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Digital Scholarship Profile: University of Iowa

Digital Scholarship & Publishing Studio

Established in 2015

Staff: 12 FTE staff

Digital Scholarship &
Publishing Studio

At the Fall 2015 Coalition for Networked Information (CNI) Membership Meeting, University of Iowa (UI) university librarian John Culshaw; associate university librarian Paul Soderdahl; and Tom Keegan, head of the Digital Scholarship & Publishing Studio, presented to a full house on the then-recent formation of the studio in the UI Libraries. Keegan followed up on this recently by speaking with ARL about how the studio has started to fulfill its vision and mission as it completed its first year.

Technology has been part of research and scholarship at UI for some time, but the connection of the libraries with digital research had been idiosyncratic. This began to change in a coordinated and strategic way on June 1, 2015, when the UI Libraries, with the support of the UI provost, launched the Digital Scholarship & Publishing Studio. Keegan explained how the studio maintains a physical and organizational presence in the UI Main Library and was created by merging the UI Libraries–operated Digital Research and Publishing department with the campus-operated center called the Digital Studio for Public Arts and Humanities. Housing the Iowa Digital Library (over one million digital objects), Iowa Research Online (the institutional repository), DIY History (participatory archives platform), and faculty and student Digital Editions (non-monographic digital scholarly work), the studio collaborates with faculty, staff, and students from across the campus and the Iowa City community.

With nearly a dozen full-funded staff positions as well as student interns and workers, the Digital Scholarship & Publishing Studio now represents a remarkable commitment of institutional resources to the growth and development of digital scholarship at UI. Among the full-time staff are: three digital humanities librarians (one of whom is also the associate editor of the Walt Whitman Archive); a digital collections librarian; a digital scholarship librarian; a GIS specialist; a senior developer; a researcher/developer; a public engagement specialist; a graphic designer; a program coordinator; a library assistant; and a department head. The studio also works with the Iowa Center for Research by Undergraduates and the on-campus internship courses to identify interested undergraduates as interns and the studio hosts paid graduate and undergraduate student workers. In some cases, studio staff also serve as mentors to graduate students in the School of Library & Information Science. The staff are dedicated to the studio and not shared with other departments, with the exception of the graphic designer, who splits her time between the studio and the UI Libraries Strategic Communications. Keegan points out that the studio also works closely with faculty through the senior scholar for digital arts & humanities research, who works closely with a faculty steering committee, the studio head, and the program coordinator on the use of studio resources for specific arts and humanities project needs. In addition, the senior scholar directs the Studio Scholars Program and promotes the studio’s role in digital scholarship and publishing in the arts and humanities.

The Digital Scholarship & Publishing Studio was designed after looking at what has been done elsewhere, and benefitted from Soderdahl’s long tenure in the UI libraries, Keegan’s experience at the University of Virginia and the UI, and others’ input. Although it is a stand-alone department within the libraries, the studio works closely with several library departments, including Preservation & Conservation, Cataloging & Metadata, Library Information Technologies, Research & Library Instruction, and Special Collections, as well as the University of Iowa’s Information Technology Services. The studio seeks to be both a library service as part of the institution’s core, and a specialized research facility that can bear some costs on behalf of researchers, and it needs a way to charge and potentially recover those costs. There is sometimes a tendency for digital scholarship (especially digital humanities) to be “club like” and Keegan emphasizes that the studio does not want to be perceived as exclusive and is working to democratize access to its staff and resources as an entitlement for the entire campus scholarly community.

The majority of the studio’s projects are collaborations between faculty or graduate students and studio staff. Typically, projects are led by a faculty member or graduate student as principal investigator (PI) with the studio staff member taking on the role of project manager (PM). The PI and PM work together to explore approaches and options for the project that best meet the needs of the PI. However, there remain challenges in balancing the operation of studio-as-library-service with studio-as-core-facility in terms of budget lines and cost recovery, without the studio falling into a competitive pay-to-play model as several digital humanities centers do. The studio tries to meet this challenge in part by providing consumptive resources and services in ways that best fit researchers’ budgetary needs or constraints. These resources are not exclusive to specific departments or researchers, but can be tailored to support and accompany the ongoing search for external research dollars. Keegan stresses that the studio is open to collaboration with any department, but has seen more interest from those departments that are part of two cluster hiring initiatives at the UI. The Public Humanities in a Digital World and Public Digital Arts clusters have encouraged increased digital scholarship in: Art & Art History; Cinematic Arts; Classics; English; History; Performing Arts; Religious Studies; and World Languages, Literatures & Cultures.

