February 28, 2016 by Amanda Visconti

Service +/- collaboration for digital humanities in the library (a DH job talk)

Here’s the job talk I gave in July 2015 for my present role as a digital humanities assistant professor (aka “Digital Humanities Specialist” aka librarian faculty) in the Purdue Libraries (link to the original job ad). I’m hoping this can help other job seekers, so I’ve only very lightly edited this (all cited sources are gathered in a Zotero bibliography). The requested presentation topic:

Digital humanities and the research library: opportunities and challenges for academic libraries and librarians. Draw upon your experience and knowledge as well as citing research literature in library/archival/information science, and/or disciplinary literature relating to digital humanities.” (Audience: Libraries staff and faculty)

A lot’s been said about DH +/- Libraries, by people who have had their head in that particular space longer than me (between my information master’s degree and now, my head was in DH from the angle of a literature PhD student and web developer). So instead of rehashing others’ thoughts, I put together a Zotero bibliography of some of these recent discussions and pointed listeners wanting to know more to that link.

After working in four roles at MITH 2009-2015, consulting and events at various other DH centers, and different levels of involvement on roughly 40 DH projects, I have strong feelings about the kinds of DH relationships and infrastructures that do and don’t work out per situation. I was wary of the “Lone DHer” positions I’ve seen advertised at some institutions, tasking too much on one person; many places want one person to do it all without clear freedom and support to do very much (see the Library Loon’s post on “coordinator syndrome”). Or they require a new DH hire to have a research background, but don’t continue to support that kind of person with contractual personal research time, a tenure or promotion track, or other ways of continuing research and professionalization inside a job.

It didn’t sound like Purdue Libraries wanted that (for one thing, it’s a tenure-track position without a teaching load), but if I was wrong I wanted to know up front. So: I made my job talk about why this new DH role needed to be about creating and growing collaborations, rather than a purely service role—and since Purdue Libraries was already in enthusiastic agreement with this model, I’m working here today! (For what it’s worth, the first comment after my talk was from our ALA-award-winning Dean of Libraries James Mullins, encouraging me to move even more towards collaboration on the spectrum from service to collaboration I’d described—which was what I also thought best, but I hadn’t wanted to get my hopes up too high… so see my note in the talk adjusting my expectations for the role for an even better reality. Go Purdue Libraries!)

Here’s the talk:


Service +/- collaboration for digital humanities in the library

I wanted to start a discussion about DH in the library today, but: there are already many recent voices defining what the digital humanities (or DH) is, what a library does, and exactly how much DH and libraries overlap as academic fields. I didn’t want to rehash those debates, so I put together an online Zotero bibliography with bunch of pertinent readings, which you can access via tinyurl.com/dhlibraries. You’ll also be able to find any work I cite in this talk there.


Pulling together over fifty works defining DH and libraries, and strategizing this combination, wasn’t difficult. It was harder to find case studies of the specific, day-to-day tactics of successful combinations of DH and libraries. So, in wanting to discuss the specific question of DH library service today, I’ll try to give some specific examples, spoken and on screen, of the types of events, workflows, and services I’m envisioning. I’d like to focus on what both the strategy and the tactics of a user-focused service ethic look like, when combined with 1) the digital humanities commitment to collaboration, and 2) recognizing scholarship in all areas of professional practice. I’ll be talking for around 15 minutes, after which we’ll have a lot of time for discussion. PurdueJobTalkImages.004

Purdue has the collections and staff expertise to support DH and digital scholarship, and is already doing so at an award-winning level (worth a future blog post, but see e.g. the Purdue Libraries winning a 2015 ACRL award, the History Department’s Dr. Kim Gallon’s DH research on the black press and upcoming co-running of an NEH ODH Advanced Institute, and Purdue Libraries’ dedicated Libraries IT unit plus further units focusing on digital work like digitization and repository building). From my outsider’s view, what I see a DH Specialist providing here is a bridge, a translator, and an advocate: someone whose mission is specifically 100% focused on creating and strengthening relationships among library users and the thinking, projects, methods, and platforms of digital humanities and related work. To better discuss what a DH Specialist could do in the Purdue Libraries, I’ll first highlight what I see as some key features of the digital humanities as a field.

