Post authored by Jen Jordan, Digital Collections Intern.
Hello, readers. This marks my third, and final blog as the Digital Collections intern, a position that I began in June of last year.* Over the course of this internship I have been fortunate to gain experience in nearly every step of the digitization and digital collections processes. One of the things I’ve come to appreciate most about the different workflows I’ve learned about is how well they accommodate the variety of collection materials that pass through. This means that when unique cases arise, there is space to consider them. I’d like to describe one such case, involving a pretty remarkable collection.
In early October I arrived to work in the Digital Production Center (DPC) and was excited to see the Booker T. Washington correspondence, 1903-1916, 1933 and undated was next up in the queue for digitization. The collection is small, containing mostly letters exchanged between Washington, W. E. B. DuBois, and a host of other prominent leaders in the Black community during the early 1900s. A 2003 article published in Duke Magazine shortly after the Washington collection was donated to the John Hope Franklin Research Center provides a summary of the collection and the events it covers.
Arranged chronologically, the papers were stacked neatly in a small box, each letter sealed in a protective sleeve, presumably after undergoing extensive conservation treatments to remediate water and mildew damage. As I scanned the pages, I made a note to learn more about the relationship between Washington and DuBois, as well as the events the collection is centered around—the Carnegie Hall Conference and the formation of the short-lived Committee of Twelve for the Advancement of the Interests of the Negro Race. When I did follow up, I was surprised to find that remarkably little has been written about either.
As I’ve mentioned before, there is little time to actually look at materials when we scan them, but the process can reveal broad themes and tone. Many of the names in the letters were unfamiliar to me, but I observed extensive discussion between DuBois and Washington regarding who would be invited to the conference and included in the Committee of Twelve. I later learned that this collection documents what would be the final attempt at collaboration between DuBois and Washington.
Once scanned, the digital surrogates pass through several stages in the DPC before they are prepared for ingest into the Duke Digital Repository (DDR); you can read a comprehensive overview of the DPC digitization workflow here. Fulfilling patron requests is top priority, so after patrons receive the requested materials, it might be some time before the files are submitted for ingest to the DDR. Because of this, I was fortunate to be on the receiving end of the BTW collection in late January. By then I was gaining experience in the actual creation of digital collections—basically everything that happens with the files once the DPC signals that they are ready to move into long term storage.
There are a few different ways that new digital collections are created. Thus far, most of my experience has been with the files produced through patron requests handled by the DPC. These tend to be smaller in size and have a simple file structure. The files are migrated into the DDR, into either a new or existing collection, after which file counts are checked, and identifiers assigned. The collection is then reviewed by one of a few different folks with RL Technical Services. Noah Huffman conducted the review in this case, after which he asked if we might consider itemizing the collection, given the letter-level descriptive metadata available in the collection guide.
I’d like to pause for a moment to discuss the tricky nature of “itemness,” and how the meaning can shift between RL and DCCS. If you reference the collection guide linked in the second paragraph, you will see that the BTW collection received item-level description during processing—with each letter constituting an item in the collection. The physical arrangement of the papers does not reflect the itemized intellectual arrangement, as the letters are grouped together in the box they are housed in. When fulfilling patron reproduction requests, itemness is generally dictated by physical arrangement, in what is called the folder-level model; materials housed together are treated as a single unit. So in this case, because the letters were grouped together inside of the box, the box was treated as the folder, or item. If, however, each letter in the box was housed within its own folder, then each folder would be considered an item. To be clear, the papers were housed according to best practices; my intent is simply to describe how the processes between the two departments sometimes diverge.
Processing archival collections is labor intensive, so it’s increasingly uncommon to see item-level description. Collections can sit unprocessed in “backlog” for many years, and though the depth of that backlog varies by institution, even well-resourced archives confront the problem of backlog. Enter: More Product, Less Process (MPLP), introduced by Mark Greene and Dennis Meissner in a 2005 article as a means to address the growing problem. They called on archivists to prioritize access over meticulous arrangement and description.
The spirit of folder-level digitization is quite similar to MPLP, as it enables the DPC to provide access to a broader selection of collection materials digitized through patron requests, and it also simplifies the process of putting the materials online for public access. Most of the time, the DPC’s approach to itemness aligns closely with the level of description given during processing of the collection, but the inevitable variance found between archival collections requires a degree of flexibility from those working to provide access to them. Numerous examples of digital collections that received item-level description can be found in the DDR, but those are generally tied to planned efforts to digitize specific collections.
Because the BTW collection was digitized as an item, the digital files were grouped together in a single folder, which translated to a single landing page in the DDR’s public user interface. Itemizing the collection would give each item/letter its own landing page, with the potential to add unique metadata. Similarly, when users navigate the RL collection guide, embedded digital surrogates appear for each item. A moment ago I described the utility of More Product Less Process. There are times, however, when it seems right to do more. Given the research value of this collection, as well as its relatively small size, the decision to proceed with itemization was unanimous.
