Crossposted at the Scholars’ Lab blog.

All Scholars’ Lab staff are encouraged to take 20% of their time to initiate research and professional development. In this post, we’ll share some of what we’ve been working on, and explain the rationale behind making this 20% time a formal part of our job descriptions.

What is 20% time?

Previously also referred to as “personal R&D time”, we’ve recently shifted to saying “self-initiated R&D time” to emphasize that this work is often collaborative, and always feeds back into the lab: what’s unique about 20% time is special leeway to experiment and fail, and formal support for staff to initiate and direct their own professional and scholarly development on the job. Making this a specific job expectation can help folks feel comfortable pursuing learning that isn’t immediately applicable to scholarship, but probably will be later on. For example, GIS Specialist Drew Macqueen’s “Arduino Chris” (GIF below, courtesy of Drew) used the problem of our office lights (which turn off when folks weren’t moving around much at their desks) to get some practice building electronics, which he can now apply to research consultations and collaborations as part of his spatial technologies toolkit:

GIF of Drew Macqueen's "Arduino Chris", using electronics and a photo of GIS Specialist Chris Gist to turn the office lights back on when they go off from no one moving around.

Above: GIF of Drew Macqueen’s “Arduino Chris”, using electronics and a photo of GIS Specialist Chris Gist to turn the office lights back on when they go off from no one moving around.

Note that “R&D time” (aka 20% time, personal R&D time, self-initiated R&D time) is distinct from the work of our Research & Development (R&D) unit, which focuses on programming and design.

What kinds of work can it be used for?

As with our other staff work, we hold our use of 20% time to the following 3 commitments (also outlined in our team charter):

  1. At any moment, we should be able to relate our projects to the larger missions of the Scholars’ Lab, the Library, and the University as a whole.
  2. We should be able to articulate the interest and value of our individual and collaborative work.
  3. Our projects – including projects undertaken with UVa faculty and grads – are expected to enter public conversation and to be shared as broadly as possible. We have an expansive and evolving notion of valid “publication” events and public outcomes. We value open source code and open access information.

How is self-initiated R&D a good investment in our staff?

One of our greatest strengths is our team of experts, folks with deep scholarly and professional training and experience across the disciplines. Every one of us embodies what I think of as full scholarship—internationally recognized research, combined with a passion for teaching, community care, and social justice that’s necessary for research to function as scholarship. Our department, the UVA Library, makes an unusually (perhaps uniquely, within DH?) strong investment in digital and experiment scholarship through hard-money (i.e. not grant-dependent) funding of 12 full-time employees in the Scholars’ Lab, plus 1 part-time employee (a full-time UVA staffer, with part of their FTE bought out from the English Department by the Library), and 1 full-time grant-funded employee. Given that Centernet (the international organization of DH centers) defines DH centers with 5+ FTEs as “large”, we are rich indeed in this most important of scholarly resources.

Self-initiated R&D time helps us make the best use of that staff investment. Formally committing to allowing on-the-job professional development is diffrent than requiring staff to make special proposals to their supervisors if they want to write a paper, learn a skill, or try something that may or may not pan out. Our staff need to stay at the forefront of experimental and digital scholarship, if they’re to do their best in nurturing and collaborating on the campus community’s research in these areas. Often, that means work that may or may not prove to have a scholarly application at UVA (but we wouldn’t know unless we tried).

As Former Scholars’ Lab Director Bethany Nowviskie notes, “For software developers, who can command larger salaries outside the academy, [20% time is] a much-valued perk. For alt-ac staff, who trained as scholars, it is almost a psychological necessity” (Nowviskie, 2012, “Too Small to Fail”). 20% time lets us hire and retain folks with strong backgrounds in research and self-initiated experimentation. If we require these skills in a job ad, why wouldn’t we want to structure the role to help staff continue strengthening such work once on the job?

Our current staff includes 2 UVA general faculty members, 1 UVA full professor, 3 staff with humanities Ph.D.s, 5 additional staff with Ph.D. A.B.D.s, and 3 staff with terminal M.L.S.s, in addition to professional training and certification in areas such as project management, and teaching as UVA instructors of record. Formal R&D time not only supports strong hiring and retention, it also helps our staff remain or become scholars themselves, so that they can bring that experience to their interactions with other faculty, staff, and student scholars on campus: “R&D time is the thing that ensures that the Scholars’ Lab… can become an interesting intellectual community in its own right, and be perceived as such by our colleagues on the teaching faculty” (Nowviskie). Note that this is important for all our staff, not just those holding degrees or hired with explicit research work in their job description; this “helps the SLab along in our ambition to function as a team of equals—a family, with shared, long-term commitments to our mission together” (Nowviskie).

How is self-initiated R&D good for not only the Lab, but for the Library and UVA as well?

