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Digital Scholarship Profile: University of Oklahoma

Digital Scholarship Laboratory

Established in 2014

Staff: 2 FTE + 1 graduate student

people in the u oklahoma dsl
Digital Scholarship Lab. Photo by the University of Oklahoma Libraries.

The University of Oklahoma’s (OU) Digital Scholarship Laboratory (DSL) opened informally in a provisional capacity in 2013, soon after the arrival of Rick Luce, OU’s dean of libraries and associate vice president of research. Recognizing that undergraduates needed new kinds of collaborative learning spaces, Luce initiated proceedings to identify a suitable permanent space. Mindful of the equal imperative to address faculty and graduate student needs, plans for the (then) future collaborative learning center ensured that it would include a distinct digital scholarship space. That vision has since been realized to become a digital scholarship space that is a welcoming and engaging hub—a place where faculty and graduate students can come together in the exploration of new ideas and the generation of new knowledge.

The Association of Research Libraries (ARL) spoke with the University of Oklahoma Libraries’ Tara Carlisle, digital scholarship specialist, and Carl Grant, associate dean for knowledge services and chief technology officer. Grant explained that, before any redesign began, the libraries conducted a thorough environmental scan. The scan included seeking broad community input from graduate students and faculty to hear first-hand what they wanted to see in such a space. Visits to other institutions with established digital scholarship centers (such as Vanderbilt University, Duke University, and North Carolina State University) also provided valuable insights.

Carlisle described what happened next:

In September 2014, OU Libraries opened a remodeled library wing, the Helmerich Collaborative Learning Center (HCLC), that provides a technology enabled, collaborative space where students can work together in groups. Within the HCLC, the Digital Scholarship Lab was created as a designated space for faculty and graduate students, to support digital scholarship research and foster a community of practice in which faculty and graduate students could also collaborate and feel welcome to explore new digital technologies and tools for research and teaching.

Digital Scholarship Lab. Photo by the University of Oklahoma Libraries.

The notion of “community of practice” is a recurring principle that has informed much of the OU Libraries’ philosophy and approach when designing and creating this space. A community of practice is a group of people in a field of expertise who seek to deepen their knowledge, skills, and understanding through sharing information and experiences.

In its first year, the DSL had one full-time staff member; in the second year, that position was joined by an additional full-time staff member and a half-time graduate assistant. This growth in staffing can be attributed in large part to support across campus, including a successful collaboration between the libraries and the departments of history and political science.

Digital Scholarship Lab. Photo by the University of Oklahoma Libraries.

While the Digital Scholarship Lab does serve as a physical hub and the two full-time staff are resident there, several other employees distributed across the organization work in close affiliation with their DSL colleagues. These distributed employees include an informatics group (two FTE) as well as a research data specialist, a GIS librarian faculty member, and several faculty from other departments. The other departments include: Emerging Technologies, Digital Repositories, and Scholarly Communication and Open Access.

Opportunities to explore and develop digital tools, methods, and skills are available to all members of the OU community via a variety of means, many of which are intended to engender the development of that community of practice noted earlier. These opportunities include hands-on workshops that address an array of topics, ranging from “what is digital scholarship” to instruction in using various software applications. Workshops also address data-management and data-cleaning methods. The DSL offers regular brown-bag sessions and hosts in-depth conferences providing a more immersive experience for participants. Regular meet-ups are offered, during which people can drop in and ask questions. Recently, the digital scholarship specialists have been working more closely with liaison librarians and emerging technologies librarians to reach out to a broader swath of the community.

Innovation at the Edge. Photo by the University of Oklahoma Libraries.

Regarding undergraduate scholarship, Grant and Carlisle pointed to one initiative—Innovation @ the Edge—that has been especially impactful.

Innovation @ the Edge is a flexible experimentation and innovation space that provides access to the latest tools used in research, instruction, and knowledge creation, including 3-D printing tools; custom, virtual reality workstations; robotics; software- and data-skill development; and microelectronics kits. Any member of the OU community, from any field, is free to prototype concepts or interactively “fly through” or explore 3-D data sets in this centrally located makerspace.

The DSL works closely with the emerging technology librarians who are actively supporting research involving virtual reality, 3-D printing, and spatial technologies. An undeniable measure of success is the fact that Innovation @ the Edge has been embedded in more than 20 courses.

Digital scholarship specialist Sarah Clayton teaching a workshop. Photo by the University of Oklahoma Libraries.

