In this report on the Digital Humanities & Libraries THATCamp, held in conjunction with the 2012 Digital Library Federation Forum meeting in Denver, Michelle Dalmau, Acting Head of Digital Collections Services at the Indiana University Libraries, draws out and discusses six broad themes that emerged from the sessions. As an organizer and attendee, Dalmau also invites fellow campers to respond with their own versions of camp stories.
Largely inspired by a lively thread on the ACRL Digital Humanities and Discussion Group (ACRL DH DG) concerning how libraries and library professionals can support digital humanities (DH) scholarship, the DH & Libraries and THATCamp came to be. On November 2, 2012, in conjunction with the Digital Library Federation Forum, seventy-two participants convened to explore just that question.
The organizers — colleagues from Indiana University, New York University, Temple University, Ohio State University, University of Houston, the Digital Library Federation, and THATCamp — recognized that academic libraries have a long history of supporting DH initiatives. Often these initiatives are concerned with digital representation of content, discovery, preservation, and analysis — activities essential to a library’s mission. DH & Libraries THATCamp was conceived to provide a venue to further explore ongoing conversations about strategic partnerships and services libraries are uniquely situated to offer to the DH arena, moving away from a support model to a truly collaborative framework in which library professionals foster and contribute to DH as experts and scholars in their own right.
Around the time that the ACRL DH group was exploring the implications of this question, many librarians who play (or want to play) an active role in cultivating DH initiatives were fired up by another conversation taking place on blogs and on Twitter. Blog posts from Micah Vandegrift, Miriam Posner, and Trevor Munoz championed the role of librarians as partners in DH endeavors, building upon the ideas presented in Bethany Nowviskie’s June 2011 talk, “A Skunk in the Library.” All of these discussions provided further impetus for the DH & Libraries THATCamp.
Libraries have long contributed to digital humanities research and pedagogical initiatives. More recently, it seems that DH is gaining a more formal presence in academic libraries, especially in the way of targeted services. We are also witnessing library professionals moving beyond “support” roles to “partner” roles as they foster digital humanities initiatives within the libraries and across campus. The ACRL discussion thread identified two important and related questions:
- How do we establish a model in which library professionals contribute to DH research and pedagogy as experts, scholars, and peers?
- How can we attain administrative and organizational support in achieving sweeping partnerships across library units and staff, and the cultural change that such a shift would suggest?
Motivated by questions like these, session proposals for the DH & Libraries THATCamp ranged from training/cross-training library professionals and staff and information science students to starting and maintaining sustainable digital humanities programs and projects. Other proposals focused on tools and techniques used for digital humanities research (geo-spatial tools; re-purposing data), while others explored open-access and open-source publishing models and philosophies. A quick and dirty analysis of the seventy-two participants, based on their THATCamp profile pages, reveals two particular points of interest as summarized below with respect to the motivations stated earlier:
- 13% of the participants were high-level administrators– director-level and higher, though not all were librarians by training
- 57% of the participants were librarians (no surprise), but a significant percentage of those were at the department head-level
- 30% of the participants represented IT professionals, graduate students, digital media professionals, teaching faculty, and post-docs
Nearly half the campers present held higher-level administrative positions in libraries, which seem to indicate that the decision-makers are aware of the importance of digital humanities work and research, and that they are interested in formalizing digital humanities partnerships and initiatives within the library. Secondly, we see that non-librarians play a major role in fostering digital humanities initiatives, and this speaks to the sweeping cultural changes that need to transpire within and across libraries that stem beyond “librarian-as-partner.”
Now that the stage has been set, it is time to explore the themes that emerged. I should disclose that I, of course, did not attend every session, so I relied on the notes and the Twitter archive to piece together the themes presented below. I should also say that I did not have access to notes for every session, and my memory generally stinks. I look forward to comments from the other organizers and the attendees to fill the gaps or set me straight.
