The ERIAL Project: Ethnographic Research in Illinois Academic Libraries

by Andrew Asher, Lynda Duke and David Green


Librarians and teaching faculty often think they know how students conduct their research and many have specific ideas on how students ought to conduct their research. However, with the increased ability to access information online and the corresponding changes in libraries, the question of what actually happens between the time a student receives a class assignment and when he or she turns in the final product to a professor is especially compelling, and one that is not as straightforward as it first appears.

Two years ago, five Illinois institutions (Northeastern Illinois University (NEIU), DePaul University, Illinois Wesleyan University (IWU), University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), and University of Illinois at Springfield (UIS)), began working together to investigate this issue. The Ethnographic Research in Illinois Academic Libraries (ERIAL) Project was organized around the following research question:

What do students actually do when they are assigned a research project for a class assignment and what are the expectations of students, faculty and librarians of each other with regard to these assignments?

The primary goal of this study is to trigger reforms in library services to better meet students’ needs. Traditionally, academic libraries have designed library services and facilities based on information gleaned from user surveys, usage data, focus groups, and librarians’ informal observations. While such tools are valuable, this project employed more user-centered methods to form holistic portraits of student behavior and needs, directly resulting in changes to library services and resources.

Genesis, Planning and Development of the Project

In 2007, while attending the Library and Information Technology Association National Forum, Dave Green, Associate University Librarian for Collections and Information Services in the Ronald Williams Library at Northeastern Illinois University, had the opportunity to hear Dr. Nancy Foster and her colleague, David Lindahl, make a presentation on the ethnographic studies conducted at the University of Rochester Libraries.

In February of 2008, the Illinois State Library, a Department of the Office of Secretary of State, announced the availability of Library Services and Technology Act Grants, using funds provided by the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services. Based on the intriguing work done by Dr. Foster and her colleagues, Green was eager to pursue an ethnographic study of NEIU students. After a flurry of email exchanges and phone conversations, Dr. Foster agreed to advise on the grant development, as well as act as a consultant for its execution.

With approval from the NEIU library dean, Green began working with the Metropolitan Library System in Chicago and Dr. Foster on a grant proposal. It became obvious that having several institutions partner in the research would make the proposal more competitive and greatly enrich the study. Green contacted colleagues at four universities (DePaul, IWU, UIC and UIS) and they agreed to participate in the project. Each university would have its own research team, consisting of a lead research librarian and two to five other individuals, the majority of whom would be librarians. The submitted proposal included a funding request of just under $180,000.

Initially, the most challenging aspect of the project was the crafting of a project schedule based on only nine months of funding. The tight timeline created two potential choke points for the project. The first was trying to hire two full-time anthropologists by mid-November, only six weeks after the beginning of the grant. The second challenge was getting the institutional review board (IRB) approvals in a timely manner. From previous multi-institution projects, Green knew that the timing of IRB approvals is sometimes unpredictable. As we awaited to hear a decision regarding the funding of the proposal, we turned our attention to these two concerns.

In order to hire the anthropologists by the target dates, Dr. Foster helped us devise several pre-grant tactics. During the summer, we sent announcements to relevant graduate departments at universities in the Midwest, announcing the potential of two full time positions in late fall, contingent upon confirmation of funding. In addition, because no activities could be funded by the grant if they occurred prior to October 1st, Green requested funding from the NEIU dean to place advertisements for the positions in September, in case we received advance notice that the grant would be funded.  Even with these tactics in place, six weeks to interview potential candidates and bring them into the project was a tight schedule.

In late summer, the Illinois State Library contacted Green asking if parts of the grant proposal could be modified, based on reviewers’ comments. This signaled to the team that the proposal had a high chance of being funded, and in late August we were awarded the grant, with funding beginning on October 1st. A week after the grant formally began we started reviewing applicants for the two resident anthropologist positions. Dr. Foster reviewed the applications, identified the most promising candidates, and conducted telephone interviews with a handful of applicants. The top candidates were then invited to an in-person interview at the campuses of the hosting institutions (IWU and NEIU).

As a result, two excellent anthropologists, Dr. Andrew Asher and Susan Miller, were hired and we were able to meet our first project deadline. The anthropologists’ first major goal was to help each research team develop their IRB application. There was a lot of ground work that needed to be done to prepare for the research, but no research could begin until IRB approval was granted. As anticipated, the process went more smoothly for some teams than others.

Project Implementation

The grant proposal included a detailed project timeline and organizational structure. Each library had a research team consisting of several librarians, one designated as the lead research librarian for the group. In addition there was a coordinating team which consisted of the project manager and the two resident anthropologists, with Dr. Asher taking responsibility for the integrity of the project’s research design and data collection methodologies as the lead research anthropologist. Miller became the resident anthropologist for the three Chicago-area libraries, while Dr. Asher became the resident anthropologist for the two central Illinois libraries.

Figure 1. Project organizational structure

One of the major structural goals in the project was to streamline administration. The easiest way to do this was to centralize budgetary and reporting functions. All hiring, billing, equipment purchase, contracts, etc. were done by NEIU. Nothing was subcontracted to the partnering institutions. This significantly reduced the amount of potential bureaucratic gridlock for everyone.

On the other hand, managing the research process was ultimately in the hands of the two anthropologists working with the lead research librarians of each research team. The anthropologists were responsible for coordinating the efforts at the five institutions, maintaining a consistent methodological core to allow for cross institutional analyses, while simultaneously helping each institution to explore areas unique to their institution. In a sense, ERIAL consists of six projects.

Figure 2. Project research structure: five studies with a common core

The structure of the research was designed so that no one institution depended on the research of another. Thus, if an institution found that they could not continue to participate, it did not threaten the larger project. In fact, one institution was unable to receive IRB approval in a timely manner and if the project had not been awarded a second year of funding, they would not have been able to conduct any research.

By the end of January 2009, four months into the grant, it became clear that designing, implementing, and analyzing the results of the methodologies for a project with the size and scope envisioned by the research team would require work to continue beyond the June 30th deadline. In February, Green began conversations with the State Library about the possibility of a second year of funding. After submitting a second proposal, in March of 2009 we received notification of a second year of funding, this time for $160,000.

Project Management and Coordination

Even though the ERIAL participants are geographically scattered, the primary means of communication is face-to-face, supported with telephone conferencing. During the course of a month, there are on average about thirty regularly scheduled meetings:

a) Each institution’s research team meets on a weekly basis with their respective anthropologist.
b) The coordinating team meets once a week (the project manager and the resident anthropologist for the northern libraries meet in person and the resident anthropologist for the central libraries participates by phone).
c) The two resident anthropologists have a conference call once a week.
d) The coordinating team meets once a month with all the lead library researchers (the Chicago participants meet in person and the central teams participate by conference call).

These regularly scheduled meetings provide the backbone of communication for coordinating the grant efforts. Of course, in addition to the above activities, there is considerable ad hoc electronic and phone communication. To facilitate the work of the research teams, we used a secure Web-based project management and collaboration tool called BaseCamp. We also found the Web-based service DropBox useful for document sharing between sites (although we were sometimes frustrated by its weak version control). ConferenceCaller proved to be an inexpensive and reliable telephone conferencing service.

Although we had originally planned to rely on video conferencing for communication between remote sites, we found connecting different platforms with varying degrees of reliability to be unsatisfactory. During the first year of the grant, all team members met in Chicago for extended multi-day training sessions, (in January and May of 2009). Given that we had spent considerable time together in person working on various training activities, we could easily connect faces to voices and found phone conference calls to be entirely satisfactory and more efficient.

Research Methods

In order to obtain a holistic portrait of students’ research practices and academic assignments, the ERIAL Project developed a mixed-methods approach that integrated seven qualitative research techniques and was designed to generate verbal, textual, and visual data.1 While all five participating institutions committed to a core set of research questions and shared research protocols, the research teams at each university chose which methods would be best suited to their needs. The methods utilized by the five ERIAL institutions are summarized in Table 1 below.

