Category Archives: libraries

Digital Humanities, Digital Scholarship, and Digital Libraries: Fuzzy Boundaries of a False Trichotomy

If there is one thing that unites digital humanities practitioners, it is our aversion to defining ‘Digital Humanities.’ I get it. I really do. But defining and redefining DH on a regular and ongoing basis comes with the territory. Especially in today’s academic and GLAM sector 1 climate where digital tools and methods are being recognized as crucial components of workflow, access, and analysis.

Like politics, all DH is local. And depending on your local politics, you may find yourself needing to distinguish between the trifecta of Digital Humanities, Digital Scholarship, and Digital Libraries. These three terms usually live in happy, overlapping harmony with each other – until you have to tease them apart for administrative or funding purposes. Then things can get surprisingly complicated, surprisingly fast.

So, in an effort to ease this process, I propose the following interlinking definitions.

Digital Libraries consist of the human and cyber infrastructure required to build and maintain structured repositories of metadata and digital objects designed for access and reuse by researchers with an undelimited set of research questions. Digital libraries vary widely in size, content, and audience. But some examples include:

Digital Scholarship is the set of skills, methods, and tools required for researchers to work with digital materials, as well as the people who teach these skills. Skills that fall under Digital Scholarship include, but are hardly limited to:

  • Geographic Information Systems (GIS)
  • Proper use and application of statistical analysis (on textual, numerical, or image data)
  • Citation management (Zotero started as a DH project)
  • Data Curation and Data Management
  • Data visualization, physicalization, or sonification

Digital Humanities is a field of research and a labor structure. As a field of research, Digital Humanities is characterized by “using information technology to illuminate the human record, and bringing an understanding of the human record to bear on the development and use of information technology.” 2 As a labor structure, Digital Humanities is designed to maximize collaboration and, in the words of Ed Ayers, “scramble hierarchies” to the betterment of scholarship and the human experience. Digital Humanities practitioners use the skills and tools of digital scholarship and rely on (or create) the metadata and objects in digital libraries to answer their research questions.

Digital Humanities as a field is primarily characterized by Digital Humanities Projects.3

Digital Humanities Projects often have features in common with digital libraries, but DH projects are designed to answer a delimited set of research questions.

So, those are my suggested fuzzy boundaries for the false trichotomy of Digital Humanities, Digital Libraries, and Digital Scholarship. In the wild many organizations use one of these terms to stand for a host of activities that stretch across the taxonomy I have laid out above – The Digital Library Federation being the obvious example.

But sometimes you need just need a short, and not entirely misleading, definition. I hope these help.


Long Live the Library

Just yesterday I read that Johns Hopkins Medical Library has decided to close its physical location on January 1, 2012. JHU embedded its subject librarians in their respective departments years ago, and after reviewing the relative use of print and electronic sources, decided to shut down the main building but have no plans to lay off any current staff. This is a major event, maybe even a turning point in the future of libraries, and it brought back vivid memories of the one day I spent in the Johns Hopkins Medical Library.

I studied at Johns Hopkins for five weeks in the summer of 1999, taking classes for college credit in Java and molecular biology before returning to high school for my senior year. Yes, I’m that young. Yes, I’m that much of a nerd.

For my molecular biology class we were split into teams to learn about a particular topic, write a paper, and present back to the class. My team got assigned stem cells, and I was in charge of looking up recent advances in the field. Using the online catalog and the materials available on the main campus, I learned of a seminal experiment that had been conducted a few years earlier. After reading the fifth article referencing the experiment, I decided to find the original article for myself. But the article wasn’t online, and it wasn’t on the Homewood Campus. The only copy was in the Medical Library.

So, the Saturday before the paper was due, I caught a bus to the Medical School and 20ish minutes later it dropped me off in front of the building. The library was open, but aside from a woman at the circulation desk, I don’t remember seeing anyone else. She pointed me to a computer terminal where I found the journal’s call number. Then I headed into the stacks.

I have a very distinct memory of the institutional concrete, metal shelves, and low lighting that greeted me when I got off the elevator. I found the aisle that held the back issues of the journal of the American Society of Hematology, aptly named Blood. Just imagine it: shelves upon shelves of black bound volumes, each with the word BLOOD emblazoned in large letters on the spine. I shivered, found the volume I needed, pulled it down, located the article, sat down in front of the shelf, and read the article. I nearly threw up.

The study that everyone had been so excited about? It described a new procedure tested on 8 patients — 3 of whom died and 2 contracted Graft-vs-Host Disease. This was the breakthrough, because it worked just as well as the previous treatment. Sitting on that concrete floor was the first time in my life that I seriously considered not going into medicine, whether as a doctor or researcher. I couldn’t face the body count.

After a few hours, I finished reading the article and taking my notes. I replaced the volume on the shelf and headed out to catch the bus.

