6 Questions for a Digital Humanities Librarian

A conversation.

August 17, 2016

Laura Braunstein is the Digital Humanities and English Librarian at the Dartmouth College Library.  Laura graciously agreed to help me understand her (relatively) new role at the College, and the larger context of Digital Humanities with both the academic library and across higher education.

Question 1. Your job title is Digital Humanities and English Librarian.  Can you explain to a non-librarian what a Digital Humanities Librarian does?

The biggest question on my mind every day is: What does this community need to thrive? How can the Library -- and the faculty, scholars, and students we serve -- best be prepared to do the things we need to do in scholarship and in the classroom? (And by “the Library” I mean both the library I work in, here at Dartmouth, and libraries in general.) 

These are questions that I have always asked myself, whatever kind of librarian I’ve been. I also do a lot of information gathering and sharing, around the library and our constituencies. Who is working on what project? How can we share resources and practices? Where do resources for support and collaboration exist around the institution? 

There’s some “concierge” work: someone has a new idea for a project, and I help them figure out what resources are available, what they need, and how to get those resources. Sometimes I'm the resource -- I’m finding open-access digital collections, or doing text markup, or helping design structured data. We don’t (yet) have a digital humanities or digital scholarship center, so some of those functions are accomplished virtually.

The work is deeply collaborative; I couldn’t do any of this without everyone else in the Library, and I have a close colleague in Academic Computing without whom my work would be impossible, given that scholarship and teaching in digital humanities often falls in the interstices of these two campus organizations. 

I'm also promoting the Library's own digital work and helping to make our program more effective. For a long time academic libraries were divided between technical services and public services, namely, between those who built the library’s infrastructure and those who worked directly with users. Effective academic libraries bridge that gap all the time, of course, but digital humanities muddies these lines more than many fields.

Question 2. If you were to explain the digital humanities to someone outside of the field (or is it a discipline), what would be the big things that you would want them to understand?

Digital humanities is a “community of practice” -- within which you have a lot of people doing a lot of different things. The simplest definition is that it’s a community of practice that inhabits the intersection of technology and human culture. 

How that’s enacted depends on the subdiscipline. Are we using technology to make certain cultural objects more accessible? Are we using critical approaches from the humanities to explore the influence of technology on our lives/thoughts? Are we using digital models to understand the ecology of genre in an art form? Are we critiquing the seeming objectivity of the platforms that deliver digital archives? Are we teaching students how to use markup in order to reveal the structural aspects of texts and how groups of texts relate to each other? DH people do all these things and more. 

Some people define DH as divided into “hack” -- those who code and make digital things -- and “yack” -- those who critique and analyze “the digital.” I’m also interested in “stack” -- how do the structures of organizations and institutions enable or inhibit what we want to do? The people who “hack” and “yack” can’t work without the people in the “stack” (or without the people in the library stacks).

Question 3. What are the big debates (or arguments) within digital humanities?  How do academic librarians enter and contribute to these debates?

Conveniently, there’s a great book series called Debates in the Digital Humanities -- on background I’ll refer you there. The latest volume is open access, here: dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/ 

There’s a whole debate as to whether this is or should be a field at all. There is an argument -- and I’m paraphrasing -- that it’s a neoliberal conspiracy forced upon faculty by evil administrators who want to see humanities fields bring in the kinds of grant funding that the sciences do, that it’s trendy, the next big thing, and will be forgotten about. 

But libraries have always been about the digital and about the humanities. We’ve always been concerned with how best to make accessible, to make visible, to collect, to preserve and disseminate the outputs of human culture (which were solely books and journals for a long time, but now encompass digital objects and other media) -- and often the best methods to do these things that libraries do have been digital. Or, as technology has evolved, libraries have taken advantage of -- and advanced and refined -- those developments for their own purposes. Is it a neoliberal conspiracy? Sure, what isn’t? 

I get impatient with that critique -- where does it lead us? I’m here to help people learn and discover knowledge. This happens to be the way that makes the most sense to me now, and the problems I’m trying to solve are the ones I find most compelling. 

Question 4.  You are someone with both a Master of Library & Information Science (MLIS) degree (Pratt Institute) and a PhD in English Literature (Northwestern).  How does this academic background influence how you approach your work as a Digital Humanities Librarian?

I’m also a 46-year-old mother of two from the Midwest who now lives in rural New England and likes blueberries, alt-folk music, and speculative fiction. How does that background influence my work?

It’s hard to say how my academic background matters more than other aspects; there’s a piety regarding the doctorate that I am very cynical about. But, it is true that many but not all DH librarians are coming from what has been called the “alt-ac” movement -- those of us with doctorates in the humanities who, shall we say, became disillusioned with [I used a stronger phrase but Josh suggested I change it] the academic job market and looked for other kinds of fulfilling work in the university, and they took a chance on hiring us -- and many of us have been lucky to thrive in these positions. 

So many of us are already familiar -- to a fault -- with the contours of scholarship in the humanities, and that helps in this kind of community-building work, but on the other hand, there are plenty of awesome people in DH who have a library degree only or a subject master’s, or who are undergraduate students or “post-bac” fellows, or who are self-taught coders. Suffice to say that my academic background has influenced my work in that it is one of the experiences that has made me who I am. 

Question 5.  I've been looking through the book that you co-edited -- Digital Humanities in the Library: Challenges and Opportunities for Subject Specialists -- to try and get my head around the intersection of academic libraries and digital humanities.  This book seems to be written largely for people within the field -- academic librarians who understand this world.  Can you recommend an article, website, or book for those of us outside the academic library but who want to understand this emerging field?

The book was indeed written for people in the field. It was published by the professional organization of academic librarians, the Association of College and Research Libraries, specifically for traditional subject specialists who wanted to know more about, or were being asked to do more with, digital humanities.

For your more general readers, I’d recommend the ongoing interview series in the LA Review of Books, “The Digital in the Humanities”:   

Each installment is interesting, and some are deeply infuriating. In terms of thinking about DH and libraries, I’ve been particularly drawn to the interviews with Bethany Nowviskie, Marisa Parham, and Laura Mandell. 

Question 6.  What are some questions that you have for a Digital Humanities Librarian, but have always been afraid to ask? (Laura has agreed to answer whatever comes our way). Post in the comments or tweet to Laura at @laurabrarian.



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