Between a Book and a Hard Place: Translating the Value of Digital Humanities in a Reconfigured Library

Situated in the Scholars’ Lab, a small, research-oriented unit within the University of Virginia Library, we have come to expect the question, “What is digital humanities and why is it in the library?” We have excellent resources and responses to engage that question as well as questions about digital humanities (DH) more broadly. Those questions are typically asked by people outside of libraries. However, the recent University of Virginia Library reorganization flipped this question to, “What is the library and how does it practice DH?” The question was more inward focused—asked by and for fellow librarians—and made the practices and products of our DH work part of larger questions of identity and purpose of the University Library. This shift in question has been productive and given us opportunities to evaluate our locus within a university library.

The purpose of our Library’s reorganization centered around aligning its priorities to support the strategic goals of the University. The Library’s new goals included a deeper involvement with the research and teaching of our faculty, a sustained support for communities of scholars, and a commitment to innovation. In the Scholars’ Lab, we distilled these broad goals into two questions: 1) how does our Library practice DH, and 2) how can our experience enrich—and benefit from—this vital conversation among the Library staff as a whole. Ultimately, the reorganization prompted deep reflection into the nature of our Lab, its value within the Library, and how we communicate that value internally to the Library and externally to the broader University.

As embodied by our charter and ethos, the role of the Scholars’ Lab has been to conduct original research and development, support graduate methodological training, and foster advanced research in the humanities. We viewed ourselves—as did the Library with the wider campus community—as a unique center somewhat distinct from the larger Library system. The reorganization fronted tensions inherent in our situation: inside versus outside of the Library; bespoke research projects versus broadly applied systems and platforms; and creators versus consumers of digital tools as modes of best supporting digital work.

As the university and library reevaluated their priorities, it became clear that the Scholars’ Lab needed to revisit the value of in-depth consultations as well as the ways we attend to and share the value of our work.

We are a small unit, focused on empowering researchers to fully understand and own their digital research process and product.

Although our Makerspace is changing this calculus, we have historically interacted with comparatively fewer people, at greater depth, than other service units within the Library. Before the reorganization, we assumed our work would speak for itself. We promoted the results of our collaborations but did not carefully track their number or pace, nor did we develop specific Library-centered language to better describe the nature and depth of our work with researchers.

Our charter succinctly outlines the approach we take to our own work and the work of others. We pride ourselves on welcoming anyone, regardless of knowledge or background, to come into our lab and learn how to do digital work. We’ve tried to foster an atmosphere of respectful but playful intellectual curiosity, where there’s no shame for not knowing something. We meet people where they are. And we try, as much as possible, to spend more time showing someone how to work on their projects than we would actually building a project for them. Our goal is to help researchers develop a better understanding of, and respect for, the diverse levels of expertise that can be present in any digital humanities project.

What the reorganization unveiled, though, is that fostering an intellectual safe space—meeting people where they are—is also a Library ethos, a connection we have not yet fully explored or cultivated.

This approach to DH work is difficult to practice, for several reasons. First, there is a tension between incorporating the Library’s service-oriented outlook (while resisting a perception of the Lab as a drop-off service for digital projects) and empowering researchers to own their projects. Second, depending on our own research interests, we do often commit more time to technical development on patron research projects than we publicly promise. Ultimately, this revealed a gap between our aspirational language of encouraging others to deeply understand and engage with their own work—from the technical to design to dissemination—and the messy day-to-day practice of collaboration. This has led to a lack of awareness, even within the Library, of the degree to which we support researchers who consult with us.  While we prioritize empowering project owners, we also aim to remove technical or process barriers to digital scholarship, even if that requires a significant investment of time from our staff.

The reorganization also forced us to examine the ways we had been complicit in unintentionally masking or segregating our work. For example, we share our output via different information pathways, including our own website, at conferences, and in publications geared towards digital humanities and GIS rather than libraries more broadly. Additionally, by prioritizing consultations with graduate students and faculty, we sometimes forget to include valuable adjacent work of other Library units, such as metadata services or digital curation.

It became clear that we needed to realign both the platforms and modes of our DH work as well as to translate the DH-centric jargon back to the Library.

Similarly, as the Library redefines itself as a space central to advanced digital work, it needs a unified sense both of what digital practitioners do and of what resources, including time, staffing, and intellectual rigor, are required.

To achieve this, we need to demystify our own work, and make the pathways into collaboration with the Scholars’ Lab or use of the Makerspace more explicit. This clarity is lacking not only in the Library but in the rest of the University as well. Local practitioners, both those who are already engaged in DH work, and those who have an interest in and willingness to explore digital methods, find themselves unsure of relevant resources within the University. They may be unaware of other scholars who are investigating similar questions or complementary techniques. Further, many are unaware of conversations, including events, happening outside of home departments.

In response, we have launched the DH@UVA website in an effort to network the broad community of DH practitioners and newcomers across the University. Within the Library, we have reinvigorated conversations, begun before the reorganization, to pilot a Library Praxis program. Emerging out of our Praxis Program for humanities graduate students, and influenced by innovative adaptations of Praxis for Libraries—such as Columbia’s Developing Librarian Project—as well as the feedback we received from our DH 2014 workshop on digital humanities immersion as library professional development, we hope to further demystify, seed, and scale advanced digital research within the library. Overall, both initiatives seek to bridge our aspirational language of how we work with the materially-grounded learning-by-doing practice of the Lab. In essence, these projects help us both clarify why this approach is valuable and exemplify how it is quintessentially Library work.

Further, while the practitioners in the Scholars’ Lab may hold technical knowledge, they are in no way the only—or even the best—voices within the complex ecology of a digital project. One additional goal of Library Praxis is to map the digital project lifecycle, to tease out potential intersections with other units in the Library—from subject knowledge and metadata creation to scholarly communication and digital preservation—with an eye towards capitalizing on the expertise therein. In advance of Library Praxis, we are reconfiguring our process to one that incorporates Zach Holman’s opt-in transparency, including more robust public documentation on platforms that are utilized by librarians and more librarian collaboration on research. Moving forward, we want to build a framework which details the preliminary interview/memorandum of understanding between the Lab and researcher, a set of milestones detailing when other Library units may roll on or off of the project, and projected preservation plans for the extended life of the project. The framework would emphasize the iterative nature of digital work, and include prompts for the necessary two-way conversation around it.

Throughout the UVA Library’s reorganization, the Scholars’ Lab has had to re-evaluate its working process and, more importantly, the language by which we describe our process. Surprisingly, we found many shared concerns across the Lab and the Library, yet our language did not yet make those shared directions clear or point to clear modes of collaboration. The question of “what is a library and how does it support DH?” prompted us to begin examining our value, and aligning our public statements about our digital work and our actual practices.

While we are taking steps to ameliorate the discrepancies we uncovered, several significant challenges remain. How do we continue to be active participants and practitioners within the DH community while fostering clear bridges among Library staff, both in terms of skill acquisition and project experience? Further, how do we, as a public-facing research and development Lab, shape the research agenda of the Library? Our hope is that by realigning our language to speak to both the DH and library communities and fostering ways to share more broadly approaches to digital work, we can contribute to the the Library’s sense of itself as both a place that supports and does advanced digital research.


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About the authors

Purdom Lindblad is the former Head of Graduate Programs at the Scholars' Lab and currently the Assistant Director of Innovation and Learning at MITH.

Laura Miller is Head of Public Services for the Scholars' Lab in the University of Virginia Library.

Jeremy Boggs is Design Architect for the Scholars’ Lab in the University of Virginia Library.