Cultivating a New Design Lab: An Interview with Justin Schell 3

Justin Schell is the Learning Design Specialist at the University of Michigan Library, where he is leading the development of the Shapiro Design Lab. Alix Keener, who conducted this interview, is the Digital Scholarship Librarian at the U-M Library.

Alix: I’m enjoying that there’s a Star Wars BB-8 robot rolling around in the background of this interview. There’s probably something there about humanities and technology; which, speaking of, how did you get involved in digital humanities and libraries? What came first?

Justin: Libraries came first. I worked at the Music Library at UW-Milwaukee during my undergrad and worked for the Immigration History Research Center and the Digital Content Library during my PhD program at the University of Minnesota. Then I received the CLIR postdoc and that was the start of my work in digital humanities and digital scholarship.

Alix: Where did your interest in DH come from?

Justin: As soon as I started at Minnesota, I tried to push the work I was doing beyond DH. While there were very real and important issues facing humanists and humanities as a whole, it was important to me to create communities beyond those boundaries; working with scientists of all stripes, technologists, and more. It was more about building communities through these different methodologies and practices than it was about building their uses within certain groups. So, the example I always use is physicists use Python, humanists use Python, both for types of text mining; let’s see how they can talk to each other and help each other. Libraries are nicely positioned to help facilitate those conversations and offer a way to get started with those kinds of projects.

Alix: What projects are you currently working on that you are excited about?

Justin: I think just building the space at the Shapiro Design Lab (here at the University of Michigan), that’s the biggest project I’m working on. It’s not just me, we’ve got a staff of 12, both graduate and undergraduate students in different fields. There’s a lot of buy-in and support and engagement from other parts of the library and the campus. It’s a place to try things out, from foam cubes for seating to 3Doodlers to developing video games. It’s a space to try new things out. Right now “design” can mean anything, though we have an emphasis on project design, on laying out the foundations for a project to set someone up for success in the type of project she is working on. Our goal is to encourage possibility yet discourage too much “magical thinking.” I think Jennifer Vinopal said that! At least for the first year, we’re going with a “kitchen sink” approach, and this breadth is really exciting (and sort of daunting). This could include everything from citizen science projects using Zooniverse to internal library projects using open hardware, like a Raspberry Pi gate counter or an Awesome Box.

Alix: What’s an Awesome Box? How do you find out about these things?

Justin: Conferences, Twitter, word of mouth, random places on the internet . . . the Awesome Box originally came from the Harvard Library Lab. At Code4Lib last year, librarians from Cornell who implemented it in Raspberry Pi form presented their work and they have the code up on GitHub. It’s a way for students to “awesome” materials they really enjoyed when they return them, creating a different level of engagement with the collection that also allows the Lab to explore an exciting facet of open hardware in libraries. One of my students, Jen, is figuring out how to work with our library catalog’s API, call up bibliographic information up when a student scans a barcode, then populate a website with recently “awesomed” books. This is just one thread running through the Lab, in what could be called broadly “digital scholarship,” but I don’t want it to be defined by that.

Alix: Could you say more about not being defined by digital scholarship?

Justin: I don’t think spaces that are called DH spaces are inherently discriminatory or anything like that, but we want the Lab to facilitate participation in larger communities inside and outside the University. We have so much to learn from each other in these different projects and practices, both as a library and as a university. In some ways it’s an interdisciplinary space; it’s purposely framed so that it will attract people that can cross pollinate in this area without being specifically framed for a particular audience. We’re in a pilot phase now, identifying and working with both early adopters on campus as well as reaching out to others who normally wouldn’t think of themselves as “digital scholarship” people.

Alix: How will you know if the Design Lab is successful? What does that look like?

Justin: I don’t ever want to get to a space where I’m comfortable in the Lab, because that means it’s time to try something else. I think we’re always going to be iterating and trying out different things, large and small. In some ways, we already know what we can’t or don’t want to do—we’re not a “production house” where someone has an idea and we build it for them. The space doesn’t really work for conventional workshops where everyone needs a computer in front of them and you’re led through tutorials. It’s more about active hands-on learning without the hierarchy that workshop spaces can often connote. I keep going back to Stewart Varner’s community garden metaphor [from the 2015 DLF Forum]. How do we cultivate that in the space? What do we do with the people who are already there, what do we do with the staff, what do we do with the furniture and the colors? How do you make it immediately visible what the space is for? It’s about encouraging people to build a space together and embrace the space as their own and make their own contributions to it, in concert with the intentions of the library.

Alix: Stewart’s metaphor resonated with me too. Are there examples you’ve looked to for how to encourage people to embrace a space as their own?

Justin: First and foremost, the Design Labs on North Campus [at the University of Michigan], which have been around in some form for at least 15 years under the work of Linda Knox. Other libraries have these spaces, like North Carolina State. I’ve also had experience with co-working spaces in the Twin Cities and here in Ann Arbor. I think Alex Gil’s space at Columbia (Studio@Butler) is a great example of this kind of work. So, spaces inside and outside of libraries and academia. It’s interesting to think about an academic space and what will work in that setting and also where we might push to change what an academic setting could or should be.

Alix: Switching gears back to DH, what’s next for DH and libraries? What do you see as some of the unanswered questions?

Justin: Sustainability is always the unanswered question, because it can’t be answered. We’ll figure out something for now and then we’ll re-assess. It’s part of making this part of the everyday identity of the library and this kind of work. Not that everyone needs to know how to do everything—I come back to Columbia’s Developing Librarian project, where people are participating and learning in different aspects of the project. You’ll never learn everything and you can’t, and that’s unsustainable. But being able to better understand who can do what, and convincing people that they do have a lot to contribute [in the way of domain knowledge]; it’s getting that shared understanding of DH or whatever we’re going to call it.

Alix: What do you wish DH did better? That libraries did better?

Justin: I think it’s the critical digital literacy piece. Being contextually aware of what it means to be using this or that sort of tool. If you’re relying on an algorithm to make a scholarly argument, others may not be able to check on that in the same way one can with a close reading of a book in front of me. In this pervasive networked culture we live in, if you’re using this tool, you need a critical and contextual understanding of that tool. There are obviously a great number of scholars doing this: Roopika Risam, Adeline Koh, Matthew Kirschenbaum, and many others, but there’s always room for more work in this area, especially reaching out to our colleagues in critical media studies and/or digital studies departments.

For me, it comes down to the idea of literacy and helping people understand (and perhaps dismantle) black boxes. Being more transparent and helping others to develop that, which gets into the digital pedagogy side of things. What does it mean for us to be the product in search algorithms, and our own complicity in that? We need to recognize that some things about libraries will change and it’s part of the conversation we’re having. I hope it’s a democratic conversation. The biggest thing, going back to the Design Lab, we’re not building things for people—we’re going to work together with you to create what you want to create. That’s the goal of this—to foster these communities around what it means to be doing scholarly work in the 21st century.

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