Ethnographic Interviews 57 54 56 61 55 283
Photo Journals 11 13 10 10 10 54
Student Mapping Diaries N/A 24 10 N/A N/A 34
Web Design Workshop Participants N/A 49 44 N/A N/A 93
Research Process Interviews N/A N/A N/A N/A 19 19
Cognitive Maps 37 44 37 N/A 23 141
Retrospective Research Paper Interviews N/A 9 N/A N/A N/A 9
Total 115 223 167 81 107 693

Table 1The ERIAL Project’s principal methodology was a 45-60 minute ethnographic interview which was conducted with students, librarians, and teaching faculty at all five universities. These interviews followed a common structure and utilized open-ended questions intended to elicit specific examples describing students’ experiences undertaking research assignments, as well as how librarians and faculty members interact with students during the research process. In total, 161 students, 75 teaching faculty, and 48 librarians participated in these interviews.

Two additional interviewing methods focused on students’ research practices: the research process interview and the retrospective research paper interview. The research process interview asked students to allow an ERIAL anthropologist to accompany them while they conducted research for an assignment they were currently working on. Participants were asked to proceed with their research as normal and to reflect aloud about the processes they used to locate resources and materials. This activity was one of the most successful techniques of the ERIAL Project and was especially useful in gathering firsthand data about the approaches students employ to find information. In the retrospective research paper interview, students were asked to give a step-by-step account of how they completed a previous research assignment while drawing each step on a large sheet of paper, thus producing both a narrative and a visual account of the assignment from beginning to end.

To gain a better understanding of everyday student life, the ERIAL Project utilized photo journals and mapping diaries. In the photo journal activity, students were given a digital camera and a list of photographs to take, including views of work spaces, communication and computing devices, books, and favorite work/study locations. These photographs were then used as prompts in an interview that addressed the processes and tools students used to complete their assignments. In the mapping diaries activity, students were given a campus map and asked to record their movements over the course of a day, noting the times and places they visited and their purpose for going there. Students were then asked to participate in a follow-up discussion of their map in which they were asked a series of explanatory questions about locations they visited.

In order to investigate the characteristics that define students’ “mental image” of their university’s library, the research teams utilized a cognitive mapping activity in which participants were asked to draw a map of the library from memory. Students were given six minutes to complete the task, and asked to change the color of their marker every two minutes, an approach that provided both spatial and temporal data about how students conceptualize library spaces. Students completed this activity away from the library itself, so that the results would not be affected by visual cues.

Finally, faculty, students, librarians, and library staff participated in Web site design focus groups, in which participants were asked a series of brainstorming questions to generate the features that would be included on a “perfect” library Web site. Participants were then asked to design a mock-up of a library homepage and to describe why they chose particular design elements.

The data collection for all institutions was completed in February 2010, with just under 700 data collection events. All the research activities were recorded and transcribed, followed by content coding using Atlas.ti, a qualitative analysis software package. The results were then analyzed for themes and patterns by the five institutional research teams. For institutions interested in the details of this process or conducting similar investigations, the ERIAL Project is developing a methodological toolkit which describes the development of an ethnographic study from start to finish. The toolkit will be available in June 2010.  For more information, see the project’s Web site,

Summary Findings

At the beginning of the ERIAL Project, we expected to find students struggling with the technology of library searches: the various and fragmented databases and interfaces contained in any university library. However, we found that once students had some training with the library’s interfaces, they were not generally struggling with tools and technology, which, with some exceptions, worked well and were reasonably user-friendly. Instead, we observed widespread and endemic gaps in students’ understanding of the basic concepts of academic research, including: (1) an inability to correctly read and understand citations, (2) little or no understanding of cataloging and information organization systems, (3) no organized search strategies beyond “Google-style” any word, anywhere searches, and (4) poor abilities in locating and evaluating resources (of all types).

Almost without exception, students exhibited a lack of understanding of search logic, how to build a search to narrow/expand results, how to use subject headings, and how various search engines (including Google) organize and display results. As one student mentioned while conducting a search of library databases, “Apparently you don’t have much on Rock and Roll,” not realizing if she changed her search term (i.e. to rock music), she would have encountered excellent sources for her assignment. Similarly, another student lamented the dearth of information while searching library databases for information about women in 1940’s era baseball-–all while her mouse was hovering over the subject heading “All-American Girls Professional Baseball League.”

Although technological solutions that provide more intuitive research tools might allow instructional focus to be shifted from dealing with mechanical problems to addressing conceptual issues, these solutions are still unlikely to effectively address students’ needs. In fact, easier information access and more robust search capabilities provided by tools such as federated search, Google scholar, or Web-scale discovery tools, may actually compound students’ research difficulties by enabling them to become overwhelmed even more quickly by a deluge of materials they are unprepared to evaluate.

Addressing the shortcomings in students’ information literacy and critical thinking abilities will therefore require broader educational and curricular solutions in which the library is a key player within a multifaceted approach that involves many university stakeholders, including students, faculty, and administrators, as is illustrated in the following example from the ERIAL study.

Why Don’t Students Utilize Librarians?

While the majority of students we interviewed struggled with one or more aspects of academic research, very few students sought help from a librarian. In fact, one of the most striking aspects of the ERIAL study was the near-invisibility of librarians within the academic worldview of students, and is symptomatic of students’ general belief that librarians do not possess the disciplinary expertise necessarily to provide sufficient assistance with research assignments. When asked if she had ever asked a librarian for help with a paper, a sophomore in international studies replied, “Not really actually. I’ve never done that. I always assume librarians are busy doing library stuff, and it’s just not the first thing that pops into my head when I think of a librarian, like helping with papers or paper writing.”

Confusion about what librarians do and who and where they are hinders students from asking questions and obtaining the help they need. A senior psychology major noted, “I don’t know where the librarians here are. There’s someone that sits at the information desk, and I don’t know if he’s a librarian. I see him help people with research a lot so I think he is. But I would never go to [a librarian’s] office and knock on their door and say, ‘help me out’ which [would] just [make] me feel bad.”

Despite this confusion about the academic role of librarians and caution in approaching them for assistance, the minority of students who had developed a relationship with a librarian reported high levels of satisfaction with the help provided, returned repeatedly for help other assignments, and recommend librarians to their peers. Furthermore, students who had participated in instruction sessions with a librarian exhibited markedly better research skills than those who had not (although even these students often did not remember basic or specific concepts, or apply them correctly). One student commented, “I understand that [librarians] are not magicians or something, but sometimes they seem like it.”

These observations, of course, beg the question of how to raise the profile of librarians in students’ academic practices. Finding a way to leverage students’ positive experiences so that they recommend library services to their peers is certainly an important outreach area for the ERIAL libraries. However, our research suggests that a more effective approach requires the involvement of teaching faculty.

The ERIAL Project observed that professors often play a central role in brokering the relationship between students and librarians. Students routinely learn about librarians and library services directly from a professor’s recommendation, or through librarians’ in-class information sessions. These introductions are especially important during freshman year, when it is critical for students to build effective study habits and academic relationships. A psychology student observed, “It would probably be nice if the professors worked the librarians into the classes when people are freshmen. When they first get to school to kind of go over all that kind of stuff. That way [librarians] have the opportunity to tell you things. Because I guarantee you that I didn’t know that there was a psychology librarian staff member until first semester, junior year. And by then most of my study habits were formed, or [my] study approaches for research were formed.” Students view professors as experts, and when the professor specifically recommends a librarian, students highly value this advice. Professors therefore regularly act as gatekeepers who mediate when and how students contact with librarian as they are working on research assignments. In this way, the attitude of professors towards librarians is a key determining factor in developing student/librarian relationships.

Based on our observations, addressing students’ instructional needs in academic research, information literacy, and critical thinking requires principally social solutions. Given librarians’ structural placement as marginal to students’ academic world, librarians cannot effectively address these needs without active participation from teaching faculty. As librarians build relationships with teaching faculty, they will also build relationships with students. Administrators can also contribute to these relationships by supporting curricular initiatives that reinforce collaboration between librarians and teaching faculty, and that promote the participation of librarians throughout students’ course of study.


The ERIAL Project has provided much needed insight into how our students engage with the process of research. By utilizing ethnographic research methods, rather than more traditional methods, we have developed a more nuanced, robust view of our students and their relationship with the library.

Although the specific mission of any given liberal arts institution will differ, there are a few core goals that one expects to see included in most mission statements. For example, Illinois Wesleyan’s mission statement includes the desire to foster critical thinking, effective communication and a spirit of inquiry, to deepen a student’s knowledge in a chosen discipline and to prepare students for democratic citizenship and life in a global society. Like most libraries at liberal arts institutions, the Ames Library faculty and staff are committed to furthering these institutional goals by serving the scholarly needs of the Illinois Wesleyan University community. In particular, library faculty strive to teach students core information literacy skills, elements of the research process, and how to use the tools of scholarship. A student’s ability to master these skills is critical for achieving many of the stated goals of the institution.

