The silver lining of working from home

I live, and now work, a half block from Duke’s east campus. From my window perch I see social distance in action. People walk, jog, and scooter down sidewalks. On nice days I amble toward East Campus where small multitudes navigate the campus perimeter. These days the East Campus wall harbors more exercising but fewer klatches. Two weeks ago, Zoom was a little used feature of my work environment. Now working from home, Zoom workshops and data consultations are my new normal.

As a data science librarian my work is service oriented: helping people use digital tools. I enjoy assisting people as they become more data savvy, more digitally self-sufficient. This work is part of broader and ongoing digital transitions. While Zoom is new to me, remote online interactions are not. Duke boasts a proud legacy as a face-to-face campus but recently COVID-19 health concerns demand rethinking the feasibility of close interactions. Now more than ever we rely on existing digital tools that are quickly adopted even if unfamiliar.

As the library was nearing a complete physical shutdown, I was gearing up my Zoom offerings. My first Zoom consultation was with a student in Key West. I don’t know if she is a resident or stayed after the official end of spring break. I do know we both appreciate the utility of remote consultations. Through a combination of Zoom, email, and our consultation tested the limits of the newest digital tools: shared screens, swapped datasets and code. It was a resoundingly useful digital interaction.

As the next days came into view I busied myself hosting more Zoom consultations, fielding questions from patrons over email, and retooling previously scheduled workshops for streaming. Fortunately I had a head start. My job has me actively engaged with the nascent and extant technologies already embedded in the Library. Online – in my digital notebooks and on my digital shelves – I offer streamable recordings of previous workshops. The associated resources for those workshops – slide decks, datasets and code – are shareable under creative-commons license and available on our library web sites as well as on GitHub.

The the Center for Data & Visualization Sciences promotes reproducibility and transparent data management through the utility of open source tools as well. My workshops promote reproducible scholarly workflows that are enabled or enhanced with easily squired open source tools. We regularly meet scholars working with machine actionable resources. Now, with heightened COVID awareness, these methods and techniques are another reason in favor of adopting tools that help overcome the crisis of reproducibility. In this way I display and support modern analysis tools that are top-shelf alternatives to proprietary software and insular data practices.

People sometimes think of the library as a locus of physical objects and physical scholarship services. I myself appreciate preserving the physical artifacts of scholarship. However, I’m employed in another vital part of our vibrant Library. I work in the part of the library that always plants a foot firmly in evolving methods. In this way the Library is helping foster scholarship enhanced by digital technologies, actively engaged in preserving the past and operating in the shrewd present with a proficiency of modern conveniences.

But none of this is new. For years, I have carried out my duties in a work-from-home setting. For me the library always expresses this duality. (Consider that my first experiences with computers include ATM machines and library catalogs – back then all the screens were monochrome green on black.) I’ve worked at the Duke Library for more than 25 years; my first job was an Electronic Information Specialist (aka Reference Librarian) in the Pubic Documents department – the US Government being the largest publisher of digital information, at that time.

Now, in the days of COVID-19, we are suddenly practicing and relying on tele-work. However in actuality the Duke University Libraries were already leaders using the digital tools of the day. We were already an institutional subscriber to tools like Zoom, even if we had not fully leveraged Zoom before COVID-19. We recorded our workshops. We shared our datasets and code on GitHub. We answered data questions on email and used Skype with remote patrons. We practice FAIR and open data management with open source tools such as Git, R, and Python. Maybe we had note completely stress tested these remote working concepts and tools. But arguably we had been stress testing all along. Now, in the current moment, current practice means using our open digital work environment within our capabilities.

I feel fortunate that the medical imperative of my remote work is supported by the Libraries. I’m very thankful Duke is poised as a leader, helping us all flatten-the-curve via social distancing while we move through novel stages of this work-from-home campaign.

Beyond my face-to-face meetings while in my former on-site office cubicle, I often worked and listened to music through headphones. In my new home office, né bedroom, I play music over actual speakers and chat more often with my semi-retired wife. There’s not a lot of chatting – I am working – but we have lunch together and she catches me up on her doings. We eat healthy meals. I can cook creatively for lunch and be back at work in a fraction of the time it takes to walk to the dining hall.

While my location has changed, the digital transitions are not particularly novel. What is difficult is the pandemic, especially for people with kids and parents in nearby spaces. It is a great concern. While I work from home in relative ease, I think about front-line workers and people juggling critical family issues. Those are the real challenges. Working from home is a silver lining.

CC BY-NC March 25, 2020

John Little
John Little
Data Science Librarian

Using the Tidyverse to wrangle data into happy little rectangles