Editor Barbara Rockenbach has assembled an insightful collection of perspectives on the current “digital humanities moment” in librarianship. There is, however, one crucial perspective missing: a historical one. In her introduction to a special issue of the Journal of Library Administration (JLA) devoted to the topic of digital humanities in libraries, Rockenbach highlights several themes she considers significant for her intended audience of “library leaders involved in, or considering support for, [digital humanities] or digital scholarship.” One of these themes is what Rockenbach characterizes as “tension between traditional notions of library service and new models of user engagement.” Her choice of heading for the discussion of this theme—”Service as Disservice?”—perhaps hints at her own feelings. The choice of how to frame the issue, with “traditional notions of library service” on one side and “new models of user engagement on the other,” is more consequential and more problematic. One side of this opposition is merely a stand-in. There is no such thing as “traditional library service.” Deploying this term as though it had some stable meaning obscures rather than illuminates a long and complex history of information work relevant to this new moment.
There is no such thing as “traditional library service.”
To impute this problematic move solely to Rockenbach would be to blame her unfairly for what seems to be a common reflex in the library literature. In the same issue of the JLA, Stewart Varner and Micah Vandegrift refer to “traditional library work” as they attempt to make an affirmative case for librarians to expand beyond such work. Even a cursory search of the wider library literature will uncover numerous examples of some notion of “traditional service” being deployed in contrast with new endeavors (audiovisual librarianship, distance services, preprint servers, open access, etc.). A particularly interesting reflection on the “traditional library” appeared on the In the Library with the Lead Pipe blog while this post was in preparation. Unfortunately, accepting such a framing device will likely limit the possibilities for fully exploring digital humanities in libraries. A richer library history offers a less problematically normative account of how librarians might interact with such new methodological and conceptual endeavors.
This post is offered as a contribution to a broader framing of the issues around “service” that Rockenbach treats in her introduction and about which Miriam Posner has many incisive things to say in her contributed paper. There are sure to be different approaches to a subject as broad as “digital humanities or digital scholarship,” but to consider what these might be and weigh their relative merits will require clearing away assumptions that have accreted in the terms of the debate. In her paper, “Skunks in the Library: A Path to Production for Scholarly R&D,” Bethany Nowviskie articulates what is at stake for librarians in embracing the digital humanities “as true intellectual partners.” She argues that “naturalized assumptions about how libraries best serve scholars” can inhibit full participation in “collaborative R&D [research and development].” Building up an alternative vision of library engagement with the digital humanities through R&D work, Nowviskie suggests that the true onus on librarians is “to experiment; to iterate; to assert our own intellectual agendas as part of the DH research landscape,” and perhaps even, as she wonders, “[T]o play? To play in public? To make the things we want to see made? To collaborate like mad, with local scholars, other librarians, and the wider, public open source and open access community that encompasses them both?” As I have also argued (in an earlier post that several authors of the JLA special issue generously cite), librarians have much to gain by embracing roles not only as active collaborators in digital humanities work, as both Posner and Bethany Nowviskie advocate, but also as project directors and leaders. The appeal to “traditional library service” as a unitary concept blunts the generative potential of alternative proposals like Nowviskie’s, mine, and others (such as Jefferson Bailey’s here on the dh+lib blog) through a suspect history that collapses into claims about identity.
A Unitary Concept of Service is a Disservice
After summarizing some of the arguments against framing digital humanities work as service to faculty, students, and other campus constituencies, Rockenbach counters that “moving wholesale away from the notion of service in a library would be a mistake. The service ethic in librarianship is one of its defining features.” There are several problems with this claim and the line of argument that follows from it. First, among the included contributions, there is no evidence of any suggestion to move wholesale away from “service.” The real ground of debate is narrower—no one suggests that digital humanities work will be the sum total of library activity—rather, the vital question seems to be: when libraries do engage in digital humanities work, how should they best go about doing so? Second, even setting aside this creation of a straw man, the second half of Rockenbach’s formulation—her suggestion that “the service ethic in librarianship is one of its defining features”—introduces a strain of discourse about library identity into a discussion that is, for the most part, about library practice. The deployment of the empty, ahistorical construct of “traditional library service” seems to act as a cover for advancing unacknowledged arguments about identity. That is, the move to stabilize the notion of service can be read as an attempt to stabilize a particular vision of what libraries are or “what librarians do” (or don’t do). The identity argument lurks in the discussions around “the service ethic” but needs to be directly addressed. Third, the discussion that follows this claim about “defining features” conflates terms that need to be understood distinctly: namely, a “service ethic” and a “user-focused set of services.” In both cases, to treat the idea of “service” in librarianship as stable or uniform across even so short a period as the modern era of American librarianship (less than 150 years) is a historical fallacy that must be addressed in order to work productively on “the role libraries are playing or could play” in digital humanities.
to treat the idea of “service” in librarianship as stable or uniform across even so short a period as the modern era of American librarianship (less than 150 years) is a historical fallacy that must be addressed in order to work productively on “the role libraries are playing or could play” in digital humanities.
