Some Institutional Challenges to Supporting DH in the Library

Miriam Posner recently wrote an interesting piece about the ways librarians are often inhibited from doing digital humanities in the library.   It’s an excellent list, and she is seeking more ideas from the rest of us to flesh that list out. 

Her post happened to come at a time when I’ve been thinking about how my administrative colleagues and I can enable librarians to do digital humanities in the library (whatever “do,” “digital humanities” and “library” mean).   My short list below is intended to supplement her’s, to elaborate on some issues she enumerates in ways that hopefully open up some further discussion about systemic issues.    I’m only scratching the surface here, and I’m not offering solutions–just observations

Lack of commitment from academic leadership

This is the chicken-and-egg problem:  the Dean of Humanities isn’t hearing from the faculty that this is a pressing issue.   Even if he or she knows it’s important, it’s not simply a matter of throwing new faculty lines at the English department.  Resources are scarce, so where and how do you invest?  Of course, maybe the faculty would make some noise if there was a sense of possibility, or a real community of engaged researchers.  And wouldn’t it be good if the Library could help build that?  Yes, absolutely.  But your Library Director was talking to that Dean of Humanities and she said it wasn’t a priority for her right now, so….

Culture of equity and fairness

Libraries are all about equity, especially equal access to information to all users regardless of your background or intent.  Unless we sign a license that limits remote access to a database to university affiliates.  Or unless your academic program is kind of small and maybe on the verge of being discontinued or you don’t have a lot of clout and so we had to cut those journals.   Sorry, these are realities we have to live with.  But we wince at them–they go against our better instincts.   Sometimes we may let that desire for apparent equity impede experimentation.  How can we allow that department head to buy iPads for everyone in their department when that other department can’t afford it?  Can we really send only Sheila to the conference when Sharon might also benefit?    And why should they have all the fun?

Resources are bound up in existing programs and positions

Let’s assume that the will is there.  The Library has decided it wants to promote digital humanities research and provide services to support it, and it wants to make a permanent sustainable commitment to the activity.   And let’s assume that many of the librarians and the staff are ready to go: they want to learn new skills, devote energy to trying new things, and work with faculty in a more active way.   You’re still likely to need new skills.  Sometimes those only come with newly defined roles that can be dedicated to the effort.  On what time scale can we make that happen?   

In my experience Libraries only rarely get new funding to create new positions.  Is the will so strong that we are ready to eliminate someone’s job to free up funds for that new DH support role?  Probably not.  New positions get created through attrition of other positions.  When someone retires or vacates their job for a new opportunity, and the opportunity is there.    

But not always.  We always talk about the things that Libraries could stop doing to make room for new stuff.  But we aren’t going to stop buying collections, shelving books, meeting one-on-one with faculty and students, teaching classes, or opening the doors.  It takes a lot of people to do those things.  Attrition is random. You can’t reallocate every vacancy to new programs. 

In the meantime, it’s much much easier to come up with what might be called “one-time” or temporary funding.  This might come from reserves in the budget, savings from salaries from temporarily vacant positions, gift funds, or even money left unspent from the year before.  Thus is born the postdoc and fixed-term position to help get things started with the goal of finding more permanent funding through the attrition lottery. 

Is research antithetical to the University’s core business?

I was in a meeting about strategic planning for research computing when someone else raised this excellent point.  It’s not just librarians who can’t get the support they want to do digital scholarship projects. An English professor of mine once used a very colorful explanation of what happens to the runt of the litter to describe the IT support for his department.  And, based on my experience, science faculty say the same thing about IT support:  It sucks.   Even in the best funded fields computing support is funded hand-to-mouth, grant-to-grant.

The most valued IT services in the institution are the mission-critical enterprise systems:  email, financial, student enrollment, course management systems.  In the Library, it’s the catalog, OpenURL resolver or other discovery layers.  We don’t hesitate to allocate permanent people and dollars to ensure that those core business activities run 99.9% of the time.    But research….sure, it’s a core activity of the faculty, but is it a core business function of the University?  Plus, it’s all weird and unpredictable and inefficient and faculty always want to install open source software on their desktop workstations and isn’t that risky to the network?  

Is research the Library’s core business?  

1 comment

  1. All good points about libraries’ challenges doing DH. I would say that your point about resources being tied up in existing programs and positions is the most challenging. Positions vacated through attrition are more and more often not refilled at all, while the holes in other programs are filled by librarians’ labor. Less time and less staffing equals no time for DH.