Why Critical Reflections?

We have created this “Critical Reflections” space on our blog to be a forum for participants to talk about what we discuss, explore, learn, or practice in our weekly meetings.  Active participation from our group, writing, reading, and commenting, will help develop an online conversation that will run parallel with, and often intersect, the activities and discussions in our meetings.

We intend for this cross-training program to continue beyond our initial preparation for the opening of this Scholars’ Commons.  These reflections will help guide our future directions.

Evocative objects

What does our collection tell us? This is the question I’ve been asking myself, and it is a problem we have returned to again and again, if only abstractly, since we began working with the various objects and categories of our collection. After reading Emily’s recent post, I was reminded of the value of open-ended questions, as opposed to definite answers, both in conceptualizing and contributing to progress toward our goals. This recurring question, I think, alongside certain related ones (Do these items speak for us, or are we trying to speak for them? What can we do to tell their story, if there is a story to tell? How do we negotiate between an archive of things and an archive of memories?), has and will continue to drive our conversations toward assembling, organizing, and, eventually, understanding the collection and our larger objectives with this project.

bless our mess

Working with our collection’s realia has necessitated a very physical engagement with these questions. What did we think when we first began working with these objects? We expected to have fun, admittedlyand how nice not to have to sift through more paperwork, for a changeand so we felt relieved and vindicated in our decision. But there’s a gravity to these objects; literally, of course, but also in their pull upon our imagination. It wouldn’t be difficult, beyond the initial sense of validation, to see these static, unresponsive objects as a sentence, to view any attempt to engage with their presence in our collection as a sort of prison. Luckily, though, there is creativity to be found in ostensible constraints. And, as I mentioned in our brief introductions, the solidity of these items has forced us to imagine, or begin seeing, the story they could tell us.

bound series catalog cards
bound series catalog cards

The realia comprise a regular hodge-podge of sometimes seemingly unrelated items, beyond their donation from Lou and librarian context and use. They vary widely in capacity and condition, from unopened circulation cards to inoperable automatic erasers. Not being particularly gifted in psychometry, we’ve understandably been left with more questions than answers. Although some of our objects are more straightforward in nature, and more forthcoming in providing answers, most have required us to make certain imaginative leaps in building narrative cohesion among them. It’s elementary to see the connection between an automatic eraser and several boxes of 7″ eraser refills, but something else entirely to interpret smudges on an index card as impressions of their association.

type cleaner gum

Sometimes it’s almost as if we can read their histories through a combination of observation, tactile experience, and regular head-scratching uncertainty (ie. we make a lot of guesses). Anything we can’t infer from basic condition and a little knowledge about function is relegated to this latter category, but even when we know, as we often can, what they do or what they were for, we are still left with questions about the kinds of “lives” they led or about how to weave a story from that information. What can we do with or extrapolate from what we have in front of us? What do our attempts to answer this question suggest about our understanding of the various faces and demands of an archive, and how will this structure our deliverables? I like to think of these inevitable questions, as new beginnings, as opportunities rather than obstacles. 

adding machine
automatic adding machine

Ultimately, we found that play and the potential within making imaginative leaps to be the best approaches to this sub-collection. Pressing buttons may only get us so far, but it is illuminating, and we are lucky in that many of our items betray themselves, and their stories, through a considered combination of form, function, and condition. A counting machine is a counting machine is a counting machine, but ours was clearly heavily used, and yet remarkably well-preserved. Whether we can hope to understand the numbers left behind from its last use (00010467), we can loosely infer not only that this machine was an integral part of some operation or service within the library at a time before personal computing or digital calculators, but that it was conscientiously cared for by someone as well. That’s at least a start.

And honestly, sometimes it’s all about trial-and-error… emphasis on the error:

Obviously I had a great deal of fun exploring this collection, but our process suggests something more expansive: are we willing to remain open-minded, and to be surprised? This question arises out of my interaction with the realia items, but it applies, I think, to the goals of the project itself. The Scholars’ Commons will be a place where a variety of services and resources are offered, but it will also be one that provides a space and framework for collaboration, relationship-building, and ongoing learning. If the realia have taught me anything, it is that we must maintain a reparative attitude and an expansive approach to possibilities.

So I end as I began, with a question: What’s next?



But research when?

I firmly believe that librarians should aspire to do more than support the research endeavors of others. Is there any reason why librarians cannot lead research projects, combining a vision of end product with mastery of processes? I have much to learn with respect to the latter; however, our reluctance to address the former as yet in our series I think is striking.

It would be inefficient for an academic researcher not to have a clear intellectual vision of where they are heading with their work; that vision is imposed by the researcher, usually as a result of his or her prior knowledge. How can a researcher judge of the usefulness of a piece of information without an intellectual vision of the anticipated whole? In reading (for example), he or she will pass over content that could be productively integrated into the argument if he/she does not have a clear idea of that argument before reading begins. Artificial it may be; efficient research it is (at least in many fields).

Returning to our project, I find myself wondering when and if a vision of the whole will emerge. I have been given to understand that the urge to find one at this stage in proceedings would contravene good archival principles; but still I struggle to grasp how mastery of processes can ever give meaning to our materials – not all of which should be digitized (surely?).

Arrangement Now!