Based on our findings, the Ames Library is actively engaged in re-thinking how we offer some of our services, what new resources we need to make available, and how to build stronger relationships with teaching faculty across the curriculum. We are confident that the changes we are implementing as a result of this study will significantly enhance our ability to connect with students and support the mission of our institution.

For more information about The ERIAL Project, see


Funding for this grant was awarded by the Illinois State Library, a Department of the Office of Secretary of State, using funds provided by the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services, under the federal Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA).
1. For the photo journals, mapping diaries, Web design workshops, space design workshops and retrospective research paper interviews, the ERIAL project adapted protocols developed by Nancy Foster and the “Studying Students” research team at the River Campus Libraries of the University of Rochester. For more information on the University of Rochester study, see Nancy Foster and Susan Gibbons, Studying Students: The Undergraduate Research Project at the University of Rochester (Chicago: Association College and Research Libraries,  2007), [return to text]

Profiles of Key Cyberinfrastructure Organizations

by David Green, Knowledge Culture

We present here a collection of short profiles, specially written for Academic Commons, on key service organizations and networks that will be poised to assist and lead others who are working to bring a rich cyberinfrastructure into play. Some are older humanities organizations for which cyberinfrastructure is a totally new environment, others have been created specifically around the provision of digital resources and support.

We invite your comments and your suggestions for other organizations and networks that you see as key players in providing CI support.

Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations (AHDO)

American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS)


Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR)

Cyberinfrastructure Partnership (CIP) & Cyberinfrastructure Technology Watch

Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory (HASTAC)


Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS)


The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation

National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH)


Open Content Alliance

Software Environment for the Advancement of Scholarly Research (SEASR)

Museums, Cataloging & Content Infrastructure: An Interview with Kenneth Hamma

by David Green, Knowledge Culture

Ken Hamma is a digital pioneer in the global museum community. A classics scholar, Hamma joined the Getty Trust in 1987 as Associate Curator of Antiquities for the Getty Museum. He has since had a number of roles there, including Assistant Director for Collections Information at the Getty Museum, Senior Advisor to the President for Information Policy and his current position, Executive Director for Digital Policy and Initiatives at the Getty Trust.

David Green: Ken, you are in a good position to describe the evolution of digital initiatives at the Getty Trust as you’ve moved through its structure. How have digital initiatives been defined at the Getty and how are they faring at the institutional level as a whole, as the stakes and benefits of full involvement appear to be getting higher?
Ken Hamma: Being or becoming digital as short-hand for the thousands of changes institutions like this go through as they adopt new information and communication technologies has long been discussed at the Getty from the point of view of the technology. And it did once seem that applying technology was merely doing the same things with different tools when, in fact, we were starting to embark upon completely new opportunities. It also once seemed that the technology would be the most expensive part. Now we’ve learned it’s not. It’s content, development and maintenance, staff training, and change management that are the expensive bits.

About 1990 it seemed to me (without realizing the impact it would cause) that it was the Getty’s mission that would and should largely drive investments in becoming digital. That it would require someone from the program side of the house to take more than a passing interest in it. I know that sounds impossibly obvious, but it wasn’t nearly so twenty years ago when computers were seen by many as merely expensive typewriters and the potential of the network wasn’t seen yet at all. Needless to say, the interim has been one long learning curve with risks taken, mistakes made, and both successes and failures along the way. Now, we’ve just got to the point at the Getty where–with a modicum of good will–we can think across all programs with some shared sense of value for the future. We now have a working document outlining the scope and some of the issues for digital policy development at the institution that would cover things like the stewardship and the dissemination of scholarship, digital preservation and funding similar activities elsewhere. Within this scope, we’ll be considering our priorities, the costs and risks involved, and some specific issues such as intellectual property and scholarship, partnerships and what kind of leadership role there might be for the Getty.

Do you see the Getty, or some other entity, managing to lead a project that might pull museums together on some of these issues?
There’s only a certain amount that can be done from inside one institution and there are some fundamental changes that can’t be made and probably need to be made. One of the big problems about technology is its cost. For so many institutions it’s still just too expensive and too difficult. There’s a very high entry barrier–software license and maintenance fees as well as technology staff, infrastructure development and professional services–in short, the full cost of owning technology. The result isn’t just a management problem for museums but an opportunity cost. We’re falling behind as a community by not fully participating in the online information environment.

There was a technology survey in 2004 of museums and libraries that pointed out that although small museums and public libraries had made dramatic progress since 2001, they still lagged behind their larger counterparts.[1] While almost two-thirds of museums reported having some technology funding in the previous year, 60% said current funding did not meet technology needs and 66% had insufficiently skilled staff to support all their technology activities. This problem is complicated by a gap between museums’ community responsibilities and the interests of the commercial museum software providers–notably the vendors’ complete disinterest in creating solutions for contributing to aggregate image collections. There was a similar gap between library missions and OPAC (Online Public Access Catalog) software until OCLC grew to fill that gap in the 1980s.

Can you imagine any kind of a blue-sky solution to this?
Well, imagine a foundation, for example, that took it upon itself to develop and license collection-management and collection-cataloging software as open source applications for institutional and individual collectors. It might manage the software as an integrated suite of web applications along with centralized data storage and other required infrastructure at a single point for the whole museum community. This would allow centralized infrastructure and services costs to be distributed across a large number of participating institutions rather than being repeated, as is the case today, at every institution. Museums could have the benefits of good cataloging and collection management at a level greater than most currently enjoy and at a cost less than probably any individual currently supports.

Managing this as a nonprofit service model could create cataloging and collection management opportunities that are not just faster, better and cheaper, but also imbued with a broader vision for what collecting institutions can do, both individually and as a community in a digital environment. If we could do this by providing open source applications as well as web services, it would build value for the community rather than secure market advantage for a software vendor. A service model like this could also assume much of the burden of dealing with highly variable to non-existent data contributions that have plagued previous attempts to aggregate art museum data. And I think it could do it by supplying consistent metadata largely by enabling more easily accessible and better cataloging tools.[2] This problem of aggregating museum data has a relatively long history and its persistence suggests that though current schemes are certainly more successful, what the community needs is a more systemic approach. One of the problems is that there just isn’t a lot of good museum data out there to be aggregated. So talking about what it would be like to have aggregated repositories other than those that are hugely expensive and highly managed (like ARTstor), it’s unlikely to happen anytime soon. There’s not enough there there to aggregate with good results.

Cataloging seems to be the key to this future, as far as museums’ resources are concerned. Would this scenario would be a first step in producing some good common cataloging?
Well, yes. It’s not enough to say to institutions, “You have to be standards-compliant, you have to use thesauri, you have to use standards, you have to do this and do that.” There are a lot of institutions that aren’t doing anything and aren’t going to do things that are more expensive and time consuming. So it’s not going to help to say that collection managers should be doing this. They’re just not going to do it unless its easier and cheaper, or unless there an obvious payoff and there isn’t one of those in the short term.

So such a project, if it were ever undertaken, would be about providing infrastructure, about providing tools?
Yes, as well as thinking about how we maintain those tools and how we provide services. Because most cultural heritage institutions don’t have IT departments and probably never will, how can we think about sharing what’s usually thought of as internal infrastructure? I mean, choose a small museum with a staff of three; you can’t say ‘you can’t have a finance guy because you need IT,’ or ‘you can’t have a director because you need to do cataloging.’ That’s just not going to happen.

There’s a related model that you have been working on that provides a technical solution both to cataloging and to distribution. If I’m right, it’s not about creating a single aggregated resource but rather about enabling others to create a range of different sources of aggregated content, all using metadata harvesting.
Yes, it’s still in its formative stages, but the essential idea is to put together a system that is lightweight, easily implemented by small institutions, doesn’t require huge cataloging overhead and that supports resource discovery. A problem today is that if you wanted to ask for, say, an online list of all Italian paintings west of the Mississippi, that presupposes that all collections with an Italian painting are participating. But we’re so far from that. It’s the rich and well-funded that continue to be visible and the others are largely invisible. So can we come up with a protocol and a data set that would allow for easy resource discovery that would have a low bar for cataloging and metadata production for unique works?

