Library Texts and the Library in the Digital Age: New Collaborations for European and American Studies

As the title suggests, there was a lot going on in this session.  The three speakers included a library dean (Paula Kaufman), a digital humanities director (Laura Mandell), and a digital humanities librarian (Glen Worthey).  Although, as Glen Worthey pointed out, the title of the session doesn’t mention digital humanities anywhere, the session was largely about digital humanities, which is not something that is currently relevant to my job. However, I find it very interesting and am trying to keep up with things for the time when it may become relevant.  The other theme of the session had to do with collaboration, especially interdepartmental collaboration, and I enjoyed that the speakers dealt with that in a thoughtful way.

Paula Kaufman, Dean of Libraries, UIUC

“Let’s Get Cozy: Evolving Collaborations in the 21st Century”

Kaufman mostly focused on collaborations and the requirements for collaborating well.  She talked about why we collaborate (to do things we can’t do well alone, to create tools, to share resources) and how to collaborate.  She cited an author named Cantor who had done studies on collaboration, who set out this process for collaboration:

  1.  Find collaborators based on self-analysis, good chemistry and compatibility
  2. Explicitly set the rules of engagement.  Set boundaries.  Try to articulate exactly what the responsibilities of each collaborator will be.
  3. Articulate goals and visions, while identifying governance and legal issues
  4. Plan for the end of the collaboration.

She discussed interdepartmental and state/regional collaborative efforts, and pointed out that some of them, like the Hathi Trust and the Digital Preservation Network are collaborative efforts among librarians, technologists, subject faculty and administrators.

One thing Kaufman has learned from all this collaborative work is that, as she put it, you need to build your own table. You don’t want to go to someone else’s table, because there you are an invitee. You want to be a collaborator rather than a guest.  To make this possible you need administrative support.  We can’t do most of our work alone anymore, so we need to work together in new ways at new tables.

How do you build a table? You need to work with your director, who, in most cases, works directly under the provost and often meets with deans.  This can help you to establish these relationships.  You need to ask for committee charges, too—another way to build the table.  We also need to respect our own knowledge. Librarians should not take the servant-like attitude that faculty members need to come to us and ask us to do things for them.  We have a lot of knowledge and should approach faculty colleagues the same way we approach library colleagues.  This has always been a symbiotic relationship, but we haven’t always approached it that way.


Laura Mandell, Director of the Initiative for Digital Humanities, Media and Culture at Texas A&M

From a humanities faculty perspective, there is a divide between research and service: service is not research. Digital humanities proves that this is wrong. We had this idea that librarians create the infrastructure and humanities faculty provide the meaning, but infrastructure is not separate from meaning. We know print books so well that it’s easy for us to overlook how they are designed, but new formats clarify this for us.

Mandell argued that research is a design problem, and cited some prominent digital humanities projects as evidence:

These projects help us to put texts side by side in a way that wasn’t possible before.  This is a design problem.

Bigger projects, like the Hathi Trust and the DPLA, bring infrastructure and research closer together by creating opportunities for toward network-scale scholarship and curation.  We can have tech-oriented librarians working with faculty who care about big data sets.

Other digital humanities projects show that things that would traditionally be considered service, like teaching semantic searching or doing TEI-encoding of poetry, can be research.  The Collected Letters of Robert Southey pull out all the names of Southey’s correspondents, and distinguish between those names and the names he’s writing about.  This requires a lot of knowledge both of Southey and of the math on which all this is built. In fact, it doesn’t end at the metadata; it’s data structures all the way down. We’ve eliminated the boundaries between the cover and the book.  The Early Modern OCR Project, which is developing better OCR, is another good example; it needs to be done by people who can accurately read the original texts.  They’re building partnerships with vendors, submitting projects for peer review at NINES, and getting them approved by MLA.  This is scholarly work that requires collaboration among librarians, literature specialists, and technologists.


Glen Worthey, Head of the Digital Information Service at Stanford.

“How Library DH Is Made”

Worthey began by noting the absence of the term “digital humanities” in the title of the panel and a certain weariness toward this term in general.  It sounds like a tech buzzword, but his talk explored the origins of digital humanities.  He referred to an important article by Boris Eikhenbaum, “How Gogol’s ‘Overcoat’ is Made.”  This article analyzed Gogol’s short story, “The Overcoat,” in terms of its skaz, or stylized voice, which represents a form of orality. It focuses on tone and style, showing that the narrative voice is really gestural.  By focusing on the story’s formal elements, which at the time was a new mode of analysis, this article marked the beginning of Russian Formalism.  Later formalists developed this idea further.  Shklovsky introduced the idea that art is a device for making things strange.  Tynianov advocated for the study of noncanonical writing.

Now we have digital humanists like Franco Moretti, who wants to map the style of the entire literary landscape through distant reading, and Matt Jockers uses network graphs to show stylistic similarities among authors.  These projects focus on the formal, stylistic aspects of literature, much like the formalists.  Jockers’s work with graphs defamiliarizes the texts by visualizing them.  In fact, the Literary Lab’s first pamphlet was titled “Quantitative Formalism: An Experiment.”   Digital humanities is a way of looking at how literature is made.

Libraries provide the raw material for this work.  We select procure, and curate the raw materials.  Library digital humanities is done by recognizing that DH has been around for a long time.  It’s serious scholarship, not to be accomplished by slapping on a title.  We need to commit to supporting digital humanities structurally.  We have to become makers and collaborators, because even faculty who won’t approach us as collaborators can’t do it by themselves.

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