Dr Strangedevelop, or how I learned to love the team

A French librarian graduating from Enssib (the French National Library School), training and interning at Columbia University Libraries for three months, from February to the beginning of May 2015, I was lucky enough to be given the opportunity to join the Developing Librarian Project and to become part of the developing team.

This experience has been very rewarding for a number of reasons and will reverberate on my practices and on the way I see librarianship and the role of libraries and librarians now and in years to come. What facets of the experience proved to be prominent for me? Many aspects are involved in this project, the goal of which is to reskill ourselves to support evolving modes of scholarship in the humanities (see the article published by Nikka Bakkalbasi, Damon Jaggars and Barbara Rockenbach in Library Management (Volume 36, Issue 3), entitled Re-skilling for the digital humanities: measuring skills, engagement, and learning). I would like to focus on the day-to-day experience: what does it feel like to be a developing librarian on a daily basis and to set out on this journey? In this respect, the few aspects of the Developing Librarian Project that especially stand out in my view are a special stance on research and scholarship produced by librarians as a team, the development of technical skills on the go, and the team building experience.

Getting involved in A Digital History of Morningside Heights implies, of course, a fair amount of research and scholarship. I took over from Mary Cargill and chose to deal with the Leake and Watts Orphan House, the remains of which can still be seen appending the Cathedral of St John the Divine. It seemed interesting to focus on various aspects: first, the creation of the house itself, which stemmed from a strange will, the architecture, at the same time typical and strangely unrecognized, the rural feel surrounding the building that was considered as so pleasant, and the welcoming policies and living conditions of the orphan residents.

What is left of the Leake and Watts Orphan House on the Morningside Plateau, April 2015

What is left of the Leake and Watts Orphan House on the Morningside Plateau, April 2015

Focusing on the Leake and Watts Orphan Asylum, which was set up on the Morningside Heights Plateau in 1843, implied turning to 19th century newspapers to retrieve pictures and to understand how the mission of the Orphan House was perceived by the contemporaries. It also meant turning to material like censuses or, strangely enough, travel guides. Finding this material is, of course, a matter of thorough research through the databases. However, working in a team together focusing on different items with different approaches creates a seminal serendipity: going through a database for one’s own research, one stumbles on material that pertains to another item in the project that the team member has not noticed because their sources and approaches are different. Travel guides in the 1850s happen to mention the Leake and Watts Orphan House among other orphanages and along with the Bloomingdale Asylum as places to visit, for instance, an unexpected mention that came up through research but also through exchanges with the other team members using this resource. The bimonthly Morningside Heights meetings enabling every member to present their items are a means of creating a unity in the whole project, while respecting each and every member’s chosen angle: a common object is designed, which is not only the product of a community but which also creates a sense of community just through the way the library staff can appropriate the history of Columbia itself.

Contributing to the digital history of Morningside Heights implies reskilling oneself and developing technical skills that can be learned from online tuition (html, css), but that also have to be practiced and mastered on the go, day after day. If online lessons are useful, progress comes from learning tips from your coworker in workshops targeted at building up the final Omeka website. It all amounts to learning by doing and to appropriating the tool step by step, and, what’s more, to appropriating it together and for a common purpose.

More than from learning from an online learning platform, a sensible use of the tool results from building up the html and the css together, through trial and error. What comes as a surprise is that even the less advanced can contribute to building the final product. Answering questions also enables the respondents in the team to make sure that they master a set aspect of coding. To me, the main asset of this learning process is the way it contributes to building team spirit. Team spirit does not just come from any project carried out together: it stems from the sense of purpose that the learning process eventually acquires in this case.

Becoming a developing librarian for a while also amounted for me to developing into a librarian proper and to contributing to a team intent on rethinking libraries as constantly evolving libraries.

Group Meeting, May 5, 2015

1) Development Team Update
The Development Team showed our group the new home page for our Morningside Heights Digital History project site. This new page incorporates an historical map for Morningside Heights with its original colors restored (and slightly heightened for emphasis and clarity). The page surrounding the map was also revised to be in a color scheme that complemented the map. These color scheme revisions originated in decisions made in our Design Team. The revised color scheme represents a departure from our earlier plan of determining a desired color scheme for home page and altering the map coloring to fit that scheme.

2) Transitioning to CUL Server, Current Status and Issues
There were four outstanding questions which LDPD had addressed to our group. They needed to have these questions answered prior to transitioning our Project site onto a server administered by Columbia Libraries. We reached consensus for most of these questions. For example, we do want the project site cataloged. After considering the commitment involved in migrating the site again and again as needed, we agreed that we would: a.) keep it alive until a migration was needed and b.) make sure that it gets preserved as a frozen site. The Development Team was charged with discussing issues for which questions remained.

3) Summer Schedule
Various options for a summer schedule were discussed. It was decided, however, to table this discussion until we have understood more about what will be involved in Phase 2 of project. Phase 1 of the project, the Morningside History website, is still slated to be launched in June 2015.