In this project, we’ve gone through a few rounds now, using the recently developed CDWA Lite as the data standard, mapping that to the Dublin Core in the Open Archives Initiative Protocol for Metadata Harvesting (OAIPMH). Dublin Core, as we’ve all learned, is a bit too generic so we’ve applied some domain knowledge to it and have additionally included URL references for images. We’ve collaborated with ARTstor and have done a harvesting round with them. Getty’s paintings collection is in ARTstor not because we wrote it all to DVD and mailed it to New York, but because ARTstor harvested it from our servers. Just imagine we get to the point where all collections can be at least CDWA-Litely cataloged–say just nine fields for resource discovery. Then these can be made available through an exchange protocol like OAIPMH and then interested parties such as an ARTstor (who might even host an OAI server so not every collecting institution has to do that) could harvest them. If we could get that far and we imagine that other aggregators like OCLC might aggregate the metadata even if they didn’t want the images, it could be completely open. The network would support collection access sharing and harvesting that would be limited only by the extent of the network. Any institution (or private collector) could make works available to the network so any aggregator could collect it. A slide librarian at a college, with desktop harvesting tools, could search, discover and gather high-quality images and metadata for educational use by the teachers in that school. Or perhaps intermediate aggregators would do this with value-added services like organizing image sets for Art 101 at a cost that might suggest a different end-user model.

How far away is this from happening?
The protocol exists and will likely very shortly be improved with the availability of OAI-ORE. The data set exists but is still under discussion. That will hopefully be concluded in the next months. And the data standards exist, along with cross collection guides, like CCO, that’s Cataloging Cultural Objects, on using them. The tools should not be too hard to create. The problem again is the institutional one, the usual one when we’re talking about content. Most museums are not willing to enter into such an open environment because they will want to know who is harvesting their collection. It’s the reaction that’s usually summed up by “we’re not sure we can let our images out.” These are those expected nineteenth-century attitudes about protecting content along with the late twentieth-century attitudes that have been foisted on the museum community about “the great digital potential”–generating revenue based on that content as long as they control it and don’t make it accessible. How sad.

The recent NSF/JISC Cyberscholarship Report[3] discusses the importance of content as infrastructure, and how any cyberscholarship in a particular discipline is grounded until that part of cyberinfrastructure is in place. Museums are clearly far behind in creating any such content infrastructure out of their resources. What will it take to get museums to contribute more actively to such an image content infrastructure? Is there a museum organization that could coordinate this or will it take a larger coordinating structure? Will museums be able to do this together or will they need some outside stimulus?
If it isn’t simply a matter of waiting for the next generation, I don’t really know. It would really be helpful if there were, for example, a museum association in this country that had been thoughtfully bringing these issues to the attention of the museum community, but it hasn’t been true for the last twenty years. And museums are different from the library community with respect to content-as-cyberinfrastructure in that they’re always dealing with unique works. This changes two things: first, one museum can’t substitute a work in the content infrastructure for another one (the way in which a library can supply a book that another library cannot); and, secondly, for these unique works there’s a much greater sense of them as property (“its mine”). This, in a traditional mindset, raises the antenna for wanting to be a gatekeeper, not just to the work but even to information about it. You can see this in museums talking about revenue based on images of the works in their collections, or the need for museums to be watching over “the proper use” (whatever that is) of their images. Not that we don’t need to be mindful of many things like appropriate use of works under copyright. So there is still the sense that there’s got to be something (financial) gained from these objects that are “mine,” whereas most of these collections are supported by public dollars and there must be some public responsibility to make them freely available.

‘You’ve talked elsewhere about the “gatekeeper” mentality among many museum professionals, perhaps especially curators. How do you imagine the forward trajectory of this? How will this gatekeeper mentality play out?
Yes, it’s been very frustrating, but I think it is changing. Even over the past few years I think there’s been significant change in how people think about their gatekeeper role. Today–different from ten years ago–I would say curators are less and less gatekeepers, and directors are being caught off-guard by curators proposing greater openness of the sort that will take advantage of network potential. The Victoria & Albert Museum, the Metropolitan Museum and others are now making images available royalty-free for academic publishing.[4] And along with these changes there is a change in the tenor of the discussion. We want to keep the conversation going as much as possible in hopes that we can move toward a world where objects, especially those in the public domain, can become more fluid in this environment. Many of the attitudes toward intellectual property can be summed up in focusing more on maintaining appropriate attribution for work rather than asserting “ownership,” rather than saying, “it’s mine, you have to pay me for it.” If we’re honest we have to admit that there’s really not a lot of money in the whole system around these kinds of resources. In fact, the real value of these items lies in their availability, their availability for various audiences but especially for continued scholarship and creativity.

That’s a good point. Not too long ago the Yale art historian Robert Nelson said in an interview here that whatever is available online is what will be used, what will create the new canon. He made the analogy to JSTOR. In teaching he notices that the articles he cites that are in JSTOR are the ones that get read; the others don’t.
Yes, that’s absolutely true. And it will take one museum or one major collecting institution to have the imagination to see that and to see that in addition to people coming into the gallery for a curated exhibition, that this other experience of network availability and use has extraordinary value. And if there were two or three really big collections available, literally available as high-quality public domain images, not licensed in any way, one could imagine there would be significant change in attitudes pretty quickly.

You’ve described the open quality of the digital environment as threatening to many in institutions. Could you elaborate a little on that?
The extent to which the opportunities bundled here for realizing mission in non-profits are perceived as threats derives largely from confusing traditional practice with the purpose of the institution. The perception of threats, I think, clearly has been decreasing over the last few years as we become more comfortable with changes (perhaps this is due to generational shift, I don’t know). It is decreasing also as we continue with wide ranging discussions about those traditional practices, which were well suited to business two decades ago but act as inappropriately blunt instruments in the digital environment. These include, for example, the use of copyright to hold public domain hostage in collecting institutions; notions of “appropriate” cataloging, especially for large volume collections that are more suited to a slower paced physical access than they are to the fluidity of a digital environments; and assumptions that place-based mission continues alone or would be in some way diminished by generous and less mediated online access.

In your ACLS testimony back in 2004 on the challenges for creating and adopting cyberinfrastructure, you argue that the most important work for us all ahead is not the technology or data structures but the social element: the human and institutional infrastructure. Is this the weakest link in the chain?
I’m not sure that I would still describe institutions and people as the weakest link, but rather as the least developed relative to technology and the opportunities it brings. This too seems to have changed since the start of the work of the ACLS Commission. We can do plenty with the technology we now have on hand but we’ve frequently lacked the vision or will to do so. One of the most startling examples of this became visible several years ago when the Getty Foundation (the Grant Program) was awarding grants under the Electronic Cataloging Initiative. Many Los Angeles institutions received planning and implementation grants with varied results. One of the most successful would have been predicted by no one other, I suppose, than the hard-working and ingenious staff who are employed there namely, the Pacific Asia Museum. Greater than average success from an institution with, to all appearances, less capacity and fewer resources than other participants was not based on access to better software or on an IT manager who would only accept a platinum support package. It was based on the will and the imagination of staff and the institution.

So would you cite that museum as one that is successfully redefining itself for a digital world?
Yes. You know, there are lots of museums that are doing really good work, but it’s going to take time and the results will show up eventually. If all the effort over the next ten years or so is informed by more open attitudes about making content more available–seeing content as cyberinfrastructure–then it will be all the better. It really is a question of attitude in institutions and a willingness to see opportunities. Almost never believe “we haven’t got the money to do it.” In scholarly communication there are millions of dollars going into print publications that, for example, have a print run of several hundred, for heaven’s sake. You just need to take money out of that system and put it into a much more efficient online publication or collection access system.

It’s about attitude and a willingness to invest effort. The Pacific Asia Museum is a good example. It doesn’t have the budget of the other large institutions in LA and yet it was among the most successful in taking advantage of this opportunity from the Getty’s electronic cataloging initiative. They were very clear about the fact that they wanted to create a digital surrogate of everything in their collection, do some decent cataloging and documentation and make it available. That just sounds so perfectly obvious. But that there are so many institutions that don’t seem to get something so basic, that don’t understand some aspect of that, is just completely astounding to me.

[1] Status of Technology and Digitization in the Nation’s Museums and Libraries (Washington, DC: Institute of Museum and Library Services, 2006),

[2] Recent aggregating efforts include ARTstor and, in recent history, AMICO, both of which look back to the Getty’s Museum Educational Site Licensing project and the earliest attempt to coordinate art museum data at the point of cataloging in Museum Prototype software from the Getty Art History Information Program.

