Bethany Nowviskie

johannes factotum & the ends of expertise

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[This—more or less—is the text of a keynote talk I delivered last week in Atlanta, at the 2014 DLF Forum: the annual gathering of the Digital Library Federation. DLF is one among several stellar programs at CLIR, the Council on Library and Information Resources, where I have the honor to serve as a Distinguished Presidential Fellow. I began the talk with the following slide…]


You’re probably wondering who Johannes Factotum may be. Let’s start with a story.

Grad school in English, for me, began with a scavenger hunt. I am deeply sorry to report that this was not as much fun as it might sound. In 1996, the University of Virginia Library’s OPAC had been online for only a few years, and for most, the physical card catalog reigned supreme. Journal collections were almost entirely in print or on microfiche, but above all were in the building—shared and offsite storage being mostly a thing of the future. Search engines, which were poor, were supplemented by hand-coded indices, many of which were made and maintained by individual enthusiasts. These folks were a mix of established and self-proclaimed experts who had newly gotten their hands on the means of production. What they produced were largely pages of blue and purple links on Netscape-grey backgrounds, punctuated with little icons of shoveling dudes—lists of this and that, labors of love, some of which aimed to be comprehensive. Read the rest of this entry »

asking for it

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A report published this week by OCLC Research asks the burning question of no one, no where: “Does every research library need a digital humanities center?” The answer, of course, is of course not.

Of course, I’m being rude. The click-bait question, as posed, had a foregone conclusion — but there’s much to recommend in the report, even if it fails to define a “DH center” in any clear way, makes an unwarranted assumption that “DH academics” and librarians exist in mutually-exclusive categories, and bases too much of its understanding of faculty and researcher perceptions on the inadequate sample of some conference-going and a couple of focus groups (however carefully convened and accurately reported).

The chief value of the report may lie in its stated and implied purposes: providing library directors with a set of options to consider (stated) and an easy citation — a bit of OCLC back-up — (implied) for the local arguments they must formulate in the event their provosts or presidents catch Library-based DH Center-itis and seem completely unwilling to entertain a model customized to the needs of the institution. Wait a minute. That will never happen.

Okay, the chief value of the report is in its clear reinforcement of the notion that a one-size-fits-all approach to digital scholarship support never fits all. Read the rest of this entry »

toward a new deal

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A New Deal for the Humanities[This is the cleaned-up and slightly expanded text of a talk I gave last week, at a University of Illinois symposium on the future of the humanities at state-funded, US-based research universities. My paper was called “Graduate Training for a Public and Digital Humanities.” The organizers of the symposium, Gordon Hutner and Feisal G. Mohamed, framed its goals in a New Republic essay and positioned the event deliberately between two significant anniversaries: of the Morrill Act, establishing land-grant universities in the US, and the GI Bill, extending higher education to the American under-classes.]

Today, some 20 years after its first formulation, there is little question of the validity of Jerome McGann’s core and repeated argument: that we humanities scholars and publics stand before the vast, near-wholesale digital transformation of our various and shared cultural inheritance. This transformation – more properly, these remediations – are fully underway. They open new avenues for the work of the liberal arts in all of its spheres: for our ability to gain access to, to analyze and interpret, and most importantly to vouchsafe to future generations, the words, images, sounds, and built and material objects that crystalize in our archives and which we so carefully position to refract little, mirror-like understandings of what it has meant, for the blink of an eye, to be human.  Read the rest of this entry »

what’s next

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As we end an amazing 11-year run of the Mellon Foundation-supported Scholarly Communication Institute (the last six years of which it was my privilege to witness, learn from, and help to engineer at UVa), I am looking forward to new chances and challenges. Today, CLIR, the Council on Library and Information Resources, announced my appointment as a Distinguished Presidential Fellow. (I’m still a little stunned.)  A couple of days ago, I accepted an invitation from our wonderful Provost to join his office in the part-time role of Special Advisor, assisting at the institutional level in the advancement of digital humanities scholarship at UVa.  And on Tuesday I turned forty!  Quite a week.   Read the rest of this entry »

too small to fail

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[This (minus the ad-libbing, and skipping a pre-amble) is the text of a keynote talk I gave last month, at the second annual conference of the Japanese Association for Digital Humanities. I was invited to Tokyo to speak on the history and ethos of the Scholars’ Lab at UVa. I offer here… the whole scoop, and pretty much my entire playbook!]

The Scholars’ Lab is unusual in many ways—not least in the fact that we are simultaneously almost new and twenty years old. Paradoxes abound: we operate with a great deal of independence, and yet are more deeply and fundamentally inter-connected with other administrative divisions of our institution than many North American DH centers can claim (or perhaps would desire) to be. And, in a way, we’re not a center at all. We are a small department of the University of Virginia Library.

That position in our institutional org chart leads to a further incongruity: in a library that prides itself above all things on providing the highest possible level of service to researchers, we are—with the big, circular reference desk and bright, open, publicly-available computer lab that define our space—a service-oriented department. Yet we also work hard to call under-examined notions of digital humanities “service” into question, as our staff (primarily available to students and scholars for consultation and project development) also develop and communicate their own intellectual, artistic, and scholarly research agendas—and as we conduct collective experiments and host ongoing discussions on the changing nature of knowledge work in the academy.

But let’s not leave the paradoxes just yet—because, when it comes to the Scholars’ Lab, I can also assert that we are big and little at the same time. Thus the title of my talk: “Too Small to Fail.”

This is of course a play on a message we heard around the world in the wake of the global financial crisis, offered in justification of government bank bail-out schemes: a notion that certain corporations dominating our economy have become giants among men. They have been made “too big to fail.” It is an approach some digital humanities centers try to emulate, on their local scenes. But the Scholars’ Lab occupies a different space. Today I’ll give examples of the way we meditate on smallness as a virtue. But more importantly, I’ll discuss our attitude toward the other half of the “too big” equation—toward failure. At the SLab, we like to think we’re always ready to fail well, which is to say, that we’re capable of enabling and celebrating failures that have been executed on the proper scale and with the proper attitude.

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Creative Commons License This site uses a heavily modified version of Bryan Helmig's Magatheme. Work at by Bethany Nowviskie is always CC-BY. Want to know why? The falling letters are by Wayne Graham. He kindly made them to replace a set I designed in Flash in the late 1990s and had in place for more than 17 years. Not a bad run! Ave atque vale.