CNI 2017: Building Capacity in the Library: A “Learn by Doing” Approach

CNI 2017: Building Capacity in the Library: A “Learn by Doing” Approach


Using the Claremont Colleges Library as a case study, this presentation will offer ideas and suggestions about how to build capacity within the library and the broader campus community to support and advance digital humanities projects and digital scholarship. The Claremont Colleges Library has taken a “learn by doing” approach, offering a five-week short course in DH, encouraging library staff to work on their own digital humanities projects, and providing dedicated time for these exploratory endeavors. In the short course that launched the digital scholarship professional development series, participants examined a variety of digital research methods, including data visualization, spatial and temporal visualizations, network analysis, and topic modeling. Each week, this seminar-style course asked librarians and staff to consider how scholars in various fields might employ these approaches and how each method may be used within the context of librarianship. The professional development series will be presented, along with commentary about what has worked well so far and lessons learned. This presentation will be useful for administrators at institutions that already offer a suite of services to support digital scholarship. It will be especially applicable for those at institutions that are interested but unsure how to begin, particularly when there are few, if any, positions dedicated to digital scholarship.



This is a lightly edited version of the talk I gave at the Coalition for Networked Information Spring 2017 Meeting.

Good morning! Thank you for joining us at the first panel of the day!

I’m going to be talking about building capacity for DH in the library and how we took a “learn by doing” approach. After Louisa’s talk, I really want to talk about our spaces, but we don’t have time for that. However, if you’re interested in the design of the “Digital Tool Shed” at the Claremont Colleges Library, check out the white paper on this space. 

I’d like to begin with a couple of quotes from John W. White, the Dean of the Library at the College of Charleston. This comes from the recently published, Laying the Foundation: Digital Humanities in the Academic Libraries (2016). He argues:

“DH scholarship is deeply rooted in and wholly compatible with library and archival science. … librarians are critical partners in DH instruction and inquiry and … libraries are essential for publishing, preserving, and making accessible digital scholarship.”
(White, xii)

I wholeheartedly agree, and I assume most of us sitting here also agree with that. So the question is, how do we do that? How do we ramp up to be able to support these kinds of projects and endeavors?

Today, I’m going to describe the professional development program that I began in my previous position as Digital Scholarship Coordinator for the Claremont Colleges Library. This program consisted of five main components:

  1. Intro to DH Short Course, specifically tailored for librarians and library staff
  2. Digital Scholarship Knowledge Workshops
  3. Skill-Building Workshops
  4. Library DH Maker Week
  5. Sustained support

All of this was only successful through sustained support.

1. Intro to DH Short Course

To begin with, the Introduction to Digital Humanities short course was based on was that I was running over six weeks for faculty and graduate students. When I stepped into my role as Digital Scholarship Coordinator, our Dean of the Library, Kevin Mulroy, asked if I might tailor that for our librarians. I thought that was a great idea, so I shrunk it down to five weeks, so we could fit it in before the winter break and really begin to expand our knowledge and skill at the Library.

This short course was especially for our teaching librarians in the Research, Teaching, and Learning Services division, which is where I was situated. Not only did our librarians from that division attend the short course, but we ended up with about a quarter of the library staff, not just librarians, but the entire staff, go through the course. Many of the members of our library leadership team joined as well, so so those conversations were very rich. I’ll talk about the topics first and then step back to the learning objectives.

Each week, over the course of five weeks, we addressed one topic a week.


  1. Definitions of “Digital Humanities” & “Digital Literacy”
  2. Data
  3. Spatial & temporal visualizations
  4. Network analysis
  5. Topic modeling

We started with definitions of Digital Humanities and digital literacy, so we were all working from the same understanding of these terms. The second week, we talked about data and what that looks like in the different disciplines. What does that look like in the Humanities versus Social Sciences versus STEM. The third week, we looked at spatial and temporal visualizations and played with various ways of doing that in a digital environment. In the fourth week, we looked at network analysis, and we closed out with topic modeling and text analysis, a little bit more broadly.

The learning objectives included:

  • Develop your own definition of DH, especially in a liberal arts context
  • Know when to incorporate digital tools and methodologies and determine why
  • Critically examine the strengths and weaknesses of existing tools and DH projects
  • Identify sources to find and learn new digital tools and skills

I come from an education background. I was a high school math teacher before I went on to graduate school in History. I take a backwards design approach to my teaching, so I took the learning objectives and transformed those into desired learning outcomes:

  • Explain what digital humanities/digital scholarship is to an interested faculty member
  • Describe the resources available at the library that support digital scholarship
  • Answer basic questions about what methodologies and tools are available for faculty research and instructional projects
  • Point interested faculty, staff, and students to websites, journals, organizations, and local experts for further information

We have had people come up to our Services Desk and ask the folks there, our Outward Facing Team, “What is DH? And why should I care?” So the idea is to enable people to have a ready response, so they can answer that question.

