It Takes Jess Hagman

It Takes a Campus
It Takes a Campus
It Takes Jess Hagman

Jess Hagman’s Illinois Experts Profile

Full Transcript
Have you ever thought about what really goes into supporting digital scholarship? Well, some may say it takes a village but here at the University of Illinois it’s bigger than that. It Takes a Campus. The Scholarly Commons will be interviewing experts across campus about all the new and exciting things that are happening to support digital scholarship. We will sit down with a specialist to learn about what they do, how they do it and why they got started working in their field. Hear what we mean when we say it takes a campus to do what we do.
Ben Ostermeier: Hello and welcome back to another episode of “It Takes a Campus.” My name is Ben, and I am currently a graduate assistant at the Scholarly Commons. And today I am joined by Jess Hagman, who is a librarian at the Social Sciences, Health, and Education Library here at the University of Illinois, and she does a lot of work with qualitative data analysis. So, Jess, welcome to the podcast and thank you for taking the time to talk to me today.
Jess Hagman: Yeah, thanks for having me.
Ben: So, let’s get started, um, basic, well, I guess basic stuff, which is, can you define qualitative data analysis for our listeners?
Jess: Sure, it’s actually really difficult to define qualitative data because we tend to think of data as numbers, and really qualitative data could be anything non-numeric, so you could be using images, video, text is of course very common. So, any sort of analysis of any non-numeric data I think would be considered qualitative data analysis, which is why it can be tough to learn and teach because there is so much variety of methods of analysis and types of data out there.
Ben: Great, yeah. And then, so how did you get started working with qualitative data analysis in your career?
Jess: So, I was, I came here in 2019, before that I was at Ohio University, and I did some research there that was qualitative of my own, with some colleagues. So, we did some basic qualitative analysis, and it was something I was interested in. And then part of what I was hired here to do was to teach the workshops on qualitative data analysis software tools for the Savvy Researcher, because my predecessor had done that, and it seemed like there was a need for that. So, since I’ve come here, I have continued to learn about a wide variety of tools and strategies for data analysis, qualitative data analysis, as I could. Because working with people here and doing my own research, it’s really made it clear how challenging it can be, but also how, there’s just a lot of different ways you can work with qualitative data that are really exciting, and there’s never one tool that will work for every situation, so by having a very broad base of options for folks, we can help them figure out what would be best for them to do for their research.
Ben: Great, and so when exactly was it that you started here at the University of Illinois?
Jess: I started in August 2019, so that’s what, two full years? Three? [laughs]
Ben: Three years this August.
Jess: Yeah, it’s strange to have started so close to the pandemic, it makes the time feel different, but I’ve been working here for, coming up on three years now.
Ben: And you were at Ohio State?
Jess: Ohio University
Ben: Okay, not the same [laughs]
Jess: Yes, exactly, and they feel very strong about that
Ben: Yes
Jess: They were around first before Ohio State, but yeah, it was in southern Ohio, it was a large research library but not nearly as large as here, so, it’s been a very exciting place, to move here and get to work with all the resources we have here.
Ben: Mm-hmm. So, what are the various ways you support qualitative data analysis, or QDA, here at the library?
Jess: One of the biggest things is doing the workshops through the Scholarly Commons. In about an hour, I’m actually going to teach one about free tools for qualitative data analysis. I do, I think like five different workshops. The two are more general, planning qualitative data analysis and free tools, and then I also do specific workshops on NVIVO, ATLAS.ti, MAXQDA, which are licensed software that people might use. ATLAS and NVIVO are in the Scholarly Commons, so they get used quite a bit, but MAXQDA also has, I think, a growing audience on campus. So, in addition to those workshops, I have a research guide where I have workshop recordings and slides and just, information that I gathered over my time here. Part of that I draw on, I co-teach a course in educational psychology on the use of software in qualitative data analysis, which has really helped me work closely with a larger group of graduate students for a long period of time, so I have the opportunity to see the many different ways work with their qualitative data over the course of a project. And then I also just do individual consultations with people who make appointments through my appointment schedule or who contact the Scholarly Commons to talk about how, specifically how the tools we have available can be used for their project, which is always a lot of fun.
Ben: Yeah, and we, this semester we started having the drop in consultation option…
Jess: Mm-hmm
Ben: …in 220, and I don’t know that that’s seen a ton of use yet, but, um.
Jess: We’ve only had the, we had the snow day, there was snow last week… [laughs]
Ben: Yes
Jess: …that got in the way of the, so yeah, I haven’t seen a lot of folks, but it is good to know that that’s there, thank you for reminding me, I almost…
Ben: Yeah, it’s okay we just…
Jess: …forgot about it.
Ben: …started.
Jess: But yeah, it’s a great way to let people know that there is help available, especially if they’re already in the Scholarly Commons where you have access to so many resources there, it’s good to be located there as well.
Ben: Yeah, yeah, we just started this semester and, this semester is still pretty early, and at least as of this recording. Podcast probably won’t come out for a few weeks, but this is part getting the word out to patrons who have an interest in QDA can definitely stop by the Scholarly Commons, that’s Wednesdays at one?
Jess: Thursdays, from one to three.
Ben: That’s right, Thursdays one to three, in the Scholarly Commons, that’s Room 220 of the Main Library. So, what are some uses for QDA that people may not realize who might be doing research with qualitative data but they may not know it, or that they might want to do with it?
Jess: Mm-hmm, one of the big things is people often want to code qualitative data, so that’s where they take some chunk of the text or a part of an image or even a media file and apply a label to it. And that helps people to, in addition to kind of looking at each document, to look at it by some sort of topical thing that you’ve applied. It might be a code system you get from previous research, or it might be more codes you develop from reading into the data, inductive approach is probably the technical term there, so coding can be done in Word documents, people do that. They do it in Excel documents, so that is totally, if that works for each person, that’s what they should do. But coding using software gives you the ability to test out coding approaches in different ways without having to go back and reprint your documents or losing the work that you’ve already done. So you could code in one way and then code in an entirely different way and keep all of that, I call it structuring, like adding structure to the data, new ways to look at it, so you can keep all that without, they’ll lose it, or you can edit as you develop, a lot of times people will have category development, or they’ll have small codes that they can kind of develop into bigger codes and categories and themes in their data, and so you can merge things, merge codes together so it’s just, it facilitates that coding process in an efficient sort of way. And then after you’ve coded, the licensed softwares have more advanced features for kind of looking at it in different ways, like getting, basically making of table of coded data, maybe for each participant, or for groups of participants, so you can really try out different ways of looking at the data. And I realize you can’t see me, but I’m like
Ben: [laughs]
Jess: I have this constant need to describe as like I’m holding my hands up and rotating like a cube or some sort of, cause I just sort of imagine it like just looking at your data in different configurations, in different ways to develop an interpretation, or to test, like maybe you think you see a difference between one group of participants, so you really need to look at the data for each group, and it’s much easier to do that in a system like that, so yeah, coding I think is much facilitated, and what I call retrieval where you look back at the data in different configurations. It can be really powerful, and in some ways more efficient for folks, especially once they get past working with a couple of documents, it can be, there’s a lot of data, and we usually want to look at it in a lot of different ways.
Ben: Yeah, are there particular disciplines that you work with more than others, or do you see people from all across the spectrum?
Jess: Mm-hmm. I would say education and social sciences are the big ones, which is maybe not surprising given that that’s the library I work in.
Ben: Sure
Jess: There are a lot of folks doing really amazing research in education, so I talk to them a lot. Anthropology, sociology, but I can talk to anyone who’s doing qualitative research, which happens in most fields, I think, and sometimes those fields aren’t, there’s not as much history of qualitative data analysis, so there’s still graduate students for example may have to figure out how to do qualitative analysis without as many courses as they might have in a discipline where it’s a more common thing. So, I can meet with anyone doing any sort of qualitative research, but it tends to be social sciences and education are definitely the big one, and social sciences of course is a huge category, but
Ben: Sure
Jess: Yeah.
Ben: Yeah, I, last semester I was in Museum Informatics and one of our readings was someone who did qualitative data analysis of a survey they did of museums visitors and how they used museum websites.
Jess: Oh interesting.
Ben: So, it was a very specific use-case, and perhaps a field that people would typically think of with QDA, but it can really be used in all sorts of ways it seems like.
Jess: Yeah, what did, do you remember what the, like what the results, did they present themes? Or like counts of how often people said different things? Like do you remember what the results looked like in that case?
Ben: I’m trying to remember because it’s been a while since I…
Jess: [Laughing] Maybe not a fair question
Ben: No, that’s okay, um, definitely I can link to it in the transcript, um, but I believe that, as I recall, a lot of it was more, I mean there was an element of quantitative data…
Jess: Mm-hmm
Ben: …as well in terms of like, what percentage of museums visitors go to a website for the museum after they visit versus before they visit and what do they use on the museum [website], but there was analysis of what like, textual survey responses…
Jess: Mm-hmm
Ben: …that I don’t remember the exact details of.
Jess: Okay
Ben: That was going on as well. And I remember they used NVivo, I think.
Jess: Oh, okay. It’s pretty common. NVivo is pretty good for surveys. That’s another thing, it can facilitate survey analysis, and you can use the quantitative data that you often get with a survey in combination with qualitative data that you code to look at it, to structure. And the reason why I asked you about the outcome is that’s something I talk to people a lot about is they, well obviously they don’t know the answer to their research question, they should have a sense of, it helps if you have a sense of what that outcome might look like, so sometimes people want to code and say, you know, ten people said this, forty people said this, and that means, you know, whatever for our topic. But there’s also, you know, you might identify discourses and describe those, or themes, or narrative stories that people tell, and having a sense of what format that might look like I think can help people figure out what they should do with the data, and whether they need to code or need to use any of those other features, because some of the software can be difficult to learn, so it needs to be worth your time to invest either the funds or the time to learn it, so that’s something that I recommend do a lot, is think about, and to look at articles in their field, so if someone who is interested in museum research and how qualitative research is presented could look at that and see like, what kind of, how do they present their analysis, how do they describe the process of analysis, and then would you want to model on that, or maybe do it differently. It can be a really valuable step before people jump in to doing their analysis.
Ben: Right, so along those lines, do you have any particular favorite QDA projects, or projects you find particularly interesting, that either you know about or you actually, like, consulted with patrons about, or if, you don’t necessarily have to definitely pick some, but if you have some in mind?
Jess: I’ve been working with some people who have very large-scale survey data, which may actually be too large scale for qualitative software, I think they might need tools for text analysis, but it’s been really interesting to talk to them about how they might take this very large data that has lots of variables and also lots of qualitative data, and I know two students who are working with the same data set and very different questions, and it’s really interesting to see how they are doing that. And I don’t have a specific example, but I do think it’s interesting there is more effort to share qualitative data, like we have our repository, IDEALS. People could share qualitative data there, but there is qualitative data, the qualitative data repository, out of Syracuse, is just qualitative data. And I think ICPSR has qualitative data, it can be a little tricky to find, but I think it’s exciting to see what people do with that, cause it’s, qualitative data analysis often assumes that you’re very familiar with the data, or you were there when people were interviewed, but I’m curious to see whether more people will try to re-use existing data even if it was not the context in which, they weren’t there for the data collection, so I think it will be interesting to see how that goes in the next couple years.
Ben: Right, um, yeah so, one I think big challenge with QDA is that, and I know you probably talk about this a lot with your Savvy Reseachers is that, there’s a lot of different software options available, and some of them are proprietary and very expensive for individuals to use, and we have some of them available through the Scholarly Commons, which is great, but, you know, not everyone necessarily has that option. And there are some free options as well, but, because they’re free they’re probably not as fancy, so what your recommendations for how to handle that if you have any quick answers, I mean, broadly…
Jess: [Laughing]
Ben: …I suggest you go to a Savvy Researcher if you’re interested in this, but…
Jess: Yeah, um, so, going back to that question of what do you need to do with your data, there’s Taguette, which is like the word baguette but with a T.
Ben: Mm-hmm
Jess: Which is a really great simple tool, you upload your text, you highlight and you code, and you can export that to an Excel file, which a lot of people do, they actually copy and paste data into Excel, and then they manipulate it that way, so that could save people some time. So I think people who are doing pretty basic text analysis, small amount of data, not super complicated coding, or if they’re working with another person, cause it’s actually either on their server or you can have it on your own server, you can install it, it’s open source and, so you can actually work collaboratively with people, which is much harder to do with a licensed software. You often have to, like if you and I were working together, I might have the original file and I would give you a copy, and you would code it, and then I would have to merge them back together, which makes me a little nervous to be honest.
Ben: Yeah, that sounds terrifying.
Jess: Yeah, it does. And so I always encourage people to do a test of that, so I would say, a lot of people that I talk to, they could work with something like Taguette, or it would help them with their process where they would normally use Excel, could facilitate that a little bit. There is a tool called QualCoder, which I’m going to talk about in the workshop today, which is more complicated. But it does have some of those features like you would get in NVivo, like the ability to automatically code data or to give you like statistics on your data, or even to compare, like if we both coded we could compare how we coded, so like an inter-rater reliability, so it has more of those features, it just is a little, it’s a bit more complicated to me, as someone who, it’s like based on python, and it’s beyond most of my skill level to get the, the installation was a bit of a challenge, and that’s just someone’s like, personal project, both of them are personal projects, so there are people who work on them in their free time. So we’re really fortunate to have them, but that is always kind of the debate, so I would say for whoever, if you’re deciding, the big things would be: how much data, do you need to collaborate, and then do you need those more advanced features like automatic coding, reporting out, and more ways, and in that case looking at either QualCoder or one of the proprietary options, thinking about licenses. There are usually licenses for graduate students that are much cheaper than the full license, so that’s something to look into. But yeah, so I would really think about what you need to with the data, and see whether something simpler would work for you, and then kind of move up to something if you reach the limits of those tools.
Ben: Yeah one challenge that I often have dealt with, not with QDA so much, but other, using free tools versus more advanced tools is oftentimes, more advanced, in some cases more expensive tools can actually be easier to use just because they have better user experience design going on, does that happen with QDA software or is it because it’s simpler, it’s easier to use, or does it vary?
Jess: Uh, I think both, I think Taguette is just much simpler to use, like right now, it’s purpose is really just you highlight text and you apply code and then you can export that data, so it’s a very, it’s not meant to do anything more complicated than that, so that is helpful, in that it’s very simple, I recommend it to people all the time, or people who maybe they have full software, but they wanna work with maybe a student who doesn’t have access to that software, they can start maybe developing a coding scheme, you know, working together with a smaller amount of data in the Taguette. So, it definitely is simpler, so and like Qualcoder, as I was saying, has a lot of the same functions or tools as like MAXQDA or NVivo, but the interface is like, I’m constantly like scrolling over the buttons to remember which does which thing, cause I don’t use it enough in my day-to-day life to have that memorized. And there’s some features that I have not quite figured out, so without, as you were saying, the full force of, you know, a professional, a team doing user design, and the companies behind MAXQDA, Atlas, and NVivo are pretty big companies that can devote the resources into the sort of product development, but then you have software that costs hundreds of dollars if you don’t have like a student license or if you are not getting it through campus or having someone else pay for it, so it’s definitely a trade-off, and there’s also version issues as well, like NVivo looks different on Mac and PC. That’s actually one of the reasons why I like MAXQDA a lot, is that it looks the same in the class that I teach that’s what we’re using is because we’ll help folks using PCs and Macs, so if we’re using MAXQDA it’s all the same interface, and Atlas is different as well, so that’s something to think about too. So, I think maybe I’ve gotten a bit away from your question, but yeah…
Ben: That’s okay
Jess: …I think, the gist is that the companies that charge a lot of money, they have the funds to do that and to put out a new version every year, it seems like, so yeah, it’s one of those things where you can have it, you know, quickly, you can spend a lot of money, or it can be easy, and you can really only have so many of those things, it’s not going to be quick, cheap, and easy at the same time…
Ben: No
Jess: …it’s always a tradeoff.
Ben: Yes, pick what’s most important.
Jess: Exactly, yeah, right.
Ben: Yeah, that’s why you don’t just recommend one software…
Jess: Right
Ben: …for everybody
Jess: Yeah, for sure. That was an important thing to me to make sure we had options for people who couldn’t come to the Scholarly Commons, because it’s, you know, it’s an amazing space, but it’s only, it limits the access, and then, you know, people who just, you know, aren’t able to, you know, for whatever reason, don’t have access to that software, it’s complicated. Access is a huge challenge, and some of those resources are often, they are used by people outside of the university as well. Like I wrote a review of different software options that’s been shared beyond here, so trying to contribute to the general knowledge about qualitative research, because there’s people doing research all over who don’t access to the software, you know, and that’s unfortunate. Not that you have to have it for most cases, but it definitely, you know, can help you think about data in different ways and make things more efficient.
Ben: Mm-hmm. Yeah, so you mentioned, just real quick, you mentioned that you teach related to QDA, is that just, what is that class?
Jess: It’s a special topics course in Educational Psychology that I co-teach with Dr. Rodney Hopson, who is a professor in Educational Psychology. It’s a delight, honestly, I just, every time I go to class, and we get to be in person this year which is nice.
Ben: Great
Jess: So it’s like 11 students who are all, most of them are doing, most of them are in education but we have anthropology, linguistics, counseling I think, so there’s a range of disciplines, and everyone has a research project that they’re working on in some fashion, and so basically we talk about, we use Taguette and we use MAXQDA, so they learn how to use those tools, but we also talk about bigger picture things like how do you report the process of your analysis? Because often in research articles, there’s not a lot of detail, people will say things like, “Themes emerged” without really describing how they got there, so our approach is to kind of ask students to over-document and to over-describe that process. So it can really clearly explain what they did, and then when they publish, you know, you can always back off from that if a publisher asks you to, but or, you know, in your dissertation you could step it back, so we really focus on being really clear about what you’re doing and why, how it relates to kind of bigger discourses in your field about what makes for good qualitative research. Some of the people are pushing back against, those disciplines that I mentioned where qualitative research has been kind of the dominant mode, so they’re often having to explain to people in their discipline why this is valuable, so we get to have all sorts of great conversations about, you know, how you do qualitative research, how you talk about it, what makes it useful and rigorous and, it’s just, it’s a delight if you’re into that as much as I am. It’s really awesome to just sit and talk with that, so, and if anyone’s interested in that, I have like a syllabus I could share if anyone wanted to contact me. I can show you the readings, cause there’s a lot, there’s a lot out there about the role of software and the ways we do qualitative research that are connected to bigger picture stuff and research and higher education, so if anyone else, maybe not, but if anyone is into that as I am, I would be happy to share those resources.
Ben: Great, yeah, one last question, at least that I have, is, you touched upon this, but, do you have any thoughts or input about the, as you said, a lot of disciplines have more traditional ways of doing research or approaching a topic. So, my background is in history primarily, and the traditional mode of doing things is you read primary sources and you analyze it directly based off of what the sources say.
Jess: Mm-hmm
Ben: And I do know that history has started to move to other forms of analysis like economic analysis or, to a certain extent, quantitative, but I suspect that there is a bit of a, with any sort of academic approach, oftentimes the traditional way of doing things takes a while to make room for the new ways of doing things, so I don’t know if you had any other thoughts about ways to broaden the field I guess.
Jess: Yeah, I guess, thinking about it, I have thought about history, and I suspect, my interpretation, I mean I haven’t, I studied history as an undergrad, but that’s the extent of my history knowledge. It feels like to me, history is doing, you know, if you’re reading primary sources and interpreting them, that is a type qualitative data analysis, you know, you’re probably making notes in different categories, so that it’s almost like coding, but it’s just talked about in a different way, so I think one thing we can do is to identify, and I’m sure there’s research out there on this. It would be really interesting to talk to a historian about how they approach primary sources and, you know, someone interested in a similar from sociology and how those methods, the specific things they are doing with the data, how that would compare. And also just to kind of question the assumptions we have, all of us bring to research about what is good research. When we interpret, so like you said, you know, they’re reading into or reading the primary source documents, being reflective and critical about how your positionality is, you know how my position as a white woman who works in higher education is different from someone else who might read that data, so I guess to not think that there’s ever only one way to read data or to work with data, that there are a lot of different ways, and all of those ways together make us more knowledgeable about the thing that we’re studying, so I think it’s, just a sense of, I dunno, humility or just a recognition that our, all of our methods have limitations, qualitative, quantitative, and that we’re better off as a discipline, as a society, the more types of information we have, the more types of data we use, the more ways of doing analysis like critical approaches and using critical theories I think can give us different insights that we can’t get with other approaches. But that takes practice, and I think, you know, some disciplines are more open to it than others, I can’t speak to other disciplines as well, but I think those conversations, I dunno, it’s just everything, our world is so complicated, the social world, and the problems we have to solve are so complex, and to think that there could only ever be one way of understanding it just seems so limiting to me, so yeah, I guess I, sometimes talking with qualitative researchers to, it’s almost to, to get back to like, this research is important. It may be different than how other people have done it, but that has a limit. Yours has a limit, you know, what can they bring together and big picture help us know about this topic, and everyone I’ve talked to has been doing research that I think ultimately can, it sounds so, I dunno, it makes the world better. Like, we’re better for knowing these things, so yeah, I think that’s, it’s an attitude, but then also they need the infrastructure there to do that, so that’s what I try to do in all of our workshops and consultations is, if someone wants to approach a new methodology then they need resources and maybe someone they can talk to about, you know, how would you work with this data, I haven’t had a chance to do that before, so I guess that’s what I see, part of my role is, you know, for people who are in those disciplines is to be a resource, part of this campus-wide infrastructure, because we do have this amazing infrastructure, but to help them figure out how, what contribution they’ll make to this knowledge that we have.
Ben: Well great, well that’s all I had prepared, unless there was anything else you wanted to be sure to share with the listeners?
Jess: Uh no, just to say that, I think this is true of any librarian and any of the folks working in the Scholarly Commons, you don’t have to have a specific question or, even to have your data yet, for qualitative research. Like I sometimes talk to people who are still deciding what data they will use, and I think in most cases you can talk to people at any point throughout the research life cycle, even after you’ve done your analysis and you want to talk about how to, you know, present it or, I think, I guess I probably shouldn’t speak for other people, but my experience is that people will talk to you throughout the research cycle. It’s not just at any one stage, and we generally, in my experience, we also really enjoy that, so, just to encourage people to reach out and let us know what you’re doing and how we can support you.
Ben: Great, and what is your email, just so I can…
Jess: Oh sure.
Ben: …link to it?
Jess: Yeah, it’s I have, I’ll make sure you have this link, but there’s a LibGuide…
Ben: Mm-hmm
Jess: …just like, that’s where you can find my appointment scheduler, I put the workshop schedule there, yeah. Oh, and I would also mention that there’s other people doing this work on campus too, like the Qualitative Research Initiative out of the Center for Social and Behavioral Sciences, I can send you that link as well. I think there’s kind of a growing effort to bring together people who do different kinds of qualitative research, so they’ve talked about ethnography and kind of working with IRB, in that case, so there are people who are wanting to come together and talk about those things. I think we’re going to have a panel later this semester about teaching qualitative methods, so definitely to get connected to that as well if you’re interested in qualitative research.
Ben: Great, yeah and of course I definitely recommend Jess Hagman’s Savvy Researcher sessions. I’ve gone to one before and it was very useful, and that’s a good place to at least get started. Yeah, well I think that’s everything, so thank you so much Jess for talking to me today, and always good to talk to you.
Jess: Thanks, thanks for having me, I appreciate it.
Ben: Thank you.
It Takes a Campus is a podcast brought to you by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Scholarly Commons located in Room 220 of the Main Library. If you want more from us be sure to check out our blog Commons Knowledge, on the web at, and follow us on Twitter @ScholCommons. The opening and closing song is Tranquility Base by A.A. Alto. You can find their album Bright Corners in the Free Music Archive by searching for Tranquility Base at Thanks for listening.