When it comes to extending and building the community of practice among faculty and graduate students, Carlisle described the more advanced offerings available to these groups:

The DSL offers a range of workshops that include software carpentry and data carpentry, and also provides introductory workshops on digital tools for conducting text analysis, data visualization (including virtual reality), and archiving and curating digital content.

Carlisle also noted that, thanks to Rick Luce’s dual role as dean of libraries and associate VP for research (VPR), logical synergies between the University Libraries and the VPR Office have paved the way to integrate workflows across the two units. This means that DSL staff can contribute to grant development, letters of support, and provide advice and other assistance depending on the researcher’s particular need.

When reflecting on whether the approach adopted by the DSL would be considered a service-based model or whether collaborations between faculty and librarians predominate, Carlisle described it as a blend of both. Given the lean staffing of the DSL, greater emphasis has been directed to providing students and faculty with opportunities to develop their own skills and to establish connections with partners across campus.

Digital Scholarship Lab. Photo by the University of Oklahoma Libraries.

Disciplines that have been most actively engaged with the DSL so far have spanned the biological sciences, history, classics, architecture, and geography. In order to spur greater reach into other disciplines, the university established a Humanities Forum that works in close collaboration with the DSL. Carlisle and Grant emphasized the DSL’s commitment to supporting interdisciplinary projects: “Working across disciplines does require greater levels of collaboration, communication, trust, and clearly stated expectations, but there is also much more potential for innovation and a greater contribution to the field.”

Grant and Carlisle identified a number of incontrovertible challenges with which the OU Libraries must contend when considering future directions for digital scholarship on campus. Firstly, offering faculty incentives to enter this arena would help, recognizing that current tenure and promotion policies reflect a lack of acknowledgement of the value of digital scholarship and collaboration in the teaching, learning, and research spheres. Carlisle elaborated:

Our greatest challenge is probably in convincing a majority of faculty that the investment in learning these new technologies and how to integrate them into their pedagogy and teaching will provide value. So we try to focus on those that seem to be early adopters as well as new faculty and use them as “shining-star examples” when success results.

In addition to showcasing the “shining-star” early adopters, there are other strategies that the DSL employs to obtain greater outreach on campus. New faculty are frequently receptive to exploring uncharted territory that the digital scholarship realm may represent. For Carlisle, graduate students are also an important target audience. As the academics and scholars of the future, it is essential to engage them now in helping them develop these new skills and new ways of thinking about research.

Another large challenge is securing ongoing resources. Many digital scholarship projects require resources, such as computer storage or a virtual machine, and possibly time for learning software applications or a new programming language.

Some departments on campus lag behind in the digital scholarship arena for a variety of reasons: lack of resources to support digital scholarship, few incentives for learning new skills and tools, and no clear expression of how digital scholarship might advance promotion and tenure. Other departments have made good progress with integrating digital scholarship in their research and teaching—see the Featured Projects below for a few examples of such integration.

Featured Projects

Making Modern America: Discovering the Great Depression and New Deal


u-oklahoma-making-modern-america-screenshotUniversity of Oklahoma students enrolled in this Presidential Dream Course became immersed in American history, politics, and culture of the 1930s through lectures, readings, film screenings, and field trips. In weekly workshops, students gained the skills to engage in deep historical and field research and populate this website with their findings.

Galileo’s World: An Exhibition without Walls


u-oklahoma-galileos-world-screenshotGalileo’s works illustrate a lifetime of engagement in science, art, literature, music, religion, philosophy, politics, and culture, revealing the creativity and interconnectedness of human achievement. Galileo’s World online comprises 20 exhibits that demonstrate his vast range of influence.

IsisCB Explore


u-oklahoma-isiscb-explore-screenshotAn open access discovery platform for the history of science that is built on 40 years of data in the Isis Bibliography of the History of Science.

Digital Latin Library


u-oklahoma-digital-latin-library-screenshotPublishes and curates critical editions of Latin texts—of all types and from all eras—and provides access to texts written in Latin belonging to digital repositories throughout the world.


Carlisle and Grant see huge potential for future growth of the DSL at the University of Oklahoma:

The Digital Scholarship Laboratory would like to further expand to support a growing interest in leveraging digital collections, research data, and emerging technologies for research and teaching. Students especially are interested in expanding their skills and making meaningful contributions to their field and their natural inclination is to work collaboratively.

Note: ARL extends sincere thanks to Tara Carlisle for her extensive contributions to this profile.

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