The new card catalog of the library is digital tools

New York City and The Labs – day 1: Columbia University Libraries

First day of library lab visiting in New York and we started out with kind of a treat. The Columbia University Libraries are located on 116th Street and Broadway and offers not only one but three labs working with digital tools within scholarship: Digital Science Center (DSC), Digital Social Science Center (DSSC) and Digital Humanities Center (DHC). We hooked up with the awesome Ashley Jester, data service coordinator at the DSSC who had arranged the day at Columbia for us.

Ashley welcoming The Fellowship of Data Labs

Digital Science Center – “the trick is to lead and serve”

First stop was the DSC were it all kind of started for us (see earlier blogpost). Here we meet with director June Winland, research service coordinator Ellie Ranson and digital science librarian Will Vanti (I really like the way there titles indicates there field of work). The DCS arise on the ashes of four closed science libraries at Columbia and according Winland there aim is to contribute to the professionalism of graduate students (the science departments got about 60 % graduate students). Winland made it clear that a library approach focusing on only study space and information resources was not valid – there was a need for supporting both basic and advanced digital skills among students. By basic means the skills to work Excel and stuff like that and by advanced means being able to work software and programs like AutoCad, Spotfire and CS ChemDraw 3D. See the list of software offered and supported here. The selection of software and programs is mix of what faculty members and students suggests and what the library believes could be of value for the academic community. An interesting point about the choosing of software was not only to look at open source software but also to take into account which kinds of software and programs that were used in the professional life of the various subjects – knowing these kinds of programs is one of the things that creates jobs for graduate students. Concerning hardware DSC is packed with 40 inch screens and strong computers + a variety of scanners. The also got a 3D printer of course but as Winland started: “We don’t consider that an emerging technology anymore”.

3D printed chin implant to be used on cadavers by medicine students – maybe not emerging technology but valuable technology

The people who brings the digital tools and  methods together with studies and research at DSC were Ellie and Will. Ellie had been with the DSC for two years and has an education within mathematics and statistics + a master in librarianship (what a facemelting combination – I’m gonna hire her anytime soon) and Will who got a master in biology and tops it with a master in library and information science. The educational platform of a science degree plus some sought of librarianship seems like a strong card and it’s obvious that a librarian (or anybody else) scared of numbers, stats and data would be like a fisher who didn’t like fish in this field. The access to Ellie and Will’s assistance were by email or phone requests or simply sticking your head into there offices which were located in the middle of the DSC with transparent glass walls (there was a “please disturb me”-sign on both office doors).

The DSC itself was not used widely for workshops and teaching but there there was a lot of outreach into the classrooms.

Physical DSC was build up around a lot of stationary – not removable – wooden workstations. It looked great but gives some massive limitations on use of the physical library space that everyone should try to avoid; basically you want your library space to be flexibly so you can use it for different kinds of stuff (e.g. workshops and training) but also so you can easily arranged it for future demands and developments.

The Digital Science Center

Digital Social Science Center – “I don’t give fish away, I learn people how to fish”.

DSSC is located in The Lehmann Library at Columbia and here we meet with Ashley, acting director Alysse Jordan, reference librarian Fadi Dagher, geospartial service coordinator (!) Jeremiah Trinidad-Christensen and the awesome journalist librarian with the very very cool name, Starr Hoffmann. What a great team. The DSSC may not look that flashy but the things they got going is pretty impressive. The code of conduct is not to find stuff for people, e.g. some statistic on import of bacon, but to give them tools and skills to analyze and master data sets and information resources to find it themselves. As Ashley put it: “I don’t give fish away – I learn people how to fish“.

The three most asked for software services at the DSSC is R, Stata and Zotero. DSSC continually work on gaining new kinds of programming and to upgrade there skills to support it. A lot of the traning is done in-house and, very interesting, by graduate students. There was not a clear chain of command for the acquisition of software but I think this is a crucial point for the development of data lab infrastructure: how and who will select the software and programming, who will negotiate the licenses and who will do the technical installation and support (IT-department or library). You don’t wonna find yourself struggling with these things – you wonna find yourself kick ass while bringing the value of the programs together with academia at faculty.

