University of Virginia Library Scholars’ Lab (SLab)
Established in 2006
Staff: 9 full-time staff, 3 student workers, 8 graduate fellows
The University of Virginia (UVA) has supported digital scholarship in a variety of forms for more than 20 years. In her blog post “too small to fail,” former director of Research and Scholarship at UVA Library Bethany Nowviskie describes how the Scholars’ Lab was formed in 2006 by combining three separate providers of technology and digital scholarship support at UVA. Recently Jeremy Boggs, design architect for the SLab, shared his perspectives with ARL on how the SLab is evolving to better support its community, particularly graduate students, while also advancing faculty research, and meeting today’s challenges to sustaining and advancing digital scholarship.
The University of Virginia was one of the earliest American institutions to focus on digitizing books and manuscripts for access and research. Etext—the UVA Electronic Text Center (1992–2007)—was founded as a way to organize and scale efforts to digitize large amounts of the UVA Library’s special collections and other materials. For 15 years Etext created online holdings and made them available to historians, literary scholars, linguists, anthropologists, students and teachers, as well as helping to train and support graduate students in digitizing print and paper-based materials. When the Geographical and Statistical Information Center, GeoStat, was opened in the late 1990s it expanded the library’s support by providing assistance for social science data analysis and digital mapping technology. GeoStat also provided orientation sessions, classes, short courses, and access to map reserves for those involved in social sciences, including economics, psychology, sociology, political science, and education, as well as environmental science, architecture, and urban planning. As Nowviskie explains in her blog post, these two units sometimes collaborated with the center for Research Computing Support, itself part of the University’s IT division, for a number of years before being combined by Mike Furlough, then director of Digital Research and Instructional Services for the UVA Library. The new SLab launched in 2007, a shift that anticipated the “coming data- and text-mining revolution,” was meant to foster tool- and archive-building, and capitalized on the library as a neutral space on campus and base for interdisciplinary collaboration, as Nowviskie notes in her blog post.
Even before the SLab was created, other faculty-led groups and centers had formed at UVA that propelled the earlier support for humanities computing into a broader range of digital scholarship while cultivating a number of milestone projects in the digital humanities. The Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities (IATH) began as a faculty-led effort in 1992 to provide consulting, technical support, applications development, and networked publishing facilities (see the “About IATH” webpage). IATH has fostered several projects, including The William Blake Archive, and continues to provide a robust range of consulting, programming, and data services, sometimes in collaboration with the SLab. Other collaborators included the IATH spin-off Speculative Computing Laboratory (SpecLab), active 2001–2004, that promoted experimental and exploratory research in digital humanities, with significant (if now defunct) successes such as the IVANHOE pedagogical environment (game) in collaboration with NINES (Nineteenth-century Scholarship Online). While the SLab continues to collaborate with IATH and NINES, it is also complemented by a number of library units including Libra, UVA’s institutional repository; an Open Access Fund for members of the UVA community seeking to publish in open access journals; and the Digital Production Group that is responsible for creating and preserving rare and unique holdings of the university library.
Among the dedicated full-time staff of the SLab are: its recently appointed academic director, Alison Booth; two digital humanities developers; a senior developer; design architect; GIS specialist; project management and training specialist; head of graduate programs (including the Praxis Program); and a digital scholarship services librarian. The lab also has three students workers and hosts eight graduate fellows. Under Nowviskie’s leadership the SLab created a community-oriented program for graduate fellows in digital humanities—this program invests resources at the beginning of these scholars’ careers as a way to grow them and the UVA digital scholarship community.
Today, the SLab incubates projects, trains early-career scholars, creates tools, and enables a variety of digital research experiments with its onsite tools and by hosting workshops and scholarly events. Prominent among the SLab’s offerings have been workshops for geospatial and temporal training through the GIS workshop series that helps scholars and students use ArcGIS to create their first maps and add data, georeference maps, and extract features as part of their research. The SLab also teaches data mining and how to use new tools like MapScholar, a free, online platform for visualizing geospatial data, and Neatline, an application programming interface (API) for Omeka web-publishing software that enables storytelling with maps and timelines. Also in line with the SLab’s ethos of playful experimentation is its Makerspace, with staff technologists to teach and facilitate the use of 3-D printing, photogrammetry, programming, and electronics that include wearable and tactile computing materials. The Makerspace has also been used to integrate 3-D fabrication and physical computing into classroom teaching and coursework.
