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Digital Scholarship Profile: Brown University

Center for Digital Scholarship

Established in 2006

Staff: 8 full-time staff

Patrick Ma Digital Scholarship Lab

Established in 2012

Sidney E. Frank Digital Studio

Established in 2016

Patrick Ma Digital Scholarship Lab, Brown University Library

The history of digital scholarship at Brown University spans more than 50 years, from its earliest incarnations involving the use of computational linguistics and hypertext to today’s proliferation of technology-equipped collaborative spaces, virtual teams, increasingly interdisciplinary multimedia projects, and the development of a digital scholarship program responsive to the needs and aspirations of both faculty and students. The John D. Rockefeller, Jr., Library—“the Rock”—has provided a dynamic and discipline-neutral base for digital research and training to the Brown campus community for more than a decade under the leadership of university librarian Harriette Hemmasi. Shortly after opening the Digital Studio in February 2016, Hemmasi and three members of the Center for Digital Scholarship (CDS)—Patrick Rashleigh, data visualization coordinator; Elli Mylonas, senior digital humanities librarian; and Ned Quist, associate university librarian for research and outreach—spoke with ARL about the history of digital scholarship support at Brown and the exciting new spaces the library has made available.

At Brown, as with a number of other leading universities, early research using digital methods was not limited to computer science and the STEM fields. In the early 1960s linguistics professors Henry Kučera and W. Nelson Francis compiled the Brown Corpus of American English, which they subjected to a range of computational analyses, resulting in rich and varied outputs of lexical and statistical data about the texts.  Similar efforts to digitize texts and create greater corpora accelerated as personal computers became more powerful and available through the 1980s. Mylonas explained that by the mid-1990s several digital research projects tied to a variety of disciplines in the humanities and social sciences were underway at Brown. Mylonas and her colleagues in the Scholarly Technology Group (STG), including Geoffrey Bilder and Allen Renear, contributed to a number of high-profile projects, such as the Open eBook Project and Women Writers Project (started in 1988 and now hosted by Northeastern University). These early efforts tended to be faculty-driven and often involved student participation, with the Scholarly Technology Group members creating technological components, providing training, and managing the project over time. In 2008 the STG was moved into the library and became part of the relatively new Center for Digital Scholarship, itself having only been formed in 2006 under Hemmasi’s direction as the new university librarian.

The CDS is a cross-departmental group based in the university library that offers services and consultations on a range of activities, including data curation and management, spatial analysis, data visualization (with a large-scale, high-resolution display), metadata creation, help with grant proposal development, and digitization, preservation, and dissemination. The center aligns its work with the Digital Scholarship Lab and Digital Studio, both housed on the first floor of the Rockefeller Library, to offer a broad menu of support activities, such as speaker series and workshops. Many of these channels of support have a long history in the libraries at Brown, but have been concentrated and coordinated through the CDS.  After the STG became part of the center, there has been a continuing increase in personnel, many through reallocation and repurposing of staff lines to handle the addition of new services, opportunities to collaborate, and functions, such as the Digital Repository, helping to coordinate work in digitization and metadata creation. Expert assistance is available through consultation and collaboration with members of the CDS, including a social sciences data librarian, science data specialist, imaging and metadata services manager, two digital humanities librarians, data visualization coordinator, and digital repository manager. Members of the CDS also contribute to growing Brown’s digital scholarship infrastructure by developing interfaces, tools, and systems that support these activities, collaborating on new digital projects and promoting DS tools, projects, and research more broadly to the scholarly community.

Beyond its staff, the library also enables digital scholarship for scholars and students by hosting a variety of digitally enabled spaces. The Patrick Ma Digital Scholarship Lab and the new Sidney E. Frank Digital Studio offer collaborative spaces and technology, and were created as neutral zones for faculty and students from across the disciplines to meet, work, and learn together in an interdisciplinary environment that does not privilege any one discipline. The Digital Scholarship Lab serves as a traditional or experimental teaching, presentation, and research space.  The lab offers a huge (7 x 16–foot, 24-million-pixel) display wall, the capability to connect up to 12 devices to the display wall, videoconferencing, portable 50-inch monitors with workstations for smaller groups, and a 1,200-square-foot space with movable furniture configurable for large audiences or several smaller workgroups. The newer Sidney E. Frank Digital Studio, intended primarily for consultation and production purposes, is about 4,500 square feet in size, has an audio and visual production and editing suite, a small room with a 3-D printer, 3-D scanner, and large-format plotter/printer, a conference room, as well as its own large display screen (though not at the scale of the Digital Scholarship Lab).  These spaces have hosted a number of lecture series, such as this year’s Changing Forms of Digital Publication series with the Cogut Center for the Humanities, presenting new projects and research to the community.

