asking for it

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. This is right, and it bears repeating at a moment when smaller liberal arts colleges and Ivy-League institutions alike are clambering aboard the DH band-wagon. Monolithic approaches to the digital humanities function well precisely nowhere — not even, in fact, at the places where they are first instantiated and from which “the model” emerges for future labs and centers. I know this, because it has been my privilege to work in two such places at a leading DH institution, the University of Virginia: IATH, the structure of which was replicated in the first wave of faculty-led centers throughout North America in the late 1990s and early 2000s; and the Scholars’ Lab, which later became (and remains, for a little while longer, anyway) the benchmark model for a number of library-based labs and graduate fellowship programs in the late 2000s and early twenty-teens. A monolithic approach, I say, doesn’t even work at the monolith, because changing local conditions and the very advancement of scholarship and scholarly methods mean that every center must evolve — evolve, or die. In DH, as elsewhere, the center(s) cannot hold, and to my mind, this makes it even more crucial, when a center is library-based, that we collectively assert the agency of librarians to make changes proactively — to acknowledge they have the right and responsibility to structure initiatives and shift resources not just in response to faculty requests, but in considered anticipation of them.

“A DH center does not always meet the needs of DH researchers,” the OCLC report offers, to suggest that a center (however defined) might not be required, might not be the proper model for your library. I heartily agree. Technology-inflected humanities research services can and should permeate every library and are in fact healthiest and most responsive to researchers’ known desires when three things happen: they are made to be ubiquitous (or at least situated close to point-of-need); they are discipline-specific (or at least discipline-aware, supported in some way by an ever-evolving subject librarian/liaison model); and they are not always or only bottle-necked by human mediation. Distributed research services like this must be given the resources to flourish even (perhaps, especially) when their home library has also invested in a dedicated DH center.

However, where the two models exist in tandem — that is, where digital research is robustly supported throughout the library as the norm for humanities research itself and where the institution is resourced adequately to support a dedicated, library-based DH center — an enviable opportunity exists. It is an opportunity for librarians to be more imaginative and possessed of more independent scholarly agency than the OCLC report suggests faculty scholars might find seemly. When a library can both support basic digital scholarship needs through distributed services and create a critical mass of staffing and intellectual energy in something like a center (however conceived), it has set the conditions for the advancement of knowledge itself, through the fulfillment of research desires yet unknown, un-expressed.

Urging librarians, archivists, and other information or cultural heritage professionals to slurp “a healthy dose of humility” before bringing their considerable expertise to bear on digital humanities research and practice, as the OCLC report shockingly does, is precisely the wrong thing to do. Overarching, structural conditions of academic labor that stretch far beyond librarianship and digital scholarship — into wholesale systemic failures whose symptoms are most often expressed as petty power relationships in higher ed — already work every day to reinforce the “humility” of librarians as research partners. And in the absence of leadership willing to insist on and create the conditions for mutually respectful and collaborative partnerships among humanities faculty and library staff, these forces will do more than reinforce librarians’ humility — they will ensure their humiliation. How is that good for the humanities, digital or otherwise?

Almost no-one at UVa was asking for “spatial humanities” services in 2007, when we began to train Scholars’ Lab lenses on them. But, given the existing or incipient spatial turn of so many disciplines, the sudden ubiquity of handheld and embedded GPS-enabled devices, and the increasing sophistication and beauty of platforms for neogeography, I predicted they would be, soon. The accomplished staff and strong data collections of our former GIS center, newly folded into the SLab and placed in daily contact with software developers and humanities-trained librarians, positioned us perfectly to serve a demand that had not emerged. So we helped it along. The Scholars’ Lab began hosting un-requested (yet hugely well-attended) workshops and seminars on spatial approaches to humanities scholarship, supporting an increasing number of graduate student fellows and (later) humanities faculty with mapping projects, and re-working our GIS data storage and delivery mechanisms. With the help of an NEH grant, conceived by and awarded to staff of the Scholars’ Lab, we were able to run a two-year Institute for Enabling Geospatial Scholarship, which trained and inspired approximately 75 scholars, librarians, and technologists from UVa and an additional 30-35 institutions — including colleges and universities small and large, professional associations, and major cultural heritage organizations. A second NEH start-up grant, likewise written by and awarded to UVa Library staff, provided a seed of support for Neatline, now a well-regarded geo-temporal exhibit-builder for humanities collections, which we later completed with the help of a substantial, two-year round of funding from the Library of Congress and an inter-institutional partnership with the creators of Omeka at a neighboring DH center. Neatline has been in heavy use this academic year, by students and faculty in more than two dozen UVa humanities classes and in countless other scholarly and pedagogical projects worldwide. Two of our own graduate student collaborators won the 2013 Fortier Prize — the highest honor for emerging scholars in the digital humanities — for their innovative application of Neatline and other Scholars’ Lab-provided spatial technologies to the analysis of Homer’s Catalogue of Ships. Over the years, I have found myself speaking on the subject of UVa Library’s (initally unsought-after) support for GIS in the humanities at a number of academic conferences, at peer libraries and DH centers, and at venues like the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Royal Society in London.

