The Research Commons in 2014 and Beyond

In the final post of a three-part series, Donald Beagle explores future prospects for the use of an enhanced variant of the Commons models to facilitate DH in libraries. The previous two posts recounted influences on Beagle’s application of Strategic Alignment to manage Information Commons in libraries and the subsequent development of change management approaches.

Prospects: The Research Commons in 2014 and Beyond

Something quite similar to the phased three-level development of Information Commons-Learning Commons-Research Commons I had envisioned for the University of North Carolina-Charlotte in 1997-99, can be seen at Indiana University-Bloomington, where an Information Commons was initially announced in 2002.

In March 2005, IU responded to the IC’s “overwhelming popularity” by creating a second “IC2,” “…as part of a plan for the renovation of the library to address needs of today’s academic community. Planning is well underway for a faculty-centered Research Commons, designed to become a destination for research support of the Bloomington campus” (emphasis added). And by April 2012, Indiana University had posted “A Report to the Board of Trustees on Academic Quality: New Directions in Teaching and Learning,” which stated: “Indiana University Bloomington will make significant progress in creating a Learning Commons … that can support the move to online testing and the gathering of intelligence about student performance.” In summary, IU’s phased tri-level approach has been solidly based on the demonstrated success of each preceding implementation of the Commons model, allowing management and staff to assess impacts and successively build upon previous configurations. Given the model’s record of demonstrated success on campuses such as IU-Bloomington, this seems an opportune time to revisit my original vision for UNCC, but updated in the context of Lisa Shen’s version of the Three-Domain Diagram (described in Part II of this series).

enhanced shen diagram

Figure 4: The Commons as phased enhancements of a model across three domains
Source: Author’s enhanced version of Lisa Shen’s “Service Evaluation of an Information Commons,” in “Cyberthèque– love it or hate it? Students’ perceptions of McGill Libraries’ information commons,” 2009.
Note that this figure, used here with permission, is excluded from CC BY-NC 3.0 licensing terms.

By my underlying theoretical view, culture-at-large domain is itself subject to the greatest continuing influx of unpredictable novelty; accordingly, the Research Commons will likely always remain a more rapidly-moving target

Each successive iterative variation of the Commons model plays itself out across physical, virtual, and cultural domains, forming a sort of staircase-patterned spectrum. The Information Commons (IC) is most strongly anchored in the physical domain as a “learning space,” but with its continuum of tech-supported services and resources extending its reach across the virtual domain, and with student experience and experimentation with social media and video games crossing just across the boundary of an ever-evolving cultural domain. The Learning Commons (LC), as more of an interacting community among learning-support units including faculty, librarians, academic support staff, and students, is drawn farther across the boundary of institutional and digital culture, but also keeps one foot firmly situated in the library as learning space.

The Research Commons (RC) is the iterative variant least dependent upon the physical domain in terms of users’ (i.e.: faculty) space-specific dependencies, except for the fact that it may come to include pieces of high-end technology (display-walls, 3-D printers, etc.) too expensive to scatter across campus. But through the digital humanities and analytical and curatorial context of Research Data Services (RDS), the Research Commons becomes the Common model’s variant that most assertively stakes a claim across the full extent of the cultural domain, by which I include both a given campus’s institutional culture and our society’s “digital culture-at-large.” By my underlying theoretical view, culture-at-large domain is itself subject to the greatest continuing influx of unpredictable novelty; accordingly, the Research Commons will likely always remain a more rapidly-moving target, calling upon IT and library support to continually innovate new software (or cross-purpose software across disciplinary silos). The library’s ever-evolving data management and digital curation tools will in turn spark corresponding change in the virtual and physical domains. This shift toward an ongoing attempt to align with those changing domains has interesting correlations with the abandonment of classical attempts to define utopian societies, yielding to continuing attempts to instead create narratives that describe the voyage toward utopia across a restless and unpredictable oceanic realm.1

the spectrum of Commons iterative variants may be the optimal way to address serious problems that DH practitioners and theorists alike have for several years now been highlighting and broadcasting: problems of isolation, scattering, lack of skill-sharing, and a lack of venues for dissemination of expertise

The central point I wish to make is that something like the spectrum of Commons iterative variants may be the optimal way to address serious problems that DH practitioners and theorists alike have for several years now been highlighting and broadcasting: problems of isolation, scattering, lack of skill-sharing, and a lack of venues for dissemination of expertise.2 It is my contention that these problems could be mitigated by the RC model—particularly if the model becomes implemented on a substantial number of campuses.