Bethany Nowviskie wrote comprehensively and persuasively about the importance of 20% time, back in 2012 in “Too Small to Fail”, particularly in the section titled “Scholar-Practitioners”. I strongly recommend you read her piece if you’re considering asking for R&D time, supporting colleagues in an R&D time pilot, or have doubts about 20% time being a good choice. In addition to narrating the UVA DH history that led to the formation of the Lab, and the Lab’s rationale for investing heavily in grad students, Bethany covers:

  • A specific 20% time use that went on to impact many libraries: Project Blacklight (“solve[d] a serious problem for libraries dependent on expensive and inflexible vendor-provided catalog interfaces”)
  • How 20% time helps improve existing projects & create new ones (e.g. our NEH-funded tool for telling stories in space and time, Neatline)
  • Google’s popularization of 20% time in industry, where DH centers frequently lose technical staff
  • Scholars’ Lab’s self-initiated R&D time has now been adopted at other DH centers and labs (e.g. Princeton) & is cited as a best practice
  • Helps us retain a healthy, sustainable working environment: “I’ve watched too many digital humanities centers and projects balloon and then seem to lose their direction, getting caught up in soft-money scrambles and taking on work that is less than ideal for them, just to keep good staff employed” (Nowviskie)
  • As Bethany argues, it’s just good. We work to treat our staff as the experts they are, give them some guidelines but trust them to lead on what/when/where their best work happens, invest in them as humans who love to learn. Not because it’s good for the institution’s missions (although it very much is!), but because we need to take responsibility for making our institutions and communities better at caring for and celebrating people.

Our implementation of 20% time directly supports the strategic direction illustrated in UVA Library’s “Library Entering Its Third Century” recommendations, particularly: “Deepen subject and methodological expertise across the Library by developing a culture of R&D that strengthens our ability to contribute to the research, scholarly, and artistic enterprise of the University”.

Show me some projects!

In March 2018, we started what I hope can be an annual practice: getting the team together to eat pizza and share about the self-initiated R&D we’re working on. It was lovely; we easily used up two hours asking questions and making suggestions about future work. (12 of our staff were able to attend, so that’s roughly ten minutes per person.)

With the staff’s permission, I’m sharing what each of us was working on, to give you a picture of what 20% time can look like. (Please do note I may have lost nuances as a simultaneous note-taker and pizza-eater, and that these were only accurate as of March 2018—folks are working on different things now.)

Ammon Shepherd (DH Developer): make art that’s tactilely responsive; thermal detonator watch with 12 LEDs to show the hour + access big data from somewhere

Laura Miller (Head of Public Programs): Scholars’ Lab alumni network (map, viz) illustrating where our students go on to, showing the impact the lab has on careers and the field; Zoe made a couple Jupyter notebook demos to think through how this might look

Zoe LeBlanc (DH Developer): for her app to store archival images, rewrote the logic and added auto-segmenting for paragraphs of text; work with computer vision scripts (OpenCV?), training dataset creation; was built in Django and AngularJS, she’s now rebuilding in React; statistics methodology by issue of magazines she’s studying; Cairo ’60s anti-colonial ideas change over time, so showing conceptual clustering changing over time; tagging images in her app (e.g. JFK images); interest in building her own OCR engine some day; Shane has possible data-testing set to use (cryptography journals)

Brandon Walsh (Head of Student Programs): anxious pedagogies, thinking through how to expect + deal with frustration during classes, and how to apply this thinking with DH projects as well; text analysis cookbook from his frequently used code, with info on how/why cookbook snippets work; “how to learn text analysis” but with your own text

Drew Macqueen (GIS Specialist): keeping a Notepad++ code journal; created the Arduino Chris (GIF above) for keeping the SLab office lights on and practice physical computing skills; learning about georeferencing 3D models with Will and Arin; CityEngine; wants to write a blog post e.g. on modifiable areal unit problem, why zip codes are bad locators; wants to add thermal sensor to Arduino Chris so it works better

Jeremy Boggs (Head of R&D): Thinking through distant reading of comic books, e.g. how Batman and the Joker in The Killing Joke become visually similar, John Walsh’s TEI for Comic Books, (image recognition of?) comic book text to study gender; using Italo Calvino’s writing towards a bibliography of books with their qualities ID’d being used as a framework for text analysis; interest in doing D&D homebrew mashup with other content, e.g. Sarah and James’s characters from Samuel Johnson (

Shane Lin (Senior Developer): working on his history dissertation, including writing some code, studying Usenet for how/when cryptography entered into widespread political consciousness, when crypto went from mostly a math discussion to mostly a political one; exploring Usenet metadata e.g. to see whether messages are from people new to the discussion or not; turned OpenScan 2D sketch into 3D model

Arin Bennett (3D Visualization Specialist): Working with Unity as part of his mentorship of the Praxis cohort; augmented reality (AR) mapping via the new Unity asset we purchased; working on a better AR interface for doing his trail running while using the headset, e.g. point of interest along his way, time countdown; AR walking tours; touching 3D print but seeing scan/photo version in headset

Will Rourk (3D Data and Content Specialist): Modular synthesizers; making 3D-printed chocolate molds from any 3D model; writing and researching what CHI (cultural heritage informatics) as a field is today e.g. CLIR talk and paper, bibliography creation

Chris Gist (GIS Specialist): learning new ARCGISonline tech, 3rd rebuild because the tech keeps changing and adding new products; tagging locations on a friend’s property; thinking about siloed research in regional cultural places and building a trail along the historic trail between them, creating new data layers to assist with pitch for new trail

