Building Virtual Community through Digital Scholarship Meetups

Rachel Starry 

Within Research Services at UCR Library, Rachel develops educational programming, engages in outreach, and consults on a variety of digital scholarship topics and methodologies. Previously, after receiving her PhD in Classical and Near Eastern Archaeology from Bryn Mawr College, she was the CLIR (Council on Library and Information Resources) Postdoctoral Fellow in Social Science Data Curation at the University at Buffalo Libraries. Prior to UB, Rachel worked with both the Digital Scholarship program and the Special Collections department in Library and Information Technology (LITS) at Bryn Mawr College.

University of California Riverside

Krystal Boehlert 

In collaboration with library research, teaching and collections departments, Krystal develops digital content, tools and systems for UCR Library’s Digital Scholarship Program and Digitization Services. She holds an MLIS from San Jose State University, specializing in digital services, an MA in Art Criticism & Theory from Art Center College of Design, and a BFA in Visual Media from the Rochester Institute of Technology. She has previously worked with the Visual Resources Collections of UCR’s Art History department and with the Collections Information & Access department in The Getty Museum.

University of California Riverside

November 09, 2021 


Support for digital scholarship at the University of California, Riverside (UCR) Library has been increasing in recent years, both through the hiring of new positions related to digital scholarship and innovative media as well as through the development of pockets of expertise in different library departments. Work to define a scalable and sustainable Digital Scholarship Program began in April 2020, when a collaborative, cross-departmental group of library staff began meeting to articulate program goals, conduct research, perform a variety of assessment activities, and draft a report for library leadership and our colleagues more broadly (Alvarez et al. 2020). The Digital Scholarship Meetups began during this phase of program articulation and are embedded in our larger goals of ongoing outreach and needs assessment.

One important contextual caveat: our Digital Scholarship Program and the Digital Scholarship Meetups described below were born under the constraints of the COVID-19 pandemic. We also recognize that digital scholarship programs are continually being developed and evolving at other institutions and libraries under a variety of circumstances. Despite the specificity to our institutional context and the constraints of a global pandemic, we hope the workflows and approaches outlined in this case study provide generative ideas for folks engaged in this work elsewhere.

The definition of digital scholarship that we decided to use for the Digital Scholarship Program at UCR focuses on process, products, and people:

Digital scholarship is generally understood as the use of digital tools or methods for scholarly activities like research, teaching, and publishing. The phrase “digital scholarship” can describe both the process of creating new, often fluid forms of scholarship using digital tools and computational methods, as well as the ever-evolving products of technology-dependent research. Digital scholarship is intensely collaborative, iterative, public-facing, interdisciplinary, community-engaged, and open. UCR Library provides support for digital scholarship activities and projects in several ways:

  • Lowering barriers to learning new technologies through hands-on workshops and training
  • Bridging disciplinary silos by fostering inclusive communities of practice and regular community meet ups
  • Facilitating interdisciplinary collaboration and innovation through digital project management and consultations
  • Promoting critical engagement with technology and radical openness in the creation and sharing of digital tools and resources. (UC Riverside Library, n.d.)

From the literature review performed during the work of program development, we identified six types of needs that are often addressed by library digital scholarship services: technical, social, research, teaching, project development and management, and professional development. Common social needs that we found in the literature included support for collaborating across disciplines (Inclusive Historian’s Handbook; Green et al. 2017; Wiles et al. 2009; Cooper et al. 2017); finding communities of support and project partners on campus (Tường Vy Sharpe 2019; Wingo and Craig 2017); support for collaboration on research projects, including project management and online platforms for connecting with other researchers (Wiles et al. 2009; Edwards et al. 2013; Vinopal and McCormick 2013; Long and Schonfeld 2014); and opportunities to present research and gather feedback from peers (Tường Vy Sharpe 2019; Brennan 2018; Cooper et al. 2017; Long and Schonfeld 2013). According to our benchmarking research (surveying the websites of 16 library digital scholarship initiatives based on the programs explored in the ARL Digital Scholarship Profiles series), numerous other academic libraries have addressed these common social needs by creating communities of practice, which represented the second most common form of DS programming, after library workshops, at the institutions we surveyed (Alvarez et al. 2020; ARL, n.d.).

