Wednesday, June 2, 2010

code4lib NW: digital initiatives presentation

I'm going to be giving a talk at the code4lib Northwest conference on Monday and I thought that I'd put together my thoughts for it here. The theme is creating a digital initiatives program at a liberal arts college.

I believe that we're in the middle of a paradigm shift for academic libraries. As content shifts to the network and as discovery is disintermediated from the library, the work needed to support the library's traditional roles as buyer, archiver, and gateway to information is slowly diminishing. Concurrent with this trend is the rise of potential opportunities for new roles. The new roles that we hear most about, perhaps, are instruction in information literacy/fluency and the management of digital assets.

Within the digital assets area, I think that the development of thematic digital projects is a particularly fertile area. When faculty approach teaching, their own research or a collaborative research project, they now have opportunities to do sophisticated things with information resources. Some examples include:
  • a ceramics professor uses his connection with hundreds of artists around the world to create digital collection of ceramic art images (accessCeramics)
  • an environmental studies program uses social bookmarking software to develop a virtual library of research resources on environmental issues at various geographic sites (L&C Environmental Studies)
  • using an online digital collection, students observe the process of writing a poem by viewing its evolution from an initial draft through various stages of revision and eventual publication (William Stafford Archive)
  • students do primary historical research on a topic and contribute their work to a publicly available online collection of historical research (History Engine)
  • a biology professor studying hundreds of different spider species wants displays her findings geographically on Google Earth and Google Maps
I think academic libraries should develop the expertise and capacity to support these kinds of thematic projects. This is relatively new territory for libraries. We are more comfortable managing our own internal catalogs and collections and providing standardized services. The institutional repository is really not much of a leap for us: it's an attempt to go out and uniformly collect and catalog objects. Many digital collections don't go much further than digitize and catalog a defined set of photographs, manuscripts, etc. held in the library.

But I think there are more interesting opportunities when we actually wade out into the messy world of teaching and research and offer up our expertise at organizing information. A way of doing this is to establish some kind of a digital initiatives program that faculty can engage with directly. We see this at large institutions such as University of Virginia and Columbia, but also now increasingly at liberal arts colleges like Hamilton, The University of Richmond, and Kenyon. The programs at these institutions in one way or another offer support to faculty for teaching or research related digital projects.

At Lewis & Clark, it is my goal to develop a digital initiatives program from the library that provides support for academic projects that involve sophisticated information management problems. Our library has been ramping up support for digital initiatives for the last seven years or so. We began with initiatives to digitize student theses and put some of our archival collections online. We also developed a digital image collection to support arts and humanities instruction. As a side project a few years ago we started working with an studio art professor to develop a collection of images of contemporary ceramics: accessCeramics. The project has involved all sorts of interesting technical and organizational challenges. Above all, it has been a a truly collaborative effort between several library staff and the faculty.

The success of this project made me want to expand the library's digital initiatives to include more collaborative academic projects. However, I wasn't really sure if demand existed for these kinds of projects. To find out, I made an effort this spring to speak with at least one faculty member in each department at Lewis & Clark about potential digital collaborations with the library.

After talking to about 15 faculty, I have a good handful of ideas for projects, some more imminent than others. They include: web mapping wine and foi gras regions in Oregon and France for an anthropologist, digitizing, translating, and annotating collection of published documents from an early 20th century Moroccon Jewish community for another anthropologist, creating an online map to accompany a book about Mount Fuji by a historian of modern Japan, developing an online archive of historical depictions of Lewis & Clark's slave York for a communications scholar, building maps and phylogenetic tree of various spider species for a biologist, developing an archiving system for recitals for the Music department.

A few trends emerged in my conversations. Even though I unearthed some real cool ideas for projects, traditional scholarly communication methods still seemed to dominate faculty thinking when discussing their academic work. Digital work in non traditional forms is bonus work in their eyes and those working for tenure are hard pressed to find the time for it. Geocoding and web mapping were popular projects. There is a seemingly insatiable demand for assistance with generic web design, development, and upkeep by faculty for their personal pages and pages related to their research and other academic endeavors like conferences. Among the handful of scientists I spoke with, I had been expecting to find a need for long term preservation and access of scientific data, but I found that most of these researchers had disciplinary level destinations on the internet for the research data that they believed was critical to preserve and disseminate. The scientists' interests were in making their scientific work more accessible to a broader audience via the web rather than than data preservation.

