Thursday, October 30, 2014

OHSU Library receives LSTA grant to digitize historical public health data

Yesterday's mail brought great news: Our proposal for Library Services & Technology Act funding was approved! Early next year, we'll embark on our next big grant-funded project, titled Public Health in Oregon: Accessing Historical Data for Scientific Discovery.

Our project proposes to solve a problem experienced by many of our researchers: HC&A's collections contain a wealth of scientific data that is still valuable for research, but can't be used in today's research environment until it's digitized. From the proposal:
    OHSU Library’s Historical Collections & Archives (HC&A) holds extensive 19th-20th century collections documenting public health in Oregon. The collections consist of unique archival materials that are available nowhere else, as well as rare publications held in few other libraries. Many of the records deal with under-served populations, including rural communities, the disabled, the mentally ill, ethnic minorities, and adolescents. Historians and journalists often visit HC&A to consult these materials for research on the history of public health. However, these analog materials are largely inaccessible to the data-driven health sciences researchers whose predecessors created them. This is a regional example of the global problem of legacy data – valuable research information that is difficult to use due to format or access system. Inaccessible legacy data hinders scientific discovery, and generates redundancies and inefficiencies in the research enterprise.


    To serve the needs of public health professionals and related interdisciplinary researchers, we propose to develop a digital resource that provides open access to historical records on public health in Oregon. The resource will be accessed through the library’s website as a digital collection.

    A key feature of this project is that it will provide access to both scans of original materials, as well as data extracted from the materials into downloadable electronic files that are suitable for data analysis. According to the users we surveyed in the public health field, open access to hard data, as well as the original documents where the data is found, is necessary to the success of this project. Staff assigned to this project will use a combination of automated and manual processes to curate and create access to the data, consulting with advisors to establish standards and measure success. The data curation aspect of the project is experimental, and our results have the potential to greatly benefit both our users and the library and archives communities at large.
What does that mean, exactly? Well, the grant will support hiring student workers to conduct digitization, a few equipment and software purchases, and some consulting time with a data scientist in the Ontology Development Group. Max Johnson and I will consult with our target audience of public health researchers, educators, students, service providers, and historians to gather detailed feedback on their needs, prioritize materials for digitization, and establish standards for organization and description. The final results will be a collection in Digital Commons that presents both digitized materials from our collections, as well as downloadable data files. Much about this project will be experimental, and we don't know exactly what's around the corner - which is part of what makes it so exciting!