In order to begin addressing some of the needs we recognized during our literature review and needs assessment activities, we designed and implemented a series of weekly community meetups beginning in the summer of 2020. The format and evolution of these meetups over time are described in greater detail below, but initially, our primary goal for this informal event series was to create an online community for connection and collaboration. We hoped to create a consistent space where UCR community members who were interested in digital scholarship could ask questions, connect with librarians, meet potential collaborators, and build and share knowledge.

We set out to accomplish that goal in alignment with some key values taken from our chosen definition and belief in the necessity of value-driven digital scholarship work: inclusivity, interdisciplinarity, equity, openness, interactivity, and iteration. We believed that it was important first to acknowledge our positionality as white women librarians and take actions to try to create safe and inclusive spaces for conversation. We wanted to disrupt disciplinary boundaries and model the dismantling of academic hierarchies and knowledge-sharing equitably by students, staff, and faculty in a shared space. Relying on best practices and research about facilitating communities of practice in higher education (Cambridge and Suter 2005) and anti-oppression meeting facilitation strategies (AORTA 2014), we approached that process primarily by actively sharing the mic and decentralizing our power as facilitators of the virtual community space (see also Versluis and Ringling 2017). We recognized that it would also require flexibility and experimentation to find what works for our local community and then to be responsive to those needs by altering the format of our events over time.

Implementing and Iterating Over the Academic Year

We launched the Digital Scholarship Meetups in June 2020. The program was envisioned and implemented as entirely virtual, since campus remained closed and both library staff and our campus community members were working, teaching, and learning remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic. We chose Zoom as the platform for our meetings because, in the initial stages of remote work, it quickly became the norm across our institution. We defaulted to using Zoom to counter decision fatigue and the additional learning curve of other platforms as potential barriers for gathering as a community. We scheduled our meetups to take place every Friday at noon throughout our summer quarter, so we could build a reliable and consistent social space for our new community.

The meetup format and facilitation techniques we implemented for the summer 2020 series were intentionally selected to align with our values and goals. We began each meeting by setting the tone for respectful and inclusive conversation, sharing our local Community Principles (UC Riverside Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, n.d.). We then prompted a round-robin of introductions with a lightweight icebreaker question; these were occasionally research- or education-related but more often we used icebreaker prompts that allowed folks to share other aspects of themselves and their lives beyond UCR. At each meetup, we stated that audio and video were completely optional and encouraged folks to introduce themselves however they were comfortable, creating a multitude of ways for people to “take the mic”: through a collaborative notes document (using Google Docs), through the Zoom chat, or over audio/video. The overarching goal was to generate a conversation; by moving beyond one-way communication, we tried to allow space for conversation to flow organically between participants. We also made ourselves available for casual chit-chat for a few minutes before the meeting started and a few minutes after it ended. All of these techniques helped us emphasize the human-centred aspect of digital scholarship.

Having two people co-host the meetup turned out to be fundamentally necessary for managing the event in an online environment. One person could lead the conversation or share their screen for a tool demo while the other could manage meeting logistics, read out questions written in the notes document, paste relevant links into the chat, and troubleshoot technology as needed. We switched off in these roles as often as necessary, which helped to keep the flow of the meeting going and simultaneously model the collaborative nature of digital scholarship and our values. There was sometimes an improvisational element as well, as one of us was usually more versed in a given tool or method, allowing the other to ask leading questions to explore with a beginner’s mindset. We also had the opportunity to model troubleshooting while encountering broken links, newly updated software features, faulty installations, weak internet bandwidth, and more.

