Last week, I was honored to serve as a Visiting Scholar at Columbia University Libraries Center for Digital Research and Scholarship (CDRS). It all began with a wayward tweet, the details of which are collected as a Storify, but I wanted to also “problemitze” and “interrogate” (my favorite, gold standard cultural studies lingo) my impressions as they are still fresh in my mind. Beyond the good conversations, what did I learn about the state of library publishing? Or, really, what did I learn about libraries doing good, interesting, productive work outside of what is considered the traditional library role? For the first time in my life, I took really good notes, so lets see what I can mash them into…
First, its difficult for me to reflect on CDRS detached from the personalities that drive it. Much of my desire to spend time there was due to connections I made with Mark Newton and Rebecca Kennison in the scholcomm world. I can say that it is obvious that dynamic leaders inspire dynamic work. The CDRS team is very professional, or at least they put on a good show while I was there. The people, from the Director to the Intern, are invested in the mission of the Center and it is evident in their approach to the work.
On that approach to the work — I think a key takeaway for me is that the product of the work matters less than how you do the work. Of course the product matters also, but plenty of folks can produce something great and have really poor methods, workflows, and team connections.
Things that CDRS does well, based on my one week observation:
- Effective, efficient communication is central. This theme was echoed in almost all the one-on-ones I had, that clarity and managing expectations was a central task of every team member in every interaction. Rebecca was adamant in her belief that language matters; providing digital scholarship to a campus community is not a service, it is a partnership. Owning the language we use, about the work we do, adjusts the self-perceptions of the team, and thus informs the perception of the office beyond the library. Bringing that back to FSU, I’d like to see us be very uber-intentional on this point. We have the opportunity to shape the campus perception of the library, and the responsibility to do that in a manner that reflects the libraries goals and casts it in a new light. No small task.
- Total investment in project management. I was overwhelmed by the volume of meetings, Google Docs, benchmarks, and meticulous details. But, it seemed that there is not much that slips through the cracks when every project has a plan, a manager, tasks, goals, a timeline, and concrete deliverables. Everyone at CDRS has gone through project management training, and a Project Manager, alongside a Communications Coordinator (see above), were the first hires after CDRS was established. Again, this theme was overtly apparent in internal and external interactions, and I was inspired by the efficiency with which projects are handled. Mark Newton especially modeled this as a leader in the office, and it was cool to see him manage a meeting to move things forward while respecting the project partner’s questions and requests. I am looking forward to growing in this area myself, and hope to invest some energy in working with my colleagues at FSU to get us all more prepared to manage the projects we may take on in the near future.
- Strategy. Things are pretty well thought out. Several of the meetings I took revolved around casting a vision for the various “offices” within the Center, and making calcualted strategic steps toward implementing the vision. For example, speaking with Simone Sacchi, who most closely echoes my current role at FSU, we shared a lot of the same ideas about what a “scholarly communication” program/initiative/office is, and especially what it could be. It also seemed that the Center is structured strategically, but allowed to be innovative at the same time. Ideas were accepted and discussed and fed back into the goals and mission of the program, project or the Center overall.
Looking back at that list, I’m not surprised that nothing seems very library-ish about it. Communication. Project Management. Strategy. These could be the qualities of any consulting firm on Broadway (or Main Street). As purposeful as CDRS is to situate itself as a library-connected office, I could see how it would be easy to approach it as anything but. I’m not sure where I fall on that point; do we pitch these activities as throughly “library work,” or does the library designation hamper the possibilities for deep integration into academic research? How is scholarly communication or digital project production and development any different when done inside or outside the libraries org chart?
Leading from that, I was fascinated by the organization of what might be called Big Tent Digital Scholarship at Columbia University; the recent Ithaka report on sustaining digital projects used Columbia as an example of the “network” model – “with a hub at its center, like a library or DH center, and many nodes supplying specialist support as needed.”* CDRS is one of 4 digital research centers around campus, each affiliated with a discipline and located physically in that disciplines library. So, the Digital Science Center is in the Science and Engineering Library. The Digital Humanities Center is in the Humanities and History Library. The Digital Social Science Center is in the Social Sciences Library. CDRS and the Columbia Center for New Media Teaching and Learning (CCNMTL) are both located in library buildings, and do very different things than the other Digital Centers. I think this distribution of work – discipline-specific offices, a research & development arm (CDRS) and a pedagogy arm (CNMTL) is part of the recipe that makes this all work. CDRS doesn’t have to worry about hosting a 3-D printer or Omeka training sessions because other offices fill those roles at Columbia. The “distributed network” of digital scholarship opportunities was quite a brainful to take in.
Finally, it is difficult to distill what I learned at CDRS because, honestly, resources and motivations are profoundly different at a public RUVH university then at a place like Columbia. The exercise of seeing the same work done in a different context was invaluable, and I just have to remember that there is no one way to accomplish great things, or to support the future of research in higher education. We all play on the same field (higher ed) regardless of endowment or retention/graduation rates. Needless to say, I took away much more than I was able to give, but I’d like to think that this was just the beginning of a deeper connection between our two institutions. Leaving CDRS, Rebecca, Mark and I chatted about what might come out of this experiment. If anything, I’d like to be part of inspiring an inter-institutional exchange program, embedding us with one another as we all learn and grow in this work. One can only ever get so much out of the DLF – ACRL – CNI – LPC circuit. An early-career librarian, digital scholarship fellows exchange program sounds IMLS-worthy, right?
[*Footnote – I refuse to properly cite this report on the grounds that they “published” a PDF online with no unique identifier. UPDATE – since it was released CC-BY-NC I took the liberty to post it on arxiv.org, which will assign it a unique ID. I’ll update with that link when it posts to arxiv. UPDATE to the UPDATE – Turns out arxiv frowns on submitting work of others, so that didn’t work. Any other ideas to make these kinds of reports more easily discoverable/citable? If I had any free time I’d pull up Pandoc and convert the $*%^ out of the PDF and release it online in multiple formats, because web-ready publishing.]