“Peripheries, Barriers, Hierarchies”: Toward a Praxis of Critical Librarianship and Digital Humanities

Academic libraries have engaged increasingly in both critical librarianship and critical pedagogy, calling, for example, for “a more critical praxis for ILI [information literacy integration],” (Baer) and exploring the intersections between critical information literacy and scholarly communications (Roh). The digital humanities sit at the nexus of these various conversations, as DHers—librarians and non-librarians—cast a critical gaze toward their own practices.

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.

The 2015 Digital Humanities Forum, held September 24-26 and organized by the Institute for Digital Research in the Humanities (IDRH) at the University of Kansas, points to a praxis of critical librarianship and digital humanities in several ways. IDRH’s role in coordinating the Forum demonstrates how 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. IDRH is a small, minimally-staffed and funded DH center supported by KU Libraries, the Hall Center for the Humanities, and the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences, with the Libraries serving as IDRH’s primary administrative and physical home. IDRH’s focus on training, community building, and events programming (rather than building digital projects), and our position within the Libraries (all the authors were members of the Forum planning committee and based in the Libraries), has allowed us the flexibility and versatility to approach DH in a cross-disciplinary, inclusive way that is not limited by any one disciplinary, departmental, or methodological perspective. Our positionality presents an opportunity to develop and propose an alternative conceptual baseline for our work at KU, as well as broader DH practice.

From this stance, the 2015 planning committee set out to organize a Forum that would explore DH practice from critical race, gender, and postcolonial perspectives. Rather than focusing on DH work as a set of varied methodological practices within which critical approaches exist, the Forum proposed these critical approaches as the starting point for a three-day conversation (to our knowledge one other conference, “Digital Diversity 2015: Writing | Feminism | Culture,” had taken a similar stance).

The Forum was our way of asking what happens when we center critiques of archival gaps and arbitrariness, digital universalisms, and DH practice more broadly. Answering this question extended beyond crafting the conference theme—peripheries, barriers, hierarchies: rethinking access, inclusivity, and infrastructure in global DH practice. We purposefully recruited speakers—both leading and emerging scholars—from traditionally underrepresented groups and countries beyond the United States to create a space where a multiplicity of voices and perspectives could come together. This approach culminated in three days of workshops, keynote talks, papers, panels, and posters that generated conversations about critical praxis within digital humanities, with implications for DH and library/archival practices around building, curating, and providing access to digital collections. Within this broader framework, several interrelated motifs rose to the fore.

Turning a critical eye towards archives and open access, many presenters highlighted questions of audience, access, and ownership in digital projects and archives that challenged prevailing trends and approaches—even seemingly progressive ones. For example, in a passionate Saturday keynote talk on her work helping indigenous communities manage digital collections of their cultural heritage, Kim Christen Withey demonstrated how our technocentric approaches to DH practice often fail to address community concerns. Metadata schemas and access models in our common digital platforms don’t take into account the significance and use of those cultural materials within indigenous contexts. Even favorite tools of librarians and open access advocates, such as Creative Commons licenses, can work against the interests of local communities, effectively taking control of their own heritage out of their hands. To help address this, Withey has been helping develop Traditional Knowledge licenses that offer more nuanced approaches to managing cultural materials. She encouraged us to beware of one-size-fits-all approaches and to “pause, reflect, slow down and bring back an emphasis on building relationships” as a central value of our practice.

Many other speakers emphasized the importance of building relationships, fostering community ownership of their archives and belongings, and engaging local communities and their histories and cultures. In her Friday evening opening keynote talk on human rights archives, T-Kay Sangwand argued that post-custodial digital archiving (in which archivists provide oversight for digital records of items that remain in the custody of the original record creators) can respond to historical inequities by empowering community ownership of their own archives to help ensure a robust historical record. Anita Say Chan’s closing keynote addressed the myth of digital universalism in corporate/government attempts to digitize education in rural Peru without engaging with local histories and knowledge.

A significant portion of the Forum focused on challenging current assumptions of archival, library, and DH practices that privilege and preserve the memory and narratives of one group of people, often by writing other groups out of the archive

Several speakers brought a postcolonial lens to bear on digital archiving practices and digital humanities methods. Dhanashree Thorat, winner of the best graduate student paper, interrogated the September 11 Digital Archive, showing how the very structure, design, and organization of the archive helps frame an insular, nationalist perspective of 9/11. By focusing on archival structure, rather than on content, Thorat suggested that we can think about alternative archival practices that can undo erasures of minority voices and decenter hegemonic narratives. Amardeep Singh argued that studying someone as canonical and problematic as Rudyard Kipling is not possible without looking at his broader family (and not just the men) or Indian newspapers of Kipling’s period. Singh asked us to consider “what is lost when some authors are not deemed worthy of the intense curatorial labor digital humanities scholars have afforded to canonical figures,” and contended that by reading through archival gaps, and by shifting from a single author perspective to a network of authors and contexts, we can use the archive to critique its subject (Kipling) in an attempt to recover what was not originally collected. As these two talks exemplify, a significant portion of the Forum focused on challenging current assumptions of archival, library, and DH practices that privilege and preserve the memory and narratives of one group of people, often by writing other groups out of the archive (see, for example, the work of Lauren Klein (2013), as well as archival recovery projects such as “The Early Caribbean Digital Archive”).

