This article is based on quantitative and qualitative research examining humanities scholars’ understandings of the advantages and disadvantages of print versus electronic information resources. It explores how humanities’ faculty members at [removed for review] use print and electronic resources, as well as how they perceive these different formats. It was carried out with the goal of assisting the authors and other librarians in choosing between electronic and print formats when performing collection development responsibilities.
The short version: if you’ve got ideas on how museums, libraries and archives) and the digital humanities can inspire and learn from each other, it’s your lucky day! Go add your ideas about concrete actions the Association for Computers and the Humanities can take to bring the two communities together or suggestions for a top ten ‘get started in museums and the digital humanities’ list (whether conference papers, journal articles, blogs or blog posts, videos, etc) to: ‘GLAM and Digital Humanities together FTW’.
A note on nomenclature: the genesis of this particular conversation was among museumy people so the original title of the document reflects that; it also reflects the desire to be practical and start with a field we knew well. The acronym GLAM (galleries, libraries, archives and museums) neatly covers the field of cultural heritage and the arts, but I’m never quite sure how effective it is as a recognisable call-to-action. There’s also a lot we could learn from the field of public history, so if that’s you, consider yourself invited to the party!
The longer version: in an earlier post from July’s Digital Humanities conference in Hamburg I mentioned that a conversation over twitter about museums and digital humanities lead to a lunch with @ericdmj, @clairey_ross, @briancroxall, @amyeetx where we discussed simple ways to help digital humanists get a sense of what can be learnt from museums on topics like digital projects, audience outreach, education and public participation. It turns out the Digital Humanities community is also interested in working more closely with museums, as demonstrated by the votes for point 3 of the Association for Computers and the Humanities (ACH)’s ‘Next Steps’ document, ”to explore relationships w/ DH-sympathetic orgs operating beyond the academy (Museum Computer Network, Nat’l Council on Public History, etc)”. At the request of ACH’s Bethany Nowviskie (@nowviskie) and Stéfan Sinclair (@sgsinclair), Eric D. M. Johnson and I had been tossing around some ideas for concrete next steps and working up to asking people working at the intersection of GLAM and DH for their input.
However, last night a conversation on twitter about DH and museums (prompted by Miriam Posner’s tweet asking for input on a post ‘What are some challenges to doing DH in the library?’) suddenly took off so I seized the moment by throwing the outline of the document Eric and I had been tinkering with onto Google docs. It was getting late in the UK so I tweeted the link and left it so anyone could edit it. I came back the next morning to find lots of useful and interesting comments and additions and a whole list of people who are interested in continuing the conversation. Even better, people have continued to add to it today and it’s already a good resource. If you weren’t online at that particular time it’s easy to miss it, so this post is partly to act as a more findable marker for the conversation about museums, libraries, archives and the digital humanities.
Explaining the digital humanities to GLAMsThis definition was added to the document overnight. If you’re a GLAM person, does it resonate with you or does it need tweaking?“The broadest definition would be 1) using digital technologies to answer humanities research questions, 2) studying born digital objects as a humanist would have studied physical objects, and or 3) using digital tools to transform what scholarship is by making it more accessible on the open web.”
How can you get involved?Off the top of my head…
- Add your name to the list of people interested in keeping up with the conversation
- Read through the suggestions already posted; if you love an idea that’s already there, say so!
- Read and share the links already added to the document
- Suggest specific events where GLAM and DH people can mingle and share ideas/presentations
- Suggest specific events where a small travel bursary might help get conversations started
- Offer to present on GLAMs and DH at an event
- Add examples of digital projects that bridge the various worlds
- Add examples of issues that bridge the various worlds
- Write case studies that address some of the issues shared by GLAMs and DH
- Spread the word via specialist mailing lists or personal contacts
- Share links to conference papers, journal articles, videos, podcasts, books, blog posts, etc, that summarise some of the best ideas in ways that will resonate with other fields
- Consider attending or starting something like Decoding Digital Humanities to discuss issues in DH. (If you’re in or near Oxford and want to help me get one started, let me know!)
- Something else I haven’t thought of…
I’m super-excited about this because everyone wins when we have better links between museums and digital humanities. Personally, I’ve spent a decade working in various museums (and their associated libraries and archives) and my PhD is in Digital Humanities (or more realistically, Digital History), and my inner geek itches to find an efficient solution when I see each field asking some of the same questions, or asking questions the other field has been working to answer for a while. This conversation has already started to help me discover useful synergies between GLAMs and DH, so I hope it helps you too.
What are some challenges to doing DH in the library?
You may be familiar with the scenario: the faculty member groaning (often justifiably) that it’s taken so long to get one simple project off the ground that she’s given up on trying to work with librarians. Or the administrator who wonders why librarians aren’t trying harder to learn new skills.
Having actually done some digital humanities in the library, this attitude frustrates me, though I understand where it comes from. In my experience, many of the barriers to completing digital humanities projects in the library arise not from librarians themselves, but from a set of institutional and administrative factors that will be familiar to most people in Libraryland.
This is not to say that DH isn’t done in the library. It is, and well (though, as my colleagues and I found, it’s often being done in a pretty piecemeal fashion that relies more on individual librarians’ persistence than on institutional support). And it’s important to note that DH was being done in the library (and in the archive) well before it made its way into academic departments.