4) Phase 2
The group considered that substantial time and effort had been required for Phase 1 of The Developing Librarian–the construction of the Morningside History project site. For phase 2 we agreed that we would retain the emphasis on developing and enhancing digital skills but abandon the idea of all contributing to a single digital project. Instead, we will work on individual digital projects of our own choosing. We will still dedicate group time to labs and meetings and we will educate one another about our projects.

Action item: each member should send a description of his or her individual Phase 2 project to Barbara. The Developing Librarian blog will still be actively maintained to chart our progress in Phase 2.

5) Friday open labs
Barbara has sent out invitations to the group for a series of Friday open labs in May and early June. These are optional lab sessions in which group members can work together in finishing up work needed to be done prior to project site launch in June.

Fair Use Week

This week marks Fair Use Week in the library world. Fair Use affects all of us as librarians and scholars, but especially in the context of this project, as we are delving into researching various landmarks and buildings in Morningside Heights. Some of us are fortunate in that the published documents and images of our institutions pre-date 1923 and fall squarely into the public domain, while others (myself included), have to understand what constitutes fair use when it comes to newspaper articles, photographs, and other items published in 1930 or later. As such, I appreciate all of the freely available resources on Fair Use, so I’m sharing two that have been really helpful to me:

caa-fair-use-cover  infgoraphic_image



Public domain resources

Here’s a list of some of the resources we’ve learned about over the past several months.  This list will grow over time, so come back!  Feel free to add additional resources in the comments, too.

Other useful resources:

Group Meeting — January 29

New Appointments
John and I met with Alex to discuss new appointments for Design Team members as the work of this group is winding down. Anice will move to the Editorial Team. Sarah will fully focus on Development Team. Karen was away — we will consult with her on new post shortly. Due to scheduling conflicts, we discussed a new role for Nick. He will assist with staying on top of discussion regarding Omeka.

Presentation of Design
Alex presented the work of the Design Team. The team has been hard at work creating our “front page.” See previous post that outlines the process. Overall, the group was delighted with the map, logo, and title. We did not agree on the color palette. Some felt the colors too strong (mix of red and yellow). There was also concern about changing the color of the map. John noted that we are using a historical map for a history research project and we should stay true to the original color palette. There was group consensus to ask Design Team to come back with a subtler color palette.

Development Team
Because of the inclement weather and the rare closing of the university, Development Team had to postpone the migration to the newer version of Omeka. The migration was completed on February 9. We have received the go ahead to begin working on the site. We are still working out backup procedures so best advice – everyone should keep backups of the text for exhibit pages in Microsoft Word or Google Drive.

Schedule for Duration of Phase One
We will continue to meet every two weeks alternating between presentation/updates and a workshop model to provide time for all members of the group to work on their exhibits. We believe that providing time to workshop together will encourage collaborative learning.

Post Holiday, Project Team Meets, and What We Learned About Omeka

At our last group meeting on December 16, 2014, we agreed to a February 2, 2015 launch for the project. This provided what we thought would be adequate time to develop our exhibits. Before, during, and after the holidays there was a lot of activity in our Omeka site – uploading items and exhibits, reviewing options for different layouts, and discovering new questions about our metadata. The work in Omeka was helping us to identify new issues for review. Many of us were finding real benefit in working in pairs.

Unfortunately, through all this good work, we had an unwelcome discovery – a most serious bug with Omeka 2.01. We learned that if you delete one exhibit in this version of Omeka, the content of the remaining exhibits will be deleted. Recently added exhibits were gone – hours of work effort were lost.

The Project Management team had planned to meet on January 21 to draft the agenda for our next group meeting, map out our schedule for the spring semester, and to define the close of Phase One. We added the Omeka issue for further discussion.

Here is what we discussed and decided.

Launch Date: We agreed to extend our launch date to June 9. All exhibits will be completed by June 2 allowing time for editorial review.

Omeka: The Development Team is scheduled to meet on January 27 and will work to complete an upgrade to Omeka 2.02. We have requested a freeze on all activities in Omeka until the upgrade is completed. This unfortunate discovery about Omeka has taught us a few things. There is useful information to be found online through forums, discussion boards, etc. – Nick was able to pinpoint the mysterious disappearance of our exhibits by searching online. We are all reminded that backup is essential. The Development Team will routinely begin backing up our content every two weeks.

Phase One: Our project launch scheduled for June 9 will bring Phase One to a close. We will continue to meet every two weeks until launch alternating between active workshops and presentations and updates. We think the workshops will provide great opportunity for collaborative learning and the necessary time for all of us to work on our exhibits.

Phase Two: Phase Two will begin in the fall. We will continue our regular meetings and move on to new learning objectives.