This panel illustrated the importance of collaborating with scholars and practitioners on a global scale in order to understand the regional and cultural dynamics and complexities of DH.

Later in the day, a panel on international DH practices highlighted some of the barriers, infrastructural issues, and practices of DH activity in three countries. Jonathan Dettman considered these issues in the context of infrastructure in Cuba, while Titilola Babalola Aiyegbusi explored the barriers to DH in the Nigerian academy. Adriana Álvarez and Miriam Peña addressed the practicalities and experience of using digital technologies in the classroom at the National University Autonomous of Mexico’s eLaboraHd. This panel illustrated the importance of collaborating with scholars and practitioners on a global scale in order to understand the regional and cultural dynamics and complexities of DH. In recent years we have seen growing attention to this issue, for example, in attempts to make the annual Digital Humanities conference more globally inclusive through initiatives such as the Translation Toolkit and a forthcoming intent to expand the conference reviewer pool.

Embedded within and intertwined throughout these ongoing conversations was another motif about intersectionality and representation in DH—who gets to speak, when and where diverse voices are heard, how credit for DH work is distributed, and who does or does not get represented in the archives and in the scholarship. Rachel Mann questioned the labor practices of DH that silence (female) (graduate) students and prevent them from getting credit for their contributions.

Who gets to speak, when and where are diverse voices heard, how is credit for DH work distributed, and who does or does not get represented in the archives and in the scholarship?

Amy Earhart critiqued the structure of DH—from its conferences to its practices—as a process of omission and exclusion. She called for us to look backward in order to look forward, noting that lowering the technology threshold of activist digital projects might enable us to use technology to promote inclusion and community building. Older, so-called “recovery” projects that used more “primitive” technology—as compared to today’s “high end” technological approaches—can be more persistent, and facilitate the participation of more people with a broader range of technical skills. And Jacque Wernimont’s work on haptic archives called for the humanizing of data—reinserting the personal into aggregate medical data sets to create connections between people. These presentations challenged the predominant infrastructures of DH funding and practice—the need for large-scale funding and high-end computing, traditional methods of scholarly review, publication, and academic labor—and suggested ways that important DH work can and must be done outside of these structures. In this regard they align with other emerging grassroots initiatives within the DH community, such as the voices calling for more formal visibility and recognition for those who contribute to digital projects (see, for example, “A Student Collaborators’ Bill of Rights” or the Minimal Computing working group of GO::DH, which promotes principles and practices of minimal computing to facilitate the creation, communication and curation of significant humanities work that might otherwise be overlooked or never get made).

Overall, the presentations and conversations at the 2015 Forum pose important questions about how libraries and cultural institutions partner with students, faculty, and community members to build and curate digital collections. We learned many lessons from the 2015 DH Forum—lessons about DH librarianship and practice, as well as lessons about the powerful role librarians can play in creating safe, cross-disciplinary, and inclusive spaces to foster these kinds of conversations. We are proud to share this brief overview of the Forum here and encourage readers to view the video recordings of all the presentations online. The success of the 2015 Forum has inspired us to continue these conversations in the upcoming 2016 Forum on “Places, Spaces, Sites: Mapping Critical Intersections in Digital Humanities” and we look forward to sharing those conversations later this year.


Baer. A. (2013). “Critical information literacy in the college classroom: Exploring scholarly knowledge production through the digital humanities.” In Information Literacy and Social Justice: Radical Professional Praxis (An Edited Collection), eds. Lua Gregory and Shana Higgins. Library Juice Press: Los Angeles, 2013. pp. 99-120. Retrieved from http://libraryjuicepress.com/ILSJ.php

Klein, L. (2013). The image of absence: Archival silence, data visualization, and James Hemings. American Literature, 85(4), 661-688.

Roh, C (2016). Changing scholarly publishing through policy and scholarly communication education. College and Research Libraries News (February 2016): 82-85. Retrieved from http://m.crln.acrl.org/content/77/2/82.full


Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

About the authors

Pamella Lach is Head of the Center for Faculty Initiatives and Engagement at the University of Kansas Libraries. She has a PhD in History and a MS in Information Science from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Brian Rosenblum is a librarian at the University of Kansas Libraries where he currently serve as co-director of KU’s Institute for Digital Research in the Humanities.

Élika Ortega is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Cultures, Societies, and Global Studies at Northeastern University. Previously, she worked as a postdoctoral researcher at KU’s Institute for Digital Research in the Humanities. She received her PhD in Literature (Hispanic Studies) in 2013 from the University of Western Ontario.

Stephanie Gamble received her PhD from Johns Hopkins University in 2014. She currently serves as a Learning Specialist at the University of Kansas Libraries.