Digital humanities in the library isn't a service

19 August 2012

Framing digital humanities in libraries as a service to be provided and consequently centering the focus of the discussion on faculty members or others outside the library seem likely to stall rather than foster libraries engagement with digital humanities. I want digital humanities work in libraries that is innovative and iterative but that contributes back to the mission of (academic) libraries. The MITH-University Libraries Digital Humanities Incubator is a local effort to make that happen.

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Last week, Miriam Posner started an interesting discussion online with a blog post about some of the challenges of doing digital humanities in libraries. Posner identifies challenges rooted in the structure of libraries as organizations, in the organizational position of libraries within universities, and in (academic) library culture.

As a former Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at Emory University Library, and someone who has done research on digital humanities efforts in libraries, Posner is qualified to speak on the subject but more importantly, her analysis proves itself to be insightful and, I think, helpful to the library community. Several smart comments have been posted on Posner’s original blog post, and two longer responses, by Michael Furlough, a library administrator at Penn State, and by the Library Loon, are also worth reading for their additional observations on challenges to doing digital humanities in libraries.

As a librarian working in a joint position spanning a digital humanities center and a university library, I spend a lot of my time thinking about how to overcome the kinds of challenges Posner, Furlough, and the Loon identify. While I was tempted to jump into the discussion about digital humanities in libraries last week, I didn’t make time to write this post sooner because I was pulling together the first workshop in a year-long program of activities supporting librarians, library staff, and graduate assistants who want to do digital humanities work here at Maryland.

Before I say more about the work we’re doing, I want to pick at two things that have been bothering me in this whole line of discussion. They’re related and both concern the way the discussion of digital humanities in libraries is being framed. A significant portion of the responses seem to assume that when we are talking about “doing digital humanities” in libraries, we are talking about some kind of service libraries might provide. Posner herself does not make this argument explicitly (perhaps reflecting her background as a DH scholar not a librarian or library administrator). Yet, Posner does place faculty members at the center of her picture of DH in libraries (see the tableau in the first paragraph of her post) and so it might be logical to assume that what she means is DH-as-a-service that libraries can provide for their faculty. Framing digital humanities in libraries as a service to be provided and consequently centering the focus of the discussion on faculty members or others outside the library seem likely to stall rather than foster libraries engagement with digital humanities.

Digital humanities in libraries isn’t a service and libraries will be more successful at generating engagement with digital humanities if they focus on helping librarians lead their own DH initiatives and projects. Digital humanities involves research and teaching and building things and participating in communities both online and off. In libraries, digital humanities should involve those same things.

I’m not arguing that digital humanities work can only take the form of one-off projects or ad hoc collaborations. I believe that good digital humanities work is exploratory and innovative, that it usually takes a false start or two on the way to its ultimate ends and that all of these qualities make it hard to conceptualize from scratch as a service. Something that starts out as a DH project might become a service, or it might generate enough mass to look like a collection we in libraries are more familiar with and that we can build other services around. Experience or tools from a DH project might be able to spin off into a new service or improve an existing service. Jenn Riley at the Carolina Digital Library and Archives at UNC, and Jennifer Vinopal and Monica McCormick at NYU are pursuing some interesting experiments with this approach.

Better, I think, for libraries to support space and resources for interesting, possibly risky DH projects and to think of “technology transfer” as the key service to develop. Bethany Nowviskie, from whom much of the smartest current work on libraries and DH comes, has described a “path to production for scholarly R&D” in libraries that is a must-read on this subject. The idea of “technology transfer” in this context comes from Babak Hamidzadeh, the Associate Dean for Information Technology at the University Libraries at Maryland (my boss), and it is important to acknowledge the point that Posner and Furlough make about the need for strong, creative leadership in libraries looking to support DH. Hamidzadeh and Dean of Libraries Pat Steele are crucial to DH in the libraries at Maryland in the same way that Nowviskie, in her role as an administrator, has help shape and protect DH in the libraries at Virginia.

I’m not arguing that digital humanities work can’t be managed in a way that admits strategic direction and efficient marshaling of limited resources but I love Steve Ramsay’s description of what digital humanities in the library can be and I think it points away from services (at least as a starting point):

… Of all scholarly pursuits, Digital Humanities most clearly represents the spirit that animated the ancient foundations at Alexandria, Pergamum, and Memphis, the great monastic libraries of the Middle Ages, and even the first research libraries of the German Enlightenment. It is obsessed with varieties of representation, the organization of knowledge, the technology of communication and dissemination, and the production of useful tools for scholarly inquiry. But DH is also, itself, a scholarly activity – concerned not just with presenting knowledge or helping to locate it, but with creating it.

