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A Librarian Research Round-Up

Posted on by Rebecca Ortenberg

As head of the Penn Museum Library, Deborah Stewart isn’t just familiar with the complex inner workings of library collections--she also understands first-hand what it takes for academics to turn library research into scholarship. “Like many of them, I have dealt with bureaucratic challenges, survived graduate school, written grant and fellowship applications, presented at conferences, and published,” she says. “These experiences help me to empathize with our students and faculty.” Stewart is just one of many scholar-librarians on the Penn Libraries staff who juggle the work of creating and writing peer-reviewed scholarship and the work of maintaining, growing, managing, promoting, and explaining the wide variety of collections and resources that the Libraries provides.

For many of them, the roles of librarian and scholar are inextricably intertwined. “Particularly when it comes to digital projects, scholarly publications are crucial,” says Emily Esten, curator of digital humanities. “They’re part of a project's lifecycle. Publications explore the parts of projects that aren't directly visible in a final product--its successes and failures, its connections to other projects or existing work--and help build a community of practice.”

With all of that in mind, we have profiled just a few of our accomplished librarian-scholars to learn more about their recent academic work and to find out what advice they have for their peers looking to expand their scholarly reach.

Deborah Stewart, head of the Penn Museum Library

You recently co-edited the book Deserted Villages: Perspectives from the Eastern Mediterranean. Can you tell me a little bit about it in your own words?

When looking at abandoned buildings and villages, some people probably dismiss them as unsightly blights on the landscape, while others might photograph them as romantic ruins. For descendants of former inhabitants, these abandoned sites are often significant to a family’s or community's memories of the past. This book is a collection of case studies where tools and methods from archaeology, anthropology, and historic preservation have been deployed by thoughtful practitioners, not only to document deserted villages at this moment in their history but also to recover the stories of their communities. The research behind each case study was a labor of love, as was the work of putting the volume together.
What was the process like for getting this book published? What was your role as an editor?

To create an edited volume, one needs to find the right topic for the volume, then the right authors, and the right publisher. Ultimately we decided to have the book published by University of North Dakota Digital Press, where one of our authors, William Caraher, was editor. Because the authors document villages whose remains are rapidly deteriorating, we felt strongly about publishing as open access, which allows this information to be freely and easily accessible to audiences throughout the eastern Mediterranean. But this decision also meant that my co-editor Rebecca Seifried and I took on copy-editing, proofreading, and design work that would normally have been done by the publisher. That the volume saw nearly 500 downloads from locations around the globe in its first week demonstrated that all the extra work was well worth it! 

Judith Currano, head of the Chemistry Library

You regularly present at scientific conferences like the American Chemical Society’s annual meeting. Is it common for librarians to present at science conferences?

I don’t know how common it is for non-chemistry librarians, but chemistry librarians do this frequently.  The American Chemical Society has the Division of Chemical Information, and members of this division are involved in a wide variety of activities related to chemical information.

I really like presenting at national meetings because it is a much more interactive environment than a journal publication. I can entertain questions from the audience “in the moment,” and these questions can give me insights into my work that I can immediately return and apply.  I also enjoy these sessions because my work is presented alongside many similar endeavors, making it easy to consume them and perceive commonalities and connections among disparate projects.
What’s your process like for preparing for conference presentations?

I actually find creating PowerPoint slides to be a valuable part of the preparation process; while I’m building the slides, I’m condensing and organizing the things that I have to say about my work.  As a result, relatively little rehearsal is necessary once the presentation has been built. I frequently share my presentation with someone ahead of time to make sure that it is understandable to someone who hasn’t been living with it for weeks/months/years, and I’ve gotten really insightful suggestions from colleagues that have helped to improve my presentations.
One notable exception was a talk that I gave to close a symposium on data management. This was a really uncomfortable experience because I had to wind together the themes that all of the previous speakers had presented over the course of the day. Although I had built a version of a presentation based on themes that I extracted from the other speakers’ abstracts, I actually had my computer open during the symposium and was making changes to the slides in real time based on what the speakers were saying. On the whole, while it’s a great honor to give a “summary talk” for a symposium, it can be pretty uncomfortable, particularly if one isn’t comfortable giving talks with limited capacity for advance preparation.

Emily Esten, Arnold and Deanne Kaplan Collection of Early American Judaica Curator of Digital Humanities

You’ve done quite a bit of publishing recently! What’s something you’re particularly excited to have gotten to share?

I was super excited for the Visualizing Objects, Places, and Spaces: A Digital Project Handbook publication! The handbook is a new open resource offering guidance for researchers and instructors who are in the early stages of digital project development. Using the Scribes of the Cairo Geniza as a case study, it highlights how labor, time, and tasks are distributed across a large, collaborative crowdsourcing initiative. My co-author and I felt it was really important to highlight these challenges and resources, making public some of the workflows, resources, and computational principles we used to build and maintain the Scribes project. 
Do you have any tips for others working in digital librarianship and digital scholarship who are interested in publishing but don’t know where to start?

My biggest suggestion is to think about how the story you want to tell can serve multiple purposes. Digital scholarship has lots of moving pieces, and there are lots of different ways you can approach publishing this kind of work--I've contextualized research in dataset creation, audiences and sustainability, and project management, all using the same project, but publishing in different venues. Building writing into your practice by dividing it into these small, specific pieces makes it a lot less daunting to publish when the time comes.

Lynn Ransom, Curator of SIMS Programs and Schoenberg Database Manager

You were recently one of 15 (!) co-authors on an article about Mapping Manuscript Migration, a project that brought together data from three different institutions to help scholars find and study pre-modern manuscripts. What was it like to work on such a collaborative project?

The collaboration was a back and forth effort, where the humanists first explained the data and what they wanted to do with it to the computer scientists, who then took that information and designed and implemented a data model. It was an iterative process of testing and analysis carried out between the two teams that culminated in a platform that was accessible and useful to researchers, as well as technologically sound and transparent in its limitations and truths about the nature of its combined dataset. 

While this method of working may not sound revolutionary to some, it is unusual in the digital humanities, where humanists often treat the developers as service providers and the computer scientists treat the humanists as clients, not as contributors. By the end of the project, the entire team felt that we had been able to break down those barriers, and consequently came away with an enriched understanding not only of the MMM platform that we created, but also of the ways that the two poles of research—humanist and digital—can benefit from understanding each other.
What advice do you have for people interested in doing cross-disciplinary scholarship?

A turning point in our project came halfway through when this international group of researchers and scientists got together in Helsinki and spent the day hashing out the MMM data model. We spent a lot of time sharing ideas and getting to know each other over meals and breaks. We built a level of trust and empathy that made the difficult work of communicating across disciplines and time zones possible. If you are a humanist just starting out with a project, make an effort to get to know the computer scientists and programmers who will be working with you and learn to value the intellectual contributions that they can make to your research.

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