Itemizing the collection was fairly straightforward. Noah shared a spreadsheet with metadata from the collection guide. There were 108 items, with each item’s title containing the sender and recipient of a correspondence, as well as the location and date sent. Given the collection’s chronological physical arrangement, it was fairly simple to work through the files and assign them to new folders. Once that was finished, I selected additional descriptive metadata terms to add to the spreadsheet, in accordance with the DDR Metadata Application Profile. Because there was a known sender and recipient for almost every letter, my goal was to identify any additional name authority records not included in the collection guide. This would provide an additional access point by which to navigate the collection. It would also help me to identify death dates for the creators, which determines copyright status. I think the added time and effort was well worth it.
This isn’t the space for analysis, but I do hope you’re inspired to spend some time with this fascinating collection. Primary source materials offer an important path to understanding history, and this particular collection captures the planning and aftermath of an event that hasn’t received much analysis. There is more coverage of what came after; Washington and DuBois parted ways, after which DuBois became a founding member of the Niagara Movement. Though also short lived, it is considered a precursor to the NAACP, which many members of the Niagara Movement would go on to join. A significant portion of W. E. B. DuBois’s correspondence has been digitized and made available to view through UMass Amherst. It contains many additional letters concerning the Carnegie Conference and Committee of Twelve, offering additional context and perspective, particularly in certain correspondence that were surely not intended for Washington’s eyes. What I found most fascinating, though, was the evidence of less public (and less adversarial) collaboration between the two men.
The additional review and research required by the itemization and metadata creation was such a fascinating and valuable experience. This is true on a professional level as it offered the opportunity to do something new, but I also felt moved to try to understand more about the cast of characters who appear in this important collection. That endeavor extended far beyond the hours of my internship, and I found myself wondering if this was what the obsessive pursuit of a historian’s work is like. In any case, I am grateful to have learned more, and also reminded that there is so much more work to do.
Click here to view the Booker T. Washington correspondence in the Duke Digital Repository.
*Indeed, this marks my final post in this role, as my internship concludes at the end of April, after which I will move on to a permanent position. Happily, I won’t be going far, as I’ve been selected to remain with DCCS as one of the next Repository Services Analysts!
Cheyne, C.E. “Booker T. Washington sitting and holding books,” 1903. 2 photographs on 1 mount : gelatin silver print ; sheets 14 x 10 cm. In Washington, D.C., Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. Accessed April 5, 2022. https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2004672766/
Post authored by Jen Jordan, Digital Collections Intern.
As another strange year nears its end, I’m going out on a limb to assume that I’m not the only one around here challenged by a lack of focus. With that in mind, I’m going to keep things relatively light (or relatively unfocused) and take you readers on a short tour of items that have passed through the Digital Production Center (DPC) this year.
Shortly before the arrival of COVID-19, the DPC implemented a folder-level model for digitization. This model was not developed in anticipation of a life-altering pandemic, but it was well-suited to meet the needs of researchers who, for a time, were unable to visit the Rubenstein Library to view materials in person. You can read about the implementation of folder-level digitization and its broader impact here. To summarize, before spring of 2020 it was standard practice to fill patron requests by imaging only the item needed (e.g. – a single page within a folder). Now, the default practice is to digitize the entire folder of materials. This has produced a variety of positive outcomes for stakeholders in the Duke University Libraries and broader research community, but for the purpose of this blog, I’d like to describe my experience interacting with materials in this way.
Digitization is time consuming, so the objective is to move as quickly as possible while maintaining a high level of accuracy. There isn’t much time for meaningful engagement with collection items, but context reveals itself in bits and pieces. Themes rise to the surface when working with large folders of material on a single topic, and sometimes the image on the page demands to be noticed.
On more than one occasion I’ve found myself thinking about the similarities between scanning and browsing a social media app like Instagram. Stick with me here! Broadly speaking, both offer an endless stream of visual stimuli with little opportunity for meaningful engagement in the moment. Social media, when used strategically, can be world-expanding. Work in the DPC has been similarly world-expanding, but instead of an algorithm curating my experience, the information that I encounter on any given day is curated by patron requests for digitization. Also similar to social media is the range of internal responses triggered over the course of a work day, and sometimes in the span of a single minute. Amusement, joy, shock, sorrow—it all comes up.
I started keeping notes on collection materials and topics to revisit on my own time. Sometimes I was motivated by a stray fascination with the subject matter. Other times I encountered collections relating to prominent historical figures or events that I realized I should probably know a bit more about.
