New Services, New Skills, and Renewing Staff

Recently, I’ve found myself in several different conversations about the shift many academic libraries are making to support digital scholarship in its various formulations. These discussions usually unfold around questions of what skill sets are needed to support digital scholarship, however the concept is defined at a particular institution, and how libraries can manifest these new skill sets within their organizations. Do academic libraries need to recruit new staff with new technological and discipline-specific research skills and with different professional preparation to support digital scholarship services? Yes. Can current professional staff “re-skill” to provide support for these new services? Yes. If so, how do academic libraries enable these re-skilling efforts and motivate current staff to participate? Look below for two interesting approaches. If not, what in the hell are we supposed to do? Calm down, breathe deeply. Re-read the previous paragraph and get on with it.

Over the past several years, we’ve successfully designed and implemented a number of discipline-based digital scholarship centers at Columbia: the Digital Humanities Center, the Digital Music Lab, the Digital Science Center, and the Digital Social Science Center. Each of these centers is designed to support emergent research and teaching practices in high-end computing environments supported by high-quality consultation services. In our estimation, this new type of service engagement would require new expertise, so positions were created through the reallocation of staff lines to strengthen support for digital scholarship for these broad disciplinary categories. The folks recruited into these positions bring deep discipline-based expertise – all are recent PhD recipients and come to us with deep knowledge of emergent research methodologies and teaching practice in their respective fields. They are charged with coordinating the development of service programs supporting new digital tools and methods, promoting the digital scholarship centers through new forms of student and faculty outreach, and assisting other professional staff (librarians, subject specialists, etc.) in skill-building through training efforts designed to grow the organization’s overall capacity to support digital scholarship activities.

Out of this mix, two noteworthy re-skilling initiatives* emerged over the past year or two.  The first is aimed at identifying skills gaps among current staff working in the Digital Science Center and providing appropriate training geared to individual learning preferences and interests. Staff members are engaged in a skill building process designed to determine their baseline proficiency and desire to learn various software applications, along with their individual learning preferences. The goal is to enhance necessary technology skills across the staff iteratively within a supportive culture of improvement. Jeffrey Lancaster provides a much more thorough and engaging description of the program in a recent talk given at ACRL 2013 (see slides 13-26), http://hdl.handle.net/10022/AC:P:20260.

Staff from our Humanities & History division, who provide support for the Digital Humanities Center, are taking a very different approach to skills improvement by initiating a two-year training program for librarians and other professionals to acquire new skills and methods to support the digital humanities. The Developing Librarian program is grounded in the idea that meaningful learning is most likely to occur within the context in which it is to be used; so training activities are constructed around the design and implementation of a digital humanities research project that staff participants are building as a team. The objective behind this approach is to enable participants to acquire new skills in a sustained manner that parallels how humanities researchers might approach an actual digital humanities project. Program assessment has been built into the project from the start, with evaluations following each learning unit and training session to provide feedback iteratively to program designers.  A comprehensive assessment closely linked to articulated learning objectives will measure the overall effectiveness of the program. The team members that created and are participating in this program co-authored a nice piece describing the project for dh+lib, http://acrl.ala.org/dh/2013/07/01/the-developing-librarian-project.

So, here we have two models for developing the skills necessary to support digital scholarship among current staff, supported by the addition and integration of new staff coming to us from the disciplines with new, deep technology and research skills. To be sure, these models grew out of the unique mixture of people, space, and opportunity created by our local context, but I hope that there might be some utility in discussing our efforts for others confronting similar issues. Now we’d love to hear how other academic libraries are attempting to scale their support for digital scholarship services. How are other libraries developing necessary new skills within their organizations?

*Shameless plug: The descriptions of these re-skilling initiatives are adapted/cribbed from “Trading Places: Adapting Research Library Space to Evolving Scholarly Practices at Columbia University,” a book chapter Bob Wolven and I authored in Formation of Knowledge Spaces: Options for Access to Information and Learning [English title] to be published in November 2013.

Associate University Librarian for Collections & Services at Columbia University

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About “Gentle Disturbances”

The title of our new blog, “Gentle Disturbances”, is a tribute and a reference to the husband and wife artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s art consists of vast, temporary outdoor installations, such as the wrapping of the Reichstag in Berlin, the 24-mile Running Fence in Sonoma and Marin counties in California, and The Gates in New York City's Central Park. Christo has asserted that their art creates “gentle disturbances," designed to challenge traditional perceptions of the spaces and landscapes they inhabit. By encouraging viewers to see familiar landscapes in new ways, their art disrupts assumptions about permanence, ownership, and categorization.

While we claim none of the artistic or political impact of Christo and Jeanne-Claude, we hope that this blog and its many contributors will challenge us all to look at the landscape of academic libraries and higher education in new ways. We aspire to “gentle disturbances” of the kind that will lead to productive conversations and creative approaches to our common challenges.