Keegan emphasized that basing the studio in the library is advantageous to the studio’s mission and the range of projects it can support. Preservation, digitization, and metadata are among the library’s strengths, and the studio’s ability to draw on them as well as from special collections increases the profile of the library and its use in teaching and student work. Being in the library also allows faculty and student researchers to work closely with library subject specialists, many of whom are associated with specific departments. These subject specialists often have PhDs and the studio loops them in to work with faculty because they “speak the language” and can advocate for project features that align with the mission of the library in respect to preservation, especially curation and archiving.

The studio complements the work of the university press by meeting with faculty members to help them envision how to enhance their monographs by sharing data that cannot be part of the traditional print form. The focus on assessment within the library also informs the work of the project coordinator, who works with researchers to help them understand which digital tools are possible, the capacities of the studio, and the needs of the project in terms of who the audience and users are, how public-facing the work should be, and the possible scale of the work. The studio works to help set stages, shepherd the project, and help teach the teacher rather than operate as resources in a strict sense.

One of the studio’s early challenges was outreach to students and faculty to convince them to work with the studio, that there was no application process or award necessary. The need for technology and digital-tool customization leads to many digital scholarship projects requiring external funding—grants—to support the work. The studio staff are an investment in democratic access to digital scholarly resources by the provost, and as such are meant to alleviate staff and skill resource pressures as much as possible. This model is meant to better position faculty and student projects for grant funding at scale. Another challenge has been to anticipate the life span of projects by asking their PIs how the project is meant to live online. The studio drafts memos of understanding (MOUs) with a specified term of support, although this may be revisited. These MOUs are not fully binding, but remain open to revision and adaption as the projects mature and evolve. This leaves an ongoing challenge: making PIs aware that this work is digital and therefore neither immortal nor to be developed solely for aesthetic reasons.

Featured Projects

DIY History


DIY History is increasingly more platform than project, run on an Omeka 2 instance with a custom theme and transcription plugin developed by the studio. The content for the collections draws from the Iowa Digital Library, featuring digitized selections from the UI Libraries special collections, University Archive, and Iowa Women’s Archives. DIY History invites the public to help in preserving the past by keeping the historic record accessible—one page or picture at a time. Most of these materials are not currently text-searchable (17th-century cookbooks, Civil War letters, 19th-century undergraduate theses, a variety of typescript social justice materials), but volunteers crowdsource transcriptions and comments to make them so. Over the past five years, people from all walks of life have engaged with and transcribed over 67,000 documents, adding those to our expanding historical record.

Coffee Zone: From the Coffee Fields to the Future


Puerto Rico’s once-thriving coffee industry has been on the wane since the mid-1980s, with its number of coffee plantations shrinking from 11,000 in 2004 to fewer than 4,000 today. Beyond economic decline, many have relocated to the coasts and urban areas, drastically reducing the population of the western area of Puerto Rico known as the coffee zone, eroding communities and threatening cultural memory. This digital archive encompasses the oral histories of coffee pickers, farmers, hacendados (owners of vast farming land), women, and teens from the coffee zone. This archive is the first to record and preserve the coffee zone’s dialect and oral histories as part of preserving its cultural heritage and memory. The collection also includes the ways in which women in the coffee industry have handled the micro-changes in their community, and how these changes have played a role in the preservation, and sometimes annihilation, of the coffee zone’s dialect. This website enhances our understanding of how seemingly unrelated areas, such as migratory patterns and a country’s economy, affect language.



Looking to the future, the Digital Scholarship & Publishing Studio must continue to make faculty members and all PIs aware that digital scholarship work is involved and ongoing, not static as traditional print scholarship: the digital has different affordances for use, reuse, and teaching, each bounded by reasonable expectations of longevity and responsible archival treatments. In the coming year the studio will build its capacity for data visualization, exploring new algorithmic approaches to analysis in a range of disciplines, and more fully connecting research projects to the graduate and undergraduate classroom where appropriate. For existing and ongoing projects, the studio remains committed to helping faculty and students explore external funding sources at scale in order to facilitate their scholarly work. The work of the studio is also expected to contribute to the UI institutional repository, Iowa Research Online, with open access faculty publications, new dissertation forms for graduate students, and a wealth of digital work being done by undergraduates at Iowa (podcasts, video documentaries, etc.)—all of it on a voluntary basis.

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