A Tool for the Sciences and Humanities

While they have very different roles, Courtney Kearney and Marcello Canuto both straddle the divide between hard sciences and humanities in their work at Tulane University.

While they have very different roles, Courtney Kearney and Marcello Canuto both straddle the divide between hard sciences and humanities in their work at Tulane University. Courtney, the university’s Scholarly Engagement Librarian, works with faculty and students in physical science departments. Marcello, Anthropology Professor and Director of Middle America Research, focuses on archaeology. While their day to day work looks quite different, the two have played a big part in introducing digital lab notebooks on Tulane’s campus.

As Courtney and Marcello know, hard science and humanities deal in the world of data. Storing, organizing and sharing that data efficiently is crucial to success. They’re both part of Tulane’s governance committee that set out to introduce LabArchives just as COVID-19 started to turn things upside down. We caught up with them to learn more about how they’re supporting research in all its forms in 2020.

How did you get involved with this project?

  • Marcello: We were asked to be part of a committee. I knew that we needed a tool like this. Our goal was to figure out ‘Ok now that we are using this and think it works well, how do we want to implement it on campus?’.
  • Courtney: The project had a three pronged approach. The office of research organized it, campus IT did backend management and then researchers and librarians, like Marcello and I, were tasked with bringing it to the rest of campus.
Courtney KearneyCourtney Kearney, Scholarly Engagement Librarian

What were your first steps?

  • Marcello: Our first discussion was about how to implement LabArchives. It was an interesting discussion to have during COVID when the world seemed like it was changing as fast as it possibly could. I feel like I have all these accounts already and can’t remember any of the passwords. We had to think about how to make it palatable, how to package it.
  • Courtney: It couldn’t have come at a better moment but we did have to ask ourselves, is this the right time to ‘add another thing?’. Tulane has chosen to go with a hybrid in-person and online model but earlier in the year we weren’t sure what would happen. We timed implementation in a way where it would help success.
Marcello CanutoMarcello Canuto working with LabArchives.

What’s worked well as you’ve introduced the tool on campus?

  • Courtney: Showing examples! LabArchives is a pretty intuitive tool, there’s nothing about it that you can’t sort out in a few minutes but having examples to share of how other groups use it is key. I have one notebook, for example, that showcases research on Doctor Who. Having that is so cool because it’s an example of how you can capture your research process with LabArchives no matter what you’re investigating.
  • Marcello: The tutorials we run are very much ‘click here’, the mechanics of it. Showing the big picture alongside that is so important. Each discipline sees the tool in a different way
  • Courtney: Showing how you can treat LabArchives like a paper notebook but also search it, has been helpful. That’s a huge thing. It gets so frustrating trying to find something you wrote down. We focused on taking things slowly – reminding researchers that they don’t have to make the switch overnight. We recommend just starting by adding lab minutes, then adding things you share often. There’s no need to force it.

How do you package the tool for researchers that don’t fall into the hard science category?

  • Marcello: We knew from the start that different groups would use it differently. In the health sciences for example there are lab groups and strict protocols. In the humanities it’s more independent. How do you pitch the tool to both? Traditionally this kind of tool just goes to the hard sciences but the digital realm of research is creeping further into the humanities with data mining and text analysis. I’m in anthropology and archaeology but most of the other researchers on the committee are in engineering and other hard sciences. I represent a school that is probably the least targeted for this thing. 
  • Courtney: Humanities researchers also have a lot of info to manage and track. Our job was to make it as applicable to as many people as possible. We could’ve left them to their own devices to pick LabArchives up but we might’ve missed a whole group then. There’s an itch from the softer sciences to use this type of tool. There is a bit of hesitancy however, so examples like the one I mentioned before drive home what LabArchives can do for them.

What have been some resistance points?

  • Courtney: People often ask us ‘How is this different to Box or a cloud server?’. One thing that’s worked well in our roll out has been helping those people to recognize that the tools can be used together but that LabArchives is more than cloud storage. It’s a notebook where you can have multiple file types on one page. It’s more dynamic, multidimensional – like Box plus more. You can integrate whatever you use into one place. 

How are things going overall so far?

  • Courtney: It’s been huge to have LabArchives during COVID. You can continue to do your work and communicate in one place and schedule lab time too so it doesn’t get crowded. That real time communication is key. We’ve packaged it as something that is a project management tool which is really helpful especially now. I’m impressed by the response we’ve had, I think people are realizing we have to make this shift. They’ve signed up and shown up to our workshops.
  • M: When I first started tinkering with LabArchives I hadn’t heard of it before. I remember thinking ‘Oh ok, I’m not using LabArchives I am on it’. If I want to communicate with people in my lab I am there. You kind of realize that you go into it and everything else follows suit. You’re in this virtual space sharing data like you would if you were together in a room. It’s not just an archive at all. 

To learn more check out: Tulane Libraries LabArchives pageTulane LabArchives announcement

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