First wave feminism was one such topic that revealed itself. It was a movement I knew little about, but the DPC has digitized numerous items relating to women’s suffrage and other feminist issues at the turn of the 20th century. I was particularly intrigued by the radical leanings of the UK’s Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), organized by Emmeline Pankhurst to fight for the right to vote. When I started looking at newspaper clippings pasted into a scrapbook documenting WSPU activities, I was initially distracted by the amusing choice of words (“Coronation chair damaged by wild women’s bomb”). Curious to learn more, I went home and read about the WSPU. The following excerpt is from a speech by Pankhurst in which she provides justification for the militant tactics employed by the WSPU:
I want to say here and now that the only justification for violence, the only justification for damage to property, the only justification for risk to the comfort of other human beings is the fact that you have tried all other available means and have failed to secure justice. I tell you that in Great Britain there is no other way…
Pankhurst argued that men had to take the right to vote through war, so why shouldn’t women also resort to violence and destruction? And so they did.
As Rubenstein Library is home to the Sallie Bingham Center, it’s unsurprising that the DPC digitizes a fair amount of material on women’s issues. To share a few more examples, I appreciate the juxtaposition of the following two images, both of which I find funny, and yet sad.
The advertisement to the right is pasted inside a young woman’s scrapbook dated 1900—1905. It contains information on topics such as etiquette, how to manage a household, and how to be a good wife. Are we to gather that proper shade cloth is necessary to keep a man happy?
In contrast, the image below and to the left is from the bookL’amour libre by French feminist, Madeleine Vernet, describes prostitution and marriage as the same kind of prison, with “free love” as the only answer. Some might call that a hyperbolic comparison, but after perusing the young woman’s scrapbook, I’m not so sure. I’m just thankful to have been born a woman near the end of the 20th century and not the start of it.
This may be difficult to believe, but I didn’t set out to write a blog so focused on struggle. The reality, however, is that our special collections are full of struggle. That’s not all there is, of course, but I’m glad this material is preserved. It holds many lessons, some of which we still have yet to learn.
I think we can all agree that 2021 was, well, a challenging year. I’d be remiss not to close with a common foe we might all rally around. As we move into 2022 and beyond, venturing ever deeper into space, we may encounter this enemy sooner than we imagined…
Pankhurst, Emmeline. Why We Are Militant: A Speech Delivered by Mrs. Pankhurst in New York, October 21, 1913. London: Women’s Press, 1914. Print.
“‘Prayers for Prisoners’ and church protests.” Historic England, n.d., https://historicengland.org.uk/research/inclusive-heritage/womens-history/suffrage/church-protests/
How can the Duke Libraries better support the needs of Black students at Duke? A team of library staff conducted qualitative research with Black students over the past two years in order to answer this question. This research was part of a multi-year effort at the Libraries to better understand the experiences and needs of various populations at Duke, beginning with first generation college students and continuing this year with a focus on international students.
Our final report discusses the full research process and our findings in more detail than that provided below, including a full list of recommendations resulting from the study.
We began by reading existing research on university and academic libraries’ support of Black students and speaking with key stakeholders on campus, such as Chandra Guinn, the director of the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture. We researched past studies at Duke that had information on the Black student experience, and learned about the history of faculty diversity initiatives and racist incidents that had taken place on campus. We then held two discussion groups and three PhotoVoice sessions with Black graduate and undergraduate students, in addition to analyzing thousands of responses from the Libraries’ 2020 student satisfaction survey broken out by race. Photovoice is a community-based, participatory research method that originated in global health research. Participants take photos in response to prompts and submit them along with captions. This is followed by a group discussion led by participants as they discuss each set of images and captions.
We sought to understand students’ experiences in the Libraries and on campus to improve how all students interact with library services, facilities, and materials. We did not limit our discussions to library services and spaces, as it was important to explore Black students’ experience and use of the Libraries holistically. The research team pursued eight research questions:
To what extent are the Libraries viewed as an inclusive space by Black students?
To what extent is the University viewed as an inclusive space by Black students?
To what extent do students experience microaggressions or bias because of their race in the Libraries, on campus, in Durham, or in North Carolina?
What changes can the Libraries make to ensure Black students feel supported and included? How can the Libraries improve spaces, services, and programs to ensure Black students feel supported and included?
What changes can the University make to ensure Black students feel supported and included? How can the University improve spaces, services, and programs to ensure Black students feel supported and included?
What campus and community services, spaces, and programs do Black students use and find helpful?
What library services, spaces, instruction sessions, and programs do Black students use and find helpful?
What campus and library services, spaces, and programs help Black students feel welcome or supported?
To what extent is Duke University viewed as an inclusive space?
Participants praised many services, programs, and spaces at Duke that contribute to a welcoming environment. At the same time, participants agreed that Duke provides a less inclusive space for Black students than White students. Black students contend with campus culture, curricula, and physical spaces that still largely reflect and center White experiences, history, and values. Academia is a space where Black students do not see themselves valued or accurately represented. From the arts and sciences to statistics and economics, participants reported systemic bias in instructors’ behavior and the scholarship assigned and discussed in class. They experience microaggressions in almost every area of life at Duke. These instances of bias reinforce the idea that their belonging at Duke is qualified.