It Takes Wenjie Wang

It Takes a Campus
It Takes a Campus
It Takes Wenjie Wang
Full Transcript
Have you ever thought about what really goes into supporting digital scholarship? Well, some may say it takes a village but here at the University of Illinois it’s bigger than that. It Takes a Campus. The Scholarly Commons will be interviewing experts across campus about all the new and exciting things that are happening to support digital scholarship. We will sit down with a specialist to learn about what they do, how they do it and why they got started working in their field. Hear what we mean when we say it takes a campus to do what we do.
Mallory Untch: Hello everybody, and welcome back to another episode of “It Takes a Campus”. My name is Mallory Untch, and I’m a graduate assistant in the Scholarly Commons. I’m excited today because I’m joined with Wenjie Wang, who is our Geographic Information Systems Specialist. So, hello and welcome to our podcast. Thanks for coming out and taking time out of your schedule to talk with me for a bit today about Geographic Information Systems, or as it’s more normally called, GIS. And at the Scholarly Commons, we get a lot of questions about GIS, and a lot of those inquiries are referred to you. But, for some people who are listening who may not know what GIS is, can you tell us, simply, what, what is GIS? [laughs]
Wenjie Wang: Yeah sure, I will make it as short as possible. Uh, so, GIS is short for Geographic Information Systems, uh, based on the name of GIS it’s obvious that GIS is highly related to geography. So, it’s a framework for gathering, managing, and analyzing data. It analyzes spatial location and organizes layers of information into visualization using maps. It can relate unrelated information by using location as the key index variable. So, in general, GIS technology allows people to connect data with geography.
Mallory: Yeah, that’s, thank you for explaining that so simply. I have always understood it as just being, like, data visualizations using maps so you can visually see and connect and assess the data that you have over a geographic or a spatial region. Can you tell me a little bit then what you do as a GIS specialist? What kind of duties do you have in your day-to-day or, um, you know, what kind of members of our campus community do you work closely with?
Wenjie: Yeah, sure. Uh, at Scholarly Commons I give introductions of GIS concepts and terminology to faculty and students who do not have experience of GIS, and I also provide GIS training and teaching for them and help them understand GIS data characteristics and file formats. I also have faculty and students discover, explore, and visualize GIS data by using GIS software, such as ArcGIS Online and ArcGIS Desktop. So they can learn about how their research could be turned into digital deliverables that will help to expand or speed their research, communicate and understand the outcome of the projects. I also act as University Library’s liaison to the Big Ten Academic Alliance Geoportal Project. So, I would, um, identify myself as an instructor. I give instructions and suggestions every day. I also work on some projects, such as developing GIS web applications and writing GIS-related tutorials. And also, sometimes I teach GIS workshops or GIS lectures in class. So, that’s me.
Mallory: That’s really interesting. I mean, you started this past summer, isn’t that, is that correct, right? Over the summer you started…
Wenjie: Yes.
Mallory: And so, you came to the Scholarly Commons when our physical space was closed. And so, I haven’t really been able to work closely with you and so it is really interesting to learn a little bit more about, you know, what you do as a GIS specialist.
Wenjie: Yeah, uh, I mean I started my work just after the pandemic so… [laughs] That’s not the perfect timing.
Mallory: No, it’s not at all, but, uh, you’ve been doing great, and I know we didn’t have a GIS specialist for a little bit before you came, so, um, your service was much needed. So, let’s talk about you. Before you got to Illinois, what’s your background? You just received your PhD, that’s great, congratulations. So, where and what were you studying? What kind of research were you doing? So, really, just, where were you before you got to Illinois?
Wenjie: Yeah, um, so I got my PhD degree from the University of Connecticut, and I got my Master’s degree from Duke University. So, it was a kind of challenging time for me to take the defense during the pandemic. It was not easy to communicate with my committee members since everyone works from home. And, I had to, I had to take my dissertation defense on Zoom, which feels quite different from the in-person presentation because you can’t see everyone’s face, you don’t even know if they are listening to you. It just feels very weird. [laughs] But finally, I made it, so I’m still excited about this. Um, yeah and my study interests are land use/land cover change, uh, my research is about improving the land use/land cover classification by using the Markov Chain geostatistical post-classification method. I know it may sound pretty new to many people, the Markov Chain, [laughs]. I won’t talk too many details about what Markov Chain geostatistic is, it could be a very long story and we, uh, it’s a geospatial statistic method used in my research. And, uh, I was Census and Geospatial Data Specialist in the Map and Geographic Information Center at UConn for about five years. So, I did pretty much the same as I do at the Scholarly Commons. So, yeah.
Mallory: That is interesting too because you can’t major in GIS, right, you have to study geography? Or, is there any other types of fields that, you know, incorporate GIS that could lead to this type of job or position?
Wenjie: Yeah, GIS is more like a tool. You cannot adjust your tool without any topic, you know?
Mallory: Yeah, exactly. Um, but, do you think it is an interdisciplinary field? Like, you don’t, you don’t have to be coming from a geography background to be using GIS in your research.
Wenjie: Mm-hmm. Yeah, it’s a very interdisciplinary tool.
Mallory: Mm-hmm, so what kind of projects do you see from students and faculty at the University?
Wenjie: Oh, there are a lot of… [laughs] So, I mean, GIS can be a very powerful tool in interdisciplinary research. I have worked with faculty from the department of History and the project was about mapping the history of UConn. We created a lot of maps and the old maps. And another project was about land use/land cover change and its impact on invasive species. I worked with faculty from the department of Political Science, uh, department of Economics, and I also have been involved in a project from the School of Business, and the project was about quantifying the impact of the rail stations on real estate values. Yeah, I think that’s a lot of examples.
Mallory: No, it’s important ’cause it’s hard to imagine, you know, the possibilities. Like, someone could be working on a project and GIS tools and, you know, methodologies could be a really useful way of understanding their, the data that they have. And you know, answering these more complex questions about their research. So, I think it’s interesting to understand what fields that people are coming from, especially for our listeners who may be working on their own projects and say, hey, you know, maybe GIS would be a good avenue or tool for me to use. So, on that same note, what kind of inquiries do you usually get? Do people come to you already knowing that they need to use GIS, or are they brand-new, they’re like, I don’t really know what I should be doing with my project, can you help me find some direction?
Wenjie: Uh, yeah, this is a very good question. I mean, a lot of patrons do not have any background of GIS, and I think GIS has a really, uh, steep learning curve at the very beginning, um, our patrons have no idea where to find data and what kind of tutorials they can use to get started. So, a lot of, uh, requests is about where to find data and how to use this kind of data, how to use GIS software, so, it’s a very basic level but it’s also very important. Once they get guidance at the very beginning, then they can go through the tool very quickly.
Mallory: That’s great. So, at the University of Illinois, you said you do partner with, like, the Big Ten Alliance. But do you do any other type of independent research with GIS, working on your own, your own projects with your own interests?
Wenjie: Uh, yeah, I do have my own, uh, projects. So, uh, yeah, my research is about improving land use/land cover classifications, so now I am writing a manuscript which discusses accuracy assessment of global land use/land cover product and feasibility of its improvement. So, that’s what I’m doing right now.
Mallory: That’s interesting! That’ll be exciting to read about. I mean, I personally do not know much about GIS so this is a very enlightening conversation for me. But, what has been your favorite project that you’ve worked on in the past, if you have one?
Wenjie: Uh, yeah, I have one. So, I created maps for, `um, to provide a quick and user-friendly way for communities to reflect on the differences in children outcomes across the local communities in Connecticut. This project has been done a lot of years ago, so it was my first big project and it was very meaningful. So, it’s my favorite project so far.
Mallory: Yeah, I always find that, you know, some of the, like, earlier projects are the ones that you’re, you find yourself being most proud of because it’s the first time that you’re applying those skills and you’re feeling that achievement in using your, your knowledge. I guess my next question to you would be, what do you think is something that people misunderstand about this field? I think, personally, I have a hard time understanding what GIS is because I know that there’s ways to, for example, use the U.S. Census to find data across, like, a geographic region. So, I have a hard time drawing that line. When is it just data about space, and when is it GIS?
Wenjie: This also a very good question. I think a lot people think GIS is just a tool to make maps. And, uh, however, GIS guys are not just producers of maps. Maps, uh, are simply a key outcome from our work. Sometimes people do not fully understand their data until they see how it relates to other things, you know, geography context. And they can understand what belongs where by using GIS. So actually, GIS is a tool used to understand where things are found, why they are there, and how they develop and change over time. And, I think GIS reveals deeper insights into data, such as patterns, relationships, and the situations. It can help users make smarter decisions. So we use maps because they are intuitive and easy to understand, but it does not mean that GIS is all about maps. I would like to say that GIS is more than just a software or a map. It’s a solution-provider.
Mallory: That is very insightful, thank you for sharing that. And I think that I agree, I think that is a misconception, at least from somebody who doesn’t know about the, the field of GIS too much. I do associate it with maps. [laughs] But, it is interesting, you say your work at UConn was in the map library, or, not the library…
Wenjie: Um, so it’s kind of the same, so… we also call it MAGIC. MAGIC is under the, is in the library, so…
Mallory: Okay, so it’s kind of similar to the Scholarly Commons, as you’re saying. It’s in the library, but it’s not necessarily the commonly understood library space. So, your previous position and this position are both situated in the library, but you are not a librarian, you don’t have a background in Library and Information Science, so do you think that this position fits well in a library setting? And why would that be?
Wenjie: Yeah, this is also a very, very good question. I mean, um, a lot of people may think it’s strange to have a GIS position in the library. They think the library is just a place to borrow and lend books. This is a very common misconception, uh, misconception. I think library is a partner in the teaching and research processes. And the library supports students and faculty through the provision of information resources and technologies. And also, I’m proud of that I can be one of the members in the library to provide this kind of service. Um, I remember that, so I think GIS fits very well in the library with the explosion of information that’s available. Finding relevant and reliable data resources can be a very challenging thing, but if we can help our faculty and students to get access to the GIS data resources, and GIS can be a powerful tool in many interdisciplinary research. Um, I think the learning curve with most GIS software can be lessened with the help of librarians that are able to explain software, recommend useful media, and uh, preserve geospatial data. Therefore, I believe this position can be a bridge between our patrons and GIS technology and help them make progress in their research.
Mallory: Yeah, I completely agree. As somebody who is coming from a library background, I’m getting my degree in Library and Information Science in just a few months. I think the library, people misunderstand the library as just being a center for books or finding research papers, things like that. And so, having a service like a GIS specialist and, you know, finding specialized data, things like that, you know, I think it’s a really important role in our library. But do you think that it is specific to, you know, large institutions, or do you think this could be a position that is across all academic libraries?
Wenjie: Um, I believe it’s a, um, it’s a very common position in most of the library, um, academic libraries. I remember all current members of Association of Research Libraries were selected to participate in an online survey a few years ago. If I remember correctly, the results shows that 100% of survey respondents offer GIS software or mapping technologies at their libraries. And their campus communities are supported by library staff in a variety of ways with regards to GIS. So, I think it’s very common to have GIS positions in academic libraries.
Mallory: Do you think this type of research is only done in an academic setting, or how is GIS used in a more, like, common-place setting, like outside of, you know, people working on dissertations or faculty working on research?
Wenjie: So, I think we can, uh, help them to explore the GIS data, and we can help them to relate their data with GIS data and find some deeper insight relationship between the data, and I can, we can help them to make progress in their research.
Mallory: So, I have one final question for you. Is there anything that you wished you had known when you started your, you know, your Master’s degree, before you started going to your PhD, before you got to where you are now, you know, did you imagine yourself being, working in a library, you’re constantly learning in your career. So do you think there was anything important that you learned about your field along the way?
Wenjie: Nothing particularly. I mean, we cannot predict most things, so we have to learn something new all the time. For example, I spent lots of time learning C++, but now Python becomes so popular and is considered as the primary scripting language for ArcGIS. So, I started to learn Python a few years ago. So, I mean, GIS is always changing. In this field, I think that, like, listen to a webinar, go to a conference is very important way for me to learn the new trend of GIS. I think conference provide great opportunities for me to network with other professionals, and I can see demonstrations, ask questions, and get hands-on experience with a variety of GIS software. And, so, during the pandemic, I think it’s quite easy to attend conference now, there is no need to consider the budget for some conference, and we don’t need to fly to a different state to join a conference. But, uh, to be honest, I still prefer to join the in-person conference. It’s much easier for me to communicate with others.
Mallory: And it’s just nice, you know, having people around. It’s hard when you’re at home and you’re just watching a webinar, or something. It’s hard to, you know, give it your 100% attention versus like, being present in the space. So, I agree, but I think that, especially in information sciences, which I’m kinda gonna group GIS under, it’s so, it’s evolving so rapidly as technology advances, and I think that you’re always learning, and I appreciate you recognizing that, even somebody who is the specialist, the expert in this field, you know, you’re still learning, and you don’t come into the positions knowing everything about everything. So, it’s really insightful for you to share that. Well, thank you so much for, for giving me your time today. I really appreciate our conversation and I learned so much about GIS that I did not know before our conversation. So, I hope our listeners have learned something new too. If you have any GIS questions, Wenjie is available at the Scholarly Commons. Check out our website: We have a whole page on GIS with all of our resources and ways to reach Wenjie. So, thank you again Wenjie for being with me today.
Wenjie: Thank you, Mallory, thank you so much for inviting me.
It Takes a Campus is a podcast brought to you by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Scholarly Commons located in the Main Library. If you want more from us be sure to check out our blog Commons Knowledge and follow us on Twitter @ScholCommons. That’s S C H O L Commons. The opening and closing song is Tranquility Base by A.A. Alto. You can find their album Bright Corners in the Free Music Archive by searching for A A Alto at Thanks for listening.

