Our Graduate Assistants: Abigail Sewall

This interview is part of a continued series introducing our graduate assistants to our online community. These are some of the people you will see when you visit our space, who will greet you with a smile and a willingness to help! Say hello to Abigail Sewall!

What is your background education and work experience?

Before coming to graduate school, I was working as an administrator in standardized testing for a few years. I am a fountain of useless knowledge on most national standardized tests such as the GRE, SAT, and LSAT. The aspect of my job that I liked the most was talking to people and guiding them through what was inevitably one of the most stressful days of their life. I feel like the unique customer service environment of that job oddly enough prepared me well for working at a reference desk, especially during those stressful times of the semester where people are in panic mode. Before I worked in standardized testing I received my undergraduate degree from the University of Colorado in Boulder in Spanish Literature and Political Science. I wrote my undergraduate honors thesis in comparative politics on trust in the police in Latin American countries. Through this process I had to learn to do large scale data analysis using a large public opinion survey database. It was a challenging project but I got a lot of help from the library.

What led you to your field?

My love of libraries developed as an undergraduate. I loved working on research projects because it gave me an opportunity to talk to one of the librarians, explore the collections, and discover the seemingly endless resources available in the library. The library really enriched my academic experience in such a profound way I wanted to be able to share that experience with others and help make the magic happen. Librarianship is a great intersection of my interests because it is both an intellectually challenging field and performs a valuable service to the community.

What are your research interests?

Where to begin? I am currently really interested in Twitter data literacy. I use Twitter every day and I find it to be a rich source of political and social discourse. I like to see how text data extracted from the popular micro blogging platform is used to address a variety of research questions. I’ve done some research on institutional archiving of Twitter data, which allowed me to consider some of the ethical and cultural implications of collecting and storing social media data. I am now working on learning how to scrape data from Twitter using Python. Experimenting with Python has been interesting because I don’t come from a technical background but I am finding I make slow but sure progress with it. I am excited to see where it takes me and I may even try building my own Twitter database.

What are your favorite projects you’ve worked on?

One of my favorite projects I’ve worked on as a Scholarly Commons GA was developing resources for using US Census data for students and researchers. In the process of making our LibGuide on the Census I learned a lot about the census questionnaire and how researchers use census data. It was also a lot of fun to help my supervisor with the US Census workshop because I love instruction and it was a great opportunity to show my expertise.

What are some of your favorite underutilized Scholarly Commons resources that you would recommend?

Our LibGuides! We have dozens of guides on a variety of subjects such as software tutorials, data discovery, digital humanities, and more. Each guide has been thoughtfully assembled by one of our librarians or GAs and contain links to resources, advice, and information to suit all of your research technology needs. I taught myself how to use SPSS using our SPSS tutorial LibGuide and would highly recommend it to anyone! Check out all of our guides on our webpage!

What is the one thing you would want people to know about your field?

I think it is important for people to recognize that libraries are always a reflection of the community they serve. All the services we offer at the Scholarly Commons address a specific need of the scholars and students at our university. We provide a space for collaborative work, software and technology available no where else on campus, and instruction to supplement the resources in our unit. I hope in my career that I will be able to continue to serve the needs of my community, whatever they may be.

 

Illinois Digital Humanities Projects That Will Blow Your Mind

We are living in a moment where we get to discover the exciting possibilities of working, learning, and sharing on digital formats. I have decided to use this as an opportunity to appreciate the ways in which others have already embraced the power digital platforms to enhance their research. In this post I will highlight three amazing digital humanities projects that researchers right here at the University of Illinois contributed to. For each project I will provide a link to their official web page, a brief description of the project, and the name and department of the UIUC researcher who contributed to this project. Prepare to be wowed by the amazing digital work to have come out of our University research community.

Owen Wilson mouthing the word wow

“Prepare to be wowed”- Owen Wilson

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Using Article Citations to Find Data for Social Science

Whether we like it or not, using quantitative measures in social science research has become increasingly important for getting your work published and recognized. If you’ve never used data before and don’t even know where to start this can seem a little daunting. The good news is: You most likely won’t have to collect your own data. There is so much data already out there but the hard part can be finding it. In this post I will explain one strategy for finding social science data: using article citations.

Looney Toons' Wiley Coyote searching a landscape with binoculars

You don’t have to look too far to find the right data

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Stata vs. R vs. SPSS for Data Analysis

As you do research with larger amounts of data, it becomes necessary to graduate from doing your data analysis in Excel and find a more powerful software. It can seem like a really daunting task, especially if you have never attempted to analyze big data before. There are a number of data analysis software systems out there, but it is not always clear which one will work best for your research. The nature of your research data, your technological expertise, and your own personal preferences are all going to play a role in which software will work best for you. In this post I will explain the pros and cons of Stata, R, and SPSS with regards to quantitative data analysis and provide links to additional resources. Every data analysis software I talk about in this post is available for University of Illinois students, faculty, and staff through the Scholarly Commons computers and you can schedule a consultation with CITL if you have specific questions.

Short video loop of a kid sitting at a computer and putting on sun glasses

Rock your research with the right tools!