We found that many Black graduate students have a level of support via their academic programs, beyond what is available to Duke undergraduate students. Participants praised many of their graduate programs for creating inclusive and supportive environments. Elements contributing to such environments include peer and faculty mentors, programs and events, policies, committees, opportunities to be part of decision-making, communication from faculty and administrators, and efforts to increase diversity. Black undergraduate students may be further removed from decision-makers than graduate students, functioning in an anonymous sea of students receiving the same general services. Thus, compared to graduate students, undergraduates may feel less self-efficacy to effect change in campus-wide inclusion efforts.
To what extent are the Libraries viewed as an inclusive space?
Black students largely view the Libraries as inclusive spaces in the sense that they meet their diverse learning needs as underrepresented students at a predominantly White institution (PWI). When asked whether they see the Libraries as inclusive spaces and whether they feel safe, welcome, and supported at the Libraries, both undergraduate and graduate students listed numerous services and resources offered by the Libraries that they value. These include online journals, the variety of study spaces, the textbook lending program, technology support and resources, events and training opportunities, and research support. Respondents reported positive experiences with the Libraries overall.
However, students also reported some negative interactions with staff and with peers in the Libraries. They also perceive aspects of library spaces to be unwelcoming, specifically to Black students because they center White history. Responses to the 2020 student satisfaction survey showed that while around 88% of both Black and White students agreed that the Libraries are a welcoming place for them, only 60% of Black respondents and 66% of White respondents strongly agreed with the statement. Other aspects of the library experience were perceived as unwelcoming for reasons unrelated to race. Though students reported negative experiences in the Libraries, none reported experiencing bias or microaggressions because of their race in DUL.
Students reported a general feeling that both Duke and Duke Libraries, while not actively hostile or racist, are complicit in their silence. Students do not see enough visible actions and signs supporting diversity and inclusion, efforts to limit White western European cultural dominance, or attempts to educate White students about minority experiences. Participants are not convinced that Duke cares about racist incidents, and believe that Duke and Duke Libraries will not take meaningful action if they complain about or report instances of prejudice or microaggression.
What does it mean to be Black at Duke?
“It’s like I have to prove something to somebody: I’m here for the same reason that you are.”
To walk invisible, to speak for all
Students described the contradiction and contrast of seeing oneself almost universally absent – from the scholarship assigned in class and portraits on the walls, to the faces of faculty reflected from the front of class rooms – while simultaneously representing the entire race to others. This is the reality that many experience at Duke, an elite PWI.
Participants discussed being treated as invisible. One undergraduate male shared that even on campus “people usually avoid me with eye contact, crossing to the other side of the street.” It also takes a toll on Black students not to see their backgrounds and experiences represented in the Duke faculty. Currently, Duke’s faculty is significantly less diverse than the study body. Many Black students know the exact number of Black faculty and administrators in their academic programs, and the numbers matter. At the same time, Black students are often unable to fade into a crowd and are forced to be perennially conscious of their race identity in a way that White students at Duke, at PWIs, and in the United States in general, are not. White students and instructors sometimes treat Black students as monoliths, expecting their views and actions to exemplify those of all Black people. Students discussed pressure “to uphold a good image and to go the extra mile…to actively disprove stereotypes.”
One graduate student said:
I feel like I have to speak for everyone…Black people in America don’t have the privilege of individuality.
The validity of Black students’ presence at Duke is challenged both by fellow students and by Durham community members. Black students are hyper-aware that most Black people on campus are staff, not students, and some discussed unease wondering if people mistake them for staff as well. A student explains the need to prove that they belong, not just academically or intellectually, but even physically on campus:
Every time I walk around campus, I’m like, ‘I need to have my book bag on so people know I’m a student, so people don’t think I’m an employee.’… It’s a focus: I have to look like I’m a student. It’s like I have to prove something to somebody: I’m here for the same reason that you are.
A Black undergraduate recounted a story of how she and her friends were aggressively confronted by a group of White male students one night on their way to an event in a campus building who asked, “Do you even go here?” Many participants discussed how demoralizing it is when White people make the frequent assumption that they were admitted to Duke as part of an athletic program, or tell them that they were accepted to Duke as part of a racial quota instead of on the same academic merits as other students.
Graduate students discussed how Duke seems best able to accommodate two specific kinds of Black student, with room for improvement in how it accommodates others:
Duke makes it accommodating for Black students, but only a specific kind of Black student: Black athletes from America, or very rich African kids. I’m African American but not an athlete, or rich. I’m academically curious, and I just feel like I’m alone.
Participants acknowledge and appreciate the diversity of the Black student experience and wish others would do the same. Black students at Duke are rich and poor. They come from countries spanning the globe and from different religions and cultural backgrounds. While some are athletes, most are not.
Being Black at a predominantly White institution
PWIs such as Duke were not originally intended for Black students. Despite the time that has passed and the number of students of color who have been admitted, Duke remains a historically White space, and this history continues to permeate and shape the culture of the campus. The students in our study were fiercely aware of this history.