For the initial series of events over the summer 2020 term, we designed each meetup to include a short digital tool demonstration, including:, Voyant Tools, TimelineJS, Palladio, Airtable, OpenRefine, DataWrapper, Scalar, and Omeka. These demos provided a hook to bring people together to learn or try something new. The tool demo was informal and included a live demonstration that was open to questions and suggestions. We invited attendees to share their own screens to show works-in-progress related to the “tool of the week,” and learned about our community members’ research in the process. As a group we produced a collaborative spreadsheet to track various tools and resources for digital scholarship, which in turn provided us with new ideas for future meetup topics.

As the summer 2020 term wrapped up, we began to reflect on the format, challenges that had arisen, and ways we would like to reinvent the series for the next term. Based on the responses to a community poll, we decided to keep our meetings on Fridays at noon, but to hold them biweekly rather than weekly. The reasoning behind this decision was two-fold: we knew the fall term would likely be more intense as faculty and students began the academic year completely remote, and we acknowledged that the amount of preparation and energy required to host the meetups weekly was pushing the limits of our capacity. Additionally, we decided to restructure the meetups. The tool demonstrations for the summer meetups were originally intended to take only 15–20 minutes, but we found that they filled up the majority of our meetings and allowed less time for the social community-building aspect that we wanted to emphasize.

For the following term, fall 2020, we planned a series of meetups that were based loosely around some broader concepts in digital scholarship. We believed that these broad topics could be tailored to the participants who attended on a given day, yet be relevant enough to draw in new community members from additional disciplines and academic units, expanding the reach of the series. The fall meetup topics were: digital storytelling, digital literacy and pedagogy, project management, digital mapping, and collaboration and social media. The intentional breadth of these topics allowed for a more flexible approach. We prepared and offered two or three directions we could take the meetup conversation depending on who was in attendance, and we used Zoom polls to ask participants which topic(s) they wanted to dive into first. Ultimately, while this did allow us to customize the content of each meeting and more directly engage those community members who were present, we found that it required significantly more planning as we were essentially preparing to facilitate two or three distinct conversations. During the fall series, we also performed more “inreach” by inviting some of our library colleagues to participate and share their own expertise with particular topics.

To address the issues of the increased preparation time and emotional labour of facilitating the flexible, broad-topic approach we took in fall, during the winter 2021 quarter we iterated again on the meetup structure. We wanted to swing the pendulum back a bit from broader to more specific topics, hoping to find a happy medium between the digital tool-focused summer series and the too-broad fall topics. We thus themed each winter event according to different types of data that researchers work with as they develop digital scholarship projects. We hypothesized that focusing on the various kinds of research data would bring together cohorts of folks from across disciplines to engage in productive conversation about common challenges to preparing or analyzing their data. The topics included: working with unstructured text; managing and processing image collections; social, historical, environmental, and other kinds of network data; historical data - studying change over time; and audio and video processing and analysis. Our hypothesis was partly verified, as our attendees for these events tended to group within disciplines: for example, more musicologists and art historians attended the events focused on images and audio-visual materials, versus the historians and more of our library colleagues who attended the text and historical data events. This pseudo-disciplinary grouping of topics had the benefit of folks inviting new colleagues along to meetups that were particularly relevant to their disciplinary methods, but ultimately there may have been fewer interdisciplinary connections made than we would have hoped.

Based on our assessment of community needs that arose out of the conversations at previous meetups, for spring 2021 we chose to structure the meetups to follow the lifecycle of a digital project: getting started in digital scholarship, organizing your research materials for digital scholarship, designing user-friendly digital scholarship websites, understanding fair use for digital scholarship, and evaluating digital scholarship for promotion and tenure. We hoped to provide practical digital project resources that were discipline-agnostic and perhaps build in attendance retention as folks progressed through their own project lifecycles during the quarter. As of this writing, we are in the middle of this term’s series, but we have already seen some new folks joining the community meetings and have had fruitful conversations around community members’ practical digital project questions. Over the course of the full academic year, our events included a consistent core of regular participants, but we also saw significant attrition as our community continued to face the stresses of the pandemic. Because attendance fluctuated significantly in the winter and spring quarters, we know we need to continue to reflect on our methods for sustaining our currently active community members while also integrating and adapting to new members.

