The Long and Winding Road

By Alexandra Bolintineanu posted

I came to CLIR by a long and winding road. From the Philadelphia airport, my cab and I drove through a darkened industrial landscape, with stilled cranes and quiescent smokestacks; through a dark wood; through the streets of a quiet town; and finally, to the dark, peaceful campus of Bryn Mawr, where our road wound along thick-walled, venerable buildings of grey stone.

At this point medieval romance turned to farce. Having braved the Waste Land and the Perilous Wood, we lost our way at the very gates of the Castle of Good Adventure. Our GPS stopped working.  Our combined efforts did not discern signposts in the dark.  We found our way to the right building thanks to a temporary CLIR signpost, and thanks to a kind fellow CLIR Fellow out for an evening stroll.  (Thank you, Christa!) At the intersection of technology, infrastructure, and metadata, it was still a member of our community of knowledge who pointed out the right way. 

What respectable medievalist could fail to turn this into allegory? At the beginning of July 2013, after a long and winding road through a degree in Computer Science, a doctorate in Medieval Studies, and a sojourn through online learning, I became a CLIR Postdoctoral Fellow in Medieval Data Curation at the University of Toronto. A month later, I came to Bryn Mawr, to CLIR’s annual summer seminar for postdoctoral fellows, to learn more about the goals and implications of our work, the roads and signposts of the digital information landscape. I came with a suitcase of questions: What does CLIR do? What do data curation Fellows do? And most intriguingly, just who are these people who will be my far-flung new colleagues?

The CLIR summer seminar was one of the most intense learning experiences of my academic career. It was a look “behind the scenes,” so to speak:  a glimpse beyond the specific knowledge and issues of my own academic discipline, to the infrastructure of academic research. Our speakers generously shared research, experience, and insights; they gave us glimpses into the kinds of institutional initiatives that determine how the academic infrastructure—research, libraries, publishing—will create, store, and disseminate knowledge across North America. 

In this academic infrastructure, what is the place of data curation fellows? In an increasingly complex information landscape, librarians and data curators build roads (or infrastructures), create signposts (classifications and metadata), and create communities of knowledge so passers-by and explorers can find their way.

As CLIR fellows, we were invited to think about “big picture” components of academic life, such as the future of academic libraries. We grappled with the specifics of these “big picture” components with finer-grained tools: we examined budgets and policy documents; we learned to craft data management plans, project plans, data sharing policies, and library outreach initiatives.    

It was an exhilarating experience.  Terrifying, exhausting, and exhilarating.

Terrifying, because my academic work as a medievalist has involved the careful, nuanced analysis of historical and literary texts:  work that is meticulously documented, slow, and solitary. The CLIR seminar work was neither slow nor solitary:  instead, we fellows collaborated to find rigorous and practicable solutions to complicated problems in a matter of hours.  We went from a slow, detail-oriented, and solitary approach to a swift, big-picture, collaborative approach. That was the terrifying and exhausting part. The exhilarating part was the discovery of our own capabilities:  faced with new problems, we were able to combine our skillsets and develop nuanced and rigorous solutions. All before lunch.

Finding out more about the infrastructure we are to inhabit and the part we are to play in it was an exercise in enlightenment. But for me, the most exciting discovery of the seminar was the discovery of my fellow Fellows. 

I’ve already described how naturally we fell into groups and combined our skillsets to solve problems. Socially, too, our experiences and expertise were very diverse, but our interests and curiosity quickly brought us together. Mealtime conversations ranged from research protocols in historical anthropology to representations of Lady Fortune in medieval manuscripts, from neurobiology to artificial intelligence, from culinary cultures to oral histories and the perpetuation of urban myths.  From our conversations, two things struck me. I do not know if these are common to our generation of scholars, to CLIR fellows in general, or to our cohort in particular. 

First, we are interdisciplinary researchers:  We look at crossroads, intersections, liminal spaces between disciplines and narratives. 

Second, we are introspective researchers: We want to study not just the subject of our study, but the practices and culture of our discipline. We want to turn the research tools on us and on themselves.  Suppose a discipline is accustomed to “close readings,” to careful, subjectivity-informed qualitative research focused on a small group of texts or artifacts. What happens to that discipline when it acquires a set of digital tools that enable more distant readings of large datasets? How do we strike a useful balance between the qualitative and quantitative, between close and distant reading, between fine-grained analysis and data-rich big picture?

The questions that preoccupy us as Fellows—and that CLIR may have selected us for—helped me answer my initial question:  What are we CLIR Fellows for? 

We have deep knowledge of our own disciplines, but we are also preoccupied with reaching across the boundaries of our disciplines.  We are curious about new, technology-informed tools and approaches, but we are also curious about what happens to a discipline as it adopts new tools. We are going out from CLIR into libraries and university departments to build tools, but also to investigate their use and impact; to deepen knowledge in our own fields, but also to widen it, by bridging boundaries, disciplinary and institutional.  We are going to make roads that we can share, signposts that we can usefully read, and communities that can guide travellers and explorers to their destinations.

(Thank you for the questions and conversations, in no particular order, to Bridget, Tamsyn, Ece, Matt Davis, Matthew S., Sayan, Katherine, Jonathan, Amy, Margarita, Jodi, Nick, John, Anjum, Hannah, Katie, Kendall, Justin, Colleen, Christa, and Donna. Thanks to our CLIR speakers and organizers for this thought-provoking seminar.)