“A director can experiment but should anticipate that a small percentage of scholars may take advantage of the offer,” the report tells us. “Librarians should not presume to know best.” I doubt I would have been equipped to recognize the Scholars’ Lab’s opportunity to increase local, national, and international capacity for the spatial humanities — and I doubt I’d have been brash enough a newly-minted mid-level library administrator to assert it as an un-asked-for intellectual direction, merely on my own scholarly authority — if I hadn’t spent a prior decade or more as a practicing DH doctoral student, postdoctoral researcher, and R1 faculty member. Few librarians will walk a path like this and none should have to, in order to be respected by faculty as a professional and a peer. I therefore see it as my responsibility to use whatever “cred” I’ve earned, both as an admin and a digital humanities scholar-practitioner, to ensure that every librarian and staff member in my employ has the space and opportunity to do the same, within their own fields, areas of interest, and roles. Thus, the (now, happily much-emulated) practice of building dedicated “research time” into Scholars’ Lab job descriptions and urging all staff to formulate independent or collaborative R&D projects — under their own steam, supported with travel and professional development funds — that help them to advance personally and professionally, as critically-engaged partners with faculty and graduate students in our various and shared humanities research enterprise.

I’ve described elsewhere how this works and what has come of the practice. But I’m not sure if I have clearly and explicitly stated that the questioning of assumptions and even of faculty requests is a crucial aspect of the culture we’ve strived to create in the Scholars’ Lab. It’s not license to be an asshole. It’s not license to snark. Most especially, it cannot ever be construed as license to shirk our responsibility to support the teaching and research mission of the institution, as properly defined by the distinguished people who research here, and who teach. It’s simply license to join them, and join in that mission in a more genuine and genuinely collaborative way. Given a modest but necessary amount of time for study, experimentation, and contemplation, the staff of a research library can become singularly effective collaborators, not only because they bring certain skills to bear — but because they have observed the humanities from a critical vantage point not enjoyed by people embedded in academic departments, and have had the opportunity to synthesize, in all the meanings of that term. A library in which expert staff are not permitted to push back on faculty requests in order to make them more powerful and meaningful — or (given inevitable limitations on resources) in which they are not encouraged to make judicious, well-informed decisions about DH activities that are worth supporting, for the good of scholarship and the most promising intellectual trajectories of the institution, is not a library to which I will lend my energies.

And I’m not meekly asking that librarians pose the little questions, in DH collaborations: “Couldn’t this be done better if…?” or “Have you considered an approach that would…?” Let’s ask the big ones, too. I want to work at a university where librarians are helping to philosophize DH, not just support it. Here, too, the OCLC report offers an instructive example. A small, yet foundational, thing one might question is any assertion that “the unit of DH is the project.” This is an assumption the report adopts without comment from a controversial book by Anne Burdick et al. — a unit, the authors expand, “which often requires a one-off approach.” As a document with definitional and field-building ambitions, Digital_Humanities has itself been examined for blind spots and contradictions, perhaps most cogently by Kathleen Fitzpatrick, whose critique suggests the degree to which its view of DH may be at once insular and ungenerously absorptive. There’s not a librarian in a digital humanities support role whose hard-won professional experience would not equip her to reflect thoughtfully on both the value and danger of “one-off” approaches, and to imagine (or simply to describe) institutional configurations for digital humanities research that extend beyond “the project” or radically expand our notions of what a project may have been, may yet become. Recourse to a book widely criticized for offering a totalizing view of digital humanities is particularly odd in a report that encourages a diversity of institutional response.

The Schaffner/Erway OCLC report rings true, though, in a number of places — for example, in its assertion of the value placed by the DH community on a certain productive resistance in the materials (the sense that “wrestling with digital methods” is “an integral part of their intellectual inquiry”), and in noting the “fierce independence” of many digital scholars. I suspect, though, that this latter attitude stems more from years of humanities training in disciplines where the solitary-author model reigns supreme, than from digital humanists’ often briefer exposure to collaborative and experimental modes of authorship as part of interdisciplinary and inter-professional teams. It has been my near two decades’ observation that the most experienced digital humanists are also the most humbled by their own ignorance, and the most excited at the chance to learn from a willing collaborator’s expertise. And here again, the partner most practiced in leading team-based digital inquiry may not be a humanities faculty member, who will have long labored under systems of professional reward that discourage collaboration, and even work against the giving of credit where credit is due. The person best positioned to lead may be a librarian.

Now, none of what I’ve written here is to suggest that academic research libraries need not ask scholars what they (consciously and individually) want. I’ve written nothing to suggest that libraries quit striving to provide excellent and devoted service to the humanities in the digital age. Absolutely they must; absolutely most if not the vast majority already do. And I am in strong agreement with the OCLC report’s suggestion that the institutionalization of that service should take a variety of forms. Where centers ossify, they should be broken up. Where they drift, their courses should be righted. Where they are weedy or superfluous, they should be trimmed. And, as the report argues, where the perception lies that “nothing exists” to support digital humanities scholarship at a particular institution, the whole-cloth creation of a center is never the only — or likely the best — response.

In an atmosphere of particularly sour and tense (not to say knee-jerk) online exchange — exacerbated, I think, by the conjunction of a hard communal slog through humanities conference/job-hunt season, a bitter-cold North American winter, and the paroxysms of higher ed’s adaptation to more austere climes — I’ve seen alt-ac staff, librarians and archivists, and digital humanities scholars and practitioners of all ranks and walks of life who share their work in good faith too often, too quickly reminded of one thing. It’s a sense no doubt the immediate backlash to this OCLC report will have brought home to its smart and generous authors, at least one of whom — a former student I deeply admire and from whom I’ve learned much — I’ve already seen engaging critics with great openness, in thoughtful, genuine exchange: that is, no good deed goes un-punished.

I predict much good will come of the good deed of this report — that it will be taken up and examined by the many different audiences its theme will attract, to many different and productive ends. So I’d like to close by expressing my thanks to Jennifer Schaffner and Ricky Erway for the provocation to formulate these ideas, and to spill a bit of ink in common cause!