Even though the staff of the CDS and the library as a whole have a great deal of experience and savvy when it comes to fostering digital scholarship, a number of challenges remain, such as increasing interdisciplinary collaboration and drawing more STEM faculty and students away from their labs and into the library. The center works to bridge disciplinary divisions through collaborations, including the Herbarium and the SciToons project—an attempt to engage STEM and non-STEM students and faculty in creating science animations as a way to communicate and publicize scientific research and concepts to a non-scientific audience. The library is also working with the Center for Computation and Visualization on a project using the Technology Group’s Yurt, an immersive 3-D/virtual-reality room, and its high-performance computing cluster. The library also offers new workshops that help STEM students design posters for conferences, building more on information literacy than digital scholarship, but still a way to draw scientists and their students out of their labs and into the libraries.  The CDS is also looking to collaborate more with S4: Spatial Structures in the Social Sciences in the future.

Featured Projects



The Herbarium was founded in 1869 from the combined collections of the Providence Franklin Society and that of Stephen Thayer Olney. The initial collection has been expanded to about 100,000 plant specimens from New England, primarily Rhode Island. The Herbarium has become an important repository for a number of 19th- and 20th-century collections. Funding from a National Science Foundation Thematic Collections Networks collaboration grant has enabled Brown to digitize these specimens by making scans and loading them into the digital repository. Patrick Rashleigh, the CDS’s data visualization coordinator, has been developing a digital repository app that can search, access, and visualize the digitized plant specimens using mobile devices and the Digital Scholarship Lab’s high-resolution display wall to create a “digital Herbarium.” While the Herbarium is located in Brown’s Biomedical Center, the digitized collection is publicly available online.

Inscriptions of Israel/Palestine


The goal of the Inscriptions of Israel/Palestine project is to create a searchable, online corpus of approximately 15,000 ancient inscriptions with English translations, covering ca. 500 BCE–640 CE. More than 2,500 of these inscriptions have been encoded using the Epidoc XML schema with the support of the Goldhirsh-Yellin Foundation and the Center for Digital Scholarship. These inscriptions are primarily written in Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, and Latin, and were created by Jews, Christians, Greeks, and Romans. The corpus includes a broad range of inscriptions, from imperial declarations carved on monumental architecture to donation notices in synagogues, to names added in ossuaries, and more. Inscriptions continue to be added on a rolling basis and the CDS hopes to move beyond just collecting and encoding these materials to incorporating these experiences as part of a student training process to increase digital literacy and fluidity in a networked society.

Asia-Pacific in the Making of the Americas (APMA)


The Asia-Pacific in the Making of the Americas: Toward a Global History (APMA) research initiative seeks to bring together a community of scholars, including faculty, librarians, curators, and graduate students, whose work focuses on the encounters and exchanges between the Asia-Pacific region and the Americas. Established in 2010 by Brown’s Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America, the initiative has held several international symposia. More recently, professor Caroline Frank with professor Evelyn Hu-Dehart and their students have collaborated with a global community of scholars researching transnational transpacific interactions from the 16th through the 19th centuries. The Center for Digital Scholarship has helped create this Scalar-enhanced web journal to offer news ways to display this work as hybrid scholarship, combining data visualizations and text-based content via a web interface.



Growing out of the Center for Digital Scholarship, the Digital Scholarship Lab, and the new Digital Studio, the Brown libraries recently received a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to help the library move toward integrating digital publication as part of their digital scholarship infrastructure. The goal of the Mellon initiative is to help faculty turn their project-based research into first-class digital publications. This effort has already started with the work of Liz Glass, the digital scholarship (DS) editor, who is working alongside CDS staff to assist faculty in scoping out and creating these innovative publications. The DS editor, with oversight from and close collaboration with Hemmasi, is also working with Brown University administration and eventually with promotion and tenure committees to move toward guidelines that promote greater acceptance of digital scholarship in general and digital or hybrid publications in particular. The library will work with faculty to develop, publish, and preserve their digital scholarship—not as a publisher or press, itself, but in coordination with established presses. The lessons learned in collaboration, building interdisciplinary projects, and working across the campus community will help the CDS make this effort a success in the very near future.

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