Gradually, faculty on some campuses are indeed undertaking related initiatives. In August 2013, DH project faculty at Stanford confronted the problem of scattering and isolation by starting a webcenter—which, in the parlance I use for this blog, can be viewed as a Research Commons in the virtual domain. As Glen Worthey describes it (posted 8/14/2013) on the new site (emphasis added): “We Stanford Digital Humanists (a.k.a. DHers), scattered as we are across campus, have long talked about uniting under the banner of a collective website. Now we have: here it is, and here we are.”

While I would never discourage digital humanists from following Stanford’s example and forming webcenters on their own initiative to highlight and introduce projects, share expertise and express their needs, it seems to me that these initiatives could be most effectively leveraged by tangible facilities called Research Commons, aligned with faculty needs across physical, virtual, and cultural domains. Such a model which would then permit librarians and IT professionals to collaboratively 1) gather more complete “…information about how many faculty are interested;” 2) identify both the “unmet needs” as well as the “available tools” potentially applicable to meet those needs; and 3) mitigate the problem of faculty isolation by providing physical and virtual showcases (see, for example, my description of a Faculty Showcase as described in The Information Commons Handbook, p. 185).3

Customizing the Research Commons for Digital Humanities

A sufficient number of campuses have now implemented and assessed IC and/or LC models with great success that consideration of the model’s next logical variation, the Research Commons, is indeed becoming more widespread. Craig Gibson drafted a brief but cogent overview of current activity on this front in a 2012 paper from Ohio State University, “Overview of Research Commons in Academic Libraries: A White Paper.”4 In the following section, I would like to expand on Gibson’s OSU paper to extrapolate aspects of specific importance to the digital humanities.

The OSU white paper highlights a number of examples, including the UCLA Research Commons (featuring “…Collaborative work areas around display screens; presentation and board rooms; a digital humanities collaboration and demonstration area…”; the Penn State Knowledge Commons (featuring “…Multimedia production centers; consulting spaces; collaborative work areas;  hybrid staff positions between Library and IT;  research assistance; multimedia classroom; group instruction rooms;  group study rooms equipped with mediascapes (technology-enabled collaborative tables); reading rooms and group areas furnished with lounge furniture; public computers.”); and Columbia University’s “…Digital Centers in Humanities, Social Sciences, Sciences, with appropriate expertise, hardware, software, and other resources in each. Digital Humanities Center emphasizes scanning and editing texts and images; digital video editing, and textual and quantitative analysis … All the Centers provide advanced workstations, study spaces, consultation spaces, and in some cases presentation practice rooms.”

To Gibson’s examples, I would add Emory University’s Center for Digital Scholarship, the Scholarly Commons at University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, the Scholar’s Lab at the University of Virginia, the University of Kansas’s Institute for Digital Research in the Humanities, the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities, and the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University.

Gibson states: “In considering possible research commons models, we have to think about a continuum of research support services, from those more closely resembling the “standard” learning commons suite of services (reference/research support, multimedia production, writing center support) to those that add, in an eclectic fashion, more specialized research support services that align with various parts of the Knowledge Creation Cycle…” He then illustrates the key elements of this cycle in the following figure:

 

knowledge cycle

Figure 5: Knowledge-creation cycle
Source: Craig Gibson, “Figure 1” in “Overview of Research Commons in Academic Libraries: A White Paper.” Used with permission.
Note that this figure, used here with permission, is not included in the CC BY-NC 3.0 licensing terms that apply to the text of the post.