It Takes Ted Underwood

It Takes a Campus
It Takes a Campus
It Takes Ted Underwood

Ted Underwood’s Illinois Experts Profile

Full Transcript
Have you ever thought about what really goes into supporting digital scholarship? Well, some may say it takes a village but here at the University of Illinois it’s bigger than that. It Takes a Campus. The Scholarly Commons will be interviewing experts across campus about all the new and exciting things that are happening to support digital scholarship. We will sit down with a specialist to learn about what they do, how they do it and why they got started working in their field. Hear what we mean when we say it takes a campus to do what we do.
Ben Ostermeier: Hello and welcome back to another episode of “It Takes a Campus.” My name is Ben, and I am currently a graduate assistant at the Scholarly Commons, and today I am joined with Dr. Ted Underwood, who is a professor at the iSchool here at the University of Illinois. Dr. Underwood, welcome to the podcast and thank you for taking time to talk to me today.
Ted Underwood: Hi Ben, it’s a pleasure to be here.
Ben: I wanted to get started by asking how you got started integrating digital methods into your research, since as I understand it your formal academic background is in English literature.
Ted: Right, it seems like a bit of an unusual turn, but it actually has a long history. Back in the 1990s when I was in grad school, it was already beginning to be clear that there were going to be opportunities, as our digital libraries got bigger, to pose questions about, you know, the evolution of ideas, development of literary form, and I tried to do that a bit in the ’90s using the very limited collections of texts we had then, and I published an article. But, you know, I didn’t go much further with it, because the collections were very limited, and also it wasn’t easy to do things then, so, you know, fast forward to, like 2009, and John Unsworth, then Dean of what was called the Graduate School of Library and Information Sciences here at Illinois, got in touch with me and drew me into a project, and I discovered, “Wow, we have Google Books now,” first of all, and then secondarily, and I think just as importantly, it’s easy to learn stuff now, like you can just go on the web and search how to do something, and sort of teach yourself. It did help that I had a little bit of programming background from the ’80s, but that was pretty dusty by that point. But, you know, things had just gotten to the point where we had the resources, and it was easy to teach yourself how to do stuff.
Ben: Great, so, I’m going to ask you possibly an annoying question…
Ted: Go for it.
Ben: …which I think every person who works in the Digital Humanities inevitably has to answer at some point, but, it’s a question that comes up, which is how you define the Digital Humanities, and to what extent does that definition matter, because, everybody seems to have their own definition, and inevitably it leads to, perhaps, interesting conversations. So I’m wondering what your thoughts are about that conversation?
Ted: Yeah, thank you, it’s not an annoying question. It’s an inevitable and important question, I think, actually, even though it’s true that people try to avoid it, because, as you say, it’s a complex term, a term that people use in different ways, and the slipperiness of the term does generate sometimes friction. But I don’t think that that is an accident, you know, or something that we can sort of step around. It is inherent to the term, and it’s not accidental. The term is deliberately vague, digital humanities, it could encompass, say, you know, using humanistic methods to study podcasts or blog posts, or digital media generally using traditional humanistic methods to study those things. Or it could mean using digital methods, whatever those are, maybe computational methods, statistics, what have you, to study, well, podcasts, but perhaps also printed books, perhaps movies from the 1950s. So, digital methods to study more traditional media, or it could be the way scholarship is produced. It could be digital humanities is whatever you’re doing if you put it on the web, it’s digital humanities, and that’s a valid way of using the term too. So there’s a lot of looseness there, and I don’t think it’s an accident. I think it is deliberate vagueness that’s constructed in order to create a concept that is loose enough to be welcoming, to welcome lots of different people, because there’s a real danger, there’s a lot of tension at this intersection between the traditions of the humanities and computational media, computational methods, so there’s a lot of risk that if you say, specifically, computational humanities, or humanities using numbers, some people will be like “Woah, that is not what I signed up, get out of here,” you know, that’s a real risk. Conversely, if you say, okay we’re going to study digital media, some people will say, “Well, I’m actually more interested in the 20th century, or the 19th century, and I’m interested in history, that’s what the humanities mean to me.” So there’s these tensions there, and we’ve tried to bridge them by constructing a term that is deliberately baggy, and that works, somewhat, it’s worked to sort of create a broad community of people and a lively conversation, but we shouldn’t be surprised when that dissolves and breaks apart. It was, the instability was built into that term from the beginning. So it does matter, it does matter that we understand the term, but we shouldn’t be surprised that it doesn’t come down to a crisp definition.
Ben: Yeah, great, and that kind of leads me to my next question, because on our previous episode we had Spencer Keralis, who is the digital humanities librarian here at the University of Illinois, and they talked about some of this tension, particularly between research that is published in an interactive digital format, such as on a platform like Scalar or Omeka, versus using digital methods in support of a more traditional communication, like a journal article or a monograph.
Ted: Yep
Ben: Do you agree that such a divide exists and what your thoughts are about that and are there ways that perhaps they could work better in tandem together or is it perhaps to be expected, at least, that there would be somewhat of a divide there within the digital humanities umbrella?
Ted: Yeah, I mean I do agree that a divide exists there, it’s not a crisp one, um, because, I mean, even if your research is setting out to produce basically articles and books, if you’re doing that using digital methods, you’re going to have data or code that needs to be preserved probably online, and you’re probably also, you know, visualizations. So the lines sort of between traditional scholarly formats and new platforms do get blurry, but I do agree that there are some people in digital humanities for whom stretching the boundaries of the publication format counts as scholarship, to include maybe digital editing, for instance, rather than thesis-driven argument. There are people for whom that’s central. And, then there are people for whom may welcome digital editing, but they’re primarily interested in producing new arguments, argument-driven scholarship. And, there’s no necessary conflict between those things, but they rub against the external world in different places. The conflict with existing institutions in different places. So for instance, if you’re doing, you know, if you’re building digital exhibitions on Omeka, then it’s very important to redefine what counts as scholarship in terms of promotion and tenure review, because the role of editing and building collections is often ambiguous, at least at research universities. That then becomes the point of friction between digital humanities and the rest of the world, whereas if you’re doing, say like, quantitative scholarship but scholarship that’s ultimately going to produce an article, then the point of friction might be, say, how do we go about training students to do this, because it’s not in the curriculum. So, and, frankly, ideally it would require a sequence of three or four courses, really to prepare students to do that, statistics programming, you know, it can’t easily be done in one or two courses. So, it’s not that two things are in conflict, but that they have sort of different battles to fight, and I do think that that produces a conflict in the sense that, you know, people are like, “Hey we need some help over here,” you know, that’s where the conflict comes from.
Ben: Yeah, and that leads me to a follow up question, which is, as a professor who teaches courses, in my experience there is definitely a certain challenges in digital humanities of training students in digital methods that, typically it seems like digital humanities students come from a humanities background as opposed to, from a computer science background, typically anyways.
Ted: Yeah
Ben: And so oftentimes there can be quite a learning curve for students…
Ted: Yep [laughs]
Ben: …and oftentimes they can be scared away by the challenges involved, so how do you deal with that, and what are ways we can perhaps do better at that?
Ted: Yeah I don’t think we have a good solution there yet, actually. That is definitely the case, and I’ve been evolving in, I’ll tell you the direction I’ve been evolving on that, and I think I’m still evolving, so like ten years ago, or nine years ago, back in 2011, 2012, I had the idea that it would be possible to do all of this in a course in the English department, which is where I was located then. And maybe we’d have a graduate course in the English department where it would be something like “Digital Humanities” or “Digital Methods in Literary Study,” and we’d, oh we’d explore the controversies about the nature of digital humanities and maybe along the way introduce students to some programming and statistics, and that is so impossible. [Both laugh] That’s now ludicrous, right, that’s actually like five course that you’re trying to compress into one, but it seemed necessary, and in some ways it was necessary at the time, because you couldn’t assume that students, say, in an English department were going to expect to have to take three or four courses in this area, or be willing to, because it was still very new and controversial, so you were going to get one course, realistically that was going to be the curriculum. So there was just a limit on what you could actually do. You could not really teach computational methods in a course like that. And so, you know, I’ve dealt with that partly by expanding my role in the university where now I’m teaching in the School of Information Sciences, where there is a bigger DH curriculum and there are more students who are likely to have taken courses in programming or data science and be able to maybe take a more advanced course to be able to apply that to say look at unstructured data, look at text or images, but it’s still definitely a challenge, because realistically, like I say, it actually would be a three or four course sequence, not a two course sequence. And so, there’s still considerable risk of rushing things, and I don’t think I’m avoiding that successfully yet, to be honest with you. It’s sort of like a coevolution between the way we teach this and the way that the curricular institutions around us sort of frame the topic, and what they suggest is possible. There’s another approach, I should say, there is another way to go about this, which is very popular, and I just don’t think it works either, which is to try to fit it all into one course by basically ditching the programming part, and say, “there are some user friendly tools out there, we can use those.” Like Voyant is one tool, a very good, it’s about as good as can be done in that space of sort of text analysis in your browser on the web. There are some other similar tools that promise to be user friendly, and they are to a certain point, but then you rapidly will run up against the limits of what you can actually do in those, say, graphical user interfaces. So, if we do it that way, we can squeeze it into one course or two courses, maybe, but then where do students go from there, is what I’m not certain. So that is a really big challenge, but I think ideally, my view would be, it means what we need to do is maybe define a little better, say a three course sequence in this space.
Ben: Yeah, that’s definitely something that I’ve had to deal with in my experience, because, for listeners who don’t know me, I was previously the technician for the IRIS Center at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, which that’s the digital humanities center there, and we have a digital humanities minor there, and I was actually the first student to receive that minor, but…
Ted: Okay
Ben: …in working on the curriculum after I received that minor, a big challenge we’ve had to deal with is, do students actually need to have programming experience to receive that minor, and I did, but many students are… have some hesitation about that, and it seems like, to a certain extent, I think there’s a fear at least of those that design curriculum that if you have too much programming involved you’re going to scare students away, and…
Ted: Yeah
Ben: …I don’t really have a good answer for that [laughs], but it’s a definite challenge.
Ted: I don’t either, but here’s what I see as likely to happen. We can build programs in the humanities that don’t have programming as part of them, and that can be a valid thing. I’m not against doing that. But if we do that, there will also be programs that arise in the social sciences, and in information science, and in computer science for that matter. They’re beginning to happen in departments of computer science already that use more flexible and adventurous kinds of computation than you can easily fit into a graphical tool, because, you know, social scientists are used to using statistics, and departments of information science and computer science exist also. So, it’s like if we don’t do it, they definitely will, because they can, you know [both laugh]. And humanities materials, movies, books, art, are fascinating, they’re really appealing, so departments of computer science will definitely go for that, they’re not gonna wait for us to do it, so it’s fine that, we could do it both ways, but the computational way is gonna happen somewhere, it’s just a question of where.
Ben: And do you think it’s better off happening from the end of the humanities going to the computer or the other way, do you think…
Ted: I would love them to be a bridge, I would love it to be a bridge, and I think it can be, I mean in some ways that’s the promise of information science as a place, is that you can have a single institution where really both of those perspectives are represented are joining hands and collaborating. It can work across campus too, if you’ve got a humanist in a[n] English department or history department collaborating with someone in computer science, that can also work. But I like the feeling of a school where you’ve got people from a lot of different disciplinary backgrounds collaborating. So, yeah I hope we’re able to hold that all together, but you know, just as with the term digital humanities itself, you end up describing a very big arc or bridge that’s fragile at lots of points, and it’s hard to hold together.
Ben: Yeah, as we’ve been talking, I realize we haven’t really had a whole lot of opportunity for you to talk about your particular research interests, so I wanted to give you the opportunity to talk about some of the computational work you’ve done in your research.
Ted: Oh sure, I mean…
Ben: That’s a big question so… [Both laugh]