STATA

Stata logo. Blue block lettering spelling out Stata.

Among researchers, Stata is often credited as the most user-friendly data analysis software. Stata is popular in the social sciences, particularly economics and political science. It is a complete, integrated statistical software package, meaning it can accomplish pretty much any statistical task you need it to, including visualizations. It has both a point-and-click user interface and a command line function with easy-to-learn command syntax. Furthermore, it has a system for version-control in place, so you can save syntax from certain jobs into a “do-file” to refer to later. Stata is not free to have on your personal computer. Unlike an open-source program, you cannot program your own functions into Stata, so you are limited to the functions it already supports. Finally, its functions are limited to numeric or categorical data, it cannot analyze spatial data and certain other types.

 

Pros

Cons

User friendly and easy to learn An individual license can cost
between $125 and $425 annually
Version control Limited to certain types of data
Many free online resources for learning You cannot program new
functions into Stata

Additional resources:


R logo. Blue capital letter R wrapped with a gray oval.

R and its graphical user interface companion R Studio are incredibly popular software for a number of reasons. The first and probably most important is that it is a free open-source software that is compatible with any operating system. As such, there is a strong and loyal community of users who share their work and advice online. It has the same features as Stata such as a point-and-click user interface, a command line, savable files, and strong data analysis and visualization capabilities. It also has some capabilities Stata does not because users with more technical expertise can program new functions with R to use it for different types of data and projects. The problem a lot of people run into with R is that it is not easy to learn. The programming language it operates on is not intuitive and it is prone to errors. Despite this steep learning curve, there is an abundance of free online resources for learning R.

Pros

Cons

Free open-source software Steep learning curve
Strong online user community Can be slow
Programmable with more functions
for data analysis

Additional Resources:

  • Introduction to R Library Guide: Find valuable overviews and tutorials on this guide published by the University of Illinois Library.
  • Quick-R by DataCamp: This website offers tutorials and examples of syntax for a whole host of data analysis functions in R. Everything from installing the package to advanced data visualizations.
  • Learn R on Code Academy: A free self-paced online class for learning to use R for data science and beyond.
  • Nabble forum: A forum where individuals can ask specific questions about using R and get answers from the user community.

SPSS

SPSS logo. Red background with white block lettering spelling SPSS.

SPSS is an IBM product that is used for quantitative data analysis. It does not have a command line feature but rather has a user interface that is entirely point-and-click and somewhat resembles Microsoft Excel. Although it looks a lot like Excel, it can handle larger data sets faster and with more ease. One of the main complaints about SPSS is that it is prohibitively expensive to use, with individual packages ranging from $1,290 to $8,540 a year. To make up for how expensive it is, it is incredibly easy to learn. As a non-technical person I learned how to use it in under an hour by following an online tutorial from the University of Illinois Library. However, my take on this software is that unless you really need a more powerful tool just stick to Excel. They are too similar to justify seeking out this specialized software.

Pros

Cons

Quick and easy to learn By far the most expensive
Can handle large amounts of data Limited functionality
Great user interface Very similar to Excel

Additional Resources:

Gif of Kermit the frog dancing and flailing his arms with the words "Yay Statistics" in block letters above

Thanks for reading! Let us know in the comments if you have any thoughts or questions about any of these data analysis software programs. We love hearing from our readers!

 

A Brief Explanation of GitHub for Non-Software-Developers

GitHub is a platform mostly used by software developers for collaborative work. You might be thinking “I’m not a software developer, what does this have to do with me?” Don’t go anywhere! In this post I explain what GitHub is and how it can be applied to collaborative writing for non-programmers. Who knows, GitHub might become your new best friend.

Gif of a cat typing

You don’t need to be a computer wiz to get Git.

Picture this: you and some colleagues have similar research interests and want to collaborate on a paper. You have divided the writing work to allow each of you to work on a different element of the paper. Using a cloud platform like Google Docs or Microsoft Word online you compile your work, but things start to get messy. Edits are made on the document and you are unsure who made them or why. Elements get deleted and you do not know how to retrieve your previous work. You have multiple files saved on your computer with names like “researchpaper1.dox”, “researchpaper1 with edits.dox” and “research paper1 with new edits.dox”. Managing your own work is hard enough but when collaborators are added to the mix it just becomes unmanageable. After a never ending reply-all email chain and what felt like the longest meeting of all time, you and your colleagues are finally on the same page about the writing and editing of your paper. It just makes you think, there has got to be a better way to do this. Issues with collaboration are not exclusive to writing, they happen all the time in programming, which is why software-developers came up with version control systems like Git and GitHub.

Gif of Spongebob running around an office on fire with paper and filing cabinets on the floor

Managing versions of your work can be stressful. Don’t panic because GitHub can help.

