Digital Humanities In the Library / Of the Library 2

What are the points of contact between digital humanities and libraries? What is at stake, and what issues arise when the two meet? Where are we, and where might we be going? Who are “we”? By posing these questions in the CFP for a new dh+lib special issue, the editors hoped for sharp, provocative meditations on the state of the field. We are proud to present the result, ten wide-ranging contributions by twenty-two authors, collectively titled “Digital Humanities In the Library / Of the Library.”

We make the in/of distinction pointedly. Like the Digital Humanities (DH), definitions of library community are typically prefigured by “inter-” and “multi-” frames, rendered as work and values that are interprofessional, interdisciplinary, and multidisciplinary. Ideally, these characterizations attest to diversified yet unified purpose, predicated on the application of disciplinary expertise and metaknowledge to address questions that resist resolution from a single perspective. Yet we might question how a combinatorial impulse obscures the distinct nature of our contributions and, consequently, our ability to understand and respect individual agency. Working across the similarly encompassing and amorphous contours of the Digital Humanities compels the library community to reckon with its composite nature.

Points of contact between digital humanities and libraries are troubled when we push against the notion of a role that is bound by physical space and administrative structure. In a piece that complicates assumptions often made about library digital humanities work, Brandon Locke and Kristen Mapes present a model of deeply embedded librarianship that emphasizes the values and expertise of librarians working outside of the institutional structure of a library. As professional librarians based in disciplinary units, Locke and Mapes are situated to promote direct partnerships with teaching faculty and facilitate further connections with librarians based in other units. Conversely, DH centers located in libraries may find themselves in need of translation when seeking to communicate their value and role to a diverse array of librarians and digital humanists. Prompted by a reorganization of the University of Virginia Library aimed at alignment with the strategic goals of the university, Purdom Lindblad, Laura Miller, and Jeremy Boggs of the Scholars’ Lab detail shifting organizational identities that brought out “… tensions inherent in [their] 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.” Through a process of reflection, translation, and building, grounded in the learning-by-doing practices of the Lab, the work of the Scholars’ Lab was re-positioned as “quintessentially Library work.”

Characterizations of the library community as interdisciplinary substantiate and extend arguments for the library itself to function as an optimal site for research to occur. Variants of this argument have been utilized time and again in recent years to support the development of digital scholarship units, centers, initiatives, and positions in libraries large and small. Sarah Stanley and Micah Vandegrift’s contribution speaks directly to the tension between significant library community investment and the degree to which graduate school curricula are tuned to support the aspirations those investments are meant to realize. Through their examination of a split corpus of self-described Digital Humanities syllabi from Humanities programs and Library and Information Science programs, Stanley and Vandegrift make strides toward better understanding how coursework aligns– or does not align– librarians with rhetoric encapsulating ideal institutional roles.

Invisibility and/or systematic undervaluing of librarian work forms a theme across several contributions. Emma Annette Wilson and Mary Alexander provide a strategy for making the expertise of librarians more visible and accessible to digital humanities partners by exposing metadata work as “… the heartbeat making DH projects usable, robust, preservable, sustainable, and scalable.” Through discussion of several case studies, Wilson and Alexander argue that a collaborative approach to metadata consultation brings library labor to light. As a digital humanities librarian, Paige Morgan engages with “project design, technology/method implementation, risk assessment, and scalability and contingency planning” while consulting on projects. This work, which is “closely entangled with optimism and expectations,” frequently involves unacknowledged–or disparaged– emotional labor. In a call for recognition of complexity, Morgan urges a closer examination of the labor dynamics of librarian-faculty consulting relationships and the potentially generative messiness of DH work. J. Matthew Huculak and Lisa Goddard argue that tenure and promotion models in the humanities, with their emphasis on short term output and results, serve as impediments to collaboration between humanities scholars, whose focus may be on theories and prototypes, and librarians, focused on standardization and preservation. Calling for increased awareness of these tensions, Huculak and Goddard assert the importance of long-term planning for DH work that ensures the care and repair of DH work.