Ted: …it varies, I’ll organize it under two heads, things I’ve done and thing’s, sort of, maybe looking forward, things that I think are getting exciting. But a lot of what I’ve done is use large digital libraries to pose questions about long timelines in literary history. So, you know, how has the pace of narration changed, how much time passes in a typical page of a novel? Are we talking about a week of fictional time that passes in each page of reading, or is it a day, or is it sometimes increasingly in recent years, it’s more like two minutes per page. The pace has slowed down. And when that slowdown happened, is not something we had a good picture of. A lot of literary critics, for instance, thought that that happened at the beginning of the 20th century with modernism, now that we have a big picture we can see it was much more gradual. And similar sorts of questions about concreteness, the development of concreteness in fiction. And really it’s, you know all of these things come together in a way to make a bigger story about literary history and the study of literature, which is to a large extent, our idea of what literature is for has been shaped by certain aspects of literature that only developed very recently, like this emphasis on concrete particulars and brief, sort of, fragmentary moments that we now think is sort of, that experiential vividness and particularities is crucial to the mission of literature, so much so that it’s shaped the way we think we ought to be reading and interpreting literature. But it’s actually, if you look at the big picture, you can see where we got that. It’s a long story, a gradual story, and in fact, sort of our idea that you can’t use big numbers and panoramas to understand literature is a product of a history that, if you back up, we can actually the panorama that generated that. So, that’s the story I’ve been telling. But I think in years to come, I’m interested in looking at, not just at, sort of, big digital libraries and long surveys across long timelines. But I’m getting increasingly interested in understanding literature in detail, like how plot works, how suspense works, and I think it’s going, the nature of machine learning and of computation is evolving so rapidly that is gonna become increasingly possible for us to pose some questions that seems like less social sciency, more interpretive, using machine learning.
Ben: Yeah, I’ve seen arguments, and this was largely in a non-academic context..
Ted: Yeah
Ben: …so take this kind of with a grain of salt, but that, like, plots are becoming increasingly complex over time in media…
Ted: Mmm
Ben: …in general, and, at least I think the argument was particularly for TV shows…
Ted: Yeah
Ben: …that there used to be TV shows were just linear, beginning to end, and nowadays you have a lot like, not just time travel, but flashbacks…
Ted: Yeah
Ben: …and non-linear storytelling, so I’d be interested in questions like that about like, ways of seeing the way how narrative is constructed…
Ted: Yeah
Ben: …is changing, because the conventional wisdom oftentimes is like, “People are getting dumb,” and like…
Ted: [Laughs] Yeah, no, no
Ben: …which, I don’t agree with, but yeah.
Ted: It’s pretty clear, I think there’s actually some agreement that TV has gotten more adventurous, for a lot of, I mean one thing, there’s a classic thesis, and I don’t know who to attribute it to, but just the development of the VCR or DVR meant that you could return and pay attention to the texture of of television, you could slow down and get the joke, whereas if it’s broadcast television in the 1970s…
Ben: [Laughs]
Ted: …it’s gone, you know, you can’t return to it. So yeah, that I think we know, but I think there are gonna be all kinds of other questions. There’s some good work that’s come out recently in the Journal of Cultural Analytics studying the sitcom using face recognition, and they’re like, “Which characters get attention, when in the plot, when in the arc of the sitcom do they get attention,” and we’re gonna be able to study that kind of formal, the formal architecture of TV genres, as well as literary genres, in new ways, I think, yeah.
Ben: Yeah, that’s exciting, and that leads me to the last formal question I had prepared, which is, and you addressed it already, but perhaps big picture
Ted: There’s more to say.
Ben: I’m sure, there’s always more to say.
Ted: Yeah.
Ben: And the question is, what do you see as the future of data science in the humanities?
Ted: Yeah, I see it as being really capacious, really, so, you know, the kind of thing I’ve done, like, where it’s explicitly quantitative and it’s about big, historical stories, that’s never going to be everything the humanities are about, because we’re also about individuals, and that’s valid. We’re about individual stories. But I think, what’s happening now, the line between data science and machine learning, or, to use a term that’s sometimes used, artificial intelligence. I kind of prefer machine learning, but it’s different sides of the same coin, that is a very blurry continuum. And that means that we are not just going to be studying culture in a kind of large-scale social sciency way, but we’re going to be able to, for instance, do the things that large language models do, where you can give them the beginning of a story, and then they continue it. Like okay, if that’s how the story begins in that style, then this would be a plausible next paragraph. Or they can do something similar to that with images, and that means we can begin to pose questions about the sort of, the frame-to-frame movement of a video, or the paragraph-to-paragraph movement of a story, where we start to ask questions about, for instance, what makes some stories more predictable than others? Like is it easier to predict where this plot is gonna go? Or we can pose questions about, like, where could this story have alternatively gone? Where could it plausibly have gone, suppose it’s written in the 1870s, you know, what are the plausible alternative endings for this story. What about if we move it forward a decade? You can, we’re getting models that are good enough to be able to pose that kind of question, like what could have happened in the story under alternate circumstances? And that’s gonna open up just a huge range of questions that are not limited to the kinds of questions we think of as appropriate for data science or social science. They’re more, to be honest, they’re akin to creative questions. One of the things about these generative models, generative models of images or of text, is they’re basically, they’re doing something like generating the artwork. Now I don’t think that that means that we’re gonna, like, you know, have robots write all our novels for us. [Ben laughs] They’re not that good, and the arc of a whole plot is something they still struggle with, and I’m not sure we want that anyway, actually. I think it’s more fun, people enjoy fan fiction because they enjoy going back and forth with a story world, right. They enjoy participation. But it does mean that the line between, what we think of as analytical or critical tasks, and what we think of as creative play, could get really blurry, and that to me suggests that the future of data science in the humanities is not something we’re gonna want to keep walled out because it’s too much like social science, it actually could be really central to what we think of as things like play, that are central to the purpose of the humanities. But for that to happen, it’s gonna need to become kind of like a lingua franca that we’re comfortable than we are right now. And I think that will happen actually because the opportunities are just too huge, but how it will happen, you know, where that happens in the curriculum, remains a bit of a mystery.
Ben: Yeah, and I think, and.. correct me if I’m wrong, but there is certain level of I think fear out in the world about like artificial intelligence or machine learning…
Ted: You are not wrong. [Both laugh]
Ben: …I mean certainly more in like the context of facial recognition.
Ted: Yes
Ben: …and the use of like surveillance or what have you…
Ted: Right and social media…
Ben: Yeah
Ted: …big tech corporations. These kinds of fear are all interwoven, yes.
Ben: Yeah so, I imagine that bleeds into the academy…
Ted: Oh yes
Ben: …in hesitations people might have about um…
Ted: Oh yes
Ben: …what you do.
Ted: It doesn’t just bleed into the academy, a lot of that is sort of generated in the academy…
Ben: Right
Ted: …and it’s, I mean if I’m gonna be completely candid about that, partly that’s a reflection of an emerging competition between universities and tech companies, which are both like, there’s this space which is like, intellectual institutions and society, which universities have had kind of a monopoly there, like oh there’s gonna be research in computer science, we’re going to be doing it. Now the tech companies are kind of claiming to be the leading edge of CS research, which does not make universities comfortable, and so that’s, part of the anxiety is fueled by just sort of general social things with social media and fears of surveillance. But within the academic context, we also have to be candid that Google is a competitor for universities, and it’s not surprising that university professors like myself are real… wary of it. So, you know, but I think it’s also valid, that, to be sure, you know the steam engine was socially disruptive and was a problem and magnified social problems and was not handled well, and is machine learning going to do all those things too? Magnify social problems, increase concentration of power, not be handled well, need kinds of regulation that we don’t yet have, yes. I mean all of that will be true, for sure. So it’s going to be, at the same time, I also think everything that I said earlier is true, it can magnify human creativity and become a way we understand human creativity and be a kind of collaborative space for human creativity. So, it’s not an either or, but it means that there’s a really interesting, complex struggle and conversation that plays out there.
Ben: Yeah it almost seems like, perhaps, the attitude is that if we don’t use it or don’t acknowledge it, it doesn’t exist, or we don’t have to worry about it then.
Ted: Yeah
Ben: Or maybe that’s oversimplifying it, but we’re better off at least, like, I dunno, claiming it, or taking ownership, or…
Ted: Yeah, I mean, yeah
Ben: …at least figuring out how it works, so like…
Ted: Yeah, that for sure. I mean we, everyone would agree about that, that it’s a real bad idea for people not to understand how machine learning works, I think we can all agree about that. Where to do next is where things get a little complicated, but I’m not really sure yet that we have a policy disagreement about like, how should machine learning be regulated? I think, generally speaking, a lot of, when the conversation actually gets that concrete, there’s often a lot of agreement. But it’s before we get to that level, when we’re talking about like, what attitude should we adopt to machine learning, before it really gets to the concrete level of “what should we do?” then there’s a lot of tension, because people have very different attitudes and very different, I mean honestly it’s an emotional thing, like how do we, I have, when I look at, sort of, a big new language model, I have feeling of excitement and joy and like it’s spring and there’s gonna be new [Ben laughs] flowers coming up and I don’t what they are. But I know that people do not have that feeling [Both laugh] when they look at a large language model, and I understand that, but it’s not, I don’t think that’s purely like an intellectual debate. It’s even sort of like before we’ve gotten to the stage of framing an intellectual debate about it, it’s that people just have, at this stage, very different kind of, I guess a technical term would be priors or instincts, um yeah.
Ben: Perhaps a gut reaction of some sort or?
Ted: Gut reaction, yeah. Yeah.
Ben: Yeah
Ted: And, I do understand where the other gut reaction is coming from because big tech companies are scary, legit scary, and also ways governments can use machine learning and will use machine learning I think are highly scary. So that’s all true. It’s just, how we hold those things in tension, right, ’cause there’s always a dark and a bright side to everything, including like, you know, the human body, right, it has problems. So but it’s how you hold those things in tension that remains to be seen.
Ben: Right, um the title of our podcast is “It Takes a Campus,” so I feel like I should ask something about the, I guess the campus environment in which you operate, because, speaking as someone who came from another university that had DH in various forms…
Ted: Yeah
Ben: …um, University of Illinois is so big that it almost inevitably becomes, in some sense siloed, for lack of a better way of putting it. And maybe that’s not accurate, I don’t know I’m still fairly new here
Ted: No, it’s accurate [Both laugh]
Ben: But, yeah, it feels like that’s a definite issue for digital humanities, is there’s a certain level of siloing that occurs, and how do we deal with that?
Ted: Yeah, so there’s siloing with, sort of a university from other universities, and then there’s different communities within the campus. The thing I like to say about the University of Illinois is that it’s like a Kafka novel in that, or a short story by Kafka, in that somewhere on campus there’s an amazing resource meant for you and you alone, but you may or may not ever discover the door where it’s hidden behind, so there’s so much going on here, that means that people are not necessarily always in communication. I think that that is a challenge for DH, you know, there are connections between, in particular I would say the iSchool and HRI, which has its own, Humanities Research Institute if I’m getting the acronym right, used to be IPRH, which is sort of on a different part of campus, but we’re both doing digital humanities in different ways in some communication with each other, and then there’s communication with the outside world, which I think is also important, and I think this program Training in Digital Methods for Humanists that’s centered at HRI has done a bit to encourage people to go out to, you know, summer institutes, say, where they can be in communication with people at other universities, and I do think that’s important, because otherwise you fall behind, honestly. And it’s particularly challenging for all universities, not just for Illinois right now, because there’s not a lot of hiring happening in the humanities, so it is easy to fall behind, actually, if we don’t consciously refresh our experience. I do think that’s a challenge, but I’m optimistic that we’ll build the needed bridges.
Ben: Yeah, well great, well that’s largely what I had prepared today, but I wanted to give you the opportunity to speak to anything you feel like we should have talked about. I mean, that’s a pretty open door, so…
Ted: No, those were great questions actually, and I got a chance to go off on how large language models are like the approach of spring with unknown flowers coming up…
Ben: [Ben laughs]
Ted: …that’s what I wanted to say, so, yeah.
Ben: Well I’m glad you got the opportunity to say that, yeah. It’s not an army from Mordor…
Ted: Yeah, or I mean, you know, it’s also an army from Mordor, but yeah, it’s both, both things. [Laughs]
Ben: Yeah, well, the world is complex.
Ted: Yeah
Ben: Well, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me today. I really enjoyed our conversation, and I look forward to talking to you more in class later. Full disclosure to the podcast: Dr. Underwood is currently my professor for Data Science in the Humanities course.
Ted: It’s fair to disclose.
Ben: Yes
Ted: It’s been a please talking to you too.
Ben: Yes, yep. And I will talk to you again later.
It Takes a Campus of the podcast brought to you by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Scholarly Commons located in the Main Library. If you want more from us be sure to check out our blog Commons Knowledge and follow us on Twitter @ScholCommons. That’s S C H O L Commons. The opening and closing song is Tranquility Base by A.A. Alto. You can find their album Bright Corners in the Free Music Archive by searching for A A Alto at Thanks for listening.

