Building Data Skills across the Globe
A Virtual Roundtable with Library Carpentry
As scholars across disciplines increasingly turn to data-intensive research methods, academic libraries are considering how to adapt to meet the growing demand for research data instructional and advisory services. In a recent blog post, I observed that among R1 institutions in the United States overall staffing levels for research-data-dedicated library roles remain low, with over half of R1s sporting zero or one data librarian in their university libraries. But hiring dedicated data librarians isn’t the only way for academic libraries to keep up with the big data revolution: training existing staff in data and programming skills is also critical. Moreover, the challenge of providing this training in sustainable, dynamic, and community-centered ways is increasingly becoming an international project.
The Carpentries is a nonprofit organization dedicated to teaching coding and data science skills to librarians worldwide. It includes three distinct, but related, programs: Data Carpentry, Software Carpentry, and Library Carpentry. Each “Carpentry” is a program of educational materials following a volunteer-driven “train the trainers” model. Through The Carpentries, academic libraries and other institutions can obtain training and certification for their own staff members in skills ranging from formatting spreadsheets to R and SQL. This in turn allows those staff members to provide instruction and support to researchers and students at their home institutions. Teaching materials are also made available for reuse and adaptation under a CC BY 4.0 license. The Carpentries currently has around ninety member organizations spanning at least ten countries, and has run workshops on all seven continents. (Additional information about the organization’s international reach can be found in its 2018 annual report.)
What are some ways you sort, clean, and make sense of data in a spreadsheet? @LibCarpentry participants are teaming up to tackle some messy data. @thecarpentries #LibraryCarpentry pic.twitter.com/u4AgZ8ZK9N
— UCLA Social Science Data Archive (@ucla_ssda) August 28, 2018
To help me learn more about how data librarianship and training collaborations can work on an international scale, Chris Erdmann, director of Library Carpentry, assembled a “virtual roundtable” of colleagues from around the globe:
- Natasha Simons and Liz Stokes, Australian Research Data Commons (Australia)
- Konrad Förstner and Silvia Di Giorgio, ZB MED – Information Centre for Life Science (Germany)
- Yared Abera Ergu, Mizan-Tepi University (Ethiopia)
- Tim Ribaric, Brock University (Canada)
- Tim Dennis, University of California Los Angeles (USA)
- Juliane Schneider, Harvard University (USA)
Together, they provided insights into what data skills are most in demand for librarians and researchers; organizational challenges of positioning the library as a provider of data science instruction within unique university contexts; and how Library Carpentry and The Carpentries might continue to develop both locally and internationally.
Academia is increasingly a global community, but research funding and university organizational models vary widely between countries and regions. Why is international collaboration important for Library Carpentry and The Carpentries?
Natasha Simons and Liz Stokes (Australia): Research is increasingly global and collaborative in nature. The challenges we face in libraries to support and facilitate research and researchers are similar across countries and transcend institutional boundaries. International collaboration via Library Carpentry helps to create and ensure best practice, develops collective skills that can help solve common problems, enables a cross pollination of ideas, and creates a supportive and inspired library community.
Tim Ribaric (Canada): For me it’s a case of many hands make light work. There are huge economies of scale with picking something up that has been created by hundreds (thousands?), turning it around, and delivering it in your local shop. Having field tested material — field tested around the globe — really makes that happen.
Yared Abera Ergu (Ethiopia): Library Carpentry can augment the idea that the library should be a hub of knowledge with new roles and expertise, rather than the traditional reading area only. It should be a fun place to go, not a very restricted area full of silence and only a repository of books and journals.
Tell me about some of the key ways in which library, data, or software education differs among different national or regional contexts.
Yared Abera Ergu (Ethiopia): It’s different in that all it requires is for you to be interested in learning from peers, so instructors can respond to local needs. Also, learners can try self study and take advantage of the open material and communication channels (e.g. discussion lists).
Chris Erdmann (USA): Regional coordinators and local networks have been invaluable in organizing training efforts and responding to local needs. They can help with making connections, understanding the training needs in a local context, and responding to language barriers and cultural variations. What’s great is that all these differences are shared via our various communication channels and used to improve the training and lessons for the global community.
A big part of the success of Library Carpentry’s and The Carpentries’ train-the-trainers model is its potential for supporting professional development. Can you characterize The Carpentries “instructors” and/or “trainers” within your institution, in terms of their roles, career stages and goals for participation?
