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Digital Humanities and Digital Collections

If you’ve been following the work and discussion that’s come out of Project Bamboo, you will have noticed a few sticking points: there are the IT folks, there are the humanities faculty, and there is the original proposal, and so far there is not a whole lot of fundamental consensus between the three about an ideal path for this project.

You’ll notice I didn’t include librarians in that list, because for the most part they’ve been marginalized or absent from the discussions I’ve heard. When librarianship does make an appearance, it has mostly been in the context of finding stuff or of bridging the gap between the IT folks and the faculty. (There could be another whole blog post about why I think librarians could play a much larger role and how we do more than find things, but I don’t think that’s actually the fundamental sticking point. At least not yet.) But I digress. As I was saying, I hear one of three distinct voices whenever I hear about Project Bamboo, and this was never more clear to me than yesterday afternoon.

Yesterday afternoon one of our three representatives to Project Bamboo, an art historian, explained to a small group of humanities faculty that she wanted to collect their research stories so that she could report back to her subgroup in the Project. She said the IT folks kept talking about building things, but her subgroup was sure that the people who wanted to build things didn’t understand the research practices of humanities faculty well enough to build anything that would suit these practices well. She pointed out that each humanities professor’s practice is quite different because each person’s area of research requires different kinds of evidence, and that she wasn’t sure that “a tool” would help a wide enough group of people to be worth it.

I agree, for the most part. I also agree with Dorothea who has pointed out that there are already good tools out there just waiting to be used. Several times in this meeting yesterday, faculty members would say that they wished for a tool that would do x or y, and I’d think “oh, you need del.icio.us” or “oh, you need a wiki.”

What I hadn’t anticipated, though, and what seemed to surprise most of the people in the room, was the amount of commonality between the research practices of every single faculty member in the room. To a person, they all talked about going somewhere to look at a bunch of related stuff and use this exploration to find connections and draw conclusions. One will go to archives in Italy, another to an art library in the Hague, another to TV broadcast stations in Lebanon, another to a specific library in France… and the list goes on. Each one talked about travel and working within the constraints of the place they visited as their major hurdles. But each and every one of them said that there was no way to know exactly what was there before they got there, no way to predict in advance what insights they would draw, and no way to conduct their better research without this process of going and looking at heaps and heaps of stuff. Each one said that it wouldn’t solve all their problems, but what they really wanted were digital collections from which to work, or comprehensive highly detailed finding aides at the very least.

When I first heard hints, way back before the first workshop last year, that this would be the direction of the project, I was kind of disappointed. “You have all the power and money of the Mellon foundation and these massive groups of skilled people, and you want digital collections?” I screamed silently to myself. But the more I think about it, the more I realize that building the perfect marriage between digital collections of this scope and intuitive interfaces could be a very good goal for this group. If these interfaces could be built on careful metadata and powerful yet flexible indexing, and if they could mimic the best parts of spreading a box of photographs out on a desk while stripping away the clumsiness… that would be a thing of wonder. Just because it’s a thing that people have been trying to build for years doesn’t mean that it couldn’t be a “new” project for by this amalgam of participants. And in fact, this amalgam could possibly move farther toward accomplishing such a goal than any other group I’ve seen.

2 thoughts on “Digital Humanities and Digital Collections

  1. This post was so fascinating that I am going to officially stop lurking on your blog. So greetings, my name is Amanda and I’m in the MLIS program at St. Kate. My course this term asked each of us to find and follow an academic library blog for the semester. So, I’ve been lurking for about 2 months. Anyhow, I shared this post with my class because it intertwines a number of themes we’ve discussed. Thank you for providing well-written, thoughtful (tech savvy) words from the realm of an academic librarian.

  2. Nice to meet you, Amanda! I’d love to know more about your class’ discussion on these topics. I’m only a few years out of library school, myself, but this kind of thing wasn’t even a topic “way back” in 2005.

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