It Takes Spencer Keralis

It Takes a Campus
It Takes a Campus
It Takes Spencer Keralis

Spencer Keralis’ Illinois Experts Profile

Full Transcript
Have you ever thought about what really goes into supporting digital scholarship? Well, some may say it takes a village but here at the University of Illinois it’s bigger than that. It Takes a Campus. The Scholarly Commons will be interviewing experts across campus about all the new and exciting things that are happening to support digital scholarship. We will sit down with a specialist to learn about what they do, how they do it and why they got started working in their field. Hear what we mean when we say it takes a campus to do what we do.
Mallory Untch: Hello and welcome back to another episode of “It Takes a Campus.” My name is Mallory and I am currently a Graduate Assistant at the Scholarly Commons and today I am joined with Spencer Keralis our Digital Humanities Librarian here at the University of Illinois. Spencer, hello and thank you so much for being with me today, at least virtually.
Spencer Keralis: It’s good to see you, Mallory.
Mallory: Would you mind explaining what your definition of Digital Humanities is, what it fully entails because I do think it can be quite broad and people can have different interpretations of really what the field is as a holistic…thing?
Spencer: Sure, I think within Digital Humanities there’s kind of like defining Digital Humanities is kind of a genre piece, like it shows up in every publication and every special issue and everything where people are like “What is Digital Humanities or what are Digital Humanities? Is it plural? Is it not? So, I think that it’s important though that, to have a definition of Digital Humanities for institutional reasons, right? So, what, because what counts as Digital Humanities can be really fraught for especially for junior scholars or for graduate students who are trying to get some exposure and some experience in it. And also, for libraries institutionally, defining Digital Humanities will define what you’re going to be investing and supporting, as well.
So, the definition that I’ve become most comfortable with over the years is the one that we use in the Digital Frontiers community. Digital Frontiers is a nonprofit that I manage that has been working in the Digital Humanities intersection between DH and libraries for almost ten years now and we say that Digital Humanities “is the creative development and use of the digital resources for Humanities research, teaching, and learning.” And that’s been what we’ve been using for the last several years. One thing that that leaves out, though, is Scholarly Communications and Digital Publishing. Not just Open Access Publishing but this innovative platform-based Digital Publishing things like Omeka and Scalar and even WordPress has become really important over the last several years and I think it’s becoming increasingly important as we moved into a more distributed digital environment and as the need for Open Educational Resources (OER) in Open Publishing becomes greater. So, I think there’s a lot that the Digital Humanities community can do to intervene in that space and it’s really important for us to be not discounting that work and not undervaluing work that is published digitally.
Mallory: Yeah, from what I understand in the Digital Humanities there’s a side for publishing, so, using platforms like Omeka and Scalar, like you said and then there’s also this computational side of the Digital Humanities which is the text analysis and text mining, things of that nature. Is that right? Obviously, it’s not as black and white but can you talk about how they kind of work together?
Spencer: Well, unfortunately, they kind of don’t. I mean there’s been there’s a real sort of separation between the two and so you’ll have a scholar, like our own Ted Underwood who does large-scale corpus analysis, quantitative analysis of large bodies of text and he publishes…it’s right here, I’ve got his book, the monograph, you know, a paper book that, you know, is not interactive, not, no access to the underlying data no…it’s a static physical object. And I think there should be more of a connection between that kind of the computational, quantitative work and the…that work should be published in digital form to help expose the underlying data, to share the algorithms to make it more effective scholarly communication. So, I think that disconnect is something that like maybe your generation of DH scholars is going to have to bridge because with the demands of tenure and things like that my generation has largely failed at doing that. So, I think there’s a real opportunity though to start bridging that divide. And I think Academic Presses have to get on board with it, as well.
Mallory: Yeah that makes sense and I do think that a lot of Digital Humanities is in academia or do you think there’s a way for DH to be working outside of the academic world?
Spencer: I think that part of the problem is with the label DH, right? So, there are, I know tons of people in public libraries who are doing Digital Humanities projects, but they don’t call them Digital Humanities projects. They just say, “I’m doing a digital exhibit for this community based on our collections” and as far as I’m concerned that’s Digital Humanities but it doesn’t need a label to be and it doesn’t need the label to be relevant and valued and important for the community.
Within academia, I think we make the mistake of siloing things off too much. Like, Public Humanities has this now community of practice that’s growing and growing interest in it. Community-centered research is a thing and Digital Humanities is a thing, but I think those three things need to be talking more. And to make A. the tools more readily available to people beyond the walls of academia to be able to do not only quantitative analysis and things like that but to do digital publishing and so, and I think that we kind of have a little bit of a responsibility especially at a public institution, a land-grant institution to be bridging some of those divides and getting some of these DH methods and Scholarly Communications methods into the hands of the general public.
Mallory: That makes a lot of sense. So, working with the label of Digital Humanities, where is that line, I guess? And I guess you’re saying that there isn’t really a line, it’s just about someone calling it a DH project or not. So, I was wondering, like, when is it a DH project, when is it just like a general research project?
Spencer: Yeah, I mean, it’s the Gertrude Stein thing of “A rose is a rose is a rose.” A DH project is a DH project is a DH project.
Mallory: Yeah
Spencer: I mean and there are scholars in the Humanities in this institution who are doing work with digital methods and digital primary sources and producing digital outputs that do not, would never label themselves as a digital humanist and would not show up at a DH conference, you know. So, I think that there’s been some, some stigma around DH. There was the perception of DH as being really cliquey in like the early 2000s that it’s never quite been able to shake and there’s also a kind of reluctance in, especially amongst senior faculty in the Humanities to recognize digital products and digital outputs as legitimate research.
There was an Ithaca S&R Report recently that, on “Supporting Research in the Languages,” in Languages and Literature and it was really awful like the way people they were…part of the problem with the report focused on senior faculty. The 80% of the respondents were tenured and so there was very few voices from junior faculty or, and no voices at all from teaching faculty. So interventions in digital pedagogy and in Digital Humanities were really devalued by the respondents to that report and of course, it presented those findings really uncritically as though they were just facts which unfortunately can be really damaging for those of us who are sort of toiling in this space because it makes it look like the work that we’re doing is totally misrecognized and not valued.
Which is institutionally like not necessarily the case but there are, of course, you know some faculty that just won’t recognize anything, it’s that kind of infantilization and hazing of the academy where if because I went through this you have to go through it too or because this is how I was successful this is the only model for success that there is and that’s really short-sighted and honestly like that’s not what the academy is supposed to be like it’s supposed to be about creativity and although, I hate this word innovation. And when you stick to models of scholarly communication that are over a hundred years old and models of peer review that encode bias and abuse and insist on citation politics where the same old white men get cited over and over in order to state in order to establish your credibility that’s not creativity and that’s not Innovation. it’s profoundly anti-intellectual.
Mallory: I totally agree. I totally agree with you. I always say when I tell people I know you, I’m like he always has something interesting to say. I guess that kind of leads me to where you fall into this role in academia as the Digital Humanities Librarian. What does that mean? What do you do as a Digital Humanities Librarian and is this a common position in libraries or are people, digital humanists, usually working in other fields?
Spencer: So, one of the things that I found is that Digital Humanities as a librarian, as a focus of librarianship is emerging as a field. Just like Digital Humanities, even though it’s decades old is still emerging as a field. Partly because it is so diverse, partly because it’s undergoing a lot of growing pains in terms of pressure from, important pressure, from the women and scholars of color and other marginalized voices asserting themselves within the field and that’s super important. Librarianship is also crucial to it because really like there is no DH without digital libraries like you’ve unless you have digital primary, digitize primary sources and access to that underlying data you got no project, right? But it also, I like the title of the podcast, “It Takes a Campus,” because it really does like I can’t do everything for anybody and I can do and some people I can’t do anything for it but I can find out who the person is that can do something for them.
So, within the libraries, we don’t host platforms. We don’t host projects, but we work with Research IT Web Hosting Department to make sure their faculty’s projects can come to life. We do have the IOPN (Illinois Open Publishing Network) Scholarly Publishing arm but that’s really for sort of like sustained book-length kind of projects. But for somebody who wants to have a website for their research or an Omeka site for their class, Research IT manages that; I help with the library instruction side, getting them familiar with the technology and helping the students feel confident with it and providing some training to the faculty to get them up and running. But the actual sort of hosting is handled through a different department. And so, I’ve only been here a little over a year and it’s taken me a fair amount of time to sort of get to know what the landscape was of resources. So, getting to know who the experts are over in CITL (Center for Innovation inTeaching and Learning), getting a relationship with folks in ATLAS (Applied Technologies for Learning in the Arts and Sciences) over in FAS and with the, of the great team in the Web Hosting Department at Research IT and just sort of getting a sense of who’s got what stuff where and who their constituencies are.
So, it’s a, it’s been a really interesting process to get to know that because I was at the University of North Texas for 8 years, so I had solid institutional knowledge there. Here, I’m kind of like still trying to figure things out. So, it’s a lot of getting questions, figuring out if I know the answer and if I don’t know the answer, figuring out who to get the person to. So, in some ways it’s, it can be a little frustrating because I don’t have a lot of sustained contact with any given project, especially if it’s not something that we are directly involved in but it is productive in that we get people to the right place and get them, get their research or their scholarship moving and have a real good will experience for them on behalf of the library. So, there’s, there is, had been a sort of misconception that we don’t support DH well here, I don’t find that to be the case at all. I think we do it in a way that is sustainable because we can’t do everything, and the library should not be doing everything for everybody. There are other centers of excellence on campus and we shouldn’t be duplicating efforts . But we also need to be a good player in the community and recognize those centers of excellence, pass them business when we get it and they’re going to reciprocate when they get questions that we are able to answer or projects that we are able to support.
Mallory: Mhmm, and we’re really fortunate being at this university like as large as it is, we do have all of these different resources to be passing people along if that’s the way to say it but that is really where our podcast title came from because we were talking about oh, like you know it takes a village to like raise a kid but you know the University of Illinois is like it’s over 50,000 people on campus, students, faculty, staff, et cetera. We’re bigger than some villages and so it takes a lot to work with people. And the students and the researchers here are working on some large-scale projects and so it’s awesome that we do have these resources and these people and these groups that can support it.
Spencer: Yeah and you know, one of the things that we, that I have found is that the projects that need us the most, that need me, and the Scholarly Commons and Research IT Web Hosting are not the big data projects. You know, the big data projects have funding, they’ve got the supercomputing center, they’ve got you national and international collaborators so like they don’t, they’re not going to be the ones that are coming to us for a lot of assistance but it’s the small and medium data projects. Projects that rely on the underlying text data from some of the resources that we subscribe to. You know because a lot of our primary source databases, we have the underlying text data available for scholars to do text mining with through Gale and Proquest and Adam Matthew and some of our other vendors and they wouldn’t otherwise have access to that, that data, especially for these small projects that maybe don’t have funding yet, that don’t have teams of researchers. It’s just one person and maybe a graduate assistant who are sort of getting started or that the scope of the project doesn’t necessarily need big data but without the resources that the library has, they wouldn’t be able to do that work. Likewise, for teaching like we’re, there’s so much robust support for pedagogy on this campus with CITL, Research IT and the expertise in the libraries. It’s a, it’s a really great place to be….to experiment with digital pedagogy and to be working with those resources in your classrooms.
Mallory: Do you get a chance to work on your own DH projects? I know you just worked on something about cat memes, is that right?
Spencer: Yeah, so I am an accidental digital humanist. I am not trained as a DH scholar, my background is in early American literature and book history, history of the book so, and I got in I got into this because I was down the deep, dark hole of dissertation and got a job offer from the University of North Texas for a Council on Library and Information Resources position working on research data management plans and at that point the job market was not as bad as it is now but it was pretty bad and so I was like I’m going to take this job and I’m going to see what it’s like and see what happens and you know ten years later here I am, still going. So, most of what I know, I’m kind of an autodidact and a lot of folks who came into DH at sort of the same time I did are also autodidacts and we all sort of taught ourselves as we’ve gone along. That said my research is really centered on like media history and so the cat memes thing was sort of drawing off history of the book stuff from that I worked on in my dissertation and merging that with sort of new media studies. I don’t use a ton of what I would consider DH methods in my research. I am working on a text mining project right now but it’s sort of that sort of LIS focused where, where, JJ Pionke, our Health Sciences Librarian, and I are looking at 30 years of LIS literature from the passage of the Americans with Disability Act and looking at how the engagement with disability has evolved over the course of that period. So, we are working with text data and we’re doing some text data mining, I’m doing some qualitative analysis of research data management plans with some other folks that I’ve been with for years but in the end but in terms of my book history stuff, it’s more about sort of like Media Theory, Media Archaeology that informs that is informed by DH methods although the research, the main research method is actually pretty traditional book history kind of stuff so.
Mallory: Yeah that is interesting because I think that when you say you’re working with JJ especially it made me think that like DH is such an interdisciplinary field and it brings together you know, humanists and maybe other types of scientists and Humanities is in the title, obviously, Digital Humanities but does it limit to just the Humanities fields or do other fields bleed in? Or have you ever seen a project that kind of merged together to really contrasting fields trying to come together on a DH project?
Spencer: Yeah, so, the thing to remember about Digital Humanities is that none of these methods originated in the Humanities. You know, Text Data Mining has been around a long time. Computational Linguistics was a thing before I was born, even, so it’s not new. Corpus Analysis and things like that have been for a while and they were derived from collaborations between linguists and computer scientists. Sentiment Analysis came out of marketing research. You know, Digital Publishing has, you know, been around for a long time and that was mainly driven by marketing and digital content design in the computer science and other places.
So, what we’re doing with DH is sort of bringing those methodologies to bear on Humanities research questions. That said like most of, or many of my clients or patrons that I work with are not humanists. I get folks in Economic and Business and Education who are doing projects within their disciplines that are using Text Data Mining or Data Visualization or GIS and things within their disciplines and not necessarily with any sort of Humanities valance at all. So, in some ways like I’m afraid that for some folks seeing Humanities in my title could be a barrier to them coming to me for help but which is one reason why I think we rely on Scholarly Commons for referrals is because you say “This is your guy to get access to this text data” instead of having them just having to scroll through the library list and say like “Humanities? I’m not going to talk to Humanities guy.” You know, so it’s a… but at the same time Digital Scholarship Librarian is so broad its almost vacant of meaning.
So, there’s no good title. The most important thing is that we know how to find, that people know how to find the resources that they need and the coordination that the Scholarly Commons does, really helps with that regardless of what my title is. You know, my title could be Easter Bunny as long as you guys get me, get people to me when they need me, that’s the important thing.
Mallory: Yeah we can just change all the Librarians, too, because I feel like some people they do you get confused because as librarians we obviously know what we do as librarians but a lot of people don’t know how to use the libraries or the resources that we have, especially like I just ‘said, like at a large institution like this we’re lucky to have a DH librarian and a Copyright Librarian so like distinct in these fields it is true that people can get deterred from getting help or they just see that and they don’t know that you can help and that’s what’s great, again, about having this giant community we all know who to push people to. But I guess one of my final questions that I just want to leave this with is what inspires you about this field? Why do you, why do you continue to work in Digital Humanities?
Spencer: Because it’s a job and the job market is still terrible. Like first and foremost like this is a gig right this is a this is a thing that I do to pay my bills if you know it’s not necessarily germane to my primary research interests but it is intellectually stimulating I am always learning. I never stop learning and I think that’s super important just to keep like your brain fresh, right? So, but I think the thing that’s most inspiring to me about this field is how passionate and how devoted and how angry many of its practitioners are that they absolutely reject stagnancy and they absolutely reject bias and they absolutely demand inclusion and equity and accessibility and which means that the field is progressing.
It’s not stagnating the way I see some sort of traditional forms of scholarly communication and traditional forms of research doing. Where it’s just replicating the same ideas over and over again where you’re just doing the same thing that your dissertation advisor did, that their dissertation advisor did, that their dissertation advisor did. Digital Humanities is compelling people to step outside of those little buckets and the fact that we have some amazing people in the field like Miriam Posner and Thomas Padilla and Roopika Risam and Kathy Harris and Rebecca Frost Davis and Matt Gold, who are and Lauren Klein, who are pushing the field forward. You know, it’s like my heroes list there, Dorothy Kim, Alex Gil, Jackie Wernimont, you know it’s the people who are insisting that these other voices are heard and that these projects are used for the common good for social justice and for improving the world.
That’s what’s inspiring to me and then that’s going a range of things from Rebecca Frost Davis and Kathy Harris and Matt Gold and Jentery Sayers Digital Pedagogy in the Humanities Resources Toolkit that I helped curate an entry for, all the way up to like Alex Gil and his collaborators who did the Separados Project documenting the money trail of I.C.E. facilities across the country. You know, that’s diversity that you find in Digital Humanities and that’s the pressure that it’s putting on the sort of stayed and conservative aspects of the academy as a whole but also the more conservatives elements in the Humanities and that’s what I think is cool about DH. That’s the stuff that I want to be involved in.
Mallory: Yeah, that’s very inspiring, at least for me and I think, from how I see it that DH is a very valuable way of demonstrating your research. It’s not just putting something online and saying “Hey, this is digital and it’s in the Humanities, this is Digital Humanities!” It really is, like you just said it’s really broad and progressive. Actually, this year, I don’t know if you know this, is the 10th Anniversary of the Scholarly Commons and Thomas Padilla is, we’re giving an event and he’s going to be speaking virtually at the event.
Spencer: I did know that actually.
Mallory: Yeah, yeah, it’s a big deal at the Scholarly Commons that we’re ten years old. That will be happening in October for all you listening.
Spencer: I wish Thomas was able to come though.
Mallory: Yeah.
Spencer: Doing this all social distance nonsense…I’m getting tired of it. I need some people.
Mallory: It’s hard. I’m getting very tired of it. My cats love it though. They really do.
Spencer: Yeah, mine is right above my desk in her little window hammock right now.
Mallory: Well, Spencer, thank you so much for talking with me today I really appreciated our conversation and I was really excited to talk to you on behalf of the Scholarly Commons, I’m sure everybody is interested in what you have to say but at the Scholarly Commons we do work with a lot of researchers for Digital Humanities and we work very closely with Spencer so for those of you listening if you’re interested please do visit us at the Main Library and this semester we’re live online so you can “Ask a Librarian” on our website and we love to chat so be sure to reach out. Spencer, thanks again.
Spencer: Thanks Mallory. Take Care.
Mallory: Thank you, everyone, for listening.
It Takes a Campus of the podcast brought to you by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Scholarly Commons located in the Main Library. If you want more from us be sure to check out our blog Commons Knowledge and follow us on Twitter @ScholCommons. That’s S C H O L Commons. The opening and closing song is Tranquility Base by A.A. Alto. You can find their album Bright Colors in the Free Music Archive by searching for A A Alto at Thanks for listening.

