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Collaborations and Digital Humanities Centers

Collaborations and Digital Humanities Centers

On Wednesday, November 9, 2011, the Center for History of Print and Digital Cultural at the University of Wisconsin at Madison hosted Dr. John Unsworth for the 2011 Wisconsin Distinguished Lecture in LIS. Dr. Unsworth is the director for the Illinois Informatics Institute and the dean of the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at Urbana-Champaign. The following is how the lecture was described in an email I received, and what piqued my interest about the talk:

"Merchants of Light, Depredators, and Pioneers: I'll take my Digital Humanities with Bacon!
(Or, Digital Humanities and Librarianship in the 21st-Century Research University)"

This talk will consider some computational methods that open new avenues for humanities research, and some examples of the kinds of questions scholars pursue in that research. Those questions, in turn, suggest ways in which the digital turn might bring us closer to university colleagues outside the humanities, and closer to non-academic audiences, at the same time. The same questions also suggest new roles for librarians, as part of a research team.

My ears perk up any time I hear about libraries and digital humanities projects, and this was no exception. Although I was unable to attend the lecture in person, Anna Palmer, a coordinator for the Center, was kind enough to send a link to a non-public video to share his presentation that way [to request access to the video, email her at printculture(at)slis(dot)wisc(dot)edu]. I’d like to share a little of what I learned by watching his presentation via video.

Dr. Unsworth centered the first part of his talk around the burgeoning movement of university-established digital humanities centers and the different roles they could play within the institutional framework. He began by discussing a report by Diane Zorich, “A Survey of Digital Humanities Centers in the United States” [PDF], but problematized what he saw as the role Zorich favored for such centers.

He described her report as splitting centers into two functions: serving as collaborators and catalysts for digital humanities inquiries, and creating digital resources for a wider community. The latter is what he says Zorich favors in her report, which he challenges by asking what good resources are without the scholars who use them. By “resources,” he’s referring to repositories and databases that hold published knowledge like HathiTrust Digital Library. I‘m someone who is invested in the success of digital libraries as a source for information accessible on a grander scale, and as a way for more public institutions to take the reins as publishers. But I have always wondered, who is the audience and how do you link Person A up with Resource B?

The center-focused approach, as I understood it, is about forming partnerships to help deliver first the interface for the humanities researcher and then the research to its audience. My involvement at Iowa as a HASTAC Scholar has allowed me to be privy to some of the conversations going on as our own university works to develop and establish its version of a digital humanities center, the Digital Studio for Public Humanities. I don’t have full details in the inner workings of the Digital Studio, but I do know connecting scholars with the tools they need to explore their research and disseminate it more widely is a primary goal.

In addition, my colleague and I have been discussing what kind of conversations our fellow Iowa DH enthusiasts are interested in being a part of. How faculty members and other scholars can work with librarians on joint projects has certainly come up.

Because I’m in my own LIS program, I get to ask questions specific to the kinds of collaborations and partnerships we’re talking about here: What are the best ways to make use of libraries for digital humanities efforts? What do you want out of staff members who are at the ready to assist you in whatever ways they can (and are sanctioned by the organizational infrastructure)?

Part of what drew me to HASTAC was the focus on collaborations and intersections, the notion that we are stronger together than we are as a lone (unread) monograph gathering dust on a shelf in the basement. How can we seek out and cement those partnerships to explore ideas and research to build new knowledge?

Note: The image above, of Sir Francis Bacon, is of a key player in Dr. Unsworth’s talk. He inspired me to download the e-book of The New Atlantis, which is the basis for an extended metaphor for the present-day research university. I didn’t want to attempt reproducing each part of the metaphor without the speaker’s slides, but if I get a hold of them, I will certainly post! Always good to think about our roles and purposes in any organization.

*Edit*: Dr. Unsworth made the PowerPoint presentation slides available. Download a .ppt file here.


