[I was fortunately able to talk about Multimodal Librarians at the Kansas DH Forum (#DHLawrence!!) and the Digital Library Federation Forum 2015 in Vancouver. This post is kind of a mashup of those talks though, honestly, they were pretty much the same talk.]
What is multimodal librarians?
So I want to talk about a thing we did over the summer at UNC called Multimodal Librarians. Multimodal Librarians was an initiative based on a series of workshops designed to teach librarians how to use some common, lightweight tools that can easily be incorporated into undergraduate humanities course assignments.
We started out the series with a session about the basics of project planning and project management. This drew heavily from Jennifer Vinopal’s masterful Introduction to Project Management for Librarians.
We also talked about:
- building maps and timelines,
- doing text analysis,
- creating data visualizations with Tableau,
- building multi-media websites with WordPress and online exhibits with Omeka.
In addition to the skills-based workshops, librarians were asked to experiment with tools throughout the week and then the group reconvened with the undergraduate experience librarian, Jonathan McMichael, to discuss how the tool could be incorporated into undergraduate assignments. Jonathan has a background in Education Studies and was able to help us really think about what learning objectives each of the tools could help students meet.
So, why did we do this?
Despite numerous interventions, there remains a very real sense that digital humanities is an secret club that continues to attract praise and funding but does not always do as much as it could to critique the structures, habits and hierarchies that humanists have spent years struggling to identify and dismantle. The hacker ethos in DH has the potential to be incredibly empowering but the freedom to experiment and even fail is important but also a privilege that is not equally shared.
As libraries continue their long tradition of partnering with scholars on digital projects, how can they not only avoid perpetuating this sense of exclusivity but actually encourage critical engagement with digital scholarship from multiple perspectives; especially those perspectives that have been under represented?
I’m obviously thinking of people of color and people who do not identify as cis men but I am also thinking of undergraduate students. I noticed in the tweets from this weekend that DH for undergrads is very strong at many small liberal arts college and places like UNC can probably learn a lot from you all.
More and Louder Voices
Multimodal librarians is one attempt to engage with this challenge by simply getting more people involved. Focusing on the subject liaisons not only got more librarians into the mix but it also got the word out to the departments with whom they work.
Library as Experimental Space
Another part of this is highlighting the library’s role as an experimental space. I mentioned earlier about what a privilege it is to experiment and to fail. It shouldn’t just be the students with that privilege who get to learn about this. Lots of our students have jobs and/or take care of families in their free-time. If experimenting with technology is important (and I think it is) then instructors need to make time for it and librarians can work with them to make that possible.
I was a little surprised by a couple of cases of just instant gratification. We talked about a mapping tool one day and then a librarian suggested it for a class project the next. We talked about TimelineJS one day and an archivist used it to create a way for users to navigate a small collection that afternoon.
The more general payoff was that the series sparked a conversation in the library about the role of subject liaisons and what instruction could be. The tools we look at will get outdated and change. New tools will emerge. What I’m most excited about is the opportunity this program has given us to take another look at how the library engages with the rest of the campus and has given us the opportunity to reach out and to, in some cases, reintroduce ourselves.
What didn’t work?
It was really hard for librarians to work this into their schedules. Very few were able to make it to all of the sessions and even fewer could carve out enough time to work with the tools during the week.
The good news is that library administration likes the idea so we are getting ready to start Multimodal Librarians, part 2. What is different this time is that a small cohort of librarians has been brought together by library leadership and they are negotiating what they can give up in order to make time for the program. Some things I’ve heard of that are on the table include committee work – including search committees – and reference desk shifts.
Not a service center but a community garden
I need to wrap up now but I want to step back from this a little to say that, for me, the Multimodal librarians project is part of larger effort to shift the way I think about libraries and digital scholarship. I think it is very tempting to for libraries to start thinking about digital scholarship and go directly to trying to develop a customer service model and a list of services they need to provide.
Alternatively, I’m being drawn towards community gardens and bicycle repair cooperatives as my models. Yes there are tools and yes there are people there who can help but there is an assumption of shared discovery and working together as partners.