On Remembering There Are Librarians in the Library

The 2013 Digital Humanities and Libraries special issue of the Journal of Library Administration largely focused on how libraries might adapt organizationally to the overall problem of Big Digital Humanities initiatives, exemplified by larger-scale projects requiring substantial librarian and staff hours over the longer term, primarily in the context of large research libraries. However, the Digital Humanities (DH) provide a cluster of challenges, many of which can be handled discretely and some of which can be handled fairly simply. After all, many of the challenges of DH have to do with selecting, implementing, developing, and/or supporting computer applications, not all of which need be supported at once for librarians to respond to the needs of digital humanists. There seems to be some risk in too narrowly focusing the discussion on Big DH. Some librarians, unfamiliar at all with DH, might get the impression that DH is too large or too complicated to be addressed without significant investment, or might feel discouraged from investigating DH further for the purpose of trying to understand how their own library services might evolve. In fact, some of the issues posed by DH do not require large-scale administrative intervention or significant investment at all.

Some of the issues posed by DH do not require large-scale administrative intervention or significant investment at all.

In addition, 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. Text analysis tools have as long a history in the social sciences as in the humanities, and there are numerous examples of text analysis applications in the physical sciences. An expansive discussion of the challenges of DH might lead librarians to think about how they can respond more actively as librarians to the evolving needs of scholars across the whole campus in search of exposure to and help with new tools. In the past several years, many libraries have responded to the needs of DH primarily within technical services departments, largely by focusing on organizational and administrative interventions to develop positions to support digital collections, repository and website development, and/or metadata services. Now is the time for reference and instruction librarians to be invited to join the conversation. Reference librarians might have the flexibility to respond as librarians, without the need for administrative intervention, in the course of offering services at the reference desk or through patron consultations to students from the whole campus (although, really, all kinds of librarians could respond to the challenges of DH directly in a variety of ways, depending on local organizational flexibility).

An expansive discussion of the challenges of DH might lead librarians to think about how they can respond more actively as librarians to the evolving needs of scholars from across the whole campus in search of exposure to and help with new tools.

In my view, there is a real need for librarians to be talking with each other more directly about what they are doing (and can try to do) “on their own,” without depending on administrative intervention. I would be encouraged if that conversation could take place via dh+lib, or a listserv, or perhaps most practically via a small annual conference in which a sense of community could be fostered. An expanded conversation might empower librarians to experiment with and help students and faculty with some of the easiest tools (Voyant, Topic Modeling Tool, CATMA, brat, etc.), in much the same way they already experiment with and help students with platform functionality and discovery.

Structuring, Skills, and Advocacy around DH (Big and Little)

Micah Vandegrift and Stewart Varner’s article provides a nice overview of recent high-points in the literature of DH most relevant to academic libraries, as well as some excellent advice for librarians just hearing of DH for the first time (Vandegrift & Varner, 2013, pp. 73-74). On the one hand, this article is mindful of impacts on the whole library, pointing out that the various examples of the re-organization “of the institution … are ill-informed developments if the librarians, paraprofessionals, and support staff have not re-imagined themselves and their skill-sets.” But, on the other hand, this re-imagination is exemplified in the same paragraph by “the shift toward alternative appointments” (p. 74), which, in largely isolating the impact on the library to one librarian or department, would seem to limit the need for re-imagination by the whole library.

Such specialized appointments too often result in the further compartmentalization (or often literally, the further departmentalization) of the library.

In my view, such alternative appointments can be very helpful for libraries, insofar as the appointed librarians act as teachers to the whole library, but it seems that such specialized appointments too often result in the further compartmentalization (or often literally, the further departmentalization) of the library. The risk of creating an alternative appointment, whether it is to address emerging technologies or DH, or even electronic resources, to name a few examples, is that some librarians might choose to ignore new developments in the field, thinking that the need for re-imagination and re-tooling has been covered, or is somebody else’s job. The challenge in the creation of such positions is to avoid establishing conditions which will lead to the isolation of the librarian. Instead, the specialized librarian should be expected to share burdens as well as opportunities with colleagues.

