The Research Commons

The following is an abridged version of the paper I presented a few months ago at the Georgia Council of Media Organizations meeting in Macon (I added some of the pictures from my slide show). It is based on a presentation that I developed with Erica Bruchko, Emory’s Humanities Librarian, and Charles Forrest, the director of Library Facilities at Emory. The full title of the paper was Emory University’s Research Commons: Connecting scholars with technology, expertise and each other in the library, but that does not look very good as a title for a blog.

Fun fact: I was born in Macon but moved when I was three. The hospital where I was born was across the parking lot from my hotel and I could see it from my room. This was disturbing to me in an unexpected way.

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The rise of the digital humanities

The digital humanities has been enjoying significant buzz in recent years. Digital Humanities centers, such as the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University and the Scholars’ Lab at the University of Virginia have been producing original and innovative tools and resources for scholars. Organizations like the Association for Computers in the Humanities have coordinated conferences (and un-conferences) and the Chronicle of Higher Education has devoted dozens hundreds of articles and one regular blog (Prof Hacker) to issues related to technology in the academy. This is to say nothing of all the digital projects such as Voyages: The Transatlantic Slave Trade Database and Visualizing Emancipation that take advantage of emerging technology.

Starting at the end of 2010, the excitement slipped out of the academy when the New York Times began a six part series on digital humanities, the Humanities 2.0 series, which covered such topics as digital maps, text analysis and researching with large set of digital data. Then in January of 2012, two of the largest and most traditional academic conferences in the humanities featured record numbers of panels devoted to digital topics. The American Historical Association’s annual meeting had 24 panels and the Modern Language Association had a total of 57.

The challenge of the digital humanities for scholars and libraries

At Emory, scholars in and out of the library have been inspired and challenged by the rising popularity of digital scholarship. Scholars who want to incorporate technology into their work – or at least want to find out more about what technology can do for them – are often unsure who to turn to for help as the tools and methods of digital scholarship are still new ideas in many departments. Another challenge for scholars is the fact that, like many universities, Emory lacks spaces dedicated to graduate students and faculty in the humanities who want to work collaboratively on advanced research. Though there may be some activity in one department, academic politics are notoriously prickly around issues of territory so finding truly neutral turf for interdisciplinary work has often been a challenge. Another challenge that is related to this lack of collaborative space is the lack of community that leads scholars to think no one else is interested in digital work.

Moya_VictoriaFor the library, the rise of digital scholarship is part of a more overarching challenge of moving toward an engagement-centered mission rather than a collection-centered mission. Specifically, it has highlighted the need for a comprehensive approach to supporting digital work. While the library has always been a place where scholars go for help working on their projects, these partnerships have generally been ad hoc in nature, and uncoordinated across the institution.  The lack of established procedures has resulted in occasionally frustrating experiences and the projects themselves have suffered as a result.

These challenges are not unique to Emory. In the summer of 2010, four librarians at Emory created an ARL SPEC Kit (326) which focused on how libraries support digital humanities. The primary finding was that, of those ARL member libraries that support digital humanities work at all, that support was generally defined on a case by case basis and there are very few examples of spaces, policies, and procedures developed to support digital humanities. This lack of coordination means that work is often unnecessarily repeated and critical questions (such as those related to copyright, metadata and framework) are often left unaddressed until significant amounts of time and money have already been spent.

The Research Commons: A place in the library for the digital humanities

RC2In order to begin addressing these challenges, Emory has established The Research Commons in the Robert W. Woodruff Library. Located in a prominent space on the third floor, the Research Commons functions as an open workspace designed with graduate students and faculty in mind. Additionally, the space serves as a public-facing front door to a wide variety of resources and services located in the library.

From its location inside the library, the Research Commons is a truly neutral space where groups of interdisciplinary scholars can meet and work collaboratively. In fact, while the digital humanities play an important role in the library’s thinking about the Research Commons, the space itself is completely and proudly interdisciplinary. In the first year, we have been excited to see graduate students from the medical school and the MBA program make creative use of the space.

As Charles Forrest recounts in his COMO White Paper “Information, Learning, Research: Evolution of the Academic Library Commons” the Research Commons is the latest iteration in a series of experiments in library space. Beginning in the 1980s when research library users started demanding digital resources like CD-ROMs and personal computers some institutions began designing spaces they called “Information Commons.” By establishing these spaces, libraries highlighted their role as learning spaces and not just storehouses for books and periodicals; they were spaces where researchers could find and use all of the tools they needed to produce work. Following along this trajectory, Emory’s Woodruff Library opened the Learning Commons in the 1990s. This stage in the evolution of the space is defined by desktop computers with specialized software and individual study carrels but also by a cafe on the ground floor. With the learning commons, the library focused on individual scholars and their needs defined broadly.

RC1With constantly expanding online resources and a growing percentage of researchers working with laptop and tablet computers, the library continues to move from a collections based mission to a mission that focuses more on user engagement. With online resources diminishing the differences between libraries (and even the differences between the library and other spaces like homes and coffee shops) the library is focusing on what it can uniquely offer users: space to work collaboratively and expert advice.

The Research Commons was conceived of and designed with these strengths in mind. The space is completely open and almost all of the furniture is mobile, enabling users to configure the work areas to suit their needs. This open design also allows scholars to see what other scholars are doing and to be inspired by what they see.  These unplanned and serendipitous encounters, along with more formal events, allow the Research Commons to establish and nurture an interdisciplinary community of scholars interested in digital scholarship.

DIYCubeThese concepts of serendipity, experimentation and evolution have been central to the design process.  For example, original plans for the space included several small office spaces forming a spine down the center of the Research Commons. This idea was abandoned because we simply did not know if users would want these kinds of spaces. Instead, we left the area as open and flexible as possible and have spent the past year watching people use it. When we noticed that people were using large marker boards as mobile dividers to define their space, we got more of them.

The Digital Scholarship Commons

DiSCTwitterCurrently, the only permanent resident of the Research Commons is the Digital Scholarship Commons (DiSC); a Mellon Foundation funded initiative to facilitate experimental, collaborative work that takes advantage of emerging technology.  Emory’s Library has a long history of partnering with faculty who use emerging technology in their research, but the recent increase of interest in such projects demanded proactive action to coordinate demand and capacity. From its position in the library, DiSC facilitates a direct connection between scholars and unique collections such as those held in the Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library (MARBL). In partnership with librarians, DiSC recommends tools and processes that minimize redundancies and prepare for long-term maintenance and preservation.

DiSC also aims to inspire the Emory community through events, training and projects. In its first year, DiSC hosted three postdoctoral fellows, three graduate student fellows, three guest speakers, a year-long workshop series, and a symposium on technology and disabilities. Furthermore, it provided expertise and funding for four teams of faculty, students and librarians who were working on digital projects.

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