Undergraduates expressed concerns that many White students have little comprehension of or interest in understanding the experiences of “the Other” and are surrounded by White peers who are often ignorant of and oblivious to American racial dynamics and the realities of racism. Undergraduate participants perceive that Duke’s curriculum does not prioritize ensuring that all students will be exposed to diverse points of view and experiences through required courses or activities, and interdisciplinary courses tend to be racially segregated.
Duke Libraries and Duke as complacent and complicit
There was a general feeling that Duke Libraries and Duke, while not actively hostile or racist, are complicit in their silence. Students do not see enough explicit signals supporting diversity and inclusion, efforts to limit White western European cultural dominance, or to educate elite White students about minority experiences.
The 2020 Libraries student survey asked students whether they feel safe from discrimination, harassment, and emotional and physical harm at Duke Libraries and at Duke University. There are stark differences by race among the 2,600 students who responded. Black students do not feel as safe from discrimination, harassment, and emotional and physical harm as White students either on campus or in the Libraries.
Fewer (34%) of Black students “strongly agree” that they feel safe at Duke University, versus 71% of White students. A quarter of all Black students do not feel safe to some extent, versus only 7% of White students. More Black and White students feel safe in the Libraries than on campus in general, but fewer Black students “strongly agree” with the statement than White students – 71% versus 89%.
Discussion group participants believe that if campus spaces want to make minorities feel welcome, they need more visible signs or statements about inclusion and diversity, particularly because the default in Duke spaces is overwhelming visible representations of White people and Western art and architecture. In reference to the Perkins & Bostock Libraries, one graduate student said:
I don’t see an active attempt to make it welcoming per se. Depending on…what your experience has been like as a Black student on campus, I think there would need to be a purposeful and very explicit attempt to make it welcoming. Not to say there’s a malicious attempt to make it unwelcoming.
Systemic injustice perpetuated through the curriculum
“We were absent in the scholarship. Not just black people – any people of color. And when it was there, it was highly problematized…Every time people of color are mentioned, it’s in some kind of negative context. We’re deficient in some sort of way.”
Academics at Duke are often a space where Black students do not see themselves highly represented or valued. From the arts and sciences to statistics and economics, participants report systemic bias in a variety of areas ranging from instructors’ behavior to the scholarship assigned in class. A student in a business class reported the glaring lack of a single case study involving a Black-owned business or a business run by Black people. Another graduate student in the sciences explained:
All of the people you study are dead White men. And if you never did any outside scholarship yourself, you might be convinced that those are the only people who have ever done [redacted] science in the world.
In addition to racial biases in scholarship assigned, participants discussed the behavior of faculty and instructors as it contributed to systemic injustice in the classroom:
Particularly in statistics classes, almost all data that were racialized normalized Whites and problematized Blacks and other minorities, relatively. There was one assignment where we were supposed to look at and interpret the data, and White people were clearly worse off. The professor did gymnastics to interpret it in such a way where Black people would still be worse off. Come on! They couldn’t even see a way for White people to ever be worse off. And this happens all the time. Whether it’s a guest lecture or whatever…They just focus on the disparities, they interpret it very narrowly, and then there’s no discussion of the origins of those disparities or any solutions to them.
Black students often expect to face racial bias in their daily lives outside academia or from other students on campus. But faculty are both mentors and authority figures who represent the face of Duke to their students. Their silence can speak as loudly as their words in molding students’ perceptions of the extent to which Duke, as well as academic fields more broadly, value them.
On White and Western dominance of physical spaces
Physical spaces communicate priorities, expectations, and cultural values both implicitly and explicitly. They do this via architecture, materials in the spaces such as art, signs, and decorations, and social groupings within spaces. There are parts of Duke that Black students find welcoming and inclusive, but overall, participants do not consider the physical spaces of campus to be as inclusive for Black students as they are for White students.
Students across discussion groups listed example after example of spaces at Duke – including a number of libraries – where art and architecture caused physical spaces to feel exclusionary. Duke’s campus and libraries are filled with photography, statues, and portraits depicting mostly White males. This theme was raised by both undergraduates and graduates as a way that campus spaces make Black students (and likely other groups) feel unwelcome and excluded:
In the library at the [professional] school, there’s this room…A bunch of huge paintings of old White guys…It means something, right? Because there’s no other part of that library where you’ll see a big portrait painting of someone who isn’t a White male. It’s more White supremacy in itself: the absence of other people being represented in this school says a lot. If they wanted to do something about it they could. They could put in more paintings. There have been people of color who’ve been through Duke and have gone on to do great things.
A number of the discussion groups touched on a related topic, which is the lack of a library or a room within the main campus library dedicated to Black studies. Many students came from undergraduate schools that did have such spaces and were surprised to find them lacking at Duke, especially given the presence of the Nicholas Family Reading Room for International Studies (referred to by students as the “Asian reading room”), which houses reference collections for many non-English languages – though not all Asian. One of the more common recommendations across discussion groups was to create such a space within Perkins & Bostock Libraries, similar to the Nicholas Family Reading Room. Such a space would display books and journals related to Black studies or Black history and feature art, photographs, or exhibits related to Black culture or the history of Black people at Duke or in Durham.
