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The More Things Change, The More They Stay the Same?

There’s been some interesting themes circulating in LibraryLand recently which have to do, I think, with the near-maturation of that collection of technologies we think of as Web 2.0 (or, at least, with the settling-in of the driving idea behind those technologies). There’s been a bit of a collective yawn in evidence when people prepare presentations or publications about “The top 10 new social tools online” or “the 100 2.0 tools every librarian should know” or anything along those lines. The time for laundry lists of new tools seems to have past. So what happens next? What do presenters and authors tell us now to continue our development as a profession?

Some have taken a step back and generalized the message to be something like “all of this is simply a byproduct of the need to implement innovative services… the tools don’t matter as long as you’re being innovative.” Or they may exhort us to “keep up with those young-uns or libraries will become irrelevant.” Maybe you’ve heard about the benefits of experimentation, or gotten deep into discussions about whether we should lead our communities to new technologies or follow them into the online spaces they already inhabit.

In my corner of LibraryLand, the question seems to be more along these lines: Does the existence of these tools, or of technology itself, fundamentally change humanities scholarship?

And of course, this question leads to a myriad of others. If technology does change humanities scholarship, what does this new scholarship look like? Is it fundamentally different or just different in its methods and appearance? If technology does not fundamentally change humanities scholarship, to what extent are humanities scholars and the librarians they work with obligated to know or care about Web 2.0? If a rose by any other name still smells sweet, does Scholarship (with a capital S) continue onward regardless of the tools that mark its methods?

I certainly don’t have answers for these questions, but as I think about them, I wanted to collect a couple examples of the places where I see this kind of discussion playing out.

  • There has been some discussion in the blog world specifically about humanities scholarship in the digital age. For example, Wayne Bivens-Tatum over at Academic Librarian has written his views on the topic. He sees the fundamentals of humanities scholarship as unchanged and unchanging, and laid out his reasoning in these two posts. Though I have some difficulties with his arguments,* they are excellent posts. Dan Cohen, on the other hand, about how humanities scholarship is shifting and will shift in the future.
  • Project Bamboo has embarked on a mission to enhance humanities scholarship by building a new suit of technological tools and by formalizing collaborations between scholars, information technologists, and libraries. Their proposal document presents a vision of the ways that these technologies and collaborations could aid in the exploration of current kinds of humanities research, but it also hints at the possibilities that new kinds of questions could be asked in the future. I’m not sure yet if these are fundamentally different kinds of questions, but I’m taken with the analogy on page 12 where they note that “for the humanist, the library is his or her laboratory.” Scientists can as questions that their methods and laboratories (formal or informal) allow them to answer. There are whole branches of science that were not possible 50 years ago because the equipment wasn’t there to support them. Will this analogy hold true for humanists? And if so, is this a fundamental change or simply new avenues built on the same foundations?
  • Conversations such as the ones that are going on now about the role of social spaces online in education. For now I’ll pick the Creepy Treehouse posts at ACRLog, See Also, and Reflections from a Small College Library. For budding humanists, will integrating research and online social interaction be as natural as breathing (or as discussing the politics of spacial representation with fellow scholars over drinks)? If not, if research would seem “creepy” in the context of online socialization, how might the assumptions about what’s askable, what’s knowable, and what’s reusable that grow out of such spaces influence these new scholars’ assumptions about their scholarship? If so, is this actually different from the kind of scholarship that happened before? I’m thinking of C. S. Lewis and his Inklings group, and of the departmental lounges in academic institutions, and of any number of times I’ve seen the scholars in my family argue points of interest.

What do you think? What counts as “fundamental” in scholarship (humanities or otherwise)? Do these fundamentals change in response to the tools available? If I can ask different questions now than I could before, could that mean the field has changed? If things don’t change fundamentally, what counts as significant change and how do all these questions play out?

*I think he’s confusing methods with fundamentals, myself, saying that some people are changing their fundamental practices when they use new tools and then arguing that humanities scholarship has not changed regardless of the fact that they do sometimes use new tools now.

8 thoughts on “The More Things Change, The More They Stay the Same?

  1. Where to begin? Certainly I have been thinking about this stuff, too (I think I have commented on most of the posts you linked to here).

    I’m in a both/and kinda mood about this stuff today. I think Wayne Bivens-Tatum is right that there will be a continuum of humanistic thought and practice extending into the past and future. And I think that Dan Cohen is right that new technologies will bring about rich areas of study that weren’t possible a short time ago, and that might stretch and bend the definition of the humanities.

    I still don’t have a handle on Project Bamboo yet, so I’ll refrain from comment on that right now.

    As for the treehouse/pub/facebook/faculty lounge thing, I suddenly wish that you and I had graduate students at our colleges. Those are the folks who are likely to give us a better idea of where online social networks are likely to take scholarship. They are more likely to be early adopters, and are more likely to be looking for new opportunities and approaches that will help them make their name in the field.

  2. If you are interested in the library as lab thing then you ought to read and/or listen to Andrew Abbott’s recent stuff. I mentioned and linked to them in my reading posts lately. I wanted to say more but haven’t been able to.

    I’d link you now but I’m at the diner at 1 AM instead of in bed where I was earlier; not sleeping. :(

  3. You’re right, Steve. My “on the other hand” between Wayne’s and Dan’s posts isn’t the best choice of transition because they weren’t necessarily contradictory. And you know me… both/and is where I live and breathe most of the time.

    And here’s a wrinkle that I hadn’t thought about until I read your comment. Is it possible that we see in our seniors what grad students and future scholars might be, but that it often gets acculturated out of them in grad school? I know in grad school I was probably a little too concerned with the project of fitting my ideas into accepted modes of scholarship rather than with bending or stretching anything. I really only have my own experience to go off of, though, so this is really just musings brought on by your last paragraph.

    Thanks for the tip, Mark. I’ll definitely look back at those posts of yours. Also… SLEEP! It’s good for you.

  4. I started my life as a humanities faculty brat, and I was brought up on the idea that scholarship would involve not only reading and writing and thinking but also doing those things in a community. I always expected to have the kind of community of scholar/friends (or friend/scholars) that my parents did–the Inklings transferred to the late 20th century American college towns.

    I never really did find exactly that community in college or either of my grad schools, but oddly enough, now that I think about it, the library bloggers I know and converse with regularly are often very much what I had in mind.

    I don’t know that technology will change humanities scholarship, but it has created the possibility of new kinds of communities of humanities scholars, communities loose enough to include poser scholars like me. :-)

  5. I just love your last paragraph, Laura. I think you’re right, and I think this sense of community is incredibly valuable.

    Poser scholar indeed… :P

  6. That’s a keen note about Project Bamboo, that passage about the library lab.

    Any thoughts or questions for me to carry to the Bamboo workshop next week?

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