Outcomes and Next Steps

To summarize what we have learned from this program’s successes so far, we believe that overall (and over time), we created a space that was safe enough that folks felt comfortable sharing their work-in-progress research projects, asking questions of each other, and speaking about their lives beyond their academic work. It definitely helped to acknowledge—repeatedly—that we are all humans struggling in different ways, particularly with the challenges of conducting research remotely and dealing with the multiple ongoing crises of the global pandemic and human rights violations across and beyond the United States. We built a community of regulars from a range of backgrounds, roles, institutions, and even countries around the world who came to repeated events. The majority of students and researchers in our community come from disciplines in the arts, humanities, and social sciences, including anthropology, creative writing, dance studies, ethnic studies, Hispanic studies, history, linguistics, literature and languages, music, philosophy, psychology, and religious studies. Yet we also include a strong contingent of library workers, university staff, and researchers in other fields such as education, mathematics, medicine, and social work.

Likely due to the regularity and topical variety of the meetups, the program has become a reliable series, and many of our community members now know us and each other on a first-name basis. We have received a tremendous amount of ongoing feedback and have been able to expand our outreach and address folks' more complex questions through follow-up consultations, which has led to increased visibility for the library. Perhaps an unexpected outcome, the series has appeared to help community members in various roles, including students and faculty, better understand that they can approach us to ask questions and connect with librarians in a variety of ways.

One of our key values going into this series was to iterate as we found what worked well and what didn't. Some of the challenges we encountered included the higher-than-anticipated emotional labour required to create the plans and backup plans for days when we saw low engagement. Sharing the facilitator roles and responsibilities between the two of us certainly helped alleviate some of that, but we are still seeking strategies to create safe, inclusive, online events that do not push us beyond our own capacity in terms of the invisible and emotional labour that surrounds event planning. We discovered that it truly does take a lot of effort to virtually share the mic and build trust so that folks feel comfortable speaking up, particularly students who often seem to be intimidated by the presence of many library staff and faculty members in a space. Creating multiple channels for contribution, including more recently an ongoing Google Jamboard where folks can post ideas, images, and notes (anonymously if they prefer), was useful but did not (and likely cannot) overcome the implicit power structures involved in faculty- and staff-student relationships. We found it difficult to balance creating a space for connection while also protecting folks' privacy and acknowledging that we are all located in different physical spaces and social environments. Despite going into each meetup with carefully crafted prompts, we also learned that open-ended facilitation questions such as "How would you like to use our time today?" tended not to get responses; we had to develop our improvisational skills and ask more concrete questions to generate lively conversation.

Having had the opportunity to look back over the evolution of this series across the course of a full academic year, we believe that our intent to remain flexible and iterate was key to many of the successes we have seen so far. In effect, treating the summer 2020 series as a pilot, and then taking a step back to assess and reflect, was crucial in helping us identify which aspects of the meetups were meeting our community’s needs and where we needed to make changes. While some of the challenges that arose relate to the specific technological affordances of Zoom and live collaborative writing through Google Drive, cultivating a responsive community of practice in any format is difficult work, and we cannot overstate how grateful we are to have been in the position to take a team-based approach to planning and facilitating these virtual meetups.