The digital humanities uses digital tools and methods to research, teach, and learn in the humanities. Beyond this basic definition, though, many see DH as a community of relationships, where research is publicly discussed and debated from the beginning of a project onward, from Twitter conversations and public Google Hangouts, through “mid-state” review and requests for feedback on blog posts and early drafts of books, with those books eventually to be published both in print and in open-access digital versions as with volumes in the Debates in DH series.


With projects attracting peer feedback from diverse fields and professions, the digital humanities is necessarily interdisciplinary in content and method, and highly collaborative. This means that team authorship of scholarly work is more and more supported and encouraged. As you can see onscreen, unlike some non-DH humanities conferences, Scott Weingart’s analysis of recent ADHO Digital Humanities conferences suggests there’s no penalty—and possibly a benefit—to pursuing collaborative work over solo projects.

Public, community-authored statements, like the NEH-funded Collaborators’ Bill of Rights and the more recent UCLA Student Collaborators’ Bill of Rights, show DH practitioners striving to support every person involved in scholarly collaborative work through full and correct credit and attribution, regardless of academic rank or the kind of work someone contributed. Reading through the grant opportunities offered by the NEH’s Office of Digital Humanities also shows a preference to fund collaborative efforts that impact the wider scholarly community, pedagogy, and beyond.


So, digital humanists care about and support collaboration and diverse collaborators. But lately, a number of respected DH scholars including Bethany Nowviskie, Trevor Munoz, and Miriam Posner have spoken against DH in the library as a service, arguing that thriving, longterm, widely impactful projects can be hampered by an approach to service that looks like a kind of IT service shop. This is, of course, a delicate topic for many library DHers, because many (including myself) use the word “service” to embody one of the things that we love most about the work we do: reaching, helping, and teaching others.


(Death by a bounty of Firebug-authored LibGuide tabs…)

Miriam Posner argues: “Many of the problems we have experienced ‘supporting’ digital humanities work, may stem from the fact that digital humanities projects in general do not need supporters — they need collaborators.” I’ve found that statements that appear to be “anti-support” or “anti-service” at first glance are, however, actually deeply pro-service—it’s a question of semantics. The pushback against the word “service” is an attempt to parse the flow of faculty library-support needs, into on one hand—one-time support that can already be well met by campus academic IT units—and on the other hand, research that calls for deeper applied scholarly expertise and commitment to developing interpersonal scholarly relationships over the longterm.

Digital humanities methods and output are so bound up in each other, that most DH involvement requires some scholarly interest and commitment regardless of whether you’re outlining a research question or building a database for a DH project. The “digital humanities” as a field isn’t so much the digitized humanities—things like putting up a simple website about your print book—so much as it is rather often defined by the inclusion of and critical thought about scholarly digital methods and tools in your project.

Digital humanities is inherently meta, with an interest in thinking critically about the tools used being part of the interest in the question itself. Digital humanists often interrogate not just the topic of their research, but also the methods and forms used to reach their scholarly conclusions; we think about the subjectivity and inherent bias of the digital tools and coding languages we apply to a research problem. (Addition: I now focus my DH definition on several perceived+ideal community values, including foremost the making & sharing of new knowledge, whether that looks like a journal article, publicly documenting the best scanner calibrations to capture certain historical book materials, or sharing about a new way of incorporating making/thinking about the digital in the classroom. More in a future post, but this has helped set expectations for my role and separate my work from related ideas like digitization and digital pedagogy (which are DH, but aren’t the goal of my position, or daily services offered by my role).).


I absolutely believe longtime library core values like our user-focused service ethic should and do hold true in library DH, although sometimes the tactics with which we realize these values may radically change to fit current user needs.

So here are two scenarios—both showing a good library service ethic, but with only the latter showing a service ethic that recognizes how digital humanities projects can best come into being, thrive, and give back to users on campus and beyond:

In scenario A, an English professor drops a print book off at the library…


…and gets a digital file containing the OCR’d text back promptly via email. End of interaction.

