Looking Back on Five Years of dh+lib

Happy birthday!

The dh+lib site debuted at the Digital Library Federation Forum in November 2012. As we approach the five-year anniversary of this project, we thought we should take a moment to reflect on where we’ve been and where we’re going. Sarah and Roxanne are the founding editors of dh+lib and, along with Zach Coble (who joined just a few months in), have been steering the project since its inception, aided by the collaborative efforts of Patrick Williams, John Russell, Caitlin Christian-Lamb, Sarah Melton, Nickoal Eichmann-Kalwara, Thomas Padilla, Caro Pinto, and Josh Honn. 

How it got started

The dh+lib project was born out of a listerv. More specifically, it was a desire to break out of the library listserv bubble.

In 2011, members of the Association of College & Research Libraries (ACRL) Literatures in English Section began to circulate a petition to form a Digital Humanities Discussion Group within ACRL. (According to ACRL, discussion groups are typically experimental, and are designed to do just that: discuss.) By the fall of that year, the discussion group was approved, with Kate Brooks and Angela Courtney as conveners, and the accompanying email list was created. While messages about DH and libraries began to trickle in, things really heated up when Bob Kosovsky shared a call for panelists from the Theatre Library Association on “Digital Humanities and the Performing Arts,” noting that many of the questions were worth addressing more generally—outside of the performing arts context. In typical fashion, Micah Vandegrift replied with a provocation:

“I think it’s time to be more assertive about the librarian as co-equal, co-creator, collaborator, co-PI, integral to the entirety of the digital humanities process, from grant-writing to project development and management, to preservation and maintenance of the products/objects.”

This set off a flurry of messages, including one from Roxanne Shirazi, who suggested that if we were to bring librarians to the center of the digital humanities discussion we should take our discussion off a listserv and make it public. Soon, plans for a group blog were taking shape. Brooks and Courtney found that ALA could provide a WordPress installation for the group, while Shirazi had connected with Sarah Potvin, who’d volunteered on the list, to scope out a project separately. Within weeks, the two pairs had combined efforts, and dh+lib was born.

Only it wasn’t called dh+lib just yet. While we worked to survey our group for input on just what kind of site we should make, the project itself remained nameless.

Note to future project creators: name your site in such a way that people know how to pronounce it.

Following the trends of the time, the leading contender was “DH @ Lib” but that soon became “dh & lib”—until a simple design choice changed it to “dh+lib,” with the tagline: “where the digital humanities and librarianship meet.” The plus sign was intended to be read as “and,” with the hopes that it would visually indicate a crossroads, or meeting place. (Note to future project creators: name your site in such a way that people know how to pronounce it.)

The ACRL group had its first business meeting in the summer of 2012 at the ALA Annual Conference in Anaheim, California. Those in attendance at that meeting will remember the scene: a smallish conference room in a far-flung ALA hotel, a continuous stream of chairs unstacked and occupied as more and more people arrived. A portion of the meeting was devoted to discussing the direction of the group blog (for a full recap, see Bob Kosovsky’s notes). Many pointed to ProfHacker, Hack Library School, and Digital Humanities Now as models to follow. Zach Coble was in attendance, and had recently participated in a PressForward workshop at THATCamp Prime. Zach offered to help build an RSS-driven aggregator for the blog, and joined Sarah and Roxanne as project developers.

For the next few months, Sarah, Roxanne, and Zach moved forward with testing out blog themes, crowdsourcing rss feeds, compiling resources, and inviting contributors. Meanwhile, Angela Courtney was scheduled to appear on a panel at the Digital Library Federation Forum in Denver, and was one of the organizers of a Digital Humanities & Libraries THATCamp preconference. We decided that would be a good time to unveil the new site. DLF also seemed like a natural fit for launching the project, signaling our intentions to serve a community beyond ALA/ACRL.

Our first original blog post was an essay from Jefferson Bailey published on January 17, 2013, “Digital Humanities & Cultural Heritage, or, The Opposite of Argumentation.” This was followed closely by “TEI and Libraries: New Avenues for Digital Literacy” from Harriett Green. We also created a Resources page (now maintained by John Russell). The dh+lib Review had its first test run on January 19, 2013, and was officially launched with a regular rotation of Editors-at-large on February 5, 2013.


Since launching in beta in 2012, dh+lib has:

As of October 2017, our most-visited posts have been:

An online publication is the core of dh+lib, but, given our goals of facilitating conversation, exchange, and a community of practice, the project also extends offline, primarily at conferences, where editors have hosted meet-ups, workshops, and THATCamp sessions, participated in panels or given posters. Hundreds of dh+libbers have sipped drinks or balanced pizza slices at events held at Digital Humanities, the Digital Humanities Summer Institute, the Digital Library Federation Forum, the Society of American Archivists annual meetings, and the American Library Association Annual and Midwinter meetings.

Building a community of practice

How do you start a site, a project, a community and develop it from an idea on a listserv into something that people list on their CVs, dedicate their time to, affiliate with? Not without the championing and support of many. The ACRL group cultivated the project unjealously, dedicating time and resources to it while supporting its independence. The first conveners, Angela Courtney and Kate Brooks, were instrumental, and, as the DH Discussion Group became the DH Interest Group in 2014, we collaborated with conveners Zach Coble, Krista White, Thomas Padilla, Harriett Green, and Hannah Scates Kettler. Alix Keener and Chelcie Juliet Rowell, the DHIG’s final conveners, and Brianna Marshall, chair of the newly-formed Digital Scholarship Section (DSS), have conscientiously guided the project through the DHIG’s merger into the DSS.

