Is Promotion and Tenure Inhibiting DH/Library Collaboration? A Case for Care and Repair

“Successful technologies rely on social resources.” – Susan Brown

The Digital Humanities (DH) is an interdisciplinary methodology that spans departments, faculties, institutional divisions—including libraries—and nations. There are librarians practicing DH, DHers practicing librarianship, and many examples of successful collaborations between libraries and DH initiatives. It is therefore impossible to speak of “DH” as a singular entity or to lump the myriad projects into a single category. But, to raise a provocative issue, we would like to suggest that major cultural differences between the library and humanities community in terms of funding and tenure & promotion models impede closer collaboration— especially when it comes to tool development and envisioning long-term access to digital scholarship.

Promotion and Tenure

As a whole, DH shares many of the values of the library community: interdisciplinarity, openness, and collaboration (Spiro, 2012). Yet, many DH projects operate within departmental structures that have traditionally prioritized individual achievement and monograph publication in the tenure and promotion process. Thus, scholars—especially assistant professors on the tenure track— are encouraged to produce work that fits this individual-focused, competitive evaluation mold. For humanists, being a co-author or co-developer on a project can sometimes be a liability in disciplines that are not accustomed to recognizing collaborative work.

The Modern Language Association (MLA) produced the “Guidelines for Evaluating Work in Digital Humanities and Digital Media” to aid humanities departments when appraising the value of digital work. Notwithstanding the attention paid to evaluating digital scholarship, including tool development (Mandell, 2012), “[p]romotion and tenure (P&T) values do not always align with the practice of digital humanities in academic settings” (Odell & Pollock, 2016).

The P&T process encourages a focus on quick development so that the project can produce as many academic papers as possible before the end of a funding cycle. Librarians, on the other hand, are often rewarded for developing solutions by consultation and collaboration; they are credited for producing initiatives that have demonstrable reach and impact for the larger library or university community. Although the P&T process for most academic librarians does carry an expectation of some academic publishing, by far the larger part of merit has traditionally derived from professional practice: that which is accomplished in the service of the organization, its patrons, and the wider community (Park & Riggs, 1993).

Not all blame should be placed on P&T. Traditionally, academic funding models in DH have favored innovative projects that deliver quickly over projects that are built to last—it has only been in the past few years that the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) have required “preservation plans” as part of the grant application. The requirement for preservation plans has produced an opportunity for library involvement in digital humanities projects—but many, if not most, libraries do not have a “grants librarian” to help align DH project needs with library services—including the time-consuming process of metadata creation that must accompany digital collections.

Not all DH projects are intended to last forever. Some are simply an effort to develop a prototype or a proof-of-concept in order to create or support an argument (Galey and Ruecker, 2010). Many DH projects, however, produce unique digital assets including mark-up, transcriptions, tools, multimedia content, and interpretive material that have ongoing value for research. Without the expertise of librarians and archivists, many DH projects fail to achieve a long-lasting plan once the project ends. If data is lost, future research questions are negated. For example, in their investigations of library archives and stacks, the originators of the Women Writer’s Project were shocked to find that every generation of women writers until the late-19th century had to re-invent the idea of the woman writer. Women were continually excluded from the canon, their works lost until rediscovered in the next generation, only to be immediately forgotten again (Woods, 1994).

Without the expertise of librarians and archivists, many DH projects fail to achieve a long-lasting plan once the project ends. If data is lost, future research questions are negated.

When a DH project does not have a long-term plan, it repeats these historical erasures, even though it is common for DH projects to explicitly work to redress gaps in gender, race, and sexuality representation in academic work (Hwang and Patuelli, 2016; Wernimont and Flanders, 2010). If these revisions are to have long term impact on humanities scholarship then it is critical that the digital archives survive for future use. Preservation cannot be an afterthought. The DH Curation Guide recommendations should be a part of all project planning (Muñoz and Flanders).

Susan Brown makes the astute observation that successful technologies rely on social relations as well as technological resources (Brown, 2015), and this is especially true in an environment like DH where resources (financial or otherwise) can arrive in short bursts and long-term sustainable project funding is difficult to secure. This problem of long-term sustainability and preservation of digital humanities projects and their assets (including tools) is well documented (Marcum, 2016; Smith, 2016). Projects that are able to engage broad communities of users and developers stand a much better chance of survival in the context of constant technological churn (Kretzschmar and Potter, 2010; Grumbach and Mandell, 2014). For more successful DH/Library collaboration, our attention must turn away from short term development encouraged by P&T models towards models of care and repair.

Solution: Care and Repair

At the 2016 Implementing New Knowledge Environments (INKE) conference, Jentery Sayers presented on his work on “Sustaining and Repairing Research Infrastructures.” He examined the “care and repair paradigm” in conjunction with “digital fabrication and rapid prototyping in terms of remaking or reconstruction” as a way of anchoring “creativity and critique in labor and infrastructure studies” (Sayers, 2016). He builds upon the work of Steven Jackson (2014), whose work theorizes the inherent “fragility of the worlds we inhabit—natural, social, and technological” and asks, “Who maintains the infrastructures within and against which our lives unfold?”