GitHub allows developers to work together through branching and merging. Branching is the process by which the original file or source code is duplicated into clone files. These clones contain all the elements already in the original file and can be worked in independently. Developers use these clones to write and test code before combining it with the original code. Once their version of the code is ready they integrate or “push” it into the source code in a process called merging. Then, other members of the team are alerted of these changes and can “pull” the merged code from the source code into their respective clones. Additionally, every version of the project is saved after changes are made, allowing users to consult previous versions. Every version of your project is saved with with descriptions of what changes were made in that particular version, these are called commits. Now, this is a simplified explanation of what GitHub does but my hope is that you now understand GitHub’s applications because what I am about to say next might blow your mind: GitHub is not just for programmers! You do not need to know any coding to work with GitHub. After all, code and written language are very similar.

Even if you cannot write a single line of code, GitHub can be incredibly useful for a variety of reasons:
1. It allows you to electronically backup your work for free.
2. All the different versions of your work are saved separately, allowing you to look back at previous edits.
3. It alerts all collaborators when a change is made and they can merge that change into their own versions of the text.
4. It allows you to write using plain text, something commonly requested by publishers.

Hopefully, if you’ve made it this far into the article you’re thinking, “This sounds great, let’s get started!” For more information on using GitHub you can consult the Library’s guide on GitHub or follow the step by step instructions on GitHub’s Hello-World Guide.

Gif of man saying "check it out" and pointing to the right.

There are many resources on getting started with GitHub. Check them out!

Here are some links to what others have said about using GitHub for non-programmers:

Meet Spencer Keralis, Digital Humanities Librarian

Spencer Keralis teaches a class.

This latest installment of our series of interviews with Scholarly Commons experts and affiliates features one of the newest members of our team, Spencer Keralis, Digital Humanities Librarian.


What is your background and work experience?

I have a Ph.D. in English and American Literature from New York University. I started working in libraries in 2011 as a Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) Fellow with the University of North Texas Libraries, doing research on data management policy and practice. This turned into a position as a Research Associate Professor working to catalyze digital scholarship on campus, which led to the development of Digital Frontiers, which is now an independent non-profit corporation. I serve as the Executive Director of the organization and help organize the annual conference. I have previous experience working as a project manager in telecom and non-profits. I’ve also taught in English and Communications at the university level since 2006.

What led you to this field?

My CLIR Fellowship really sparked the career change from English to libraries, but I had been considering libraries as an alternate career path prior to that. My doctoral research was heavily archives-based, and I initially thought I’d pursue something in rare books or special collections. My interest in digital scholarship evolved later.

What is your research agenda?

My current project explores how the HIV-positive body is reproduced and represented in ephemera and popular culture in the visual culture of the early years of the AIDS epidemic. In American popular culture, representations of the HIV-positive body have largely been defined by Therese Frare’s iconic 1990 photograph of gay activist David Kirby on his deathbed in an Ohio hospital, which was later used for a United Colors of Benetton ad. Against this image, and other representations which medicalized or stigmatized HIV-positive people, people living with AIDS and their allies worked to remediate the HIV-positive body in ephemera including safe sex pamphlets, zines, comics, and propaganda. In my most recent work, I’m considering the reclamation of the erotic body in zines and comics, and how the HIV-positive body is imagined as an object of desire differently in these underground publications than they are in mainstream queer comics representing safer sex. I also consider the preservation and digitization of zines and other ephemera as a form of remediation that requires a specific ethical positioning in relation to these materials and the community that produced them, engaging with the Zine Librarians’ Code of Conduct, folksonomies and other metadata schema, and collection and digitization policies regarding zines from major research libraries. This research feels very timely and urgent given rising rates of new infection among young people, but it’s also really fun because the materials are so eclectic and often provocative. You can check out a bit of this research on the UNT Comics Studies blog.

 Do you have any favorite work-related duties?

I love working with students and helping them develop their research questions. Too often students (and sometimes faculty, let’s be honest) come to me and ask “What tools should I learn?” I always respond by asking them what their research question is. Not every research question is going to be amenable to digital tools, and not every tool works for every research question. But having a conversation about how digital methods can potentially enrich a student’s research is always rewarding, and I always learn so much from these conversations.

 What are some of your favorite underutilized resources that you would recommend to researchers?

I think comics and graphic novels are generally underappreciated in both pedagogy and research. There are comics on every topic, and historical comics go back much further than most people realize. I think the intersection of digital scholarship with comics studies has a lot of potential, and a lot of challenges that have yet to be met – the technical challenge of working with images is significant, and there has yet to be significant progress on what digital scholarship in comics might look like. I also think comics belong more in classes – all sorts of classes, there are comics on every topic, from math and physics, to art and literature – than they are now because they reach students differently than other kinds of texts.

 If you could recommend one book or resource to beginning researchers in your field, what would you recommend?

I’m kind of obsessed with Liz Losh and Jacque Wernimont’s edited collection Bodies of Information: Intersectional Feminism and Digital Humanities because it’s such an important intervention in the field. I’d rather someone new to DH start there than with some earlier, canonical works because it foregrounds alternative perspectives and methodologies without centering a white, male perspective. Better, I think, to start from the margins and trouble some of the traditional narratives in the discipline right out the gate. I’m way more interested in disrupting monolithic or hegemonic approaches to DH than I am in gatekeeping, and Liz and Jacque’s collection does a great job of constructively disrupting the field.