As young upstarts, we were encouraged and advised by luminaries in the field. Most strikingly, these key figures—including Michelle Dalmau, Harriett Green, Trevor Muñoz, Lisa Spiro, Stewart Varner, and many many others—volunteered as editors-at-large and wrote posts. Editors at In the Library with the Lead Pipe and DHNow either advised directly or helpfully shared documentation that guided our early workflows. The team at PressForward has been unfailing in their willingness to collaborate and adapt Review workflows: thanks are due to Lisa Marie Rhody, Joan Fragaszy Troyano, and Stephanie Westcott.

Over the past five years, more groups and organizations have formally ventured into digital humanities and libraries, providing us with opportunities to join forces and to move beyond the North American context.

In 2013, a Libraries and Digital Humanities Special Interest Group was formed under the ADHO umbrella … balancing out our DH-in-libraries affiliation with an international libraries-in-DH scope.

In 2013, as dh+lib was just getting started, a Libraries and Digital Humanities Special Interest Group formed under the umbrella of the Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations (ADHO), convened by Zoe Borovsky, Glen Worthey, Angela Courtney, and Sarah Potvin. That convener group, which grew to include Isabel Galina Russell, Thomas Stäcker, Hege Stensrud Høsøien, and Stefanie Gehrke, has provided a second institutional home for dh+lib, balancing out our DH-in-libraries affiliation with an international libraries-in-DH scope.

In this vein, dh+lib has begun to focus on building a more inclusive and international community around digital humanities and libraries. One of our targeted areas is translation, as a means of increasing the recognition of non-Anglophone digital humanities work among our English-speaking audiences. In collaboration with RedHD, the network of digital humanists based in Mexico, we worked to simultaneously publish English and Spanish versions of an essay on self-representation and geopolitics in DH. With support from ADHO’s Global Outlook::Digital Humanities and Libraries and DH special interest groups, we are currently pursuing growth that will allow us to identify relevant scholarly work in languages other than English and circulate it to our community of practice.

Another targeted area is lowering the barriers to entry for community identification and expression. In 2015, dh+lib, thanks to an introduction by Bethany Nowviskie, collaborated with Laurie Allen and Kelcy Shepherdthe organizers of the DLF Forum’s Liberal Arts Colleges pre-conference (#dlfLAC), to launch our Scene Reports series. Framed as “lightweight ethnographies,” Scene Reports are designed to spur informal community interaction and participation.

dh+lib has been sustained, enlivened, and strengthened by its contributors—editors, authors, editors-at-large. Every week, the site grows by the contributions of our volunteer editors-at-large, who have nominated relevant research, resources, calls for papers, and other items of interest or written up what they’re reading. Our talented editors—Patrick Williams, John Russell, Caitlin Christian-Lamb, Sarah Melton, Nickoal Eichmann-Kalwara, Thomas Padilla, Caro Pinto, and Josh Honn—have devoted countless hours towards a community goal. As our team has grown over the years, we have stayed true to our collaborative ethos, while recognizing that we are all volunteers in this publishing experiment. We communicate frequently, but informally, relying on the give and take that happens when a group of dedicated individuals are working across institutions and time zones while navigating the competing demands of our personal and professional obligations. One of the challenges of institutionalizing the project has been the difficulty in setting clear roles and dividing lines between a team of generous editors who move fluidly between responsibilities, picking up where another has left off.

Looking ahead

It’s a funny exercise, as an editor or a project founder, to look at a project for what it is, what it has produced or influenced. Our view is often obscured by all the things that might have been—the series or efforts that have stalled, the collaborations we always intended to pursue, the posts still in editorial limbo, the projects we always wished we had more time for.

As we’ve approached the five-year launch anniversary, all of the abstract conversations we’d had about succession planning and governance coalesced into something more concrete. Sitting with Zach at a coffeeshop up the street from Bobst Library in April, we found ourselves all in agreement: it was time to transition the project to new editors. In many ways, the timing was right: the ACRL Digital Humanities Interest Group was being absorbed into a new Digital Scholarship Section, spurring questions of affiliation and ownership. The landscape of dh and libraries had shifted significantly since 2012, and we wondered: approaching this area today, what would we design to forge, to serve, this community? Have we filled the need we set out to fill?

The question of where and how the digital humanities and librarianship meet is one that still drives us today. And while it may be time for the founding editors to move on, we’re not leaving just yet! At this moment of opportunity, the dh+lib editorial team has begun discussing new governance structures and working out scenarios for strenthening the organizational and community ties we’ve established along the way. As part of that process, we’re going to spend more time documenting what we’ve done and compiling data that can be used to guide these decisions for the future (and sharing that data more widely, in the interest of transparency as well). We hope that this post on our history was a useful start to that process.

Photo credit: “Happy birthday !!!” by Detlef Reichardt on Flickr

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Sarah Potvin and Roxanne Shirazi

Sarah Potvin is Digital Scholarship Librarian and Associate Professor in the Texas A&M University Libraries.

Roxanne Shirazi is Dissertation Research Librarian and Assistant Professor at the CUNY Graduate Center.