Book Club Notes: Bethany Nowviskie’s 'Skunk in the Library'

A new book club

Last week a few of us here at KU Libraries held the first session of our new DH and Libraries “book club” or reading group. Our aim is to meet every couple of weeks during a Friday lunch hour to informally discuss an article or other reading related to digital humanities and libraries. The group was formed in part to take advantage of Casey Hoeve’s presence at KU. Casey is the content development librarian for arts, architecture, and the humanities at Kansas State University, and has been awarded a Big XII faculty fellowship to spend time at KU Libraries exploring the connection between digital humanities and libraries. He will be spending Fridays with us at KU for the next 2-3 months.

The discussion was not only lively, fun and educational, but nutritious as well, thanks to the delicious carrot/walnut cupcakes provided by Pam Lach, and it provided a refreshing opportunity to simply meet and discuss a professional topic with no agenda in mind. Here are some brief notes from our discussion.

A Skunk in the Library

For our first session, we tackled Bethany Nowviskie’s 2011 piece, “A Skunk in the Library: the Path to Production for Scholarly R&D”, on Scholars Lab as a skunkworks R&D unit within the University of Virginia Library. Nowviskie (who, coincidentally, began her first day as Director of the Digital Library Federation on the day before our discussion) describes the organizational challenges and potential benefits of creating a protected space for R&D within a service-oriented organization, a space where “a small and nimble technical team [are] deliberately and self-consciously and (yes) quite unfairly freed from much of the surrounding bureaucracy of the larger organization in which it finds itself.” Scholars Lab faculty and staff, under Nowviskie, were granted 20% of their time to pursue self-directed or collaborative research. This research time resulted in some notable accomplishments, such as the development of Project Blacklight, Neatline, and the UVA Library Geoportal.


Élika Ortega launched our discussion by noting that she had a different perspective reading this now that she is based in a library, compared to reading it earlier as a graduate student. She noted that Scholars Lab has been a great success, but asked if this is the only model for innovative digital work within the library and the model that we should be aiming to follow, and asked us to chime in with how we all reacted to the article, as we all brought different types of library expertise and skills (including metadata, special collections, and instruction).

Below are a few questions and topics from the lively conversation that followed.

A few other points

Nowviskie’s article touched on numerous other points. Here are a couple which particularly resonated with me.

I really enjoyed the discussion and am looking forward to doing it again in two weeks.