Digital Scholarship @ CUA: Digital Humanities in the Library

dhlibraryLast March, the Catholic University of America embarked on a voyage of digital humanities discovery. We had our first DH cross campus inaugural meeting, involving faculty, students, librarians, archivists, curators, and administrators. We outlined our individual and institutional challenges and focused on our needs going forward. Consequently, in the fall 2015 semester, we will begin having workshops on collaborating on our projects, exploring new software, and in general, getting to know each other. Stay tuned!

Our roles as librarians has changed rapidly over the past few years. Once just keepers of print warehouses and guides for library tours, we have now become harbingers of change agents across the entire scholarly communication paradigm. Subject (or liaison) librarians that have experience and knowledge in subject expertise, information literacy and research skills, collection management skills, and collection development, have a foundation on which to make contributions to digital humanities scholarship. The big question is, ‘Where to begin?’

Digital Humanities in the Library: Challenges and Opportunities for Subject Specialists is a long overdue addition to the burgeoning interest in digital humanities by librarians. Edited by Arianne Hartsell-Gundy, Laura Braunstein, and Liorah Golomb–all humanities librarians in their own right–the work is designed specifically for subject/liaison humanities librarians who are seeking ways to collaborate with scholars and students on a wide variety of projects, and it provides an overview of the challenges and opportunities that abound at any institution, whether at a two-year college or at a research institution. The book is divided into four parts: 1) the first part discusses why librarians should acquire DH skills, 2) ways one can get involved, 3) the issues of collaboration, spaces, and instruction, and last, 4) conceiving, implementing, and maintaining a DH project.  The fourteen chapters have been written by a variety of specialists: DH librarians, social science librarians, archivists, editors, faculty, graduate students, and others. The chapters range from practical advice (e.g. a checklist for DH scholarship), to case studies (e.g. librarians teaching DH in the classroom) to theoretical/philosophical discussions (e.g. literary critical theory as it pertains to DH).

Librarians should acquire DH skills for a number of reasons, as outlined in the opening chapter ‘Traversing the Gap: Subject Specialists connecting Humanities Researchers and Digital Scholarship Centers.’ Katie Gibson, Marcus Ladd (a CUA alumnus), and Jenny Presnell argue that there are many DH roles that a librarian can adopt depending on the type of model (i.e. service, lab or network) existing at one’s institution.  They advise being proactive in your endeavors, seeking out opportunities and collaborators rather than having scholars and students come to you. Being involved early in the project planning process, educating scholars about the services that the library can provide, adding subject expertise when necessary, and networking across campus to make resources available for scholarly support, are only a few of the roles librarians can adopt in implementing digital scholarship standards at their institutions.

The projects that stem from the mission of the university often have the greatest chance of success.  If the college or university has limited resources and is strapped for funding, the right incremental changes put in place by librarians can have significant outcomes on the creation and maintenance of DH projects. Judy Walker provides a case study of this approach at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte in ‘Digital Humanities for the Rest of Us.’   The local history project, New South Voices, was a collaboration that included librarians, faculty, students from various departments as well as community organizations. In order to do this with no new money, the Digital Scholarship Lab (DSL) was created by reorganizing the existing staff expertise and by having the staff match the needs of faculty and students with the liaisons and IT staff who possessed the best suited particular skills and knowledge sets.  Walker discusses the type of collaboration one can be involved in, from hosting a THATCamp to workshops on tools to creating an open access journal, Urban Education Research and Policy Annuals.  It is interesting to note that the creation of DH projects emboldened others to reach out to the librarians. For example, the aforementioned journal led to the creation of an undergraduate psychology journal and two education journals.  The DSL staff set up the publications and trained the staff. As Walker notes, ‘Librarians are great at finding and organizing information and resources. What we haven’t done in the past, though, is share our tools and expertise.’ Implementing DH projects is not without its challenges. Faculty and administration who are skeptical of the digital humanities (whatever ‘that’ is), its relevance, and in large part, the role of librarians in research endeavors, serve to undermine scholarly endeavors. Copyright, open access, scholarly publishing, working with datasets (i.e. finding, using, storing and curating datasets), are just some of the challenges facing librarians.  Working with the university IT staff on issues of security and access is another issue. In addition, librarians and library staff  are often unwilling or unable to adopt or keep up with the changing needs of their constituents. Hence, the need for this book!

What I found refreshing about this work is the honesty of the librarians discussing their trials and tribulations in bringing forth a project and candidly writing about what worked and often more importantly, what did not work. Liorah Golomb’s ‘Dipping a Toe into the DH Waters: a Librarian’s Experience,’ serves as a model for curiosity and fearlessness. Golomb writes of her experiences at the University of Oklahoma, moving from an attendee of DH conferences and workshops to actively working on text mining the dialogue from the TV series Supernatural. Preparing a feasible research question, collecting the raw data, preparing the data for analysis, and selecting the right tools throughout the process, are essential steps in the research process that can have potential pitfalls. Golomb offers some tips:  define your goals, understand how to work with your data and if you are unsure, find someone who does understand, determine how to gather your data (discover whether is exists elsewhere can be a real time saver), and last, keep in mind that failure is always an option and not necessarily something to be shunned.

I teach a course in digital humanities in the Department of Library and Information Science at Catholic University. I tell my students to try new things and to not be afraid of failing at something. To quote Jake the Dog:

Sucking at something is the first step towards being sorta good at something.” — Jake the Dog

Reading Digital Humanities in the Library for practical advice and real-world examples is that first step towards ‘being sorta good at something.’

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