Also, as an educator, I have seen a lot of evidence for the constructivist theory of learning – that we really learn best by doing and by applying what we’re learning. I applied this theory in the professional development program for our librarians and library staff.

At the end of the short course, I asked our librarians to work in teams of four to design a digital humanities project. I got, at first, blank stares, and then panic, as people thought they actually had to build DH projects at the end of five weeks. I said, “No, no, no. Please don’t worry; you only have to imagine, just imagine what you might do for a library-specific digital humanities project. How might you enact some of things we’ve been talking about and employ some of the tools that we’ve explored to your own research? or to extend library services? or to communicate our value?” So that’s when people got pretty excited. The question evolved from, “Why do we have to do this?” to “When do we get to do this?”

Then I revealed my grand plan! At that point, I suggested a Library DH Maker Week so that librarians could build out the projects that they had spent a month envisioning with their colleagues. I approached the library leadership team with this idea, and they were very supportive. We scheduled a week in July 2016 to begin building out these projects.

The trick was to continue building knowledge and skills and keep that interest high over the course of a very busy spring semester between end of the short course, before winter break, and the Library DH Maker Week in July. Let me run through the proposals, and then I’ll return to talking about the workshops in the intervening months.

Proposed Projects:

  1. Collections Analysis Project: Creating a database of all of our titles and subject headings that others could explore and create their own data sets with, to begin to do some text analysis on this to determine our collection’s strengths and where we might have some gaps.
  2. Interactive timeline of student activism on campus: to contextualize recent student protests  on campus in the history of student activism at the Claremont Colleges.
  3. 1788 King’s Theater Paper Fan (Scalar Book): Explore and present who the people were in the boxed seats of the seating chart printed on the fan and what their connections were to one another through a Scalar book.
  4. Mapping WiFi Usage in the Library: Using information gathered from the WiFi controllers throughout the library to determine usage of our spaces and which campuses our users were coming from.

Each of these projects were built out during the Library DH Maker Week, except for one, which is now a Digital Scholarship Fellow Clinic project this semester.

2. Digital Scholarship Knowledge Workshops

The second component are the Digital Scholarship knowledge workshops. Most of my workshop materials are online. The first one workshop I did, following up on the short course, was teaching librarians how to take their skills in the reference and research interviews and translate that into consultations that might have some digital components. Our librarians already had a wonderful foundation and a lot of knowledge that they could bring to this kind of consultation. The problem with putting the materials from this workshop online is that we did a lot of role-playing, and that doesn’t translate very well into something that someone else could pick up and use. I’ll see if I can find a way to put that online though. We also talked about digital identity and security.

Another workshop focused on retaining author rights. If you came to the Lisa Spiro’s talk on the Fondren Fellow Program at Rice University, you might have heard Marcel LaFlamme’s work on author rights as one of the Fellows. I tweeted a lot during this presentation, and you can review my twitter notes at We also get asked, “Which term do you use? Is it Digital Humanities or Digital Scholarship or Digital Liberal Arts?” So I thought would be fruitful to have a discussion about what each of those terms mean and why we choose the terms we do. At the Claremont Colleges we chose “Digital Humanities” because it matches our Mellon DH Grant, and it has some resonance on campus already. It is more easily understood on campus than something like “Digital Scholarship,” which feels a little less familiar.  We also looked at copyright and Special Collections, as well as how we might integrate copyright and intellectual property rights issues into our instruction. You can find materials for each of these workshops at

Each of these workshops were held for one hour once a month, so they were regularly scheduled but didn’t require a lot of time investment. Everyone is very busy and has many other things to do, so I tried to find a lightweight approach to fitting this in but regular enough that it kept digital scholarship on people’s radar.

3. Skill Building Workshops

We also offered, and continue to offer, many skill-building workshops. One of my recommendations is to start small. We started with easy text analysis tools – Voyant Tools, which is plug and play. We started with things like TimelineJS to build multimedia timelines. With tools like these, you can create something to show off after just an hour. Having some tangible results is really helpful for people who are kind of skeptical of the value of DH and the time required to try any of these types of tools. You’ll see that we’ve also expanded our workshop offerings to include more sophisticated skill-building opportunities – like using regular expressions to clean text. Through our Digital Scholarship Fellow program, which is a student worker program, we have students with a variety of skills and expertise, who are offering workshops. One of our students is offering the Nearest Neighbor workshop that you can see at the bottom of the list, for example. You’ll also find a number of these workshops online at

4. Library DH Maker Week:

During the Library DH Maker Week, we didn’t take full days, but we did take a half-day each day for an entire week. We had between 9:00am and noon each day to get together to work on these projects. We kicked off the week with workshops open to everyone in the library who was interested in some tools, things that they could pick up, learn, and use in their own work. We held a workshop on Story Maps with our GIS expert, Warren Roberts, and I taught a workshop on TimelineJS for multimedia timeline building. Then we divided up into our project teams. Each project team had a facilitator that they could go to with questions. Each facilitator. actively worked with their team to help them develop a seed project based on their proposal.

