Digital Humanities and the Library

The topic of Digital Humanities (and Social Sciences Computing) has been a ubiquitous one at recent conferences, and this is no less true of The 53rd annual RBMS “Futures” Preconference in San Diego that took place June 19-22, 2012. The opening plenary, “Use,” on Digital Humanities featured two well-known practitioners in this field, Bethany Nowviskie of the University of Virginia and Matthew G. Kirschenbaum of the University of Maryland. For those of us who have been working in the digital library and digital collection realm for many years, Bethany’s discussion of the origins and long history of digital humanities was no surprise. Digitized library and special collection materials have been the source content used by digital humanists and digital librarians to carry out their work since the late 1980s. As a speaker at one of the ACH-ALLC programs in 1999, I was exposed to the digital tools and technologies being used to support research and scholarly exploration in what was then called linguistic and humanities computing. This work encompassed not only textual materials, but also still images, moving images, databases, and geographic materials; the stuff upon which current digital humanities and social sciences efforts are still based. What I learned then—and what the plenary speakers confirmed at this conference—is that this work has and continues to be collaborative and interdisciplinary. Long-established humanities computing centers at the Universities of Virginia and Maryland have supported this work for years, and they have had a natural partner in the library. Over the years, humanities computing centers have continued to evolve, often set within or supported by the library, and the field that is now known as Digital Humanities has gained prominence. The fact that this plenary opened the conference indicates that this topic is an important one to our community.

As scholars’ work is increasingly focused on digital materials, either digitized from physical collections or born-digital, we are seeing more demand for digital content and tools to carry out digital analysis, visualization, and computational processing, among other activities. Perhaps this is due to the maturation of the field of humanities computing, or the availability of more digital source content, or the rise of a new generation of digital native researchers. Whatever the reason, the role of the library (and the archive and the museum, for that matter) is central to this work. The library is an obvious source of digital materials for these scholars to work with, as was pointed out by both speakers.

Libraries can play a central role in providing access to this content through traditional activities, such as cataloging of digital materials, supporting digitization initiatives, and acquisition of digital content, as well as taking on new activities, such as supporting technology solutions (like digital tools), providing digital lab workspaces, and facilitating bulk access to data and content through mechanisms such as APIs. Just as we have built and facilitated access to analog research materials, we need to turn our attention to building and supporting use of digital research collections.

As Bethany stressed in her talk, we need more digital content for these scholars to work with and use. Digital humanities centers can partner with libraries to increase the scale of digitized materials in special collections or can give us tools to work with born-digital archives from pre-acquisition assessment through access to users, such as the tools being developed by Matthew’s “Bit Curator” project . By providing more content and taking the “magic” out of working with digital content, greater use can be facilitated. Unlike with physical materials, as Bethany pointed out, digital materials require use in order to remain viable, so the more we use digital materials, the longer they will last. She referred to this as “tactical preservation,” saying that our digital materials should be “bright keys,” in that the more they are used the brighter they become. By increasing use—making it easier to access and work with digital materials—we can ensure digital “futures” for our collections, whether physical or born-digital.

The collaborative nature of Digital Humanities projects — and centers — brings together researchers, technologists, tools, and content. These “places” may take various forms, but in almost all cases, the library and the historical content it collects and preserves plays a central role as the “stuff” of which digital humanities research and scholarly production is made. With its historical role in collecting and providing access to research materials, supporting teaching and learning, and long affinity with using technology for knowledge discovery, the library is well-positioned to support this work and become an even more active partner in the digital humanities and social sciences computing.

Mary W. Elings
Head of Digital Collections
(this text is excerpted and derived from an article written for RBM: A Journal of Rare Books, Manuscripts, and Cultural Heritage).


About bancroftlibrary

The Bancroft Library is the primary special collections library at the University of California, Berkeley. It is one of the largest and most heavily used libraries of manuscripts, rare books, and unique materials in the United States.
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