As part of the library, the Scholars’ Lab is a resource available to anyone on campus. Teaching/training is one of its core missions, and while some undergraduates work in the SLab, the focus is much more on graduate students through the Praxis Program Fellowships and the more limited Digital Humanities Fellowships. Some faculty have undergraduate research assistants who are brought in on projects, but these are relatively few with the notable exceptions of GIS work: students in urban planning, architecture, and environmental science are trained to work with these methods, but as part of a semester-long curriculum. The Praxis Program supports a team of six UVA MA and PhD students who come from a variety of disciplines and work together to conceive, develop, and complete (publish) a digital project over the course of the academic year. The program was initially supported by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in 2011–2013, but is now supported by the UVA Library. Digital Humanities fellows are strongly encouraged to have Praxis Program (or equivalent) experience and must be ABD in the humanities and social sciences at UVA before applying. Digital Humanities fellows must have an active research agenda that employs technology in their research or requires the analysis of digital content or data.
Neatline is a suite of tools or APIs to extend Omeka, an open source web-publishing platform for the display of library, museum, archives, and scholarly collections and exhibitions. Neatline’s focus is to tell an interactive story—use geotemporal information to enrich a historical or cultural narrative. It promotes the creation of detailed, complex maps with image annotations and narrative sequences. These tools allow a range of materials (georeferenced historical maps, manuscripts, high-resolution photographs) to be imported from existing online collections or added as a new digital archive. The SLab created a series of Neatline demos including an annotated collection of letters from the American Civil War, satellite imagery from the Project Gemini missions, and images and accounts of pilgrimages to the Haram Mosque in Mecca, among others. As a set of plug-ins for an open source application, Neatline was created to be freely available to a community of users who can also insure its continued sustainability and adaptation to new uses.
Mapping the Catalogue of Ships
The SLab and classics professor Jenny Strauss Clay are combining geospatial and literary analysis to map the Catalogue of Ships from Book Two of the Iliad. 250 lines of the epic list nearly 190 place names including 29 contingents that make up the Greek expedition to Troy. Clay’s argument is that this list maps to three “itineraries” that move contiguously from contingent to contingent across Greece in a sequence that follows geography to act as a “spatial mnemonic.” The SLab used a combination of existing code, the Neatline plug-in suite, and Omeka to create this geographic rationale as an interface and a teachable outcome derived from a practical research question: does the Catalogue correspond to the natural geography of Greece? Working to support the scholarship and teaching of Clay led to the refinement of the Neatline APIs as an evolving tool set.
Take Back the Archive
The Take Back the Archive project focuses on the issue of sexual violence at UVA with an online Omeka exhibit of primary sources. This is a public history and community project created by UVA faculty, librarians, archivists, and students to visualize, contextualize, and preserve the history of sexual violence and rape at the institution. The project is in its early stages and work continues to collect material by crowdsourcing documents, images, oral histories and survivor stories, and other artifacts and ephemera that go beyond the controversy sparked by the Rolling Stone article, “A Rape on Campus,” published November 19, 2014. Although the archive will use Omeka and Neatline to tell these stories, the project is also using the hashtag #TakeBackTheArchive and asking for active tweeting to facilitate crowdsourcing efforts.
With more than 20 years history behind them, the fortunes of and attention to digital scholarship at UVA have waxed and waned over time. Although there was a great deal of support for digital scholarship, it was scattered across campus and had little coherence as a university initiative or interest for some time. The formation of the Scholars’ Lab began to meet this challenge by integrating teaching with toolmaking, but far more importantly by cultivating a supportive community for graduate students and faculty with a passion for new approaches to digital research. Yet even today the awareness of the value of digital tools and methods in humanities and social science research is not consistent across the entire institution. The Scholars’ Lab and UVA also work to meet the challenges of preservation and sustainability. Grant money remains a significant portion of support for digital scholarship at UVA, and even though SLab staff are much more aware of obsolete formats, data management plans, and the need for good metadata to support discoverability and use, these are not always written into projects when they begin. Boggs also pointed out the continuing need to better understand the actual use of resources; it is easy enough to track page hits and database queries using server logs, but this only shows access, not actual use of the data, tool, or project. More work remains to be done to create better methods for tracking the citation of digital resources and projects at UVA and the digital scholarship community more broadly.
Rikk Mulligan | 202-296-2296 | firstname.lastname@example.org | June 24, 2016