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Podcast: ARL Venture Fund Highlights

Last Updated on July 9, 2022, 9:41 am ET

About the ARL Views Podcast

The ARL Views podcast provides deep dives into key issues of interest to the research library community.

 

About This Episodeheadshots of Chris Diaz, Amanda Henley, and Lauren McKeen

This episode explores the work of ARL Venture Fund recipients.

This podcast was recorded in February 2022.


Episode Transcript

Jessica Aiwuyor:

Hello, I’m Jessica Aiwuyor, senior director of communications for the Association of Research Libraries. Today, I have the pleasure of interviewing Venture Fund recipients. ARL established the Venture Fund in 2019 to support the work of member organizations that advances the key priorities of the Association. The purpose of the Venture Fund is to support prototypes or proofs of concept that scale, so as to advance the Association priorities set by the members and the Board. Proposals for Venture Fund investments may come from a member representative, a group of member representatives, an Association Committee, or member library employees with the explicit approval of their library dean or director. The proposed venture must exist in some form and have an identified community of users with the potential to scale. Today, I have the pleasure of interviewing three special guests that were all recipients of the Venture Fund and uplifting the incredible work that they’re doing: Chris Diaz, digital publishing librarian at Northwestern University Libraries; Lauren McKeen, librarian and web manager also at Northwestern University Libraries; and finally Amanda Henley, head of digital research services at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Libraries. Welcome.

Chris Diaz, Northwestern University Libraries:

Hi, I’m Chris Diaz. I’m the digital publishing librarian at Northwestern University. My job is to provide open access publishing services to faculty and students on campus. So I work with a lot of different projects related to open educational resources, scholarly monographs, scholarly journals, conference proceedings, digital exhibits, data sets, all sorts of research or educational materials that faculty or students want to distribute online.

Lauren McKeen, Northwestern University Libraries:

And I’m Lauren McKeen McDonald. I am the open education librarian at Northwestern, and so I work with OER authors, assist them with their projects. I connect them with Chris for more technical aspects of project development and publishing. And then I do open education promotion across campus to try to get new faculty authors, to either adopt or begin creating OER.

Jessica Aiwuyor:

Your current project is lowering barriers for publishing open textbooks, a minimal computing toolkit. Please tell us more about it.

Chris Diaz, Northwestern University Libraries:

This idea came about when I started using some open source software, some command line tools to publish different types of research or educational materials using Markdown. And I also started to learn a lot more about GitHub and how people are sharing their code or text or plain text projects on GitHub, and I thought that there was an opportunity to design and document a workflow that centered around open source software Markdown, plain text and GitHub as essentially a digital publishing platform for librarians. I thought that there was a lot of potential with GitHub and Pandoc in particular that was underutilized in library publishing. So we put together this proposal for the Venture Fund to see if we can generate a prototype where I would do more of the technical setup and make sure that everything is kind of sensible and usable and Lauren was going to help out and provide some of the, bring me down to earth. Like, here’s my experience as a librarian using this thing.

Lauren McKeen, Northwestern University Libraries:

My role, this has been as sort of a communications lead. So my work has involved some of the editorial oversight of the documentation and the instructions, which is basically copy pasting that will be going to librarians like me who have minimal or no experience with coding or some of the technological aspects of things that they will be learning when they go through Lance and the toolkit. And so then when the toolkit is in it’s completed form, I’ll also be working on some of the outreach and promotion to potential users.

Jessica Aiwuyor:

What is your ultimate goal with this project and what is your hoped impact that would come from this?

Chris Diaz, Northwestern University Libraries:
In this, the sort of subfield of librarians that I hang out with, I sort of feel like there’s a hesitancy to use open source software for digital publishing and I understand why, because a lot of these open source publishing tools out there are really written for developers and kind of assume a certain level of coding and programming knowledge. So my goal is to sort of create an on-ramp for librarians who I believe already have the fundamental skills necessary to use these technologies in very effective ways, by just having been exposed to the friendliest of documentation and instructional materials to learn how, for example, I think that Markdown and YAML and Pandoc are three different technologies that I think with the right training can sort of really change the way that librarians approach digital projects.

