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Digital Scholarship Profile: University of Toronto

Information Technology Services (ITS)

Established in the 1970s, supporting digital initiatives since 1994

Information Technology Services (ITS) at University of Toronto Libraries maintains a wide range of services and resources including the operation of core library technology applications, web development, support for digital collections and digital scholarship, institutional repositories and preservation services, training, and support for kiosks, workstations, and digital signage, as well as help desk–style support for computer-based library services.

Scholars Portal

Established in 2002

Scholars Portal, a service of the Ontario Council of University Libraries, is jointly funded by, and provides digital library services to, all 21 universities in Ontario. The unit is working to extend support by providing computational space, textual content, and digital tools supporting text mining and other forms of digital scholarship to all of its universities using the recently launched Ontario Library Research Cloud.

University of Toronto Scarborough (UTSC) Digital Scholarship Unit

Established in 2014

The UTSC Digital Scholarship Unit at the UTSC Library partners with liaison librarians and Information & Instructional Technology Services to provide consultation and development services for experimentation and co-curricular pedagogy at UTSC and beyond. The unit helps stakeholders preserve and manage digital data, teaches digital scholarship tools, provides access and training on issues relating to scholarly publishing and open access, and advises on metadata development and management.

Sian Meikle, the director of ITS, explains that there are many forms of support for digital scholarship at the University of Toronto that extend to regional and consortial partners. ITS, Scholars Portal, and the UTSC Digital Scholarship Unit are services provided from within the libraries. These library efforts complement those of other units, such as Computing in the Humanities and Social Sciences (CHASS), a computing facility within the Faculty of Arts & Science that merged two older computing centers in 1996, and the Jackman Humanities Centre, established in 2008.

Early work to support digital scholarship at the University of Toronto Libraries grew in the 1990s in response to faculty requests for technical support for unique, specialized tools and web-based platforms or digitizing small collections and corpora. Through its Centre for Computing in the Humanities (CCH), the University of Toronto backed humanities computing efforts—including projects such as the Dictionary of Old English (started in 1969), Jean Nicot’s Thresor de la langue françoyse of 1606 (started in 1979), and the DOS-based Text Analysis Computing Tools (TACT) suite (late 1980s–early 1990s)—long before the Libraries’ Information Technology Services (ITS) unit began supporting digital scholarship in the early 1990s. Many of the early projects that ITS supported involved development of textual corpora, but these efforts quickly expanded as technology offered new affordances that led to requests for digitized images and media, among other services. Meikle says that helping to develop such projects was and remains deeply fulfilling, as these projects tend to be tied to the current passions of individual scholars.

Since the early 2000s, ITS and its Digital Initiatives Team have gradually shifted their efforts towards scalable enterprise-level tools and platforms, promoting more generalizable research methods for a greater number of scholars and students throughout the university, while at the same time supporting projects for individual scholars. Part of this effort involves recognizing and respecting scholarly workflows, developing a digital scholarship infrastructure, and concentrating the efforts of staff to most efficiently support research.

Information Technology Services lists 31 people on its staff page, among them application developers, a database administrator, data center staff, an information architect, seven librarians, and others. Within ITS, all of the librarians hold master’s degrees in library and information science (MLIS); many have subject-matter expertise and some have additional credentials. The department’s librarians include user experience, metadata technologies, digital library, repositories, preservation, digital scholarship, and digital collections librarians and the director herself. The digital scholarship librarian has both an MLIS and PhD in English, and has helped to establish a multi-university Faculty Advisory Committee supporting the planning of digital scholarship services. A Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) postdoctoral fellow with a BSc in computer science and PhD in medieval studies, who specializes in working with medieval materials, also works closely with the team. The expertise of the Digital Initiatives Team staff has helped ITS pursue grant-funded projects to better grow the support infrastructure needed for digital scholarship and research.

