The Data Doldrums; or, Reflections at the end of a Grant

(NOTE: Cross posted from CLIR Connect.)

All in a hot and copper sky,
The bloody Sun, at noon,
‘Right up above the mast did stand,
No bigger than the Moon.

Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, no breath no motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge,
“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (1798)

For the past two years, starting as a Council on Library & Information Resources (CLIR) Fellow in 2011, and continuing in my current role as Director for Digital Scholarship with the University of North Texas Digital Scholarship Co-Op, I’ve been working on the DataRes Project, an IMLS-funded initiative documenting and analyzing LIS responses to research data management. I wrote for the CLIR blog about the DataRes Project back in January  and have been busy wrapping it up since then. The final report for the project comes out today as a CLIR publication. It’s not unusual, I suppose, to feel a little elegiac at the end of a project, particularly one of this duration, but I’ve approached the end of this one with not a little ambivalence.

This project was my first exposure as a CLIR Fellow to the business side of libraries, and I learned a great deal about both libraries and the state of the 21st century academy as a result. As a humanities scholar, I learned quickly that my graduate education had not prepared me for the realities of university bureaucracy, and that many of the assumptions I had about libraries as a scholar were not well founded or just flat wrong. One of the paradoxes of university libraries that I was confronted with early (and often) in my experience as a CLIR Fellow was the fact that, though libraries are certainly tasked with supporting research, at many institutions much of their funding comes from student fees. This creates a tension in priorities for libraries that can be felt – without perhaps knowing the cause – throughout the university.

This problem is especially apparent when new, unfunded mandates come down arbitrarily to provide new services and new resources to support research data. The DataRes Project revealed a rift in priorities between university Offices of Research, which are reluctant to support new projects without a clear “return on investment” – even when grant applications to federal funding agencies are at stake, and libraries which are compelled by the interests of their users to deliver new services, often in a vacuum of resources, support, and sometimes expertise. To be fair, libraries and librarians sometimes step up to the plate to deliver support to researchers – especially where potential funding may be involved – as a way of justifying their continued existence in the increasingly technocratic and ROI-driven university culture. This may or may not be useful, since administrations often see the ability to provide a service without external resources as a good business model to be continued in perpetuity, and libraries’ and librarians’ willingness to serve can backfire.

Willem van de Velde II - An English Vessel and Dutch Ships Becalmed

As we observe at the conclusion of our report, this impasse between administrations reluctant to invest in services, and libraries eager to provide support for their university communities but perpetually strapped for cash, staff, and other resources, has produced a phenomenon we describe as the Data Doldrums. We’re becalmed by institutional inertia. Given the frantic, antediluvian metaphors that have dominated discussions of “big data” heretofore, we are somewhat surprised to find that we are neither riding the wave nor being swamped by it, rather we’re stuck polishing the decks and waiting for the wind to turn.

This is a particularly frustrating conclusion to come to – I know I had hoped to be able to make some pronouncement about best practices, or ways to meet this challenge head on; there are good responses out there and we describe some of them in our report. What I did not expect was the degree to which these responses are not programmatic, are heavily contingent on the level of commitment of a given institution, and in many cases are driven by the will and personal investment of individuals. If federal agencies begin to seriously enforce development of and compliance with plans for the retention and sharing of research data, this uneven development will privilege institutions with the foresight to support their libraries’ efforts. Those institutions that do not make this investment will find themselves left behind in the Data Doldrums, to the detriment of faculty and students alike.

1 Comment

  1. […] reviewing the final text and added the peppier language. I was able to reframe this a little in a blog post the publisher requested, but it’s been nagging at me that the report ended on such a note. So […]


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