Chris Diaz, Northwestern University Libraries:

And in my experience, I find that there are a lot of other technical aspects to librarianship that in my view, are far more confusing and far more are challenging to learn, metadata being one of them. So I think that there’s a hypothesis here, which is that librarians have the skills to do this, there just aren’t that many tools available that are written for them to engage and to learn about how to use open source software for digital publishing.

Lauren McKeen, Northwestern University Libraries:

Yeah. And I’ll just add that it’s been an interesting partnership between us working on this project because I see myself as sort of the prime user of a toolkit like this, because I’m working in the open education field and I’m working with textbook authors, but I don’t have the same background that Chris has when it comes to programming and so, as he’s been developing the prototype for this and sharing it with me, then I’ve been able to go through it and learn some of these skills that I previously had no knowledge of and definitely didn’t learn in Library School.

Chris Diaz, Northwestern University Libraries:

Our goal is to kind of give the library a world an educational on-ramp to a new world of technologies that could be useful, but Lantern, which is the name of our prototype, is essentially a free digital publishing toolkit. It is something that at can generate OER in multiple formats that uses sustainable practices. So plain text, static files, static websites and the inspiration from minimal computing is all about trying to put intentional constraints around what are the technologies that we’re using in order to sustain them over the long term. A lot of publishing software is using server side applications and databases and a lot of technology dependencies or software dependencies that need to be maintained and secured and developed over time, and that can be extremely expensive for the library community to maintain over time. So if with Lantern, we chose the fewest amount of software dependencies as possible to create something that I think is, almost as robust as some of the most expensive and impressive publishing tools available, or that’s the goal.

Chris Diaz, Northwestern University Libraries:

I mean, I don’t know that I think that there are going to be, people will look at this and then do a cost benefit analysis. Like, do I really want to learn all this new stuff or do I just want to use something that’s easy that I can afford to use? And that might be the case with a lot of people, but hopefully with some people who don’t have the technology budgets to license of a software product or to spin up their own with a development team, this can be something that anyone can install and run on their own computers just with a day or two of tinkering and I think there’s a lot of really good potential for this.

And the last thing I’ll say is that, the end result of these publishing workflows is to create an open textbook or an open educational resource as like a website, a PDF or an EPUB. And the sort of the end result is something that can be hosted on any web server for free, or for a couple dollars a year, like very, very cheap hosting for this type of static content as opposed to a content management system or a database backed application.

Jessica Aiwuyor:

How do you feel your work can help up other research libraries and the impact of their work?

Chris Diaz, Northwestern University Libraries:

One of the things that was interesting to me starting this project was that there is this idea called minimal computing which is prevalent in digital humanities, but it’s not something that is talked about in the open education space. And so maybe I can read a definition of minimal computing to like help explain what it is. Minimal computing refers to computing done under some set of significant constraints of hardware, software, education, network capacity, power or other factors. It’s almost like a form of environmentalism where there is a choice to not use everything that is available, but just make some smart decisions around what is it that you actually need to accomplish a task using some sort of computer or computing device.

Chris Diaz, Northwestern University Libraries:

And so I think that a lot of the techniques coming from the minimal computing community in digital humanities, which is around plain text, which is around using Markdown as a language for writing and for publishing. I think that teaching OER librarians about plain text and about Markdown and about static websites and about Pandoc will make OER librarians or the open education space to be a little bit more critical or have a better more fundamental understanding about the creation use and preservation of digital of texts.

Because a lot of what we are used to are things like Microsoft word or WordPress or content management systems that really, what they do is they obscure what is happening under the hood. They make something that’s easy to use and it’s kind of like what you see is what you get. When you’re using these technologies, but there is a layer below that I think minimal computing tries to emphasize and having an understanding of that lower layer of digital text, I think can and illuminate a lot of potential for librarians who work in any sort of like digital project at their campus.