Miriam Posner makes a very good point that the library might lean “too hard on individual librarians” who have developed the skills to support DH (Posner, 2013, p. 44).  Her observation that “DH expertise is a specialized, crucial – and frankly, rare – skill” (Posner, 2013, p. 46) might be a bit too general, though. As the survey results summarized in ARL SPEC Kit 326, “Digital Humanities,” showed, library services to support DH projects run an extremely broad gamut, including: application of metadata, scanning and OCR, and selection of resources for digitization (Bryson, Posner, St. Pierre, & Varner, 2011, p. 31), none of which involves skills that are so very rare in libraries. Other kinds of support, such as website development, data conversion, software development, usability testing, text encoding, and AV editing (Bryson et al, 2011, p. 28) might involve skills that are a little more rare in libraries, but these skills (and more along these lines) are pretty commonly offered by library schools and can be found in practice in a variety of librarian jobs.

The depiction of DH expertise as a specialized and rare skill, rather than as a range of skills not too uncommon in the library, leads reasonably to an acknowledgement of the administrative concern that support for DH might not be for all libraries, might even be “a distraction from a given library’s basic mission.”

Posner’s statement is probably most true of those librarians with “alternative appointments” who might be expected to unite in themselves a mastery of the whole field (and perhaps these librarians are leaned on too hard because they are organizationally isolated). The depiction of DH expertise as a specialized and rare skill, rather than as a range of skills not too uncommon in the library, leads reasonably to an acknowledgement of the administrative concern that support for DH might not be for all libraries, and might even be “a distraction from a given library’s basic mission” (Posner, 2013, p. 51). I would contend, however, that many libraries and librarians are already supporting DH, or could support DH (or, really, eResearch, which is a term that encompasses a broader set of research computing services offered to the entire campus), maybe without even calling it such. If we consider how many librarians perform any amount of the services found in the ARL SPEC Kit across the full spectrum of 4500+ post-secondary educational institutions, as well as more specialized organizations, then we might start to appreciate the breadth of expertise available (survey anyone?).

In any case, library support for eResearch might not be as easy to compartmentalize or to avoid as we’d like to think. Even if a library administrator were to make a sweeping decision that DH is “a distraction from a given library’s basic mission,” probably considering only the costs to support Big DH projects, such as digitization, metadata services, specialized tool development, and so on, student and faculty scholars will still walk into the library to ask reference librarians for help working with electronic documents or platforms that increasingly enable eResearch approaches. As reference librarians well know, the number of online primary and secondary sources grows daily. Scholars are using these sources. These sources are under- or inefficiently utilized, in many cases, if eResearch skills or tools are not applied, so patrons are under-served if their librarians aren’t ready to help them.

Geoffrey Rockwell pointed out long ago that the use of the “find” function, available in word processing applications, PDF readers, and browsers, is itself a text analysis tool (Rockwell, 2005). Some eResearch tools, perhaps especially Voyant, developed by Rockwell and Stéfan Sinclair, are not much harder to use than the “find” function in Word. There will likely come a point when awareness of how to use such tools will become less exotic, if not quite as common as the awareness of how to use the variety of database interfaces.

In my view, this understanding should be encouraged sooner than later, so the insights from using these tools can diffuse across the field, informing a range of decisions at many levels. For example, I attended a mini-conference fairly recently where a thought leader in the library field discussed the need for librarians to communicate to vendors the expectation that text annotation tools should be built into ebook platforms. The truth is, though, that there are great text annotation tools already available, not least brat and CATMA. Instead of calling for the development of proprietary tools, we should be supporting the further development of open tools. What librarians, especially acquisitions and reference librarians, really need to communicate to vendors is that content must be available in open, exportable formats. We don’t need vendors to design redundant tools that are only for use on one platform, applicable only to proprietary content, so that librarians and users must learn (but don’t learn) 57 varieties of the same thing.

Although she doesn’t state it explicitly, Posner mostly focuses on Big DH projects in her article, as do Jennifer Vinopal and Monica McCormick. In their article, Vinopal and McCormick are concerned with how libraries can scale services to meet the needs of scholars seeking collaborations that will require big chunks of librarian-hours, so the discussion of project selection processes, the strategic deployment of staff, and so on, are quite pertinent (Vinopal & McCormick, 2013). Really, all of the articles in the JLA special issue are excellent and useful. But additional attention should be paid to the full range and nuance of approaches to DH in the library, as well as to how DH services might help meet the related needs of scholars in the social sciences and physical sciences.

