Digital Humanities + Libraries: Revolution or Evolution?

This is a loosely edited version of a keynote I gave for the Netherlands Digital Humanities Working Group Clinics, Nov. 20th, 2018 at Het Utrechts Archief.

We have yet to decide if this style of work will fundamentally alter libraries, or slowly modulate them. In reality, it is probably a combination of both/and, but I’d like to propose that we need to be honest about which speed we are operating in, at each individual organization, in order to be effective across the spread of galleries, archives, museums, a libraries.

The digital humanities (DH) offers the library an opportunity to re-invest in research and education, in a new way, and show new relevance to campus/communities. But, as the same time, it is really complicated to involve in libraries, due to the evolving character of our profession.

DH holds LOTS of simultaneous dualities:

  • research vs. pedagogy
  • service vs. partnerships
  • inclusive vs. exclusive
  • hack vs. yack
  • open vs. closed
  • DH doesn’t have to be about “projects”
  • Data-conscious, ethically-minded
  • Time and Money
  • Develop a strategy, employ an agenda
  • Non-digital public humanities

In my humble opinion, what I observe is that broadly and generally the U.S. focus of digital humanities in libraries seems to be shifting toward skills/tools/methods and away from collections and projects.

How does DH work in libraries in the U.S. (that I have worked at)?

The political answer is that there are three models that have been identified: the service model, the lab model, and the network model. (I’ll propose a 4th model later in the talk). And that library administrations survey the landscape and redirect resources to respond to shifting priorities and needs on campus.

Maron, N. L., & Pickle, S. (2014, June 18). Sustaining the Digital Humanities: Host Institution Support Beyond the Start-up Phase.

The real answer is that DH in libraries works because lots of brilliant, often early-career, highly-skilled, under-resourced, curious people devote a lot of time and labor to intangible tasks like community-building, mentoring, consultations, coordination, workflows, and curation — what we have started to call “Invisible Work.”

In order to combat that invisibility, I’d like to share what I’ve learned about DH from two colleagues, who actually exemplify DH in Libraries, that I’ve had the pleasure to work alongside. I hope through this to give you a small glance into the detail of how DH works from the on-the-ground perspective.

Sarah Stanley taught me that DH is about fighting. I held pretty strong beliefs about what DH is or should be, for example digital humanities in libraries is not a service, or that DH is more about research than pedagogy, or that DH should be more hack, less yack. Working with Sarah at FSU was the first time I had a peer in daily work environment to challenge and refine my conception of digital humanities in libraries.

My vision for DH at FSU was that each semester we would launch a new initiative, hold an event, and program a training series. Every semester. And we did that — we launched a digital project incubator, we hosted the Invisible Work in the Digital Humanities symposium (also a forthcoming special issue from Digital Humanities Quarterly), and we established the Discover DH workshop series. The next semester we launched affinity groups (prosopographies, cultural heritage), hosted a 2 day campus-wide DH stakeholder meeting, and ran Discover DH: Data Edition training.

But, my thinking was all about structure and organization; Sarah was about applied theory and comfort with complexity. The best example of this was a piece co-written within our office — De-Centering and Recentering Digital Scholarship: A Manifesto. My original concept for that piece was “What is digital scholarship and what’s it doing in libraries?” outlining the specific approach we took at FSU. Sarah, in her wisdom, redirected the entire process by pushing back on such a formative approach and asking “what does digital scholarship DO?”

Moritz, C., Smart, R., Retteen, A., Hunter, M., Stanley, S., Soper, D., & Vandegrift, M. (2017). De-Centering and Recentering Digital Scholarship: A Manifesto. Journal of New Librarianship, 2(2).

There are things that DH represents in academia that are as important as the work of DH. I believe this is an evolution of what librarianship IS and DOES.

So, how does DH work in a U.S. Library?

In the example of Sarah, building DH at Florida State was about sweating the details AND the big questions at the same time. Each activity we undertook was struggled with/against, theorized/practiced, and driven by an agenda of social-cultural change (within libraries and academia). We decided to embrace the duality.

Practically, based on my experience, pairing a librarian-type (me) with an academic-type (Sarah) in the foundation of DH was incredibly productive and mutually beneficial.

Erica Hayes taught me that DH is about “exploratory expertise.” Being relatively new at NCSU, I can’t speak to much history or future direction of DH there, but I think Erica is representative of an impulse I’ve observed in many DH librarian corners. The ability to imagine the possibilities of a research method/tool/skill, the freedom to devote time to clicking around and learning the ins-and-outs of that method/tool/skill, and the support to find a way to share that knowledge are all things at which Erica excels. I believe DH works best when abilities are paired with freedom and support. Hire good people and find ways to let them do great work.

Erica has been an instrumental part of the NCSU digital scholarship* initiative, while working as a Libraries Fellow, a prestigious two-year, fully-funded, post-library school appointment. In less than a year, Erica coordinated and hosted a Digital Scholarship Workshop series, taught by her and many colleagues from our programming and development department, data and visualization department, and other research and learning support units. She also took on the role as Project Manager for Immersive Scholar, the project for which I am the Lead PI.

* Side note — We have the unique challenge at NC State of being known as a STEM school, so calling anything ‘humanities’ gets strange reception.

Additionally, Erica was foundational in reimagining the Copyright and Digital Scholarship Center (our small team) as a hub-and-spokes model for digital humanities/scholarship, including especially outlining a three-fold description of what we do: consultations, training, and initiatives. The kinds of things we’re interested in are: digital humanities, digital and open pedagogy, copyright, author’s rights and publishing, innovative research tools, and scholarly identity.

