Panel Discussion: Lab Culture: Incubating Digital Initiatives

The panelists taking a question from the audience
The panelists taking a question from the audience

The Panel Discussion began with each participant introducing themselves and their work on forming, incubating and nurturing digital initiatives. Barbara Rockenbach, Director of the Humanities and History Libraries at Columbia University, moderated the panel discussion.

The first panel participant to introduce himself was Bob Scott, the Digital Humanities Librarian at Columbia University and manager of the Digital Humanities Center. Scott spoke of helping people get started with Digital Humanities, particularly graduate students for whom experience in the Digital Humanities is invaluable for their careers post-graduation. The Digital Humanities Center at Columbia, Scott explained, plays a role in helping people discover the potential of their research in the digital arena and provides space for many people to work on digitization projects. Scott explained what he felt were the keys to success in nurturing digital scholarship at Columbia University. One was getting vendors to provide consent to use datasets for scholarship. Another key to the Center’s success is Columbia’s internship program, which helps train graduate students in the Digital Humanities. Additionally, the Digital Humanities Center fosters collaboration across various departments at Columbia.

The next panel participant was Jennifer Vinopal, who is a part of the Digital Scholarship Services Unit at New York University. She focused on how to incubate scalable and sustainable digital projects. The Digital Scholarship Unit, Vinopal explained, can be thought of as a concierge service, coordinating access to skills within the organization. Furthermore, when new projects are proposed, Vinopal emphasized that archiving and preservation should be considered up front. As an example of the types of collaboration with which Vinopal’s unit is currently involved, she highlighted a project where a scholar is documenting West Village historical locations through an interactive map embedded with various media as well as scholarly information.

2013 Symposium panelists
2013 Symposium panelists

Monica McCormick, who is also a part of NYU’s Digital Scholarship Services Unit, followed her colleague Vinopal’s introduction. McCormick began as a publisher, and now works for both the New York University Press and the Digital Scholarship Services Unit. She explained how she fosters a network of media study scholars across departments, topics and skills.

Speaking on similar themes to that of McCormick and Vinopal, panel member Jefferson Bailey spoke about his work at the Metropolitan Library Council. He noted that his work follows similar themes to the previous speakers although he does not work for an academic library. In particular the themes of collaboration and preservation resonate with his work on the National Digital Stewardship Residency program at the Metropolitan Library Council. Bailey also described an Open Data NYC project that the Metropolitan Library Council is forming with New York University and New York Public Library.

The final panel member to introduce himself was Ben Vershbow, who started by describing his work at the New York Public Library (NYPL) Labs. Vershbow’s work includes finding and supporting growth opportunities for both curators and possible digital collections. As part of this, he has created a new platform for archival collections ( As an example of fostering a collaborative environment, Vershbow described the experience of a two-day Geographic Information Systems (GIS) hackathon. It was an invited event that tapped into a really amazing network of people with various interests and skillsets. The GIS hackathon involved the participants in data mining of the digitized maps that make up part of NYPL’s Digital Collections. The goal was to produce structured information that could then be used by many different institutions and researchers.

Rockenbach proceeded to ask questions of the panel members, who discussed their responses and experiences. One such question was when the panel members decide they can take on a certain project or skillset, and when they decide it is not possible? Jennifer Vinopal, bringing in the only media of the panel discussion, replied first by showing a flowchart. The flowchart demonstrated key decision points, each of which Vinopal discussed further. Key decision points, in the form of questions to ask oneself upon taking on a project, included:

  • What kind of project is it?
  • Following the previous questions, does the project potentially involve the digital library support system?
  • Can we, the institution, use existing services to meet the project’s needs?
  • Is this project an opportunity to develop “first of its kind” services?
  • What applied research and development can come out of working on this project?

Following up on these points, Bob Scott pointed out that tools that are already available are preferred, including external software. One has to be aware that ideas can far outstrip capacity – a part of human nature, according to Scott. Monica McCormick then stated that experimentation in the creation and support of projects should be allowed, but she emphasized that this experimentation needs structure.

Another question to the panel was how do they foster experimentation and lab culture at their institutions? Ben Vershbow suggested that the NYPL Lab is coming out of a very chaotic, youthful period. As such, the Labs are trying to find a more formal pipeline that also allows space for failure. Vinopal next pointed out that “we need to articulate what we do, and what we don’t do and why.” This can help both structure and guide experimentation at an institution. As an example of an experimental space, Bob Scott described The Studio at Columbia. The Studio is a hackerspace available for research-a-thons. Scott described it as a “free-form kitchen environment.” But not only fluidity of space was given as an example of a place of lab culture. Jefferson Bailey spoke about the utility and importance of fluid job titles as well as work places for incubating lab culture.

Due to various Tweets to the panel asking for definitions, Vinopal led the panel to define terms such as ‘digital stewardship’ and ‘crowdsourcing’ (the definition given for the latter was working with a distributed group that are actually doing the work through communal activity). Other topics discussed included commercialization vs. open access vs. open source, lab culture as a challenge to the existing power structure, the tension between the goals of different stakeholders, and how to create safe spaces.

If you wish to know more about the panel members, please visit our Symposium Speakers page or follow the panel members on Twitter:

Barbara Rockenbach: @Wilderbach
Bob Scott: @scottrster
Jennifer Vinopal: @jvinopal
Monica McCormick: @moncia
Jefferson Bailey: @jefferson_bail
Ben Vershbow: @subsublibrary

Winifred King
Albert Einstein College
Medicine of Yeshiva University


Robin Brown
Borough of Manhattan Community College

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