Rockenbach’s own summary of the argument for “service” suggests the instability of the notion. After beginning with “the service ethic,” Rockenbach describes “the user-focused set of services that have traditionally been offered in a library … [s]ervices such as one-on-one research consultation, research education, and technology support services.” A reading of this list should prompt the conclusion that these things are not all alike. In fact, it would seem difficult to generate a single, coherent definition of “service” from this list. These examples echo an earlier catalog of “service-oriented activities,” which included: “training, software and hardware support, search and discovery assistance, the creation of disciplinary portals, and collection building.” Certainly “technology support services” (hardware and software) requires parsing the term “traditional” in a non-traditional way. The argument here is not that libraries and librarians cannot do any of these things. Rather, it would seem that a category of activities (with different origins and histories) is being assumed as a unitary, stable, and definite concept.
The space of a blog post only allows for a brief sketch of the history of libraries and librarianship that complicates any notion of “traditional library service.” The following three vignettes will have to suggest possibilities that may be developed at greater length elsewhere: the history of reference work, the fortunes and influences of the “documentation” movement, and recent history from the last decade related to the idea of “information commons.” Even in miniature, the opportunity to unpack the meaning(s) of “service” in a library context is an invitation to improve the profession’s critical self understanding.
Even in miniature, the opportunity to unpack the meaning(s) of “service” in a library context is an invitation to improve the profession’s critical self understanding.
In an article for Library Quarterly and in a doctoral dissertation later published in the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) monograph series, Samuel Rothstein offers an extensive history of “the development of the concept of reference service.” In his history, Rothstein recounts how, until the emergence of a public library movement allied to progressive social movements in the second half of the 19th century, the constitutive activity of librarianship (certainly in “academic” libraries) was custodianship and preservation of book collections. Rothstein identifies the paper given by Samuel Swett Green at the epochal 1876 conference of librarians as the first proposal for a programmatic “service” to users of the library. In its first incarnation as “assistance to readers,” the concept of “service” in libraries refers to a campaign of moral improvement. Green writes “It is a common practice … for users of a library to ask the librarian or his assistants to select stories for them. I would have great use made of this disposition.” He counsels libraries to place an “accomplished” employee (read: an educated woman) “in the circulating department” and thereby “a great influence can be exerted in the direction of causing good books to be used.” The benefit of Rothstein’s detailed history is the way it illuminates the changing referent behind the term “service.” In American librarianship, “reference” is the original service and reference evolved from first a progressive moral campaign, next to the provision of different varieties of catalogues and published aides, then to the staffing of “information desks” and other activities that users of present libraries might recognize.
the idea of what is meant by “service” evolved and changed over time; there is no stable set of practices here to be set as a norm against the new activities that Posner, Nowviskie, and other authors from the special issue propose that librarians take on in “doing digital humanities.”
The particular evolution of reference service is worth understanding in more depth, but the salient point for the discussion of digital humanities and libraries is the fluidity of the concept. If there were a true candidate for “traditional library service,” in the sense of programmatic activity on the part of libraries, reference work might be it. Yet, even in this context, the idea of what is meant by “service” evolved and changed over time; there is no stable set of practices here to be set as a norm against the new activities that Posner, Nowviskie, and other authors from the special issue propose that librarians take on in “doing digital humanities.” Studies about perceptions of (academic) libraries, like the triennial faculty survey conducted by Ithaka S+R, suggest that norming can become a trap—“if x is what the library is, do we need that anymore?”
Even taken together, the two parts of the original argument (service ethic and service activities) do not find support in the available history of libraries and librarianship. To the extent there is a “service ethic” in librarianship it is too complex to expect that it could be expressed in and thus, reliably mapped to, any particular set of “user-focused services” (even one as miscellaneous as that offered). This is not to say that the profession does not have values; a service ethic is as much of a contingent, historically-constructed multiplicity as service practice. In the case of reference, the ethic behind the first reference service—the suggestion of “good” books to readers—was, as library historian Kenneth E. Carpenter writes “a means of elevating the lower classes … help[ing] the working man in his trade, … keeping peace between the classes, [and] inculcating democratic values in immigrants.” Later appeals to a service ethic referred to a librarian who “serves as an efficient mediator between men [read: upper-class, scholars] and books.” This version has persisted though it is no longer so specific to either “men” or “books.”
