Digital Humanities Overview for Librarians

This is a slightly cleaned up transcript of a short talk a presented as part of the month “Collections and Services” meeting for the University of North Carolina libraries. Collections and Services is the librarian-led, bottom-up meeting for information sharing across library departments. As the new Digital Scholarship Librarian, I was asked to give a brief overview of digital humanities and say a little about how they intersect with libraries. I don’t think there are any terribly new insights here and some bits are certainly over simplified. Therefore I was pleasantly surprised when several of my colleagues mentioned that they found the framing helpful. I’m sharing it here in case anyone else might find it useful or, more likely, if you need to give a similar talk and want something on which to build.


“What is the digital humanities?”
– Everyone

At the risk of loosing my job I’m just going to say that I don’t what Digital Humanities is/are anymore. I have seen this term applied to such a bewildering range of human activity – and non-human activity, for that matter – that I fear the term will lose the power to do much of anything besides make people argue.

Thanks to Frank Ridgway for creating this in 2012 and to Ted Underwood for explaining this and to Glen Worthy who wrote the blog that featured the meme that brought all of this to light. More info here:
Frank Ridgway, 2012 *

But, with apologies to Mr. Jackson, I feel like I need to provide you with, if not a working definition, then at least a framework for understanding what people might mean when they say digital humanities.

CC Image courtesy of Texas State Library and Archives Commission on Flickr

So, I feel like the idea of digital humanities is kind of a mess. I’m a librarian so when I see a big mess, I want to start organizing it.

CC Image courtesy of Don Shall on Flickr
CC Image courtesy of Don Shall on Flickr

To help me do that, I try to think about digital humanities in 5 categories:

  • Digital Scholarly Communication
  • Digital Pedagogy
  • Scholarly Social Networking
  • Digital Libraries/Institutional Repositories
  • Humanities Computing

When we break down digital humanities into these categories, I think it’s easier to see all the different ways for libraries to get involved. I want to go through each of these categories and talk about some examples.

Digital Scholarly Communication
This is basically about publishing but with all of the possibilities the web has opened up, I prefer the broader term that does not immediately call to mind just online versions of monographs and journal articles. The current ecosystem of scholarly communications contains each of those but also dynamic websites, curated archives and sophisticated visualizations. Libraries are particularly interested in this as we need to figure out how to organize, index and archive all of this. Furthermore, some libraries are exploring what it might be like to actually become the publisher for some of this work and create an alternative to the increasingly expensive and – some might say, exploitative – reality of corporate academic publishing.

Digital Pedagogy
Once again, this feels like an evolution from the kinds of work we have always done in libraries. Instead of traditional term papers, students may need to build websites or online exhibits or they may have new media projects. Often libraries are called upon to take on some of the instruction duties and they may even be asked to host the student work.

Scholarly Social Networking
I hesitate to include this as a category of digital humanities because simply being on Twitter does not make one a digital humanist. However, for some disciplines, online social networks can be extremely valuable and this is especially true for digital humanities. Even if you don’t want to Tweet, following people who are active in the disciplines with whom you work is a good way to stay up to date on what different fields are talking about. Additionally, it can sometimes be useful to follow along with a conference through the tweets that are being generated. Keeping up with Twitter could even be a service you provide for faculty who are not on Twitter themselves but who may be interested in the kinds information sharing that happens there.

Digital Libraries/Institutional Repositories
This is going to sound dumb but this one actually confused me for a while. The conversations around Digital Humanities and Digital Libraries evolved in tandem for years but there was not too much cross-pollination except for some of the archive projects like Rossetti, Blake and Women Writers. When digital humanists and digital librarians began coming together at venues like THATCamp, I felt like it took while to figure out what we were supposed to be doing with each other.

Now the connections seem much more clear. As scholars begin to understand the importance of open access and digital preservation (thanks, in part, to funding agencies requiring data management plans), it is easier to see the importance of institutional repositories. At the same time, some schools have started to see their IRs as publishing platforms for born digital scholarship including journals.

All of those digital collections the library has been building and buying over the years are also playing an important role in the evolution of digital humanities. In addition to using digitized items as surrogates for their analog originals, scholars are also reusing and remixing those items in curated online exhibits built with Omeka (for example).

Humanities Computing
Those collections are also potentially useful for scholars interested in what used to be – and may once again – be called Humanities Computing. With roots in such fields as computational linguistics and cliometrics, humanities computing uses a variety of techniques to look for patterns in texts.

Some of these techniques, like word counts or frequency measurements, are extremely simple but very helpful for some kinds of research. Voyant is a powerful and easy-to-use tool for scholars interested in quantitative textual analysis. More sophisticated techniques such as topic modeling and network analytics come from the world of big data and require both greater comfort with technology and more nuanced understanding of statistics.

Scholars who want to do this kind of research may look to the library for the data they want to analyze. While it is still uncommon for vendors of digital collections to provide data in formats appropriate for data analysis, we need to begin asking for it. We can also make our own digital collections available in useful ways.

What can UNC libraries do to support Digital Humanities work?
– UNC Libraries

People all over the UNC campus are already doing this kind of work and UNC libraries are already supporting them. The new Digital Research Services and the planned Research Hub here is Davis are charged with finding ways to coordinate some of this work to make sure we are not duplicating effort or missing out on opportunities to scale up services. We also hope to be able to coordinate some outreach efforts to make sure the campus knows what we can do for them and to add to the kind of instructional work we already do.

I hope that all of this effort will result in our faculty and students doing work they would have otherwise been unable to do. Perhaps more importantly, I hope we are able to help people do the work they would have done anyway but in a much better way than they would have done without us.

In fact, I think that librarians are uniquely positioned to sort out some of the hardest questions digital humanities has raised.

  • How should digital humanities projects be designed and developed?
  • Which ones need to become part of the scholarly record?
  • How will they be discovered and accessed by other scholars?
  • How can they be maintained and preserved?

Libraries do not necessarily have definitive answers to each of these questions but we are used to working on them and we probably have opinions already. By getting involved with these projects at the beginning rather than at the end, we can help our scholars make better decisions and create more valuable scholarship.

* Thanks to Frank Ridgway for making the Samuel L. Jackson/Digital Humanities meme and to Ted Underwood for explaining that and to Glen Worthy for writing the blog post that featured the meme that brought out the explanation. Read Glen’s excellent post and the history of that meme here:

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