Lauren McKeen, Northwestern University Libraries:

This project shines a light on the technological openness, the possibilities for technological openness that can be when you’re creating OER. Like Chris said, I think a lot of open education community is really concerned rightly so with having users be able to access these materials, having multiple different formats and then Lantern, this toolkit is a way for them to be able to also think about openness when it comes to the creation of the materials as well, and what tools we’re using to create them.

Jessica Aiwuyor:

Why did you choose to apply to the Venture Fund?

Lauren McKeen, Northwestern University Libraries:

One of ARL’s strategic priorities is to catalyze collective efforts to achieve barrier free access to information. And so we felt like the heart of this project aligned really well with that strategic priority. So that was another big reason why we felt like it was appropriate to apply.

Jessica Aiwuyor:

Would you recommend other people apply for the Venture Fund?

Chris Diaz, Northwestern University Libraries:

Absolutely. I hope that it continues to be available annually or however, on whatever frequency, but I think it’s a great program. I had a good experience with it, even though the pandemic happened and kind of made things a little, slow things down in terms of our timeline, but the people at ARL were very understanding.

Lauren McKeen, Northwestern University Libraries:

Yeah, it’s been a great experience. I mean, the funding that we got for this really enabled us to do things that we would not have been able to do otherwise such as higher student employees to help us work on this project, interview other librarians in the field to get their feedback on it. And then also just having the grant and knowing if there was a timeline gave us deadlines to be accountable, to be able to work on something. So it was a really good experience.

Jessica Aiwuyor:

Thank you both. Do you have any final thoughts for our listeners?

Chris Diaz, Northwestern University Libraries:

So the prototype is called Lantern (https://github.com/nulib-oer/lantern) and it’s available on GitHub so I can give you the link to it, so that people can read about it on GitHub or start using it, if they want. We also use Lantern to develop the final report (https://nulib-oer.github.io/lantern-report/). So we created the report using the actual toolkit that we developed. So I can give you a link to that report, that would be useful. I’m currently writing an article that will hopefully get published in a journal soon. It hasn’t been accepted yet, because we’re still writing it. But in addition to that, there will be conference presentations about this in the spring. So hopefully people who are interested can read about it in a variety of different contexts or watch videos that we were record talking about it. But yeah, we do hope that people try it out and we have a discussion forum set up on GitHub. Lauren anything else?

 

Lauren McKeen, Northwestern University Libraries:

No, I think that covers it. We’re excited to begin engaging with other librarians on this project. So we’re excited to share it and we hope that people will visit the GitHub and visit the Wiki page to read the documentation and reach out to us with any questions or thoughts.

Jessica Aiwuyor:

Thank you both for speaking with me today and for sharing your experience with the Venture Fund. Now we’ll hear from our next guest, Amanda Henley, welcome to ARL Views Podcast, Amanda.

Amanda Henley:

Well, thanks a lot. My name’s Amanda Henley, I’m the head of digital research services at the university libraries at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Jessica Aiwuyor:

Your current project is On The Books: Jim Crow and Algorithms of Resistance. Can you tell us about it?

Amanda Henley:

Yeah, absolutely. On The Books is a collections of data and machine learning projects of the university libraries. We have created a plain text Corpus of North Carolina session laws that go from between reconstruction and the civil rights movement. And then we use text analysis to identify the Jim Crow laws. And the idea for the project came from a reference question from a social studies teacher who was looking for a comprehensive listing of Jim Crow laws in North Carolina. He had asked Sarah Carrier, who is our North Carolina research and instruction librarian. Well, Sarah had the idea to try to use text analysis to create this list because the closest that she was able to find was Pauli Murray’s book, States Laws on Race and Color, which was published in 1951. And Sarah had also found all of the North Carolina session law volumes that were needed to answer the question online, but they couldn’t really be searched that easily.