We shouldn’t let the discussion of Big DH distract us from all of the smaller things we can and should be doing right now as librarians.

“Digital Humanities” as a label might sooner or later face a backlash as a trend, but it seems certain that eResearch will carry on, if only because the research material and the tools to explore the material continue to proliferate, spurring continued evolution of the practice of research. We might even speculate that eResearch will one of these days just be called research again, will be considered business as usual. In responding to Digital Humanities in Libraries: New Models for Scholarly Engagement,  I do agree that we will need to develop processes for prioritizing and meeting Big DH requests as administrators, but we shouldn’t let the discussion of Big DH distract us from all of the littler things we can and should be doing right now as librarians. And we certainly should be careful to avoid letting the discussion of Big DH scare us away from all of these smaller things, because even a small amount of eResearch exposure for non-specialized librarians might lead to new understanding and new possibilities for the whole library.

I’d Like to Learn More

I’m really curious about what librarians are doing across the spectrum. Have any libraries yet experimented with a broader-based approach to supporting DH? Have any instruction librarians yet integrated DH tools into regular instruction, perhaps for graduate student orientation? Do any reference librarians use DH tools at the desk in the course of taking regular questions? What tools? Have any libraries successfully incentivized non-specialized librarians to learn and offer these skills? What kinds of projects are being worked on across the spectrum, at libraries not covered by the ARL SPEC Kit? (I’ve been struck, looking around me at conferences, that community college and liberal arts college librarians are often the ‘first responders’ to new needs appearing in libraries.) How can we work together as a community to share information about such projects?

As an example, I’ll mention that I programmed a database and interface for a professor as a hobby project, because the professor could find no other means of support through the library or other campus units and because I happened to have the skills and the interest. It was mostly by chance, really, that her request found its way to me, although her project involves several grants supporting several research assistants and although I worked for a very wealthy Association of Research Libraries (ARL) institution with many of the newest bells and whistles when I started the project. I knew other librarians at the same library, not assigned to eResearch or DH by administrative classification, who would have similarly helped out on projects appropriate to their eResearch-ready skills, if only they had been asked, and this despite the fact that they already had “too much” to do (…the prevailing condition of librarians everywhere). How can this “hidden capacity” find a use? It seems to me that eResearch will grow to seem increasingly basic as research. Some libraries are already offering their scholars a research advantage because they have re-organized to offer DH or eResearch centers, but are there any alternative models? How might other libraries start to catch up, even if they don’t have eResearch centers? How might support for eResearch vary across different types of institutions (not just ARL institutions, but also libraries at liberal arts colleges, community colleges, regionally focused state universities, and so on)?

(I’d like to thank Evan Rusch, Reference and Government Documents Librarian at Minnesota State University, for helping me think about how reference librarians have responded to evolving needs in the past, as well as for his larger questions about how the organization can best encourage responsive and responsible librarianship, although he needs to write down his own thoughts about that.)

 REFERENCES

Bryson, T., Posner, M., St. Pierre, A., & Varner, S.  (2011) SPEC Kit 326: Digital humanities. Washington, D.C.: Association of Research Libraries.

Posner, M. (2013). “No Half Measures: Overcoming Common Challenges to Doing Digital Humanities in the Library.” Journal of Library Administration, 53, 43-52.

Rockwell, G.  (2005) “What is text analysis? A very short answer.” Text Analysis Developers Alliance.

Vandegrift, M. & Varner, S.  (2013) “Evolving in Common: Creating Mutually Supportive Relationships Between Libraries and the Digital Humanities.”  Journal of Library Administration, 53, 67-78.

Vinopal, J. & McCormick, M. (2013).  “Supporting Digital Scholarship in Research Libraries: Scalability and Sustainability.” Journal of Library Administration, 53, 27-42.

 

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Nat Gustafson-Sundell

Nat is a Reference and Journal Acquisitions Librarian at Minnesota State University. He's previously served as an Electronic Resources Librarian at Northwestern University. In his earlier career, he was the Treasurer of a software development company and Business Manager of a market research firm. He thinks data modeling is about as much fun as a person can have in this life.