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.