Marco Fahmi1, Gillian Hallam1, Angela Hannan1, Felicity Berends1
1The University of Queensland, St Lucia, Australia
In partnership with University of Queensland Library (UQL), the research office in the Faculty of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences (HASS) has introduced a Digital Librarian-in-Residence (DLiR) program with the goal of enabling liaison librarians to respond to and support the needs of the faculty in the area of eResearch. The residency allows the Digital Librarian to gain practical experience learning about and engage with researchers in digital humanities (DH) as well as carrying out a project in the area of digital literacy.
The paper presents the rationale behind this new collaborative initiative, reviews the effectiveness of the residency program and highlights opportunities and challenges that face each stakeholder.
RATIONALE FOR THE RESIDENCY PROGRAM
Across the academic world, there is a growing interest in using data sets, computer-aided analytics and interdisciplinary collaboration with technical staff to conduct digital research. In the humanities and social sciences, for example, this is reflected in the emergence of digital humanities (DH) as important disciplinary practice.
However, the diversity and complexity of digital researchers’ technical needs can be bewildering and overwhelming. In DH, for instance, “research results have been impressive and disappointing, exhilarating and frustrating. Learning from past successes and failures will help meet today’s data analytic challenges and opportunities or studying text in statistical applications ranging from business transactions and cybersecurity to health indicators” .
This represent a call for action for university research support services. At the University of Queensland, the faculty response was the inception of a Digital Humanities and Social Sciences project that aims to investigate and develop durable ways to support DH. The project, led by a Research Fellow, not only set up a new specialised support service within the faculty, but also to determine how to transfer digital research support knowledge and skills to research support staff across the university.
The Digital Librarian-in-Residence program was adopted as the strategy to transfer knowledge to the university library’s support services. The value of the residency for the library is to gain insight into the specialised requirements of digital research in the humanities and social sciences and to comprehend the diverse needs across schools and disciplines. The objective of rotating librarians in the residency is to incrementally develop an ongoing digital research support service and a suite of tailored resources for researchers and research students who possess limited technical knowledge and skill.
OPERATIONALISING THE RESIDENCY PROGRAM
The residency program provided the opportunity to reconceptualise the role of the liaison librarian. Traditionally, liaison librarians have mainly supported the teaching and learning dimensions of academic life; research support represents a new and challenging area of professional practice. Nevertheless, library staff were eager to step out of their comfort zone to acquire new knowledge and skills.
Following an interview process, two liaison librarians were selected for the new role of digital librarians-in-residence. The initial run program, which took place in the first half of 2017, saw two librarians successively spend 2.5 days per week over a period of three months embedded with the Digital Humanities and Social Sciences project.
As they were physically co-located with the Research Fellow, the librarians’ activities encompassed observing and documenting consultations with HASS researchers in need of digital research support, as well as conducting a self-directed project on some aspect of digital research support. Trello boards were used as an online collaboration tool to curate relevant documents, to capture learnings and to share knowledge.
Toward the end of their residency, the digital librarians were well-acquainted with the digital needs and expectations of HASS researchers and were able to take the lead in consultations with researchers. Each residency culminated in a seminar given by the digital librarian where they summarised their experiences and presented the findings of the self-directed project.
EVALUATING THE RESIDENCY PROGRAM
As the initial residencies represented a pilot, it was critical to evaluate the processes of and outcomes from the program. The high levels of enthusiasm on the part of the librarians as they were introduced to new concepts and undertook their own project were balanced by the reality of the pressure caused by a half-time placement that ran alongside their regular responsibilities. This not only required a fresh understanding of autonomy and flexibility, but also patience and support on the part of library managers.
The residencies were regarded as an investment of staff time in a truly experiential learning opportunity, with the self-directed project presenting a tangible outcome of the learning. The first project conducted an audit of the training and development activities relating to digital research that undertaken by library staff and delivered to researchers. A project report identified gaps in training for eResearch and how these might be bridged in the future. The second project created a library guide that contained information and resources on digital text mining for those will limited technical skills. The guide was made available as part of the library’s online resources for the research community.
The DLiR program has successfully addressed some of the concerns about the role of the academic library in the evolving research arena. Lauerson has commented on some of the challenges: “…we found that the support of data literacy doesn’t fit all subjects the same way. We had a huge impact with this in Humanities and Social Sciences but we are not having the same breakthrough with natural- and health science. That might has something to do with local context but we also find it hard to make a fit and find the right role for the library because the community of natural and health scholars has been working with data for a long time” .
As the mental model for many academic researchers is often about being ‘the expert’, there is a danger that they then misinterpret the role of the library staff by assuming that they are also actually seeking to be ‘experts’. However, academic library staff do not need to be the experts, but rather the facilitators. They are in a prime position to facilitate the connections, relationships and networks across the campus and build the community spaces where different groups can come together to discuss, share and learn. The authors believe that this critical message needs to be clearly articulated: they believe that as the Digital Librarian-in-Residence program expands and is adopted in other schools and faculties, tangible evidence will emerge about the ways in which the library can contribute to changing researchers’ own understandings.
- Gaffield, C. Seminar: “Words, words, words: How the digital humanities are rebooting the study of people”. Available from: https://www.bi.vt.edu/news/events/seminar-words-words-words-how-the-digital-humanities-are-rebooting-the-stud, accessed 10 June 2017.
- Lauerson, C. The Library of today might not fit the reality of tomorrow. The Libraries Lab, 16 December 2016. Available from https://christianlauersen.net/2016/12/12/the-library-of-today-might-not-fit-the-reality-of-tomorrow/, accessed 13 June 2017.
Marco Fahmi leads the Digital Humanities and Social Sciences initiative at the University of Queensland. The initiative supports technology- and data-driven research activities and the development of a Digital Humanities and Social Sciences strategy.
Dr Gillian Hallam is Manager, Information & Digital Literacy, Learning and Research Services, The University of Queensland Library. In this role Gillian is responsible for developing strategy and policy for information and digital literacy initiatives across the academic community.