1 comment

Thank you, Melody, for another stimulating post and for sharing links to both Unsworth’s PowerPoint and Diane Zorich’s CLIR Report. I found both very interesting and compelling in their own ways. Ultimately, Unsworth’s vision does not strike me as incompatible with Zorich’s recommendations about maximizing impact. I wonder if he could have made most of his same points without using Zorich as a rhetorical straw man (or straw woman).

I think your own post, though, synthesizes the big picture challenges and opportunities very well. You lay out some of the same questions I’ve been considering in my own work. I am currently preparing a 10-minute lecture on the Media History Digital Library’s collaborative model to give this weekend at HASTAC. As I read your post, here are a couple of the ideas that sprang to my mind.

How faculty members and other scholars work with librarians on joint projects has certainly come up…. What are the best ways to make use of libraries for digital humanities efforts? What do you want out of staff members who are at the ready to assist you in whatever ways they can (and are sanctioned by the organizational infrastructure)?

Librarians can and should play an important role in any Digital Humanities endeavor. Wendy Hagenmaier, a Masters student in UT-Austin’s School of Information, has been an invaluable collaborator in developing the Media History Digital Library. Among other things, Wendy is helping us make good decisions about extensible and exportable formats to store data and metadata.

One idea Unsworth points toward in his discussion of Bacon is how the role of the librarian can exist outside the framework of a traditional library. The skills and expertise of collecting, navigating, and interpreting information are vital in any number of contexts. Granted, librarians will probably continue to need home institutions in order to earn a living. But we need to think beyond the resources and collections of the home institution.  “How do we digitally make available our institution’s materials?,” is the wrong question. This is what leads to the silo syndrome and redundancy that Zorich identifies. Instead, the question needs to be: “How do we leverage our institution’s materials to create a network that best serves a base of scholarly and public users?”

The Media History Digital Library may be an extreme example of leveraging a small collection to build something grander in scale. Aside from a small number of books owned by the project’s founder, David Pierce, all of the materials we have digitized have been loaned by institutions and private collections.

I‘m someone who is invested in the success of digital libraries as a source for information accessible on a grander scale, and as a way for more public institutions to take the reins as publishers. But I have always wondered, who is the audience and how do you link Person A up with Resource B? 

“Who is the audience?” is such a vital question! Far too many Digital Humanities projects consist of websites that no one visits. Scholars don’t spend time using them. Neither does the public.

Unsworth hits the nail on the head when he writes, “What’s compelling to faculty is their own research, and if that research involves use or creation of digital resources, collaboration with others, computational methods, etc., then they’ll engage with those things—not for their own sake, but for the sake of their research.” Scholars, on the whole, tend to be efficient with their time.  They spend time seeking out the resources that they think will benefit their work. An article or dissertation can be quickly discovered, skimmed, and, if relevant, cited. Sometimes a creative web interface or original navigation design makes it harder for scholars to find material usable in their research. Ironically, these innovations can have the unintended consequence of driving away your potential user base.

The design of the Media History Digital Library is meant to feel familiar and user-friendly. To enhance the website’s usability and research value, we are preparing to beta test a full-text search tool that we built with Solr (more on this soon). The MHDL is already popular with film historians and devoted fans who were previously familiar with the historic periodicals on the site. We are hoping the full-text search engine opens up the project to a much larger group of students and fans who are passionate about film and media but who were not previously aware of the existence of the periodicals like The Film Daily and Photoplay. Because film and media hold so much popular interest, we probably have a broader base of non-academic users than other important fields of the humanities that don’t have cable TV channels dedicated to them. I would be curious to hear the thoughts of scholars working in other Humanities fields about the opportunities and difficulties they have encountered in engaging non-academic users.

Still, the question remains: “Who is the audience?” When a scholar walks through your door proposing a Digital Humanities collaboration, I would encourage you—as a librarian—to force the scholar to truthfully answer that question. Just to be clear, it doesn’t have to be a big audience. If a project adds value to the lives of a small but dedicated community of users, then that’s great. However, you need some identifiable user-base. Once you identify that user-base, design the project in a way that best engages those users. If a scholar can’t answer the audience question, then the best thing you can do is start helping him or her brainstorm a new digital project.