Supporting digital scholarship contributes to the research and teaching missions of the university. To help enable research, ITS offers both network services and digital humanities project support, although, in a sense, service-based, digital humanities development work has always been conceived and approached as collaborative. Scholars bring deep subject-matter expertise, a research question, and a vision of the research outcome to a potential project; the Digital Initiatives Team brings its expertise in developing technical architectures and infrastructure. This combination creates tools, digital resources, and data sets to be built upon by others. In the past ITS only occasionally had students on its staff, although it extended support to faculty who brought graduate research assistants and sometimes even undergraduates in on their research projects. ITS continues to extend this same support to faculty, and now it also hosts some students who are part of the university’s Toronto Academic Libraries Internship (TALInt) Program. This collaboration between the iSchool and the libraries offers students two-year, paid internships that challenge them with increasing levels of responsibility working with within the libraries. Three current ITS interns work with the digital preservation, user experience, and digital initiatives librarians.

The Digital Initiatives Team and ITS as a whole continue to face challenges in supporting the library and their campus community at large. Meikle acknowledges these challenges, but is hopeful. The growth in the scope of digital scholarship is exciting, as technical concepts—data, metadata, data visualizations—are becoming part of the scholarly discourse across the disciplines, even if they are not yet universal. And ITS staff are now collaborating with faculty in the planning stages of digital scholarship so that resources and projects may be produced in a sustainable fashion, with preservation and discovery part of the plan to fulfill key objectives in the library’s mission. ITS still wrestles with the need to create scalable, relevant services for a larger number of scholars—projects that can be rolled out to more faculty to facilitate their work and communicated in a way that helps them to envision new forms of research. While doing this ITS must concentrate on those who actually need support, and push to cross disciplines and the campus as a whole. At the same time, working on specialized projects for individual researchers and faculty remains an important service priority, because it is what some of their researchers and faculty need.

Featured Projects

Iter Gateway to the Renaissance and Middle Ages


Iter, meaning a journey or a path in Latin, is a not-for-profit partnership of institutes and centers, scholarly societies, and academic publishers dedicated to advancing the study and teaching of the Middle Ages and Renaissance (400–1700) through the development and distribution of online resources. The partnership began in 1994 and named itself Iter in 1996. The Iter gateway became available as a public test-site in 1996. Today Iter’s Zotero-enabled bibliography includes 1.2 million records for secondary source materials and citations for books and journal articles, dissertation abstracts, discographies, essays in books, conference proceedings, encyclopedias, exhibition catalogues, and Festschriften. Iter also offers many related scholarly resources and publications.

Lexicons of Early Modern English


Launched in April 2006, Lexicons of Early Modern English is a growing historical database offering researchers singular access to manuscripts and early books that document the growth and evolution of the English language. The database searches and displays word entries dating from 1480 to 1755, drawn from print or manuscript sources including monolingual, bilingual, and polyglot dictionaries, glossaries, encyclopedic-lexical work, spelling lists, and other treatises. As of April 2016 the website contained more than 200 searchable lexicons, and 748,000 word entries. These entries help scholars understand what speakers of English thought about their language and literature in the period, providing a cultural context based on materials from the Tudor, Stuart, Caroline, Commonwealth, and Restoration periods.

Project for the Study of Dissidence and Samizdat


The Project for the Study of Dissidence and Samizdat (PSDS), created by Ann Komaromi and launched in 2015, is an electronic archive, database, and peer-reviewed interface for work with and materials of Soviet samizdat editions produced between 1956 and 1986, as well as materials by the groups and individuals within the various Soviet dissidence movements and associated nonconformist subculture. (Samizdat was a system in the Soviet Union through which government-suppressed literature was secretly printed and distributed.) The archive builds upon the fully searchable database and includes approximately 300 titles, representing all known types of samizdat periodicals, including human rights bulletins, poetry anthologies, rock zines, and religious and national editions. In addition to the database, the project incorporates illustrated timelines of dissident movements and the audio files of interviews with activists. The project aims to make rare materials more widely available to increase awareness of the actual archives and special collections on which it draws.



What is on the horizon for Information Technology Services at the University of Toronto? Meikle believes that there is growing recognition that ITS supports research and scholarship, and that the “digital” qualifier must be dropped because such work does not stand alone and is part of performing, producing, or disseminating all research and scholarship in today’s networked system of higher education. The main challenge ITS wrestles with is how to better provide scalable, relevant services for a larger group of scholars, while asking themselves how the services they offer and support need to evolve to remain valuable. ITS will continue to experiment and feel its way toward solutions as well as to track the work of similar organizations as their work evolves toward coherence on a larger scale.

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