Collections as Data Facets


Collections as Data Facets document collections as data implementations. An implementation consists of the people, services, practices, technologies, and infrastructure that aim to encourage computational use of cultural heritage collections.


Text as Data Initiative

Zach Coble, New York University Libraries

Nicholas Wolf, New York University Libraries

Scott Collard, New York University Libraries

1. Why do it

an accessible narrative description that describes why the decision was made to do the work

As part of a broader text-as-data initiative, New York University (NYU) Libraries is in the process of expanding access to the ProQuest Historical Newspapers collection. This project involves negotiating with the vendor for access to the corpus as a set of text files, acquiring and storing the data, and creating infrastructure to promote discovery, access, and creative uses of the new collection. At a high level, this is the type of work that librarians do every day, but the technical components of the project have presented a fresh set of challenges.

We are seeing an increasing number of requests for machine-actionable data at NYU Libraries, whether in the form of full-text collections, bibliographic metadata, or both, from data researchers seeking corpora to perform topic modeling, network modeling, machine learning, and other natural language processing tests. The most predominant disciplines at our university that are interested in these methods have thus far come from political science and the Center for Data Science. We are simultaneously tracking the changes among publishers with regard to of API access to collections, provisions for researcher worksets of publisher data, and other affordances for machine-actionable research using previously licensed content. In anticipation of an emerging trend, several departments at the library, including Digital Scholarship Services, Data Services, and Digital Library Technology Services, are eager to get ahead of this changing landscape, to shape how our relationships with content providers can enable this type of research, and to reconsider what library-provided content will look like in this environment.

2. Making the Case

an accessible narrative description that describes how the administrative case was made to do the work

As with all of our new initiatives, it begins as a pilot. We are interested in exploring several significant questions: What is the best way to provide access to the data? How will researchers use it? A pilot provides a low-stakes mechanism to work through a set of faculty requests in order to answer these questions and then evaluate if and how we want to continue. In our experience, when we are upfront with patrons about the pilot status of a project, and make clear that we are not promising new services and that the whole thing might disappear in, say, six months, they respond favorably and appreciate the candidness.

We have also found that pilots are most successful when they have wide scale buy-in. A project like this has a variety of stakeholders - both internally from liaison, reference, collections management, data services, and metadata librarians, as well as externally from faculty and central IT. Clear and consistent communication with everyone during pilot process not only helps prevent surprises but also establishes buy-in through a collaborative work process.

3. How you did it

an accessible narrative description that describes how you did it; who was involved - what their roles were; what services were drawn upon; what collections were involved and why were they selected; what infrastructure and technologies were selected and why; what challenges were encountered in the course of the implementation

The project began with a faculty member asking a liaison library for access to government documents corpora. This prompted us to revisit our licensing terms for similar types of content, such as historical newspapers, and to look for cases where our licensing terms allows us to provide full-text content to our research community. Once we realized there was potential to meet an emerging need among scholars and to leverage existing resource agreements, we convened a working group to investigate the issues.

The project has been a joint endeavor bringing together several departments, including Digital Scholarship Services, Data Services, Digital Library Technology Services, Subject Liaisons, and Collection Development. Each brings strengths to this team project. Digital Scholarship members speak to researcher needs working with content not traditionally seen as “data,” in this case full-text historical content. Digital Scholarship can also draw on past experiences in digital humanities projects that have developed key techniques in text mining that we can bring to bear on how we shape the form of the data we distribute. Data Services team members bring an awareness of how researchers are wrangling, transforming, and analyzing data-driven projects, assisting patrons and librarians alike in how they conceive of the data embedded in the full-text content. Subject Liaisons will have interacted with faculty members and understand the scope of their needs. Collections Development can speak to the terms of licenses, will often know the institutional history of data collections acquired by vendors (often previous shipments of CD-ROMS, hard drives, and other storage media), and can help negotiate new terms as vendors begin to take notice of data-drive access requests.

The pilot is also a helpful use case for new mass storage services coming out of Research Cloud Services, a joint initiative from NYU Libraries and central IT. Specifically, we are considering providing access to the collection through NYU’s mountable storage (another pilot!), which provides remotely accessible fast-as-desktop storage that is protected and backed up. Here, we will use this new storage service as a distribution point to researcher to enable restricted access that is both convenient and controlled.

4. Share the docs

an assortment of formal documentation (personas, use cases, functional requirements), workflows, and code you have that supports the implementation

We do not have any documentation that we have permission to share at this point, although we will share it via our various channels as it becomes available.

5. Understanding use

discrete discussion of how you approach understanding use (e.g. library use, research use, pedagogical use, creative use, etc.) - discussion of exemplary use is also encouraged

We have researchers interested in using the historical newspaper corpus for machine learning, topic modeling, network modeling, and other natural-language processing. To better facilitate a variety of research uses, we are currently investigating ways to reduce the data cleaning and preparation steps that individual researchers are required to perform. One example of this is OCR correction, as preliminary samples indicate there is a fair amount of incorrectly transcribed text. Additionally, the library would like to create mechanisms to query the corpus and create subcollections (e.g. by a specific newspaper, timespan, or keyword) to facilitate use by researchers interested in working with the content but are not interested in massaging the data. At a broader level, the library sees this pilot as a new and creative approach to library forms of ingest, collection development, and information distribution. We want this use case to help inform our vision for next-generation library services and library collections.

6. Who supports use

discrete discussion of the people, services, and programs that support use of the data (e.g. digital scholarship services, instruction services, subject area liaisons, etc.)

Use of the historical newspapers corpus is supported primarily by Data Services and Digital Scholarship Services. Liaison librarians also have a significant role in outreach and patron support.

7. Things people should know

distilled things that people should know if they are thinking about pursuing similar work

We are still early in the process and are eager to learn from our experiences. Thus far we have found that positioning the initiative as a pilot was helpful in making the administrative pitch because it allows us to try new things and, equally important, gives us room to make mistakes. Additionally, bringing in several departments has been helpful in scoping the project as well as getting buy-in from our diverse group of stakeholders.

8. Whats next

you have something in place. whats next and why?

Our next steps include plans to improve access, discovery, and outreach for the collection. After our data cleaning and processing work is complete, we want to ensure the collections is discoverable in the library catalog and other primary discovery avenues. Finally, we plan to begin outreach for the collection, which could included workshops as well as class-based instructional sessions, as we’ve found that sessions working with pre-packaged data sets are better.