Technology should not be seen simply as a means to an end, but as part of a larger ethical system of reuse and repair

Jackson argues that technology is created and used within ideologies of power, which is clearly seen in market economies that privilege obsolescence and rapid product cycles over long-term sustainability. Technology should not be seen simply as a means to an end, but as part of a larger ethical system of reuse and repair: “foregrounding maintenance and repair as an aspect of technological work invites not only new functional but also moral relations to the world of technology. It references what is in fact a very old but routinely forgotten relationship of humans to things in the world: namely, an ethics of mutual care and responsibility” (Jackson).

Historically, academic libraries and archives have tended to be the care and repair facilities for the technologies of scholarly communication. Libraries have been involved in collaborative software development since the days of Gopher and Telnet, and have developed a large number of widely-used open source software applications, protocols, and models in this time. Libraries and have been the driving force behind two agile toolsets that show promise in creating modular systems for digital scholarly communication and long-term storage: Project Hydra and Islandora provide open and stable Digital Asset Management Systems (DAMS) and are built on top of a Fedora Commons repository.

The interface layers (Ruby on Rails for Project Hydra and Drupal for Islandora) allow individual tools to be developed and integrated into these systems. Because these systems are both open, any development/improvement of a tool can be reincorporated back into the codebase using github so that every library/archives or DH project can mutually benefit from the development. Rather than working on a model of quick development, DH scholars who work in established but agile frameworks can contribute to a care and repair mentality by nurturing common collaborative tools that can be of use to entire communities; rather than repeating the cycle of obsolescence and short-lived bespoke projects, building on long-term toolsets can give librarians, archivists, and DH practitioners a common goal of mutual care and responsibility concerning the data and tools we create.

Rather than working on a model of quick development, DH scholars who work in established but agile frameworks can contribute to a care and repair mentality by nurturing common collaborative tools that can be of use to entire communities

We have seen some very successful library-DH development partnerships. One of the most impressive of these from The University of Virginia’s Scholar’s Lab led to the development of Blacklight, an open-source discovery environment that has been in active development since 2007, and which has been implemented as production software in a number of large libraries (Cartolano, 2015); Blacklight has more recently sparked Hydra. Projects such as Blacklight and Hydra have benefited immensely from tapping into huge library development networks. Although both examples started as funded projects among small groups at specific institutions, they quickly spread to multiple libraries, sparking new funding opportunities and attracting a critical mass of development time. One of the essential factors in both cases is that humanists and librarians worked together from project inception (Nowviskie, 2011). Both groups felt a strong sense of ownership that encourage the continued commitment of resources, and significant consultation ensured that the software was meeting real needs within its target community.

Libraries and digital humanists have a number of common objectives. These include the development of new research and discovery tools, the recovery and availability of new and rare resources, the transcription, mark-up, and interpretation of existing collections, and the long term preservation of research outputs. Librarians have resource management expertise, and scholars have content expertise. Scholars can easily attract funding for innovation and research, whereas libraries have sustainable funding for longer term infrastructure. Libraries have permanent staff who can manage operations, and scholars have access to graduate students who bring fresh ideas and new skills to bear in the short term. On the face of it, these two groups are poised for a beautiful partnership, but this requires overcoming disciplinary schisms that have so far stubbornly persisted.


DH research requires the continued help and participation of libraries and archives. Libraries are able to provide the social resources needed for the long-term preservation of DH projects, and thus should be part of DH planning from inception to “completion” (though the job of preservation never ends). Granting agencies need to take a more active role in requiring library and archives involvement in DH project planning (libraries must also continue to support librarian/DH subject specialists who can provide expert assistance with this planning).

One immediate change could be allocating set funds by granting bodies for the preservation and description of resources in online environments by librarians/archivists; metadata creation must be valued in all DH endeavors. Even more important could be an exhortation to build new tools for preexisting agile systems like Hydra and Islandora.

Librarians must support our colleagues operating in outmoded P&T models by challenging departments and administrations to recognize collaborative work that benefits the entire university community. In most cases, our goals will never be totally aligned (humanities will continue to theorize and prototype; libraries will continue to preserve and standardize), but there will be always be much overlap between our professional goals.

Libraries are undertaking significant work to make space for the humanities in software (Muñoz, 2012), in staffing, in budget allocation, and in physical space allocation. It is now time for humanities funding models to make more space for the library; otherwise, the gap between these two naturally collaborative methodologies will continue to exist.


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About the authors

J. Matthew Huculak is Postdoctoral Fellow of Digital Scholarship at the University of Victoria Libraries. He is co-founder and Director of two grant-funded DH initiatives: The Modernist Versions Project and Open Modernisms.

Lisa Goddard is Associate University Librarian, Digital Scholarship & Strategy at the University of Victoria Libraries. Her current projects include implementing the Hydra Digital Asset Management System at UVic Libraries, and planning the Digital Scholarship Commons.