Theme 1: Sanctioned Cultural Change
Many of us are familiar with the scenario in which a handful of library professionals partner with faculty despite limited resources, ambiguous departmental purviews, or without a pragmatic or philosophical sense of the library’s overall priorities. Many of us foster and embark on valuable digital humanities collaborations without a formal framework in place for not just cultivating, but also sustaining these partnerships. Some of us may go near-rogue, but we believe it is for a good cause, and often for the greater good, by bringing together a cross-section of library professionals as active collaborators.
Grassroots initiatives are probably the most infectious for inspiring cultural changes across academic libraries, but ultimately administrative and organizational support is crucial to effectively mobilize and garner the resources often needed when effecting change.
Enacting theme 1, sanctioned cultural change, is essential for the traction of the remaining themes that emerged.
Theme 2: Exposure to Meaningful Learning
Our THATCamp community was concerned with ways to achieve meaningful learning experiences for both library professionals (through “ongoing” or continuing education) and LIS graduate students. We considered various models of professional development with the consensus that to be successful they ultimately require full administrative support (see theme 1).
We spent a great deal of time exploring project-based learning, discussing in particular the Praxis Program and Columbia University’s hands-on training of their subject librarians in support of their DH center. We also explored intensive and series-based workshops, as illustrated by DHSI/DWSI immersion, fondly known as summer /winter “camp” for digital humanists, and the Savvy Researcher series.
As the discussion came to a close, we were reminded that instructional scaffolding (self-directed learning with guides) and “trial and error” are probably the two most commons methods for learning the ins and outs of technology and libraries. In fact, many of us learned by doing, failing, and re-doing, and will continue learning in this manner. This speaks to the skill-gap analysis conducted by the Research Libraries UK for their Re-skilling for Research report in which self-direction, leadership abilities, and interpersonal skills are deemed most important in order to keep up with the diverse and evolutionary nature of technology in libraries.
A mantra seemed to emerge: exposure is key, we must remain conversant, not necessarily fluent, in the domain areas necessary to foster and sustain digital research projects and practices.
Theme 3: Engagement
Engagement, as opposed to mere outreach, was another hot topic, and participants explored different ways that librarians might achieve this. Liaison librarians could collaboratively lead digital research projects with faculty and graduate students in order to channel the service ethos that permeates library culture toward research initiatives. Instead of relegating library professionals to the windowless expanse of beige cubicle farms, why not embed them in academic departments, or public services alongside the subject and reference librarians?
Instead of relegating library professionals to the windowless expanse of beige cubicle farms, why not embed them in academic departments, or public services alongside the subject and reference librarians?
Theme 4: Experimentation
Notions of experimentation were explored in all sorts of library contexts, from spaces to services. Brian Mathews, Associate Dean for Learning & Outreach at Virginia Tech, sums up this idea quite well in his 2012 white paper: to stay relevant, libraries need to take risks and think like a start-up. When campers uttered, “experimentation,” it was often said with hands up in the air, and eager acknowledgement in the way of feverish head nods. Yet despite how often our call for experimentation is uttered, praised, or desired, we haven’t as a whole implemented a roadmap for experimentation or even gotten “permission” to experiment (see theme 1).
Libraries are perfectly situated for experimentation, and we should view the fostering of digital research in libraries as an opportunity to leverage existing technical infrastructure, and expand technical infrastructure (aka evolving “core” operations). Where else can one proceed experimentally in such a way that also takes into account long-term sustainability and scalability? Where else can one challenge the emphasis on sustainability in favor of more ephemeral instantiations of digital research projects, as a way to keep research fresh and forward-moving?
Where else can one proceed experimentally in such a way that also takes into account long-term sustainability and scalability? Where else can one challenge the emphasis on sustainability in favor of more ephemeral instantiations of digital research projects, as a way to keep research fresh and forward-moving?
