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Teaching and Learning

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In my classroom...

The Digital Humanities and the Librarian

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Here at Carleton I’ve been tasked with helping to draft a proposal for a campus-wide digital humanities initiative and infrastructure. Being the librarian that I am, I’ve been spending a good deal of time reading the literature of the field in addition to investigating potential model programs at other institutions and pulling together what amounts to a SWAT analysis about our own institution. And one of the really interesting things in the literature of the field is how librarians are thought of (and think of themselves) in relationship to DH work.

There’s a sizable camp of  vocal “librarians should be full partners in the research” proponents. There are quite a few “provide good, quiet service and provide it well” advisers. There’s the “this is a new thing for librarians so we really need to figure out what we can do” camp. And there’s the “there’s nothing new under the sun for librarians so just do this” camp.

I fall somewhere in the middle of all this. There aren’t well-oiled mechanisms here or at many other institutions for humanists (as opposed to scientists) who want to do digitally inflected research, and yet this research is becoming more and more of an expectation in humanities fields. So in that sense there’s an awful lot to figure out, cobble together, and invent when it comes to supporting this research.

On the other hand, librarians have always studied and supported information use and dissemination, research methods, and scholarly communication cultures. We have always fought to make sure that intellectual freedom is a reality and that everyone has a chance to create new knowledge from the record of human thought. These things sit at the core of our profession — the core of our guiding documents and professional ethics.

A few years ago the humanities departments I serve became much more dependent on data and statistics as they engaged in scholarship, so I learned what I needed to know about finding, understanding, and using numerical information. Right now it’s becoming clear to me that the humanities research in my departments has taken on a decidedly spacial flavor, so it’s time for me to learn enough about spacial analysis and GIS to be conversant with the information and methods of the scholarship in my areas. And while I will never be a GIS specialist, basic familiarity is no more outside of my professional scope than leaning database searching was for the librarians who trained me. The stuff of scholarship changes, but our professional expertise lies first in understanding and facilitating how information flows and functions within scholarship, and it lies second in understanding the mechanics of locating the particular kinds of information that happen to be in use at the moment.

On top of all of this, the information that makes up the bulk of the data for humanities scholarship resides in various kinds of libraries, the “labs of the humanities.” The ties between librarian and scholar have always been particularly strong in the humanities. We geek out together over dusty codexes and digitized primary source collections, monograph browsing and frustratingly jargonless full-text article searching, bulky archival boxes and streaming video collections. Humanities scholarship has never been the solo enterprise that has gotten so much air time lately. Librarians and scholars have been there for each other through the ages, though the librarians’ role is often invisible to the broader community. The librarians aren’t listed as co-authors (and shouldn’t be!), but they do participate in very real ways in humanities scholarship’s inception, feasibility, creation, dissemination, and use.

So I think librarians and scholars function best when they are full partners with each other, and I think that “full partnership” often means playing a pretty invisible role.* I think that there is a lot that’s new that needs to be figured out, and I think there’s nothing new under the sun. But most of all I think that this is our world and our reality, and I think that we are equipped to tackle it, messiness and unanswered questions and all.


* There are some problems with invisibility, including things like being underpaid, over worked, etc. But that’s a topic for another post.


 

Here’s a bibliography of things that contributed to me thinking these thoughts.

Aarsvold, Nancy, Kasia Gonnerman, and Jason N. Paul. “Shaping the Roles of Academic Librarians to Meet Emerging Demands of DH Scholarship.” In Supporting Digital Humanities for Knowledge Acquisition in Modern Libraries, 44–65. Hershey, PA: Information Science Reference, 2015.

Maron, NL, and Sarah Pickle. Sustaining the Digital Humanities Host Institution Support beyond the Start-Up Phase. New York, NY, 2014.

Nowviskie, Bethany. “Asking For It.” Nowviskie.org, 2014.

Posner, Miriam. “No Half Measures: Overcoming Common Challenges to Doing Digital Humanities in the Library.” Journal of Library Administration 53, no. 1 (2013): 43–52.

Schell, Justin, Jennie M. Burroughs, Deborah Boudewyns, and Cecily Marcus. “From Digital Arts and Humanities to DASH.” In Supporting Digital Humanities for Knowledge Acquisition in Modern Libraries, edited by Kathleen L Sacco, Scott S. Richmond, Sara Parme, and Kerrie Fergen Wilkes, 234–252. Hershey, PA: Information Science Reference, 2015.

Vinopal, Jennifer, and Monica McCormick. “Supporting Digital Scholarship in Research Libraries: Scalability and Sustainability.” Journal of Library Administration 53, no. 1 (2013): 27–42.

What would you add to this list?

Tangible information literacy

Books HD

Photo by Abhi Sharma

One of the professors I work with a lot on campus has me join her American Studies Methods course a couple of times each term she teaches the course. The first time centers around three main questions:

  1. Where does your research question sit within the theory of the field?
  2. Where does the information you’ll need to explore your question sit within the archive of the field? (“Archive” here means the universe of sources useful within the field.)
  3. And how much of the archive of the field is necessary for your purposes?

Last year we had them mind-map their research questions onto the blackboard in among the major topics of American Studies research that they’ve been studying. Then we used these mindmaps as the basis for search strategies for primary and secondary sources.

This year for various reasons we didn’t do a full class on the information literacy of American Studies. Instead, I visited their class for the full class period and participated in their conversations about the two readings assigned for that day, pitching my participation to help draw out the patterns of information use in each of the readings.

What can we tell about the theoretical foundations of the author’s claim based on the bibliography? Who are the major voices the author claims as theoretical kin? What kinds of primary sources appear and how does the author use them? Why these sources and not others?

To help us grapple with the archive of these readings, I spent the morning hunting down every single primary and secondary source that Amy Kaplan used in her article “Manifest Domesticity” (American Literature 70.3 (1998): 581–606) and piled them up on the classroom tables. We had print copies of many of the early 19th century monographs and periodicals that Kaplan marshaled in her readings of the overlap between the rhetoric of empire building and of domesticity. What we didn’t have in print we had in digitized primary source collections, so I could print off a few pages of each. And of the secondary sources we had ready access to all but 2 of the books, one of which could have come over from St. Olaf if I’d planned ahead a little more.

So there we sat, exploring Kaplans scholarship while her archive lay there in front of us for direct exploration, manipulation, and interrogation.

I’m not sure what the students got out of the exercise. I hope they sensed the possibilities for their own research – that writing from 190 years ago is not exotic and out of reach and that the major voices in their field are represented here in our library’s collection. I hope they enjoyed holding paper and ink from the 1830s in their own hands. I especially hope that they sensed the vital research practice of mining other scholars’ bibliographies.

For me, I experienced wonder at just how much is accessible these days even in a curricular collection on a small liberal arts college campus. And I admit that it was a thrill to open those pages and see what other scholars saw, exactly as they saw it.

It certainly wasn’t a traditional library session, but I hope it was as useful. It was certainly fun.