Three Steps for Humanities Subject Librarians Interested in DH

Subject librarians’ responsibilities may involve providing virtual and in-person reference services, advanced research consultations, bibliographic instruction sessions, collection development duties, and liaison services. Given the burgeoning interest in DH and the high likelihood that they will be required to possess a certain degree of familiarity with it, how might subject librarians, already overburdened as they are, balance existing responsibilities with this new demand?

Giving humanities subject librarians opportunities to learn new skills would be a step in the right direction.

Miriam Posner’s article in the January 2013 issue of the Journal of Library Administration, “No Half Measures: Overcoming Challenges to Doing Digital Humanities in the Library,” offers success stories that deal with training opportunities and library-centered DH projects. One approach is to offer training for librarians, and she provides the example of the workshops conducted by the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities and Columbia University’s “librarian re-skilling project.” Giving humanities subject librarians opportunities to learn new skills would be a step in the right direction. She also mentions the Library Lab at Harvard University and the Scholar’s Lab at the University of Virginia as spaces for library staff to experiment with new digital humanities projects. She argues that “a library … must provide room support, funding for library professionals, to experiment (and maybe fail).” All of these are necessary and relevant initiatives to help humanities subject librarians develop new skills. Posner also quotes Trevor Muñoz, who underscores that it is important for “librarians to lead their own DH initiatives and projects.”

This JLA issue has prompted me to think about how humanities subject librarians can be more proactive than reactive, taking advantage of this changing landscape to reshape their own roles. In this post, I would like to mainly focus on three steps that humanities subject librarians can take as entrepreneurs looking to engage with and collaborate around digital scholarship, teaching, and research.

Gain Familiarity with Digital Tools and Keep Abreast of DH as it Evolves

  • While there are a number of humanities faculty already involved in DH work, still others are not familiar with digital tools. Subject librarians can take the first step by approaching the departments for which they serve as liaisons and finding out if there is a chance to co-host a series of workshops targeted both at humanities faculty and librarians, to learn the basics of DH work together.
  • Learning partnerships may be possible with technology or educational centers hosted by many libraries, which offer workshops for faculty and encourage them to use digital tools or GIS in their courses. In addition to offering traditional services such as providing collection-related information, teaching a bibliographic instruction session, and offering research consultations for students, subject librarians could work with faculty members in designing courses that take advantage of these centers’ offerings.
  • As mentioned in some of the JLA articles, librarians may want to attend regional THATCamps to familiarize themselves with the tools and methods used by digital humanists, as well as to meet others interested in DH in their region.


Seek Partnership, Collaboration, and Leadership

  • DH projects vary widely in scope and nature across different disciplines. Subject librarians would be able to play a critical role in such projects if they can use both/either their subject expertise and/or knowledge of digital tools to shape the project as an equal partner with their faculty and their colleagues.
  • Subject librarians may want to approach the director of undergraduate studies in the humanities departments and discuss the possibility of integrating digital methods into mandatory research methods courses offered in many humanities departments.
  • Another alternative would be for a few aspiring tech savvy subject experts to join forces with librarians in special collections. Both the subject librarians and archivists or curators in special collections can identity a set of rare materials or a collection to co-teach a series of digital workshops with a thematic focus targeted at undergraduate students.
  • If there are certain rare materials or collections in the institution’s archives’ or special collections that may pique the interests of faculty, this would be good opportunity for subject librarians to approach the faculty about the possibility of co-teaching a DH course in relevant humanities departments.
  • Those who are more comfortable designing and teaching their own courses can experiment using digital tools on their own and teach a new DH course.These may be offered as credit-based courses by the humanities departments. They could also be offered by museum studies programs or summer and intersession programs on campus. Successful completion of such projects can be used a spring-board to start a conversation about collaborative DH projects or courses with a faculty member. Yet, it also requires a high degree of specialization in the disciplines on the part of subject librarians.


Evaluate Current Work/Commitments

  • All this new work requires time. Therefore, subject librarians could investigate whether they can let go of some traditional duties such as offering general reference services through multiple venues like the reference desk, chat, e-mail, and SMS. It may be necessary to look at the number of reference transactions and determine whether there is a decrease in the number of questions received every semester. If so, then the time may be better spent in learning new skills to provide more specialized liaison services to faculty and students.
  • Another option is to cancel general library workshops with low attendance. It may be worthwhile spending the time in learning new skills instead of planning workshops that draw very few attendees.
  • It might also be helpful to balance the time between collection development and outreach efforts. Therefore, they might need to think of re-examining the services that they offer and prioritize their goals so that they are in better position to take on new roles and responsibilities. Hence, it is crucial to let go off of the “just-in-case” approach when it comes to traditional services and redeploy our energies to engage more actively in outreach and educational programs.


Chella Vaidyanathan

Hi! My name is Chella Vaidyanathan. I serve as the liaison librarian for the Department of History, Center for Africana Studies, and the Program in Latin American Studies at the Sheridan Libraries of Johns Hopkins University. Moreover, I also work as the Curator of 19th-21st Century Rare Books and Manuscripts. As a blended librarian, I enjoy my role as a Liaison Librarian and as the Curator of post-1800 historical collections. It gives me a great opportunity to promote print and e-resources as well as rare materials from special collections. I love working with rare books and teaching sessions using materials from special collections.