I borrow Gibson’s graphic of the knowledge creation cycle to illustrate how he has defined the core activities that a library-based RC might facilitate. But I would then go further to suggest that for the RC to properly address the problem of isolation and scattering identified by the NITLE report, two of the boxes in this cycle need to be “broken open”: the boxes labeled “consult” and “present results.”

a library-based RC would also bring two crucial elements of a library’s institutional culture into the DH arena to a degree that I am frankly not currently seeing in existing faculty-administered DH cooperative ventures … a culture of ongoing digital curation … and a culture of assessment that remains strategically aligned with larger educational and institutional missions and goals

The Stanford DH webcenter is an example of a possible mechanism to break these boxes open. But I believe a fully implemented library-based Research Commons with an integrated Faculty Showcase component as both a physical and virtual core program activity could move both consultation and results-presentation well beyond what any website alone could accomplish. It could do so by:

  • facilitating the active and ongoing sharing of expertise, skills, and experiences across campus and beyond;
  • encouraging cross-disciplinary collaboration;
  • realizing cost-savings for the university by promoting shared and collaborative utilization of high-end expensive physical hardware like display-walls (preventing unnecessary duplication of such hardware among existing scattered disciplinary silos, or so-called “boutiques”); and
  • in coordination with a Learning Commons oriented around the incubation of constructivist pedagogies,realizing cross-pollination between knowledge creation DH projects in the RC and project-based pedagogy in the LC.

Lastly, I would add that a library-based RC would also bring two crucial elements of a library’s institutional culture into the DH arena to a degree that I am frankly not currently seeing in existing faculty-administered DH cooperative ventures: a) a culture of ongoing digital curation (a vital need already proven by the fate of the aforementioned Blake Multimedia Project); and b) a culture of assessment that remains strategically aligned with larger educational and institutional missions and goals. But this vision also faces potential obstacles, of course, including those obvious limitations of space, budget, staff expertise, and the challenge of gaining faculty and administrative support.

The potential for expanding and customizing Gibson’s graphic for DH in the Research Commons can be found on the Development for the Digital Humanities (DevDH) beta site. As described in a recent HASTAC e-list release: “The site is the brainchild of Simon Appleford and Jennifer Guiliano, who collectively have spent more than a decade working in digital humanities project development, management, and grant writing.” The planning and project management schematic developed by Appleford and Guiliano is shown as a table in Figure 6.

 

Appleford Guiliano schematic

Figure 6: Schematic of downloadable lectures for DevDH.org (beta)
Source: Simon Appleford and Jennifer Guiliano, “DevDH.org: Development for the Digital Humanities.” Used with permission.
Note that this figure, used here with permission, is not included in the CC BY-NC 3.0 licensing terms that apply to the text of the post.

 

Of the twelve components in Figure 6, at least half can be found in the resource and service descriptions of the various Research Commons facilities listed earlier. In fact, half were discussed to varying degrees in The Information Commons Handbook (2006), sometimes under slightly different terms. For example, what Appleton and Guiliano describe as “Discovering the Digital Humanities: What are existing digital humanities projects, tools, and resources?” I described as part of a programming function called “Scanning the Horizon.” Further activities described under DevDH.org headings such as “Project Teams and Partners,” “Managing Your Project,” “Thinking About Data,” “Building Effective Budgets,” and “Evaluation,” all have substantive relationships to what library research specialists and Commons managers have long been exploring and mastering. To help clarify this and place my point in context, in Figure 7 below I have deconstructed the table compiled by Appleton and Guiliano and arranged its components around the cycle of knowledge creation:

 

Appleford Guiliano as KC cycle

Figure 7: Appleford & Guiliano’s DH schematic in context of Gibson’s knowledge creation cycle
Source: Author, based on schematics by Gibson (Craig Gibson, “Figure 1” in “Overview of Research Commons in Academic Libraries: A White Paper”) and by Appleford & Guiliano (Simon Appleford and Jennifer Guiliano, “DevDH.org: Development for the Digital Humanities”).
Note that this figure, used here with permission, is not included in the CC BY-NC 3.0 licensing terms that apply to the text of the post.

