Exploring The Future of Scholarship
Most people know that librarians and library staff can help researchers find the right books and articles, and that academic libraries are indispensable for researchers’ access to the best and most current resources. But in the modern academic library, students and faculty collaborate with library professionals to create new software, build databases, perform statistical analyses, create 3-D models, manage and visualize their research data, and more. The GW Libraries model the cross-disciplinary collaborations that increasingly define academic research by putting our students in touch with the expertise that will help them aim for the stars—and reach them.
Intrigued by cutting-edge research in his field, senior economics major Sebastian Elghanian wanted to use his thesis project to create a machine-learning program that forecasts U.S. bank insolvency. With no background in programming, he came to the Libraries. With the help of Senior Software Developer
Daniel Kerchner, Sebastian was able to identify Python as the most appropriate programming language for his purposes, delve into Python training materials, and discover pre-existing Python modules that had the algorithms he needed. When Sebastian wanted to better understand the statistical aspects of his research, the GW Libraries statistics consultant worked with him to take his expertise to the next level. Throughout the process, library staff members served as resources to keep his research moving when he got stuck. Sebastian produced an excellent thesis, thanking his library partners in the acknowledgements section “for supporting me throughout” an intellectual adventure that let him pursue his ambition and curiosity while learning valuable new skills.
As Sebastian discovered, new digital tools make it possible for researchers to dive into questions that would have been too complicated and costly even 10 years ago. With access to these tools, undergraduate and graduate students are able to perform the kinds of sophisticated analysis and visualization that were once the purview of a few highly specialized experts or else simply impossible. Drawing on the expertise of our librarians and staff, we are actively collaborating across campus—reaching out to students and faculty across disciplines—in support of work that tackles the world’s most challenging problems.
One of the newest additions to the GW Libraries is Programming and Software Development Consultation performed by software developers with deep experience building technological solutions for academic research problems. Justin Littman, a GW Libraries software developer, notes, “I heard from several researchers who had taught themselves coding basics, but they inevitably ran into problems and had nowhere to turn. This new consultation service allows us to help researchers get started, choose the right tools, and work through difficulties.”
But programming consultation is just one of the ways the Libraries support digital scholarship at GW. Kean McDermott helps faculty and students use powerful geographic information systems (GIS) software, available on library computers. This technology allows researchers to examine a variety of social, environmental, and cultural relationships through the lens of space. McDermott provided a hands-on introduction to both the practice and value of GIS mapping through his Mapping Homelessness event, in which GW students used data supplied by the Washington, D.C. Municipal Government to visualize the spatial distribution of homelessness in the District—with the result that service workers can better target their relief efforts.
New technologies and digital techniques also improve our ability to make sense of the past. When Dr. Jeffrey Cohen, professor of English at GW, asked students in his “Life of an Object” class to dive deep into the biography of a medieval object, they faced an interesting challenge. Students had access to most of these objects only through photographs and videos, and some objects have not survived except in drawings or textual descriptions. Seeing a need with potential impact across the disciplines, the Libraries now make 3-D printing available to students in every major. As Dr. Cohen explained, “A 3-D printer is especially good for disciplines like medieval studies for trying to recreate things that we no longer possess (and there is much to be learned by students as they attempt that recreation).”
Library staff members are involved in projects with the potential for broad impact on research within and beyond the academy. When a GW librarian heard about the research being done by Dr. Kim Gross, associate director of the School of Media and Public Affairs, to analyze the Twitter participation of 13 major news organizations, he was intrigued. But when he heard that she was collecting Twitter data by hand-pasting it into a document, he knew the Libraries could help. Thus was born GW Libraries’ Social Feed Manager (SFM), a tool that collects Twitter data by hashtag, keyword, or other filter and exports it to data analysis software.
This open-source tool is freely available to any individual or institution, and it has been enhanced with support from a series of grants, including funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services and the National Historical Publications and Records Commission. Software Development Librarian Laura Wrubel notes, “SFM has gained broad attention as a freely available tool to empower researchers, archives, and libraries to build collections of social media. GW Libraries are part of an international community developing tools to capture the web before it’s lost to future researchers.”
The GW Libraries team is now expanding SFM to harvest data from other social media platforms like Flickr, Tumblr, and Sina Weibo, a microblogging site similar to Twitter. “Twitter is a great tool, but you are just awash in data, and you have find a way to collect all of it,” explained Danny Hayes, an associate professor of political science who has used SFM for his research on congressional candidates. “Social Feed Manager is great for researchers like me, who want the data but don’t know how to get it.”
The GW Libraries are a catalyst, a spark to generate new ideas and possibilities. By providing these tools for digital scholarship—along with the expertise to make them useful—the Libraries help researchers at GW and beyond explore new solutions and follow research wherever it might take them.