[3] William Y. Arms and Ronald L. Larsen, The Future Of Scholarly Communication: Building The Infrastructure For Cyberscholarship, report of a workshop held in Phoenix, Arizona, April 17-19, 2007,

[4] See Martin Bailey, “V&A to scrap academic reproduction fees,” The Art Newspaper 175 (Nov 30, 2006),; The Metropolitan Museum, “Metropolitan Museum and ARTstor Announce Pioneering Initiative to Provide Digital Images to Scholars at No Charge,” press release, March 12, 2007; and Sarah Blick, “A New Movement to Scrap Copyright Fees for Scholarly Reproduction of Images? Hooray for the V & A!,” Peregrinations 2, no. 2 (2007),

Cyberinfrastructure: Leveraging Change at our Institutions. An interview with James J. ODonnell

by David Green, Knowledge Culture

James O’Donnell, Provost of Georgetown University, is a distinguished classics scholar (most recently author of Augustine: A New Biography), who has contributed immensely to critical thinking about the application of new technologies to the academic realm. In 1990, while teaching at Bryn Mawr College, he co-founded the Bryn Mawr Classical Review, one of the earliest online scholarly journals, and while serving as Professor of Classical Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, he was appointed Penn’s Vice Provost for Information Systems and Computing. In 2000 he chaired a National Academies committee reviewing information technology strategy at the Library of Congress, resulting in the influential report, LC21: A Digital Strategy for the Library of Congress. One of his most influential books, Avatars of the Word (Harvard, 1998) compares the impact of the digital revolution to other comparable paradigmatic communications shifts throughout history.David Green: We’re looking here at the kinds of organizational design and local institutional evolution that will need to happen for liberal arts (and other higher-education) institutions to take advantage of a fully-deployed international cyberinfrastructure. How might access to massive distributed databases and to huge computational and human resources shift the culture, practice and structure of these (often ancient) institutions? How will humanities departments be affected–willingly or unwillingly? Will they lead the way or will they need to be coaxed forward?
James O’Donnell:
I think the issue you’re asking about here boils down to the question, “What problem are we really trying to solve?” And I think I see the paradox. The NSF Cyberinfrastructure Report, addressed to the scientific community, could assume a relatively stable community of people whose needs are developing in relatively coherent ways. If wise heads get together and track the development of those needs and their solutions, you can imagine it would then just be an ordinary public policy question: what things do you need, how do you make selections, how do you prioritize, what do you do next? NSF has been in this business for several decades. But when you come to the humanities (and full credit to Dan Atkins, chair of the committee that issued the report, for saying “and let’s not leave the other guys behind”) and you ask “what do these people need?” you come around to the question (that I take it to be the question you are asking of us) “Are we sure these people know they need what they do need?”In the humanities, it’s more that for a long time a bunch of people have been able to see, with varying degrees of clarity, a future, but that hasn’t translated to a science-like community of people who share that need, recognize it and are looking around for someone who will meet those needs–if not in one way then another. With the sciences, it’s almost like a natural market. So it’s easy enough for the CI group to say “This is what forward-looking, directionally-sensible humanists need.” But then we look around the institution and say: “Hello, does anyone around here know they need this stuff? And if so, why aren’t people doing more about this?” And we’re all a little puzzled by the gap and trying to put an interpretation on it. Is this a group of people who are burying their heads in the sand and will be obsolete in three to five years? Or is it a group of people who are not seduced by fashion and gimmickry and are just sticking with their business, undistracted and doing darn good work? Or is it somewhere in between?I’m curious about the differences between what we’re told is coming, the next wave of radically magnified networking and computing power, and the first wave, when the Internet hit in the mid-90s. Before that you had a fairly small but robust set of networks that had been built for a relatively tiny number of scientists. Then with the Web and the government white papers, the Internet hit in a pretty big way. Some members of the humanities community realized there were tools and capabilities here that could change the way they do business and a tiny minority proceeded to work in this way. Now, how will things go this time around? Will it just be a repeat: a few innovators declaring rather insufficiently that this will radically alter the way we do business in the humanities and the vast majority skeptically watching and waiting–for who knows what? And within the institutions–will the big changes happening in the sciences “trickle down?” How much interaction is there between the two cultures?
Let me start by trying to characterize the two waves. First a story: When I was at Penn, I took over the networking in 1995 and one of the stories I got was about Joe Bordogna, Dean of the Engineering School, who in 1984 really believed in this networking thing and he wanted to get the campus backbone built and connected to the Internet. Nobody much agreed with him, there was no money for it and no one believed it would happen. He finally got them to agree to build it on the mortgage plan (a fifteen-year loan). Three years after I got there, the mortgage was paid off and we had something like a million dollars a year we could spend on something else (even though, while the cables and wiring were all there, all the electronic equipment attached to it was long gone by the time the mortgage was paid off). That was visionary and it was challenging. But it was clear, in retrospect, that that was what you had to do: you had to build network infrastructure and had to figure out how to make it work. I came into the IT business partly due to the crunch of the mid-90s. Without anyone planning it, this electrifying paradigm shift occurred. The physical form of it was Bill Gates releasing Windows 95 on August 28, 1995, three days before students returned to campus, all demanding it be loaded onto their machines while all the guys in IT support hadn’t had time to figure out how it worked. So there was a real crunch time as we had to figure out how to get all these machines installed, all designed for the new network paradigm (Windows 95 had the new Internet Explorer browser bundled with it). So we were all suddenly moving into this new space. Nobody had planned for it and no one understood it. But what everyone did know was that you had to connect your machine to the network and that’s the paradigm that’s remained fairly stable ever since. You have a basic machine-it’s shrunk to a laptop now (essentially none of our students have “desktop” computers any more)-and you connect to the network, but nothing else has substantially changed. The under-the-hood browser environment is more complex than it used to be, but nobody’s had to take lessons, the change has been seamless. So my concern is that today there’s no high-concept transition. We’ve had to (a) build networks and (b) connect machines to networks. There’s nothing so clear to face now as what we had fifteen to twenty-five years ago.There’s wireless and WiFi that’s exploding, then there’s the continuing miniaturization, and the iPhone. Is that all incremental change?
Yes, and it all feels incremental. The place where there is real change is invisible. It’s in the handset and all the things it can do now and, though the browser on my Blackberry is pretty crippled, I can get core critical information that way and when I’m really bored in a meeting I can read Caesar’s Gallic Wars in Latin on my handheld. It also gets me through an overnight trip now. I don’t lug a laptop around with me quite so much.

And then there’s the additional bandwidth. It’s also incremental but its pretty fast now.
You know, I must have dozed off for a while, because I never noticed the point at which basic web design started assuming broadband.

And assuming video.
Right. But for a long time, basic web design was geared to deliver the best experience over a 28K dialup connection. Now we’re past that. If we go back to the average humanities academic, he’s talking on his cell phone, doing email, and web-surfing every morning. When I read Arts & Letters Daily with my orange juice and I see a piece I like, I hit “Print” and it’s waiting for me at my office when I get there 30 minutes later.

It’s making things faster, but it’s not changing too much?
Yes, this is automation carried to a point where there is a change in kind as well as in degree. I’m reading more kinds of stuff; I’m a better informed person across a wider range of topics than I was. I am a different person because I do this. But it’s an incrementally different kind of person. Nothing substantial has changed.

Now, although I’d like to pursue the social networking route, I also want to ask if you think there are any pull factors at work on humanities faculty. What would entice faculty to really deeply engage with networking? It’s certainly not collaboration, in itself at least.
There’s the real question of whether most academic behavior is really driven by the content of our enquiry versus how much of it is the need to perform. “Published by Harvard University Press” is still a superior form of performance to any form of electronic publication that you can now imagine.

So the intensity of a social intellectual life that might be increased through collaborative engagement online is of no comparison to that kind of imprimatur?
For many that is correct. I mean, I may be writing better articles because I’m in touch with more people. (I just checked the number of emails in my Gmail account over the last 6 months and it’s a mind-boggling number, something like 1500, so compared to the total number of people I ever met, spoke to on the phone or wrote paper letters to back in the day, it’s half an order of magnitude.) But it’s not getting us to a tipping point where instead of doing x I’ll decide to do y. Instead, I’m just running faster in place. And that’s interesting.