Happily, models for experimentation do exist, so we don’t have to go at this blindly. One is the highly-regarded 80/20 Google model, which University of Virginia Library Scholars’ Lab (SLab) adheres to for all SLab employees, not just librarians, and which gave birth to the well-known Blacklight Project, an open-source, faceted discovery framework for library catalogs and other library content. Incubators are increasingly on our minds, from incubator spaces to more formal, library-led incubator programs for digital research, like the University of Maryland’s Digital Humanities Incubator. And we are thinking of incubators often beyond igniting digital scholarship, as a way to support this work through the various stages of the research cycle via meaningful collaborations and connections.
In more practical terms, we held discussions around:
- transforming scholarship by permitting faculty and grad students unfettered access to technical infrastructure at the level necessary, including root access (gasp!) to servers (See projects from Tufts or UNC)
- aligning more closely with grad students, through whom we have an eager and ready audience to create tailored opportunities for extending technology expertise and digital literacy across campus and within libraries
- minimizing the focus on physical spaces to facilitate partnerships … space is nice and good, but more important is bringing the cross-section of people together from across the organization, campus, etc., which often happens virtually, as much if not more than physically
In sum, librarians and library professionals invested in promoting digital scholarship initiatives need to be able to implement new ideas and pursue projects without nth degrees of barriers. We need to be as swift as we are deliberate about access and preservation.
Theme 5: Liberate Data
Along with, or perhaps inspired by, a hands-on session on liberating data proposed by Trevor Muñoz, themes about releasing data for scholarly inquiry beyond their native interfaces resonated throughout. Here are just a few ways in which the notion of liberating data was bantered about:
- Create shareable (meta)data to allow scholars to re-use and re-mix data by providing easy-access to the data (APIs, batch downloads); be bold about data-sharing
- Champion open-access in open ways; disclose human understandable guidelines and policies
- Fearlessly and ferociously negotiate with vendors, and partner with other vendors willing to provide a transparent, open access model like Reveal Digital
- Limit embargo periods
- Share the virtues of open access without undermining the fear of negatively impacting scholarly societies
- Appreciate that research drives content as much as content drives research
- Grapple with the humanities corollary to the “data management” plan in the sciences
- Become active in shaping the direction of altmetrics especially as content is shared beyond your control
Theme 6: Broaden the Scope
In creating positions specifically labeled “digital humanities” librarians some of our colleagues in the library may feel that they are absolved from participating in the collective goal of cultivating digital scholarship. The library by its very nature is brimming with people and expertise in all the areas that have an impact on digital humanities initiatives:
- Subject expertise (via Subject Librarians, but really all librarians)
- Open access publishing
- Data curation/management
- Information technology
- Materiality (analog and digital)
- Collection development / Special Collections
- Project management
The question is: how to effectively move between and across these areas in ways that defeat hierarchical constraints or trappings of the organizational chart? How do we flatten the hierarchy, operationally speaking, so that we can both cultivate knowledge transfer and exact domain expertise in our usual collaborative ways?
How do we flatten the hierarchy, operationally speaking, so that we can both cultivate knowledge transfer and exact domain expertise in our usual collaborative ways?
Many other themes emerged, but this already unwieldy blog post is unable to cover:
- Digital Humanities pedagogy
- Scalability, or the tension between production-level services and R & D
- Sustainability (or anti-sustainability)
- Centralized v. distributed DH happenings
- Libraries IT, university IT, and the Scholar-Programmer
So, what now DH & Libraries campers? The outcome of these vibrant discussions resulted, I hope, in ways that would equip us — through anecdotes, new collaborations and partnerships, and shining examples — to better define and promote our unique roles as information professionals. Since November 2, 2012, when we met, what has changed? What progress have you made with your respective endeavors, either individually, as part of a unit, or as the library as a whole? Any camper collaborations currently cooking to address any of the themes listed here? To those campers, who we admired to the point of envy (you know who you are) – any words of encouragement, battle cries, or tools or rubrics you can share to help with the greater cause?