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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