Falling In with the Right Crowd: Qualitative Data at IASSIST

by Dessi Kirilova, QDR Curation Specalist

As relative newcomers to the circles of data professionals, we at QDR have found the annual gathering of the International Association for Social Science Information Services and Technology (IASSIST) to be a great event to attend. At each conference since joining in 2015, we have learned about relevant ongoing projects in data science, disseminated our own qualitative-methods perspective and – probably most importantly – made rich connections within that network of experts. The friendly data librarians we’ve gotten to know provide an excellent bridge between social science scholars on a given campus and a domain repository such as ours. We have been welcomed warmly by this crowd, from the at-capacity room of the first workshop on data management for qualitative materials presented in Minneapolis, MN, where many attendees stayed for more than an hour after the official end to discuss specific scenarios; to the presentation on Annotation for Transparent Inquiry we gave in Bergen the following year; to our multiple accepted presentations in Lawrence, KS. In between the annual events, we have also engaged with the community on the lively and informative list-serve, which is an amazing IASSIST resource.

IASSIST Meetings are in pretty places. This is Bergen.
Foto credit: pixabay

The feeling that we “fit in” with these folks was never stronger than when we got invited to join the newly formed IASSIST Qualitative Social Science and Humanities Data Interest Group (QSSHDIG, casually pronounced kush-dig) that formed among fellow qualitative data enthusiasts in late 2016.

In addition to the general shared interest in the topic, we feel the specific goals for the group – to collect and create resources on qualitative data collection, management and sharing; to provide relevant professional development training; and to develop an epistemic community of data professionals interested in qualitative social science – offer great opportunities for QDR staff to contribute to this new initiative. In the course of a little more than half a year, the productive interaction could already be seen on a number of occasions.

During IASSIST 2017, as part of the panel “Stuck in the Middle with You: Building Bridges for Qualitative Science and Humanities Researcher,” Sebastian Karcher and Dessi Kirilova presented a talk on the broader issues of transparency in qualitative social science and some data-relevant solutions QDR recommends. As an IG-sponsored panel – chaired by Mandy Swygart-Hobaugh no less, one of the group’s co-founders – the set of three presentations had the thematic coherence sometimes lacking at conference panels. We highly recommend you review the slides for the panel as a whole for insight into the collective concerns of the interest group at this stage.

In a more practical direction, Sebastian, together with colleagues from the UK Data Archive, offered a workshop on “Preparing qualitative data for sharing and re-use.” The applied knowledge in it is intended to help data librarians both teach these skills to researchers on their campuses, as well as use directly in any primary research with qualitative data collection component they themselves might pursue.

Dessi assisted IG member Paula Lackie as an impromptu facilitator of a working session, “Data Services for All.” We invited participants to brainstorm about types of resources and services pertinent to working with qualitative materials that they would find most helpful. In the presence of the current IASSIST president Tuomas Alaterä, the conversation turned also to the question of what institutionalized support for developing such resources IASSIST might be able to offer or coordinate. Inevitably, these big questions could not be settled on the spot, but the overwhelming choice of the librarians in the session – to work collaboratively on a series of LibGuides covering various qualitative methods and data topics – was picked up for further development in a recent post on the QSSDHIG blog.

During the less formal Birds-of-a-Feather QSSDHIG meet-up, we gleaned further evidence from librarian colleagues across a variety of institutions of one of the key challenges QDR has also identified in the realm of qualitative data. The scholars who typically create, collect and use empirical materials that fit under this description are often not used to thinking of them as “data” – and sometimes actively resist calling them so. While it is not our role to challenge the disciplinary epistemic and ontological commitments that might lead to this position, we do believe it is our responsibility to communicate with researchers in a manner they find relatable. In a small way we try to build the bridges between qualitative methodology and the vision of long-term preservation of the items created with it by using flexible labels such as “source files” or “qualitative materials” interchangeably with “qualitative data.”

In another example of our ongoing commitment to both the group and its motivating ambitions, we are proud to say that among the dozen or so experts on the list started as one of the earliest resources the IG has already put together, QDR staff shows up again – twice! While our focus will remain on the data management and long-term preservation aspects of qualitative work, our own backgrounds as social science scholars who have done extensive fieldwork and are using qualitative methods ourselves inform and enliven all the guidance we offer, whether in written materials on the QDR site or in one-on-one consultations with scholars who approach us for advice tailored to concrete projects.

Last but not least, we were grateful to be invited to lead the first of the IASSIST-wide webinar series to be launched this Fall with a live event on September 28. The topic we’ll be talking about. “Teaching Qualitative Data Management: Lessons from QDR” suggested itself to us in the course of all these intertwined conversations described above. You can register for the webinar here.

If you are also already a member of the QSSDHIG, please join us at the webinar to continue our exchange. And if you are not, but are now intrigued, we hope you will request membership!