Make It New? A dh+lib Mini-Series 4



We launched dh+lib with an eye towards creating community and facilitating the burgeoning conversation that was developing around the library and information professions and the digital humanities. Naturally, we took note when a special issue devoted entirely to libraries and DH was published by the Journal of Library Administration in January 2013. As a means to continue the conversation sparked by this excellent issue, dh+lib issued an open call for proposals for blog posts, virtual roundtables, or other formats responding to the issues raised in these seven articles.

What follows is a snapshot of how librarians are grappling with these concerns at a given moment. Each of the contributions presents one view from the multiplicity of approaches that make up the LIS and digital humanities communities. These posts oscillate between the practical and the theoretical, the radical and the pragmatic; they range from historicist to futurist, from sweeping to granular. Which is to say: they offer a variety of perspectives, much like the JLA articles that provided the original impetus for the series. As Barbara Rockenbach described the special issue: “This diversity of voices illustrates the varied landscape of DH in libraries and the great number of opportunities for supporting this emerging trend in scholarship.”

Despite the variety represented in this dh+lib mini-series, connections persist between the pieces and common threads emerge. All make some claim to the core functions of libraries as they explore 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. What is the context for DH in libraries? Should it be considered alongside initiatives such as eScience? Pursued with the support of library-based technologists or in inter- and intra-institutional partnership? Is it a space for disciplinary specializations to deepen or for cross-disciplinary efforts to branch? As the authors tackle these questions, recurring themes are revealed: DH as entrepreneurial v. DH as institutional enterprise, DH as disruptive v. DH as contiguous, libraries and librarians as partners or supporters, collaborators or service-providers. What is new, what is traditional, what is novel, what is constant.

Devin Higgins opens the issue by observing that librarians, faced with uncertainty around what constitutes DH, risk “complacency that stems from the realization that libraries are already doing, and have been doing for quite some time, a great many projects that are easily categorizable as the ‘digital humanities’; or … paralysis brought on by the sheer range of paths one could take to join the field.” He encourages us to embrace the uncertain boundaries and shifting definitions of the digital humanities as a means of furthering experimentation in libraries.

It is this openness that catches the eye of Kevin Butterfield. From his perspective as the University Librarian at the University of Richmond, “The timing is right for a meeting of the ways,” as both libraries and DH seek definition. Warding against the potential for professional timidity referenced in Micah Vandegrift and Stewart Varner’s JLA piece, Butterfield locates an expanded role: “The library must be both a resource for and active participant in the act of scholarly and artistic creation. This requires us to view research both as a process and an end result to be collected.”

This theme of librarians seeking out active and egalitarian participation in DH–previously voiced by Bethany Nowviskie, Miriam Posner, Michelle Dalmau, and Trevor Muñoz, among others–resonates in a new piece by Muñoz. In a historically-rich “provocation,” Muñoz lays out a counternarrative, dissembling what he identifies as a strawman rampant in library literature: that of “traditional library service.” Many authors, including those writing in the JLA special issue and this dh+lib mini-series, have framed library engagement with DH in contrast to “traditional service.” In a series of vignettes, Muñoz locates the historical fallacy at the heart of this framing, felling “the idea of ‘service’ in librarianship as stable or uniform” in an attempt “to improve the profession’s critical self understanding.”

Echoing the notion of DH as contiguous rather than disruptive–and so drawing on skillsets and experience likely already distributed across libraries–Nathaniel Gustafson-Sundell warns librarians not to “let the discussion of Big DH distract us from all of the littler things we can and should be doing right now as librarians” to engage with eResearch. In keeping with Higgins’s embrace of an open DH, Gustafson-Sundell is vigilant against the narrow focus DH seems to place on the humanities. He writes: “some DH methods are not exclusively applicable to the humanities, so some aspects of the discussion needn’t and probably shouldn’t be isolated to the humanities only.” From a library perspective, the focus on the humanities may be unnecessarily bounded, fencing out those in the sciences and social sciences facing analogous challenges and demonstrating related needs.

The constraints of tradition are present in Daniel Griffin’s references to the framework of faculty tenure and promotion, “rooted in a number of traditions that stand in almost direct opposition to the processes and products of digital humanities work.” His piece draws attention to an oft-referenced but little-explored need to position new DH work alongside persistent tenure and promotion expectations, to build “a shared awareness of what work needs to be done and how to best position that work for future benefit for yourself and the scholarly community.”

Chella Vaidyanathan rounds out the mini-series with practical steps aimed at humanities subject librarians interested in DH, building on the “necessary and relevant initiatives” to re-skill humanities librarians highlighted by Miriam Posner in her JLA piece. In addition to undertaking to learn new digital skills and seeking out collaborations across campus, librarians are advised to re-evaluate their current commitments, with the possibility of locating underutilized time “better spent in learning new skills to provide more specialized liaison services to faculty and students.” Vaidyanathan singles out the possibility of partnerships that incorporate special collections materials and the design of new DH courses around particular subject or collection expertise.

We hope you enjoy the six pieces that make up this dh+lib mini-series. Thank you to the authors for their contributions and their graciousness throughout the editorial process. Thank you to our dh+lib co-editor Zach Coble, who has handled big and small tasks related to this mini-series with trademark aplomb.

— Sarah Potvin and Roxanne Shirazi



“Openly Certain, Certainly Open,” by Devin Higgins

“The Digital Liberal Arts, Libraries, and Timidity,” by Kevin Butterfield

“In Service? A Further Provocation on Digital Humanities Research in Libraries,” by Trevor Muñoz

“On Remembering There Are Librarians in the Library,” by Nathaniel Gustafson-Sundell

“Evolving in the Face of Tradition,” by Daniel Griffin

“Three Steps for Humanities Subject Librarians Interested in DH,” by Chella Vaidyanathan


Sarah Potvin

Sarah works as the Digital Scholarship Librarian in the Office of Scholarly Communications, Texas A&M University Libraries.

Roxanne Shirazi

Roxanne is the Dissertation Research Librarian at the Graduate Center, CUNY.