Recourse to sociological definitions of the idea of a “profession,” which are often invoked in debates about the status of librarians relative to other academic professionals and include notions of a service (versus a self-interested) orientation, does not help very much. This is because, there too, “service” is glossed several different ways, and also because, as Michael F. Winter points out, professional librarianship managed to get on for 60 years without a code of ethics; this basic chronological problem should cast doubt on a strong definitional claim. As the next section, on the “documentation” movement, will suggest, in the case of libraries after the period of early reference service there were yet more formulations of a definitive “service ethic,” with different accompanying programmatic services. For the “documentalists,” the service ethic was service to goals such as “the advancement of science.”
The history of the “documentation” movement and, to an extent, special libraries also argues that the concept of a “service ethic as one of [librarianship’s] defining features” needs to be expanded, and that, once expanded, “service” does not stand in contrast with research or related modes of engagement with endeavors like digital humanities. Documentalists and special librarians concerned themselves with topics like document formats, reproduction, data processing, and retrieval—taking “service” to the (expanding) information needs of science and industry as invitations to explore new technologies and engage in research and development. The work of federal librarians working in institutions such as the Library and Reports Division of the Office of Technical Services at the Department of Commerce after World War II, evaluating, organizing, indexing, and disseminating technical reports from classified military programs as well as from Nazi Germany exemplify how the documentation movement can be read as an alternate history of “library service.” That is, documentalists’ commitments to a librarian “service ethic” manifested in a quite different set of “service activities” from those pursued by early academic reference or public librarians. W. Boyd Rayward has framed the history of this kind of work within libraries and other information organizations as “a series of disciplinary incorporations, transformations, and continuities … that has created a rich tapestry of speculation, systems development, and institutional expression that has led to what we now call library and information science [LIS].”
Documentalists and special librarians concerned themselves with topics like document formats, reproduction, data processing, and retrieval—taking “service” to the (expanding) information needs of science and industry as invitations to explore new technologies and engage in research and development.
The genesis of the documentation movement, one of the forerunners of modern LIS, is usually credited to Paul Otlet, whose career spanned from the last years of the 19th century to the 1930s. In chronological terms, the notions of “service” from this tradition are only twenty years more recent than those from the public librarianship tradition described by Rothstein. They are nearly contemporaneous. In historiographical terms, what is significant about Rayward’s narrative of this history is the claim for its continuity and coherence. In his account, documentation, and later information science, is also part of the history of librarianship, not something separate. Some introduction to information-service-specific data processing and document retrieval is still part of the training of most librarians. (This is particularly true for those who come through Masters of Library Science programs.) Rockenbach’s opposition of traditional service against “new modes,” including more direct collaboration in digital humanities work, threatens to disappear the present work and the history of many systems librarians and other library technologists descended from the documentation paradigm. Shouldn’t work practices and concepts from documentation/information science count in a truer understanding of “traditional library service”?
An account that includes the history of the documentation movement breaks down the opposition from Rockenbach’s introduction as a way of marking “librarian” work against other kinds of digital humanities work—such as programming, data development and design, or project leadership. Work on microphotography, early networking, indexing, and information retrieval were legible as librarian activities (though not uncontested or undebated), and cognates in digital humanities research and development should be likewise.
Recent history—from the first decade of the 21st century, a hundred years after the work of Samuel Green, Melvil Dewey, and Paul Otlet—also needs to figure in framing the discussion around libraries’ engagement with digital humanities. Specifically, the history of the idea of “information commons” as part of an interest in revitalizing “the library as a place” is relevant to this discussion. The history of “information commons” is part of a history of “administration” as an activity and then a specialization within library work. This history of administration of libraries intersects with the history of (American) business and business management. The purpose of acknowledging the history of “information commons” in the debate over digital humanities and libraries is to attend critically to the context of accounts like Rockenbach’s rather than, as with the other historical accounts, to disrupt and expand a too-neat definition of “service” in libraries.
To varying degrees in different eras, borrowings of business terminology into the discourse of library administration have shaded into borrowing of business concepts and perhaps also business values (to good and ill).
