[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.