Research Communities and Collections: Reconnecting the Profession in the Digital Age

At the annual History of Science Society conference meeting in Toronto, I served as chair and commentator for a session entitled “Research Communities and Collections: Reconnecting the Profession in the Digital Age.” Below are my notes and comments. Special thanks to all the participants of that Roundtable. (November 10, 2017)



12:00. Session Chair: I’m Kerry Magruder, of the University of Oklahoma History of Science Collections and History of Science Department.
I want to thank the Session Organizers: Benjamin Gross (Linda Hall Library) and Vera Keller (University of Oregon) for convening us around this theme of research communities and collections, reconnecting the profession.
Each participant will offer brief remarks, often reporting lessons learned in their own institutions.
To conclude, I will highlight one major theme repeatedly evident in their remarks.
Presentations will be kept as short as possible to allow for question and response time at the end.

  1. 12:05: Michelle DiMeo, Director of Digital Library Initiatives, Chemical Heritage Foundation
  2. 12:15: Benjamin Gross, Associate Vice President for Collections, Research and Scholarship Department, Linda Hall Library
  3. 12:25: Daniel Lewis, Dibner Senior Curator of the History of Science and Technology, Huntington Library
  4. 12:35: Lisa O’Sullivan, Vice President and Director, Library and Center for the History of Medicine and Public Health, New York Academy of Medicine
  5. 12:45: Margaret Schotte, assistant professor of the Renaissance and Reformation, History of the Book and Reading, and the History of Science and Technology, Department of History, York University
  6. 12:55. Commentary: Kerry Magruder, University of Oklahoma

What do research communities need from collections? We have heard words of wisdom, both provocative and resonant, from the deep experience of each of these speakers. To comment, I’ll single out just one strand of their remarks.

In exploring our theme of Reconnecting Research Communities and Collections, participants today are united in emphasizing the “reconnecting” of the digital and physical. Instead of seeing the digital and physical in competition, or undertaken in neutral isolation, they have each pointed to synergies that emerge when the digital and physical are reconnected and pursued together. They have spoken of these synergies in reconnecting the digital and physical in terms of both resources and places.

Consider first, the synergies of reconnecting digital and physical resources:

  • Dan spoke of how interpretation of digital materials requires non-digital context.
  • Ben agreed that digital copies are NOT interchangeable with their physical precursors from a researcher’s perspective.
  • Lisa described digitizing for the public coupled with physical access for scholars.
  • Margaret argued that with many digital resources, historians are at the mercy of technical decisions determined externally from their own research concerns.

So digital and physical resources are both necessary; more than that, they are mutually beneficial.

This brings us to our second consideration, that of the synergies that arise from reconnecting virtual and physical places:

  • Michelle explained that instead of viewing research in virtual space as a replacement for research in physical space, there are new opportunities for synergy between them.
  • Dan also spoke of unanticipated benefits that arise from working as part of a cluster of researchers, even when members of the cohort are working in disparate fields.
  • Lisa similarly emphasized that audience communities are very diverse, with opportunities for synergy between scholars and a diverse public with different interests and perspectives.
  • Margaret highlighted the benefits of sitting in a shared space with others, and pointed to “collective listening” as a key aspect of building research communities.
  • Michelle advocated for more collaboration between technical staff and researchers with respect to curation, representation, and user experience. One might similarly call for more digital scholars who combine in their own person both historical research and technical expertise.
  • Ben: pointed to the need to find synergies between institutions: Linda Hall Library is committed to print, but also engaged in an ambitious serials digitization project with the Center for Research Libraries.

So virtual spaces and physical places are both necessary; more than that, they are mutually beneficial.

Our participants today are not thinking of collections simply in terms of document or information delivery, of conveying abstract, disembodied resources, but rather of reconnecting collections and researchers at the very boundary where digital and physical resources interact. That synergy between digital and physical resources facilitates ongoing interrelations within dynamic communities of scholars.

The task of collections today is to become research centers where the digital and physical are reconnected, whether we are thinking in terms of resources or of places.

Our participants have posed a major question for us: How can we create synergies between the physical and the digital that will sustain research communities?

1:00. The floor is open for discussion.

This entry was posted in History of Science. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *