Towards Rubicon: The Academic Library and the importance of making a choice

On the 18th of February 2016 we opened Digital Social Science Lab (DSSL) at The Faculty Library of Social Sciences / Copenhagen University Library.

DSSL is an open platform for events focusing on digital tools and methods for data handling and data analysis within social sciences. The aim is to support data literacy in academia. DSSL is equipped with powerful iMac’s and PC workstations, 3 projectors, a big mobile touchscreen and software for harvesting, cleaning, analyzing and visualizing data. We have skills to support various digital tools and is also highly active on facilitating peer to peer workshops and data sprints. The physical DSSL space is constructed as a dynamic, functional and mobile inspiring learning space and is available for everybody who wish an alternative to the traditional lecture hall situation.

For the opening we did a bubbles and data jam opening reception and at my opening speak I told a story about Caesar, a river and about making a choice. It’s a story that draws several lines to the state of The Academic Library in these years.

Julius Caesar crosses Rubicon
19th-century illustration, “Caesar crossing the Rubicon.” Romans under Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon River from Gaul into Italy in 49 B.C. Caesar, in breaking Roman law by leading his army back across the river towards Rome, uttered “alea iacta est” (“the die is cast).

Crossing the River

The calendar says the 10th of January in the year 49 BC. We are in the Italian city, Ravenna, the General and Governor of Gaul, Julius Caesar, has a problem. The Senate in Rome has given him an ultimatum: Either he’ll give up his province and his army or he will be declared an enemy of the State. Like any man of power, Caesar is not very pleased about this. Caesar seems not to care: he eats dinner with friends and go see the circus. But at nighttime he leads a single legion into the dark towards the River of Rubicon. Rubicon is the boarder river between his North Italian province and the State of Rome. Caesar reaches Rubicon in the early morning and looks out on the water. He has to make a choice: If he don’t passes the river but returns to his province of Gaul, trying to maintain status quo, he will over time be marginalized in the Roman Empire and be defeated by the powers that is gathering around him. If he crosses the river there is no turning back. He will put himself in great danger but will remain the initiative on his own hands.

As many of you may know, Caesar crossed the Rubicon, and he succeeded with his mission.

With the opening of Digital Social Science Lab we, like many other academic libraries in these years, crossed a river too. We decided to look further than our own collection and be an active part in creating a sustainable platform for data, tools and skills in research and education. But there is an important difference from this and the choice Caesar made; This is not about survival or the remaining of power. The Digital Social Science Lab is about creating value to the academic community of researcher, teachers and students at the Faculty of Social Sciences and University of Copenhagen. That is why we are crossing the river.

DSSL Collage Three top photos: The opening of Digital Social Science Lab
Bottom photo: The Digital Social Science Lab in panorama

The Academic Library on the move

Why did Caesar cross Rubicon? Basically because his surroundings was changing and so he acted on that. He made a choice. The conditions for academia is changing too: We are pacing from The Gutenberg Paradigm to The Web Paradigm and the building blocks for research, studies, education and learning is not only to be find in books and journals. There are everywhere, we call them ‘data’ and there is many set’s of methods and tools to navigated in this. When the conditions for academia changes it should lead to action – or at least consideration – from libraries. Libraries are not closed circuits, they are – or should – be well integrated value-adding units in the academic community.A library data service of any form is a reaction to these changes, a choice from the library to move from status quo and into a new field of academic support and collaboration. I salute this strongly. That said there is no doubt in my mind that the access to relevant academic literature and the support of information literacy is the key stones in an academic library and will be in the (close) future also. But that’s not a reason to stay put and not to move when the surroundings are changing.

Thinking about it’s not that big a leap: The Academic Library has always been build up around a collection and the ability to navigate in that collection. In the past this ability highly was the librarians privileged but later the profession developed to a higher focus on the support of information literacy – we don’t catch fish for them, we teach them how to catch their own fish. Data, in it’s essence, is just another collection. It might not be the library’s collection but researchers, scholars and students uses it in there work. It’s often a messy and dirty collection but there are lot’s of tools and methods to clean up, structure, analyze and visualize. It’s in this field of data, tools/methods and academia that I believe the academic library is a strong platform – either as an expect on specific tools and methods or as a facilitator and incubator.

I can’t speak for other Universities but in Copenhagen, there is no central platform to lift the demand of data literacy in academia and the beauty of the academic library is, that is for everybody across departments, subjects, levels of education and research. That’s a position that is very strong when it comes to supporting a field that is highly cross-disciplinary.

Alea iacta est

When Caesar decided to cross Rubicon he said the famous words “alea iacta est” (“the dice is cast”). For us, the dice was cast with the opening of Digital Social Science Lab. We have made a choice to cross the river and boy is this exciting times. We might fail big time but I still believe that’s better than staying on the safe shore and see a great opportunity sail by.

I’m hoping that many libraries will stare unto the river and eventually cross it too. And remember, it’s not about survival – it’s about creating value.






Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s