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.

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!

Why Blog?

Our cross-training, hands-on initiative is moving at the speed of light.  Since we started in mid-November, we have completed our third seminar and lab-based workshop, one of which included a session on social media with a focus on tweeting with Twitter and blogging with WordPress as we explore alternate additional forms of scholarly communication.

We haven’t had much time (because of that “speed of light” thing) to discuss in great detail why we will blog as part of our cross-training initiative.  While it is important to have this discussion the next time we come together – especially before entering the surely engrossing stage of processing our “History of the IU Libraries” archival collection (spoiler: too late, see photos below) – I thought we could explore some of the issues in the blogsphere in the meantime.  You can extend the discussion by commenting on this blog post or by composing one in response to this one.

Project team sorts the History of the IU Libraries collection.
Series identified for the History of the IU Libraries collection; teams formed. Let the sorting begin!


The History of the IU Libraries collection: Before and After photo of the sorting process
On left, the contents, before sorting, from Lou Malcomb’s (featured) collection, and on right, the contents sorted into 8 thematic and format-based series! Next step: inventorying, re-sorting and transfer to archival housing. Then selection, digitization and metadata capture. Hot do










So, why blog?

I have highlighted three important goals for blogging as part of our social media seminar that merit elaboration. I look forward to your additions to this list.  For this post, I will focus on the following objectives:

  1. Communicating our learning experience
  2. Exposure to WordPress as a scholarly publishing platform
  3. Exploring additional forms of scholarly communication

Communicating Our Learning Experience

As academic libraries broaden their public services to include digital scholarship services, either by establishing a research commons much like our own Scholars’ Commons or Digital Scholarship / Digital Humanities units, library professionals in this transitional space and place are either embarking on their own training initiatives that may take many forms, from informational sessions to hands-on learning projects like ours, or need to achieve this level of professional development and are looking for models.  Concerns and strategies for professional development began to solidify back in November 2012 as part of the DH & Libraries THATCamp.  I highlighted the main themes that emerged from the 2012 THATCamp in which cross-training featured significantly in a blog post for dh+lib, and several of us also responded to a blog post from CLIR around the same time.

Since November 2012, Angela Courtney and I have been confabbing regularly with colleagues from several institutions – Columbia University, Duke University, New York University, Texas A & M, Kansas, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, University of Maryland, College Park and others – as we determine the best way to proceed in this arena.  As you may recall, after six months of topical info-sessions, we decided as a group that project-based learning would be the most effective for us as we collectively transition as first-year, front-line Scholars’ Commons staff.  Our colleagues at the Columbia University Libraries are pioneers in extending the University of Virginia’s Scholars’ Lab Praxis Program, aimed at graduate students, to cultivate an engaging and immersive library staff professional development program.  We are closely following Columbia’s model, Breaking the Code: The Developing Librarian Project, which was more publicly unveiled as part of another dh+lib blog post.  By blogging our learning experiences and exposing our protocols for learning (via our wiki) we are not only helping ourselves as we reflect and move forward, but our colleagues as well.

 Exposure to WordPress as a Scholarly Publishing Platform

WordPress is a free, open-source blogging and content management system that offers both hosted and locally-installed versions like the one we are using.  We will be discussing WordPress plumbing later next year as we enter the web design and development portion of our cross-training program (see our schedule).

WordPress is ubiquitous (well, maybe not quite, but it is increasingly so in academic arenas).  According to Wikipedia, as of August 2013, nearly 20% of the top 10 million sites use WordPress.  It is being increasingly used for open-access scholarly publishing as evidenced by numerous journals like Journal of Digital Humanities, scholarly blogs like ACRL’s dh+lib, digital humanities scholarship aggregators like Digital Humanities Now, countless research sites and blogs like the project blog of the Mary Russell Mitford Digital Archive, and digital archives and informational web sites for cultural heritage artifacts and organizations.  It is no wonder that academic libraries are increasingly using and supporting WordPress for scholarly publishing.  There’s even a Comparative Guide to WordPress in Libraries  published by ALA TechSource dedicated to this phenomenon, but if you don’t feel like reading the book, check out this excerpt instead, Done in WordPress: Scholarly Publishing @ MIT Libraries.

We will encounter graduate students and faculty members who:

  • are curious about WordPress
  • already use WordPress, but would like help extending its capabilities
  • know nothing of WordPress, but they are looking for a lightweight, open solution for publishing

The word on the streets is that scholars turn to their campus libraries for guidance on digital publishing.  And if an article from the Chronicle of Higher Education isn’t persuasive enough, our own UITS has gauged enough WordPress use on our own campus that you’ll find several Knowledge Base entries and installation instructions for hosting WordPress on a UITS Webserve account.  WordPress usage is alive and thriving on our campus.

Exploring Additional Forms of Scholarly Communication

As researchers and advocates for our research faculty, we should explore and uphold additional forms of scholarly communication such as scholarly blogging and micro-blogging with Twitter.  As you may have noticed in the section above, lots of scholarly publishing happening with WordPress.  As we begin to recognize the “Virtues of Blogging,” and take into account “Scholarly Reflections on Blogging,” some or all of us will begin sharing our research pursuits through social media outlets like blogs or Twitter.  As active participants in this scholarly, virtual space, we will be better positioned to:

  • effectively and convincingly communicate why, both, the digital research projects published using open platforms, and these open platforms themselves are indeed worthy and influential scholarly outputs
  • shape open-access policies on our campus
  • influence the promotion and tenure guidelines (starting with our own) to hold digital projects such as these to the same level as the published monograph or the suite of articles published in X double-blind, peer reviewed print journal

and related to all the above points:

So, why not blog?