This is the good stuff. I choose to believe that this is why so many libraries want to “do digital humanities” even if they don’t feel ready to or don’t know how to get started. The challenges that Posner identifies are real but thinking about services (and “faculty”) will not help those of us in libraries who want to do more DH overcome them. Enabling anyone in the library who wants to “do DH” to be involved and to have at least some way for librarians, library staff, and GAs to start pursuing their own DH ideas will be a more productive starting point. As my MITH colleague Matthew Kirschenbaum writes in one of his contributions to Debates in the Digital Humanities, “At a moment when the academy in general and the humanities in particular are the objects of massive and wrenching changes, digital humanities emerges as a rare vector for jujitsu” (415-416).

Digital humanities in libraries isn’t a service, but then, digital humanities outside of libraries isn’t a service either. The field has worked very hard to correct the misconception that digital humanities is a service activity. For libraries to approach digital humanities as a service to be provided runs somewhat counter to the grain of the field at this stage in its development. Having those who work on digital projects claim identities as researchers rather than as some other kind of academic employees who serve faculty research is important for addressing the issues of power balance within the academy. Thinking critically about the organization of academic labor is an important part of digital humanities work as well.

Librarianship is intellectual work. Doing digital humanities in the library should be (re)centered on the research questions and intellectual agendas of librarians. I believe that the good work that comes from this re-centering will attract partners — whether they be faculty, other librarians, students, or the public.

So, while I disagree with some of the ways Posner’s piece frames the discussion of DH in libraries, this post is not intended as a rebuttal—her analysis is correct about many of the challenges within the library environment to getting DH done. I want to write instead about some of the ways we’re trying to overcome these challenges at Maryland.

Part of my role is to support joint initiatives between the University Libraries and the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH). The University Libraries was one of the founding supporters of MITH in 1999, but over the course of more than a decade, the relationship between the center and the libraries had grown weaker than either side would desire. Dean Steele and Neil Fraistat, the Director of MITH, created a joint position to rejuvenate those ties.

I feel incredibly fortunate to be able to work every day on bridging a DH center and a university library with the help of great colleagues on both sides. Despite this, I was keenly aware that we could not make real change on the force of personalities alone and that one new hire could not solve the problem. We needed to build structures bigger than any one person — to make clear points of attachment where other people in the libraries and MITH who wanted to be involved could begin to participate. Our first attempt at making these structures visible was a new charter between the libraries and MITH, signed this spring, which spells out specific and reciprocal activities.

A major element of that charter is a re-imagining of MITH’s existing faculty fellowship program in a way that specifically serves our library partners. Jennifer Guiliano and I, with input from Travis Brown, Jim Smith, and the rest of our colleagues at MITH, recast a fellowship program for faculty projects into a program of workshops, tutorials, “office hours,” and project consultations intended to help introduce library faculty, staff, and graduate assistants to digital humanities. Participants who attend the workshop program will be guided through the process of developing digital humanities project ideas, finding data, evaluating tools, and crafting a compelling proposal for funding support (internal or external).

The MITH-University Libraries Digital Humanities Incubator is inspired by Nowviskie’s notion of the special place for a “skunkworks” in the library, but also by examples from the tech world that have always interested me (for instance, the startup incubator Ycombinator), and by some parallel experiments in scholarly communication and humanities graduate training. The space of the Incubator is a space that is neither MITH, which must stay lean as a research center, nor the Libraries (which is not say, not a bread-and-butter, keep-the-lights-on service). I hope it will be a safe space that we as leaders in the libraries and MITH have carved out where new people can experiment with digital humanities and imagine new projects for librarians (and perhaps their future collaborators, whether they be faculty members or not). MITH is committing our roster of immensely-capable DH practitioners to this effort. Dean Steele and the rest of the library leadership has committed to supporting librarian participation in the initiative with approved release time and resources. To be completely honest, this program has come about both through strong library and center leadership, and also through wielding the power of “lazy consensus” for good. The desire to plan for digital humanities can itself be an impediment to getting digital humanities done.

The Incubator will run until December when participants will have the opportunity to present ideas they’ve worked on in a pitch round where they can receive feedback from MITH and Libraries staff. The most compelling proposal will receive 9 months of more-focused support from the MITH team (akin to a traditional fellowship). Turnout for the first of the four major workshops was strong (21 attendees, with another 20 or so scheduled to attend the second time slot).

We’re also working to help create more training opportunities in digital humanities — not only for our campus but for the wider community.

The challenges to getting DH done in libraries (and outside them) are real. Setting aside the idea of digital humanities as a service and the concomitant focus on faculty (at least while DH is getting started in a new community) will be important for libraries who want to do DH. As a recipe for digital humanities in libraries, I propose instead: creating a space outside existing commitments, having administrator (and library opinion leader) support for librarians to participate in that space, wielding the power of lazy consensus to just get down to work, and making sure channels are open along paths to production for tech transfer back to existing mission-critical library services an activities.

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