Digital Humanities & Digital Cultural Heritage

How Challenging is Doing DH in a Library in 2018?

Posted: 25-05-2018 Topics: Strategy

In August 2012, Miriam Posner asked the question ‘What are some challenges to doing DH in the library?’.

The blog post and subsequent article ‘No Half Measures: Overcoming Common Challenges to Doing Digital Humanities in the Library’, published in January 2013, became part of the often read literature lists of librarians starting with DH and is also featured on the reading lists¹ that my working group (the Digital Humanities & Digital Cultural Heritage Working Group) published some time ago.

I feel that talking about challenges is always a good way to start discussions. It gets a lot of negative feelings out of the way and opens the floor for solutions and positive experiences. In addition, we were wondering how far we’ve come in the nearly six years since Posner’s first blog post on this topic. Are the challenges of doing DH in the library still the same after this time? And as Posner wrote (primarily) about libraries in the United States, are the challenges also applicable to European libraries? Finally, have we found solutions to some of these problems?

For all of these reasons, the working group asked members to share their thoughts on the challenges they saw when working in DH as librarians. This article lists the challenges that Posner describes and responds to them with input from our members.

Posner Challenge 1: “Insufficient training opportunities”

We feel this challenge is more or less ‘solved’ but a different challenge has arisen because of it. We have plenty of training opportunities but lack time to keep up to date on skills in DH. It is difficult to find/get the time we need to continue our professional development in DH, even though training opportunities such as Library Carpentry, Programming Historian and the BL Internal Digital Scholarship training programme provide relevant tutorials and workshops. Also, it is important that all library staff are aware of DH and of who in the library is working on DH to ensure that questions are directed to the right people. Here, we still see a challenge.

Posner Challenge 2: “Lack of support for librarian-conceived initiatives”

Luckily, this challenge was not in the list we made with our members. Can we assume that this problem does not exist anymore? I doubt it.

Posner Challenge 3: “Too many tasks, too little time”

This is a challenge that I feel is overabundant in academia. However, as many of our members are DH librarians in one way or another, it is not necessarily that they lack time to do DH projects. However, getting help from colleagues who aren’t fully dedicated to DH, such as IT specialists, was mentioned. Having dedicated staff for DH, from librarians to software engineers, is therefore the advice we would give to libraries who want to up their DH game.

Posner Challenge 4: “Lack of authority to marshal the appropriate resources”

Again, luckily, this was not mentioned by our members. I hope we might assume that this problem has changed in the past six years, as many libraries have decided DH should be part of their services (although I hate the word services when talking about DH in a library, but many libraries do use it) and that they have allocated budget for this. However, impact and demonstrating value do continue to be part of librarians’ workload in DH.

Posner Challenge 5: “Inflexible infrastructures”

Technical challenges are something that are never easily solved and alas, still exist in our members’ libraries. This ranged from not being able to give (easy) access to digital content to questions around digital preservation. We’re still struggling with this and most likely will continue to do so for some time. What might help is to share how you are doing this in your library and where we can learn from each other.

Posner Challenge 6: “Lack of incentive”

This challenge was not mentioned so specifically but a more meta one was namely how to be a partner in DH research. My reluctance to use the word ‘service’ for DH activities is shared by others and they wonder how the library can position themselves as a partner in the research process. This way, the incentive is not merely providing assistance in research, but actually doing research yourself. What we learned from one another at our first meeting was that this is possible, but that we as librarians should ask ourselves what our own research question is in a DH project. What do we as library or librarians learn from this and how can we feed that back into the organisation?

Posner Challenge 7: “The complexity of collaborating with faculty”

This challenge refers back to the previous one. Working with people can always be challenging, but working with people when you don’t know what your role is is even more difficult. Many libraries haven’t decided yet what their role is in DH projects and therefore no one knows what to expect from each other. Decide on your vision and communicate it clearly to faculty and colleagues. That way you can more easily build your network. You have a clear story to tell and researchers know what they can expect from you and what you have to offer them. You might also entice established DH-researchers who are already stuck in a research-rut, or computer scientists who feel they are self-sufficient when doing DH, to look at the library in a new way and join in on the fun.

Posner Challenge 8: “Overcautiousness”

Six years later libraries do dare the take the plunge more often in DH, or have decided DH is something they need to do (although they haven’t always decided how). European libraries love taking risks. However, this one wasn’t on our list and please, let’s not add it!

Posner Challenge 9: “Diffusion of effort”

This is something that still happens unfortunately, as people often have the tendency to stay in their own bubble. The library can be the partner to overcome this, as we can liaise between departments, faculties and organisations. However, we do need the space and time to do so and this is not always available according to our members.

Posner Challenge 10: “Lack of real institutional commitment”

I’m very happy to say that we did not have any indication from our working group that this was an issue. Perhaps we’re simply working with the people who are in the ‘right’ libraries but this is, in any case, cause to be cheerful!

LIBER Challenge 1: Digital collections

As a group, we collected other challenges that Posner did not mention. They mainly have to do with the digital collections that we host and provide to our patrons. A lot of them are restricted: either technically (too difficult to access or share), legally (copyright issues prevent reuse, even in research) or digitally (not all collections are digitised yet and those that are often have OCR issues).

On the upside, many initiatives are working towards solving these problems in a European context, such as the LIBER working group on Copyright & Legal Matters, lobbying activities by EBLIDA or the Impact Centre of Competence who work on the improvement of OCR for digitised texts.

We’re not there yet, but together we can go faster and further. And that is exactly what we want to do with the working group. Join us, share your story and learn from one another.

[1] See the Reading List Part 2 and Part 4.

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