Study spaces as social territories
Another aspect of Perkins & Bostock Libraries that feels exclusionary to participants is the territorial dominance of in different parts of the Libraries. This issue was also raised by students in numerous free-text comments of the 2020 student satisfaction survey, focused on Greek Life members laying an unofficial claim to library study spaces. Participants explained that these groups’ behavior often causes students unaffiliated with those fraternities to feel unwelcome in these public, highly-valued study spaces. Both discussion group participants and survey respondents also complained about the groups disturbing other students by not following posted noise norms for quiet study zones and even using library study rooms for fraternity business. One survey respondent said:
The library is divided (perhaps unofficially) into study areas based on Greek and SLG membership. I consider this to be a disgusting practice and it also leaves me (a graduate student) unsure where I can comfortably sit. I just wish the library was not yet another place where the caste system that is the Duke social scene gets reinforced.
Several students discussed how fraternities sometimes reserve bookable library study rooms and use these spaces for business purposes, to bestow access to social resources (in this case, access to parties) that are highly exclusive and closed to the majority of the campus, which further perpetuates exclusivity on campus. The language the students use to describe these interactions (“ostracized,” “uncomfortable,” “not welcomed”) shows the extent to which the presence of these groups in library spaces that are supposed to be inclusive actually makes students feel excluded, as if they cannot use those spaces due to their lack of membership in those groups.
Features of a space matter
The Libraries’ 2020 student survey asked whether respondents enjoy working in a campus library more than other campus spaces. A third of White students “strongly agree” with this statement, versus one-fourth of Black students. Participants in our discussion groups highlighted three features that greatly contribute to study spaces feeling welcoming and supportive, which are likely true for students from all backgrounds: natural light, green spaces and greenery, and vibrant colors.
Library staff have long been aware that students can study and de-stress better in library spaces with natural light. Increasing natural light is only possible when planning and constructing new facilities, but we can review the current spaces to ensure that all areas with natural light have seating options around them. Participants discussed how greenery, even fake plants, contribute to mental well-being and create study spaces that are less stressful. This also includes views of nature out of windows. Vibrant colors and artwork were mentioned time and again as factors that create positive energy and support well-being. Both the Link on the first floor of Bostock Library and the Bryan Center were held up as examples of well-designed spaces at Duke with brightly colored walls and furniture, or artwork.
In comparison, the Perkins & Bostock Libraries were seen as having much room to improve, with the exception of the following spaces: the Link, The Edge, the large reading rooms, light-filled breezeways, and the newly renovated Rubenstein Library. Participants requested that the Perkins & Bostock Libraries modernize its decor and add vibrant colors via paint, carpets, furniture and art. The students feel that the drab colors in study rooms and general open study areas exacerbate the sense of stress that already pervades the library. Students had unapologetically negative views of the atmosphere produced by color and decor choices:
I think Perkins is so uninviting…At a basic level, it’s just not a comfortable, inviting space to me. I hate the lighting. Part of it is that there is very little natural light throughout the library but then I just don’t like the colors that are chosen… It’s depressing. It just seems very outdated.
Campus and library wayfinding came up in multiple discussion groups as an area that needs improvement and contributes to students feeling unwelcome and stressed. Duke’s policy to not have visible external building signage and to use the same architecture for most buildings on West Campus leads newcomers to feel excluded and lost. Participants were critical of the fact that the main campus library has no identifying external feature or sign. Participants also discussed the need for better internal directional and informational signage within the Libraries. Improved signage is necessary both to assist with finding materials, and for guidance on use of study rooms and computer look-up stations. Students like the noise norms and zones designated by signage within the Libraries and want this signage to be larger and more prominent.
Affinity spaces are critical and signal what Duke values
Spaces noted by participants as welcoming and supportive included the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture, the Wellness Center, the West Campus Oasis, the Duke Chapel, the Women’s Center, the Bryan Center, gardens and green spaces, and the Center for Multicultural Affairs. Students also spoke enthusiastically about a number of campus services, including the on-campus dentist; Wellness Center activities like a weekly group therapy session for Black women and free physical assessments; movie nights at the Bryan Center; campus buses; the entrepreneurship program; CAPS; the Writing Studio; and state-of-the-art gym facilities.
Many Photovoice participants submitted photographs and captions about the Mary Lou Williams Center, its programming, and its staff. For participants, the fact that Duke University funds and supports programming for such a large, beautiful space highlights Duke’s commitment to Black students and Black culture. However, not everyone feels welcome on the campus as a whole. One student said they go to the Mary Lou to “escape the white gaze” of the broader campus. These spaces should not be seen as spaces one has to go to escape the general campus experience, but rather as spaces that contribute to their campus experience.
