The Opportunistic Librarian

In this post summarizing his Digital Humanities 2014 conference paper, Demmy Verbeke (KU Leuven) argues for a scholar-practitioner model of librarianship, with academic libraries structured to incorporate their own research and development.

Generally speaking, Digital Humanities practitioners agree that what they do is in essence a collaborative activity, which connects people in different positions – such as, for instance, researchers, software developers, project managers, and librarians. Naturally, the exact nature and form of the specific contribution of librarians to Digital Humanities projects at a particular academic institution will differ, depending on who else is already involved, the available staff and infrastructure, the research agenda of faculty members, their enthusiasm to collaborate with the library, and the ambitions and priorities of the institution in question. Possibilities range anywhere from offering basic information on existing tools for Digital Humanities research and negotiating access to infrastructure, to providing training in the use of Digital Humanities tools, or even creating “library-based skunkworks – or semi-independent, research-oriented software prototyping and makerspace labs” (Nowviskie 2013, 53).

the best way to prepare for future research needs is by being a forerunner in research

My paper for the DH2014 conference illustrated my support for the skunkworks approach. This approach, in my opinion, should be the preferred route for any academic library wanting to maintain its position as an essential partner in research (besides realizing the other two traditional elements in its mission statement, namely to support learning and teaching). To me, it seems that the best way to prepare for future research needs is by being a forerunner in research. So I plead for an academic library, structured and staffed in such a way that it is not only able to support research initiated by others, but also to take the lead in particular domains (such as the development of advanced digitization tools and the creation and analysis of large digital corpora). In order to do this, libraries will need to find space for research & development within their own organization and aim to “set the conditions for the advancement of knowledge itself, through the fulfillment of research desires yet unknown, un-expressed” (Nowviskie 2014). In Leuven, we are trying to do this, for instance, in the context of our Digital Lab (partnering in projects such as RICH), and by joining the Support Action Centre of Competence in Digitisation (Succeed) with a view to contributing to the development of advanced OCR (Optical Character Recognition) and NER (Named Entity Recognition) technology.

The title of my paper was inspired by my conviction that the Digital Humanities create possibilities for libraries and their staff. They give librarians the chance to move beyond a rather passive role as supporters of research (if and when invited to do so), to take up a more active role as scholar-practitioners. At universities where the divide (frequently on more than one level) between academic and library staff is currently too big, the Digital Humanities can also warrant an upwards re-evaluation of the position of the latter group. In short, we are given the opportunity to reinstate the library as a visible, valuable (and valued) partner in research, which, in my experience, is essential at universities where the allocation of budgets is decided by academic staff who still spend most of their time doing research. The library’s value is thus proven, in a very direct manner and on an almost personal level, to the decision makers, which never hurts in the context of the never-ending struggle to secure sufficient funding.

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Demmy Verbeke

Demmy Verbeke received his PhD in Classics from KU Leuven in 2005. He subsequently worked as project manager for Monumentenwacht Antwerpen (2006) and was a post-doctoral research fellow in the Department of History at Harvard University (2006-7), in the Centre for the Study of the Renaissance at the University of Warwick (2007-9) and in the De Wulf-Mansion Centre for Ancient, Medieval and Renaissance Philosophy at KU Leuven (2009-12). Dr Verbeke is now head librarian of the Faculty of Arts at KU Leuven, where he teaches Heuristics in the BA program and Intellectual History of the Late Middle Ages and the Renaissance in the MA program.