Amanda Henley:

So around about that same time, there was the call for proposals for Collections as Data:Part to Whole. And that was funding institutions interested in creating collections as data, so we submitted a proposal to that, which is funded. And as it turns out, the Part to Whole funded what was the beginning of the project, because it’s really grown since then. And the next days of the project was funded by the ARL Venture Fund. And we put that at funding together with some funds that we got from an internal grant called An Idea Grant that came from the university libraries.

And that kind of allowed us to improve the Corpus that we created and improve our analysis. And it also allowed us to actually use the products that we created. So in the first phase, we were really just focusing on creating these things. But in the second phase, we were able to use unsupervised classification and kind of identify the topics that were covered by the Jim Crow laws.

And we also created some data visualizations that show the distribution of the laws across space and time. And we created an open educational resource about the OCR that was kind of based on our workflow. And that was used to teach librarians as part of the Text Analysis Pedagogy Institute. And now we’re working to expand the project in a whole new way. We’ve been really fortunate to receive a grant from the Andrew W., a Mellon foundation to expand the project to additional states. And we’re going to be learning more about how we can best support the use of collections as data and research and teaching because we’re going to be funding some teaching and research fellows that we’ll be working with over the next couple of years.

Jessica Aiwuyor:

What is your ultimate goal with this project?

Amanda Henley:

Well, we have many goals actually for this project just kind of multifaceted, but I think, ultimately what we really want to do is to work towards building a more equitable future by telling the truth about our past. On The Books project is in alignment with our university library’s reckoning initiative. And this initiative uses a lance of inclusion and racial equity to view all of the work that we do in the libraries.

Amanda Henley:

And once we’ve created these resources, researchers are going to be able to compare the legislative practices across the different states. And I think that this could help further the understanding of how these laws propagated state to state. And that’s a practice that I think is still very much relevant today. And another thing that we are really hoping to do with this project is to situate academic libraries at the center of the research process, especially as research methods are increasingly computationally intensive and interdisciplinary, libraries are critical partner because we have this specialized insight into our expansive collections and historical data that we have. And we also have knowledge of these technologies that are needed to analyze them. I’m just really eager for people to see library collections as the rich data sources that they are and to see librarians as guides for exploring those resources with emerging technologies.

Jessica Aiwuyor:

So how do you feel your work can help other research libraries and the impact of their work?

Amanda Henley:

Well, I’m hoping that the workflow that we created and the documented code that we’ve made available from our GitHub site is going to be able to assist others who are interested in doing similar work. And we are also going to have two partner teams from two other states that we’re going to be working with very closely as they create their corporate and do their analysis. So hopefully they will be able to learn from our experience and just as we are looking forward to learning from them. And we’ve also had a couple of graduate students working on this project who have come out with some impressive skills. And we two more right now who are going to be on the job market in spring of 2023. So we’re hoping to learn from the research and teaching fellows about how academic libraries can best support users with collections as data, and we’re going to be sharing our findings on this pretty broadly.

Jessica Aiwuyor:

Why did you choose to apply to the venture fund?

Amanda Henley:

Honestly, our library leadership team brought this to the attention of all of the department heads in our library. So our Part to Whole funding was going to be running out, and I knew that we wanted to continue this project, so I decided to apply. And as it turns out, this funding was really important for us because it served as a bridge to our receiving the larger grant from the Mellon Foundation.

Jessica Aiwuyor:

Would you recommend other people apply for the Venture Fund?

Amanda Henley:


Yes, definitely. It was easy to apply for. It was more of an award than a grant, so bookkeeping was much easier, and their reporting requirements were also very reasonable. We used the funding to pay graduate student salaries and it’s really amazing how much we were able to accomplish with $15,000.

Jessica Aiwuyor:

Thank you, Amanda, for sharing your experience with the Venture Fund. Venture Fund Recipients are doing amazing work, and we look forward to continuing to showcase their impact. To learn more about the venture fund, visit ARL’s website, arl.org.

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