Graduate students talked about the robust support networks in their academic programs. Students reported feeling supported in many ways, from professors who learn students’ names and Deans attending welcome lunches with new students, to orientation activities, peer and professor mentor programs, support for healthy work-life balances, and committees on diversity and inclusion.
Participants felt welcomed by events hosted solely for Black students, such as Black Convocation and parties held by Black Greek organizations, as well as outreach from the Mary Lou Williams Center to all incoming Black students.
Library services support students
Library services that were praised included library materials and online resources; the library website; textbook lending; device lending; technology such as scanners, 3D printers, and DVD players in Lilly; events such as snacks and coffee in the library and Puppies in Perkins during finals week; orientation sessions; reservable study rooms; designated noise norms and zones; ePrint; personal assistance from librarians; and Oasis Perkins. Students are surprised by how many services the Libraries offer and want more marketing and information about these services. Library staff should continue to develop outreach strategies for marketing services to students at various points in their programs and majors, both online and within library spaces.
The Libraries textbook lending program came up in every undergraduate discussion group. Students were enthusiastic about the program and the financial burden that it alleviates.
I think [library] rental textbooks are really nice…Knowing that if I change a class I don’t need to buy this book the first week and resell it for only 30%. If you’re paying for your own books, that’s not feasible. It’s…another stress coming into your freshman year of college. Thinking, ‘oh no I have to buy this $200 math book online – no, you can rent it from the library until you know whether you’re even supposed to be in that math class.’ Knowing that I can get through the first part of the semester without having to worry about textbooks is big.
According to results from the Libraries’ 2020 student survey, about one-fourth of all undergraduate students (regardless of race) said that textbook lending is important to them. At the same time, only 48.5% of both Black and White students said that the current program completely meets their needs, and 8% of those who said textbook lending is important to them reported being unaware of the Libraries textbook lending program. The survey also provided the following open-ended prompt to students: “In a perfect world, with unlimited time and resources, the Libraries would…” Eight percent of responses (127 out of 1,535) included a request for the Libraries to provide free textbooks.
Person-to-person interactions make a difference
Interactions with other people can be critical contributors to whether students at Duke feel welcome and supported. Participants discussed many positive interactions on campus and in the Libraries, with library service desk staff, librarians assisting with research, friendly security guards, housekeeping staff, academic program office staff, Mary Lou Williams Center staff, and financial aid officers. Black staff at Duke also provide important social support for students, whether assigned as mentors or simply lending a sympathetic ear. One student immediately thought of a staff member when asked about the most helpful programs and services on campus:
It’s not a program, it’s [an office administrator]. Since she’s a sister, we can just talk about anything. She looks out for me in a way that I know only a Black person would look out.
Library security guards stand out as a group that can help students feel safe and supported with just a friendly word or wave (though as previously noted, security guards can also easily make Black students feel unwelcome):
First semester sophomore year when I was [at the library] really late, there was this one security guard who I saw just going around and around, and each time he would wave. Then I was studying there just two nights ago, I just saw him again and he waved, and it just felt really good.
Affinity groups are important to all students, and especially important to minorities at PWIs. Students mentioned feeling welcomed by the existence of campus student groups such as the Black Student Alliance and Black Graduate & Professional Student Association, Black Greek Life, and spaces for affinity groups to gather (such as the Mary Lou and Black Student Alliance office).
Participants discussed many positive interactions with library staff. Participants value friendliness and good customer service, as well as subject expertise. However, discussions highlighted the fact that initial impressions and experiences are critical, and if students’ initial interaction is negative, they are likely not to come back. In particular, library staff must be mindful of the delicate balance between their roles as teachers and as service providers. While many library staff are trained to teach research skills, students often approach the service desk expecting staff to help them complete their task as quickly and efficiently as possible. Efforts to teach them how to complete the action by themselves instead of just assisting them can be interpreted as patronizing, a rebuke for having “bothered” staff, or poor customer service.
Overall, participants have a positive view of the Libraries. They recommended improvements, especially for physical spaces, and underscored the importance of marketing services such as textbook lending and relaxation events. Participants shared valuable insights that can help library staff understand what it means to be Black at Duke and in Durham, and ways that library staff can make spaces more welcoming and help ease the burden that Black students feel on a daily basis.
These findings became the basis of 34 recommendations outlined in the research team’s full report. One of the top recommendations from participants is that the Libraries dedicate a study space to Black scholarship. Such a space was envisioned to include art, photographs, or exhibits related to Black culture and history and highlight library resources from Black scholars.
The research team has presented and discussed this study at all staff meetings at the Libraries, as well as to various groups and units on Duke’s campus over the summer of 2020. The report was shared widely within the library community to encourage other libraries to consider these questions and undertake similar work.
In August 2020, the Libraries formed a Black Student Study Next Steps Coordinating Team charged with prioritizing and coordinating the implementation of recommendations from the study, as well as additional recommendations that came out of a staff workshop delving into the Libraries’ 2020 student satisfaction survey. For more information on this study or the Coordinating Team, contact Joyce Chapman firstname.lastname@example.org.
