March 16, 2018

From Preservation to Partnership: NYU’s Jennifer Vinopal Talks Libraries and Digital Scholarship

photo by Melitte Buchman

Jennifer Vinopal is the Librarian for Digital Scholarship Initiatives at New York University, where she helps scholars bring their work online for preservation, curation, and more and more frequently, collaboration. She talked with Library Journal about how the face of digital scholarship is changing, what role librarians play in that change, and how the partnerships between researchers and librarians are growing closer in the new research landscape.

When we talk about digital scholarship, what do we mean?

I look at the changing nature of scholarly communication and scholarly practice. Libraries have been there all along, helping scholars and changing research practices. But this is a little bit of a sea change, as more and more scholars become aware of, interested in, and intrigued by—and want to participate in—digital humanities. That’s the driver here at NYU, at least. For us, it’s two-fold: it’s our code word for digital humanities at times, but we aren’t simply building services for the humanities, and we don’t want to exclude people who are doing work that is not purely, or at all, humanities work.

At NYU, when we decided to build services for digital scholarship, I was thinking consciously that the conversations around digital humanities are very important, but we didn’t want the services we offer here to be bounded by that conversation. .

We do a lot of collaboration now with our [digital services] Data Services group. Some of them may be trained in the humanities, but a lot of them are social scientists as well. Just for practical reasons, it’s a broader, more encompassing term. Obviously we’re library staff, so we’re thinking about it from a library perspective

Where are the humanities in the course of their evolution toward becoming digital?

The sciences have been very invested in making their work digital. They’ve been concerned about data, data storage, data life cycle, online publishing, and open access, online archives like arXiv, for years. There have been some humanists who have been involved in this for years, since it was called humanities computing. Although some humanists were very early adopters, as a field, they’re just coming into their own now.

How did you get involved in this field?

I was doing a PhD in French here at NYU when I realized I was working in the wrong field. It was a question of temperament and personality. I asked around and talked to people about what kind of careers might suit someone with my skills and interests, and enrolled in library school. I got a job here as a paraprofessional, and after I completed my library degree, I started at NYU as a full-time librarian. I was doing traditional things like collection development, but I immediately got involved in some projects with electronic resources. When I first started, my first assignment was to work with a colleague and create the library’s first website, which was exciting, because I didn’t know what that was.
One of the first things I was doing aside from that was writing user guides for the old CD-ROM databases people used to use for research. From there, I was recognized as someone who could adapt to new technologies and talk about them comfortably. Then I was asked do two things: work with our digital library team doing project management on digital library initiatives and start a tiny, one workstation service to help scholars use technology in their research. And from one computer in a tiny room, over the years we’ve grown that to a full facility with 20 plus workstations that do media capture and production, where people can create blended content for their courses, like short online videos to accompany their lectures.

Other than obviously the technology available, what has changed about how scholars use technology in their work?

Over the years, it’s become clear to us that scholars need help not just with academic tools and online search and finding resources—the kind of things we’ve been doing for decades—but that they are interested in being creators of their own content and getting their students involved. We’ve been building data services for years, and now we’re building digital scholarship services. I think the trajectory of my career is similar to a lot of others. Maybe not at NYU, but in a lot of schools, I see librarians who started out in traditional-sounding jobs, but could kind of grow with the research landscape, and weren’t afraid to jump in and try things that may be tricky or not work right the first time you try them.

Have there been things in your career that haven’t worked right the first time?

Like in any good digital development, it’s an iterative process. At the Digital Studio I mentioned earlier, which has been in existence for 13-14 years now, we’ve always kept data on what people are doing and what kind of requests we’re getting, and how things have been working. If people wanted to try new software, if it looked to us like there was going to be an influx of people looking for a certain service, we would try it. It’s process of testing and re-testing, and building incrementally. Instead of thinking about failure per se, we try to listen to our users, build new things, and see what works.

Can you give us an example of that?

For a number of years, we were trying to help scholars build websites in a way that was custom built for their needs, and after doing that for years, we realized that if you’re building one-off websites, there’s no way to make them scalable and sustainable. So we learned from that that we have to be clearer about what we can do and the importance of building reusable infrastructures.

What are you doing in digital libraries at NYU that is exciting to you right now?

Well, we have to draw the line between digital libraries and digital scholarship. For us at NYU—and this is common to a lot of digital libraries—our digital library is focused on preservation. And when libraries talk about preservation, they’re thinking in the hundreds of years. The Gutenberg Bibles look fine, even though they’re hundreds of years old. For digital libraries, we’re looking to do that same thing. For digital libraries, preservation is less about the certainty that we’re going to be able to do it, and more about the promise that we’ll wake up every day and think about how we’re going to take those files and migrate them over even the next 5 to 10 years to make sure they’re viable. We collect born-digital content and digitize content with preservation and publication in mind. One project I’ve been involved in is the Afghanistan Digital Library Project. The goal of that was to try to recreate online, in full text and with images, the entire publishing output of Afghanistan from the beginning of publishing in the late 1800s to around 1930, which was a period when we knew there was a good chunk of material available, and we were confident we wouldn’t be violating any copyrights. It’s been a very complex project, and we’re working right now to migrate that from a one-off website we built in the mid-2000s to a more stable and easy to maintain platform.

Talk about the process behind updating these older projects to make them more stable.

We’re moving this to a Drupal-based platform. We have a good number of projects like this one that require a book viewer to read books, journals, things like that. And now we have a book viewer platform, which we’ve never had before. So what we’re trying to do is take all of our book projects and push them into this templated interface, which has a homepage to display the content, and when you click into the content, you can then use the book viewer to actually read the books. It’s an example of a project that started off as a one-off website, and through sheer amount of other work we’re doing, we ended up with similar collections of similar objects, so we’re now building these viewers into these objects. We’re now working on a similar solution for video viewers, because what we do in the library is driven by scalability and sustainability, otherwise you can’t take on more work and you can’t maintain what you’ve built.

How are schools making today’s humanities students more fluent in presenting their research digitally?

There are a lot of places that are integrating the use and study of technology into their curricula, from full blown degrees in digital humanities to certificate programs. There are all kinds of models there, it’s a pretty interesting landscape. Meanwhile, in libraries, we’re also having the conversations about how do we keep pace with that changing landscape and what kind of skills do we need in house? There’s a lot of discussion about the changing nature of subject specialists and how our work with scholars is changing.

How is your work with scholars changing? Where is there potential, and where are there obstacles?

As scholars’ work is changing and the nature of their publications and research practices and the kind of things they’re trying to build are changing, then how we support those things has to change as well. We have reference services and virtual reference, and that’s one kind of service we’ve always provided really well. What you frequently get in those transactions, though, is a single moment in a scholar’s work, when they can’t find a book or need to find this piece of research material.

Now, though, we’re working with a scholar who is working with her students to gather data on along-running projects. She wants to gather that data, and create a database for it and present it on a website with an interactive map. That’s a whole different process than looking up some resources and writing an article or a book. She knows what her data is, but she doesn’t know what to do with it. So she came to us, basically asking us for help through that whole process from gathering that data to structuring it to do what she wants with it. So we’re not telling her how to do her research, but we are fully partnering with her to help her think about how to structure that intellectual content to make an argument at the other end. Rather than the ‘drop in at a certain point in the research’ model, this is really a long-term partnership model. It’s very different, and it’s not easy to just in one or several days move from reference to partnership.

Ian Chant About Ian Chant

Ian Chant is a former editor at LJ and a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in Scientific American and Popular Mechanics and on NPR.

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