Why I Go To MLA 5

Patrick Williams (Syracuse University Libraries) shares his recent experience at some of the digital scholarship sessions at #MLA14, and ponders the impact of librarians attending a conference outside of the library discipline.

In January, I joined thousands of faculty, researchers, graduate students, job-seekers, librarians, and others in the fields of language and literature in Chicago to attend the 129th Annual Convention of the Modern Language Association (MLA). My favorite moment of the whole convention occurred sometime after 10 PM in the packed reading room of Flaxman Library’s Special Collections at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. At the conclusion of the Electric Literature Organization’s MLA Off-site Reading, Stephanie Strickland took to the podium and read from her generative poem (created in collaboration with Ian Hatcher), House of Trust. I encourage you to take a minute to interact with it yourself. The moment was a playful expression of one of the reasons I enjoy attending the MLA Annual Convention: the MLA community is more interested by, invested in, and fascinated with libraries than any group I have ever encountered. For that reason, as a humanities librarian, it feels good to attend.

But my strongest (albeit less cheery) reason for attending is conveyed in what readers realize after spending a bit more time with Strickland & Hatcher’s poem: their House of Trust is inhabited by books, technologies, services, spaces, policies, and authors, but nary a human librarian is to be seen. Its visitor is engaged in a solitary pursuit. When I attend the MLA Convention, I feel I do so as representative of real human librarians. I come with an eye out for new ways to investigate and communicate the ways our work as librarians complements that of all humanities scholars, especially those engaging with the digital. I come as one of the people engaged in shaping the collections, spaces, and services through which these scholars connect with libraries.

When I attend the MLA Convention, I feel I do so as representative of real human librarians.

This is not to say that other real human librarians are not present at the MLA Convention; they certainly are, in large numbers, serving in many roles, and for much longer than I have been. I am grateful for my colleagues’ active, engaged presence within the organization. I hope that next year’s convention will bring even more.

But there were many moments at the 2014 convention, both in sessions and in informal conversations, where it was clear to me that many attendees are still unaware of the myriad ways librarians contribute to productive scholarly collaborations. There are conversations about pedagogy, preservation, classification, and access being had at the convention in parallel to those we have amongst ourselves in our libraries and at our own conferences. I am often surprised and delighted by the ways in which the character and nuance of these conversations differ from our own.

Monitoring the #MLA14 Twitter stream during the conference, I came across this exchange between Brian Croxall, tweeting from session 577, Evaluating Digital Scholarship: Candidate Success Stories (which I didn’t attend) and Michael Widner (and others, of course). I’ve found myself reflecting on it a lot since returning from Chicago:


My responses to these expressed information needs are 1) these are both statements I am very happy to hear, and 2) that we, as librarians, are on the hook to teach others how to collaborate and partner more closely and effectively with us (an assertion I am certainly not the first to make). Our increased presence at the MLA Convention is one way to move toward this. It’s interesting to me that the session referenced in the tweets above was not focused on the work of doing digital projects, but rather the ways in which they may be represented for purposes of appointment, tenure, and promotion.

In session 708. Critical Making in Digital Humanities, Dene Grigar referenced the implicit interdisciplinarity of making in DH projects, pointing to overlapping literacies in literature, history, information studies, user-centered design, fine arts, and media studies that contribute to successful projects. Since my first MLA Convention in 2010, I’ve been very pleased to see this collaborative sentiment really flourish, and this year there was even a session dedicated to successful faculty-library collaborations on undergraduate research projects (put on by the Libraries and Research in Languages and Literature Discussion Group). It has been quite encouraging to see spaces like these emerge and draw much-deserved attention to exciting collaborative work, not to mention inspire more such work.

I strongly believe our collaborations can exist beyond individual projects, though, and can address the the questions, issues, and systems that undergird the work taking place in our greater academic communities.

It’s important for us to participate in these larger conversations in order to listen and to articulate the ways we may create, support, preserve, and disseminate emergent modes of scholarship in sustainable ways.

The digital texts, tools, and projects (those being shared at the MLA Convention and others) are more and more often figuring in to the types of materials our libraries collect and provide to our communities. I think it is safe to say that, in the eyes of many scholars on many campuses,  library collection development is a mysterious black box. The same is probably true for many other “internal” library practices and activities. But libraries are potential consumers, supporters, funders, partners, hosts, and nodes in both local and cross-institutional digital projects. Additionally, librarians are well situated to assist other scholars in understanding and representing the reach and impact of these projects. It’s important for us to participate in these larger conversations in order to listen and to articulate the ways we may create, support, preserve, and disseminate emergent modes of scholarship in sustainable ways. It is also imperative that we bring what we learn in these discussions to the parallel conversations occurring in our own professional community.

I would encourage any librarian working in the humanities to check out the MLA Convention or other disciplinary conferences. I say this not only to strengthen the network of librarians in attendance, because I have brought so much back to my campus based on my experiences at the convention. Active participation in these communities can help us articulate the ways in which our work is linked, both within our field and externally. It also allows us to identify and connect with others attempting to do the same. That’s why I go to MLA.

Patrick Williams

Patrick Williams is Associate Librarian for Literature, Rhetoric, and Digital Humanities in the Syracuse University Libraries. He received his MSIS and PhD in Information Studies from the University of Texas at Austin. He is the editor of the poetry journal Really System.

5 thoughts on “Why I Go To MLA

  1. Trevor Munoz (@trevormunoz) Feb 5,2014 5:03 pm

    2 reflections by librarians who attended #MLA14 @DHandLib today: @robincamille http://t.co/fuiLNQNNsy @activitystory http://t.co/gkqHJ1aZgp

  2. Brian Croxall (@briancroxall) Feb 6,2014 9:34 am

    Great post on @DHandLib from @activitystory talking about why librarians should attend the MLA: http://t.co/ODykwukitx. #mla14

  3. @joan_starr Feb 7,2014 6:17 pm

    Liking “Why I go to MLA” by @activitystory in new @DHandLib http://t.co/vrA8aMr9jK #dh

  4. Michelle Dalmau (@mdalmau) Feb 8,2014 8:23 am

    On human librarians and our mad collaborative skills: http://t.co/IKAF7mKUVi

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