Marius Warholm Haugen

A blog about libraries, literature and (digital) scholarship.

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What Kind of Library, for What Kind of Digital Humanities?

I would like to address certain key issues concerning the role of the academic library within the domain of the Digital Humanities. There are particular challenges to discussing this topic, due to the continuously moving definition of the term digital humanities (DH), on one hand, and to certain unresolved questions concerning the nature of the academic library, on the other. In other words, what do we mean by digital humanities, and what do we mean by library? Or, to be more precise, what kind of library do we need for what kind of digital humanities?
I could have posed this last question in terms of service structure: what should the library do in order to answer to the requirements of digital scholarship? However, by asking this I would get us started at the wrong end, with the modern creed of the library as a pure service institution with no other function but to answer to the express wishes of its users, students and faculty staff. I’m not dismissing the fact that the library is as service institution, but I believe that focusing too much on this can be an obstacle for the development of academic libraries. Therefore, I boldly put forward the following statement: when it comes to the digital humanities, when it comes to the development of new digital methods, tools and practices within the humanities and the social sciences, libraries and librarians can and should play a role as innovators, instigators and explorers.
Before explaining further what I mean by this, we need to understand some of the key issues at stake in the (rather indistinct) field of the digital humanities. There is a debate going on these days to determine whether DH should be considered translational or transformative. Do our new tools completely transform the nature of humanist scholarship, move us into a new paradigm of scholarly practice, or simply allow us to do better what we’ve always been doing? The example of big data serves as a good illustration here: for some, computational analyses of vast text corpora has finally moved literary criticism into the domain of real, hardcore science, allowing for objective criteria with which to assess texts. For others, such analyses do not free us from interpretive practice, but rather offer us new perspectives that would remain hidden without the help of computers, and which then can become the objects of an hermeneutical inquiry that fundamentally remains the same.
Another important debate discusses whether or not doing digital humanities has to entail programming skills, in other words whether it is about building stuff, actually creating the software tools for studying cultural objects. The view that it necessarily entails programming skills discards both scholars in the practice field, where such tools are «simply» being applied, and those who take on a meta-perspective on the digital turn, studying what existing tools are doing to the humanities and to our culture in general. This discussion reveals an interesting question: how much knowledge of the underlying structures of the digital world we move in is needed for scholars, and librarians, in order to create, to use and to understand it? Will, for instance, knowledge about programming language be a prerequisite for literary scholars who are going to analyze electronic books?
It may not be necessary for academic librarians who wish to contribute to the field of DH to take a stand on all these questions. But it is important that we are aware of them, and essential that we make distinctions between different aspects of digital scholarship, so that we might determine where and how our institutions and we as librarians have a role to play. I therefore suggest that we systemize the field as follows. Digital humanities can be perceived as:

creating tools
developing methods
using the tools and the methods
teaching the tools and the methods
the meta-perspective I: analyzing the effect of the tools and the methods
the meta-perspective II: analyses based on the materiality of cultural objects (digital archives, e-books etc.)

For each of these points there is another set of points that distinguish between the different uses one may have of the digital tools and methods:

tools and methods for scholarly analysis
tools and methods for presentation, visualization and teaching
tools and methods for reference management, sharing and networking
tools and methods for editing and publication
tools and methods for data preservation and curation

Let me give you some examples: Imagine a scholar putting large corpora of texts into a computer program that allows him or her to discover patterns that previously went undetected. Or another scholar using historical data to create a visualization of specific networks of people on a specific timeline. Or yet another sharing bibliographical references and full texts with other scholars on a web based reference management tool. Someone has to make that program, someone has to develop a method of how to use it, someone has to use the program, teach it, study the methodological and theoretical implications of such a use. In certain cases this could be the same person, in other cases it would be natural that different people make it, use it, develop new methods of use that the creator didn’t foresee, that someone else takes on the meta-perspective from outside, and so on and so forth.
It is the latter case, where tools and methods are disseminated, shared and redeveloped, that seems for me to be the most characteristic of the DH communities, dominated by a certain ethos of sharing, of open source and open access. This is, for instance, a central element of the Manifesto for the Digital Humanities, created at a ThatCamp, the Humanities and Technologies Camp in Paris in 2010 (Dacos 2011). Underlying this ethos is the understanding that tools, methods and practices within a field that is in constant movement are developed through an iterative process, meaning that the experiences we make, both in success and failure, modify our needs, goals and hypotheses. In such a process, sharing knowledge and experience with others, especially with others who have different competencies and skills than ourselves, is essential. In such a community, librarians are in possession of specific sets of skills, competencies and knowledge, explicit as well as tacit, that are highly valuable and not seldom unique. For quite some time now, academic libraries have advocated open access publication. In addition to this, there is obviously something fundamental about the very idea of the library that nourishes a culture of sharing and openness. Could we go so far as to claim that libraries and  librarians are in a particularly privileged position to contribute to the DH-communities, by the very nature of their professional culture?