How many equivalent DH opportunities for creative re-application of software tools, multimedia, and supporting technologies across disciplinary boundaries and knowledge silos are currently being overlooked or under-utilized? One can only guess. But I would submit that a potential organizational model to accomplish these goals is already beyond the stage of guesswork—it is a Research Commons model that represents a logical enhancement and extension of the hundreds of Information Commons and Learning Commons facilities already installed, functioning, and successfully assessed on campuses across the U.S. and around the world. This brings my argument full circle, in a sense, as I have tried to describe in these posts how my initial work to develop an Information Commons was deeply influenced by my earlier work in developing a project in the digital humanities.

 

Editor’s noteThis post is part three in a three-part series. Recommended citation: Donald Beagle, “The Research Commons in 2014 and Beyond,” Part III in “Digital Humanities in the Research Commons: Precedents & Prospects,” dh+lib (January 30, 2014).

Addendum

As I have completed writing my draft of this post, a new DH project has appeared that I would suggest exemplifies the potential importance of shared expertise and cross-disciplinary use of applications. On November 7, 2013, Digital Humanities Now featured the project, “Virtual Paul’s Cross Project: A Digital Recreation of John Donne’s Gunpowder Day Sermon,” as an “Editor’s Choice.”5


Show 5 footnotes

  1. Note: This correlation has perhaps been best described in the explorations of digital culture by Pramod K. Nayar, in books such as An Introduction to New Media and Cybercultures, and Virtual Worlds: Culture and Politics in the Age of Cybertechnology. As a follow-on to Joyce’s Othermindedness, I recommend especially Nayar’s article “Information Spaces, Digital Culture, and Utopia,” which appeared in the Journal of Contemporary Thought, Vol. 31 (Summer 2010): 113-132. In this article, Nayar cites The Information Commons Handbook as an example where the IC may be viewed as an emergent cultural instantiation of what Nayar calls Infotopia—“something…both material and representational…which engages with and mediates our everyday life, generates cultural anxieties, and often the hope for the new, for the reimagining of the present” (p. 116).
  2. One of the most direct discussions of the isolation / scattering problem in DH was published in the 2011 NITLE paper, “Divided and Conquered: How Multivarious Isolation is Suppressing Digital Humanities Scholarship,” by Rebecca Frost Davis and Quinn Dombrowski. I won’t belabor the numerous interrelated problems of isolation and scattering uncovered by this report, not only between and among campuses, but between and among faculty on individual campuses. Davis and Dombrowski (to their great credit) interviewed librarians and IT staff to better understand the issue from those perspectives, but their findings fall short of offering a solution.
  3. Beagle, Donald. The Information Commons Handbook. ALA/Neal-Schuman, 2006.
  4. Note: The OSU white paper draws partly on my 2011 research report for the EDUCAUSE Center for Analysis and Research (“From Learning Commons to Learning Outcomes”), but then moves well beyond my earlier work to explore Research Commons developments across a broader multidisciplinary spectrum, including the sciences and social sciences.
  5. Note: The project introduction states: “This Project uses architectural modeling software and acoustic simulation software to give us access experientially to a particular event from the past – the Paul’s Cross sermon John Donne delivered on Tuesday, November 5th, 1622.” The key point to be stressed is that no DH scholar undertook the daunting task of creating the “architectural modeling software and acoustic simulation software” necessary to bring John Donne’s 1622 Gunpowder Day Sermon to life as an immersive learning experience for modern students. Instead, “…These digital tools, customarily used by architects and designers to anticipate the visual and acoustic properties of spaces that are not yet constructed, are here used to recreate the visual and acoustic properties of spaces that have not existed for hundreds of years.” (emphasis added).

Donald Beagle

Graduated Oakland University [English & Linguistics] 1975; University of Michigan [Library & Information Science] 1977. Formerly Head of Main Library, Charleston County Public Library, (SC) 1989-1996; Associate Library Director & Head of the Information Commons, University of North Carolina--Charlotte, (NC) 1997-1999; Director of Library Services, Belmont Abbey College (NC), 2000-current.