a tribute to Stéfan Sinclair

I’m sharing here remarks I offered today at the 2022 DH Unbound conference. The occasion was a plenary roundtable honoring the work and legacy of my friend and digital humanities collaborator Dr. Stéfan Sinclair (1972-2020). The session was moderated and introduced by Susan Brown (University of Guelph), and—alongside tributes from the audience—the other moving speakers were Michael Sinatra (Université de Montréal), Geoffrey Rockwell (University of Alberta), Diane Jakacki (Bucknell University), and Constance Crompton (University of Ottawa).

Some time late last summer, a software update made Stéfan’s name and email address start popping up in my mail client every time I tried to send a message to one of my closest colleagues here in the Libraries. When I finally got to confessing this to others, as a kind of commentary on aleatory grief in a digital age, I said that I knew I could take him out of my address book and be done with it — but at that point preferred instead to be stabbed in the heart, multiple times per day.

So… I’m still letting this happen. But the name that was a gut punch in September now pops up in the way you might catch sight of a dear, local friend in your neighborhood pub or cafe. Not wholly unexpected that he’s there, even if you didn’t enter the place looking for him — but a nice surprise, a comfortable delight.

I think I’m leaving it because there’s something about algorithmic surprise in that feature that’s a bug, the bug that’s a feature — something in it that Stéfan would have liked.

Stéfan holds up a light-up finger puppet he has made. His smile is brighter!

I first got to know Stéfan Sinclair when we were both grad students starting to run in humanities computing circles, through ACH/ALLC. He was working on HyperPo, the tool that later became Voyant — and Stéfan’s approach to it was so playful and fun, and completely theoretically aligned in its roots in OuLiPo to what I was doing with friends and mentors at UVa, in prototyping games and toys and gizmos for the study of literature. I recognized a kindred spirit.

Like, sure. There was analytical rigor to our mishmash of ‘patacritical tools and approaches (…some of them, anyway) — but there was also just delight — delight in what pops up — and that was so characteristic of all my later work with Stéfan, much of which was in DH community organizing and the administrative kinds of service that not many people take deep pleasure in. With him, it was joyful always, never forgetting even when we were trying to do big, hard things in the ADHO and ACH realms (in bringing people together across disciplines and professions and value systems and languages and time zones) — never forgetting that we were in it to BE surprised, amused, to take pleasure in each other’s company and in what we could enable for those around us — to have fun, to learn, and to set the conditions for the unexpected and delightful and weirdly useful to emerge for other people.

Maybe that’s just what you do when you’re young and you feel like you’re building a field.

But it’s also characteristic of Stéfan’s orientation toward the world. In what I think was the last letter he ever wrote to me, in response to my sharing some kind words and a syllabus from a couple of JMU librarians using Voyant in a class, he said this: “It’s great to see people seemingly having so much fun with their teaching, but then again, we have the immense fortune of being in a profession where we work with the things we love. If we’re not having fun, then we must be doing it wrong.”

I was going not just through emails but also old pictures recently. Not surprisingly, my favorites are of us goofing off while also working. Sneaking to take and then post screenshots of each other on some long-ago Day of DH. Stéfan posing with a light-up finger puppet he was going to take home to his girls from a soft circuits class Bill Turkel and I taught at THATCamp. Pictures he took from an open mike in a conference bar where we were sharing software programming haikus.

But aside from the joy and fun of collaborating with Stéfan — which included our time together on the Exec of ACH and then as a very tight-knit and happy team of president and VP — aside from sharing that sense of OuLiPian delight with you that I always felt in working with him — my other theme today is his generosity and kindness.

Screenshot of Stéfan speaking animatedly

I had never worked with someone outside of reporting-line or teacher-student relationships who was so very explicit in making sure I knew that he BELIEVED in me. Stéfan trusted and supported and was a vocal and frequent, private cheerleader for my emerging leadership of ACH to an extent I had never experienced before in my working life.

I was already a manager, you know — a longtime project manager, director of a center and manager of teams — but I have no doubt that it was Stéfan’s confidence in me and clarity, behind the scenes, that he WANTED me to lead, even though I considered him senior to me, that brought me to the kind of leadership I have since tried to offer in different domains — and which led me to my present work. I will be forever grateful to him for that.