Another good point from the discussion with the DSSC-team: Buying software is not only the cost of signing a licens – you also need resources for training and promotion. Even open source software is cost-full because you still need to use time and money on the training of staff.

Final but absolute not least on the subject of acquisition of software is data, evidence and knowledge on the use. We need to track use of software in order to make the right decisions on what software to let go and what software you might wan’t to promote more. Technical it’s more or less just a matter of deciding to do it. So remember to do that please.

An interesting feature of the DSSC was The Presentation Practice Room. It was room that students could book in order to practice there presentations. It had a camera and a screen and a film recorder so they could watch there own presentation afterwards. The demand for academics to not only write good stuff but also be able to present in a professional manner. Makes sense to me that the library provides scholars tools to work on this. Could be combined with sessions on presentation techniques.

The Presentation Practice Room

I while back I talked Twitter-praise upon DSSC’s “Keep Calm and Ask A Librarian”-badge and Ashley send me a bagful which is very populare at The Copenhagen University Library. I was rest assumed they ordered the badges from some badge-making company. Turns out DSSC got there own little badge-lab. When I was 10 years old my biggest wish was a Commodore 64 – know it’s a badge lab. And I’m gotta get it.

Which scholar with a little self-respect would not were such a badge?

Got hardware? 3D Mouse for managing 3D maps at The DSSC

Digital Humanities Center – “We are past the area were the task of the librarian was to find stuff on a shelve…”

Last stop on the Colombia Lab Roller coaster was Digital Humanities Center (DHC) were we meet with digital humanities librarian Bob Scott – a wonderful and extremely passionate librarian. The task for the DHC is to help Columbia faculty and students incorporate computer-based textual, bibliographic, image, and video information into their research, study, and teaching. According to Bob that job is not the job of a librarian who finds stuff on a shelve. It’s a job for a librarian who is a partner in the research process. Who is a team member to the scholars and can point them to digital tools valuable to them. I think he is so write and Bob painted a beautiful picture on this statement: “The old librarian sad in a glass box in the library like the fish in the tank at Chinese restaurants – no one notice the fish and not one notice the librarian“. To be the librarian who is not just a fish in a tank you need to “do” as well as “learn”. Lectures and books on digital humanities is not enough – we need to re-skill ourselves by getting down and dirty with the actually research process of faculty members. So Bob and his staff has done so. And they are not alone in America with this approach  – check out this cool blog: Breaking the Code: The developing librarian project which aims to address the changes in librarianship beyond search and discovery. I bow.

God I wish I could take Bob in my pocket and bring him home.

DHC offers three main things: first of all software and hardware to support the disciplines within digital humanities (e.g. machine-readable primary source texts, software programs for textual analysis and critical editing, database research tools in the humanities, bibliographic database management programs, IBM and Macintosh microcomputers, and optical scanning equipment for the creation of machine-readable text), a team of skilled librarians to support this and be team mates with students and faculty members in the process and a platform, Studio@Butler, a collaboratory space for educators, scholars and librarians. Studio@Butler hosts a range of activities like workshops, presentations, digital labs, evaluations, hack-a-thons, and research sprints (look awesomeness up in the dictionary and you see this). The physical space of Studio@Butler is just a room of 30 square meters with mobile furniture and a projector but the mental and institutional space is a room were the library facilitate digital scholarship innovation to a degree that makes me wonna pick up the guitar and write a song of worship.

Student reading a book at Digital Humanities Center while waiting for the image scanner to finish 

Nope, you didn’t go wrong – the book shelve of the Digital Humanities Center

Between software and new skills

Really really great and inspirational day at Columbia. I’m left with a ton of inspiration of really practical experiences on supporting scholarship with digital tools and methods and some valuable guidelines for succeed and create value in this area:

1. Focus on user needs. Go into dialog on witch digital tools would be relevant and in what context they would make sense.

2. Make a clear chain of command for acquisition of software.

3. Evidence Evidence Evidence – track the use of software!

4. Make sure to have the skills to support the software and programs you offer. Have a plan for this before buying.

5. Skills are not only provided by taking lectures and reading books. Get involved with the actually research process. Don’t be the fish in the tank.

6. Create a platform were academia, technology and skill can meet.

Thanks Columbia!


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