“Big Data” at the Midwest Chapter Conference

At this year’s Midwest Chapter/MLA conference in Louisville, KY, our Monday plenary session will feature a panel discussion on the subject of “Big Data” led by T. Scott Plutchak, Director of Digital Data Curation Strategies at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. He will be joined on the panel by Midwesterners Sandra DeGroote from the University of Illinois at Chicago, Heather Coates from Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, and Caitlin Bakker from the University of Minnesota.

Today on ConnectMidwest, your Midwest Chapter Annual Meetings Chair, Clare Leibfarth, interviews Mr. Plutchak about the upcoming presentation.


CL: We are happy to welcome you back to the Midwest, your place of origin!

SP: I’m looking forward to it. I was raised in Wisconsin but moved away in my early 20s, so I’ve never really been a Midwesterner as an adult. I’m always happy to have an excuse to come back. I spoke at a different conference at the Galt House a few years ago and had a great time, so I’m sure this one will be a lot of fun.

CL: You and I have in common the fact that we have new jobs. Could you share with us a little about your new position, Director of Digital Data Curation Strategies?

SP: It came about a year ago as we were finalizing the process of reorganizing the libraries at UAB. I’ve been interested in the challenges and potentials of open access to research data for a long time, so I moved out of the library organization into the Provost’s office, charged with trying to help the institution figure out how to effectively manage its research data for the long term. The change in perspective has been very important – while librarians have a very important role to play, I look at it as an institutional problem, which requires that I be as concerned with the role played by IT and the Research office and the Centers and the policy making entities of the University as I am with the library. If we look at data curation just as a library issue we’re missing critical aspects of the big picture.

CL: We’ve heard the term “Big Data” a lot lately. What IS it?

SP: “Big Data” is one of those great ambiguous trendy phrases that has just about as many meanings as there are people using it. In the popular press, it’s used to refer to business applications where companies parse and analyze the vast amounts of data that they collect about all of us to do very tailored marketing. But more relevant to librarians is when it is applied to the data generated by research or in patient care. The best definition I’ve heard for that kind of big data comes from Thomas Anthony, who directs the Big Data Research and Analytics Laboratory and runs a brain mapping project here at UAB. He says that whenever the data that you’re dealing with pushes the boundaries of the tools that we have at hand to analyze it, you’ve entered the world of Big Data. So this includes the kinds of huge datasets generated by some genomics research, but can also arise when you are combining very many small datasets to do meta-analyses. Because data storage is now so cheap we have opportunities to learn from data things we could never get close to just a few years ago.

CL: Has your “Big Data” panel developed a formal title for your plenary presentation? Which aspects of this topic will the discussion cover?

SP: I’m not very good at titles – we’ve just been referring to it as the “Big Data Panel.” I’ll try to set the stage with some general comments and then focus a bit on some of the requirements that are coming out of the federal funding agencies. Then Sandy, Heather, and Caitlin will talk more specifically about what is happening in each of their libraries to address some specific aspect. So I’m hoping we’ll have a good mix of general background information and good concrete examples of things that librarians are doing now.

CL: In your experience, what are possible roles for the library in the management of research data?

SP: The range is wide. At the most basic level there’s the need to gather information on best practices and changing requirements from funders and make it easy for people to find that information when they need it. At a more complex level, which may require enhancing our librarian skills, we can work directly with researchers to help them organize and describe their data in ways that make it understandable and usable by other people.

CL: How do these relate to our more “traditional” library activities?

SP: I’ve said in the past that the fundamental purpose of libraries and librarians is to connect people with the information they need when they need it. This is simply an extension of that, utilizing our skills in information gathering, organizing and dissemination. I see it as basic librarian work, applied in a new arena.

CL: How does this fit in with the concepts you explored in your Janet Doe Lecture at MLA ’11 in Minneapolis?

SP: In that lecture I said that our job is not to build better libraries, but to use our unique talents and skills to further the goals of the communities that we’re a part of. We have a lot to offer our organizations in this area and our skills are desperately needed.

CL: Is there anything particular that you are looking forward to doing during your visit to Kentucky?

SP: I’ve been told that it’s possible to find good bourbon in Louisville. We might look into that.
CL: Thank you so much for spending this time with us! Can’t wait to see you in Louisville!

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