“I’ve become more bold”: An Interview with Laurie Allen 14

Laurie Allen, Coordinator for Digital Scholarship and Services at Haverford College, was the very first person to be interviewed for a Scene Report. dh+lib Editor Sarah Potvin, the Digital Scholarship Librarian at Texas A&M University, conducted the interview.

Preface from Laurie: After having finished answering these questions, I read Bethany Nowviskie’s awesome “On Capacity and Care” and it has become clear to me that I should re-write everything here to reflect her insights, which serve to challenge and deepen my ways of thinking as always. But if my standard for letting my writing live on the internet is that it must match Bethany’s, I’ll continue to not write things. So, if you haven’t already, you should go read that. If I’d read it before writing this, I’d have answered these questions differently, and I look forward to letting that essay seep into my ways of thinking over time, and seeing how it changes the ways I see things.

Sarah: Which came first for you: DH or libraries/archives?

Laurie: Libraries. I started library school in 2000, a year after finishing college. At that point, becoming a librarian felt very much like a calling. I was a philosophy major in college and I worked as a student worker in the library as an undergrad but never thought of becoming a librarian until my sister brought it up that winter after I graduated from college. Then it all fell into place. Since then, there have been lots of narratives about why librarianship was right for me. The cynical narrative: “I wanted to be around academically minded people, but I didn’t want to have my own research agenda, or devote myself to one thing forever, and I didn’t want to have to move somewhere for a job.” The philosophical narrative: “I had just written my senior thesis exploring how the ways that we organize the world around us shapes everything. I was convinced that, basically, by putting things in categories, we bring them into existence as a community, and I saw libraries as the seemingly benign but secretly powerful way that our culture expresses its organizing principles. I wanted to be part of changing everything, so changing how we organize what we know seemed like the key; I thought I’d be a cataloger.” (That narrative was the one I used in my essay to apply to library school.) There was the personal: “My sister had just read The Goldbug Variations and there was a librarian character and she got to learn cool stuff all the time in Brooklyn and that seemed awesome to me.” And there was the fact that almost everything I wanted for the holidays that year was a reference book or a historic city map. Anyway, libraries are and always have been my home. DH came later. It appeals to me for a lot of the same reasons and for some new ones that have developed as I’ve gotten older. DH is also my home now. Sometimes it feels like my two homes are in tension but mostly it’s a tension I enjoy.

Sarah: What are some of the special issues that liberal arts colleges encounter around DH and libraries? How does this shape your collaborations?

Laurie: Working in DH in a liberal arts college library has been, for me, tremendously fun. Both DH and liberal arts colleges foster individual collaborations. They are both kind of personal in a way that I really enjoy. In my version of DH, it is also very much a liberal art, drawing on different ways of knowing and requiring depth, breadth, and explicitly ethical ways of learning. And those are also qualities that liberal arts colleges pride themselves on fostering, so we get to be involved in great projects with great students when we work at the intersection. Also, DH lends itself to creativity and small schools allow a kind of creativity that is harder to imagine when you have to worry about “what if 10,000 people want to do this?” I’ve said this before and I’m not sure everyone agrees but it seems to me that the whole liberal arts college enterprise is antithetical to the notion of scalability, so it allows for kinds of risk and creativity that work well with DH projects where, at least for me, the goal is to find the mode of inquiry and expression that connect most closely to the question you’re developing. Of course the small scale can also be limiting. There just aren’t as many resources or people at a liberal arts college and so the scope of what we can do might be smaller than at a bigger place.

Sarah: Tell us about an author or publication/project that you recommend and return to.

Laurie: Two answers come to mind. First, everything written by Miriam Posner or Bethany Nowviskie. Truly, in my career, their writing and thinking has been absolutely vital to keeping me inspired and excited about what I do, and what it can be part of.
Second, “The Ecstasy of Influence,” by Jonathan Letham, an article in Harpers in 2007. I have since become somewhat disenchanted with him as an author but that way of thinking about art, culture, and creativity continues to really resonate with me.

Sarah: How has DH affected your work in libraries?

Laurie: I find DH really empowering. As I mentioned, there’s a part of me that became a librarian because I liked the idea of being a helper in the world of ideas — I wanted to get to learn things and be useful, but I didn’t want my main intellectual work to be the production of my own scholarship. But as I’ve gotten older, I suppose I’ve become more bold, and I like how DH expects me to bring myself to the work I do; to bring my own agenda and my own values and perspective — to be a collaborator in addition to being service provider. As I said, it feels like a natural part of getting older. (I’m picturing a terrible t-shirt that says “When I am an old woman, I shall wear purple and I’ll take credit for my ideas.”) Certainly there are librarians who don’t do DH who have always seen themselves as full collaborators in the scholarly work on their campus. But that didn’t really resonate for me personally, and I don’t think it’s the expectation at our institutions, for the most part. In the model where a lone scholar produces knowledge through grueling labor with the help and support of others, I relate much more to the helpers than to the scholar. But in DH, where collaboration is really at the center of projects, I’m finding that I’m enjoying feeling some ownership over our projects and contributing in ways that feel really satisfying (and new) to me.

Sarah: What’s one thing you’re working on now that you’re excited about?

Laurie: There are really so many. Monument Lab is a public art and civic engagement project in Philadelphia that asks people in Philly to reflect on our civic memory. My part of the project mostly engages me in thinking about how official and unofficial uses of data make and obscure meaning within communities. The project has been really fully co-created with scholars, artists, and undergraduates. And a huge piece of the project has been to ask this open-ended question– “what is an appropriate monument for the current city of Philadelphia”– to residents of Philly, and to collect and work to understand and value the answers we get. I love that project. It’s also made me really step up my javascript skills, which is also fun. But really it’s one of a few projects I’m really passionate about at the moment. This fall is busy.

Sarah: Busy: I hear you on that. A good sort of busy. Could we find time, though, to make that t-shirt you pitched in your second-to-last answer a living reality?


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