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McGregor, N., Ridge, M., Wisdom, S., Alencar-Brayner, A. (2016). The Digital Scholarship Training Programme at British Library: Concluding Report & Future Developments. In Digital Humanities 2016: Conference Abstracts. Jagiellonian University & Pedagogical University, Kraków, pp. 623-625.
The Digital Scholarship Training Programme at British Library: Concluding Report & Future Developments

The Digital Scholarship Training Programme at British Library: Concluding Report & Future Developments

1. Digital Scholarship Training Programme 2012-2015

Research libraries and cultural heritage institutions must be able to adapt to a changing research landscape and invest in the development of staff skills and core competencies to match if they are to continue to effectively support and engage with modern scholars (Adams, 2013). The Digital Research team at British Library, which includes the BL Labs project and the Digital Curator team, engages with those operating at the intersection of academic research, cultural heritage and technology to enable innovative use of our digital collections, and creates opportunities for library staff to develop skills necessary to support emerging areas of modern scholarship, particularly the Digital Humanities (DH).

This paper presents the final report on the pilot Digital Scholarship Training Programme delivered to staff at British Library between 2012-2015. It provides an evaluation of the skill-building initiative, incorporating preliminary findings from research into the current trends and international developments in the field of DH that will inform the next phase of staff training.

In 2012, the Digital Curator team embarked on a plan to design and deliver a bespoke training programme for staff (McGregor et. al, 2013). Four objectives were set to guide and ultimately measure the success of the programme:

  • Staff across all collection areas are familiar and conversant with the foundational concepts, methods and tools of digital scholarship.
  • Staff are empowered to innovate.
  • Collaborative digital initiatives flourish across subject areas within the Library as well as externally.
  • Our internal capacity for training and skill-sharing in digital scholarship are a shared responsibility across the Library.

In consultation with experts from within the Library and institutions on the leading edge of digital scholarship we designed and delivered in-house a catalogue of 19 one day courses suited to building the digital skills of information professionals in the research library and cultural heritage sector. Though much of the programme was rooted in and inspired by the field of digital humanities, the wider umbrella of Digital Scholarship was retained to future-proof the programme and to envelope developments in related fields like social and computer sciences. The following titles represent a cross-section of courses created:

  • Behind the Screen: The Basics of the Web
  • Crowdsourcing in Cultural Heritage (Ridge, 2015)
  • Georeferencing and Digital Mapping
  • Social Media: An Introduction to Blogging and Twitter
  • Working with Digital Objects: From Images to A/V
  • Information Integration: Mash-ups, APIs and the Semantic Web (Stephens, 2014a)
  • Cleaning up Data (Stephens, 2014b)

The four-member Digital Curator team oversaw the running of 88 hands-on courses (or roughly 30 a year) between November 2012 and September 2015. Courses were delivered by a mix of internal and external trainers. Over 400 individual staff members came through the programme, on average attending two or more courses each.

Throughout the pilot we collected feedback formally via post-course evaluation forms, and informally through avenues such as a weekly Digital Research Clinic, and personal conversations that arose in the course of our daily work. Colleagues were asked to provide comments to help us improve the course, including what they enjoyed most out of the day, what they anticipated using in their work, and what was not clearly articulated.

Hands-on practical exercises were cited most often as the most enjoyable element, though not to the exclusion of the lecture and discussion time which participants felt provided necessary context. While many attendees cited specific technologies such as Open Refine as something they anticipated using in their work, they also tended to comment that having the technology underpinning innovative digital research projects demystified was helpful inspiration for future projects. Topics which could have been more clearly articulated centred on a lack of clarity on practical steps for turning aspiration into application.

Looking specifically at the objectives set, there is ample evidence to support the continuation of the training programme, such as the incorporation of the programme in staff induction for established Library projects such as Qatar Digital Library. As staff across all collection areas have become more familiar and conversant with the foundational concepts, methods and tools of digital scholarship, we have witnessed its profile increase across the Library. For instance three new PhD placements were offered this year specifically within the digital research domain (Sheperd, 2016) for the first time.