A challenge that is also not uncommon for digital humanities in the U.S., and a growing topic of discussion in the field, is the dependance on contingent labor in new and emerging areas. This has improved in recent years, but the fact still remains that two year appointments, grant-funded positions, and unpaid/part-time internships are an unsustainable way to manage new kinds of work, not to mention unfair and bordering on un-ethical. In a new issue of American Quarterly, Toward a Critically Engaged Digital Practice: American Studies and the Digital Humanities, Christina Boyles, Anne Cong-Huyen, Carrie Johnston, Jim McGrath, and Amanda Phillips write*, that we need to

“make forms of digital labor and the agents behind this labor more visible, to create standards of evaluation that help practitioners and non-practitioners define and describe the value of digital scholarship, and to sustain generative relationships that address the ethical dimensions of collaborative labor… In the end, it is always the skilled people and the communities they build who will sustain programs and projects.”

* Boyles, C. & Cong-Huyen, A. & Johnston, C. & McGrath, J. & Phillips, A. (2018). Precarious Labor and the Digital Humanities. American Quarterly 70(3), 693–700. Johns Hopkins University Press.

So, how does DH work in a U.S. (STEM school) Library?


  • 1) performing experimentation (exploratory expertise),
  • 2) LOTS of coordination labor, and
  • 3) constant/consistent awareness of workflow (various points where DH can enter, should exit, combine with other initiatives/units/programs).

Erica has proven masterful at balancing these, despite her term-limited employment status.

As a quick recap:

At FSU libraries, digital humanities was built from:

  • Two people from different backgrounds
  • Aggressive growth strategy (initiative, event, training)
  • “Lab model”
  • Project-averse

At NCSU, ‘digital scholarship’ was built from:

  • One 50% appointee on a two year contract with previous groundwork to lean on
  • Nascent program building
  • Hub-and-spokes model
  • Training and consultation focused

Similarities between the two:

  • Shared work (more than one person)
  • Mid-level management as an advocate
  • Training as a primary mode of outreach and connection to the campus

There are a lot of things I’m excited about, many of which I am not involved in, just a cheerleader for colleagues doing great work.

  1. Community-owned infrastructure

What are the key pieces necessary to do this work, and how do we fit them all together in an equitable, sustainable (financial/moral) system? We have a solid foundation of digital collections, texts, spatial data, and digital publishing initiatives — what is the glue between them all, and how do we build, maintain, and nurture it?

2. Data Ecologies

This is a concept I heard from Julia Flanders at Northeastern, speaking about the Women Writers Project and how they imagine it as a nexus from which many different kinds of DH-ish can happen. It’s not just a DH project; its also a training program for graduate students, a technical infrastructure, a compendium of scholarly research project(s), a community, a teaching resource, etc.

Another example of what I think of as a data ecology is the Collections as Data project, which purports to, among other things, “encourage computational use of digitized and born digital collections, by conceiving of, packaging, and making collections available as data, [thus]… expanding the set of possible opportunities for engaging with collections.” They actually mention the National Library of the Netherlands Data Services and API’s as a model for thinking about collections as data.

3. Working in the overlap

Due in no small part to the weird position I keep finding myself in professional, always walking in a gray space between scholarly communication and digital humanities, I believe there is incredible opportunity to finding useful and creative connections with other young/emerging scholarly areas like data science, data visualization, open science, public history, and many others. Underling my previous assertion that DH in Libraries is the collective labor of highly motivated brilliant colleagues, I’ll say again that many of them are always, already working in these overlaps, but job descriptions, reporting lines, and annual reports don’t always reflect it as perhaps they should.

4. Valuing labor and giving credit

In a similar vein, we continue to ask, and slowly make steps to solve, how to recognize the individual effort and contribution of multiple partners in the work of digital humanities. Within libraries, myself and other colleagues have proposed that a Taxonomy of Digital Scholarship Activities in Libraries my help to add some evaluative visibility to labor of building these programs/initiatives.

Libraries have a central role to play in each of these four areas, IF we can find the way to articulate it up (the hierarchy) and out (to researchers/teachers).

How can we find one another and identify opportunities to work together?

  • Show up. It’s not easy to break out of a country/region/language bubble, but I can feel it growing more and more important as this work expands and becomes more central to the mission and activity of libraries.
  • Develop translationships (translational relationships). I’ve been deeply humbled and inspired by the work of translation lately, due in no small part to my time researching abroad, and I think there is a professional responsibility to work harder to translate concepts, language, norms, and culture. I feel that responsibility deeply, and I plan to take steps to resolve it in my own career.
  • DH is a “conscious contradiction,” and we need to be comfortable with that, especially in libraries. We also need to resource, fund, support, and highlight workers who live in this conscious contradiction.
  • Define “A Grand Challenges-Based Research Agenda for DH in/and Libraries.” I am interested in further exploring the duality of a coordinated DH strategy and a (moderately shared) DH agenda. What are we trying to do vs. how are we trying to do it? These things are not opposites, but sometimes (from my perspective) in U.S. libraries we have dove into the DH puddle without either. I think it’s also important to ensure that these aren’t defined solely by the western, well-funded, institutions of higher learning and cultural heritage.

Simply, borrowing a hipster-y maxim from your locavore farm-to-table, organic grocer/restaurant — I believe we need to Think global DH, enact local DH. The Evolution/Revolution debate will play itself out at different velocities, but we can, and I’d argue should, pay attention, and work to align as we build this new and exciting area of librarianship.