On March 20, 2020, the Duke University Libraries were closed related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Surrounded by a great deal of uncertainty as to when the Libraries would reopen, most library staff were sent home to work for the next months from home. During this time, the Digital Production Center’s employees followed suit and, as part of that time away from the DPC, completed post-processing of images, image quality control, participated in project planning and wrote blogs on the closing of the Libraries, labor in the time of the coronavirus, and the history of videotelephony. Following the end of the North Carolina Stay-at-Home order on April 29, discussions began in earnest about what the new reality would be for the Libraries. It was determined that the DPC’s unique skill set was needed on site sooner rather than later, and so on June 26, we returned to Duke’s campus as “essential workers.”
Upon our return, we needed to make sure that our equipment was sanitized and in good working order. Along with testing our scanner and cameras, we also recalibrated our monitors to ensure color accuracy and established our new workflow.
It was determined that our efforts were most needed to prepare for Duke’s fall instruction materials. With the uncertainty as to whether or not classes would be held in person or virtually, preparing digital materials to work with was prioritized. So, we shifted from our normal project work to focus solely on digitization of these materials. Each digitization specialist was asked to be onsite for 3 days a week to maximize use of our capture equipment. The remaining two days of the week would be spent working from home to do quality control work on the images as well as various administrative tasks. We had a plan; our remit was clear and we were working towards a goal.
On August 17, classes began for Duke University and our images began being used as part of instruction materials. Duke University Library’s digitized images helped bridge the gap between the currently inaccessible library collections that Duke faculty and students normally rely on for coursework and the Fall 2020 students.
Thinking about the change in use and accessibility for collection materials leads to an interesting question: With the lockdown which happened for most of the US, did digital collections receive more visits as people were restricted from leaving home and libraries were closed? A quick glance at the Google Analytics for the Duke Digital Collections shows a 34% increase of unique page views from April 1-June 30 of this year as compared to the same time period in 2019. While it is impossible to state definitively why the increase occurred, the pandemic is very likely a contributing factor. Digital collections are arguably valuable assets for any institution which supports them. They provide easy access to rarely seen or inaccessible materials and they have the potential to incite curiosity in the larger institutional holdings. It is indeed interesting to consider what types of innovative scholarship and creative use of digital content may result from the pandemic’s “forced” use of digital collections over the next twelve months.
Of course, the rapid onset of the COVID-19 pandemic illuminated the need for alternative ways of operating. At least temporarily, it has changed the way in which the Duke University Libraries are conducting business as usual these days. And, in July of this year, Research Libraries UK published a document entitled “COVID19 and the Digital Shift in Action.” This document reports on the effect of the pandemic on UK research libraries and suggests strategies for emphasis and support of the digital aspects of libraries as well as the need for change and flexibility within library collections. Digital collections, e-books, e-textbooks, and digital content had their moment to shine during the pandemic and they have proven their value and importance.
And with the potential increased reliance on digitized material, many cultural heritage digitization specialists are now back on site in libraries, museums and archives, working to provide their expertise to add to existing digital collections. Naturally, at the Duke Digital Production Center, we have been asked a number of times since our return if we are nervous about being back in our studio space. Of course, we are, but we also recognize how our skills and contributions continue to create value for Duke University and Duke University Libraries.
Biswas, P., & Marchesoni, J. “Analyzing Digital Collections Entrances: What Gets Used and Why It Matters.” Information Technology and Libraries, v. 35, n. 4, p. 19-34, 30 December 2016.
The Coronavirus pandemic has me thinking about labor–as a concept, a social process, a political constituency, and the driving force of our economy–in a way that I haven’t in my lifetime. It’s become alarmingly clear (as if it wasn’t before) that we all need food, supplies, and services to survive past next week, and that there are real human beings out there working to produce and deliver these things. No amount of entrepreneurship, innovation, or financial sleight of hand will help us through the coming months if people are not working to provide the basic requirements for life as we know it.
This blog post draws from images in our digitized library collections to pay tribute to all of the essential workers who are keeping us afloat during these challenging times. As I browsed these photographs and mused on our current situation, a few important and oft-overlooked questions came to mind.
Who grows our food? Where does it come from and how is it processed? How does it get to us?
What kind of physical environment do we work in and how does that affect us?
How do we interact with machines and technology in our work? Can our labor be automated or performed remotely?
What equipment and clothing do we need to work safely and productively?
Are we paid fairly for our work? How do relative wages for different types of work reflect what is valued in our society?
How we think about and respond to these questions will inform how we navigate the aftermath of this ongoing crisis and whether or not we thrive into the future. As we celebrate International Workers’ Day on May 1 and beyond, I hope everyone will take some time to think about what labor means to them and to our society as a whole.
Notes from the Duke University Libraries Digital Projects Team