Amanda Visconti (Managing Director): Helping draft possible ACH code of conduct for all platforms/outside of conferences; turned my Drupal dissertation website into a static archival site; article revisions for Debates in DH and American Quarterly; approaching HTML/CSS/web browser functionality as something one can have expertise in, e.g. figuring out what JS stuff I can hack CSS to do; considering writing a textual forgery LARP; building a pneumatic tube message system for the lab; Shane helped me 3D print my actual brain from a brain MRI; learned to use FabLab laser cutters; working as a Programming Historian editor

Alison Booth (Academic Director): Collective Bibliographies of Women and proposing new NEH grant; creating Gothic Walking tour of Grounds with her class; thinking through a DH project extending understanding of the Anne Spencer House


In practice, 20% time doesn’t happen exactly how we’d like. We’re busy staff, with many interests; because of our mentorship-not-service model, much of our daily work feels like, or is, what we’d personally choose to do R&D on (fulfilling the original goal of making sure folks in service roles could continue to grow as scholars). The desire to use one’s 20% time is something each of our supervisors fully support, so challenges in making this time are never because management won’t let staff make time for this work; I don’t think we’ve ever needed to veto a project idea for not fitting our 3 guidelines.

Known issues with 20% time include:

Making the time for it. Blocking out time on our calendars has helped some with this (especially starting 1 term away, when calendars are empty enough you can e.g. grab the same time every week), but I think it’s less a matter of making specific hours, and more emphasizing to ourselves that this self-initiated work is as important as our work that more immediately impacts our community. We often don’t practice the same commitment to our self-initiated R&D projects as we do for student and faculty collaborations. Some ideas for helping with this are a Slack channel to update colleagues on our progress and receive encouragement and help, and establishing writing/research partners.

Another barrier is needing help from SLab colleagues to move forward with your self-initiated work, but we feel reluctant to ask for that help: knowing how busy everyone is, or feeling uncomfortable using resources for a personally-initiated project. Or folks actually don’t have time during fall and spring terms to help, and internal collaborations needs to wait for the summer. As a small step forward over this barrier, I’ve been trying to recognize the importance of these self-initiated projects by helping schedule meetings where relevant SLab staff can work together to advance a project.

Setting a formal amount of time for staff research shifts the conversation from whether a project can happen, to how to best make it happen. Our colleagues in other Library units don’t have 20% time in their job descriptions, although a number do have language about professional development. Many of our library colleagues are very active researchers. I do see an explicit percentage of job time is different from knowing you can propose a self-initiated project to your supervisor, but they may or may not understand its application, and they may or may not support your making time for it during your work day. 20% is equivalent to one day a week, 10% is one day every two weeks; this doesn’t need to happen daily or weekly, and some staff find it best for them and their community to bank this time during fall and spring and use it during winter and summers.

The Library supports each of its staff with at least $1k of professional development travel funding each year (and extra for the first 2 years on the job); UVA also provides university staff annual funds to take courses and attend conferences. The Library and UVA professional development funds can’t be used for books or equipment, which can be difficult for folks seeking to self-teach or to learn a hands-on skill like electronics.

We’d like to both better communicate our work to our colleagues and the public, and also back up our colleagues (here and beyond UVA) when they’re articulating why they’d like to self-initiate research as a small but formal part of their jobs. In the last year, we’ve made steps toward these goals including getting pizza and sharing our R&D work and frustrations among SLab staff; scheduling annual summer brownbags just for library colleagues, where we’ll update folks about each of our staffers’ work and discuss potential collaborations throughout the Library; and re-committing to publishing on any conference travel funded by SLab (either a blog post within 6 weeks of the event, or an internal brownbag updating Library colleagues, as a condition of future travel funding).

We’ve also heard some questioning around staff using 20% time to work on dissertations, worded as “paying people to finish their dissertations”. That 20% time helps us hire such scholars and best serve the campus community is discussed above, but I’ll add that as long as dissertational work fits our 3 guidelines (ensuring work benefits the university, is made public), it’s actually particularly suited to 20% time: it’s likely got a clear timeline, mentor, and obvious application to that staffer’s professional growth. I agree with Jeremy Boggs’ argument that whether 20% time is used for work that is part of a dissertation is irrelevant; instead, we should be looking at whether it’s meeting those 3 guidelines, and think of it in terms of what work is being done. For example, Senior Developer and History ABD Shane Lin has used some of his 20% time to learn to scrape Usenet metadata to understand historical community development, sharpening skills around web scraping, text analysis, community research, and historical scholarship critical to his role in the lab (and incidentally, moving his dissertation forward as well).

What do you think?

If you have suggestions for improving our 20% time in policy or practice or questions, let us know! We’re also interested in your own experiences pursuing research and professional development, regardless of your job role; and what, if any, policy about research and professional development your institution offers.

Special thanks to Bethany Nowviskie, whose arguments for 20% time still benefit many folks today, and whose excellent 2012 rationale for 20% time, “Too Small to Fail”, is quoted liberally in this post!