Bethany Nowviskie

on capacity and care

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[This is the blended and edited text of two talks I gave last week. One, titled “On Capacity and Care,” was the keynote presentation at the 2015 Office of Digital Humanities project director’s meeting at the National Endowment for the Humanities. The other was titled “Grand Challenges in/and Graduate Education,” and was presented at the University of Michigan, to inaugurate a series of “Mellon Conversations on the Future of the Humanities Doctorate.” Want the tl;dr version? It’s here, as “Capacity Through Care,” a brief provocation for Debates in DH 2017.]

Let’s see the merest edge of a glacier—stable, renewed through deep time—quickly bow to pressure, calve, and rush with a roar to join a flood that rises six thousand miles away. Let us see (we have seen; we could hardly bear to see) a child face down in the surf of an unforgiving sea, its waters connected with those you bathed in this morning: one among thousands cast off from political and economic systems through which we are likewise linked. Let’s see a human gesture, a characteristic crooked smile, a passing thought typed into a search engine, any one of a dozen unthinking transactions of a morning—the purchase of an apple, a novel for the train. Let’s see all of these things become tiny points of data in a surging ocean of data in which we may feel increasingly alienated and lost, and yet—happily or with un-wished-for accuracy—be found.

We are educating new cohorts of students of the liberal arts, both graduate and undergraduate, perhaps best positioned to discover, interpret, and build upon a growing species of understanding—one that may be deeply uncomfortable, yet has been more deeply, fundamentally, and long desired in the humanities: the knowledge of relationships among the largest and smallest of things. It’s my belief that the sobering environmental and social challenges of the 21st century—our grand challenges, global challenges, even extinction-level challenges—will require a more capacious humanities. By that I mean one that understands its history and possible futures broadly, and that has organized itself to work effectively, simultaneously, and in deep empathy and interconnection with other fields and disciplines, across multiple, varied scales. And this is why I took the invitation to speak to you on graduate education reform—as an opportunity not just to address the sorts of tactical steps one might take at a university like yours, in response to the more immediate issues that often provoke this conversation (issues like the employment placement of grads, their funding streams, future prospects for the professions of literature, history, and so on within the academy), but to address some much larger frames outside it, through which I think we need to look. So, among my major themes tonight will be the complementary notions of capacity and of care: two ideas that rarely appear together—particularly as they seem to work on different ends of the scale, and are so differently gendered—in our discourse about the humanities in the digital age.
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supporting practice in community

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[Here’s a cleaned-up version of brief remarks I made in a panel discussion on “Cultivating Digital Library Professionals,” at Tuesday’s IMLS Focus meeting in Washington, DC. The day-long conversation was meant to help shape a priority project at the Institute of Museum and Library Services: funding support in the United States for what is being called the “national digital platform.” (As in: we need one.) See the full agenda and archived webcasts, and learn about future #IMLSfocus events here. My message to the assembled group was pretty simple, and we’ve cross-posted it on the DLF site.]

We should put as much energy into connecting and building up people—into developing and supporting motivated, skilled, diverse, and intersecting communities of expert practitioners—as we do into connecting the services, systems, and corpora that are the other pillars of a national digital platform. The first thing needed in many institutions is not another technology component to support, but a functioning social conduit to a broader, supportive culture that values digital library workers and the various communities they inhabit and are inspired by.

I see the continuous renewal and expansion of expert practitioner communities as our most fundamental sustainability issue: the one on which all the others depend.

And I am consciously using the word “community” here, rather than calling this our digital library “workforce” or similar, although there’s some danger that such a happy-sounding word could make us elide difficult, (often gendered) labor issues in this discussion. Read the rest of this entry »

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 »

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.