Ready, Set, Research!

Librarians use hackathon-like approach with research sprints | Sponsored

December 3, 2019

From left: Catherine Morse, Joe Bauer, Matt Carruthers, and Sara Hughes at a research sprint held in October 2019 in partnership with University of Michigan Library. The group worked on developing a data management system for information on public drinking water.
From left: Catherine Morse, Joe Bauer, Matt Carruthers, and Sara Hughes at a research sprint held in October 2019 in partnership with University of Michigan Library. The group worked on developing a data management system for information on public drinking water.

In this multipart series, American Libraries presents case studies and interviews with thought leaders looking at research trends in academic libraries. We’ll be covering the topics of social justice, information literacy, digital archives, faculty outreach, and new technology. This is the fourth story in the series.

University librarians are advancing academic research, and at the same time showcasing the breadth of resources their libraries have to offer, by hosting so-called research sprints that pair students and faculty with teams of experts.

Also referred to as scholar sprints, the intensive forums are frequently compared to hackathons, where computer programmers and others in the tech industry use their collective brainpower to tackle large projects over the course of a few days. Research sprints take the same approach, but with librarians connecting students and faculty to experts in their various fields who can, in short periods of time, solve research problems that might otherwise take months or years.

Diana Perpich, academic technology specialist at University of Michigan (U-M), says her library began holding scholar sprints in summer 2018 and has tackled a wide variety of research topics, including exploring the impact of facial-recognition technology on communities of color, developing a data management system for information on public drinking water, and creating a guide for scholars to protect their anonymity while researching the dark web.

The projects often call for data from a broad range of sources, and finding the right collection can be key to moving research forward. Research aimed at creating an interactive timeline of the women’s suffrage movement, for instance, could use data from Gale’s Women’s Studies Archive: Women’s Issues and Identities, which offers nearly 1 million never-before-digitized primary source manuscripts, newspapers, and periodicals.

Caitlin Pollock, digital scholarship specialist at U-M Library, says it’s common for students on large campuses to not know where to go to find the right expertise or guidance. The scholar sprints, she says, can more quickly bring into focus the hurdles that must be overcome for research to advance.

Pollock has worked with Miranda Marraccini, digital pedagogy librarian, at the university library’s Connected Scholarship division to organize and raise awareness about the sprints. The library’s approach to getting the word out about the program is to “advertise, advertise, advertise,” says Pollock, noting that she and Marraccini have spread the word with subject specialists, the IT division, and others to encourage more participation.

“We tried to include as much of the library as possible [in the sprints],” Pollock says. And the strategy appears to be paying off—the library’s most recent sprint received 14 proposals.

Judith Thomas, faculty programs director at the University of Virginia (UVA) Library, shares a similar story about growing interest in her library’s research sprints. The four-day event “allows us to present ourselves to faculty in a way that is immediately helpful for them,” Thomas says, adding that “the faculty are grateful.”

“We do have very strong research and teaching support services in this library,” says Thomas, “but we, like in a lot of libraries, have to constantly reach out to let them know and make sure they understand the breadth and depth of knowledge in our library staff.”

The scholars and UVA itself aren’t the only ones benefiting from the sprints, she says. The library also works to determine whether the projects librarians and researchers might potentially assist with will also contribute to their professional development. “Will the project be good for them? That’s also part of the consideration,” Thomas says.

Perpich says that although not all the proposals can be selected for a sprint event, librarians work to follow up with students whose projects didn’t make the cut. “Because really there’s not anything we’re offering in the sprint that we wouldn’t offer in a different sort of configuration or format,” she says.

As far as advice for university libraries considering holding research sprints, Marraccini says to be mindful of the researchers’ time and, maybe most important, to make sure you bring good food. “If you run out of food during the day, that could be a crisis,” she says with a laugh.

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