In Scenario B, an English professor drops off a print book they want digitized to the DH Specialist.


The DH Specialist asks questions like: why do they want the book digitized? Perhaps the faculty member wants to get a word count for how many times the word “Modernism” is mentioned in the book, and where.


The DH Specialist can then format and clean the file appropriately for how it will be used, and return it to the professor. (Actually, this isn’t what happens: I don’t offer digitization or data curation services, and I don’t do one-off work like this that doesn’t forward the mission of the Libraries. See note below…)


And… the DH Specialist can also suggest more powerful tools, than a simple word cloud, for looking at word frequency and placement. The DH Specialist may demonstrate how related tactics like topic modeling, could open further research. The professor, in turn, might describe how existing tools don’t quite fit her data or research question, and the DH Specialist might be able to code a patch or plugin, to make the tool better support the professor’s work and future work like it.


The Specialist might then mentor the professor in learning topic modeling, if the professor desires, or the Specialist might do some topic modeling, for the professor, while helping the professor to a good general understanding of the process involved, so that the professor can understand and build on the resulting models.


Maybe the professor and the DH Specialist later co-teach a class, combining literary theory and hands-on work, with the students learning to use digital tools as part of literary research.


And then maybe this course results in undergrads or grad students, interested in DH, and with the tech skill training to help out that professor in future research—a new or related project.


Or, some of the students might get interested enough to attend further DH training workshops, and eventually consult with the DH Specialist toward designing a digital dissertation their department recognizes as appropriate scholarship. In this second scenario, there’s a cascade of collaboration, a back-and-forth of mutual learning and scholarship that creates a foundation for future projects and teaching opportunities.

Not in my job talk, but some info about how I’m shaping the job: Since I began working at Purdue in August, I realized this second scenario is flawed—instead of taking the book and processing it, I’d direct the individual to possible resources on and off campus for accomplishing their goal, and then hold a consultation session looking for possible collaboration opportunities as well as needs a future DH center could help support. I can’t better the DH community on campus by doing one-on-one service work, or using all my time to support and reach just a few faculty members: instead, I’m balancing two types of activity:

1) Being available with an open ear for DH consultations for anyone in our campus community (and actively working so not just faculty but adjuncts, students, and staff know I’m available for their needs). Consultations include emailed followups with links to tutorials, readings, etc. and may turn into future collaborations with me (e.g. co-PI’ing grant projects, developing an academic certificate program) as well as additions to a public directory of available DH collaborators on campus.

2) Devoting the bulk of my time to building a campus infrastructure to bring together existing and future DH: growing the diverse skills that will let DH widely improve campus research and learning, creating a community of experts who can train one another, and extending both institutional memory and future momentum for DH on campus (with DH consultations helping me survey needs and research toward a future DH space)

Back to the job talk!


The careful attitude around the word “service” we sometimes see in the digital humanities springs mostly from economy: given the time the DH Specialist has in a week, matching up the support someone on campus needs to the right service provider can help balance a DH Specialist’s time so that the number of people on campus supported—and supported well—is maximized.

Library DHers encourage interaction and collaboration as an investment in people. Bethany Nowviskie challenges a service model she describes as “librarians striving to not distract the researcher from his or her work”. Nowviskie argues that we need to spend as much effort building up relationships among people on campus, as among tools and platforms—surfacing and explaining tacit library knowledges, rather than effacing them.


I’ve worked since 2009 in various roles at a thriving, library-based DH center, the Maryland Institute of Technology in the Humanities, (or “MITH”), on a wide variety of projects (logos for some of these projects are on the screen). I’ve had the chance to experience a spectrum of approaches to DH service in the library, from sometimes more service-style DH website and tool creation, moving over the years to largely focus on collaboration and growing campus relationships.