But I’m thinking of the libraries where DH hasn’t really found a foothold, where a faculty member or administrator is starting to wonder what’s wrong with their librarians that they can’t seem to marshall the resources and expertise to collaborate on DH projects.
I’m writing an article for the Journal of Library Administration on some of the barriers to getting DH done in the library, and I could use your help making my list. I think that these challenges all have solutions, and that there are really excellent reasons to persist in doing DH in the library. But as Bethany Nowviskie has said, librarians’ vaunted service ethic sometimes prevents them from being candid with faculty and administrators about the challenges they face and the resources they need. I promise to offer solutions, too, but I think it’s important for us all to be on the same page about what we need in order to do DH well.
I have a number of ideas, based on experience, discussions, and research, but I would really appreciate your additions and corrections to my list in the comments. Or perhaps you’d prefer to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Insufficient training opportunities
This challenge comes up quickly in any discussion of DH with librarians. Funding for training opportunities is often scarce, and it can be very hard to justify to supervisors why one needs to take a class in, say, Python, when one’s job responsibilities don’t currently include Python. Moreover, it’s not always clear where to go for training. Computer science classes are often too, well, computer-sciencey, and it’s very hard to know which language or skill one needs to start with.
Lack of support for librarian-conceived initiatives
In a library, responsibilities and opportunities are apportioned in ways that faculty sometimes have trouble relating to. Libraries are very concerned with metrics, with assigning roles efficiently, and with meeting patrons’ demonstrated needs. Projects often get assigned from the top down, and it’s not unusual for a project sponsor to be asked to prepare a business case to show that an initiative will meet a need and benefit the library. Many DH projects don’t meet any particular demonstrated need — they’re done to find an interesting answer to an interesting question. This can be very difficult to explain to one’s supervisors in the library.
Brian Mathews has urged libraries to “think like a startup“: to “face the future boldly” and “implement new ideas.” But libraries can’t do this unless librarians can do this, and right now, many of them aren’t being permitted to implement the bold new ideas Mathews and others would like to see. (To see what happens when librarians are encouraged to conceive new initiatives, check out the Harvard Library Lab.)
Too many tasks, too little time
With all the hand-wringing about whether the library has a future, it can be easy to overlook the fact that many librarians actually feel overburdened. Most subject librarians cover multiple disciplines, and with purchasing, instruction, outreach, professional development — well, it all adds up. Time for a DH project has to come from somewhere else, and many librarians don’t feel they can keep doing their existing jobs well if they add in something else.
Lack of authority to marshall the appropriate resources
In my mind, this is one of the biggies. When I worked in the library, I’d sometimes fight the urge to hide when I saw a faculty member coming at me with a project idea — even if it was a great idea, even if I really wanted to do it. I’d start tabulating the resources it would take to get this thing done: time from a developer, time from a designer, time from a metadata specialist, time from a sys admin, project management expertise, server space, a commitment to host the project in the long term … I just didn’t have the authority to make all these pieces fall into place, and neither do most individual librarians. In fact, very few individuals within a library have the ability to bring all these parts together. If a librarian has assembled these resources for you, he or she has probably (unbeknownst to you) gone from desk to desk, pleading for time from each of the people involved. That’s also probably why it’s taken so long to get your project off the ground. You can imagine why most librarians aren’t eager to do this over and over again.
Lack of incentive
It may not be all it should be, but for scholars, there’s some professional payoff to accomplishing a DH project: some name recognition, something to take on the conference circuit. It’s less clear what the payoff is for the librarian who has helped to shepherd the project through its development cycle. Too often, the “completion” of a DH project means more headaches down the road (about upgrades and server space and support) for the librarian, while it’s the faculty member’s name that’s associated with the project. If the librarian’s institution isn’t providing support and recognition for librarians involved with DH, it’s hard to see what would motivate someone to subject herself to such hard work.
The complexity of collaborating with faculty
If a DH project involves collaboration between faculty and librarians, it’s important to be attuned to the peculiar dynamics of this kind of relationship. Frequently, faculty approach librarians as service providers (and too often, librarians approach faculty that way, too). The flaw in this relationship becomes clear a few weeks into the collaboration, when the librarian really needs that dataset, decision, or brainstorming time in order to make progress on the project, but doesn’t feel entitled to make demands from an unresponsive professor. There’s no one to appeal to and no one who can help, and so the request languishes. The project will suffer if the relationship isn’t truly equitable.
You’re a faculty member who wants to write a book. Whose permission do you need? No one’s. The book may fail, but it may wildly succeed, and that’s a risk you can take on yourself. If, on the other hand, you’re a librarian who wants to work on a DH project, you’ll probably need to check with your supervisor, maybe the legal department, whoever’s in charge of the technical team, maybe the people in branding. And frankly, for most of these decisionmakers, the safest answer is “no.” When so many stakeholders are involved, the incentives for risktaking become so diffuse as to be almost imperceptible.
Lack of a real institutional commitment
When libraries do DH well, they’re in it for the long term. That means permanent staff, hard funding, real space to work, and an understanding that some projects will succeed and some will fail. But what we often see now is libraries hedging their bets: willing to wager a postdoc or two, but not more. Alas, this strategy often leads to more frustration than cool DH projects. DH takes time, and an investment in relationships across the campus. When that commitment isn’t there, librarians know it, and so do faculty and students.
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From Micah Vandegrift on the In the Library with the Lead Pipe blog. Includes a shout-out to UMD’s MITH (Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities)!