Library Engagement with Digital Humanities

When our colleagues at OCLC Research Library Partner institutions were asked for topics that they’d like to see addressed, they kept saying, “Do something about Digital Humanities,” but they didn’t say what needed doing. When we said at staff meetings, “We should do something about Digital Humanities,” we were asked what exactly and demurred. What did we have to contribute? Then Jen and I started looking around and realized that a lot has been written by librarians about DH and libraries, and librarians often go to meetings to talk to other librarians about DH. We decided to try to steep ourselves in DH from the researchers’ point of view and see what might come of it. After lots of reading, several conferences, and a couple of focus group sessions, we’d learned a lot. We synthesized what we heard and shared it with several colleagues who thought it would be useful to library directors who are not already in the thick of DH.

Humanités Numériques [crop] Calvinius CC BY-SA 3.0
Humanités Numériques [crop] Calvinius CC BY-SA 3.0

We extrapolated from what we heard from the DH scholars to what we thought it could mean for library directors. The result was a spectrum of possible ways for libraries to engage with DH. It ranged from making sure DH scholars knew about services you were already offering that could be helpful to them, to full-bore immersion in a DH center, and with lots of other possibilities in between. There are ideas about offering training, involving DH scholars in digitization initiatives, helping to make their work discoverable, enabling them to enhance metadata, preserving the outcomes of their work, and making sure that it’s all sustainable. Whether or not a library has one staff member, several, or a center devoted to DH is largely a local issue. That may be based on how much is wanted by the researchers and how much is doable or affordable — but these things will change over time. Where a library begins on the spectrum is not at all where they might end up.

From our conclusion:

Humanities scholars have always been a central constituency for research libraries. The digital humanities constitute an evolving approach to research, and directors must support this work as a component of the university’s research mission. Libraries offer many useful services to digital humanists. Where the need is clear and DH scholars are receptive, libraries can offer various dedicated services to further DH efforts. In some cases, a full-blown DH center may be warranted…

…No matter which approaches to supporting the digital humanities you opt to take, keep in mind that what we call “The Digital Humanities” today will soon be considered “The Humanities.” Supporting DH scholarship is not much different than supporting digital scholarship in any discipline. Increasingly, digital scholarship is simply scholarship.

Since our essay, “Does Every Research Library Need a Digital Humanities Center?” was released last week there has been a lot of important discussion on Twitter and on various blogs. The conversation has gone in many useful directions. The ACRL blog dh+lib has offered to continue the conversation.