Wednesday, April 27, 2011

libraries, sciences, and spiders

At the NITLE Summit session on library collections earlier this month, I advanced the idea that on liberal arts campuses, libraries might reorient themselves to provide more support for the humanities and social sciences while consciously putting less resources into support for the sciences. Ithaka studies have shown that though scientists value the online resources that libraries provide, they are less attached to the library as place and as an intermediary in the research process. Perhaps we should concede the scientists aren't as interested in the library, and concentrate on our role as a laboratory for the humanities and social sciences.

This idea was met with some consternation by many of the library directors in the room that have productive, valuable programs in place with the sciences on their campuses.

Well, I'm happy to report on an example from our campus that perhaps somewhat counters the notion that we should scale down our connection to the sciences. Last year, as we explored ways that our digital initiatives program could grow and support more academic areas, we talked to a few scientists on campus. We were suspecting that they might need help with data management. In a couple of the conversations, however, we heard about the need to educate broader audiences as an aspect of NSF grant projects. There was interest in the library's ability to get some of their research data out on the web and make it accessible in new ways.

Our first foray into this type of project involved Biologist Greta Binford, a scholar famous for her work with venomous spiders. This fall, in her introductory "Perspectives in Biology" course, Greta had her students collect, identify, and photograph spiders in the immediate vicinity of our campus. Our digital initiatives crew, chiefly Jeremy McWilliams, worked with the students to upload images of spiders, descriptive metadata, and genetic sequences to Flickr. Jeremy and Anneliese Dehner then did some web programming and design magic to pull together the work of the students into a website, The Spiders of Lewis & Clark. It even pulls in data and images from the Encylclopedia of Life API.

This project is a great example of a digital project that really involves students in its creation and pulls in data from the participatory web. It was gratifying to see the Encyclopedia of Life list us on their homepage after we contacted them about our use of their data. I think its clearly a first for us to make the homepage of one of the reference sources that we list in our research guides. And its particularly fitting because Encyclopedia of Life is a modern reference source built in an open, participatory, decentralized way from numerous information sources.

I'll bring this back to my previous post, and cite this as an example of students getting experience doing work, specifically scientific inquiry, that prepares them to work at the edge of knowledge creation. In this case the library brings the expertise required to organize and present this knowledge. In a sense the project goes beyond referring to information sources to create an information source of its own.

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