It Takes Sara Benson

It Takes a Campus
It Takes a Campus
It Takes Sara Benson

Sara Benson’s Illinois Experts Profile

Full Transcript
Have you ever thought about what really goes in to supporting digital scholarship? Well, some may say it takes a village, but here at the University of Illinois, it’s bigger than that. It takes a campus. The Scholarly Commons will be interviewing experts across campus about all the new and exciting things that are happening to support digital scholarship. We will sit down with a specialist to learn about what they do, how they do it, and why they got started working in their field. Hear what we mean when we say it takes a campus to do what we do.
In today’s episode we have Sara Benson, Copyright Librarian at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign’s Main Library. She is interviewed by the previous graduate assistant of the Scholarly Commons, Billy Tringali who is now the Law Librarian for Outreach at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. Here we go.
Billy: Hello and welcome to the library experts podcast at the University of Illinois at Urban-Champaign. I am Billy Tringali with the Scholarly Commons and I am here with Sara Benson, our Copyright Librarian. Sara, thank you so much for being on my podcast.
Sara: Well, welcome to the wild and wooly world of podcasting.
Billy: I’m very excited to be getting involved with it. This is going to be a very fun project. You have a podcast and I think that would be a cool thing to open with discussing.
Sara: Sure. So, I have a podcast. It is called Copyright Chat. It’s a little hard to find on iTunes because when you search for it, if you write out the word ‘copyright’ you don’t find it. If you search my name, you will find it, or if you put the copyright symbol in there and then you put the copyright symbol ‘hat’. So, maybe my name was selected poorly but I like it.
Billy: I like it a lot!
Sara: Yeah and it—and on the podcast, I talk to a variety of experts on copyright. Most, a lot of them are copyright librarians but not all, and we just talk about current copyright issues and it is really, pretty fun, I think, and so, it’s not meant only for experts, it’s meant for lay audiences, as well, so I invite anyone who is interested to listen.
Billy: And that leads very well into your field of expertise. You are the Copyright Librarian for the University. What does that mean? What does it mean to be a Copyright Librarian?
Sara: That’s a really good question. I think it varies depending on the institution. So, some folks at their job are the copyright police.
Billy: Oooh
Sara: If they have to enforce copyright all over campus…
Billy: Oh wow.
Sara: …and knock on doors and be very unwelcomed. Luckily, that’s not my job.
Billy: That’s great!
Sara: My job is more of an advocate with, for instance, the U.S. Copyright Office. If there are changes that would help libraries and librarians, I will respond to Call for Comments.
Billy: Wow
Sara: I, also, do a lot of educating. So, I do guest lectures. I consider my podcast part of my education arm and I talk to pretty much anyone who will talk to me and that includes staff members, it includes book store staff who are making, say, copies for course packs, it includes people who are making MOOCs [Massive Open Online Course], it includes faculty, students, even community members, since our library is a public library…
Billy: Yes
Sara: …from a land grant institution. If I get a phone call from, say, a local artist about, you know, what are my rights and copyright, what should I do with this or that, I will send them to information. But the, one of the key things that I have to do in my job is to give people a disclaimer which is: I am a lawyer but I’m not your lawyer. So, I cannot give legal advice in my role as a librarian and I’ve actually had people offer to pay me…
Billy: Wow
Sara: …to give them legal advice and I just can’t do that for many reasons. One is that it would be a conflict of interest with my job.
Billy: Yes
Sara: Also, that’s not a role of a librarian, right?
Billy: Right.
Sara: Our role, in any arm of librarianship, is to help people find what they are looking for in terms of information but not do the research for people.
Billy: Exactly.
Sara: Yeah, so, you don’t come to the library and say, “Do this research for me.” You say, “Can you help me formulate this research?” or “Can you help me find this book?” or “I’m not sure where to begin,” and that’s the same kind of information that I give, it’s just specific to copyright.
Billy: And you were a lawyer before you were a librarian.
Sara: Correct. So, I’ve had a long career. It started as a practicing attorney. I started at a big law firm in Dallas, Texas.
Billy: Wow
Sara: I was practicing commercial litigation defense for big corporations; I won’t name any of them right now and I did a—I found myself doing a lot of pro bono work which is free work for clients who can’t pay and a lot of family law, actually.
Billy: Wow
Sara: And so, I found myself really not motivated by making money and helping big corporations make money. I was more motivated by the heart of helping people.
Billy: That’s wonderful.
Sara: So, I decided big law wasn’t for me and I wanted to kind of change career paths and ultimately, I wanted to become a professor…
Billy: Yes
Sara: …because I really liked teaching but before I did that, I got my Master’s of Law and I joined a small boutique law firm in Austin, Texas while my husband finished his graduate degree and I was practicing domestic violence law.
Billy: Wow
Sara: So, I was helping women and children, mostly—we did have male clients, as well but mostly women and children—to escape very violent situations and it was really rewarding word but it was very stressful and so, I enjoyed doing that but I only did it for a short time…
Billy: Yeah
Sara: …for various reasons. One of which was that my husband graduated and we both went on the job market. We ended up here at University of Illinois and I was at the law school teaching mostly legal research and writing for ten years. I did teach a little of domestic violence and sexual orientation and the law…
Billy: Wow
Sara: …and contracts and a bunch of other things and then I decided to get my Master’s of Library Science degree.
Billy: Hey!
Sara: And right away, I went to Career Services and said, “Hey, what can I do with, you know, a law degree and an MLS degree?” and they said, “Oh well, you can be a Copyright Librarian” and my first response to that was that sounds horrible. I just thought I don’t want to do that because, you know, when you hear copyright you think I’m going to be looking at legalese all day.
Billy: Right
Sara: I’m going to be looking at contracts. I know a lot about contracts, don’t get me wrong. They’re not really fun.
Billy: No, I can’t imagine they would be.
Sara: They’re okay but they’re, you know, I didn’t want to shuffle paper all day.
Billy: No
Sara: And I thought that was the job of a Copyright Librarian.
Billy: Right
Sara: Because I didn’t know, and so, I thought, “Well, okay, I’ll give this, you know, the college try and I’ll take copyright law at the law school as part of my MLS degree.
Billy: Wow
Sara: So, I found myself in a law class with some of my former students…
Billy: That’s crazy!
Sara: …and with a professor, Professor Heald, who was my former colleague.
Billy: Oh my gosh.
Sara: So, I sat through that class and I found that it was really fun! Copyright law was fun! Who knew?
Billy: Not me but that’s great!
Sara: And it’s, you know, like all law, it’s full of stories but the stories involve things such as art, music, performance, dance…
Billy: Wow
Sara: …all these wonderful, interesting cases that are not boring at all.
Billy: No
Sara: I found it really exciting and really, really a challenging area of the law too because there’s a lot of uncertainty, especially in fair use, and I really found it challenging and fun and engaging and I decided, “Hey, copyright law is great, maybe I would like being a Copyright Librarian.”
Billy: Yeah
Sara: The truth of the matter is, I do. I really love it. I’m feeling really lucky that I found this field that is so dynamic that you really don’t know what you’re going to get on a daily basis. You can get a question about author’s rights and you can get a question about permissions, you can get a question about licensing, you can get a question about fair use. You can get a question about so many different things.
Billy: Wow
Sara: And so, it’s really fun and one of the most enjoyable things is—okay, so I’ll tell you the truth about being a lawyer:
Billy: Yes, please.
Sara: Most people don’t like lawyers. This is not shocking.
Billy: No, I don’t think that is going to be a revelation but it’s fun to hear from a lawyer.
Sara: No, there’s a lot of lawyers jokes out there and I think there may be a reason for that but, people are not usually happy to see a lawyer because a lawyer is usually there to say “No” or they’re there to say, “Pay me a lot of money.” But people do like librarians!
Billy: They do!
Sara: They find us helpful and they come to us when they are at their wit’s end and they just don’t know what else to do.
Billy: Yeah
Sara: And often, what we do is we help them. We show them a path forward and we provide them with much needed guidance at a time of need.
Billy: Yes
Sara: Right? So, when we provide them some clear guidance and direction, they’re usually quite thankful and it’s a wonderful feeling to be thanked because as a lawyer, you are not thanked. Where in my job, as a Copyright Librarian, it’s almost daily that I get a heartfelt thank you from a client or someone, a patron, and it’s really rewarding.
Billy: That is wonderful.
Sara: So, I really enjoy that aspect of it. I also, have a wonderful group of colleagues.
Billy: Yes, I wanted to ask. Are you amongst several lawyers amongst your colleagues? What does it take to be a Copyright Librarian? Do you have to have a law degree?
Sara: Those are good questions. So…
Billy: I hope so.
Sara: …when I talk about colleagues as Copyright Librarians, I’m talking about national and international Copyright Librarians. I’m the only Copyright Librarian at the University of Illinois and I’m the only one we’ve ever had…
Billy: Wow
Sara: …who’s full-time doing copyright librarianship.
Billy: That’s incredible.
Sara: The copyright librarians, they’re such a great group of people. Again, I think they’re driven by helping people.
Billy: Yes
Sara: And a lot of them are lawyers, but I will say this: there are some of us who don’t have a law degree at all, and you really don’t need one to do this job. What you need is you need to enjoy challenge because it’s not going to be easy.
Billy: Oh boy!
Sara: But if you’re up for a challenge and you really enjoy the challenge and you’re willing to put the time in to really learn the field, you really don’t need to be a lawyer and there are folks out there who are just as well versed in copyright librarianship and copyright law as I am who don’t have a J.D. I’m thinking of Eric Harbeson as a notable librarian. He’s a music librarian at Colorado-Boulder. He actually went to the iSchool.
Billy: Hey!
Sara: And he is a phenomenal librarian and knows he could argue me to the table about copyright law. Now, I’m not going to say he would necessarily, you know, prove me wrong or anything but we can go back and forth, and he can hold his own because he knows the law that well.
Billy: Yeah. You’ve talked about what an amazing career this would be, but can you give us, sort of, a day in the life? Can you give us some of the questions you might receive as a Copyright Librarian?
Sara: Sure. So, in a given day I might get questions from, for instance, someone who wants to put on a public performance of a musical work, maybe, a dance troop or music troop and they’re worried about the performance rights, and the same day there may be a student group that wants to show a film and they don’t know if they can do so without paying for public performance rights. Many of the films that we have streaming through the library, we do have public performance rights for.
Billy: That’s great.
Sara: But people don’t necessarily know that.
Billy: No
Sara: I might, also, have a professor who wants to make copies of a certain work and put them on their course reserve page and they’re not sure if they need to pay a licensing fee to do that.
Billy: Right
Sara: And then the same day, I might have a student who is working on an article and is thinking about publishing it and maybe they don’t understand what they need to do in order to do that. For instance, maybe someone is writing a dissertation and they plan to publish their dissertation as a whole but they also want to publish part of it as book chapters.
Billy: Yeah
Sara: So, they need to think carefully about that and reserving the right to use the chapters in their dissertation when they actually compile the whole thing or else, they might have to go back and ask for permission from each publisher.
Billy: Wow
Sara: So, there are many different issues.
Billy: What a day!
Sara: That would be a pretty busy day, but I’ve had busy days like that. But, I’m always happy to help them and they’re usually happy to get some sort of guidance.
Billy: So, for lay people listening, like myself, what is the basic knowledge of copyright that you think we should have?
Sara: That’s a good question. So, I think as librarians…
Billy: Yes
Sara: …I’m going to talk to the librarians here…
Billy: Yes, hello, we’re listening!
Sara: Yes, not general lay people because generally that would be different.
Billy: Yes
Sara: But I do think as librarians there are a few key things. The biggest thing I would say is to understand how copyright is formed.
Billy: Yes
Sara: Because today, we don’t have any formalities that are required. So, in other words, you don’t have to put a copyright symbol on your work.
Billy: Wow
Sara: You don’t have to file it with the Copyright Office, you don’t have to renew your registration. Those things—now, some of those things are helpful.
Billy: Yeah
Sara: The copyright symbol is helpful to put people on notice and it is helpful to register your work because if you don’t, you will forfeit statuary damages and you will not be able to sue anyone. So, there are prerequisites to suing people and getting certain damages, but you don’t have to put it on your work to have a copyright.
Billy: Ahh
Sara: And the other thing that I would say is really important is to understand fair use, which is very complicated but not so complicated that you can’t understand it.
Billy: Good
Sara: So, I think people should try to understand fair use. I think, they should look at Section 108…
Billy: Hmm
Sara: …those are the library exceptions that allow libraries to make, well, they allow library patrons to make copies on our copy machine.
Billy: That’s very good!
Sara: They allow us to engage in interlibrary loan, which is really important.
Billy: That’s huge.
Sara: They allow us to make copies for preservation and archival uses.
Billy: Yeah
Sara: And they tell us when we can make those copies available to patrons.
Billy: Yeah
Sara: So, those are things that, I think, are really important. Those sections and then the Right of First Sale, I think, is really important because that’s what allows us to lend books in the first place.
Billy: Great
Sara: Right? So, the first sale doctrine says that once I have sold a book then and you have bought it, you’re allowed to do whatever you want with it.
Billy: Wow
Sara: You can sell it to somebody else, you can give it to somebody else, you can put it in your free library in your backyard.
Billy: Yeah
Sara: Right? You can do whatever you want. That’s why libraries in the U.S. can lend books that in copyright. We bought them…
Billy: Yeah
Sara: …and then we can lend them.
Billy: Wow
Sara: Now we can’t…
Billy: Is that not true everywhere?
Sara: It’s not. Well, okay, it is true but what happens is there are things that are called Public Lending Rights that are employed in other nations and what happens there is that they have to then collect money to a general fund that then redistributed to authors.
Billy: Wow
Sara: And in the U.S., we do not have that. So, once a library buys a book, they can lend it as much as they want, that particular copy…
Billy: Yes
Sara: …not multiple copies…
Billy: No
Sara: …that particular copy without paying any other fees.
Billy: Wow
Sara: Whereas in other countries, such as Europe—you might have countries in Europe I should say. Saying Europe is a country is inaccurate, but in countries in Europe they would have to collect funds for the authors…
Billy: Wow
Sara: …for those lending and that sounds good on principle…
Billy: It does but…
Sara: …but it can be really tricky because how do you determine how much any given author gets. There has been—some people say those funds are not well spent or managed.
Billy: Yeah
Sara: And in general, I—it’s not as good for the public…
Billy: No
Sara: …because it’s harder for them to then get access to those books…
Billy: Yeah
Sara: …and it makes it more expensive for libraries to lend books.
Billy: Yeah
Sara: So, I’m very happy with the right of for sale.
Billy: Yeah
Sara: And the broad rights it gives us in the U.S. So, that’s another thing, I would say is important to know. I think, the face-to-face teaching is really helpful if you’re in an academic library…
Billy: Definitely
Sara: …or if you’re in a school library.
Billy: Yeah
Sara: The K-12 level, it’s really helpful to know that.
Billy: And that falls under fair use?
Sara: No, that—there’s a separate section. It’s Section 110-1 that gives you the right to perform or display any work in the context of face-to-face teaching which means in the classroom with students at a given time.
Billy: That’s incredible.
Sara: Yeah, so that’s how, for instance, if our library buys a copy of a movie…
Billy: Yes
Sara: …then a professor can show it in their classroom without having any other license…
Billy: Yeah
Sara: …or without having paid any other fee. Our copyright law in the U.S. is very friendly to educators, researchers…
Billy: Yeah
Sara: … the public, libraries. There are a lot of great things about our copyright laws. It’s a really nice balance between authors rights and the rights of the public.
Billy: That’s fantastic. That’s very cool. Sara, thank you so much for being on this podcast. I really appreciate it.
Sara: Well, thank you for having me. It was very enjoyable, and I encourage anyone who has additional questions for me to send me an email, look me up on the web. I am always happy to talk to people about copyright.
Billy: Yes! And do you want to plug your podcast one more time at the end of this?
Sara: Sure. So, you can find my podcast called Copyright Chat at iTunes and I’ve been told the easiest way is to search for my name Sara Benson with no H.
Billy: Thank you, again.
It Takes a Campus is a podcast brought to you by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Scholarly Commons located in the Main Library. If you want more from us, be sure to check out our blog “Commons Knowledge” at and follow us on Twitter at ScholCommons. That’s S C H O L Commons. The opening and closing song is “Tranquility Base” by A. A. Aalto. You can find their album “Bright Colors” in the free music archive by searching for A.A. Aalto at