Tim Ribaric (Canada): Instructors are often full-time staff who have completed the training. (I’m at a mid-sized academic library.) The mandate of our lab is to teach these skills and to get in touch with community members.
Tim Dennis (UCLA): UCLA Library Carpentry instructors (and helpers) have included senior librarians involved in data services, technical data staff, programmers in our digital library, and graduate students enrolled in UCLA’s iSchool. The goals of our instructors are multiple: a passion for teaching and building community, connecting and helping library professionals develop foundational digital skills, and engaging more fully with the teaching and research support missions of the library.
The other half of the equation, of course, is the potential for those instructors and/or trainers to be able to turn around and support researchers in working with data locally. What data and software skills are most in demand at your institution right now? Are there any growth areas you foresee?
Juliane Schneider (USA): The skills in demand are the day-to-day computational skills (R, algorithmic skills, Python). However, having worked with researchers in a metadata consultant role, there are skills they don’t know they know they need — data best practices, data format standards, basic management plans, how to find local resources to help them out with stuff like storage/backup. A growth area is having instructors learn the “language” of the researchers via instructing them in the things they know they need — and then being able to express why they need the skills/support they don’t realize they need in the language of the researchers they’re trying to convince.
Silvia Di Giorgio and Konrad Förstner (Germany): As we are an information center with both a library and its own research agenda we serve two very different audiences, librarians and scientists. Still, I think both groups get currently most out of programming with Python, as this gets you super-fast productive. But we do not (yet) have hard numbers on that. For scientists, the main advantage is the ability to make their research reproducible. Potential growth area for librarians are linked Open Data solutions like Wikidata and basic machine learning skills for scientists. Luckily for both, there are already activities in The Carpentries to address these topics in the future.
What’s the biggest challenge your institution is currently facing in supporting data-driven librarianship, research, and teaching?
Silvia Di Giorgio and Konrad Förstner (Germany): There is still a mental gap between researchers and librarians. A larger fraction of researchers do not (yet) see the libraries as natural partner for their research data challenges and are not aware of the solutions libraries offer them.
Juliane Schneider (USA): I work for a huge institution whose library system is larger than many cities. I see territorial jockeying going on between the libraries, research computing, data science programs, initiatives and working groups, etc. Everybody wants to own this hot new “data science” topic when really, it’s pretty mundane stuff. But the grab for funding and recognition and funding and control is dissipating the effect of decent efforts. The libraries in particular are in a bad way: what should be being fully supported by the institution has now been pulled into the funding model, which I find toxic and ultimately very damaging to the libraries in a lasting way.
What do you envision for the future of Library Carpentry and The Carpentries in your local context?
Silvia Di Giorgio and Konrad Förstner (Germany): On a local level we would like to see a stronger connection of Carpentry workshop participants after the events. The workshops are a fantastic foundation but once they are over the critical time starts — people have to continue to extend and to apply what they learned and that is not always easy. Being connected with like-minded people and supporting each other (peer-to-peer mentoring) can be very helpful. We try to experiment with frequent meetings (“HackyHour”) and hope to facilitate these connections.
Natasha Simons and Liz Stokes (Australia): I would like to see a future in which Library Carpentry continues to expand, grow, and adapt in terms of lesson content, volume, and numbers of attendees. I’d like to see us track the impact of Library Carpentry, e.g. on attendees, their institutions, capacity, and ability to support researchers. I’d like to see Software Carpentry and Data Carpentry incorporated into mainstream postgrad courses so that it doesn’t have to operate outside of the academic curriculum or rely on the goodwill of volunteers running it on a shoestring budget.
Tim Dennis (USA): Locally, I’d like to see us build a strong community of practice around data and coding practices, and through that, better connect up a large campus library system where that can be hard. Since the heart of The Carpentries is lesson development and improvement, I’d like to see a positive feedback loop occur between our workshops, lesson improvement, and new lesson incubation for Library Carpentry. Ultimately, I want a dynamic local Library Carpentry to help improve the quality and kind of engagements our library has with campus researchers, students and staff.
Interested in developing or improving research data services on your campus? Ithaka S+R is embarking on a collaborative research project on Supporting Big Data Research. Participants will work alongside Ithaka S+R conduct a deep dive into their faculty’s needs and craft evidence-based recommendations. To find out more about having your library participate as a research site for this project or future projects, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.