Librarians play an integral role in developing tools and frameworks that attend to the affordances of digital and print resources. In a meditation on what “digital” suggests in the context of scholarship, with particular attention to the acts of copying and transferring, preserving and proliferating, Craig Dietrich and Ashley Sanders go beyond amorphous definitions of digital scholarship to consider the current and emergent parameters of the digital in libraries. “Digital,” they argue, is no mere semantic imposition; rather, it deeply affects every aspect of librarianship, “from collection development, curation, exhibition, and preservation to user services, reference, and instruction.” Smiljana Antonijević Ubois and Ellysa Stern Cahoy call for “… nuanced understanding of humanists’ research practices . . .  arising from empirical studies of user behavior and needs.” By arguing for re-centering user experience in DH/library discussions, Antonijević and Stern Cahoy present a more holistic approach to understanding the analog and digital components of scholarly workflows, applying their findings to an optimization of the Zotero research tool.

Engagement with digital environments provokes re-examination of library and archive community roles. Two contributions responded to this provocation by asking how critical archival and library praxis could support ethical engagement in a digital environment. Jennifer Rajchel and Elizabeth Myers raise and explore the, “question of how to ensure a feminist method of curation.” Working on Smith College’s first Massive Open Online Course, The Psychology of Political Activism: Women Changing the World, Rajchel and Myers ask, “Whose feminism are we representing? Who has agency? How can the power of digital representation be distributed?”, and respond with a series of critically nuanced design decisions. In doing so, they model an engaged, ethically grounded example of what it means for librarians to collaboratively build in a digital environment. A “praxis of critical librarianship and digital humanities” guides the contribution by Pamella Lach, Brian Rosenblum, Élika Ortega, and Stephanie Gamble, who argue that “… libraries can advance a vision of DH that is more inclusive and expansive, and at the same time less universal in its methods and approaches.”


dh+lib’s first mini-series, “Make It New?,” explored themes of continuity and disruption. As that series introduction observed, contributors made: “ . . . some claim to the core functions of libraries as they explore[d] where digital humanities methods and implementations fall along that spectrum, while questioning whether DH represents a paradigm shift for libraries or simply an extension of existing services.” Now, three years removed from grappling with questions of novelty, two years removed from digital humanities’ classification as an Association of College and Research Libraries’ “top trend,” contributions to “Digital Humanities In the Library / Of the Library” reflect maturation of library work in this space; broadly, the special issue gestures toward greater consensus around Bethany Nowviskie’s argument for the place of “technology-inflected humanities research services” in every library and the wise resistance to a one-size-fits-all model of implementing them.

We hope you enjoy “Digital Humanities In the Library / Of the Library.” Many thanks to the twenty-two contributors who authored the ten pieces that comprise the series. This special issue deployed the entire dh+lib editorial team– Roxanne Shirazi (City University of New York), John Russell (Pennsylvania State University), Patrick Williams (Syracuse University), Caro Pinto (Mount Holyoke College), Zach Coble (New York University), and ourselves– to oversee the many layers of framing, correspondence, edits, and WordPress tweaks that enabled publication. Roxanne, in particular, was a driving force in bringing the series to light and keeping an unruly (if spirited!) editorial team moving in sync; we are grateful for her leadership.

About the authors

Sarah Potvin is a founding co-editor of dh+lib. She works as the Digital Scholarship Librarian in the Office of Scholarly Communication in the Texas A&M University Libraries.
Thomas Padilla is a Contributing Editor for dh+lib. He works as Humanities Data Curator at the University of California Santa Barbara.
Caitlin Christian-Lamb is a Review Editor for dh+lib. She works as the Associate Archivist of Davidson College.

2 thoughts on “Digital Humanities In the Library / Of the Library

  1. Pingback: Digital Humanities In the Library « Another Word For It

  2. Pingback: Digital Humanities In the Library / Of the Library – The Gale Blog

Comments are closed.