It Takes Harriett Green

It Takes a Campus
It Takes a Campus
It Takes Harriett Green
Full Transcript
Have you ever thought about what really goes into supporting digital scholarship? Well, some may say it takes a village but here at the University of Illinois, it’s bigger than that. It takes a campus. The Scholarly Commons will be interviewing experts across campus about all the new and exciting things that are happening to support digital scholarship. We will sit down with specialists to learn about what they do, how they do it, and why they got started working in their field. Hear what we mean when we say it takes a campus to do what we do.
On this episode we have Harriett Green as our guest. Harriett was previously Head of the Scholarly Communications and Publishing Unit and Scholarly Communications and Publishing Librarian at the University of Illinois. She now serves as the Associate University Librarian for the Digital Scholarship and Technology Services Division at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. Harriett is interviewed by Billy Tringali. Billy is now the Law Librarian for Outreach at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. Harriett and Billy discuss a few of resources available at Illinois and offer great insight into the field. Enjoy.
Billy: So, hello and welcome to the Scholarly Commons podcast. I’m Billy Tringali and I am here with Harriett Green. Harriett, thank you so much for being on the show.
Harriett: Thank you for having me.
Billy: Of course, and you are the Head of Scholarly Communication and Publishing for the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Harriett: Yes, and Scholarly Communication and Publishing Librarian.
Billy: That’s fantastic! What a title, that’s big.
Harriett: Yes, there’s a lot of things in it.
Billy: Yes, do you want to break it down?
Harriett: Sure. So, as Head of Scholarly Communication and Publishing I’m the head of a unit. So, we have four full-time librarians, library professionals…
Billy: Wow
Harriett: … plus grad assistants. And we cover different areas of well, scholarly communication…
Billy: Yeah
Harriett: … and open access publishing. So, my particular expertise is in publishing, scholarly communication, especially for humanities and social sciences, and working with people as they try to use, working with researchers and students as they try to use different tools for sharing their research, doing their research work, and just engaging with their scholarship in different ways.
Billy: That is fascinating.
Harriett: Mhmm.
Billy: That’s very cool.
Harriett: Thank you.
Billy: Yeah. So, what is scholarly communication? What is the field of scholarly communication because you mention so many things there and they all fall under this umbrella. How would you describe it?
Harriett: I envision it as really an ecosystem…
Billy: Oooh
Harriett: …of all the ways that people are talking about their research, sharing it, learning, and traditionally scholarly communication has been journals, print monographs, print journals, kind of just the printed page…
Billy: Yes
Harriett: …across the disciplines really but we’ve really seen in the last few decades, couple decades especially, really in the sciences and then kind of rippling out to the social sciences and the humanities, people using leveraging, technologies, the internet to share their research in different ways so whether that’s blogs or podcasts such as this…
Billy: Yeah!
Harriett: …online pre-prints of their articles, all sorts of ways that people are sharing research data, that’s a huge part, as well.
Billy: Yeah
Harriett: So, there’s many different aspects of how people work with content, work with data, and share that data and communicate with each other about it.
Billy: That’s amazing, that’s very cool. Hello, we’re engaging in scholarly communication as we speak.
Harriett: Yes, we are. So, it’s a really rich field and there’s many many different areas that all kind of connect into it whether it’s copyright, open access…
Billy: Wow
Harriett: …there’s many others, I mean I can go on…
Billy: Please do!
Harriett: There’s quite a bit of, you know, really thinking through and as librarians how do we…we’ve always been involved in scholarly communication.
Billy: Yeah
Harriett: From, you know, from being the repository…
Billy: Right
Harriett: …of where all the things are held but now it’s not just being a repository but we have lots and lots of opportunities to work with students, to work with faculty, to work with all sorts of researchers as they’re seeking to use the research, so not just helping them find it but also working with them throughout their research life cycle.
Billy: That’s amazing. So, making sure that they’re not just putting something out there that no one is ever going to see.
Harriett: Right, right. There’s many different ways – using our own expertise as information managers and architects of building systems that disseminate information, really opening their eyes to what they can do beyond just printing your paper. What are all the other things that you can do to get people to know about your work.
Billy: What are the other things that you can do?
Harriett: Sure. In our unit, actually, we support a host of platforms that allow people to at least leverage digital tools to make use of their research for both monographs and journals. So, for journals, we support Open Journal Systems…
Billy: Oooh
Harriett: …which is an open source platform. It’s widely used around the world out of Simon Fraser University in British Colombia and the PKP project, the Public Knowledge Project, and that’s actually a great organization that we’re a member of, which builds these kinds of open communication platforms…
Billy: That’s amazing.
Harriett: …and so, we’re using both their open journal system platform to help people who want to do open access journals…
Billy: Yeah
Harriett: …we’re looking to pilot a couple journals and we already work with undergraduate research journals…
Billy: Wow
Harriett: …and those have been hosted in OJS for the past couple years and that’s an initiative led by Merinda Hensley…
Billy: Yes
Harriett: …in the Scholarly Commons and so that’s one platform then for journals.
Billy: Yeah
Harriett: And then for books or “books” in quotes, which can be a whole host of things, we support Omeka which allows people to do digital exhibitions.
Billy: Wow
Harriett: So, if you want to showcase images, audio, video, in an exhibition type platform; Scalar, which allows people to do nonlinear books.
Billy: Wow
Harriett: So, people can, again, interconnect all sorts of materials and their texts in different ways to really have a dynamic interactive publication; and then pressbooks which is looks like a pretty straightforward typeset PDF
Billy: Yeah
Harriett: But again, allows people to read a book online in a really clean format, like an E-book…
Billy: Wow
Harriett: …and then Commons in a Box and that’s a new platform developed at the City University of New York, CUNY.
Billy: Yeah
Harriett: And it’s actually kind of like social network for academics. So, you can mount this platform at Commons in a Box and then research groups can have their own discussion forums, their own WordPress sites…
Billy: Wow
Harriett: And so that’s kind of another aspect of Scholarly Communication, not just publishing but also how do you work together how do you collaborate, and how are you sharing your data, how are you sharing your documentation and can you see the research happening live? And so Commons in a Box and the CUNY Academic Commons is a great things that we’re going to try to start here at Illinois; allows research groups, student groups, faculty groups to engage in that way too.
Billy: That’s huge, that’s amazing.
Harriett: Yeah, so it’s going to be exciting
Billy: And you mentioned all the way down to undergraduates…
Harriett: Yes, yes there’s…so we’ve actually been, perhaps the most visible work has been undergraduates thus far…
Billy: Wow
Harriett: …with the research journals and then also in my earlier work, I’ve worked with undergraduates as they’ve built Omeka sites, as they’ve built Scalar sites for class projects.
Billy: That is incredible.
Harriett: So, and that’s something that’s interesting as faculty members and teachers are really looking to kind of break open the way that students are doing work, these platforms offer a way for students to really do some cool work but also engage…
Billy: Yeah
Harriett: …in what they’re researching and bring together say video clips of a movie and then doing, you know, a film analysis of that video clip.
Billy: That’s incredible.
Harriett: You know, or doing, one group I worked with did video blogs and they put their video blogs on the site and then they did their whole, basically kind of their paper, it was about youth activism…
Billy: That’s so cool.
Harriett: …and they did a blog about it so there’re all these things that students are really able to dive in.
Billy: That’s amazing.
Harriett: So, that’s just the tip of the iceberg…
Billy: Oh wow!
Harriett: …of things that are happening here at Illinois and then if you look across the country there are so many other things that people are doing, students and faculty are doing…
Billy: Wow
Harriett: …to do these kind of very dynamic interactive ways of showing their research.
Billy: This is a huge field.
Harriett: It is. There are areas that I probably have no time but like with copyright and with institutional repositories is the other aspect that we cover here.
Billy: Yeah
Harriett: So that’s in my department. It’s called IDEALS.
Billy: Wow
Harriett: And that allows people to post articles, post your poster, anything that you’ve produced, and you want it to be preserved in a long-term fashion, you can host in our institutional repository.
Billy: Wow
Harriett: And that’s actually the other piece that we’ve had for a long time, since almost ten years ago, ten years, I think now, of having an institutional repository where people can do open access publishing to a certain extent by putting your articles up there.
Billy: That’s incredible.
Harriett: And now we have a mandate on campus…
Billy: Ooooh
Harriett: …to strongly encourage faculty to make their work open access, so we had IDEALS and only in the last couple years have we had a mandate to really encourage people to do it.
Billy: Yeah
Harriett: But still very, very much a work in progress.
Billy: Wow
Harriett: So, that’s, those are kind of like the big elements of what we’ve been doing or what we have. So we have elements that have existed and now were really trying to build more coherent program…
Billy: Yeah
Harriett: …here at the library that really builds upon the great work that, you know, my predecessors and other librarians have done.
Billy: And I think when people think of libraries, I don’t think they would often think of publishing or communication even.
Harriett: No and I mean, there’s still a debate out there…
Billy: Really?
Harriett: …should libraries be involved in this kind of work? But we’re seeing and it’s still very new I’d say, it’s only in the last ten years that you’ve seen libraries doing publishing, building repositories, institutional repositories, and there’s been some pioneers: Like Michigan, University of Michigan has been doing this for a while.
Billy: Wow
Harriett: And I think University of Virginia has been doing quite a bit of work the last couple of decades, as well.
Billy: Yeah
Harriett: But on the whole, it’s all still very new. But we see that there’s this gray area where you have University Presses which is where faculty are trying to publish their books…
Billy: Right
Harriett: So, they can get tenure.
Billy: Yes
Harriett: And commercial publishers like Random House or Simon & Schuster, which is also another way people sometimes share scholarship.
Billy: Yeah
Harriett: But there’s a big gap in getting your book with the University Press or getting your article in the super, super prestigious journal…
Billy: Right
Harriett: …that takes two years to come out and all this work that’s going on constantly.
Billy: Yeah
Harriett: And so, people at the very minimum, we’ve seen both, you know, just here my own work and across the country, that faculty and students are looking for agile, quicker ways to share their work.
Billy: Right
Harriett: And so, it’s not just the super finished project that’s a book or a, you know, nice journal but also maybe work in progress. Maybe putting a preprint up there so people can see oh, here’s an early version of the article or getting the work out there with the audio or art images that you used.
Billy: Yeah
Harriett: And getting it up there a lot faster than again, waiting for that book with the flat images on there…
Billy: Right
Harriett: …three years down the road, so we see that there’s this whole world of scholarship that needs, wants to be shared.
Billy: Yeah
Harriett: In the digital age, we’re in now, you know, we expect things. You know, things are tweeted every millisecond.
Billy: Exactly
Harriett: People are blogging every day and when you compare that to, you know, the four years it takes to put out a book, especially in the humanities, it’s taken two years to get from a journal to, you know, submitting your article to even seeing it in print, that’s you know, there’s a whole realm of things that should be happening in between that space.
Billy: Wow
Harriett: And libraries have the agility. We have the infrastructure to really support digital publishing…
Billy: Yeah
Harriett: …and different ways of engaging in scholarship and faster ways.
Billy: Yes, definitely.
Harriett: And it’s evolving but it’s something we’re seeing a need for and I think its continuing. And there’s quite a bit of literature out there, as well.
Billy: Oooh
Harriett: A recent report from the Association of Research Libraries just put out a report about libraries and publishing in presses that I encourage people to read.
Billy: Yeah
Billy: Wow
Harriett: And so that one’s got a lot of good data, really recent data on what’s happening, as well.
Billy: Yeah, now, you’ve mentioned open access, the speed of publishing, and libraries role in that…
Harriett: Mhmm
Billy: What would you say is currently the biggest issues in the field of scholarly communication?
Harriett: Well, in thinking about this, I might say, you know, there was a hole with open access…
Billy: Yeah
Harriett: The big thing was this very, activist, like, we’re going to make all the information free…
Billy: Yeah
Harriett: …it’s going to be out there, we have to liberate the information but now there’s nuances to that and we’re now realizing, you know, everything from concerns of different disciplines, you know, the way they work in terms of being able to expose patents or expose different types of data. How do we honor, you know, medical data…
Billy: Right
Harriett: …and HIPPA data that might be embedded in that.
Billy: Yeah
Harriett: And there’s ways around that, as well, but also thinking about, you know, indigenous cultures and you know, making information free…
Billy: Right
Harriett: …making open data free, well what are the cultural ramifications of that, as well?
Billy: Right
Harriett: If you’re dealing, especially in anthropology, sociology, some of the social sciences that are dealing with cultures and ethnicities…
Billy: Yeah
Harriett: …where you have to be context of where this data’s coming from.
Billy: Yeah
Harriett: How are we sharing this scholarship? So, I think as we’re grappling with that…
Billy: Yeah
Harriett: …and how to really both expose the broadest range of scholarship but also honor and really take into account the ethics of data, the ethics of cultures that we’re working with as we do our scholarship.
Billy: Wow
Harriett: And then, also, with impact. And as, I think, a struggle with this, as scholars, are engaging in new forms of scholarship. How do they show impact of their work?
Billy: Yes
Harriett: And it’s not, it can’t just be oh, you know, five people tweeted about my work. But, how do you convey that to a tenure committee?
Billy: Right
Harriett: And so there’s this tension of that we want to encourage scholars, encourage students to, you know, try new digital tools, try these new ways of publishing and sharing scholarship but at the same time how can we help them still advance in their own careers?
Billy: Right
Harriett: Or how can they…
Billy: Right
Harriett: …you know, still make, get tenure, still advance at the academy through these very traditional means.
Billy: Right
Harriett: So, I think the ways of working of the academy and the way scholarship is happening, there’s still a tension, there’s still, and you know, that’s something that we had to already confront, is, you know, as we try to, you know, bring people in to work with us.
Billy: Right
Harriett: Helping to work to address all their needs because this is real need alongside, you know, the equal, equally valid…
Billy: Right
Harriett: …pressing need to making information free is but, you know, what are all the contexts…
Billy: Right
Harriett: …how do we make sure that everybody can participate in this ecosystem…
Billy: Yeah
Harriett: …and still be able to meet the needs they have?
Billy: Yeah
Harriett: If that makes sense.
Billy: It does! I love that description: ecosystem.
Harriett: Mhmm, I mean, it’s more and more, it’s not just one thing or another, but there’s lots of players, there’s lots of parts and there’s no, and it really depends on the context you’re working in.
Billy: Yeah
Harriett: Us, at a Research University, is very different from, you know, the small liberal arts college, like Illinois College, down the road.
Billy: Right
Harriett: There’s too…there’s so many different factors that get involved.
Billy: So within this ecosystem, I’m sure that we’ve talked about everything from undergraduates to graduates students to faculty to librarians, what should varieties of people know about this field? What should students know?
Harriett: I think, it behooves students to be aware of where you’re getting information. There’s, you know, when you click on to download a journal article knowing, you know, what’s behind that, you know, the library paid $20,000…
Billy: Right
Harriett: …to get you that article to you or where’s that book coming from? If it’s coming from interlibrary loan realize there’s a whole system of people and money that’s behind that, getting that book to you and shipped to you and so I think both students and you know, even faculty, you know, being aware of where this information is coming from, it isn’t free.
Billy: Right
Harriett: There’s a lot of different infrastructure behind that…
Billy: Yeah
Harriett: …in both appreciating it but also, advocating for ways to make it more free.
Billy: Right
Harriett: So, when we talk about open access that requires on the part of the part of students and faculty being willing to make their scholarship open…
Billy: Yeah
Harriett: …so, that maybe librarians don’t have to pay as much and maybe your best friend who doesn’t go to a school that has as many resources as Illinois, they don’t have to beg you to send it but they rather…
Billy: Yeah
Harriett: …which we’re aware that happens, but rather everybody has equal access to the information.
Billy: Right
Harriett: So, that’s one thing I would say, is just students just being aware of where your research is coming from, where you’re getting information. And then, you know, ways that they can participate…
Billy: Right
Harriett: And then, you know, along those lines, like with educators especially faculty who publish…
Billy: Right
Harriett: …and researchers who publish, being aware of your author’s rights. That’s another issue.
Billy: Wow
Harriett: That’s a big issue in scholarly communication.
Billy: Yeah
Harriett: Yeah, that might go as one of the bigger issues in the field, as well, but making people aware of their copyrights.
Billy: Yeah
Harriett: And that, you know, all too many publishers when you sign the standard agreement you basically are like, “Oh here. Have my entire thing and you can do whatever you want with it,”
Billy: Right
Harriett: You don’t have to sign that.
Billy: Oooh
Harriett: You can just tell them, they just need, and as Sara [Benson] has told you…
Billy: Yes, Sara’s been on the program.
Harriett: …copyright is a bundle of rights.
Billy: It is.
Harriett: And she says that in much more expert details so I’ll let listeners listen to that episodes but its, you know, being discerning of how you give up your copyrights.
Billy: Right
Harriett: You know, what your scholarship is being used for, where is it going?
Billy: Yeah
Harriett: And just, you know, that’s a thing we’re really trying to do in my department is really educate researchers on their rights, what they can claim, what they should retain…
Billy: Wow
Harriett: …and how to really, you know, retain their scholarship and their intellectual property.
Billy: Right
Harriett: So, that’s something that I think all, everybody, anybody who wants to engage in scholarship should know.
Billy: Definitely, know what you’re signing up for…
Harriett: Right
Billy: … when you get into that huge journal.
Harriett: Exactly, exactly. And then also, as you’re creating stuff, you know, fair use. So, we have, especially, in education realm, you know, the ability to use pieces of music and art and literature.
Billy: Yeah
Harriett: …within our works as part of fair use.
Billy: Right
Harriett: And, you know, there’s many different bills through Congress, and the Mickey Mouse Act, that really are all about claiming copyright to the fullest extent.
Billy: Yeah
Harriett: When there are ways that we can use and remix works. So, this is no way any kind of advice.
Billy: No
Harriett: But, you know, people should be aware of fair use basically and don’t be afraid to employ it if you’re, you know, doing work and creating work.
Billy: Yeah
Harriett: Now, there are guidelines, there are parameters and there’s a great checklist on our website: the copyright guide for the fair use checklist. And that’s a really good way of, you know, ascertaining, you know, are you within the bounds of fair use.
Billy: Yeah
Harriett: So, there are guidelines, but, you know, don’t be afraid to use is, as well.
Billy: Yeah
Harriett: And so, I would say as students and creators and researchers.
Billy: That’s fantastic
Harriett: And then with librarians and information professionals, I think you know, nowadays, I think, every information professional really should know more about copyright and scholarly communications issues.
Billy: Definitely
Harriett: Because especially as were helping people, you know, whether, you’re in a special library with a, you know, working in a law firm or something, or you’re working the reference desk…
Billy: Right
Harriett: …people are coming to use more and more with these questions…
Billy: Yeah
Harriett: …of how, what can they use, how can they share their own work and there’s basic levels of education that I think everybody really needs to know especially if you work in the information profession.
Billy: Yeah, and that we would all benefit from.
Harriett: Yeah, yeah
Billy: Yeah
Harriett: And there’s more and more materials out there, you know the Creative Commons has a new curriculum coming out that they just got IMLS [The Institute of Museum and Library Services] funding for. That’s going to be a resource.
Billy: Yeah
Harriett: And then my unit, a couple people were doing the Library Publishing Curriculum which is another IMLS project and we’re participating in that, and that’s another way for people to learn more about all the ins and outs, as well.
Billy: Wow
Harriett: So, there’s more and more materials out there that people can self-educate, as well as, learn.
Billy: Yeah
Harriett: Yeah
Billy: So there’s plenty of information.
Harriett: Right
Billy: There’s always a place to learn.
Harriett: Right, always.
It Takes a Campus is a podcast brought to you by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Scholarly Commons, located in the Main Library. If you want more from us be sure to check out our blog, Commons Knowledge at and follow us on Twitter at ScholCommons. That’s S C H O L Commons.
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Thanks for listening.