MITH in particular has honed their model for faculty fellowships so that faculty are highly engaged in the digital pieces of their projects. These engaged faculty were keen to gain some agency in the DH process by having at least a high-level overview of the tech involved, or sometimes learning a coding language; they then became ambassadors for the digital humanities back in their own departments. MITH moved from emphasizing projects to emphasizing collaborations: by nurturing members of the campus digital humanities community, good projects and research followed, and the net worth to the campus community was maximized. One testament to the success of this trend at MITH is that they recently received a 1.5 million dollar Mellon grant to pursue specifically collaborative DH & African-American Studies work, specifically incorporating research from multiple academic departments, students, faculty, staff, and post-docs.


MITH has even improved on their successful model of more engaged fellowships through a series of “DH Incubator” workshops led by Trevor Munoz and Jennifer Guiliano. These workshops took place throughout a term and were open to any library faculty curious about DH (workshops for other types of researcher, such as last year’s workshops on research with social media, drew attendees from across campus including non-humanities departments). In the first of these incubator workshops, librarians learn foundational DH concepts and approaches, and at the end of the term, those who want to go on and try a DH project, pitch one in front of the group. MITH then picked among these pitches when choosing who to support for its next round of library faculty fellowships.


This incubator model serves a couple purposes: librarians across the library become ambassadors for DH, and gain some new tools for their scholarship. Also, the DH center takes on some new projects, from library staff who are already daily saturated in the collection they’re hoping to digitally work with. These workshops are team-taught and very hands-on, so the workshops themselves, model how to be the kind of collaborator, who’s a valued member of a DH project team. This incubator model could work well for faculty outside the library too. A DH incubator for students, could teach the skills of working in a small and interdisciplinary team, that humanities students often don’t get much of a chance to build.


DH collaborations as service aren’t moving away from the Libraries’ user focus, but rather opening the door for longer and better scholarly relationships, among librarian and students, faculty, and staff. Collaboration lets us serve the campus more widely by offering different levels of collaborative service, from informal consultations through full, grant-funded project collaboration.

So, what does this collaboration-as-service look like on the day-to-day level? The DH Specialist can provide consultations modeled on library reference interviews, where instead of helping the researcher answer a question, the Specialist gives them the tools and map to not only answer their own question efficiently, but to go on to pursue related research.


(Image from DC Comics PSA by Jack Schiff, in Superman #197)

A DH Specialist would place someone in the library who’s 100% focused on holding an up-to-date overview of the latest DH tools, debates, projects, and challenges. But the DH Specialist can also connect faculty and students to existing Libraries expertise, such as the GIS Specialist’s.

In this situation, I see at least two key benefits added by placing a DH Specialist into the workflow. First, the DH Specialist acts as a proactive ambassador for the digital humanities, making sure people outside the Libraries know about campus support for digital scholarship, that projects like DH ones exist, and that this “GIS” thing is in fact related to their interest in locations and space. Even at UMD, where a strong DH center has existed in the library since 1999, maintaining a campus that knows that resources and mentors and projects and tools exist, for this kind of work, is a difficult and ongoing task.


Second, the DH Specialist acts as a translator for humanists, helping a professor with a mapping-related query define the questions they should bring the GIS specialist, locate an appropriate and friendly dataset, and refine the scope of the prospective project. After the professor works with the GIS Specialist, the professor might return to the DH Specialist for help building a platform to publish drafts of their work for public feedback, or for help with other theoretical or practical aspects of the whole digital humanities project. By having an ambassador and translator for the digital humanities, the library can draw and support a larger number and scale of scholarly projects.


I don’t think I can overemphasize that everything I’ve just said is just the approaches with which I’d begin a DH Specialist position. I strongly believe that libraries and the digital humanities per campus have their own flavors, needs, and values. My first step on the job would be intense listening and dialogue with existing campus constituents. This includes practical concerns:

  • what skills are hard to learn on campus currently?

  • are there DH-related service requests that couldn’t be met in the near past?

  • how can we help students imagine the careers, DH skills and project experience open to them?

Listening also means becoming more familiar with existing campus DH projects and colleagues (such as the Research Data Unit and Scholarly Publishing team), and seeing where and how I can best help out. With this caveat of needing to listen, in mind, I believe a service ethic that values planting and tending the seeds for longterm, collaborative commitments—to people as well as projects—offers a trusty route to a significant digital humanities presence at Purdue. Thank you!