Monday, May 9, 2011

Digital Initiatives at the Liberal Arts College: One Year On

About a year ago, I wrote a piece on synthesize-specialize-mobilize about our efforts at Lewis & Clark to develop a digital initiatives program. Since then the number of projects in our portfolio has expanded significantly and I think we are building momentum towards a solid and sustainable program. We have a library-led project with a regional interest and appeal in our poetry program (Oregon Poetic Voices), a faculty driven NEH sponsored digital project (Rabat Geneziah), a couple student-oriented projects around spiders and graffiti, and a number of "consulting" style projects in which we've provided advice, expertise and assistance but that are really externally managed by faculty. Coincidentally, we just had a nice piece about our digital initiatives program come out in our alumni magazine.

"Digital initiatives" is a somewhat imprecise label for a variety of different activities and programs that academic libraries pursue in relation to digital collections and digital scholarship. I like to make a distinction between the service-oriented approach to digital initiatives and the project-oriented approach, though there is plenty of fuzzy area between the two. Some organizations focus on a set of fairly well defined services around particular types of digital objects. See, for example Oregon State University's Center for Digital Scholarship and Services, which offers support for digitization, electronic publishing in the journal and monograph forms, and institutional repository services. Other digital initiatives units are more oriented around projects with a less precise focus on specific services. Brown University's Center for Digital Scholarship falls into this category, with a focus on providing support for thematic digital projects.

As I indicated in the post a year ago, I believe that the project oriented approach is the more fertile area for a few different reasons. First, some of these more transactionally oriented digital services such as digitization or scholarly repository provision may be more effectively handled by organizations that transcend the single college or university. Digitization can be outsourced and disciplinary scholarly repositories are often more effective than institutional ones (think of arXiv). Digital projects offer the opportunity to engage in a live scholarly project that may be focused on teaching, research or both. Furthermore, projects can offer the opportunity to leverage local expertise to move them forward: existing working relationships with faculty, connections to students who may contribute to the project, ties to a local technology infrastructure.

Perhaps the most compelling reason to focus on thematic digital projects is that there is more passion around them. We have an archive of electronic student theses that we've been diligently working to populate over the years. It is a useful, worthwhile project, one that students and faculty appreciate and we've got big ambitions to expand it to include multimedia. It's built much like our library collection through acquisition of items across subject areas. But there is limited passion around this project because it is simultaneously about everything and nothing.

If I look at our digital projects, however, every one of them is been borne of creative or intellectual passion, and often project usage stats on Google Analytics demonstrate that this passion is contagious. Doug Erickson, the founder Oregon Poetic Voices, has been traveling around Oregon to capture poetry readings in all sorts of obscure places and build out this archive. He lives and breathes this project. This applies absolutely to the other projects leaders as well: Ted Vogel and accessCeramics, Oren Kosansky and the Rabat Geneziah, Greta Binford and Spiders, Margo Ballantyne and Graffiti, Paul Merchant and the William Stafford Archives.

These types of projects demonstrate how scholarship intersects with sophisticated ways of organizing, presenting and analyzing information. Academic libraries, for the most part, rely on content vendors like JSTOR to construct libraries of the kinds of published material they used to organize on their shelves. We need to spend less and less time building our own library and instead shift our focus towards creating specialized digital libraries that advance teaching and research. This role is increasingly being labeled support for digital scholarship. For example, Brown recently renamed their Center for Digital Initiatives the Center for Digital Scholarship and Rice did the same. Recent large foundation grants to liberal arts colleges such as Mellon's grants to Hamilton, Occidental and the Five Colleges of Ohio focus on digital scholarship and digital humanities and retooling the library to support such endeavors.

Last winter we worked with our Sponsored Research Office to host a faculty workshop on digital scholarship. Digital scholarship and digital humanities are big buzzwords these days and we sought to capture some of that momentum. Despite the lure of THATCamps and great NYT's pieces on "Humanities 2.0" I do worry that some faculty might get scared away by these terms. At some schools, there are faculty who self identify as digital humanists but I don't think we have any like that here. In our case, the most promising approach has been to tap into their scholarly interests and passions and demonstrate what new possibilities that the digital can open up.