At this stage of the Research Now project, we have all become familiar with Lou Malcomb’s collection of IU Libraries materials. Lately, we have been thinking about how to arrange the collection. I dusted off my old 2008 class notebook from Dr. David Gracy’s Introduction to Archival Enterprise to reread the principles that shaped my approach to archival work. Here are the first two (out of ten) Fundamentals of Archival Enterprise as they relate to our project.

archives notes
My notes from Introduction to Archival Enterprise, Fall 2008.

1. Archives are us!

archives (noun):

All of the records and documentation written, received, and gathered by an individual or organization in the conduct of affairs of life, which contain information of enduring value and usefulness, some of which possess added value because of their physical form, systematically maintained, commonly after they have fulfilled the purpose for which they were created.

Here’s a version with our details embedded:

All (well, not all of them, but a substantial amount) of the records and documentation written, received, and gathered by Lou Malcomb in the conduct of affairs at IU libraries, which contain information of enduring value and usefulness because they document the history of our institution, buildings, departments, individuals, and events, some of which possess added value because of their physical form, systematically maintained first by Lou, now by Research Now, commonly after they have fulfilled the purpose for which they were created (i.e. we no longer use these materials for the purposes they were originally meant to be used, but we know we should not throw them away).

2. Archivists think in groups.

Where librarians often work with items (e.g. books, recorded media, datasets), archivists are concerned with bodies of documentation generated, gathered, and used by a creator. The primary archival axiom is respect des fonds, which comes from an 1841 French decree that archival documents should be organized by fonds: the person, body, or organization that created them. Prior to that, French archivists categorized and grouped all documents by subjects they perceived to be research interests. Nowadays, respect des fonds is the reason archives have collections bearing the names of the people or entities that created them. Here are a few examples from IU Libraries:

Below the fonds level, the archival series is an intellectual unit of documentation that reflects a particular function or activity of the creator. What determines the archival series? Ideally, the organizational scheme used by the creator, or original order. In reality, lots of archival material arrives out of order or with no order at all, as stated in the Society of American Archivists’ Glossary: “The principle of respect  for original order does not extend to respect for original chaos.” Archivists then arrange the records as closely as possible to how the creator had them or processes caused them to be. It is preferable to form series based on characteristics of the functions and activities of the creator, but you can settle for organizing by characteristics of the records themselves (i.e. format) if necessary.

Life in the IU Libraries today is drastically different than in 19th-Century European archives, yet their principles remain. Why? It is important to note that these principles were developed solely for physical materials, since, well, that’s all they had back then. We are incredibly fortunate to be able to digitize any physical format in this collection. By doing so, we can free digital copies from the pesky physical limitation of only being able to be in one place at a time and perform any combination of the following:

  • Provide access to digitized items in the order they appear within the arranged archival material  (as done in Archives Online)
  • Provide access to just the photographic, non-text images (as done in Image Collections Online)
  • Provide access to a curated collection of material in any number of orders and/or arrangements with narrative content (as done in exhibit sites such as the Lilly Library’s War of 1812)

With help from rich descriptive metadata, digitized items can exist in a variety of locations, fulfill a variety of purposes, and take a variety of forms and organizational structures. If, however, one wanted to access the physical collection material, it should be in a logical arrangement, if for no other reason than peer pressure: most, if not all, IU archival repositories do it this way. Once this not-too-laborious task of arrangement is complete, we will be free to digitize, research, and provide access to this rich collection material.

Scholars’ Commons Services

We had an interesting discussion last week (Fed 4) on the Research Lifecycle. We used the interactive research lifecycle developed at University of Central Florida Libraries as a basis for the discussion. Our goal is to create a similar but non-linear model for the research lifecycle at IU. From the discussion, it quickly became apparent that we would need a lifecycle or lifecylces that addresses the research process in a variety of disciplines. As the discussion progressed, we touched on the need for libraries to assist researchers in understanding how to effectively and efficiently manage, track and organize their research. This includes citation management tools such as EndNote (http://endnote.com/) and Zotero (http://zotero.org/) and Mendeley as well as organizational tools like Evernote (https://evernote.com/).

While we currently offer workshops on citation management tools, the Scholars Commons could provide additional opportunities to provide consultation to researchers on organizing their research. This process could be similar to the reference interview where you ask the researchers questions about their research to recommend a tool that would meet their needs and to help them determine a process for organizing their research. Librarians can to provide assistance and recommend strategies for organizing research. Based on my on research experiences and teaching citation management workshop, some initial thoughts on research organization:

  • keep your method for organizing your research simple: organize by research interests or classes, research projects – it will be more difficult for you to remember and continue to use an elaborate system
  • be consistent, if you use tags, tag everything
  • take some time to find what works best for you and be flexible, be willing to change as your research changes

logo-mendeley zoteroeng-sidebarart_x7

Scholars and Their Tools

When I viewed the elaborate research life cycle model we had for today, I was a bit overwhelmed by how many tasks there were.  I think many faculty feel the same way–especially since a lot of these tasks are more of a kind of necessary housekeeping for the main show, which is research and writing.  Scholars don’t want to have to be bothered by housework any more than absolutely necessary; the research and thinking (let’s not forget that) and writing are quite demanding enough.

So here’s a better answer for Emily’s  excellent question about what role can librarians play.  We can assist with the housekeeping, make it as painless and efficient as possible.  We can offer guidance on how to manage files, documents, notes, and on the new tools that come out every day.  Scholars don’t want to have to think about their tools; they want to be able to just use them.  We can help them get to the point where they know the right tool to use and how to use it without having to think too much about it. 


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!