We have several goals in continuing to develop this series in the coming academic year. First, we hope to increase engagement and community investment in this series by more intentionally dedicating time for community members to speak about their research and digital scholarship. For the summer 2021 series in particular, we plan to do more outreach to departments and campus units we have not yet connected with, inviting staff, faculty members, and graduate students to share their works-in-progress. We are also continuing to investigate ways to match-make research partnerships and help folks connect more easily with other digital scholarship community members asynchronously. Both Slack and Discord are under consideration by the Digital Scholarship Program team for this purpose. Having established a consistent community within our institution, we also want to begin more deliberately building relationships with other institutions and communities in the region. Finally, we would like to develop more consistent and transparent assessment practices, as well as implement more explicitly anti-racist meeting facilitation practices. We are committed to continually learning how to create more inclusive meetings and to centre the experiences of our community members with marginalized identities as well as those whose voices have historically been silenced in academic spaces. Through all of these next steps, we hope that our virtual community meetups can continue to surface and meet many of the support needs of the digital scholarship community at UCR. While this case study is tailored to our context and community needs, we hope that our approach could be replicated and some of our strategies applied in other institutional contexts.

Building a community virtually first, during a pandemic, was challenging for all the reasons described above. Further research to inform our ongoing programming might consider how a focus on care and capacity operates in virtual versus physical spaces. Both environments require building trust across extant labor and power hierarchies, although affective labor is performed differently depending on the medium. We look forward to continuing to learn from other librarians engaged in this work and to iterate on our own programming and needs assessment practices in the future.

Works Cited

Alvarez, Alvaro, Krystal Boehlert, Kevin Comerford, Sandy Enriquez, Noah Geraci, Brianna Marshall, and Rachel Starry. 2020. “UCR Library Digital Scholarship Working Group (DSWG) Report: Findings and Recommendations for a Digital Scholarship Program.” eScholarship.

Anti-Oppression Resource and Training Alliance (AORTA), 2014. “Anti-Oppressive Facilitation Guide.” Accessed May 12, 2021.

Association of Research Libraries (ARL), n.d. “Digital Scholarship Profiles.” Accessed May 4, 2021.

Cambridge, Darren, and Vicki Suter. 2005. “Community of Practice Design Guide: A Step-by-Step Guide for Designing & Cultivating Communities of Practice in Higher Education.” EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative.

Cooper, Danielle, et al. 2017. “Supporting the Changing Research Practices of Agriculture Scholars.” Ithaka S+R.

Edwards, Adam, et al. 2013. “Digital Social Research, Social Media and the Sociological Imagination: Surrogacy, Augmentation and Re-Orientation.” International Journal of Social Research Methodology 16 (3): 245–260. doi:10.1080/13645579.2013.774185.

Green, Harriett, et al. 2017. “Scholarly Commons Digital Humanities Needs Assessment Study.”

The Inclusive Historian’s Handbook, n.d. “Digital History.” Accessed Aug. 13, 2020.

Long, Matthew P., and Roger C. Schonfeld. 2014. “Preparing for the Future of Research Services for Art History: Recommendations from the Ithaka S R Report.” Art Documentation: Journal of the Art Libraries Society of North America 33 (2): 192–205.

UC Riverside Library, n.d. “Support for Digital Scholarship.” Accessed May 4, 2021.

UC Riverside Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, n.d. “UCR Principles of Community.” Accessed May 4, 2021.

Tường Vy Sharpe, Celeste. 2019. “Digital Dissertations and the Changing Nature of Doctoral Work.” American Historical Association.

Versluis, Ali, and Lillian S. Ringling. 2017. “What Collaboration Means to Me: Passing the Mic,” Collaborative Librarianship 9 (3): 164-167.

Vinopal, Jennifer, and Monica McCormick. 2013. “Supporting Digital Scholarship in Research Libraries: Scalability and Sustainability.” Journal of Library Administration 53 (1): 27–42. doi:10.1080/01930826.2013.756689.

Wiles, Rose, et al. 2009. “Consultation on Research Needs in Research Methods in the UK Social Sciences.” Working Paper, NCRM.

Wingo, Rebecca S., and Kalani Craig. 2017. “What Do Digital Historians Want? Lessons from the AHA’s Digital History Workshop.” American Historical Association.