Attending critically to this context means noting that this very welcome special issue on digital humanities and libraries was published in journal devoted to library administration. Over the 20th century, as libraries grew both in number of volumes held and also in number of departments and branches, management and administration became important specializations of library work, even library “service.” American libraries before the late 19th century did not have complex management structures or the need to worry much about organizational charts and efficient work practices. Perhaps because librarianship was a professional rather than scholarly endeavor, there is a history of influence and borrowing between business management and library administration. The career of Frederick Winslow Taylor and “scientific management” overlaps with the early era of professional American librarianship. Papers were given on “Time and Motion Studies in Libraries.” The plans of prominent library leaders like Melvil Dewey echoed “scientific management” ideas. To varying degrees in different eras, borrowings of business terminology into the discourse of library administration have shaded into borrowing of business concepts and perhaps also business values (to good and ill).
The enthusiasm for “information commons” is but a more recent example of the influence of business management ideas on library administration, and because it involves management of “information technology” it is specifically germane to the discussion of digital humanities in libraries. Donald Beagle’s seminal article on the “information commons” model in academic libraries explicitly credits business management theories, specifically information technology management, as inspiration. In the original paper, the information commons “denote[s] a new type of physical facility specifically designed to organize workspace and service delivery around [an] integrated digital environment [consisting of many databases accessible through a single interface].” Beagle cites a strand of management theory from the 1980s known as “strategic alignment” in explaining the shape and genesis of the information commons idea. Strategic alignment, according to Beagle, “was developed in response to the unique management challenges and demands of information technology (IT) and relates the articulation of vision in strategic technology planning to the actualization of vision in infrastructure, process, and implementation.” (Of course, this framing was not universal—a contemporaneous position paper by Martin Halbert, then at Emory, does not explicitly align itself with the same management theory.) However, the approach that Rockenbach singles out for praise in concluding her discussion of “service” is the “four-tier service model” at New York University. The NYU model, as described in the contributed paper by Jennifer Vinopal and Monica McCormick, seems to be a very close translation of the “information commons” idea to the realm of digital humanities.
Vinopal and McCormick speak of “enterprise-level” and “commodity tools,” of “infrastructure” and “scalability.” These terms could come from the annual report of the Chief Technology Officer (CTO) or Chief Information Officer (CIO) of a major corporation. In light of Beagle’s vision described above, it seems plausible to suggest that the development and promotion of “information commons” is an intellectual forerunner to digital humanities initiatives shaped like NYU’s, and that these approaches reflect values from business, and specifically IT management. Again, Vinopal, McCormick, and Rockenbach cannot be uniquely identified with this trend. Among the other JLA contributors, Nowviskie’s “skunk works” comes from the corporate culture of Lockheed Martin, the giant aerospace and defense contractor, and Ben Vershbow describes the work of the New York Public Library (NYPL) Labs as “a kind of in-house technology startup.” At the least, this attests to the growing prominence of “the corporation” as a powerful shaping metaphor in American life and suggests that further investigation of recent business management history might be a fruitful avenue for understanding the frames (in a neo-institutionalist sense) that libraries may bring to the digital humanities.
The narratives that librarianship tells itself about its history and mission are important in determining how the profession engages new opportunities such as digital humanities. To find a place for research and development in libraries relies on critically examining framing assumptions. Three small contributions from library history—reference service, the documentation movement, and the information commons—open up the narrative of librarian roles, practices, and competencies in ways that may allow fuller consideration of the place of digital humanities work in libraries. The goal of offering these quickly sketched histories is to question the idea of “traditional library service” as a coherent, meaningful concept that can be set against new activities, such as those identified with digital humanities. Rather than being a definitive concept, library “service” is an unstable category that contains diverse and complex histories. The connotations of “traditional” suggest that a historical argument is being advanced, but in fact “traditional library service” is a purely rhetorical gesture. Without careful attention to the actual histories of library work, “traditional library service” can be used to subtly cast new activities as “other” in ways that foreclose real consideration of how libraries and librarianship might productively adapt.
I would like librarians to take up the intellectual provocations and new tools of digital humanities in service to the profession.
Part of the project of digital humanities in libraries can be to derive energy for more and better work from abandoning the false security of “traditional library service” and embracing the unstable, multiple meanings that lie behind that phrase. Can the playful R&D of Nowviskie’s “skunk works,” the “startup”-inspired approach of the NYPL Labs and Maryland’s own Digital Humanities Incubator, as well as the well-planned and deeply fair-minded organizational approach of NYU all catalyze each other? I would like librarians to take up the intellectual provocations and new tools of digital humanities in service to the profession.
This essay has benefited enormously from conversations with Jennifer Guiliano who read several earlier draft of the piece, and from the perceptive and probing comments of dh+lib editors Roxanne Shirazi and Sarah Potvin. I am grateful to all of them. All remaining shortcomings are solely my own.
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