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Thoughts on Keeping Track of the University of Illinois’ foot-print

Posted on Monday, August 23, 2010 in Uncategorized

In the course of developing eBlackChampaign-Urbana one of our most important finds (and also perhaps the most pressing issue we can address) is the helter-skelter way in which research (especially local research) is carried out at the University of Illinois in relation to local issues of poverty and inequality, which historically have often centered on African-Americans. A recently digitized source in the eBlackChampaign-Urbana database is a work entitled “Descriptive Inventory of Resources for the Ecology of Mental Health and Work With the Disadvantaged.” Despite the long-winded title, the work essentially consists of a listing of University of Illinois research and engagement projects aimed at working with and benefiting the disadvantaged (broadly defined), under the rubric of the then buzz-term in the academy “Ecology of Mental Health,” which bridged social work and anthropology in the last years of the turbulent 1960s.

Interestingly, this project, which began as a research project of a University of Illinois faculty member, ultimately fell into the lap of the first University of Illinois archivist, Maynard Brichford, who immediately recognized the necessity of keeping tabs on a whirl-wind campus to ensure accountability and accurate documentation. Brichford initially had hoped that the publication would be a recurring publication, but unfortunately in the late 1960s the University went through a period of accelerated decentralization resulting in the further fragmentation of campus around disciplinary and departmental boundaries, making any holistic project such as this out of reach and ultimately impossible to carry out with the already meager resources of the nascent University Archives (and the abandonment of the project by the University faculty who ultimately began it).

Interestingly, six years after this project the Institute of Government and Public Affairs released a report entitled Responsibilities in the Black Community which although a different project than the earlier volume came to many of the same conclusions – namely it is excruciatingly difficult to keep tabs on different programs and initiatives coming out of different units of the University of Illinois and Parkland College that are all aimed at working with the same community, namely African-Americans in Champaign-Urbana.

Flash-forward to today and what do we see? The latest iteration of this project of listing is the Public Engagement Portal (PEP) (, a multi-year project of the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Public Engagement to comprehensively list and make accessible information on upcoming and past programs of the University of Illinois that have a public engagement aspect (broadly defined). While I applaud this initiative, my main concern is the seeming disconnect in this portal between research and engagement (which is nearly as nebulous a term as the 1960’s ‘Ecology of Mental Health’). Furthermore, the Portal is good for aggregating upcoming public events, but would less useful for aggregating data on projects that because of IRB would be unable to broadcast its existence until after the fact and/or other projects that perhaps never get beyond the incubation stage, yet nonetheless need to be documented as part of the University’s foot-print in the local community. Finally, the PEP Portal seems to have very little historical consciousness, meaning that in my attendance of PEP meetings and workshops there seems to be very little recognition by the largely technologist creators of the historical situation and legacy within which this initiative is brewing and developing.

What are some of the lessons of this historical legacy?
1) In the often cut-throat politics of the University of Illinois in order for a documentation project to have any legs it needs to show results immediately, and in a language that has research value. In other words, one could argue that the failure of the two earlier projects was their inability to go beyond documentation to mining the data they produced to come up with new knowledge which could in turn be re-invested and then checked against future listings.
2) Audience is key! In the first project the audience was apparently anyone. Interested in expanding the historical record, Maynard Brichford, as an archivist, believed (as I do) that there is inherent value in ensuring a broadly accurate and accessible historical record. However, such a project was not attuned to the politics and political economy of the University of Illinois as an ever-pushing forward research one institution. In the second project the audience was apparently policy makers, with the goal of increasing more efficiency in local projects by increasing access to these programs for the targeted populations (namely local African-Americans). In the third project the audience is also broadly defined, but seems especially developed as a marketing mechanism for the University of Illinois to toot its own horn and use the power of technology to market its programs across campus more effectively.

What similar listings exist in other schools? I have not investigated this question – but would be extremely interested in finding out how other campuses have found ways to track their foot-print in diverse communities.

A final note. One of my advisers in the Community Informatics Research Laboratory, Kate Williams, is involved in a multi-year project to build a dataset documenting community informatics projects across the United States. According to the project’s abstract:

“This paper connects the concepts of memory, archives, and community informatics by describing and analyzing the experience of constructing an archive of community informatics material. It thus reports the research work of creating a dataset which can be used by many scholars in our field and beyond. The primary purpose of the paper is to stimulate some new thinking about a shared community informatics research agenda, in the context of policy shifts.”

In the field of data curation the trend has been towards the construction of discipline specific data-sets, yet I think the key-word in the above abstract is “which can be used by many scholars in our field and beyond.” I think the pressing question is data re-usability or finding ways, using technology or otherwise, to make data fit into different boxes for different purposes to get maximum bang for the buck and thereby get increased buy-in for these documentation projects. What other units, for what other purposes, would have interest in this data? How could one predict such use? Archivists have traditionally thrown up their hands at such a visionary question and just settled, especially in a time of voluminous documentation, of providing bare-bones description that benefits few but the most intrepid researchers. But there must be another way…

Professor Williams has also spear-headed a project to document the University of Illinois’ Public Computing impact in a project entitled Public Computing at 50, which has as one of its goals coming to grips with the University of Illinois’ various public computing projects and using this knowledge to construct the future. As the University informaticizes one could imagine that a project to continually document the University of Illinois’ public computing foot-print run into the same problems that plagued Brichford’s 1967 effort, namely lack of interest in contributing by diverse stake-holders pursuing their separate research projects. One of the dilemmas found by the project is the Green Street divide, or the problem of connecting the hard sciences and engineering with the social sciences and humanities. Now that three rounds of Community Informatics Seed Funding have been released it seems like there should be a data-set emerging that could be used, but why, and what incentives exist to continue this project?

Links for documents mentioned in this post:

Bring on the comments

  1. Sharon Irish says:

    Hi Noah, Thanks for these thoughtful remarks. I am struck by the need to make the university more permeable, in the sense that some of us who work at the university are also long-time community residents, so we shift between locations and roles regularly, but often without as much intention as we might. This blog posts has some good ideas, as well as some references in the comments:

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