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Library unit helps scholars make the most of digital data

Kirsta Stapelfeldt (right) and her team at the Digital Scholarship Unit. (Photo by Ken Jones)

Crowd sourcing, visualizing data in new ways and analyzing multimedia files are only a few of the techniques spawned by an increasingly online world, and the Digital Scholarship Unit at the UTSC Library was created in 2010 to help the UTSC research community make sense of them.

“Certain things, such as access to data, are easier because we live in a digital world,” says Kirsta Stapelfeldt, the unit’s co-ordinator, “but the technology today is a lot more complex.”

Nominally, the Digital Scholarship’s Unit’s mission is “to create, preserve, and provide access to digital collections that will inspire and facilitate research and knowledge creation” with an emphasis on teaching and learning.

It translates to a variety of tasks that ensure UTSC’s place as home to a leading-edge library: curating digital archival collections, such as Doris McCarthy’s legacy; teaching faculty, staff and students to use the appropriate software; and providing project stewardship for faculty research projects, including assistance with organizing collections, preservation advice for digital objects, and understanding metadata creation and standards.

“Every project and every researcher is unique, but we are building a shared infrastructure,” says Stapelfeldt. The unit puts an emphasis on using open standards, which makes information easier to share. “We describe data using open standards because data can be used and repurposed, and you never know how important an individual data set will be over time.”

One of the major changes wrought by digital scholarship is the emphasis on collaboration. Given the technical knowledge necessary to create some of the specialized databases and visual tools that researchers want, they aren’t the only people who have a hand in any individual project.

One example of today’s digital collaboration can be found in the work of the far-flung members of the Eastern Himalaya Research Network, founded by Professor Jayeeta Sharma of the Department of Historical and Cultural Studies at UTSC and maintained under the stewardship of the Digital Scholarship Unit.

“We need lots of expertise when we have various technologies in play,” says Stapelfeldt. “Everyone must work more collaboratively now, which gives them a chance to learn valuable digital and teamwork skills.”

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