What seems to be underlying all the different forms of doing digital humanities that I listed is not only a purely technological aspect, but a common set of ideas, of which openness and sharing constitute an important aspect. According to Matthew Kirschenbaum, «[a]t its core […] digital humanities is more akin to a common methodological outlook than an investment in any one specific set of texts or even technologies». (Kirschenbaum 2012) Perhaps most fundamental of all is the fact that the digital humanities represent a preoccupation with the organization and dissemination of knowledge, coinciding with that of libraries :

«[…] of all scholarly pursuits, Digital Humanities most clearly represents the spirit that animated the ancient foundations at Alexandria, Pergamum, and Memphis, the great monastic libraries of the Middle Ages, and even the first research libraries of the German Enlightenment. It is obsessed with varieties of representation, the organization of knowledge, the technology of communication and dissemination, and the production of useful tools for scholarly inquiry». (Ramsay 2010)

So apparently, conditions are favorable for academic libraries to contribute to the field of digital humanities. But this still says fairly little about the actual practices, and about what kind of library we need for the digital humanities. In other words, it remains to be determined at a specific level, answering to the distinctions I made previously, what libraries are doing or could be doing. Exactly how should libraries and librarians contribute to the iterative processes of developing tools and methods for digital scholarship?
What most libraries actually do, of course, regardless of whether they’re engaged explicitly with DH-communities or not, is giving access to digital data, structured and unstructured. It is clear that this is contributing to the digital development within the humanities, but there seems to be dearly little investigation going on within the libraries as to exactly how this is contributing. As librarians, we seldom know enough about how the data we deliver could and could not be used, for example when it comes to running them through computational analyses or using them for advanced visualizations in both teaching and research.
There seems to be an understanding for an increased need of access to large document corpora, both of texts, sound and images, i.e. to digital primary sources; but I fear we tend to focus almost exclusively on access, retrievability and content, and very little on malleability, of what actually can be done with the specific data on the specific platform where they are accessed. I believe that in a very near future, the knowledge that the library can acquire about the practices of scholars, and about the potential for innovation within these practices, will be of utmost importance with regard to our acquisition policy. More and more we will have to take into account the criteria of malleability.
Today, we quite naturally leave the actual use of our resources to the scholars, after having made sure that they know how to find and search within them. What we too often tend to ignore is that the practices of our scholars depend not only on content and retrievability, but also to a large extent on the form and structure of the resources we give them access to. And even more importantly in this context, the possibilities that scholars have of changing, improving and innovating their practices, depend largely on the form and structure of the digital resources and, not least, on knowledge about this.

It is exactly at this point that I’m convinced we ought to move away from the idea of the library as a pure service institution, to nuance our attitude that says that the customer (the scholar, the student) always knows best when it comes to doing the actual scholarship. In the case of the digital humanities, sticking with this laudable attitude would mean that libraries and librarians refrained from:

creating tools
developing methods
using the tools and the methods

and would be teaching the tools and the methods only to the extent that these were used for

reference management
sharing and networking
editing and publication

and not for scholarly analysis and teaching. It would also mean refraining from assuming a meta-perspective that goes beyond our own core practices. But if the exploration and discovery of new methods depend on the nature of the data that the library gives access to, the library needs to participate in this exploration, in such a way that librarians can learn what scholars do, what they don’t do and what they dream of doing, and that the scholars can learn, by access to the explicit and tacit knowledge of librarians, what it is possible to do and what they didn’t even now they dreamt of doing. Throw in a handful of computer geeks, together with the institutional conditions for trial and error, and you have the recipe for an exiting and productive future.

From this perspective, the question «What kind of library for what kind of digital humanities» has to be approached from two sides: not only does the digital development of the humanities decide what kind of library we are going to need; but how the library develops will also determine what kind of digital humanities, or perhaps simply what kind of humanities, we are going to be doing.

Works cited:

Dacos, M. (2011). «Manifeste des Digital humanities.» Retrieved 10-22-2013, 2013, from

Kirschenbaum, M. (2012). What Is Digital Humanities and What’s It Doing in English Departments? Debates in the Digital Humanities. M. K. Gold, U of Minnesota P: 3-11.
Ramsay, S. (2010). «Care of the soul. Lecture conducted from Emory University.» Retrieved 11-07-13, 2013, from

Further reading:
Caraco, B. (2012). «Les digital humanities et les bibliothèques: un partenariat naturel.» Bulletin des Bibliothèques de France 57(2): 69-73.

Kamada, H. (2010). «Digital humanities: Roles for libraries?» College & Research Libraries News 71(9): 484-485.

Munoz, T. (2012). Digital humanities in the library isn’t a service. 2013.

Nowviskie, B. (2011). «A Skunk in the Library.» Retrieved 10-31-2013, 2013, from
Sula, C. A. (2013). «Digital Humanities and Libraries: A Conceptual Model.» Journal of Library Administration 53(1): 10-26.