So now I’m provosting, I believe in this future. I’ve written about it. I think we can get somewhere. I think it’s exciting. But has my own personal practice changed that much? Not that much.

Could one tipping point be when the majority of the resources you use are in digital form? I know that would vary dramatically across disciplines.
Well it makes it easier for a humanities scholar-provost to write books while provosting. It means I can carry an amazing library on the train and read through stuff I wouldn’t otherwise be able to get to.

Put another way: does the format of one’s resources affect the format of how one will eventually produce or publish one’s work?
Not to my knowledge. I’m still writing “chapters”–and that’s interesting to me. Even at my level, the obvious rewards are for writing in traditional formats rather than for doing something digital–even down to dollar rewards. I mean, if you’re a scholar wanting to break through to a new audience, you do that through a trade publisher in New York.

At Georgetown you work with science departments that are engaged in cyberinfrastructure projects, so you’re quite conversant with what they’re doing and how. And our big question, where we started tonight, is whether there’s any connection between this activity in the sciences at Georgetown and the humanities. Will the humanities and social sciences always be the poor neighbors who might get to see what the sciences are up to and, if they’re lucky, might occasionally benefit from trickle-down effects?

That’s one extreme position–and it’s an external and judgmental one. An internal extreme position is “Well, we’re doing just fine, thanks!” And those two may be somewhat congruent. In between is a more hopeful and responsible position that says “Look, we are moving forward, developing things gradually.” You saw the piece in today’s Chronicle of Higher Education about Stephen Greenblatt’s[1]new course he’s teaching at Harvard? Almost the most important thing about that, by the way, was that they mentioned Stephen Greenblatt by name–because he’s truly famous and writes famous books and if he does this kind of thing then it must be OK.

And so this is the kind of thing that we need, only much more of it? But how old is Ed Ayers’ complaint that despite all of the really substantial and revolutionary work many have done in creating and using digital resources, as a community we were not moving forward, that real cyberscholarship is still-born?[2] He has pushed as hard as anyone and is as prominent as can be. For his pains, they’ve made him first a dean and now a president. But there’s the tendency for people to sit back and say “Look at that Ed go, isn’t he marvelous,” and that’s the puzzle. I’ll come back to say that the core issue for me is still the one of defining the problem that we have to solve persuasively enough that we get enough people interested in solving it.What’s the role of librarians in this? They seem to be leading in pushing for the provision of digital resources.
Librarians are very good inside and outside agitators in this regard. A logical way to make progress happen is to substantially support them in what they do. I have to say at Georgetown every time we do something digital in the library, foot traffic in the building and circulation of physical material goes up. For example, we offer more transparent web access to the library catalog with more links on it, letting you order stuff from other libraries–and foot traffic goes way up. We can’t stop them coming in (and sure aren’t trying to!).

So the building will be around for a while?
Let me be provostial here and say not only will the building be around, but in five years we’ll have to seriously renovate and consider building an extension. And this for many of our stakeholders (board members and donors) is at first glance counterintuitive: “I thought all that stuff was digital now.” But students are going in more and more, and going in collaboratively-to see and talk to each other. I’m left figuring how to budget for it.

You’re clearly deeply engaged by the present. Do you spend much time going the John Seely Brown route[3] and thinking through what the university of twenty years hence will look like?

Well, that’s kind of my day job. We’re about to kick off a formal curriculum review process at Georgetown that will take years to enact. My task is to have my colleagues challenge themselves to think about the abstract questions of what the goals might be for bringing people together in one place for four years and how we might get there. Can we even get to challenging ourselves about the four-year-ishness, the academic-term-ishness? That’s going to be very hard. As long as that is so powerfully the model and so powerfully the business plan and so universal the expectation that even breaking up student time so they can spend a month on a project is really, really hard. Now this has nothing to do in itself with digital, but there are things you can imagine with new empowering technologies that would be really, really cool if they could do that.

Will there be opportunities for serious consideration of totally discontinuous change?
Definitely. But we’re just beginning and we have to acknowledge that anytime you go anywhere near a faculty meeting, you get what I call the Giuliani Diagnosis of NYC traffic: gridlock is upon us and the natural behavior of everyone around us is go get a bigger SUV and lean on the horn some more. Now, that’s not a good thing and wisdom in such a situation is not about reinventing spaces for living together but consists of the first emergency response level of striping certain intersections and changing the timing on the stoplights because everything is so entangled and interwoven. That’s why I say getting students to get a four-week period to sit together to collaborate and do something truly new and different together is extremely hard. Again, for reasons that have nothing to do with electronic technology but everything to do with institutional structures we have chosen with certain kinds of assumptions in place. (Giuliani left New York before they did more than the emergency response, of course.)

The university is a highly evolved form, so it’s hard to suddenly change direction, or grow a new limb.
Yes, so any academic looking at this has to have pessimistic days in which you say “survival will go to the institution that can start afresh.” I’m reading a report by a colleague on “Lifelong Learning in China” and my question for him will be, “Do you think this vision for lifelong learning in China, where they don’t have such a vast installed base as we have, will/could/should be as exclusively associated with the kind of four-year institutions of learning we have in this country, or will the model get created not in rich first-world institutions but in places where productivity and output matter, where people will invent forms that are genuinely creative and more productive and efficient than we have now?”

Will that kind of conversation enter the curriculum review?
I’m chairing it, so we’ll see. But I have no illusions about my ability, resource-challenged as the institution is, simply to grasp the helm and do hard-a-lee and steer off in a different direction. You have to get a whole load of folks shoveling coal in the engine room to get buy-in before you can do that.

I’d like to make an observation: Theodore Ziolkowski, who wrote the book German Romanticism and Its Institutions[4]–how the zeal of the Age of Wordsworth and Goethe turned into bourgeois Victorianism–makes an important point about the university. Von Humboldt had a choice about the research institution that he had in mind. He didn’t have to take over a university and animate it; it could have been any other kind of educational institution–an Institut, a Gymnasium, an Akademie–but he did and there were costs in doing that. (You know the joke about why God created the Universe in only six days? No? Because He didn’t have to make it compatible with the installed base.) Von Humboldt chose to make his university compatible with the installed base and it was a good idea and it worked. But it carried with it the cost of associating the high-end research enterprise with all of that teaching of an increasingly mass audience. It also carried with it all the benefits of associating research with that kind of teaching.

Now this is an ‘I wonder:’ I wonder if we’re not at the tipping point where that cost-benefit ratio isn’t working anymore. And where, therefore, new institutional forms will need to emerge, if money was there to make new institutional forms emerge or if an institutional form emerged with a business plan–and the University of Phoenix doesn’t look like it.Can you imagine any foundations venturing seriously in this direction? They generally seem quite constrained in their thinking.
Well, have you ever read Thorstein Veblen? They should make us memorize his The Higher Learning in America in Provost school. These institutions are a lot about transmitting social and cultural capital and less about academic performance than we might think. There’s a young scholar I know, Joseph Soares, who’s passionate about demonstrating that the best predictor of performance in college by prospective students is not the SAT but class rank: people who have climbed to whatever heap they’re sitting in will go climb to the top of the next heap.[5] People with good test scores can get good test scores, but there’s no telling what will happen when they get out into the world. But this is unfashionable and it connects well with the fact that these institutions are bound up in the creation, preservation and transmission of cultural capital from one generation to the next. That’s a piece of the function of this tiny but trend-setting group of institutions that transmit their trends out to a wider public in remarkable ways. And that function makes institutions full of creative, innovative, iconoclastic people into bastions of conservatism. Good thing for me I love navigating the tensions that result.


[1] Jennifer Howard, “Harvard Humanities Students Discover the 17th Century Online,” Chronicle of Higher Education 54, no. 9 (October 26, 2007) A1.

[2] Edward L. Ayers, “Doing Scholarship on the Web: 10 Years of Triumphs and a Disappointment,” Chronicle of Higher Education 50, no. 21 (January 30, 2004) B24-25.

[3] In for example, the chapter “Re-Education,” in John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid, The Social Life of Information (Harvard Business School Press, 2000).

[4] Theodore Ziolkowski, German Romanticism and Its Institutions (Princeton University Press, 1992).

[5] Joseph Soares, The Power of Privilege: Yale and America’s Elite Colleges (Stanford University Press, 2007).

