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Library Carpentry: A Toolkit for Researchers
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Posted On February 5, 2019
University of Sussex digital historian James Baker believes that “[l]ibrarians play a crucial role in cultivating world-class research and in most disciplinary areas today world-class research relies on the use of software.” Universities and research centers have made data science an integral part of their training programs, and the nonprofit Software Carpentry and Data Carpentry organizations have addressed this need for the research community. But what about the training needs of information professionals who support these research projects?

Authors of a 2017 article in Briefings in Bioinformatics note that “[b]asic data stewardship is still taught relatively rarely in life science education programmes, creating a chasm between theory and practice, and fuelling demand for bioinformatics training across all educational levels and career roles.” Their study of existing programs concluded that “satisfying the relentless training needs of current and future generations of life scientists will require a concerted response from stakeholders across the globe, who need to deliver sustainable solutions capable of both transforming education curricula and cultivating a new cadre of trainer scientists.”

According to Baker, Library Carpentry, established in 2015, is “comparable [to the Software Carpentry and Data Carpentry] introductory software skills training programme with a focus on the needs and requirements of library professionals. … As librarians have substantial expertise working with data, we believe that adding software skills to their armoury is an effective and important use of professional development resource that benefits both library professionals and their colleagues and collaborators across higher education and beyond.”

A New Model for Training Research Skills

As a recent article in Harvard Business Review notes, “The ability to understand and communicate about data is an increasingly important skill for the 21st-century citizen, for three reasons. First, data science and AI are affecting many industries globally, from healthcare and government to agriculture and finance. Second, much of the news is reported through the lenses of data and predictive models. And third, so much of our personal data is being used to define how we interact with the world.” Because data informs decisions across many different industries, “you need to have a basic understanding of the data ecosystem in order to be part of the conversation.”

The structure of all of these carpentry programs is unique—and clearly successful. The audiences are increasingly global, as all types of information professionals see the need for “critical computational and data skills they need to serve their stakeholders and user communities, as well as streamline repetitive workflows and use best data practices within the library.”

Library Carpentry creates carefully developed lessons that comprise a series of workshops. It has a governance group to provide consistency and quality.  In 2017, the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) funded the California Digital Library to further develop this program in the U.S. In November 2018, Library Carpentry became a Lesson Program, parallel to the larger Data Carpentry and Software Carpentry Lesson Programs. Together, these three programs comprise The Carpentries project. Since 2015, libraries have hosted almost 300 Library Carpentry events, and the organization intends to continue to expand its efforts across the globe.

Library Carpentry’s lessons include Introduction to Data, Intro to Git, OpenRefine, SQL for Librarians, Introduction to Web Scraping, Tidy Data for Librarians, Python Intro for Libraries, and Data Intro for Archivists.

Writing in Procedia Computer Science, authors from Winston-Salem State University conclude that “[t]he growing importance of data competency implies that adequate Data Science course offerings should be available to all students regardless of their interests, backgrounds and intended major.” To meet this need, colleges are teaching short courses or “boot camps” on data visualization, analytics, and other topics. The Proschool website goes a step further: “Without data literacy, there cannot be any concrete analysis and finding. But if understanding and analysing data is only restricted to professional data scientists, wouldn’t the process be too restrictive? New-age corporates have realised the importance of data science democratization and spreading data literacy across levels.”

Training That Motivates Better Research

The Carpentries’ training is standardized, and instructor training in particular is extensive and focused on consistent user experience and takeaways. Any library can request training for its staff members. Library Carpentry community and development director Chris Erdmann tells NewsBreaks that the key advantage of this training scheme is that “it’s a more manageable, scalable solution that leverages a community of volunteers.”

The Carpentries receives financial support from the Oakland, Calif.-based Community Initiatives, a nonprofit that provides funding and “acts as a thought-partner and provides professional services to nonprofit startups, established initiatives, networks, and collaborations. We sponsor projects for the benefit of communities in service to social change.”

Brown University digital humanities librarian Ashley Champagne says:

The Brown University Library has been invested in using the Library Carpentries as a training platform since 2017, when we were approached by colleagues at Dartmouth, Yale, Tufts, Mount Holyoke, and UMass to join and share a Gold Membership. We are called the New England Software Carpentry Library Consortium (NESCLiC). Last year, two of our librarians went through the training with our NESCLiC cohort. This year, we have two additional librarians undergoing training. Becoming an instructor involves a rigorous two-day training session and a series of assignments to complete, but in the end we know our teaching will be better for it and we’ll be recognized as working with an internationally recognized organization to teach essential tools for research in the twenty-first century.

Champagne continues, “The Carpentries focus on providing organized workshops designed specifically with the student in mind. There’s so much thinking and organizing that goes into these workshops that everyone—the instructors and the students alike—can benefit from. The instructors have the opportunity to learn from each other, train each other, and rely on each other for advice and support as they teach. This kind of built-in structure and support is what, I think, makes the Carpentries so successful and sustainable.”