Here are some of the projects that you can explore that have come out of the Library DH Maker Week:

  1. Collections Analysis Project
  2. The King’s Theater Fan Scalar Book
  3. WiFi mapping project (page 19 in the Library’s annual report)

After the Library DH Maker Week, these projects have gone on to have a life of their own. The WiFi analysis project has been used to communicate the value of the Library to all seven of our campuses. Some of our campuses have said, “Our students and faculty don’t use the Library!” And now we can take our WiFi data to them and show them that, actually, they do, and here’s when they’re there. (From 9:00am until 9:00pm, we have representation from every one of the seven Claremont Colleges in the Library!) The heat map shows the areas and concentrations of people using that space, which has been really helpful for a number of purposes, not least of which is that we’re involved in a lot of renovations right now. With this map, we know which areas are going to be most impacted as renovations proceed, so we could give our users a heads-up when the area might be a little too noisy and where else they could go to study.

We also found that, not only did the projects take on a life of their own as they’ve been presented at a number of conferences, and we have some publications that will be coming out shortly, but the Maker Week also meant a lot to individuals involved. I’m just going to read one anonymous response to the post-Maker Week survey question, “How was your experience this week?”

Excellent! This week accomplished a lot. It allowed us to actually spend some serious time with the skills we’ve learned over the past year and put them to use in a dedicated period of time. It allowed us to work with colleagues from other divisions and hear what they’re doing but also their take on various projects. It also improved morale, I think, by making the library feel more connected and showing all the neat stuff everyone’s doing here at the Library. And it kind of felt like summer camp – a nice reprieve from cyclical nature of library work. Long story short – I think this was a great experience and I’m really glad it happened!

I’m happy to share the rest of the results; they were all very much like this. I was quite astonished at the end of the week. People really enjoyed it, appreciated the time, and those cross-divisional teams really have helped to develop a sense of a more connected library. While we’re a mid-sized library, it still feels kind of big, and sometimes people feel rather siloed because we’re all working on our own things, but these project teams really help to develop strong relationships across our divisions.

5. Sustained Support

None of this would be possible without the sustained support of our library leadership through funding for training, for conference presentations, for staff and library positions. Earlier, I mentioned the Digital Scholarship Fellow program. We hired three undergraduate and three graduate students, who work in one of our new spaces, and I’ll show that in just a moment. I was hired on initially as a Digital Scholarship Librarian, so having that dedicated person in the library has been really helpful. The leadership team has also been wonderful about celebrating the successes and valuing both the process and products that are coming out of the program.

Dedicated time – I cannot emphasize this support structure enough – is so important – to have regular team meetings to work on the project itself, as well as presentations and publications. The Library DH Maker Week, was helpful in launching the projects, but it, alone, is not enough to sustain them.

Continuing education is another essential element of building capacity. As I mentioned, we offer additional skill-building workshops to take our familiarity and facility with specific tools and methods to new levels, check out for more info. This semester, I am also facilitating a text analysis reading group. The syllabus is also online, if you’re interested. This group is a nice mix of librarians as well as faculty members. Through the Mellon DH grant, we also run summer institutes, which are open to faculty, librarians, and graduate students, as well as staff members.

Finally, spaces make DH real to people. As we were going through this whole training program, we were also developing the Digital Tool Shed, which is our digital scholarship space. Once this space opened, it sank in that this is really happening, that DH is a real thing visit this site right here. Now, our librarians have some skills and knowledge to begin to talk with people about different DH methodologies and opportunities.

Lessons Learned:

  • Identify what’s meaningful to your target audience – whether it’s librarians or IT staff or faculty or students – and really hone in on that.
  • Start small. Start with things are easily accessible, easily understandable, and immediately applicable.
  • Schedule in dedicated time
  • Identify available expertise within the library and beyond. Louisa mentioned that they already had GIS expertise that, maybe, had gone unrecognized. See what people’s skills are; maybe someone has a lot of experience in Excel or data cleaning, and begin develop a network. Even if you don’t have funding to hire additional staff, identify expertise and see if you can provide training for others who are interested in providing DH support.
  • Celebrate and value both process and product. One of the important things that led to the success of this program was developing a culture of play and experimentation – making it okay to try something and have it not work out so well, and then try something – and providing support throughout this process, check best site.
  • Identify faculty and student interests, which may also serve as drivers for digital scholarship. Perhaps your librarians, library, IT don’t yet understand why this is important. If you can start connecting them with faculty and students interested in these kinds of projects, they tend to see the value very quickly, and that can really help to develop some momentum.

Citations and Resources:

White, John W., and Gilbert, Heather, Laying the Foundation: Digital Humanities in Academic Libraries (2016). Purdue University Press. (Knowledge Unlatched Open Access Edition.)

Intro to DH Short Course for Faculty & Grad Students:

Digital Scholarship Workshops:


ELI 2017 Poster Presentation on Harnessing Resources to Support DH at your campus, based on the forthcoming ECAR/CNI maturity framework for DH centers.

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