It Takes Dena Strong

It Takes a Campus
It Takes a Campus
It Takes Dena Strong
Full Transcript
Have you ever thought about what really goes into supporting digital scholarship? Well, some may say it takes a village, but here at the University of Illinois, it’s bigger than that. It takes a campus. The Scholarly Commons will be interviewing experts across campus about all the new and exciting things that are happening to support digital scholarship. We will sit down with specialists to learn about what they do, how they do it, and why they got started working in their field. Hear what we mean when we say it takes a campus to do what we do.
Billy Tringali: Hello and welcome to the Scholarly Commons podcast. My name is Billy Tringali and I am here with Dena Strong. Dena, would you care to introduce yourself?
Dena Strong: Sure, my name’s Dena Strong. I’m one of the Senior Information Design Specialists at Technology Services on campus and Technology Services is a little bit different than Tech Services which I believe is Technical Services, possibly, in the library context and so I’m often explaining to folks exactly where it is I report and who I talk to.
Billy: Can you tell us a little bit about information design?
Dena: Sure. At the University of Illinois, specifically, in Tech Services, information design is kind of a large umbrella. The history of where that title came from was that we used to be a group called User Experience Design and we had a lot of usability testing, we had accessibility, we had quality assessment, we had several other groups under that same umbrella, as well as, some developers and it was all sort of clustered around running the campus IT website and information like that.
Billy: Yeah.
Dena: And then they decided that rather than have that be one united group, they’d rather take our skill sets and embed us within other units.
Billy: Wow.
Dena: So, I’m part of Web and Collaborative Services and another one of the Senior Information Design Specialists is part of QAA and another one is a part of the Interface Development team. And so we’ve kind of gone from a centralized model to being more embedded with the folks we work with.
Billy: That’s very cool. So, what is, currently, either here at the University Library or just in the field in general, what is happening in information design?
Dena: Information design, in my world, it’s where you get people talking to computers, people talking to people, computers talking to computers, databases interchanging information, APIs exposing things to other systems that they aren’t necessarily connected to, accessibility, findability, reproducibility, adaptation, flexibility, transformation. It’s a pile of potential colors on a palette that you get to play with and mash up and paint all over the IT canvas.
Billy: Wow! I love that. That’s very cool.
Dena: Thank you.
Billy: Would you care to go into greater detail about any of those? This is all, this is all very fascinating.
Dena: Yeah, okay. So, the way that I got into being called an Information Design Specialist was that I’d started out as a technical writer. And so that looked at, specifically, the content layer but as time went by they were having fewer and fewer technical writers employed and I’m, and I was, you know, around the time of the last big drop in the economy when the state was not hiring people and laying people off and they were talking about cutting the benefit that allowed people to get their degrees if they were employees here and so I’d been debating whether or not I wanted to go back and get a master’s degree for a while and I’m like, okay, this is got to be the time to do it because if I can come out with a degree and without, like, thousands of dollars in debt, I need to do this thing now.
Billy: Yeah, that’s pretty ideal!
Dena: So, around 2012 I joined the Library and Information Science School here and I loved doing that. I really wish, though, that knowing what I know now, that I’d waited 3 more years because the degrees that they have now are the degrees I actually wanted to get. They just didn’t quite have them at the time. I felt like I had to jump it. But, like information management and user interaction, and things like that.
Billy: Yeah. What is it a day in the life of an Information Design Specialist because you list so many different things and what kind of problems do you encounter, what do you, what do you deal with?
Dena: Okay. So, I do a lot of one-on-one consulting with people who have technology problems or information connection problems. I do a lot of group consulting. Basically, if people are scratching their heads about how do we make this better for people, I am one of the people whose shoulders they tap on.
Billy: Wow.
Dena: I kind of like that role. Like, for example, some of the projects that I’m currently, simultaneously working on, there’s the Research IT Portal. They are designing that from scratch as sort of a, there’s a slice of campus wide technology catalog involved in there and so what I’m bringing to that part of that is I’ve got the usability background, I’ve got, I’ve worked on the Tech Services Service Catalog which we’re going to be doing that plus five more things with the Research IT Portal. And so I was the only person on the team who’d been part of that project so I am bringing that background in. I’m bringing in connections with researchers all over campus. So, one of my favorite parts about my job, one of the reasons I’m so happy to be where I am right now, is that they let me do things like be a partner four hours a week with the Research Data Service here at the library. So, I come over here and I find out what Research Data Service folks are doing. It started out a couple years back when they were first developing the Illinois Data Bank and I was looking for a practicum because I was just finishing up my library science degree and I really, really wanted to work with the RDS and so I knocked on the door and said, “Hi, here’s a bunch of things that I could potentially do for you” and Heidi said “Hmmm, we could use some usability testing on this thing,” and so that was what I did for them for the first semester and they found, they found me a useful person to have around.
Because I can also bring in things, like, accessibility testing like, you know, Box, like updates. I think one of the things that I do that might be most helpful at the moment is just physically bridging the gap between Technology Services and the library team to bringing information back and forth, bringing culture back and forth, bringing updates on projects because you know there’s a lot of silos on this campus where, you know, but at the same time there’s an information firehose going on and so you’ve kind of got to, you’ve got to figure out how to get the right information to the right people at the right level.
Billy: Yeah
Dena: Another thing I find myself doing frequently is if I’ve been to meetings, if I’ve been to conferences, I will do different translated sets of notes for different groups of people so that I’m not wasting high ranked people’s time with too many details but I’m giving them to this is the snippet that I think you’re going to want to know this is the stuff that’s going to be important for you.
Billy: Wow
Dena: And so one of my previous jobs was in journalism, so I’ve kind of, I kind of lean on that to tune what it is people are wanting to hear to my understanding of where they’re at, what they’re working on, and what else is going on. And another slice of that, I’m also involved with, there’s a weekly thing called Caffeine Breaks. So, all the IT folks get together bring a beverage and talk about the topic of the week. Sometimes, like most recently, one of the big ones was the Spectre virus and well, I don’t know if it’s exactly a virus, it’s a flaw in the, the flaw in the way the chips are designed and so it’s really hard to get around and we’re really dependent on what the big chip manufacturers are going to provide and sometimes it doesn’t play well with Windows or Apple operating systems and so there is dueling patches going on between Intel and Windows and Mac and so having a weekly venue to make that, you know make those conversations better able to be had. I’m proud of being a part of that team and I’m also part of the IT Pro Forum team which is a larger about 250-
No, actually, last count was around 400 people, get together twice a year, hold, it’s, if you’ve heard Educause. It’s kind of like Educause for this specific campus for people in IT who wouldn’t ordinarily get the funding to go off to like Brazil or Alaska or Las Vegas or wherever the big conferences are being held. So, this is for us, by us, about what we need to know.
That’s another slice of information design in that I spend a lot of energy trying to figure out how… I kind of envy the Webmasters Conference team because they know that everybody is going to their conference is going to be a webmaster, is going to be related to the web. We’ve got the web folks but we’ve also got networking, security, infrastructure, cloud services like a whole broad spectrum of people and I want to make sure there’s something in every time slot that could be interesting to someone.
Billy: Right
Dena: I want to make it really worth their time. So that, I’ve been doing that for about ten years now.
Billy: Wow
Dena: And that keeps me connected with what’s going on campus. I guess, in a way, I’m, I’m sort of an information hub.
Billy: Yes
Dena: And I really like being an information hub.
Billy: This seems like such a broad and diverse field, where you have to wear so many different hats. Does that get exhausting?
Dena: Yes, but I love it.
Billy: Oh! That’s very good!
Dena: I’m also part of the Software Carpentry team, along with Elizabeth Wickes and Neal Davis.
Billy: Can you tell us what that is?
Dena: Software carpentry?
Billy: Yes
Dena: Okay, so, I found out about software carpentry because Elizabeth, who is now on the International Board of Directors, mentioned it at the Research Data Service. And the way she described it is it’s teaching researchers whose primary focus is something that is not computer science just enough computer science to do what they need to do more efficiently. And I loved that. I loved, I mean, I’ve tried so many times to take computer science programming classes. I know enough programming to speak intelligibly with programmers.
But I find, you know, tracking down that last missing semicolon physically painful. So, that’s why I like being on the design side of it and knowing enough to communicate design to implementation but then leaving someone who has the skill set and the tool set and the practice to do the actual implementation.
Billy: Wow
Dena: And so, for me, software carpentry gives other people the capacity to do that. It helps them learn to speak the languages of the people they’re going to be collaborating with, it gives them tools that are specifically designed to what it is that they’re needing to do. There are discipline specific versions, particularly, of the data carpentry side where they have like an ecology specific version and a GIS specific version, they have a library specific version and so you go in and you teach to the group of people that you are interacting with. I really want to do an IT Pro specific version, as well, because so many IT Pros have told me, you know, okay this one this this shell thing I could go in and teach that but GIT just is totally confusing or I’ve never experienced R and I’m working with the researchers working with R so I need a quick start way that doesn’t have five layers of prerequisites to go through the entire semester to learn this thing.
Billy: Wow
Dena: So, that’s, I’m hoping to spin up Software Carpentry LITE for IT Pros and 4-hour workshops, so traditional software carpentry has two whole days of workshop and so you’re going to have Bash, you’re going to have, you’re probably going to have GIT, and then you’re going to have something that is like either Python or R and some sort of data management, either the data cleaning or Sequel or OpenRefine or something like that.
Billy: Wow
Dena: But it’s really hard to get IT Pros two whole days of not doing anything else and they could be coming in already knowing Bash and Python and they may just need GIT or they may just need R.
Billy: Right
Dena: So I want to provide those chunks on a more regular basis adjusted from the research audience to the IT audience.
Billy: That is amazing!
Dena: Cool!
Billy: This is so much of pairing people with technology.
Dena: Yes, exactly.
Billy: You are, you’re the bridge between these things.
Dena: Yes that’s exactly what I want to be!
Billy: So for those that are interested in information design, for those that are interested in, in hopefully, becoming bridges themselves, do you have any advice for students, for educators, for librarians, for patrons?
Dena: Okay. I think my first piece of advice would be, be interested in everything.
Billy: Yes!
Dena: I have never met an art form I didn’t like, I’ve never met a book that I didn’t want, -okay I might have met a couple you know if they’re like particularly violent or something but yeah. The second piece is learn to listen. Because so much of what I do involves trying to, trying to get a better grasp on the real nature of the problem that people are encountering.
Billy: Right
Dena: One of the first things that they teach you and I found it over and over in my usability testing experience, is when you ask someone what they want in an interface, they will ask for the moon and the stars and everything but when you actually sit them down in front of the thing and watch them use it, it turns out that what they really need may or may not be something they could even articulate.
Billy: Wow
Dena: Because they’re just, they’re trying to click on a piece of the interface to get something to happen and you’re watching them click and click and click. One particular example is there was an interface I was helping to do usability testing on and there was a person’s name was up there in the corner from after they log in and Facebook and Google and a lot of places have trained you that you click on your name and you get to your profile.
Billy: Yeah
Dena: Well, they clicked on their name there was nothing there, there was only log out and people would log out of the system thinking that was the way to find the profile. And so nobody would have said that out loud but being able to sit there and watch them and, and understand the nature of their problem helps, helps get the system to be made so much better.
Billy: Wow, that’s fantastic! So we’ve, we’ve talked a good amount about information design but let’s, let’s talk about Dena.
Dena: Well, okay!
Billy: How did you, you talked a little bit about coming into the iSchool, but how did you find yourself in in this position, how did you get to where you are as the bridge?
Dena: So, I used to think that if I just tried hard enough I could learn all the things that I needed to learn in one lifetime. And then around a couple of years before I decided to go to library school, I’m like, I can’t, there’s too much information out there, the world is too big, it’s moving too fast, I cannot physically fit anything it into my head. So what I need to do instead is find out who knows the stuff and hang out with people who know the stuff and organize the stuff and make, make it findable because if you can’t find it, it may as well not exist. So that’s everything from how do you mend broken links to how do you track the history of database driven websites to…this is sort of a bit of a tangent but one of my final projects in library school was about what do you do if you’re an independent media creator, if you’re creating your own film and it takes you five to ten years to work on this film.
Billy: Right
Dena: But, in the meantime, your operating system has changed, your software has changed, your codecs have changed, the physical format of the drives that you’re working on have changed.
Billy: Yeah
Dena: I did interviews with several local media creators and I took that project to Kyoto this past fall.
Billy: Wow, that’s amazing.
Dena: I did like a three year follow up with the same people that I talked to three years earlier and the guesses that they’d made about what they would be doing in the future versus what they were actually doing was really significantly different to it.
Billy: Wow
Dena: So, one of the, one of the things that worries me the most about digital interaction, digital data is how very, very fragile all of this information that we’re generating is.
Billy: Yeah
Dena: I have an easier time finding information from the year 900 than I do my own undergraduate papers.
Billy: Wow
Dena: Because you know the media has decayed.
Billy: Yeah
Dena: The things that were on paper like, if you just did them in the junky printer with the dot matrix and stuff, they faded out. I’ve lost my own history from less than twenty years ago.
Billy: Wow
Dena: And I work with people who are working on like the Twentieth Anniversary Editions of translations that they’ve done.
Billy: Yeah
Dena: And they have to redo the entire project from scratch because none of the formats are compatible anymore.
Billy: Wow
Dena: So it’s a little bit terrifying.
Billy: Yeah, definitely!
Dena: I keep an eye towards digital preservation any time that I do a thing. And I mean there’s, there’s best practices and then there’s real world practices. I mean in my, in my, in my best practices world, I would not be using Google Docs as much as I do, I would not be using Box Notes as much as I do, I would not be tying myself into an entirely ethereal online system that is dependent upon the university’s maintenance of a financial contract in a situation where God knows what our financial state is going to be two years from now. But, in the real practical world it’s so much easier and so much faster and it’s accessible from any device, that I have a lot of Google Docs, a lot of Box Notes.
Billy: Yeah
Dena: And then if it’s really urgent to me sometimes I will take the time and convert it off to HTML and I don’t do that as much as I should.
Billy: Right
Dena: So, even being somebody who has the stuff in her head, you know, it is sort in the background, oh my God what about, what about you know the next, the next time we don’t have a budget what happens to our, our contracts then.
I know what the answers are but they’re not easy yet.
Billy: Yeah
Dena: And so, at the pace at which everything is moving, we need to make both, I mean, I also see that as an aspect of accessibility. So, I have a certification and it’s called IADP. It’s taught by Tim Offenstein, Keith Hays, Hadi Rangin and Marc Thompson, here on campus. It’s like one of the first certifications in accessibility related issues, I believe in the world. They’ve had 4 or 5 cohorts go through and what they focus on is how do you make information accessible to people with all sorts of different disabilities; visual, audio, tactile, intellectual, any sort of access issue but that also touches on mobile devices, like you know, the physical size of things.
Billy: Yeah
Dena: And that also, in my book, at least, touches on digital preservation in terms of how do you, how do you, if it’s, if you can no longer get hold of it, it is no longer accessible. Again, life at the intersections.
The things that you find at those corners are not easy problems to solve but I love the challenge.
Billy: That’s fantastic. What do you see the next generation of information design? What do you see people getting into? What you see them exploring? What would you like to see them exploring?
Dena: I want to see them exploring usability. I want interfaces to be completely, as close to completely transparent as you physically can get them.
Billy: That’s very good. That’s very cool. And I know you talked a little bit about this earlier but can we go through just, again, how you, how you found yourself in this, in this field?
Dena: Okay. The story that I tell folks of how I ended up in Champaign was that I graduated from college and I was, I had a double major in English and Technical Theater. And so for a lot of people that was pre-McDonalds and so I was working five part-time jobs simultaneously, hoping for one of them to become permanent and I was talking to my writers group about, “Yikes how do you do this thing,” and one of the folks at my writer’s group said: “Hey, we need a technical writer.” I had no desire to do anything with computers which was really hilarious because here I am now like really, really happy as a computer person. If you had asked like just-graduated-from-college-me about the prospect of like making a life that was all about computers, I would have run screaming but I love it now.
Billy: Wow
Dena: Because what it’s capable of has caught up with what I needed it to be.
Billy: Yeah
Dena: I needed to not have to write HTML out of my head on the command line in VI but that’s where I started in 1993.
Billy: Wow
Dena: And now there is Dreamweaver, and now there’s drag and drop interfaces, and now there’s WordPress.
Billy: Yeah
Dena: And so I guess I just kind of grew up with the system. And so after I was complaining with my writers group and they said, “Have you looked for a technical writer?” I came over, I worked for Argus Systems Group in Savoy right around the dot com back crash and so as they laid off half of the company and I was packing my boxes to walk out the door, another friend said “Hey they’ve got a technical writer job open at the U of I, go throw your resume at that,” like it literally closed the next day. So, I wrote my resume as fast as I possibly could and then I got hired on, at what was then, CCSO.
Billy: Yeah
Dena: And that’s the job that I’ve had ever since. But it’s, I’ve been redefining the role over the years from technical writer to database designer. I built the first wireless database because I knew that people needed to know where they could get wireless access before it was everywhere.
Billy: Yeah
Dena: So, I went to my boss with a proposal saying “Let me, let me make a database of this; let’s get the data from here, let’s get the data from there, let’s make it searchable, let’s make index-able.” And I mean I look back now at the interface for that and I go: “Oh, that hurts.” But, I can do so much better now but you know, in the meantime, there’s been Google Maps, there have been overlays, there’s been API access yet and so I did the best that I could at the time that it was there and now it’s so much easier. And I can see it continuing to get easier for people to do things for the sake of doing them not just because there’s code there to be wrangled, right?
I have a lot of friends for whom chasing down that missing semicolon is a massive motivator and they love it, they love the challenge and will love the debugging.
Billy: Yeah
Dena: And I just want to get this thing done. I admired their dedication. I admire their passion. I wish I was wired like that, I’m not. But I speak enough of their language to make that bridge happen for other folks who are out there saying, “I have research, I have scads of data, I don’t know how to get the actual information I need out of it so where do we store it, how do we preserve it, how do we version control it, what do you do when…”– there’s actually a really interesting use case that came up with Amazon Web Services a few months ago. So, there were some scientists at Beckman doing, I believe it was MRI research and they were running a specific version of software analysis on it. And then someone upgraded a server.
A piece of software got patched and the analysis that got run after that upgrade were significantly off of the ones that were run before. And so, all the sudden that’s four months of work that are incompatible and they came to Tech Services saying: “Oh my god, what do we do?” And Tony Rimovsky who is the head of our cloud services effort says: “All right, let me crack my fingers. We got you on this.” He took the other version of the software, put it on Amazon Web Services in the cloud and let it scale to the point where they could run that four months of processing in, I believe, it was 3 days.
Billy: Wow
Dena: He spun it up, ran the stuff, shut it down, and on the whole, it saved a ton of money because it was not, they weren’t having to wait for four months for that stuff to render again.
Billy: Right
Dena: And so, I see, the world that I see in the future is one where you can do that not just for researchers but also for my video programmer friends.
Billy: Yeah
Dena: Because Nina Paley, “Sita Sings the Blues,” she’s a phenomenal artist and her working environment for that series is a MAC from earlier than 2010 because of compatibility issues with everything that is newer, so she like is constantly raiding Ebay for components for that old system.
Billy: Wow
Dena: She’s working on another one about the books, Book of Exodus, it’s also in Flash but if, for her paying jobs, she is working on a much newer system, that is not compatible with Flash, she can’t, she can’t run her old stuff on that new system.
Billy: Yeah
Dena: And so the world that I did not see in 2014 that I see today is the capacity to connect to Amazon and say beep clone this machine. Make it, make this exact machine with this exact license and this exact software, run in the cloud for me.
Billy: Wow
Dena: And then you have your Digital Preservation for, at least, the lifetime of Amazon. And I want this to happen so badly. I don’t know how to get there because Amazon Web Services, right now, is difficult for the non-IT specialist to use and there’s a lot of hurdles and a lot of jumps and even for folks who came through IT with you know, the individual machine world, the way that you think about things, the way you handle things in AWS is significantly different.
Billy: Wow
Dena: So, the first layer of usability transformation is getting it to the point where it is easy for IT folks to use. The second layer is getting it where it’s easy for everybody to use. We’re going to get there I just know how it’s going to take.
Billy: Dena, that is amazing.
Dena: Cool!
Billy: That is very cool. Thank you so much for being on the program, I’ve had such a wonderful time speaking with you.
Dena: Thank you so much for inviting me.
Billy: Thank you so much for listening to the Scholarly Commons Podcast. We will see you next time.
It Takes a Campus is a podcast brought to you by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Scholarly Commons, located in the Main Library . If you want more from us be sure to check out our blog Commons Knowledge at and follow us on Twitter at ScholCommons. That’s S C H O L Commons.
The opening and closing song is “Tranquility Base” by A.A. Aalto. You can find their album “Bright Colors” in the free music archive by searching for “A. A. Aalto” at
In this episode we had Billy Tringali speaking with Dena Strong from Technology Services. Billy is now the Law Librarian for Outreach at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.