Cyberinfrastructure For Us All: An Introduction to Cyberinfrastructure and the Liberal Arts

This is going to be big. According to Arden Bement, Director of the National Science Foundation, the Cyberinfrastructure Revolution that is upon us “is expected to usher in a technological age that dwarfs everything we have yet experienced in its sheer scope and power.”[1]

With a trajectory shooting from the solitary performance of legendary room-size machines (with less computing power than today’s handhelds) to the complex interactions within a pulsing infrastructure of many layered, parallel and intersecting networks, “computing” is continuing to develop exponentially. But in fact, as David Gelernter has put it, “the real topic in computing is the Cybersphere and the cyberstructures within it, not the computers we use as telescopes and tuners.”[2]

We are currently in the middle of the second big opportunity we’ve had to collectively take stock of our computing capabilities, assessing social, intellectual, economic, and industrial requirements, envisioning the future, and calling for coordinated planning across agencies and sectors. The early 1990s was the first such period. As the technical components of the Web came together in Geneva, Senator Al Gore’s High Performance Computing and Communication Act of 1991 led to the creation of the National Research and Education Network and proposals for a “National Information Infrastructure” (NII). These led in turn to funding structures that enabled the construction of hardware and software, of transmission lines and switches, and of a host of physical, connectible devices and interactive services that gave rise to the Internet we know today.

Just as the NII discussions had a galvanizing effect on building those earlier networks, the National Science Foundation’s 2003 report on Revolutionizing Science and Engineering Through Cyberinfrastructure is having a similar effect today. The product of a more sophisticated understanding of our civilization’s dependence on computer networking–a dense, multi-layered cyberinfrastructure that goes beyond switches and technical standards–the NSF report calls for a massive set of new investments (public and private), for leadership from many quarters, for changing professional practices, and for necessary institutional and organizational changes to match the opportunities provided by the tremendous recent advances in computing and networking. That report, often referred to as the Atkins report (justifiably named after Dan Atkins, the visionary chair of the NSF Blue-Ribbon Advisory Panel on Cyberinfrastructure), inspired no less than 27 related reports on cyberinfrastructure and its impacts on different sectors.[3]

These reports have essentially laid out the territory for how best to harness the power of distributed, computer-assisted collaborative production. They forcefully and formally call attention to the shift in economic and social production from a classic industrial base to a networked information base. Interestingly, this time around, the reports not only acknowledge, they highlight humanistic values and the role of the arts, humanities and social sciences (“the liberal arts”) in a way that was not done in the documents of the National Information Infrastructure. At the heart of NSF’s mission to build the most advanced capacity for scientific and engineering research is the emphasis that it be “human-centered.”[4] This is an invitation for the liberal arts to contribute to the design and construction of cyberinfrastructure (CI).

Most significant of those 27 reports for the liberal arts community is Our Cultural Commonwealth, the 2006 report of the Commission on Cyberinfrastructure for the Humanities and Social Sciences, created by the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS). The report underscores the values of designing an environment that cultivates the richness and diversity of human experience, cultures and languages, using the strengths of this community: “clarity of expression, the ability to uncover meaning, the experience of organizing knowledge and above all a consciousness of values.”[5] It reminds us of the founding legislation of the NEH that asserts that, parallel to the core activities of the sciences, there needs to be a healthy capacity, provided by humanities disciplines, to achieve “a better understanding of the past, a better analysis of the present and a better view of the future.” As we understand the power of software tools to parse massive amounts of data, and the potential of collaborative expertise to wield those tools and articulate the results, we need to emphasize the place of the values of individual and collective creative imagination.

In the wake of these reports, as the term “cyberinfrastructure” gains currency, as initiatives are born and decisions made, this seemed a good moment for Academic Commons to capture a range of perspectives from scholars, scientists, information technologists and administrators, on the challenges and opportunities CI presents for the liberal arts and liberal arts colleges. What difference will cyberinfrastructure make and how should we prepare?

How do we get there from here? Reviewing Our Cultural Commonwealth, art historian Gary Wellsnotes some key challenges. First, who’s to pay for some of the necessary transformations and how? Budget, especially for technology, has always been a big issue for a community which, in Wells’s words, “has had to make do with inadequate tools, incompatible standards, tiny budgets and uninterested leaders.” There’s a gap between what is possible and what is available for faculty right now. How do we effectively make the case for attention to CI among the other competing demands for a limited budget? How can the budget be expanded, especially when there are strong calls to make this CI both a means for greater collaboration within and among academic disciplines but also as a route out to the general public? Who will lead this call to arms?

While institutional response and organizational change is called for, classics scholar and Georgetown University Provost James O’Donnell, a bold yet pragmatic voice for envisioning change, affirms that change will have to come from the faculty, who have been mostly quite complacent about the future of the Web. Humanists, for the most part, are changing their practices incrementally through the benefits of email and the Web, but the compelling vision that will inspire faculty to develop a new kind of scholarship is still missing, despite the individual accomplishments of a notable few.[6]

Cyberinfrastructure draws attention to another significant challenge to academic liberal arts culture: in a word, collaboration. While that culture is created through scholarly communication–journals, conferences, teaching, the activity of scholarly societies and the continuing evolution of “disciplines”–much of the daily activity of the humanities is rooted in the assumption that humanities research and publication is essentially an individual rather than a collaborative activity. Will CI bring a revolution in the degree of real and active collaboration in research and the presentation/publication of the results?

In confronting this thorny issue, Sayeed Choudhury and colleague Timothy Stinson step back and take a long-term view. Perhaps scientists were not always such good collaborators. Perhaps there’s a cycle to the culture and practice of disciplines as they evolve. With tongue slightly in cheek, looking backward as well as forward, they make a modest proposal for a new paradigm for humanities research.

Computer scientist, Michael Lesk has had a long interest in bridging the Two Cultures and in building digital libraries. While at the NSF, he spearheaded the development of the Digital Libraries Initiative (1993-1999) that funded a number of advanced humanities projects.[7] Observing a new paradigm at work in the sciences, where direct observation is often replaced by consulting results posted in massive data repositories like the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, the Protein Data Base or Genbank, he turns to the humanities and sees little progress beyond the digitizing of material. But while waiting for new creative uses of what digitized material there is, Lesk underscores the significant economic, legal, ethical and political problems that need resolution. Citing just one: there is still great confusion among all players about which economic models should apply: who pays for what, when and how?

But again, how do we begin? John Unsworth, chair of the ACLS Commission, and now well-versed in defining and describing CI (you’ll enjoy his culinary analogies in his discussion with Kevin Guthrie), sees construction of a humanities cyberinfrastructure as necessarily incremental.[8] The first wave is the fundamental (but still difficult) task of building the digital library: bringing together representations of the full array of cultural heritage materials in as interoperable, usable and sustainable a digital form as possible. This is ‘content as infrastructure.’

Different disciplines are doing this with different degrees of success. Aided now by the operations of Google, the Open Content Alliance [see a profile in this issue], the Internet Archive and others, our libraries and archives have made available a wide panoply of materials in digital form: certainly the core texts of Western history and culture, and a considerable array of material from the West and other cultures in other media. The Getty’s Kenneth Hamma, however, argues here that, despite the images that are available in some form, many museums are holding a lot of cultural heritage material hostage. Even public domain work is still under digital lock and key by many gatekeepers who worry about the fate of “their” images once they are released into the digital realm. Millions of well-documented images of objects held by museums (of art, history, natural history), more easily accessible in very high-definition formats, will have a tremendous impact on all kinds of disciplines, let alone on the traditional ‘canon’ of works central to Art History. Along these lines, museum director John Weber writes convincingly here of the potential offered by CI for campus museums such as his own to be radically more relevant and useful for curricula around the globe by transforming museum exhibitions into three-dimensional, interactive and visceral “texts” for study and response.

While even public domain material is proving elusive, material still under copyright is often a nightmare both to find and to use in digital form, as the traditional sense of “fair use” is under siege and many faculty clearly have a lot to learn about copyright law.[9] Elsewhere, John Unsworth has cited intellectual property as “the primary data-resource-constraint in the humanities” (paralleling privacy rights as the “primary data-resource-constraint in the social sciences”). Believing the solutions to be partly technical, Unsworth sees them as the “primary ‘cyberinfrastructure’ research agenda for the humanities and social sciences.”[10] Michael Lesk underscores this message in his essay in this issue, reporting that much of the cyberinfrastructure-related discussion in the humanities is not so much “about how to manage the data or what to do with it, but what you are allowed to do with it.” Some combination of technical, social and legal answers are surely called for here.