He also recognized and nudged me from time to time about my workaholic tendencies, reminding me of what was really important in life. (And I’m coming now to a close.) When he got sick and I freaked out, Stéfan wrote me a letter about how he was doing that always sticks in my mind:

“I think a lot about being with my girls,” he wrote, “now 10 and 13, they’re like the best book ever that I don’t want to end… Despite everything I feel like I’ve been very fortunate in my misfortune… I savour the bonus time allotted to me. I wouldn’t want anyone to feel sorry for me, I’ve had an incredibly lucky life, from an absurdly happy childhood to a completely fulfilling adulthood including a loving family and rewarding work. And things are moving very fast in medical research, who knows what may be in store.”

That was in 2017, and I’m so glad he did get more time, for the people and the work he loved.

DH is a better field because of Stéfan Sinclair. Many of us are better human beings. Better leaders, co-workers, collaborators, friends, and people capable of surprise and delight.

[I closed with some more private words to Stéfan’s wife and parents, and greatly appreciate the conference organizers’ invitation to join and reflect.]

supporting practice in community

[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. Continue reading “supporting practice in community”

charter-ing a path

[Cross-posted from the Re:Thinking blog at CLIR, the Council on Library and Information Resources, where I’m honored to serve as Distinguished Presidential Fellow. Check out all the great content at CLIR!]

In recent years, we’ve guided four separate cohorts of the graduate fellows who participate in the Scholars’ Lab’s Praxis Program through an unusual exercise. Praxis is a team-based fellowship, in which six students, from a variety of humanities and social science disciplines and in varied phases of their graduate careers, spend two full semesters working together to design, create, and launch a digital project—either “from scratch” or by building on and refining the work of the previous year’s group. They do this with the benefit of careful mentorship, smart technical instruction, and lots of free caffeine and therapy from University of Virginia Library faculty and staff.

Our fellows’ first challenge, though, is not the daunting one of formulating a scholarly question that lends itself to exploration through building. Nor is it the challenge of learning a new digital production method (or four, or five), nor even of designing a system that can make a meaningful technical or intellectual contribution to humanities teaching and research (like the 2011-13 cohorts’ Prism project, or the past two groups’ revival of the Ivanhoe Game). Instead, our fellows nervously draft a project charter. Continue reading “charter-ing a path”

a kit for hosting Speaking in Code

[Cross-posted from the Re:Thinking blog at CLIR, the Council on Library and Information Resources, where I’m honored to be serving as Distinguished Presidential Fellow. Check out all the great content at CLIR! (and see the Scholars’ Lab’s announcement, too).]

This is a belated follow-up post to last autumn’s “How We Learned to Start/Stop Speaking in Code,” in which I described the motivation for us, at the UVa Library Scholars’ Lab, to host a two-day summit on the scholarly and social implications of tacit knowledge exchange in digital humanities software development. But the timing is good!—because today, the Scholars’ Lab is releasing a web-based toolkit that any group can use to host a similar gathering. We also want to make the community aware of some venues in which distributed discussions of the social and theoretical side of DH software development can continue online: using the #codespeak hashtag on Twitter, and at the #speakingincode channel on IRC.

“Speaking in Code” was generously supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the University of Virginia Library, and it brought together 32 competitively-selected, advanced software developers with expertise in humanities applications of computing, for an extended conversation about the culture and craft of codework in DH. The group that met in Charlottesville last November paid special attention to knowledge and theoretical understandings that are gained in practice yet typically go unspoken—embodied in systems, techniques, interfaces, and tools, rather than in words. This is a brand of humanities work that can seem arcane and inaccessible to scholars, or worse: because its methods and outcomes are not always broadly legible, it is easily assumed to be devoid of critical thought and contextual (historical, theoretical, or literary) understanding. To quote my last post:

Communications gaps are deep and broad, even among humanities-trained software developers and the scholars with whom they collaborate. Much (not all) knowledge advances in software development through hands-on, journeyman learning experiences and the iterative, often-collaborative development of built objects and systems. Much (not all) knowledge advances in humanities scholarship through fixed and fluid kinds of academic discourse: referential, prosy, often agonistic. Continue reading “a kit for hosting Speaking in Code”

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. Continue reading “asking for it”