Digital Humanities Curio Cabinet

Elijah MeeksFebruary 9, 2014
Share this

The Online Computer Library Center, or OCLC, submitted the latest in a genre of self-reflection by library leadership focused on where and whether digital humanities intersects with the library. Conveniently, Bethany Nowviskie, head of one of the major alt-ac powerhouses* in digital humanities--the Scholar’s Lab at the University of Virginia--responded with a pointed critique. The OCLC titled their report, “Does every research library need a digital humanities center?” a point to which Nowviskie responds substantially in agreement with OCLC: “where the perception lies that ‘nothing exists’ to support digital humanities scholarship at a particular institution, the whole-cloth creation of a center is never the only — or likely the best — response.”

There’s much more to Nowviskie response than that, and it touches on the important topics of healthy collaboration in the research university, but I want to deal with this basic question of whether or not an actual, formal center is needed. I would agree that a center is never the only or likely best response to perceived need for digital humanities support, as long as it’s amended to add, “...unless they want to be relevant as a research library.”

Now, I do not have the pedigree that either of these parties holds. I am not the head of a long-established center of innovation in digital humanities, nor am I steeped in the long struggle of the digital library. But I have been invited to more than my fair share of research universities in the last two years interested in creating or growing digital humanities support structures. In almost every case, the hoped for solution does not involve large-scale institutional support.

Instead, they want to hire a single position, which goes by a few names but Digital Humanities Specialist is a good one. Or they want to provide one or two interested librarians with a vague portfolio. Or the support will come as a few generic packages from Central IT, and bring with it the onerous but necessary restrictions Central IT is notorious for. And in every case, these responses fall short of an official library-supported center for three main reasons:

  1. Digital humanities support requires long-term investment in the professional staff providing that support. Cyclical funding, especially grant-funding, does a decent job of immersing graduate students and contract software developers in the exigencies of humanities scholarship, and then sending them back into the world at just the point at which they have developed the domain expertise and core skills that you need to drive forward innovation. Unclear collaborative opportunities for existing library staff are quickly discarded when they’re weighed against very concrete Old Library Duties and Old Library Politics.

Every project I’ve worked on has provided me more of the necessary methodological and technical skills to provide not only more robust software development and project management to the next faculty member or group I support, but also the capacity to return to the PIs of earlier projects and suggest improvements on or directly extend the work they’ve done. I couldn’t have done that if I’d had to spend half my time with an eye toward grant deadlines or traditional library support profiles.

  1. Resources in a research university are allocated and driven by charisma, especially when they are as faculty-oriented as professional support for digital humanities scholarship. Part of the appeal of distributed support is that it allows an isolated professional staff to be swallowed up by a faculty member or project. The result is the quasi-faculty status that seems like a step up from “humble” librarianship, but is just a disguised adjunct position with better pay (which, mind you, is a major distinction). As a result, distributed support for digital humanities will always be reactive, because you cannot have a strategic vision for one or two people but you can for a unit, especially from the perspective of a traditional institution like the library.

  2. Libraries at research universities, which was the focus of this report, have mastered the old digital library. They’ve built excellent digital card catalogues and racked up great successes in the digitization of old maps and manuscripts and done a fine job of supporting course management software. But now they need to find out where they fit in a world where research and pedagogy and publication are blurred. If you think you’re fulfilling the requirement to support modern research in the humanities because you have a host of searchable databases, then you’re out of touch. Humanities scholars require everything libraries already provide along with support in leveraging computational methods to do their research, publication of that research in a form that allows readers to engage with it in an interactive form, and long-term archiving of their work such that it can be revisited by the creators or other interested parties in a meaningful manner.

Here at Stanford we have no DH center, in the library or outside, though we have a robust connective tissue of base-funded positions that support that kind of scholarship within the library along with a set of labs or projects that have been supporting digital humanities scholarship since before it was called that. But rather than champion the slow-growth system that’s led to this support, I have always suggested centralized units with base funding. That seems counterintuitive, but these slow-growth success stories came from universities that have been championing this work for years or decades. They also came about during older, more unstable digital ecosystems. A research library getting into the digital humanities business today, which it must or risk slouching into irrelevance as little more than a giant digital curio cabinet, hasn’t got the luxury of slowly developing its support profile. More than that, it has successful examples that can, with vision and a bit more pain, be implemented in some scale at any research library.

* This originally misidentified Bethany Nowviskie as not being a librarian, when the Scholar's Lab is located in the UVa Library. I also misspelled her name, which is absurd given that I know how to spell it.