Library and IT Partnerships for Supporting Digital Humanities: 5 Steps for Getting Started

A few weeks ago I was asked to participate in a webinar on the topic of how libraries and IT can get started supporting digital humanities. It was a really fun group of presenters and I was happy to be part. Thanks to the following folks for being part of it with me:

·  Glen Bunton, Director of Library Technologies and Systems, University of South Carolina

·  Karen Estlund, Head of the Digital Scholarship Center, University of Oregon

·  Rob Nelson, Director of the Digital Scholarship Lab, University of Richmond

The webinar was the result of a conversation that started at the national EDUCAUSE meeting last November in Denver. I want to thank Nikki Reynolds, Director of Instructional Technology Support Services at Hamilton College for organizing everything and keeping us on track.

In case you missed it, I wanted to set out what I talked about. The format for the webinar was something like a lightning round where everyone had 5 minutes to talk. What is below reflects more or less what I said so its pretty short. If you have any questions, let me know.

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Library & IT Partnerships for Supporting Digital Humanities: 5 Steps for Getting Started

Step 1: Take Stock

Chances are you will not be starting completely from scratch. In fact, you may find that the library and central IT are both offering similar services (website hosting, data storage). Furthermore, you probably already have some of the hardware and software on hand. Do a survey and get get everything that already exists on the table.

Next survey what expertise you already have. Do you have database designers who could also partner with literature scholars? Also remember that willingness to build on existing skills is extremely valuable. Finding additional training for someone you already have on staff is almost always preferable/cheaper than trying to hire the skills you think you need.

Once you figure out what you have, see if there is anything you are missing. Look around to your peer institutions, ask questions, and make a list of resources and capabilities you might want to add as you are able.

Step 2: Listen to Potential Partners

Early in the process (probably at the same time you are taking stock of your assets), hit the pavement and start finding out what people need from you. Get in front of admins, faculty and students any way you can and say that you want to help them do their work. Go to department meetings and prospectus defenses. Check to see if there is a humanities council or center on campus.

Be prepared to do some presentations about projects other institutions are doing and, if you can, you might want to bring in guest experts. In the few years I’ve been doing this I’ve learned two things:

  • Administrators know that digital is the future but they need help understanding what concrete steps can be taken to help the widest number of scholars. They need to know how this support will scale to the whole campus.
  • Faculty respond well to impressive work their peers are doing and enjoy the opportunity to meet those scholars.

Step 3: Get ready for what you know you will need

It is best to avoid a “field of dreams” fallacy (if you build it, they will come). That being said, you know a few things. One of those is that some folks are going to want to build simple websites. Decide what CMS you can support (I suggest WordPress), where it will live, who will maintain it and what agreements need to be in place for sustaining a website through its entire life cycle.

I said that all in one sentence but none of that is particularly easy when you are dealing with a (most likely) underfunded, large, technical bureaucracy that values security and permanence above all else. Get started ASAP.

Step 4: Build With The Future In Mind

Some Digital Humanists are fond of saying “less yack, more hack” because they really enjoy building. This is a fine value to embrace but there does need to be some yack at the beginning of any project.

A: Create a project charter early on. This document will be outline the scope of a projects and define the rights and responsibilities of team members. The IT side of the house might think of these as “Service Level Agreements” and that is fine but we have found that humanists may have an aversion to management speak.

B: Try to adopt reusable tools. You do not want to get in the habit of starting every project from scratch. Conventional wisdom is to find free, open-source tools with large user communities. To help with this search, I recommend PROJECT BAMBOO DiRT.

C: Consider access and sustainability at the beginning of a project. How are people going to find your project once it is built? Can users with disabilities use the it? How will you take care of it once it launches? What about after it “sunsets”?

These are all important and relatively complicated questions and they are made almost impossible if you wait to ask them after you finish building. Save yourself time and build responsibly.

Step 5: Be Realistic but Remain Optimistic

Be honest with yourself and your partners about your capacity. It’s not fun to tell someone no but it is worse to tell them yes and then not be able to follow through.

However, don’t feel like you will never do something just because you can’t do it now. If something is really worth doing, start figuring out what it would take to make it happen. Partner with the disappointed would-be partner to start making the case for getting the resources. Knock on doors, submit proposals and apply for grants together.

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Librarians Are Punks Too

When I first saw that Henry Rollins was going to be a keynote speaker at this year’s ACRL meeting in Indianapolis I was even happier that I was going to be there. A couple of years ago I might have been surprised to find this punk rock icon at a library conference but now I think this makes perfect sense. There are punks all over library-land.

This is probably not a coincidence. I can only speak for myself but it is not the case that I grew out of punk and became a librarian; as far as I’m concerned, its the same identity. Just like with punk, I do this because I love it and I think its important. Also, despite the stereotype of the shushing librarian in sensible shoes, there is something anti-authoritarian and even confrontational about being a librarian. Librarians fight censorship and celebrate banned books. We fight for access to information as a human right. Our archivists organize the public record and keep sunlight shining on our civic processes. We opposed the Patriot Act when others were silent and we look at Google and say, we’re still better.

Furthermore, a library is a fun, exciting and supportive and community. To be honest with you, I never really cared for most punk music and I was always dismissive of thinking of punk as simply fashion or lifestyle. The people, however, are amazing and inspiring and it is largely due to the punk community that I think I turned out to be thoughtful, open-minded and conscientious. Similarly, it was the rad people I met in the library that made me seriously want to work in one. Librarianship is an entire profession built on helping and sharing; of course it’s a place that attracts great people.

There is one thing I learned from punk that I would like to see a little more of in libraries and that is an embrace of DIY (Do It Yourself) as an ethos. There is actually already quite a lot of this particularly coming from library school students. I’m thinking, obviously, about In the Library With a Lead Pipe, Hack Library School, the Library as Incubator Project and LibPunk. So my concern is not actually that librarians are not interested in doing this but that there may be structural issues that are blocking them. Librarians are already taking the initiative to start projects and build communities but too often it feels like these are extra-curricular. What if librarians were as empowered as their patrons are by the library? Some institutions are already taking advantage of the amazing energy and talent they have on staff but it remains untapped at others.

That being said, one thing that I like about libraries that always bugged me about punk is that, well, not everyone at the library is a punk. It is often pointed out that, for a bunch of people committed to individuality, punk can be a little (or very) homogeneous. One of libraryland’s real strengths is its ability to have a common purpose while fostering and celebrating diversity. Punks could stand to learn a thing or two about this at the library.

Watching Rollins give his presentation was amazing. I wondered what angle he would take and I shouldn’t be surprised that he took all of them. The Twitter back channel contained several comments indicating that he was actually a librarian for his efforts to preserve the material culture of punk. I agree with this but I would also flip it; librarians are punks.