Right now, I'm still in the process of talking to more faculty to get a feel for the types of projects that might be useful for their teaching/research. My goal is to come up with a digital initiatives program that offers certain services based on what faculty want and what we can do. As of now, I'm thinking that our digital initiatives program should prioritize projects that involve a sophisticated information management problem and provide a relatively broad impact, especially among students of our institution.

I'm hoping that we can provide a couple different levels of support: one level would be consulting. We would offer our expertise to jump start someone on an information management project: building a Google map, organizing a wiki or a database, teaching a class about mashups. A second level of support would be project based: we would take responsibility for a finite project: developing part of a website, a database etc. The top level of support would involve making a long term commitment to a digital resource or collection, the kind of commitment we now have to accessCeramics.

The other critical aspect of this initiative is to find the human resources internal to the library to support it. To do so, we need staff with expertise in a few key areas:
  • metadata profiling
  • metadata assignment
  • information architecture
  • web design
  • web programming
  • project management
  • grant writing
In our shop, we have a Digital Services Coordinator at Watzek with voracious appetite for web development and programming who likes nothing better to be given free reign on a challenging, creative project. As our portfolio of projects has grown, however, he is stretched for time. Fortunately, we have a cataloging assistant who is emerging as a talented designer and creative metadata strategist, and due to some increased efficiencies in our tech services operations, we've been able to reallocate some of her position to design and digital project metadata work. Special Collections and Visual Resources do most of the metadata work on digital projects in their areas. I do some web programming but recently, more project management and grant writing.

Nevertheless, to expand further, we'll need to find more time and expertise among our staff in a budget neutral environment. As manager of our cataloging/acquisitions (Collection Management Services) operations, I'm looking hard to find ways that we can save time on things like copy cataloging, serials checkin, and govt. docs. Even if we can free up time, developing the skills among staff in areas needed to support digital projects remains a challenge. Making the switch from traditional cataloging to digital project metadata work isn't a huge leap. But finding staff who can do work like web design and web programming is a bigger shift. As a manager, if there are any signs of that kind of aptitude in existing employees, I'm looking to foster it.

There are some potential pitfalls to a digital initatives program like this. The first one is overloading library staff: we have a lot to do just keeping our own house in order, and my faith in network level services lightening that load may be a bit naive. Many institutions would view this kind of function as more appropriately filled by a unit independent from the library, perhaps in IT or instructional technology. In our case, I want to keep IT in the loop at all stages, make sure that we don't overlap our services, and partner when possible. Another criticism is that the services provided by this program could represent a very uneven distribution of library resources to support the interests of particular faculty. As a library, we're used to providing relatively broad based transactional services like checking out books and answering reference questions that benefit a wide swath of the institution. This is something to be conscious of when designing this type of program. The other side of it is that these projects are often immediately beneficial to current students and faculty whereas many library-centered or institutionally-oriented digitization projects have somewhat diffuse, long term benefits.

I think developing this kind of program has some compelling advantages. These kinds of services can really advance faculty research and teaching and help assure the continued relevance of the library. If we help faculty do the heavy lifting needed to do more advanced projects and get more grants and recognition, they will back the library that much more. Administrators like deans and presidents love to see this kind of innovation as it can truly advance an institution's core mission, and in fact many of the centers I mentioned above have been started in top-down fashion by such officials.

This kind of creative work can help energize a library and connect library staff to the academic mission of the institution. I also think there is a tie in with library liaison work and library instruction. Collaborative work with faculty on collection development, instruction sessions, and information literacy can foster connections that lead to some of these digital projects. I'm hoping that reference/instruction librarians can be partners in this endeavor as well, especially when it comes to recruiting interested faculty.

To put this in perhaps more tangible terms for the code4lib crowd: starting this type of program can lead to more cool projects. I think the code4lib phenomenon is about the library becoming that much more of a creative organization, and starting a digital initiatives program will move it further in that direction.