It remains to be seen how much our digital initiatives program can grow. As we recruit faculty to join the fold, I would say there is a spectrum of interest levels. Some scholars have a fleshed out idea about where they would like to go, and they are ready to put time and energy into the project to get it going. They may or may not need our help and resources. Other faculty have ideas, but they are more loosely formed, distant aspirations. Completion of tenure files and other more pressing priorities stand in the way. Other scholars may not have any specific ideas, but they are observing a flurry of activities in their own disciplines around digital resources and have an interest in keeping aware of what's going on. Ideas of their own may be germinating.

How do we move those that aren't quite ready to begin projects towards that stage? How do we bring faculty without an interest into the fold? Grants provide a strong incentive: the financial resources and the prestige attached can be a compelling motivator. Most of our projects have some degree of external funding. Finding opportunities to demonstrate the possibilities out there to faculty, including the grants and projects colleagues have been successful with can also help. Our workshop was an opportunity to do this. Above all, finding a way to demonstrate that a particular project can really advance a particular interest or passion is the best motivator.

And what about the perils of success? How do we handle it when we demand for digital scholarly support outstrips our ability to supply that support from our office. We have not developed a formal system for prioritizing projects yet but one could be envisioned that would take into consideration factors such as time commitment, research impact, scholarly impact, cost, etc. Most of our projects have as of now focused on creating a collection that in an of itself serves as a learning and/or research resource. The most compelling projects in a liberal arts setting, however are those that engage students in their creation.

As we seek outside funding for projects, we need to consider ways to provide elastic support mechanisms when large waves of projects, ideally with some level of external support, come our way. Perhaps this means developing relationships with some outside contractors, who can step in to provide expertise when needed. We have some experience with external web development expertise, and we've brought in external help in visual resources.

A bigger question relates to the expertise that makes sense to source locally versus externally. In redefining library services and expertise in our current environment, it is always worth pushing on this question. Project initiation and management done locally can help get projects off the ground with a low barrier to entry. Local project managers can tap into trusted networks of people and resources to move a project forward and sustain it in a stable fashion. They can organize a fundraising strategy that makes sense for the local environment, and orient the project in a way that elevates the institution. Design and technology done locally can tap into existing infrastructure that may get the project off the ground faster and allow it to be maintained over the long term. Projects can be a vehicle for bridging interdisciplinary boundaries at or even between institutions.

At the same time, there are real possibilities for more external models of support and I think the trend is in this direction. There is the cloud-based DIY approach. We've sent a few faculty to to run with projects on there own and this is working pretty well. There is the external contractor approach. Sometimes I wonder if giving faculty easy access to very specialized expertise on demand, say a GIS specialist or a web developer would be a good way to catalyze innovative projects. Also, tapping into digital projects done at other institutions seems like a natural approach for some projects, Furman University's participation in the Homer Multitext project being a nice example of this.

What would define success for a digital initiatives program at a small liberal arts college? Perhaps, if we advance scholarship and or teaching for 5% of the College's faculty and 10% of our students in a given year, that would achieve a significant and relatively broad impact on students as well as advancing faculty research and creative agendas. Should those numbers be higher or lower? In theory, the experiences that the projects offer to students and faculty could have a spillover effect into other scholarly endeavors with which we are not directly affiliated. Digital initiatives fit in with the larger portfolio of academic support we provide including traditional reference and instruction, collection development, and work with special collections so they might also be seen and justified as a part of this larger package.

From this interim director post, one of the things I strive to articulate is the entire spectrum of research and teaching support we provide, from assisting students with basic research questions, to designing assignments with faculty, to building innovative digital projects, to putting students in touch with unique archival documents. It's a humbling and exciting adventure and I will continue to provide updates on this blog.

No comments:

Post a Comment