But all of this, as Lesk reiterates, is just the beginning. Only a comparative handful of scholars in a variety of fields have begun to build new knowledge and experiment with forms of new scholarship. Here, we are fortunate to have noted media scholar Janet Murray open up some other paths in her gripping account of what the process and products of a new cyberscholarship might look like.

Murray’s starting point is that a new medium requires new genres and new strategies for making meaning; she suggests some approaches that will be more practical as the Semantic Web, sometimes nicknamed Web 3.0,[11] approaches. When software can analyze everything online as if it were in the form of a database, we will have access to tremendously powerful tools that will enable us to conduct “computer-assisted research, not computer-generated meaning.” Such structure will help us “share focus across large archives and retrieve the information in usable chunks and meaningful patterns.” Just as the highly evolved technology of the book (with its segmentation and organization into chapters and sections, with titles, section heads, tables of contents and indices, etc.) allows us greater mastery of information than we had using oral memory, so better established conventions of “segmentation and organization in digital media could give us mastery over more information than we can focus on within the confines of linear media.” Overall, she stresses cyberinfrastructure’s potential as a “facilitator of a vast social process of meaning making” (a more developed collaborative process) rather than focusing on the usual data-mining approach.

For a closer look at how one discipline might change with access to cyberinfrastructure, we asked three art historians (Guy Hedreen, Amelia Carr, and Dana Leibsohn) to discuss their expectations. How might their practice and their discipline evolve? Their roundtable discussion focuses initially on the critical importance of access to images (the “content infrastructure”) before moving on to consider the importance of taking responsibility for fostering new forms of production “more interesting than the book.” Ultimately, CI will be useless unless it not only revolutionizes image access and metadata management, but also helps us to think differently about vision and objects: “what kind of image work is the work that matters most?”

Zooming out again to get the big picture beyond any one discipline, I’d like to encourage all readers of this collection to read the recent, groundbreaking report out of a joint NSF/JISC Repositories Workshopon data-driven scholarship. The report, The Future of Scholarly Communication: Building the Infrastructure for Cyberscholarship, defines cyberscholarship (“new forms of research and scholarship that are qualitatively different from traditional ways of using academic publications and research data”), reviews the current state of the art, the content and tools still required, the palpable resistance to the changes necessary for it to take hold, and some of the international organizational issues. It even sketches out a roadmap for establishing an international infrastructure for cyberscholarship by 2015. Reviewing the report, Gregory Crane, one of the workshop participants, zeroes in on the core issue, the first requirement for launching sustainable cyberscholarship: getting a system of institutional repositories for scholarly production in place, working and actively being used by scholars. By the way, two of the papers in this Academic Commons collection (those by Choudhury and Murray) had their roots in position papers delivered at the NSF/JISC Repositories Workshop.

How all this goes down on the college campus is examined here by physicist Francis Starr, speaking from his experience in installing the latest in “cluster computing” at Wesleyan University. While hooking into a network is part of what cyberinfrastructure is about, so is developing one’s own local infrastructure as efficiently as possible. His main theme though is the equal importance of human expertise (local and distributed) and installed hardware. This theme is carried further by Todd Kelley in his demonstration of the wisdom of using cyber services that outside organizations can provide. Kelley stresses the balance to be achieved among the human, organizational and technological components when implementing such services.

Finally, chemist Matthew Coté beautifully illustrates how cyberinfrastructure might be visible on a small liberal arts campus through the example of one small but powerful new building: the Bates College Imaging and Computing Center. Designed more specifically to bring the arts and sciences together in exemplifying the potency of the liberal arts ideal (as codified by Bates’s recently-adopted General Education Program), the building should prove to be one of the most creative and plugged-in cyberinfrastructure-ready places on campus. Its almost iconic organization into lab, gallery/lounge and classroom links group research and learning, individual creativity and discovery and the key role of open social space. Artists, humanists, and scientists are equally welcome in this space with open equipment (with training programs and nearby expertise for help in using it). As Professor Coté puts it, “Its array of equipment and instrumentation, and its extensive computer networking, make [the Imaging Center] the campus hub for collaborative and interdisciplinary projects, especially those that are computationally intensive, apply visualization techniques, or include graphical or image-based components.”

Where do we go from here? The focus of these pieces has been on institutions and disciplines. Cyberinfrastructure will bring significant changes to both, and the evolution of both are intertwined. But cyberinfrastructure is not a one-way street, but rather a massive intersection. Just as Web 2.0 has provided more of a user-oriented network in which communities create value from multiple, individual contributions, so the future limned here by our guests is one that will depend not only on large supercomputing centers and government agencies but on the changing practices of multiple arrays of individuals, all of whose developing practices are at work in designing this new environment.


[1] “Shaping the Cyberinfrastructure Revolution: Designing Cyberinfrastructure for Collaboration and Innovation.” First Monday 12, no. 6 (June 2007). Accessed September 26, 2007.

[2] David Gelernter, “The Second Coming–A Manifesto.” The Edge, 2000.
Accessed October 30, 2007.

[3] National Science Foundation Office of Cyberinfrastructure, Cyberinfrastructure Vision for 21st Century Discovery, Sec3:46 (2007): Appendix B, “Representative Reports and Workshops.” Retrieved August 8, 2007.

[4] “The mission is for cyberinfrastructure to be human-centered, world-class, supportive of broadened participation in science and engineering, sustainable, and stable but extensible.” Cyberinfrastructure Vision, Sec3:2.

[5] Our Cultural Commonwealth, p.3.

[6] See for example, Edward Ayers’s questioning article, “Doing Scholarship on the Web: 10 Years of Triumphs and a Disappointment,” Chronicle of Higher Education 50, no. 21 (January 30, 2004) B24-25.

[7] See Michael Lesk, “Perspectives on DLI-2 – Growing the Field.” D-Lib Magazine 5 no. 7/8 (July/August 1999) Accessed October 30, 2007.

[8] For a superb introduction to the issues, see John Unsworth’s address at the 2004 annual meeting of the Research Libraries Group: “Cyberinfrastructure for the Humanities and Social Sciences.” Accessed October 30, 2007.

[9] See, for example, Renee Hobbs, Peter Jaszi, Pat Aufderheide, The Cost of Copyright Confusion for Media Literacy. Center for Social Media, American University 2007. Accessed October 31, 2007.

[10] Unsworth, ibid.

[11] The classic document here is Tim Berners-Lee, James Hendler and Ora Lassila, “The Semantic Web.” Scientific American (May 2001) Accessed October 30, 2007. See Berners-Lee’s recent thoughts in Nigel Shadbolt, Tim Berners-Lee, Wendy Hall, “The Semantic Web Revisited,” IEEE Intelligent Systems 21, no. 3 (May/Jun, 2006) 96-101. Accessed October 30, 2007.

Using Digital Images in Teaching and Learning: Perspectives from Liberal Arts Institutions

by David Green, Knowledge Culture

The following study, “Using Digital Images in Teaching and Learning,” was commissioned by Wesleyan University in collaboration with the National Institute for Technology and Liberal Education (NITLE).

The study focuses on the pedagogical implications of the widespread use of the digital format. However, while changes in the teaching-learning dynamic and the teacher-student relationship were at the core of the study, related issues concerning supply, support and infrastructure rapidly became part of its fabric. These topics include the quality of image resources, image functionality, management, deployment and the skills required for optimum use (digital and image “literacies”).

This report is rooted in faculty experience in “going digital,” as shown in four hundred survey responses and three hundred individual interviews with faculty and some staff at 33 colleges and universities: 31 liberal arts colleges together with Harvard and Yale Universities. Two-thirds of the survey respondents worked in the arts and humanities, 27% in the sciences and 12% in the social sciences. These faculty were self-selected and mostly convinced of the digital promise of abundant, fluid resources. They wanted to communicate both their enthusiasm for their endeavor and their frustration at the pace and quality of their transition to teaching with this new format.

Full Report (1.1 mb .pdf)

Executive Summary (.4 mb .pdf)

Recommendations (<.1 mb .pdf)

As part of an ongoing conversation around the report, Academic Commons is publishing a selection of interviews with faculty who participated in this project.

Digital Image Interview Series

In addition, we have established a space for readers to interact with the author David Green, and with one another.

Image Project  Wiki