Group Meeting December 16, 2014

1. Team updates
The Design team has been working on a front page for our public site. It will be handed over to the Development Team for implementation once the design work is completed. Karen Green, Chair of Design Team, showed the group a Power Point mock-up of the intended wire frame. The overall design in progress was well received. The major question raised concerned the color palette for the historic map. This had been altered to conform with logo and other page colors. The suggestion was made that the Design Team consider returning to the original color palette of the map and draw a key color from that for use in the color scheme of the logo.

2. Common thread in exhibits
We are all in agreement that the foundational phase of each contributor’s chosen site or institution will be somehow covered or accounted for in each exhibit. Each exhibit can go on to focus on other aspects of the site or institution, as appropriate, but the foundational phase needs to be covered, since the site is about Morningside history and the development of the neighborhood.

The date span covered by exhibits on the site will range from 1821 (for the earliest building, Bloomingdale Asylum) to 1950; but this does not mean that the site as a whole will provide an account of Morningside history for that entire time range. Each contributor will choose a meaningful time span to cover for her/his chosen site or institution.

3. Timeline to Initial Launch
It was agreed that launch date for public site should be extended to Monday, February 2, 2015. This is because Courseworks research guides need to be recreated in the LibGuides program by mid January.

>>>ACTION ITEM: Each team member should block off on his/her calendar two full days to devote to his/her exhibit in January before Spring Semester begins.

4. Meeting schedule after public launch of site
Should we modify meeting schedule after initial launch? It was agreed that for now we should leave the schedule as is. After initial launch, we should move on to phase two and focus on learning new skills that would enable us to add new aspects or dimensions to the site, for example, Neatline. We will involve our new Humanities Research Librarian and our new Spring Semester Intern in phase two of the site.

>>>ACTION ITEM: Each team member should send Barbara a list of skills they would like to learn that would be relevant to a phase two of the MHDH site.

5. Questions regarding exhibits. An open forum.
The requirement that the eight required items supporting each exhibit be open access is presenting a quandary. We are in agreement that printed items published prior to 1923 can, under most ordinary circumstances, be scanned, uploaded, and made available openly online. But what about items from that timeframe that we access in microfilm? What about items from that timeframe that have been made available by vendors in PDF format in commercial databases? A dialogue regarding this latter question has already been initiated with one of our vendors by Bob Scott.

One of our exhibits, furthermore, would require the use of materials from outside of the pre-1923 timeframe–since it focuses on Riverside Church, which was built in 1930.

Rina Pantalony, the new Director the the Copyright Advisory Office will meet with us at the start of our next H&H meeting. Barbara will email to her our questions in advance so we can hear what she advises.


The Design Team learned about a new concept this month: wireframes.  These are detailed layouts of what a webpage (home page and interior pages) will look like.  To our dismay, the scribbled pen-and-ink rendition we’d generated just wasn’t enough:


Gosh, wasn’t that clear?

Apparently not.

We met with Alex, from the Development Team, to create a PowerPoint slide that would give a better sense of what we envisioned.  The Development Team had taken our map image:


and made it golden, to match the border in our original logo:



Those colors had just been placeholders, however, as when we designed the logo we hadn’t settled conclusively on our color scheme.  The Design Team was still enamored of yellow and red on charcoal grey, as seen on the Jan Brueghel wiki site.  We had applied this to our logo design, and envisioned it as yellow text on a charcoal grey background, with a dark crimson border.  On Monday December 15, we met with Alex to learn how to change the color.

Alex matched the yellow of the map for our text, but we had a difficult time identifying a red that pleased us.  The complementary colors suggested by color wheel sites online were not attractive.  The Design Team made an executive decision to thrown color-wheel logic to the winds and just choose a red we liked.  We didn’t find one that made us 100% happy–most were more cherry than crimson–but we found one that would do for the sake of the wireframe.

We made box shapes and text boxes that could move independently of each other, learned how to make colors transparent, and played with the 2/3-1/3 split.  At a meeting of the entire division this morning, we honed things a little more (abandoning a fifth tab to be called “Morningside History,” after realizing it was redundant; and deciding to place the links to exhibits in the righthand 1/3 of the page instead, after learning that the feeds we’d hoped to place there wouldn’t work with our platform).  In the end, it looked a little like this:


The Design Team was asked if we were wedded to this color scheme; if the scheme was significant in some way for Morningside Heights.  It wasn’t: we just liked it.  But there was a general feeling that that original map had more interesting colors:


and we began to wonder if it might be better to return to it, and perhaps borrow colors from it for the logo.

Another option was to use the original map in negative, which fits with the charcoal background of the site, and would make the red and yellow text accents pop even more:


The entire exercise was a terrific lesson for the Design Team in managing expectations.  While the general wireframe for the homepage (we didn’t even get to the exhibit page yet!) was warmly received, we learned about what our platform could and couldn’t do, and what the entire team was happiest with.

More to come!