In all the years I have spent in libraries — for relaxation, for research, and now for my job — I don’t think anything compares to that one day. Books have been some of my closest friends, but that article changed my life. That space is about to be gone. I’m sure the decision wasn’t made lightly, and I can’t argue with the reasons given. The information will be curated, preserved, accessible, and cumulative, and that is what matters. But I still felt the need to tell that story.

The library is dead. Long live the library.

Alt-Ac: The First Month

On August 1 I joined Brown University as their first Digital Humanities Librarian. This job is a dream come true. I was hired to help cultivate Digital Humanities projects by working with faculty, students, and staff, and serve as an ambassador for the great digital work already being done by the Brown University Library. I am also Brown’s new English subject librarian. I’ve decided to blog about my transition from history PhD student to library staff in the hopes that it might help others who are considering making the transition themselves. If future posts on this topic would be of interest, just let me know.

/* alt-ac is short for Alternate-Academic, referring to those of us with graduate level training in the Humanities who have chosen to work in non-tenure track positions within the academy, often (but not exclusively) in university libraries and Digital Humanities positions. To learn more, head over to Bethany Nowviskie’s blog. */

My first month at Brown has been an interesting combination of diving in head first and learning the ropes. On the DH front: I’ve already started working on a few longstanding projects, helping out where needed. I’ve met with faculty who are interested in starting new projects. And, anyone who knows me will not be surprised to learn that I’ve begun a DH Project Documentation survey, which consists of interviewing everyone in the library who is currently working on a DH project and documenting the project to date (goals, accomplishments, work remaining, technical specifications, etc.)

On the Librarian front: I’ve been learning the library’s systems for acquisitions, collection development, gift appraisal, and cataloging. I’ve joined the Exhibits Committee (group of librarians who coordinate the Library’s physical exhibit spaces). I’ve met with a faculty member who wants to set up an exhibit in one of the Library’s museum spaces next year. My office is right off one of the main study areas in the Library so several people have come in with reference questions and several more have called my office after finding me on the phone tree. All my colleagues have been extremely helpful and patient as I learn how to do this better. Seriously. I’m not just saying that in case some of them find my blog.

All in all it’s been a busy month! But getting back to the question of transitioning from graduate school to full-time staff . . .

Honestly, one of the biggest changes is simply having a 9-5 job. I was certainly busy at the University of Virginia, but I worked from home and set my own schedule. I’m enjoying having an office and a place where I can focus my energies, but when I get home I’m basically wiped. Hopefully this will change as I get more used to the schedule. For now, I’m drinking too much coffee and trying to remember I need to be in bed by 11pm. I was originally going to post this last night, but at 11:30 I still wasn’t done. Two months ago I would have pushed on and posted at 1am, but these days I can’t sleep in to compensate for a late weeknight.

Another change relates to my not-quite-finished dissertation. I’m working on it after hours at the office before driving home, usually spending 1 – 1.5 hours a day. It’s hard to find tasks that work well in that timeframe for where I am in my work cycle. Despite my occasional use of #scholarsprints on twitter, I typically write in 2 hour chunks. Though I still have a ways to go in pages and workflow, I’m finding that I like (and even look forward) to working on my dissertation to a degree that I haven’t felt in years.

As a closet generalist in a PhD program, I quickly tired of my favorite subject in all the world simply because it was all I did. Day in. Day out. All history. All the time. Now that I work with a number of disciplines and projects, I find myself looking forward to spending time with my Early American diplomats. Assuming I got to bed at 11pm the night before, working on the dissertation is more like a treat at the end of the day than a looming anxiety.

Finally, and this may be hard to express, there has been a change in how I relate to the people I work with on a day-to-day basis. I contributed and consulted on several DH projects at UVA, but always in the capacity of a graduate student who happened to be around. Sometimes the project was a summer job, sometimes consulting was part of my fellowship, sometimes I just had conversations with people who wanted a sounding board for their ideas. What I do at Brown hasn’t been all that different thus far, but my opinions have more weight and the activation energy required to turn one of my suggestions into a plan of work is much lower than last year.

It’s gratifying, but also somewhat intimidating, how quickly some of my ideas have taken off, so I am being very careful about what I suggest. The DH Documentation Project, for example, was something I suggested at the end of my second week. Within five days it had become one of my primary goals for the year, and I was assigned to interview dozens of people. If I had suggested something like that as a graduate student, I can’t imagine things would have moved that fast (assuming the project ever got started).

The best part of the job, however, is getting to help people. This is what I missed most in graduate school, where I often struggled with the feeling that I wasn’t a productive member of society (which may account for my decision to develop open source software). In my new position I help people, whether faculty, students, or fellow staff, all day long. Like I said at the beginning, a dream come true.