Staff have felt empowered to innovate, and collaborative digital initiatives have flourished. A particularly cogent example is that of curator Dr. Sandra Tuppen, who attended one of our courses on cleaning up data and went on to secure a £79,000 grant towards a research project which enriched and cleaned British Library catalogue data so that it could be successfully aligned with other printed music datasets in support of a big data approach to the history of music (Tuppen, 2014).

Our internal capacity for training and skill-sharing in digital scholarship has become a shared responsibility across the Library, with internal course instructors now outnumbering external instructors. With the increasing number of Library staff being involved in projects and other programmes that include digital research activities and methodologies, we have been able to integrate more in-house expertise to the courses offered. Additionally the Digital Curator team has prioritised our own upskilling through a monthly informal “Hack & Yack” where we work through online tutorials with a view towards incorporating them into training, as well as more formal courses such as Train the Trainer aimed at enhancing our teaching strategies, combining theory and practical methodologies in the planning and delivery of the courses.

2. Looking to the future

We will continue the Digital Scholarship Training Programme and for 2016/2017 will maintain 7 of the 19 courses in their current form:

1. 101 This is Digital Scholarship

2. 103 Digitisation at the British Library

3. 105 Crowdsourcing in Libraries, Museums and Cultural Heritage Institutions

4. 108 Geo-referencing and Digital Mapping

5. 109 Information Integration: Mash-ups, API’s and Linked Data

6. 116 Metadata for Electronic Resources

7. 118 Cleaning up Data

Focusing on delivering this smaller core of courses will free up resource to improve upon how we:

  • Reach staff who are keen and could most make use of the information but have not yet engaged
  • Providing guidance and support to staff who are looking to implement what they have learned
  • Addressing more explicitly the challenges and opportunities for working with complex collection materials, such as with non-Western materials

We aim to provide a more diverse training offering to ensure that there are sufficient opportunities for staff in a variety of roles at the Library to engage with digital research. Often colleagues have said they would like to attend a course, but either their workload is such that they feel they cannot spare a full day for it or they work a rota, as is the case with our colleagues who staff reading rooms. Finding creative ways to articulate more clearly and succinctly the practical value of time spent on a course, for example through shorter more frequent taster sessions explaining how a digital tool or method might help solve a specific problem, may help to reach those who have yet to engage. We are also working in partnership with reading room staff on rota to develop new approaches for conveying the training (perhaps through short informational videos).

On the opposite end of the spectrum is the need to support increasing numbers of library staff who have engaged with the programme and are now looking to implement what they have learned. In an ideal world we could offer 'just in time' training to colleagues at the point of their immediate need. However, as Miriam Posner (2012) and others have discussed, each question a colleague asks may bring with it a hidden overhead of time taken to respond well. In some cases we may seek to hire existing trainers to support specific project needs but more practically, we will look to better promote and leverage our weekly Digital Research Clinic, a drop-in service for staff to get guidance on any aspect of digital research. A collection of practical 'Getting Started' guides will be further developed and shared via an internal wiki. Additionally, Digital Curators sit on key infrastructure development projects so as to directly inform the development of these in support of digital research.

Finally, digital scholarship is a complex and global affair, as evidenced by the rapid expansion of DH centres around the world. Our courses to date have tended to deal with relatively simple forms of digitised material such as digitised printed English language books. However for colleagues working with non-Western texts for instance, knowledge of cutting edge developments in transcription and Optical Character Recognition would be highly beneficial in helping ensure these materials can be leveraged by digital scholars. Our collections are as global and diverse as the DH communities interests worldwide, and future staff training provision must more accurately address the complexities and opportunities of working with our vast non-Western materials.

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  2. Posner, M. (2012). What are some challenges to doing DH in the library? Miriam Posner’s Blog. http://miriamposner.com/blog/what-are-some-challenges-to-doing-dh-in-the-library/ (accessed 29 February 2016).
  3. Ridge, M. (2015). Resources for “Crowdsourcing in Libraries, Museums and Cultural Heritage Institutions”, Mia Ridge’s Blog. http://www.miaridge.com/resources-for-crowdsourcing-in-libraries-museums-and-cultural-heritage-institutions/ (accessed 16 February 2016).
  4. Shepard, J. (2016). PhD placements in Digital Scholarship British Library, Digital Scholarship. http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/digital-scholarship/2016/02/phd-placements-in-digital-scholarship.html (accessed 16 February 2016).
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