those things, and an important thing, no less.  I look forward to learning from my colleagues effective ways I can present the often blah-blah project information section for any given digital project I manage as part of my day job, and certainly look forward to a compelling project information section for our own digital archive.

Finally, I felt that the level of engagement for this seminar session was super awesome and contagious.  I look forward to more sessions like these.

Looking Ahead

Up until now, I must admit, though I know there is a method to the madness that is our 18+ month long workshop schedule, it has felt a bit choppy.   This session on evaluating digital projects came at a perfect time, despite the many false starts, as we enter the next chunk of our training which will include:  exploration of the research lifecycle, introduction to project management, and metadata creation (a hot topic of interest, see above).  We are building blocks, finally!