Let’s Get Digital (Humanities)

by Kate Kosturski, Senior Editor, INALJ Ontario and INALJ Quebec

Let’s Get Digital (Humanities)

kate_photo_2014When one often thinks of research in the humanities, the following quote from Friends comes to mind:

Joey: What the hell does a paleontologist need a beeper for?

Monica: Is it, like, for dinosaur emergencies? “Help! Come quick, they’re still extinct!”

In other words, the pace of research in the humanities, when compared to that of science and technology, can be glacial, and not exactly ground-breaking.  And that perception has some basis in reality.  Last year, only 8% of all college undergraduates majored in a humanities-based field (note that history was classified as a social science in this particular study). Schools like Dartmouth College saw a 26% drop in humanities majors from 2001 to 2012-2013, with the push instead towards the “Big Pre’s” – pre-med, pre-law, pre-weath.   The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) does receive $150 million of federal budget funds, but that is pennies compared to the National Sciences Foundation budget share ($7 billion) and the National Institute of Health ($32 billion).  73% of all PhDs granted in 2010 were in science and engineering.  All this paints a rather bleak picture of the field.

While this erosion has taken place, humanists have responded with cutting edge projects that combine technology with their research, breathing new and exciting relevance into the discipline.  Through my job, I had the privilege of attending the National Federation of Advanced Information Services (NFAIS) Digital Humanities Roundtable this past week, which opened my eyes to the power of this emerging field – and the possibilities for information professionals in and outside of the library. Remember when I said (way back in the Dark Ages of 2013) that you should think about attending non-library conferences?   Herein lies a great example – this conference brought together librarians, content providers, publishers, and digital humanists in the field to talk about new ways to harness the humanities – the librarian echo chamber many fear that ALA, SLA, and the other large players are was nonexistent here.

Now, you may say “well, it’s just the same old content in a different container” or “well, don’t archives do that?” – I encourage you to think of this more as a remix of content with the power of technology.  A few examples:

  • Rather than republish an out of print exhibition catalogue from 1995 on 17th Century Dutch Painters, the (US) National Gallery of Art built a full research site for the work through their new NGA Online Editions imprint, with text from the original print title and enhanced research capabilities (views of conservationist work alongside the painting, audio and video material, hyperlinking, and favorites galleries).
  • ProQuest rebuilt the Literature Online (LION) database with open source software in response to criticisms from users that it was losing relevance.   The new site allows for easier usage, mobile capabilities, and seamless user experience – while keeping the uniqueness in content metadata that LION previously had.
  • The City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate Center has several digital humanities projects underway, including a Writing Studies Tree to link relationships between academics in writing studies, and the interactive online academic journal Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy.  (In the interest of full disclosure, I must add that our host for the roundtable was the CUNY Graduate Center.)

What does this mean for library job searchers?   The obvious answer is that there is a whole new field open to the librarian combining cutting edge technology with that undergraduate (or graduate) degree in English or Philosophy or Art History that one snarky relative probably told you more than once was only good for waiting tables.  There is so much growth in digital humanities – and so much change – that DH librarians have the opportunity to make meaningful, immediate impact on the field.   The other answer is a change in philosophy.  The attitude of DH is that of a remix of a slower moving field.  We’re at a point in librarianship (and probably have been for many years) where we need to accelerate that remix, and look outside the normal boxes of job titles and duties – in LIS education, hiring practices, and jobs we seek.  Take a look at the jobs we post here on INALJ – many do have “librarian” in the title, but we do not stop there – informationist, data management, social media manager, analyst, digital asset manager, content curator. The skills you acquire in library school are not just limited to the library – and as a librarian who does not work in a library, I can testify to that.

Libraries are far from dead or dying – but could certainly use a shakeup.  The answer may lie in the philosophy and practice of digital humanities.

You can view a Storify of the tweets from the event at https://storify.com/cstrauber/nfais-humanities-roundtable-2014.