A Library Data Lab is for people, not machines

In a short while I will leave the well-known world of academic libraries to take on the position as director of libraries and citizen services in Roskilde Municipality. I’m looking very much forward to work with public libraries but I will also miss working with education and research, students and researches in universities. Looking back, one of the things that I am utterly proud of is the making of Digital Social Science Lab that we opened in February 2016 at The Faculty Library of Social Sciences in Copenhagen. To give a proper farewell and hat tip to something that I have invested much energy, time and passions in, I have translated an article I wrote a while back for Danish LIS journal REVY together with DSSL partner in crime, Mads Korsgaard. Links to other writings on Digital Social Science Lab at the bottom of this post.      

A Tuesday evening 25 students has showed up to Digital Methods Sessions in Digital Social Science Lab (DSSL) in the basement of the Faculty Library of Social Sciences. Digital Methods Session is a recurring event where students share their experiences about their work on digital data handling and analysis methods in small TED Talk-like presentations. Rasmus, studying sociology at the University of Copenhagen, tells about how he has collected 2.5 million blog posts and online articles in his master thesis about the crypto market (the deep and dark web of drugs and weapons) to perform a topic modeling on the incredibly large amount of data. Through topic modeling, he has managed to extract the most commonly used concepts, analyze how they relate to each other, and demonstrate how the discourse online follows concrete events in the “physical” world. Finally, he demonstrates how he has conducted data visualization that illustrates the online debate about the crypto market and its evolution over time. Rasmus’ method differs from the classical social science empirical collection through, for example, questionnaires and interviews, and it is a good example that research, education and learning have changed in line with technological developments. In DSSL, we are not trying to tell students and researchers that one method is better than the other, but we want to show them that there are options for exploring the world around us than just a few years ago. Functioning as an open platform for working on digital methods DSSL is thus a response to the significant changes in our technological capabilities to become wiser on the world. Students and employees of today’s education and research institutions use new resources, methods, skills and tools in their work, and libraries can not afford to ignore this if they continue to create value.

Student presentation at a Digital Methods Session

The library of today might not fit the reality of tomorrow

One can respond to this development in many ways, and DSSL is just one of those. One of the core thoughts behind DSSL is the facilitating aspect, where the library, like Digital Methods Sessions, facilitates students, researchers and other stakeholders to meet and work together, exchange ideas and learn from each other. Another example of facilitation could be the so-called data sprints, where students and researchers meet and jointly work, play and explore larger datasets in the framework offered by DSSL. The facilitating approach is a strong strategy for the academic library, which takes advantage of its position as an open and interdisciplinary platform, but also recognizes that it is an area where the library’s competence and resources do not have the power to independently lift the task with optimal effect. In addition, the library, under the auspices of DSSL, also offers courses in various programs and tools for data handling and analysis. The ambition is to offer something in all aspects of the workflow with data: Harvesting (eg Netvizz), cleaning (eg Open Refine), analysis (eg NVivo or SPSS) and visualization (eg Gephi)

5Visualization of the data workflow we are covering in DSSL

An alternative to the classic learning situation

When thinking about a data lab, one would typically imagine a space filled with computers, but the first thing that strikes one when entering DSSL is that here has been made some quite different choices compared to the traditional data room. Rather than being a local stationary computer, DSSL appears as a small-futuristic botanical landscape with rolling cushions and plants in all shades – as a blend between a Starbucks-style café environment and a Silicon Valley-inspired innovation lab. This has been a very conscious choice, based on the experience that today’s students almost always work from their own laptops and that these machines are gradually powerful enough to settle the vast majority of social science projects. The focus has therefore been on creating a facilitating framework for student learning processes rather than filling up the room with hardware. However, DSSL contains 4 stationary workstations located under a palm tree in the corner of the room if you need additional processor power for a project. In order to create a functional and aesthetically inspiring physical framework, we engaged production designer Helle Egsgaard to create a unique design and narrative of the room and it’s interior. The Faculty Library of Social Sciences is located in a building on the corner of the Botanical Garden, which previously housed the old Botanical Laboratory. This became a continuous inspiration element in the design process, and the botanical themes of DSSL are therefore a tribute to the history of the site in the meeting of the organic plants and the more sterile work with data. The purpose of the alternative arrangement has been to create a form of “otherspace” with surroundings that invite creative thinking and innovative knowledge production.

Billede1Data sprint on fake news in DSSL

Conceptually, a lab is a place that differs from the living room – it is a place where you go to experiment, to try out new combinations and to “invent” new products and processes. The idea of ​​DSSL has thus also been to offer an alternative to the lecture hall, which is the most common learning room at most educational institutions. The lecture hall as a venue is suitable for many things, but the physical space framework limits certain social learning processes, and the students usually operate as passive recipients of knowledge. The idea of ​​DSSL, on the other hand, has been to create a physical framework for the students to be active knowledge producers. The room is therefore designed to be dynamic and all furniture is on wheels so that the room can easily be changed depending on the learning process to be supported at a given time. For example, you can quickly go from a lecture situation to group work with laptops and data visualization on the room’s three projectors. Still looking for the limits for DSSL The library is working to fill the frameworks with a lot of relevant content and create an engaging environment around DSSL, and this is where the two main elements come into play: In part, as mentioned, the library constantly develops and offers different courses on digital methods and data handling, and partly focus on the facilitating element, where the DSSL platform functions as an open-source hub that can connect committed students and researchers across institutions and support externally driven events. The interest in the project has been high from the outset, and DSSL has set up more than 80 different workshops, courses and events before the end of its first year of living and the development has been steady ever since.

There is now doubt in my mind that Digital Social Science Lab is creating significant value to learning, education and research. Key to success? The focus on people instead of machines



Links to other writings on DSSL:

The facilitating approach: https://christianlauersen.net/2018/04/20/beyond-tables-and-chairs/

Curation of open data sources: https://christianlauersen.net/2016/08/25/libraries-curating-open-data-sources/

The DSSL Declaration: https://christianlauersen.net/2016/01/27/digital-social-science-lab-declaration/

Thoughts on the DSSL decor: https://christianlauersen.net/2015/11/23/to-work-with-data-is-to-travel/

On where it all started: https://christianlauersen.net/2015/03/14/bringing-technology-and-academia-together-the-making-of-digital-social-science-lab/


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