The Digital Liberal Arts, Libraries, and Timidity 1

Satchel Paige had a saying: “Don’t look back, something might be gaining on you.” When we speak of forming a vision for libraries in the digital now we expend a great deal of energy looking behind, worrying and wringing hands about what might be gaining or surpassing us. It may arise from a professional timidity, as described by Micah Vandegrift and Stewart Varner in, their recent article in JLA, “Evolving in Common: Creating Mutually Supportive Relationships Between Libraries and the Digital Humanities,” or too strong a devotion to dated prime directive of service.  In any case, libraries are working through a process of redefinition at the same time that the digital humanities are seeking definition. The timing is right for a meeting of the ways.

Libraries are working through a process of redefinition at the same time that the digital humanities are seeking definition.

I am the University Librarian at the University of Richmond. As a library at an undergraduate, liberal arts institution of 3500 students, we find ourselves in a nimble position. We are well funded and have an administration that embraces not only the practice of digital humanities, but also the broader ideal of digital liberal arts.  As William Pannapacker puts it in his article “Stop Calling It ‘Digital Humanities’; And 9 other strategies to help liberal-arts colleges join the movement“: “As an umbrella term for many kinds of technologically enhanced scholarly work, DH has built up a lot of brand visibility, especially at research universities. But in the context in which I work, it seems more inclusive to call it digital liberal arts (DLA) with the assumption that we’ll lose the ‘digital’ within a few years, once practices that seem innovative today become the ordinary methods of scholarship.”

Despite our support and resources, we determined early on that while the library had a leadership role in defining, developing and supporting the digital liberal arts, we could not do it alone. Our work is an active collaboration between the library, our University’s Digital Scholarship Lab, University Communications Office, and Web Services Team. Our ability to succeed is determined by effectively deploying the collective strength of our academic community. Our library has assumed a leading role in the process.

Our recent project, Virginia and the Crisis of the Union, illustrates the library’s engagement with digital liberal arts. Taking as its focus Virginia’s vote to secede from the Union and the debates leading up to this vote, the project “links the fully transcribed text of these debates with a wealth of contextual information, giving users the tools to ask why the men who brought the war into their own counties and neighborhoods did so.” The project site includes a detailed description of the collaboration and the roles of each contributing department.

These collaborations have required a shift not only in how the library was organized — what we collected, our service model, etc. — the basics of library work, but a perceptual shift, as well. While we embrace the roles of organizing and preserving collective memory, as described by Vandegrift and Varner, we can no longer wait patiently at the end of the scholarly assembly line and collect products dropping off the belt.  We can no longer watch our faculty work to publish their research only to wait to pay a publisher for the privilege to share their work. 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.

While we embrace the roles of organizing and preserving collective memory, as described by Vandegrift and Varner, we can no longer wait patiently at the end of the scholarly assembly line and collect products dropping off the belt.

Libraries’ roles are expanding to encompass this broadening scope of scholarship. The same can be said for the digital liberal arts. As Vandegrift and Varner attest, technology allows humanities work to be more engaging and more accessible. The research process can be highly individual, messy, and unique. It can also be innovative, creative, and liberating. Academic and research libraries provide the raw material needed by researchers and, in their reframing as a productive and creative space, libraries engage in invigorating areas of inquiry. Like libraries, digital humanities provides a set of tools for new research. Libraries and the digital liberal arts overlap in their desires to transform teaching, create accessibility, and find new ways of forming and asking questions.

At the end of the day I am siding with Satchel Paige. As a library administrator, I am less inclined to worry about what is coming up behind me. What’s done is done. We must move forward.

The concept that has stuck with me through my multiple readings of Vandegrift and Varner’s “Evolving in Common” has been this: “The problem is not browsing or access; it is timidity.” In the end, it comes down to how willing we are to not just embrace new ideas, but to run with them. How willing are we to roll up our sleeves and stand with our faculty and students throughout their research process, admit that we do not understand all that we see and hear, and learn? How willing are we, as administrators and leaders, to determine a path for our organizations and lead the way down it, clearing obstacles that stand in the way of our staff’s success, getting our hands dirty and bruised in the process, so that they have the room to grow, take chances, fail, and succeed? As Bethany Nowviskie writes in “Skunks in the Library: A Path to Production for Scholarly R&D,” “if you want unusual results, you can’t expect that they will come from playing by the usual rules.”

The library is not an end in itself; it is a means to an end. Libraries and the digital liberal arts have much to gain and lessons to learn by evolving in common, but only if we leave our timidity behind.

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Kevin Butterfield

Kevin Butterfield is the University Librarian at the University of Richmond. Prior to that he served as Interim University Librarian (2011-2012) and Director of Bibliographic and Digital Services (2009-2012). Before coming to the University of Richmond, he spent five years at the College of William & Mary Wolf Law Library as Head of Technical Services. He has also enjoyed positions at the University of Illinois, Southern Illinois University, the University of Michigan and Indiana University, Bloomington. Kevin speaks and writes about libraries and technology, blending traditional library services with digital library development, curation of digital resources, and management strategies for creating inclusive, dynamic and risk accepting library organizations.

One comment on “The Digital Liberal Arts, Libraries, and Timidity

  1. Avatar @kboughida Jun 30,2013 7:50 am

    The Digital Liberal Arts, Libraries, and Timidity by @kbutterfield http://t.co/zhGOQVtR9w

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