In this post, Dot Porter (University of Pennsylvania) critiques a recently-published OCLC report (“Does Every Research Library Need a Digital Humanities Center?”), drawing attention to the range of backgrounds and stations occupied by those who practice DH, inside or outside of the library.
Reading through the OCLC report authored by Jennifer Schaffner and Ricky Erway, Does Every Research Library Need A Digital Humanities Center?, my initial responses were:
- “Does Every Research Library Need a Digital Humanities Center?” sounds like a loaded question to me; and
- “DH academics.” What the heck is a “DH academic”?
The OCLC report has a lot of good in it. The sections on metadata and the long-term preservation of digital objects are particularly apt. But the language used throughout the report sets up an unnecessary and unhelpful “us/them,” differentiating between “DH academics” and “librarians.” This language and the assumptions inherent in it simplify what is a truly complicated landscape. Almost any major research university will include faculty new to DH, faculty who have been practicing DH for many years, librarians new to DH, librarians who are long-time practitioners of DH, and non-librarians working in libraries who support digital work (including but not limited to DH).
The OCLC report uses a variety of terms that appear to refer to “faculty who do (or who wish to do) Digital Humanities,” although these terms are never defined, and seem to be used interchangeably. In the Executive Summary itself, we find “DH scholars,” “DH researchers,” and “DH academics.” Further in the report we find added to the mix “digital humanists” and “scholars engaged in DH.” Although all these terms remain undefined, it’s pretty clear from context that these scholars, researchers, and academics are not librarians – they are something else, another class of people who exist to be served by libraries and, by extension, by librarians. Librarians who know something about DH do get a mention, at the top of page 9. But they are “DH-skilled librarians,” or “DH librarian” – not “digital humanists” themselves.
The reality is more complicated than “DH academic” on one hand and “DH librarian” on another.
The reality is more complicated than “DH academic” on one hand and “DH librarian” on another. Librarians who practice DH are not a coherent group. Some have PhDs. Some have MLS or MIS degrees. Some have subject MA or MS degrees. Many have some combination of these. Some of them have worked their entire careers in the library. Others (such as myself) started elsewhere and at some point were hired into a library. These librarians are professionals, who present alongside faculty at the annual Digital Humanities Conference (the annual international DH conference, co-organized by the Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations) and at more traditional subject conferences. They present on collaborations, and they present on their own work. Some of these librarians have been doing DH for years, although in more recent years many are new to the field, and some of them (both the newbies and the silverbacks) work at institutions where the only digital humanities work happening is in the library, and it is happening because they are doing it.
It is galling for these professionals to be told, as they are in the OCLC report, that “the best decision is to observe what the DH academics are already doing and then set out to address gaps,” and “What are the DH research practices at your institution, and what is an appropriate role for the library? What are the needs and desires of scholars, and which might your library address?” and especially “DH researchers don’t expect librarians to know everything about DH, and librarians should not presume to know best [my italics].” What if the librarians are the DH researchers? What if we do, in fact, know best? Not because we are brilliant, and not because we are presumptuous, but because we have been digital humanists for a while ourselves so we know what it entails?
What if the librarians are the DH researchers?
I’m not entirely sure where the “DH academics” / “DH librarians” dichotomy in the OCLC report comes from. I’ve known incredibly competent digital humanists who work in libraries, and traditional humanities departments, and digital humanities centers (and quite a few who work in engineering departments, too). To be honest, I’ve known less competent digital humanists from all these areas as well. It doesn’t make sense to measure the digital humanist-ness of someone based on their current post (especially as digital humanists tend to be fairly fluid, moving between posts inside and outside of the library; you can’t just guess someone’s competence based on their job title).
Also absent from the report is a definition of what a “DH Center” entails, striking given the motivating question of the title (“Does Every Research Library Need a Digital Humanities Center?”). Diane M. Zorich’s 2009 piece “Digital Humanities Centers: Loci for Digital Scholarship” (and its accompanying 2008 CLIR report “A Survey of Digital Humanities Centers in the United States“) does an excellent job of describing DH, and investigating how it was practiced on the ground at that time. Her working definition of “Center,” used within the report is fairly broad, to wit:
A “center” implies a central (physical or virtual, or both) area where a suite of activities is conducted by individuals dedicated to a common mission. (Zorich, Survey, p. 4)
Depending on the definition you are using, a DH Center could include a room in a department or library where people gather to learn new technologies, explore research questions, or undertake scholarly projects. Such a thing does not necessarily require major investments.
I’d like to close with some suggestions for further reading for those (faculty, librarians, library directors, college deans) coming new to digital humanities in the context of libraries. There has been a lot of really good writing on the intersection of digital humanities and the libraries in recent years. Miriam Posner (former Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at Emory University Library, currently Coordinator and Core Faculty in the Digital Humanities Program at UCLA) has a bibliography on her blog. It was last updated in April 2013, so it is not completely up-to-date but it does include a lot of important pieces of writing. Read them. Finally, it would be great to see another full survey of the DH support structures currently active and in development, along the lines of the 2008 CLIR survey but including less formal non-centers. Such a survey would be valuable for educating university deans and library directors about the variety of approaches that might be taken to support DH throughout their institutions, and how to best involve all digital humanists on the university payroll, whatever their job titles, who have expertise to contribute.