Book Reviews

The Culture of Digital Scholarship in Academic Libraries. Robin Chin Roemer and Verletta Kern, eds. Chicago, IL: American Library Association, 2019. 240p. Paper, $71.99 (ISBN 978-0-8389-1897-5). LC 2019943587.

Book cover for The Culture of Digital Scholarship in Academic Libraries

The culture of an institution is often seen as an emergent property: something that arises naturally from the interactions of policies, processes, communications, and organizational behaviors. Robin Chin Roemer and Verletta Kern have embraced this idea as the editors of The Culture of Digital Scholarship in Academic Libraries, whose 10 chapters serve collectively as an extended reflective case study of the digital scholarship practices of the University of Washington (UW). The book brings readers into UW’s “shared institutional workspace” (xiv), generating a dialogue among the needs of the library’s user community, the evolving relationship between academic libraries and their parent organizations, and the volume’s 13 authors.

The book is divided into three sections. The first part, Values, interrogates some of the underlying beliefs and characteristics associated with digital scholarship. The Practices section presents more operational material relating to needs assessment, instructional programming, and digital preservation functions. The Environments section examines UW’s digital scholarship work through its interactions with students, faculty members, and the larger community. Though the introduction encourages readers to engage with the material in accordance with personal interest, a cover-to-cover reading of this uniquely framed volume provides more synergistic insights. Chapter authors’ perspectives are informed by their varied positions at the University of Washington library and a complex portrait of digital scholarship appears when their perspectives are taken together. No explicit definition of “digital scholarship” is presented in the book, and the implicit definitions used by contributors vary from chapter to chapter, mirroring the broad and subjective interpretations of the term in practice. This messiness is embraced by the book’s editors and is acknowledged by Jennifer Muilenberg in chapter 8 as a characteristic of digital scholarship itself (144).

Taken individually, the book’s chapters provide lessons on service design and implementation that may be of value to institutions looking to expand their existing digital scholarship offerings or to institutions that do not have a formalized digital scholarship practice. Content in the Values section reflects many of academic librarianship’s contemporary shifts and challenges: a focus on research impact that is not based on traditional citation metrics (3), forms of scholarship that embrace community engagement and alternative forms of scholarly publication (23), and a nuanced approach to complex scholarly communications challenges that Maryam Fakouri insists can be ably addressed with responses like “it depends because…” (48).

Chapters in the Practices section will ring familiarly for experienced digital scholarship practitioners and can provide guidance to institutions whose own work in this area is still nascent. Verletta Kern addresses needs assessment activity in chapter 4, supporting existing literature with lessons gained from general assessment work, the use of “Project Help Office Hours” (68), and the growing use of digital pedagogy approaches in campus classrooms (75). A digital storytelling project, designed to increase feelings of connectedness for part-time and online students, is the focus of chapter 5; here, Perry Yee and Elliott Stevens emphasize the importance of program outcomes and process over tool selection (92). The section closes with a gentle introduction to concepts of digital preservation (101).

The needs of specific user communities take focus in the Environments section of the book. UW’s range of digital humanities and digital scholarship workshops, consultation services, and office hours are addressed in chapter 7 (125), with particular emphasis on the needs of graduate students and the value of “reverse engineering” existing projects as a learning technique. The importance of a focused needs assessment in the area of data services is explored in the following chapter (143), which also provides guidance on library staff skills training and an overview of UW’s asynchronous, online research data management workshop series. John Vallier and Andrew Weaver trace the evolution of the library’s legacy media services into a modern “arcade” that combines media conversion and viewing stations with video game consoles and a space dedicated to media archiving and digitization (163). The section ends with an examination of UW’s urban-serving Tacoma campus (181), whose downtown location animates a strategy to increase community engagement and reduce barriers to student access.

Authors have peppered some key lessons from UW’s experience throughout their contributions. A selection of activities, communications plans, and needs assessment instruments are provided in seven appendices. In-chapter standouts for the reviewer include the recognition that “digital scholarship” is not a term used by students and faculty outside the library and that UW remains attentive to the terms their community uses to describe their own work (64); that an emphasis on partnerships over service can also create a reliance on the work of key individuals within the library (198); and that communications strategies must consciously avoid “filter bubbles” and reach out to new communities on campus (154). For the more casual reader, each chapter is capped with a set of key takeaways that summarize each author’s central findings.

The University of Washington’s digital scholarship librarian, Verletta Kern, synthesizes many of the challenges of digital scholarship as a set of “wicked problems” (78) that the institution continues to interrogate: the values, practices, and contexts of the modern scholarship are framed by questions of the library’s purpose, its priorities, its decisions about strategic infrastructure investment, ongoing funding challenges, and a desire to shift institutional policies in support of the recognition of digital scholarship outputs. This systemic view makes the book a good resource for administrators who wish to align new digital scholarship offerings to evolving organizational plans. Experienced digital scholarship practitioners will see reflections of their existing practices in the UW experience, and librarians who are looking to establish or grow a digital scholarship culture will find individual chapters as a source of inspiration and further exploration during the planning and development of specific digital scholarship services.—Kris Joseph, York University

Copyright Kris Joseph

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