Libraries help campus partners answer complex questions during Sprints Week

Areli Marina, associate professor of art history, had almost given up trying to wrangle the sprawling, multi-format data set that was stalling the momentum of her research.  

Meanwhile, Sam Yates Meier, a multi-term lecturer in visual communications, faced the daunting and important task of reexamining a history and philosophy of design course through a DEIB lens.  

Both struggled with complex questions to which KU Libraries helped provide answers via Sprints Week, a five-day intensive collaboration that supports KU faculty and academic staff to carry out research and build or redesign courses, producing a tangible outcome or product during the spring-summer intersession.  

Faculty and academic staff from across the university submit proposals to take part in Sprints Week, and projects are selected each spring. Michael Peper, Head of KU Libraries’ Center for Faculty & Staff Initiatives and Engagement, leads a team to organize Sprints Week. Peper said this year’s projects relied on library expertise and resources that may be less familiar to some, not centered around books or journals but “library materials of a different kind,” including digital humanities resources and pedagogical innovations, as well as librarians’ knowledge of technology and web tools. 

Areli Marina

Marina’s Sprint project focused on her research on medieval baptisteries, which are free standing churches dedicated to baptism. Her extensive field work strongly suggested that long held assumptions about the architecture, geography, and timeline of the structures were incorrect, but she struggled with organizing a large and multi-format data set to solidify and illustrate her discoveries.  

“I’m building these patterns in my head, but I have no way of quickly sorting through what’s a corpus now of 200 buildings,” Marina said. “I have no way of doing that efficiently, and I also don’t have a way to demonstrate my findings to other people.” 

Over a decade of research, Marina had amassed more than 15,000 photos, a similar-sized bibliographic archive and many notebooks teeming with handwritten field notes. She needed a way to organize her findings that showed the relationships between various forms of information — a task that seemed so unmanageable she considered giving up the project before learning of the KU Libraries’ Sprints Week opportunity.  

Marina was teamed with three KU librarians and the library’s geographic information systems analyst. The group brainstormed solutions to challenges and ultimately helped Marina use an open-source content management system and web publishing platform that connects digital cultural heritage collections with other resources online.  

“I cannot say thank you enough. [KU Libraries] have changed my life in five short days,” Marina said during her presentation of the project on the last day of Sprints Week. “That is astonishing.” 

Marina emphasized the role of the librarians in her progress. 

“It’s not technology that did this for me,” she said. “What did this for me was sitting in a room with four people who are deeply familiar with alternate ways of structuring information and other ways of visualizing information.” 

Sam Yates Meier

Meier’s Sprints project involved analyzing a history and philosophy of design course through the DEIB lens. Her Sprints Week work focused on redesigning the course syllabus and assignments, as well as creating a digital timeline tool to aid in student learning.  

While Meier initially came into the week focused on creating the structure for the visual timeline, the Sprints Week experience expanded her perspective and goals for the course including a few “aha moments,” as she talked with her librarian team about the challenges of engaging large classes. Meier and the team of librarians developed new elements of the course that give students an opportunity to become more active participants in their learning, regardless of the size of the class. 

“Whenever you look at solving that [large course] design challenge through the information literacy tools you can break things down,” Meier said. “There’s different ways to engage with students to take a 100-person lecture and make it feel a little more intimate.” 

Bringing KU Libraries insights into teaching is something that Meier thinks every professor and instructor on campus should consider. Looking at her teaching alongside the librarians opened up more possibilities for improving her students’ learning and her own teaching beyond her Sprints project.  

"With anything, I think diversity of thought makes things stronger,” Meier said. “We had different perspectives, but whenever we brought them together that’s when it expanded.”  

The end-of-week presentations, where Meier and Marina presented their work and shared their project outcomes, along with the week-long interaction between the two project groups, provided added benefit. 

“The teams got to know each other, work with each other, shared progress and learned a lot from each other as well,” Peper said. 

Marina found working alongside Meier’s Sprint project a valuable additional learning opportunity.  

“I learned so much that I can use in my own teaching, course design, and class,” Marina said. “It was a valuable intellectual experience in addition to what I learned from my own project.”  

Applications for Sprints Week 2024 open in late January, and the resources and librarian expertise applied to Sprints projects are available year round.

This content is an extended version of an article that first appeared in Annual Review, a KU Libraries publication that reviews accomplishments of the past year and a glimpse of priorities moving forward.