“In my previous role at UCSD [University of California–San Diego], and my current role at Harvard Catalyst,” Juliane Schneider says, “I work with researchers and their data quite a bit (less so at Catalyst, but sometimes it happens). I’ve consulted on date formats, ISO standards, file structure, geodata, etc. Back when I was the metadata librarian at Harvard Medical School (2008–2014), the reference librarians were often an integral part of grant-funded faculty research projects, and I worked on projects with medical school administration, like a self-tagging curriculum management system for course directors, and worked with the Center for Biomedical Informatics on developing an autism ontology.”

“I think the key is teaching,” explains Cameron Macdonell, a member of the Library Carpentry Governance Group. “There are librarians with very strong technical skills, usually called Library Techs. The code4lib organization falls under this category. There was some debate about whether this library-tech-training we were doing should be part of the Carpentries or not. Ultimately, we decided it was best to build on the Carpentries model.” As chair of the computer science department at Canada’s MacEwan University, he sees significant interest there. “The Carpentries are smaller here in Canada than in other countries, and that’s OK, but we’ll embrace growth as it comes. One of the things I note, and appreciate about librarians, is that they are not as focused on a particular tool or skill. They really enjoy learning about the technology in a broad way.” 

“My goal in becoming a software carpentry instructor,” Mount Holyoke College science librarian Sarah Oelker explains, “has been to help user groups I collaborate with to get the coding and automated processing skills they need.” She continues:

Library Carpentry is set up on the same principles but it is not my primary focus. The curriculums of The Carpentries are really aimed at graduate and professional students (including library school students) and above, though I think many juniors and seniors in college who are doing research would find the content useful, and it is excellent content to have been exposed to by the time one is applying for graduate school in many fields. While there are data literacy efforts underway to reach undergrads, and while I hope to run workshops for undergraduates doing research, the Software and Data carpentry materials aren’t the best first choice for students who aren’t yet doing some sort of research experience or project yet.

Schneider also notes:

I became aware of The Carpentries when I was working as a metadata consultant for researchers at [UCSD]. One of my colleagues, the data librarian, noticed that there was a dearth of classes teaching data-centric skills like R and Python, and found The Carpentries lessons for R. His first R class had a 50-person waiting list, so he had identified a critical need for the students. As a result of the success of his classes, a faculty member gave him the money for UCSD to become a Software Carpentry member. As a result of that, we got several spots for the next instructor training. He asked me if I wanted to go, and at first I said no because I never wanted to teach. I’d never done bibliographic instruction or any sort of workshop. He finally talked me into it and I found out that I was really interested in both instruction and lesson development, especially the way the Carpentry pedagogy went about it. It is based on a ‘train the trainers’ model—I call it the benevolent pyramid scheme!

Schneider concludes, “It’s about becoming facile with data, but, at least for me, it’s about learning the language of data. In order to be able to collaborate effectively with researchers, developers, and faculty, librarians need to learn the language of data, and what tools are out there to perform specific tasks. You need to be able to communicate in order to work together, and the language of data and computational skills is one that can cross all of those roles/disciplines. I see this developing through people attending workshops, becoming instructors, and building local Carpentries communities that act in the interest of local needs.”

“I think it’s already standard at many universities to have librarians help develop research and discovery strategies for scholarship,” Champagne says. The Carpentries has developed a clear model, pedagogy, and a support program that can easily be used at any research institution—and is catching on like wildfire across the U.S. and beyond.

A New Research Role for Information Professionals

In a 2016 LIBER Quarterly article, the authors look to the future that this model offers information professionals: “The future plans for Library Carpentry, however, go beyond iterating lesson content. Library Carpentry set out to build the foundations of a community model for embracing and sustaining software skills in the library and information profession, with the intention that this model would emerge from the experience of delivering the initial exploratory programme.”

In the 6 years since the first Software Carpentry workshops were held for librarians, the program has grown across the globe and developed depth of content—and provides an efficient, effective model for cultural change and continuing education in other areas across disciplines and cultures.

“It’s all about the community,” Schneider says. “You should be having fun in Library Carpentry. Whether you are an instructor, instructor trainer, or lesson maintainer, you’ve got a whole community of interested, talented, awesome people to bounce ideas off of, chat with, and teach with.”

Champagne agrees, noting that Brown University aims “to maintain our Gold membership and collaboration with NESCLiC and continue to offer Library Carpentry events to our staff for professional development and branch out to holding events for students and faculty based on what we have learned. I think it’s already standard at many universities to have librarians help develop research and discovery strategies for scholarship.”

Kyle Monahan, a Tufts University statistics specialist, sees “a high demand for librarians and other informational professionals to work with researchers, not only on the search, but on the methodologies, analyses, and even interpreting results. The role of research support at universities changes as the speed and scope of research shifts. The comments and feedback we have received have been amazing to see, and it certainly keeps us going when we’re giving another lecture early Saturday morning. I certainly view this as a part of an environment that supports the rapidly changing technological and research landscape.”


Nancy K. Herther is disability studies, anthropology, and sociology librarian at the University of Minnesota Libraries’ Twin Cities campus.

Email Nancy K. Herther

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